Grooming the garden

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Tough perennial Dianthus, name unknown, which produces blooms for months if deadheaded regularly

The end of the hideous heatwave has given me new enthusiasm for getting back into the garden. Late summer is a good time to ready the garden for what I consider the highlight of the year in Sydney: autumn, with its kinder temperatures and lack of humidity. My garden is at its best in March and April, with so much colour and fullness in the borders. But the summer heat has left its toll on the garden and now is a good time to tidy it up so that it can look as good as possible in the coming months. This is not a time for major pruning, but for small-scale snipping and grooming, and I have been able to achieve a fair bit of this in the past week.

White Justicia carnea, which will produce new blooms if deadheaded

Deadheading summer-blooming perennials and shrubs - such as Canna, Dahlia, Dianthus (shown at the start of the blog), Justicia carnea, Agapanthus , Verbena , Gaura and Acanthus mollis, Buddleja, Fuchsia and Hydrangea (where the Hydrangea flower-heads are burnt and unattractive: I do leave on the ones that are colouring up well) - makes an immediate difference to the look of the place, and will in some instances promote a new flush of blooms. Completely spent herbaceous perennials, such as Rudbeckia and Echinacea, have their flower stalks cut back to the base; the long flowering stems of daylilies are cut out as well once all the buds have gone.

Tired foliage can give the garden a shabby look, so I have been removing this where possible. Daylilies accumulate a lot of dead leaves around their base, as do Kniphofia and Phormium; once removed, that particular garden area looks much improved. Large leaves of plants such as Canna that are chewed or sunburnt can also be cut off for an instant effect. Acanthus mollis foliage looks quite unsightly at this time of year - it can all be removed as new growth is forming at the centre of the plant. A lot of my plants had their foliage scorched in the heatwave, so I have been trimming that off lightly where possible.

Iresine can be trimmed back to promote fresh, compact growth

I do most of my heavy pruning in August, but this year I am experimenting with giving a light cutting-back to some of my perennials and shrubby perennials in the hope of promoting new growth and flowers in autumn. Salvia plants have been targets for this approach - I felt that the intense heat had actually stopped some of these from blooming, so I am giving a lot of them a light trim to see what happens. I am also chopping back some of the big winter-flowering Salvia so that they take up less room and might be more compact when they flower. I have also been tip-pruning foliage plants such as Iresine, Alternanthera and Hypoestes phyllostachya to promote a more compact shape. I am going to give all the trimmed plants some doses of soluble fertiliser once I have finished my pruning, to encourage this to happen.

Clumps of Miscanthus held up with octopus straps; burnt Agapanthus foliage in foreground

Another grooming task is the inevitable weeding: weeds have flourished through summer due to my negligence. I also didn't get round to mulching my borders last spring, so I am paying for it now. Though tedious, weeding does give us the chance to get up close and personal to our borders and see what is going on with our plants - such as to detect signs of insect attack or disease, or to note where a plant is being smothered by a more aggressive neighbour or is not looking well for some reason. Plants needing stakes or supports can be identified and dealt with. I have trouble at this time of year with ornamental grasses flopping over everywhere and I have used a new approach: applying a 'belt' made of octopus straps sold for cars to encircle the clump about half-way up and to be stabilised around a stake where necessary. The fountain-like shape of the grasses disguises the strap.

Another job is to pull out exhausted summer annuals. After uprooting them, I usually shake them around a bit to disperse their seeds for next year as I generally only grow self-seeding annuals. Some annuals respond to being cut back and will produce a second flowering if this is done.

If done regularly, garden grooming need not be time consuming. It also brings us closer to our gardens so we can admire the progress of our plants through the seasons. It's sometimes too easy to forget that this is what gardening is really all about.