"Late winter grooming"

This has been a busy week in the garden!
Sunday, 28 August 2016     

Seedpods of my vast Liquidambar tree, which litter my garden beds in late winter!

Late winter is such a busy time of year in my garden. It is when I cut back most (but not all) of my summer- and autumn-flowering shrubby perennials (I leave the very cold-sensitive ones till early September); toss an organic pelleted fertiliser around the whole garden; then spread a layer of compost and cow manure over the beds. Finally, cane mulch is put on top to conserve moisture and keep weeds down over the growing season. However, this week I remembered there is an important step that needs to be done before the fertiliser spreading: clearing old mulch and leaf litter from the soil so the fertiliser can get in contact with the soil!

So the past week has seen me feverishly scraping clumps of semi-decomposed cane mulch from last year, leaves, sticks, Liquidambar seedpods (of which I have thousands!) and other debris that had accumulated on all my garden beds. Those beds beneath deciduous trees fare the worst. The amount of material is quite startling - it has all (except sticks and the seedpods) been put onto the compost heap. I wanted to get the fertiliser on before the big rain event that was predicted (correctly) for last Wednesday.

Where it was chiefly the remains of old cane mulch on the surface, I started to simply push the debris to the back of the garden beds, if there was plenty of space, telling myself I would put it back on as part of the mulch once the fertiliser and compost/manure had been laid. It seemed a bit sad that all the natural mulch of dead leaves was being taken away: in a perfect ecosystem it would break down and become humus in the soil. But it just doesn't happen quickly enough in my garden. And it will go back onto the garden in the form of compost later on, so it is not wasted. It will add a slow trickle of nutrients and valuable humus to improve the organic content of the soil, so vital for the existence of the billions of microbes that make up the 'life' of the soil and perform so many essential functions for and with plants.

As I cleared each bed, I tried to look upon the exercise as allowing me to check each individual plant to see how it was going, getting up close and personal with each one in a way that doesn't happen very often during the year. I groomed each plant where necessary, removing shabby leaves or errant stems. As I went along, all sorts of thoughts passed through my head about each plant I encountered. Was it thriving and thus in the right spot, or struggling and therefore needing to be moved? Did I still like the plant - did it still 'spark joy'? If not, maybe it should be pulled out. Did the plant look as if it needed to be divided or was it too crowded with its neighbours? Were some of the groundcovers too vigorous and need reining in? I jotted many of these thoughts down in a garden journal after each bed was complete (or else did the task straight away); otherwise, those ideas would be gone as surely as yesterday's rainbow! The clearing work was also a chance to remove any weeds that had appeared over winter, including some really pernicious ones, such as oxalis and onion weed, which need careful, meticulous extrication - and which will probably haunt me for the rest of my days, so tenacious are they.

I resolved (and wrote down in the journal!) that I would start this clearing/grooming job much sooner next year - in the depths of winter when there isn't a lot to do outdoors, and when it is too soon to do the pruning yet my fingers itch to improve the garden. Whilst at times I cursed the job, I reminded myself that it is a small thing to do for my garden, when I consider what I am asking of my garden to do for me: to regrow and be filled with lush leaves and flowers, pleasing me greatly all summer and autumn. I do very little very physical gardening in the summer months, beyond watering and deadheading.

At this time of year, my garden is quite bare. Apart from a few small areas devoted to winter and early spring flowers, it is pruned back severely. The stark outlines of deciduous trees and shrubs, and the cut-back forms of my shrubby perennials with lots of bare earth visible between them, probably would seem quite ugly to an objective observer (though I don't let anyone actually see at this time of year if I can help it!). Whilst I envy those with permanent evergreen gardens of shrubs, and know I need more of that in my plot, I still can't yet forgo the joy of watching my garden fill in completely as spring progresses, with eventually not a skerrick of bare earth to be seen. My sparse late-winter garden allows me to experience that magical transformation. For me, the anticipation of spring is akin to the excitement of a child awaiting Christmas morning!

 Reader Comments

1/9  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2016

You certainly have much work to perform in your large garden, Deirdre. I am sure you will feel very pleased with yourself, when the work is finished, and the garden will respond to the tlc it has received. I am just beginning to cut back my plants, the prunings of which will be chipped by the local council, and returned for me, to use on my garden. It is great that you can get that mulching done by the council, Margaret! Hope the pruning is going well. Deirdre

2/9  Pam - 3216 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 29 August 2016

Hi Deirdre, lovely post. I agree with you about the anticipation. My garden also looks very sparse at the moment but it is more exciting for me than at any other time. I just love those little signs of new life. I put my mulched garden waste directly on the beds all through the year. I gently hoe it from time to time to help it break down. I usually have enough to keep my garden well mulched and only feed a few select plants. Probably not the ideal method but saves double handling. Cheers, Pam.I like the sound of your method, Pam. May try it myself some day! Deirdre

3/9  Densey - 2446 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2016

What you say does ring a bell - at 94 I am doing just what you are for one hour a day at least. The problem of what shrubs to dig out and start again is with me too. Pentas particularly, as I have five or six colours and love them all. Can"t take cuttings just yet and anyway they take time to grow big enough to be noticed. First I am just pruning hard and waiting for inspiration but the look of bare or twiggy beds is not good.I hope no-one will come to see me until Spring! Densey Densey, you are an inspiration to us all! I agree with you re Pentas; I am using more of them these days as they bloom for so long. It is a delight to watch everything fill in and grow as spring advances. Deirdre

4/9  Carole - 2264 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2016

Deirdre it is a joy to re your inspiring blog posts; they help to keep us at it - doing the right things, at the right time. Like you I also anticipated those forecasted showers and raked the old mulch away from the bases of the camellias and sprinkled on some cow manure, and covered over again. Lots of gaps this time of year and it looks a bit messy - like we"re harbouring a bunch of "weedy-things"; but we have a secret ------- good things come to those that wait. Glad you too were able to take advantage of that big downpour last week. I love your idea of the gardeners" secret! Deirdre

5/9  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2016

Just came in from doing some culling in my very weedy garden thinking what a chore it all is, to find your INSPIRING, as always, Blog. Yes, one asks a lot of the garden but as we get older, give less and less when knees don"t bend so freely and the back aches earlier!! So a cuppa now and back into it. Thanks once again Deirdre. I am certainly slowing down and cannot spend the long hours gardening used to be able to do. And yes, lots of tea breaks are necessary! However I still love to be outside gardening so just have to pace myself and know when to stop. Easier said than done. Deirdre

6/9  Gil - 2037 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Thanks, Deirdre, lovely blog, and I love that image "gone as surely as yesterday"s rainbow". Gil Thanks, Gil.

7/9  Jan - 2582 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Ah, it"s like we are all together in the same big garden (well, I guess we are in a way ;-) I"ve been madly finishing cutting back and still need to compost. I hold off on lucerne until early summer - that spreads the work out a bit! As winter can be so dreary here I"ve been focusing on adding winter garden. It, plus a mild winter, has worked and there"s interest and colour amongst the areas cut back to the ground. Bring on spring!Sounds as if you have been very busy this winter. Great to add some winter colour; it really lifts the spirits in those cold days. A great point about leaving the spreading of mulch till later on. It makes good sense as it allows the soil to warm up a bit first, as well as spreading out the workload for the poor gardener! Deirdre

8/9  Ruth - 3185 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Thinking about all those leaves that we rake up, have you tried making leaf mould. I put all deciduous leaves in a sturdy black bin bag, make sure they are very moist, puncture the bag in about a dozen spots and put in the business side of the house. Next to the central heating boiler etc. I check the bag monthly to make sure it is still moist. In about a year I have beautiful sweet smelling humus/leaf mould, which is magic as a soil conditioner and planting hole addition. It sounds a great idea, Ruth, and I must try it! Deirdre

9/9  Rachel - 2680 (Zone:11B - Arid) Friday, 02 September 2016

I am just wondering why you don"t put the mulch on top of the leaves? Is there a reason? I have heaps of leaves and was not going to remove them before mulching. I have removed the big plain tree leaves but not the rest. Thanks, Rachel The problem with my leaves is that they are large liquidambar leaves mainly, mixed in with liquidambar seeds (which will germinate if left in place!). There is such a thick layer of them and I wanted to spread fertiliser; the leaf layer would stop the fertiliser contacting the soil. In a woodland setting, a layer of leaf litter could be left as is, and would gradually break down to feed the plants, and if wanted, a mulch could be appplied on top. I have a lot of perennials and shrubby perennials in the areas where the big leaves are and I wanted to feed them with some organic fertiliser pellets; they need a fair bit of feeding to perform well. Deirdre

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