In the garden
BY Rosa Steppanova
NOW that we’re in July the pace at Lea Gardens is slowing down a little, with some chores moving from the essential into the optional range.
All borders are fully clothed by now, requiring no or only minimal maintenance, which largely consists of a bit of snipping and curtailing, aimed at keeping a balance between weak and strong growers.
The weak, more often than not, are the newcomers, planted into what looked like substantial gaps during spring. Such gaps close rapidly as the season progresses, and unless the plants occupying them are given a little air and space, they have a tendency of vanishing quietly.
Quite often the problem is tracking them down in the first place. Making copious directional notes in spring is of limited help in my experience; a far more reliable method is to mark the positions of these plants with a long bamboo cane at planting time.
Cosmetic work is always on the agenda, and some years I wade in with shears and secateurs to remove all top growth past its best, as soon as the final petals have dropped. In others, the garden seems to take care of such matters all by itself. Because of the rapid growth we’ve had during June, the dishevelled state of early flowering plants never became an issue, as all was soon hidden amongst the rapidly expanding lush foliage of later performers.
There are always a few weeds to contend with, and my most successful method of curtailment is pulling them up as soon as I come upon them during my regular walks through the garden. Even dockens can be dealt with in this way, provided they are spotted at an early stage, before their taproots grow too long.
In wet weather it is best to take the weeds straight to the compost heap as, if left in situ, they often find a way of re-establishing themselves. During dry spells I leave all but the largest lying where I find them. The wind and sun soon cause them to shrivel and render them harmless.
Digitalis purpurea, the common foxglove in purple and white, and all shades between, seeds freely in various parts of the garden, as long as there’s a scraping of bare earth. In my meadows it manages to become established in the spaces where the dying foliage of spring bulbs has left a temporary gap before the grass closes over it.
In some places – it has a knack of placing itself in the perfect location – I welcome it with open arms, while it in others it’s no more than a weed, shading out everything in the vicinity of its substantial basal leaves.
The regal Verbascum olympicum is a yellow-flowered mullein, capable of reaching a height of over two metres in my garden. It is known as king’s candle or night candle on the continent of Europe.
Like the foxglove, a biennial, it flowers during its second year. It also creates a basal leaf rosette, much larger, and much more exciting than that of the foxgloves, consisting of layer upon layer of thick, grey-green felt, diminishing in size towards the centre. A superb winter feature, I’m always reluctant to remove it, when really I should.
It too, often turns up where I long to have it, but growing among smaller plants, especially alpines that hate being overlaid by anything else, its enormous felt stars spell slow death by smothering. Sometimes, when I get around to it, I take off the basal foliage. This removes the threat to its neighbours, gives the verbascum every opportunity to flower and set seed, while allowing the gardener to have her cake and eat it.
Single crowns of Asiatic primulas (mostly species and cultivars of the candelabra tribe, as well as P. florindae), planted around the pond a couple of years ago, have not only increased into substantial clumps, but have given rise to thick carpets of seedlings. Given that these plants are moisture lovers, I was intrigued to find so many growing out of no more than a scraping of composted garden shreddings, used as a weed-suppressing mulch above a textile membrane.
Grown in pots, the leaves of these primulas turn into limp rags as soon as their peat-based composts starts to dry out. Given the long dry spells in May and June, I was expecting that mulch around the pond to be bone-dry, as elsewhere in the garden every inch of soil not covered by vegetation was showing deep cracks. Far from it, underneath a thin, desiccated surface layer all was beautifully damp.
Proof, if proof be needed, that mulching works. All the more puzzling that so few Shetland gardeners have caught on to it. Perhaps some legislation is in order? What I have in mind is a grass clippings act that compels gardeners to use their lawn mowings, rather than dumping and wasting them.
In Germany, householders who recycle the biodegradable waste from their gardens by turning it into compost or mulch pay less council tax than gardeners who don’t, because it saves local authorities substantial sums of money.
Most Shetland gardens have a lawn, some have quite a substantial one. More often than not, trees have been planted in those lawns, often around the periphery of the garden. Trees that, rather than growing taller, as they should and could do, diminish in size year by year be cause no clear space has been left for them.
To the converted gardener lawn clippings are worth their weight in gold. They keep down the weeds, they preserve moisture, they cut down substantially on garden maintenance. They also kill off the turf around woody plants, if applied thickly enough (at least 10cm/3.5 inches), thus freeing the trees from the ever hungry and ever thirsty grass of a lawn that robs them of nutrients and moisture. Ideally every young tree and shrub should have a square metre of ground around its stem that is free of competing vegetation.
If there’s just one thing you have time for in your garden, start mulching with grass, and make your lawn do some work for you. It’ll leave you with a lot more time to enjoy your garden, by cutting out a lot of tedious chores such as watering and weeding.
A thick mulch of grass cuttings will not only make the trees in your lawn grow faster, it can be used among plants in your border, and between rows of vegetables. Initially, as the mulch rots down, it’ll take some nitrogen out of the soil, but don’t let that worry you. Once the process is completed, the decomposed grass will return it to your plot a hundredfold.
Ironically, grass clippings are in short supply at Lea Gardens this year. All the grassed areas around and between the lining out beds and vegetable fields were left to grow, and to be made into hay.
The grasses are in full flower just now. Quite an alarming state of affairs as, unless cut soon, they’re bound to seed where they shouldn’t. To make matters worse, there are hundreds of tiny frogs hopping around the garden’s broad grass walks; this means mowing is completely out of the question.
All our main crop vegetables, sown on 11th June, have germinated, with the peas way ahead of everything else.
As expected, a green film has appeared between the rows of seedlings, and under normal circumstances that film would by now be deprived of all light by a thick layer of grass mulch.
Failing that, I had to get the Dutch hoe out. Used properly, with the blade only just below the soil surface, the process takes little effort; a slight, rapidly repeated pushing motion of the long-handled tool severs the weeds’ top growth from the roots.
A German version of the Dutch hoe, produced by Wolf, has become one of my favourite gardening
tools. It has a two-edged blade, cutting on the push and the pull motion, allowing the gardener to complete the hoeing chore in half the time.
There is bound to be a new crop of weed seedlings, come the next rain, unless I can find some suitable mulch. If you have any unwanted, fresh, clean lawn mowings, please give me a call on 01595 810454.