23rd February 2018
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In the garden

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BORDER clearance is still a hotly disputed subject as far as I can make out. Spring is now the nationally prescribed time because it’s con­sidered green and ecologically sound, because it leaves a multitude of hiding places for assorted garden fauna we’re told – mostly gastropods and earwigs, as far as I can ascertain.

Anybody advocating autumn clearance is shot down in flames by the environmentally correct (EC) lobby. I’m guilty as charged, and happy to admit that the contentious chore is well under way as I write.

Ideally I should have waded in there a month ago, but the word “should” should be abolished altogether as far as I’m concerned, as it is always guilt inducing.

Guilt – not be confused with positive change inducing remorse – is a totally useless emotion that must be scrapped from the gardener’s repertoire forthwith.

Having tried to follow EC guidelines in my borders for about half a decade I have witnessed a sad decline in standards over this period. A border spring clean is rather like the perfunctory cleaning of a house; a quick whiz around with the hoover, polishing the tabs in the bathroom, plumping up the odd cushion, and nothing more.

In my experience the same task, performed in the autumn, is always carried out in the most thorough way, right down to removing those grey furry pads of dirt that have accumulated inside the clawed feet of the bath tub. It’s thorough because there’s plenty of time to do it in.

Autumnal border clearing is one of those highly therapeutic jobs the gardener can become fully absorbed in; it is also one of those chores that inevitably leads to many more. Plants need moving or splitting and replanting, shrubs that could do with a good trimming, ramblers in need of pruning and having their young shoots tied in, and, if that weren’t enough, there is plenty of seed to collect.

During spring, when the whole garden breathes down one’s neck, this is always a rushed and inhibited affair. Early in the year the soil is invariably too cold and wet to tackle. A short while later, when it has, all of a sudden, become friable once more, the winds are too drying to allow for divisions and replanting.

The evergreen components of a border become untouchables, as they may suffer frost damage fol­lowing a short back and sides too early in the season. Much will be put off to be dealt with later – whatever that means.

In my experience later never comes until it is too late, a time when everything is in lush growth and promising bud, telling the gardener in no uncertain terms to keep her hands off. And so it continues, until all is sourness and ruin (I believe I may be straying into Stella Gibbons country here).

The autumnal feeling of time­lessness removes all such barriers with the best effects for garden and gardener alike. Major jobs can be left to drag on for days, even weeks, allowing for thorough overhauls that would be impossible during the short, busy spring season when everything is growing apace.

My garden often presents me with all-foliar seedling posies. They may consist of a polemonium, an Asiatic primula, perhaps a meadow rue, a young rowan or whitebeam. What to do with them? Lift them all and pack them tightly into a pot or a seed tray, where they are usually left to dry out and die during spring.

At the back end of the year there’s time to line them out in the salad garden or to pot them up individually. With the nursery being cranked up into full production after a two-year hiatus, these little gifts can be turned into cash the following season.

Clearing a border in October doesn’t mean chopping everything back to ground level. Removing what is past its best is a highly conducive process on the aesthetic front, while providing plenty of fodder for the shredder and the com­post heap. Once the worst of the jungle has been cleared, there’s always scope for a thorough weed­ing, leaving the place spic and span for next spring.

Autumn weeding is an important issue, on the “a stitch in time saves nine” principle. Hidden by lush growth, creeping buttercup and grasses get a chance to spread rapid­ly, and manage to play their complex hide-and-seek games with the gar­dener. In a border cleared of debris they are easily detected and can be dealt with thoroughly and swiftly.

Cutting the remains of herbaceous perennials back to ground level is a measure that should be applied to most subjects. There are still gar­deners around, mostly of the old school, that leave sizeable stumps. Not only do they look ugly, but some also turn into sharp weapons as they become dry and brittle. Hidden by new growth the following year they give nasty stabs to the unsuspecting gatherer of flowers, often in search of extra long stems.

The exceptions to the rule are lilies and other bulbous objects such as hardy gladioli and crocosmias. Deprived of their top growth they remain invisible until the following spring, and it is a good idea to leave some short stumps. This avoids digging them up by mistake or planting over them, as seemingly bare patches of soil are always a temptation.

Some plants – campanulas and geraniums spring to mind – are masters when it comes to multi-tasking; they manage to flower all year round while producing vigorous new growth from the base of the plant at the same time.

Others, such as knautia, anthemis, and some polemonium and achillea cultivars are hopeless, and would literally flower themselves to death were it not for the gardener curtailing them from time to time. This intervention, often viewed as an act of cruelty by new gardeners, usually saves their lives, even late in the season, as most are perfectly capable of putting out new shoots in October, or even November.

And what about all those desirable “deads” and pretty seed heads, said to give winter interest? These, in my experience, are few and far between. Our climate rarely allows plant remains to dry to crisp perfection. Most turn black and soggy as soon as the autumn rains set in.

I’d rather have a bare patch of earth than mould and decay. The patches don’t usually stay bare for long, as most plants have a tendency to refurbish themselves with new leaves. These clumps of fresh greenery make a perfect setting for late border plants such as asters, crocosmias, Schizostylis, and colchicums.

Good preparation is important, as is the wearing of rubber gloves. I usually take a trowel, a knife, a pruning saw, sharp scissors, a pair of secateurs, as well as garden twine or wire, brown paper bags, seed trays, labels and a thick pencil.

I also take three containers, a large net carrier from long stemmed remains earmarked for shredding, a bucket for harmless, compostable weeds, and one for dangerous ones, those with deep or invasive roots or ripening seed.

Having all this paraphernalia to hand eliminates return trips to the house or potting shed, and ensures that every job that crops up can be done on the spot. As there’s nearly always a ringing telephone to distract and delay one, and taking off muddy boots and gloves is cumbersome. I tend to avoid such trips, which means jobs calling for tools I haven’t got with me, remain undone.

The Sunk Garden has taken a bit of a backseat of late, and looked overgrown and dishevelled, and many of the plants I’d chosen for it were far too tall or rampant for such an intimate setting.

An ancient specimen of Hebe albicans ‘Red Edge’ was bare at the base, falling apart at the centre, and had completely smothered its partner, a purple-leaved sedum. Evergreens are usually killed if pruned hard in the autumn, and so be it; I have a youngster to replace it.

Geranium procurrens is often described as a weed, but only becomes one when planted in the wrong place. I managed to do just that in two different locations, fuelled by impatience and the mistaken belief that something rampant elsewhere would be well behaved in the Shetland climate. It is an exceptionally beautiful plant with black-eyed magenta flowers, and I have, hopefully, at long last found a suitable home for it. Far from other perennials, in the wide expanses between shelter trees, I’ve given it quarter of an acre to cover.

Rosa Steppanova

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