In the garden
February, a short month anyway, and being the last for those final winter chores, is always way too short for fitting them all in. Spring, if we go by the calendar, is still three weeks away, but started last Monday in the garden, when the sun finally coaxed the crocuses into opening their flowers wide.
Almost overnight, dormant perennials have started to show signs of, not just growth, but rapid growth: time to lift, split and pot them up for the nursery.
Trees and shrubs are breaking, and hardwood cuttings must be taken before they come into full leaf. The starting pistol has been fired and the annual race has begun.
One way to deal with all this seasonal pressure is for the gardener to join in the madness and rush from job to job. The alternative is to take a deep breath, followed by a leisurely walk around one’s acres, and settle to the task that strikes one as the most urgent, as well as the most enjoyable.
Among the garden’s best early spring features is a crocus lawn, established in the back yard some years ago, long before any expansions were thought of, let alone put into action. Part of this lawn is now the only access route to South America, not exactly the best location for spring bulbs.
All the crocuses were lifted after flowering last spring – or so we thought. We hadn’t reckoned with the tenacity and fecundity of the species in question. Crocus tommasinianus and its various cultivars are indestructible and increase rapidly. The “grass” of tiny corms is invisible among bona fide grass, especially if the latter is a bit on the long side, and we’d left hundreds if not thousands behind.
One year on, the grass path is a crocus lawn once more, with some in clumps, but most, probably self-sown seedlings, in ones and twos. Lifting them, as is common practice, with their individual wads of grass would have left no lawn. A new method was called for: insert your trowel vertically about an inch or two from the plant, then prise up a flap of lawn, locate the corm, and pull gently, first on the corm, and then a little further up, until the whole thing, flower and all, has been pulled backwards through the turf.
This, as I later found out, also works on whole clumps and renders perfectly clean plants that can be put straight into a border. You might lose the odd flower in the process, but that hardly matters. Transplanted straight away, my crocuses didn’t know what had hit them, and were in full flower a few days later.
I have, on previous occasions recommended Crocus tommasinianus to my readers, and I do so again. It flowers with great abandon, is much more suitable for the Shetland climate than the large Dutch hybrids, and has a lot more staying power than some of the Crocus chrysanthus cultivars. To my mind, the pale lilac species is still the best, but for those who like their spring colours a little stronger, Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ is the one. Not ruby as the name suggests, but a strong violet purple with flowers slightly larger than the species. There is also a delightful pink form, Crocus tommasinianus ‘Roseus’. It increases just as freely but is a little shy when it comes to flowering.
Some of my readers may recall the planting of a new, east-facing border in the garden’s extension last year. With the focus entirely on summer performance, and herbaceous plants, the time has now come to add an extra layer and, unless one possesses almost magical powers of visualisation, it is always best to do this in season.
The border needs a spring element, and most of the crocuses above have found a home there, tucked in between plants that burst into growth early in the year and provide a nice green cloth for the ribbons of lilac and purple. Alas, as so often happens in gardening, what seems, in theory, like the easiest thing on earth, turns into a headache in practice.
The border in question started life as a mulch and membrane planting, and as I stuck in my trowel, a clump of crocus at the ready, I met resistance. I’d forgotten about the impenetrable sheet of landscaping textile below the layer of woody shreddings. Life’s too short to cut individual holes for spring bulbs, and I ended up lifting the whole thing. As I did so, I could almost hear the border’s inhabitants breathe one big communal sigh of relief.
Membranes are fine for shrubs and trees, but when it comes to herbaceous perennials with a tendency to expand and wander, they fail, leaving the subjects with collars that grow tighter and tighter. Now the shirts and ties are off, my plants are free to enjoy themselves and are at long last allowed to mingle with others, as is their purpose.
When it comes to mixed plantings, membranes just don’t work, at least not for the adventurous gardener. Mulch alone will have to do the job of keeping down the weeds in future, and as we now shred and compost everything and anything, there shouldn’t be a shortage. Weeding isn’t exactly a topical subject for the end of February, but this is the perfect time to get on top of certain weeds. In my garden I have a small, flimsy, and rather pretty surface-creeping perennial grass. It has a tendency to take up lodgings in the crowns of perennial plants whence it is almost impossible to extract during the growing season. With its boarding house still safely beneath the ground, it can be winkled out with ease.
Lamium galeobdolon, colloquially known as the yellow archangel, is a superlative ground cover plant, taking care, in the contract killer sense of the phrase, of all but the most deep-rooted weeds. It’ll smother everything in its wake, even when planted in uncultivated ground; it looks wonderful underneath trees, and forms a highly conducive setting for daffodils and bluebells.
Handsome as it is, one must never be tempted to plant it in a border (I wish somebody had told me this years ago). It spreads by runners, like a strawberry, producing a new plantlet from every node. Like the grass mentioned above, it has a habit to root into the crowns of plants, and it also attaches itself to the moss-covered stems of trees and shrubs. From these strongholds it spreads elsewhere, hidden by summer’s lush greenery, and usually undetected by the gardener. When all is bare, the game is up, and the striking silver-marked, evergreen leaves clearly mark its locations.
The runners I dug out will be potted up and are earmarked for a new location. The earth mounds that surround our car park on three sides have been left to their own devices and are now covered in creeping buttercup. The lamium, with its large heads of lipped, primrose yellow flowers would be an improvement I believe.
The car park was a first step towards providing easier access to the garden and nursery, and in the eastern extension we’ve begun the long overdue process of creating wheelchair access. Hard-packed mortar, topped with scalpings, seemed the perfect solution. It probably is for wheelchair users, but not for gardening, especially the messy kind that prevails during spring.
The paths are now the equivalent of my mother’s precious parquet flooring, the bane of my childhood. It goes without saying that stiletto heels were banned and heaven help those who dared step onto it with outdoor shoes.
Grass paths are forgiving. You can wipe your boots on them, you can pile weeds onto them and you can even chop up plants on them. The marks thus left vanish with the next rain. They don’t on Lea Garden’s brand-new parquet paths. Mud sticks to them, scraps of vegetation become welded to them, and make them look like carpets in need of a really good hoovering.
At the time, laying the paths before starting the more intricate landscaping seemed a sensible thing to do, but I’m not so sure now. It’s a bit like putting down the Berber rugs before painting the walls and ceilings. Two large, undulating heaps of topsoil are about to be transformed into alpine landscapes, one for acid lovers, one for lime lovers. This will involve the moving and placing of very large and heavy chunks of sedimentary limestone. We’re talking major earthworks here, and I can see the parquet vanishing underneath spilled soil and rock chips in no time.
Enter the above-mentioned landscaping textile. Cut to fit the contours of the heaps, and pegged securely at the edges, it should keep the parquet from coming to any harm. Once construction is completed, and the textile has been removed, boots will have to washed or wiped every time the gardener steps out of a border – envisage a network of strategically placed buckets, scrapers, and little coir doormats. But that’s the easy bit. I wonder how our visitors will take to wiping their feet, undergoing inspection of their sole profiles, and having their killer heels confiscated before entering the garden. It’s true what she say: sooner or later every woman turns into her mother.