IT HAS been a cold, wet winter and a late spring. In the ever-evolving matrices of plants that make up our gardens, there have been more winter losses than normal. Plants that hail from more benign climates but cope with an average British winter have suffered. I have seen rosemaries with dead branches, and bay trees with leaves scorched by cold winds. Phormiums and cordylines are looking sad.
If a shrub looks dead, you can scrape away a little bark and observe the colour of the underlying layer. If it is green, then the branch is alive; if it is brown, then it has succumbed to the cold, but test again nearer the base or centre of the plant. If the core of the shrub is alive, you can tidy it up by pruning back to the live tissue. And be patient. The plant world has its Lazarus moments.
Sometimes, we have to accept that a plant in our care has died. In the back of a cupboard I have a coffer of botanic labels, reminders of specimens no longer with us. I feel slightly ashamed as a professional gardener, despite knowing that the cycle of life is at the very core of gardening.
And there can be immediate and unforeseen gains. I have, on this page, sung the praises of Vinca difformis, a periwinkle with large pure-white flowers. A cold winter has knocked it back in my garden, revealing a forgotten Pulmonaria “Blue Ensign” with exquisitely cobalt flowers and an epimedium with sulphur-yellow blooms. The cold may have become the gardener in this slightly neglected patch. But what to do if the loss has left a gaping hole?
Impulse online shopping is not the way to go. Instead, make a wish list based on the conditions, the effect you are hoping to create or enhance, and a realistic prediction of the aftercare you will bestow. Sometimes, a hardy slow-growing evergreen is just the ticket. Keep your eyes open for online sales. Have a rummage at the budget supermarket or an open-garden plant sale — anywhere that sells plants; just don’t get sidetracked.
It need not be something new to your garden: repetition can be an effective design ruse, and sticking with a plant already tried and tested in your garden makes a lot of sense. Look up a plant in a gardening encyclopaedia, and it will suggest propagation methods. If it sounds tricky, leave it to the nursery professionals and buy a repeat. There is no shame in that.
In the mean time, there are easy annuals such as calendula, cosmos, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and opium poppy that you can sow now. Or meadow mixes such as Sarah Raven’s “Foliage Collection” consisting of three umbellifers. You will be enjoying flowers at the end of July through into September.
Fork and rake over the vacant patch, and sow in lines which can be wavy or in a grid — any pattern you will remember; so that you can remove any weeds that germinate. Water in dry weather. If you do come across the ideal long-term replacement, you can sacrifice a few of the annuals in the middle of the patch to plant it. They are by nature ephemeral, and won’t interfere with its establishment.