How to maintain a garden

08 November 2019

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WHAT makes a garden really stand out, whatever its purpose or style? It is all in the ongoing planning. Gar­den maintenance is not just about keeping things tidy, but, rather, a pro­­cess of constant evaluation and adjustment.

A good head gardener of a heri­t­age or private garden will never stop making notes, auditing the cur­rent scene with a view to making changes, whether minor tweaks or full-on redesigns of certain areas. Some­times, pest or disease prob­lems or perennial weed infestations dic­tate that a change is needed, pos­ibly with an intervening fallow period. Or it could be that the dif­ferent growth rates of plants that or­­iginally complemented each ­­other as neigh­bours have led some to dom­inate others and thrown the picture off balance. If so, some editing and/or plant replace­ment is needed.

This ethos of assessment and forward planning will be evident in the site’s nursery area. If the garden is open to the public, there might be specimens propagated from much admired plants destined for the plant sales area. But there will also be plants earmarked for “project” areas in the garden. Some of these will be bought in, and, pro­bably, unusual plants, to fit a par­ticular brief, from specialist nurseries. There will also be plant species, tried and tested in that particular garden, and propagated by collected seed, division, or cut­tings. Thus, when mature plants do have to be ripped out, they can be replaced with stock sourced from within the same space, on a rolling programme.

November is the perfect time to be looking at our gardens with a curatorial eye. They are at a liminal point, with soft herbaceous growth still sufficiently present for us to remember the effect that it gave in summer.

In a couple of months, many garden plants will have retreated underground, but now the extent and shape of clumps is still clear, and even the height that plants reached at their zenith is easily re­­membered. Borders are beginning to fall apart, with leaves dropping. As seasonal and ephemeral plants con­tribute little, it is easy to see where some specimens are needed to give struc­ture or colour. These could be simply evergreen, such as phillyrea or phormiums, or with winter flowers as a bonus in the case of coro­­nilla, sarcococca, or camellia.

Combine the autumnal exposure of “faults” with the fact that it is a good time to dig up and divide perennials and to plant shrubs, trees, and spring-flowering bulbs, and it is clear that November is far from a quiet time in the garden.

Most of you won’t have time to set up a spreadsheet, but some simple notes can make a difference. Take your phone or notebook out­side, and bullet-point what needs to be done and when, to move the garden to where you a­­­spire for it to be. I promise, this mind­­ful approach can make all the difference.

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