AS OUR gardens tilt more towards the sun, we notice the warmth on our faces and plants beginning to stir again. The National Trust reports an early spring, as measured by its annual flower count across 32 of its properties in the south-west.
Gardeners feel a subtle call to action. If you have left the withered growth of herbaceous plants in situ as a shelter for small mammals and insects, now is the time to move it to the compost heap. I prefer to achieve this with a (gloved) hand rather than a rake, as this year’s shoots, whether visible or not, are easily damaged.
The exact approach depends on the subject. Some stems pull away cleanly, while others require grasping in one hand and chopping near the base with secateurs. It is a satisfying task that feels in tune with the season. It leaves a bed of virgin soil dotted with neatly shorn clumps, patches of tight buds, and some precocious green growth. It is a job for fine weather after a few dry days. Trampling on wet soil not only makes a mess but can damage the soil structure; so, if your garden is poorly drained, it is worth standing on a couple of planks.
Getting down among your border plants allows you to take stock. If you find some unwanted weed plants secreted in the bulk of a herbaceous perennial, it can be dealt with now. Lifting the whole clump allows you to trace and separate out weed roots, whether that be a thread of couch grass, the long tap root of a dandelion, or a tangle of yellow fibres below a stinging nettle. The “cleaned” desirable plant can then be replanted with no harm done to it.
Despite winter having been relatively benign, with few, if any, penetrating frosts, a spring audit will no doubt reveal some losses. Many garden plants do not enjoy mild wet winters — think of plants from the North American prairies such as heleniums and echinaceas, or those from mediterranean climate zones such as rosemary or salvias. In any case, gardens are ever-changing plant communities. Plant deaths are an inevitable part of the cycle, and there isn’t necessarily a lesson to be learnt from them.
I like to surprise novice gardeners by telling them of my shoebox containing labels that belonged to plants I have killed. Of course, we should adopt a “right plant right place” philosophy to give plants in our care the best chance possible. It pays to consider a plant’s natural habitat, and whether we can provide something similar. And, when replacing plants, it is worth using repeats of what already thrives in the garden. This makes sound design sense, too: drifts of the same plant are easier on the eye than the “dotty” effect of multiple impulse garden-centre buys.
A spring clean of a garden border, finishing with a tickling over of the soil surface with a fork to hide our tracks and allow the rain to penetrate, can be very satisfying. It also affords us the brief illusion that we are in control.