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Gardening: Pull, lift, and chop

28 February 2020

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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.

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