Friday 4th & Sunday 6th February 2022 – go hard or go home

It’s been a weekend of hard work, hard pruning, hard rain and a hard lesson. Not to mention hard times for the Under-Gardener, who has had to provide intense supervision with very little reward (he’s on a diet, or meant to be – he’s put on a few Christmas ounces… or pounds…)

The neat freak hidden deep within me (Chief Engineer might say it’s so well hidden as to be undetectable) finally cracked and cut down the overwintering dead stems of last year. The weather has been highly changeable (as is normal for the time of year) but there have been plenty of bright spells and there are signs of life everywhere as the garden responds to the lengthening days.

Chief Engineer and Head Gardener joined forces and made the most of the dry weather by tackling the building of the new rose arch – replacement set of grub screws having been sent free of charge by the supplier – really excellent customer service from Harrod Horticultural and an excellent product too. This one is really solid, with very effective ground anchors and a ten year guarantee. It feels really substantial. It was also really easy to build – not one cross word between us! The mugs of tea in the shot below helped. The Under-Gardener didn’t.

If I leave it any later to cut down this miscanthus grass, I’ll be cutting into the new season’s growth, but I really do hate to cut down the fluffy seedheads when they’re so pretty and there’s so little else going on in the garden. Problem solved: stuff all the cut stems into that spare empty plant holder, for a bit of outdoor flower arranging. Looks a bit odd from behind but that’s the working end of the garden – from the front, where it will mainly be seen from, it looks pretty good!

He always does this when I cut these down. Weirdo.

Another thing I hate cutting but it has to be done. This hydrangea paniculata can be pruned one of three ways – light, medium or hard – and I can never decide which to go for. I suppose I went for medium in the end (the sun was in the wrong place when I took the ‘after’ photo). Looking at the different year’s growth, I can definitely see that my pruning technique improves every year, which is gratifying. I continued the theme of ‘flower arrangements with dead things’, as I couldn’t quite bear to part with the dried flower heads, which always remind me of old lace (and I do love a bit of lace).

About 3pm on Friday I was trying to weigh up which of two jobs I should do, as I knew I’d only have time for one. I decided I’d tackle that clematis that I shouldn’t have planted inside the chimney pot. This proved to be the last in a line of bad decisions I made regarding that clematis. My parents used to have a poster that said “the man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything”. Well, I’m clearly due an especially productive patch, given the extent of my error here…

This was a really dumb thing to do to a big, hungry plant. It’s completely root-bound in this chimney pot – it doesn’t have enough space to spread its roots and it is clearly under stress.
Poor thing. Getting it out of the pot was the very devil. I had to use a knife, repeatedly loosening the roots around the inside edge of the chimney pot, whilst intermittently scraping away the soil and using the handle of the spade to try to knock the root ball out of the chimney pot. The clematis stems are slightly woody and brittle – I snapped a bit long stem wrestling with it, which was especially disappointing as it had lots of buds on it. I will undoubtedly have diminished its floral performance this year but hopefully it’ll bounce back next year.
I couldn’t have found a less suitable planting vessel. The ridges meant that it was totally stuck at each level. Getting it out of the pot was a right ball-ache. I was knackered and hurt all over by the time it came free, and I still needed to dig a really deep planting hole, plant the clematis, backfill it and go back over the whole plant, meticulously tying it back in to the pergola, knowing that the storm due overnight would ravage it if it wasn’t tied in properly. This poorly thought-out planting is one of the worst bits of gardening I have ever done – the air was blue by the time I’d finished.

Done. There is still a good chance we’ll have a good show of flowers this Spring. I have learned my lesson – sometimes it is better not to try to be clever! I was so desperate to make creative use of these chimney pots. They’d be much better suited to standing a potted plant in, something tough and Mediterranean like a thyme or trailing rosemary, which is probably what I’ll do in the Summer.

And now, two success stories – and with houseplants too, which is rare for me! I generally fail with orchids but this liriodendron is a triumph, all the more so for being rescued from the plant graveyard at the garden centre for a quid or something. Last year I started feeding my houseplants with a seaweed feed every fortnight – it has made a massive difference. I’m thrilled with this. In the other shot, burrow’s tail on the left and string of beads plant on the right (in the kitschy little swan planter). Burrow’s tails aren’t terribly difficult but string of beads plants can be. This is actually a cutting – I killed the parent but this one has limped on through and has actually started looking really healthy now and has put on loads of new growth. It is in a tiny pot with a very small amount of soil, I think this is the secret – it really hates to be wet, I think I drowned the parent. This bright spot in the kitchen is great for those succulents. It’s also above the dishwasher, so it probably offers humid heat, which may mimic their natural habitats, I suppose.

You know Spring is coming when the crocuses open. I even saw a bee on one.

Another job that wouldn’t wait any longer was hacking back the rambling rector rose (or rampant rector as I prefer to call him). Three trugs full of vicious thorny bastard clippings, which cling to clothes, hair, other plants… the thorns are extremely sharp and have a slight curve to them, to enable the branches to force up through trees and shrubs and cling as they go, scrambling towards the light… this hooked thorn shape also makes them especially unpleasant when they pierce flesh. Just for once I managed not to draw blood whilst doing this job. I did show it no mercy though – I cut much harder than I usually would. This might mean fewer blooms this year but the plant will be healthier for it and will put on an even better show next year (I may also have managed to delay its inevitable take-over of next-door’s garden… just for a little while…)

One comparatively tidy rambling rector corner. I’m trying to get it to cover the leylandii a bit more, but it will really only do that on the side I don’t want it to, because it strains for the light. I’m also trying to get it to cover the roof of the old potting shed… this may very well backfire on me spectacularly.

The ornamental beds are more or less weeded, tidied and mulched now. Next week it’ll be time to focus on the productive beds.
Mr Blackbird has clearly told the Mrs that I’m trustworthy. She hopped around less than two feet away from me, picking out some juicy worms.

Three utterly useless photos in the dwindling light, but Chief Engineer has been working tirelessly here to take down an old wood shed that wasn’t really being used. My original plan was to put a poly tunnel in here, but in a rare moment of circumspection I decided I should really do as the books tell us for once and just observe my space for a year before making any expensive commitments. We’ll clear and level it instead and I’ll grow something edible here for a year, while I observe the drainage, light and shelter in this area.

Incontrovertible evidence here that garlic started off in pots is quicker and stronger than that planted in open ground. This weekend, a third batch of planting garlic arrived in the post… turns out I’d advance-ordered some for Spring back in September andI’d completely forgotten about it and so ordered more in December. December\’s order arrived first and has already been planted… I simply didn’t have the time or energy to plant up the latest arrivals in pots (and I’m not sure I have the pots to spare, either – although I have a large number, I seldom but things in these small pots any more so the numbers haven’t grown for years, and I use a lot of the smaller size when planting up in the Spring. This third batch has been shoved into open ground and is going to have to fend for itself (and to accommodate it, I’m going to have to redraw my planting-plan, for the third time!)

A friend bought me on of Sarah Raven’s books last year. For some reason there is something about her that grates on me a bit (an air of middle-class self-satisfaction and a habit of flogging twee homeware at exorbitant prices, probably). Anyway, it’s undeniable that the woman knows gardening and has some great ideas. Her book entreats us to stake our plants before they need it and provides useful instructions on how to do it. Raven makes use of freshly cut hazel stems – here, a framework shaped into domes is constructed over the crown of paeonies, so they will grow through the supports. I’m very interested to see whether this works – I’ve seen it done in National Trust gardens but never to round to it myself – and theirs looked rather better than mine, but then they had access to more hazel. We have two or three awkward specimens in the hedge, self-seeded there from squirrels burying their bounty and losing them. Apparently squirrels have terrible memories and tend to forget where they trashed things. I might see if I can transplant a hazel to a more convenient place, as they can be cut hard for a useful supply of stakes (although it risks enticing more bloody squirrels!)

Published by Notes from the Under-Gardener

Keen amateur gardener, tending a large home garden growing flowers, fruit and veg, ably supported by husband and dog.

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