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Garden tidy up - Gardening with Daphne Ledward

After a mere three days of unseasonably spring-like weather, suddenly everything in the garden is no longer lovely, but scruffy and screaming out for attention. The midwinter look is no longer fashionable.

So, what do I do first? Clear up the old stems of the Jerusalem and globe artichokes and asparagus, untwine the dead stems from the hop supports and rake up – again – last winter’s leaves that blow out of the shelterbelts every time we get yet another gale.   Or should I dig the piece of ground allocated for this year’s potato crop, as the earlies will need planting in about a month? Last time I tried, it was far too wet, but we haven’t had serious rain for a week or two now, so it might be workable.

Our native hedges didn’t get cut last spring, so with the wet summer many of the individual plants had grown to fifteen feet or more. To thicken up the bases and make them more dog-proof, they needed reducing in height to around 90cm to encourage them to sprout from near the ground. With all my other commitments, I felt for the first time I needed to take on some help. This arrived in the shape of Lee, who loves cutting hedges of all shapes and sizes, doesn’t mind working in bad weather, and, once started, likes to press on regardless until he’s done the job.

The job now completed, the hedge looks unrecognisably tamed and ready to regrow into a much more orderly feature, but we are left with masses of rubbish. Many of the branches are too twisted and misshapen to go through the chipper, so I have decided the only thing is to make piles of the brushwood, let them dry out for a few weeks, then burn them when the wind is favourable to the neighbours. This will need to be done on the grassed rides round the new wood, so once the bonfire ash has been cleared, the burnt areas will require reseeding. Grass seed germinates well in these spots; I have had to do the same thing several times in the past and always achieved good growth, even though potash (produced by burning unripe wood and green garden waste) is supposed to inhibit germination, so yesterday I ordered 20kg of a rough mix, thinking by the time it arrived the ground would have warmed up enough for me to seed the burnt areas. However, there on the doorstep this morning, having arrived at some ridiculous hour before I was properly stirring, was the bag of seed – it will have to wait a while, but that’s not a bad thing.

I suppose if the weather continues like it is for the next few days I should get on with all outside jobs, and leave anything that can be accomplished under cover to wet or uncomfortably cold days – of which we will no doubt have many between now and the start of spring proper.

There’s the ‘heated’ greenhouse to retreat to on a bad day, of course, full of fuchsias, pelargoniums, and other patio plants that were moved inside last October. The last two winters, even with the heater thermostat set to keep the temperature up to about 7°C, I lost over a third of my over-wintering stock plants and half-hardy treasures, but this season (unless we are very unlucky), they have all come through unscathed, and are now starting to shoot and clamour for repotting.

When I was working on Gardeners’ Question Time, I remember having a somewhat heated argument with one of the other panellists (now sadly deceased) regarding the timing of cutting back over-wintered plants such as these.   I prefer to do this now, when they are starting into active growth so any check they receive is kept to a minimum.   He, on the other hand, asserted he had always cut them back in the autumn, so as to get rid of all foliage likely to die back and set up rots and moulds, and not overcrowd the greenhouse.

As he was a venerable gentleman, almost old enough to be my grandfather, I felt his experience was much more accurate than mine, so for the next couple of winters I followed his advice. The stems of the pelargoniums rotted at the point of cutting back, and many of the other half-hardies failed to start into growth the following spring. Since then I have followed my instincts and done the job in late February or early March.

So it won’t really matter whether tomorrow is a day of cloudless sunshine, like today, or sleet, snow and freezing winds, like last week – I won’t be out of a job.

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