Summer vacation looms in this year of ups and downs. If you’re distracted by parties, invitations, and moving kids, what should she do in the garden before letting her to herself for two weeks? I’ll assume it’s new to you, not great but, in principle, well-liked. Here are five points for attention, followed by a suggestion for improvement in the future.
First, as always, weeds. Don’t be fooled by the recent rhetoric in their favor. There are excellent reasons to remove them, especially if you want a varied garden with year-round blooms and interest. They compete for water with the most beautiful plants. Some of them are so invasive that they crowd out beloved neighbours. They look messy and even if you love a messy look, they are not as pretty as a better-behaved mess. Weed’s general hype, “plants in the wrong place,” is nothing new. It’s been audible for as long as I’ve written this column.
In the past 10 years, it has become intertwined with saving the planet, boosting pollinators and “repopulation”. Some ivy on the border fence and some strategically-permitted nettles may encourage overwintering butterflies to breed in your garden, but believe me, a veteran of these attempts, he relies a lot on the unexpected cuteness of competing attractions, especially in cities.
As for pollinators, they turn to foreign beauties, take care of the garden, and actively fiddle with it. Last month I took a group of undergraduates at Oxford around our college gardens and confirmed this fact next to the beautiful white-flowered Deutzia monbeigii shrub, which I recommend. At 6:30pm on a sunny evening, its flowers were swarming with bumblebees. It is at home in China and was introduced from Yunnan.
For a pre-holiday cleanup, go hunting for weeds that are in bloom or about to be sown. Root them or at least decapitate them before they are fully grown in your absence. Look especially for the pale pink, easily pulled willow weeds, thorns of all kinds, and weeds that pop out in moments. Hold the thorns close to ground level to make sure they are completely out. Don’t become obsessed with pulling out weeds or ground elder: attack them when you return, but at the same time, pull up any reachable stems of weeds and make sure there are no flower heads, like white umbrellas, on the ground.
Take a bag so that weeds with seed heads can be cut off right before you shake their stems and scatter their seeds as you uproot the plants. Remember the old truth: “One year to plant, seven years to weed.” It will prompt you to repeat the walk around after about 15 minutes. In the first round, we all miss the main candidates for extraction, so a second round is necessary.
After weeding, focus on the front rows of an edging or a large flower bed. Upon your return, you will be glad to see signs of modern order and control. If the fronts are tidy and the fringe is neat, the mess in the middle rows to the rear is less of a concern. Eliminate all fronts around the garden rather than weeding one entire bed.
Next, cut back perennials that are past their flower date. The priorities here are perennial geraniums, with the exception of the gorgeous Roseanne and the like, which will continue to send up blue flowers. I had great displays on pale blue cloud geraniums, which I highly recommend, but now all of their top growth has to be removed, leaving only the core set of leaves at ground level. Johnson’s Blue, geraniums, meadow geraniums, and purple psilostimon all need the same treatment. So do foxglove, early plant, and blue-and-white Campanula persicifolia, leaving one or two stems for seeding at random for years to come.
After that, pruning. Two priorities guide me here: roses and wisteria. There is no point in throwing out the vigorous wandering roses that you have recently visited: they bloom only once. Sort your roses to those with second flowers in September and cut the dead flowers back to the first pair of leaves below. On a magical evening at Sissinghurst, in his mother Vita Sackville-West’s gorgeous rose garden, Nigel Nicholson once complained to me that the National Trust’s gardeners had left dead heads on his rose bushes “like dirty handkerchiefs”: since none of the older varieties would flower a second time, the job wasn’t a top priority.
In her new poem, “This Was for This,” poet laureate Hannah Sullivan refers to the roses in her London garden as looking “like a pinched pair of teabags stuck to a spoon.” I thought she meant roses in full bloom and scolded her, but I forgot she was “crunchy” and she silenced me with a picture of her last dead sisters looking decidedly like post-cup sacks of Earl Gray. Cut the tea bags twice from the flowering rose bushes before you leave, which encourages a good second bloom.
Since June, wisteria has sent up slender, green, rippling stems without a wall or arch. Prune them too, keeping in mind the well-manicured or spurred vine photo in the vineyard, cutting back their old, tough growth and checking that they are very green and spreading. The wisteria blooms better next year if it is kept from flying now in all directions. If you have a wandering rose, also free with new growth, cut off all of that growth as well, focusing on a solid frame of stems from which it will flower next year as well.
Fourth, it is soaked and fed. Even if it’s been raining, take the time to water everything in the pots or other containers until the water runs out of the holes in the flat underside. Planting pots are usually densely under water, with only the first few inches of the soil ball wet. When you’re away, give them a long, steady watering now, not just a spray with a hose on high pressure. They are more likely to stay well until you return.
When wet, give a diluted fertilizer from a can filled with water, using Tomorite, an inexpensive tomato fertilizer, on dahlias and other large-flowering plants. For petunias and smaller bedding plants, I use phytoestrogen in diluted powder form. The feeds will last for two weeks, and will need to be repeated as soon as you return. Expert feeding distinguishes potted plants from those used by part-time gardeners, attending as best they can. Begonia loves it.
Finally, an idea for next year. I am indebted to my older brother, a skilled gardener: along the narrow gap between his front pavement and his garden, he has grown alpine strawberries from seed. They look great and have kept their small, flavorful fruits since early June. It never appears among strawberries, cooled with gas, in supermarkets, but in mugs, with cream, blueberries and a dash of lemon, it is unparalleled. I recommend the Alpine Strawberry Mignonette from Thompson and Morgan, at £2.99 for a pack of 320. The seeds are fine and should be sown and covered very lightly with vermiculite or moist sharp sand in September. Alpine strawberries are a project to look forward to when you return.
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