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On a Chalk Hillside March 2020

Winter Clearing of the flower garden

Whilst as you saw last month I spent January reviewing our vegetable and fruit production, obviously this is a wet weather/darkness type of job.  As with all gardeners, as soon as I can after the Christmas/New Year festivities I am itching to get back into the garden to start the big winter clear up.  Quite often the weather is against us being both cold and windy even if it is not wet, and this season we had an extremely wet November and December, and our ground is saturated.  Believe me, as a gardener on a chalk hillside this doesn’t often happen!  The wet has been so continuous and consistent that the ground doesn’t have time to drain and dry out.  As you can see below, the river Avon burst its banks in December with the water lying for weeks on the fields either side of the river course, and though the extent of the flooding gradually reduced by the beginning of January, the storms (Storm Brendan and the unnamed terrible storm the next day which brought down our TV aerial) with their relentless rain for hour after hour filled the fields back up again, they subsided only to be refilled after Storm Dennis in mid-February:-

In the teeth of this watery setback, and a few freezing days, I was  able to get out for a few hours here and there at the beginning of January to start the winter clear up, leaving actual digging and weeding til the ground dries out some, and concentrating on what’s above ground.  Normally I leave top growth on many hardy perennials until late February or March both to protect the crowns of the plants, be food sources for birds, and habitats for bugs, but the wet nature of the past two months means that the top growth is a rotting sodden mass, no use to the wildlife and a rotting hazard to the plants beneath.  
I decided to start with plants edging the paths so I didn’t need to stand on the beds too much (vain hope!) For example the hardy geranium clump below:-

This is Geranium x oxonianum f. thurstonianum, and whilst they were very wet, each of these old stems needed to be painstakingly cut away (Geranium endressii types this year were much more rotted and wet and the old growth came away in my hand more readily with a small tug, much quicker to deal with.)  Here it is after its haircut – note the tubtrug full of its old stems:-

Naturally, this old top growth had sprawled over other plants, and in cutting back I exposed the Ice plant Sedum Autumn Joy, which as you know we must now call Hylotelephium (Herbsfreude Group) ‘Herbsfreude’ :-

Now, each year I KNOW I need to cut the old stems low down, NOT bend and snap and pull, but each year I sooner or later succumb to temptation and….:-

I potted it up and will hope for the best!   I also disturbed a seven spotted ladybird who crawled off into the bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) top growth nearby.  Another plant that looked much better for its haircut was the orange daylily (probably Hemerocallis fulva, it came as a clump in a shopping bag from my friend Mary’s garden.) 



The other feature of the weather at the beginning of January was how mild it has been, and rather than waiting til mid-February when I usually clear the pond, I decided it needed doing as soon as possible in January, a decision that seemed validated as I disturbed a frog in the pond on 10 January whilst pulling out Parrots Feather (Myriophyllum brasiliensis) which had not gone dormant at all, indicating how comparatively warm the water had stayed in the pond.  You can see how far it had grown across the pond in the (before!) picture below, it’s the bright green mat of leaves in the water:-

The mass at the top end of the pond near the bog garden is all self-seeded/extended, I only planted the Myriophyllum brasiliensis at the end of the pond to the bottom of the picture.   You can see the dead stalks of the Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) growing through it at the far end, and that it is trying to swamp the Equisetum hyemale and the Water Irises (Iris pseudacorus ‘Variegata’).  Perhaps this ‘during’ shot will show the plants more clearly (and some of the Myriophyllum brasiiensis piles round the pond):-

Here is the final shot after my husband has individually pulled the stems of the Equisetum hyemale out for me – note the white roots of the Iris pseudacorus ‘Variegata’ showing why they are so successful a water plant, and how difficult they are to remove once entrenched:-

On the plus side, I did manage to remove the leaves from the Hellebores at the beginning of January – even though most of the clumps hadn’t started to put up their flower buds yet, the earliest one in the bed under the pear trees was showing promise – here on 10 January:-

At the same time the snowdrops were coming up, and some even flowering – such as this Galanthus ‘Hyppolyta’ a Greatorex Double I bought on my visit to Colesbourne Park last year, almost fully out on 15 January:-

And having read of aconites out on New Year’s Day in Newark, I had been monitoring mine, and from no visible signs two days earlier, here they are beginning to pop up in the Orchard on 15th January, despite the two days of terrible storms:-

I am trying an experiment this winter with one of my patches of  Epimedium × perralchicum 'Fröhnleiten'  My step-mother cuts all her evergreen leaves off her plants (my plants came from her garden many years ago) so that the flower spikes come up uninterrupted each spring.  I never have touched the leaves on mine, and the flower spikes fall over the path in an effort to be seen, as you can see from March 19:-

So this year I cut back the leaves of one of my patches, leaving the other, and will monitor the effect on the plant/amount of flowers and report back.  Here is the before and after shot:-



(It seemed very drastic taking off such bright green leaves!)   I will let you know how it goes….
Although I intended to start the rose pruning in the second half of Jan the weather had other ideas, and it was early February before I got way in earnest (still earlier than my “normal” time for doing this of the Feb half term school holidays).  Here is the pile of prunings from my Rosa 'Lavender Lassie' bed by the house, together with the before and after shots from 6 February – the pile is more than two wheel barrows full of prunings just from this one small bed:-



Hopefully in the “after” shot you can see that I have also cleared away all dead top growth from the Geranium x johnsonii ‘Johnson’s Blue’ that grows round the foot of these roses, and had another go at the ivy that tries to get everywhere!  Given that we were then forecast to have excessive winds, including Storm Ciara and then Storm Dennis I decided against giving the roses their blood fish and bone feed that I would normally do after pruning.  I have made a note in my diary to that effect so I HOPE I remember to do it once the weather permits.  The rest of the rose pruning, and that of the native hedge was postponed til at least the end of February, indeed, still not completed to date.  So from starting the pruning and clearing early, the weather beat me, and I finished late.  Such are the vagaries of our climate!

Next month, I shall look at planting up the tiny shade border in the gravel garden.

Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

3 Comments To "On a Chalk Hillside March 2020"

Chris Price-Morris On 21.03.2020
Brilliant before and after pics. Shows us how much plants are resilient and survive despite what we may think is going to be lost to us. Reply to this comment
Melissa On 10.03.2020
as a very cautious frightened inexperienced gardener I find your before and after photos really helpful! I shall go out and tidy up my perennials as you demonstrate- might even dare to prune some roses Thank you Reply to this comment
Sheila May On 22.03.2020
Hi Melissa, I hope the weather has been kind to let you get into your garden and tidy up your perennials. Lots of new growth and buds coming on things now to cheer us all up.
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