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On a Chalk Hillside November 2020

Gardening in lockdown – 3  Composting and deadheading 

Before we get onto the less glamourous bits of gardening as promised last time let’s start with a pretty picture.  You don’t have to go out of your way to find this particular star plant at the beginning of June – Phlomis russeliana planted beside the main path down the garden:-

We had a wet winter, followed by the very hot dry lockdown spring, and this dramatically affected the growth of our grass.  As you know we let our grass grow, but usually after St George’s day (23 April) we do a first mow of the chalk hillside and orchard, avoiding the foliage of winter bulbs, and any wild flowers, but this year the growth was so extremely sparse, we didn’t.  We didn’t mow until the end of June – this is how long the grass on the hillside had got:-

And here is himself mowing up the slope on 28 June with a bank of Lavatera cashmeriana behind him:-


The plant bottom right was a star plant at the end of June – Anthemis tinctoria ‘Sauce Hollandaise’:-

You may have noticed how wispy the grass was? We, along with the farmer who has two huge hay meadows on the other side of the valley to us had a very poor grass harvest.  He managed only one stack of bales per field, instead of three as usual, and the compost/humus value of what we were cutting was minimal as it was so dry.   Normally, the cut we do at the end of April is of very green ‘juicy’ grass which we mix with scrunched up newpaper to help aerate the mix, and it makes between two and three compost bins full (up to 3 cubic meters) at a go, which heats up and rots down very very quickly, ready for us to use in the vegetable beds as we prepare them in May (eg in the bean trenches as described last month).  So this year was heading for a perfect storm – we needed more humus-rich material for new beds even than normal, we had no access to our usual homemade compost from grass because of the weather so would normally have gone to the local stables to dig out their manure pile, but could not because of lockdown.  As I said last month our last resort would be to buy soil conditioner by the ton to dig in, but the companies were not operating due to the lockdown, and more expensive smaller volume suppliers had been cleaned out by the sudden interest in gardening by people in lockdown.  So we had to use our garden compost, which is made in a different set of three bins with a slow build up of garden cuttings, kitchen waste, and a little bit of grass clippings, and is therefore a “cold” heap, which means many more weed seeds survive.  Here is a shot of one of the garden compost bins on 6 April with a layer of all the old overwintered fern fronds covering it :

We generally only get one bin (1 cubic metre) per year good fine compost this way; one bin that is partly rotted down, on which we grow the marrows; and one bin that is empty for refilling for the year.  This year we used all our fine compost, and as you can see, at the beginning of June had resorted to using our coarse still-rotting bin too in the veg garden (assisted by the robin searching for worms):-

So, to the first cut of the grass.  As he mowed, I collected the clippings, scrunched paper and mixed it in the bin, starting with a layer of cardboard:-


The marrow had to go on the bin of unrotted material full from last winter with a layer of the coarse compost on top.  You may be able to see that since 6 April when the fern fronds went on it, the heap had rotted down several planks by the end of June, but was still recognisable greenage:-

Along with the other curcubits the marrow really has not liked the coarser unrotted greenage that it has been planted in, and our yield in all curcubits this year has been well down on usual.  
The main job apart from weeding that gardeners do all summer is deadheading.  My focus is on getting the veg plants into the ground by the first week in June, and then it changes to deadheading and weeding.  Himself set himself the target of unwinding bindweed for 5 mins each time he went down the garden.  He gets “caught up” in this, pardon the pun, and spends a lot longer when he does get started, freeing a whole plant or shrub at a time if he can.  It is very satisfying to see the pile of stems on the path when he’s finished, but the drought means that with the hard soil the roots were still in the ground, the stems snapping off lowdown as he pulled, making it a never ending job.   
Most ‘normal’ deadheading I do is of non-hardy floriferous plants to help encourage more blooms – such as pelargoniums.  I count cutting sweet peas for the vase in this category, as the more blooms you cut the more the plants flower.  If you let them go to seed the sweet pea thinks it has done its job, and stops flowering.   I am a bit inconsistent here, as I let some of my canna blooms go to seed so I can collect and sow them.  As currently I only have Canna ‘Black Knight’ I am hoping they will come true from seed.  I also leave some other plants to go to seed rather than deadhead them to be able to harvest the seed and increase my stock that way.  Another reason I don’t deadhead some plants is to have winter interest if they make nice seedheads (such as teasels), or for protection.  The star plant Anthemis tinctoria ‘Sauce Hollandaise’ I mentioned above is a case in point.  I originally had a large plant of Anthemis tinctoria ‘E.C. Buxton’ a larger flowered, soft buttery yellow anthemis.  I cut the flowering spikes off as recommended to the ground leaving just the mat of green leaves at the base.  But it did not survive the winter.  I was gutted.  So having tried again with the ‘Sauce Hollandaise’ I left the flower spikes on last year – and it survived a very wet winter.  Hurrah.  As you can see from the picture below taken on 30 August, it does look rather messy though as you cannot say the brown buttons you can see are particularly decorative:-

A different deadheading method is how I deadhead my lavender lassie rose.  Rosa ‘Lavender Lassie’ is a shrub rose with large trusses of roses on each stem.   Here in full flower on 15 June:-

By mid July the heads look like this:-


I DO NOT try and deadhead each bloom as it goes over.  If I do I invariably snip good blooms as well as they grow so closely together.  You have to hold your nerve and wait until it looks like this:-

Then I cut back the whole head to just above the first healthy leaf stem you can see on the bottom right of the photo:-

This is a form of summer pruning as well as deadheading which encourages the rose to reflower later in the year– as you can see the branch is shorter now:-

And within two weeks is resprouting:-

This year Lavender Lassie had a very good second showing of flowers in September and October, and there are still flowers on it now, beautifully scented despite two harsh frosts.
Another form of more drastic deadheading is the Hampton hack.  (So named because you generally do it around the time of the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show which means, early July.)  This I tend to do on herbaceous perenials such as alchemilla mollis, or hardy geraniums once their first flush of flowers are going over.   This is more to get rid of the tatty old foliage as well as the spent flowers and to promote a new neater plant full of new foliage.  The earliest hardy perennial I do this to is the cultivated cornflower, Centaurea Montana, which gets cut back to the ground sometime in early June once its beautiful flower heads have gone over.  Otherwise it gets extremely floppy in growth, with unattractive stressed foliage, whereas cutting it back means it regrows neater mounds of more glaucous fresher leaves.  This is the same principle for the other perennials, though I have to confess, I prioritise cutting back geraniums before alchemilla mollis as I find alchemillas flower/seedheads attractive, and I like it to selfseed around so I can grow more stock to move elsewhere in the garden.  
Here is Geranium psilostemon before and after a chop back on 20 July:-

Again, you have to hold your nerve, and plan to do this sort of chop when you are NOT expecting garden visitors for a week or so, as they resprout very quickly.  Here is the Psilostemon  on 21 August:-

I started the three articles on gardening in lockdown showing you  the shoots of Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’ just coming through in the first week of lockdown, so I shall finish by showing you it in beautiful flower on 23 July as we were coming to terms with “the new normal” :-

From April on I hope my articles on gardening during this pandemic have helped to inspire you with calm, positivity, a delight in your own outside spaces and perhaps an appreciation of the wildflowers and wildlife that live in your orbit, as well as giving you some insight into “make do and mend” in a gardening context as we struggled with all the challenges the lockdown brought us.  I have been sharing my photos and activities in more detail with my family and friends than I usually do, and it certainly engendered conversations, sparked discussions and gave food for thought amongst them, as well as the flowers and wildlife photos creating visual delight.  I can’t say that it made any of my very tidy gardening friends and family stop mowing their lawns, but maybe next year?   
Next month as we hopefully come out of the second lockdown I shall show you some of the autumn colour we have in our garden which I hope will sustain me over the next four weeks.  

Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

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