It seems almost impossible, given the ‘bad start’ to 2018, that we’ve been blessed with almost a month of good, warm, sunny weather in the period since I last sat down to write one of these articles. It’s certainly made up for most of the atrocious cold, wet and snowy conditions which, for a while, threatened to put a permanent ‘downer’ on this year’s gardening activities.
As ever, I hope that writing that won’t tempt ‘the Fates’ to punish me by turning on the rain taps and turning our summer into a washout; I’m keeping everything crossed!
With the warmer weather, of course, has come exponentially increasing plant growth and exuberance. Unfortunately, it’s not only the ornamental plants that have been growing ‘like Topsy’—the weeds have been at it too. I have reached the stage where I am almost prepared to ‘love my hairy bittercress’ because whatever I do it always seems to be one jump ahead.
This little, annual, weed is very easy to pull out but, thanks to its explosive seed capsules, it is so successful at spreading, far and wide, that keeping it under control is a Herculean task. It often enters a new garden as a ‘stowaway’ in the pot alongside a newly purchased garden plant. It is endemic to many (all?) plant nurseries and, even if the adult plants are weeded out, its seeds may well be hiding in the compost, despite the nursery owner ‘cleaning’ their plants prior to sale.
There is a flipside to these ‘stowaways’; there are also ‘passengers’. That’s what I call the seedlings of ornamental plants which sometimes get carried into a garden alongside plants which you have chosen to introduce purposefully. In my case, I don’t think that I’ve ever bought aquilegias, Linaria or snakes head fritillaries, and yet they have all made their way in to my garden ‘under the radar’. They’ve cost me nothing and, when they pop up in the right places, are useful additions to my garden palette.
Using the adage that a ‘weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place’, I have no compunction in pulling out these self-sown, yet ornamental, chancers whenever they threaten the existence of a more precious, more ornamental, plant. I guess the only difference between these ‘passenger’ introductions and ‘classic’ weeds is that the former I might allow to remain in the garden, whereas the latter I’ll always pull out—no matter what context it is growing in.
As well as weeding, there are other garden tasks which need keeping on top of now that summer is practically upon us. If you notice any faded flowers, on spring flowering shrubs, prune out the boughs that have bloomed and generally tidy up or reshape the specimen. Take a hard look at it and decide whether it’s the optimum size, too large or still has room to fill out. With shrubs just standing still requires that you remove the flowered stems and do some thinning out of the oldest ones each year; if it’s too large then a more brutal chop back, accompanied by a feed and mulch, is in order; shrubs that are still establishing may need light titivating to coax them into a pleasing shape.
Dead-heading of spring bulbs is advisable if you want them to flower again in future years. Also, remove faded flowers from plants in bedding schemes, hanging baskets and the like, to keep them blooming for the longest period. Adding ‘food’ to the water, following the instructions on your chosen brand, will pay dividends but simply ensuring that they never dry out is vital because drought makes them set seed, and stop flowering, sooner than they might otherwise do so.
If you have a pond, June is a good month to perform maintenance tasks such as thinning out water weed or marginal plants. It’s warm enough that the job is not too unpleasant for you, always an important consideration, plus any new plants that you add will get off to a good start. It’s also a good time to introduce new fish, if you want a bit of fishy fun rather than a purely natural experience; ornamental fish will reduce the amount of indigenous water life which your pond will support.
It’s a good time to look at your beds and borders and implement any ‘last minute’ staking, or pea-sticking, wherever it looks as if one plant is threatening to collapse and squash another one. At the same time, any gaps which persist, maybe where early spring bulbs have died down, can be plugged with a generous sowing of hardy annuals; you can’t go far wrong with that cottage garden stalwart—Nigella damascene (‘Love-in-a-Mist’). For more instant ‘plugging’ it’s worth keeping a few pots of filler plants at hand; pelargoniums (tender ‘geraniums’) fit the bill nicely. Failing that, a trip to the garden centre should yield some tender perennial bedding plants to play around with.
I can’t sign off without paying homage to the recently late, great, plantswoman and nursery owner—Beth Chatto. I met her many times, while staying at ‘Great Dixter’, and, I think, it was her influence on me, as a student gardener, which taught me the most important rules which need to be followed in order to make a successful garden. She was the one that first explained to me, then demonstrated in her sublimely beautiful gardens, the importance of choosing plants that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but which are suited to the conditions in which they are expected to grow.
‘Right plant, right place’ is, somehow, too simple a concept. Beth demonstrated that it was more than that. It was her Artistic sensibility, allied to an in-depth understanding of the underlying Science (her husband, Andrew, played his part in that), which made her garden writing essential reading for anyone setting out to make a garden. She was always much more than ‘surface’ when it came to gardening—a quality largely lacking in our image obsessed, ‘Instagram’ crazed, culture today. Her like will not be seen again.