The winter form of last season’s skeletons has been easily as interesting as the first summer in the new garden. Though their muted presence is not the thing you plan for first, it is an aspect that is worth considering for the ghosts that are left behind. Some, the daylilies for instance, leave nothing more than the space they took in their fleshy growth period, but those that endure are arguably as good as they were in life. Without the distraction of a growing season, its pull of colour and the steer of upkeep, you are free to look at the dead, left-behind forms anew. Blacks and browns, sepia, cinnamon and parchment whites are far from monochrome and their structures and seedheads are worth planning for in combination.
Snow flurries and rain laden winds began the topple in January, but the garden endured and weekly we have observed it falling away, shifting, dropping back and thinning. The vernonia, with their biscuit seedheads, stood tall amongst the pale spent verticals of panicum and I welcomed the repeat of the finely tapered Verbena macdougalii ‘Lavender Spires’ together with the bottle-brushes of Agastache ‘Blackadder’. The birds loved them too and some days the garden has been alive with activity with the foraging for seed and overwintering insects looking for shelter. The black stems of the veronicastrum were good amongst the molinia stems, but their seeds were stripped by mice early on. The grasses have been key for their foil, their pale colouring bright on dry days, warm in the wet, and their plumage acting as light catchers when the sun has broken through.
The clearance required to make way for the new season has been carefully judged. There comes a point, some time when the bulbs are showing you that new life is on its way, that the skeletons begin to feel tired. We have also had to pace ourselves, for it has taken five man days to work through the areas that were planted almost a year ago and, this time next year, it will take another three when the areas of the garden that were planted last autumn are grown up.
We made a start in early February, working from the high ground that drained most freely and sweeping round to the heavier low bed by the field in a second session a fortnight later. In just two weeks buds that had been thoroughly dormant were already showing at the base of the euphorbias and the first new shoots on the grasses signalled the shift and the need to move things forward.
Before we started, I waded into the beds and marked the plants that I knew I wanted to change, for there are always adjustments that need to be made in a new planting. The densely-flowered Lythrum salicaria ‘Swirl’ will be exchanged for the more finely tapered L. virgatum ‘Dropmore Purple’, while the Artemisia lactiflora ‘Elfenbein’ that read too strongly as a group once their pale flowers caught the eye were left standing so that I could find them again easily and redistribute them so that their presence is lighter this summer. The changes will be different every year, but it is good to have time in hand to make them whilst the plants are more or less dormant.
The feeling of working through and stripping away is always a mixed one. I would leave some plants standing for longer, indeed, I have with the liquorice and the fennel, but the spring clean is good. Underneath the tussocks of deschampsia we unearthed the nesting places of voles, which had already tunnelled out and made a winter feast of my inulas on the banks. We only found one, which scurried to safety and I was relieved to find that their damage hadn’t been greater. Last year when lifting the molinias from the stockbeds to split them in readiness for the new planting, I found them almost completely hollowed out, roots and crown all but gone under the protective thatch of winter cover. There are pros and cons to leaving the garden standing and, although I prefer to do so, it is a good feeling to see the clean sweep reveal the planting again in new nakedness. Tight clumps, indicating quite clearly now that they have broadened, how the combinations were set out on the spring solstice almost a year ago.
The dry, cut material was piled high on the compost heap where it will be topped by some of last year’s compost to help in rotting it back for the future. And at the end of the day, as light was dimming, we carefully raked between the plants so as not to disturb last year’s mulch. A couple of weeks later I combed through the beds again to winkle out any seedlings that we’d missed in the first pass. Dandelions already in evidence and ready to take hold in the crowns of the grasses and buttercups and nettles that been secretly travelling in shade under the cover of summer growth. The beds that were planted and mulched last year will only be topped up this year where they have been disturbed where I’ve made alterations. Hopefully growth will be sufficient to suppress all but the strongest of the interlopers. Although we are still waiting for the planting that went in during the autumn to show itself enough before mulching these new areas, it won’t be long now until the need to move will be upon us and the garden once again dictates the pace.