Stripping away the last season’s skeletons comes with mixed feelings and I judge the moment carefully. There has been joy in the leftovers and I have savoured the falling away, with each week revealing a new level of transparency, but no less complexity. Light arrested where it would have fallen without charge or definition if we had cut the garden earlier and the feeling that we are more in tune for standing back and going with the winter.
It has all been worth the wait, but by mid-February, when the snowdrops were drifting in the lane, the need to move became clear. The tiny constellations of spent aster were suddenly joined by the willow catkins on the Salix gracilistyla that nestle by the gate. Grey buds like moleskin, soft, glistening and alive with bees. The old growth alongside them was made immediately apparent and the need to embrace the change an easy step to make.
This spring, after completing the planting the autumn before last, we have twice as much garden to clear. This time last year two working days with three pairs of hands saw the skeletons razed and taken back to base. With more to wade through this year four of us made a day of it the first weekend to break into the oldest parts where the perennials have now had two summers of growth. The weather had been dry and the soil was good to walk on without feeling like you were straying from the path. The sun came out to fool us into thinking it was April and, sure enough, at the base of the remains there were clear and definite signs of life. Buds red and rudely breaking earth already on the peonies and emerald spears of new foliage marking the hemerocallis.
I worked ahead of the team, stepping into the planting where I’d spent the winter analysing the plants that needed changing or adjusting. Last year it was to remove all the Lythrum salicaria ‘Swirl’, which were replaced by Lythrum virgatum ‘Dropmore Purple’, a form that feels closer to the wild loostrife. This year, I have lifted a stand of Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’ by the lower path that were shielding the planting below them. They have done better than I had thought, so half were tied in a topknot to make them easier to move and then staggered through the beds where I need this accent and volume for late summer and then winter. I left them standing to check how they marched and jumped through the planting to bring it together. Now is the time to move grasses, for they engage fully with dormancy early in autumn and with life in root activity in early spring. Being late season grasses, I have placed the panicum where they will not be overshadowed too early by their neighbours. The two year old plants were a handful to heave, but with a sturdy root ball they will not look back. With spring now on our side, the timing should be perfect.
I have not planted bulbs yet, or not as many as I am ultimately planning for once I have more maturity in the planting. I will keep them in groups under the trees and shrubs where their early season presence can be allowed for. Planted too extensively amongst the perennials and I would have to cut the garden back sooner, at least two weeks earlier, so as to not trample their emerging shoots. As the willow catkins are my litmus, I will let them determine the date that the skeletons are cleared and not be driven by the march of bulbs. That said, there will be exceptions. I have a tray of potted Camassia leichtlinii ssp. suksdorfii ‘Electra’ that were impossible to plant in the autumn when the garden was still standing. They will find a home where I have lost deschampsia to voles. This is the second year running that their homes have undermined this layer in the planting and it feels more appropriate to bend and change direction.
The new start with a clean palette reveals a gap in this new garden. One that, with time to get to know the new planting, I can now plan for. Early pulmonarias are already bridging the space beween the winter skeletons and the real beginning of spring. I have planned for more P. ‘Blue Ensign’ so that it’s gentian blue flowers can hover under the willows. Shade tolerant ephemerals such as Cardamine quinquefolia and Anemone nemorosa will also be useful to weave amongst later clumping perennials that can take a little well-behaved company in the spring whilst they are still just awakening. The layering will be important as I get to know more and, in turn, become more demanding.
Words: Dan Pearson / Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 2 March 2019