I have just cleared the remains of last year’s growth from the planting around the tin barns (main image). What has not stood the test of the winter westerlies is scattered now, the new rosettes pushing away amongst the tatters. The old stems pull with a satisfying snap and where they resist they are cut to the very base to avoid the sharpened stubs which can catch you out when weeding. Underneath, and vital with spring energy, are the beginnings of new life; a scatter and patterning of seedlings that have found their way and are already asserting their own direction.
What to weed and what to save will be the making of this area come summer. I have deliberately planted the gravel around the barns with a mix of reliably clump-forming perennials, and set amongst them a few wild cards in the form of the self-seeders. The perennials are the bones and will stay put to provide the structure whilst the short-lived perennials and biennials, such as the Verbascum phoeniceum ‘Violetta’, are the colonisers that make it their business to find their niche and so give the area a lived-in look that very quickly feels established.
The seeders are part of an experiment, and with any experiment you have to accept both successes and failures. The Erigeron annuus is a beautiful thing in it’s finely-rayed profusion, but they have already proven themselves to be dangerous in this position and will be winkled out now to avoid trouble later. Two plants from the summer before last have already thrown down a multitude of seedlings in any open space that isn’t already taken. I am put in mind of a project I am working on in Shanghai, where they were billowing on the newly turned ground like flotsam and jetsam. They were the pioneers there, the equivalent of fireweed or milk thistle here, and they show no sign of altering their habits. If I were to leave them their apparently light frame would double, treble and bolt to ultimately overwhelm their neighbours.
This might not be the case in another part of the garden, for the crushed concrete that I have used to mulch the bare ground is proving itself to be the perfect seed bed. This is not an issue with those plants that are better behaved. For instance, I would like the crimson Dianthus cruentus to be more prolific in its habits, but it is clear that it likes to live on the edge of a colony of other plants with light and air around it’s basal rosette. Other seedlings have already left the parent behind as their reach has extended into the gravel. A rash of the blue-flowered annual Cephalaria transylvanica has rained beyond last year’s colony and is showing why you only find it listed as an Eastern European arable weed. The difference between a weed and garden plant is made in just half an hour thinning the seedlings so that they do not overpower their neighbours and create the space that will allow the flowers to dance.
Orlaya grandiflora, the biennial Bupleurum falcatum and the progeny of last year’s Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ will be given the same treatment, measuring as I weed to leave just enough of each to give the desired effect. It takes time to recognise the tiny seedlings when they first emerge, but once you get your eye in they always have something of the character of the mature plant; the tiny bupleurum seedlings with their lime green cotyledons, almost the exact colour of the umbels, and the fleshy Lunaria annua ‘Corfu Blue’, the first true leaf exactly like that of the parent.
It has taken a few years to build the confidence to be so ruthless this early in the season. Too many years misjudging the reach of an apparently harmless rash of Eschscholzia californica seedlings, or a Shirley poppy that didn’t look like it was going to put a dent in the lavender and then did, have taught me my lessons. As you are weeding you have to imagine the scale and bulk of the mature plant and leave a bigger gap than you might like this early. A second pass in two or three weeks time allows room for manoeuvre, so that you can rectify any overcrowding. My third pass is when everything is perfect and just about to lift off in early June. It might leave an uncomfortable gap as you pull the fleshy growth from its hard-won foothold, but to keep the balance takes a little bravery.