Most gardening books say you should live with a new garden for a full year before making changes. Until you’ve seen the garden in every season you won’t know exactly what you’ve got. It’s good advice as far as it goes, but frustrating when you want to get going on re-designing and replanting.
Plants take time to establish – particularly trees and shrubs. A year of doing nothing is a year added to the time you have to wait for trees to become more than sticks; shrubs more than a foot tall – another year before you’ll be picking apples, plums, pears; another year away from getting privacy from neighbours, from screening an ugly view, or providing shelter from a prevailing wind. It may be good advice, but in practice, it’s advice most of us won’t follow.
Late winter/early spring is when most bulbs begin to show themselves. In our new garden we’ve been delighted to see clumps of snowdrops (Galanthus) appearing. Had we been able to start rebuilding the garden in the autumn we wouldn’t have known they were there. But there again, if you dig carefully you should notice even small bulbs like snowdrops in the soil. Even if you’re not able to identify them, you can always pop them into a spare corner and see what they turn into.
This is just one of the advantages of creating a garden yourself, rather than employing landscape contractors, who are unlikely to have the time or the inclination to go to the trouble. When you re-build and re-plant a garden yourself it tends to be a transitional process. If you intend to re-use materials like paving slabs and gravel, you need somewhere to pile them up until you’re ready to re-use them. For plants, you need a nursery bed – a clear area of soil that can provide a temporary home for plants that need to be moved, but which you don’t have a permanent position for just yet. As we’re preparing and marking out the new design we can move the snowdrops, along with daffodils, tulips, etc. into the nursery bed, where they can stay until we can find permanent positions for them.
But what else to keep? Deciduous shrubs are not always easy to identify without their leaves, and many perennials have nothing at all showing above ground at this time of year, which means they can be easily missed. But unless the previous owners were exceptionally tidy, there’s usually some dead material from last year’s growth hanging around to give you a clue.
Evergreens, of course, are easy, as they still have their leaves. Rhododendrons are not my favourite plants, particularly as they struggle in most gardens (unless you happen to have moist, acid soil with lots of organic material in it). But this one is showing lots of juicy flower buds, so I’m sure we can find somewhere for it. At the moment it’s in a slate-mulched island bed, but our new design has this area as a mini orchard, with wildflower meadow. So it can go into the nursery bed for now. Along with…
This evergreen Euonymus (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald & Gold’?) may need to be moved too. They make good space fillers, brightening up dark areas even in winter. You can see it’s reverted in places, producing solid green leaves rather than variegated. This will need to be cut out. And…
I’ll cut this rose right back before digging it out with as much of the roots as I can. I think it’s a yellow variety, and has been very healthy (though as you’d expect, it’s been hit by the weather recently). With little sign of rose black spot, it’s definitely worth hanging on to.
There’s more in the garden than it would appear at first glance, such as this large patch of Lithadora (probably ‘Heavenly Blue’), a plant that didn’t want to know in our last garden, but which has beautiful, vibrant, true blue flowers – a real asset to a garden.
I’m happy to see that foxgloves (Digitalis) seem happy to self-seed freely all over the garden. These free plants will come in useful for filling the gaps while the garden is getting established.
Starting work on a new garden can be difficult in the winter. So far we’ve been lucky with the weather. It’s been relatively mild, and often not too wet or too frosty to dig. But you never know at this time of year. If today is anything to go by we could might not be getting out there too often…
text & photos © Graham Wright 2020