Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Best Day of the Gardening Year

There is a day (usually some time in February) when I take a sandwich outside and sit in the low winter sunlight. This sandwich is called the Hope of Summer Sandwich. I could give you a recipe for it, but I am no Nigella Lawson and in any case, the filling can be whatever we fancy, as long as salad is involved. Chocolate spread has never been included in the Hope of Summer Sandwich. I understand that this might appear to be a shocking omission for a chocoholic, but I am not crazy about chocolate spread and in any case, we must consider the salad element (even my relatively untrained tastebuds recognise that tomatoes do nothing for chocolate spread). 

Crocus tommasinianus
You may quite rightly be thinking that I should stop all these thoughts of bread and get out more. I agree, but I have had a brief spell in hospital and have been stuck indoors since late October. Consequently there has been plenty of time to think about food and not much time to garden, so the gardening to-do list is lengthening by the second and I may be ready for winter some time next spring. Instead of being tucked up in fertile soil, bulbs are strewn across my rather less than fertile office floor and the heating is turned down in a vain attempt to keep the bulbs happy until I am finished with the whole convalescing malarkey. As you can imagine, preserving the bulbs is playing havoc with my typing speed as my fingers are fair freezing to the keyboard - something which will not be happening when I tuck into my Hope of Summer Sandwich.

Helleborus x hybridus
The Hope of Summer Sandwich is significant because it is eaten on my very favourite day in the gardening year: the first day it is sunny enough to sit outside and perhaps even justify accessorising my lunch attire with a pair of sunglasses. It is a day which fills me with hope that summer will return and I will eventually warm through to the marrow, throw off my thermals and barbecue some corn on the cob. Even better, if it is windless and sunny enough for me to eat al fresco, there is a chance that I might be joined for lunch by an early bee.  

There are many contenders for the best day of the gardening year. Switching on the propagator should rightly be accompanied by a fanfare, champagne and a party until dawn. The first snowdrop nudging through the soil is certainly cause for a giant bar of chocolate; and the completion of just about any gardening task really ought to be celebrated with a hot coffee and a jolly good sit down. But it is that first sunny lunch time which is my favourite. It seems a little inadequate to celebrate it with a sandwich (especially as I am a coeliac and gluten-free bread is rarely delightful) but it is a decades-old tradition and it wouldn’t be right to upgrade it to something more upmarket.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'
Of course, if you live in a place where winter isn't very cold, Hope of Summer Sandwich day is not going to take priority in your gardening year. Perhaps you like the cold and the first frost of winter is a cause for celebration, but for me, much as I love the heat of summer, Hope of Summer Sandwich day is more of a cause for celebration than summer itself. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Evolving Gardeners

Anyone who has ever caught a tube train in London will know that even if there is barely a square inch of floor showing in a carriage, some twinkle-toed commuter will pop their feet onto it and we will all squeeze a little closer to accommodate those parts of their body which are broader than their little toe, because there is no such thing as a full tube train. In much the same way, there is no such thing as a full garden border. The plant lover will always find room to squeeze in one more must-have plant which has leapt unbidden into the shopping trolley. I have the same problem with books. Thankfully, the introduction of e-readers has alleviated the shelf space issues caused by my fiction habit, but when it comes to gardening books, I am old-school.

The trouble with gardening books, lovely though they are, is that gardening advice changes over time. Crocks in pots are now a thing of the past; tree planting holes have changed shape; and what was once a weed might now have developed into a deeply desired wildflower. One of the most significant changes in my lifetime is the way in which we put a garden to bed for winter. Once upon a time, I might have left leaves and stems only on borderline hardy plants as a means of protection during the colder months; now I leave the stems on all of the perennials. The closest I get to an autumn tidy is harvesting the leaves off lawns and paths for my favourite crop from the garden (at least, until I work out how to grow chocolate bars) - leafmould. 

For me, cutting back plant stems at this time of year is an opportunity lost. I care about the wildlife in my garden. Offering protection in the form of these stems is not a hardship for me, but it could mean the world to seed-eating birds or to minibeasts and (sadly for the little critters) those creatures further up the food chain who feed upon them. Before I took the decision to garden with wildlife in mind, I had started to leave a few seedheads in place, simply for the pleasure of their company over winter and to see them donning their frosty hats on a cold January morn. 

My favourite task in the garden is cutting back spent flower stems in spring. I don’t compost them immediately; I leave them stacked neatly for a few days to give any wildlife the opportunity to move on. In spring, plants may be already coming back into growth; certainly there is barely any time to wait until fresh foliage emerges and bulbs begin to bloom. I find cutting back in autumn depressing as the tidied-up plants will not be back in growth until next year. Cutting back in spring is exhilarating because we can see something new emerging; we have something to look forward to!

Cutting back in Spring
If you are thinking about cutting back your perennials now, why not try resisting the urge? Hang up the secateurs and do something filled with hope for a new season, like planting bulbs or sowing seeds. I understand that tidy gardeners might struggle with the idea of not cutting back, but placed in the right spot, perhaps with repetition further along the border, seedheads are structurally interesting and can make pleasing design sense. You never know, if you take a chance and leave the stems, a new seedhead design opportunity might present itself. When you cut back the plants in spring, you can seize the moment to divide, replant and create your new scheme. Then you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labours through summer, autumn and winter, while at the same time offering shelter to minibeasts; and it won't have cost you a penny.

I am linking this post with Wildlife Wednesday at  Why not pour yourself a drink and saunter over there to see some fabulous photos of the diverse wildlife to be found in gardens around our beautiful planet?