The country in lockdown , the older generation , myself included are cocooning , panic buying in the shops , toilet paper at a premium … the majority of people out of work and in lock down , keeping each other at two metres distant when venturing outside , normal life today is like looking at an apocalyptic movie and who could have predicted the effect the corona virus would have and will the world , our world ever be the same again and of course it will , patience is the thing and those of us with gardens will have them pampered like poodles with so much time to spend on them !
With all this enforced time on my hands I have managed to get around to sculpting all the golden willows back to a single stem or if the tree is very large to a series of stems and this is transforming the way the garden looks as it shows off the golden branches to best effect .
Normally March is the month in the garden when we begin to believe winter is on the way out , the magnolias are in bloom and the smell of new mown grass is everywhere and although the daily advance of the corona virus as I write leaves little room for optimism throughout the country however I believe a garden can and is a place of refuge , calm and hope .
The evenings are getting long in March and I find that last hour before sunset in March before the clocks go forward where you can tweak a little extra time outside is the most productive time of the day and I seem to get more organised , not to continue any project but just to walk around the garden at leisure and either prune the odd branch or dig out any self sown plants such as the vincas and lamium which I then pop straight back into the ground in another location .
Last week I chanced on a heap of frog spawn in the Lower Field which was fresh and obviously dropped by a pregnant frog who couldn’t manage to get to water in time , I was able to scoop it up and carried it to our back garden pond where it should produce healthy tad poles who will then turn into tiny frogs and fan out into the garden … frogs live for up to 12 years, and every spring they emerge from hibernation to mate and lay eggs in the same pond. frogs generally return to their water of birth . In the old days gardeners myself included regularly scooped out frog spawn from it’s original water and transferred it around in buckets but it has been illegal for some years to collect frog spawn and this is a rule I always keep as nature has been interfered with too much and frog spawn has been declining for many years . It has only happened to me once before in over 40 years of gardening that I found spawn in open ground away from water and you have to feel sorry for the female frog caught out like this but at least we were able to give her babies a good home .
As March is the frog spawning season the Irish Wildlife Trust issued the following advice this month “ Please don’t touch it, it’s terribly vulnerable stuff. They produce masses and masses of eggs but that’s because many of them will die. This is something that depends on our help and depends on not interferring in any way and to leave them alone as much as possible.”
Snezana won a shrub in this month’s Clonmel Garden Club raffle and we choose a pink variegated Phormium , a variety which is described as growing about one metre high . Of all my best loved evergreen shrubs the phormium is my favourite and up to the bad winter of 2010 it was my go to shrub for all new borders but since the huge losses of phormiums all over Ireland in that catastrophic eight week frost of overnight minus six degree temperatures , I like a lot of gardeners decided not to grow it anymore apart from the odd phormium which had survived the frozen period in our gardens … I still remember the loss of a three metre high purple specimen . Also here the deer love phormiums and regularly mess up two of ours that are on their midnight run through the garden but thankfully they ignore some other specimens and gardeners are always creatures of hope and last night was no exception so we couldn’t resist acquiring another phormium !
As gardeners we all like to preach right plant right place but do we always practice it or do we continue to cram something into an area we love on the principle it will be grand … guilty m’lord and this week it I had to deal with the problem twice where I planted the wrong shrub / small tree in the wrong place , the first being a supposedly low growing hebe which I planted in the wooden planters in the front patio garden six years ago and which was planned to fill a space about two foot square and the second was a standard Japanese maple . The hebe grew and grew and was heading to three metres which would normally be great if in a border or even as a stand alone shrub but in the wooden planter it looked totally out of proportion and Snezana has been on at me to prune it back for over two years which I resisted as I didn’t and still don’t know how the hebe will react to a severe cutting into bare wood but yesterday even I had to throw in the towel and admit the hebe looked out of proportion and all wrong towering over the small planter so I whacked into it with the saw and cut it down to two feet high . I have seen huge hebes grow back again from the base after being cut down with a hard frost and at least this is the best month to heavy prune so will wait and see .
The hebe owes us nothing having self seeded prolifically into the gravel areas every year and we have loads of replacements potted up if the mother plant pops its clogs … mind you when I see the photo below from 2015 and how good it looks I am having second and third thoughts and am thinking I should have taken a bit off every year instead of this drastic car crash of a pruning .
I have written quite a bit thus winter on pruning , when is the best time , how drastic a cut and basically you just need to know that apart from one exception … and there is always one … the lavender cannot be cut back into bare wood , ever , as it just won’t grow again from that stem … everything else you can whack away at if like me with the hebe you just let the shrub grow too big in the wrong location or you just want the shrub to conform to a nice shape which is not a good enough reason in my book unless you have a partner who just hates an unruly looking shrub as when Snezana wanted me to shape the viburnum tinus in the front garden at the wrong time of the year for this particular shrub , the worst that can happen by pruning hard at the wrong time of the year is that it won’t flower well the next year as can be seen from my photo of a viburnum tinus I cut into a rounded shape last summer which normally at this time of year should be covered in blooms but has only flowered on the branches I didn’t cut … contrast this with the viburnum in a pot down by the stream which was not pruned .
The wrong place acer is one I have tried in three different locations over the past five years barely surviving everywhere so this time it is going into the gravel area where dwarf acers are doing well and as with the hebe fingers crossed !
Colour in the Garden in March
Colour can be added to the garden by painting garden furniture
Even though we spend a lot of our free time in the garden both Snezana and I realised a few years ago that it would be better that we didn’t work together as a team at gardening as we couldn’t agree on a lot of things such as spraying for weeds or the need for actually weeding at all as she is now a certified tree hugger on environmental issues and while I have a list of priorities every day of what needs to be done and then work through these methodically , an approach she regards as too restrictive and nerdy while she prefers a less organised approach where she can break off a task mid stream and go back to it days or weeks later which I regard as totally chaotic … you get the picture we drive each other nuts in the garden !
Basically there is room in the garden for both of us and for our different approaches and while I get on with the everyday sometimes boring work of the kind of maintenance a garden of almost eight acres needs she can seek out the areas I don’t do and creates projects from forgotten or neglected areas of the garden . Her latest project is to tackle an area underneath a large oak tree which over the years I have strimmed on a once a year basis and left it at that with the result that the ground area is overgrown with ivy and a lot of brambles until its annual trim . When Snezana has decided on a project she works hard at it and this one is no exception as she has slowly cleared most of the area to reveal a lovely space but of course the ivy does not give up easily and it will take a while to thoroughly clean all the roots before we can decided on what to do with the new space … it is at this stage that we work as a team as I am called in to suggest planting possibilities and this site will be a challenge as apart from being north facing it is in deep shade from April to December with the oak tree in leaf so not a lot of choice but lamium or dead nettle , lamium Chablis which has a pretty flower , vincas , geranium , hellebores or even the dwarf viburnum tinus variety Evelyn Price will grow in these conditions however I will only suggest possible plants and it will be Snezana’s choice of plants .
Back in the day when I started out in gardening it was all the rage for garden magazines and books to periodically carry articles along the line My Five Best Garden Trees usually from UK gardening writers who always seemed to include the snowy amelanchier and who probably had perfect soil in Kent and possibly a walled garden , in other words perfect planting conditions unlike the rest of us who had marly clayey soil along with wet and windy locations and now after a life time of experience I am wary of such claims and most of my new trees and shrubs are ones I have had good success with .
I was reminded of these best five trees article today when Snezana called me over to a secluded area of the lower garden where I normally just go with the ride on mower and generally leave to it’s own devices otherwise … apart from using this corner as an area for trees that never thrived for me and have lost their will to live so I stick them in here and forget about them , if they die they die … her question was what is this tree and yes it was a Snowy Amelanchier , beloved of all garden writers twenty years ago among them my own favourite garden writer , Dan Pearson , who choose it as one of his Five Best Trees for Small Gardens … well Dan I have never seen a good amelanchier and mine carries about five flowers every April , never grows an extra leaf and looks drab and useless so it is in my hospital ward where it lingers on unloved and unnoticed until Snezana saw it today .
OK smart arse I can hear you say what Five Best Trees would you select … silver birch is top of my list followed by the golden willow , the mountain ash sorbus moonbeam , the fake pear , pyrus lacicifolia and finally the lime tree , tilia cordata with the common ash as back up and all these are pretty tolerant of soil and windy sites with either gorgeous leaves or striking bark colour although very wet soil will not do .
That said however my list changes every season but the one tree that is a constant on my list for all seasons is the silver birch and the variety would be jacquemontii which is easily sourced in the garden centre but there are over 55 varieties available with the main difference being the colour of the bark ranging from white to a pink hue , you can also go for the native irish variety which is cheaper and you can get it as small whips so it is good value , still a lovely tree but not as white as the jacquemontii variety but possibly a stronger grower and a good strong structure . Silver birch looks best when grown in groups and is particularly striking in winter .
Normally I try to title the latest article with a jokey reference to something in the current blog but this one is no joke as the corona virus has changed our way of life everywhere . Naturally visiting gardens in large numbers is a no no during the current crisis but still we each can get out in nature albeit in a solitary way and I am sure it will act as an antidote and stress reliever to the social distancing we all have to practice for the coming weeks and months .
Keep safe .