I can’t decide whether I like forsythia, despite the fact that it will grow in any fertile soil and is almost maintenance free. On the one hand, it is a welcome sight in early spring; but on the other, it looks like an untidy yellow blob. I once visited a National Collection of Forsythia species and hybrids, and I have to admit that it did not prove to be one of the more exciting days of my life. Although I did come away feeling that the good and trusted F. x intermedia was the best of the bunch, for the simple reason that it was a prolific flowerer, the flowers themselves being of a bright and cheerful yellow. I noted Golden Nugget as being particularly showy, too.
But by the end of April, the forsythia’s show is over, and it can be pruned as soon as the flowers have faded. This is not necessarily an annual ritual you really only need to do so if it has outgrown its space; the pruning results in more vigorous than usual growth which will bear next spring’s flowers. One reason for my resenting this shrub is because it gives little after its brief moment of glory; it sits there sulking all summer covered with quite boring leaves. Forsythia is, therefore, perfect to be draped in the flowers of a not too rampant climber planted nearby such as the reliable Clematis Nelly Moser or other summer flowering clematis that will give the poor old forsythia some life and soul in summer.
The hydrangeas, those indispensable plants for late summer, are rare among flowering shrubs owing to the great length of time their flowers remain in good condition, during August and September. If you introduce one to your garden, try to give it a dampish place: the Greek for water is hydor, from which this genus derived its name. They will grow in drier soils, but they tend to become straggly in such places and produce smaller flowers. This is the time of year to cut them back, an easy task that is more comfortable to execute kneeling on one of those lightweight foam cushions that otherwise can easily be strapped to your belt. The thing to do is to dead head the old flowers, cutting just above the first pair of healthy shoots, cutting out thinner, weaker or crowded shoots at soil level. It’s as easy as that.
Resourceful gardeners collect rusty detritus from the soil as they dig. After a while, a healthy collection of old nails, hinges and the like will be accumulated, perfect additions to alkaline soils if you want your pink hydrangeas to take on a blue hue. This was the old fashioned way, before the likes of Sequestrene plant food arrived on the shelves. Hydrangeas are perfect choices for cold, north facing aspects, not forgetting that indispensable climber, Hydrangea petiolaris, for sunless walls. Having grown a fair many different kinds, I think that H. arborescens Annabelle, with white flowers that sometimes later turn green, is one of the best. However, she can outgrow her allotted space and is capable of growing 8ft tall and wide, so ruthless hard pruning in spring is advantageous.
The threat of a hot and dry summer looms and we must think ahead of water. Installing an automatic watering system makes a lot of sense when it comes to new plantings, especially freshly planted borders and hedges. For the former, you can reduce water evaporation and wastage in the border by placing ‘drippers’ near plant roots, as opposed to ‘sprinklers’ which broadcast water from on high; and for the latter, you can always bury a ‘soak hose’, consisting of a porous pipe, again near the roots, perhaps under a thick mulch.
I have a chum who installs watering systems for a living, and he has told me of various things to look out for. He suggests leaving an extra length of pipe at the tap end of the hose when the system is being installed, because after a few years, the pipe tends to shrink, and it is a fiddly chore to put right. A computer operated system which switches the water on and off according to a timer is a good investment and saves water wastage. And because the nozzles at the end of the smaller pipes tend to fur up with use (tap water tends to be alkaline), you should be prepared to have to change them every year in the spring.