Shrubbery cull

I don’t much like having heavy machinery in the garden, but sometimes it is unavoidable. A good mini digger has saved us countless man hours in the transformation of an old, almost impenetrable shrubbery.

This ‘jungle’ predates our arrival at Bryan’s Ground, dating back to perhaps the 1950s or early 1960s. It must have been a joy in its youth a grass pass curving between flanks of cotinus, fragrant mahonia, honeysuckle, viburnum and philadelphus, all in the light shade of a spreading Crataegus x lavalleeii. This venerable thorn I assume to have been planted even earlier, at a time, probably, when this garden was first laid out, immediately before the First World War. It is an all seasons winner, and I lament its slow deterioration. However, some judicious surgery will lighten its load, admit sunshine to its remaining boughs, and ensure a graceful decline during its final years. The flowers are pure white, about three quarters of an inch across and look magnificent in May against the newly emerging dark green, glossy leaves.

The old shrubbery was beyond redemption. It was encroaching on the greenhouse and ancient sumachs were suckering for yards around, invading the raised beds in the neighbouring kitchen garden and playing host to thickets of bramble and seedling holly. Mindful of nesting birds, we took the tops off all the doomed shrubs long before Christmas, leaving the stumps for later. Enter the mini digger. It made light work of the roots, pulling them from the ground like rotten teeth from old gums.

I’m now left with an area about half the size of a tennis court, a space designated for a series of ‘trial’ and propagating beds. It is somewhere to nurture the countless newcomers I acquire, and there is space aplenty for raising extras from divided up perennials. The clearance has also given the greenhouse much more light and air, and it’s a doddle to take pots of winter and spring flowering bulbs outside to rest for the summer months.

This spring’s green-house show principally comprises daffodils, dwarf irises (Reticulata type), and muscari a sumptuous melange of blues and yellows that rebukes a succession of grey days and is a treat for eyes and nose alike. As the bulbs (hardy bulbs in almost all cases) would resent the greenhouse’s increasing humidity as the days warm up, they are taken from the greenhouse after flowering and allowed to die down naturally outside. Left to their own devices, but still fed with a liquid tomato fertiliser until the foliage begins to wither, they are better able to prepare themselves for the following season.

Bulbs that are destined to remain in their pots for another year need post-flowering attention of a similar kind, although my own preference is to dig the bulbs (daffodil bulbs, especially) when all signs of above ground life have disappeared, and store them in a cool, dry, mouse and squirrel free place until it’s time to start them into growth again in new compost at the end of summer. Be sure, however, to keep the label with the bulbs, for if you grow several varieties there’s little chance you’ll remember exactly what’s what in six months’ time.

Now is a good time to split many perennials, and my new beds are about ready to take the divisions. We open the garden for a few weekends, from mid-May to early July, and it is in the first few weeks of the emerging summer that our half acre orchard becomes a calm sea of blue Iris sibirica. Ideally, the fibrous rooted iris clumps are lifted and divided every three or four years, but somehow the strict regime is seldom achieved. But as we need to move several hundred of them to remodel the hornbeam cloisters around one of our pools, I am left with vast numbers of plants to sell to visitors. Iris sibirica is almost indestructible, so I roughly cleave chunks off the clumps with a sharp spade and pot them up in a mixture of garden soil and homemade compost. I will have plenty left to plant among the silver leafed willows that I’m placing around a pool in the arboretum. Their brief flowering is a joy, and their reed like foliage blends well with other waterside groupings.