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May – dealing with a gluttony of plants by Patrick Swan.

May is the make or break month for gardens.  I always said during my career as a Head Gardener that if we got behind at this time of year, we never caught up.  Ok, when I’m running twenty five acres of high maintenance garden, with a team of four, time pressures are high; but it can be a similar scenario in our gardens at home too.  

This is the time of year when ambitions and plans for the summer displays should be well under way.  Young plants need to have been potted on by now, vegetable plants should be taking root in the kitchen garden and the borders should be nicely settled “in place” as I call it, prepped and ready to roll.  This is whilst also taking care of the early spring flowering shrubs which will now need a prune and also looking forward, planning any work for the autumn.  So the last thing we need right now are unnecessary distractions or unplanned detours.   Two big contenders for this are dealing with the avalanche of weeds at this time of year, especially in paving, and also having enough space for all that we might want to grow in our gardens.  Two problems both about a gluttony of plants, one practical, another planning, which I’ve received questions about.

The presentation of paved surfaces in a garden is a subject all of its own, we wring our hands at great length over this in the National Trust.  However, the starting point is to put down the weeding tool, stand back, stop and think… what presentation or look are we actually after?   Squeaky clean or a bit more relaxed.  It comes down to what we call Spirit of Place.  For example, at somewhere like Waddesdon Manor, where it’s all high Victorian best behaviour and polished boots, the gravel is raked, weed free perfection to within an inch of its life.  But at Plas yn Rhiw, on the cliffs in north Wales, daisies, fern seedlings and other miniatures are positively encouraged to colonise between the cobbles, to add to the feel of a dreamy, laid back seaside retreat.  So not all plants in paving are bad, in fact pick up any decent Edwardian garden manual and it will wax lyrical about Thymes and other herbs to grow in your ever-so fashionable crazy paving.  So first of all stop and think; does your garden paving need to be the squeaky clean stand-by you-beds version; or will a degree of laisseiz faire actually add to the picture you’re trying to create; remembering that all plants have their delight.    A big consideration will also be the time and means you may have to deal with “weeds” in paving, especially as the days of chemical warfare in gardens are drawing to a close.  Non chemical ways to remove stubborn unwanted plants in paving are developing, but all will require some time & dedication.  First of all there are the various tools, angled and pointed metal gadgets designed to reach down into cracks & crevices between paving.  There are also narrow wire brush tools to deal with the Mother of All weed nightmares that is block paving.  These work quite well but be prepared for a painstaking task at first and if you suffer from weak or arthritic hands, maybe not for you.   The next option is to land your weeds in hot water.  Professional gardeners have access to hugely expensive steam generating weeding machines; at home you can simply (& carefully) pour boiling water from a kettle onto the cut root stump of a dandelion (or any perennial weed) which will cause its cell structure to burst.  Any weak regrowth can be re treated in the same way.  Further up the tech scale are flame gun weed burners, not as scary as they sound, we’re not talking mass apocalypse stuff here, just a simple small blow torch.  Aim the flame at the weed, just to shrivel, not combust, the foliage.  Then re-treat again in a couple of weeks.  As with all weeding, get to them before they seed… and eventually the seed bank in the ground will dry up and the problem will become less over time. 

Switching to the other issue at this time of year, there’s the abundance of ambition and plants that there isn’t always enough room for in your garden.  We gardeners are great at stretching our horizons and never more so than at this verdant time in May; a time that’s full of spring and dripping with the promise of summer.  We often try and squeeze more into our borders, and there’s nothing wrong with this, so long as we take a bit of care over what goes where.   Many people at the moment are gripped with a sense of Dig for Victory, and with food shopping becoming challenging and prices likely to increase this is a worthy ambition.  But if you have a small garden, is it possible to grow fruit & vegetables amongst your ornamentals?   Yes, is the simple answer.  They are all plants after all, and vegetable plants are in the main annuals.  So if you think of them as annuals then think how you would incorporate these into your garden.   They like a decent soil in good heart, plenty of sunshine for much of the day and plenty of water.  So if you have a suitable space for say annual Salvias or Marigolds, then it would be just as suitable for many vegetable plants too.  Just remember that they will grow and if pushed for space that something like a savoy cabbage takes up a lot of room, but salad crops, or dwarf French beans for example can be slotted in amongst border perennials just as easy as a patch of Antirrhinums.  Many vegetables have coloured leaf varieties and you can be as artistic as you want to be.    Vegetable potager gardens, all the rage in France two hundred years ago, can be just as pleasing to the eye as a flower display.  En masse vegetable bedding is a huge amount of work, you have to have gap fillers at the ready when you harvest your crops; but look at some potagers for inspiration on how vegetable crops can become as much a part of your garden as the flowers & shrubs. 

Patrick Swan.

Vegetable bedding at Dyffryn.

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