Spring into action and get your borders in order

Whether you’re a messy or a tidy-minded gardener, it’s time for a clean up and perhaps a complete rethink of your flower border

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 01:00

There are two kinds of gardeners in this world: the naturally tidy and the naturally messy. The latter are known by the trail of discarded tools, plant pots and half-used bags of compost they leave in their wake, like so much horticultural flotsam and jetsam. They leave laden wheelbarrows to fill with rain so the contents slowly transmogrify into a foul-smelling ooze, mislay expensive Felco secateurs by the dozen, and trip across the patio in muddy boots.

If a messy gardener has been using the hose, you’ll find it in a knotted tangle, connectors missing, the spray nozzle discarded and chewed by the dog.

If he/she has decided to indulge in a spot of pruning (which they never get around to finishing), you’ll know it by the branches left strewn on the ground until someone else (inevitably a tidy-minded gardener) cleans up the mess. I know all this because I was that messy gardener, before three years as a student at the National Botanic Gardens knocked it out of me.

These days I rather like a tidy garden, and the ritual of the annual spring clean that begins each March with a proper overhaul of the mixed perennial border. First to go are weeds. Get them out now, while they’re visible and before plants burst into new growth.

For precision hand-weeding, I use a long, narrow hand-tool known as a daisy grubber, which has an angled blade like the forked tongue of a snake. It’s perfect for levering out stubborn taproots of dock or dandelions, as well as buttercups (and, of course, daisies).

Weeds like scutch grass or ground elder are much trickier to remove. Where a flowering plant’s root system is badly infested, it’s better to get rid of it. If it’s a plant you love dearly, then take a few small, weed-free divisions and grow them on in pots to replant the following autumn or spring.

Next comes pruning. Use a sharp secateurs to remove dead growth from herbaceous perennials and deciduous grasses, cutting low to the ground. Cut away faded seed-heads and damaged foliage, and remove dead leaves from around the base of the plant to expose slugs or snails. Use a spring-tined rake to comb through the foliage of evergreen grasses.

Now do a mental spring clean of your flower border. Which plants have consistently underperformed? Be ruthless and dig them out. Which summer-flowering perennials have over-performed, spreading beyond their allotted space? Now is a good time to divide them.

Start by lifting the plant gently with a garden fork; if it’s fibrous rooted, you should be able to pull it apart into smaller sections. If the roots are fleshy, use a sharp knife. If they’re woody, use a spade or a saw. Replant these sections as required, and as quickly as possible, keeping in mind that repetition in a flower border is key to its success.

With perennial ornamental grasses, remember that some (stipa, calamagrostis, hakonechloa, carex, deschampsia, molinia) should be divided soon, before they burst into new growth. But others (miscanthus, cortaderia, panicum, imperata) prefer to be divided in late spring.

Back to that mental spring-clean. If you are the sort of tidy gardener who has always lovingly maintained your border, then it’s already in good shape. But does it need rejuvenation of a different sort? Does it (and this is an easy trap to fall into, especially if you are a tidy-minded gardener) possibly look a little dated?

Modern borders have a fluid, airy, transparent quality their 20th century predecessors sorely lacked. Plants are mingled rather than grown in defined groups, while the once-strictly observed hierarchy of height (shortest to the front, tallest to the back) is no longer the rule. If the answer is yes, then remove that invisible strait jacket and let your flower borders live a little.

Introduce height, but not bulk, in the shape of gauzy, see-through plants such as Stipa gigantea , Molinia ‘Transparent’, Dierama pulcherrimum, Knautia macedonica, Thalictrum lucidum, varieties of sanguisorba, Verbena bonariensis and V erbena hastata . Plant some decorative self-seeders too such as Hesperis matronalis, Meconopsis cambrica, teasels a nd astrantia , all of which will weave their way through the border to create a sense of continuity. Even go a little Dr Zeuss-ish and plant a few giant tree lily bulbs. Finish off by covering bare soil with an inch-thick mulch of homemade garden compost and a sprinkle of dried seaweed.

Just please don’t walk it into the house . . .

Free seeds for schools
Fruithill Farm, the West Cork-based online garden supplier, is celebrating 20 years in business by giving away €2,000 worth of free seeds to Irish school gardens. see organicfarmandgardensupplies.ie for details. March 17th is the closing date for entries.

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