After months of sheltering inside, wrapped in layers of wool, the garden finally called to me last month and with a few days of glorious sunshine forecast, I dragged myself outside. The cutting garden has been sadly neglected over winter – weeds have popped up everywhere and spent annuals, without enough cold weather to fully kill them, had flopped, no longer flowering and barely clinging to their foliage.
Unsure of where to start I went for the dahlia beds. They are empty at this time of year, abandoned when I lifted the tubers in November, slowly being colonised by couch grass and dandelions. The latter enrage me – no matter how far I dig down, I rarely manage to get the whole root, snapping off the bottom to regrow with long, blanched leaves that are even trickier to remove. One day I shall resort to painstakingly painting weedkiller onto each plant, but for now I dig and I hope. Couch grass however, I am addicted to. There’s something enormously satisfying about the removal of this garden pest – gently forking up the loose, crumbly loam and pulling long strings of the rhizomes. The more I work the soil the easier removal gets, and it’s like treasure hunting. Except here the reward isn’t gold coins or gems, it’s clear beds and obstruction-free planting. It’s just as well that couch digging is a favoured pasttime of mine, as it encroaches onto the garden from all sides – wiggling its way under the fences when my back is turned. It will always return, and I will always remove it. We have reached a truce.
When the dahlia beds are completed the real work starts – I head for the shade bed at the bottom of the garden, where I plant anything shade tolerant, including hellebores, foxgloves and all manner of spring bulbs. This is a rather tricky area to deal with – a mecca for dandelions and buttercups, but hard to navigate in size 8 wellies. I live in fear of snapping off an emerging bud or stem, but any earlier in the season I risk digging up dormant plants, and any later the forget me nots and lily of the valley will have taken over and even the dainty footed would struggle.
A similar story takes place in the perennial beds at the top of the garden, and once they’re done I reward myself with the relative ease of the terrace border and annual beds – both barely a foot wide and easy to get a fork into.
I can plant now. Snowdrops in the green, cyclamen, nerines, irises and hellebores – all liberated from congested patches of my mother in law’s garden. Many were to be found under a particularly low growing cedar that shed its spikey, dead leaves down the back of neck and in my hair. Worth it for the prize. It’s a good time for potting on too. My rosemary, sedum and hydrangea cuttings from last summer have rooted well and can be potted up now without bothering them too much – they seem mostly dormant until the sun arrives in early spring. Dusty miller plantlets, with only a couple of sets of leaves, are popped into their own 2” pots and any foxgloves that have sown themselves in planters can be moved to a better spot.
This year I’ve discovered a flush of primrose seedlings in a border and some self seeded aquilegia in the greenhouse – lifting them may be tricky as they’ve managed to grow through 4” of gravel and a weed proof membrane – but I’ll try my best. I can never throw away an aquilegia, the thrill of discovering how each new plant is too great. They interbreed so exuberantly that it’s impossible to know what they’re going to look like – from single white flowers to tightly curled and so purple they almost look black.
The terrace, the garden store and the greenhouse invariably become disaster zones while all this happens. There’s soil and pots everywhere, plant labels, discovered half buried from previous years, are strewn around and handfuls of weeds never quite make it to the compost bin. There are treasure in this chaos though, for my three year old helper – a rogue plastic dinosaur, a polka dot spoon from a tea set, leaf skeletons, pegs and the occasional shard of old pottery. She has discovered a love of sweeping too, and follows me around with a dustpan and brush, fighting the dirt.
Eventually, order will return. Pots will be counted and stacked. Broken ones recycled, spare ones freecycled. The mulch will be put down and the new weeds smothered. I’ll edge the borders and mark out the vegetable beds for direct sown beans, carrots and beets.
It’s a wonderful time of year. The potential is budding up everywhere we look - it’s going to be beautiful!
p.s. I’m also busy packing up Dahlia tubers at the moment - we still have a few varieties in the shop so snap them up quick if you're keen to start a cutting garden of your own!