From guerilla gardening to perennials and spring

It must be a sign of the times, dear Reader, that I am going to inflict a website on you. Being rural and suffering from very slow dial-up (roll on unbundling), I am not a great web browser but when rain drove me indoors I clicked on www.guerrillagardening.org.

The site is fast and friendly and details the night time guerrilla gardening activities of an ever growing band of enthusiasts who are taking over neglected and unloved urban areas. The greatest effort is in London so far but it appears to be a growing movement. Even the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are reportedly trying to keep their sanity by growing plants from seeds saved from their meals.

It was interesting that the guerrilla gardeners were applying some sound principles. Get the soil right first, add compost and fertiliser. Choose appropriate plants for the environment (heavy reliance on lavender, hebes and cordylines in their London locations – interesting to see two New Zealand natives as backbone plantings). Enlist the support of local residents to take ownership of the new gardens but also carry out some ongoing maintenance. These are not quick fix, plant it and leave it activities.

My correspondent who sent the website reference thought it had some potential at home. Being of a subversive nature, he nominated a prime spot in New Plymouth which I thought might send shudders up the spine of our District Council. I think that our council might regard guerrilla gardening as incompatible with its mantra of Sensational Service – we might put in the wrong plants, dear heart.

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And in the garden, I have been practicing what I preached in my last column and taking apart the perennials and replanting my rose garden. When I thought about it, this was the first area I took charge of in this garden well over ten years ago. I gutted the whole area then and replanted from scratch. Since then, I have pruned the roses and other shrubs, replanted in gaps and carried out general maintenance but not done any intensive gardening as such., or even analysed the area closely. And I was a bit shocked at how many ordinary filler plants I was depending on to make the garden look well furnished. There really is a limit as to how much self seeded clematis (a big blue flowered form) and francoa (bridal veil plant) looks good. And I have learned so much more over the last decade about plant combinations, about selecting suitable candidates for different conditions, differing plants’ requirements, habits and size as opposed to just filling spaces and relying on the big picture.

Essentially this area is a cottage garden – a frothy mix of pretty roses, flowering perennials and self seeded annuals (mostly pansies, nigella and linaria). It is set within a formal design and additional structure is added by some clipped and shaped miniature camellias but the effect I aim for is pretty froth within that formality. When I first did it, I culled out all oranges, reds and yellows. My aim was to have a planned colour scheme of pinks and blues and all related hues. Over the years, a few lemons and yellows have crept back in. The pinks and blues were pretty but it all felt a bit vapid until I brought back in some touches of lemon to add some vitality from the other side of the colour wheel.

Now I just have to wait until spring to see the fruits of my labours and judge how effective my efforts have been. Only time will tell if I have been too ruthless on my dividing regime and whether my combinations work. Such is the promise of gardening. It all looks rather bare at the moment but we will follow up now with a top dressing of blood and bone and mulching with compost to keep the poor little plants cosy while they rest over winter.

While I have been labouring in the gardening (I am no speedster), Mark has been watching the daytime gardening shows on the Living Channel – he does not suffer from my Puritan thinking that watching TV during daylight hours is somehow shameful. The programme on English country gardens must be several years old now (the host, Rosemary Verey of Barnhaven fame, died a few years ago). He relays the gems of wisdom to me in the garden. And she confirmed what we had decided long ago ourselves, that one should avoid repeated use of the same plants throughout the garden. Certainly this is true in a large garden. Those on small city sections might subscribe to the view that repeating the use of key plants gives continuity and I will readily admit that we have little experience in small gardens. But it is different in large gardens. The descriptor of a “rambling country garden” has never been particularly complimentary and I think derives from a failure to give a garden form and changes of moods so that it just seems to ramble on. Repeating the same plants throughout adds to this failure to define different areas.

So avoid the temptation to use up all the bits of spare plants when you are dividing large clumps by finding new spaces for them elsewhere. Odds on, if it multiplies readily and you have masses of it, by definition it is not particularly choice. And while all large gardens need some fillers, it is better to chose different combinations of fillers for different areas.

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Spring must be just around the corner. We noticed the first flowers opening on Magnolia campbellii in town last week. As soon as the magnolias open, winter seems to be about to wane. Except, in this case, winter does not seem to have started properly yet.

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I was given a freebie pair of cheap secateurs at a conference recently. I am a sucker for giveaways but the packaging on these Chinese shears gave me much amusement. It mentioned the spring action and the safety blade lock and then added: “Great for fishing.” Pardon? What was that again? I do not go fishing but for the life of me I can not see why those who do might need to take a pair of secateurs with them. Should I ever feel the desire to go fishing, I think I would prefer a thermos or hipflask to secateurs as desirable equipment.

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