A burning question

GARDENING MARY KEEN'S GARDEN SEASON BY SEASON WINTER
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The Independent Culture
THIS time of year is the gardener's limbo. Even stalwarts of the every-day-in-the-year garden admit that the flowers that are last to bloom get no help from their setting. Here, the late-flowering hardy chrysanthemums (now known as dendanthrema) invariably have their heads whirled off by the wind, or their faces splashed by the rain. "Anastasia", with small mauvey pink button heads, fared better than "Emperor of China", which has a more open flower. The late flowers are only worth growing in a dry autumn, but it always seems worth a try. This year they were hopeless. But if I give the space to summer flowers next year will I wish I hadn't?

There is still a legacy of sodden leaves. Like the litter that gets trapped between the stems of prickly vandal-proof shrubs in urban landscapes, they lodge themselves in the heart of the hellebores. This makes me very gloomy. Even crisp packets would be easier to remove and at least they would not be suffocating the host leaves in a wet, botrytis-producing embrace. Every year we cut the blackened leaves of the hellebores to defeat the fungus. I suspect damp litter from the trees is one cause of botrytis among the best of winter flowers.

Small leaves like beech are not the problem, it is the big ones like horse chestnut, Norway maple and lime. A huge cage is their final resting place. There we have optimistically assumed for the last two years that they will be transformed into leaf mould. The addition of mowings and proprietary compost rotters has done nothing to accelerate this transition. The leaves are living, soggy proof of the indestructibility of matter. The pile is now very high and rising, so that the wire stretched between the dustbin shed and the wall to restrain the contents is no longer in control. If they ever dry out, a sharp gust of wind from the south, I point out to my co-gardener, would blow them all over the yard. He remains optimistic and occasionally treads the rising pile like a huge vat of grapes.

Once they are safely caged, he plans to suffocate them with a layer of manure. I prefer to take barrow-loads of leaves, so wet that they can be forked off in table-sized wodges, to the bonfire - where they do not burn. In winter we clear one of the four vegetable plots and use that as a place to burn the summer prunings that have been stored under the hedge. They make a good foundation for a bonfire, but even a good fire that lasts through three days of rain cannot be persuaded to consume the chestnut leaves. In the country, bonfires are still acceptable. The potash is useful for putting on the raspberries and at dusk on a cold afternoon the sparks are beautiful. But this year we have had more cold than wet, and the leaf problem remains insurmountable.

A compost-shredder is probably the answer, but spending an afternoon feeding wet leaves into an ear-crushing machine is not appealing. We do have a leaf blower, which chews them up as it sucks them into a bag, but with wet leaves it cannot cope and that too is unacceptably noisy. As an experiment I am thinking of spreading the table-sized wodges between the raspberry canes, pinned under sheets of agricultural paper mulch. If it works, I will boast about it later. Meanwhile, if anyone out there has an easy method of turning large wet leaves into a useful garden product, please let me know.

Partly because of the leaves and partly because October was so lovely (flowers blooming, sun shining, birds singing) the garden went to bed late this year. Like the child who had too good a time at the party, it ended in tears. When the moment to clear up finally came, it was too wet to get on to the beds to cut them down. The price of an extra fortnight in October, I suspect, should be weighed against the spectacle of brown stems and undone pruning for a wet, cold month or so. Some people (Christopher Lloyd always advocates it) leave border-clearing until spring, when the skeletons of plants are easy to carry away, but in smaller gardens I think the look of a tidy flower bed, with a few evergreens, is easier on the eye. We usually do this in November and December, when the garden is not open to the public.

In the first year we opened the garden, the visitors were a bonus. The best ones sat on seats to draw or paint and stayed for hours. The worst were the other garden-openers, who came waving free entry passes and walked around fast, looking for rare plants. The saints far outnumbered the sinners: other gardeners' generosity is astounding. A grandmother from Devon sent Viridapicis snowdrops in a parcel, someone from Oxford spent half an hour discussing how to stop mice eating clematis, and a neighbour I had never met before returned the next day with choice Semper-vivums. Best of all were the people who came more than once; I'm looking forward to seeing them again. !

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