GARDENING / Bin there, dung that: Mary Keen's Garden Season by SeasoN: 7 WINTER

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The Independent Culture
ONE YEAR on in the new garden, and now none of the plants is a stranger.

Old gardeners' lore dictates that you wait for the seasons to reveal what is in the ground, and that is what we did. I also moved doubtful plants like the inherited lupins and daisies into reserve beds, only to discover when they flowered that I didn't want them. I wonder now if I would do the same again. Making a new garden is exhausting and there is no energy to spare on mistakes. Although the lupin error hardly counts when compared with the Compost Path Miscalculation, for which, I suppose, I was to blame.

In the last garden, our compost heaps were retained by railway sleepers which fell over a lot. This time we planned a better arrangement. Ready-made plastic bins can be bought, but they are just not the same as the wooden-framed ones that I have admired in other people's plots. Only the best heaps would do. Compared with stone steps and walls, the handmade bins were to prove expensive, but we decided to buy them for ourselves as an early Christmas present. We now own timber drop-sided bins, which hold about 100 square feet of compost, in the corner of the kitchen garden.

The two heaps stand at the top of a slight slope. It was steeper before we spent three days barrowing away half a century of dumped weeds and stones. At dusk, with brown string, we pegged out a site for a path to the bins which would be made from the discarded stones. But one weekend later, by the time the path was as good as made, it was clearly in the wrong place. The pathmaker showed tolerance and fortitude when asked to shift its course by a yard.

Pathmaking is high on our list of tasks, and a load of clay mixed with small stones (known as hoggin) was delivered before Christmas just in case anyone felt like working off the turkey. But icy weather made moving heaps of hoggin and stones a hopeless proposition. Instead, we walked through hoar frosts of feathery beauty and the new long path in the lower garden remains unsurfaced.

This one is my territory. It runs along the edge of the boundary wall where old bushes of lilac, philadelphus and an occasional laurel grow. These had not been pruned for years, so the path was impassable. In autumn, we spent long mornings cutting out the dead wood and the oldest stems from the shrubs, leaving a few tall arching branches. Now that the light has been let in, they ought to produce new shoots from the base. Cutting back all the stems, like a pudding basin hairstyle, is no good if you want bushes to grow loosely and naturally.

Hedges are different. One of the best features in our last garden was a double beech hedge down one side of the kitchen garden, which grew to eight feet in five years. Here, we had inherited a single overgrown hedge that had been allowed to grow to ten feet, and all the growth was bunched at the top, leaving the base bare and transparent. We tackled this quite differently from the lilac and philadelphus walk, beheading the bushes at about four feet. The bonfire was enormous. The job is not finished; we still have to cut back the sides and then clear out all the dead leaves and ivy. The last part of the restoration programme will mean more barrowing, as a lot of manure is needed to jolt the beeches into vigorous growth.

I sent the best secateurs (Felco) away just before Christmas to be sharpened and mended, once the worst of the pruning assault had been accomplished. Both pairs came back transformed in the first week of the new year. Felco secateurs are expensive, but they can be kept going for years by this efficient service: pounds 9.50 covered the repairs to both cutters, which are now as good as new, as well as postage and packing. Burton McCall, at 163 Parker Drive, Leicester LE4 0JP, will do the work if you post them the secateurs (explain what you want and include your telephone number).

There are compensations for all the heavy labour. The snowdrops that we planted last year are white and green already; they include a clump of a large unnamed form given to me as a garden- warming present by a new friend. One or two transplanted winter irises have flowered, the coum cyclamen are out and there are hellebores in fat bud. Visible, too, are seedlings from last year's annuals and biennials, which were newly introduced to the garden. The white variegated honesty looks as though it intends to stay, and the palest yellow evening primrose has thrown up a few seedlings in one corner of the 'gooseberry garden'. Limnanthes (or the poached egg flower) is growing in the gravel, and wild strawberries are all over the place. When plants start seeding themselves, new gardeners feel they have come home.

Best of all is a plant for which we can claim no credit. The single sprig of mistletoe, growing under one of the branches of an apple tree, looks as newly arrived as everything else in the garden, but was not introduced by us.

When we were house-hunting around the Severn estuary I longed to live among orchards of high cider-apple trees hung with bunches of mistletoe, but we did not find a house there that we could buy. I have tried to grow mistletoe in the past. You take a berry, the books say, smear it under the bark of an apple branch and it will grow. Not for me it didn't. The birds are supposed to put the mistletoe parasite on to trees, wiping their beaks to get rid of the sticky berry juice. Perhaps that is what happened here, or perhaps the previous owners were luckier at getting it to

take. However it arrived, the mistletoe seems a good omen for the new year and the new garden.-

(Photograph omitted)

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