Gardening: Riding the storm can be a breeze

Anna Pavord offers some tips on surviving the seasonal gales and advises control freaks to stick to late-flowering clematis
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The Independent Culture
What a spring! Only two weeks ago, we had nine inches of snow in the garden. Since then there have been hailstones as big as ping-pong balls and the rain has been vicious enough to wash much of our new-laid gravel off the drive and into the lane.

For good measure, we have also had gale-force winds. They tore blossom off the cherries and new leaves off the beech trees and piled them up in corners like sodden heaps of confetti. Heavy with rain, plants have been collapsing all around. The garden looks as if it has been the scene of a drunken party.

For the gardener, this is the worst time of the year to have strong winds. Fleshy, soft shoots of climbing roses are at their most vulnerable. Herbaceous plants that should be neat mounds of foliage sprawl flat on their backs. Hubristic foxgloves and delphiniums are cast to the ground. Staking and tying provide only a partial answer to these problems. You stake delphiniums as a matter of course (though they still snap in rough weather) but staking a foxglove is like caging a gazelle. It takes away its soul.

You can prop up foxgloves if they fall, as, rather than snapping, they tend to keel over right at the base. You have to do it quickly, because the growing tips are amazingly sensitive to a change in circumstances.

From a prone position, within hours, the ends of the flower spikes jerk around in a 90-degree turn and start to grow skywards again. If you leave the flower lying on the ground for too long it will have developed a permanent kink: when you lift it up again, the kink stays.

Some gardeners find this pleasingly avant-garde; if you are not among them, use a discreet anchor at the base to hold foxgloves upright - a short stake that will be rendered almost invisible by the leaves. Like an iceberg, it should have more below the ground than above. You can lash the base of the flowering spike to this anchor and it will not look as though it is being supported. (I fancy something of the same sort for myself. It would be handy while waiting for a No 137 bus in the Queenstown Road, Battersea.)

Plants, even those that superficially have the same habit of growth, show markedly different tolerances of wind. Rubus tridel `Benenden', which has long, arching, whippy growths that will be covered this month in flat, papery white flowers, has ridden out the storms unconcerned. It has been waving around furiously, but nothing has broken and it still occupies the same space.

The rose `Alba Maxima' has much the same habit of growth as the rubus. Long wands arch out from the centre of the bush, covered at the moment with new foliage, badly battered by hail.

Planted on a slope, it always had a tendency to droop forward rather than back. The south-westerly wind has turned the droop into a sprawl. The rose is now spreadeagled across the path, obliterating a recent underplanting of echium and a newly refurbished stone trough.

The rose, the original white rose of York, with matt, greyish foliage and brilliantly scented white flowers tinged with cream, was never designed to win a Keep Britain Tidy award, but in the five years it has been in the garden it has been orderly enough, in a louche kind of way.

Getting it back into position has been a struggle and the end result is not pleasing. There is still an unnatural stiffness about the way its branches are now arranged, like an accident victim in a neck brace.

We drove a fat stake in behind the shrub and then, one at a time, hauled the main branches back towards the stake and tied them in. The rose is now off the path, but the wind is still funnelling all the growth in one direction. From the front it's passable. At the back, all you see is the mechanics, like going backstage and seeing only chaos.

Last year, there was a thick stand of Verbena bonariensis behind the rose that would have disguised the problem. This year there are only dead stumps, the verbena having seeded itself in other places where it is not so useful. But it is a star. The stems are tall, thin, but immensely strong. It never needs staking.

Wind is a more unpredictable, nerve-racking enemy than drought and you can do less about it. The victims are not always the plants that look most frail. The clematis, for instance, stood up to it remarkably well, though you could get into difficulties if your clematis happened to be growing through a shrub that itself keeled over.

A clematis leaf stalk, like a baby's fist, grips what it touches and hangs on with a determination that belies its fragile appearance. As the first shoots of clematis come out of the ground, you need to spend a little time pointing them in the right direction, and tying them in to their supports where necessary.

After that they can mostly be left to their own devices. If you miss out on the initial training, shoots tangle into each other and stand away from the support, where they are prone to wind damage. When individually trained, the shoots will fan over a greater area.

For flower power, particularly in a small garden, there is nothing to beat clematis. There are a few with handsome leaves, such as the evergreen early flowering C armandii, but, for the most part, flowers are all they have got. Form and substance can be borrowed from other shrubs. Clematis look their best when they are scrambling through some obliging neighbour.

Unlike swamping honeysuckle, clematis (except the monstrous C montana) does not try to usurp its host. Control freaks should stick to late-flowering types, all of which can be "tidied up" - that is, cut down to within 18 inches of the ground - in February.

Clematis are ideal for clothing pergolas and trellises, as they stretch the season of interest. With May-flowering wisteria on a pergola, plant `The President', which has two, sometimes three crops of flowers, starting in early June when the wisteria is beginning to wind down, and finishing in September.

It is extremely vigorous, with slightly cupped flowers up to 8in across in purplish blue. It grows up to 12ft and is happy with any aspect. It needs only light pruning. Cut out dead wood in February or March and, if you are feeling particularly virtuous, tip back the main growths to the first strong pair of buds.

Vines on pergolas, such as Vitis vinifera `Purpurea', make good hosts for clematis, lending their handsome leaves unselfishly to whatever other flowers climb into bed with them. If you feed the soil round about lushly enough, you could fit in an early and a late flowering clematis with a vine. Use one of the spring-flowering types, perhaps C alpina `Frances Rivis', for the first display, following on with a viticella such as Alba luxurians which will flower from late July through to September.

Although no clematis basks in wind, these two types are more than usually tolerant of windy sites. They have smallish flowers, less likely to catch the blasts than the dinner-plate hybrids. But neither will thrive if the vine, their sheet anchor, has not been securely tied in first. This is a job most easily done in early winter, after pruning but before the vine's fat buds start popping, as they are doing now.

For once, I tied in the vine at the right time. But this week a visiting lurcher gave chase to a rabbit in the garden (good). In the heat of the moment, he destroyed the new shoots of the clematis (bad). Oh well - at least the score is one all.

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