GARDENING / The long road to sub-Sissinghurst: Mary Keen's garden season by season - Spring

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NOW that March is over, we have promised ourselves a moratorium on construction work. We made this rule in the last garden when we discovered that if you spend April making brick paths, you never catch up with the weeds.

The next two months are critical in the gardener's calendar. Bare soil between emerging plants is nature's favourite vacuum: weeds flourish in April showers among low perennials and young shrubs, and it is a toss-up whether hoeing or mulching is the best way to keep them down.

In the yard that is our parking lot, huge piles of mushroom compost, wood shavings and manure are heaped as high as a car. Fruit trees, roses and new evergreen hedges get real manure, as well as blood, fish, and bone from a packet. Mushroom compost goes on the flower beds and around the newly planted shrubs and flowering crabs and cherries in the 'wilderness'; the woodchip mulch is spread.

We often discuss the price of trailers - one would carry a load four or five times bigger than the barrow. But the garden is on many different levels, and we usually agree that even the cheapest, at around pounds 200, will not earn its keep on the uplands.

The aim is to shift all the heaps by the end of the Easter holidays. The target has been made more difficult to reach because rabbits have set up their nurseries in the steamy mushroom compost. When not discussing trailers, we talk about how to deal with a family of baby rabbits that has just reached the eyes-open-fur-covered toddler stage. We would prefer not to see them as adolescents among the lettuces. John, who has been building steps and walls for us, uses a technique that seems to work. He lifts each baby from its nest, strokes it and returns it to the warmth of the compost; by the following morning the mother has removed them out of reach of the stroker.

I hope this is the last of the heavy work. Sorting stones and wheeling them to the skip, or tipping the smaller ones on to paths, has been a feature of the last few months. If you want to plant a peony here, you need a pick-axe; for the yew and box-hedge trenches, a mattock also came in useful.

We replaced the aged Lonicera hedge at the top of the kitchen

garden with a tall-growing Handsworth form of box and some new rabbit wire. The yews that were lined out all last summer among the vegetables are now planted in a tidy rectangle around the swimming pool, which has a black liner. They grew a good six inches last season and I hope to coax a few more than that out of them this summer. Yew is much faster than people imagine if you keep it fed and watered. A collar of manure shrugged around its roots also helps. Some of the bushes have lost their leading shoot and these, when labouring stops and pottering begins, will need a new leader tied in or they will never make a proper hedge.

The work has not been entirely earth-bound. In February, the clotted skein of Wisteria on the front of the house had to be tackled. As it is three storeys high, we needed to hire an extra length of ladder. My friend Mel, who has nerves of steel, was not at all dismayed when I suggested a task for the day to be carried out at a height of over 30ft. Like Scarlett O'Hara, I reckon never to ask anyone to do anything I wouldn't do myself, but as the morning progressed we seemed to be in a horror movie called Wisteria Hysteria rather than Gone with the Wind. High ladders sway and bounce, so that you hardly dare move for fear of setting them off, but sawing hand-thick branches of Wisteria and pulling them out from behind rusted wires is hard to do while standing stock-still on the second rung from the top.

Melanie got braver as the work progressed. I actually saw her pull the top of the single ladder (16- footish) away from the wall so that she could ease a branch behind it without climbing down to reposition the ladder. But her courage was not catching and I increasingly found excuses to go indoors and lean out of the landing window to pass her string and branches. We ended up with a graceful arrangement of seven fanned-out branches, with all the side shoots shortened to about three buds. I hope it flowers this summer.

The new area, which I think I am going to like best, occupies a wedge-shaped sunken plot. On one straight side is the new yew hedge; the other is bounded by the old line of lilacs and philadelphus that we trimmed so drastically before Christmas. Along the curving top of the wedge, the hoggin path (which was not in the end laid by family labour) curls past stone outhouses. I wanted to fill this wedge-of-cheese garden with all the bright flowers that we are not going to grow alongside the vegetables this time. Roses and peonies in dark rich colours, foaming crambe, giant silver thistles, violas, lilies, catmint - that sort of thing. Nothing very rare, but a good high-summer garden was the aim.

I tried for weeks to turn the wedge into a regular, formal shape, but failed to find a way to make it work. In the frosts and rain of the days after Christmas I measured and stringed and staked until the plot became stupidly small, and little flower beds cut out of the left- over pieces seemed inevitable. The solution that escaped me for so long was to make two paths, one connecting the point of the triangle to the centre of the curve opposite, the second connecting the other two corners. Where they meet is a circle with four upright Greenpeace boxes round it, and at the centre the huge copper bowl we brought from our last house. All the beds are different sizes, and slightly different shapes, but because the middle is so strong it seems to work. Like all the best ideas, this was less original than I thought. If you look at a plan of the Sissinghurst cottage garden, you can see that it was probably based on a similar trick. So sub-Sissinghurst it is, and I recommend the dodge to anyone who wants to turn an odd piece of ground into a patch of favourite flowers.

The roses for it have been bought, and we have a few favourite plants we brought with us. Friends have been generous as only gardeners can be. Clumps

of hardy geraniums, irises, columbines and all the standbys of

summer are gradually being introduced. Later, these strong growers may be replaced by the odd bought plant, but for the time being, covering the ground is vital. Where gaps remain, I plan to sow annuals like red flax, Shirley poppies, the tallest of the mallows and clary. When the frosts are over, cuttings of penstemons taken last winter, half hardies like Anisodontea, and nicotiana and cosmos will join the rest. By July, sub-Sissinghurst should be coming up roses.

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