It's not over: Don't give up on plants that shrivelled in the summer heat. With a bit of patience, they may yet recover, says Anna Pavord
Saturday 28 October 2006
Spring cleaning the house is always a chore. Autumn cleaning in the garden is quite another matter, but then it is never difficult to find a reason to put gardening in front of housework, particularly on one of those warm, still, mellow days that you sometimes get in late October.
Unfortunately, the idyll at this time of the year is often broken by equinoctial gales of extraordinary suddenness and fury. In our last garden, we always had our worst disasters at this time of year. One October, we lost a Ceanothus 'Trewithen Blue' which was spreadeagled in full, improbable, glorious bloom over half the front of the house. The wind got its fingers behind it and snatched it away from the wall, snapping the trunk at the base. Thirty feet of blue capsized on the roses and sadly became the first of that autumn's clearing-up jobs.
It has been a weird season for plants. Some, such as the argyranthemums (particularly 'Jamaica Primrose'), revelled in the drought and heat of July and pulled out more in the way of performance than an actress at her first audition. Others evidently hated it. Epimediums, particularly those planted without the shade they prefer, curled up like potato crisps. Some maples, too, shrivelled where they stood, with their dead, burnt leaves hanging accusingly on the branches.
This was sad, particularly for new gardeners, who felt that they must have done something wrong, left some vital ingredient out of the planting mix, for their charges to turn up their toes so decisively. In the great autumn clear-up, however, it is important not to issue death certificates too quickly. Plants, like the maquis, dive underground when the going gets tough. Though they may look dead, they may just be waiting for a more propitious time to start growing again.
Herbaceous plants are perhaps the least likely to recover. They have less in the way of reserves to fall back on. Lychnis, which gave up in droves in summer, as craters opened up in the soil around them, will perhaps not survive. But since then, there has been rain, so surviving clumps can be split and reset and the gaps quickly filled. If you have not been deadheading, the lychnis will also seed itself about, not too far from the original clump. Don't condemn epimediums too quickly. Already new tendrils of growth are appearing round the edges of seemingly dead clumps. The centres may not revive, in which case the clumps can be eased out of the ground next spring, the dead sections cut away and the good pieces replanted.
Trees and shrubs that suffered in the summer of the hosepipe ban should certainly be left until spring to give an account of themselves. Tree buffs tell if a tree is alive by clasping its trunk. If the tree feels as warm as your hand, it is dead. If it feels cool, and refuses to warm up however long you hold it, it is alive. You can also scratch a twig with your thumbnail and see whether the tissue just under the bark is green and lively. This is rather less mystical, but more reassuring. Our Acer capillipes is certainly alive, for next year's buds are already sitting fat and robust on the ends of the twigs. Acer griseum, which had surrendered to the drought by the beginning of August, has no buds, but I'll bet a hoe to a Harrier jet that it is still alive. Shrubs may die back entirely as far as their existing framework is concerned, but push out new shoots from the base next year. Mulch them well and leave them be. There is plenty else to do in the autumn clean-up without prematurely assassinating innocents. Weed seeds such as mustard and cress are sprouting in ground that is still warm and fecund. Jump on them hard. Especially in vegetable plots, where the foliage of cucumbers and courgettes is now withering away, leaving the ground open to all-comers. Gather any forgotten fruits and clear the rotting leaves on to the compost heap.
Ground covering plants may also need sorting out. They work in a stealthy manner, so that it is only now, when other taller plants begin to die back, that you can see which have become tiresomely dominant. Tolmiea often needs ripping out in armfuls at this time of the year. So does the variegated dead nettle, Lamium galeobdolon. In spring the bits you missed will all start sprouting again and you will have a second chance to complete the clean-up and replant with a greater variety of plants - violas perhaps, or my current star, the bronze-leaved Saxifraga fortunei ' Rubrifolia', which is in flower now.
Often the first autumn onslaught needs to be among bushes of soft fruit such as currants and gooseberries. Bindweed, convolvulus, withywinder - it marches under many names - stealthily winds its way up inside the bushes then starts throwing its horrible tendrils from bush to bush so you look out at an endless mat of green. It is at its most dangerous where you have permanent plantings and it is not easy to beat, though you can, in time, keep it at bay.
I've tried many ways of controlling bindweed, none yet totally successful. It is not easy to dig the stuff up, as the roots go so deep and each tiny piece of brittle root left behind in the ground will grow again with renewed vigour. A friend who doesn't use herbicides suggested heavy mulching, so that the bindweed runners can be hauled like anchor rope from the loose mulch. This is fine, up to a point - the point where one runner breaks and you are left scrabbling around in the mulch like a dog looking for a lost bone.
The chemical answer is supposed to be glyphosate, the active ingredient in weedkillers such as Round-up. Used carefully, this is effective against enemies such as thistle, nettle and dock, but one treatment is not enough to kill bindweed completely. It retreats and re-emerges. Glyphosate is most effective when weeds are well developed and present the maximum amount of leaf to collect the spray. But you want to get on top of bindweed before it smothers your fruit bushes and roses, rather than after. If you spray when the bushes are already well draped, they too get a fair share of the poison and are likely to die as well.
October marks the beginning of a truce between me and bindweed. In the new garden, I know its haunts and have patrolled regularly all summer, tearing away new growth. This doesn't kill it, but it keeps it within acceptable bounds. The secret is never to forget it's there and to be as tenacious as it is itself. But being human, of course, we are not.
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