You have to brave the winter and work in the garden now to ensure that the summer is fruitful, says Peter Dowdall.
FORGET about the winter. Think of next season. Ignore this dreary November and picture your hostas showing off in terracotta pots and borders in early summer. Add regal delphiniums and masses of blooms from your lupins, and imagine the long hot days of summer, 2014, when you will be enjoying these beauties.
Why am I urging you, in November, to think of these summer greats? The answer is simple — it is all too easy to hole up for the winter and forget about the great outdoors, leaving your garden to fend for itself until the spring.
Looking out at the dark skies and the cold and wet days, when the softest breeze shivers the bones, the garden is not enticing. I often curse evolution and wish that we never progressed from hibernation. How nice it would be to go to sleep in October, with a roomful of food, and not wake up until the daffodils are poking their noses above the soil in early March. But evolved we have, and to get the most out of our gardens next year we need to do a lot of work this season. What better motivation than the lure of free plants. If I was to offer dozens of beautiful herbaceous perennials for free, during the summer, I would have a steady stream of people knocking on my door.
Well, you have these free plants under your nose. Perennials that have recently gone underground, and curled up to their roots for the winter, can all be lifted and divided now.
It can be difficult to identify which plant is where during these months and your job can become confusing, so it is time well spent to properly label the plants during the summer. A label stuck in the soil is ideal for this purpose — remember, a label tied to the stems of the plant will be useless when the foliage dies back for the winter.
Moving these plants is also a job for now. Maybe you have a plant that has outgrown its position, or is not thriving because it’s in the wrong aspect, or, maybe, you need to clear an area that is soon to become patio or the foundation for an extension.
Whatever the reason, if an herbaceous plant or a shrub needs to be moved, now is the time to lift and move it. This cannot be left until next spring and if you stay stuck in the centrally heated house and neglect the outdoor ‘room’ now, you will miss your window of opportunity. Moving an established plant, after growth has started next spring, will more than likely be unsuccessful.
Moving one of these plants is straightforward — simply cut into the soil with a good spade, all around the clump, and then lift the root ball out of the soil and replant in its new home, leaving some of it in situ, if you wish.
Dividing is equally as straightforward, and takes just a small bit more time. Lift the clump as described, look closely at the top of the plant, and you will identify growing tips and buds, which are dormant now but will burst into new life during 2014.
Cut into the clump with the spade or a good secateurs, ensuring that each division contains at least one of these buds.
There are no hard and fast rules as to what size each division should be — obviously, the more buds in each new plant, then the larger that plant will be next year. Smaller divisions will take longer to mature, but you will have more plants, so it depends on what you are looking to achieve.
My advice to you, if you haven’t propagated plants in this way before, is to get out there, get your hands dirty, and give it a go. I assure you there is no mystery to dividing plants and you will be amazed, next spring, when you see the fruits of your labour coming into growth. Gardening is not rocket science — it can be time-consuming and dirty, but it is not difficult.
I wish I could convey to you the feeling that I get from working in the garden, getting down and dirty with the soil, at this time of the year, and the sense of accomplishment when one plant has been turned into 12, each of these tucked into their new home in the earth and allowed to rest under a generous mulch of leaf mould and compost, until the temperatures increase once more next spring, breathing life into the garden.
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