Monday, 27 May 2013

Three ways to keep on top of your garden in May

It is early, a grey and misty morning, the hedgerows a luminous and dripping green with the dew lying heavily on the ground below. Birds sing, lambs bleat, and a solitary crow pecks for food in the field. Trees that were tentatively offering up delicate buds a matter of weeks ago are suddenly in full leaf. Mother Nature knows how to make an entrance and, fashionably late, the doors to the growing season are thrown aside and she is suddenly before us and around us and commanding our attention, while spring rushes in and May bursts into life.

So the month began, and so it continues. This is not a time of year to neglect the garden, as grass and weeds put on inches of new growth with each passing day and the undergrowth sends out tendrils of goosegrass to scout out untended ground, at which point it moves in with reinforcements to reclaim the territory by virtue of a more imposing occupation. The change of pace can take you unawares; each time I come home the answer phone winks at me to indicate another overwhelmed garden owner seeking assistance, and I can only help as many as the daylight hours and my diary will allow.

As futile as it might initially appear a strategic approach to the garden can help in holding back the advancing waves of vegetation, and while some investment in time is inevitable it needn’t occupy every spare moment. You can’t do everything at once, so let’s consider just three tasks that you stand a change of fitting into your schedule.


The trick is, a little, and often. When faced with a jungle it can be tempting to go into denial mode, putting off the task of weeding until you reach breaking point and exhaust yourself in one or two mammoth sessions where you go at it like a crazed person. It’s a great shame when a garden becomes just an another guilt-inducing bogeyman on your to-do list . If you can partition your space into sections in your mind, and spend a few minutes a day or every other day in clearing the weeds (honestly, in a typical suburban garden you will see a difference with a regular five minute slot), that will make the task appear more achievable than if you try to get the whole lot done at once. Yes, it’s true that around now many weeds will be thinking about seeding themselves about, and that in an ideal world they would all be pulled out before this can happen. If you have the time for this, that’s fantastic. But you know what? You’re never going to have a garden that’s free of weeds. That’s why they’re weeds; the most adaptable, incredible survivors the plant kingdom has ever produced, perfectly suited to their situation, and we’re never going to win.

But you can fight back, and for that you need to choose your weapons with care. A hand fork is essential for getting small weeds out by the roots, and a garden or border fork for getting out deeper rooted and more mature specimens such as docks (it helps if the soil’s not rock hard here!). But both are time consuming, and for a quick weeding session, you want something that will help you see that you’ve made a difference. This is where the hoe comes in, the long handled tool with a flat cutting edge at the end, which severs weeds at the root as you skim it across the ground just below soil level. Keep the blade sharp, choose a dryish day and the hoe will prove an invaluable friend, clearing large areas with surprisingly little effort. Several variations are available, dutch hoes and draw hoes, hand or ‘onion’ hoes for tightly planted areas, and double-bladed versions which cut on both the push and the pull action – the best thing is to go to a garden centre and see what they feel like in your hands. You may even build up a collection, though that could just be me.


Leave the middle of the lawn to get a little longer. Or maybe even a lot – everyone loves a daisy, don’t they? The point is, you can become a slave to your lawn before you know it. Many people concentrate on the mowing and feeding and weeding while neglecting the edges, although it’s these very edges – the borders between lawn and not-lawn – which define the various spaces in your garden and help the brain to create sense of what it sees. Presented with a close cut lawn with messy edges, and the same patch of grass left longer but with neat, crisp boundaries, it’s normal for us to perceive greater order in the latter. A half moon cutter, which has a straighter blade than the slightly curved spade, may be required to re-establish overgrown edges by making a crisp line, but once this has been achieved it doesn’t take much effort to trim the grass back using edging shears, and even less with a small strimmer. Regularly done (weekly), you don’t even need to pick up the clippings every time, although if you leave it for more much longer than this you will generate more than will easily rot down in situ, and will need to be removed to compost heap or green bin.


If you have plants in containers, you will need to be watering them daily now. I find time spent watering therapeutic; it keeps me in touch with my plants and helps me to know what needs attention. But it can be time consuming when done manually, so to avoid watering becoming overly onerous it’s worth investigating some form of automatic irrigation system – essential when you’re away on holiday, but also useful when you’re not. Typically you can buy a starter kit which consists of a battery operated timer which screws straight onto the outside tap, a pressure reducing valve, and a length of small diameter hose pipe with a selection of drippers and nozzles for delivering controlled amounts of water straight to the base of the plant where it’s needed. Usually, these systems can be added to with the purchase of extra component parts. It is quite astonishing what a difference regular irrigation can make to the health of your plants, which sounds obvious, but often has to be seen to be appreciated. Bear in mind if you’ve added water retaining gel to your containers when planting, or used compost which incorporates a similar product, you may well need to reduce the length of the irrigation bursts, although I like to keep the frequency the same to avoid stressing the plant. Finally, all of this uses much less water than indiscriminately dousing everything with sprinkler, hosepipe or even watering can, as the water goes where needed without being deflected by foliage. Good news in this age of the ubiquitous water meter.

So, automatic watering, louche lawns with crisp edges, and a daily few minutes pushing a hoe along the ground. Three simple steps that will help to push back the encroaching green waves which lap around the house at this time of year, reclaiming some space in which to enjoy the garden.