Monday, 13 January 2014

Too much of a good thing

Within gardening, as within many other areas in life, it is perfectly possible to have too much of a good thing. I was reminded of this truism as I stood in the woodland garden this morning, surveying the luxuriant layer of fallen oak leaves clothing the ground. Hitherto I have waxed lyrical about the wonders of leaf litter, the benefits of a humus rich soil and the various shenanigans entered into by the detritivores and decomposers who chose to make their home (not to mention their dinner) in these layers of our garden ecosystem, and nothing I’ve recently encountered gives me cause to gainsay such reasonable utterances. However, all things in moderation. It would seem that the autumn of 2013 was not only a bumper mast year (see this post here for an account), but also one in which every tree decided to complement its prodigious crop of fruit with leaves produced in such generous abundance it bordered upon hysteria. These, having at last been shed by the oak trees – which become untypically coy towards the end of the year, revealing their naked forms at the latest possible moment – are now lying several inches thick upon every horizontal surface in the woodland area. This is a part of the garden which, while making no claims to be a naturalistic setting, is nonetheless a very pleasant spot in which to walk a while and ponder; its dappled light, subtley different climate and unique soundscape offerring an intriguing change of pace from the rest of the garden. Of course, it also provides environment in which plants more at home in shadier, less exposed situations can thrive.

Perhaps I am more at home in a woodland setting than anywhere else, and I find things to delight me here in any season; the cathedral like hush under the vaulted green ceiling in high summer, the low sunlight slanting through the branches in autumn, the stark, graphic monochrome stage set in winter. Mosses and lichens and ferns all year round. And spring has its own particuar magic in a woodland setting, as light levels increase, the ground warms up, and the canopy overhead has yet to fill in and filter out the suns rays. At that time, snowdrops, hellebores and epimediums rule the garden unchallenged against a backdrop of marbled cyclamen leaves, in the humble company of early-flowering Ranunculacae; brash celandines or more bashful, delicate wood anemones paying tribute to their larger cousin, the Lenten Rose.

But all that excitement is s a few weeks away, and before then there’s last year’s leaves to remove from the hellebores, and a bit later a similar exercise to carry out on the epimediums; not to mention vast quantities of the afore-mentioned oak litter to cart off to different areas of the garden.

Not all of this is strictly necessary from a horticultural point of view. Emerging shoots will have more than enough oomph to push through the insulating mantle of soggy leaves, and fresh spring flowers will be supremely unconcerned about sharing the stage with the previous season’s vegetation. These hellebores are healthy and as yet show no signs of the blackspot fungus Microsphaeropsis hellebore which does require old leaves to be removed and burnt, and so the exercise here is carried out largely for aesthetic reasons. My clients quite like to be able to see what’s emerging at this time of year, a preference which seems quite reasonable to me. Anticipation is a huge part of the joy of gardening – never more so than during the winter months – and who would deprive themselves of a few extra days of delight by forcing their plants to remain hidden that much longer under superfluous inches of decaying sludge? Not I.

Lurgy on hellebore leaves at Wisley this morning. Just for reference, you understand.