As I write, the radio is wittering on about possible snow storms, and raindrops are skittering across my study’s skylight, a glum, grey rectangle above my head. It’s a good time to look back at some summer photos from the garden.
2016 was the year of the late start for me, it took a while for me to get a move on. I was convalescing from an operation until March, with plenty of time to order seeds but not enough energy to sow them. Even once I was well enough to go back to work I was definitely lacking in the spare oomph department. No steady, rolling start to spring for me – suddenly in a steaming hurry, I sowed far too many seeds at the same time in April before going to Scotland (see my Arisaig post) and found myself with a glut of young plants in early May.
Here in the Cotswolds it isn’t really safe to plant out tender plant babies until the end of May, so while the outside world was burgeoning with tulips, blossom and gardeny get-togethers, there was a growing air of desperation in my greenhouse and tiny polytunnel.
Then in mid May I abandoned everything and spent about a week in London for Chelsea (see my posts about Chelsea Flower Show). By the time I returned everything was in agony, and as it was also summer bedding time at work I was spending more time there too. I began to dread getting invitations to go out and be sociable at weekends because the plants were screaming for my attention. I had managed to get the dahlias out and hardened off before Chelsea but everything else was hopping about in a long queue, bursting to get into a bigger pot.
In my little world of pots there is no room for new plants until other plants and obstacles have been moved on, so the whole exercise becomes a giant game of solitaire. In order to win I have to think very hard about the order in which I make my moves. This is roughly how it went last year:
Move 1: The bench beside the garage got shifted to the lawn (hiding the bald patch created by the Eranthis hyemalis which had been and gorn). Pots with borderline hardy perennials,which had been fleeced instead of emptied, and pushed against the sheltered, sunny garage wall, were cut back and tidied, any corpses went to the compost heap and the survivors were top dressed.
Move 2: The first tentative plant shifting took place at the end of May, with the hardier semi-permanent potfuls emerging from garage and greenhouse on dull, mild days to stand, blinking, in temporary homes against the garage wall. Bit by bit they began to replace the winter plantings that were past their best. (see Move 3)
Move 3: Early-Mid June. Some of the winter plantings which still looked good were either left in situ or moved to a display I built up by the kitchen door, where there’s a shady little patio area (with whirligig clothes line, compost bucket, chairs, tap, hose and miscellaneous gubbins..). Single potted plants including a Liquidambar styraciflua, Ginkgo biloba ‘Troll’, a blueberry, various hydrangeas and Francoa ramosa, were moved here too and I had great fun playing with foliage colour, form and texture. In some ways this was the area I liked best that summer, though there were very few flowers involved.
Shame hardly anybody saw it – that door is mainly used by the cat. She didn’t appreciate the pots at all because the nasty moggy from across the road took to ambushing her from behind them every time she emerged from the cat flap.
Move 4: Mid-Late June. Having moved or emptied most of the winter pots by the back door I proceeded to fill them up again. In the rain. It’s at this stage that you must never, ever ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
I also moved some big plastic tubs into this area. It’s the biggest bank of pots each year, so the plastic tubs get hidden quite quickly. This year I had decided on pastel pink/white/blue/purple, diluted with grey foliage and enlivened with a few stronger shades.
Throughout June plants were still pouring out of the greenhouse and polytunnel like porridge from the Magic Porridge Pot. There were also loose but re-usable grasses and perennials from the winter pots knocking about. So between the major Moves as listed, there were many sub-moves, involving potting-on of overwintered tender plants which deserved a pot to themselves, and potting up of evicted hardy perennials. Most of this happened under the big yew tree – which also happens to be a good, shady, sheltered hardening-off area.
Under the yew tree is where quite a lot of tripping over and swearing happens.
The yew tree also hosts slug fiestas: in 2016, as never before, I had a massive plague of Spanish slugs (Arion vulgaris). Sadly they had not brought any sherry with them. They had spent the mild winter making merry and babies. I did water nematodes over badly sluggy areas during a mild, damp week in June, which gave me a little respite, but they came back eventually. I should have given another dose but I ran out of time. Spanish slugs are massive, unashamedly greedy, disgustingly sticky (therefore good climbers) and orange. Which public figure springs to mind? We have frogs, toads and hedgehogs but they don’t seem to touch these ghastly gastropods.
I got into the habit of feeling under every single pot and plant tray (oh they LOVE those!) that I picked up, removing slugs and stamping on the smaller ones. The big ones are too rubbery to squash easily, you can actually slip over if you step on them. So I put handfuls of big ones into the green waste bin. I got less and less squeamish about this as the summer went on.
Move 5: After the major planting by the back door was done I emptied/replaced tired seasonal pots outside the kitchen window, having top-dressed the semi-permanent ones. This is also north-facing so usually relies on foliage, especially ferns, with a few splodges of colour from shade-tolerating incomers such as Fuchsia and Begonia.
This year I went (with some misgivings) for yellow and pink , with some blue, because the pink rambling rose (‘Débutante’) has grown all the way along this wall now, and there was quite a lot of pink in the pots the other side of the back door. I was never really happy with it. I had a couple of screaming pink pelargoniums (they look rather red in the photos) which I eventually moved away and never really found a good place for them. Also several of the plants were better suited to a sunnier site, so flowered late and somewhat sparsely – that’s the trouble with prioritising colour over habitat. I make mistakes like that every year, but sometimes I get away with it.
Move 5.5: All the little fiddly touches: small pots get squeezed in at the front of the displays, with some placed on top of other pots where gaps haven’t been closed yet by growing plants.
Move 6: Late-ish June. While planting up the back door pots I also set up big pots and distributed major plants by the garage and “car park”. I had plans for reds, blacks and some purple/blue by the garage. These areas involved quite a few dahlias and salvias which had been growing on in plastic pots, so the displays looked established pretty quickly (slugs permitting).
Move 7: Late June to early July. As the number of homeless plants goes down, so the planting speed increases. The garage pots and car park pots were all planted by early July. The car park was going to be the only place where I could fit my various Musa/Canna/Ensete, I teamed them with orange, bronze, yellow and a little black and red.
Move 8: By the second week of July I was ready to clear out the area under the yew tree and set up a display of odds and ends left over from the other groups, which turned out to be mostly coral and salmon, with some red and dashes of yellow and white. It’s always those peachy colours which get left over with me, I can never decide what to do with them. Perhaps in 2017 I’ll start with those.
Move 9 covers the many sub-moves and substitutions of the summer, moving away plants which have been shredded by slugs or which have got too big or too boring for their positions. Moving and re-moving annoying plants which don’t sit happily with their neighbours, moving in new purchases (surreptitiously). I bought a few glazed pots in a sale and played with those too.
I had spare dahlias and potfuls of Gladiolus murielae growing by the greenhouse and inserted them in displays where gaps appeared. This works very well, as the plastic pots are easily hidden behind established plantings. The trick is to remember where they are so that they don’t get missed at watering time. Sometimes I put these pots on shallow saucers or bucket lids so that they get as much water as possible.
By the end of the summer I think I had approximately 300 pots on display, and as usual it was very hard to manoeuvre vehicles. Or get through doors. Or see out of windows. If our yard was smart and nicely-paved I might think that less is more, but cracked old concrete and scruffy gravel needs as much covering as possible.
I’m sorry if the weeds around the pots offend any of you, but I’m not prepared to use weedkiller on something so unimportant. Occasionally I use a weed blowtorch to zap weeds which are going to seed, and I do pull some of the big ones out, but otherwise I tolerate them and occasionally my tolerance is rewarded by a nice self-seeded Echium or Verbena.
People often ask about the watering of all these pots, but I am careful to apply RP3 – Right Plant,Right Pot, Right Place – as much as possible. This and close-grouping means that I should not have to water every single day, even in hot weather. Over the summer of 2016 we went away several times, for anything from a few days to a fortnight in each month, and each time our 20 year-old son, with zero interest in gardening, managed to keep everything alive. Only my rather half-hearted hanging baskets suffered at these times.
When you go away during the summer there is always the optional Move 10, which consists of putting easily stressed plants into shadier, more sheltered positions before you go. Reducing the amount of foliage in the pots also helps them to survive water shortages better while your offspring/neighbour/cat is in charge.
Container gardening is great because you CAN move your plantings if you’re not content with the effect, but I try to do so as little as possible for the sake of my back, planting as many of my pots as I can in the location where they’ll stay for at least a few months. My last moving tip of the day is to invest in a sack trolley, preferably with as large a footplate as possible and a concave back to keep pots steady. I use one for moving all but the very smallest pots, even when they are empty.
The final move involved dismantling all the plantings and sheltering all my precious tender plants or taking cuttings from them. This was a year when the frosts started early in November, so at Hallowe’en I had to admit that summer was over.
Now I’m going to move on and look at seed catalogues for 2017 so that I can start all over again.