There was a man on the radio talking about a grand stretch in the evening the other day. All I could think was 'there's optimism'. The only thing being stretched was the collective imagination if the listeners. Technically speaking the year has turned and the days are getting longer. Yet it is, as they say 'not so's you'd notice'. Up close, however if you get out to do a bit of work in your garden, you will notice that the show is well and truly on the road. The action may be subtle but it is action nevertheless.
Rather like the small, almost imperceptible but effective movements of pilates, as opposed to the big obvious windmill sweeps of the old-fashioned, all-arms-and-all-legs-going-at-full-tilt work out, the January garden is a subtle place, a world of gentle action that brings the place up to a point in late spring, where it will bust out all over and seem to explode into life.
Getting in among the dead, desiccated, even slimy old stems of last years perennials, to cut them back, allows you to see the little snouts of next years promise. I get excited at those early sights, ridiculously so in some cases, particularly when I see the shoots on something bought as a new acquisition last year. This is because it came to me as a nice little growing plant, but then it died down naturally with the winter - and yet here it is again, possibly despite my ministrations - coming back into leaf and growth for the new year. The things that make us grateful can be small.
January is also a good time to get at the weeds, which are always with us I know but when they are down and out over winter, tackling them is timely. I think most particularly of that most annoying of weeds, willow herb or epilobium, a pretty pink flowering plant unfortunately also intent on world dominate. At this time of year the little rosette of shiny leaves, low to the ground and emerging from a clump of what look like tiny cabbages can be seen and hauled out. Left to grow, the light airy plant makes no nuisance of itself, hiding in between your good things, until you realise not only has it flowered but also sent seed scattering to the four winds and your four flower beds too. A weed is just a plant in the right place? To that I say that my flower bed are no place for willow herb flowers. The good thing is that with hard rubber gloves you do not even need a trowel to dig it up. It can be dug out by fingers . Once an area, no matter how small has been cleared, add on a thick layer of fine bark mulch to suppress weeds.
This year I am experimenting in one area where the weeds are a bit tougher to deal with. It is a square where ground elder has been of trouble for years. Digging out the roots has never fully ridded me of it. Digging down is hard as the roots of a big clematis are everywhere beneath the bed. I am going to put down a layer of brown, corrugated cardboard and spread a thick layer of fine bark mulch over it. This should further weaken, if not kill outright the elder. I will plant something annual or a dispensable perennial like aquilegia and hardy geranium as well as some lilies through slits in the cardboard and wait to see how it all goes. The aquilegia, lily and geranium will make the place look colourful for the year while I watch to see if and how strongly the elder makes its way up through the layers .
It if does better than I hope, the roots of the aquilegia and geranium will most probably be knotted through with elder roots and will need to be dumped. The lilies however, as bulbs, can be cleaned off successfully and reused elsewhere. If it works, a life largely free of digging to weed hopefully awaits me and my poor back.
I have vegetable beds that needed clearing of field bind weed last year. They spent the year under black weed suppressing fleece. It has done a fairly good job but now I want to use the beds again. I will carry out the same experiment on some of these beds – those that are being used for large seeded plants that are sown deeply and at decent spaces from each other, things like broad beans where I only need a certain number of plants. The reasoning is that a bed with forty plants of broad bean only requires forty tiny holes in the cardboard, letting in very little light and very little opportunity for the hopefully weakened field bind weed – from the year of black fleece – to get growing again. I do not expect one hundred percent success – but any decent percentage would be be welcome.