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Archive for the ‘Soil Preparation’ Category

Having developed our steeply sloped back garden over the years, last year my attention turned to the front garden, a good-sized lawn area of approximately 60 square yards.  In the summer of 2011, all fired up having pored over Piet Oudolf’s ‘Landscapes in Landscapes’ for a week, I made the decision to create a ‘prairie’ in the front garden and promptly killed off the lawn with weedkiller.  Although I’d been keen to change our vista from the front windows for a while, once the herbicide was applied, I felt a vague sense of apprehension.

In the autumn, I persuaded my husband Bill to remove the turf, and we hired a machine.  The turf-cutter wouldn’t easily engage with the compacted lawn and Bill developed a technique whereby he hopped along behind it with one foot pressing down on the machine, brightening up an otherwise dull day for the neighbours.  We piled up the turves in a giant heap, which prompted the postman to ask if we were sending the lawn away to be cleaned.

The winter proved to be a fairly mild one so in February we hired a mini-digger and a skip and set about breaking up the compacted ground.  Some soil would need to be removed as the level was slightly too high.  I knew that drainage was a problem as the lawn had been very mossy, and I also knew that it was vital to provide a deep root-run for the plants so that they had a good chance of surviving drought.  Bill spent three days trundling around in the mini-digger, carrying the lighter-coloured, unstructured soil to the skip and keeping piles of ‘good’, darker soil to one side.  Meanwhile, I forked over the site to remove roots and larger stones.  Bill set up his camera in one of the front windows and made a time-lapse film of the operation, which he then emailed to various relatives.  It was generally agreed that it made for relentlessly tedious viewing.

In keeping with the ‘grow ‘em hard’ ethos, I felt I ought to hold back on adding any organic matter to the soil but in contrast I knew that at similar gardens, beds are regularly spread with mulch.  I found it impossible to relinquish the gardening lore of old and ordered two bulk bags of spent mushroom compost, which we rotavated in before planting.  I say we, but it was Bill who actually did it, straining madly to stop the rotavator racing over the top of the soil and careering into the roadside tree.

At last we were ready to plant.  By now we’d had a lot of interest from neighbours and had a ready explanation for our activities.  The reason for creating a ‘prairie’ was not just the way it looked, though that was important, but also because the plants used would provide nectar beyond midsummer, when a lot of indigenous plants are setting seed.  My idea was to plant a matrix of one grass species, Eragrostis trichodes, and interplant with groups of herbaceous plants.  The plant list included Sanguisorba ‘Blackthorn’, Persicaria rosea and P. ‘Blackfield’, Echinacea pallida, E. ‘Vintage Wine’ and E.‘Rubinstern’, Actea ‘Brunette’, Eupatorium purpureum, the black-red Astrantia ‘Gill Richardson’ and dark-leaved Sedums as well as other pollen-rich plants.  The Eragrostis would be a light, airy setting for the more solid forms of the herbaceous plants, and I also wanted to punctuate the Eragrostis with upright grasses such as Miscanthus nepalensis and Pennisetum macrourum.  The idea was that as the sun sets at the end of our road, the late afternoon light would filter through the grasses and flowerheads.  I chose largely pink and plum coloured flowers and dark foliage to keep a sense of cohesion within the rather complex planting plan.  The intention was that, as far as possible, the structure of the plants would be left on over winter, providing seeds for birds and cover for insects.

Bill and I took a short break up north in the summer of 2011 and visited several nurseries, including Stillingfleet, Scampston, Special Perennials and Westshores.  As our bemused B&B hosts waved us goodbye, we tootled off with a car crammed to the roof with plants.  Back home, Annie at Daisy Roots Nursery near Hertford provided lots of Echinacea pallida and also dug out a section of Persicaria ‘Jo and Guido’s Form’ from her stock-beds for me. A trip to Avondale Nursery near Coventry supplied Astrantias and Sedums, including my favourite, Sedum ‘Jose Aubergine’, with it’s deep slate-purple leaves and rosy pink flowerheads. Brian at Avondale also entrusted me with a new Sanguisorba he’d bred, called ‘Raspberry Coulis’, not yet properly rooted and one of only thirty in existence.  I felt suitably honoured.

I’d intended to plant in late April/early May, as late-flowering perennials don’t like cold, wet soil, but in mid-March, a hosepipe ban was announced and I panicked, the thought of lugging countless heavy watering cans haunting my dreams.  Two weeks before the ban deadline, we embarked on a mass planting spree.  It took a few days.  I laid out broken York stone pavers as stepping stones to allow access without soil compaction and to help us avoid treading on any future bulb plantings.  The pavers will largely disappear as the foliage increases, but to begin with they lent the garden a 1970s rockery look, rather twee and not at all prairie-like.

What followed was the wettest summer I can remember.  One by one the sun-loving Eragrostis began to snuff out and I ended up lifting those that remained, to save them from certain death.  I replaced them with self-seeded Stipa tenuissima and filled in odd gaps with rooted Penstemon cuttings and annuals grown from seed, such as the satin-petalled Linum rubrum.  Despite the constant rain, most of the herbaceous plants thrived, although flowering was late and in some cases reduced due to the low light levels.  We opened the garden for the NGS in late July and the feedback from the public was very positive, which was encouraging, and a few weeks later I even had someone stop their car to tell me how much they liked the new look, and discuss the planting.

In late September I took divisions of many of the plants while the weather was still warm, and they rooted quickly in the coldframe.  They will be used to bulk up the groups next spring.  I also planted clusters of richly-coloured lily-flowered tulips to jazz up the uneventful early stages of a late summer garden.  Having given up on the Eragrostis trichodes, I decided to use Deschampsia cespitosa instead, courtesy of fellow Herts Hardy Plant Society member Adrian de Baat who has provided me with both seeds and young plants, found self-seeded in his garden.

One morning in December, after a night of freezing fog, I opened the curtains to see layer upon layer of ice crystals encrusting the frozen seedheads, illuminated by the low winter sun filtering across the garden.  Observing the long, curved white-fuzzed wands of Pennisetum macrourum glowing in the glacial light, I experienced that rare feeling you get when something you’ve created has taken on a life of its own.

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