Springtime Snooping

Spring has finally caught up with us, and the garden has exploded into life, virtually overnight – much as I try to avoid the over-used and maligned word ‘literally’, some plants did appear to have literally shot up from nowhere.

Some of these new arrivals are welcome – irises, tulips, violets, lilies of the valley – but some are foreign interlopers (I am strictly against invasive non-natives of the plant variety only, before you start thinking I’m a Daily Mail type).

The mysterious bulbs in my raised bed turned out to be bluebells – sadly the rampaging Spanish variety not the woodland British flower, which is hard to source by legitimate means. If I do want proper bluebells, I will have to find a wildlife-friendly retailer which sources them ethically…and all the Spanish ones will have to be dug up, eventually. I’ll let them have their moment in the sun and bloom in full this year, though.

Plus I have sycamore seedlings popping up everywhere, which must be coming from a nearby tree – so those will have to be dug up and disposed of as soon as I can get round to it. And everywhere I look, dandelions and groundsel – I need to get a guinea pig, sooner rather than later, to help me dispose of all these weeds, as part of a healthy cavy diet.

Buddleia removed

Buddleia removed, and neighbouring house suddenly looms into view

Not that we’ve been lazy, though – after a morning’s work in the garden, we reduced the buddleia to a large ivy-covered stump, and an enormous pile of wood, which we are going to have to dispose of somehow or other.

The house which backs onto ours IS a lot more visible now, and of course the buddleia will sprout again, but we can keep it under control, and encourage other things to fill in the gaps a bit – I’ve now discovered I have a rowan and a hazel in the shrubbery, which were previously obscured by the buddleia, so I am delighted to have two of my favourite trees already in the garden.

Aside from this hard work (and a break in the weather which finally allowed the lawn to get mowed), I’ve been seeking out signs of spring in my neighbouring gardens.

First of all, a lawn dotted with golden celandines was simply a joy to behold on a sunny day:

Celandines

Celandines

A lush border full of mixed hyacinths: lovely combination of pastel shades and deeper blue muscari.

Border with hyacinth and muscari

Border with hyacinth and muscari

A very intriguing couple of front gardens were seen in the direction of Dulwich and Herne Hill, where houses tend toward the grand and front gardens tend toward the well-manicured – or stripped back to the bare minimum to create more space for cars.

A house which doesn’t have a front drive at all, then, devoting its entire frontage to plants, and doesn’t even have a tiled, heavily gravelled, or paved path, sticks out like a sore thumb on a road of Victorian mansions – albeit a rather lovely sore thumb.

Garden path, bordered with hyacinths and forget-me-nots

Garden path, bordered with hyacinths and forget-me-nots

This garden, compared to its neighbours, was more like a miniature nature reserve, complete with well-trodden earth paths winding through it, and a pile of sticks which looked like the perfect hidey-hole for a hedgehog.

Lovely pile of sticks for a hedgehog

Lovely pile of sticks for a hedgehog

This was a planned wilderness, as far as I could tell, a beautiful, fascinating mess on an otherwise tidy street.

It reminded me that according to the London Wildlife Trust, urban front gardens are essential habitats for wildlife in cities – and, like school playing fields and derelict ground, they are increasingly disappearing.

Every front garden I see which has been sacrificed to make way for cars, or has relegated its green space to a mere plant pot by the front door, makes me think sadly of the potential habitat lost to wildlife, and of the flowers that will never grow there.

On to more cheerful things, by contrast I also saw a wild front garden that appeared entirely unplanned, and this one even more likely to be sneered at by its neighbours, as it was in a very smart Herne Hill street.

Surprisingly, the house itself was smartly done up, the tiled path had neither a crack nor a weed visible, so it was not evidently a case of total neglect, but the residents did not appear to be doing much with the garden. The result was a lush green lawn, filled with dandelions, and backed by a swathe of forget-me-nots against the wall. The contrast of bright green and yellow, with the flash of intense blue behind, was quite glorious – and all the more lovely and amusing for being so unplanned.

Dandelions and forget-me-nots

Dandelions and forget-me-nots

Finally, a reminder that even the smallest places can be turned into habitats, and a gem of a garden to please the human eye, too – the phenomenon of planting around the bases of trees on pavements has gone from being the odd daffodil here and there to some quite carefully planned and thoughtful displays.

This one, also in Herne Hill, had some amazing white muscari which I’d never seen before – they looked so pristine against the dark soil, I was enchanted by them, not to mention confused, as at first glance I thought they must be some strange kind of late snowdrop. I may have to seek them out for my own garden, one day.

White and blue muscari in a pavement bed

White and blue muscari, in a pavement flower bed

(Apologies for the badly-focused picture – I was in a hurry when I took it, and didn’t follow my usual golden rule of taking at least 2 pictures in case one doesn’t come out well…shameful admission!)

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Shrubberies and spring cleaning

We have been in the new house for nearly four months now, and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of the garden.

Cherry blossom

At least something is in bloom – cherry in the back garden

There are good reasons for this – we’ve concentrated on getting the house itself ship-shape, and the weather hasn’t helped (although that alone has not been a deterrent – I’ve been so desperate to garden that I’ve been out there in rain and even falling snow).

It’s more the overwhelming scale of the task which leaves me in a state of inertia. I start one job, then notice six more that need doing. Weeds everywhere. Lawn full of moss. Refilling holes dug by foxes, particularly around my poor heuchera transplanted from the old house, which they seem determined to destroy.

Sad heuchera

Sad heuchera, which *something* has repeatedly tried to dig up

Some tasks are a small effort for big reward – I tackled the front garden, which needed a trim and tidy-up, but as it’s the part of the garden on view to the world, I felt I had to make it look more respectable.

I’ve never had to worry about it before, as the old house only had a front yard, but now I have to consider what the neighbours will think if I let my flower beds get shabby.

Luckily, an hour or so’s work trimming back last years flower-heads from the hydrangea and dead wood from the fuchsia, and the improvement was quite heartening. I’ve also planted snowdrops, cowslips, violets, saxifrage and more pansies – it’s cheering to see the patches of colour poking out here and there when I come or go from the house.

The previous owners put down woodchip over the soil, to stop weeds coming up, which (rather like woodchip indoors) looks dated, but does its job pretty well. At least I can see what needs doing here – keep the shrubs under control, and fill in gaps until the woodchip patches get smaller and the green gets bigger. That’s the easy bit, anyway.

The back garden is more of a conundrum. No-one but us sees it or is affected by it (or so I thought) and it’s not even very visible from the house, due to a rather odd configuration of windows at the back.

Raised bed

Raised bed, full of mysterious bulbs

The plot is dominated by two things – a large raised bed across the width of the garden, which would be perfect for growing vegetables, but it currently seems to be sprouting bulbs of various kinds, and behind it, an enormous shrubbery.

Shrubberies have always seemed slightly naff to me, harking back to the days of Margo and Jerry, hostess trolleys and fondue sets. Possibly only beaten by the rockery as the most 70s garden feature (when I was around 7 I thought rockeries were the height of sophistication, believe me). When I was actually confronted with one, though, I was rather daunted by it.

Buddleia

Enormous overgrown buddleia

The shrubbery clearly serves a purpose – it shields us from neighbouring houses – but it’s been left to overgrow, to the point where it overhangs the fence at the back, branches almost touching the ground, and soon may partially block access to neighbours’ garages at the end of their gardens, so we have to tackle it now, to keep them off our backs.

The worst offender is an enormous sprawling buddleia – I’ve never seen one left to get so big – it’s so gnarled and contorted now that it’s frankly a mess. Ideally I’d like it taken out altogether, but getting the root of such an established plant out of the ground will be a challenge.

So far I’ve contented myself with chopping back what I can reach with my long-armed loppers, my favourite new toy, but I’ve barely made a dent in it so far (or at least that’s how it feels).

Besides the buddleia, we have a couple of low-growing shrubs (a mahonia and something with variegated leaves I don’t recognise), and at least two other shabby trees, one of them a viburnum of some type. All of it is tangled, overgrown and gloomy, with bare earth below, as it spends much of the day in shadow.

Without a serious pruning, which might compromise our privacy, I’m just not sure what to do with it. The empty flower bed underneath the shrubs is completely invisible from the house, as it’s behind the raised bed, so perhaps I should be growing vegetables there – but I doubt they would do well in the shade.

I am not too worried about my lack of inspiration – they say you should leave a garden for a year at least to see what comes up – but I am frustrated by the way the shrubbery looms over everything. I’m reminded of the tale of the Sleeping Beauty in her forest and wonder if the more I hack at the vegetation, the faster it will grow!

It’s a job for more than one person, really, but it’s hard for us both to get in the garden with a small baby around, and with the weather so bad it’s been a case of snatching a moment when I get a chance. What it needs is a serious assault, perhaps with friends helping if we promise them beer and food in return, and as we get down to the bare bones of the garden, I might start to get an idea of what it could become.