Gardening has been blessed in the past three weeks. I pity those who are anywhere other than in a flower garden in south-east England. There has never been a better run-up to Easter and Easter is now usefully early, allowing us all one more chance to have the garden as we want it. Magnolias are basking in the warm sun and so far have not been browned by the great enemy to their flowers, a sharp spring frost. Bulbs have been magnificent but the tulips are making a nonsense of the labels that call them “mid-season.” Does anyone expect to have rivers of flowering tulips in mid-May?
Down at ground level the damp in the early morning has kept the soil workable. I have had my best-ever campaign of extermination against annual weeds and am now preparing for the final push against obstinate ground elder. There is no point in being mindlessly green or “organic”. The only way to kill the Number One enemy of the nation’s flower beds is to poison it. The warm weather has brought the new growing tips usefully into view, dark green and glistening. Now, set about them with directed weedkiller.
Among border plants the job requires patience. Previously I have spent Easter Saturdays crawling through the flower bed, armed with a basin of maximum strength glyphosate, bought as Roundup or the like, and a paintbrush. Wherever I see ground elder shoots I paint them with the mixture, even among young asters and phloxes. It is a job that becomes increasingly fascinating after an hour. Obviously it is not a job for a wet or windy day and in the recent hot weather it is best done in the early evening or cool morning. So far I have never killed a cherished border plant but I have killed significant legacies of ground elder.
Today I will be mechanised for the first time. I have bought a canister of the new Roundup Weedkiller Gel, on offer for £10 from the nearest big garden centre. The poison is delivered from a stick as a sticky gel that adheres to the leaf of the weed. At last the trade has woken up to the advice of FT readers who have been telling me for years that they use old roll-on underarm deodorant sticks for the same purpose. When the deodorant runs out they prise off the roller and refill the stick with weedkiller. Roundup has now followed the idea, tempered by health and safety. The weedkiller is delivered by a click that I hope to master this morning. Holding the head on the weed’s leaf you are told to click it twice if the weed is perennial. I am less sure about the accompanying maths. If you have a weed with a leaf-surface area of more than 300 sq cm apparently you need to click more often. I am not going to measure my dandelions. I will simply click twice on Saturday and repeat the attack on Monday. It sounds like the ideal answer for those of us who hate gadgets and of course I will be attacking the first emerging purple tips of any bindweed too.
I will also be sowing a new patch of grass. My track record here is contemptible. I prepare the patch well enough and water it carefully when it first goes down. St Francis’s ill-chosen friends, the birds, then dine on the grass seed. Not much comes up and the patch resembles the thinning hair of an elderly gentleman. It does not help that after Easter I go back to work and am not on hand to water in every dry spell. This year I am going to try the new Miracle-Gro Patch Magic pack that seems to take the risk out of the operation. It contains grass seed and low-nitrogen fertiliser and a wondrous coating of protective, water absorbent coir. The coir, they tell me, “absorbs 8 times its weight in water like a sponge and expands 4 times its volume”. The mix is laid to a depth of 3mm onto cleaned and well-raked undersoil. It is then watered from a can until it turns dark brown. The implication is that the coir helps to protect the seed as it germinates and keeps the damp in meanwhile. It all looks so easy that at last I may succeed in re-greening the shady patch in my main sight line that was formerly overrun with ground ivy under a tall variegated Rhamnus. I will report on results but I have placed a private bet that the local blue tits will be coir-compatible and will have no end of a bath in the protective layer to sabotage it. In the threatened dry season this new lawn-patch mixture sounds well worth anyone’s money, nonetheless. One £18 pack will patch 20 gaps of up to 45cm diameter each. Results are said to show well after 28 days.
Naturally there will be some impulse Easter buying. I will not fall for the potted rose-mauve flowering scabious at £7.99 each in the front hall of several big garden centres. Nor will I pay £4.99 for a potted flowering primrose. I will certainly be checking out the new Raymond Evison clematis varieties that often grow only 3-4ft high and will thus suit a big pot on a terrace. The big garden centres are full of excellent caned plants and there are plainly some exciting new possibilities. Colours, however, are hard to judge from the accompanying pictures, so care is needed.
At the upper end I might even fall for a really big white Magnolia stellata at £70 because it can go straight into a big container and transform the front garden year after year. Remember that this fine Japanese magnolia prefers lime-free, acid compost when you pot it up. If you give it the right soil it will tolerate ordinary tap water from a can for the rest of its long life. Myself, I have already shopped cannily for a cut-price bulbous Hedychium, one I can plant in a five-inch pot. It had been reduced to £2 for no obvious reason and on opening, it turned out to be two bulbs, not one.
All in all it will be non-stop gardening and perhaps my year for successful gadgets. May I reassure the deluge of protesters who have written in defence of their local club’s “water-conscious” policy for their fairways and their game’s unsurpassed attractions – I will not be wasting Easter in the garden by playing golf.