Friday, 4 March 2011

Fri: Prairie Pruning.... again!

Well, it's a big job... this morning, despite a cold start, I started tackling the left-hand bed. I would have preferred, in some ways, to have finished weeding the right hand bed first, but when I left last time, the Client commented on it - and if a Client comments, then it has to be done!

Such are my rules of Being A Professional Gardener: it's the clients' garden, not mine, and I remember that at all times.

So what was I doing today? Continuing to chop down all the huge grasses in the bed, clear up the debris, and dig out as much couch grass as I can get to. When the grasses are in full growth, I can't get to their bases - especially the Spanish Oat Grass, which seems to have needles at the end of every frond, and a heart-stopping capability of finding where my eyes are.

When these beds were created, the designer's contractors didn't pay much attention to removing the perennial weeds, and I have spent the last three years battling with the thistles and the couch grass. The thistles are pretty much beaten, but the couch grass has found safe havens in the large grasses, and it's a fight every year to get out as much as I can through the winter.
This winter, of course, it's been horrible, horrible weather and I am way behind schedule: I like to have all the grasses cut down by mid Feb at the latest, otherwise they shed their dead leaves - this is mostly the Miscanthus - and make a mess.

Well, this year I'm having to pick up the mess, and believe me, it is a mess! The only good thing is that by not cutting down the clumps, they have acted as barriers and have caught most of the leaves.....
Here's a fair example of what the beds looked like before I got round to them - a mad tangle of grass fronds, stalks, Verbena bonariensis etc.

And I would like to point out that the Verbena has stout stalks which are pretty much square in cross-section, and every edge has sandpaper on it. Well, not really, but that's what it feels like, and I generally get scratched to depth when pruning them.

That is possibly another good thing about not having done them in autumn - at this time of year I am well bundled up in lots of layers, so I didn't get any scratches!

Here is the Spanish Oat Grass, Stipa gigantea: there are at least 20 clumps of it in the two beds, and they just get bigger and bigger... I have to say, they do look fantastic all through late summer into autumn, but once the flowering spikes start to dry out they quickly get quite scruffy.

In this garden, my plan is to go round them about once a week and snip out any damaged flowering spikes, leaving as many as possible for as long as possible.

Then over the winter, they get their annual haircut.

Firstly I cut out all the stumps of the broken flowering spikes - this involves getting the secateurs right inside the clump, while being slashed from all sides. You can't pull them out, otherwise clumps of roots come out as well.

Having got rid of them, I then give the whole clump a haircut - here's the same one 10 minutes later - then rake through the shortened clump to get out as much of the dead stuff as I can.

I am always in two minds about cutting Stipa gigantea in this way, as it's one of the few evergreen grasses, but in this particular garden there are paying guests all year round, so I like to keep it as neat as possible.

Also, the fronds hand out over the grass - the designers planted several of these grasses way too close to the edges of the beds - and it ruins the grass. So by cutting them back hard in winter, it gives the grass a chance to green up before they re-grow. You can just see the edge of the lawn on the bottom left hand corner of the photo - that shows just how close they planted the grasses to the edges!

I have been moving some of the worst positioned clumps, but it's very heavy going. I am growing on seedlings of the Stipa gigantea at home, and I plan to replace overlarge clumps with new, smaller ones, over the next year or two.  This is also a necessary move as most of the original clumps are infested with couch grass and indeed with ordinary grass, and it's not possible to get them completely cleared without lifting them. And if I'm going to lift them, then they might as well be replaced a bit further in to the bed, and they might just as well be replaced with a strong, younger plant.

Here is one of the many clumps of Miscanthus, I'm not sure which one as they don't have a planting plan.

It's one of the sinensis group, and it's definitely a variegatus, but as you can see, they are a lot bigger than most of the variegatus !

This clump is higher than my head, and there are probably a dozen of them in these two big beds.

A couple of years ago I had to lift one clump that was badly infested with couch grass, and I split it into half a dozen smaller ones, replanting them around the beds. They are now all as big as this one! It never ceases to amaze me that you can take two bigs plants side by side, split one of them into tiddlers, and in no time at all you can't see the difference.

Talking of seeing the difference, here's that clump, chopped down to neatness.

Again, you can see just how close to the edge they all are - and last year I recut the left hand edge of this bed, taking it back at least a foot.

This is such an elemental mistake, to plant big plants too close to the edge of a bed, and I am still amazed that it was done by a professional garden designer.

Mind you, many of the smaller grasses - the Festuca glauca, those pretty little blue grasses in particular - were what I call "mound planted", where whoever planted them didn't bother to make a deep enough hole, so the original root ball ends up sitting proud of the earth. The first year I worked in this garden, I spent some time each week lifting the little grasses and replanting them at the correct depth.

Right, that's my grumble over for today!

So, in case you are thinking about installing some Prairie Planting,  the maintenance procedure is to rake up the worst of the dead leafage around the clump, put in wheelbarrow.  Cut stems, put in wheelbarrow. Rake out as many dead stems as possible. Dig around the clump to loosen the soil, and to find the couch grass runners. Pull gently to get as much out in one piece as possible. Leave "soft" weeds for next time. Empty wheelbarrow. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Oh, I missed out Return from bonfire heap and laugh at the blackbird and the robins who have swooped down in my short absence to have a good scavenge around the newly exposed soil.

One whole morning later, back just starting to ache, I'm well over three-quarters of the way round the left and bed, should be able to finish this phase of the job on Monday, weather permitting: only it's getting colder, and frost is forecast, which might slow me down.

Then, when this phase is done, I have to go over the entire bed again, weeding. I prefer to do that separately from the chopping down, in order to keep couch grass and hard stuff on the bonfire heap, not in the composty bins. 


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