I absolutely adore spring and early summer. As beautiful as they are, I’ve got to admit that by March the novelty of brown leaves hanging on Carpinus bushes has rather worn off on me and I develop a fixation on inspecting leaf buds on the bushes in the nursery, as if looking at them will accelerate their development. This annual preoccupation usually lasts for a good two to three weeks before finally, and not a moment too soon, spring comes bursting through. And how glorious it is when it comes!
I’ve been particularly aware of it this year since two large gardens we’ve just built had designs that depended largely on deciduous plants and I couldn’t wait to see how they would develop as they filled out. Watching the change of seasons closely, it’s astonishing just how fast the onset of spring actually is. Just a few days of warm weather and – bang! – lush greenery is out before your eyes. I can’t quite put my finger on what it so magical about it, but there is something deeply satisfying in seeing the fresh growth burst out even in the evergreens, picking up the baton from the leaves that did their duty through the previous year and carrying the battle scars to show for it. Like a clean slate you get given as a gardener each new season, you are excused by the plants for the lack of water or insect attack that you allowed last season as they fill out with a fresh new coat. That said, the thickness and colour of this new coat is influenced by how you have fed and trimmed the plant – so not entirely independent of your actions. To me therefore, it also serves as a reminder that in gardening, as in life, fortunes and reward travel in cycles, with one’s actions creating effect further down the road.
For someone as studiously unreligious as myself, this is about as close as I get to belief in a higher order and obvious to anyone who has me as a messenger phone contact: my pseudonym is “Chauncey Gardiner” (from the 1979 film Being There with Peter Sellers, one of my heroes). In the film, one of my all-time favourites, Chance the gardener (whose name is misinterpreted in the film by one of the characters to “Chauncey Gardiner”), a simple mind whose entire knowledge is derived from gardening and television, has his humble remarks about life in the garden interpreted by business leaders as wise allegorical insights on business and the economy. From having enjoyed the film’s comedy on a superficial level when I first saw it, I have since come to believe in a deeper genius, as to my mind, both business and the wider economy truly do have some close parallels with the natural world. On the subject of cycles, in the immortal words of Chance: “First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”
Not a spectator sport
Although you can (and we do) plant plants at any time of year with the exception of late August when it is really too hot, you get the best out of the growing season if you can get new plants into the ground before mid-May. The lush burst of spring growth that happens from then on is not one of natures most subtle developments: it’s about as understated as being hit round the head with a spade and evident to anyone with eyes. The dramatic changes above-ground however are accompanied by a hidden burst in root development, and if this can be in the ground rather than in a pot in the nursery, so much the better for the plant for the coming season. As far as pruning goes, don’t be cruel to your plants and prune too late: Olive trees, oleanders and all the other classics of a Mediterranean garden that need regular thinning or reducing should be dealt with before they expend their energy developing shoots high up in branches that you subsequently decide to amputate. Depending on where you live, once you are sure that the cold weather is over, get in there and carry out the trimming before the plants gear up for growth. This effort to trim before the plants start to grow maximises the plant energy where it is required for new growth and avoids over stretching the plant's reserves.
Once you’ve got all the spring preparation out of the way and growth is in full tilt, you shouldn’t rest on your laurels (or any other plants for that matter). The fresh spring plant development is very tender and even the tougher plants have leaves that are soft when they fist come out. Keep a good eye out therefore for pests such as greenfly, scale insects and the ubiquitous Cicadelle, a small white fly that is fairly easy to eradicate but has a nasty habit of returning a few days after you have treated the plant. All of these love to feed on the soft fresh growth, as yet unhardened by the sun, but in doing so they create damage that will be evident on the leaves for the remainder of the season. If you have plants that are affected, a quick shot of general insecticide will usually do the trick. Alternatively, although a little less ecological, one can opt for the preventative approach on the worst affected plants by spraying before the problem occurs with a systemic insecticide. Absorbed by the plant through the leaves, this provides enduring protection for at least three to four weeks, and is especially useful on plants that are notoriously easily attacked by insects, such as peaches, nectarines and citrus fruit.
Likewise, do not neglect the roots. Having fed your garden (hopefully) over the winter, you’ll soon need to be repeating the procedure, but this time with a little more nitrate to support the new growth. In the immoral words of Chance the gardener: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. All will be well in the garden.”
In these times of economic uncertainty, with Europe faltering and several countries on the edge of an economic precipice, is this referring to plants or to the roots of an economic recovery? Either way, to me this has never made more sense. But then again, perhaps I’m just a little simple.