For a while, I used to work there a day a week - looking after and "developing" the planting. This year, he had asked whether I could come again for a spring "deep-clean". So these mild days were the perfect opportunity to do so. Turns out the garden hasn't been touched since last September. At least that's what I've been told. They must have done something though, as the patch of grass was reasonably short. But the beds and planters were covered in a thick layer of last year's leaves, not to mention the debris that comes with any piece of land bordering a busy thoroughfare: stray plastic bags, empty cigarette packets, sodden bits of paper and a rainbow of sweet wrappers. Nothing was cut back either.
Thanks to inventions like the vacuum cleaner, the traditional ritual of "spring-cleaning" does not make much of a difference anymore to most homes. You can now keep dirt at bay in winter, too. Spring-cleaning indoors these days often is more a clear out, a matter of getting rid of unnecessary or unwanted stuff. Or giving an outlet to that urge to start afresh - like nature does around you - by redecorating your interiors. But outside, spring-cleaning still has meaning.
Of course, most gardeners will have done a lot of tidying up in autumn already. Even those who love bold skeletons of plants to remain over winter, hoping to see them transformed by hoar frost or snow into something magical. But for many, myself included, there always is still a fair bit to be done before the garden gets going again in earnest. And if you are lucky with the weather, there is little more satisfying than a few hours spent in this way. Yes, a fine autumn day of “putting the garden to bed” is similarly gratifying. But it lacks the rush of excitement: ahead are the long, dark and often dank days of winter.
The joys of spring-cleaning in the garden: time travels, amongst other things
In spring though, a new garden year is ahead of us - everything is full of promise, everything seems possible. And what a joy to find new growth stirring under those dead old leaves already. At the pub garden this week, I especially loved finding the pretty and plump new rosettes (not in a botanical sense!) of ice plants (Hylotelephium spectabile) and the developing new leaves of Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) and Geranium.
Using no tools but my hand to clear the narrow borders, I found myself transported back in time. Earth worms, curled-up wood lice, tiny slugs and - most importantly - the empty shells of garden snails. Oh what treasures! I've never lost the fascination with shells I felt as a child. Suddenly I was a three-year-old again, trailing after my parents as they in turn had spring-cleaned the first garden in my life. Like a robin or blackbird waiting for a tasty morsel, I followed their raking to discover all kinds of previously hidden delights. The pretty shells of the garden banded snail were a particular favourite. Since the soil in that first garden was similarly heavy as the London clay here, I'm sure unconsciously its smell must have helped my time travels.
My eyes followed the robins as they pecked here and there, hopping between the plants and onto the flowerpots. Then to the birdfeeder. Then into the Pittosporum, our only "tree". Both feeder and Pittosporum are very close to the boundary wall which on this section is covered with ivy. Perhaps they'd raise their first brood there, I thought. Because well-hidden as the bird box is once the Virginia creeper has come into leaf, right now it lacks any protection - visual or otherwise. In fact, the bare branches of the creeper could serve as a ladder for any predator keen to reach the nest. And there has been a tabby from the neighbourhood around ours recently! A super-cute, most elegant little cat, still young, but a cat nonetheless.
They all sat around and seemed to wonder what the matter had happened. They did not join in with an angry choir as they all would have if a cat or a jay was to be driven away. No, they just sat there, quietly and seemingly curious. Only the blackbird would sound a few gentle qwut-qwuts, as if to appease its angry neighbour. But the furious little wren was not to be calmed. With a decibel level you wouldn't think possible from this tiniest of birds it kept fuming, raging and complaining until finally, after several minutes, its mate arrived. That's when it occurred to me they might be breeding already.
Oh dear! The ivy definitely needed a trim. Not much, but a bit of a trim nonetheless. For otherwise it would - over the course of summer - swamp that precious bit of open soil right and left of our tree. Plants there, if not outright strangled, would receive neither light nor rain as the ivy formed kind of an awning above them from the top of the wall. I had left it till now because I thought insects would appreciate the nectar from its flowers during the winter months. What to do? Quickly, albeit reluctantly, I got out of bed and dressed. The stepladder was grabbed and manoeuvred out of doors. Not into the garden though.
Cutting back the ivy was a family effort - now the birds may do as they please
Luckily, the most important bit to cut back was on the top of the wall hence I put the ladder up on the pavement, on the other, public side of it. This way, the wrens hopefully wouldn't see me and hence not be frightened. Plus, the paving made for a much firmer and securer stand than the soil. Then the rest of the family was roped in to help: my man obligingly sawed off the thickest branches, those I wouldn't manage with secateurs. (I had only asked for the saw but he wouldn't let me...) And the children were coaxed to stuff the chopped-off trails into a big bag. It was so blustery, any bits not caught and bagged immediately had to be hunted after down the road!
Whilst I was dangling over the wall to reach as far down as possible either side of the tree, I suddenly felt very wobbly indeed. My darling offspring, rather than hold the stepladder on top of which I stood almost on tiptoe, had decided to climb after me... Not the best idea, especially in high winds.
Anyway, we got the job done and without encouraging further wrath from the wren. And yes, I made sure I cut back everything else that needed it - like the Virginia creeper - on the day, too. From inside the garden. And whilst not what I had planned for the day, it felt good to get it done and over with. As an added perk, I was closely watched and nicely entertained by the robins. The children meanwhile decided to build a den elsewhere and pad it with the hacked-off ivy.
Though I regularly see a wren now, I still don't know whether they really are nesting in our garden. Obviously, I didn't go searching the ivy-clad wall. But even if not, at least I got the spring-cleaning done!
Blackbirds at dawn... - and pretty much all day long
It's a butcher's job