A few days ago I returned from France: I was looking at a garden with a number of challenges.
Approximately 30m x 30m and on a steep slope, the garden nestled on the edge of a small valley in a village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The topsoil was alkaline with poor nutrition: in the rainy months it was in danger of being washed away by heavy downpours.
Tricky to negotiate, the garden slope was proving to be a challenge to maintain. The retaining walls at the bottom of the slope were badly deteriorating. At the top, and adjacent to the house, a large water tank had been buried under the stone terrace.
Let me ask you: what would YOU do if you were only there in the warm months, the strimming of the grass took forever and your appetite for hillside pruning of shrubby gardening was diminishing every year? (Yes, this IS a test to see how much attention you have been paying in recent months!).
Well, I can tell you what I came up with anyway.
The clue for me was understanding how the locals managed their land. Where there was unwanted scrub and grass, livestock was fenced in and left to clear the vegetation. The direction of rainwater was clearly managed too: this not only reduced the chances of damage being done to structures but allowed for a layer of decent soil to become established and enriched by animal manure.
For the garden in question, by establishing a drainage flow, the rainwater could be safely channelled to the least destructive outflow point. By planting fruit trees in a regular pattern and close to the water flow, they could be irrigated and the roots would help bind the soil. Instead of just scrubby grass, a wildflower meadow could provide colour and insect attracting perennials in the warmer months when the house was occupied. In order to alleviate the need for hours of expensive strimming when the meadow needed to be mown, a goat or one of the small, local grazing ponies could quickly clear the garden of the meadow growth.
When it came to irrigation, you guessed it: the large buried water tank would be able to feed a smaller holding tank that could drip feed the fruit trees on the slope, especially in the crucial early years and early months of spring.
What excited me wasn’t just the sheer beauty of the area with its expansive views of the vineyards and distant blue mountains. It was the fact that, once again, by looking at how generations of smallholders have managed their precious land and by going back to first principles, more recent developments can be used: the latest seed mixes, new irrigation technology and newly bred fruit cultivars can be introduced to this garden.
If you think about it, these first principles of water management, of allowing nature to show us what works best and of harnessing the power of waste, are equally applicable to the local garden as they are to the country field.
So when you are not dreaming of owning a vineyard, there are a few tasks to be attended to this month:
Beech and hornbeam can be given a light trim to keep them neat throughout the winter. As semi-evergreens they provide useful screening
Deadheading will still produce results, especially with Dahlias that can look good until the first frosts
Be selective when cutting back your herbaceous plants: many of them will provide seeds for wildlife as well as being attractive in the winter frosts and sunlight
Raking out the thatch from your lawn (scarifying) and using a fork or an aerator to spike your lawn will improve drainage and the quality of your lawn. Where there are bare patches, sowing seed over spread topsoil and feeding the lawn in spring will give a fresh, green appearance.
Divide herbaceous perennials that have become too big for their spot: it is remarkable how many plants can be teased out of one large clump. Be generous and give some of it away: you are very likely to have the compliment returned.
If you have a pond near a tree, it is worth placing a net over the water to catch the leaves when they descend in autumn
Order and plant spring-flowering bulbs
One tip I would like to pass on when exploring sustainable gardens: maybe you should ask your family first before you bring home a goat from the market to mow the lawn. Maybe just settle for some long grass, a some wildflower seed and a high setting on the mower?