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Oh, for a Luscious Pile of Compost!

By Christopher Andreae / May 7, 1991

I DON'T know of a poet who has celebrated the fact, but one of the great things about a garden in winter (now that spring and summer are rushing at us like tidal waves) is that it is, like other sensible animals, soundly dormant. Naturally everyone delights in the surging delicacies of spring growth, but I'd like to put a word in for winter and its inspiring inactivity. The problem is that spring is so demanding. It is the time when, as poet Hopkins observed, "weeds" have an inconsiderate tendency to "shoot long and lovely and lush." Which is all very well for poets. But for gardeners who, like me, spend many a long, bemused hour touring their patches in the sanguine effort to rescue them from a mysteriously persistent state of neglect, lush weeds are an unnecessary, if not positively discouraging, distraction.

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In the stringency and bareness of winter, as garden-design cognoscenti reliably inform us, the bold structure of one's garden can be appreciated at its best. (I also like my garden at night, particularly a starless night when the street lights are on the blink; then it looks wonderful.)

In winter, the majority of growing things, except the most sinewy shrubs and skeletonic woody affairs, put up a pretty good show of dead invisibility. This is restful. Better still, a thoroughly good fall of snow turns almost everything into smooth mounds of crystal whiteness, simplifying the "structure" even more, covering a multitude of unkempt details.

Few things are more satisfying to the dormant gardener than a snow-smothered garden in which everything but a few red dogwood twigs or orange willow branches are seen. Then one can dream complacently of secret gardens and even fantasize that below the snow one's own is such: a garden of immaculate tidiness, of consummate artistry, of sensitive plant relationships. No one can gainsay this because they can't see it either. It's a glorious season.

If the snow stays around longer than it should, marvelous little items of colorful intrepidity can occur. A violet-purple iris, its apparent fragility entirely misleading, may spear up through the woolly blanket and flower intensely. Witch hazel might sport small yellow spider-flowers on naked branches. But such gestures are like the odd lone voice raised to a whisper in a silent bedroom. They are noticeable but do little to disturb the garden's comfortable sleep.

After the immobility of winter, the spring splurge does come as the most reprehensible shock, as the unexpected arrival of a baby might in a retired bachelor's home. The most disgusting, reckless abandon hijacks the garden; the sun shines on it with unscrupulous brightness ("Busy old fool, unruly sun" as poet Donne knowingly put it); thousands of orange and purple crocuses bloom noisily; and all the weeds - the docks, dandelions, thistles, and willow herbs, plus the entire host of little annual weeds, b egin to lay claim to the ground as if they had immemorial land rights. Between them and me war is declared, a war I'm in little doubt I have hopelessly lost even before it is engaged in earnest. What is needed is some summer-substance which, like snow, simplifies matters by blanketing and generally swamping the weeds.

WHICH brings me to mulch. Mulch, theoretically, is exactly the thing I'm looking for. But though a lot of people swear by mulch, saying "mulch is a good way of feeding the soil." And, "mulch is a good way of smothering weeds." And "mulch holds the moisture." And "you could do with mulch," nevertheless - the ideal mulch has so far eluded me.

There are various conventional mulchy substances. People use straw, dead ferns, spent hops, peat, even pebbles. Peat is perhaps the most obvious. But peat has recently become antisocial. Green people don't use peat any more. The reason is that so much peat has been dug up, sold to garden centers, marked up 120 percent, and resold to gardeners that there is a serious threat to the ecology of places where peat used to be part of the landscape.

Peat - which I have used now and then - has another disadvantage, at least in the permanent monsoon conditions prevailing in western Scotland: It rapidly cultivates mosses of all sorts. These mosses spread and within a year can throttle the vigorous plant.