On Keeping Warm in July by Digging


I was going through my old files recently and found some twenty-year-old clippings of a weekly gardening column I used to write for the Herald Sun in the days when it had a lively little weekend home magazine edited by a wonderful editor, the late Tony Hitchin. ‘Write me something that you would write for a dear aunt,’ he would say. ‘Someone who loves her garden and likes a good story.’ It was good advice for any newspaper columnist and off I would go, a particular dear aunt in mind, and write something I thought she would like to read.

Amongst the clippings was a column I wrote for her in 2000, in July, that typically chilly month we are enduring now, when you would rather be by a cosy fire than in a bleak, windswept garden. It was mostly about digging and, in particular, digging and tending herbaceous perennials, those plants that produce some of our finest and favourite flowers. Unlike annuals and biennials they keep growing, becoming larger and larger each year. Hugh Johnson, one of my favourite garden writers, says that by combining the permanence and certainty of shrubs with the brilliance of annuals they make themselves indispensable.

Among these indispensables are gorgeous plants like cannas, shasta daisies, Japanese anenomes, day lilies, delphiniums, aquilegias, lupins, borage and more. They flower in their season, from early summer to late autumn, and die back, usually in winter. Some die back briefly; others for a month or two, so that you can easily forget where you planted them.

I was glad to find this clipping because I have planted a lot of herbaceous perennials in my new garden, relying on them to quickly fill the vast empty garden beds that came with the new house and hide the ugly paling fences and bare brick walls that back them until climbers and creepers take a hold. And they are doing just that: in three years they have grown so much I am wondering if I rather overdid the planting, but working on the principle that you can never have too much of a good thing, I will ignore that problem for now.

Gardening being a perennial subject, I was glad to find that what I wrote then has not dated. This is what it said.


July gardening is mostly about digging. Any list of gardening chores for this month will instruct you to plant and replant, which involves digging, to lift and divide (more digging) and to prepare for spring planting (yet more digging). At least, you can console yourself that this will keep you fit over the winter months!

So, what is to be dug? If you intend to plant a new deciduous tree, shrub or vine, you should do so this month — August at the latest — before the foliage buds start to swell, which is a sign that roots are becoming active. If you plant too late, you may lose valuable growing time and risk setting back newly-formed roots and top growth. So this job is fairly urgent.

So too is another digging job. If, over the last few years, you have ignored the advice of bossy, know-it-all garden writers like me to lift and divide your herbaceous perennials, you may have to heed it this year if their central growth is looking sparse, of if they are just getting too big for their boots and crowding out other plants. July gardening dictates that they be lifted, divided and replanted, in order to keep them healthy, and growing and flowering at their best.

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For the new gardener, these plants pose some difficulties. If they have died back, how do you find them? If they are still flowering, will it set them back to lift them? If they are so overgrown, what is the best way to go about this lifting and dividing business? Which way is up? Does this part or that part go back into the ground? How far into the ground?

It is not surprising that many declare them too difficult, and dig them up and discard them, forever. Such a shame: among them are some of our finest flowers, often out-performing annuals, bulbs, roses even.

Using a sharp spade, dig around the periphery, as deeply as possible. Prise the root mass from the ground and shake it free of soil. If it is impossible to lift the whole mass, divide it using the spade — as cleanly as possible. Select a section that looks vigorous, tease it away from the whole and re-plant it, in freshly fertilised soil, at the same depth as before. Don’t worry if you have to use a lot of force in the lifting process: they are tough and forgiving plants.

As I said earlier, I am worried that I have got rather carried away and planted too many of these obliging plants and it won’t be long before they are jostling for room in the garden beds, but as my past experience is that they are indeed very forgiving, perhaps I will wait till next year to follow my own advice and do some digging; besides it is too cold to be in the garden in this very cold month of July.

And the dear aunt who I used to keep in mind while writing my garden stories? She died many years ago. She was very exacting but I treasure my memories of her, especially her lovely garden, and when I am sewing I always use a thimble and a thread no longer than the distance between my thumb and my elbow, as she insisted, and when taking tea I always hold my teacup just so, just as she did.

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About the pics:


Irises are the signature plants at Doddington Hall in the UK. There is an excellent guide to how they are cared for on the garden website: http://www.doddingtonhall.com
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I thought I was buying creamy-white bearded irises so was a little nonplussed  when this flower appeared, but as it looks so lovely in my old Japanese Satsuma vase I have decided it can stay.
The irises can stay for now as they doing a great job filling a large empty patch in a corner garden bed. I love the silvery blue of the euphorbia in the foreground and the way it subtly blends with the true green of the liliums next door.

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Cannas are some of the most stately and fast growing herbaceous perennials. These are only three years old and I will have to take my own advice soon and lift and divide them before they fill the whole garden bed, the whole front garden even.
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A gardener lives here, that’s for sure. A kind gardener too to share it with passers-by.

One thought on “On Keeping Warm in July by Digging

  1. Hello Gillean. I, too, have been captivated by “Newlands” houses and the way they have been grouped. Love the English cottage feel to them (I’m a Pom; been here just 6 years; like you, offspring and their offspring the catalyst!) and the way they sit, unobtrusively, in the landscape. A friend of mine rescued an original overall plan of the “proposed housing commission development” from a waste-paper basket at the Council offices. I borrowed it and had it copied. Happy to show you if you’ve not seen the whole plan. Love your gardening notes. I’m learning -slowly – how to adapt my passion for cottage gardens UK style/wildflower swathes to some kind of Euro-Aus hybrid that works with this soil and climate! Be great to do a garden-visit-swap! Jenny


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