May: walk on the wild side

This time of year always seems to be a tightrope walk between the sheer joy of plants bursting into life, and the sheer panic of wondering how I am going to stay on top of the gardens and my allotment.

I have, however, learnt that working with nature rather than against nature, is the route to improved peace of mind and a less sore back.

Firstly: pick your battles. You may not get on top of every weed emerging but getting stuck into the pernicious perennials such as bindweed, ground elder and the dreaded mare’s tail mean that you are tackling the thugs. Give ‘em an inch and they will take a pub lunch.

Secondly: by packing out the borders with perennials that you DO want and are good ground cover plants (such as Geraniums, Alchemilla mollis, Epimedium and low-growing ornamental grasses), you will reduce the chance of weed seeds falling onto fertile ground.

Thirdly: weed and water little and often. The hoe is my favoured tool of weed control. Watering cans are my preferred way of watering. This is quite time consuming but very economical: it is also strangely relaxing after hours in front of a laptop. Plants will be crying out for water now as they start coming into their own. A smattering of rainfall goes nowhere if the soil is dry so be generous.

Fourthly: put to good use all those peelings, apple cores and tea bags that have rotted down in your compost heap. Spread them around the base of new plants in order to keep the weeds down and the moisture in. I keep my compost heap on top of 60 centimetre timber verticals to reduce the chance of pests getting to it.

Lastly, think about filling the bare or dull corners of your garden with a walk on the wild side. A handful of bee attracting wild flower seeds on a patch that has been cleared of perennial weeds can give an extraordinary amount of pleasure, not to mention succour to the wildlife. Check the weather forecasts for ground frosts to make sure that the seedlings will not be wiped out. Cover them a horticultural fleece if you need to.

Essential jobs to do this month for the gardener with the busy life include:

  • Pruning those plants that have been affected by cold winds and the winter such as Acers or Choisyas. Cut back the stems to the healthy growth.

  • Cutting back to 10 centimetres from the ground those tender plants that are shrub-like in habit but are actually herbaceous plants. These include Caryopteris, Fuchsia and Penstemon.

  • Putting in plant supports where needed and canes to mark where vulnerable plants are emerging: by doing this they will not be overlooked when watering and weeding.

  • Lowering the blade of your lawn mower as the grass becomes more lush and more able to take a finer cut.

  • Feeding your lawn with a nitrogen rich fertiliser - preferably an organic one.

  • Tying in roses and other climbing plants. Be as brutal as you like when cutting back Clematis montana after it has flowered (short of hacking it down to the ground!).

  • Adding compost or manure to the base of shrub and standard roses.

  • Dividing and replanting herbaceous plants that have flowered including Brunnera, Pulmonaria and Primula.

  • Daffodils and other spring flowering bulbs can be lifted and divided too.

If ever you think that everyone else has got their garden in order and are disappointed that your borders do not look like those in the magazines, then remember that it was years of trial and error that got Britain’s prized gardens to where they are now. And the small matter of a couple of dozen gardeners at the owner’s disposal.

With that in mind, you are probably doing better than you imagine!

April: plant-aholics-anon

With the coming of sunny spring days, there is a great temptation to rush out and fill your car with plants from your local garden centre.

I am sure you would get ten out of ten from a gardener for enthusiasm. However, the chances of the best looking plants you see being plants that suit your particular needs, are probably zero!

My advice would be to think carefully about the spaces you are trying to fill and the character of the border you are trying to create. What is the soil type? Is the drainage good? How much sunlight gets in? At which time of year will this area be seen the most? Even as a professional, I am often dazzled by the showy plants at a nursery only to find them disappointing for the remainder of the year.

Applying the same principle when shopping at a famous Scandinavian furniture retail outlet, I try to go for the exact product I am aiming for: I try to avoid being a victim of superb marketing and highly confusing floor plans. Steeling my spirit by eating at the craftily placed cafeteria never works:it saps my will to make sound judgments as I try avoid the items placed in the path of my trolley. So beware! Garden centres are beginning to get the hang of these tactics.

Once you are back in the safety of your garden, you can go about April’s tasks with the confidence that you probably won’t be distracted by unnecessary commercial attractions. The main jobs for this month are:

· Tie in climbing and rambling roses as they take off in the warmer weather.

· Loosen tree ties where necessary.

· Cut back the stems of Forsythia once they have finished flowering

· Plants that have attractive young growth, such as Cotinus (smoke bush) and Sambucus (elder) can be cut back to make way for the bright new juvenile stems.

· Feed trees and shrubs with either an all-round slow release fertiliser, such as ‘Blood, Fish & Bone’ or with an organic fertilizer such as horse manure. Be generous to depleted looking plants and newly planted ones.

· Grass seed can be sown to create a new lawn or repair an old one. Add slightly more than the recommended amount as conditions are rarely perfect and, one way or another, quite a lot of seed can be lost to the birds, the frost or to damp.

· Be gentle with your lawn: if you cut it too hard, the structure of the stems will be damaged. For the average garden lawn, 30mm is an ideal height of grass to aim for at this time of year.

· If you have not done so already, cut back Cornus (dogwood) and Salix (willow) shrubs to 150mm from the ground. This will increase the chance of producing bright looking stems for the winter.

· Divide and replant water lilies when they show signs of growth.

· It is quite natural for your pond to go green in spring. It should clear of its own accord but if it does not, consider adding oxygenating plants. Feed your water plant baskets with specially prepared fertiliser that will not turn your pond dark green due to the excessive nitrogen.

· Try to get on top of the weeds as they emerge. A well laid out garden should have plenty of dense plant cover to suppress the weeds. Hoeing is probably the most effective and easiest way to keep weeds at bay: it is also kind on your back.

· Watch out for dry spells: these can knock the growth of a plant back, so be prepared to do some watering of newly planted trees and shrubs.

After completing these tasks, why not reward yourself with a nice plate of wholesome food.

Anyone for meatballs?

March: too good to be true?

At the risk of sounding like the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, when he cried out:“Beware the Ides of March!”, I would like to shout out: “Beware the Frosts of March!”.

Like many others, I have lapped up this recent good weather. Out at the allotment, down at the beach and on the bicycle; it has all been a real joy. The temptation now, is to charge ahead with the pruning, planting and mowing that are best left until the temperatures are consistently spring-like. You will have noticed the recent night frosts after the clear days: these are enough to damage a newly-mown lawn, knock back growth on recently pruned plants and to finish off anything that would usually be under cover at this time of year.

The best advice is to do what you would normally do at this time of year in the garden.

  • Start mulching your borders with compost or well-rotted manure in order to feed and improve the structure of the soil.

  • Keep planting bare-root trees and shrubs, but wait until the end of the month before you plant or move evergreens.

  • Cut back those dogwood and willow shrubs with the vibrant stems if you want them to produce strong colours next winter. Taking them down as far as 100mm (4 inches) from the ground is fine.

  • When the frosts are over, divide and replant clumps of herbaceous plants that have become too dense for their own good.

  • March is the best month for planting roses in heavy soil and cold areas. Prune bush and climbing roses.

  • In preparation for the new growth and flowering in the summer, prune Buddleja, Caryopteris, Ceratostigma, Hydrangea paniculata, Leycesteria, Lavatera, Perovskia and hardy Fuchsia. Look up as to what extent they should be pruned: this will vary according to what you are trying to achieve and the location of the plant.

  • Deadhead daffodils when they are over, but leave the foliage on order that the bulbs can be fed.

  • Plant and divide snowdrops and winter aconites.

  • Plant summer flowering bulbs and sow some seeds such as sweet peas.

  • Cut back ornamental grasses, even if they don’t look unruly, as this will make way for new growth.

  • If the dry weather persists, be prepared to do some unseasonal watering of newly installed plants.

I hope you do all this in blazing sunshine. If, however, you don’t, then take comfort in the fact that your March will still be a lot better than Julius Caesar’s one all those years ago.

February: hedging your bets

With cold winds blowing across the country, spells of snow and little food or shelter for birdlife, winter is the time when hedges come into their own. It is also the time when the well-maintained hedge can be easily distinguished from the badly-maintained one!

You see, when the snow weighs down on a hedge and the sides get thrashed by winds, a poor hedge will collapse outwards. This is usually because it has been allowed to become too straggly, or more importantly, it has become top-heavy.

A good hedge will have sides that are sloped inwards towards the top so that when the weight of the snow comes down, there is enough structural strength to maintain its shape. These slightly sloped sides also have another important function: they allow light to the base of the plant in the growing season so the growth is not restricted to the top. If the top part of the plant is the only part getting light, it will become top-heavy and, over time, will collapse

There you go: lessons in architecture and structural engineering when you thought it was just a hedge that needed trimming.

If your hedges are suffering at this time of year then it is probably best to tidy it up as best then plan a proper overhaul at the correct time of year. Many domestic ones can be safely tackled in spring once the frosts are over but do bear in mind that birdlife will may be nesting there - so please choose your moment carefully.

Jobs for the month include:

  • Continue to ensure tree stakes are firmly in and tree ties tight, but not too tight.

  • Tie in any climbers that have worked loose.

  • Lift and divide clumps of snowdrops and winter aconites once they have finished flowering.

  • Prune winter-flowering shrubs whose blooms have faded. These might include Mahonia, Sarcococca and Lonicera fragrantissima.

  • Wistaria can have their second prune: take whippy shoots that were pruned by several buds in June or July, and cut them back by a further two to three buds. This ensures that the flowers will not be obscured by the leaves.

  • Continue to plant bare-root stock, including roses.

  • Dig compost and manure into the borders where you can, without compressing the soil in wet weather

  • There is still time to renovate overgrown deciduous hedges such as beech (Fagus), hawthorn (Crataegus), and hornbeam (Carpinus). They can be reduced by as much as half: be careful not to disturb any long term nests.

  • Keep your bird feeders and all wildlife food topped up.

  • Avoid walking on the lawn in frosty weather as this will damage the grass.

There is plenty to see and admire at this time of year though, admittedly, this is often best done with a mug of hot something when the sun is out on a crisp, frosty morning. Beats sitting inside looking at a screen any day of the week…in my book anyway!

January: New Year, new eyes.

One of the good things about slowing down after Christmas is the opportunity to look at things properly. That may sound strange. The truth is that when I am in a hurry with a head full of “to-do” lists, it is very hard to actually take in any of the beauty around me.

I don’t see, or behold the vibrant colours of the willow stems (Salix). I miss the lines the extraordinary shades and lines in the bark of the Acers I pass. I don’t lean into the scent of the winter-flowering Viburnums as I walk past them. I am blind to the silhouettes in the evening light, blind to the shades and shifting colours.

So, instead of writing out a list of chores to do this month I would like to make a simple suggestion - and it is this: go into the garden or the countryside to collect plant material to make a centrepiece for a table or sideboard.

What!” I hear you cry. “I have never done that before”. Well, without wishing to be rude - that is the point. By being intentional, you will start looking, start seeing, start beholding. Even if the result is not exactly what you hoped for, you will have gone through a process looking at plants in a new way, with new eyes.

The next step is to decide how large you want your arrangement to be. It may be a just a small milk jug. On a larger scale, whilst stems of dogwood and willow make a good backdrop, ivy will tumble over nicely at the front of your container. Seek out the plants, colours and scents accessible to you for the centrepiece.

Try to achieve a composition of either complimentary colours or strongly contrasting ones. Don’t be afraid to play with the shapes and colours. If your courage fails, then just buy a Hyacinth for indoors and watch the effect the scent has in the coming weeks.

Adding a bit of bubbly water will prolong the life of your plant arrangement (or adding champagne if you are in HELLO magazine).

If plant material is scarce then I’m sure Santa would approve if you went to the garden centre to buy some winter favourites such as witch hazel (Hamamelis), winter box (Sarcococca) or some Hellebores. If planted correctly, you will enjoy them in years to come. Frankly, even if you plant them incorrectly, you will probably enjoy them for years to come too.

A wise old man once wrote: “Every day we are being offered a gift. Every day we are being offered a surprise: it is a bit like an apple being tossed in our direction. The question is this: are our hands open to receive that gift or are we clinging on to something from the past so hard that we cannot be open to receive anything new?”

Good point. I had better start practicing what I am preaching.

Wishing you very many happy and satisfying hours in the garden in 2019!

P.s. (See December’s garden tips for your chores: they apply equally for this month.)

December: heaven scent

It would be easy to write December off as a month when everything in the garden is dead and there is nothing to look forward to.

On the contrary: some of the best scents I know, emerge in the winter months. One only has to go around the winter gardens of Mottisfont Abbey or Hilliers Arboretum to realise how many winter offerings there are.

For example, take the tough Mahonia species, noted not just for the powerful scent but the strong yellow pinnacles of flowers. Lonicera fragrantissima is a member of the honeysuckle family: it will give off a delicious, recognizable honeysuckle scent in the coming months.

Chimonanthus praecox is a bit of a mouthful, but the common name, wintersweet, gives it all away: fragrant yellow flowers emerge on stems to brighten up even the dullest day. Finally, there is my personal favorite, the Sarcococca group: commonly referred to as winter box, this little evergreen plant packs a punch when it comes to giving off the most delicious fragrance. It is also an incredibly useful plant as it will thrive in heavy shade and in the dullest corners. A few sprigs of this on your table, I dare say, will surprise and delight anyone without the most chronic of winter hayfever!

The plants above list just the scents that can be found: wait until you see the colours!

There are plenty of things to enjoy, but also plenty of things to do that can enhance your garden this month:

  • The birdlife will be scratching around for food: fill up your winter feeders making sure, as best as you can, that they are squirrel proof. Once the birds have located your feeders, they should return again and again.

  • Be careful when you are tidying up a shed or having a bonfire: all sorts of creatures may be making their homes for the winter there.

  • A stack of logs building materials (especially clay tiles and pipes) offer overwintering bugs a hotel for the cold months!

  • Birches and Japanese maples are best pruned in December, as are edible grape vines: they are less likely to bleed sap.

  • Bare root trees and shrubs can be planted now. This is a very economical way of establishing hedges, especially as wildlife boundaries.

  • With the chances of high winds growing more likely, it is sensible to ensure that all trees are properly tethered and climbers and cut back and tied in.

  • Protect your outdoor taps from frost by covering them with hessian or bubble wrap: it is the expansion of the water when it turns to ice that bursts a pipe.

  • A log or a football in a pond will prevent the total coverage of ice during a frozen spell. Ensure the log or football can be reached and removed without you having to undertake any life-threatening stretches!

    Time is often short this month: when you do get a moment, why not take a mini tour to savor those many sweet smelling flowers? To put simply, I challenge you to find in anything so heavenly scented in the shops! On that note…


November: a clean sweep

I have a strange, antisocial urge at this time of year, to wander around the streets shouting: “Get out - quickly! The days are getting shorter and you are missing out!

I would probably be told to go forth and tree hug somewhere else, so I will stick to blogs and bullet points for the time being.

The most pressing job this month is to deal with leaves on the lawn or anywhere else where they may be a nuisance. You don’t have to get rid of them if they are covering tender plants such as Agapanthus and Kniphofia: they are doing a useful job there of creating a thermal layer. Leaves are generally not a problem on borders either as they rot down to bring organic matter to the soil.

If leaves build up on lawns however, they can affect the lawn by smothering the grass or by creating mould patches. In a compost heap they will do that too, but that is what they are supposed to do there! As long as you add some soil or special alkaline compost accelerator and, even better, some worms - you will end up with a dark organic matter with plenty of humus in it. This is good for every growing thing in the garden.

Pallets knocked together and an old rug or carpet on top is the cheapest most effective way I know of making a compost heap. Food waste is best kept above ground level in order to avoid unwanted, furry visitors.

Other than the main job of clearing and sweeping, there are plenty of other things to do this month:

· Cut off the leaves of Hellebores to make way for the winter flowers

· Tulips are best planted this month

· Perennials can still be lifted and divided

· November is the best month for planting roses

· Prune climbing roses

· Bare root trees and shrubs can now be planted. Keep the roots covered, preferably soaking them before planting.

· Make a note of the areas of lawn that become waterlogged. These are best treated in spring.

· Raise patio pots and containers onto “feet” to avoid waterlogging and put a protective layer around fragile pots.

· Wildlife will be searching for food: keep your bird feeders topped up and keep access points clear for hedgehogs.

If you have time, take a close look at some of the patterns that the frost can make, especially on cobwebs and grasses. As I said: “Get out - quickly! The days are getting shorter and you are missing out!”

October: colourfest

There is plenty to look forward to this month: crisp mornings and dramatic colours set off by blue skies on sunny days. At the end of the month there is the first chance of the year to get bare-root trees and shrubs planted.

I often get requests to plant up gardens with small, dazzling Acers, whose colour would bring drama to any garden. Unfortunately, it is only on acidic soil that these and other acid-loving plants, thrive. These soils are mostly sandy or clayey, where oaks, rhododendrons and heathers thrive.

Not to worry if you are unable to enjoy Acers, Liquidambars, Pieris and more exotic plants like the Pagoda bush (Enkianthus) where you are: there are plenty of alternatives if you are on chalky and alkaline soil. (I should add that some Acers are fine on chalky and alkaline soil, but they never produce the rich colours that they would do otherwise).

Try the humble Viburnum opulus shrub, native to chalk Downlands. There are many cherry trees (Prunus species) and Euonymus shrub varieties that catch the eye, such as alatus and europeus. Where chalky and alkaline soils really score is in the autumnal and winter berries: just go and have a wander around your neighbourhood or local countryside park and you will see what I mean!

So, if you want to roll up your sleeves this month, these are some of the autumn jobs:

· Cut back your straggly perennials, being discerning as to which plants might or might not provide useful winter seed for hungry birdlife.

· With the frosts coming, move into shelter or protect tender plants such as Dahlia tubers and Hibiscus.

· Prune climbing roses to tidy them up for the winter.

· The life of hanging baskets can be extended by pinching out dead or fading vegetation, adding some liquid feed and by regular watering.

· Raise patio containers onto “feet” of some sort in order that they don’t get waterlogged.

· Order your bare-root trees and shrubs: from the end of the month these can be bought at considerably less expense than the pampered, pot-grown ones.

· Tidy up your Buddlejas, Cornus alba and Lavatera by reducing them by half in order that they do not “rock” in the winter winds (unless, of course, you want to tell folk that your shrubs “rock”!).

· Ivy is a source of nectar and many birds will feast on the berries; keep it untrimmed if you can live with it like that.

· Piles of logs and tool sheds can make great places for overwintering hedgehogs and invertebrates, though keep seeds and any other potential foodstuffs well sealed.

Nothing like that warm feeling after a spell of gardening on a cold day.

Go on: light that fire.

September: half-baked

Yesterday I noticed a group of men in a nearby field, drilling a bore hole: they seemed to be looking for the water courses. As the recent Edinburgh fringe joke goes, it is a well boring job.

The interesting thing was that, despite the recent rains, the soil coming out was bone dry. When a digger was bought in for the next stage, the clayey soil lay on the field like a cake baked at the wrong oven setting.

House insurers suck in their collective breaths in at the first sign of drought because every house with shallow foundations built on clayey soils is vulnerable to subsidence. The small particles contract in the dry, and cracks appear in the ground: if you are unlucky, they appear in your house too.

For gardeners, the remedy for this is compost and manure: lots of it, and preferably with worms in it.

Over time, organic matter will work its way into the soil and make it more fertile and easier to dig.  Although the soil particles of chalky soil are bigger and sandy soil, bigger still, the organic matter will have the same beneficial effects: greater nutrient retention and more stable moisture content.

Autumn, not spring, is the time to start planning your muck spreading. By the time spring comes, when you plants really need it, the manure magic will be underway.

So, when you are not heaving pitchforks over your head and getting into the spirit of recent BBC period dramas, there are a number of satisfying jobs to do in September:

·  Order your bulbs for planting later this month, or next month depending on how long a summer we are having.

·  Cover your pond with a net if you are worried about excessive leaf fall

·  Make a note of those herbaceous plants that have become less productive at their centre. They will need to be divided and replanted over the next few months, saving the most active parts and composting the dying core.

·  Keep watering newly planted tree and shrubs, even when the temperature begins to drop a bit

·  As autumn sets in, it becomes less and less risky to move trees and shrubs

·  Prune late summer flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus.

·  Raise the height of the blade on your lawn mower every week until mowing is no longer required later in the year. Feed the lan if it needs it but make sure it is an autumn, not spring feed or you will end up with very sappy, unhealthy grass.

Take heart. It won't be long before you can bake whatever you like outside on the dying embers of your leafy bonfire, in the safe knowledge that you will probably burn or under cook your potatoes, sausages and marshmallows - just as you did the year before. 

August: light relief

I could have gone outside and danced in that recent rain.

It really isn't hard to see why the ancients built monuments, devised rituals and worshipped the planets in an effort to control and predict the weather. My grasp of prehistory may have been unduly influenced by Asterix books, but I "get it" when it comes to nature and humankind: the stakes are very high. Back in the mists of time, climate change was one of the main causes of migration.

These days, our modern western society is largely impervious to fluctuations in the weather. Around the world, however, these can make or break rural communities. The big fluctuations are now coming home. 

So, with a brief respite in the drought as plants drink in the recent moisture, there are a number of garden tasks that will help reduce water stress in your garden whilst you ponder the bigger picture and plan your eco-friendly holiday! They will also help you make the most of what you have got:

  • Soak drought-stressed plants, especially ones planted this year.
  • Keep your collection box off your lawnmower and keep the blade setting on high: the fine cuttings will reduce water loss.
  • Don't panic if the lawn looks more like an African plain than a Hampshire garden. It will quickly green up again when the rains return.
  • Lightly prune Lavenders and Hebes after they have flowered.
  • Roses can be deadheaded after flowering, cutting back any weak or spindly growth.
  • Prune climbing and rambling roses that do not repeat flower, taking out one third of the stems.
  • Certain hedges should be pruned in August and, if it is hot and dry, in September too. This group includes: box, hornbeam, Conifers, hawthorn, beech, holly, privet, evergreen honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) and yew.
  • Remove blanket and duckweed from ponds using a rake or a net.
  • When watering and topping up a pond, try to use your hose at a time when demand is low: early morning is probably best.

If the rains do come again this month, I am sure a rain dance is in order. 

If they don't, then why not do one anyway? Only your dignity, reputation and TV time to lose.