August: downpipe time

They say that necessity is the mother of invention: looking at the emerging garden philosophies of using drought tolerant, low maintenance planting schemes, that certainly seems the case.

Instead of putting more of a burden on our water supply and in an effort to reduce labour costs, landscape schemes are incorporating more grasses and other drought resistant plants.

Fewer formal rows of bright annuals being planted out, and, in their place, we are seeing carefully selected wildflower mixes that climax at a time of year when they are likely to be appreciated. A perfect example of this philosophy in action is the Queen Elizabeth Park in the former Olympic park. Seed mixes are constantly being experimented with in order that they can provide interest throughout the year. Dr Nigel Dunnett of Sheffield University is the man to look out for with this.

The domestic gardener can learn a lot from these new approaches. August is traditionally the time when additional watering is needed to help sustain newly established plants and to keep hanging baskets and containers healthy. We all know the virtues of water butts but a few brave folk are imitating the initiatives taken on large landscape schemes by diverting the water from downpipes straight into borders and grass. This creates the possibility of having a semi-wetland ecosystem whereby a greatly more diverse planting scheme and the subsequent wildlife it will attract, can be sustained.

So whilst you are thinking of how to become more “green”, here are some of the jobs to do in August:

  • Prune Wisteria by cutting back current year’s side growth to about 150mm

  • Trim Lavender after it has finished flowering being careful not to cut back into the leaves if it is an older plant

  • Continue dead heading container plants, roses and herbaceous plants such as Geraniums, that repeat flower

  • Cut back rambling roses once they have finished flowering

  • Trim hedges before the colder weather slows down their growth

  • Give lawns a light trim rather than a heavy mow. Leave the collection box off as that will help keep the moisture in the lawn in drier weather

  • Keep ponds topped up and remove any blanket weed that might be blooming. The topping up of the pond is best done when the demand for water is not at its peak.

  • Water any newly established plants, especially if there are signs that the plant is stressed.

    Ornamental grasses have become very popular and there is a good reason for this: many of them can cope with both wetland and drought conditions. They can also look fabulous in the dormant months, especially in the morning sunlight after a frost. You also don’t have to worry about watering them when you are away on holiday, so you can think about a different sort of watering...

July: naming names

If we are lucky, we keep on learning.

Horticulture is no exception and that, to me, is one of the fascinations of this world. Right from the start, plant names have always baffled and intrigued me in equal measure. As time has gone on, I have learnt to appreciate the logic, stories and history behind some of the names.

For instance, did you know that the charming Lupin derives its name from the Latin word for ‘wolf’ or ‘destroyer’? It turns out that some vigorous species of Lupinus could devastate agricultural land. On the other hand, the common daisy is named as Bellus in horticulture which means ‘pretty’ in Latin.

The most common form of sage has the botanical name of Salvia officinalis: Salvia was the name given to it by Pliny because it had medicinal properties that made it safe, saving and healing. Officinalis means ‘of the shop’, implying that it is common and readily available. The late summer flowering Aster is named after the stars (as in asteroid) due to it’s stella-like flower shape.

As with the human family, behind every name lies a story, not least of the plant hunters who risked their lives finding and transporting plants to the west from around the world. Next time you tread on the rather unglamorous Viburnum davidii, think of the French missionary and plantsman Father David out there in the wilds of China. Pet shops up and down the land are forever indebted to him as he also introduced us to Gerbils !

So when you are ready to get off your sun lounger and away from your book on the history of plant names, there are a few essential tasks to be done this month:

  • Water your containers and newly planted trees and shrubs: it is surprising how quickly they will dry out.

  • Deadhead roses and keep an eye out for signs of powdery mildew, blackspot or rust. Prevention is always better than cure so water, feed and pick off rust or blackspot affected leaves.

  • Cut back delphiniums and geraniums after the first flush of flowers to encourage a second flowering period. Feed after cutting them back.

  • Prune June-flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus and Weigela after flowering. Prune deciduous magnolias if necessary.

  • Fast-growing hedges such as Leyland cypress should be clipped as necessary throughout the growing season.

  • Box plants and hedges have been increasingly susceptible to damage by caterpillars in recent years. If you find any, pick them off or spray them but be aware that warm, wet weather will cause leaf drop due to box blight fungal infection.

  • If your floral displays need perking up give them a weekly shot of high-potassium liquid fertiliser. Deadhead the flowers when they are over.

  • The bird population will appreciate keeping the bird bath topped up but by keeping them clean, you prevent the spread of diseases such as bird pox.

  • Ponds are never maintenance-free! Thin out vigorous oxygenating plants leaving the prunings on the side of the pond to allow the aquatic creatures back into the water. Try to keep about 30% of the water clear of plants.

  • Try to use your hose outside the times when the water system is most in demand.

If your garden and your holidays seem a bit tame, then pick up a good book on the adventures of the plant hunters. The huge Douglas fir was named after David Douglas: he began life in Scotland and ended his days in Hawaii. Not bad for a plant nerd.

June: garden carnivals

I get worried when Gardeners Question Time starts irritating me: have I finally become Mr Grumpy? The questions are perfectly sensible, the answers perfectly sensible and the whole event is thoroughly, well… sensible.

The reason for my unruly disquiet was probably given to me when I recently visited a botanical garden. No“Little England” on display here! The plants were from all over the globe: some were messy, some wild, some aromatic and some outrageously beautiful. Above all - it wasn’t sensible: there was life, drama and colour.

The difficulty that most amateur gardeners face is that the palette of plants on offer at most garden centres is so sensible: it is easier for them if they play safe. The truth is, however, that if you really do understand your soil, your particular microclimate and your aspect, you will be able to include a huge range of interesting plants.

Is your garden very sheltered with a sunny wall and well-drained soil? Try growing a palm tree or a passion flower climber. Is it poorly drained with an open aspect? Look into the huge range of ornamental grasses now available that will give you all-year interest. Is it acidic soil with deep, humus-rich soil? Try expanding the range of plants with some unusual Acers or less common bulbs such as a Fritillaria - the snake’s head fritillary.

Once you actually know the conditions of your garden, you will not actually be taking that much of a risk. If one or two things don’t work out as planned then simply move them! You will be surprised by how creative you can be.

In between creating a garden carnival, the jobs to do this month include:

  • Putting out summer bedding hanging baskets and bedding now the frosts are over

  • Cutting down the stems of the spring flowering bulbs such as daffodil

  • Cutting and clipping Privet, box and evergreen honeysuckle hedges (Lonicera nitida)

  • Philadelphus, Kolkwitzia, Weigela and Deutzia can all be pruned after they have flowered. In doing so the new growth will have time to develop in order that they may flower the following year.

  • Give Clematis montana a good hacking if needed (they can take it!) and tie in climbers

  • Remove stems of any variegated plants that are reverting to their original colour or the whole plant will ‘revert’

  • Stay on top of the weeds, especially the thugs such as ground elder, bindweed, mare’s tail and bramble: nothing like a bit of spade action to get them out!

  • Give ailing plants a shot of liquid feed as that is the best way to give them a lift

  • Keep a close eye on the soil moisture levels as newly established plants can easily suffer

  • Keep your lawn trimmed but don’t go mad if drought conditions appear

When you are done with the above, try a village fete or two for some unusual plants. They are usually ridiculously good value here and profits go to a good cause. The cream teas are usually fabulous too, not to mention the home made jams.

Tell me - what is there not to like?

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…

    A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

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!”