May - it be spring

I'm confused.

Today, in Hampshire, it is spring. Yesterday felt like autumn and the day before that - winter. I have had bursts of horticultural enthusiasm whilst battling with a voice in my head that whispers "Forget it mate - it isn't even spring yet".

Staring at the calendar gives me the hard facts I need. It quells my inner couch potato: next month has the longest day of the year, my birthday, Wimbledon and back ache from trying to play cricket again. So I had better get on with it!

Jobs for May include, (or should I say "enjoyable tasks" to keep your inner couch potato from grabbing the steering wheel?):

  • Lift and divide overcrowded clumps of spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils.
  • Get your mowing underway if you have not already done so. Start at a high setting and reduce the height of the blade as the season progresses. Feed your lawn with a suitable nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
  • Prune spring-flowering shrubs when they have finished flowering. This category includes Chaenomoles (quince), Choisya and Ribes.
  • Get stuck into the large Spireas and Clematis montana by thinning out a third of the growth.
  • Trim evergreens such as Viburnum tinus and show the prickly Pyracanthus who is boss by cutting back the shoots that are getting away.
  • Watch out for Viburnum beetles: despite their size they can be highly destructive . Try removing these pesky little blighters by hand before resorting to chemical warfare.
  • Thin out aquatic plants. It is still a good time of year to plant new ones too.
  • Keep on top of the weeds by hoeing.
  • Be patient with bedding plants: if you do buy and plant them out then be aware that there are probably a few frosts still to come. Protect your infant displays with some sort of horticultural fleece.

And even if it rains a bit - water, water, water - your shrubs, your new trees, your bedding, yourself, your children...you get the picture.

Then sit back and enjoy whatever season it happens to be that day - I gather we are in for some pay-back after all that rain!

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April: springing up

Yes - it is here: hard to believe, but spring has arrived. 

It is time to try to fight your way to the back of the shed to find the garden tools and to start the mower. I think that may be why Bank Holiday Monday was invented, but I may be wrong.

There is just enough time on a long weekend to work your way through the cardboard boxes from Christmas in the shed and the impossibly interlocking tools, just enough time to drag the mower out and give the starter cord a really good tug. Just enough time, in fact, to really put your back out. 

You then have all of Monday to lie on the floor groaning and being stepped over by others as you attempt to swallow dangerously high levels of painkillers, dribbling most of it onto the floor. Struggling to hold on to your dignity, you think "Is this what it will be like?". Or am I just talking about my own experience here?

The trick of course is not attempt to get your mower to do things it was never intended to do - like start cold with a blocked fuel pipe and threadbare cables. Put it in for a service or make time to raise it up onto a workbench in order to give it a good going through. 

Other options include buying electric mowers or even self-propelled ones, though I am not a fan of the latter. They creep around with a sinister hum, looking for offensively tall blades of grass. As far as I am concerned, they'd be acceptable only if they were to bring out the drinks with nibbles and call you "Sir". If all else fails, buy some sheep.

So - if the thought of tackling dysfunctional, motorised garden technology fills you with fear and loathing, there are other more attainable goals to focus on this month:

  • Cut back any remaining Cornus (dogwood) and Salix (willow) to bring out the best of their colour next winter.
  • Cotinus (smoke tree) and Sambucus (elder) can also be cut back hard to ensure the best colours for the summer and the autumn. You can leave a framework of stems if screening is needed.
  • Container-grown trees and shrubs can be planted now, but it is too late for bare-root or root balled plants. Mulching the newly planted trees and shrubs with compost, bark chippings or anything to keep the weeds off and the moisture in, will reduce the amount of watering required during their first season.
  • Variegated plants can often begin to revert back to a single colour. By pruning out the single coloured stems, the variegation will remain. Eleagnus and Weigelia often do this.
  • Hardy annuals such as sweet peas sown directly into the ground are worth the risk of frost damage as you will get an early summer show if they succeed. 
  • Weed and feed your lawn, being very careful to apply the correct dose in the correct conditions.
  • Avoid replacing roses in their same position as they will be affected by the toxic waste of the previous roses.
  • With the warmth come the pests: many, such as whitefly, can be simply squeezed or pulled off at this time of year but prepare for the inevitable slugs and snails.
  • Cometh the sun, cometh the weeds: on a sparse bed, matting and bark chippings are highly visible ways of weed control, but as a border fills out, shade from the plants and hoeing are equally effective.
  • Watch out for brackets of tree fungus that can burst out on trees at this time of year. Bracket fungus spreads easily and is pretty destructive. It will need the attention of an expert.
  • If you want to increase the chance of hedgehogs making their way through the garden, cut out a hole at the base of your fence so they can roam looking for food and company.

Above all, don't be afraid to tackle jobs and to try out new ideas in your outdoor space. Few of us will have show gardens, so don't let it become a chore: relax and enjoy it. 

As the saying goes - the bugs don't bite: only the mower does sometimes.

 

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March: a flat white

Who would have thought that a week ago, fired up by the spring sunshine, many of us would have rushed out to work in the garden? As it is, I have been snowed in at the end of an icy track in the depths of Cornwall rather than designing gardens in Hampshire.                                                                                                                                                                 Not that I am complaining: yesterday I went down the side of a hill in a kayak followed by a golden retriever - an adventure that ended in a close encounter with a bramble hedge. The sacrifices one makes in pursuit of harmony with nature eh?                                                                                                                                                                 On the subject of snow, it is interesting to note that snow in itself very rarely finishes a plant off. Snow actually as a thermal layer: think igloos and eskimos. It is the frost that causes the water to expand that damages the cell structure of plants and it is this that causes them to go limp.                                                                                                          Winter damage done by high winds causes die-back due to de-hydration and more often than not, water saturation of a root system will effectively 'drown' a plant by inhibiting its supply of air to the root system.                                                                                                           That is why planting a tree or a shrub at the correct depth and with the appropriate soil is so important: it can make the difference between a struggling or a flourishing plant in years to come.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Part of the work in March therefore, is to prune plants to ensure that the spring growth has the best chance of succeeding:

  • Prune roses and add a suitable fertiliser that will boost the flower growth in the coming season. Any fertiliser containing a high level of potassium (K) will do the job. Spread mulch around the base of the plant to help keep moisture in and the weeds at bay.
  • Prune the dead growth of climbers when the worst of the frosts are over. Honeysuckle (Lonicera), ivy (Hedera), actinidia (Aktinidia kolomikta) and the winter-flowering jasmine (Jasmine nudiflorum) will all have signs of new life appearing. Just cut back to the new growth.
  • Cut back the stems of dogwood (Cornus) and willow (Salix) when their vibrant colours start to fade. Commonly known as coppicing, this technique of taking the stems down to 5-7cms from the ground will prolong the life of your plant and promote colourful stems the following year. The cuttings are also great for flower arranging and even weaving.
  • Deadhead the daffodils but leave the foliage as this enables the bulbs to be fed.
  • Scrape off the top few inches ( 5cms) of large potted plants and replace with fresh compost giving them a sprinkling of slow-release fertiliser at the same time.

If your attempts to garden are so inhibited by the weather that you can't actually see your hand at the end of your arm, then it is probably time to do something else. I recommend finding a dog and a kayak and having a bit of fun outside.    

Don't feel guilty: just call it field research.

 

                                                                                 

February: cruel to be kind

I love this time of year: it is all about promise.

Yes, there are the horribly gloomy days when a duvet and a hot drink are the only things that appeal. However, with the temperature slowly rising and the days getting longer, there are plenty of things in Hampshire gardens to beckon us out. Every foray into the garden reveals another sign of life: those who are keen will already be preparing for spring.

                              A very practical advantage of gardening at this time of year is the fact that deciduous plants still have no leaves: it is easier to see what you are doing. I can get at all those annoying docks (Plantains)with my spiked weeding trowel and dig out the overwintering perennial grass weeds without having to fight through walls of greenery.  Likewise, trees and shrubs are far more accessible at the time of year when many of them are best pruned.

Remember - the main reasons for pruning are to remove dead or diseased growth, to shape a plant and to improve the air circulation and access to sunlight. All these factors will help keep your plants healthy. 

Mulch and feed all plants after pruning to bolster the replacement growth. Bark chippings over a handful of slow-release, organic fertiliser such as 'Growmore' or 'Blood, Fish & Bone' will do the job, as will any well-rotted manure or compost.

So, on the 'to-do' list is:

  • Between now and mid-march and after the heaviest of the frosts, many summer-flowering species can be cut back hard to encourage vigorous spring growth. This category includes Buddleja, Hydrangea, Ceratostigma, Leycesteria, Perovskia, hardy Fuchsias and deciduous Ceonothus. A rule of thumb as to how far to cut is: prune down to approximately one tenth of the existing height of the plant. 
  • Avoid pruning the deciduous Prunus species (almonds, ornamental cherries and plums) as they can be susceptible to silver leaf if pruned before the summer.
  • Snowdrops can be lifted and divided after they have flowered and whilst the shoots are still green and vigorous.
  • Trim winter-flowering heathers (Ericas) after flowering.
  • Climbers such as Virginia creeper and ivy can be chopped back to keep them in order.
  • Winter flowering jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) can have their new shoots tied into the main framework and their lateral growth shortened to about 5cms from the main stems.
  • Clematis are a bit more complex. They can be cut back to the lowest, most vigorous pair of buds the variety belongs to Group 3 (check the label). 
  • Nesting boxes for birds put up now will enable them to check out their potential homes before calling the removal men and starting a family.
  • Wait until mid-spring before turning your compost heaps as hibernating frogs, small mammals and possibly some small gardeners may still be over-wintering there.

A bit of late winter drama by way of pot-grown bulbs and primroses will not only give a bit of a colour show but will also support and encourage bees emerging from hibernation.

Not a bad gift then for humans who find it difficult to get out of bed. A few of those on the bedside table may just do the trick.

 

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January: signs and wonders

If you really look, January can be full of surprises - and they can be a lot nicer than the one you get glancing at a Christmas credit card balance.

When heaping my vegetable peelings into the compost bin yesterday I saw a green woodpecker (which, confusingly has a red streak on its head) pecking its way into the lawn looking for ants. Beautiful. A variety of birds, including other types of woodpeckers can be attracted to your garden by drilling holes into a small log and filling it with suet or another cooked food mix and then hanging it somewhere away from predators.

Another surprise has been the vibrancy of the green in the emerging Helleborus and the purple glow of Cyclamen in the fading Hampshire light. These are welcome reminders that the shortest days are now over and more life and light are to come.

Daffodils are now beginning to show their shoots - so mind where you step on the lawn! Shrubs such as Hamamelis (witch hazel), Chimonanthus (winter sweet) and Sarcoccocca (winter box) are now flowering in all their scented glory.

So when you are not out sniffing (or in some cases, sniffling), there are plenty of jobs to do to work off your own personal Christmas glory:

  • Remove old leaves from hellebores in order to show off the emerging new flowers.
  • Re-cycle your Christmas tree rather than just binning it.
  • Tie in wall shrubs and climbers cutting back ivy and virginia creepers where they are encroaching on windows and gutters.
  • Prune wisteria in the next few months to two or three buds from the old wood.
  • Check tree ties and stakes are secure, especially after these high winds.
  • Sweep worm casts on the lawn and fork any areas that are becoming waterlogged. 
  • Prune apple trees and pears. For more advice on how to do this look up:  www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=90
  • If the temperature really drops then make sure your more tender plants including peaches and nectarines are covered with a fleece or polythene.

With all the packaging that comes our way over Christmas there will be plenty of material such as bubble-wrap to use as insulation where it is needed. And there is no loss of face in wearing two pairs of socks, gloves and underlay to keep up your own insulation, especially when it is damp.

Talking of faces, I wear a good old balaclava when the wind is at its most biting. Please don’t then do what I did which was to cycle through Romsey town with a black tool tube tied to you back.

Not the brightest things to do unless you want to look like are going to start the New Year with a bang.

December: from the sublime to the recycled

Okay - I can finally bring myself to say the C- word. Here in Hampshire, the street lights are on, the daft jumpers are out and the junk mail has built up a head of steam.

There are always ways of making the festive season a little less trashy.

For starters, if you can get your compost and recycling bins organized before the brandy-soaked pudding kicks in and if you can buy wrapping paper from responsibly sourced suppliers, you will at least be a few steps along the path of recycling redemption. There are also an ever expanding range of festive goodies made from sustainable sources. 

A quick pause to think about how you are going to get rid of 'stuff' you don't want or need, as well as how you are going to shop for it, can go a long way.

A useful tip for when you buy a Christmas tree: choose a Pine (Pinus) or a Fir (Abies) species as the needles remain longer than the classic Norway Spruce (Picea abies) - unless you enjoy vacuuming around fairy light cables and catching falling Christmas trees.

When you buy a tree, cut off the bottom 5-7 cms and place the tree in a bucket of water away from a radiator: this will help to keep it hydrated. Stabilizing the bucket with bricks or stones will lessen the chance of an accident.

If the TV/shopping/relatives/barking dog/sugar-high youngsters get too much, there are several jobs to do outside:

  • Share the surfeit of food with the wildlife, especially the birds who are now beginning the hard work of surviving the winter.
  • Keep raking off the leaves and adding to the compost heap with a layer of soil every 30 cms or so.
  • Check tree and climber ties: high winds can blow these around until they work their way loose.
  • Acers, birches and vines can all be pruned now as their sap has stopped rising and so they will not "bleed".
  • Overgrown apples and pears can be pruned too but look for further advice on the RHS website if you are not sure how to tackle this.
  • Avoid pruning ornamental cherries, plums and almonds: that is for the spring/end of winter.
  • Simply cutting back your faded herbaceous plants and tidying up any debris can create a really nice sense of order in your garden.
  • If you are keen to get stuck into something challenging, now is the time to start spreading and digging in horse manure and composts to improve the structure of your soil. The better the structure, the better it will drain and hold onto the life-giving humus.
  • Remember - it is water rather than cold that will often kill a plant in winter, so be alert as to where there may be flooding. Leap into action with the fork to deal with this problem. 

Watch out if you try to sneak out for a swift one when there is a frost on the ground: frosty grass has the unfortunate habit of leaving tell-tale footprints for a long time. Not very good when they aren't in a straight line either.

Wishing you all a very, very Happy Christmas!

 

November: blowin' in the wind

I hesitate to use the C-word before the month of December but it has to be said that the colours and shapes now emerging all point to festive decorations. (Actually, it should be the A-word for Advent until the 25th, but let’s not let facts get in the way of good marketing.)

If you look at the berries, buds and the evergreens that are now becoming more dominant in the countryside as well as the garden, you will see the deep reds and clarets beginning to shine out. There are also a huge range of other colours to delight in. Just go to a winter garden at a local park or open garden and you will see the yellows of Mahonia, the slightly unreal purples of Callicarpa, as well as the extraordinary stems of birches and many cherries.

One of the main jobs at this time of year is to clear the leaves off lawns to prevent the grass being damaged by lack of light, oxygen and by mould. There are many different ways of doing this and over the years I have noticed various Hampshire archetypes:

The retired engineer will have his top-of-the-range leaf blower out at full throttle every few days, even when you are trying to have a conversation with his wife three feet away.

The member of the Green party will have superb compost heaps but will have a laissez-faire attitude towards anything too finished. They will get highly excited when they discover worms or hedgehog poo, whereupon they will probably decide that mown lawns are far too bourgeois to bother with and let it all become a ‘wildlife meadow’.

The time-pressured Dad will do a quarter of the job, get distracted then return to the garden to discover the dog and his kids have found a great way of scattering his piles all over the place. He will then just abandon the task and help himself to a beer to sip in front of the rugby highlights.

The climate change denier differs from all of the above because at heart, he really doesn’t care: the lawn takes up good car parking space and without the patience to compost anything he will use a tyre or a car seat to help generate a blazing inferno. Watching coolly as he draws on his fag he will imagine himself in an episode of Top Gear involving fire engines and police helicopters.

I am not sure where I fit into the above but music, a lot of time and the promise of cake are essential for me to complete the job.

Tasks this month that are less laborious include:

·         planting out tulip bulbs for next year’s show.

·         pruning deciduous trees and shrubs removing dead, diseased and damaged wood to give the plants a good shape.

·         finishing up the last of the autumn pruning to get Buddlejas, climbing roses and any other plants that may get very straggly and knocked about by the wind in the winter months into a more compact shape.

·         ordering and planting bare-root roses.

·         protecting newly planted trees with tree coils: squirrels, rabbits and deer will all be getting hungry and soft bark will be a good source of food for them.

·         adding a layer of compost onto and around any of the more tender or exposed plants you may have.

·         covering any fragile pots that may be damaged by frost.

·         removing pumps from the surface of ponds where they may get damaged by the expanding water when it freezes.

·         turning off the water supply to outdoor taps and then opening the taps to let the water drain away.

·         cleaning out bird boxes so they can be clean for winter nesting.

Finally, please check that your bonfire piles don’t have any hibernating hedgehogs or toads buried in them: you will not only have to live with yourself if you commit an infernal crime but you may also have to deal with the neighbour who is a member of the Green party.

If you really can’t face burning the pile or even the upcoming festivities, then just join the hedgehogs and the toads: if you add a few layers of soil as you would do in a conventional compost heap, then cover it with a rug, the pile will soon be generating its own heat. There are there are worse places to sit and eat your cake and sip your tea.

You wouldn’t be the first to do that either.

October: digging it

I love plants - and I'll tell you why.

You can stare at them, smell them, touch them, dig them up and, darn it, you can even eat them. Mostly I love them because they are nothing like call centres and mobile phone assistants. A full half of my day yesterday was spent on an inter-continental password odyssey as I was ushered from one "live chat" line to another in an effort to answer a simple question.

Ending up where I began, I felt like breaking down in tears and proposing to Ekta from BT: she finally told me what I wanted to know. We had some meaningful internet chat about apples and the minimum wage but overwhelmed by emotion, I had been released from my telephonic torment and was now free to roam the wild plains of Hampshire, unfettered by technological tantrums.

That's why I love plants. They don't answer back and you can propose to any of them at any time. You can even dig them up and divide them and, like trusting patients, they bear with you believing that you mean them no ill.

Well now I have got that off my neurotic designer chest, here are the jobs I will be tackling this coming month, preferably in the autumn sun with a cup of tea at hand:

  • Although the summer will roll into autumn, cutting back the herbaceous plants that are fading and sprawling will create a sense of order in your garden. Lift and divide ones that are overgrown clumps, especially if the core of the plant is no longer producing vigorous stems. Keep the newer sections and discard the redundant core to make way for healthier specimens.
  • Climbing roses often look straggly now: cut back the wild side stems to the main stems and cut out any main stems that are looking old or diseased in order to give healthy air circulation. Climbing roses are generally very robust, so don't be fearful of bold pruning: it will make them manageable and floriferous next season.
  • If you keep dead-heading and feeding your pot and hanging basket displays, you should be able to eke out several more weeks of colour.
  • Lawns can be scarified, raked and given a top dressing of soil. They can also been given their autumn feed to boost their growth in spring. Scarifying is basically hand or machine raking a lawn in order to remove the debris known as thatch that builds up at the base of the stems. Some lawns are green but don't have much grass in them, so be careful as to what you are getting yourself into.
  • Sowing grass seed can be successful if done soon and turf can be laid at just about any time of year other than in frosty conditions.
  • Deciduous hedges can be given a final trim to keep them tidy for the winter months.
  • Likewise, shrubs due for a hard cut in the spring can be made manageable for the winter by giving them a half prune. Plants in this category include Buddleja davidii, Cornus alba and Lavatera.
  • Trees, shrubs and climbers can be moved when the cool really sets in.
  • Keep leaves and decaying plant matter out of your ponds by using covering nets or by whiling away the hours dreamily dragging a pond net over the surface whilst you compose poetry in your head.
  • Keep an eye on the weather reports so you will be ready to bring in any tender plants or cover tender border perennials with straw or bracken. 

After all that exhausting emotion on the phone and soothing activity, it will be time for my favourite job: sitting, sipping and staring.

Does it get any better?

September:ch-ch-ch-changes!

It may seem a bit odd to be doing this now, but September is a great month for planning next year's garden. 

We are entering the prime time for lifting, dividing and replanting herbaceous plants. As a general rule, when autumn sets in, it will be the turn of most shrubs to be moved and planted, followed by trees in the winter.

So if there are parts of your garden where you see jarring colour combinations or areas that are downright boring, now is the time to have a rethink.

Here are a few principles that can help you to plan your borders or growing areas.

  • Aim for contrasting shapes and textures so that the plants show each other off.
  • Evergreens can give structure: these can be hedges, single 'statement' plants or if you have a large garden, planting groups of evergreens to give screening and interest.
  • Punctuating borders with tall herbaceous plants will add drama. A current favourite is the tall, swaying grass Stipa gigantea but Delphinium, Verbascum and Macleaya will all grab the eye
  • Try to have continual all-year round interest particularly in patches that you can see from the house in winter. Evergreen shrubs such as Mahonia, Viburnum tinus and the deciduous Viburnum fragrans are a few of the safe bets as well as the herbaceous Hellebores. 
  • Climbing plants can really soften the appearance of buildings, including those garish, brand-new sheds. Running roses up trees, trellis and fencing can often produce a romantic effect, but be discerning when you buy your climber. You are entering the world of Jack and The Beanstalk if you plant rambling rather than climbing roses and the common name of Polygonum (Mile-a-Minute) might give you a clue as to what you will be up against there. 
  • Unloved but sunny corners can be marvellous places for sowing an annual wildflower meadow. You will need to work clearing out the competition right up to the sowing of the seeds in late spring after the frosts, but the beauty of an annual wildflower meadow is that it thrives on poor soil and needs little intervention. ( I will be returning to this topic in the spring). I am still enjoying my bee-attracting patch and will do for at least another month.

I am frequently amazed at how well 'unplanned' plant combinations work so well. All sorts of unwanted plants come my way when a garden design is being implemented and the residents of the communal area where I live are only too pleased to see them.

It is wonderful to see an unpromising bunch of muddy roots grow into the most surprisingly beautiful blend of colours and textures. Before long they will be attracting the birds and the bees.

But I won't go there now: that's another story.

August: home and away

Well, we wanted rain - but this is ridiculous.

Orkney (according to the BBC), received more sun than Cornwall in the past few weeks and Hampshire had a greater increase in average rainfall than any other county.

Of course, there are upsides to all of this: I no longer have to rush out every evening to water my allotment; my potted plants don't look as if they are on the brink of extinction when I go away and lawns look as if they are, well, lawns.

All this rain has extended the growing and flowering period of many plants which by now would have been well past their best. The tall Golden Oats grass (Stipa gigantea) seem to have done particularly well and the moisture loving plants such as the perennial Lobelia and Monarda are lapping it up. By this time of year there is usually a faded crispness to trees and shrubs, so a celebration of the wet spells is quite in order. 

There are a host of great gardens open at this time of year and I never cease to get inspiration and heaps of ideas just from looking at all the shapes and forms of the varied plant life.

It won't be long before the evening air cools down quickly and there will be a crispness in the air.

So, if you are not going away on holiday, step outside into your patch and enjoy what is all around you. The following are gentle tasks to focus on and take you away from your laptop:

  • Evergreen hedges can have their final trim.
  • Trim young Lavenders being careful to only cut 25mm (1") into the new growth.
  • Dead-head the faded blooms of your pots and hanging baskets. A liquid feed will give them a boost too.
  • Roses too can be deadheaded once they have finished flowering.
  • Rambling roses can be pruned now but don't be too ambitious: get a tree surgeon in if you have a monster.
  • Adjust the height of your lawn mower according to how vigorous the growth is. Be careful not to mow too hard.
  • Any patches of bare soil can either be left for the birds to enjoy a "dust bath" or can be a place to sow the seeds you have collected from your favourite plants, including wild flowers.
  • If a dry spell does come along, you may need to top up your pond.

Plants from all over the world will have been collected, curated and nurtured so we can enjoy them in our gardens. Every plant species will have a story, will have a country of origin and will have their place in the local ecosystem. Some will be indigenous species, others from distant continents.

So out you go and give them some TLC. Someone probably risked their neck to get one of those species transported back to this country.

And it wouldn't have been a holiday for them either!