Garden Tips June 2017

With a dry winter in the South East followed by a dry early spring, this month we are focusing on watering.

The most important thing to remember is that water is required at the roots of plants. Dry soil surfaces do not mean that there is a lack of water where it matters, so probe deeper to see what the soil is like lower down.

Established trees and shrubs have extensive root systems and rarely require extra watering. However, newly planted trees and shrubs will need additional water. Putting in a watering tube when planting will help. In general, targeted watering is a good idea to make the most of this precious resource. It also starves competing plants (like weeds) of water so means less weeding in the long run. Simple methods like cut down soft drinks bottles, flower pots sunk into soil, or more sophisticated irrigation systems like seep hoses work well at getting water to where it is needed.

Watering tubes for new fruit bushes

Watering tubes for new fruit bushes

Watering points in potato trenches

Watering points in potato trenches

Grass is quite resilient, so existing lawns generally don’t need extra water unless you are determined to have a bowling green. The main exception is after applying a lawn treatment if forecasted rain does not arrive. In this case use a garden sprinkler to simulate a good shower.  As with trees and shrubs, new lawns are much less resilient and if you have had turf laid or have re-seeded grassed areas then you will need to water assiduously until the new grass plants are established.

Fruit and vegetables will need extra water in dry spells, especially when crops are swelling. Avoid “little and often”, which only wets the surface. Instead, focus on a good soaking every now and again to ensure that there is moisture at the roots.  Root crops like carrots and parsnips need to drive down in search of water to produce the swollen tap roots that we want to eat.  If there is too much water at the surface the roots will fork as they seek water.

It is also possible to recycle water. If it is practical to fit them, then water butts collecting rain water run off are very useful.  Rain water is particularly useful for for acid loving plants like Camelias. It is also possible to reuse water used for washing fruit and veg (collect the water in a bowl from the running tap). “Grey water” such as used bath water can be siphoned into watering cans with a few caveats – make sure it has cooled down before you use it, make sure you use it as soon as possible as it does not store well, and do not use it on any produce you will eat raw.

And finally, water in the early morning rather than the heat of the day or the evening. Evening watering can create cool humid environments around the plants that foster fungal diseases and watering in the heat of the day is wasteful as the water evaporates before it can soak in.  So it is best to make use of the light early mornings to get out there early and enjoy the calm of the morning and the sound of birdsong while keeping your plants healthy.

Garden tips – May 2017

In May it is usually safe to assume that the risk of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up, so this is a busy time for gardeners.  Jobs for May include:

  • Plant out Dahlias and Cannas. If you’ve been over-wintering them for protection, they can now be planted out into their desired positions.
Dahlia 'Karenglen'

Dahlia ‘Karenglen’

  •  Work on daffodil clumps. If flowering has declined then your daffodil bulbs may be congested, planted too shallowly, be in a position which is too dry, or be infected by pests or diseases. Now is the time to dig them up, check them over, and divide congested clumps. Any infected bulbs should be discarded. You can add any previously potted-up bulbs to increase numbers. Before planting ensure you alleviate compaction to aid drainage, and add compost and some general purpose fertiliser to give the bulbs a feed. Bulbs should be planted 2 or 3 times their depth.
  • If you’re growing strawberries, then a high potassium feed (such as tomato feed), given every week or so will help to boost flowering and fruiting. Because of the late frosts in April, you may see signs of “Black Eye”. This is not a serious problem, but means that the flower has been damaged by frost and the fruit will not set. You can remove any affected flowers.
Early Strawberry Fruit

Early Strawberry Fruit

  • Now that the ground is warming up, it is a good time to sow tender vegetables like runner beans direct into the soil where they will crop. Plant two beans per station and select the strongest plant once they are through. Tie them to their supports at first, and then they will climb away on their own. Runner beans love moist soil, so keep well watered and mulch in June. If you are wary of climbing beans, there is a dwarf variety called ‘Hestia’ which only grows to about 45cm and works well in containers.  If early sowings of crops like carrots and parsnips have only given patchy germination, re-sowing now will still give ample time for the later plants to catch up.
  • Late May is also the time for planting out the the tender members of the Cucurbit family (courgettes, pumpkins, squashes, marrows etc.)  These don’t like going out when the ground is still chilly and are not frost hardy, but once conditions get warmer, they’ll race along as we discovered when we started growing them.
  • Finally, with the Chelsea Flower Show coming up, the end of May is time for “The Chelsea Chop” on your late flowering perennials (for example Phlox, Helenium, Echinacea and some Sedum). Cut back plants by about half using shears. This will give you bushier, more compact plants and usually more flowers, that will extend later into the season.

As well as being busy in the garden, make use of the longer daylight hours to enjoy it. Sometimes, especially when you keep reading lists of jobs that you ought to be doing, gardening can turn into a list of chores. Don’t let this happen, take the time to sit, relax and enjoy looking at the results of your labours!  Sometimes this might be the result of following earlier tips.  For example, this is our Wisteria that we pruned back in February. what the picture doesn’t give you is the glorious scent that fills a warm evening. Perfect with a glass of whatever you prefer.

Wisteria in full bloom

Wisteria in full bloom

Garden Tips – April 2017

In April it is definitely getting warmer and with longer days and more light, the sap is rising and the garden should be growing well. However, the weather can still deliver surprises, so be prepared to cover up tender plants if frosts are forecast.

Some key jobs for April include:

Controlling weeds. The old adage of “one year’s seeding means seven years’ weeding” is all too true. It really is worth trying to get weeds out before they have a chance to set seed and spread. Small annual and ephemeral weeds (like hairy bittercress) spread at a surprisingly fast rate, but are pretty easy to clear if you catch them early. The perennials like bindweed, ground elder and dandelions are all starting to show themselves at this time of year and although clearing these can be a Sisyphean task, regularly digging out the roots will help to weaken the plants.

Hand weeding, hoeing, burning and weed killers can all be a part of your armoury, but pick the right weapons for the right places and if you are using weed killers or flame guns always follow the manufacturers instructions.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) website has loads of useful stuff on all matters gardening and weeds are no exception. This link will take you to the relevant bit of the advice section and not only suggest ways control weeds, but give you helpful pictures to identify what it is that’s causing you problems. Remember though a weed is only a plant in the wrong place, and one person’s weeds could be another’s planned wild garden – each to their own.

This is also a good time to work on lawns to get them ready for the summer. You’ve probably started mowing by now so a few days after a mow is a good time to feed (and apply weedkiller and mosskiller treatments if required, to) lawns. Ideally treat when the ground is dry, but when there is rain in the forecast to wash the treatment in, otherwise you may have to water. After treating it is a good idea to scarify in order to remove thatch and moss, this will help to improve air flow and drainage and reduce competition for nutrients. If you have a particularly boggy lawn, then spiking it; or even hollow tining to remove cores of compacted soil and brush in lawn sand will help you to improve drainage.

As the daffodils begin to fade, remove the flowers so that the bulb’s energy is not spent on seed production. Leave the foliage for 6 weeks to die back naturally, thus feeding the bulb for next year. Additional feeding with an all purpose liquid feed will help to ensure a good show of flowers for next spring.

Now is a good time to cut back plants like Cotinus and Sambucus that are grown for foliage effect, and also finish cutting back Cornus and Salix grown for winter bark.

Finally, be wary of nesting birds if you are tempted to trim your hedges. This is the time of year when hedges can start to look overgrown if they haven’t been trimmed, but it is also the height of the nesting season, so it may be that it’s best to live with a scruffier hedge than you’d really like for a couple of months in exchange for a garden filled with fledgling birds later in the spring.

Garden Tips March 2017

March is the start of spring, and with a bit of warm weather the garden begins to get growing.

As the garden wakes up, so will our main pests, so be prepared with your preferred defence against slugs and snails.  They will be very keen to munch on your newly emerging herbaceous perennials.

Snail (photo from RHS website)

Snail (photo from RHS website)

Follow this link to the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) website for lots of ideas on how to control these troublesome critters:

RHS Slugs and Snails

March is the month to prune established bush and standard roses.

Rose pruning (photo from RHS website)

Rose pruning (photo from RHS website)

You are looking for an open framework – like an upturned hand of five fingers. First take out the three D’s (dead, diseased and damaged material). Then remove any rubbing or crossing stems, and cut back any spindly growth to 2-3 buds. If the bush is crowded, then take out some old shoots completely to keep the centre of the framework open.

For Hybrid tea (large flowered) bush roses, shorten the strong remaining shoots to about 15cm from ground level. (This is only 6 inches, so you are going to go quite low).

For Floribunda (cluster-flowered) bush roses, shorten the remaining strong shoots to 30cm from ground level.

For standard roses, the same guidelines apply, except that the measure is taken from the base of the branched framework

Always prune with a slanting cut just above an outward facing bud.

There are many books and on-line resources to help. In our opinion two of the best are the RHS guide and the advice and tips available from David Austin roses.

If you fancy some practical training on pruning in general, BCA (at Burchett’s Green) runs a pruning course amongst many other short courses on horticultural topics. See the BCA website.

You can also give your roses a balanced feed and mulch, although make sure the stems are kept clear of mulch so that the stems don’t rot and avoid covering up the graft point.

The grass will start growing more strongly this month, so get your mowers ready. If you grow potatoes, then a good place to put your early batches of mown grass (provided it is free of herbicides) is in your prepared potato trenches. As the grass breaks down it helps the soil to retain moisture and creates slightly acidic conditions, which can protect against common scab.

Finally, if you haven’t already done so, now is a good time to clean and disinfect used pots and greenhouses to prepare for the busy growing season ahead. You should remove all debris and wash with a mild solution of a disinfectant such as Jeyes Fluid. This will help to avoid fungal diseases such as dampening off, and get rid of any pests which have taken advantage of your hospitality over the winter.

Garden Tips – February 2017

This is the first of a new monthly series of gardening tips, written for the Cookham Parish Magazine. This web version is longer, offering greater detail and illustrations.

February can be an odd month for gardeners. Despite the lengthening days and occasional warm spells, it is still winter and February is often one of the wettest months. So our first tip is don’t be in a hurry. If the ground is waterlogged or frozen, steer clear of lawns and borders – you could create more of a mess than you clear up. Frosted lawns can scorch when you walk on them and waterlogged beds are easily compressed, which can ruin the soil structure. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to catch up later in the year.

Provided that the temperature is above freezing, and that you can get to them without causing damage elsewhere, February is a good time to prune apples, pears and wisterias. They should still be dormant and with no leaf cover it is much easier to see the shape you’re creating. At this time of year, you can easily distinguish the larger, flowering (and therefore fruiting) buds from the smaller vegetative ones. This makes it easier for you to produce a balance new growth and flowers.

Flowering buds on apple tree

Flowering buds on apple tree

Vegetative buds on apple tree

Vegetative buds on apple tree

Wisteria flower buds

Wisteria flower buds

Wisteria vegetative buds

Wisteria vegetative buds

As with all pruning, the first task is to remove the three D’s: Dead, Diseased and Damaged material. Then take out crossing branches that may cause congestion and reduce the air flow that keeps the plants healthy. Finally, cut back to the size and shape that you want. It is also a good time to treat dormant fruit trees with a plant oil based “winter wash” to kill overwintering eggs of aphids.

Spring bulbs are one of the great joys of gardens, with their emergence giving a clear sign that life and colour are coming back to the garden. You can start planning for next year’s bulbs now – yes really. As this year’s bulbs come through, take some photos so that when you are tempted at the autumn bulb sales, you’ll know exactly what gaps you want to fill. These might be physical gaps, where a space needs filling, but they could also be gaps in the calendar. With careful selection of varieties, bulbs (and the related corms and tubers) can be used to give colour pretty much all year round. Once planted many are long-lived and fairly undemanding, so are great value contributors to the garden.

Crocuses among leaf litter

Crocuses among leaf litter

Daffodils in the sun

Daffodils in the sun



Happy New Year

With the Christmas Decorations still up, we’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year.

Our Christmas wreath benefited from a tip on Gardeners’ Question Time.  This was to cover up holly bushes to protect the berries from marauding pigeons, if you want some for decorations.  Admittedly the bush looked a bit daft with one of our brassica nets slung over it, but it was worth putting up with that for a couple of weeks, in exchange for a profusion of berries for decorations.

Wreath - With holly!

Wreath – With holly!

The protection is now off the bush and the pigeons have nearly stripped it.