Garden Tips – February 2018

With the winter festivities behind us, and the days starting to lengthen, may we be the last to wish everyone a happy 2018.

Hellebores in full flower and emerging snowdrops, crocus and daffodils all tell us that another gardening year is beginning, so here are some jobs for this month to get you going.

Hellebore January 2018

Hellebore January 2018

Snowdrops January 2018

Snowdrops January 2018

Crocuses among leaf litter

If it is too wet to get on to lawns and beds a useful job to do at this time of year is to re-pot plants that are permanently potted. Fresh compost and a liquid feed will help to boost growth as the days get longer and warmer. If you are moving plants to larger pots only go up by one size at a time. Otherwise, the large volume of new compost added during potting on can sit wet for a long period, reducing aeration around the roots. Instead of the roots growing out into the new compost, they start to rot and this can lead to symptoms such as wilting, dropping and yellowing foliage. Unfortunately, these are similar to the symptoms caused by drought and additional watering of course exacerbates the problem.

It is a good time to prune late flowering clematis and hardy fuchsias. Clematis can be taken down as far as you like, make sure that you make cuts just above a node. Similarly, with fuchsias, you can cut back last season’s stems as far as you like. Again make cuts just above nodes and leave as much stem as you need to create the shape that you want to achieve.

Herbaceous perennials and grasses that have been left over the winter to provide structure and seed heads are looking past their best now and can be cut back before new growth starts to emerge.

There is still time to plant bare rooted trees and shrubs, especially if you are on lighter soil as it will warm up more quickly than heavier ground. However, if the ground is frozen or waterlogged then you will have to wait.

For the kitchen garden, you can begin sowing summer cabbages, broad beans and beetroot under cover and if you haven’t done it yet, sow onions and leeks. We tend to sow all of these in seed trays or cells so that they can develop good root systems before they have to take their chances in the allotment.

'Plug' plants Mar 2013

‘Plug’ plants Mar 2013

It’s time to cut back your autumn fruiting raspberry canes to ground level, and try slicing a spade around the area to limit their spread.

30 June 2017

30 June 2017

Now

Now

Finally, don’t forget to feed the birds. This is a “hungry gap” where most berries have been taken and the insect populations haven’t really started to pick up, so they will welcome any treats you can provide. If it freezes they’ll also benefit from having water put out for them. This winter we’ve had a new visitor to the bird feeder in the form of a blackcap.

Blackcap December 2017

Blackcap December 2017

Blackcap December 2017

Blackcap December 2017

Garden Tips – December 2017

People often talk of “putting the garden to bed” at this time of year. This is not a phrase that we support. There may be less daylight and warmth and consequently less to do in terms of plant care. There will also be days when it is too cold or the ground is too soft to be able to do much, but winter gardening can be very rewarding. Just think of those gorgeous clear days when being outside in natural light is a reward in itself, especially if the day job sees you office bound.

There are some simple jobs, like clearing up leaves on lawns and paths, or a gentle mow of the grass (if the weather has been dry) that make everything look tidier. Weeds may still grow in mild weather, so whip them out if the ground is firm enough to stand on without compressing it. Mulching weed-free beds with organic matter will encourage earthworms, and they can improve the soil structure while you stay warm indoors. Again this is a job that makes everything look better, but don’t mulch on frozen ground, as you’ll only seal in the cold.

The first Hellebores will start to bloom, so trim off dead or damaged foliage in January to showcase the flowers.

Also looking good at this time of year are some Viburnums, the fragrant Sarcococca (Christmas Box), and the vibrant stems of Cornus. If it is mild, Prunus x subhirtella Autumnalis will be pretty in pink.

A highlight for us is collecting vegetables for the Christmas table.  Parsnips, carrots, brassicas, leeks and spinach are all options at this time of year.

Christmas Parsnips 2016

Christmas Parsnips 2016

Remember you can still bring some of your garden indoors to add to your traditional festive decorations of holly, mistletoe and fir.

Wreath - With holly!

Christmas decorations

Deep winter is the time that a lot of us make a point of feeding the birds, if you do, don’t forget to put out some fresh water as well, especially if the weather turns freezing, as water is harder to come by for the feathered visitors to your garden. Don’t stop feeding suddenly as the weather warms up as birds become habituated to feeding and will use up precious energy travelling to a well-known feeding spot for no reward.

Traditional winter visitor

Traditional winter visitor

Also on the wildlife front, don’t tidy too much too soon. Leaving seed heads can provide winter interest for you and food for wildlife and debris provide sheltering and hibernating spots. There is a trade-off to be made as leaving places for wildlife will support both pests and beneficial creatures, but the general consensus at the moment is that you’ll get more benefit than harm if some places are left a bit wilder over the winter.

Garden Tips – November 2017

November is tulip planting time. It’s important that tulip bulbs go in the ground after a cold snap as this helps to kill off fungal diseases and viruses in the soil which could infect your new bulbs. Remember that tulip bulbs do not like to be waterlogged, so if you have heavy soil, add some grit or organic matter to the hole to help improve drainage. The same applies if you are planting in a container, make sure that you use a free-draining mix. You can tell by the clothing that it was pretty cold when we were planting tulips last November. (By the way chickens aren’t very helpful planters).

Planting - November 2016

Planting – November 2016

The results this spring were well worth the cold fingers last autumn.

Tulips 28 April 2017

Tulips 28 April 2017

You can also keep on planting all the other spring flowering bulbs and may find that you can pick up some serious bargains in end of season sales, even if the choice at this time of the autumn is a bit more limited.

It’s also a good time for laying new turf or renovating lawns. The critical thing is to make sure you prepare the area carefully (raking, treading and levelling) before positioning the turf. The better the preparation, the easier it will be to lay the turf in the first place and the better it will look in the long run. When you are laying the turf, use planks to walk on so that you aren’t putting pressure directly on to the new turf and butt up the edges (remember that the turfs will shrink if they dry). Once the turf is down, water well and regularly, it is odds on that you’ll get some helpful rainfall at this time of year, but new turf will take a few weeks to establish, so don’t allow it to dry out. Finally, stay off it and don’t be tempted to mow until next spring.

If you have dahlias or cannas, the first frosts will have knocked back the foliage and this is a sign that it is time to lift, clean and dry them before storing in a frost free place over winter. Don’t forget to label things, especially if you’re planning to take cuttings next spring.

Blackened foliage after the first frosts

Blackened foliage after the first frosts

In our neck of the woods (Berkshire) you may not need to lift dahlia tubers if you have relatively free-draining soil. The tubers will tolerate some frosts, but cold/damp conditions will cause them to rot off, so you may have the choice of whether to lift or not. We do lift dahlia tubers and after cleaning them up, pot them up in new multi-purpose compost and leave them in an unheated greenhouse over the winter. We start gentle watering as the temperatures rise in the spring and find that the plants come back into growth quite a lot earlier than those left in the ground, so we get a longer flowering period.

Clean, healthy tubers

Clean, healthy tubers

Ready for winter

Ready for winter

And finally, if you have a shrub which needs to move to a new home, now is the time to do it. The soil is still warm enough to help the roots establish in their new position. When lifting it, make sure that you retain as much of the root ball as possible and cut back excess top growth to reduce the strain on the roots. Prepare the new planting hole well and use mycorrhizal fungi on the roots. Firm the shrub in and then give it a good soak. Remember to keep it watered throughout next spring and summer.

Garden Tips – October 2017

October is often a month of change. The early part can seem like a last bit of summer, but by the end the short days leave no doubt that autumn is here and winter is on the way. Jobs can therefore include prolonging this year’s show as well as preparing for next year.

One of the most rewarding jobs at this time of year is planting spring bulbs.  We’ve written elsewhere about the delights of spring flowering bulbs and putting them in is symptomatic of the optimistic, forward looking nature of gardening.  Those currently uninspiring brown bulbs and corms will give your garden a burst of colour next year to confirm that winter is on its way out and that longer days are imminent.

Flowers like Dahlias, Echinacea, Rudbeckia and Gaillardia will all keep flowering until the first frosts, so keep dead-heading to prolong the flowering season.

Roses may well still be flowering, but it is a good time to reduce the height of plants. Take them down by about a third so that they won’t rock in the wind and disturb the roots. You are looking to cut above a leaf with a slanting cut so that the rainwater falls off easily. More formative pruning for roses will take place in early spring.

As grass growth slows down, it’s a good time to apply an autumn treatment. Proprietary autumn mixes contain less nitrogen (so less leaf growth) and more phosphorus (for root growth) and potassium (for winter hardiness). Scarifying and aerating will also help to prepare the grass plants for winter by allowing both air and light to reach the base of the plants. Selecting the right time to do this can be tricky. Dry ground with no frost and imminent rain in the forecast gives ideal conditions.  Given the capricious nature of weather and forecasts if you’ve put a treatment down and it doesn’t rain for a couple of days, then best to water it in.

In the kitchen garden you can plant broad beans, garlic and onion sets (choose autumn planting varieties). These will develop strong roots in the warm autumn soil and give you a racing start for next year. Garlic needs a cold snap in order to bulk up to form bulbs with many cloves, so the longer they are in the ground over the winter period, the better.

Garden Tips – August 2017

Summer continues in full swing and we hope you are getting time to sit out in and enjoy your gardens, even if you may need to take an umbrella with you at times in our neighbourhood (so much for the water preservation tips earlier in the summer)! Some jobs for August include:

• If you have a Wisteria, then now is the time to trim off the whippy new shoots, cutting back to 5 buds from the main stem to encourage flower buds for next season. Any low growing shoots which you don’t want can be cut right back to the main stem. The main trim for shape will be in winter.

• Once the bees have finished with them, Lavender and Hebes can be lightly trimmed to keep them tidy, Take off all the flower heads plus a little bit of the new wood. This helps to keep the shrub to shape and, in the case of lavender, can help to encourage bushy growth for next season’s flower stalks.

• If it stays dry, keep watering Camellias and Rhododendrons as this helps improve flower bud formation for next year. Use rain water if possible, as these plants prefer acid conditions and tap water tends to be alkaline. Alkaline conditions inhibit the take up of iron, so if your only option is to use tap water add some liquid feed that includes iron.

• In the kitchen garden, the main job is to keep picking and eating. Courgettes, beans, and salad leaves will all benefit from regular cropping. Some produce is ideal for freezing (especially beans), and if you have time then making soups for the freezer, preserves and pickles are a great way of getting a taste of your own produce in the dark winter months. Don’t forget that some vegetables can also be used to make cakes – two household favourites at the moment are beetroot and chocolate cake and Nigel Slater’s courgette cake.

• As some crops are finishing, it’s time to get others started. August is a good month for sowing spring cabbage, lettuce and other salad leaves, and oriental greens like Pak Choi

• It’s about this time of year when the bulb catalogues start to arrive. If you read our tips in February, then you will have made a note of the gaps you want to fill. Now’s the time to start planning and picking out your new spring bulbs for next year. You won’t need to get them in the ground until October (November for tulips), but it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead and get your order in.

• Grass still needs regular cutting at this time of year. However if the weather is dry, it doesn’t hurt to raise the blades of the mower a little to reduce stress and scorching of your lawn. You can take the blades lower again when our normal temperate weather patterns return. you may be tempted to drop the blades as weeds like clover start to appear, but scalping the lawn will only allow the weeds to out-compete the grass.  Let the grass get a bit longer and it will start to win.

• If you are heading off on holiday, enlist the help of friends and neighbours to look after your plants while you are away, especially outdoor pots, which can dry out very quickly. Putting houseplants in a bathtub and using capillary matting can help to keep them watered.

Garden Tips – July 2017

Summer is here and hopefully all your hard work in earlier months is paying off. A few jobs to keep on top of in July include:

Thin out apples and pears. After the “June drop”, there may still be clusters of fruit that are too numerous. Thin out to no more than two or three per cluster to ensure good air movement and give the fruits room to swell. If your trees are relatively young, thin out even harder to avoid the weight of fruit bending or even breaking the weaker young branches. If you are growing espalier or cordon trained trees, then you can also prune to help keep the defined shape.

Early flowering shrubs (like Forsythia and Weigela) can be pruned back to give a good shape for next season. For those such as Philadelphus, the recommended approach is to cut back 1 in 4 stems to the ground in order to stimulate strong growth. As a general rule, if shrubs flower before Midsummer’s Day, then they will flower on old wood, so pruning after flowering is required. If shrubs flower after Midsummers Day, then they tend to flower on the current season’s growth, so pruning in spring is best. Of course there are always exceptions and some shrubs don’t like to be pruned at all, so it is always worth checking. The RHS website has lots of hints and tips:

Keep dead-heading to prolong the flowering of your shrubs and bedding plants, and bring some of the garden into the house by “live – heading” your favourites to make indoor displays. Flowers like sweet peas, Dahlias and Gaillardia will all keep flowering if you stop them from setting seed.

Dahlias livening up the Dining Room

Dahlias livening up the Dining Room

Sweet Peas

Sweet Peas

Make sure you pinch out side shoots on cordon tomatoes to keep the plant’s energy focused. If you are growing in a greenhouse, pinch out the main shoot just before it gets to the roof, making sure you have at least two leaves after a flower truss so that the plant will pull nutrients up to the last truss. Regular pinching out will help the plant to develop sturdy main stems that are efficient at transporting water and nutrients around the plant.

Sturdy tomatoes

Sturdy tomatoes

Don’t forget to feed your tomato plants regularly, they are hungry plants and will repay you with lots of fruit. Keep an eye out for disorders like leaf discolouration and blossom end rot which are signs of nutrient deficiency and/or irregular watering.