December

December is when I batten down the hatches and try to sort things out behind the scenes. The truth is that I do less gardening in the whole month of December than I do in a normal week of March or April. The combination of the shortest days and the wettest, dreariest weather means that the garden shuts up shop and hunkers down waiting for the year to pass.

Christmas is, of course, the highlight for many of us and as well as all the usual celebrations, for me it marks the moment when I begin to get my garden back and to re-engage with it. This happens slowly through the coming weeks but it begins right there when I step outside on Boxing Day morning.

But occasionally there are a few days of dry weather early in the month and I try and get out and clear as much fallen, soggy foliage from the borders as possible. Anything standing without support is left as cover for the birds and to add a skeletal adornment to the garden, but a soggy carapace of rotting vegetation never does any good.

And as the garden is stripped it becomes almost entirely green and brown. But the one sign of life – the one reminder that Spring will come – is the fresh green of evergreen trees, shrubs and hedges.

GREEN!

The winter garden absolutely depends upon good evergreens and I regard them as the most important plants in any garden at any time of year because they are the bones upon which all the floral flesh hangs.

Yew makes the best evergreen hedge as well as large topiary and Irish Yews are perfect for small gardens as they make a bold statement without taking up much space. Ten years ago I would have said that Box was essential but the combination of box blight and box caterpillar make it less attractive. However if neither are present in your area no other plant is better for smaller hedges or topiary. Holly makes a fine tree, hedge and topiary albeit in places where you will not brush against it too much.

I like to use mahonia of all kinds in the borders and sarcococca, Hebe, Choisya, Portuguese laurels, Viburnum, Camellias, Phillyrea, pittisporum, skimmia, pyracantha, Euonymus and the magnificent Holm Oak are all really good evergreen options.

WIND

My garden – all our gardens in the UK – has been battered and bashed by wind already this winter and no doubt there is plenty more to come.

There are the obvious and very visible issues such as fallen limbs, but that kind of damage is relatively rare. Much worse are the unseen or less immediately apparent effects of the wind.

Where the wind comes from matters a lot. So in my garden our predominate wind comes from the west and is always wet and blustery whereas a Southerly blows dry and warm and is therefore usually welcome. The North wind often brings snow and the East wind – mercifully very rare – is vicious and cuts through to your very bones.

Wind can affect the growth of all kinds of plants as much as any other factor.The fruit trees on the northern edge of the orchard here at Longmeadow are completely lop-sided with their branches permanently streaming southward away from the north as though frozen in a windy blast. The reason for this is that the new growth on the north side is being stunted by this cold wind whereas the shelter of the tree itself, however small, is enough to protect the branches on the other, south-facing side. Hence the lopsidedness is not a case of extra growth in one direction but absence of growth in the other. You see this most dramatically on coastal cliff tops.  But of course the effect of this is only really noticeable long after the winds have gone.

So any shelter you can provide, whether from trees, hedges, shrubs or woven fences will make your garden grow better. All these filter and slow the wind down, robbing it of its sting. A solid barrier is not so effective as the wind tends to rise up and over it, coming down with all the greater force

CHRISTMAS TREES

Until a couple of hundred years ago the only evergreens available in midwinter were Yew, Holly, Ivy, Box and Juniper and the latter was and still is pretty rare in this country. There is no reason why any could not still serve as a Christmas tree. But the vast majority of people will be buying their Christmas trees from a range of non-native specimens, the most popular of which are Norway Spruce (picea abies), The Nordman Fir (Abies nordmanniana,) or the Colorado Spruce (picea pungens). All three are very good, have specific virtues and can last for a long Christmas season if looked after properly. All three will also grow in most gardens if they are bought with healthy roots and planted carefully as soon as possible after Christmas (see below).

Spruce is actually short for ‘Spruce Fir’ which is the English translation of Picea Abies and a corruption of ‘Prussian Fir’. The Norway Spruce has been grown in this country for at least the last 500 years as a timber tree. Unlike our own evergreen natives – all of which grow conspicuously slowly – Picea Abies grows very fast  and for centuries it was the main source of softwood, or deal. Although almost everyone nowadays only comes into contact with it as a tree small enough to fit easily into the living room, it is officially Europe’s largest tree and given the right conditions of damp, cold winters and damp, cool summers, it will grow to more than 200ft tall.

It is very resistant to cold and frost-hardy although it never thrives when grown on chalk or limestone. If you get confused between any of the Spruces (Picea) and Firs (Abies) – there is one easy way to differentiate the two species. The cones of spruces hang down whereas the cones of Firs stand up like candles.

Abies nordmanniana, The Caucasian or Nordman fir is much more truly evergreen than the Norway Spruce in that it only sheds its needles after about 15 years before replacing them. It also has more horizontal and rather more dense branches. The effect can make a more compact, more evenly shaped Christmas tree. It originates from the Eastern shores of the Black sea and will grow even bigger than the Norway Spruce, reaching 225ft. It grows on limestone in its Caucasian home but like the Norway Spruce it grows best in moist, cool, slightly acidic conditions.

Personally I like the Colorado, or Blue, Spruce, Picea pungens, best as a Christmas tree. Although it comes from the southern states, it originates from a high altitude, so is very hardy and grows into a tall, very straight, rather beautiful tree, with glaucous blue needles the colour of cardoon or artichoke leaves. The high altitude and bright mountain light gives it a rather stiff habit which is one of its main attractions as a Christmas tree. If you do plant one in the garden it will grow much stronger if given maximum sunlight.

Whatever tree you choose here are tips to make it last as long as possible:

  • DO get one with roots if possible, even if you are not intending to plant it.  Pot it into as large a container as you have and fill this with sharpsand or compost. Sand is perfectly good for the few weeks it will be indoors. Water it and keep the sand moist.
  • Buy a tree holder for a cut stump with a reservoir and keep it topped up with water. Treat it like a cut flower. This will do more than anything to stop it shedding its needles.
  • NEVER place your Christmas tree by a radiator. It will respond by immediately shedding its needles. Keep it as cool as possible. All these evergreen firs have adapted to cope with cold winter weather and will react to central heating heat by dropping their leaves in order to conserve moisture. A draughty hallway is ideal.
  • Take your tree to the council shredder after Christmas if you are not going to plant it so it can be recycled.

HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE

Trees have always been magical to humans. But the earliest record of a tree being dressed as part of an overtly Christian celebration is as late as 1521, in Alsace, and it did not become widespread in this country until Prince Albert bought the Prussian habit with him when he married Victoria in 1840. and pictures of the Royal family’s Christmas tree, draped with candles, presents and sweets, provoked widespread mimicry. Until that point of the mid nineteenth century Christmas was grudgingly and sparsely celebrated by modern standards and Scrooge’s attitude was less exceptional than it is nowadays perceived to be.

This was not always the case. In medieval times the modern long holiday of Christmas Eve to New Year was observed as far as money and circumstances would allow.

What to do in the garden this month:

ONIONS FROM SEED

This is always one of my Boxing Day jobs. Onions are mostly grown from sets put out when the ground is ready between January and April, but seed sown ones have the great advantage of starting earlier so having a longer growing season and, best of all, there is a much wider range of varieties to choose from than the very limited selection of sets that any garden centre can provide.

The seeds are sown in plugs of potting compost – ideally three or four seeds per plugs – and put somewhere warm to germinate. I plant them out as small blocks of seedlings in spring as soon as the soil warms up.

SHARPENING TOOLS

If it is hammering with rain outside or simply so cold your fingers cannot function, you can still go through all your tools and make sure that they are in as good condition as possible for next year.

One of the most satisfying jobs is to clean and sharpen all cutting implements. Hoes can be sharpened with a rough whetstone so they slice through weeds rather than bruise them, secateurs can have all rust removed with wire wool and a little elbow grease and then sharpened as you would a knife so that they can easily and accurately. Sharp secateurs are both better for the plant because they leave a neat, clean cut rather than tearing at it, and much safer for the gardener too because you can focus on where and how you are cutting rather than trying to force it at all.

CLEAN AND SERVICE LAWN MOWERS

Rather than leaving it till you want to make the first cut of your lawn next Spring, now is the time to give your mower a good once-over before putting them away for the winter. Wash it down and scrape off any encrusted grass. Drain any petrol from the tank. Check all screws and bolts to ensure they are properly tightened. Oil the blades and all moving parts and unless it is running and cutting exceptionally well take it for a service and sharpen by a professional rather than wait until next Spring when they will be inundated. Finally put it away somewhere dry and safe in the knowledge that when you need it in earnest it will perform properly at the first asking and throughout the next cutting season.

PLANT HELLEBORES

My Spring garden is full of hellebores – some over twenty years old but many selfhybridised from the original ones. This has given me hundreds of plants but the downside is that most are rather muddy in colour -as is the wont with most oriental hybrids. So every year I treat myself to a few really good new varieties and add them to the collection to both extend the range and to reinvigorate it with the clean, clear colours that can range from pure white to the almost black inky purple of ‘Black Diamond’ or ‘Queen of Night’.

Hellebores are usually expensive to buy but they are good value because they last for a very long time and occasionally a selfsown hybrid marries the best qualities of its parents rather than blending the worst.

Hellebores have deep roots and I always dig a bucket-sized hole and add mushroom compost or leafmould to it when planting. Keep them well watered for the first year but thereafter they need little attention. However a December job is always to go through them all removing any leaves that have fallen past 45 degrees or that are affected by blight. I then finish the job in midFebruary so that the flowers can be clearly seen.

TAKE PICTURES

Take the time to go outside and photograph every aspect and angle of your garden. It does not matter how abandoned, neglected or empty it may be. Photograph what is there with a detached and enquiring eye. This is a process of reckoning, of stock-taking and will provide you with hard evidence of what lies at the bedrock of your garden. It is a truism that any garden can look good in high summer but only good gardens look good in midwinter. So use the pictures to plan both how to make your garden look really good at this time of year and to plan for the glorious days that will start to creep in before very long.

POINSETTIA

Hundreds of thousands of poinsettias will be given as gifts this Christmas and with a little care these can be made to last looking good for months. Poinsettias are only really comfortable in damp warmth. Modern poinsettias grown as houseplants are treated with a growth retardant to create the familiar short, bushy shape we all know and love but in their native Mexico poinsettias grow at the margin of the forest to a large 10ft high shrub .

They do not like cool nights, very hot dry rooms or big fluctuations in temperatures, so keep them where there is a constant average temperature, avoiding draughts, cold windows or even very bright spots that can get very hot in the middle of the day. They like plenty of water but let the compost dry out before giving them a really good soak, standing the pot in a sink full of water and leaving it to stand for 10 minutes or so before letting the excess water drain from the pot.

RHUBARB

If you have productive rhubarb clear away any rotting stems and foliage and mulch round (but not over) each crown with a generous layer of manure or compost. If your rhubarb is a little tired now is the time to divide some of your crowns to stimulate fresh vigour. The older, central section of the big, corky roots should be put on the compost and the younger, outer sections of root replanted with the buds about an inch below the surface. Do not pick any stalks from these new sections for the first year and cut the flowers off as they appear. By the second year you should have a good crop and a really good one two years after planting.

PLANTING SHALLOT SETS

Plant shallot sets close to the shortest day and they will be ready to harvest on the longest day, at the end of June. If you have a piece of ground ready that is dry enough for the soil not to stick to your boots then plant them directly outside, 9 inches apart in rows about a foot apart. This makes them easy to hoe. Do not completely bury them but leave the shoulder of the bulb and tips clear of the soil. I suggest covering them with fleece until March, by which time they should be well rooted and able to resist birds tugging at them. Check them weekly to firm back any that have been dislodged.

Alternatively, if like me, your soil is wet and heavy for months on end, you can plant them now into plugs, just burying them deep enough to sit in the compost. Keep them in a greenhouse or cold frame and then plant out when your soil is ready and has warmed up.

Suggested varieties: ‘Red Sun’ (lovely rich red) ‘Longor’ (French long bulbs with pink flesh) ‘Topper’ round, golden bulbs with a sweet flavour.

November

Although October is conventionally the month of turning leaves and brilliant colour, it is increasingly November that lights the autumnal torch brightest – at least in the first half of the month. But that leafy flame is becoming daily more fragile and the leaves stream to the garden floor with every wintry gust of wind. All these fallen leaves are gold dust and should be collected every last one to make leafmould which makes superb potting compost and is the ideal soil improver for all woodland plants and bulbs.

If November begins in autumn it ends unambiguously in winter. The days become shockingly short and the chances of frost – or worse – are real enough to make the business of protecting and tidying the garden urgent, so it is a busy month, especially as bad weather can bring work to a juddering halt for days or even weeks at a time. There is ground to be dug, deciduous hedges, trees and shrubs to be planted, tulips to be got into the ground and pots and the borders to be cleared and put to bed for the winter.

But for the gardener all November work is dictated by the weather. If there is a cold, clear spell then the days can be fresh and invigorating and much of the work of setting the garden to rest at the end of the year can be completed. In hope of these days I cut down as little as possible so that the dying stems can catch light and frost as well as provide cover and the seeds some food for birds.

But however positive I try and be, November is a low time of the year for me. December is little better other than it culminates in Christmas, which is fun. The days draw in like a noose and the garden seems to slowly implode, losing all the things that gave it worth. The only answer to this is to tend it dearly, looking after it like an ailing friend both to honour its better days and to prepare for the inevitable recovery in the New Year.

FROST

Frost always arrives at Longmeadow before the end of November – in fact this year we had frost in September and a few quite sharp frosts – down to -5 – in October. But even in a mild year there is no avoiding November frosts. I gathered in all the tender plants before the end of last month and protected those too big to move with a layer of fleece. I have one greenhouse wrapped up on the inside with a layer of bubblewrap and the other has a heater to keep the temperature above 5 degrees. That is enough to keep even the tenderest plant alive and well despite icy winds and arctic frosts all around it.

I am always happy when the ground rings under my boots like iron and the soil is locked intractably into position. It means that the cold is really working its magic for the garden. So what is that magic? After all, it is an unlikely benefactor. Less than 10% of the world’s plants are resistant to it, although a good number of those make up the majority of our British garden plants. However, it is like a purgative for the garden. Fungi, slugs, snails, viruses, insects, mammals like rats, mice and moles, even weak and damaged plants, all get blasted by it. Where it does not kill it does at least slow down proliferation. Just as a healthy person always feels better for a short fast or an icy plunge, so the garden seems to be healthier for a good freeze.

As long as you keep moving and there is not a strong wind blowing it is also surprisingly pleasant weather to work in. Frosty days are ideal for winter pruning – not least because you can stand on the soil without causing too much damage. The truth is that at Longmeadow there are only two kinds of winter weather, cold and dry or cold and wet. Give me cold and dry every time.

FEEDING BIRDS

There is a huge pleasure to be had from watching birds at a bird table and by putting out daily food you can greatly increase the chance of survival for many and subsequent breeding success, especially if it is a very cold winter. Once you start to feed try and be as regular as possible with the supply, as the birds use up precious energy in coming to your bird table which is then wasted if it is bare. Also always put a saucer of water out for them to drink.

Obviously it helps for the food to be as calorific as possible and seeds, nuts and fat are best of all. Left-over pastry, bread and rice always get eaten fast and fruit is good, especially for blackbirds and thrushes. Grated cheese is popular as well as cooked (but not raw) potatoes. Avoid anything salty such as crisps, salted peanuts or bacon. I buy dried mealworms too which robins, tits and wrens gobble up greedily. If in doubt sunflower seeds and fatballs – preferably hanging so tits can land on them without being bullied away by more aggressive birds – are invariably popular. Another way of making sure that all the food does not get gobbled up by pigeons and starlings is to find an old log with lots of cracks and crevices and pour seed over it. The smaller birds will extract every last bit from the fissures that bigger ones cannot reach.

One of the great joys of winter-feeding birds is that you can place the bird table right outside a window so you get a really good sight of them. Have a bird book or app to hand so you can identify them and I always have a pair of binoculars ready too. You don’t have to be a gardener or twitcher to enjoy the diversity and richness of these hungry winter birds, many of which you would never otherwise see, and the more you find out about them, the more fascinating they become.

What to do in the garden this month:

PLANT TULIPS

November is tulip-planting time. This is, to my mind, the most important and best job of the month. It is actually something that can be done at any time between now and Christmas although the earlier they get into the ground the earlier they will flower. The essential thing with all tulips is to make sure that they have good drainage. This matters less if they are to be treated as annuals and dug up after they have flowered but even so they will be happier with plenty of grit or sand added to heavy soil. If they are to be permanent it is important to plant them as deep as you can – I have done so using a crowbar before now to make a hole 12 inches or more deep – and the deeper they are the stronger and straighter the stem will be.

If you are growing them in a container then drainage is easier and they do not have to be so deep and can also be planted in layers – a tulip lasagne, with an earlier variety such as ‘Orange Emperor’ planted deepest that will flower first, followed by a mid-season variety like ‘Negrita’ planted above it and then finally, in the top layer a late-season one such as ‘Queen of Night’.

LIFTING DAHLIAS

Frost reduce Dahlias to blackened tatters so it will be time to bring them in. However the tubers will not be harmed unless the ground freezes, so do not panic. Wait until the top has fully died back and then cut back the top growth to 6 inches whilst they are still in the ground and carefully dig up the tubers, removing as much soil as possible. Stand them upside down for a few days to drain any moisture from the hollow stems and to let the tubers dry a little and then store them in a tray or pot packed with old potting compost, vermiculite, sharpsand or sawdust.

The idea is to keep them cool but frost-free, dark and dry but not to let them dry out completely or else the tubers will shrivel. I lightly water mine after layering them into large pots or crates and then check them every month to see if any are mouldy or shrivelling up.

LEAVES

Keep gathering fallen leaves, mowing them, keeping them damp and storing in a bay or bin bags to make leafmould. Leaves decompose mostly by fungal action rather than bacterial which means that dry leaves can take an awful long time to turn into the lovely, friable, sweet-smelling soft material that true leafmould invariably becomes. So either gather leaves when they are wet or be prepared to dampen them with a good soaking before covering them up with the next layer.

It also helps a lot to chop them up. The easiest way to do this is to mow them which also gathers them up as you do it. Of course if the leaves are too wet they will clog the mower up so I try and sweep and rake them into a line when dry, run the mower over them and then give them a soak with the hose when they are in the special chicken wire-sided bay. If you don’t have room for a dedicated leaf bay then put the mown leaves into a black bin bag, punch a few drainage holes in the bottom, soak them and let it drain and then store it out of sight. This system works perfectly well. Either way the leaves will quietly turn into leafmould over the next six months without any further attention. You can also use them in Spring in a half-decomposed state, as a very good mulch around emerging plants.

PLANT TREES, HEDGES AND SHRUBS

Continue to plant deciduous wood material such as trees, hedges and shrubs. From the beginning of this month nurseries will be selling bare-root plants. Buying woody deciduous shrubs, hedging plants or trees ‘bare-root’ – ie straight from the ground and not in a container – tends to be much cheaper, better quality and offers a much wider choice. But these must be planted when dormant so this is becoming a job that needs doing urgently. Plants in pots can wait a little longer if necessary.

As soon as you receive the plants give them a good drink in a bucket of water and keep them moist until ready to plant. Prepare your planting hole, remembering that a wide hole is much better than a deep one, and do not let the roots dry out even for a minute as they will die back very quickly so keep them covered or soaking in a bucket of water until the very last minute. Plant firmly, keeping all the stem above soil level, stake if necessary, water well and then always mulch thickly.

PLANTING PAPERWHITES FOR XMAS

Paperwhite daffodils, Narcissi papyraceus, will be flowering for Christmas if you plant them at the beginning of November. Unlike most daffodils, it is native to the Mediterranean and does not require a period of vernalisation – or cold – to induce flowering. So plant the bulbs just beneath the surface of your compost in a container (ideally with drainage but a normal bowl can be used if you add some charcoal to keep the soil sweet) keep them watered but not soggy and place in a warm, light place. The bulbs will grow strongly and if indoors in the warmth flower in 4 weeks. To delay and prolong flowering keep them cool but frost-free.

HARDWOOD CUTTINGS.

Hardwood cuttings are easy to take, slow to grow roots but a remarkably straightforward way of creating new shrubs, bushes and even trees from existing favourites. Fruit bushes, roses, any flowering shrub or tree are ideal for this method of propagation. Unlike growing plants from seed, cuttings always ‘come true’ – in other words they are exactly like the parent plant so it is the best way of reproducing favourite plants as well as being almost totally trouble free and needing no extra equipment or shelter.

Cut a 12-24 inch length of straight stem the thickness of a pencil of this year’s growth, and divide it into lengths between 6 & 12 inches long. Cut straight across the bottom and at an angle at the top so you remember which way up to plant it and to provide an angle for water to run off.

Strip any remaining leaves from it so you have bare, straight stems and either place the cuttings so only one third is above soil level in a deep pot filled with very gritty compost (4 or 5 can fit into each pot) or outside in a narrow trench backfilled with gritty sand to ensure good drainage. Leave them until next autumn, watering well once a week and a good percentage will make young plants ready for potting up or planting straight out.

WASHING SLIPPERY PATHS

At this time of year brick and stone paths can be very slippery and dangerous. This is due to algae that grows on the surface, especially if wet and shaded and at this time of year they may stay wet and slippery for months. The best way to reduce the slipperiness is to wash off the algae with a pressure hose (which can be hired by the day). When this is done brush in sharpsand. If the path is brick or stone the porous surface will absorb some of the sand. A quicker – but still quite laborious – alternative is simply to work sand in with a stiff brush without the washing. Either way you have a very effective way of making a path safe without resorting to chemicals.

 

October

October is a yellow month, with the Field maples, hawthorns and above all elm hedgerows blazing brilliant yellow before falling.  It is an earthy time with the smells of fruit, wormcasts, fallen leaves and woodsmoke sifting through the afternoon air.

There comes a moment in October when you realise that the garden is running out of steam. I like the way that the season can shift almost overnight in October with soft days glowing with light and midday sun warm enough for shirtsleeves and then blasts of weather that send you huddling for warmth and shelter.

However good the weather, you cannot avoid the evidence that the garden is drifting steadily into winter. Every sunny day is borrowed. The light – although often the softest and most golden of the whole year – is slipping away.

Every second of light is precious because finally, on the last weekend of the month, the clocks change and a door closes tight until next spring.

Despite the way that light, colour and human and plant energy are all on the wane, it is time to take stock and to plan ahead. It is not so much a time to put the garden to bed but to gently prepare it for action. The more that you can get done between now and Christmas to prepare the garden for Spring, the better it will be for you and the garden.

AUTUMNAL BIRDLIFE AT LONGMEADOW

The whole relationship between the garden and birds changes as soon as the leaves start to drop. For a start they are more visible. They crowd the branches as a series of shapes rather than sound then the outline of a small tree will suddenly fragment as a flurry of birds leave scared away from grabbing berries whilst they can.

It makes you aware of how present the soft midsummer sound of unseen birdsong is, how important an element in any garden. Winter bird sound is much harsher, a series of warnings rather than melodious love songs. Occasionally a Robin will astonish the afternoon with a clear burst of song, but a November afternoon in this garden tends to shuffle with staccato bird sound, like overhearing an argument in another room.

You know when winter is round the corner when the Fieldfares and Redwings arrive from their summer quarters in Siberia. They are heralds of the season just as surely as summer is certified by the first swallow. But the swallows arrive with a kind of soaring familiarity, reforming intimacy with the garden and the precise details of the house like a child returning home after weeks away. Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) on the other hand are a curious mixture of awkward truculence and shyness. They look like large thrushes with handsome grey head, chestnut back, black tail and spotted underparts but are always seen in flocks, whereas the resident song thrushes are much shyer, more solitary birds – and have a much sweeter song.

Fieldfares rise in a clucking, chattering cloud if you so much as appear within their sight and yet are always pushing aggressively forward as soon as they think your back is turned. Everything about them is harsh and jerky. Yet I like them. They are of the season. They like the apples left in the orchard best of all and will fiercely defend a tree with windfalls from other birds. They also do a lot of good for the gardener, eating snails, leatherjackets and caterpillars.

The other winter thrush, the Redwing, is smaller, daintier and less intrusive. Whereas the fieldfare has an instantly recognisable mauvey grey head, the Redwing is only really distinguishable from a song thrush in flight when the red flash under the wing is very visible – although its tendency to flock, like the fieldfare, is also a giveaway. In the dead of the country night, in an otherwise silent pitch blackness I sometimes hear their thin rather ghostly flight calls as they fly overhead.

What to do in the garden this month:

SCARIFY LAWNS

A bit of work on your lawns now will be repaid many times next spring. Start by raking it hard with a spring-tine wire rake. This will remove a surprising amount of thatch and moss which can be put on the compost heap. Do not worry about bare patches – if large a little seed can be sprinkled on them but otherwise they will fill naturally.

Then aerate it to remove compaction. On a small patch, a fork thrust in as deep as possible every 9-12 inches will do the trick but you can hire aerating machines for a larger lawn that remove small plugs of soil.

When you have finished, brush any plugs or loose soil across the surface and if it is very compacted, also brush sharp sand into the holes you have made. Don’t worry if it looks rough –  it will quickly recover in time to face whatever winter can offer and start next spring in the best possible condition.

•   If you do not already posses them, invest in horticultural fleece and some cloches. The point is that these are only useful if you have and employ them before you need them and there is no guarantee that there will not be a hard frost in October. Cloches are very good for rows of vegetables, keeping them dry as well as warm (although I always leave the ends open – happy to trade some heat for some ventilation) and fleece is the best temporary protection against frost, either laid out over small plants or draped over shrubs and bushes.

•   Keep deadheading throughout October, particularly the equatorial plants like dahlias. This will extend their flowering season and squeeze the last bloom from them.

•   Save yourself a fortune by collecting seeds from perennial plants, using paper (not polythene) bags. Always label seed packets immediately. Store in a cool, dry place until ready for sowing.

•   It is not too late to take cuttings and there is no more satisfying process in the garden if it is successful. Choose healthy non-flowering growth, use a sharp knife and very free draining compost (I use 50:50 sharp sand and sieved leaf mould) and keep the humidity high. Most things will strike now and overwinter successfully without needing potting on.

•   It is worth taking trouble to store the fruit so that it lasts as long as possible. Only store perfect apples, which discounts nearly all windfalls. A cellar is ideal or a cool garage, but polythene bags, folded not tied and punctured with pencil holes work very well. Put the bags somewhere cool, dark and dry.

•   You can plant or move deciduous trees, shrubs and hedges even if they are still in leaf as they have finished growing and the soil is still warm so the roots will begin to grow immediately. I once moved a 4 year-old, 20 metre long hornbeam hedge in October. It never batted an eyelid and grew away the following spring stronger than ever. It is essential, of course, to give them a really good soak when you do so and to repeat this weekly until the ground is really wet or the leaves have fallen. But if you are planting or moving a number of trees or shrubs  It is best to start with any evergreens before deciduous plants as they need to maximise root growth before winter kicks in.

•   Plant or move biennials such as forget-me-nots, wallflowers, foxgloves, onorpordums and mulleins. Dig up healthy Verbena bonariensis, cut back and pot up to use to take cuttings next spring and take cuttings of penstemons and salvias.

•  Continue planting spring bulbs but wait another month for tulips.

SOW SWEET PEAS

By sowing sweet peas in October you will have bigger plants with a stronger root system that should give flowers next spring earlier and last longer. But the disadvantage is that these young plants will need storing and some protection over winter if the weather is bad. So I sow some now and another batch in February and spread the risk.

I sow three seeds in a three-inch pot although root-trainers also do the job very well. Use a good potting rather than seed compost. Put them to germinate on a windowsill or greenhouse and once the first leaves have grown, place outside in a cold frame or protected spot. They only need protection from hard frosts, mice and becoming sodden, so do not provide any extra heat. They will be ready to plant out in April.

•   Cut back and compost all rotting foliage in the borders but leave as much winter structure as possible.

•   Start digging any ground that you want to replant this winter or use next spring. Doing it at this time of year means that it is accessible, dry and there is more daylight to do it in! But if this seems daunting do 30 minutes a week in two 15-minute sessions. Leave the soil in large slabs for the weather to break down over winter.

•   If you have raised beds – and if not October is an ideal month for making them – mulch them with an inch or so of garden compost as they become clear, leaving the worms to work it in ready for sowing or planting next spring.

•   Unless the weather is bad, most leaves do not start falling until November but gather them all and store every last one – nothing makes for a better soil conditioner or potting medium. If you do not have somewhere to store them sort this out early in the month. A simple bay made from four posts and chicken wire is ideal.

•   Sow ‘Aquadulce’ broad beans outside for an early harvest next May or June and sow sweet peas in pots and over-winter in a cold frame.

•   Keep cutting the grass for as long as it keeps growing, however it is better to have the grass too long than too short over the winter months. Rake out thatch and moss and add to the compost heap.

•   Cut off any hellebore leaves that are obviously diseased and mulch around spring-flowering perennials with a 50:50 mix of last year’s leaf mould and garden compost.

PRUNE CLIMBING ROSES

Climbing roses flower on shoots grown the same spring so they can be pruned hard now. (Rambling roses on the other hand produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should only be pruned immediately after flowering.) Start by removing any damaged or crossing growth or any very old wood which can be pruned right back to the ground. The main stems should be fanned out at an equidistance as horizontally as possible, tying them to wires or a trellis. Then all the side shoots growing from these main stems – which produced this year’s flowers – can be reduced to a short stub of a couple of leaves. The effect should be a tracery of largely horizontal growth with pruned side-shoots running along their length. Finally make sure it is all tied firmly in to avoid winter damage

•   We give our deciduous hedges – hornbeam, hawthorn and field maple – a light trim in October which keeps them crisp right through the winter and looks really good when everything else has sunk into decline.

Finally, and most importantly, get outside and relish every second of October sun. It will be a long time gone.

 

 

 

 

September

September is the month when everything in the garden thins out, as though the colours and light were being gently stretched and the leaves on the hedges gradually yellow and thin so the light drifts through them like smoke.

The sun noticeably drops in the sky, slanting at an angle that, for a few weeks, creates the best and most seductive light of the year.  The days are warm and the nights pleasantly cool and above all the light has a faded quality to it, as though thinned down and filtered through a cobweb.

However the colours remain strong and the Jewel Garden in particular can be at its best. Sunflowers, dahlias, cannas, tithonias, zinnias and cosmos all continue to fill the borders with splashes of bright, strong colour. In the Cottage Garden there is a last flurry of roses with the second, all-too-brief flowering.

The grass borders start to hide the magnificent stride – they will be at their very best next month – as the green foliage starts to become metallic and change colour to silvers, golds and bronzes.

The vegetable garden gives its most abundant harvest throughout September but with a sense, as the month draws to a close, that the productive year is ending too.

In all, this is one of my favourite times in the garden. Along with lots of good flowers and masses of ripening fruit and vegetables, the fading elegance gives it dignity and the knowledge that every fine day is one of the last makes them precious. It is a busy time too, with cuttings to be taken, seeds collected, much to harvest and hedge cutting to complete all before the weather turns.

 

FUNGI

There are times when fungus can be seen as a plague to blight the garden, spreading decay, collapse and horticultural disaster throughout the best kept border.

Yet the fields around Longmeadow are dotted with thousands of delicious field mushrooms and mushrooms are, of course, no more or less than the fruiting bodies of fungi and our hierarchy of ‘good’ and bad’ fungus is irrational.

In just one gram of soil – about a teaspoonful – you would expect to find around 10,000 species of fungi. All are part of the indescribably complex synthesis that enables plants to grow healthily.

Most fungi exist below the ground as mycelium that have wide-spreading filaments that feed on decomposing matter. So a ‘Fairy Ring’ in your lawn marks the extent of the mycelium growing outwards underground like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. The reason that the grass is greener and longer at the outer limit of the circle is that the fungus has used all the nutrients in the soil within the circle, whereas at the edge it excretes chemicals into the ground ahead to provide it with food and the grass temporarily responds by growing lusher.

Nearly 40% of the fungi in a healthy soil are vesicular arbuscular mycorrhyzae, known as VAM, which penetrate the cells of a plant’s roots and create a kind of living link between the root and the minerals and water in the soil.

Most fungi thrive in warm, damp conditions and global warming means that our mild autumns and winters and damp summers are making fungal ‘problems’ more common. There is truly nothing you can do to stop this happening. But ensuring plenty of ventilation, healthy plants and good soil drainage can help a great deal as well as celebrating the essential and unsung work that fungi are doing to help our gardens grow right under our feet.

What to do in the garden this month:

Some of the August jobs roll on into September. Above all continue to deadhead daily, cutting back spent blooms to the next leaf – even if that means taking off quite a long length of stem.

Carry on collecting seeds as they ripen – and before they disperse – and once really dry, store them in a jar or paper envelope (NOT a plastic bag) in the fridge until you are ready to use them.

Keep taking cuttings – in fact September is the very best month of all to take cuttings of shrubs like box, lavender, rosemary, as well as flowering plants like salvias and verbena. Always choose a healthy, straight shoot that is free from any flower buds (and this becomes increasingly hard to find as the month progresses) and always use a really free-draining compost or even pure perlite.

RIPENING TOMATOES

Tomatoes ripen best when the temperature is between 26 & 30 degrees so this summer was too hot for many of them – especially if grown under glass, and meant that many stayed green much longer than in a cooler summer. However by September the heat is running out and inevitably we are all left with green tomatoes that are never going to ripen. However if you pick them – either individually or on the bine, then put them in a drawer with a banana they will ripen and turn red.

SOW GRASS SEED/REPAIR LAWNS

This is an ideal time of year to either sow or turf new grass or to repair patches and worn areas on your lawn.

If it is just a worn area of thin grass, rake away all thatch and moss and remove all weeds and thinly scatter grass seed, watering well and keeping it damp. The seed should germinate and grow in days. Do not mow it for at least a month and if it looks unsightly going into winter, clip the new growth with shears.

For a larger area clean the edges with a sharp spade, fork it over to remove any compaction and either scatter with seed or cut a piece of turf to fit, making sure that the edges are butted tightly against the existing grass.

Like grass seed, it is important that turf should not be walked on or mown until growing vigorously, which will indicate that the roots have become established and are growing strongly. Depending on the weather, this may mean leaving it uncut until next spring.

AERATE LAWNS

Even if your lawn has come through this summer unscathed, it is always a good idea to aerate it at this time of year.

You can use a fork by working the tines into the ground at 12 inch intervals or, for a larger lawn, hire a rolling hollow-tine or slitter. Ideally this is followed by working sand into the holes they create with a stiff brush.

Finally give the grass a thorough scratch with a wire rake, to remove all the thatch and moss and whilst it will look a little threadbare this autumn, next spring your lawn will be rejuvenated for this autumnal working over.

APPLES

Start to pick over any apples at least once a week, checking to see if any are ripe by holding them in the palm of your hand and gently lifting and twisting to see if the stalk comes away easily. Do not force it, as when it is ready they always pick very easily.

If apples are to be stored successfully – and if carefully placed in a cool, dark fairly moist place they will keep for months – they must be picked without any bruises or blemishes and any windfall, however seemingly perfect, will not keep and should be eaten fresh or cooked and then frozen.

If you have more windfalls than you can possible eat or process, consider hiring an apple press to make juice which can then be bottled and stored.

PLANT BULBS IN POTS

Spring bulbs are now on sale but the ground is often much too hard to plant them in grass at this stage of the year, so I always begin by planting some bulbs in pots.

I start with crocus, daffodils – especially smaller ones like ‘tete a tete’ – reticulate irises, muscari and scillas. These need not be special or different from those in your borders or grass but will flower a little earlier and can be positioned to maximum effect next spring.

Choose an attractive pot which need not be deep – a terracotta pan is ideal –  and can be very small – a few crocus in a small pot can cheer the darkest February day. However,  you will need to mix your compost with some grit to make sure the drainage is good and the bulbs do not become waterlogged over winter. Place the planted pots in a sheltered position ready to move into the sun when new growth appears.

PLANT HARDNECK GARLIC

There are two types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. The type you mostly buy is softneck which has a plaitable stem, stores well (which is why shops stock it) and is often excellent. But the best, tastiest garlic is hardneck which has a stiff, upright stalk and because it is much harder to buy it makes sense to grow it yourself.

Hardneck varieties such as ‘Red Duke’, ‘Rocambole’, or ‘Early Purple Wight’ are slower to grow so should be planted now, a month or more before softneck varieties.

Like all garlic of any type, plant plump individual cloves (the bigger the clove the bigger the bulb it will generate) about 6 inches apart , pointed end up and buried a good inch below the surface in good but well-drained soil. Shoots will appear in about 6-8 weeks.

PRUNING SHRUB ROSES

I know that some gardeners are anxious about pruning roses but the many shrub varieties such as the gallicas, ‘english’ roses, albas or Hybrid Perpetuals are best simply trimmed with shears any time this month.

Do not worry about the position or angle of the cuts but clip away all long, straggly shoots as though you were trimming a hedge, leaved a compact, slightly domed bush that is about two thirds of its former size. In March, when you can see clearly without any foliage, you can inspect the shrub to remove any damaged or rubbing stems, but a simple shear in September is enough to keep it healthy and packed with flowers next year.

PRUNING SUMMER-FRUITING RASPBERRIES

The old brown canes of Summer-fruiting raspberries can now all be cut down to the ground, leaving the fresh new green canes standing. These new canes will carry next summer’s crop. It is a good idea to reduce these to the half dozen strongest shoots, taking out all smaller or awkwardly positioned growth. The remaining canes will need holding securely for the next year and therefore summer raspberries are best grown against a permanent system of support.

I tie the canes with twine to parallel wires fixed strongly between robust posts, weaving round them and fanning them out them evenly as I work along the wire at each level. It is important that it is really secure as winter winds can catch and damage them.

August

August always has that bittersweet combination of long summer days and a real sense of summer slipping away. August evenings are velvet-rich with golden light as the days draw in, and the month has a fullness, like the aftermath of a delicious meal, that pervades the whole garden. The August borders take on a kind of mature, leonine energy with strong colours made richer by the combination of heat and falling light.

Longmeadow takes on a new suit of clothes. There is a new richness of colour dominated by oranges, burgundies, purple and gold. Every day that passes is a bite out of summer and the movement is towards autumn. Yet the borders gain an intensity as though to counter this.

There used to be a piece of received wisdom that August was somehow a dead month in the garden. Maybe climate change has had an influence but if it ever was true it is certainly not so now. Whereas our July gardens started to feel worn out by drought and heat the August borders take on a kind of muscular energy, full, mature and assured. The sun is lower in the sky and the evenings, by the end of the month, much shorter so my favourite time of day is when the early evening sun hits the rich colours in the borders so that they glow with regal intensity.

August is also the peak of the vegetable year. It is the month of harvest. Gradually, one by one, all the crops are gathered in from the glut of tomatoes – perfect for freezing for sauce deep into winter – to that first ripe corn on the cob or my favourite August dish, a ratatouille made from my own onions, garlic, courgettes, tomatoes, dwarf beans and chilli.

EARWIGS

At this time of year it is very common to find that the petals of dahlias are clearly chewed and nibbled, often reducing them to tattered rags and pale imitations of their supposed glory.

The culprits are earwigs that have a distinct penchant for what is – to them at least – a juicy and delicious dahlia flower.

Conventional horticultural advice is to trap the earwigs overnight by placing an upturned pot or a matchbox on a cane by the dahlia and stuffing it with straw. The earwig goes into this at dawn to rest up, thinking it a convenient safe haven but realising that you, the gardener, are about to come along and extract you from your strawy bed before doing something very unpleasant and probably terminal.

But the common earwig, Forficula auricularia, is a fascinating creature. Earwigs certainly do not rely upon the dahlia for their daily diet, being pretty much omnivorous and will eat other insects that gardeners consider as pests. They thrive in mild, damp conditions which makes the UK almost ideal for them but can most readily be found under loose bark or any woody crevice in great clusters – attracted to each other by scent pheromones that they release. The females lay about 30 cream coloured eggs in underground nests in the new year and the nymphs hatch out in April and go through a number of cycles during which time the female will protect and feed them, until they are large enough to foray out on their own.

They seem to like dahlias because in late summer and autumn – when dahlias are at their best – the massed petals of the flower heads provide ideal shelter for them and once ensconced they nibble a little at their surroundings.

What to do in the garden this month:

CUT LONG GRASS

If you have areas of long grass – especially if they are planted with bulbs like daffodils or crocus, they should have been left uncut to at least the beginning of last month to allow flowers to set seed and bulb foliage to die back. But by now all long grass should be cut as short as possible. The aim is to expose areas of bare soil so that fallen flower seeds can make contact and germinate.

This might mean hiring a powerful cutter or using a strimmer – although a scythe still does the job as well as anything. Once the grass is cut it should all be raked up and put onto the compost heap (making sure that it is thoroughly dampened with a hose unless it is a very small amount). It is important to remove all cut grass as otherwise it feeds the soil as it decomposes and this will encourage lush regrowth at the expense of the wild flowers and bulbs. However, as long as the grass cuttings are collected, it may be kept mown short right up until winter.

DEADHEAD DAHLIAS

Dahlias will keep producing new flowers well into autumn as long as they are deadheaded regularly. The easiest way to tell the difference between a spent flower and an emerging bud is by the shape: buds are invariably rounded whereas a spent flower is pointed and cone-shaped. Always cut back to the next side shoot – even if it means taking a long stem – as this will stimulate new flowers and avoid ugly spikes of stem.

And if you do not have dahlias then deadhead anything and everything daily – nothing else is so effective in keeping summer flowers lasting as long as possible.

TOMATOES

As August progresses, tomatoes steady ripen, working their way up the growing cordons. From now on the aim should be to develop as much fruit as possible and not encourage much more actual plant growth. A high potash feed such as liquid seaweed or home-made comfrey tea will help and I remove all the leaves around ripening fruit which exposes them to sunlight, increases sugars and speeds up ripening whilst also adding ventilation and reducing the risk of blight or viruses.

TAKE CUTTINGS

As August progresses semi ripe cuttings taken from current season’s wood that has started to harden off are increasingly available and also increasingly likely to root quickly. In principal it is best to take cuttings in the morning whilst the plant is full of moisture but in practise it is something best done as and when you are minded to do it.

Always choose healthy, strong, straight growth free from any flowers or flower buds. Once you have taken material from the plant and placed it in the polythene bag go and pot them up immediately.

Strip off all lower leaves and side shoots so that only an inch or less of foliage remains. Cut the bare stem to size with a sharp knife or secateurs and bury it in a container of very gritty or sandy compost.

Put this somewhere warm and bright but not on a south-facing windowsill as it may scorch. Water it well and then keep it moist with a daily spray from a hand mister to help stop the leaves drying out before new roots have time to form. You will know that the roots have formed when you see fresh new growth. At that point the cuttings can be removed from the pot and potted on individually before planting out next spring.

MAKING NEW STRAWBERRY PLANTS

After the early strawberries finish fruiting – usually the middle of July – they put their energy into producing new plants via runners. These are long shoots with one or more plantlets spaced along their length. As the plantlets touch the soil they put down roots, establish quickly and so the plant regenerates itself. By pinning them to the soil or onto a pot with compost in it and then separating it from the mother plant these can be harvested as new plants that will have more vigour than the parent and keep your stock replenished and refreshed. I dig up and compost the parent plant after four years as their productivity rapidly declines after this and they often accumulate viruses.

By the end of August the rooted plantlets are ready for planting out into a new bed that has had a generous amount of compost added to it as strawberries are greedy feeders (they should always be planted on soil that has not grown strawberries for at least three years to avoid possible viruses). Space these at least 12 inches apart and ideally twice that to allow for maximum growth and productivity. Keep them well watered and mulch with more compost in autumn.

SOWING AUTUMN SALAD CROPS

Sow hardy salad crops such as ‘Rouge d’hiver’ and ‘Winter Density’ lettuce and Corn Salad, Rocket, Land Cress, Purslane, Mizuna and Mibuna. Make one sowing now for harvesting in October and November and another in a month’s time that will crop in the new year if grown under cover. Either sow them into plugs that can be transplanted as seedlings or sow direct in rows. Thin the seedlings as they emerge and keep them weeded and well-watered.

PRUNING LAVENDER

To avoid woody, leggy plants, lavender should be pruned every year. The best time to do this is as soon as the flowers start to fade, which, depending on the variety, can be any time between midsummer and the end of August. But do not wait for the seed heads to form or the flowers to turn brown as you want to allow the maximum amount of time for regrowth before winter.

Cut back hard to a good compact shape but be sure to leave some new shoots on each stem – lavender will often not regrow from bare wood. These new shoots will grow fast and provide an attractive and healthy cover to protect the plant in winter and provide the basis of next year’s display.

COLLECTING SEED

Growing your favourite plants from seed is easy and practically without cost. Not only will this give you dozens of free plants for future years but also spares to give or swap with friends and family and August is the time to begin collecting seed from your garden.

Use brown paper envelopes – A5 is the ideal size – and either carefully cut the seed heads and upend them into the envelopes, seed head and all or else place the envelope over the seed head, seal it and then snip the stem off and store it upside down. Label each envelope clearly with the date, name of the plant and, ideally, the position in the garden, and store them in a cool, dry place.

After a week or two the seeds should be dry and can then be sieved, cleaned and stored in sealed packets. For longer term storage, a plastic tub with a tight lid stored in the fridge is ideal.

WATERING CAMELLIAS, AZALEAS AND RHODODENDRONS

Camellias, Azaleas and Rhododendrons form their flower buds in late summer and autumn. In other words the display that they give you next spring is largely determined over the coming weeks. If they are too dry the buds will not form properly and those that are made quite often subsequently drop off in the spring before flowering as a result of dehydration the previous autumn. So give them a good soak – with rainwater if at all possible – especially if they are growing in a container, and do so each week for the next couple of months.

July

As my birthday is in July, it marks the beginning and end of my personal year and certainly during the course of the month there is a seasonal shift and the garden changes. The easy, open lightness of June is replaced with a richer quality and this is played out in the borders where the colours all become stronger. The first half of the month belongs to roses although by the end mine are mostly finished. Sweet peas are usually at their most bountiful and dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos and the late clematis all start to get into gear.

The vegetable garden in July has peas, beans, new potatoes, beetroot, garlic, carrots, artichokes and tomatoes just beginning to bear fruit, and late meals eaten outside as the light gently falls around the garden.

July is also irrevocably associated with school holidays and time spent playing outside in the sun. Adults call that play ‘gardening’ but the sense of freedom and the pleasure of being outside on long hot days is just the same.

OWLS

The other day a tawny owl fell down the chimney in our bedroom and spent the day there, perching rather crossly on top of a cupboard before drifting out of the opened window at nightfall.

This garden rings to the calls of tawnies all the year but especially from late summer into autumn when the young are leaving to find their own territories. But for now and for the rest of summer they will remain close to the nest, learning to hunt and mastering their incredibly silent, dexterous flight. Some nights a silhouetted figure will perch on a wigwam of bean sticks in the garden and screech with shocking loudness before slipping anonymously away. For such a big bird tawny owls fly with the muffled softness of a snowflake. Their night sight is good but their hearing is astonishing and the slightest rustle will be unerringly located and the scurrying mouse clutched in their powerful talons before it has heard a thing.

When I was a boy at boarding school in the early 1960’s the matron adopted a young owl and it would sit on her head as she walked round the dormitories, nibbling on her grey hair and pulling it gently in its beak. One night it swooped through the open window and sat on the end of my bed, shifting its feet and looking round with its swivel head. Then, as suddenly and quietly as it came, it flitted, mothlike back out into the dark of the night.

You never forget such things.

What to do in the garden this month:

CUT BACK EARLY FLOWERING PERENNIALS

Early flowering perennials such as oriental poppies, delphiniums and hardy geraniums such as g. phaeum should all be cut back to the ground to encourage fresh regrowth and repeat flowering in a couple of months’ time. This also creates space for tender annuals and perennials in the border. Remove all cut material to the compost heap, weed around the base of the plants, water if necessary and do not plant too close to them so that they have light and space to regrow and flower again at the end of summer.

SUMMER PRUNING APPLES AND PEARS

Pruning apples and pears at this time of year in summer is very useful for trained forms like espaliers, cordons or fans or mature trees that have become to large or crowded because, unlike winter pruning, done when the tree is dormant, this hard cutting back will not stimulate vigorous regrowth. Unless you are training a particular new shoot, remove all this year’s growth back to a couple of pairs of leaves (usually about 2-4 inches) being careful not to remove any ripening fruits. If you are training the fruit to a particular shape, tie desired but loose growth in as you go. Cutting it back now also allows light and air onto the fruit that is ripening and stops your trees becoming too crowded with unproductive branches.

CUT HEDGES

Young birds will have left their nests by now so hedges can be safely cut. A trim now will allow any subsequent regrowth to harden off before possible autumnal frosts.

Start by cutting the sides. Be sure to make the base of the hedge wider than the top – regardless of the height. This ‘batter’ allows light to reach the bottom half and ensures full, healthy foliage down to the ground. Then cut the top, using string as a guide to keep it straight and level. If it is an informal hedge, curve the top over so it is rounded.

If you have an overgrown hedge now is the best time to reduce it in size whereas if you have a hedge that needs reinvigorating, wait until winter and trim it hard when it is dormant. This will promote more vigorous growth next Spring.

If the hedge trimmings are not prickly they will be soft enough to chop up with a mower and added as a useful contribution to the compost heap.

PICKING RASPBERRIES

I would trade the very best strawberry for any raspberries and the summer fruiting varieties are at their best in July. Summer-fruiting raspberries carry their fruit on the canes that grew the previous summer – so all the fresh growth made in the current year will crop next July – whereas autumn-fruiting types such as ‘Autumn Bliss’ produce their fruit on the new-season’s growth. There is a freshness and seasonal treat to the summer raspberries that makes them especially good and we often pick a bowl just before supper and eat with a little cream whilst they are still warm from the evening sun. Heaven!

TOMATOES

It takes a hot summer for many of my tomatoes at Longmeadow to ripen before the very end of July but there is still a lot of tending to be done. Side shoots have to be nipped off almost daily – a job that I try and do first thing in the morning when I open up the greenhouse because the plants are turgid and therefore brittle and the shoots snap off satisfyingly easily.

We water the tomatoes just twice a week unless it is very hot and do not feed them at all in July. The compost added to the beds gives them the food they need at this stage and overwatering can cause the fruits to split.

The hotter it is the better the fruit will taste but it is important to have as constant a temperature as possible rather than great fluctuations between day and night so how much we open and closes the windows and doors will vary a lot. But ventilation is very important to decrease the risk of blight and viruses and as the month progresses I start to remove the lower leaves so that air and light can move around the plants and ripening fruit in the lowest trusses.

FEEDING CONTAINERS

Most plants grown in a container of any kind will exhaust the available nutrients from the compost they were originally planted as they grow and will need a regular supplementary feed for the rest of the summer. A weekly feed high in potash that will help promote root and flower formation (but not over-lush foliage) is ideal. I find liquid seaweed or a proprietary liquid tomato feed to work well.

The secret is to give just enough – and not too much. Too many nutrients is as damaging as too few as it causes rapid, lush growth – often at the expense of flowers or fruit – and which attracts extra fungal and predatory problems. Never be tempted to make the feed any stronger than the instructions dictate and if in any doubt reduce the strength. Your plants and displays will be the better for it.

PRUNING RAMBLING ROSES

It is very important to keep dead-heading roses as the petals fade to encourage repeat flowering, but some roses have now finished all that they are going to do this year. Most ramblers fall into this category, especially in the south of the country and those such as ‘Wedding Day’, ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ or ‘Felicite Perpetue’ should be pruned as soon as they have finished flowering. If you are in doubt as to whether your rose is a climber or a rambler, ramblers tend to be much more vigorous and always have a mass of small flowers that never repeat once they have finished.

Many ramblers are best grown into a tree and these can be left unpruned apart from straggly, unkempt growth. However if space is limited or you training the rose in any way, this year’s new shoots should be tied in or cut back according to the circumstance. Remove any damaged or very old shoots, cutting them right back to the ground.

If training round a vertical support it is best to wind the stems in a spiral. Otherwise, the more horizontal the stems can be trained, the more flowers will be produced next year.

Finally, tie in any loose growth and mulch well.

SOWING PARSLEY

I like to have a constant supply of parsley which can easily be done as long as you make successional sowings and now is the best time to sow the seeds that will provide plants for harvesting through winter and the first part of next spring. When the seed has germinated prick out the seedlings into individual pots or plugs and grow them on until large enough to plant out.

Do not be tempted to leave a sprinkle of seed that develops into a bunch of spindly seedlings but thin and encourage each individual plant to be strong. Space them at least 9 inches apart and allow each to become really vigorous. The well-spaced plants will have a big root and recover quickly from being cut back by throwing up more fresh leaves and thus provide a much better source of leaves for a longer period.

PICKING SWEET PEAS

Few garden chores can be as pleasant or undemanding as this but be sure to regularly pick all the flowers from your sweet pea plants as this is the best way to extend their flowering season. Sweet pea flowers will rapidly develop seed pods in warm weather and these drain energy from the plant and trigger more seed production at the expense of flowers. I have found that the optimum picking period for sweet peas is about 10 days. It is important to remove every single flower – and to enjoy the resulting fragrant bunches of blooms for the house.

Use scissors and cut the stems as long as possible and as soon as you see any seed heads remove them immediately. This way, in a cool summer, the plants can go on flowering right into September.

HARVEST GARLIC AND SHALLOTS

If the leaves are yellowing and seed heads are forming, this is a good indication that garlic and shallots (and onions too if they are ready, although they may need a few more weeks yet) are usually ready to harvest. Always use a fork to carefully lift them rather than yanking them out of the soil by hand as you want to try and avoid damaging the roots and especially the root-plate – where they attach to the bulb.

Clean any surplus soil but do not remove any foliage or roots before putting them to dry thoroughly. This can be done by leaving them on the soil if it is dry and warm, on a home-made rack made from chicken wire stretched over posts or in a greenhouse. Once they are absolutely dry – usually after a few weeks – they can be topped and tailed for storage.

June

I always feel that June answers questions that the rest of the year poses. Some of these are practical – how will this border look at its very best? How sunny will this corner be at the very peak of the year? Where does the sun rise on the longest day? But most of the answers are to much more philosophical and personal questions, such as: Why do I garden? Or how does such a small patch of this earth give me so very much pleasure?

Colour arrives like a carnival and should be celebrated with high abandon. There are Oriental poppies with huge orange blooms, Bearded Irises topped with some of the richest colours in the whole floral world, large-flowering clematis and, as the month unfurls, roses, glorious roses of every shade of pink, white, red and yellow. The only sane response to this panoply of flowers is to bathe luxuriously in the colour.

I am sure that the secret of June is that it is not the peak of the garden’s year or aspirations. The vegetable garden is still surprisingly empty at the start of the month and although a June border is always lovely, it never has the range of plants or colours that come along later in summer. But because so much is still to come there is not that pang of incipient loss in the way that autumn is glimpsed around the corner of a late summer’s day.

Although trees, hedges and shrubs now have all their full summer foliage, everything still has the freshness and inner glow of spring. Nothing is jaded. Nothing has yet been taken for granted. June is growing and every moment is a celebration. In fact the weather can often be too cold, too wet or, just occasionally, too hot. No matter. This is minor stuff. The British garden – and countryside – is at its very best and I adore every second of it.

Midsummer’s Day, the summer solstice, is a real place in the same way that New Year’s Day or Easter is a meaningful place in the cycle of the year, and should be celebrated with as much energy and enthusiasm as these holidays – which, of course, our pre-Christian, megalith-building ancestors did. From June 24th onwards the days imperceptibly tip towards winter, so June must be savoured to the very last drop.

My idea of horticultural heaven is to be weeding or planting with light enough to work until after 10pm – although weeds have been known to be planted and seedlings weeded in the half-blind rapture of the June twilight! I carry these few precious evenings with me for the rest of the year rather like a pebble in my pocket that I can touch, and they see me through the dark days of winter.

BEES

Swarming bees are a sight that can be alarming at this time of year but in fact they are highly unlikely to attack or bother you at all. The queen will leave her hive looking for a new home, taking with her thousands of male worker bees. They will circle furiously, making a sound like a hundred motorbikes before settling on a branch in a huge living cluster, before heading off for an opening in a hollow trunk or a roof to establish the new colony.

GREENHOUSE /ALLOTMENT

The vegetable garden is coming out of the ‘Hungry Gap’ – that period between the last of the winter crops and the first of summer’s harvest – but there is still time to start a vegetable garden from scratch although there should be some urgency to do so. Tomato plants, courgettes, squashes, runner beans and sweetcorn can all be planted outside now the nights are warming up and aubergines, peppers, melons, cucumbers and more tomatoes grown in a greenhouse. It is important to keep a succession of lettuce going this month, making small sowings every two or three weeks to ensure a steady supply of fresh salad leaves. And of course keep on top of the weeds and water regularly if it is dry.

What to do in the garden this month:

TRIM VERTICALS

It is amazing how forgiving the eye is of the broad expanses of hedge, grass, border or anything really, as long as the edges, in any direction, are suitably straight and clean cut. It is too early to cut hedges because not all young birds have left the nest, but you can cut all entrances and exits and vertical planes in gaps in hedges to crispen them up and whilst this is quick and easy to do and clear up, it can transform the garden. Then, in a month’s time, all the hedges can have a proper trim and your edges, which by then will have become a little fuzzy again, can have their second cut.

SOW BIENNIALS

Biennials, such as Wallflowers, Honesty, Foxgloves, Forget-me-nots and Aquilegias differ from annuals, which grow, flower and set seed all in one growing season, in that they grow fast from seed and develop strong roots and foliage in one season and then flower in the next. For most this means that they germinate and grow without flowering in summer and autumn, remaining dormant over winter, then have another burst of growth before flowering in spring and early summer.

Sow them now in a seed tray, pots or in rows in the vegetable plot and prick them out into pots or thin so that each plant can develop healthy roots and foliage before planting them out where you want them to grow in autumn.

THIN APPLES, PEARS AND DESSERT GRAPES TO ENSURE GOOD SIZED FRUIT

It can be alarming when your precious apple tree suddenly deposits hundreds of small fruits on the ground, but this is perfectly normal and known as the ‘June Drop’.  The tree is just reducing the quantity of fruit it carries in order to successfully ripen those that remain. However it is indiscriminate about which fruit it lets go, so it is a good idea to selectively remove the smallest fruit at this time of year before the tree does it for you.

Reduce each cluster on a spur to just two fruits that are not touching each other. Not only will these grow and ripen better as a result, but also the risk of damaging the branches by the weight of the fruit later in the year is greatly reduced.

THE CHELSEA CHOP

‘The Chelsea Chop’ refers to a pruning herbaceous perennials so that they both flower later than they otherwise would and so that their flowering can be staggered if you have a number of plants. It also means that the plants will be more compact and sturdier, needing less staking. It is called the ‘Chelsea Chop’ because the time to do it is just after Chelsea Flower Show has finished.

The trick is to cut back the strongly growing foliage and stems of late flowering herbaceous perennials such as rudbeckia, heleniums and solidago, removing between a third and a half of the growth. This will stimulate fresh side shoots that will carry extra flowers, albeit appearing a little later and a little smaller than they would have done if left to grow freely. You can selectively do this to part of a large clump or to some of your plants and not others so that the flowering season is extended later into autumn.

DEAD HEAD ROSES TO PROLONG FLOWERING

Dead heading roses is really worth doing at least once a week- and preferably daily – in mid summer.

When you dead head, you are effectively pruning and thus stimulating fresh sideshoots which will bear new flower buds and therefore extend the flowering season. Dead heading also stops the plant developing seed and so increases the chance of repeat flowering as seed always takes precedence from the plant’s supplies of nutrients and water.

Just pulling off the old flower heads will help but by far the best approach is to use a pair of secateurs and to cut back to the first leaf below the spent flower. A new shoot will then grow from this point.

Of course some roses, especially the species bushes, have glorious hips in autumn and these will only develop if the flowers are allowed to set seed and fruit. So, enjoy the flowers as long as they last and then wait for the autumnal display that they will produce from their fruit.

PRUNE WISTERIA, CUTTING BACK ALL NEW GROWTH TO SIX INCHES

Wisteria produces its flowers on new growth, which in turn emerges from spurs off the main shoots. Now is the time to prune all this year’s new shoots back to a spur, leaving no more than about 6 inches of growth. In the process the whole plant can be tidied, trained and tied in so that there are no loose, trailing shoots. If there is any doubt about how hard to prune err on the side of cutting too lightly and then in the new year, when the foliage has all died back, you can prune again, reducing each side shoot to just 2 or 3 inches.

PRUNE EARLY FLOWERING SHRUBS

The Spring flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus, Amelanchier, Deutzia, Weigela and Rubus all produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should be pruned now. This will give the new growth plenty of time to ripen before winter and thus bear maximum flowers next spring. Mature shrubs should be pruned hard, cutting back most of the flowering stems to a healthy new shoot and taking the oldest growth (but no more than a third or quarter of the plant) right back to the base so it is completely renewed every three or four years. A very overgrown shrub should be renewed in this gradual manner too. Young shrubs should have the weakest growth cut back with the remainder pruned just to shape and size. Weed, water and mulch with compost after pruning is done and take semi ripe cuttings from healthy, straight non-flowering pruned stems.

May

Last month I wrote that April should have fickle weather. It certainly did! From heatwave to bitter chill and blazing sun to rainswept grey skies the weather at Longmeadow ran through the whole gamut of possibilities. I now long for a balmy, predictable, quiet meteorological May just to calm things down a bit. But do not be fooled. May can be chilly and certainly at Longmeadow a frost is not at all unusual in the first half of the month. But although it can veer from chilly to positively hot, May is always – always – beautiful.

A green fire runs through the veins of the garden like electricity and May brings colour and a fullness that fulfils all the promise that grows before it. At the beginning of the month our Jewel Garden begins its flowering season with tulips and the first really rich, deep colour of the year and four weeks later the garden has arrived at summer and is firing on all cylinders with alliums, peonies, irises, oriental poppies and the first roses all holding sway.  May is the month that the rest of the year aspires to, both in its consummation and freshness. It is lush and sweet and as the years go by passes tantalisingly fast so I have to keep stopping and reminding myself to drink deep and store all these May-time moments.

Best of all is to remove some of the layers that have kept cold and wet at bay. Gardening in shirtsleeves and feeling the sun on my back as the day winds down is a true measure of happiness.

BEES IN THE GARDEN

Bees need help from gardeners. The unrestrained use of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides by modern agriculture have not just affected perceived ‘pests’ but also bees.

In particular bees have been affected by by neonicotinoides. These are a class of systemic insecticides that  are used by non-organic farmers on a very wide range of grain, vegetable and fruit crops. As a result the world population of bees has been steadily  falling – which is a potential disaster for humans as well as honey bees because it has been estimated that 80% of the western diet is dependent upon pollination by bees.

But gardeners are in pole position to do something to preserve and build up our bee stocks.

All bees gather nectar which gives them their basic source of energy. It gets passed from bee to bee and the residue is deposited as honey which is essentially a stored food supply.

Pollen provides proteins and fats and is only collected by females and  mainly consumed by nurse bees in the form of jelly which is also fed to queen bees. It is also mixed with water and used to create the combs.

By planting a good selection of pollen and nectar rich flowers such as thistles of all kinds, blossom, scabious, cornflowers, mallows, bramble flowers and roses that  are easily accessible to bees, we gardeners can help halt the catastrophic decline of the bee population.

What to do in the garden this month:

SOW FRENCH BEANS

If your soil has warmed up – and only feeling it with your skin will determine that –  then you can safely sow a batch of French beans, both dwarf and climbing. These are tender plants that will be knocked right back by a touch of frost and will survive but not grow if the temperature drop below about 10 degrees and then become fair game for slugs and snails.  but by the time they have germinated we will be clear of those cold temperatures in most areas and the young plants can grow strongly.

Sow dwarf beans in rows in well manured soil a with each bean spaced 6 inches apart and the rows 12-18 inches apart.  For climbing beans sow two seeds at the base of each support  and removed the weaker of the two once one is established and growing strongly.  water them well and keep them watered throughout the growing season.

DIVIDE & MOVE GRASSES

Unlike herbaceous perennials, grasses are best divided once they have started to grow vigorously. Lift the clump and divide into fairly substantial sections – they grow slowly so do not cut them up into too small pieces.  Replant them at the same level they were in before and water in well. Keep watering them weekly until they are growing strongly.

Some grasses seed themselves freely and form crowded clumps and these can be thinned and moved by lifting entire young plants and repositioning with more space around them.

LAYING TURF

The beginning of May is a good time to lay turf as the ground is warm and the grass is beginning to grow vigorously so will establish quickly.

A lawn is only as good as the soil it grows on. Rather than hiding imperfections, turf tends to accentuate them whilst making it much harder to fix, so get it right before the turf goes down. Dig over the area, breaking up any compaction and removing all and visible weeds. Rotovate it well and then rake it thoroughly so that the surface is smooth and level.

Then tread over every inch, keeping the weight on your heels. This will expose  any dips and hollows which should be filled and then the soil raked completely smooth again.

Then, using planks to stand on,  lay the turf in courses, butting the edges tightly together making sure that the joints do not line up. Only cut when you have to and keep any shorter sections away from the edges so that they will dry out more easily than longer sections. When you are happy that it is done, water it well. Do not tread on it at all until the grass is visibly growing – which will be around 10 days.

DEADHEAD TULIPS

If you have tulips growing in borders, deadhead them once they are past their best. This will stop the development of seed so that all the energy goes into forming new bulbs for next year’s flowers. The best way to deadhead them is simply to snap off the spent flower with the growing seed pod using your fingers.

Do not cut back the stem or any of the foliage as this will all contribute to the growing bulbs as they slowly die back.

TOMATOES

It is time to plant out tomatoes if you have not already done so, burying them deeply – right up to the bottom  leaf as the buried section of stem will develop extra roots.

As the young plants grow they form shoots between the leaves and the stem and these are known as side-shoots. They grow with extra vigour and although they do bear trusses of fruit, they take energy from the plant and reduce the overall harvest as well as making a cordon plant straggly. So they should be removed as they appear.

The best way to do this is in the morning when the plant is turgid, simply breaking them off with finger and thumb. However in the evening they will be limper and may tear the plant so should be cut off with a knife.

PLANTING TENDER ANNUALS

By the middle of May tender annuals like sunflowers, Zinnias, Cosmos or Tobacco plants can be planted out into all but the coldest gardens, especially if you have hardened them off for at least a week. Hardening off is important and will means much faster growing and longer-lasting flowers – so if you buy any of these annuals from a garden centre over the coming weeks, do not plant them out immediately but put them in a sheltered place for a week to acclimatise to your garden, as they will probably have been kept sheltered for best retail display.

I like to use tender annuals both in containers and borders and in the latter I do not use them as bedding but to enrich the general tapestry of the overall planting. So I place them in groups so they make drifts and clumps rather than straight lines.

Space them about 12 – 18 inches apart in a sunny situation that is sheltered from strong winds and water them in well. As long as the temperature does not drop below 5 degrees they should grow strongly and flower well into autumn.

PRUNE EARLY FLOWERING CLEMATIS

The best time to prune early-flowering clematis such as c. montana, armandii, alpina and macropetala, is immediately after they finish flowering. Obviously the timing of this will vary considerably in different parts of the country but the principal remains constant and for many of us this occurs at the end of May.

Next year’s flowers are formed on all the new growth made from this period until late summer so if you prune them much later than mid to late June you will be removing potential flowers that would bloom next spring.

Pruning of these clematis is solely to maintain their size and spread  for your convenience rather than for any horticultural benefit. So cut back freely, not worrying about individual stems or the position of the cut. Then when you have finished, weed round the plant, water it well and mulch generously with garden compost or bark chippings.

April

April should have fickle weather. I want it to be hot enough to have lunch outside one day and a flurry of snow or hail the next. It is all about change and growth and above all the sense that anything, everything is possible. The combination of emerging bud and leaf and blossom in the garden along with the sense of growth is intoxicating. I used to think that May was the best month of the year but I now think that April just shades it, not least because it holds the promise of May to follow.

Of all the months this is the one where the world changes most dramatically from the first day to the last. April Fool’s Day is just tentatively  Spring – as though the world is still testing the water and winter still lurking round the corner. But April the 30th is a green place, filled with green and blossom and radiant with tulips, wallflowers, hawthorn, Cow parsley and clematis. The whole world seems to be exploding into flower.

It helps that the days are stretching out, gifting time and light and energy. An hour spent pottering in the garden between 7 and 8 on a fine April evening in is about as good as life can get.

SWALLOWS

I always keep a record of when I see the swooping, arcing flight of the first swallow of the year  and hear their distinctive busy twittering. Last year it was April 16th, the year before four days earlier, but it is always around the middle of April.

There is an overwhelming sense of the return of an old, much-loved friend who will share my garden for the next 5 months. It is a great surge of happiness and a sense that now spring can really begin.

These first outliers, arriving in dribs and drabs, exhausted and half starved from their epic journey from South Africa have returned to within a few hundred yards of where they were born.

They are voracious feeders, swooping in and out of the nest – and at Longmeadow we have had a pair nesting in exactly the same spot each year in one of our sheds for the past 25 years – hundreds of times a day, eating flies and thousands of aphids so are a good friend to the gardener.

I always check their height for the next day’s weather because they follow the insects which in turn rise and fall according to the pressure. This means that when the swallows are soaring high there is a good chance of fine weather the next day and when they are swooping just inches from the ground to pluck insects with astonishing dexterity, the pressure is low and it is likely that rain will follow.

What to do in the garden this month:

WEED!

This is not a glamorous job for the Easter weekend but it is a really good time to get on top of the weeds before they get on top of the garden. Every tiny section of root of perrennial weeds such couch grass, ground elder and bindweed have to be carefully and remorselessly dug out if they are not to spread or become an overwhelming problem but the secret is to do a small area very thoroughly at a time.

Annual weeds such as chickweed, bittercress and groundsel are best pulled by hand or cut off using a sharp hoe. The important thing is not to allow them to flower and set seed so if time is short, cut them and return to them later.

Once cleared, a thick mulch will suppress annual weeds and weaken perennial ones.

MOWING

Many of you will already have mown your lawns a few times already but a a word of advice for all of you as well as those that are yet to begin. Resist the temptation to scalp your grass down to its midsummer height. Set the blades high and just trim the grass for the first few weeks as much to even it out as to reduce it.  Then, as the weather gets warmer and the grass starts to grow more strongly, gradually reduce the height over a few weeks but always keeping it slightly on the long side. This will result in a much healthier, greener sward.

Add all clippings to the compost heap but mix it well with dry, brown material like straw or cardboard which will stop it becoming a wet, green sludge.

PLANT OUT SWEET PEAS

The time to plant out sweet peas into the garden is mid April in the south and towards the end of the month further north.

Sweet peas grow best in rich soil with plenty of moisture and in cool – but not cold – conditions,  so the more you can enrich the soil with lots of compost or manure before planting, the better they will grow. I like to grow mine up bean sticks arranged as a wigwam but any support will do from bamboo canes to chicken wire. I plant two or three plants to each stick or support and water them in very well before mulching them thickly to keep them weed-free and to stop them drying out.

One word of caution – the aim is to grow strong, big individual plants so if you buy a pot with lots of seedlings I think it better to divide each pot into two or three and plant these sections at the base of each support so they have less competition and you should end up with more flowers.

PLANT NEW POTATOES

Whilst there is no rush to plant maincrop potatoes (I have planted as late as June and still had a good crop) the sooner you can plant seed for first earlies the sooner you can enjoy that delicious harvest that always tastes so much better than any that you can buy. Make a V-shaped trench 6-9 inches deep and place the seed potatoes about 12 inches apart along the bottom of it. Backfill the trench so that the soil forms a ridge along the length of it. Leave at least 3ft between rows to allow for earthing up – digging more soil onto emerging foliage to protect them from late frosts. I also grow them in a raised bed simply pushing each seed potato in a 6 inch deep hole made with a dibber with each plant about 18 inches apart in a grid. However you plant them, always enrich soil for potatoes with plenty of well-rotted manure or compost.

TIDYING BULBS

Although you should resist any temptation to cut back, tie up or ‘tidy up’ the foliage of any bulbs that have finished flowering as this will decrease the quality of flowering next spring, you can lift the bulbs, foliage, bulb and roots and pot them into a container which can then be put to one (sunny) side to die back and feed next year’s bulb without leaving an unsightly mass of dying foliage in a prime position for the next few months. When the foliage has died back the bulbs can be stored in the pot, making sure they do not become too wet 9they can dry out completely) and then replanted in autumn.

DEAD HEAD AZALEAS AND  RHODODENDRONS

This is a very simple job but one which is often overlooked. To extend the rhododendron and Azalea season and ensure that the plant does not waste its energies into seed production, dead head as many faded flowers as you can. This is particularly relevent to the large-flowered varieties. Do not use secateurs as you risk injuring the fragile buds growing at the base of the flowers but gather the flower trusses between finger and thumb and snap them off. Removing the withered flowers also reduces the risk of fungal infections and will increase next year’s flowering display. As well as doing the plant good it also removes unsightly dead flowers that can hang onto the shrub for days or even weeks.

HARDEN OFF TENDER PLANTS

Although there is still a risk of frost in my garden – and especially so the further north you go for plants such as pelargoniums, it is time to start bringing tender plants such as  Fuchsias, citrus, brugmansias, bananas, agapanthus or Cannas outside so that they can gradually acclimatise before being planted out into a border or pot.

The secret is not to do this too quickly. It is not so much the absolute temperature as the variations between night and day that they must become used to.  Put them outside in a sunny but sheltered spot and  have some horticultural fleece to hand to cover them if their is a cold night, but let them get used to the changes in temperature and exposure to wind and rain that they have not had to face over the past few months for at least a week – and preferably two – before moving them to their final position after the risk of any frost has passed.

PLANTING LILIES IN POTS

It is not too late to plant lilies in pots for one of the best and most fragrant of summer displays – but do it this weekend or as soon as possible. Most lilies like an ericaceous soil but Madonna Lilies, which are one of the first to flower, prefer an alkaline soil and will return year after year given the right conditions. But it is easiest to grow lilies in pots which can be moved to wherever you want them when they flower and then put to one side for the rest of the year.

You will not go wrong if you provide good drainage and a nice, loose compost. I achieve this by mixing in plenty of leafmould and grit into a bark-based general purpose compost but just adding perlite or vermiculite will help greatly. Plant the scaly bulbs with about 4 inches of compost above the crown and put them somewhere lightly shaded to grow. Keep them well watered and move them to their final position when the buds develop in May and June. In general lilies like shady roots and sunny flowers so a west or east facing sheltered spot is ideal for their flowering performance.

SUPPORT HERBACEOUS PLANTS

The purpose of plant supports is to prevent any damage rather than repair it , so the correct time to support any plant is before it needs to be done. The best way to do this in a border is to establish a system of supports that you put into place now, just as the herbaceous plants are starting to grow really strongly, so that within a few weeks the supports will be hidden but quietly doing their work with the tender but vigorous new growth contained within their gentle, protective embrace.

I use a mixture of home-made metal supports, pea sticks (essentially bushy prunings from the garden) and canes with twine. Whatever you choose try and anticipate the growth and make the support adjustable or flexible to adapt a little. If you can make it decorative so much the better. But getting it into place now will avoid trying to rescue damaged plants in a month or two’s time.

EDIBLE CONTAINERS

The combination of short days and horrible weather mean that for most of us Easter weekend is the first real chance to get out into the garden. But now is the perfect moment to get out there and start the magical cycle of growing your own vegetables, fruit and herbs because no food gives so much satisfaction as that which you have grown yourself.

But what if you have only a tiny patch of garden or even no garden at all? How can you grow anything edible at all, let alone provide yourself with a succession of fresh seasonal fare?

The answer is simple. Use containers. You certainly do not have to restrict yourself to pots. Vegetables will grow in anything that will retain soil and has some drainage. If you travel to villages in third world countries you will find gardens where every possible container is recycled and used to grow valuable food, and although this is driven by necessity, the results are nearly always vibrant and beautiful.

Almost anything can be raised in a container of some sort – I once visited Indians on the Amazon towing entire gardens behind them planted in defunct boats – and there is something about vegetables and fruit that suits a less preciously tasteful approach than any purely decorative planting. Vegetables grown in a recycled can will taste just as good as those grown in an expensive terracotta pot – and in the end taste is the only criterion that really counts.

Vegetables need sunshine to grow well so place your containers in a spot that gets sunshine for at least half the day – and preferably all day. However window boxes, roof gardens and even back yards can be very windy. Even light winds accelerate the demands of water and can cut growth by 25% and plants react to wind by toughening their leaves – which is fine in a tree but makes a lettuce much less palatable. So provide shelter from wind.

March

As I get older I love March more and more. As I write this the snow is howling through Longmeadow on a bitter wind but I know that before long  there is a real chance of some sunshine and a few precious hours outside working in shirtsleeves.

The weather can be capricious, ranging from warm drought to snow and gales – sometimes on the same day – so do not be lulled into an over-eager false sense of security. Although all instinct is to make as much headway as possible it is better to be a bit late in Spring than early. What really matters is to get the garden ready after a long winter, preparing the soil, sorting equipment, splitting and dividing perennials as they start to grow- getting the garden shipshape. Not forgetting, of course, to enjoy every moment of wonderful new growth.

What to do in the garden this month:

MULCH BORDERS

If you have not done so already, then now is the time to get on and mulch your borders. Mulching is very effective but very simple. All you have to do is spread a layer of organic material over any bare soil.

This will do three important jobs simultaneously. The first is to suppress any annual weeds and weaken any perennial ones. The second is to reduce evaporation and therefore keep in moisture, and the third is that it will be incorporated into the soil by worms and improve the structure and nutrition.

The very best material to use is good home-made garden compost as this will be rich with the bacteria and fungi plants need to be healthy. However, mushroom compost is excellent, as are bark chips or very well rotted manure.

Whatever you use, it is important to spread it thick enough – no less than 2 inches deep and twice that if you have enough material. It is better to do half the garden properly than all of it with too thin a layer of mulch.

DIVIDE HERBACEOUS PLANTS

Any herbaceous plant can be divided this month. Dig the whole plant up and discard the centre section to the compost heap, replanting the more vigorous outside parts of the plants in groups which will grow together to make one large plant. It is worth doing this to all herbaceous perennials every three to five years.

MOW GRASS

The grass will need mowing in March, but do not cut it too short. Just give it a light trim for the rest of this month and the grass will be a lot healthier – and better able to resist summer drought – as a result.

PRUNE

March is a perfectly good time to prune any shrub roses, late-flowering clematis, buddleia, dogwood, rubus, willows, and deciduous ceonothus. Just remember two rules: cut hard to stimulate vigorous regrowth and always cut back to something, be it a leaf or a bud.

DECIDUOUS & EVERGREEN GRASSES

Deciduous grasses like miscanthus, calamagrostis and deschampsia should all be cut back hard to the ground before the new green shoots start to grow too long. Evergreen grasses like the Stipa and cortaderia families should not be cut back. However, comb through each plant with a rake or your hands (I advise wearing stout gloves as grasses can be very sharp) pulling out all dead growth. The old dead growth can be shredded and composted.

When you have finished clearing and cutting back, give the grasses a thick mulch with a low-fertility material – i.e. not garden compost or manure. I use a pine bark mulch. However, do not divide or move any grasses at this time of year. They must be growing strongly to have the best chance of surviving so wait until late May or even early June.

ALLOTMENT /VEG GARDEN

  • Sow seeds under cover such as cabbage, lettuce, celery, beetroot and tomatoes.
  • Do not sow any seeds outside if the ground feels cold to touch. If warm and dry enough, sow Broad beans, beetroot, rocket, spinach, mizuna, parsnips, radish and winter lettuce.
  • Chit potatoes and plant out at the end of the month if the ground is dry enough.
  • Plant out onion and shallot sets. Cover them with fleece for the first couple of weeks to stop birds pulling them from the ground.
  • Dig in overwintering green manure.
  • Dig any unprepared ground and/or make raised beds by the end of the month.
  • Prune Gooseberries and red and white currants.

What to spot – wildlife

HEDGEHOGS

When tidying up the borders, watch out for hibernating hedgehogs who may have wrapped themselves in fallen leaves and stems and are still hibernating. These are becoming increasingly and disastrously rare in the countryside and gardens are by far the most important habitat for them in the UK.

FROGS

Ponds are an essential component of the wildlife garden and no creature enjoys or uses them more fully than the common frog, Rana temporaria. In return they will eat slugs, caterpillars, mosquitos and flies and are also a very useful indicator of the environmental health of your garden. Frogs can be differentiated from toads by their smooth, olive coloured skin and longer back legs. If you have lots of frogs, it is a sure sign that the eco-balance is good. This is because they breathe through their skins and are thus extra sensitive to toxins so are amongst the first creatures to suffer from pollution of any kind, and especially the result of using chemicals in a garden.

Having spent winter submerged in mud and hidden in amongst piles of wood and leaves, frogs are drawn by smell of glycolic acid that is produced by algae in ponds in order to mate. They need still fresh water, so garden ponds without a fountain are ideal.

The female will lay up to three thousand eggs, usually at the shallow edge of a pond where the water will be warmer and receive more light. Each seed-sized egg is wrapped in a globule of jelly and the spawn of several frogs will join to form a gelatinous raft on the surface of the water.

About three weeks later these hatch into tadpoles which will live in the pond as they develop into young frogs over the summer. They leave the water about 12 weeks after hatching, sometime between midsummer and early autumn, and you will find that your garden is suddenly full of small froglets, seeking out cool, shady spots. They will not return to the water until they are old enough to breed, which is usually after about 2 years.