May

I do apologise for being rather late with this May update – but I have been away in America on the first  trip of the ‘Monty Don’s American Gardens’ series that will be shown early next year. We filmed in Washington, Virginia, South Carolina, Miami, & Louisiana. It was fascinating, very eventful (missed flights, wrong airports, blazing restaurants and broken down vans – all part of the rich tapestry of filming) and hard work and now it is a joy to be back in my own garden at this, the loveliest time of the whole year.

The whole garden – the whole of nature – is shot through with a green energy that is unstoppable and by the end of the month spills out into the fulsomeness of summer. But it is the process, the daily, almost hourly, changes that thrill me. Colours emerge at every turn – blazing reds and oranges in the Jewel garden, pinks and blkues in the Cottage Garden, soft yelllows on the mounds and every shade of white and green in the Writing garden. But green always wins. Every imaginable shade of green rises to glory with an intensity and freshness that no other month can match.

Time grows too. The days in this part of the world are becoming deliciously long – with dawn glowing on the eastern horizon before 5 am and by the end of the month we can garden outside until 10pm. But as I get older and another May comes around I am increasingly aware of how precious this time is. The days tumble by too fast and I have to stop and drink it all deep so I can store this May-time richness and draw upon it later.

WILDLIFE: NEWTS

Last May I discovered the first newts in our pond. I was skimming off the algae dragging a net carefully through the first few inches of the water and depositing the wet green vegetation on a stone at the edge so that any creepy crawlies could return to the water before I tidied up. Then I noticed something something halfway between a lizard and tadpole  – a kind of tiny alligator – walk down into the water, followed by a couple more. 

These were the Common or Smooth newt, Lissotriton vulgaris. It is brown with a wavy crest along its back that is crown in the breeding season to increase its seductiveness. They develop their front legs first and then back ones (which is the opposite to tadpoles) and a favoured food of many fish. Once they are fully formed they leave the water and live in damp places on land. 

Newts are carnivorous and will eat whatever they can catch – usually tadpoles, worms, shrimps and insects in the water and worms and slugs when they move to dry land.

The Great Crested Newt , Triturus cristatus,is the largest you will see in Britain and can be up to 16 cm long. It has  warty skin and although, despite the name, the female never has a crest, the male grows two crests in spring, one on its back and another on its tale. Like toads they excrete a poison from the warts on their skin so tend not be eaten. They spend winter hibernating on land before moving to water in the breeding season. The Great Crested Newt is highly protected and it is against the law to damage or destroy any of its habitats or to deliberately capture or harm them in any way.

Newts need a lot of prey to sustain them as well as sufficient ponds and rivers and their numbers declined rapidly in the latter part of the twentieth century. However numbers are building back up and they are often very common locally, although still not widespread.

What to do in the garden this month:

The incredible growth and changes in May means that it is hard to keep up with the garden – go away for a few days and it can run away from you. On the one hand this is all part of the joy of the season – nature is rampant and we should celebrate that . However keep on top of weeding if at all possible. Hoe vegetables and hand weed borders and if you have not done so yet then it is not too late to mulch.

By the middle of the month tender annuals such as tithonias, zinnias, cosmos and sunflowers can be safely planted out in all southern parts and the tender vegetables such as squashes, sweetcorn, beans and 

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 perrenials, 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. 

THE CHELSEA CHOP

‘The Chelsea Chop’ is a piece of horticultural jargon for a prune of late-flowering perennials that is best done in the second half of May (around the time of the Chelsea Flower Show – hence the name). The reason for doing this is to delay flowering and to encourage bushier, stronger and more floriferous plants later in summer. 

Plants such as heleniums, sedums, lysimachia or solidago (Golden Rod) are particularly responsive to this. If you have several clumps of these plants then cut one of them about half way up the existing growth. If you have just one big clump then reduce just one third of the plant in this way. The result will be that the pruned section will produce side shoots bearing extra flowers which will bloom a few weeks later than the uncut growth and extend the display 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.

SOW BIENNIALS

Now is the time to sow wallflowers, honesty, foxgloves, forget-me-nots or sweet rocket for a lovely display next spring and summer.  Biennials 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. 

The great advantage of biennials in our borders over annuals is that they are hardy enough to withstand a cold winter and quickly produce flowers in spring without having to wait for the plant to grow first. 

Sow the seed thinly in a seed tray, cover them with vermiculite and put to one side to germinate. They do not need heat but a sheltered spot or porch will help. When the seedlings are large enough to handle prick them out into pots or plugs and grow them on so the young plants are ready to plant out in early autumn where you want them to flower next May.

April

Lunch outside is the measure of good weather in Spring. The first day you can have lunch outside without freezing to death whilst simultaneously pretending that you having a great time and longing for a really hot fire to stand by, is either a freak of climate change or – April. You can also have snow, frost and heavy rain but it is a cruel year when there are not a few days of shirtsleeve sun in the middle of the day.

The garden responds to this extra light and heat by burgeoning. April is the month of growth. Only October can match it for transformation from the beginning to the end of the month. In a normal year (and in truth this year has NOT been normal ) April begins dominated by bare brown branches and bare brown soil, the grass still a lustreless winter green and ends with the long days full of the billowing majesty of Spring, heavy with leaf and alight with flower and – really importantly for me – the sky traced by the great swooping arcs of the swallows that have come home for their summer season.

There is still more to come of course but perhaps that is why I love it so much. It delivers all you might possibly desire along with the absolute certainty of even better to follow.

What to do in the garden this month:

April is the busiest month. The round of jobs remains much the same from year to year but there are always more of them than hours in the day. For a gardener this is heaven as it means you can spend all the daylight hours you have out in the garden doing the work you love.

The important thing is to get on top of things. So cut the grass, weed as much as possible, get perennial plants in the ground, finish mulching, sow some seeds – but in a manageable, enjoyable way. Keep it simple. There is still time to spare. And if there are jobs that you ‘ought’ to have done much earlier there are two sensible approaches. Either do them right now, a bit later than you should, or leave them till next winter. But having made the decision, act!

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, healthy individual plants so if you buy a pot with lots of seedlings I think it better to divide each pot into two or three. Then 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 (they 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 relevant 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 – 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.

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 there 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

Plant lilies in pots for one of the best and most fragrant of summer displays. Most lilies like an ericaceous soil but Madonna Lilies, which are one of the first to flower, prefers an alkaline soil and will return year after year given the right conditions.

But 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 to 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 just as the herbaceous plants are starting to grow 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.

DESIGN TIPS FOR A SMALL GARDEN

The first essential tip in designing a small garden is to keep it simple. One clear idea done well works best. One design style, one overriding theme and a sense of relaxed unity.

This applies to borders as well. Work out the effect you are trying to achieve, from a busy riot of herbaceous perennials, the cool sensuality of grasses or a working veg patch, and focus on that as the guiding theme.

One of the most common mistakes people make when designing a small space is to think that everything in it must be small. The opposite is usually true. A few large plants make a space seem bigger whereas lots of small ones make it feel crowded.

Any outsized object or plant can look perfectly at home in a tiny space as long as you are ruthlessly selective about it. If it does not look absolutely right then get rid of it. There is literally no room for compromise. You must ask yourself about every individual plant, every paving stone, each pot, whether it is the best use of that particular space, whether it is the right thing in the wrong place.

I would argue that small gardens should never have a lawn as a paved area will work in all weathers, is ideal for containers of all kinds and does not need mowing.

Finally, plant for all four dimensions, height, breadth, depth – and time. A small garden must work for you every day of the year. Use bulbs, annuals, climbers with good foliage as well as flowers – anything to extend the range of display within the garden and thus maximise the potential of the limited space.

March

Of all the months of the year March is the most fickle. If it flatters, it does so only to deceive. If it threatens, it just as quickly cajoles. Last March, here at home we had snow, ice and a wind from the arctic that cut through every layer of clothing like a knife. The garden cowered under the onslaught for weeks. This year we go into March after the warmest February ever recorded. If nothing else, climate change  is throwing all familiar patterns into the air. 

But the garden adapts, resists and responds gently to the slow drift of the seasons regardless of day to day weather and the influence of the growing light is just as important as the weather. Here in the UK the clocks go forward on the 31st and we are presented with a glorious extra hour of daylight in the evenings on top of the effect of the seasonal lengthening of the days. 

And whatever the weather decides to do, March is Spring. It may be a few brave bulbs peeking through the snow or a whole mass of daffodils, early blossom and even some tulips, but Spring is surely here.

MARCH BIRDSONG

By mid March the sap is rising and the new surge of energy pulsing through the natural world flows in my veins too. Every day more new leaves break bud and the hedges start to glow with new green like stained glass. 

The garden takes on a substance, acquires body and fills out from the bony starkness of the winter months. When the new growth appears, filling the voids, rounding the edges and gradually smudging across bare lines against the sky it always does so with a flare of surprise, a gift that arrives, for all the predictability of the calendar, unexpected.

Of course the weather can be vile. Heavy snow, ice, biting east winds are all possible and even probable but no weather in March stays long. Everything about the month is predicated on change, even from hour to hour and this trend continues as the month progresses and moves from winter into the full tide of spring. 

But of all the changes the one that I love most is the dusk chorus. The Dawn chorus gets most attention – and rightly so – but it reaches its peak around the end of May. The chorus in March is much briefer, more limited and, because the light is sinking, more defiant as the garden dissolves into the dusk. 

The dusk birdsong on a March evening is wistful rather than sad because  in March tomorrow always holds the promise of more light, more day, more sunshine, more growth – even more birdsong.  

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. 

Frogs can be differentiated from toads by their smooth, olive coloured skin and longer back legs. 

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. 

What to do in the garden this month:

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 to do half the garden properly than all of it with too thin a layer of mulch. 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The grass will need mowing 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.
  • March is a perfectly good time to prune any shrub roses, late-flowering clematis, buddleia, elder, 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 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 – ie 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.