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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.