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.

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.