October

The first three weeks of September this year were as good as I can ever remember them. In fact one of my neighbours – a sprightly 90 year old – told me that the last time that he remembered a September as good as this was the Battle of Britain – 1940!

But October is still unambiguously an autumnal month from first to last. In the first week or so the days can be warm and the garden still full of summer flowers but there is a real sense that this is borrowed – and liable to be taken back overnight with the first sharp frost or, more frequently, the autumnal storms that rip the leaves streaming from the trees.

The gardener notices more changes in October than perhaps any other month. It can be stunningly beautiful, especially if late summer has been marked by warm days and cold nights, stimulating the leaves to store sugars and then display the full range of their autumnal hues. But October weather dictates everything. Mild weather blunts the edge of the October display, cloud obscures and smudges it and rain and wind batter the borders. The line between fading glory and abandonment can be very fine indeed in October.

Above all time in October is running out. The days are getting shorter, the weather worse and at the end of the month the changing clocks brings nightfall at five and evenings in the garden are lost for another 5 months.  So it is a busy time, putting the garden to bed and preparing it for next spring – and all against the autumnal clock.

Every sunny day is borrowed and the light – although often the softest and most golden of the whole year – is slipping steadily away.

STAG HEAD OAKS

Last year a huge oak tree blew down from the hedge that bounds the edge of our garden. Its true size was only really apparent to me once it was lying on the ground. I counted the rings on one of the branches fairly near the top of the tree my eyesight gave out after 102. The tree itself was probably four or five times that age – which in oak time, is middle-aged – so a piece of history as old as Windsor castle.

It was a ‘stag-headed’ tree. These are seemingly more dead than alive with most of its branches leafless and worn like antlers – hence the name.  It is a phenomenon whereby the bark and sapwood of the upper branches – sometimes the vast majority – have rotted but the tree grows a new and completely healthy crown. They can remain in this way for at least 100 years, seemingly clinging to life through a few leaves with the vast majority of the tree a gaunt skeleton. But despite its appearance, the tree is as alive as you or I.

Despite this, many Stag heads have been needlessly cut down on the faulty assumption that they were dead. But one of the remarkable aspects of oaks is that they very rarely die of old age. Most end up, as this one did, having been blown (or cut) down long before anything like old age finishes them.

No other plant in Britain is so important for hosting and encouraging wildlife as oaks and no other so resolutely able to adapt and survive even near-total decay.

Given an oaks astonishing ability to absorb and host a myriad forms of life , the inevitable fungi that are admitted to the dead wood do not seem to damage the heart wood. Certainly when I started to saw it up even the apparently ‘dead’ wood had plenty of material hard enough to quickly blunt the chain saw.

Whilst it was stretched out on the ground like a toppled giant it was fascinating to see just how many holes and hollows there were right up the trunk and throughout the larger branches. Each one of these would have been a potential home for birds or bats, let alone the mass of different insect and fungal life that live in and on the bark and the leaves.

Oaks might seem to belong to an impossibly distant future but now is a good time to plant one in for people and a vast host of wild creatures to still be appreciating in 500 hundred years time.

What you should be doing in the garden this month:

  • 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 equitorial 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 peat-free compost (add an equal measure of grit or perlite to the compost) 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.

September

The summer is drawing to a close but it usually manages to do this gracefully throughout the month of September. I may live to eat my words – September has been known to be cold and wet and climate change is challenging all preconceptions and experience – but by and large it is a lovely month with daytime warmth, nights that are pleasantly cool and a special light that has real elegance.

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.

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 green foliage of the grass borders start 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.

What to do in the garden this month:

As always in the garden, many jobs roll over from month to month, be it weeding, deadheading or mowing the grass. 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.

TAKE CUTTINGS

If you have not taken cuttings before – do not be daunted. They are easy, mostly successful and the gateway to producing scores of new plants for free. They also enable you to be very specific about what you want. A plant grown from a cutting will always be exactly the same as its parent plant whereas one grown from seed will always be different – albeit perhaps not very much and perhaps be an improvement. But cuttings are essentially clones so if you have a favourite rose or a particularly delicious gooseberry or a really good upright rosemary bush then all these qualities will remain with the new plants grown from cuttings.

Semi ripe cuttings are taken from current season’s wood that has started to harden off a little. The tip is soft and bendy but the base of the cutting will have wood that has started to become more rigid. This means that it will be slower to make new roots than a soft cutting but also be slower to die back and this allows for more flexibility and a much reduced sense of urgency about the whole proceedings. 

Before you set out to take any cuttings have with you a plastic bag and a sharp knife and secateurs. The bag is for placing the cut material immediately into to reduce moisture loss and the sharper your cutting implements the more likely they are to root. 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. No time like the present!

Always choose healthy, strong, straight growth for cutting material. It should be free from any flowers or flower buds. Plants like rosemary will root successfully from side shoots that have been peeled from the main stem but where there is plenty of material I prefer to take shoots with the growing tip intact.

Once you have taken material from the plant and placed it in the polythene bag go and pot them up immediately. The cuttings are effectively dying from the second you cut them until they develop new roots so the quicker you can aid that process to happen the more likely you are to have success.

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.

It is best to place the cuttings around the edge of a pot and you can always get at least 4 and often more in one container. Put this somewhere warm and bright but not on a south-facing windowsill as it may scorch. Water it well and then keep it just moist but a daily spray with a mister will 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.

SOW GRASS / 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 LAWN

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 flower 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.

PLANTING BIENNIALS

Now – and over the coming weeks – is the ideal time to plant out biennials like foxgloves, wallflowers and honesty. Trays of plants can be bought and make a note to sow seed next May and June. Biennials germinate and establish foliage in one growing season and then produce their flowers the next having lasted through winter. They provide some of our best and most loved garden flowers and planted now will establish a good root-system in the soil, hunker down over the worst of winter and then start to grow again as soon as the weather warms up, ready for flowering in Spring and Summer before setting seed and dying back.

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.

February

I know that many people find February a difficult month. Winter had gone on too long and Spring seems too far. But I like February. I like the way that it opens out and releases the valves for Spring. I like the way that the days reach out, stretching, limbering up.

February is the month of small but powerful things. Catkins, snowdrops, aconites, crocus, hellebores, violets, primroses, all resist snow, ice and scything east winds to blaze with jewel-like intensity. There is something entirely hopeful and brave about these harbingers of Spring that fills me full of cheer and whets my horticultural edge. If they can feel Spring around the corner, then so can I.

There is an urgency to finish the planting of any deciduous trees and shrubs and the pruning of those already established. I also start to sow in earnest, beginning with the seeds of hardier vegetables like beetroot, spinach and winter lettuce varieties in plugs and seed trays so they can germinate and grow into strong seedlings in the protection of the greenhouse, before being hardened off and planted outside when the soil warms up in March or April.

If it is not too wet or too frozen I will try and complete the mulching of the borders as well. Whereas up to Christmas I have a strong sense of laying the garden to rest for winter, all February work is about setting things ready for what is to come and feels like the household preparations for a party.

What to do in the garden this month:

BARE ROOT PLANTS

Most people buy all their plants in a container from a garden centre. But woody plants such as trees and shrubs of all kinds can be bought ‘bare-root’. This means that they are raised in the ground and only lifted just before delivery. They will arrive with the roots wrapped in a bag of some kind but with no soil around them. I always try and buy bare-root trees and shrubs if I can.

The advantages of these bare root plants for the gardener, is that they are invariably cheaper, usually better quality and there is always a much wider range of types and varieties of bare root plants to choose from as opposed to containerised ones. They also are more likely to get established and grow quicker in your garden than container grown ones.

The only disadvantage is that, unlike a tree in a pot, you cannot put it to one side and plant it whenever you have the time or inclination. As soon as it arrives it should be placed in a bucket of water for an hour to give it a drink. Then either plant it immediately, taking it straight from the water to the planting hole so the roots do not dry out even for an instant, or heel it in until you are ready.

‘Heeling in’ means digging a trench or hole in a spare piece of soil (usually the veg patch) and, without any of the finesse of actual planting, burying the roots to protect them. It is best to put trees in at 45 degrees so they are not rocked by wind and if you have a number of hedging plants or young trees they will come in a bundle. This should be un-tied and the plants placed individually but closely spaced so the roots do not get entangled as they grow if they are left for a while (and I have left such plants heeled in for more than a year with no apparent ill-effects).

CHIT POTATOES

Leave potatoes at this time of year in the dark and they start to sprout long translucent, brittle shoots. But put them in a frost-free, brightly lit place and they slowly develop knobbly green or purple shoots which are ready to grow quickly when placed in the soil. This process is called chitting. Whilst chitting is not necessary for maincrop varieties, First or Second earlies benefit from being chitted by being ready to harvest at least a week, if not two, earlier than those planted unchitted – and an early harvest is always desirable for new potatoes and has the advantage of increasing the opportunities to lift the tubers before the risk of blight.

Put the seed potatoes in a seed tray or egg box, placing each one upright to encourage a tuber to grow from the end. Place them in a sunny, frost-free place such as a cool windowsill for 4-8 weeks so that when you are ready to plant them – usually around Easter – they will grow away fast.

SOW TOMATOES

It is a good idea to stagger the sowing of tomatoes because a lot will depend upon the unknowable weather we will get in Spring and Summer – so having two or even three batches of plants covers most bases. Scattering the seed thinly on the surface of peat-free compost in a seed tray and then very lightly covering them either with a layer of more compost or of vermiculite. Water them well and put them in a warm spot to germinate. A window sill is fine.

When the seedlings emerge make sure that they have as much light as possible and when they develop their first pair of ‘true’ leaves – that is to say leaves, however small, that are recognisably a tomato rather than the ones that grow initially – you know that they have roots and should be pricked out into better compost and individual pots or plugs to grow on into young plants ready to plant out into a greenhouse in May. I make a second sowing in a month’s time which will be better for outdoor plants.

SOW SALAD SEEDS

The increasing light levels in February mean that salad crops planted in a greenhouse in Autumn offer a generous supply of fresh leaves every day. Rocket, Mizuna, lettuces like Winter Density and Rouge D’hiver all survive the winter with a little protection (I always grow them in an unheated greenhouse) and then start to grow very strongly. I sow another batch of seed in early February which will be ready to replace this batch of plants in mid-March.

At the same time I sow broad beans under cover in pots or root trainers so they can be planted out into a raised bed as healthy plants in early April. Raised beds do (or should) not need digging in winter but a top-dressing of an inch or two of garden compost spread over them will incorporate into the soil over the coming month or so whilst the soil warms up sufficiently to sow direct.

PRUNING

By mid-February all the late winter/early spring pruning of climbers and shrubs can begin and continue until the middle of March. I practice this, focussing mainly around roses, clematis and shrubs such as buddleia.

Roses

There is no mystery to pruning roses and there is practically nothing you can do that the plant will not recover from. So relax and enjoy it! The only rules are to use sharp secateurs or loppers so the cuts are never forced and to try and cut just above a bud or leaf and don’t worry if it is outward facing or not. Any bud will do.

First remove all damaged or crossing stems. Then cut back hard any stems that look too weak to support their own weight. Finally remove any old, woody stems that are crowding the shrub by cutting right down to their base. Most shrub roses do not need any other pruning but can be reduced by a third to encourage early budding and a more compact shape. Hybrid teas, Floribundas and China roses follow the same sort of remedial treatment and then have all remaining healthy shoots cut back by two thirds to leave a basic framework from which the new flowering shoots will grow.

Climbing roses should be pruned to maintain a framework of long stems trained as laterally as possible with side branches breaking vertically all the way along them. These side branches will carry the flowers on new growth produced in Spring so can all be pruned back to a healthy bud – leaving no more than a couple of inches of growth.

Ramblers differ from climbers, which tend to have large flowers, often appearing more than once in the summer and on, some continuously for months – Ramblers have clusters of smaller flowers that invariably flower just once in mid-summer. These include ‘Bobbie James’, ‘Rambling Rector,’ and ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’. These need little pruning at all and never in winter or spring as the flowers are carried mostly on stems grown in late summer. Any pruning to train or restrict them should be done after flowering.

Clematis

The simplest rule is ‘if it flowers before June, do not prune’. So for early flowerers like C. montana, C.alpina or C.armandii, do not prune at all save to tidy their sprawl after they have finished flowering. Clematis with large flowers like ‘Marie Boisselot’ or ‘Nelly Moser’ should be cut back by about a third.

The late flowering clematis (i.e. flowering after Midsummer’s day, June 24th) such as C. viticella or C. jackmanii, produce all their flower buds on new shoots which are beginning to become visible now. If you leave them unpruned you end up with a mass of old, brown growth at the base of the plant and all the flowers at the top. So now is the time to cut them back hard. You cut right down to the bottom decent-sized bud although I like to leave a foot or two as an insurance against further really bad weather. In any event you can be very drastic, reducing a large clematis like C. rhederiana from 20 plus feet of thick growth to a few twigs. However this will ensure healthy flowering later in the summer from low down on the plant right to the top.

When you have cleared away the prunings, mulch the clematis very thickly with whatever organic material you have, this will feed the growing plant but more critically, help conserve moisture as clematis hate dry conditions. And if you are not sure what your clematis is (or whether your rose is a climber or a rambler) then leave it, let it flower and make a note for next year.

SHRUBS

Spring flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus, Deutzia, Weigela and Rubus all produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should not be pruned until after they have finished flowering.

However shrubs such as Buddleia, Cornus, Salix, Spiraea, deciduous Ceonothus, Fuchsia fulgens and Magallinica, all flower on new wood, so can all be cut hard back very hard just like late-flowering clematis. The harder they are cut, the more they will flower.

FORCING RHUBARB

One of my breakfast treats at this time of year is stewed rhubarb and yoghurt. No combination has a cleaner, sharper and yet hauntingly sweet taste that is guaranteed to brighten the sleepiest head and set you up for the rigours of the day ahead.

I grow a number of different varieties that provide a staggered harvest from the first fragile shoots that we pick to eat at Christmas to the last harvest at the beginning of July. Early and extra sweet rhubarb can be forced by excluding all light from the plant which in turn suppresses leaf growth down to a yellow flame at the end of a long pale pink stem whose sugars are greatly increased as a result. I tend to use ‘Timperly Early’ for this early harvest and it is, as the name suggests, an excellent early forcing variety. But if you do force rhubarb by blocking all light with an old chimney pot, or, if you are fortunate to find one, a proper terracotta rhubarb forcer with a lid, the later growth will be weakened so I suggest rotating the plants yearly for forcing duty to allow them to replenish their energy.

CHECK SUPPORTS

This is not a glamorous job but an important one. Go around your garden checking all supports, wires, ties and structures that will be carrying climbing plants this year. Any that are damaged or a bit ropey should be repaired or replaced now before they need to be used and before new growth begins that might be damaged by such repair work or even your heavy footwork in a border.

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.

January

December Nigel in snow

LAST MINUTE TULIPS

It is not too late to plant tulips either if you still have some bulbs unplanted or if you have not got round to it yet. Tulips planted now might flower a little later than those planted in November but they will make a perfectly good display. If intending to leave them in the ground plant as deeply as you can – at least 4 inches. But if you just want a good show this year they can be popped an inch or two in the topsoil and will be fine for this spring. When planting in a container make sure that they have good drainage because although they are completely hardy to cold, the biggest enemy is rotting in damp soil. This is a job to do by Jan 15th!

December snow bench

SOW CHILLIES

Chilies need a long growing season, so the sooner in the year they are sown the greater the chance of a strong plant developing and therefore the more fruits it can carry. Sprinkle the seed thinly in a general purpose compost either in seed trays or pots and put them in a warm place – ideally on a heated mat or in a propagator as they need at least 20 degrees to germinate. This will take a few weeks and the seedlings will grow slowly but as soon as they are big enough to handle transplant the seedlings to individual pots. They benefit from a weekly nitrogen feed (home-made nettle feed is ideal) to encourage strong, bushy plants. They will be ready to pot on or plant out in mid-May, at which point the feed should become high in Potassium (such as seaweed or home-made comfrey feed) to encourage the formation of flowers and subsequent fruit.

January orchard

PRUNING APPLES AND PEARS

Winter pruning of fruit trees is something that can be done even in bad weather and should be done by the end of February. Stand back and take a good look before you begin cutting and focus on three results.

  1. The first is to clear away any damaged, straggly or crossing branches. Do all these first and then take another good look before starting on the second task.
  2. Start to prune, bearing in mind that the aim is to stimulate more vigorous growth this coming spring. Pruning in winter will always result in increased, bushier, growth whereas pruning in summer will restrict growth – so bear this in mind when you cut.
  3. Finally, apples and pears do best with lots of light and air reaching the fruit, so think of this too, creating an open, airy framework which will also improve ventilation and reduce the risk of fungal problems.

Remember that lots of new growth will sprout in spring from where you make your cuts – none of which will carry any fruit for a couple of years or more. So factor that in.

December thick snow

CHOOSE & ORDER SEEDS

Growing from seed is the cheapest way to fill your garden with colour and delicious vegetables and deeply satisfying and it is time to start ordering seeds so sowing can begin next month.

There has never been so many opportunities for buying seeds as there are now with a huge range via the internet and mail order catalogues. It is worth spending a little time comparing options and selecting new varieties and you can find organically raised seeds, seeds mass produced, local seeds and seeds from across the world. One word of caution – check how many seeds are supplied per packet – often the best value comes with slightly larger quantities per packet.

December snowy cones fish eye

PLANTING DECIDUOUS HEDGES

Although the weather might make gardening a hostile experience, do take any opportunity to get deciduous hedges planted as soon as possible – certainly by the end of next month so that their roots are in the soil when they start to grow in March. Evergreen hedges can wait until April.

Prepare the ground by removing all weeds and large stones and dig it over thoroughly to the depth of a spade.

Do not add compost or manure to the soil beneath the plants. This will only encourage the growing roots to stay in the planting hole whereas the quicker they grow into the surrounding soil the healthier they will be.

Buy small plants which will establish much faster than larger ones, and resist the temptation to plant too close together.

Water them in well and then mulch generously with compost. Keep the young hedge weed free for a couple of feet either side and mulch annually with a thick layer or compost or bark until it has reached the height you wish and water in dry weather for the first year.

December snowy cones bw

CARING FOR POINSETTIAS

Many of us will have been given a poinsettia for Christmas and with a little care these can be made to last looking good for months and even be recycled to perform next Christmas.

Poinsettias do not like cool nights or big fluctuations in temperatures, so keep them where the average temperature is warmest, avoiding draughts, cold windows or even very bright spots that can get extra hot in the middle of the day even in January.

They like plenty of water but let the compost dry out before giving them a really good soak, watering the pot with a saucer beneath it and leaving it to stand for half an hour or so before removing the saucer and letting the excess water drain from the pot.

If you want to make it perform for next Christmas you need to prune it down to about 4 inches above the pot after the leaves fall off, sometime in February or March. Then put in a mild, shady spot and keep it dry until May when it should be repotted and kept as warm and humid as possible. At the end of September it must be provided with complete darkness for 14 hours a day for 8 weeks. Then it is bought into the light and watered and as a result it will produce its bright red bracts.

Or you could just buy another one…