April

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

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

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

SWALLOWS

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

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

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

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

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

What to do in the garden this month:

WEED!

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

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

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

MOWING

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

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

PLANT OUT SWEET PEAS

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

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

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

PLANT NEW POTATOES

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

TIDYING BULBS

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

DEAD HEAD AZALEAS AND  RHODODENDRONS

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

HARDEN OFF TENDER PLANTS

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

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

PLANTING LILIES IN POTS

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

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

SUPPORT HERBACEOUS PLANTS

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

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

EDIBLE CONTAINERS

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

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

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

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

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

March

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

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

What to do in the garden this month:

MULCH BORDERS

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

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

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

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

DIVIDE HERBACEOUS PLANTS

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

MOW GRASS

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

PRUNE

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

DECIDUOUS & EVERGREEN GRASSES

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

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

ALLOTMENT /VEG GARDEN

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

What to spot – wildlife

HEDGEHOGS

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

FROGS

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

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

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

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

February

February at Longmeadow is a busy month. The weather can still be very wintry but we take every opportunity to finish the winter jobs and to prepare for spring. All over the garden there are signs of new life appearing every day – modest at first with snowdrops, aconites and crocus all at their best, but as the month progresses the Spring garden fills with hellebores, pulmonaria, daffodils and vigorous growth from the later flowering bulbs such as tulips, cammassias, alliums and fritillaries.

The soil is still cold however so all our sowing is done indoors, growing seedlings on so they are ready to plant out as soon as the ground warms up.

SOW TOMATOES

I like to sow tomatoes in two batches, the first now and another in a month’s time, both to stagger the harvest and as an insurance against bad weather, 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.

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 in May.

PRUNE LATE FLOWERING CLEMATIS

The late flowering clematis (categorised as Group 3) such as C. viticella or C. jackmanii produce their flower buds on new shoots. This means that none of the remaining stems left from last year will carry any flowers at all. Now is the team to remove the whole lot of it. You cut right down to the bottom decent sized bud (and if you are in the north of the country you may have delay this for a few weeks until such buds are visible), 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. rehderiana 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. Garden compost is ideal, but anything is better than nothing because the worst thing for a clematis is to become too dry.

PRUNE BUDDLEIAS

If you live in the south or a sheltered area now is the best time to prune the Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, and it can be done any time in the coming month in colder areas. It produces its flowers on new growth so if it is cut back hard new, just before it begins growing, you will both stimulate extra new shoots and make sure that the shrub has as high a proportion of flower to wood as possible.

If your buddleia is growing in the open it can be cut back very hard indeed, leaving just two or three sets of new shoots from the base. If it is growing in a border it is better to cut back to two or three feet from the ground so that the new growth does not have to compete with surrounding herbaceous plants for light and air.

If you cut the pruned stems into short lengths they can be placed as a bundle in a corner to make excellent cover for insects and small mammals and thus add to the wildlife in your garden.

CHECK TIES & SUPPORTS

This is not a glamorous job but an important one. Go round 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…

PLANT DECIDUOUS HEDGES

This is a job few of us do every year but most of us will do at least once in our gardens and now is the time to get it done. The ground has been very wet but ideally these should all be planted by the end of this month. Prepare the ground well by digging a trench at least 1 metre wide but only a single spade’s depth. Remove every trace of perennial weeds. Loosen the bottom of the trench by digging it with a fork. Do not add any compost or manure at this stage. Plant the hedging plants carefully, firming the excavated soil around the roots, either as a single or staggered row but resist spacing them too close together, as you will get a thicker hedge from strong plants. Water very well and then mulch all bare soil thickly with compost, well-rotted manure or chips and keep it mulched for the next three years to suppress all weeds and retain moisture. By then the hedge should be growing strongly and can have its first trim.

SOW ROCKET

Rocket is deliciously peppery and succulent and makes a delicious early spring salad leaf. Now is the best time to sow it as it germinates very fast and will grow in relatively cool weather whereas most lettuce needs warmer conditions to grow well.

Either sow directly where the crops are to grow or into plugs that can be germinated under cover and planted out when the seedlings are growing strongly. In both cases leave plenty of room – 6-9 inches – between individual plants. This will help them develop a strong root system which will produce stronger growth and a much greater number of leaves to harvest. The leaves are best cut as needed and will rapidly regrow as a result.

Another advantage of sowing rocket at this time of year is that it avoids flea beetle – which will leave a rocket leaf pinpricked with scores of tiny holes, each one of which callouses and makes the leaves tough to eat.

ROSE PRUNING

I once asked a veteran rose grower when he thought the perfect time to prune roses. “When the crocuses are in flower,” he answered. So mid-February to mid-March is ideal.

In principle rose pruning is easy and unfussy and can be done perfectly well with garden shears to create a neat, even shape. However it is worth bearing in mind the following:

Most shrub roses flower on new growth – so there will be very few flowers on the shrub as you see it now.

Remove any crossing or crowded stems and if in doubt where to cut you will do no harm to remove these right back down to the lowest visible bud.

Cut the weakest growth hardest. Most roses flower on new growth so the harder you cut, the stronger the new growth – and the more flowers you will have.

Don’t worry too much about cutting above an outward-facing bud – it really does not make much difference.

It is important to let light and air into a rose bush so try and leave it as an open, well-spaced set of branches with plenty of air in its centre.

PLANT ROSES

Why not plant a red, red rose on Valentine’s day? In fact: why not plant a rose of any colour you fancy this Valentine’s Day?

Dig a hole that is wide rather than deep and remove every scrap of weed. There is no need to add compost to the planting hole, but I do advise using mycorrhizal fungi to aid fast root development. Sprinkle the powder on the surface of the planting hole and do not cover as it is important that it makes direct contact with the roots.

Planting height is quite important for roses and like clematis, it is better to plant them deeper than most shrubs. I aim to have the point on the stem where the rootstock and top are grafted fully buried so that when the soil is back-filled just the branches are sticking out of the ground. This will secure it firmly and also reduce suckering.

Water it in really well and then prune all weak shoots back hard to encourage fresh, strong new growth. Finally, give your Valentine rose a generous mulch with garden compost or well-rotted manure.

DIVIDING AND SPREADING SNOWDROPS

Now, just as they finish flowering, is the perfect time to plan next year’s snowdrops. Snowdrops spread much better ‘in the green’ – i.e. when they are still growing and flowering – and you can expect a 100% survival rate using this method whereas they are notoriously tricky to grow from bulbs. Take your largest clumps and carefully dig them up, replacing or leaving half. Split the remainder into cup-sized clumps and replant in a new position, ideally in light shade, having first forked in some garden compost. Water them in well.

CHITTING POTATOES

Potatoes grow from sprouts that emerge in spring from the tubers and we are all familiar with transparent sprouts emerging from potatoes stored in the dark at this time of year. But if seed potatoes are exposed to light now the new sprouts will be knobbly and dark green.

When these ‘chitted’ potatoes are planted they are primed to grow away extra quickly. This is s especially beneficial for first earlies or maincrop varieties grown where blight is likely.

Place the seed potatoes in a seed tray or egg box and put somewhere bright, cool but frost free. The knobbly shoots will start to appear after a few weeks and can then be left until the soil is warm enough for planting.

SOW BROAD BEANS

If the ground is at all workable then I always try and sow some broad beans in February for an early crop. As soon as the soil warms up a little and the days get longer they will have had enough of a start to provide a picking a week or so earlier than the later ones – and that is a treat worth preparing for. Broad beans are legumes and although they add nitrogen to the soil they do best in ground that has had plenty of organic material added to it.

Sow the bean seed about 8 inches apart in double rows with about a foot or so between the lines and plenty of space – ideally about 3 ft  -between these double rows. You can draw a drill and place the beans in it and then cover them back over or, as I do, simply push each bean directly into the prepared soil. The best variety to use for these early beans is ‘Aquadulce’ although ‘Witkiem’ does well too.

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…

December

December hedges

CUT BACK HELLEBORE LEAVES

The Lenten Rose, helleborus orientalis is putting up new shoots now. However the old foliage is still looking very healthy and robust. But it can be hard to appreciate the flowers if they are smothered or even partially obscured by these leaves left over from last year. So I always make a pass of my hellebores just before Christmas, cutting off all leaves that are marked with chocolate splodges, which is a sign of hellebore leaf spot to reduce its spread. I also cut off any leaves have fallen back past 45 degrees, removing them right at the base of the plant. This lets in light and air to the emerging flower shoots which will appear before the new foliage. Hellebore leaves are very leathery and slow to compost so I burn them – and especially so for any affected with leaf spot.

I repeat this process in about a month’s time, removing all remaining old foliage so that the flowers can be fully enjoyed in all their February glory.

December fern

CHRISTMAS TREES

Whatever type of Christmas tree you choose, place it in moist soil, sand or a bucket of water, even if it does not have roots as the cut stem will still take up moisture rather as a cut flower does in a vase. These trees have evolved to be cold in winter so to delay the shedding of needles place it somewhere as cool as possible and never next to a radiator.

If you do buy a Christmas tree with roots intending to  plant it outside in the new year, it is doubly important to keep it moist and cool. If the needles start to drop, take it outside and leave it there, otherwise it will never recover in the garden.

And when choosing a position for it bear in mind that what you have dressed inside your house is a tiny baby. Norway Spruces are over 200ft tall when fully grown and are Europe’s tallest native tree. Nordman Firs (which come from the Caucasus mountains by the Black Sea) will grow even bigger. Both trees prefer rather acidic, moist conditions so if you are gardening on chalk or limestone I would not bother to attempt to grow them outside. They will never be happy. Better to treat them like a bunch of flowers: enjoy it, keep it watered and then recycle, whether by shredding yourself or taking it to the council to recycle.

December frosted leaves

BIRDS IN YOUR GARDEN

Try and be as regular as possible with the supply, especially in very cold weather, as the birds use up precious energy in coming to your bird table which is then wasted if it is bare.

Obviously it helps for the food to be as calorific as possible and seeds, nuts and fat are  best of all. Left-over pastry, bread and rice always get eaten fast and fruit is good, especially for blackbirds and thrushes. Grated cheese is popular as well as cooked (but not raw) potatoes. Avoid anything salty such as crisps, salted peanuts or bacon. I buy dried mealworms too which robins, tits and wrens gobble up greedily.

It is especially important to put out water in a shallow saucer or dish  and to refresh it daily and defrost it at least twice a day in cold weather.

It is good to provide a means of smaller birds like tits getting at food before it is all eaten by starlings or pigeons and to put your bird table well out of reach of cats. A hanging cage filled with nuts or seeds works well; I like to spread the food around in a number of different sites including on ledges too small for larger birds and to have a weathered log which I pour seeds into the fissures and cracks that the small birds can reach.

Place your feeding table or station outside a window where you can enjoy the display with a bird book handy to identify the inevitable visitors that you will not recognise and celebrate the fact that they are part of the rich diversity of your garden.

December icy pots

HARDWOOD CUTTINGS

Hardwood cuttings are slow to make roots but need no protection at all and a very good way of making new shrubs for free – especially from fruit bushes and roses. Cut a 12-24 inch length of  straight stem the thickness of a pencil of this year’s growth, and divide it into lengths between 6  & 12 inches long, cutting straight across the bottom and at an angle at the top so you remember which way up to plant it. Strip any remaining leaves from it so you have bare, straight stems and either place the cuttings so only one third is above soil level in a deep pot filled with very gritty compost (4 or 5 can fit into each pot) or outside in a narrow trench backfilled with sand to ensure good drainage. Leave them until next autumn when a good percentage will have made sturdy young plants  ready for potting up or planting straight out.

December icy pond

WASHING SLIPPERY PATHS

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

December frosty walkway