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.

August

Although August is the month of holidays and high summer, it is also when the garden can start to become a little careworn. Actually this fading tendency tends to be worst at the beginning of the month and as we go towards September – at Longmeadow at least – it seems to pick up pace again. But it is mostly foliage that is tired whereas the intense colours of the late-flowering herbaceous plants like Heleniums, asters and rudbeckias are as vibrant as anything earlier in the year and the tender cannas, bananas, zinnias, dahlias and gladioli really come into their own and hit their magnificent stride.

The late flowering clematis are towers of flower in our Jewel Garden and the warm (albeit increasingly shorter evenings) are made fragrant by the musty scent of the wonderfully opulent giant tobacco plant, nicotiania sylvestris. 

The grass borders shift from greens to a wider range of colours including purples and golds and are moving towards their autumnal gold and tawny shades. 

The vegetable garden has courgettes, sweetcorn, French and runner beans, lettuce, carrots, beetroot, chard, shallots, onions and the first maincrop potatoes. All the winter brassicas such as kale, cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli are growing fast and must be protected from pigeons and the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies.

In the greenhouse August is the month when chillies, aubergines, melons,  and tomatoes have their best fruit and add a state of sunshine to our northern table. Outside autumn-fruiting raspberries take over from the summer ones that quickly draw to an end and at the beginning of the month the blueberries are prolific and by the end the very first apples are ready to harvest although it is the end of September before most of our 62 varieties are really ready.

Hedge-cutting takes up a lot of our time and all the long grass is cut and where necessary reseeded with wild flowers.

RAPTORS

One of the features of August on the English Welsh border is the constant  and plaintive mewing of young buzzards (buteo buteo) learning to hunt for themselves. Although they have just left the nest and are only a few months old they are full grown but with the aeronautical skills of an ungainly chicken. They often land on the ground with an ungainly thump and then waddle about, catching little bigger than worms and beetles. Gradually they master the skies until by September they can soar high with their parents – which are never far away – and are catching bigger and more evasive prey.

Along side them we see Black Kites, looking especially for carrion although they are good hunters and the best and most valued summer visitor of all, the Hobby (falco subbuteo). This is the size of a kestrel but has the flying skills and appearance of a cross between large swift and an especially elegant and streamlined peregrine falcon. They cruise round the sky above the garden trying to pick off one of the many swallows and house martins which react to their appearance with massed hysteria, bunching and wheeling in a crowd of 40-50 strong to try and distract the Hobby. However their most common food are the dragonflies that they pluck and eat in the air and at dusk they will also comfortably catch bats, such is their incredible acrobatic skill.

What to do in the garden this month:

CUT LONG GRASS

If you have areas of long grass – especially if they are planted with bulbs like daffodils or crocus, they should have been left uncut to at least the beginning of last month to allow flowers to set seed and bulb foliage to die back. But August is a good month to cut a flowering meadow as short as possible. The aim is to expose areas of bare soil so that fallen flower seeds can make contact and germinate. 

This might mean hiring a powerful cutter or using a strimmer – although a scythe does the job as well as anything. Once the grass is cut it should all be raked up and put onto the compost heap (making sure that it is throughly dampened with a hose unless it is a very small amount). It is important to remove all cut grass as otherwise it feeds the soil as it decomposes and this will encourage lush regrowth at the expense of the wild flowers and bulbs. However, as long as the grass cuttings are collected,  it may be kept mown short right up until winter.

CUT HEDGES

It is safe now to trim hedges in the knowledge that the vast majority of nesting birds have fledged. Summer pruning results in slower, less vigorous regrowth than a winter trim so clip hedges to the height and shape that you wish them to remain for the rest of the year.  Start with the sides, making sure that you have a slight ‘batter’ or outward slope from the top to the bottom. This ensures that the lower section is not shaded by the top growth – which is always more bushy as it gets more light – and the hedge remains  fully ‘furnished’ right down to the ground. 

Finally, cut the top, using a string strung between canes as a guide. Deciduous hedge trimmings can be mown and added to the compost heap and evergreen ones taken to the council green waste.

DEADHEAD DAHLIAS

Dahlias will keep producing new flowers well into autumn as long as they are deadheaded regularly. The easiest way to tell the difference between a spent flower and an emerging bud is by the shape: buds are invariably rounded whereas a spent flower is pointed and cone-shaped. Always cut back to the next side shoot – even if it means taking a long stem – as this will stimulate new flowers and avoid ugly spikes of stem. 

And if you do not have dahlias then deadhead anything and everything daily – nothing else is so effective in keeping summer flowers from lasting as long as possible. 

TOMATOES

Tomatoes are coming up to their prime harvesting period but to extend this and make sure that all the current green tomatoes fully ripen  over the coming month or so there are a few things the tomato grower should do now. The first is to strip off the bottom half of the leaves on each plant. This will let in light and air so that the growing fruits get more sun and also he extra ventilation will reduce the risk of disease. This process can be continued weekly until there are no leaves left at all. Reduce the watering unless it is very hot to avoid the fruit splitting but keep up a weekly feed of liquid seaweed or, if you can make it, home-made comfrey feed. Both are ideal for maximising flower and fruit production. 

TAKE CUTTINGS

As August progresses semi ripe cuttings taken from current season’s wood that has started to harden off  are increasingly available and also increasingly likely to root quickly. 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.

Always choose healthy, strong, straight  growth free from any flowers or flower buds. Once you have taken material from the plant  and placed it in the polythene bag  go and pot them up immediately. 

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. 

Put this somewhere warm and bright but not on a south-facing windowsill as it may scorch. Water it well and then keep it moist with a daily spray from a hand mister  to 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. 

MAKING NEW STRAWBERRY PLANTS

After the early strawberries finish fruiting – usually the middle of July – they put their energy into producer new plants via runners. These are long shoots with one or more plantlets spaced along their length. As the plantlets touch the soil the put down roots, establish quickly and so the plant regenerates itself. By pinning them to the soil or onto a pot with compost in it and then separating it from the mother plant these can be harvested as new plants that will have more vigour than the parent and keep your stock replenished and refreshed. I dig up and compost the parent plant after four years as their productivity rapidly declines after this and they often accumulate viruses. 

By the end of August the rooted plantlets are ready for planting out into a new bed that has had a generous amount of compost added to it as strawberries are greedy feeders (they should always be planted on soil that has not grown strawberries for at least three years to avoid possible viruses). Space these at least 12 inches apart and ideally twice that to allow for maximum growth and productivity. Keep them well watered and mulch with more compost in autumn.

SOWING AUTUMN SALAD CROPS

Sow hardy salad crops such as ‘Rouge d’hiver’ and ‘Winter Density’ lettuce and Corn Salad, Rocket, Land Cress, Purslane, Mizuna and Mibuna. Make one sowing now for harvesting in October and November  and another in a month’s time that will crop in the new year if grown under cover. Either sow them into plugs that can be transplanted as seedlings or sow direct in rows. Thin the seedlings as they emerge and keep them weeded and well-watered.

PRUNING LAVENDER

To avoid woody, leggy plants, lavender should be pruned every year. The best time to do this is as soon as the flowers start to fade, which, depending on the variety, can be any time between midsummer and the end of August. But do not wait for the seed heads to form or the flowers to turn brown as you want to allow the maximum amount of time for regrowth before winter. 

Cut back hard to a good compact shape but be sure to leave some new shoots on each stem – lavender will often not regrow from bare wood. These new shoots will grow fast and provide an attractive and healthy cover to protect the plant in winter and provide the basis of next year’s display. 

COLLECTING SEED

Growing your favourite plants from seed is easy and practically without cost. Not only will this give you dozens of free plants for future years but also spares to give or swap with friends and family and August is the  time to begin collecting seed from your garden. 

Use brown paper envelopes – A5 is the idea size – and either carefully cut the seed heads and upend them into the envelopes, seed head and all or else place the envelop over the seed head, seal it and then snip the stem off and store it upside down. Label each envelope clearly with the date, name of the plant and, ideally, the position in the garden, and store them in a cool, dry place. 

After a week or two the seeds should be dry and can them be sieved, cleaned and stored in sealed packets. For longer term storage a plastic tub with a tight lid stored in the fridge is ideal.

WATERING CAMELLIAS, AZALEAS AND RHODODENDRONS

Camellias, Azaleas and rhododendrons form their flower buds in late summer and autumn. In other words the display that they give you next Spring is largely determined over the coming weeks. If they are too dry the buds will not form properly and those that are made quite often subsequently drop off in the spring before flowering as a result of dehydration the previous autumn. So give them a good soak  – with rainwater if at all possible – especially if they are growing in a container, and do so each week for the next couple of months.

July

Whereas July 2018 was part of a long hot, dry spell, this year Longmeadow starts the month sodden after a particularly wet June. But, by British standards at least, July is always warm so midsummer rain means lushness and green everywhere along with the intense colours of the high summer borders. The biggest problem of this is that everything has to be staked and supported because not only does the rain batter and weigh down flower and foliage, but it also encourages masses of soft, sappy growth. The upside is that it is lovely!

 The roses do not like the weather but the first half of the month is when they are at their best, from the old-fashioned shrub roses in the Cottage garden to the rambling roses hanging in swooping swags from the branches of the apple trees in the orchard. The more we dead-head, the longer we can extend their season into July but by the end of the month most have done their work and are finished.

The garden shifts into another gear. The light becomes thicker and although the days are drawing in from their June extremes, the evenings are still long and warm and all the plants such as dahlias, agapanthus, cannas, sunflowers and cosmos that all come from much closer to the equator, start to kick into their flowering stride and provide a whole new, richer palette to our borders.

The vegetable garden in July has lots of salad leaves, peas, beans, new potatoes, beetroot, garlic, carrots and artichokes and and tomatoes just beginning to bear fruit. The rhubarb and asparagus have their last picking at the beginning of the month and then are left to grow freely so goodness can be fed back to the roots to provide next Spring’s bounty.

Soft fruit is at its best with strawberries, summer raspberries, Tay and Logan berries, gooseberries, black and red currants and all ready for harvest.

Longmeadow is alive with song birds in July as most of the young fledged and explore their new territory, learning to fend for themselves before moving on later in the year.

What to do in the garden this month:

CUT BACK EARLY FLOWERING PERENNIALS

Early flowering perennials such as oriental poppies, delphiniums and hardy geraniums such as g. phaeum should all be cut back to the ground to encourage fresh regrowth and repeat flowering in a couple of months time. This also creates space for tender annuals and perennials in the border. Remove all cut material to the compost heap, weed around the base of the plants, water if necessary and do not plant too close to them so that they have light and space to regrow and flower again at the end of summer.

SUMMER PRUNING APPLES AND PEARS

Pruning apples and pears at this time of year in summer is very useful for trained forms like espaliers, cordons or fans or mature trees that have become too large or crowded because, unlike winter pruning, done when the tree is dormant, this hard cutting back will not stimulate vigorous regrowth.  Unless you are training a particular new shoot, remove all this year’s growth back to a couple of pairs of leaves (usually about 2-4 inches) being careful not to remove any ripening fruits.  If you are training the fruit to a particular shape,  tie desired but loose growth in as you go. Cutting it back now also allows light and air onto the fruit that is ripening and stops your trees becoming too crowded with unproductive branches.

STAKING

The extra warmth of July – and the wetness that comes with it – often leads to a flush of lush growth that plants cannot support. The result is that borders can start to fall all over the place, plants outgrowing themselves and toppling chaotically – especially if lashed by rain winds or thunderstorms and what was lovely profusion, can become a disaster zone overnight.

So it is good to have some brush wood such as hazel pea sticks or metal supports ready and to gently work round the borders easing plants upright and providing the underpinning that they need – but without reducing the border to a stiffly corsetted state that loses all the charm of midsummer bounty. Ideally it should not look as though you have done anything at all.

This can often apply to taller growing annuals such as ammi majus, sunflowers, cleome, Cosmos sensation, tithonias and Leonotis – all of which are stalwarts of Longmeadow. As these are planted individually it is hard to support them in the gently bolstering fashion that suits a large herbaceous perrenial, but they can be staked to half their height and tied with soft twine so that they can still move gently but not collapse completely.

CUT HEDGES

Young birds will have left their nests by now so hedges can be safely cut. A trim now will allow any subsequent regrowth to harden off before possible autumnal frosts.

Start by cutting the sides. Be sure to make the base of the hedge wider than the top – regardless of the height. This ‘batter’ allows light to reach the bottom half and ensures full, healthy foliage down to the ground. Then cut the top, using string as a guide to keep it straight and level. If it is an informal hedge, curve the top over so it is rounded.

If you have an overgrown hedge now is the best time to reduce it in size whereas if you have a hedge that needs reinvigorating, wait until winter and trim it hard when it is dormant. This will promote more vigorous growth next Spring.

If the hedge trimmings are not prickly they will be soft enough to chop up with a mower and added as a useful contribution to the compost heap.

PICKING RASPBERRIES

I would trade the very best strawberry for any raspberries and the summer fruiting varieties are at their best in July. Summer-fruiting raspberries carry their fruit on the canes that grew the previous summer – so all the fresh growth made in the current year will crop next July – whereas autumn-fruiting types such as ‘Autumn Bliss’ produce their fruit on the new-season’s growth. There is a freshness and seasonal treat to the summer raspberries that makes them especially good and we often pick a bowl just before supper and eat with a little cream whilst they are still warm from the evening sun. Heaven!

TOMATOES

It takes a hot summer for many of my tomatoes at Longmeadow to ripen before the very end of July but there is still a lot of tending to be done. Side shoots have to be nipped off almost daily – a job that I try and do first thing in the morning when I open up the greenhouse because the plants are turgid and therefore brittle and the shoots snap off satisfyingly easily.

We water the tomatoes just twice a week unless it is very hot and do not feed them at all in July. The compost added to the beds gives them the food they need at this stage and overwatering can cause the fruits to split.

The hotter it is the better the fruit will taste but it is important to have as constant a temperature as possible rather than great fluctuations between day and night so how much we open and close the windows and doors will vary a lot.  But ventilation is very important to decrease the risk of blight and viruses and as the month progresses I start to remove the lower leaves so that air and light can move around the plants and ripen fruit in the lowest trusses.

FEEDING CONTAINERS

Most plants grown in a container of any kind will exhaust the available nutrients from the compost they were originally planted as they grow and will need a regular supplementary feed for the rest of the summer. A weekly feed high in potash that will help promote root and flower formation (but not over-lush foliage) is ideal. I find liquid seaweed or a proprietary liquid tomato feed to work well.

The secret is to give just enough – and not too much. Too many nutrients is as damaging as too few as it causes rapid, lush growth – often at the expense of flowers or fruit – and which attracts extra fungal and predatory problems. Never be tempted to make the feed any stronger than the instructions dictate and if in any doubt reduce the strength. Your plants and displays will be the better for it.

PRUNING RAMBLING ROSES

It is very important to keep dead-heading roses as the petals fade to encourage repeat flowering, but some roses have now finished all that they are going to do this year. Most ramblers fall into this category, especially in the south of the country, roses such as ‘Wedding Day’, ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ or ‘Felicite Perpetue’ should be pruned as soon as they have finished flowering. If you are in doubt as to whether your rose is a climber or a rambler, ramblers tend to be much more vigorous and always have a mass of small flowers that never repeat once they have finished.

Many ramblers are best grown into a tree and these can be left unpruned apart from straggly, unkempt,  growth. However if space is limited or you are training the rose in any way this year’s new shoots should be tied in or cut back according to the circumstance. Remove any damaged or very old shoots, cutting them right back to the ground.

If training round a vertical support it is best to wind the stems in a spiral. Otherwise, the more horizontal the stems can be trained, the more flowers will be produced next year.

Finally, tie in any loose growth and mulch well.

SOWING PARSLEY

I like to have a constant supply of parsley which can easily be done as long as you make successional sowings and now is the best time to sow the seeds that will provide plants for harvesting through winter and the first part of next spring. When the seed has germinated prick out the seedlings into individual pots or plugs and grow them on until large enough to plant out.

Do not be tempted to leave a sprinkle of seed that develops into a bunch of spindly seedlings but thin and encourage each individual plant to be strong. Space them at least 9 inches apart and allow each to became really vigorous. The well-spaced plants will have a big root and recover quickly from being cut back by throwing up more fresh leaves and thus provide a much better source of leaves for a longer period.

PICKING SWEET PEAS

Few garden chores can be as pleasant or undemanding as this but be sure to regularly pick all the flowers from your sweet pea plants is the best way to extend their flowering season. Sweet pea flowers will rapidly develop seed pods in warm weather and these drain energy from the plant and trigger more seed production at the expense of flowers. I have found that the optimum picking period for sweet peas is about 10 days. It is important to remove every single flower – and to enjoy the resulting fragrant bunches of blooms for the house.

Use scissors and cut the stems as long as possible and as soon as you see any seed heads remove them immediately. This way, in a cool summer, the plants can go on flowering right into September.

HARVEST GARLIC AND SHALLOTS

If the leaves are yellowing and seed heads are forming, this is a good indication that garlic and shallots (and onions too if they are ready, although they may need a few more weeks yet) are usually ready to harvest.  Always use a fork to carefully lift them rather than yanking them out of the soil by hand as you want to try and avoid damaging the roots and especially the root-plate – where they attach to the bulb.

Clean any surplus soil but do not remove any foliage or roots before putting them to dry thoroughly. This can be done by leaving them on the soil if it is dry and warm, on a home-made rack made from chicken wire stretched over posts or in a greenhouse. Once they are absolutely dry – usually after a few weeks – they can be topped and tailed for storage.

SUMMER PRUNING CURRANTS

After gooseberries, red and white currants have been harvested – which they all will by the end of July – it is a good idea to give them a summer prune. Remove any new growth that is crowding the centre of your bushes and cut back the new shoots you wish to keep by about a third. This will let light and air into the plant, encouraging the wood to ripen and spurs to form which will carry next year’s fruits.  Blackcurrants can be pruned hard – removing up to a third of each bush – immediately after harvest.

June

The whole year reaches for and aspires to the month of June. The days reach their peak on the 21st and Midsummers Day – June 24th is the high point of the year. So the first, most obvious but far the most important thing is to enjoy your garden as much as possible in every way possible. Do not let a moment slip by .

There is a palpable sense of arrival with a sense of freshness underlying the lush green that frames the garden. As well as warmth and light it means that the tender plants that we have been protecting for half the year can now come out and grow freely both in the borders and vegetable garden and the garden can assume its rich summer clothes. Bananas, cannas and dahlias are planted out into the Jewel garden along with all the tender annuals we have been raising from seed throughout the colder spring months. The vegetable garden – which is always surprisingly slow to get going, really starts to take off and tender vegetables and herbs jostle for available space. 

But best of all, for this gardener at least, are the long, long evenings when we can stay outside, gardening or just watching the swifts and swallows circle the sky, until after ten at night. 

Hot June days are a joy but the garden still glows looks fabulous in a month dogged by rain and unseasonable cold. Colour arrives like a carnival and should be celebrated with high abandon. There are Oriental poppies with huge orange blooms, Bearded Irises topped with some of the richest colours in the whole floral world, large-flowering clematis and, as the month unfurls, roses, glorious roses of every shade of pink, white, red and yellow. The only sane response to this panoply of flowers is to bathe luxuriously in the colour.

Although trees, hedges and shrubs now have all their full summer foliage  everything still has the freshness and inner glow of spring. Nothing is jaded. Nothing has yet been taken for granted. June is growing and every moment is a celebration. In fact the weather can often be too cold, too wet or, just occasionally, too hot. No matter. This is minor stuff. The British garden – and countryside –  is at its very best and I adore every second of it. 

What to do in the garden this month:

GREENHOUSE/ALLOTMENT

The vegetable garden is coming out of the ‘Hungry Gap’ – that period between the last of the winter crops and the first of summer’s harvest but there is still time to start a vegetable garden from scratch although there should be some urgency to do so. 

Tomato plants, courgettes, squashes, runner beans and sweetcorn can all be planted outside now the nights are warming up and aubergines, peppers, melons, cucumbers and more tomatoes grown in a greenhouse. 

It is important to keep a succession of lettuce going this month making small sowings every two or three weeks to ensure a steady supply of fresh salad leaves. 

Regularly pinch out side-shoots on tomatoes. It is best – and easiest – to do this first thing in the morning when the plant is turgid and they will snap off easily in your fingers. 

June is a month when weeds really kick into action so all vegetable plots need regular weeding and nothing beats a hoe for this. The secret of effective hoing is to always do it in dry weather and preferably in the morning so that the weeds will cut cleanly from the soil and then dry out and die during the day. They can then be raked up in the afternoon and taken to the compost heap.

THIN APPLES, PEARS & DESERT GRAPES TO ENSURE GOOD SIZED FRUIT

If your apple or pear  trees suddenly deposit hundreds of small fruits on the ground you might feel something is going horribly wrong but this is perfectly normal and known as the ‘June Drop’.  The tree is just reducing the quantity of fruit they carry in order to successfully ripen those that remain. However it is indiscriminate about which fruit it lets go, so it is a good idea to selectively remove the smallest fruit at this time of year before the tree does it for you. 

Reduce each cluster on a spur to just two fruits that are not touching each other. Not only will these grow and ripen better as a result but also the risk of damaging the branches by the weight of the fruit later in the year is greatly reduced. With all fruit that is to be eaten rather than juiced, quality is much more important than quantity. You can always buy average apples but if you grow them yourself then you should always aim for them to be as good as possible. 

DEAD-HEAD ROSES TO PROLONG FLOWERING

Dead-heading roses is really worth doing at least once a week- and preferably daily – in mid summer. 

When you dead-head you are effectively pruning and thus stimulating fresh side shoots which will bear new flower buds and therefore extend the flowering season. Dead-heading also stops the plant developing seed and so increases the chance of repeat flowering as seed always takes precedence from the plant’s supplies of nutrients and water.

Just pulling off the old flower heads will help but by far the best approach is to use a pair of secateurs and to cut back to the first leaf below the spent flower. A new shoot will then grow from this point. 

Of course some roses, especially the species bushes, have glorious hips in autumn and these will only develop if the flowers are allowed to set seed and fruit., so enjoy the flowers as long as they last and then wait for the autumnal display that they will produce from their fruit. 

PRUNE WISTERIA CUTTING BACK ALL NEW GROWTH TO SIX INCHES

Wisteria produces its flowers on new growth, which in turn emerges from spurs off the main shoots. When they have finished flowering – and for most of us that is around the middle of June – is the best time  to prune all this years new shoots back to a spur leaving no more than about about 6 inches of growth. In the process the whole plant can be tidied, trained and tied in so that there are no loose, trailing shoots. 

If there is any doubt about how hard to prune, err on the side of cutting too lightly and then in the the new year, when the foliage has all died back, you can prune again, reducing each side shoot to just 2 or 3 inches. 

PRUNE EARLY FLOWERING SHRUBS 

The Spring flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus, Amelanchier, Deutzia, Weigela and Rubus all produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should be pruned now. This will give the new growth plenty of time to ripen before winter and thus bear maximum flowers next Spring. 

Mature shrubs should be pruned hard, cutting back most of the flowering stems to a healthy new shoot and taking the oldest growth (but no more than a third or quarter of the plant) right back to the base so it is completely renewed every three or four years.  A very overgrown shrub should be renewed in this gradual manner too. Young shrubs should have the weakest growth cut back with the remainder pruned just to shape and size. 

Weed, water and mulch with compost after pruning is done and take semi ripe cuttings from healthy, straight non-flowering pruned stems.

TRIMMING VERTICALS

It is amazing how forgiving the eye is of the broad expanses of hedge, grass, border or anything really, as long as the edges, in any direction, are suitably straight and clean cut. It is too early to cut hedges because not all young birds have left the nest, but you can cut all entrances and exits and vertical planes in gaps in hedges to crispen them up and whilst this is quick and easy to do and clear up, it can transform the garden. Then, in a month’s time, all the hedges can have a proper trim and your edges, which by then will have become a little fuzzy again, can have their second cut. 

TRIM BOX HEDGES

Until 10 years ago Box hedges and topiary were almost ubiquitous in British gardens. But the combination of box blight and box moth caterpillar have made one of the stalwarts of the garden look very much under threat and it may be that fewer and fewer of us can successfully grow box at all. 

However if you do then early June is the best time to give it a trim. Always use really sharp shears or hedge trimmer as this will avoid burning and tearing the cut edges which makes them turn brown. 

Also always do this job when you know that you are going to have a few days of dry weather as the cut leaves and stems are extra susceptible to the box blight fungus when the wounds are fresh. Dry weather will stop the spores being active and allow time for the wounds to quickly scar over and become less vulnerable. 

GRASS CUTTING

By June a million gardens are regularly humming – and at times unpleasantly roaring – with the sound of motor- mowers keeping the grass trim and under control. But at Longmeadow we restrict this to paths and try and let as much grass as possible grow long and planted up with spring bulbs and wildflowers. This looks beautiful and is so much better for insects and all forms of wildlife than a neatly mown lawn. 

However it is important to time the cutting of this long grass to maximise the performance of the bulbs next spring and of the grasses themselves. Nothing should be cut at all until after the longest day on June 21st. This gives the foliage of the bulbs time to die back and feed next year’s bulb and subsequent flowering. The grass can then be cut if it as been hot and dry although sometimes I leave this as late as mid August. 

Whenever you make this first cut of the long grass, you must collect it all up and take it to the compost heap to stop it adding nutrition to the ground which would encourage lusher, coarser grasses at the expense of the flowers. 

May

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

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

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

WILDLIFE: NEWTS

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

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

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

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

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

What to do in the garden this month:

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

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

SOW FRENCH BEANS

If your soil has warmed up – and only feeling it with your skin will determine that –  then you can safely sow a batch of French beans, both dwarf and climbing. These are tender plants that will be knocked right back by a touch of frost and will survive but not grow if the temperature drop below about 10 degrees and then become fair game for slugs and snails.  but by the time they have germinated we will be clear of those cold temperatures in most areas and the young plants can grow strongly. 

Sow dwarf beans in rows in well manured soil a with each bean spaced 6 inches apart and the rows 12-18 inches apart.  For climbing beans sow two seeds at the base of each support  and removed the weaker of the two once one is established and growing strongly.  water them well and keep them watered throughout the growing season.

DIVIDE & MOVE GRASSES

Unlike herbaceous perrenials, grasses are best divided once they have started to grow vigorously. Lift the clump and divide into fairly substantial sections – they grow slowly so do not cut them up into too small pieces.  Replant them at the same level they were in before and water in well. Keep watering them weekly until they are growing strongly. 

Some grasses seed themselves freely and form crowded clumps and these can be thinned and moved by lifting entire young plants and repositioning with more space around them.

LAYING TURF

The beginning of May is a good time to lay turf as the ground is warm and the grass is beginning to grow vigorously so will establish quickly.  

A lawn is only as good as the soil it grows on. Rather than hiding imperfections, turf tends to accentuate them whilst making it much harder to fix, so get it right before the turf goes down. Dig over the area, breaking up any compaction and removing all and visible weeds. Rotovate it well and then rake it thoroughly so that the surface is smooth and level. 

Then tread over every inch, keeping the weight on your heels. This will expose  any dips and hollows which should be filled and then the soil raked completely smooth again. 

Then, using planks to stand on,  lay the turf in courses, butting the edges tightly together making sure that the joints do not line up. Only cut when you have to and keep any shorter sections away from the edges so that they will dry out more easily than longer sections. When you are happy that it is done, water it well. Do not tread on it at all until the grass is visibly growing – which will be around 10 days.

DEADHEAD TULIPS

If you have tulips growing in borders, deadhead them once they are past their best. This will stop the development of seed so that all the energy goes into forming new bulbs for next year’s flowers. The best way to deadhead them is simply to snap off the spent flower with the growing seed pod using your fingers.

Do not cut back the stem or any of the foliage as this will all contribute to the growing bulbs as they slowly die back. 

TOMATOES

It is time to plant out tomatoes if you have not already done so, burying them deeply – right up to the bottom  leaf as the buried section of stem will develop extra roots. 

As the young plants grow they form shoots between the leaves and the stem and these are known as side-shoots. They grow with extra vigour and although they do bear trusses of fruit, they take energy from the plant and reduce the overall harvest as well as making a cordon plant straggly. So they should be removed as they appear. 

The best way to do this is in the morning when the plant is turgid, simply breaking them off with finger and thumb. However in the evening they will be limper and may tear the plant so should be cut off with a knife.

PLANTING TENDER ANNUALS

By the middle of May  tender annuals like sunflowers, Zinnias, Cosmos or Tobacco plants can be planted out into all but the coldest gardens, especially if you have hardened them off for at least a week. Hardening off is important and will means much faster growing and longer-lasting flowers – so if you buy any of these annuals from a garden centre over the coming weeks, do not plant them out immediately but put them in a sheltered place for a week to acclimatise to your garden, as they will probably have been kept sheltered for best retail display 

I like to use tender annuals both in containers and borders and in the latter I do not use them as bedding but to enrich the general tapestry of the overall planting. So I place them in groups so they make drifts and clumps rather than straight lines. 

Space them about 12 – 18 inches apart in a sunny situation that is sheltered from strong winds and water them in well. As long as the temperature does not drop below 5 degrees they should grow strongly and flower well into autumn. 

THE CHELSEA CHOP

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

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

PRUNE EARLY FLOWERING CLEMATIS

The best time to prune early-flowering clematis such as c. montana, armandii, alpina and macropetala, is immediately after they finish flowering. Obviously the timing of this will vary considerably in different parts of the country but the principal remains constant and for many of us this occurs at the end of May. 

Next year’s flowers are formed on all the new growth made from this period until late summer so if you prune them much later than mid to late June you will be removing potential flowers that would bloom next spring.

Pruning of these clematis is solely to maintain their size and spread  for your convenience rather than for any horticultural benefit. So cut back freely, not worrying about individual stems or the position of the cut. Then when you have finished, weed round the plant, water it well and mulch generously with garden compost or bark chippings.

SOW BIENNIALS

Now is the time to sow wallflowers, honesty, foxgloves, forget-me-nots or sweet rocket for a lovely display next spring and summer.  Biennials differ from annuals, which grow, flower and set seed all in one growing season,  in that they grow fast from seed and develop strong roots and foliage in one season and then flower in the next. 

For most this means that they germinate and grow without flowering in summer and autumn, remaining dormant over winter, then have another burst of growth before flowering in Spring and early summer. 

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

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

April

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

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

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

What to do in the garden this month:

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

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

MOWING

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

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

PLANT OUT SWEET PEAS

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

Sweet peas grow best in rich soil with plenty of moisture and in cool – but not cold – conditions,  so the more you can enrich the soil with lots of compost or manure before planting, the better they will grow. I like to grow mine up bean sticks arranged as a wigwam but any support will do from bamboo canes to chicken wire. 

I plant two or three plants to each stick or support and water them in very well, before mulching them thickly to keep them weed-free and to stop them drying out. 

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

PLANT NEW POTATOES

Whilst there is no rush to plant maincrop potatoes (I have planted as late as June and still had a good crop) the sooner you can plant seed for first earlies, the sooner you can enjoy that delicious harvest that always tastes so much better than any that you can buy.

Make a V-shaped trench 6-9 inches deep and place the seed potatoes about 12 inches apart along the bottom of it. Backfill the trench so that the soil forms a ridge along the length of it. Leave at least 3ft between rows to allow for earthing up – digging more soil onto emerging foliage to protect them from late frosts. I also grow them in a raised bed simply pushing each seed potato in a 6 inch deep hole made with a dibber with each plant about 18 inches apart in a grid. However you plant them, always enrich soil for potatoes with plenty of well-rotted manure or compost.

TIDYING BULBS

Although you should resist any temptation to cut back, tie up or ‘tidy up’ the foliage of any bulbs that have finished flowering as this will decrease the quality of flowering next spring, you can lift the bulbs, foliage, bulb and roots and pot them into a container which can then be put to one (sunny) side to die back and feed next year’s bulb without leaving an unsightly mass of dying foliage in a prime position for the next few months.

When the foliage has died back the bulbs can be stored in the pot, making sure they do not become too wet (they can dry out completely) and then replanted in autumn.

DEAD HEAD AZALEAS AND  RHODODENDRONS

This is a very simple job but one which is often overlooked. To extend the rhododendron and Azalea season and ensure that the plant does not waste its energies into seed production, dead head as many faded flowers as you can. This is particularly relevant to the large-flowered varieties.

Do not use secateurs as you risk injuring the fragile buds growing at the base of the flowers but gather the flower trusses between finger and thumb and snap them off.

Removing the withered flowers also reduces the risk of fungal infections and will increase next year’s flowering display. As well as doing the plant good it also removes unsightly dead flowers that can hang onto the shrub for days or even weeks.

HARDEN OFF TENDER PLANTS

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

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

PLANTING LILIES IN POTS

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

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

SUPPORT HERBACEOUS PLANTS

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

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

DESIGN TIPS FOR A SMALL GARDEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

March

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

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

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

MARCH BIRDSONG

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

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

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

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

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

FROGS

Ponds are an essential component of the wildlife garden and no creature enjoys or uses them more fully than the common frog, Rana temporaria. In return they will eat slugs, caterpillars, mosquitos and flies. 

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

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

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

About three weeks later these hatch into tadpoles which will live in the pond as they develop into young frogs over the summer. They leave the water about 12 weeks after hatching, sometime between midsummer and early autumn, and you will find that your garden is suddenly full of small froglets, seeking out cool, shady spots.

They will not return to the water until they are old enough to breed which is usually after about 2 years. 

What to do in the garden this month:

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

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

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

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

  • When tidying up the borders watch out for hibernating hedgehogs who may have wrapped themselves in fallen leaves and stems and are still hibernating. These are becoming increasingly and disastrously rare in the countryside and gardens are by far the most important habitat for them in the UK.
  • Any herbaceous plant can be divided this month.  Dig the whole plant up and discard the centre section to the compost heap, replanting the more vigorous outside parts of the plants in groups which will grow together to make one large plant. It is worth doing this to all herbaceous perennials every three to five years.
  • The grass will need mowing March but  do not cut it too short. Just give it a light trim for the rest of this month and the grass will be a lot healthier – and better able to resist summer drought – as a result.
  • March is a perfectly good time to prune any shrub roses, late-flowering clematis, buddleia, elder, dogwood, rubus, willows, and deciduous ceonothus. Just remember two rules: cut hard to stimulate vigorous regrowth and always cut back to something, be it a leaf or a bud.
  • Deciduous grasses like miscanthus, calamagrostis and deschampsia should all be cut back hard to the ground before the new green shoots start to grow too long. Evergreen grasses like the Stipa and cortaderia families should not be cut back. However comb through each plant with a rake or your hands (I advise wearing stout gloves as grasses can be very sharp) pulling out all dead growth. The old dead growth can be shredded and composted.
  • When you have finished clearing and cutting back give the grasses a thick mulch with a low-fertility material – ie not garden compost or manure. I use a pine bark mulch. However, do not divide or move any grasses at this time of year. They must be growing strongly to have the best chance of surviving so wait until late May or even early June.

ALLOTMENT/VEG GARDEN

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

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.

January

There is a hawthorn in the boundary hedge of my garden. It is a scrubby affair, not much more than a bush really, but every mid-January the sun lingers just over the top of it before dipping down over the horizon across the fields. This is an important day because that light shines straight down the main garden path and catches the panes of my greenhouses reflecting the blaze of sunset. The garden is literally lit up for the first time since October. The January days gradually lengthen and hope creeps back into my world.

Throughout November and December I spend more time looking at the garden than working in it. This is no bad thing. Really looking hard as the leaves fall away and die back forms a kind of permanent image in your brain that can be clothed with plants throughout the rest of the year. But at some point looking is not enough. So in January I start gardening again in earnest.

The weather has quite a lot to do with how much actually gets done. Although December is the gloomiest month, January can be very cold, snowy or very wet. Snow and rain severely limit what can be done so I cross my fingers and hope for a period of cold, dry weather when the ground will be hard enough to push a wheelbarrow without sinking to the axle in mud and – the greatest luxury of all and the failsafe measure of good winter weather – I can walk outside without having to put on wellington boots.

Snowdrops, aconites, hellebores, catkins and most gloriously of all, the early irises are all coming into flower. The garden is coming alive again – and so am I.

What to do in the garden this month:

WINTER PRUNING OF FRUIT TREES

This is always my big January job and if nothing else this is something I like to have finished by the end of the month.

Try to understand how something grows before pruning. Does it flower on new or old wood? Does it grow new shoots in a great post-flowering burst or do they steadily emerge over the season? Does a fruit tree need to achieve a certain maturity to create spurs that bear fruit or will they be produced in the first year of growth? Does the plant heal well or is it, like cherries and plums, a bleeder – and if so when does it produce least sap? If in doubt about any of this – don’t cut. Wait. You will never do harm by not pruning and patience in a garden is a great virtue.

If you prune an apple tree hard each winter it will make a mass of new growth but no flowers – and therefore no fruit. This cycle is often perpetuated by even harder pruning the following year – to get rid of all that new, fruitless growth, which, having lots of lovely succulent sap, will attract aphids and fungal disease. So through over-zealous and mistimed pruning people often ruin their fruit trees.

If you wish to curtail growth you leave the pruning to summer – July is ideal – when the foliage is fully grown and before the roots start to store food for winter. Do not prune plums, apricots, peaches or cherries (these should be pruned in late Spring and only if absolutely necessary).

APPLES AND PEARS

The idea is to produce a tree that has plenty of light and air reaching the centre. I do this by imagining a pigeon flying straight at the tree and pruning it so it can fly right through it from any angle. In principle you are trying to make a goblet-shape or a cupped hand with the fingers making the branches around the empty palm.

Start by removing any crossing or rubbing branches. Cut back any overlong or straggly branches to a bud to promote vigorous multi-stemmed regrowth. Keep standing back and reviewing the shape so that it both looks handsome and retains a strong, open structure. Always use very sharp secateurs, loppers and saws and never strain – always use an implement that is working well within its capacity. That way you retain control and risk least damage to the tree – and yourself. Traditional advice was to paint any large wounds made by pruning but current thinking is that this does more harm than good as it seals in moisture and disease. By far the best course is to leave a clean cut and let it heal over itself.

TRAINED FRUIT (CORDONS,ESPALIERS,FANS)

You must be counter intuitive with these. Remember that the harder you cut, the stronger the regrowth – so cut back any weak growth in winter to encourage vigorous new shoots in Spring. You must then prune again in July to restrict growth.

PRUNING SOFT FRUIT

Cut back autumn fruiting raspberries to the ground, removing all of last year’s canes. Cut away all crossing and inward growing growth from Redcurrants and Gooseberries to create an open goblet shape. Reduce remaining growth by a third to create a strong framework of branches.

I always take a few cuttings from the pruned material of Gooseberries and Redcurrants because they strike very easily and it means I can constantly add new, vigorous plants to replace the older ones. Simply select a nice straight shoot and divide it into lengths between 4 & 9 inches (10 & 20cm) long. Cut the top of each section at an angle and the bottom straight so that you remember which way up they should be.

Place the cuttings around the edge of a pot filled with a gritty compost mix, burying them deeply so that only an inch or so is above the surface. Water them and put them in a sheltered place. They will not need any extra heat or protection and will take a few months to show signs of growth – which will be the indication that roots have formed. They will be ready to pot into individual pots by mid-summer and to plant out next winter.

ONION SETS AND SEEDS

The advantage of growing onions by seed is that there are so many varieties to choose from. However it is much easier – and more common – to grow them from sets, which are small bulbs. If the ground is dry enough these can be planted now about 9 inches apart in rows with the tips sticking out of the soil. However if it is too wet, I suggest planting a batch in plugs in ordinary peat-free compost and protecting them in a greenhouse or cool windowsill where they will establish shoots and roots. Harden them off for at least a week outside before planting out when the soil is dry enough for them.

SOWING CHILLIES

Chillies are always the first seeds that I sow in the new year. They can be slow to germinate and certainly need some heat, either on a heated bench or on a windowsill above a radiator. Because of this I tend to sow them in seed trays rather than plugs and then transplant them to plugs as soon as the seedlings develop true leaves, potting them on again in March and then to their final terracotta pots in May.

The secret of successful chilli growing – other than plenty of light and heat – is to allow each plant as much time and opportunity to become big and bushy, feeding it weekly with a high nitrogen fertiliser (I use home-made liquid nettle feed) until the first flower buds start to appear in June and then switching to a high potash feed (liquid seaweed or homemade comfrey feed are both ideal) to stimulate as many flowers and subsequent fruits as possible on what by now should be a large plant.

Chillies need plenty of water but hate being waterlogged, so use a free-draining compost and never water them after 5pm to avoid the risk of them sitting overnight in soggy compost.

CHOOSE & ORDER SEEDS

Growing from seed is the cheapest way to fill your garden with colour and delicious vegetables and deeply satisfying and New Year is the time to start ordering seeds.
Do not rush this. Check websites and catalogues, draw up wish lists and plan where you are going to plant the seedlings before you make your order. There is no hurry. As long as the seeds are ordered this month it will leave you plenty of time to sow and raise them.

There have 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.

EMERGENCY JOB

It is not too late to plant tulips – but you really do need to get on with it. 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. But this is a job to do by the middle of the month at the latest.

POTTING COMPOST

Many gardeners will have noticed that a self-sown seedling will grow much healthier than one carefully raised under glass and then transplanted to exactly the same part of the border. This is because the seedling starts that complex relationship with the soil from the outset rather than having to establish it after it has been transplanted.
What does this mean for us gardeners?

The first is to take the old-fashioned option where possible and sow seeds into a seed bed, transplanting the seeds with a clump of moist soil around the roots. Another way of achieving the same effect is to sow directly where the plants are to mature. This is not always possible, especially with plants that are tender or slow to grow. The seedlings must be sown and raised in potting compost and then transplanted at a later, suitable date. This is where I think it is worth taking care with the choice of compost.

The first thing is to avoid peat. As a growing medium peat has many virtues. It retains moisture well yet drains freely. It is cheap. But none of this justifies the loss of peat bogs caused by extraction for horticultural use. We are using peat at around 200 times the speed that it can reform and over 95% of British peat bogs, which are essential for a whole range of birds and plants, have been lost this century. It cannot ever be justified. Composted bark works very well in most cases. Composted bracken makes an excellent ericaceous alternative, as does composted pine needles. All three are widely available.

No potting compost can match the complexity and range of micro-organisms in the soil that are essential to long-term plant health. But you can try and make your potting compost as good as possible by mixing in extra goodness and improving the drainage and ease of root development. I start with a measure of my own garden soil. This should always come from your own garden as it will have its own specific ecosystem. Also keep a supply of well-sieved garden compost in a bag and add a shovel or two to each mix. Finally invest in some bags of horticultural grit and add this liberally to ensure good drainage and a free root-run for the growing plants.

There will be a few weeds that appear but they are very easy to remove. Most importantly your plants will be healthy and specifically adapted for your soil from the first day. It is important to always use fresh potting compost for every new planting as even though used compost might look perfectly good, most if not all of the nutrients will have been used up. Recycle the used compost by spreading it on a border or your compost heap.

 

 

 

 

 

December

December is when I batten down the hatches and try to sort things out behind the scenes. The truth is that I do less gardening in the whole month of December than I do in a normal week of March or April. The combination of the shortest days and the wettest, dreariest weather means that the garden shuts up shop and hunkers down waiting for the year to pass.

Christmas is, of course, the highlight for many of us and as well as all the usual celebrations, for me it marks the moment when I begin to get my garden back and to re-engage with it. This happens slowly through the coming weeks but it begins right there when I step outside on Boxing Day morning.

But occasionally there are a few days of dry weather early in the month and I try and get out and clear as much fallen, soggy foliage from the borders as possible. Anything standing without support is left as cover for the birds and to add a skeletal adornment to the garden, but a soggy carapace of rotting vegetation never does any good.

And as the garden is stripped it becomes almost entirely green and brown. But the one sign of life – the one reminder that Spring will come – is the fresh green of evergreen trees, shrubs and hedges.

GREEN!

The winter garden absolutely depends upon good evergreens and I regard them as the most important plants in any garden at any time of year because they are the bones upon which all the floral flesh hangs.

Yew makes the best evergreen hedge as well as large topiary and Irish Yews are perfect for small gardens as they make a bold statement without taking up much space. Ten years ago I would have said that Box was essential but the combination of box blight and box caterpillar make it less attractive. However if neither are present in your area no other plant is better for smaller hedges or topiary. Holly makes a fine tree, hedge and topiary albeit in places where you will not brush against it too much.

I like to use mahonia of all kinds in the borders and sarcococca, Hebe, Choisya, Portuguese laurels, Viburnum, Camellias, Phillyrea, pittisporum, skimmia, pyracantha, Euonymus and the magnificent Holm Oak are all really good evergreen options.

WIND

My garden – all our gardens in the UK – has been battered and bashed by wind already this winter and no doubt there is plenty more to come.

There are the obvious and very visible issues such as fallen limbs, but that kind of damage is relatively rare. Much worse are the unseen or less immediately apparent effects of the wind.

Where the wind comes from matters a lot. So in my garden our predominate wind comes from the west and is always wet and blustery whereas a Southerly blows dry and warm and is therefore usually welcome. The North wind often brings snow and the East wind – mercifully very rare – is vicious and cuts through to your very bones.

Wind can affect the growth of all kinds of plants as much as any other factor.The fruit trees on the northern edge of the orchard here at Longmeadow are completely lop-sided with their branches permanently streaming southward away from the north as though frozen in a windy blast. The reason for this is that the new growth on the north side is being stunted by this cold wind whereas the shelter of the tree itself, however small, is enough to protect the branches on the other, south-facing side. Hence the lopsidedness is not a case of extra growth in one direction but absence of growth in the other. You see this most dramatically on coastal cliff tops.  But of course the effect of this is only really noticeable long after the winds have gone.

So any shelter you can provide, whether from trees, hedges, shrubs or woven fences will make your garden grow better. All these filter and slow the wind down, robbing it of its sting. A solid barrier is not so effective as the wind tends to rise up and over it, coming down with all the greater force

CHRISTMAS TREES

Until a couple of hundred years ago the only evergreens available in midwinter were Yew, Holly, Ivy, Box and Juniper and the latter was and still is pretty rare in this country. There is no reason why any could not still serve as a Christmas tree. But the vast majority of people will be buying their Christmas trees from a range of non-native specimens, the most popular of which are Norway Spruce (picea abies), The Nordman Fir (Abies nordmanniana,) or the Colorado Spruce (picea pungens). All three are very good, have specific virtues and can last for a long Christmas season if looked after properly. All three will also grow in most gardens if they are bought with healthy roots and planted carefully as soon as possible after Christmas (see below).

Spruce is actually short for ‘Spruce Fir’ which is the English translation of Picea Abies and a corruption of ‘Prussian Fir’. The Norway Spruce has been grown in this country for at least the last 500 years as a timber tree. Unlike our own evergreen natives – all of which grow conspicuously slowly – Picea Abies grows very fast  and for centuries it was the main source of softwood, or deal. Although almost everyone nowadays only comes into contact with it as a tree small enough to fit easily into the living room, it is officially Europe’s largest tree and given the right conditions of damp, cold winters and damp, cool summers, it will grow to more than 200ft tall.

It is very resistant to cold and frost-hardy although it never thrives when grown on chalk or limestone. If you get confused between any of the Spruces (Picea) and Firs (Abies) – there is one easy way to differentiate the two species. The cones of spruces hang down whereas the cones of Firs stand up like candles.

Abies nordmanniana, The Caucasian or Nordman fir is much more truly evergreen than the Norway Spruce in that it only sheds its needles after about 15 years before replacing them. It also has more horizontal and rather more dense branches. The effect can make a more compact, more evenly shaped Christmas tree. It originates from the Eastern shores of the Black sea and will grow even bigger than the Norway Spruce, reaching 225ft. It grows on limestone in its Caucasian home but like the Norway Spruce it grows best in moist, cool, slightly acidic conditions.

Personally I like the Colorado, or Blue, Spruce, Picea pungens, best as a Christmas tree. Although it comes from the southern states, it originates from a high altitude, so is very hardy and grows into a tall, very straight, rather beautiful tree, with glaucous blue needles the colour of cardoon or artichoke leaves. The high altitude and bright mountain light gives it a rather stiff habit which is one of its main attractions as a Christmas tree. If you do plant one in the garden it will grow much stronger if given maximum sunlight.

Whatever tree you choose here are tips to make it last as long as possible:

  • DO get one with roots if possible, even if you are not intending to plant it.  Pot it into as large a container as you have and fill this with sharpsand or compost. Sand is perfectly good for the few weeks it will be indoors. Water it and keep the sand moist.
  • Buy a tree holder for a cut stump with a reservoir and keep it topped up with water. Treat it like a cut flower. This will do more than anything to stop it shedding its needles.
  • NEVER place your Christmas tree by a radiator. It will respond by immediately shedding its needles. Keep it as cool as possible. All these evergreen firs have adapted to cope with cold winter weather and will react to central heating heat by dropping their leaves in order to conserve moisture. A draughty hallway is ideal.
  • Take your tree to the council shredder after Christmas if you are not going to plant it so it can be recycled.

HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE

Trees have always been magical to humans. But the earliest record of a tree being dressed as part of an overtly Christian celebration is as late as 1521, in Alsace, and it did not become widespread in this country until Prince Albert bought the Prussian habit with him when he married Victoria in 1840. and pictures of the Royal family’s Christmas tree, draped with candles, presents and sweets, provoked widespread mimicry. Until that point of the mid nineteenth century Christmas was grudgingly and sparsely celebrated by modern standards and Scrooge’s attitude was less exceptional than it is nowadays perceived to be.

This was not always the case. In medieval times the modern long holiday of Christmas Eve to New Year was observed as far as money and circumstances would allow.

What to do in the garden this month:

ONIONS FROM SEED

This is always one of my Boxing Day jobs. Onions are mostly grown from sets put out when the ground is ready between January and April, but seed sown ones have the great advantage of starting earlier so having a longer growing season and, best of all, there is a much wider range of varieties to choose from than the very limited selection of sets that any garden centre can provide.

The seeds are sown in plugs of potting compost – ideally three or four seeds per plugs – and put somewhere warm to germinate. I plant them out as small blocks of seedlings in spring as soon as the soil warms up.

SHARPENING TOOLS

If it is hammering with rain outside or simply so cold your fingers cannot function, you can still go through all your tools and make sure that they are in as good condition as possible for next year.

One of the most satisfying jobs is to clean and sharpen all cutting implements. Hoes can be sharpened with a rough whetstone so they slice through weeds rather than bruise them, secateurs can have all rust removed with wire wool and a little elbow grease and then sharpened as you would a knife so that they can easily and accurately. Sharp secateurs are both better for the plant because they leave a neat, clean cut rather than tearing at it, and much safer for the gardener too because you can focus on where and how you are cutting rather than trying to force it at all.

CLEAN AND SERVICE LAWN MOWERS

Rather than leaving it till you want to make the first cut of your lawn next Spring, now is the time to give your mower a good once-over before putting them away for the winter. Wash it down and scrape off any encrusted grass. Drain any petrol from the tank. Check all screws and bolts to ensure they are properly tightened. Oil the blades and all moving parts and unless it is running and cutting exceptionally well take it for a service and sharpen by a professional rather than wait until next Spring when they will be inundated. Finally put it away somewhere dry and safe in the knowledge that when you need it in earnest it will perform properly at the first asking and throughout the next cutting season.

PLANT HELLEBORES

My Spring garden is full of hellebores – some over twenty years old but many selfhybridised from the original ones. This has given me hundreds of plants but the downside is that most are rather muddy in colour -as is the wont with most oriental hybrids. So every year I treat myself to a few really good new varieties and add them to the collection to both extend the range and to reinvigorate it with the clean, clear colours that can range from pure white to the almost black inky purple of ‘Black Diamond’ or ‘Queen of Night’.

Hellebores are usually expensive to buy but they are good value because they last for a very long time and occasionally a selfsown hybrid marries the best qualities of its parents rather than blending the worst.

Hellebores have deep roots and I always dig a bucket-sized hole and add mushroom compost or leafmould to it when planting. Keep them well watered for the first year but thereafter they need little attention. However a December job is always to go through them all removing any leaves that have fallen past 45 degrees or that are affected by blight. I then finish the job in midFebruary so that the flowers can be clearly seen.

TAKE PICTURES

Take the time to go outside and photograph every aspect and angle of your garden. It does not matter how abandoned, neglected or empty it may be. Photograph what is there with a detached and enquiring eye. This is a process of reckoning, of stock-taking and will provide you with hard evidence of what lies at the bedrock of your garden. It is a truism that any garden can look good in high summer but only good gardens look good in midwinter. So use the pictures to plan both how to make your garden look really good at this time of year and to plan for the glorious days that will start to creep in before very long.

POINSETTIA

Hundreds of thousands of poinsettias will be given as gifts this Christmas and with a little care these can be made to last looking good for months. Poinsettias are only really comfortable in damp warmth. Modern poinsettias grown as houseplants are treated with a growth retardant to create the familiar short, bushy shape we all know and love but in their native Mexico poinsettias grow at the margin of the forest to a large 10ft high shrub .

They do not like cool nights, very hot dry rooms or big fluctuations in temperatures, so keep them where there is a constant average temperature, avoiding draughts, cold windows or even very bright spots that can get very hot in the middle of the day. They like plenty of water but let the compost dry out before giving them a really good soak, standing the pot in a sink full of water and leaving it to stand for 10 minutes or so before letting the excess water drain from the pot.

RHUBARB

If you have productive rhubarb clear away any rotting stems and foliage and mulch round (but not over) each crown with a generous layer of manure or compost. If your rhubarb is a little tired now is the time to divide some of your crowns to stimulate fresh vigour. The older, central section of the big, corky roots should be put on the compost and the younger, outer sections of root replanted with the buds about an inch below the surface. Do not pick any stalks from these new sections for the first year and cut the flowers off as they appear. By the second year you should have a good crop and a really good one two years after planting.

PLANTING SHALLOT SETS

Plant shallot sets close to the shortest day and they will be ready to harvest on the longest day, at the end of June. If you have a piece of ground ready that is dry enough for the soil not to stick to your boots then plant them directly outside, 9 inches apart in rows about a foot apart. This makes them easy to hoe. Do not completely bury them but leave the shoulder of the bulb and tips clear of the soil. I suggest covering them with fleece until March, by which time they should be well rooted and able to resist birds tugging at them. Check them weekly to firm back any that have been dislodged.

Alternatively, if like me, your soil is wet and heavy for months on end, you can plant them now into plugs, just burying them deep enough to sit in the compost. Keep them in a greenhouse or cold frame and then plant out when your soil is ready and has warmed up.

Suggested varieties: ‘Red Sun’ (lovely rich red) ‘Longor’ (French long bulbs with pink flesh) ‘Topper’ round, golden bulbs with a sweet flavour.