August

August always has that bittersweet combination of long summer days and a real sense of summer slipping away. August evenings are velvet-rich with golden light as the days draw in, and the month has a fullness, like the aftermath of a delicious meal, that pervades the whole garden. The August borders take on a kind of mature, leonine energy with strong colours made richer by the combination of heat and falling light.

Longmeadow takes on a new suit of clothes. There is a new richness of colour dominated by oranges, burgundies, purple and gold. Every day that passes is a bite out of summer and the movement is towards autumn. Yet the borders gain an intensity as though to counter this.

There used to be a piece of received wisdom that August was somehow a dead month in the garden. Maybe climate change has had an influence but if it ever was true it is certainly not so now. Whereas our July gardens started to feel worn out by drought and heat the August borders take on a kind of muscular energy, full, mature and assured. The sun is lower in the sky and the evenings, by the end of the month, much shorter so my favourite time of day is when the early evening sun hits the rich colours in the borders so that they glow with regal intensity.

August is also the peak of the vegetable year. It is the month of harvest. Gradually, one by one, all the crops are gathered in from the glut of tomatoes – perfect for freezing for sauce deep into winter – to that first ripe corn on the cob or my favourite August dish, a ratatouille made from my own onions, garlic, courgettes, tomatoes, dwarf beans and chilli.

EARWIGS

At this time of year it is very common to find that the petals of dahlias are clearly chewed and nibbled, often reducing them to tattered rags and pale imitations of their supposed glory.

The culprits are earwigs that have a distinct penchant for what is – to them at least – a juicy and delicious dahlia flower.

Conventional horticultural advice is to trap the earwigs overnight by placing an upturned pot or a matchbox on a cane by the dahlia and stuffing it with straw. The earwig goes into this at dawn to rest up, thinking it a convenient safe haven but realising that you, the gardener, are about to come along and extract you from your strawy bed before doing something very unpleasant and probably terminal.

But the common earwig, Forficula auricularia, is a fascinating creature. Earwigs certainly do not rely upon the dahlia for their daily diet, being pretty much omnivorous and will eat other insects that gardeners consider as pests. They thrive in mild, damp conditions which makes the UK almost ideal for them but can most readily be found under loose bark or any woody crevice in great clusters – attracted to each other by scent pheromones that they release. The females lay about 30 cream coloured eggs in underground nests in the new year and the nymphs hatch out in April and go through a number of cycles during which time the female will protect and feed them, until they are large enough to foray out on their own.

They seem to like dahlias because in late summer and autumn – when dahlias are at their best – the massed petals of the flower heads provide ideal shelter for them and once ensconced they nibble a little at their surroundings.

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 by now all long grass should be cut 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 still 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 thoroughly 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.

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 lasting as long as possible.

TOMATOES

As August progresses, tomatoes steady ripen, working their way up the growing cordons. From now on the aim should be to develop as much fruit as possible and not encourage much more actual plant growth. A high potash feed such as liquid seaweed or home-made comfrey tea will help and I remove all the leaves around ripening fruit which exposes them to sunlight, increases sugars and speeds up ripening whilst also adding ventilation and reducing the risk of blight or viruses.

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 producing new plants via runners. These are long shoots with one or more plantlets spaced along their length. As the plantlets touch the soil they 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 ideal size – and either carefully cut the seed heads and upend them into the envelopes, seed head and all or else place the envelope 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 then 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

As my birthday is in July, it marks the beginning and end of my personal year and certainly during the course of the month there is a seasonal shift and the garden changes. The easy, open lightness of June is replaced with a richer quality and this is played out in the borders where the colours all become stronger. The first half of the month belongs to roses although by the end mine are mostly finished. Sweet peas are usually at their most bountiful and dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos and the late clematis all start to get into gear.

The vegetable garden in July has peas, beans, new potatoes, beetroot, garlic, carrots, artichokes and tomatoes just beginning to bear fruit, and late meals eaten outside as the light gently falls around the garden.

July is also irrevocably associated with school holidays and time spent playing outside in the sun. Adults call that play ‘gardening’ but the sense of freedom and the pleasure of being outside on long hot days is just the same.

OWLS

The other day a tawny owl fell down the chimney in our bedroom and spent the day there, perching rather crossly on top of a cupboard before drifting out of the opened window at nightfall.

This garden rings to the calls of tawnies all the year but especially from late summer into autumn when the young are leaving to find their own territories. But for now and for the rest of summer they will remain close to the nest, learning to hunt and mastering their incredibly silent, dexterous flight. Some nights a silhouetted figure will perch on a wigwam of bean sticks in the garden and screech with shocking loudness before slipping anonymously away. For such a big bird tawny owls fly with the muffled softness of a snowflake. Their night sight is good but their hearing is astonishing and the slightest rustle will be unerringly located and the scurrying mouse clutched in their powerful talons before it has heard a thing.

When I was a boy at boarding school in the early 1960’s the matron adopted a young owl and it would sit on her head as she walked round the dormitories, nibbling on her grey hair and pulling it gently in its beak. One night it swooped through the open window and sat on the end of my bed, shifting its feet and looking round with its swivel head. Then, as suddenly and quietly as it came, it flitted, mothlike back out into the dark of the night.

You never forget such things.

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 to 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.

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 closes 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 ripening 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 and those 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 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 become 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 as this 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.

June

I always feel that June answers questions that the rest of the year poses. Some of these are practical – how will this border look at its very best? How sunny will this corner be at the very peak of the year? Where does the sun rise on the longest day? But most of the answers are to much more philosophical and personal questions, such as: Why do I garden? Or how does such a small patch of this earth give me so very much pleasure?

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

I am sure that the secret of June is that it is not the peak of the garden’s year or aspirations. The vegetable garden is still surprisingly empty at the start of the month and although a June border is always lovely, it never has the range of plants or colours that come along later in summer. But because so much is still to come there is not that pang of incipient loss in the way that autumn is glimpsed around the corner of a late summer’s day.

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

Midsummer’s Day, the summer solstice, is a real place in the same way that New Year’s Day or Easter is a meaningful place in the cycle of the year, and should be celebrated with as much energy and enthusiasm as these holidays – which, of course, our pre-Christian, megalith-building ancestors did. From June 24th onwards the days imperceptibly tip towards winter, so June must be savoured to the very last drop.

My idea of horticultural heaven is to be weeding or planting with light enough to work until after 10pm – although weeds have been known to be planted and seedlings weeded in the half-blind rapture of the June twilight! I carry these few precious evenings with me for the rest of the year rather like a pebble in my pocket that I can touch, and they see me through the dark days of winter.

BEES

Swarming bees are a sight that can be alarming at this time of year but in fact they are highly unlikely to attack or bother you at all. The queen will leave her hive looking for a new home, taking with her thousands of male worker bees. They will circle furiously, making a sound like a hundred motorbikes before settling on a branch in a huge living cluster, before heading off for an opening in a hollow trunk or a roof to establish the new colony.

GREENHOUSE /ALLOTMENT

The vegetable garden is coming out of the ‘Hungry Gap’ – that period between the last of the winter crops and the first of summer’s harvest – but there is still time to start a vegetable garden from scratch although there should be some urgency to do so. Tomato plants, courgettes, squashes, runner beans and sweetcorn can all be planted outside now the nights are warming up and aubergines, peppers, melons, cucumbers and more tomatoes grown in a greenhouse. It is important to keep a succession of lettuce going this month, making small sowings every two or three weeks to ensure a steady supply of fresh salad leaves. And of course keep on top of the weeds and water regularly if it is dry.

What to do in the garden this month:

TRIM VERTICALS

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

SOW BIENNIALS

Biennials, such as Wallflowers, Honesty, Foxgloves, Forget-me-nots and Aquilegias differ from annuals, which grow, flower and set seed all in one growing season, in that they grow fast from seed and develop strong roots and foliage in one season and then flower in the next. For most this means that they germinate and grow without flowering in summer and autumn, remaining dormant over winter, then have another burst of growth before flowering in spring and early summer.

Sow them now in a seed tray, pots or in rows in the vegetable plot and prick them out into pots or thin so that each plant can develop healthy roots and foliage before planting them out where you want them to grow in autumn.

THIN APPLES, PEARS AND DESSERT GRAPES TO ENSURE GOOD SIZED FRUIT

It can be alarming when your precious apple tree suddenly deposits hundreds of small fruits on the ground, but this is perfectly normal and known as the ‘June Drop’.  The tree is just reducing the quantity of fruit it carries in order to successfully ripen those that remain. However it is indiscriminate about which fruit it lets go, so it is a good idea to selectively remove the smallest fruit at this time of year before the tree does it for you.

Reduce each cluster on a spur to just two fruits that are not touching each other. Not only will these grow and ripen better as a result, but also the risk of damaging the branches by the weight of the fruit later in the year is greatly reduced.

THE CHELSEA CHOP

‘The Chelsea Chop’ refers to a pruning herbaceous perennials so that they both flower later than they otherwise would and so that their flowering can be staggered if you have a number of plants. It also means that the plants will be more compact and sturdier, needing less staking. It is called the ‘Chelsea Chop’ because the time to do it is just after Chelsea Flower Show has finished.

The trick is to cut back the strongly growing foliage and stems of late flowering herbaceous perennials such as rudbeckia, heleniums and solidago, removing between a third and a half of the growth. This will stimulate fresh side shoots that will carry extra flowers, albeit appearing a little later and a little smaller than they would have done if left to grow freely. You can selectively do this to part of a large clump or to some of your plants and not others so that the flowering season is extended later into autumn.

DEAD HEAD ROSES TO PROLONG FLOWERING

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

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

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

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

PRUNE WISTERIA, CUTTING BACK ALL NEW GROWTH TO SIX INCHES

Wisteria produces its flowers on new growth, which in turn emerges from spurs off the main shoots. Now is the time to prune all this year’s new shoots back to a spur, leaving no more than about 6 inches of growth. In the process the whole plant can be tidied, trained and tied in so that there are no loose, trailing shoots. If there is any doubt about how hard to prune err on the side of cutting too lightly and then in the new year, when the foliage has all died back, you can prune again, reducing each side shoot to just 2 or 3 inches.

PRUNE EARLY FLOWERING SHRUBS

The Spring flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus, Amelanchier, Deutzia, Weigela and Rubus all produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should be pruned now. This will give the new growth plenty of time to ripen before winter and thus bear maximum flowers next spring. Mature shrubs should be pruned hard, cutting back most of the flowering stems to a healthy new shoot and taking the oldest growth (but no more than a third or quarter of the plant) right back to the base so it is completely renewed every three or four years. A very overgrown shrub should be renewed in this gradual manner too. Young shrubs should have the weakest growth cut back with the remainder pruned just to shape and size. Weed, water and mulch with compost after pruning is done and take semi ripe cuttings from healthy, straight non-flowering pruned stems.

May

Last month I wrote that April should have fickle weather. It certainly did! From heatwave to bitter chill and blazing sun to rainswept grey skies the weather at Longmeadow ran through the whole gamut of possibilities. I now long for a balmy, predictable, quiet meteorological May just to calm things down a bit. But do not be fooled. May can be chilly and certainly at Longmeadow a frost is not at all unusual in the first half of the month. But although it can veer from chilly to positively hot, May is always – always – beautiful.

A green fire runs through the veins of the garden like electricity and May brings colour and a fullness that fulfils all the promise that grows before it. At the beginning of the month our Jewel Garden begins its flowering season with tulips and the first really rich, deep colour of the year and four weeks later the garden has arrived at summer and is firing on all cylinders with alliums, peonies, irises, oriental poppies and the first roses all holding sway.  May is the month that the rest of the year aspires to, both in its consummation and freshness. It is lush and sweet and as the years go by passes tantalisingly fast so I have to keep stopping and reminding myself to drink deep and store all these May-time moments.

Best of all is to remove some of the layers that have kept cold and wet at bay. Gardening in shirtsleeves and feeling the sun on my back as the day winds down is a true measure of happiness.

BEES IN THE GARDEN

Bees need help from gardeners. The unrestrained use of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides by modern agriculture have not just affected perceived ‘pests’ but also bees.

In particular bees have been affected by by neonicotinoides. These are a class of systemic insecticides that  are used by non-organic farmers on a very wide range of grain, vegetable and fruit crops. As a result the world population of bees has been steadily  falling – which is a potential disaster for humans as well as honey bees because it has been estimated that 80% of the western diet is dependent upon pollination by bees.

But gardeners are in pole position to do something to preserve and build up our bee stocks.

All bees gather nectar which gives them their basic source of energy. It gets passed from bee to bee and the residue is deposited as honey which is essentially a stored food supply.

Pollen provides proteins and fats and is only collected by females and  mainly consumed by nurse bees in the form of jelly which is also fed to queen bees. It is also mixed with water and used to create the combs.

By planting a good selection of pollen and nectar rich flowers such as thistles of all kinds, blossom, scabious, cornflowers, mallows, bramble flowers and roses that  are easily accessible to bees, we gardeners can help halt the catastrophic decline of the bee population.

What to do in the garden this month:

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 perennials, 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.

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.

April

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

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

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

SWALLOWS

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

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

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

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

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

What to do in the garden this month:

WEED!

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

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

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

MOWING

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

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

PLANT OUT SWEET PEAS

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

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

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

PLANT NEW POTATOES

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

TIDYING BULBS

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

DEAD HEAD AZALEAS AND  RHODODENDRONS

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

HARDEN OFF TENDER PLANTS

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

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

PLANTING LILIES IN POTS

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

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

SUPPORT HERBACEOUS PLANTS

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

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

EDIBLE CONTAINERS

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

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

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

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

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

March

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

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

What to do in the garden this month:

MULCH BORDERS

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

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

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

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

DIVIDE HERBACEOUS PLANTS

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

MOW GRASS

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

PRUNE

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

DECIDUOUS & EVERGREEN GRASSES

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

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

ALLOTMENT /VEG GARDEN

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

What to spot – wildlife

HEDGEHOGS

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

FROGS

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

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

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

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

February

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

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

SOW TOMATOES

I like to sow tomatoes in two batches, the first now and another in a month’s time, both to stagger the harvest and as an insurance against bad weather, scattering the seed thinly on the surface of peat-free compost in a seed tray and then very lightly covering them either with a layer of more compost or of vermiculite. Water them well and put them in a warm spot to germinate.

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

PRUNE LATE FLOWERING CLEMATIS

The late flowering clematis (categorised as Group 3) such as C. viticella or C. jackmanii produce their flower buds on new shoots. This means that none of the remaining stems left from last year will carry any flowers at all. Now is the team to remove the whole lot of it. You cut right down to the bottom decent sized bud (and if you are in the north of the country you may have delay this for a few weeks until such buds are visible), although I like to leave a foot or two as an insurance against further really bad weather. In any event you can be very drastic, reducing a large clematis like C. rehderiana from 20 plus feet of thick growth to a few twigs. However this will ensure healthy flowering later in the summer from low down on the plant right to the top. When you have cleared away the prunings, mulch the clematis very thickly. Garden compost is ideal, but anything is better than nothing because the worst thing for a clematis is to become too dry.

PRUNE BUDDLEIAS

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

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

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

CHECK TIES & SUPPORTS

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

PLANT DECIDUOUS HEDGES

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

SOW ROCKET

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

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

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

ROSE PRUNING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLANT ROSES

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

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

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

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

DIVIDING AND SPREADING SNOWDROPS

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

CHITTING POTATOES

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

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

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

SOW BROAD BEANS

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

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

January

December Nigel in snow

LAST MINUTE TULIPS

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

December snow bench

SOW CHILLIES

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

January orchard

PRUNING APPLES AND PEARS

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

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

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

December thick snow

CHOOSE & ORDER SEEDS

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

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

December snowy cones fish eye

PLANTING DECIDUOUS HEDGES

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

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

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

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

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

December snowy cones bw

CARING FOR POINSETTIAS

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

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

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

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

Or you could just buy another one…

December

December hedges

CUT BACK HELLEBORE LEAVES

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

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

December fern

CHRISTMAS TREES

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

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

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

December frosted leaves

BIRDS IN YOUR GARDEN

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

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

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

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

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

December icy pots

HARDWOOD CUTTINGS

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

December icy pond

WASHING SLIPPERY PATHS

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

December frosty walkway