March 2021 Garden Tips

Garden notes for March 2021

After all the rain we have been having this winter and the consequences of the lockdown due to the pandemic I am hoping that we will all be able to get outside and start to garden in March. The miracle of all the early plants coming up, the crocuses, the daffodils, and primulas will all have started and continue to give us colour in the garden and eternal hope for the future.

Snowdrops that have stopped blooming should be lifted and divided as soon as possible. Unlike other bulbs they should be multiplied whilst their leaves are still green. It is a good idea to do this at least once every 3 or 4 years as the bulbs may become too closely packed together to give a good show the following year if it is not done.

In order to give the best germination of any seeds that you want to start, make sure that the soil, or seed compost, you use is as warm as possible. So put out cloches over the area in the garden where you intend to start early crops. Do this at least a week or so before sowing in order to warm the ground. Equally, if you are using a seed compost, bring it in to a shed or greenhouse before making up the pots or seed trays so that it has been thoroughly warmed through. Most seeds need a soil temperature of at least 10ºC (50ºF), and do better if it is about 15ºC. This is a very general rule of thumb, and there are many differences for different species, but it is true for a lot of the plants we grow.

Look out for drying winds and sunny days of March and try to get on the garden as soon as possible after that, because it is almost certain that rain will follow and you will not be able to do anything. It is all very well to give this advice for those who are able to follow the weather, but very difficult for the weekend gardener! Our clay is a very fertile medium if you can manage it properly. Over time the addition of humus from garden compost, farmyard manure and so on will help but it is a long term and continuing process.

Towards the middle or end of March, depending on the temperature, you should prune roses. If you want large blooms, prune severely, cutting all strong young growths back to 3 or 4 buds from where growth started last spring. For general garden purposes leave 5 or 6 buds. This allows for re-growth should any late frosts nip off the earliest growth.

Make sure that your garden mowing equipment is serviced and ready for use as the weather improves and the grass starts to get back to growing.

Sweet peas that have been growing in pots should be hardened off for planting out in April.

Dahlia tubers should be started off in gentle heat to get the shoots that will form the plants for growing on.

Good Friday (April 2nd this year) is traditionally the day that potatoes are planted out. If there is good weather a week or so before Good Friday, there is no reason why it can’t be done earlier. Put in First Earlies and be sure to earth them up as they push their leaves up through the soil.

Chris

February 2021 Garden Tips

Garden Notes for February 2021

In the middle of January as I write these notes, spring and plant growth seems a long way off. When we had the first lockdown last year the weather was remarkably good. This winter is not the same and does not encourage much gardening activity with frequent showers and cold nights, but this will change soon, hopefully. More and more people are discovering the benefits of growing crops in containers, since these will provide shelter and warm up the soil quicker than in the garden. In addition there are increasing numbers of crops being developed specifically for growing on the patio.

In February, if you have well sheltered places why not try some early broad beans, spaced at 20 cm. Young carrots are one of the joys of the garden, try sowing some ‘Early Nantes’ or ‘Amsterdam Forcing’. All the big seed-houses do packs of salad leaves, and these can be grown after starting under glass, since they need a bit more heat than the other crops I have mentioned. Mini-lettuces like ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Tom Thumb’ may also be started and planted out at 15cm spacing when the plants have developed a bit more.

All these seedlings will need to be protected from frosts – use garden fleece as required, but always allow plenty of air to circulate to stop fungal attack such as botrytis which will cause damping off.

Think about getting seed potatoes in February. There is a wide range to choose from. First earlies like ‘Lady Christie’ do well here, although to get the fuller flavour of second earlies is always nice – try ‘Nadine’ or one I particularly like ‘Charlotte’. When you get them put them in a cool frost free place with lights. Use the large egg tray to get the seed potatoes ‘chitted’ – where the potato ‘eye’ starts to get green and gives it a good start when they can be planted in the soil.

Towards the end of February, start of March, bush roses should be pruned. Use sharp secateurs. Cuts should not be more than 5mm above a bud, and should slope away from it. Prune die-back to healthy wood. Remove all dead, diseased stems and burn them. Trace suckers back to the roots from which they are growing and pull them away. Always wear protective gloves, the scratches from rose thorns can be nasty. Other pruning to do this month include raspberry canes. It’s your last chance to cut autumn-fruiting raspberry cans to the ground which will stimulate new canes to fruit in the autumn. On the other hand leave plum, cherry and apricot trees until the summer as pruning in the cold months is likely to make them susceptible to Silver Leaf disease

That reminds me, everyone, but especially all gardeners, should make sure that they keep their tetanus inoculation up-to-date. It should be done at least once every 10 years. It is available on the NHS and it really is important to be safe rather than sorry.

Lawns will start growing soon, so make sure that your garden machinery has been serviced and is ready to go when you are. On a wet day check your garden tools are clean and ready for use.

Chris

January 2021 Garden Tips

Garden Notes for January 2021.

This is the time of year when houseplants are most appreciated. Azaleas, cineraria and cyclamen will all help to cheer things up. Do not over water, and most of these plants like cool conditions.

January is a good time to order gladioli corms from reputable suppliers. Sweet peas can be germinated under glass with some heat. Plan spring planting programme for flowers. Complete digging beds and borders to be used for annuals when the weather is suitable. Do not disturb soil when it is frosty.

When your seeds arrive from the supplier keep them in a cool dry place until required. Protect pea seeds in particular because mice love them, and they have already got into our garden shed where they have started on anything that they can reach. Remember paper is no barrier to sharp teeth, and makes lovely nesting material.
Rhubarb can be forced using an upturned bucket or tub. This should be covered with garden fleece to keep off any frost.

It is wise to get your seed potatoes now when there is a plentiful supply, but popular varieties soon get sold fast with the result that you end up with the less well known types. When the seed potatoes arrive, keep them in a frost-free place and stand the tubers, eye-end uppermost, in shallow boxes. If you can get large egg trays these are ideal for keeping the tubers upright and just separated to prevent any infection spreading.

You may want to think of biological pest control. There have been huge developments and you can get natural solutions to pests such as vine weevil and whitefly. In fact there are over 10 different pests and diseases that can be controlled in this way.

Start the first sowings of onion seeds this month. Also give a good dressing of wood ash on the site of the bed that you will use, since they really like potash. If the weather is suitable, shallots can be planted on well drained soil, or plant them individually in 3 inch pots.

Chris

December 2020 Garden Tips

Garden Notes for December 2020.

What a wonderful autumn display of colours by the trees in November! Better than any firework display, in my view. Of course it is all down to the weather we have had previously. Now the plants have their winter ‘sleep’, and it is probably best to let them lie in peace. However there are a number of things you can do, as ever – a Gardener’s work is never done.

Large flowered clematis, like Clematis jackmanii and the many hybrids from it, should be pruned towards the end of the month. They can be cut back quite severely. Prune back to good, well developed buds.

Seeds of helleborus, hosta and primula can be sown in December and January. Use John Innes No.1 compost (or similar) covering the seed with a thin layer of compost. After watering them in, place the seed container against a North wall or in a cold frame making sure that they are protected from mice. Leave them there until the spring. Then bring them into a greenhouse, on a well lit, but not sunny place, and germination should then take place.

If you are planning to sow hardy annuals in the spring, they will benefit from giving the soil in the place they will go to an early preparation. So long as the soil is in reasonably good heart it is best not to put any fertiliser, since annuals do best in a soil that is not too rich.

When picking Brussels sprouts keep the tops, and only use the best when all the sprouts have been harvested. Some of the winter broccoli may be starting to form their curds. Turn in the leaves to protect the curd from frost, and cut regularly as once they have reached their full development the curds soon begin to open and will spoil.

In order to have some early shoots of mint, now is the time to lift a few roots and put them in a fairly deep seed box and cover with potting soil. Put it in a frame or the greenhouse, and you will have nice shoots in a few weeks, when everything else is still asleep in the garden.

If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse vine, they should be pruned towards the end of the month. All side-growths should be cut back to two buds. The spurs carrying these shortened growths should be well spaced apart, at least 40 to 50 cm apart on the main rod so that overcrowding in summer is minimised.

Good gardening!
Chris

October 2020 Garden Tips

Garden notes for October 2020.

One of the great satisfactions of gardening is the ability to make your own plants from propagation. With autumn drawing on, make sure you get your cuttings sorted out earlier on in the month. Plants like fuchsias, geraniums and so on should be potted up and put somewhere safe before the frosts begin. Cuttings of alpines that have been done earlier should either be planted out where they are to grow, or potted on and kept in a frame until the spring. If you are keeping them in pots, it is best to plunge the pots to their rims in sand, ashes or soil. (Don’t forget to protect them from slug and snail predation!)

Lettuce seedlings can be planted in cold frames to give winter supplies. The frames should be ventilated freely when the weather is mild as they are prone to mildew attack.

It is always tempting to hang on to the summer flowering plants ‘for a few more days’, but if you want your spring flowers to bloom you really need to chuck out the old and put in the new. The reason for this is that spring bedding plants need to have time to get established before the winter weather sets in, otherwise they will not do as well.

If you are going to plant new fruit trees and shrubs, the best time is in November, but October is the time to prepare the site. The soil should be well dug and manured, this will be much more difficult in November.

Towards the end of the month strawberry beds should be tidied up. Remove all dead, diseased or damaged foliage, as well as the weeds.

The herbaceous border should be tidied up. Some people say that it should be left alone as the old stems protect the new growth, forgetting that they also harbour all the pests and diseases as well. I think it is better to cut back the top growth, and clean up the borders. It also allows the soil round the clumps to be lightly forked over. In addition the more vigorous plants can be lifted and divided to make room for other plants as well as helping others start their borders with the left overs.

When frost has browned the tops dahlias, cut them down to 9″ above the soil. Tie a label to identify the variety, then lift the tubers carefully and dry them off in a greenhouse for a few days before finally storing them in a cool frost proof place.

It is not often that I come across a garden tool that I had not heard of before. Recently I discovered the “Hori-Hori” which when translated from the Japanese means ‘dig-dig’. Essentially it is a steel blade with one sharp edge and the other with a shorter or serrated edge. It is fantastic for doing precision weeding, planting out, cutting back or just for killing slugs! There are a couple of suppliers (apart from Amazon, of course). I got mine from a company that has its UK base in Dorset and is called Niwaki. It is something to consider as an unusual Christmas or birthday present for a keen gardener.

Good gardening!
Chris

September 2020 Garden Tips

Garden Notes for September 2020.

As John Keats so famously wrote about autumn being the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/ close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”, September sees the time when crops are harvested and stored for the winter months that are to come. Carrots should be lifted and stored before the roots start to split, which they will do very quickly once the heavy autumn rains begin. For the same reason, beetroot are better lifted and stored this month. Looking forward to next year, spring cabbage should be planted now. Remember to firm the soil around each plant after planting. Lettuce can also be sown now in a cold frame, or greenhouse. Varieties to choose include ‘Winter Density’, ‘All the Year Round’ and ‘May Queen’.

Watering plants is always a good topic of discussion. It is either too dry, or it’s too wet. The essential thing is to try to get the right balance. When it is dry the closable leaf pores on plants (technically called ‘stomata’) shut down and slow down the process of photosynthesis. When there is enough water the stomata open, transpiration takes place, allowing the air containing carbon dioxide to go into the plant, which, together with sunlight, powers the reaction of water and carbon dioxide to make the sugars that are the plant’s energy source and building blocks. Watering keeps the stomata open in dry spells. As a rule of thumb one square metre of vegetation draws the equivalent of an inch of rainfall every day. Growth of plants in the summer normally requires additional irrigation. There are now numerous automatic systems that can be put in – especially for containers and hanging baskets.

The start of autumn means that many plants are producing seed heads, which we normally ‘dead head’ to keep the succession of flowers going. With the cost of seed increasing year on year (the average cost is now over £3 per packet, and can be a lot more) it might be worthwhile considering saving some seed head for sowing. Flowers like Sweet William, Love-in-Mist (Nigella), Cosmos, or vegetables like Runner Beans, can be harvested just before the seed-pod has fully dried. Use brown paper bags to hang the seed head upside down and store in a dry place. Remember to label the variety, and then when it is all nice and brown shake out the seed and you have saved yourself pounds for a few minutes work. Unfortunately the lovely hybrids that abound now will not breed true and you will have to rely on the expertise of the professional for that, but if you don’t mind a variety of colour in your Sweet William and so on it is fine. One tip is to look out for Garden Centres having a seed sale, there are bargains to be had, with cuts up to 75%, when they are sufficiently desperate to make room for the new stock.

The growth of rampant climbers like some of the clematis (remember to check) wisteria and climbing roses can be cut back in the middle of September.

Regards
Chris

August 2020 Garden Tips

Garden Notes for August 2020.

Shrubs like deutzia, philadelphus and weigela – or any that have been flowering through June, July and early August, should be pruned now, or as soon as they have finished flowering. Shorten any exceptionally long shoots above the bud, then remove about one-third of the oldest stems. Now is the time to prune Rambler roses, when they have stopped flowering. Prune all stems that have flowered to ground level, train and tie in new shoots.

On other shrubs with new shoots showing, it is ideal to take cuttings during August. Choose sturdy, half mature side shoots and make a straight cut below the joint. Remove any leaves from the lower half of the cutting. Dip the bottom into hormone rooting powder and insert round the side of a pot filled with a suitable cutting compost. By spring, the plants should have rooted.

Thoughts should also be turning to winter and the need for winter flowering pansies means that they should be pricked out, as well as any of the other plants for early spring like wall flowers. Spring cabbage should be sown during August into a prepared bed, with sufficient moisture to allow easy germination. Winter lettuce that can be carried on under some protection should also be germinated now. Take care to keep the seed in a cool place and germination is very slow if the ambient temperature is over 20 Centigrade.

Earwigs can cause havoc amongst dahlias around this time. Traps made by using an upturned seed pot stuffed with dried grass or straw and placed on top of a bamboo cane about a metre long near the dahlias, will attract the insects and they can then be disposed of away from the plants.

If you see ants busily climbing stems of runner beans or other plants you can be sure that there is an infestation of one of the aphids – they are like cows to humans, and the ants ‘milk’ the aphis. Use your preferred insect killer method to control the infestation. I once had a whole crop of nasturtiums destroyed by blackfly because I did not try to control them.

Remember to order your bulbs for Christmas flowering, and start to get ready for the spring.

Keep a careful watch for potato blight. Cut off affected haulm and destroy it, don’t compost it.
Regards
Chris

July 2020 Garden Tips

Garden Notes for July 2020.

It will soon be mid-summer and many of the earlier flowering perennials start to look rather forlorn. It may be worth your while to be ruthless and cut back foliage that is straggling. In particular, hardy geraniums, delphiniums alchemia mollis (Lady’s Mantle) should all benefit from this treatment.

July is a good time to be buying new strawberry plants, or propagate from your own runners. You should aim to replace all the strawberry plants that are 3 years or over. Remember to remove runners that are not needed.

Plant out sprouting broccoli, Calabrese, winter cauliflower, kale and Oriental greens. Place bricks or tiles under developing marrows and squashes as it helps to prevent rotting and will aid ripening.

Stake sunflowers and autumn perennials like Michaelmas daisies to help them through the time when the wind will blow. Remember to keep your mower blade raised in dry spells; allow the grass to grow to 3cm. Shade and ventilate the greenhouse.

When roses have come to the end of their first glorious flush of blooms, try to give them a feed of a complete fertilizer as this will help with the second lot of blooms. Don’t forget to dead head them as well. Outdoor chrysanthemums will also need a feed, one with a high potash content to help the flowering process.

Early crops of new potatoes, early peas and broad beans will soon be finishing, make sure to clear away the top growth as soon as possible to make room for crops like spring cabbage – a good variety is called “Spring Hero F1”, then there is Artic King lettuce which is an updated version of the reliable “All the Year Round” lettuce. There is a lot said about leaf greens, and one that is recommended for late summer sowing is Japanese Green Mizuma.

Complete leek planting as soon as possible. Sow swede by the middle of the month. Lift shallots when their foliage has yellowed and turned over. Make sure to dry them out completely before storing.

Early in the month dig up and divide dwarf and intermediate bearded irises if they have been undisturbed for 3 or more years. Tall bearded irises should be treated in a similar way towards the end of the month.

Watch out for the lily beetle. If you see any sign of damage, and apply an appropriate treatment. The beetle itself is a rather fetching shade of red, but it is their orange-red larvae that hide beneath the leaves that will do the damage.
Chris Coke

June 2020 Garden Tips

Garden Notes for June 2020.

The weather is always a good topic for gardeners, so much depends on it. Writing in the middle of May we are going through a sunny and dry spell. Early on in the month we did have some frost that caught me out and the tops of my spuds suffered. Evening temperatures should be high enough in June but keep an eye out for the younger plants if rain does not arrive fairly soon.

Frost susceptible, fast growing plants like dahlias, courgettes and so on should be put into their final homes assuming that there is no ground frost forecast. If it has been very dry, make sure that they have a good drink before and after planting them out. But don’t water them all the time. Give the roots time to settle down and then water (if necessary, and allowed) about once a week with a thorough soaking, preferably in the evening or early morning before the sun has got its full power switched on.

Hedges need regular attention now, and should be kept in shape; otherwise they can so easily get away from you making the task so much more difficult. Grass needs to be mown, but keep the cutter bar on a high level and the lawn will look greener for much longer. Do not put sprinklers on lawns, even if they do turn a dusty brown, as soon as the rain comes back they will recover with surprising speed. If you do water the lawn you are wasting a precious resource to no real effect.

In the vegetable plot, make sure potatoes are kept ridged up; otherwise the tubers get exposed and ruined. Late Savoy cabbage can be sown now – use a variety like ‘Ormskirk’. Winter cabbage like January King should be planted out now. Leeks should be planted out using a dibber to make a hole about 6 to 8″ deep, and then water it in well.

Continue to make successional sowings of lettuce. Ones like ‘Tom Thumb’ ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Mini Green’ are fast growing, and the right size for many people. Webbs Wonderful is superb but rather large.

Early tomatoes should be ripening fast and the fruits should be picked regularly.

Roses are at their best towards the end of the month. It helps to keep them cut regularly and feed with a potash feed to keep them blooming longer. If you want to have specimen blooms it is advised to take out the side shoots carefully, as well as the smaller buds, leaving just one strong one at the end of the stem. Keep an eye out for pests and disease. Keep mildew at bay by regular spraying.

Suckers that sprout up from the base of damson and plum trees can become troublesome unless dealt with early on, so dig them out and burn the resulting twigs.

As alpine plants finish flowering, trim them back to keep the plants neat and compact. It will also encourage them to make good growth for next spring. Any gaps or vacant spots in the rock garden can be planted with summer flowering annuals or bedding plants to maintain the overall colour. Towards the end of the month cuttings can be taken from the alpine stock to increase the number of plants. Root the cuttings in a sandy compost.

Chris Coke

May 2020 Garden Tips

Garden Notes for May 2020.

Everything is ‘unprecedented nowadays following the lockdown, so we can’t just turn up at a garden centre. There are some locally that have websites and will take orders, Newbridge, Hilliers and Knights at Betchworth spring to mind. You may have to collect yourself or pay for a delivery charge. Putting plants outside a bit later is no bad thing. I well remember Neil Carter’s father, Ray, sowing his carrots in June in his garden at Misbrooks Cottage and commenting to me that people in Capel always sowed far too early.

May is always such a hopeful month, but don’t be fooled by all the half-hardy bedding plants that will be offered temptingly. It is not safe to plant them outdoors. Even if plants like geraniums, salvias, lobelia, marigolds and so on are not killed by a late frost, they can still receive such a severe check from cold May nights that they never completely recover to give a proper display.

But don’t let that put you off getting in stock where you can give it some protection in a cold frame or greenhouse. Use of garden fleece at night will also be just sufficient to keep off the worst falls in temperature and will help to harden off the plants in time for June when they can be planted out.

Sweet peas should be tied in regularly, especially if you are trying to grow large blooms, as you will be taking out the side shoots so that all the growth goes into the tip. They can be fertilised use one that has a low nitrogen content as too much may increase bud dropping.

Keep up succession sowings of lettuces and peas. Runner beans and zucchini should be sown early on. Because our garden is a veritable slug and snail city (we have a lovely lot of thrushes who help keep the snails under control) we generally start our runner beans in the greenhouse and plant them out at the end of the month. To give runners the best chance, sow them individually in the divided plastic trays (24 to a seed tray). Try to get the beans out before they start shooting too much and become tangled up with each other.

Lawns will need regular attention now, after their winter sleep. Keep the mower on a high setting to start with as this helps encourage growth and will keep the lawn greener during the summer months.

If you have the ground, early May is a good time to plant main crop potatoes that will be harvested in late August/early September and will keep you supplied throughout the winter. Varieties include: Arran Victory, Cara, and Nicola.

All tall flowering plants like delphinium, gladioli, even some of the carnations will need to be staked, as they really do need support when they are in full flower.

Put clean straw, or black plastic under strawberry plants to keep the berries clean and protected. You can also use the black matting for suppressing weeds leaving sufficient room for the plants. Be careful, the matting can also be a wonderful hiding place for slugs and snails and even, as I found out one year, a wonderful playground for field mice!

Chris Coke