Garden Journal 2022
Each month Paul shares insights from his own garden here. From pruning roses, to tackling slugs, Paul’s gardening advice and anecdotes are a valuable read for any novice, or expert gardener.
The cold bright days of January are filled at last with the signs that spring and summer are returning. By the end of the month you can clearly notice the seas extending and the welcome sight of snowdrops and and other early spring flowers encourage our gardening thoughts and ambitions.
Most of our gardening time this month is taken up with the preparation and cleaning jobs. Trees and shrubs which are dormant can be cut back and if you didn’t have time in autumn then you can also cut back climbing roses and the long whips growth of wisteria.
Wash up and scrub for a gleaming start to spring
If you have been storing terracotta pots for use this summer and didn’t wash them then now is a good time to scrub out with hot water and if they are frost proof leave out side of a few nights of frosting this will kill and bacteria and germs. If you have a conservatory or greenhouse now is the time to advance spring clean, pots benches and tools along with cutting back any damaged or dying foliage on plants you are overwinter inside. Some oriental style glazed pots tend to shale if they are left out in the frosts either empty or planted, this is because the terracotta on which the glazed patter is fired swells and retracts with cold, wet and frost, to reduce its impact wrap the pot in a protective fleece or store empty pots in a dry location for later use.
Further into the garden and on bright dry days when the ground is dry you can rake out any thatch in the lawn and worm casts, this will improve the chances of the grass bring lovely and thick in the summer and make broadcasting grass seed in early march much more successful. Another rewarding job is to pressure wash or scrub stone paving removing the buildup of wet cold slime which makes the surfaces slippery, its amazing what an effect just powering washing terraces can have revealing the long forgotten gentle colours of the natural stone. London has high levels of atmospheric pollution and when buildings are cleaned you really notice the difference so be prepared for similar results on your paving.
Raised beds alert
If you grow vegetables in raised beds towards the end of the month its a good time to dig over the rested soil, the frost will kill off any over wintering annual seeds and help break down the soil for sowing new vegetables in March. Some people prefer to grow an over wintering green manure and if you have don this then don’t disturb until the end of February as its a different type of cultivation method. If our vegetable beds seem overly water logged at this time of year and you have access to the ash from bonfires or wood burning stoves the can be incorporated into he soil now to improve drainage and root strength for crops . Do not be tempted to do this every year or you will over fertilise and do not use coal fire ash!
Whilst working in your vegetable patch you can give soft fruit shrubs a once over cutting out week and old growth and also go over fruiting trees such as apple, pear and plums to remove old weak and tangled growth to allow greater air circulation through the canopy, this will improving your fruiting yields and reduce the likelihood of pest and disease.
Keep feeding our in flight friends
Whilst your out you will most likely for the first time notice the call of birds as they too sense spring is on the way, however for them the cod lean months continue even in the city so put our bird food, or an apple strung from a branch to keep them well feed. Encouraging birds to feed in your garden means later in the year you will be able to take part in the Bird Watch which shows us what birds need protection and which birds are migrating.
Of course there are going to be many long days of not being able to do any work in the garden or with your pots and containers, remember January is ideal planning time, a few seed catalogues a sheet of paper and planning with yield massive rewards on seasonal planting and the vegetable garden so don’t feel guilty staying inside.
The long winter seems behind us and in so many ways there is something positive on the horizon. In the garden tiny hardy bulbs are starting to appear and the days are visibly longer. February is short. Its 28 days herald the approaching spring and, unsurprisingly, after the long winter slumber there’s much which can be done.
You will be pleased to know much of the work takes place indoors. Don’t be fooled, February still has a sting in its tail and can be cold.
If you intend to get a head start with growing vegetables either in the garden, a raised bed on a terrace, or roof, or even in large containers, then this month you can start off a number of varieties indoors in seed trays and individual pots. I like to use the pots made from bio-degradable materials for this, as the sturdy little plant I will end up with in March can be planted out without disturbing the roots, it also cuts down on the plastic.
Broad beans are an easy and simple must-have. Sow the seeds in little pots and within a few days signs of life will emerge. The great thing about broad beans is that if it’s your first year growing in newly made vegetable beds, then being a legume, the roots will fix nitrogen. Once the crop is complete, cut the stalks off and leave the roots in the soil to release their goodness back. My favourite broad bean to grow is the slightly more unusual red flowering type. They look somehow more decorative.
If you haven’t sown sweet peas, these can also be done now without any detriment to flowering later on. Soak the seed in water for 12 hours beforehand as this improves germination.
If you are planning to grow salad potatoes in the garden, or containers, now is the time to order your seed potatoes in and chit them! Chitting seems to be a mysterious business, but essentially in a cool dark space lay out the potatoes to develop the green shoots which will make stems for the new crop. Later on, if you want to, you can cut the seedling potatoes in half to double your crop as long as both halves have a green shoot. Plant out 20cm deep in the ground, or in containers, towards the end of March avoiding the last serious frosts.
The other main indoor sowing to be done this month is tomato; on a cold window ledge, conservatory, or any well-lit space sow in seed trays now to be able to pot and grow on in March, before planting out in April. There are a few good cropping varieties for the UK, which can be grown without heat or a greenhouse. I like to use the older heritage types such as ‘Brandywine’, which is slightly golden and ‘Black Krim’ which is an old `Russian variety. There are also smaller ‘tumbling’ style varieties which can be grown in containers and are ideal for ledges, balconies and even window boxes!
If flowers are more your thing, then you can start off indoors this month. There are a good number of hardy annuals, the ‘Neon’ series of English marigolds is a must of mine, and I also sow annual poppies and rudbeckia now to make sure I have good sturdy plants to plant out in late March.
The garden centres and nurseries will be filling up with lots of lovely, tempting plants now and it’s a good month to select any fruit bushes from new stock to plant. Fruits such as gooseberry, all currents and blueberries can be grown in containers on the terrace and on balconies very easily and will repeat fruit. Raspberries will do better in the open ground, so if you have a corner in the garden or a handy raised bed these can be planted now alongside asparagus crowns to get their roots well-established before the summer’s heat comes.
February is a month of planning, or perhaps starting new projects in the garden; often these projects are embryonic ideas and asking an expert to help is in the long run a good money saving idea. Their skill base is to understand three-dimensional outside space and they are as integral to the best build and renovation projects as an architect. It’s a skill which often goes overlooked, but one which pays for itself when considered as an investment for the future. So, if you are planning larger redesigns or projects, here are some thoughts from me about getting the best outcomes for your ideas.
Most estate agents will tell you well-designed and built outside space can add up to 20% to the value of your property, so it’s a cost well worth investigating. The first question many may ask is where you find a good landscape designer and what they bring to the project. Many of the best recommendations come via word of mouth; there is nothing better than a friend who has completed a project you admire giving you the details of the professionals involved. Recommendations aside, the best way to ensure you get the right designer involved is to meet a few, check their credentials and if possible, look at completed work locally. Other things to consider would be any professional memberships or awards won at events such as Royal Horticultural Society Shows. If you are planning a long-term project, visiting trade events could also be an option, or simply visit shows such as RHS Chatsworth, Chelsea or Cardiff to look at real life spaces which are inspirational. This will give you a unique opportunity to speak with landscape designers and get a feel for the range of work they undertake.
Landscape designers work in many ways; some will want to oversee, and project manage the whole project, they may have their own team, or they may use subcontractors to complete the job. Other designers may be slightly more hands-off and do as much, or as little as you would like.
A good landscape designer will be able to give you realistic timings and take you to view large specimens such as trees and larger shrubs at growers, allowing you to be involved in the selection process and managing everyone’s expectations. Importantly, a good landscape designer will be equipped with the knowledge to assess existing trees or large shrubs, which you may wish to retain or remove. They will also be able to liaise with professionals to carry out any remedial tree surgery or assess on-going care of trees which have preservation orders on them, ensuring you stay within the confines of relevant legal frameworks.
Once you have found the right person and know their costs it’s time to really consider what they bring to your project; they should be appointed early on because by spending time with you they will be able to understand what types of plant suit you and the maintenance obligations they bring. They will also, through the use of colour design, be able to create planting schemes which alter people’s behaviour. This may sound odd, but you would be surprised how many people plant greens and whites in busy areas as they see this as a place of little ‘value,’ only to find these colours are exactly those we are drawn to when wanting solace and relaxation.
Perhaps the biggest and often most complex range of understanding a landscape designer brings is horticultural knowledge. Often, we have friends who offer a bit of this, or choose some plants for us; well-meaning intentions can leave you with plants which either die or become monstrous menaces taking over entire gardens. A landscape designer will assess your soil, aspect and topographical location, whilst assessing the suitability of a range of plants which will bring year-round interest through texture, leaf shape, flowers, fruits and bark. It’s a broad range of skills which often go unconsidered. Do not forget also that the best landscape designers are aware of serious pest and disease problems both nationally and more locally, helping you to avoid costly mistakes. This will include things like the devastating Buxus caterpillar around London, Buxus blight in the Cotswolds, Oak processionary moth, and insects which affect certain tropical plants on the south coast. This knowledge will also come into play with plants imported into the UK and the potential pest and disease risk.
Many landscape designers do have a ‘style;’ be it a particular use of hard landscaping materials, a design approach being firmly traditional or contemporary, or underpinning ecological values. Rather than being off-putting, these should form part of your selection criteria; shared values or design aspirations make for a better working partnership and mean you will get the best from the landscape designer as they challenge themselves to create the most dynamic space for you.
If you feel unsure, or unconfident about having that type of dialogue as the starting point, then take inspiration from the property you are renovating, or design clues from the space you are building; this will at least bring the best out in the designer and give you a head start.
It’s a lot to consider, but no more than when we renovate an old house, or plan new kitchens, and other works.
Lastly, if February turns out to be a very wet month, or indeed if you are not planning new largescale projects, you can content yourself with observing your compost heaps. If you notice it gets very soggy and stops breaking down properly, then my tip is to save and store dry cardboard torn up into plate size pieces, which can be added to absorb water and dry out the compost to add breaking down. You can also use straw if you have it.
With bulbs coming through in the plenty March really feels like spring has sprung at last. Many of us have noticed the change int he way the seasons unfold, for the past few years a mild February and March comes with a little cold snap in April so don’t go packing away the frost protection just yet and maintain vigilance with tender plants and remember to bring them in over night.
If you know someone who pollards willow then march is the month when it is usually cut, this is either done every year to maintain slender flexible whips suitable for basket making or every second or third year to make more substantial structures. Cuttings season also means its a great season to buy the whips create garden structures. There are a number of garden structures which are easy to make from arches, low retaining border edges, screens, trellis and larger structures such as igloos and raised beds. Willow structures are very durable and can last ups to 10 years and are easily repaired by weaving in more pieces as needed. Most structures start life from a series of rods forced into the ground, if you leave the bark on the whip chances are the structure will live and make shoots which is really good for creating natural shade gazebos and tunnels.
Getting seedlings going
Many garden centres and plant shops will be tempting you with lots of seeds to sow at this time of year and whilst it is tempting its worth making a plan ahead of buying so that you don’t end up with a large glut of seedlings you either do have not space for or end up on the compost heap. There are plenty of useful seeds you can be sowing in March, quick germination vegetables such as radish, beetroot, golden beetroot which is delicious roasted, lettuce and spring onions can all be sown outside this month. Hardy and half annuals can be sown indoors during March alongside tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes which are very happy being started off on a warm windowsill or cooler guest bedrooms or enclosed porch.
Hopefully with plenty of warmer days there will be plenty of time for deadheading daffodils and other hybridised bulbs to ensure the energy returns to the bulb and for weeding out unwanted seedlings from borders and beds, its not the most exciting task its true but weeding now will save harder work removing established larger weeds in a few weeks time.
Whilst February is the best month March is also a wonderful month for Witch-hazel, and outside of species collections in Botanic Gardens one of the most stunning collections can be found at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens just outside of Romsey in Hampshire.
Seeing these shrubs in flower is the perfect time to select one which suits your own garden, many can be grown in containers or open borders and add a little early season cheer whilst remaining understated through the rest of the year.
The horticultural name means, ‘together with fruit’ as the fruit, flowers and next years leaf buds all appear on the branch simultaneously, quite unusual in the plant world.
One of my favorite yellow flowering species is Hamamelis virginiana which is native to North America predominantly from Nova Scotia to Minnesota. Like all Hamamelis it makes a stunning deciduous large shrub. The branches whilst not horizontal do produce a distinct inverted vase shape with time. The flowers are pale yellow to intense butter yellow with a wonderful fragrance. The bark and leaves were used by native Americans in the treatment of external inflammations. I am also very found of Hamamelis virginiana var. mexicana, it just looks special.
Hamamelis virginiana is most likely the origin of Pond’s Cream. A healing cream invented by a scientist called Theron T. Pond in around 1846. Pond extracted a tea from Witch Hazel with which he could heal small cuts and ailments.
In 1925 Queen Marie of Romania visited the United States and enjoyed the product so much she wrote to the Ponds company requesting more supplies, the letter was used as a precursor to the modern day ‘Celebrity’ endorsement in an advertising campaign. Pond’s today is owned by Unilever.
Another American species not often seen in gardens is Hamemalis vernalis, often occurring with H. virginiana it does not cross pollinate and hybridise and can be easily identified as it flowers in Late winter. Also the leaves are dark green with a glaucose underside and most tellingly the flowers are bright red to orange. This species has a number of popular cultivars selected from it including H. ‘Red Imp’ which has strong red petals with orange tips.
Many of us will know Hamamelis mollis, this genus is native to China, particularly in the East. H. mollis with its golden autumn colourings was first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1879 by Charles Maries and the form H. mollis ‘Coombe Wood’ which has a more spreading habit and larger than average flowers is the form he originally brought back. Later H. mollis was also introduced by Ernest Wilson and the form H. mollis ‘Jermyns Gold’ is believed to be one of the forms he brought back in 1918.
Crossed with Hamamelis japonica to form Hamamelis x intermedia, it has gone on to produce some of the most well loved garden Witch Hazels.
Don't forget the end March really heralds the longer days as the clocks change and instantly the days feel much warmer and convivial.
April comes with showers traditionally and latterly, a little hint of a cold set back. It’s a month of optimism, but also a month to have the frost protection to hand. If you have planted early potatoes they may start shooting through this month, so be prepared to protect the tender foliage from a short, cold snap.
The warmer days of April means it’s very tempting to start planting out tender annuals and bring over-wintered plants outside. While putting plants outside in the day to harden off is great, planting out and leaving contained plants outside does carry the risk of a snap frost wasting all your winter protection efforts. That said, hardy annuals such as sweet peas and Marigold can now be planted out.
With the benefit of longer days, the soil is nicely warming up which is good news for our vegetable gardens; the range of salad crops which can be sown now include lettuce, spring onion, coriander, radish, beetroot, mizuna, lambs lettuce and dill. These can all be sown directly into prepared and finely raked soil. Meanwhile, in the greenhouse or a window, you can get going with courgettes, pumpkins and, if you haven’t already, tomato plants.
By now you will have been out with the lawn mower a few times and, undoubtedly, the compost spaces are groaning under the clippings. Grass clippings can be an excellent weed suppressant and I tend to use them as a mulch under raspberry and soft fruit beds, but equally they can be used to mulch under shrubs, the backs of herbaceous borders, under newly planted hedges and, if you are planning new plantings, laid directly on top of cardboard to kill weeds. This not only saves a little work, but unless you need the material, keep compost bins free of being stocked with too much of one type of substance.
On compost bins, keep to hand some pieces of dry cardboard. Fingers crossed you won’t need it, but should April and early summer be wet, then use the cardboard in layers to dry out a little of the compost. It breaks down and reduces the risk of stagnation.
Growing vegetables can be done easily in containers, in a ‘vegetable garden’, or as the old cottage gardeners did, through borders of mixed flowers and shrubs. In uncertain times, it’s reassuring to see the cycle of life, and nothing better encapsulates that, then vegetables and the promise of harvest. Importantly, as many growers will attest, the flavours are much better. Fresh carrots retain a sweetness that even market bought ones lose. You can also dabble with heritage varieties of almost everything from Victorian peas to tomatoes. I like to grow short cucumbers, they have a much sharper taste to those grown in a greenhouse, and make excellent additions to winter pickles.
One last note, remember that birds are nesting from now, so beware around hedges and large shrubs. No cutting until well after the fledging have flown the nest. Keep putting out feed for the birds and take time to sit and watch nature literally unfurling in the sun - we hope!
The long-awaited month of the allium is upon us. May is a month full of flower and the garden is suddenly alive with insects, birdsong and gentle heat.
Alliums and Aquilegia really are the star of the month and with so many variations available there is something to suit almost every garden and also offer a long flowering range.
Aquilegia can easily be raised from seed and is a reliable short-lived perennial, which, when happy, will also self-seed. A slight warning however, the much loved ‘Granny’s Bonnet’ is fairly promiscuous and will happily cross breed and revert to pinks and purples even if you buy the yellow or more exotic varieties around such as ‘Black Barlow’ ‘Songbird’ and ‘Crimson Star’.
One of the most somber and enticing aquilegias is the Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. Its brilliant rose flowers with yellow undersides and has a certain spring like cheer that the mauve and white family members seem to lack. This species, as in wild columbine, prefers partial shade conditions but will tolerate more sun with adequate moisture. It prefers organically rich, moist soil like that in its native forest home.
It may grow three feet tall by 1.5 feet wide. The red and yellow flowers mature in early spring and can last one month. These tubular flowers attract butterflies, and bumblebees. Once the flowers are gone, the plant makes an attractive ground cover. When the foliage deteriorates, it can be cut to the ground.
Alliums too have many stars, and while most are with us for May and early June, there are one or two species that are in flower later in July August. From the much loved “purple sensation’ to ‘summer drummer’ alliums can make heads of starry flower up to the size of footballs and can be from less than 15cm tall to over 3m. All alliums create little bulbs around the main parent bulbs and easily multiply making them a terrific addition to the garden.
RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Of course, it wouldn’t be May without the welcome return of the Royal Horticultural Societies ‘Great Spring Show’ or by its much more recognisable name, RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Chelsea is the showcase of not only British horticulture but some of the best growers, designers and plants to be found anywhere in the world. The show attracts over 180,000 visitors, has 11 hours of prime BBC coverage and nearly 2,000 journalists from all over the world coming to witness it.
This year, I expect a tendency for more soul-searching gardens, with responses to our current political and pandemic experiences featuring highly. The garden, a place to rest, relax and recharge, has never been so popular, so I expect to see these trends featuring strongly. Rising concern for the lack of green public spaces and environmental issues are also likely to feature.
Away from design messages, the show has over recent years swung largely to show more natural planting and plants, particularly those which are more adaptive to leaving without constant feeding and weeding from the care of gardeners. We are being told to relax on patches of nettles and let grass grow longer, so it goes hand-in-hand to have plants that need less of our time. I am sure this trend of wild type plants will continue, and we will, outside of the great floral marquee, see less and less of the double and highly bred plants.
That said, the floral marquee still holds a special place in nearly all exhibitors and visitors’ hearts. It is the place that smells of gardens. There are always fascinating nurseries and unusual plants to be seen: from Restio’s to alpines and towering exhibits of giant vegetables. It is a special place, which, this year, will sadly miss a few more of the Chelsea old guard. Hilliers last major exhibit was in 2018, but this year the marquee will also lose Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, Rosey, and Rob Hardy. Although they will still be at Hampton Court and Malvern, they have made their last stand at Chelsea. However, every time a familiar face leaves, new ones arrive. There are a host of new first-time exhibitors to the show this year, including a whole new category of gardens for small spaces. Nine Balcony and Container Gardens will show solutions and provide inspiration for small spaces, which is exactly what we need.
And of course, we will be there. Brewin Dolphin is also displaying a garden and will give readers a sneak peek at some of the behind-the-scenes videos and images during May. If you want to read more about the Brewin Dolphin garden, follow this link.
So, it's a busy month. But don’t forget any spare moments you have can easily be idled away at specialist nurseries searching for new plants and admiring National Garden Scheme gardens open to the public. It's always worth seeing other people's weeding woes to cheer you along!