Garden Journal 2023
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 quick cold blasts of last month have left their mark, but while it is tempting to search out damaged plants, cut back dead sections and dig out those that seem beyond the point of recovery, it is best to leave plants until spring to be sure new shoots do not develop at the base. A case in point in my garden is Melianthus. This year, its towering stems of exotic foliage have been burnt away, but I am resisting the temptation to cut them back, as this would allow cold further into the plant. Instead, I am simply waiting to see new signs of life on branches and at the base, which I know will come in the warmer days of March.
Another reason to leave plants well alone is that there is usually a cold snap in February. Open wounds, even on dormant plants, can allow cold in and cause them to die back further.
If you have not planted your spring bulbs due to frost or wet weather, now you really need to find a good dry day to plant them in the ground. Or, if time really is running out, put your bulbs in pots and place them around your door to make your home more welcoming in late winter and early spring as they start to bloom. I have planted bulbs, and will be planting more bulbs this month, but it really is the last chance saloon.
Signs of life are emerging this month from the Winter Aconite; its little yellow flowers find their origin in Greek and Roman mythology. According to the myth, Medea attempted to murder Theseus by tainting his wine with the poisonous saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the underworld. Hercules dragged Cerberus out from the underworld, and the light of day upset Cerberus. While barking his protest, his poison saliva fell on the path around him. The saliva hardened into stones in the soil, and from those stones Winter Aconite grew. The Greeks called the flowers aconite, from the word ‘akone’ meaning ‘whetstone’, and it is true Eranthis is a very poisonous yet beautiful plant.
The China blue flowers of Scilla are one of the first welcome sights from late January. Squills or bluebells are a common sight of European woodlands, growing up to 30cm high and sometimes becoming invasive. The smaller and more unusual alpine Scilla, such as Scilla mischtschenkoana, comes into flower much earlier and has brilliant blue flowers roughly 10cm high; you can imagine they travelled back from the high deserts of the South Caucasus and Iran after being viewed against the golden sands of spring.
The most common small Scilla is Scilla siberica, the Siberian squill, which for such a small bulb has an impressive range from southwestern Russia to the Caucasus and Turkey. It is not native to Siberia, but instead was named by the British botanist Adrian Haworth. The genus Haworthia, a group of succulents from Mozambique and Namibia, is named after him rather curiously.
Let’s hope the cold spell doesn’t last and we soon see these glories of colour return to our gardens.
To start this has been a most odd winter so far, cold snaps, strong damaging winds and enough rain to make the plants simply float away. It is in all quite depressing and without wanting to add further flies to the ointment my only hope is we escape a severe frost during blossom season like 2021, as that year I ended up with no fruit at all in the garden.
Well, moan over its far to say that at least the wet soil made planting bare-root hedging and moving some trees much easier than normal and I doubt they noticed in the slightest. Bare-root season winds up this month so if you are quick you can find some plants still available for any last minute projects. Inspired by a friend my last minute project was to purchase 27 hornbeam whips to create in about ten years time, a stilted hedge which will enclose part of the garden from winter winds whilst keeping the view to the neighbouring fields open.
The one down side to the so far mild winter is the volume of weed seedlings which are sprouting and enjoying the damp in full knowledge I cannot get out into the borders and remove them. But rest assured as soon as the soil is dry enough to work I will be out removing as much as possible including irritating seedlings and this by far removes the amount of weeding through late spring and summer.
If you have made new borders and are disheartened by the volume of weeds so not despair it is normal, once you expose the soil a layer of dormant seeds always germinate and over the course of the first eighteen months there is an explosion in weeds, keep on top of it and you will be fine. Here in my garden which is entering its third year of life I have a lot of spaces where weeds are serious competition to the new plantings I am making but I know that the balance with my intervention will switch over time.
It might be a little late in the day to talk about Christmas trees but if like me you bought a potted tree then now is a good time to do one of two things.
If you left it in the pot in was bought in, now is perfect time to remove it from the pot and replant into a bigger ideally clay pot with a good layer of drainage and soil based compost to replicate its natural environment. Weight down the root balls, its very top heavy remover foliage wise and do not disturb for the next few months but keep an eye on watering.
2. If you have taken your potted tree outside and either planted into the ground or already replanted it then towards the end of the month give it feed with Fish, Blood and Bone from the garden centre.
In both cases the tree which I am going to bet is in the family Picea will naturally shed some needs over march and April, so don’t worry its not dead, and you will see new growth in May to June.
If you have kept your tree in a pot it will happily come inside again for a visit over December next year and if you have planted it outside you may have to wait a few years to string up the lights but either way a little care will reward you with a very happy tree.
One last thought on Februaries gardening calendar, don’t forget as soon as the snowdrops have finished flowering towards the end of the month you can safely dig them up and divide large clumps into small groups to give more impact in years to come. There will also be lots of ‘in the green’ sales of snowdrops which is the best way to buy them as they don’t enjoy being dried out and sold dormant.
I have to say this has been a funny old year for the garden so far. It started cold and even snowed at the right moment, before we were lulled by a ‘fools spring’ of a February with unusually warm weather, before cold descended again. To top it off, prolonged periods of no rain made the soil as hard as a rock and ensured winter container watering, which feels a little wrong.
Dry and cold weather is often better for marginally tender plants and evergreens, which is good news as frost and rain (our more traditional weather) tend to destroy roots through the freezing and absorption of water.
Traditionally, March is the month when sowing direct into prepared vegetables can take place; as a teenager I had an allotment which I was very proud of. I can remember reading the packet of vegetable seeds religiously and would, on 1 March, sow my radish, beetroot, hardier lettuce and spring onions with anticipation and wait…and wait!
The experience of gardening for a few years since tells me now that my geographic location, the season and soil will all have a hand to play and determine if my seeds will germinate. I now know that the ideal is to start working the soil and preparing the beds at the start of March and sow later. The results are often better, there is no stunting of growth, and my fingers are certainly not as numb.
If you have a cold frame, you can sow many hardy perennials, which like a bit of cold and rough to break down their seed coats in early March (and sometimes earlier outside) and by late April have little plants ready to be carefully potted on. Remember, unlike annuals which complete their lifecycle in one year, perennials are often slow to bulk up from a seedling to a plant which flowers. It is a slower process than cuttings and requires a little extra space – either by potting on and caring for them on a hard standing or creating a nursery bed in your potager or semi-shady spot, where they can bulk up before being planted out into the border and left to fend for themselves.
Nearly every autumn, I buy a lot of perennial seed, mainly species and, like most gardeners, things which spark my interest through their name or the nursery’s cleverly teasing description. By the time spring arrives, I am almost always behind on my sowing. My advice is: life happens and if it’s not the exact moment the packet says, still give it a go and you may just have to wait longer for results. Make sure you have long-lasting weather-proof labels, as the seed can wait in the ground and surprise you the following spring with a little, ‘hello did you forget me?’
March is also the month when there is more birdsong, activity and a sense of warming anticipation. It is now that when my dog Netta has her post-walk groom we donate her fur to the birds who gleefully take it away to help in the nest-building process. If you don’t have a suitable Netta to donate what feels like an endless supply of fur, then at least put out some food, grains or even simple things like an apple on a spike to give the birds an energy boost as they fly around looking for house-building materials.
Whatever March throws at us, we are on the home-run to spring and can rest safe in the knowledge that all our work over winter will pay off in a matter of weeks!
Think of April and most people will conjure up images of roast lamb and Easter. Ask a gardener, and it is the month of spring at last! Bulbs are in full swing, there is blossom on the trees, the evenings are longer, and the days are getting warmer.
Spring has truly sprung, and plants are showcasing incredible amounts of growth and body. This exuberance of growth leaves gardeners with both a new job and an opportunity. The first task is to ensure staking has been completed for the summer to come. If you get your staking in place in spring, plants can grow through and it becomes disguised and ‘invisible’. If you leave this job until later, plants can have the double appearance of looked strangled and battered from collapsing and being damaged by wind or growth weight.
The second part of the task is creating new plants for free. The young sappy growth on herbaceous perennials is ripe for soft tip cuttings – taking the tips of the new growth and making cuttings which are roughly 8cm long. Using rooting powder and a mix of perlite and vermiculite, you can make hundreds of new plants for free. At this time of year, the new cuttings will root within three weeks and some of the newly created plants such as Dahlia will even flower in the same year.
Other plants, such as hardy geraniums and Rudbeckia, can still be split during April as the weather is ideal for new root development. This tried and tested way of making new plants is also beneficial to the original clump. Many herbaceous perennials spread outwards like an expanding circle, leaving a dead centre point. Every two to three years, it is worth inspecting, digging and ruthlessly dividing larger clumps to create new vigorous and healthy plants, which will produce more flower and growth.
Don't forget, you can sow a myriad of vegetable and annual flower seeds during April. I tend to grow a few annuals which fill spaces in between herbaceous perennials and add vibrancy. Annuals like Cosmos and English Marigold are easy and can be sown direct. Lightly hand fork over the spaces and cast the seed. They will germinate, root and develop much faster than those in seed trays, with the bonus of being hassle free. If you only have a small space, so are ruling out vegetables, don’t forget that lettuce, chard, and evening climbing beans do really well in containers, so even a small courtyard can be productive.
For me, April is a good time to focus on getting the garden ready for spring. It also comes with the pressure of knowing I am largely away all of May building our RBC Brewin Dolphin Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. This means I need to ensure my garden will tick over with minimum care, while also constantly talking with our contractors and plant growers for the garden. If you haven’t already, you can read a little about this year’s inspiration and some of the fantastic artisans we are working with on the creation of the garden here. From slate hand quarried in Blaenau Ffestiniog using techniques developed over one years ago to our oak framed building handmade in Herefordshire, and ceramics from an artisan deep in the Loire Valley, this garden is very much inspired by knowledge and artisan creation.
Chelsea aside, I hope April will not pass too quickly. The year is a quarter of the way through already, and it is good to take time just to admire the new growth and listen to the garden’s rhythm of time, which does not always follow ours.
I often think that spring has a smell – sometimes you catch a hint of it in the breeze in April, but it is in May, when spring turns into summer, that you can smell it in the air for the first time. May brings a soft slow green push as leaves continue to break, seeds germinate and the early spring flowers of primrose and daffodil, which bravely fight the cold air, make way for herbaceous geraniums, alliums, tulips and some flower shrubs such as lilac.
By the end of this month, the cold persistence of March will be a distant memory and strawberries will be practically ready to eat from the plants. In all this romantic bucolicism you may ask, “Where is the hardship?” Well, I am going to tell you!
May can be a sly toad. Warm T-shirt-inducing days can tempt us to do too much too fast. Despite the warmth on your skin, don’t be tempted to go crazy planting out tender annuals, courgettes, tomatoes and mewling rooted cuttings. May has a chilled evening breeze and all your hard work could be lost in one of its sudden mood changes. The best thing is to wait and for some of us that wait could almost be into June. Patience is rewarded in the gardener’s world as waiting and planting at the right moment mean that plants grow stronger and faster than those suffering stunting, or worse, from exposed planting too early.
This lesson will mostly be learnt with the humble Dahlia, which dislikes the slightest sniff of a chill breeze. You can’t blame it – its native home is hot and tropical South America, which is a far cry from largely damp and grey England.
The other benefit of May is your weekly lawn mowing obligations. I tend to leave my lawn just slightly longer as if there’s a sudden draught it tends to be more resistant; the same can be said of heavy footfall areas as longer grass doesn’t run bare so quickly. Additionally, if you have large areas of grass to mow, think about whether you really need to cut it. Over a course of two or three years, you can develop a highly diverse meadow by reducing yourself to two cuts a year and provide a heaven for pollinators.
Once you have cut the grass, the clippings are often a problem for compost heaps and suffocate them, causing layers of undecomposed materials which cannot be reworked into the garden as good compost. There are three solutions. First, mix the grass clippings with cardboard – this will soak up the moisture, allowing both to break down. Second, use the cuttings as a mulch at the back of borders under shrubs and larger trees to suppress weeds – this can also be done on mewling planted areas but as a thinner ratio.
The third solution is more of a long-term production. I tend to give clippings to my chickens. They have a good old rummage through it and break it down with other vegetable waste. Once every three months, I skim the surface of their enclosure, gathering nicely churned debris and chicken waste to either apply directly to poor soils in my garden or onto the compost to enrich it. I figure they have to pay for their board and lodging like the rest of us, so they can do a little more work than making eggs. That said, I haven’t found a job for the dog as yet, so that’s something to work on.
I will be in London in May, making RBC Brewin Dolphin’s Main Avenue Garden, which you can read about here. We will be creating some exclusive content about the elements of the garden including its build, so wish us luck!