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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.

January

 

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.

January
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Image by Simon Berger
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February

 

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.  

 

  1. 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.

February

March

 

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!

March
Image by Sandie Clarke
Nuthatch

April

 

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.

April
Image by Arno Smit
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May

 

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!

May
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June

June

 

They don’t call it ‘Flaming June’ for nothing. After weeks of cold starts and cloudy days, June has started warmer than ever and with little rain. The best way to deal with the way our summers and springs are evolving, it seems, is to mulch.

 

I am a late convert to mulching, so for those of you who already mulch I know I am preaching to the converted. A thick layer of mulch – such as straw, composted bark, lawn clippings and even cardboard when first making planting beds (however unappealing it may look) – certainly reduces weeding and seedlings that have been transported in the wind. It also keeps the soil nice and humid, allowing for plants to develop and grow stronger while reducing watering.

 

I tend to use a mixture of lawn clippings for out-of-sight places, such as under shrubs and raspberries in the potager, and make my own mulch for the more high-value or visual areas.  Making your own is easy and, for me, completes the cycle of the gardening year, allowing for nothing nutrient-based to leave the soil for very long.

 

At the end of the year, I cut back all of the herbaceous plants and directly put this semi-woody material through the chipper. I then add this to any small branches I have already chipped, mix them together and leave for the following year. Doing this this every year means I have two-year-old homemade compost/mulch to spread thickly on beds and borders. This replenishes nutrient levels in the soil while looking rather smart in the winter months when the garden is lean.

 

With the bumper growth of spring and some herbaceous plants not looking their best, don’t forget to pull out the old foliage of herbaceous poppies such as Papaver ‘Patty’s Plum’ and cut back hard-finished Alchemilla mollis and violets (unless you want chance seedings popping up this autumn). Early flowering annual poppies and nigella will be setting seed now, so don’t cut those back if you want continued blooms next year without the work of direct sowing.

 

After the Chelsea Flower Show, I came home with a haul of ill-gotten plant gains from the breakdown of many exhibits and show gardens. With show season marching all the way through summer, it’s a great opportunity to add plants to the garden, but completely the wrong point of the year for them to get established. Make sure the plants are well watered overnight and that the place you intend to plant has also been pre-watered to ensure the soil is ready and damp. After planting, water every day for at least two weeks and then as needed; this is the way cottage gardeners of old would move plants around the garden with minimal losses.

 

I started this journal entry by saying  June was flaming and talking about ‘flames’ which use a lot of energy this month little strawberry plants will be producing delicious fruits, its exhausting so lastly don’t forget Once fruiting is over, cut back runners and tired foliage before feeding with a nice slow release slow-release granular food such as pelleted chicken manure or, if you prefer, a mixture of nettle and comfy leaf soup. Which you can see how to make in our videos.

Lastly why not not enjoy this video looking at the journey of this years RNC Brewin Dolphin garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Sow

July

Long summer days and a garden full of colour and foliage means we are at the pinnacle of the summer season. July is a plant lover’s month, not just because of the sheer volume of plants bursting into flower, but also because of the wealth of specialist nurseries and gardens open for us to visit. With sunny days in mind, here is a roundup of jobs which might make it onto your list this month.

 

Flowers & Cutting Garden

Many of us have biennial plants, which include beautiful yet prolific stars such as angelica and teasel. Now is a good time to thin them out and leave what you want where you want it. The young ‘thinnings’ can be potted on and given to gardening friends or at gardening clubs, so don't feel guilty about being ruthless. Biennials which have flowered already, such as honesty and sweet rocket, can be cleared out of the garden, and in the case of honesty be hung to dry for winter decorations.

 

With so many plants now in flower, you may feel like you really are running your own flower shop. But remember, plants like dahlia need lots of picking or the flowering stops. The same is true of annuals such as cosmos, cornflower and zinnia – these want naturally to set seed, so pick to help the flowering season lasts as long as possible.

 

Everyone asks about it too late in the season, but now is the time to prune back lavender. Prune hard to keep them fresh and bushy and, whilst you are out, have a tidy of perennials such as geranium who have grown leggy. You can start taking soft cuttings of tender perennials alongside aster and other sappy young growth on a host of late season perennials.

 

Lastly, now is the last chance to stake tall growing perennials. Next month always brings some wind, so this will help to minimise damage. Plants grown in containers need a good watering and feed, and montana-type clematis can be pruned now.

 

Vegetables & Home Grown

It is a bumper time of year for vegetables too. If you are an experienced hand, you will be harvesting a wealth of tasty salad crops alongside globe artichokes, drying herbs for winter use and starting to harvest peas and beans.

 

If you have grown squashes and courgettes, it’s a good idea to pinch off the growing tips to encourage branching and bushier plants, which will then yield more. Whilst pinching remember tomatoes benefit enormously from this as well. Where space allows, you can continue sowing salad leaves but also think about autumn crops. Sow kale such as ‘Nero di Toscana’ alternately in rows with faster crops such as radish and lettuce to have a fine harvest later on.

 

Basil can be sown in a warm sheltered spot now. Unlike the rest of the garden, to get the best crop never send the plant to bed wet! Other herbs such as sorrel and lovage need a drastic cut to the ground now if you want to continue having fine young leaves, or leave for rich seed structure over autumn.

 

Courgette fact

Some say this humble vegetable was Colombus’s first discovery. While it is true that the parent of the modern courgette has been with us since the 16th Century, the vegetable we know and love was bred in Italy in the second half of the 19th Century and didn't reach America as a crop until 1920! Now used throughout the world from Israel, up into Siberia and across to Alaska, in 2005 a survey found that it is the UK’s tenth most popular vegetable.

July
Image by helena munoz
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August

August

 

Summer is perhaps not quite as we imagined it would be back in the sunbaked months of May and June. Throughout July, more and more news of extreme weather surfaced: wildfires in Greece, the South of France, and Algeria; and freak hailstorms and huge downpours in Spain, Italy and Japan, to name a few. 

 

The changes may seem sudden, but it is just that we avoided our gaze. Over the past few years, I have noticed a reaction to the changing climate among mature trees. In mid-summer, the stress of prolonged periods of no rain has caused them to shed their leaves early. Later in September, they flush a second crop of leaves using valuable energy which should be stored for the winter months. The result is that large mature trees appear to be ‘suddenly’ dying over winter.

 

Ultimately, this is not good news. A further depressing study shows that at current rates, most of the trees across northern France, in an upward swathe to Germany and all of the UK will not survive in 50 years’ time. In one generation, a complete change will take place in our landscape.  

 

Now, more than ever, we need to be active in encouraging resilient tree planting in our gardens and within our local town, parish and county councils. This will not only help to absorb and cool the atmosphere but will also result in cleaner air in towns and cities. Sadly, throwing a few wildflower seeds at a field won’t work.

 

In our gardens, we have to be serious about water collection and run off, drought and management. I have collected a lot of water from my new roof this year, which is stored in ugly, but hidden, large tanks which I use to water the garden when needed. Many of us have driveways and other areas where three-dimensional design can help store and hide mitigation measures, such as suds tanks or reinforced storage containers for water to be recycled later; these do more than deal with an effect but also benefit our gardens. If you are a keen grower of vegetables or plants like dahlias, which require high amounts of water and feed, then collecting water is a beneficial part of gardening.

 

Another part of managing the changing climate is planting for your soil type and the weather pattern we have now. Lots of gardening advice from the 1970s and ‘80s is still being trotted out, but sadly this is woefully inaccurate now and needs to be abandoned and replaced with local knowledge and hands-on experience. Three decades ago, it would have been unheard of to see Cycas growing outside in winter in London, but this year I discovered avocado being grown and fruiting near the Barbican.

 

It seems heavy and frightening, but gardens are resilient and we will find ways to adapt and develop them to suit the challenges of the next decade and beyond. It will, however, be much easier if we are proactive to the changes rather than dragging our feet in denial.

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Wet grass

September

September is traditionally a month which feels like summer but breathable. In the garden, it is a month of being able to start enacting plans you have bottled up all summer. From landscaping jobs to moving plants and taking lots of cuttings for next year, it’s a month of bounty for those looking to reconnect with the life of the garden.

 

Alongside this bounty we have created, nature provides lots of rewards. As well as apples, pears and quinces, don’t forget that the last of our cucumbers, courgettes and tomatoes can be harvested and preserved for the winter months. I am something of a traditionalist as I get older and have adopted living seasonally when it comes to food. Therefore, as an example, in my house you will not find tomatoes in winter. Instead, you will find bottled and preserved passata, which like quince jelly, jam, and pickled goods, is a way of eating food out of season which we have used for centuries. For me, this use of food allows the simple joy of the first moment ‘in season’ to exist – a pleasure which should not be underestimated.

 

This year, I will admit, has been a little odd, or perhaps it is the new normal. Extended periods of wet weather in some areas and long dry spells in others have put paid to our traditional seasonal notions. That said, for the next few years at least, September with its rich autumn colours will be the month of semi-ripe cuttings; this is a method of making new plants for free using growth from this year on plants such as penstemon and semi-woody perennials. Placing a simple cutting about 8cm in length with leaves removed into a mixture of 50/50 perlite and vermiculite, which can be used for years with hormone rooting agent, will yield new plants ready to pot by next spring.  

 

If you don’t fancy the hassle, it’s also a good month for digging up established bulky perennials such as Aster and all its newly renamed derivatives, Rubeckia, Erigeron and other clump forming perennials, and splitting into two or three decent sized pieces for replanting. This gives sizeable new plants, especially if you are establishing new borders. It is also essential work for perennials over three years old as the centre of the plant tends to die out and this technique invigorates them for the next few seasons.

 

If you don’t want lots of new plants, then the excess can be further ‘cut’ into pot sized plants which you can give away or donate to a local garden project. 

 

I actually have quite a lot of plans for my garden this autumn. It is now three years old and some spaces have worked well, whilst others are still to find themselves. Creating a garden is a long project, so I shall be editing some borders where I have noted gaps in the planting and redeveloping areas which have not worked so successfully. Inspired by our Chelsea garden, I have decided to create a wooden structure for storing wood and for making the sometimes messy transition from house to garden work better over winter. The oak building will be an open sided boot room come wood store, which I hope will keep things tidier this winter.  

 

One of the main reasons for this is because the house runs on wood for heating over winter.