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Garden Journal 2024

Each month Paul shares insights from his own garden and thoughts on the gardening world, jobs to do and amusing observations. 

January

 

So here we are, January 2024 already. Indeed, the turn of the year puts into perspective just how long we have spent developing our gardens together.

 

When we started the Digest, my garden was just a small grass field. Now, despite the lack of trees and large shrubs, all the shapes, shoots and spaces are becoming clear. 

 

It reminds me that projects are never static and in the garden we have never really completed a task – a prospect new gardeners may find daunting. But fear not, those of us who have gardened over time know that the small joys are worth the effort. The ever-growing garden and its vibrant tapestry of colour and form are a direct collaboration between our minds, hands and mother nature. It’s a fulfilling experience, and I never fail to find joy in the coming and going of the seasons and the evolving landscape of my garden.

 

This year, I have started with gusto. And like most Januarys, I start out with high ambitions of getting on with my dahlias… which reminds me, order them as soon as you can and lay them in trays or boxes with compost and in a cool, frost-free room. This will allow the tubers to hydrate and the buds to start.

 

January is also a good time to begin other projects, such as moving perennials and refining the shape of your garden.

 

For me, I have dug up all my summer raspberries in the potager after three years in the same location, and replanted them in a new bed. There are two reasons to do this: the soil of the bed will be much improved by the action of the raspberry roots and three years’ worth of leaf mulch; and the soil structure of another bed requires improvement, so the addition of raspberry plants – excellent colonisers and ideal for enriching soil – should work nicely.

 

Be aware that you will get small shoots appearing in the older bed you removed the raspberries from. These can be easily dug up and planted elsewhere, or potted and given to friends for their own garden exploits.

 

I have also been taking hard wood cuttings, which we have made a video about before, should you want to give it a go. I planted these in a nursery bed ready for autumn, when they can be planted outside or potted up. 

 

One project I’m really looking forward to is the building of some new brick entrance posts to part of the garden. These will be in the same local vernacular style as those in the main drive which I created last year. This will be something to focus on once the risk of hard frost has passed in a couple of months’ time.

 

The start of the year is also a good opportunity for learning and taking heed of past experiences. To this end, I will sound one note of caution for those keen to get in the garden as early as possible. The start of the year can be a tempting time to rip open packets of seeds with abandon, but after the best part of 28 years of gardening, the best advice I can give is that unless they’re sweet peas, don’t bother. It’s not worth the headaches and disappointment. Wait a month and start later, the seedlings won’t notice but I assure you, you will.

 

It's also important to be aware of the inevitable cold snap(s) that January and February so often bring. Stay prepared with protective fleece and have mulch to hand so you can protect plants that have enjoyed one of the warmest Decembers since the end of the nineteenth century.

 

Whatever you plan to do over the coming month, make sure of one thing - get out and enjoy your garden space whenever possible.

January
January
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Snowflake

February

I have been spending the past few days near Ledbury, and although we think there have been a few chilly days, in fact, the winter has been wet rather than cold. Lots of tree buds seem to be swelling a little earlier and snowdrops are well advanced.

 

February is an odd month. On a warmer day, particularly towards dusk, you can smell the approaching spring – yet, on a cold dull day, it feels like winter is eternal. This makes it a very difficult month for many people. Although the shortest and best advice I could give this month may be to book a trip to Tangier or some other sunny, warm place, I do have to remind you that this is the month to order dahlias, start thinking about seeding potatoes, and plan your vegetable crops for the coming season.

 

I will be trying dahlias again. A lack of success over the past years saw me, in desperation, take to a social media platform to ask other gardeners for their tips for success. The online gardening community is a friendly bunch but, sadly, the secrets received in one reply were rather succinctly counterargued in another, and I was no further ahead.

 

I am, however, going to start them off early in a cold room to get growth going, plant them out in early April in a bed enriched with manure, and feed them all year long to see if the results are better; this seemed to be the general theme of the replies I received.

 

I have spent a few days moving smaller shrubs that I came to realise were in the wrong locations. Whilst plants are dormant, you can move them around and catch the end of the bare-root season for hedging plants and some shrubs. I will be digging up my raspberry canes and moving them to a new bed this month. Raspberries are brilliant at building soil, so I use them a little like worker plants to improve my vegetable beds for two or so seasons, and then carefully dig them out and move them on. So, if you have an area of poor soil, try planting some. The added and obvious benefit is a long season of delicious fruit.

 

Well, I did say it was a short month, but don’t worry – in a few weeks’ time, the garden will be calling you day and night. So, as the French might say, ‘profite bien’ of the wood burner and relaxed daydreaming through plant catalogues whilst you can!

Feb
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Budding Tree

March

At last, spring is in the air and by the end of this month, the night will finally feel shorter. One of the joys of spring I always miss, which I intend to rectify this year, is waking up early for the dawn chorus. It seems to me that I have heard more birds the last couple of months, and so I will make the effort to catch this magical moment in my own garden in March.

We traditionally think of feeding birds over the winter months, but I like to feed into spring and through the nesting and fledgling seasons. Given our long hot summers, I also like to ensure I have somewhere birds can drink from. I would say that my spaniel Netta does her bit too by donating her shedding coat for nests, but judging by the amount she gladly gives away, there never seems to be enough takers to stop the dreaded hair balls.

One of our small birds whose numbers continue to fall is the house sparrow. It may not be as colourful and ‘exotic’ as the blue tit, but it is certainly a bird whose subtle colours and cheery disposition I enjoy. Observing that it needs our help, this year I will be installing some bird boxes designed for small birds to nest in, which I hope will encourage them now that so many old farm buildings and outhouses have been converted and smartened up for our use, which in turn has made them homeless.

Many of us will be swept away by warmer soils and a glut of seed sowing. Remember not everything needs to sown immediately; many plants can wait right into April and will catch up effortlessly. I will be sowing radish, lettuce, and early carrots directly into prepared seed beds this year. I will repeat sowing these every six weeks until autumn for continued crops. Vegetables can be very hungry, so feed with pelleted chicken manure or high nitrogen foods to get good yields, If you have them, you can spread the cleanings from your chicken house directly onto vegetable beds and flower beds to give plants a natural boost.

March is also a great month to spot the gaps in our borders and look for larger herbaceous perennials that can be dug up, split in half or  in three with a spade, and replanted. This is a really easy way to ensure full borders, and many herbaceous plants need a division such as this every two to three years to keep nice and healthy. If you have a lot of one plant, you can always swap with gardening neighbours and friends to extend your own planting palette. In fact, many gardening clubs hold swap days in spring to this end, which always provides one or two new plants for the garden.

This spring will be the first time in a long time that I’m on top of weeding and preparing my garden for its annual opening in the first week of June. Early weeding really sets you up for a more controlled year. If you have time, getting those self-seeded weed seedlings and perennial weeds out in March will make life easier for you throughout summer. I should also mention that March is the first month you need to spray box plants if you have them. the dreaded box caterpillar, which can strip a plant in 24 hours, has marched or munched it way across most of the United Kingdom now, so it is rather obligatory to spray box hedges and topiary forms three to four times a year to keep them healthy and intact.

Lastly, this month will be filled with the gentle hum of lawn mowers. If you notice you have a few bald spots, go vigorously over the lawn with a lawn rake to remove thatch, and sow directly. It should germinate within five days and the lawn will look much improved before you can even say April!


 

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Image by Erik Karits
Image by NARINDER PAL

April

 

The beauty of the blossom appears fleetingly in April, but it’s worth every moment. This month seems abound with all forms of blossom and one of my favourites is the ancient quince. I associate this tree with Tudor England, although it first arrived in Britain in 1275 when four were planted at the Tower of London by Edward I. It gained favour as winters were considerably colder during this time and the quince could withstand the harsh weather.  

 

The quince forms a deciduous tree reaching up to 20ft without pruning. Its leaves are a luxurious mid-green, a colour Farrow and Ball would kill for, and the undersides carry a thick felt-like substance, which in autumn covers its pendulous golden, yet tough fruits. The blossom in April is a showstopper, its structure is simple like most trees of the Roseacea family and the tree is large and slightly crimped in shades of off-white and rose-pink. If you have space, I would plant the variety ‘Vranja’, which grows into the most wonderful shape with age. 

 

The native country of the quince, like that of some other commonly cultivated plants, is not definitely known. But it’s probably native to the Caucasus Mountains stretching from the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan to Iran. Many of us know it for the fruit which makes a delicious jelly. [link to video]

 

There are lots of spring flowering plants all bursting into life now and tulips are of course at their zenith. This is a popular flower, and we mustn’t forget that at the height of what was known as the ‘tulip mania’, these bulbs were selling for the price of a house! Many websites will be accepting pre-orders of tulips from May, so now is the time to think about gaps and additions and get your orders in early, especially for more unusual types.

 

I plant the tulip varieties that grow wild in Turkey and Iran, such as the T. clusiana ‘Honky Tonk’ with its soft butter yellow flowers and the more mauve and velvet species, such as T. danique and humilis. These are very happy multiplying in open ground, but I also like to plant showy parrot type tulips in pots as I can lift them on to tables and pedestals and be at eye level with the remarkable flowers that have such a fascinating history in popular culture. 

 

This month you can also sow lots of annuals and hardy perennials alongside vegetables, so it’s a bumper month of activity. Thankfully, the days are longer and after a day or evening’s toil in the garden, you can slowly wander around, tea in hand, looking at all the plants happily growing with the promise of summer to come. It’s a magical time of year, the birdsong is vibrant and the soft fragrance of soil and fresh green growth fills both the evening and the morning air. What more could a gardener ask for.

April
Image by Markus Spiske
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May

 

Suddenly, spring is upon us. Well, we say that, but it seems we’re having a cold spring and one that’s considerably different to last year.

 

May is in fact a fickle month. I’ve previously seen tulips still in flower in May in the gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, which takes place at the end of this month, so I’m not overly surprised it’s cold. The tulips have actually all finished in my garden and if yours have also finished, remember to snap the flowering stems and seedheads off. This will allow all the energy to return to the bulb, apart from the species tulips, whose seeds help their colonisation efforts.

 

In between the showers, this is a good month to sow seeds directly outside because, believe it or not, the soil will have warmed up. You could sow a host of vegetables in the garden or in containers, including greens such as rainbow chard or beetroot, which coincidently replace our cravings for chocolate. You could also sow carrots, lettuce and in frost free zones, you can even sow courgette. I must say I like to start my courgettes inside away from the slugs. I get them established in a small pot before planting out with a circle of defensive sheep’s wool to deter the slugs, which can destroy one plant in a night!

 

While you’re outside and the perennials are pushing on with new growth, it’s a good time to do two things. One is to add more staking, that you either forgot to do or didn’t bother doing earlier in the year. This is your last chance to avoid the lassoed effect of later summer when desperation calls. The second is to be a little ruthless with annual early flowers, like forget-me-not, and try and pull them away from the perennials that are just emerging and need space to grow up to flowering height. I tend to do this with other plants like Melissa, lemon balm and chicory, so they don’t smother my other plants (and to stop me getting annoyed about it later).

 

Towards the end of the month, you can also change the spring plants that you have in your containers, to summer plants. Containers are a bone of contention these days – are they water wasteful, and do we really need them in a well-designed space? I find some plants look great in containers and allow me to better appreciate them. Sempervivens, agapanthus and scent leaf pelargoniums all look lovely in summer, as do heavy parrot style tulips in spring, so I keep a few pots for my terrace and entrance to the house for this reason. I tend to plant out the bulbs into the borders ready for next year, although that said, they never really do much, but it’s the effort I think that counts.  

 

While pulling out spring’s display and replanting, you can at least have a little think about missing bulbs for next spring. If you’re after specialities, now is the time to begin ordering and in fact there are usually two or three bulb suppliers at RHS Chelsea who take orders for autumn, as well as a wealth of good nurseries online.

 

Well, I said it was a fickle and tricky month, you could be outside all the time. I for one am slightly stressed by the prospect of being away for three of the four weeks and then returning with just one week to prepare my garden for the French nationals’ garden open weekend – last year I had over 300 visitors. 

 

Every year, I‘ve been adding perennials, shrubs and structural hedging, as well as refining the planting schemes for the empty field I inherited on purchase. This year I’ve added fruit whips to create an espaliered hedge, reminiscent of the ones at the Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire. I hope the visitors notice these changes and how the garden is slowly evolving and beginning to take form. It’s a good lesson, gardens are never truly finished and always take time to yield results, so don’t be too hard on yourself if your plans don’t immediately reveal themselves, they will eventually show.

May
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June

 

In June, we can finally take our foot off the brake as the growth spurts, which have kept us busy mowing, clipping and sometimes hacking plants to stop them taking over the garden, slow down.  

 

The garden feels full, but we still have a few months of flowers and rich green foliage ahead of us. I think my favourite thing about June is strawberries. I’m never particularly good at growing them, but what I lack in horticultural skill, I make up for in my ability to harvest. On the surface, strawberries should be an easy little plant to grow; with light sun to partial shade and rich soils, they should be abundant in growth.

 

The strawberry I love the most is the small creeping alpine strawberry, Fragaria Vesca. These small fruits are deliciously rich. They produce prolific flowers throughout summer for far longer than that of the breed and hybridised strawberry of Wimbledon fame.

 

The alpine strawberry has been consumed since the Stone Age and its fruit is strongly and sweetly flavoured. It’s also a useful garden plant as it’s a good edging plant for borders and is easy to maintain at the woodland edge. In recent years, the alpine strawberry has also found favour with gourmet cooks and chefs, who use it in jams, sauces, and liqueurs. In fact, due to its popularity, Türkiye harvests hundreds of tons of this wild fruit annually, mainly for export.

 

June is when numerous flowers jostle for our attention, such as roses, campanulas, irises and hardy geraniums. I’m delighted that people are appreciating the value of wild and native plants in un-mown grasslands and are leaving the edges of their gardens more relaxed. One such wild and native plant is the Heal-all, or in Latin, Prunella Vulgaris.

 

Prunella Vulgaris is in fact a perennial herb native in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. During the 1800s it was introduced to many other areas due to its medical properties and has become invasive in the Pacific Islands, including Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii.

 

Its small purple flowering rosettes are really rather charming. The young leaves and stems can be eaten raw in salads and the plant as a whole can be boiled and eaten as a leaf vegetable.  

 

In Chinese, Prunella is called xia ku cao and is used in Chinese medicine to treat dizziness, red eyes, dry cough, dermatitis and boils. You can also use it to make Heal-all tea, which is very popular in South Asia.  

 

This is a great example of the secret history of plants, which we were happy to mow and remove just a few years ago. The same can be said for the June flowering Speedwell. This tiny blue flower often grows in grassy patches where the mowing regime is more relaxed. Its creeping stems and small flowers make it very much overlooked, but left to flourish, it provides colour and pollination opportunities for insects. In Austria, it is also commonly used as herbal medicine. It can be used to make a tea to help with disorders of the nervous system, respiratory tract, cardiovascular system, metabolism, and as a cure for gout. In fact, due to its popularity as a tea, the plant was nearly eradicated from London during the 18th century.

 

However, neither of these can really compete with the roses and the other plants I’ve mentioned for their flowering showmanship. But sometimes, the big names in the plant world don’t necessarily have the historical background of other plants, which I find as impressive as the blooms.

 

Finally, on a practical note, now that the temperatures are soaring again, you should think carefully about the use of seasonal container displays and their need for water, which can feel almost never ending. 

June
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