Helen’s Blog

Gardening Tips September

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

There is one little cheat’s trick that will instantly revive a tired September garden:  Go out and edge the lawn, if you have one, and then take hand fork and loosen the soil at the very front of your borders and winkle out any young  weed seedlings or wisps of stray grass that have wandered in there.  I have just been grubbing around outside myself (I have been writing books this summer rather than gardening, and things have got away from me a bit) and the transformation is amazing.  Coupled with a bit of snipping and tweaking here and there, and the garden will stagger on quite attractively for another month before the big Clear Up starts in earnest in October.

I am often asked how you make a garden ‘last’ longer – most people are very good at planting spring bulbs and high-summer show-off plants, but fail to leave room for flowers that look their best in August and September.  If its blowsy colour you are after make space next year for a generous clump of lovely lofty, pleated daisies with ferny foliage – Cosmos bipinnatus – the tall ones not the boring dumpy ones called ‘Sonata’.  You can grow them from seed in individual pots on a windowsill – but don’t sow them till May since they germinate quickly. They will flower in profusion from late July until the frosts.   Many perennials cut back in July put on an extra show in late summer, and my Hybrid Musk roses (‘Penelope’ and ‘Buff Beauty’) are now coming back into flower, too.  Still looking quite smart in my borders is a hunky, late flowering Phlox (P. paniculata ‘David’), a blue Aster frikatii ‘Monch’ and a huge white single Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum maximum).  Other asters – ‘Little Carlow’ and ‘Harrington Pink’ will show up in a few week’s time, and all the while deep yellow, black-eyed Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ glows on and on.

Gardening Tips June

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Is this everybody’s favourite month? I suspect it is.  The evenings are at last warm enough to sit outside and appreciate the heavy scents of high summer.  Lovely wafts come from the flowers of a superb silver-leafed shrub Eleagnus ‘Quicksilver’, from the perennial white stock (Matthiola perennis) that I grow in large pots all around my terrace, and the white sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis ‘Alba’) dotted around in the semi-shade of my borders together with the almost sickly-sweet  smell of a small pot of Zalulanskya – an annual night-scented stock relation – that sits in the middle of my garden table.  And as if that was not enough, any moment now the tiny white star-shaped flowers of the so-called evergreen jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) will join the headily-perfumed throng.  There is a reason so many night-scented flowers are white: they attract pollinating moths in the gloaming.

My pond, however, is having a prolonged green water moment.  To control the algae I floated small bags of barley straw in the water some weeks ago (each with a small empty sealed plastic drinks bottle inserted deep into the middle for buoyancy, to keep them in the sun).  As the straw rots it releases hydrogen peroxide into the water which inhibits the growth of blanket weed and other algae.  It takes a long time to work, and while it does you have to keep hauling out the green, hair-like stuff (and rescuing tadpoles caught up in it) but gradually, miraculously, the water does clear.

Gardening Tips May

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

May – just before all heaven breaks loose – is a big month in the garden.  Fending off serious slug and snail invasions is a serious business.  I use a combination of methods and copper and grit barriers (such as the highly effective one from EcoCharlie) feature heavily.  In fact with Hostas and spreading plants such as Brunnera ‘Jack Frost, I cover the entire crown of each with the coarse, extra rough stuff, so important is it that their lovely leaves stay intact.

The other must-do job for May – if you haven’t done it already – is a thorough appraisal of all herbaceous border plants to decide what supports are needed:  If you don’t get things in place now, it will be too late and you will find yourself in a few weeks time standing on one leg in a crowded border trying to ‘rescue’ plants that have flopped after heavy rain.  With plant supports, it is definitely a case of horses for courses:   Unless I have a decent source of twiggy sticks with which to make a supportive forest, I make sure that each growing stem of lofties such as delphiniums gets a slim cane to which it will be tied in every few inches as it grows – really worth the bother, since most spires become catastrophically top heavy after rain.   Other plants will need metal hoops on legs placed so that they will stop them from falling all over each other, and herbaceous geraniums such as G. ‘Johnson’s blue’ are completely transformed if they are grown through a circular grid frame (no more flopping open in the middle as they age).  Put in place before the border fills out, all this corsetry becomes invisible in high summer.

Finally:  You can stop the cat getting stoned and sunbathing in the middle of your nepeta by bunging an obsolete hanging basket over its heads (the nepeta not the cat).

Gardening Tips April

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Easter is a difficult time – a time of betrayal for gardeners. In the first instance, the date of Easter chops and changes each year. ‘Easter is the traditional time to plant your potatoes’ – oh yes? But not only is the date a problem, but the weather in early April is by nature completely unpredictable anyway. This year’s ghastly, endless winter that has left my soil cold and sticky and my allotment almost unapproachable – literally. Furthermore, the fact that Easter has fallen early, only a week after the clocks changed (giving us at least a vital extra gardening hour) means that I shall not, repeat not, be planting my spuds yet, or anything else, for that matter. So sulky spuds in serried ranks will be stuck in old egg boxes in my garage, ‘chitting’ quietly to themselves for a while longer, I fear.

Common Sense is, for gardeners, the greatest of all qualities. Follow this or that rule to the letter and you are done for: Rules are there to be broken and adapted, after all. Guidelines written on packets are what they say they are – just guidelines. Understanding what makes plant tick and adjusting your habits according to the conditions in your own plot, season by season, these are the things that contribute enormously to good planting and to a lifetime of rewarding gardening.

Why so philosophical this month? I am in the process of writing two books at once (How? One with my left hand, one with my right, natch). They come at gardening from two completely different standpoints, one is practical and straight up and one is a compilation of my own and other gardener’s batty experiences and weird opinions. Common sense links the two.

Take everything you read with a pinch of salt. Experiment. Observe. Enjoy.

Back in the practical saddle next month, when I will look at supports for border plants.

Garden Tips

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Snowdrops are nodding cheerfully in the chilly wind and this week there has even been enough sun to entice the little golden crocuses in my lawn open their throats to the sky.

March is very definitely re-bonding time:  Key implements for a lengthy garden clean-up session are a decent kneeler, thermal gardening gloves, a slim-tined shrub rake for grubbing out the remains of last autumn’s leaves from under shrubs and in lawn gullies, a receptacle of some sort to collect the bits for composting and a hand fork to gently loosen compacted soil.  Clearing and tidying yard by yard can be addictive, and the results are invariably satisfying, reminding us, too, of the existence of all manner of just-emerging plants assumed to have been clobbered by the frost – or just plain forgotten-about.   The next job is to get cracking with slug and snail defences (a wide blanket of grit worked well round my delphiniums last year, while the copper tape stuck around the hosta pots is still clinging on for another year).  It is also a good time to cast chicken manure pellets (a more or less balanced fertilizer) around border plants and to mulch and feed roses and other flowering shrubs – proprietary rose food does them all a power of good.  And just because the worst of the weather is behind us, don’t stop feeding the garden birds.  While they are queuing up for a space on the seed-feeders, they will happily snack on the growing population of insect pests on your garden plants.

Garden Tips

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Wicked weather over most of the country has left many of our evergreen shrubs battered and tattered. When and how should they be tidied up? Not yet, and carefully, is the short answer.

Some shrubs have split branches which, surprisingly perhaps, can be bound up with insulating tape or similar and may ‘heal’ themselves. Others with frost tinged shoot tips – many of the cistuses, hebes and ceanothuses and foliage plants such as pittosporum and bay – must be left for a while; there is more nasty weather to come, we are told. It may well be that once these dead tips are removed in April, early shrubs will have their flower power much reduced for this year. However they can be pruned properly in June to encourage new shoots that will flower in 2011. Hebes (that flower later) may fare better, but for those that are badly maimed this may be the year to renovate them completely, pruning them hard back (not before May) and sacrificing this year’s flowers.

One thing we can tackle with vim and vigour this month is rose pruning – all those traditional bush roses and lanky Modern Shrubs (e.g. English Roses) can be reduced by two thirds, the dead, oldest and skinniest wood removed completely. My tip? Start by crouching right down and look at the bushes from below to identify the shoots that should come out, and observe how the basic structure looks. You are aiming to produce a balanced ‘candelabra’ shape with dormant buds (in the leaf scars) facing outwards and as few crossing branches and ‘dog-legs’ as possible – hard to achieve if you just fiddle around pruning roses from the top downwards.

Garden Tips

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

I always do a tour of the garden looking at it with fresh eyes as soon as I have finished juggling sprouts behind steamy windows and have stowed all the Christmas paraphernalia.  As their new flower buds are starting to emerge through the soil, it is a good time to cut down all the old leaves of Oriental Hybrid hellebores and mulch around their crowns with year-old, half-ready leafmould.   The flowers look much more spectacular powering upwards during the next few weeks if they are divested of all last years messy stuff.  On mild days I have a bit of a tidy-up, open up cold frames and greenhouse doors, inspect the plants within and remove yellowing leaves.

As I write this we are having our first frosty spell of the winter in the South East.  For those elsewhere who have escaped thus far, may I remind you to fleece up or move to shelter all those tender things in pots that might be harmed.  The next few weeks are likely to be the really bleak, icy ones and – remembering last year’s minus 11 degrees – anything can happen with the weather, anywhere, with little warning.  Take comfort in the fact, however, that the days start to lengthen noticeably by the second half of the month.  Meanwhile, if it is too horrid to garden, just enjoy doing a little forward planning:  sit around in your socks leafing through seed catalogues.  Happy New Year.

Garden Tips

Friday, December 11th, 2009

With masses of autumn leaves finally stowed away in chicken wire cages where, in around 18 months time they will have become useful humus-rich leafmould, thoughts turn at last to another important December job: Roses.

Although bush roses that need winter attention don’t get a look in until February, I generally aim to prune my climbing roses by Christmas.  Mine are fairly young, so pruning is mainly a question of tying in some of the best new long growth (that I steered in the right direction while still sappy and pliable) to add to the permanent framework, and cutting back the shorter side shoots that bore flowers to within two or three ‘eyes’ – leaf scars – of their ‘mother’ branches.  Next spring, the dormant eyes will sprout and eventually become shoots that will in turn bear flowers on their tips.  Mature climbing roses need slightly more radical surgery: Some of the older, browner parts of the basic framework should be cut out each year, to encourage the rose to make some new framework growth that will flower with more ‘oomph’ than the old.

Ramblers, identifiable by their single, showy flush of flowers in July and massive unruly growth thereafter, are a different kettle of fish.  In restricted spaces, some of the excessive growth may now need to be cut away completely.  But care must be taken to save some of the long new shoots and tie them down, since they will carry the best of next year’s flowers.  If ramblers are cut back and disciplined (by the ‘neat and tidy’ brigade…) as if they are climbers, flowering next summer may be a bit pathetic.

Garden Tips

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Alarm bells should be ringing this month if you still have not planted your spring-flowering bulbs.

Tulips should definitely go in this month.  Plant them a few inches apart in rough, slightly disorganized groups and bury them really deeply – 6 inches down if you can.  This will put off all but the most energetic of squirrels, but if you have had a major problem in the past, bury a small piece of chicken wire between the bulbs and the soil surface.  They really, really don’t like that.

I absolutely adore tulips.  These are some combinations that work for me:  ‘Ballerina’ tulips with emerging shoots of Euphorbia griffithii ‘Dixter’.  ‘Spring Green’ tulips around the base of a white-barked Himalayan birch (Betula utilis ‘Jacquemontii).  Tall, white-and-green-flowered Allium nigrum with ‘White Triumphator’ tulips.

Daffodil, crocus and allium bulbs do better the earlier they are planted – September or October are ideal times, I have to say – but better late than never and they can still go in now.  Plant them all with at least twice their height’s worth of soil over their heads.

If bulbs are to be left alone to naturalize, sprinkle a little grit and slow-acting, long-lasting bonemeal under their bottoms at planting time for good measure.  And remember to mark where you have planted them.  I stick a few slim wooden kebab sticks in the ground around each ‘drift’ – quicker to do than write labels, and just visible enough for long enough to remind me not to plant anything else in what may seem, for the next few months, like a tantalizingly vacant spot.  You may think you will remember where everything is, but how many times have we all stuck our spades through our bulbs, I wonder?

Garden Tips

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Gardeners get seriously itchy fingers by October, and want/need to start chucking out old annuals, cutting back really exhausted herbaceous plants and to carry out all sorts of adjustments – but with 40% less rain than normal last month (where I live, at any rate), the soil is still rock hard and we should all try to hold off disturbing plant roots until the soil moist. The great garden clear up is therefore going to be a protracted affair.

Given the right soil conditions, however, the next few weeks are a good time to lift and divide herbaceous perennials that need it (after three or four years).  Their best bits – the outside sections – should be replanted in compost-improved soil, and will re-establish themselves quickly before the temperature takes a nose dive next month. It is now common practice not to cut back or disturb those plants that have ‘good winter structure’, or that provide birds with food – or just something to trapeze around on for fun.  As long as this year’s debris is cleared away and everything is shipshape by March, all will be well.

This is not a serious shrub-pruning time, however much we may want to ‘tidy’ them up.  Leave spring flowering shrubs such as Ceanothus and Hydrangeas well alone or you may find yourself cutting off the best flowering shoots.  Late flowerers such as Buddleias and Hypericums can be cut back by half if they are a real eyesore, and pruned properly  (down to a low, woody framework) at the correct time, in early spring.