Sowe Carrets in your Gardens, and humbly praise God
for them, as for a singular and great blessing.
- Richard Gardiner, Profitable Instructions for the Manuring, Sowing and Planting of Kitchen Gardens
Here in the UK we don't have climate, we have weather. But it is (loosely) separated into four seasons. For the gardener each season becomes early, middle and late. For instance, early spring is February to March, mid-spring is March to April, and so on throughout the year.
It's easy to succumb to the temptation to rush into the garden on the first sunny day of spring, especially for those of us who spend six months a year re-reading seed catalogues and peering wistfully at the garden through frosty windows. Indeed, for many of us, the asthmatic coughing of two-cycle engines, rudely awoken and pressed into service before the completion of their well-earned period of rest, is a truer harbinger of spring than the return of migrating birds.
But it's often better to wait for the first rush to the garden centres to subside before undertaking anything more than an exploratory expedition into the garden. Some crops, such as peas, can be safely planted in cold soil; but, for most plants, it's much better to wait for the soil to warm up before planting. A good rule of thumb is never to work wet soil. Heavy soils, especially, will compact horribly if you rush out to till them too early in the season or after a heavy rain. Trampling about in clay soil will make you feel as though your legs are about to fall off at the hips, and will repay your eagerness to re-enact the Battle of the Somme by leaving a legacy of soil that's almost impossible to cultivate in the heat of summer.
The first warm days of spring are meant to be enjoyed in a hammock, listening to the buzz of the first insects and drinking in the aroma of the warming soil... while your neighbours go mad raking and mowing their lawns. Relax! It's much better to wait for your lawn to wake up before you start making demands of it. Cool season grasses, like Kentucky Blue, need time to root in the spring; so give them a chance to wake up and do a little growing before you trample around compacting the wet soil. Your lawn will repay your generosity by remaining green in the summer, with less of the supplemental watering that is demanded by your neighbours' lawns.
A battle is won or lost in the planning stage, so take the time in the early spring to stand around your garden with big mugs of tea, while the mysterious forces at work in the universe provide you with inspiration. The garden centres are already stocked with all sorts of tempting things, many of which will certainly be killed by late frosts as soon as they are planted. It's much better to wait for the danger of frost to pass before purchasing tender plants.
It's the Same with Sowing Seeds...
'Sow indoors January-March' it may say on the back of the packet. That doesn't really mean that you should start them off on New Year's Day. Seeds started too soon are likely to get spindly, as there is less light for them. By definition they'll need to spend more time in a pot or tray on your windowsill, or in your conservatory or greenhouse. This doesn't make for good plants as they are actually far more likely to pick up a disease or virus in these situations. It's heartbreaking to see all your brave little seedlings flattened by a fungus.
If you must plant early, if you can't resist getting your fingers into the compost, just plant a few seeds, and then plant a succession every few weeks. Keep the pots or trays apart if possible. This means that if a disease strikes one lot, it's less likely to hit them all (watch your basic hygiene - don't poke the poorly ones, then immediately rush to see if the healthy ones are ill too!). It should also give you a succession of flowers or crops - more fun for longer!
Couldn't agree more on the waiting thing. Only trouble with trying to avoid playing with wet soil is that if, as I do, you live somewhere damp and have a winter where it rains every day without fail, you end up never doing any digging and indeed don't dare stand on the grass never mind mow it. I guess part of the message is not to try and pretend you have conditions you don't. If all the garden centres are trying to sell you tender plants in February, ignore them!
A Short Potted Seasonal Calendar
Early Spring – A Time for Pruning!
Lemon Verbena - Only bring Lemon Verbena out of the greenhouse when all threat of frost is gone; it's not hardy plant, this one.
Dogwood - Dogwood is grown for it's bright stems. Cut it back to about three to four inches off the ground, as the youngest stems are the brightest. The discarded stems can be cut to ten inches and planted into the ground or into pots. They should root for new plants in the autumn. The red varieties look good next to ponds.
Summer Flowering Plants - Prune those that flower on young wood. Cut to within 1-2 inch of the old wood to encourage new shoots. Also cut down last years growth of herbaceous plants.
Snowdrops - Those that have finished flowering can be dug up, divided, and replanted. Also, when daffodils begin to show their shoots, dig them up, divide the bulbs, and replant immediately.
Mid-spring – Any hardy plants that have been grown over the winter in greenhouses and on windowsills can be planted out now, as long as the soil is workable. Any seeds that need an early start can be sown now. Keep the seedlings in a frost-free, light place, but shelter from strong sunlight.
Late Spring – Remove blanket weed from ponds, and fill gaps with new plants. Tie in climbing plants to supports with soft twine. Leave plenty of room for growth, so tie loosely! Feed with high potash fertiliser to encourage flowering.
Early Summer - Plant out any non-hardy seedlings that have survived. If you have sweet peas keep deadheading as it encourages more flowers.
Mid-summer – In the wildlife garden, cut back nettles for new growth. Butterflies don't like to lay their eggs on old plants.
Early Autumn – A time for propagation! Any plants you have that you want more of, now is the time to gain more stock for free! There are many different ways to do it, and most plants have a choice of two or more (layering, dividing, collecting seeds, taking cuttings, etc). Prune any emerging aquatic plants on ponds. Never take more than a third of each plant. Leave surface plants as they are as they prevent algae. Put non-hardy plants into the greenhouse to 'overwinter'.
Late Autumn – Divide large rhubarb crowns, especially those that flowered freely. Lift the crowns and split with a spade into fist sized pieces. Replant one metre apart. Strong crowns can be potted up for forcing. This means putting them in the dark, covering with straw and a bucket, and then letting them grow. The forced stems grow a pale pink, and can be eaten as normal when they are ready. Special pots can be bought for this, to put over the plant in the soil.
Late Winter – Dogwoods can be layered (a form of propagation which involves laying a part of the plant on the ground, or burying a portion of it, which can be cut off the main plant when it has rooted). Twist the stem a little to damage it, or remove a ring of bark, and then peg it into the soil.
One aspect of gardens which I think gets sadly neglected is the winter colour. Coloured stems certainly add some colour during winter, but there are some plants which flower from late autumn through to early spring. I'm thinking of Abelias (which have an incredible fragrance), Witch Hazels (Hamamelis - again, good for fragrance) and of course Helleborus niger.
Then, there's always bulbs, notably snowdrops. If you don't feel like winter flowers, go for berries. Apart from the obvious (holly, for example) there are hundreds of garden plants which give a splendid show of berries in the winter. But remember, if you get holly bushes, you have to have a male and a female plant, otherwise you won't get any berries.
The old roses which have the multi-flowering gene in them make lovely winter garden plants. In the last house we had a white rambling rose in the back garden. This was still in flower at Christmas, amazingly, and the white blooms looked beautiful against the snow.
Tomatoes are one of the easiest crops to grow. Varieties include 'Gardeners Delight', 'Sweet 100' and 'Alicante' and these are fairly common. Yellow varieties are also available, and just as tasty! Whether growing indoors (perhaps in a greenhouse) or out, the method is virtually the same - it's just the timings that are different. Indoor plants can be planted any time between January and April. Outdoor plants need to be started off early - probably no later than mid-February.
Sowing - Fill a seed tray/large flower pot with good quality potting compost. The seed should be planted in rows, no less than an inch apart. Cover them with another shallow layer of compost, and firm down. To keep moisture in, you should cover the seeds - if a small enough plant pot is used, you can cut a large plastic drinks bottle in half, and get two covers. Seed trays often come with suitable coverings. Or you could make your own cloche1. The planted seeds should be placed in a warm place - on a sunny window sill, or in an airing cupboard (but make sure you don't spill any compost on anything else in the cupboard!). It takes up to two weeks for the seeds to start growing - as soon as leaves appear, place the seeds somewhere sunny, and remove the cover. This will allow the plants to breathe, and begin to photosynthesise.
Re-planting - When a couple of pairs of leaves can be seen on a plant, it is ready to be replanted in its own pot. As before, fill a (small) pot with potting compost, and make a small hole for the plant to go into. Use a spoon, or a small flat piece of wood (or anything similar) to uproot the seedling, and hold it by the leaves to transport it to its new pot. Place into the hole, and firm down the compost. The plants need to be in sunny conditions, and also kept watered. As the plants grow, they will need replanting in bigger pots. Or, you could get someone else to do all this work for you. Tomato plants are readily available at places like church fairs in May - all you have to do is plant them out!
Greenhouse plants - Plants to be grown in the greenhouse can be put in there as soon as the roots are well developed. It is common to plant them in growbags, three or four plants to a bag. They could also be planted in large pots.
Outdoor plants - Plants to be grown outdoors will need to be acclimatised (hardened off). This should be done around the end of May, when the weather should (hopefully!) be improving. To do this, put the plants in a sheltered spot outside during the day, and bring them back inside overnight. After about a week, you should be able to leave them outside all day without damaging them. Keep them in a sheltered position for between a week and a fortnight. When the plants are ready, you should put them where you want them in the garden. This should be somewhere sunny - when the fruits appear, the sunlight will help the plants to produce more sugars, making the fruits sweeter.
When a plant gets too tall, the stem may break. To prevent this, the plants should be supported by canes, and tied at regular intervals. This is especially true as the fruits begin to form. The plants will also need watering regularly. The soil should never be allowed to dry out. A good feed will become necessary once the fruits start to form - liquid food mixed with the water is best.
Harvesting - You should get a decent crop by July/August. When picking the tomatoes, don't just pull them off! It is (apparently) best for the tomatoes if you snap the stem which attaches them to the plant - there is a small 'elbow' just above each fruit, which breaks easily if bent backwards. Or, if many tomatoes ripen at the same time, you could cut off the whole stem, and keep them on the vine until you use them.
Is it true that growing marigolds beside them helps deter insects? Well, marigolds attract hoverflies, which mean they breed there. And the little hoverfly larva eat aphids. So yes, grow lots of marigolds! They can also be used for many other things; the petals are edible and tasty in salads, and can be used as a dye, and the plant also has many herbal properties.
Snowdrops and Daffodils (Moving/Splitting)
Snowdrops - Never move or split clumps of snowdrops when they are in flower. The best time to move and split them is just after the flowers have died and before the green leaves die back, this will give you a better show the following year.
Daffodils - Never split or move daffodils until the flowering process is over and the leaves have died back. A good way of planting your daffs is in a large flower pot which is sunk into the ground, at the end of each season lift the pot and split the bulbs into more pots which can then be sunk back into your garden.
Whenever my grandad used to lift bulbs and corms he gave them a good dusting with Flowers of Sulphur. This prevented them from being attacked by mould during the damp winter months.
There are useful things to do at moonlight. One is to plant lots of night scented stock (Matthiola) tobacco plants (Nicotiana sylvestris), or evening primrose (Oenothera). And it's good to encourage nocturnal wildlife in your garden, so if you want to encourage lots of moths (then the bats that eat the moths, then whatever eats bats, etc) you could do a lot worse than sow some of the lovely flowers mentioned above.
Alternatively, you can take a nice long drink outside on a warm summer's evening, inhale the scent, and use the natural cover of darkness to help ignore the fact that the rest of the garden looks like North Vietnam. Who said ignorance isn't bliss?
Check out the BBC Lunar Gardening site for more information.
Many shrubs benefit from a bloody good pruning. Buddleia daviddii (not Buddleia globosa) should be pruned down to about 1/3 of its height so you get a good display of flowers. Also, the dogwood (Cornus) can do with being cut back hard around the beginning of the year so you get a good display of showy red stems.
I've done my dogwood. I've put the bits I cut off into some cuttings compost in the hope I'll get some new plants for autumn. Apparently they propagate really well like that. We'll see. The buddleia I cannot face just yet. I still have the hedge cuttings from August in the back garden from when the shredder packed in. I don't need anymore. Although I'm going to use the big branches to make a 'wigwam' for the sweet peas.
In cold climates, it's often best to leave Buddleia davidii alone until spring has established a solid beachhead. They can be a bit sensitive in cold areas, and late frosts can sometimes cause problems. A number of shrubs benefit from a being cut back in the spring (coppicing) - shrubby willows, potentillas, sorbaria, etc - especially where winter kill and snow (or snowplough) damage makes a mess of things. This is a good opportunity to clean up around the plants and put down some fresh mulch, so that you don't have to spend your summer crawling around pulling weeds.
Temperature notwithstanding, the most important thing about pruning is to do it. It's one of the hardest things for a new gardener to do: 'I've watched it growing for ages - why do I have to cut it off now?' You will get a happier, healthier stronger plant if you give it a trim. Honest. And once you get started, it's hard to stop - just don't end up with a garden like a row of lollipops!
However, if you have early flowering shrubs like Forsythia, leave them to have their display before you prune them, then cut them back hard to make sure you get lots of new shoots ready to flower for next year. However, the only time to prune before flowering is to save the plant. Don't hesitate, really. If it's a disease or infection that needs cutting out - do it. If the plant is unstable or rocking in the wind - trim it. It's better to lose a season's show than to lose the whole plant entirely.
It is obvious that this would be a different kind of horticulture all together. It is best not to use plants which will grow too large. Problems connected with this are that it can all take up too much room, and that plants tend to 'windmill' in the breeze (or gale force winds) causing them to loosen and often, break or be 'pulped'.
It is advisable to use soilless compost and a layer of polystyrene at the bottom of the planter. This reduces weight - essential if you have a balcony. An attractive alternative to wooden troughs (attached to railings) are portable horse mangers (designed to be put over the stable door). These are available from horse supply wholesalers who deliver to your door. They come in lovely bright colours and can be easily drilled for drainage. Watering can be a twice a day event in the warmer months. Although you shouldn't water during heat of the day, it is sometimes necessary to do so. Take care not to get the foliage wet. In especially hot weather, a saucer of water below each plant will help but will, in no way, replace the need to actually water. Failure to give a plentiful supply of water will 'stress' the plant, which leads to problems with flowering and irregular growth. Plants which do well tend to be the old favourites - Impatiens (busy Lizzies), fuschia, dwarf marigolds, Alyssum, Ageratum, Lobelia. Some alpines do very well, too, including Campanula carpactica and Dianthus. For the winter months, it is nice to have something to look at. Plant bulbs and small shrubs.
Remember, most compost for containers easily looses its nutrients and regular feeding is essential during the growing months. Always water and feed together. For permanent plants, top-dress with fresh compost every year but beware of re-potting too often. This can cause the plant to put on loads of new growth and this can cause a non-flowerer.
Growing Soya Beans in the UK
Strictly speaking this shouldn't be possible because the growing season is too short, but if you can start them off in a greenhouse or indoors during early April, and plant them out after the threat of any late frosts, you should get a crop around the end of August. Start them off as if you were making regular beansprouts - on wet blotting paper or a bought beansprouter. When the root is about an inch long, carefully put the beans into some ordinary potting compost making sure not to damage the root, put them in a sunny place, and water daily (but don't waterlog the soil or they'll rot).
After a few days you'll get a shoot, and by the time they're ready to transplant to the garden you should have a healthy plant a foot or more tall.
Once outside and in the soil, water daily and hope for a good warm summer. The bees will do the rest, and at the end of August there should be plenty of pods on your plants, each of which contain half a dozen or more beans. Unlike dried soya beans, these don't need soaking, and are absolutely delicious boiled for about 5-10 minutes.
Even if you've only got room for a few plants in a flowerbox, it's worth it just to get one meal's worth of fresh beans.
Planting What, Where and When
Unless you live in Death Valley, container-grown plants can be put into the ground anytime that the soil is workable. In other words, whenever the soil isn't frozen or waterlogged. Plants bought bare root should be either potted or put into the ground as early as possible, as soon after they are purchased as possible, to keep the amount of time the naked roots are exposed to the air to an absolute minimum. A good trick to reduce desiccation of the roots is to dip them in a thin slurry of garden soil and water.
Transplanting established trees and shrubs is best done while the plants are dormant, either in the spring or autumn - those lucky enough to live in places where the ground doesn't freeze solid can tinker all winter. Some trees, such as magnolia and birch, show a distinct preference for spring planting; but they can still be moved successfully at other times if they are given a little extra care.
Most conifers do their growing in the spring and early summer, so they are best moved at the end of the summer, when they are fairly relaxed about life and there is still time for them to grow new roots before the onset of winter.
Spring bulbs are planted in the autumn. Old, overcrowded plantings should be lifted and divided after they finish flowering, and the tops are starting to yellow. Don't cut the leaves off after the bulbs flower, as the plants are relying on a bit of good photosynthesis time to recover some strength for next year. They can either be replanted straight away, or stored in a cool place until the following autumn.
The Easy Way to Grow Vegetables
Quite often, people try and grow veg in their back garden using traditional methods: everything in neat rows etc. But another way is to use raised beds. You just knock together some treated timber into bed frames about 8" high, 4' by 12', separated by walkways. You can then pile these up with compost. They heat up sooner than the ground does as the climate becomes warmer, which means you can give your vegetables an early start. Yields are better and the growing season goes on longer
If you get a stiff back from doing a lot of bending then the process of weeding, maintenance becomes a less taxing, as you have less far to bend.
Good advice! Soil that drains quickly warms faster. Raised beds also give you more control over soil moisture: You can add water, but you can't take it away in beds that don't drain well; which can lead to problems if we have a rainy summer... or if you live in Manchester.
Years ago, I visited Chicago Botanical Gardens, where they had, at the time, a great display of raised planters intended to make gardening accessible to those among us with limited range of movement. With a little ingenuity almost anyone can have a great garden, with a minimum of backache.
Some seasonal gardening tasks, especially those relating to weed and pest control, are best timed by using other plants as indicators. A good example of this is using the flowering of Forsythia to time the application of pre-emergent herbicide controls for annual crabgrass, a common weed in lawns.
Because seed germination and the development of many insect pests depends on soil temperature, which is determined by the interaction of a number of variables, including the duration of warm spells and the amount of precipitation in conjunction with soil drainage characteristics, the calendar only gives you a rough idea of when to act. It's much better to use other organisms in the same environment to indicate what's taking place in the garden.