Final winter tasks

It’s the last day of February and the final day of winter (well, meteorologically at least). So, I’ve been busy in the garden completing all those final winter tasks. And the good news is, none of them took more than 15 minutes!

February snowdrops

February snowdrops, announcing the end of winter and the start of spring

Winter fruit tree care

First, I completed my winter fruit tree care plan. Having applied a fruit tree ‘wash’ to my apple and pear trees earlier this month, I completed their winter care by pruning and feeding them.

Pruning should be carried out while the trees are dormant (generally, November to March between leaf fall and bud break). Make sure you use sharp secateurs or saws to shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch, and to cut out any weak or crossing branches or congested growth. The RHS has lots of good advice on winter pruning of apple and pear trees. Mine are only young trees, so they didn’t need a lot of pruning.

Fruit tree prunings

The results of my pruning – not a lot! Make sure your secateurs are sharp.

Feeding. I simply applied some growmore fertilizer around the base of the trees. Again, the RHS has good advice on feeding fruit trees (and mulching in late spring/autumn).

Raspberry cane cutting

Next I tackled my autumn-fruiting raspberries, which still bore the evidence of last year’s bumper crop.

Raspberry canes ready for cutting down

The remaining winter evidence of last year’s bumper crop

February is the perfect month for cutting the canes down to ground level, ready to start the growth cycle all over again. I will, of course, also feed these with growmore fertilizer.

Cut autumn-fruiting raspberries to the ground in February

Just 15 minutes of green and my raspberry canes were cut to ground level

Chopped raspberry canes

Remember to use sharp secateurs to cut autumn-fruiting raspberries down to ground level

Some of the canes that I cut were extremely sturdy, and it struck me that they would make ideal stakes elsewhere in the garden. So I trimmed down the strongest pieces and have kept those to prop up any straggling perennials later in the year.

Raspberry canes make good supports for perennials

Sturdy raspberry canes make good stakes for propping up perennials

Potting dahlia tubers

Finally, I potted my dahlia tubers. Dahlias are not frost hardy, but if you have a light, frost-free place where you can keep them, now is the time to get those tubers activated.

Dahlias are incredibly low maintenance. All you need to do is plant each ‘bunch’ of tubers (roots down) in a large pot (approx. 3-litre volume) of general potting compost, such that the stump at the top of the ‘bunch’ is at soil level. They shouldn’t be planted too deeply.  Then all they need is light, warmth and moisture to kickstart growth. Mine have joined my chitting potatoes in the back bedroom.

Potting dahlias

Plant each ‘bunch’ of dahlia tubers in a 3-litre pot, so that the stump at the top of the bunch is at soil level. Water and keep frost free.

I’ve potted 8 Topmix dahlias for some patio colour this year, plus a few straggly tubers leftover from last year, which I’m hoping might take.

It’s Spring – isn’t it?

And so to March when, according to the Met Office, Winter is officially over and Spring has arrived (yay!). Or has it?!

I’m not 100% convinced. Given the current temperatures, and forecasts of sleet and snow, I’m inclined to ignore the Met Office’s calendar definition of Spring in favour of ‘astronomical’ Spring, which starts slightly later. This year the Spring Equinox falls on 20th March, so I think we’ve got a few weeks to go yet before we can definitely proclaim SPRING IS HERE! Still time to complete those 15-minute winter tasks.

What do you think? Join me on Twitter @15greenmins and vote #SignsofSpring YES or #SignsofSpring NO – and attach your photo proof.

#spring NO - frozen pond

#SignsofSpring NO – frozen pond

OR

#spring YES - crocus blooms

#SignsofSpring YES – crocus blooms

Empty nest boxes

If you haven’t done so already, you need to get a shift on and clear out your nest boxes. Early autumn is actually the best time, but it’s one of those jobs that can get forgotten. If you leave it too late you’ll miss out on the simple pleasure of watching birds coming and going as they build their nests and rear their young in the wildlife haven that you’ve provided.

We emptied the box on our shed a while ago, after another successful blue tit fledging. This prime piece of bird real estate has been home to multiple blue tit broods over the past 5 years, and despite its weather-worn appearance it has already attracted plenty of ‘viewings’ so far this year.

Well-worn blue tit nest box

Blue tit ‘des res’ – a bit shabby on the outside, but a protective start in life for numerous generations of blue tits

We also have an open-fronted nest box nestled in the ivy on the side of our garage. It had sat empty for a couple of years, until last year, when robins took up residence to raise not one but two broods. As we weren’t in the habit of clearing that one out, we only got around to it this week. (Note the royal ‘we’. If it involves getting on a ladder then it’s definitely a job for my husband!)

Interestingly, when we came to clear out the box we found that they had built a second nest on top of the first, so it was pretty packed full of nesting material. How they managed to fit the second brood in, in such a confined space, I don’t know.

Robin nest box nestled in ivy

Robins nest in open-fronted boxes, preferably amongst thick vegetation; despite being close to the house, the ivy here provides ideal cover

Within a few hours of clearing out the box we spotted a robin scoping it out, so we have high hopes that we’ll be watching more robin comings and goings from our kitchen window this spring.

The RSPB recommends using boiling water to clear nest boxes of any remaining parasites, and letting the box dry out before replacing the lid. To be honest, we’ve only ever removed the old materials, so that’s a tip for me to remember next year. Too late now, as we’ve already got an ‘interested buyer’ who we don’t want to put off.

Nest boxes – the what, when and where

If you haven’t got a nest box up yet, then now is the time to do it – and I mean now! – as many species are already starting to pair up and check out the best sites. The type of nest box will depend on the species of bird you want to attract. The BTO has advice on the types of boxes that different species go for. In general though, a nest box should be placed 2–4 metres off the ground on a tree or building, in a position that will get some shade during the day.

Somewhere between north and east will avoid the brightest sunlight and the wettest winds. Ours are actually facing west but they are both in shade for a large part of the day because of surrounding hedges and buildings, and we’ve had no complaints.

Ideal site for blue tit nest box

Our sturdy blue tit box is about 2 metres off the ground, with a 25 mm hole and clear flight path in and out

So get out NOW, and make sure those nest boxes are empty. Then sit back and enjoy watching this year’s residents in action.

What birds do you have nesting in your garden? Have they found any unusual places to build a nest? Please leave a comment below.

Chit chat

Do you chit your seed potatoes before planting? Most amateur gardeners and allotment holders do – mine have currently taken over a window sill in an unheated bedroom – but most commercial potato growers don’t bother.

Potatoes chitting on a window sill

Potatoes chitting on a window sill (not sure it beats chestnuts roasting on an open fire)

So why chit?

Seed potatoes with no visible shoots will start to chit from the ‘eyes’ when exposed to light and warmth. Any frost-free space should be fine (greenhouse, porch, conservatory, garage), although I had to rethink putting mine in the garage this year, as last year the mice found them and undid a lot of good chitting!

Light is the key to success. If potatoes start to chit in the dark they produce long, brittle, translucent shoots, which won’t give very good results. Unfortunately, my second earlies (Maris Peer variety) had already started this process in the bag, so it will be interesting to see if they produce a noticeably lower yield than the other crops.

The wrong kind of chit: long, brittle, translucent shoots

The wrong kind of chit: long, brittle, translucent shoots

How to chit

Place your seed potatoes in a single layer with a large amount of eyes facing up. Egg boxes are the ideal container for chitting, but I always forget to save them (most of mine end up in the compost as part of my ‘brown material’ quota). So until I buy more eggs I’m making do with some plastic fruit punnets and kitchen towel (very Blue Peter). Seed trays with scrunched up newspaper in the bottom to hold the potatoes upright will do just as well.

Once the potato has produced 2-4  sturdy green sprouts of 2-3 cm in length, it’s ready for planting. The more chits you leave on, the more potatoes you’ll get, but they’ll be smaller. As a general rule, leave 3 or 4 chits, and rub off the rest. With fewer sprouts sharing the nutrients in the soil, you’ll get bigger but fewer potatoes. More small potatoes, or fewer large potatoes – one of the great dilemmas in life(!) – it’s entirely up to you.

The right kind of chit: short, knobbly, green sprouts

The right kind of chit: short, knobbly, green sprouts

Watching a potato chit is a lot less interesting than watching a kettle boil (especially as I’ve got a lovely new glass kettle with a shiney blue light … but I digress). Chitting can take 4-6 weeks, so leave your potatoes to chit in peace and start planning the rest of your vegetable patch.

I’ll be growing my potatoes in sacks, so watch this space for an exciting blog post on, you’ve guessed it, ‘Growing potatoes in sacks’, or the somewhat abbreviated ‘Spud update‘.

Lily of the valley at Glynn Valley

This weekend involved some rather spur-of-the-moment planting at Glynn Valley Crematorium in Cornwall. Not my usual gardening hangout! On a sunny day (which it was), there are wonderful views from the top of the remembrance gardens down across a large pond into the wooded valley beyond.

The view from Glynn Valley crematorium remembrance gardens

The view from Glynn Valley crematorium remembrance gardens

My dad’s ashes are buried here, in a tranquil haven under a hawthorn tree. Close to established woodlands, and with birds flitting about everywhere, it’s a lovely spot to commemorate the nature lover that he was. Having given ourselves some breathing space since the funeral, we’re now ready to decide what to plant under the tree. Whatever we plant, it needs to tolerate shade in the summer (when the trees are back in leaf) and lots of tree roots, be low growing and low maintenance, and look as natural as possible in this setting.

One plant we know we want to include is lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). It’s ideal ground cover for dappled shade, and it was one of the flowers in my mum’s wedding bouquet, so it has sentimental value too. This weekend, while in Cornwall, I unexpectedly acquired a few lily of the valley rhizomes. After soaking them in lukewarm water for a couple of hours (sound familiar? see Planting wood anemones!), and snipping the ends of the roots off to jumpstart growth, I managed to lever them into the rooty ground in a couple of clumps either side of the engraved memorial book.

We inserted some sticks to mark the spot, and now we just have to wait to see if the ‘pips’ sprout (for some reason that’s what lily of the valley shoots are called). If they do, in May the plot will be graced with delicate arching racemes of highly scented bell-shaped white flowers, and red berries thereafter. (I think I’m going to try to grow some from seed in my own garden!)

Memorial plot

Memorial plot in need of a shade-tolerant, low-growing, low-maintenance planting scheme

Now that we’ve made a start, I plan to go back next month with a mixture of bulbs to fill the plot – more lily of the valley and potentially some wild wood anemones, snowdrops and cyclamen, but any other suggestions would be much appreciated.

In loving memory of Carl Beesley (dad), 1944-2013.

Fruit tree winter wash

Winter is the time I give my fruit trees some TLC, although like most jobs in my garden I’m a bit late in implementing my ‘fruit tree care plan’. This comprises:

  1. A winter wash
  2. A winter prune
  3. A winter feed
Apple tree in winter bud

Winter apple tree – lots of buds already!

This week I implemented Step 1, a fruit tree wash designed to control overwintering pests, in particular the eggs, larvae and nymphs of aphid sap suckers (namely, greenfly, blackfly and whitefly).

This used to be achieved with a winter tar oil wash, but these types of wash are no longer available in the UK because of the carcinogenic danger to amateur gardeners. Now, all available winter washes are based on either fish or plant oils, or both.

Fruit tree wash and sprayer (other brands are available)

Fruit tree wash and sprayer (other brands are available)

Winter washes are best applied … in the winter! That is, in the dormant season, after leaf fall and before bud break in spring. So, I picked a dry calm day and applied the wash as directed, as a fine mist spray. I was careful to get the spray into any cracks in the bark and in the nooks between branches, as those are the places where any eggs will have been laid.

As my apple and pear trees are only 3 years old, it didn’t take too long (a perfect ’15 minutes of green’ job), and the branches were soon dripping with liquid.

Pear tree sprayed with winter fruit tree wash

One pear tree … sprayed.

I also sprayed my ‘plum tree’, which to be honest is more of a stick in a pot at the moment – I bought it last year but it’s not thriving, so perhaps the wash will help. In theory, killing the pests or eggs should also help to reduce any fungal diseases, which attack fruit trees via the damage the pests inflict on the bark.

Winter washes are suitable for most fruit trees and bushes, including apple, pear, plum, cherry, gooseberry, blackberry, raspberry, blackcurrant and redcurrant, as well as vines under glass. I shall make sure I give my raspberry canes a squirt when I cut them down later this month.

Happy spraying!

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