Mega mulching

When the 900-litre bag of compost that I ordered online was first unloaded, I thought I might have miscalculated. How on earth (no pun intended), was I going to get through all of that?!

900-litre bag of mulch
900-litre bag of mulch

3 good reasons to mulch

Mulching (what a wonderful word!) is the best thing you can do for your garden.

  1. Mulching reduces weeds (less weeding).
  2. Mulching retains moisture (less watering).
  3. Mulching improves the structure of your soil (healthier plants).

‘Black gold’

I have heavy clay soil, so I try to add as much organic material as I can throughout the year from my two compost bins, along with various shredded materials. But this year, with a bit more time on my hands than usual thanks to Lockdown, I decided to give my garden a treat and mulch on a much grander scale.

And so I found myself ordering a whole lot of compost mix called ‘black gold’, a blend of peat-free soil improver and well-rotted farmyard dung and animal bedding.

Premium mulch
‘Black gold’: a premium blend of soil improver and well-rotted manure

Wheelbarrows of mulch

Shifting all that compost was a bit of a daunting task, but I was soon pushing wheelbarrows heaped with organic goodness across my lawn and shovelling heaps of it onto my borders.

A wheelbarrow full of mulch
A wheelbarrow full of mulch

Mulching depth

The thickness of your mulch matters! It is better to pile 2–4 inches of mulch on a small area of soil around your plants than spread it thinly across a larger area. A thick mulch will prevent annual weeds from growing by cutting out the light.

Ideally, you should do all your weeding and plant dividing before you mulch, as the less it is disturbed the better. I’d managed the weeding part, but I fully expect to be dividing and moving various plants over the coming weeks, so it will have to put up with a bit of disturbance.

Mulch your borders
Add 2–4 inches of mulch to your borders and try to leave it undisturbed to fully reap the benefits

The end result

Within 2 days I had emptied the bag, spreading all that organic loveliness, across the borders and raised beds in my front and back gardens. In fact, I still had two borders to do when I ran out, so they will be treated to my homemade compost instead.

The borders are looking so much better for it, and I know the plants will benefit.

Border weeded and mulched
Border weeded and mulched – tick!

It turned out to be a pretty good workout too. Bonus!

Six on Saturday: Tulip mania

This week has been all about the tulips.

1. First tulip

It all started with this very first perfectly formed specimen flushed with a delicate pink.

First tulip 2020

2. Radiant blooms

As more tulips started to open, and the sun shone, the garden basked in the radiance of their blooms.

Radiant tulips

3. Fabulous colour combos

Some of the colour combinations have been simply divine. Here, the deep burgundy satin blooms of Havran stood tall over the red-crimson petals of Couleur Cardinal and the sunset colours of Prinses Irene.

Tulip colour combinations

4. Inner beauty

On closer inspection, as the tulips unfolded, the insides revealed a further hereto hidden inner beauty.

Hidden beauty inside tulips

5. My favourite tulip

It was hard to choose, but Slawa came out the winner this year for sheer wow factor. A deep rich burgundy edged with apricot, all in one perfect goblet-shaped bloom.

My favourite tulip, Slawa

6. Tulip tableau

The stage was set, and all that planting earlier in the year did not disappoint. The tulips have been an absolute joy, particularly at a time when I have needed cheering up. And I wanted to share it with you …

Tulip tableau

Deadheading daffodils

As your host of golden daffodils makes way for a throng of radiant tulips, there is one easy job that you can do right now – grab your garden scissors or secateurs and snip the scruffy fading heads off your daffodils, or pinch them off with your fingers.

Scruffy end-of-bloom daffodils
Daffodils start to look at bit scruffy as the blooms fade and shrivel

Remove the faded blooms just below the swelling at the back of the flower. This stops the plant from expending energy making a seed pod.

Remove spent daffodil blooms
Cut off spent daffodil blooms where shown (arrow)
Daffodil seed pod
If you don’t remove the heads the plant will waste energy creating seeds

There’s no need to remove the rest of the foliage; let it die back naturally over the next 4–6 weeks. In theory, the plant will put all the goodness back into the bulb instead, so that it will produce more gorgeous flowers next year.

I say ‘in theory’, as there is some debate as to whether deadheading daffodils makes any difference at all to the following year’s flowering. Even if it doesn’t, it will make your garden look a little bit tidier, and you can add the spent flower heads to the compost.

Add deadheaded daffodils to the compost
Add deadheaded daffodils to the compost, so nothing goes to waste

When the foliage has turned completely limp and yellow, you can cut it back to ground level.

Deadheading daffodils is an easy 15-minute job – the perfect opportunity to get up from your work-from-home desk or escape the rest of the family for a walk around the garden and a little quiet ‘me’ time.

Happy snipping!

Five Firsts

It’s the 1st of April – how did that happen?! While there has been plenty to do in the garden throughout March, things truly start to “ramp up” in my garden now. April is the month when I go into sowing and planting overdrive.

To celebrate the first day of this glorious month, here are five firsts, fresh from my garden.

First rhubarb

First rhubarb
An early harvest of forced rhubarb, covered with a bucket to exclude light to produce rosy sweet stems.

First catkins

First willow catckins
The first of the willow (Salix) catkins have burst forth. The catkins appear before the leaves, bearing their all for pollination.

First cherry leaf burst

Cherry tree bud burst
The stumpy swollen buds of the cherry tree have started to burst with the first red-tinged leaves.

First tulip

First tulip
The first tulip has emerged, with the promise of many more to come.

First sowings

First sowings
The first of many sowings: tomatoes, aubergines, chillis, Brussels sprouts and sweet peas.

Here’s to rising temperatures, and a glorious month of sowing and planting!

A safe space

The advice is clear: STAY AT HOME and prevent deaths. Now that we are confined to our homes for all but essential reasons, any of us with a green space of our own should be feeling extremely blessed right now. I know I am.

stay at home
The advice is clear – stay at home!

Our gardens offer safe full-time access to fresh air and sunshine, and provide us with a purpose. Most importantly, in this time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty, they are a crucial means of maintaining our mental wellbeing.

Haven from Covid-19
I can think of worse places to be in a lockdown

Working from home

I am working full time from home at a desk-based job, so my time in the garden remains limited to 15-minute bursts of activity. Given the ever-stricter curbs on daily life that we are now getting our heads around, those 15 minutes spent outside, working with plants and reconnecting with nature, seem even more precious.

Physical and mental benefits

The benefits of gardening are well documented and numerous.

  • Provides regular easy access to fresh air and sunshine.
  • Provides an opportunity for ‘moderate’ physical activity – why not burn a few extra calories.
  • Helps to maintain heart, muscle and bone health.
  • Relieves stress.
  • Improves mood.
Garden for your physical and mental health
There is no place I’d rather be right now

In these scary times, our gardens offer a safe place away from Government press conferences, social media memes and toilet roll hunts … as well as from Covid-19 itself. So if you are feeling anxious, stressed, helpless, confused or angry (I’ve certainly experienced all of those emotions in the last 7 days), turn to your garden. It’s waiting for you.

Stay home, stay safe, stay positive!

A tidy shed

I’m not a naturally tidy person (understatement) and last year the shed became a dumping ground for, well, for everything.

My potting bench had disappeared under a jumbled pile of (dirty) plastic pots and trays and the floor was an assault course of half-used compost bags, discarded horticultural fleece, terracotta pots stored out of the frost and a depressing carpet of mud clods and matted grass.

An untidy shed
Last year’s clutter – and this picture was taken half an hour after I started tidying!

The clutter and chaos was putting me off starting my sowing, so this weekend I couldn’t ignore it any longer. First, I organised the plastic pots by size and stowed them away in trays under the bench. I then cleared a winter’s worth of cobwebs from the windows.

After consolidating the random bags of compost and potting grit and neatly hanging my tools on the many hooks on the walls (courtesy of my organised husband!), I brushed the debris from the potting bench and swept the floor.

I revealed a space that I’m now looking forward to working in and in which I’ll be able to find what I need when I need it (I even found a bag of seed compost that I didn’t know I had!).

Tidy potting bench
Everything back in its rightful place

I’m resolved to keep it tidy this year. But then, I think I said that last year too. I promise I’ll try !!

Pruning Buddleja davidii

In stark contrast to my husband, who will happily take a hedge cutter to anything, I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to pruning. I’m still a bit cautious with the secateurs on most shrubs, but there’s one plant that I know I can be brutal with: Buddleja davidii (the butterfly bush).

Autumnal Buddleja davidii
1 year of extensive growth

Buddleja (or Buddleia) davidii produces new growth on new wood, and will produce up to 3 metres of growth in 1 year. So, if you don’t cut it back each year you will end up with a very tall plant of old woody stems with straggly new growth on top.

Cut it back hard – now!

You can’t really over-prune it. It needs cutting back hard to about 1 foot from the ground in early Spring (now) – provided the weather is mild – before it starts producing new growth.

1. Trim back top growth with secateurs. This will make it easier to get to the lower stems near the base of the plant.

Pruned branch of Buddleja davidii
Prune back top stems of Buddleja davidii with secateurs

2. Cut back the thick woody stems near the bottom to 1–2 feet (30–60 cm) above the ground. You will probably need a pruning saw or lopper for this, as the stems will be pretty thick near the base of the plant.

Pruned Buddleja davidii
Cut back the woody stems near the base to about 1 foot from the ground

Try to keep an open framework of 5–6 main branches. Remove any crossing branches that will rub on other stems. The Buddleja in the photo above is only a couple of years old, so there aren’t too many stems yet, but the older it gets the more stems it will produce.

If your Buddleja is very congested around the base with old dead stems, remove them completely (either to the ground or cut them off flush to the stem).

Be brave, be brutal

It seems severe, but don’t be alarmed by the way your Buddleja looks. I promise it will regrow … a lot! In fact, you’ll be amazed how quickly it starts to produce new growth.

Buddleja fast regrowth
This Buddleja is about 6 years old and was chopped back in November last year. It’s already full of regrowth. I now know to reduce the number of stems next year and prune in early Spring (always learning!)

Prune the right Buddleja in the right way

One important note here. Make sure you are pruning Buddleja davidii in this way, and not Buddleja alternifolia or Buddleja globosa. Both of these Buddleja species produce new growth on old stems, so they should never be cut back hard in the way described above.

End-of-winter arrangement

I thought the upper stems were pretty, so instead of throwing them all away I created an end-of-winter flower arrangement. Combined with the winter stems of Sedum spectabile, it turned out to be quite striking.

Winter flower arrangement of Buddleja and Sedum
A striking arrangement using winter stems: Buddleja davidii and Sedum spectabile

Marching on

The last (extra) day in February this year brought with it more rain, more wind and even some sleet. But I managed to dodge the showers and get out long enough to finally prune my Braeburn apple tree.

Apple-tree-pruning
Apple tree pruning under stormy skies

I had to be careful not to stand on the lawn or soil for too long, as the ground was absolutely saturated. A couple of wooden boards helped me to avoid turning the area into a muddy mess.

Stay_off_the_grass
By laying wooden boards on the wet ground I didn’t compact the soil too much

What a difference a day makes

I said goodbye to February with a tinge of relief, and welcomed in March with a heavy dose of optimism. I was rewarded with a day of blue skies and sunshine, and chased the sun around the garden, pruning and weeding and planning for the gardening year ahead.

1st-of-March-sunshine
Pots and borders bathed in spring sunshine

#15greenmins in March

And so the frenzy of weeding, sowing and planting begins. I confess, as the working week starts again, the thought of all those jobs is a tiny bit overwhelming. But then I remind myself – you can do anything for 15 minutes.

Take a look at my #15greenmins March checklist and hopefully all those March tasks won’t seem quite so daunting. Keep Marching on!

Rainy day jobs

Us gardeners have a love–hate relationship with the rain. We moan when there is too little of it, we moan when there is too much of it. We want it to rain for the benefit of our plants, but only when it’s convenient for us. Right now, we don’t have a lot of say in the matter. It’s raining (a lot), so we have to make the best of it.

Wet-garden
The frustration of yet another rainy day.

Not that I’m complaining. In the South, we’ve come through Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis relatively unscathed. A few puddles here and there is nothing compared to the devastation some people are dealing with, and my heart goes out to all those affected by the floods.

So, although the lawn is too squelchy (love that word!) to walk on and the heavy clay soil in some of my borders has become unworkable, there is still plenty I can do. Here are my top 5 rainy day activities.

1. Feed the birds

Birds require high-energy foods right now; not only do they need it to keep warm, but they are also building up reserves ready for nesting and breeding.

We put out a scoop of no-mess bird seed on each of our 3 bird tables every morning, and top up in the afternoon when we can. And we keep the bird feeders filled with nuts and fat balls. (Note I say ‘we’. As his and her gardening tasks go, this one’s a shared one.)

Blue tits - Big Garden Birdwatch
Birds welcome a helping hand at this time of year, so don a cagoule and fill up those feeders.

2. Start sowing

If you’ve got a shed, garage or greenhouse to shelter in, now is the time to start sowing vegetables and slow-germinating annuals. The young plants can then be planted outside when the soil starts to warm up.

Waiting for germination - seed trays
Tomatoes, chillis, aubergines, kale, salvia and sweet peas can all be started indoors now.

3. Weeding and pruning

I wouldn’t advise working in the garden if gale force winds are hurling things around, but if you’re feeling game, put on your woolies and waterproofs and get out there. You can do everything you do in a T-shirt and trainers in a cagoule and wellies instead, particularly if you’re only out there for 15 minutes at a time. Just avoid walking on waterlogged lawns and borders – it won’t do them any good.

the right clothing for wet weather gardening
With the right clothing, you can still get out there.

There’s plenty of pre-Spring pruning to do and if your soil isn’t too much of a sticky mess then you may be able to tackle some weeding from a solid footing on paths or patios.

I’m fortunate to have a large patio to work from, and my raised vegetable beds are surrounded by bark chippings, so no excuses there. The borders next to the lawn will have to wait though.

4. Get organised

Rainy days are a great opportunity to get organised.

  • Tidy the shed
  • Sort seeds and plan sowings
  • Order seeds and plug plants
  • Take an inventory of supplies
  • Plan your 2020 garden
42 perennial plug plants by post
Order plug plants now – there are a lot of bargains online.

5. Clean and maintain tools and pots

It’s a dull job, but if you’re at a loose end on a rainy day, then you could spend 15 minutes cleaning pots and tools. Also check that your hand tools are in tip top condition for the gardening season ahead. Oil and sharpen secateurs and loppers, and check you’ve got cord for your strimmer. Don’t forget to service your lawn mower too.

Clean-pots
Cleaning pots: a dull job on a dull day, but essential to prevent the spread of diseases.

And after all that, nothing beats settling down with some good reading material and a cuppa and picking up some tips from the experts.

Reading-material-gardening
Ah, so that’s the way to do it!!

Early bloomers

Something fabulous is happening in the garden this month. Small but exquisite blooms are bursting from the ground, providing much-needed pollen and nectar for early emerging pollinators. A walk around the garden reveals the wonders that have inspired great poets. I’ll let them do the talking …

Winter aconite

February-aconite
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), the very first of the Spring bloomers.

‘Tis the first blossom that the year hath seen,
This little globe of yellow’s brightest shade,
As though upon a nest of scanty green
A fairy bird its magic egg has laid.
Almost the smallest flower the garden grows,
And yet a flower when not another blows.

– ‘Winter Aconit’, Robert Henry Forster, 1867–1923

Snowdrop

February-snowdrops
Snowdrops (Galanthus species) are a clear sign that winter is waning.

LONE Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
– To a snowdrop, William Wordsworth, 1770–1850

Iris

February-iris
Irises are the showiest of blooms at this time of year. Aptly, ‘Iris’ is the Greek word for rainbow.

A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went
(To keep the pots of gold from being found),
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-colored ends
And gathered them together in a ring.

– Iris by Night, Robert Frost, 1874–1963

Crocus

February-crocus
The gentle lavender blooms and exotic saffron stigmas of crocuses are a cheery sight on a cold winter’s day. They look fragile, but are remarkably resilient.

Dear child, within each sere dead form
There sleeps a living flower,
And angel-like it shall arise
In spring’s returning hour.

… In blue and yellow from its grave
Springs up the crocus fair,
And God shall raise those bright blue eyes,
Those sunny waves of hair.

– The Crocus, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811–1896

What inspiration awaits in your garden this month?

Rampaging bittercress

It has been an incredibly mild wet winter so far; ideal conditions for the spread of weeds. In my garden, the diminutive but exasperating hairy bittercress has been spreading unchecked.

Rampaging_bittercress
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) has made its presence known in my garden this winter

What does bittercress look like?

Hairy bittercress is a compact annual weed that grows in individual clumps, 3-5 cm tall. It grows out in a basal rosette with pinnate leaves (i.e. the leaves are arranged in pairs on either side of the stems). It has tiny insignificant white flowers that shoot up on stems above the rosette.

Bittercress-appearance
Bittercress grows in a basal rosette with pinnate leaves

How does it spread?

Hairy bittercress has a very short life cycle of 4-6 weeks. Given the right conditions, it will germinate at any time of year, although usually in Spring or Autumn. In this case, it has taken hold during a mild winter and is frost hardy enough to survive the few frosts we have had in the South in December and January.

After germination, it quickly produces clusters of tiny white cross-shaped flowers, and sets seed. Seed dispersal is explosive, sending the tiny seeds up to 1 metre away (or further in windy conditions), which then germinate. And so it continues. Before you know it, a few discrete clumps will have become an expansive mat across the soil surface, making it difficult to see what else is trying emerge this Spring.

Bittercress-spreads-quickly
Hairy Bittercress spreads quickly, forming expansive mats across the soil surface

How can you control it?

Pull it out when you see it, so that it doesn’t get the opportunity to set seed and take a hold. Obviously, I failed in this respect!

The good news is that hairy bittercress has shallow fibrous roots, making it very easy to remove with a hoe or hand trowel or fork. Dig gently and shallowly so that you don’t disturb the roots of other plants.

Bittercress-easy-to-remove
Hairy bittercress is easy to remove from the soil

So I’ve been removing it (15 minutes at a time) by hand trowel, and can now start to see what’s coming through in the borders.

Remove it from pots too

The seeds of hairy bittercress are very indiscriminate in their choice of landing place, so it has a nasty habit of popping up in pots too. In fact, that is often how it is introduced to gardens, in pots of plants purchased from the garden centre. If you see it, pull or lift it out quickly, before it has a chance to set seed.

Does it have any uses?

Hairy bittercress is a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) and as such is edible. Not that I’ve tried it, as all mine have been going in the garden refuse bag. Apparently it is not bitter at all, but mild and peppery.

The leaves are rich in vitamin C, calcium and magnesium, so once I’ve got on top of it in the garden, I may well give it a go on a sandwich!

February gardening tasks

You never know what weather you’re going to get in February: in 2018 we had snow blizzards and gale force winds, courtesy of the Beast from the East, while last year saw the warmest February day since records began.

Snowfall, courtesy of the Beast from the East, in February 2018

I don’t know what February 2020 has in store for us, but one thing is for sure, if the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged there is plenty to do in the garden.

As we are currently experiencing double-digit temperatures, there’s no excuse to stay cocooned inside with the central heating cranked up. So shrug off those January blues and get a jump start on the tasks that will prepare your garden for Spring.

February Checklist

To help you focus on the key tasks this month, I’ve produced a checklist of February’s gardening jobs, most of which can be tackled 15 minutes at a time. Don’t be daunted by the length of the list. If you get out there for 15 minutes every day this month, you’ll be amazed how many of the jobs you’ll be able to tick off.

February-#15greenmins-checklist
February #15greenmins checklist: you can do anything for 15 minutes, even gardening!

Fuller details of February’s gardening tasks can be found here. Or why not produce your own checklist that suits your garden?

Tweet me

Join me on Twitter this month to let me know how you get on: #15greenmins at a time!