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!

Planting tulips in January

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m late doing everything, and getting bulbs in at the right time is no exception. While daffodils (narcissi) are generally better planted in late autumn, I know from experience that tulip bulbs will still produce a decent display if planted in January. So, if you’ve got some tulip bulbs lurking in a paper bag at the back of the shed, get them in – now!

Venetian tulip collection - a very classy combination of colours
Tulips planted in January can still produce a vibrant display in April/May.

WANTED: cold conditions

Tulip bulbs need a period of chilling to break their dormancy, so now is a pretty good time to get them in. Indeed, it is best to plant tulip bulbs when the temperature has dropped as it reduces the risk of tulip fire – a fungal disease that thrives in warm damp conditions.

Given how wet and mild November and December have been this year, now might even be the optimal time to plant your tulip bulbs, as a cold snap will help to wipe out any fungal disease lurking in the soil.

Healthy bulbs

Tulips grow best in fertile well-drained soil in full sun. Only plant bulbs that are in good condition. If they are soft or going a bit mouldy, bin them.

Good drainage

If, like me, you are planting the tulips in pots, start by covering the bottom of the pot with some broken crockery, gravel or other material to aid drainage.

pot-drainage
Add a layer of drainage material to the bottom of your pot.

Soil preparation is important. If planting in the ground, add sharp sand or grit to break up heavy soils and lots of organic matter to improve the structure. I filled my pots to about two-thirds full with a general compost mixed with vermiculite and Growmore.

soil-drainage
Add horticultural grit or vermiculite to potting compost for good drainage.

Bulb spacing

Plant your bulbs pointy end up. They can be planted quite close together in pots as long as the bulbs don’t touch each other. In the ground, you are best planting to at least twice the bulb’s width apart. The depth should be two or three times the height of the bulb.

potted-tulip-bulbs
Arrange your bulbs in your pot close together but not touching.

Finally, cover with compost to just below the rim of the pot and water. Keep pots well watered but not too wet or the bulbs will rot.

Spring display

All being well you will be rewarded with a vibrant display of colour in April or May.

Tulip-display
Plant bulbs now and be rewarded in April/May with pots of colour.

Autumn triumph

It’s been a pretty wet autumn so far. Actually, that’s an understatement, the garden is not just rehydrated, it’s sodden. Yet it is also glorious.

autumn_garden
Even on a wet, grey day my garden is resplendent with autumnal colour

Even through the rainfall and under the darkest of grey clouds the rich colours of the season are making their mark. In the borders, the deepening magenta hues of repeating Sedums are linked by sunny yellow accents of Rudbeckia and Achillea, while the flourishing lilac tips of Verbena bonariensis, swaying discretely above neighbouring perennials, look almost fluorescent in the dull light of another cloudy day.

autumn_border
Accents of autumnal colour in the perennial border

In dark shadows under trees, vibrant Pyracantha berries and the marbled leaves of Pulmonaria vie for attention …

pyracantha_pulmonaria
Pyracantha and Pulmonaria brighten up shady areas

… while patio pots of summer displays still brimming with Begonia ‘Glowing Embers’ and neon-pink Impatiens (busy lizzies) compete for the title of ‘Best in Show’.

begonia_impatiens
Begonia ‘Glowing Embers’ and neon-pink Impatiens

It may be wet and windy out there, but my garden is still giving its all. When the rain finally abates the pre-Winter rejig and tidy up will begin, but until then I’m enjoying everything my garden has to offer this autumn.

Change of bedding

I’m usually pretty good at changing the bedding on the second May bank holiday each year – I’m talking about bedding plants, of course, not my bed sheets (ew!). But I’m playing ‘catch up’ in the garden this year, and I’m pleased to report it’s not too late to get those summer bedding plants in ready for a splurge of colour in July and August.

The border next to my driveway in the front garden was in particular need of an overhaul.

Out with the old bedding plants

Out with the old bedding plants

I hate ripping out plants that still have a bit of life left in them, but the silver-foliaged Senecio cineraria, which had served me well for several seasons, was definitely past its best; likewise, the Erysium ‘Bowles Mauve’. And the rest of the border comprised the dead remains of some glorious yellow tulips and some very ragged pansies.

I dug it all out, added some fresh compost and Growmore plant food, and replanted with verbenas and geraniums (the bees will be happy!).

New summer bedding: annual verbenas and geraniums

New summer bedding: annual verbenas and geraniums

While I was at it, I tackled a couple of pots that were sporting the straggly remains of a spring display – the decaying leaves of daffodils and tulips and a few hardy pansies that were doing their best to welcome visitors to my front door.

Out with the spring display

Out with the spring display

I tied up the daffodil leaves that wouldn’t yet pull easily out of the pot – they are still drawing nutrients in to the bulb, so it’s best not to remove them until they start to yellow or pull easily from the soil. In between the regenerating bulbs I planted fuschia, busy lizzies and trailing verbena, and scattered some Growmore in the pot to keep it all well fed.

In with the summer display

In with the summer display

So if, like me, you’re a bit behind with your summer borders, don’t despair! There are still plenty of summer bedding plants on offer online and in the garden centres. So get planting this weekend – and send me a picture …

As for my new bedding, I can’t wait to see how it all looks in a few weeks’ time. Watch this space!