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!

Plug plants

Plug plants are a terrific way of adding variety to your garden without the hassle of raising everything from seed or spending a fortune on full-grown plants.

This year I made the most of a couple of early offers from online plant retailers (in one case, 72 perennial plants for the cost of postage and packing only!), and have been ferociously potting ever since.

Plug plants by post

Small plug plants usually turn up looking something like this:

42 perennial plug plants by post

42 perennial plug plants: Lobelia, Lavender, Coreopsis, Echinacea, Delphinium and Scabious

I was pleased to discover that the plastic packaging was recyclable, and I am reusing the plastic plugs to grow leeks for the veggie plot, thus salving my conscience about all that plastic. It would be great if the growers could find a way to use tiny coir plugs instead though (just saying …)

Make sure you buy from a reputable supplier so that the plants turn up in good condition. They should have a strong root system and at least one or two viable leaves (they are bound to get a bit bashed about in the post).

Well-rooted plug plants

Healthy, well-rooted plug plants

Buy one, get two free

Unpack the plants as soon as they arrive to give them light, and keep the roots moist until you are ready to pot them on (as soon as you can). For plants with incredibly tiny seeds (such as Coreopsis) you often find there is more than one seedling growing in the plug, as the growers dump several seeds into each small pocket of compost.

Bonus buy: 3 in 1 plug. I have teased out as many as 5 individual plants out of these tiny plugs

Bonus buy: 3 in 1. I have teased out up to 5 individual plants from one of these tiny plugs

If you have freakishly small nimble fingers (like me) then you can tease the plugs apart and make even more plants!

Teased out plug plants

Tease out individual plants from each plug, ensuring a good root system on each, to make even more plants

Potting on

Transplant the seedlings into small pots of peat-free multipurpose compost, and within a couple of weeks you will have a small but healthy plant to pot on again.

Pot seedlings into small pots. Place them in good light and keep moist.

Pot seedlings into small pots. Place them in good light and keep them moist.

Gradually work your way up to bigger pots.

Potting on plug plants

Pot on again to a slightly bigger pot

Hardening off

It is best to keep seedlings and small plug plants indoors or in a greenhouse until they are robust enough to harden them off in a cold frame. Remember to take anti-slug and -snail measures once you get them outside!

Before you know it you will have a fabulous collection of young plants ready plug the gaps in your borders, or to fill pots and hanging baskets with summer colour.

From plug plants to perennial collection

From plug plants to perennial collection

Plant of the month – rosemary

With a few days of sunshine (a total of three, I think), generally warmer temperatures (until today) and plenty of rain, this month the garden has at long last burst into life. It’s the end of April and we are finally off and running.

April blooms

Bursting into life … finally!

But which plant has spread the most joy this month? It was a difficult decision.

Cheerful combo

In third place, I have to mention this wonderful Doronicum and Myosotis combo (Leopard’s Bane and Forget-me-not). Each in isolation is far from imposing, but together they cheered up a small corner of my patio and put a smile on my face each time I looked their way.

The cheerful golden daisy-like flowers of Doronicum amid a froth of Forget-me-Nots

The cheerful golden daisy-like flowers of Doronicum amid a froth of Forget-me-Nots

Venetian elegance

Runner-up was this stunning ‘Venetian tulip collection’ from Sarah Raven, which I crammed into pots in early January. With the colours of a sunset, Tulip ‘Prinses Irene’ is superbly complemented by the glossy rich elegance of Tulips ‘National Velvet’ and ‘Havran’. Thank you Sarah – they have brought me much joy on many a grey drizzly April day.

Venetian tulip collection - a very classy combination of colours

Venetian tulip collection – a very classy combination of colours

But the winner is …

… Rosmarinus officinalis, or Rosemary to me and you. Although this woody evergreen perennial herb is better known for its culinary exploits than its prowess in the garden, this year my rosemary is smothered in delightful violet-blue flowers. (Tip: to get your rosemary to flower make sure it is situated in a sunny spot).

Rosemary – deep green needle-covered branches smothered in delicate violet-blue flowers

Rosemary – deep green needle-covered branches smothered in delicate violet-blue flowers

It has taken a few years for it to flower so magnificently, but it has been worth the wait. Not only does it look fantastic, but it is also a magnet for bees. They can’t get enough of it! It is literally buzzing with frenzied bee activity, and for this reason alone it is my plant of the month.

Rosemary grows both upright and trails. Mine is currently sprawling over a path and will need a reshaping prune when it finishes flowering, but until then I am going to enjoy every minute of it.

Rosemary - plant of the month April 2018

Rosemary – my plant of the month April 2018

15 minutes and counting

It was grey, dull and chilly, and I was having one of those days when I didn’t feel like 5 minutes of green, let alone 15. But as I still hadn’t finished all the jobs on my March checklist, let alone started on April’s, I had to find a way to get myself motivated and out there. So I set myself a 15-minute challenge.

Chop raspberry canes to the ground early Spring

Tackling the garden 15 minutes at a time

Could I chop my raspberry canes down to the ground in 15 minutes?

Chopped raspberry canes

Use sharp secateurs to cut autumn-fruit raspberries down to ground level

It turns out I could. In fact, I’d finished chopping in 7 minutes, and had time to spare to weed.

Raspberry canes chopped and weeded in 15 minutes

Chopped and weeded in 15 minutes

Leaving me feeling just a little bit pleased with myself.

#15greenmins of chopping and weeding

#15greenmins of chopping and weeding

With a few natural raspberry cane stakes for use elsewhere in the garden, just for good measure.

Old raspberry canes make great natural stakes in the borders

Old raspberry canes make great natural stakes in the borders

Job done!

Pansy makeover

Remember those winter-flowering pansies and violas you planted back in the autumn? They are probably looking a bit ragged right now. Mine certainly were. But give them a bit of TLC, and these hardy little plants are sure to reward you with a pretty flush of Spring blooms.

Winter-flowering violas are a splash of colour in Spring too

Winter-flowering violas provide a splash of colour in Spring too

I’ve just been giving mine a bit of a makeover. It’s the least I can do, after the exceptionally long spell of frost and snow they’ve just battled through.

My pansies were looking pretty ragged after the harsh winter we've just had

My pansies were looking pretty ragged after the harsh winter we’ve just had

To give your pansies a Spring makeover:

Cut off faded or curled-up blooms at the bottom of the flower stem, just above the first set of leaves

Cut off faded or curled-up blooms at the bottom of the flower stem, just above the first set of leaves

Cut off pansy seed heads

Remove any seed heads that are forming or have formed, cutting them off at the base of the stem

Feed your pansies in Spring

Feed your pansies with a sprinkling of Growmore fertiliser … and watch them flourish

Eventually, the heat of summer (we can but dream!) will stop them blooming, but until then, keep deadheading, watering and feeding your pansies and you won’t be disappointed.