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.

Late fruit tree pruning

The clocks have gone forward and it’s officially Spring, but you’d never know it given the current weather, and neither does my apple or pear tree! Both are in bud but neither has produced any leaves yet, so I figured I could get away with some late ‘winter’ pruning this week.

Apple tree in winter bud

‘Winter’ apple tree – lots of buds but no leaves yet

Conventional wisdom advises pruning when the tree is dormant, between leaf fall and bud burst (late November to early March), so I’m pushing it a bit, but better to do it now than not at all.

5 simple rules for pruning fruit trees

If you’re not used to it, pruning can be a scary concept, especially when you start reading terms such as renewal pruning and spur bearers, so I’ve condensed it down to 5 easy-to-remember rules.

  1. Remove any dead, damaged or diseased branches.
  2. Remove any branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other.
  3. Remove any branches that are heading for the centre of the tree.
  4. Shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch by about a third.
  5. Remove any young lateral branches that are causing overcrowding.

Remove any crossing or rubbing branches

Remove any crossing or rubbing branches

Use a sharp pruning saw or secateurs and cut just above a bud that is facing in the required direction (ideally you want your tree to keep branching outwards to avoid congestion in the middle).

Above all, prune the tree to the size and shape that fits your garden. It’s no good having a heavy cropping apple tree if it casts a shade over everything else you want to grow. I’ve had to hack a fair bit off my pear tree this year, as it was getting top heavy and leaning over the drive. I probably won’t get as many pears, but people will be able to walk to the front door!

Follow up with a good mulch and wait for that wonderful explosion of blossom. It’s coming …. honest!!

Hidden Hellebores

March may be filled with the sunny glow of the daffodil, but it has a loyal compatriot in the tough, cold-hardy Hellebore. These harbingers of Spring thrive side-by-side in the flower borders around my pond, and together with the early-evening song of a vociferous blackbird, they mark the turning of the season.

A perfect combo – hellebores and daffodils

A perfect combo – Hellebores and daffodils

Hellebores have a demure charm, with gently nodding heads that hide their true glory. But the blooms can become hidden among the large saw-toothed leathery leaves, which turn an unsightly crispy brown as they age. 

Remove old leaves from Hellebores to reveal the blooms

Old leaves on Hellebores turn brown and crispy as they age

Remove old leaves

So remove the old leaves now, if you haven’t done so already. This will give pollinators better access to the flower heads and reduce the likelihood of Hellebore leaf spot, a fungal disease that pock marks the flowers with black spots.

Hellebore leaf spot is caused by the fungus Microsphaeropsis hellebori

Hellebore leaf spot is caused by the fungus Microsphaeropsis hellebori

If, like me, you already have this problem on some of your plants, then the only solution is to remove and destroy all the infected leaves and blooms (there is no chemical solution). If you leave infected material around the plant, it will be a source of repeat infection next year.

So give your Hellebores a tidy up early in the season (it’s an easy #15greenmins job) and enjoy their magnificence.

The glory of Hellebores revealed

The glory of Hellebores revealed

Hellebores favour a humous-rich soil in shade or part-shade with good drainage, but I’ve found they flourish in full sun as well. With hundreds to choose from, including double blooms and freckled varieties, if you don’t have a Hellebore in your garden yet, get one! I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

Hungry hedgehogs

Ironic that it was Hedgehog Awareness Week last week, because here in our small back garden in Hampshire we have been becoming increasingly hedgehog aware. It started as a bit of a mystery. Every morning we would find the cage on top of our bird ground feeder knocked askew, and the remains of the birds’ mealworms and suet devoured. A ratty visitor perhaps?

Who’s poo?

But then, more distinct telltale signs: shiny black droppings, not just one or two, but tens of poops around the lawn. Most of the literature on hedgehogs states that their stools are distinctly cylindrical, sometimes slightly tapered at one end and about 5cm in length, but I can confirm that hedgehog poop comes in all shapes and sizes, and in vast quantities.

Hedgehog poop – shiny, black, generally cylindrical ... and lots of it!

Hedgehog poop – shiny, black, generally cylindrical … and lots of it!

In the flesh

And then we finally caught the culprit in the act. Instantly recognisable – short tail, long legs, small ears, pointed furry face, small black eyes … a lot of spines … and terrible table manners! Those of you who follow this blog will know that our last sighting of a hedgehog was back in the summer of 2015 (see Huffing Hedgehogs), so you can imagine our excitement.

Hedgehog in garden

Instantly recognizable

We immediately got down to the serious business of leaving the right food out.

Feeding hedgehogs

Hedgehogs are omnivores but over 70% of their natural diet comprises beetles and other insects, worms and a tiny number of slugs and snails. You can supplement their evening dinner with:

  • Meat-flavoured tinned cat or dog food (chicken in jelly is the best – no fish flavours or meat in gravy!)
  • Specific tinned or dry hedgehog food, available from garden centres and pet shops
  • Cat biscuits (but not fish flavoured)
  • Cooked meat leftovers – chopped up finely as they have tiny teeth and cannot chew or tear big pieces
  • Chopped or crushed peanuts (the sort you put out for the birds – not salted!), dried mealworms and sunflower hearts (not whole sunflower seeds)
  • Sultanas and raisins

And if the guzzling in our back garden is anything to go by, they will appreciate it!

Do not give them:

  • Bread or milk – they can’t digest them!
  • Salty meats such as bacon or corned beef

And make sure you provide:

  • Water – they drink a lot!
  • A sloping exit out of ponds so they can get out if they fall in.

Lawn of many hedgehogs

So, for the past 4 weeks we have been putting the food direct onto the lawn after dark between 9 and 10pm, when there are fewer marauding moggies around to sneak a crafty snack. This seems to have encouraged more hedgehog visitors to the garden, and as they are not territorial they seem to be content to share the food without too much squabbling. In fact, we have now seen up to four hedgehogs together at any one time on the lawn.

 

Hedgehogs feeding

Erinaceus europaeus – three caught on camera – enjoying the buffet

Even if they are not around on the lawn, then we can usually hear them through the night, either huffing at each other in our herbaceous borders or in our neighbour’s garden. Yes, the courting rituals have started (hedgehog breeding season is April through to September) and we have our fingers crossed for hoglets later this summer.

Look after your hedgehogs

Hedgehog numbers in the UK are continuing to decline. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) 1 in 3 of all British hedgehogs have been lost since the year 2000. They are on the endangered species list, so if you find them in your garden, look after them!

For more information on hedgehogs go to The British Hedgehog Preservation SocietyThe Mammal SocietyPrickles Hedgehog Rescue or Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital.

Do you have hedgehogs in your garden? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter @15greenmins