How to choose the right Mahonia

Mahonias are fantastic evergreen plants, with clusters or spikes (racemes) of scented yellow flowers that are rich in nectar and a magnet for foraging bees in winter. The different species of Mahonia come in a range of sizes to suit any garden type, and flower at different times from late autumn to early spring.

Mahonia in bud: a rich supply of nectar through the winter months
Mahonia in flower: a rich supply of nectar in December in my garden

Mahonia or Berberis?

Mahonias are members of the Barberry family (Berberidacae). However, botanists haven’t completely agreed on the nomenclature. Don’t be confused (as I was) if you see the same plant with two different names: Berberis and Mahonia. Mahonia aquifolium is also sometimes known by its common name of Oregon grape (Oregon adopted it as its official state flower in 1899) .

Best features of Mahonia

Mahonias tend to be planted for their bold architectural foliage. Most Mahonias are large shrubs with rows of glossy, deep green, spine-toothed leaves. However, there is a variety called Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ that has spine-free foliage if you are looking for something softer.

The biggest delight is the characteristic clusters of scented yellow flowers. These are followed by pretty purply-blue berries.

Mahonias tolerate all types of well-drained soil, and will thrive in sun or shade. This makes them a good choice for ‘problem’ areas of the garden. Most are fully hardy, down to –15oC.

Mahonia berries

Key factors when choosing a Mahonia

To find the right Mahonia for your garden it is worth considering both size and flowering time. Although there are about 70 species of Mahonia, a few key varieties tend to be sold by garden centres or online retailers in the UK.

Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, ‘Charity’ and ‘Lionel Fortescue’ can grow to 2.5–4 metres in height, although they can taken 10–20 years to reach their ultimate size. Being large upright shrubs, these varieties are ideal as a focal point at the back of a border. Sometimes they are used as hedging. They tend to flower between late November and early January.

Mahonia japonica is smaller than the ‘Media’ varieties, but is another erect shrub that can grow to 1.5–2 metres in height. It also flowers between the end of November and March.

Mahonia japonica in a border of mixed shrubs at the bottom of my garden

Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’ is a more compact variety that grows in a low spreading dome. It reaches about 1 metre in height and spreads to about 1.5 metres.

Mahonia aquifolium 'Apollo' shrub
Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’

I pass this one on my daily dog walk. It has been bursting with compact clusters of intensely scented flowers all through February. It is thriving in a sheltered walkway next to a fence where it gets both sun and shade.

Highly scented flowers of Mahonia aquifolium 'Apollo'
Intensely scented flowers of Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’

Mahonia repens has a low, creeping habit, with a height of 30–50cm and spread of 1 metre. It is ideal for shady ground cover, at the front of a border, or to cover a bank. This variety flowers in mid to late Spring (April/May).

Planting Mahonia

March is a good time to plant Mahonias. Make sure you choose a spot where your variety of choice has enough room to grow. I initially planted my Mahonia japonica too close to a conifer hedge and had to move it (see Mahonia on the Move). Dig a hole that is twice the size of the root ball. Plant the Mahonia with some well-rotted compost and firm it in well before giving it a good soak.

Mahonia care

Mahonias are low maintenance plants. They have low nutrient requirements, but like most shrubs will appreciate a mulch in early spring and/or autumn. This will also help to suppress weeds around the base. They can tolerate relatively dry conditions, so they only need watering in times of drought.

Pruning. Thankfully, pruning can be kept to a minimum, not least because the holly-like leaves can make it an uncomfortable process. In fact, you don’t need to prune a Mahonia at all unless your shrub loses its shape or gets too leggy.

If you do need to prune, make sure you are wearing a sturdy pair of gardening gloves. After flowering, remove any dead or diseased branches, or any branches that are growing out at an awkward angle or crossing with other branches.

If your Mahonia has become bare at the base, you can give it a hard prune by cutting a third of the branches down to about 15 cm (6 inches) from ground level. It will look a bit sorry for itself for a while, but this will help to generate fresh growth from the base.

To make plants bushier, cut back branches by 30–50%, which will stimulate the production of side shoots.

Avoiding disease. In general, Mahonias remain pest and disease free. Powdery mildew and rust are potential problems though. To help avoid these, make sure you water at the base of the plant and not on the leaves, regularly remove dead leaves and material from around the plant, and prune out a few central branches to let air circulate through the plant. Remove any affected leaves as soon as the problem appears so that it does not spread to the rest of the plant.

Go get a Mahonia

In summary, a Mahonia will add winter colour and nectar to your garden, will grow pretty much anywhere, and will be relatively low maintenance. So, if you have the room, I highly recommend you go out and get a Mahonia.

Love letter to my garden

Happy Valentine’s Day, Dear Garden,

I woke up this morning feeling a little down. It was raining (again) and the world outside seemed very grey, both in colour and spirit. I came downstairs to make a cup of tea and gazed through the rain-splattered windows.

More rain…

And there you were, as always, waiting for me. No judgement, no agenda. Always changing, yet ever familiar. Ready to put a smile on my face.

Even on this murkiest of murky days, I see borders dotted with vibrant green shoots, a willow tree smothered in fluffy silver catkins…

Raindrop-bejewelled willow catkins

…clumps of pure white snowdrop brilliance, and the gently nodding pastel heads of self-seeded Hellebores.

Christmas roses trump red roses today

I’m sorry I’ve neglected you these past few months. You’ve been too frozen or too soggy for me to apply any meaningful care, and now you eagerly await the removal of winter’s debris and carpets of perennial weeds.

Soon, my love. Very soon. I promise!

You have put up with so much: the pruning that I get wrong, the staking that I forget to do, and of course the impulse buys that move around your borders until they find the perfect home.

You have given so much: an ever-changing tapestry of colour and form…

A constantly changing tableau

…a home to countless creatures (with new surprise residents every year)…

Female sparrowhawk
Female sparrowhawk

…the delight of tasty home-grown produce (even at the end of winter, you have leeks and beetroots to offer for the pot)…

Bedraggled but tasty leeks and beetroot

…sweet exotic scents on warm summer evenings, and the sparkling artistry of frozen cobwebs and frosted seed heads in winter.

A frosty cobweb

You have taught me so much too. Not just newfound practical skills, but the importance of planning, greater appreciation of the changing seasons, and a better understanding of the life that flits above your canopies and crawls within your hidden spaces.

You have helped me with the things I find most difficult. How to focus on one thing at a time, to let go of perfectionism and live in the moment…

The garden will never be perfect – but that’s OK!

…and to be more patient. All still a work in progress, but you are a tolerant and forgiving teacher.

So, thank you, dear friend for helping me find an inner calm… for keeping me healthy…for getting me just a little bit dirty every now and then…for getting me outside in the fresh air, away from my desk…for encouraging me to be creative…for reminding me of the wonders of Creation…and for bringing me so much joy.

You are, and always will be, my happy place!

Out in my happy place, whatever the weather

With love, always xx

Persevering with snowdrops: planting in the green

A few years ago there weren’t any snowdrops in my garden. I started by planting some dry bulbs in autumn, but when they failed to emerge the following year I did my research and began to plant snowdrops ‘in the green’ in the hope that one day I would have a dazzling display, the envy of every galanthophile.

I’ve planted a few clumps every year for about 5 years now and, to be honest, it’s still a battle to get them to grow. They certainly haven’t spread into the carpets of snowdrops that I long for.

Carpet of snowdrops in churchyard
The vision: a carpet of snowdrops (but without the headstones)

Although the individual clumps have got bigger.

A decent-sized clump of snowdrops
A decent-sized clump of snowdrops

Drying out

I expect this is because the foundation of my soil is clay. Despite all the organic material I add, it has a tendency to dry out in dry summers – and we’ve certainly had a few dry summers! Unlike daffodils and tulips, snowdrop bulbs do not have a water-retaining skin, so they dry out very quickly. And a dry snowdrop bulb is a dead snowdrop bulb. So, thinking about, I should just be grateful I’ve got any snowdrops after last summer’s soaring temperatures.

But I keep persevering, as nothing else in the garden puts a smile on my face in January and February quite like a bunch of snowdrops does. And I have a few decent clumps dotted around the garden now.

I'll keep planting snowdrops in the green, because every clump that surfaces the following year is so worth it
I’ll keep planting snowdrops in the green, because every clump that surfaces the following year is so worth it

Curbside snowdrops

This week, I handed over another tenner at my local garden centre for 3 more bunches of snowdrops in the green.

You can buy snowdrops in the green from garden centres, or order them online
You can buy snowdrops in the green from garden centres, or order them online

I split each clump down into three smaller clumps…

Planting snowdrops in the green

And dotted them under the hedge along the curbside in the front garden.

Plant snowdrops in the green and water well
Plant snowdrops in the green and water well

They’ve got quite a few buds on them, so I might even get a few flowers this year.

So, I will keep persevering with snowdrops. How can I resist?!

Clump of snowdrops
Guaranteed to put a smile on my face

Are you having success with snowdrops? If so, I’d welcome any tips!

Can you plant spring bulbs in January?

The quick answer is yes (well, daffodils and tulips, at least). I always plant spring bulbs in my patio pots later than recommended, mostly because I can’t plant them until I’ve lifted my dahlias out. Last year, the dahlias were still flowering in early November, which pushed my timings even later than usual.

So here I am in the middle of January, with bags of bulbs in the shed still. In general, spring bulbs are incredibly resilient, but they need at least 6 weeks of wintry weather to put their roots down before flowering. Planting them now means that they should still grow but they will flower later than usual.

This is definitely the case for tulips and daffodils. I have planted them in January before and still got a decent display in mid to late spring. A few of the daffodils may come up ‘blind’ though (foliage but no flowers). Also, the daffodils and tulips may well bloom at the same time.

Spring bulbs starting to emerge
Daffodils and tulips may emerge at the same time…
Daffodils flowering at the same time as tulips
…and flower at the same time

The jury is out on irises. It may well be too late to plant them, as they often start flowering in February, but seeing as I’ve got them I might as well plant them and see what happens. They’re certainly not going to flower in the shed.

Iris reticulata
Iris reticulata: a gorgeously uplifting flower in February

Check your bulbs

Before planting, make sure your bulbs are firm. Discard any that have gone soft or mouldy. If there’s just a bit of mould on the outside, and it hasn’t affected the firmness of the bulb, scrub it off with a hard-bristled brush. If the bulbs have started to sprout, be careful not to damage the growing tips when you plant them.

Layering bulbs in pots

By layering spring bulbs in pots – see Bulb lasagne – you can get a display that lasts for several months. First, I work out which bulbs I am going to plant in each pot.

Selection of different spring bulbs to  layer in a pot
A selection of spring bulbs to layer in a pot

Tulips bulbs should be planted first, at about 8 inches (20 cm) deep. I use peat-free compost, with a little grit mixed in to improve the drainage. This year I’ve planted a mix of 3 varieties: Prinses Irene, Havran and Couleur Cardinal).

Tulip bulbs planted in a pot 8 inches deep
Layer 1: Tulip bulbs, planted about 8 inches (20 cm) deep

Cover the tulip bulbs with a 2-inch (5 cm) layer of compost, and then plant a layer of daffodil bulbs about 6 inches (15 cm) deep. I’ve got a mix of narcissi bulbs that I lifted and stored last year, but I lost the labels so it will be interesting to see what comes up.

Mixed daffodil bulbs planted in a pot about 6 inches deep
Layer 2: Mixed daffodil bulbs, planted about 6 inches (15 cm) deep

Cover the daffodil bulbs with another 2-inch (5 cm) layer of compost, and then plant iris reticulata 4 inches (10 cm) deep.

Bulb lasagne, layer 3, dwarf irises
Layer 3: dwarf irises, planted near the top of the pot

Finish off with a final layer of compost.

Late planting works for tulips

December/January is a particularly good time to plant tulip bulbs. If you plant them too early and they sit in warm, wet conditions they are susceptible to fungal diseases, particularly something called ‘tulip fire’. The leaves become withered and distorted and are covered in brown spots. In the past few years, I have never planted tulips before December and it seems to work well.

Pick up a bargain and get planting

By planting slightly later than the ‘the norm’, you may even be able to pick up a bargain load of bulbs, as online retailers and garden centres will be looking to clear their stocks. So, as soon as the ground defrosts (!), get those bulbs in. Don’t forget to share your results.

It's worth planting those spring bulbs, even in January: bloomin' lovely
It’s worth planting bulbs, even in January, for lovely displays of spring colour

How to chase the January gardening blues away

It’s raining – again! I know I shouldn’t complain, especially after the hot dry summer we had last year, but there are jobs in the garden that are starting to get a bit desperate (I’ve still got spring bulbs to plant!) and I can’t get near them without creating a big muddy mess.

Rainy day in January
Stuck inside on another wet and windy day

So, what can we do on the days when the weather completely stops us from stepping outside? For me, it’s all about the dreaming and planning – places to go, people to see, and how I would like this year’s garden to look.

‘Wish list’ plants

If you’re a plantaholic like me, you’ve probably got a long list of botanical beauties you would like to introduce to your garden. My wish list has a tendency to grow a little longer each time a plant catalogue drops through the door and after every episode of Gardener’s World! But I’ve also got to be realistic – there’s only so much room out there, so if I’m going to buy something new I need to know where I’m going to put it.

Packed garden borders
There’s always room for one more plant, right? Erm, maybe.

Top of my wish list for a while now has been a crab apple tree. They are often cited as ideal compact trees for small gardens, providing year-round interest with their colourful blossom, fruits and foliage. Nevertheless, I haven’t had the space…until now. At the end of last year we removed a large conifer hedge from one side of the garden, which may have opened up a potential spot.

It means I can now start researching crab apples again. There’s a terrific review on Gardens Illustrated of the best crab apple trees for colour and form by plant expert Graham Rice. I’ll let you know if I manage to squeeze one in!

Sowing and growing

Wet and windy days provide a great opportunity for sorting through those seed packets and working out what you’re going to grow this year. Make a plan of what you would like to grow from seed, what month you need to sow it, and where you are going to grow it. There’s oodles of advice online to help with this.

Organized seed packets
Check what seeds you’ve already got before buying more

I always tend to get sidetracked with my herbaceous borders, but I’m hoping to try to focus more on the vegetable plot this year and widen my veg-growing horizons beyond tomatoes, courgettes and potatoes. Watch this space!

Places to visit

Some of the best inspiration comes from visiting other gardens. Last year, I visited two gardens in West Sussex: Nymans and the Sussex Prairie Garden. It was a fabulous day out, and the awesome summer borders in both gardens gave me lots of ideas for planting combinations.

So, while I’m stuck indoors I’m making a list of gardens close to home to nurture my botanical soul in 2023. I’ve already found a few gems that I wasn’t previously aware of. Check out the Great British Gardens website for some inspiration near you!

Adapting plans from lessons learned

It’s all very well making plans for the rest of the year, but it’s also good to reflect on what did and didn’t work last year. Given the incredibly dry summer we had, I am seriously considering not planting hanging baskets this year. They needed constant watering, which was unfair on my kind neighbour when I was away.

I am also considering swapping growbags for larger pots to grow my tomatoes in this year. Growbags have worked wonderfully up to now, but they often needed watering twice a day through July and August last summer, and if hot summers become a trend then that’s not sustainable.

Keep dreaming

Whatever you are dreaming of, or planning for, this year, enjoy the process. I’ve just noticed the rain has stopped…so I’m heading out into the garden to see what I can tick off my January checklist.

A poinsettia is not just for Christmas

There’s a good chance you’ve bought a poinsettia for Christmas, either for yourself as a must-have addition to your Yuletide decorating, or for a friend or family member as a gift to brighten their day. Florists, garden centres and supermarkets are full of them in the run up to Christmas, and most of us can’t resist buying one.

Poinsettias are the perfect addition to Christmas decorations
Poinsettias are the perfect addition to Christmas decorations

Unfortunately, they have a bit of a reputation of being hard to care for – I have a friend who is delighted if hers lasts a week!

But follow 3 simple rules and your poinsettia should thrive through Christmas, and beyond.

  1. Keep it warm and out of draughts
  2. Give it bright light (but not direct sunlight)
  3. Keep the soil moist, but don’t overwater it!

What is a poinsettia?

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a member of the spurge family. It is native to Mexico and parts of central America, where it grows as a perennial shrub, reaching heights of 10–12 feet. Cuttings from the native plant were sent to the USA in 1828 by the first US Ambassador to Mexico, physician and botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett, and they have been widely cultivated across the globe ever since.

Poinsettias grown as shrubs or trees in their native Mexico
Poinsettias grow as shrubs or trees in Mexico

Poinsettias have small yellow flowers at the centre of showy coloured bracts (leaves). There are now over 100 cultivated varieties with various coloured bracts, including white, pink and marbled, but the red poinsettia remains the most popular choice in the UK at Christmas.

Poinsettia care: 3 top tips

Keep it warm and out of draughts. Poinsettias like a constant warm temperature of 15–22oC. Many shops put the plants near their doorways to tempt you to buy them on the way in or out, but this is the worst possible place for them in the UK, because fluctuations in temperature below 12oC (i.e. every time the door opens) will stress the plant; as a result, it will start to drop its leaves. This may well be the reason why so many plants struggle once you have brought them home, as they’ve already been stressed in the shop.

At home, you can put your plant near a radiator but make sure you keep it away from draughty areas like doorways, open windows and fireplaces.

Poinsettias also prefer humid conditions, so if you are keeping your plant in a very warm place, it is a good idea to mist it with water from time to time.

Give it bright but indirect light. Poinsettias prefer light to shady conditions, but direct sunlight can scorch the leaves. This shouldn’t be a problem in winter, but don’t put the plant on a south-facing windowsill in summer.

Where to place a poinsettia
This poinsettia did well in a south-facing position in my conservatory, but had to be moved later in the year away from direct sunlight

Keep the soil moist but not overwatered. Poinsettias do not like a lot of water. Try not to let the root ball dry out completely, but it is even worse to leave the plant sitting in water. If you do, the roots will rot and you’ll end up with a dead plant.

A wilting poinsettia is a sign of a draughty location or too much or too little water
A wilting poinsettia is a sign of a draughty location or too much or too little water

If you’re not sure how much water to give your plant, I’d lean towards it being too dry. It seems to work for me. I wait until the top layer of soil has dried out before giving it a small amount of water, making sure that there is no excess water at the bottom of the pot.

Check the leaves regularly – if they are starting to curl or wilt, or they are dropping off, then you will need to adjust your watering regimen.

I’ve read that poinsettias prefer ‘soft’, warm water, but mine gets water out of the tap (which is both hard and cold), and it hasn’t seemed to do it any harm.

Poinsettia care after Christmas

Sadly, once poinsettias start to lose their colour towards the end of January, most are resigned to the rubbish or compost bin.

They don’t have to be thrown away though. They make a lovely house plant for the rest of the year and, with a bit of special attention, can be coaxed into turning red again in time for next Christmas.

My poinsettia from Christmas 2021
My poinsettia from Christmas 2021

Here are a few tips to help your poinsettia thrive.

  • Continue providing it with appropriate warmth, light and water (as above).
  • In spring (April), reshape the plant by cutting the stems back to 4–6 inches; be careful to avoid the milky sap that will ooze from the cut stems, as it can cause skin irritation.
  • When new growth starts to appear, feed the plant monthly with a high potassium fertiliser, such as tomato feed.
  • As the plant grows, repot it into a bigger pot using a decent compost that provides good drainage; adding grit to the compost can help with drainage.

How to turn the leaves red in time for next Christmas

The bracts turn red by a process called photoperiodism, which means that they need a short day length (less than 12 hours of light) for about 8–10 weeks. The easiest way to reduce your plant’s exposure to light is to keep the poinsettia in a room that gets no artificial light from September onwards.

If that’s not possible, place your plant in the dark for about 14 hours every day (6pm to 8am), either in a warm cupboard or by blocking out the light with a cover. Make sure it gets a normal amount of light for the remaining 8 hours a day.

I gave this a go for a couple of weeks in early December, and the bracts did start to turn red. I didn’t start the process early enough this year, so I’m going to try again next year from September onwards.

How to turn your poinsettia leaves red in time for Christmas
My efforts to turn the leaves red this year started to work…I need to start the process earlier next year


So, here’s my challenge. Don’t throw out this year’s poinsettia. Give it some TLC and join me in trying to keep it going through to Christmas 2023, and have a go at turning the leaves red again. Share your results on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag above, and let’s see if we can give this year’s poinsettias a second chance of Christmas glory.

Protecting plants in winter

Although it’s bitterly cold, and forecast to get colder (–5oC or lower overnight), at least it has stopped raining and my lawn and borders are no longer squelching under foot. So, I’ve embraced the cold dry weather to get a few garden essentials done.

Getting out in the garden, even for just a few minutes at a time, has lifted my spirits immensely … although sometimes I’ve not been able to feel my fingers or toes (brrr!).

Get outside in winter
Wrap up warm and get outside. Even a few minutes in the garden can help to lift your mood.

Covering plants with fleece

My number 1 job has been to protect several half-hardy or tender plants from the looming cold snap. As a result, the garden is now dotted with ghostly misshapen humps of horticultural fleece, covering pots of African daisies (osteospermums) and blanket flowers (Galliardia).

Cover plants with horticultural fleece to protect them from frost
Cover tender plants with horticultural fleece to protect them from frost

Meanwhile, my husband has done a fabulous job of wrapping up the tree fern. The crown is the key to future fronds, so he’s made sure that’s well protected with a ball of fleece, and he’s protected the trunk with some old carpet.

A well-wrapped tree fern
A well-wrapped tree fern

You can buy horticultural or ‘garden fleece’ in sheets or rolls, or many garden centres will trim off the amount you need from large rolls of the fabric.

It tends to be very light weight (usually 17g or 30g per square metre), so make sure you secure the fleece with twine or pegs, or anchor the edges down with large stones, so that it doesn’t blow away. Alternatively you can buy fleece ‘jackets’ with drawstrings or zips, which you can secure over individual plants.

Secure fleece from blowing away
Secure fleece from blowing away

Fleece allows light and water to pass through it, so you can leave it in place for a few days, but remove it once the threat of frost has passed, as it reduces the amount of light getting to the plant and creates a microenvironment around the plant that is ideal for pests.

Eco-friendly alternatives. It is worth noting that horticultural fleece is made of polypropylene, a single-use plastic product that can’t be recycled. When it eventually starts to shred or go into holes it will, unfortunately, become plastic waste.

I’ve been reusing mine for years. I’ve even washed it. But when the time comes to replace it I will be looking for environmentally friendly alternatives – if anyone has any recommendations I’d love to hear them!

Providing permanent cover

Of course, the ultimate eco-friendly cover is glass. So, it’s ideal if you are able to move plants to a permanent greenhouse or cold frame. I don’t have much space to move plants under cover in the winter, but I’m able to store a few plants in my little pop-up greenhouse and cold frames in a sheltered alcove between the house and garage.

I’ve draped fleece over my prized abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’, which is still flowering, and moved it to a more sheltered spot under the kitchen window.

Abutilon 'Kentish Belle' has a long flowering season
Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’ has a long flowering season and is hardy to -5oC, but I’ve found it needs a bit of protection over winter

Natural frost protection

As for the rest of my perennials and shrubs, they will have to contend with whatever this winter throws at them. I try not to buy too many tender plants as I don’t have the time to dig them up and protect them every winter.

As always though, I have left as much as possible of the previous season’s growth intact to protect the plant crowns beneath. This has the added benefit of looking quite spectacular when the frost does hit.

Last season's growth provides natural frost protection
Last season’s growth provides natural frost protection

February 2022: end of month review

The weather has definitely hampered quality time in the garden this month. It has been cold, wet and blustery. The UK was hit by several major storms, with Storm Eunice wreaking particular havoc in the south of England.

So, although I’ve been itching to start tidying the borders, they have been best left alone. The winter’s debris has provided a comforting duvet of protection from regular frosts over tender new growth…

The February garden
The February garden: a tangled mess of winter structure

…and a haven for insects and other wildlife, sheltering from the inclement weather.

Protective winter structure in the borders
Protective winter structure in the borders

Pockets of colour

Most of the garden is a brown-beige tangle of dead stems and seedheads, but pockets of colour have begun to shine through.

Pockets of colour in the February garden
Splashes of colour around the garden: crocuses, snowdrops, rose hips, aconites, hellebores and pansies

At the shady end of the garden, a few delightful clumps of snowdrops and aconites were the first of the spring bulbs to emerge.

Snowdrops and aconites

With cheery crocuses soon joining the party.

Crocuses bring colour to shady areas

February jobs

Although I left the borders to their own devices, I still managed to get on with a few jobs. I tidied the shed, cut down the autumn raspberry canes and planted a few more snowdrops.

Planting snowdrops in the green
Planting snowdrops in the green

I unearthed my dahlia tubers from winter storage…

Unearthing dahlia tubers from winter storage

…and potted them up.

Pot up dahlia tubers

I harvested the last of 2021’s potatoes, which had overwintered well outside in the sacks that I grew them in.

Final harvest of last year's potatoes
Final harvest of last year’s potatoes

And started chitting new seed potatoes for this year’s crop.

The right kind of chit: short, knobbly, green sprouts
Chitting seed potatoes on a window sill

I even started a few indoor sowings.

First sowings: tomatoes, aubergines, chillis and lettuce
First indoor sowings: tomatoes, aubergines, chillis and lettuce

Improving areas

It was also gratifying to see some improvement in a couple of the garden’s problem areas.

Autumn-planted hellebores appear to be thriving in a previously problem area under an apple tree.

Hellebores thriving under an apple tree

And the strip of soil next to the curb in the front garden is looking tidier after a bit of weeding and extra planting.

Curbside progress
Curbside progress: snowdrops and primroses

Lunchtime walks

When I haven’t been in the garden, I’ve taken my 15 minutes of green further afield, enjoying some short walks around my Hampshire village and along the Basingstoke canal.

Basingstoke canal in February
Canal walk

In the churchyard, storm Eunice brought down huge clumps of mistletoe from the trees.

Mistletoe brought down from trees during storm Eunice

But early blossoms somehow remained intact.

First blossom in February

And I particularly enjoyed seeing larger swathes of snowdrops than I’ve managed to achieve (yet) in my garden.

Naturalised snowdrops

Patio pots

Back in the garden, the pots on my patio are slowly transforming, from early shoots to first blooms.

First blooms of the year in patio pots
From early to late February, the first layer of bulbs in my pots are starting to emerge

An early sign of wonderful things to come.

First iris of 2022
First iris of 2022

How to prune autumn-fruiting raspberries

Despite the appalling weather, I managed to get out in the garden this week for one of my favourite 15-minute gardening tasks – chopping my Autumn Bliss autumn-fruiting raspberries down to the ground.

It’s hard to imagine that February is the perfect time of year for many gardening tasks, but this is definitely one of them. The plants are dormant at the moment, so a hard prune back to the ground during cold weather won’t damage them. Within a few weeks though they will be ready to shoot back into action, so now is the time to give them the chop.

Simply chop!

Autumn-fruiting raspberries are ‘primocanes’, which means they produce fruit on new wood. I have six Autumn bliss raspberry plants in a small bed near the bottom of the garden. When in leaf they provide a perfect screen in front of the shed.

All you need to do at this time of year is remove last year’s old growth.

Raspberry canes ready for cutting down
Last year’s autumn raspberry canes

Cut the old canes as close to the ground as you can, making sure your secateurs are sharp for a clean cut.

Chop autumn raspberries canes to the ground
Chop autumn raspberries canes to the ground

Bonus leftovers

And the great thing is that the old raspberry canes can be put to use in the rest of the garden. I trim off the twiggy side branches and flimsier tips to make sturdy stakes that I then use to prop up my perennials.

Raspberry cane stakes
Raspberry cane stakes

And the twiggy bits can be shredded and used as a mulch, so nothing goes to waste.

Twigs for shredding
Twigs for shredding

Autumn- vs summer-fruiting raspberries

Summer-fruiting raspberries are slightly more complicated in that they are ‘floricanes’, which means they fruit on the previous year’s wood. The old canes need to be removed after they have fruited to encourage new growth, as that’s what next year’s raspberries grow on.

Autumn harvest

Unlike their summer counterparts, autumn-fruiting raspberries are pretty much self-supporting, although I find they need a bit of string around them to stop them flopping forward over the bed. They start to ripen in late summer and, from just six plants, I get a good harvest that usually lasts all the way into October.

Autumn raspberries
Harvest the raspberries from late summer to first frosts

So, if you are new to raspberry growing, I highly recommend giving autumn-fruiting raspberries a go. It couldn’t be simpler.

Seed buying: a gardener’s addiction

Have you ever been to your local garden centre with one (or two) purchases in mind and come away with a trolley full of goodies? Of course you have. You’re a gardener and you love all things gardening related, especially the joy of introducing new plants to your garden. Let’s face it, most of us are self-confessed plantaholics.

Room for one more plant
There’s always room for one more plant…somewhere!

But I honestly thought, given the time of year, I would be able to restrain myself last weekend when I popped in to my local garden centre for a few seed potatoes and some ‘top-up’ packets of veg seed.

I had been through my seeds and was delighted to find that most of them were still in date for this year. I made a list of essential replacements, which comprised 6 packets of seeds: aubergines, cucumbers, mixed lettuce leaves, cabbages, radishes and Busy Lizzies. And I fully intended to stick to the list.

Organized seed packets
My simple seed filing system: flowers in one tray, veg in the other

You would think after more than 50 years I would know myself a little better!

So many options

Presented with row after row of colourful, enticing seed packets, all restraint went out the window.

It started slowly. I bought my usual outdoor slicing variety of cucumber, but what’s that? A long variety of cucumber that can be grown outside as well? Ooh, I need to give that a go!

Two outdoor varieties of cucumber
Two outdoor varieties of cucumber

But then it started to gather momentum. Why buy one packet of mixed lettuce leaves, when there are several varieties to try?!

I already had courgette seeds and three varieties of tomato back at home, but wouldn’t it be nice to grow some yellow courgettes as well? And I’ve heard Sungold tomatoes are delicious. And, as we eat peppers and mange tout on a regular basis, why not try to grow those this year as well? Not sure where, but hey, I’ll find space somewhere!

Extra tomatoes and courgettes
Extra tomatoes and courgettes

Before I knew it, 5 packets of ‘top up’ veg seeds had become 12 exciting possibilities.

Just a few 'top up' seeds
Just a few ‘top up’ seeds

So, I needed to be more reserved with the flower seeds then. Just a packet of Busy Lizzies right? Wrong! To be fair, I did manage to resist quite a few, and put several packets back before reaching the checkout, but I finally came away with 7 packets of colourful awesomeness.

Flower seeds
How to resist?

It could be worse

My husband hung back from the till, decidedly unimpressed with the thought of ‘extra courgettes’ (sorry, my love) and not daring to view the final tally. But, hey, it’s cheaper than jewellery, right?!

So, let the sowing commence. I may need several lifetimes to sow and grow everything I’d like to, but it promises to be a fun year in the garden.

Happy sowing everyone!

February in the garden: prepare, plant and prune

February can be a frustrating month. I’m itching to clear away the winter debris but even here, in the South of England, heavy frosts and downpours (and even snow) are likely to prevent a major tidy-up for another month. My borders need their protective winter duvet of last year’s growth for just a little bit longer.

The Beast from the East in 2018 was a reminder to expect the unexpected in February

Yet, as the earliest signs of Spring begin to emerge, there are lots of things I can do to prepare my happy place for the gardening year ahead. Having been out of action for a little while, I’m excited. Here we go again!

Plan and prep

I love planning what flowers I want to surround myself with, what veg I want to eat and where it’s all going to grow.

It’s hard to imagine this…

Pretidy winter garden
February 2022

Becoming this…

June flower border 2021
June 2021

But last year it did!

The garden may not end up looking anything like the vision in my head right now, but it’s a lot of fun imagining what it could look like.

Get organized

On a more pragmatic note, it’s also worth being prepared for the frenzy of sowing and growing that is but a few weeks away. If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to check your seed packets and order in what you haven’t got, tidy your shed and wash your pots.

Organized seed packets
Check what seeds you’ve already got

You can also prepare your veg beds now by removing weeds and applying an organic mulch.

Vegetable bed mulched with garden compost
A well-mulched vegetable bed


Many plants need to be pruned in winter when they are dormant. In my garden, this applies to the few roses that I have in pots and my apple and pear trees, and this year I’m going to have a go at some (hopefully) restorative winter pruning of honeysuckles that have become very woody.

Prune apple trees in winter while they are dormant

Early sowings

February is also a good month to start sowing indoors. I’ll be getting tomatoes and aubergines started from seed this month, as well as the first of some successional sowings of lettuce, as I want to stop buying so much of it from the supermarket (it always comes wrapped in plastic!).

Indoor sowings
Last year’s indoor sowings of tomatoes, aubergines, chillis and lettuce

Bare-root planting

Winter is also the best time to plant bare-root trees and shrubs, so that they can get established before expending the energy they’ll need to produce leaves and flowers. Roses, fruit bushes and canes, hedging and dogwoods (Cornus) can all be started as bare-root plants. Last year I planted two bare-root climbing roses, which are now well established.

February checklist

It may all sound a bit daunting, but if you break it down into 15-minute tasks you’ll be surprised how much you can get done. I get a great sense of achievement from ticking things off a list, so I make a monthly checklist to help me stay on track. Take a look at my February checklist of gardening jobs, which can all be achieved 15 minutes at a time.

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

Are they burr knots or crown galls on my apple tree?

That was my big gardening question this week. I even put the question out on the garden Twittersphere, which is usually a very helpful and knowledgeable place.

I didn’t get an answer, which suggests it’s not a common problem (lucky me!).

Basically, I have some rather unsightly, tumour-like growths sprouting from the trunk of my 8-year-old Braeburn apple tree.

Burr knot or crown gall near base of apple tree?
Unsightly growths on base of apple tree, with small root-like projections

A Google search narrowed this down to one of two possibilities: burr knots or crown galls.

Burr knots

Burr knots are not caused by a disease. They are root initials growing in the wrong place. They are most common on woody plants grown on root stock, like my apple tree. There seems to be several possible causes – low light, high humidity and dry soil – and my tree ticks all those boxes.

Burr knot on apple tree

Burr knots cause several problems.

  • They weaken the affected branch or trunk, making it more prone to breaking in high winds or from the weight of apples.
  • They provide an entry point for pests and diseases, particularly woolly aphid.
  • If a lot of them join up, they can damage the living tissue of the plant (phloem) that conducts nutrients around the tree.

Crown galls

Crown galls are caused by a bacteria in the soil that gets into the tree through wounds in the bark: for example, from pruning or frost damage. The bacterial disease causes knobbly tumour-like growths, usually around the base of the plant, but elsewhere as well. They usually look like warts early in development.

Crown galls can affect the growth of the tree, and the bacteria can be spread to other plants on contaminated gardening tools. The bacteria also persists in the soil for a long time.

So … burr knots or crown galls?

I’m still not completely sure, but having scrolled through dozens of pictures and websites I’m veering towards burr knots, as they look like small root projections rather than ‘knobbles’ or ‘warts’.

Burr knots on trunk of apple tree

How to treat burr knots

So the bad news is, there’s not a lot I can do. Cutting them out risks damaging the tree even more and introducing canker.

Prevention rather than cure. I can try to prevent more from forming though. I’ve removed a couple of branches so that more light can penetrate and I will give the tree more water this summer. We’ve had two very dry summers and the tree is in a corner of the garden on a mound of clay-based soil, so I expect it has dried out too much at times.

To be honest, it has never produced many apples, so it may be on borrowed time anyway!

How to treat crown galls

Because the bacteria can spread to other plants, the tree and all its roots should be removed and destroyed, and you should wait a couple of years before planting any other susceptible plants in that soil.

So, I really hope mine are burr knots and not crown galls. To be on the safe side, I will make sure I disinfect my tools after working in that area.

If anyone can tell for sure from my pictures, please let me know!!