Garden Journal 2020
Each month Paul shares insights from his own garden here. From pruning roses, to tackling slugs, Paul’s gardening advice and anecdotes are a valuable read for any novice, or expert gardener.
March always feels like the start to me, the days are warmer, sometimes short sleeved warm and the air smells like plants are growing.
In fact, by the end of the month some trees will be in leaf and many varieties of value and prunes will be in full blossom. If you are thinking of adding a smaller, shrubby, flowering cherry into your garden, or even into a container, this is the perfect season to select the one you want. There is such enormous variation of petal shape, colour and composition that selecting the blossom in person makes choosing much easier than from the internet, or a catalogue photograph.
March is the month of sowing directly outdoors, so if you grow vegetables, then lettuce, radish, spring onions, beetroot and carrots can all be sown now into finely prepared beds, or containers. I love ‘cut and come again’ lettuce as these can be sown in containers and continually harvested as needed for up to 8 weeks, also pots of lettuce look rather amusing on outdoor tables and have a great ‘salad’ bar attitude.
Companion planting with potatoes
Towards the middle of the month any early potatoes planted last month will have foliage breaking through the soil, this should be continually mounded over to give the appearance of an old ridge and furrow field. When the foliage can be earthed, or mound no further, towards the beginning of May the foliage may have to be covered to protect from late frosts. The furrows created by mounding up the young potato foliage is an ideal space to plant ‘quick’ crops, which germinate fast and can be harvested within 6 weeks. Ideal candidates include salad onion and radish, but worth trying are some of the early salad leaves such as red lettuce that do better with shelter and rocket. By the end of May the potato foliage will have grown too large and will block out any light in the furrow so be sure to act quickly to utilise this space.
Generally in the garden this is a month of getting ready; hard landscaped areas, gravel paths or terraces laid in stone and porcelain can all be given a good clean to remove the winter grime, you will be surprised at the results from this annual wash down.
On fine days wooden structures, gates, arches, sheds, and toolboxes can be sanded and repainted and given a new colour make-over. It is a good month to make larger changes as well, new wider borders can be dug in a different shape and planted so that by summer you will not notice the changes. Any replacements to balustrades, fences, walls and other hard landscaping jobs can be undertaken now with the same view in mind- do the work in March, reap the benefits in June and July.
You will notice many herbaceous perennials will have started to shoot, over winter they may have seemed dormant and unmoving to our eyes, but now you will see some have doubled in size. If you are making new spaces, or even thinking you could use a little of the same plant elsewhere March is a great month to lift the perennial in question by digging it up and simply splitting in two or three size dependant pieces with a spade to make new plants. If you have gardening neighbours, or friends this is a great way to extend your range of plants for free by holding a little plant swap!
Pruning for maximum benefit
One of the glories of spring is the Forsythia, its clear, yellow flowers truly signal spring has arrived. By the middle of the month the flowers are all but gone and to ensure a good show next spring now is the time to prune. Forsythia flowers on the growth made during the previous year, so leaving pruning too late can seriously affect the following year’s flowers. Sounds complicated but really the simple rule is to get out with the secateurs as soon after flowering as possible. Be brave and cut back all stems, which have flowered, to a good healthy pair of buds, depending on your variety and its vigorousness you will be cutting back by 30cm - 60cm. With established shrubs, now is also a good time cut one or two branches right out to within a couple of inches of the base, this will encourage basal shoots which will keep the shrub from becoming old and woody.
For inspiration, March usually sees the National Garden Scheme start up with lots of otherwise private gardens open for the public around London. The Chase, an extraordinary garden with over 1000 tulips in Clapham is one of my all-time favourites. Talking of tulips, this month these bulbs will be shining in the garden from our hard work planting over the winter and the daffodils will just be at their peak.
Many people find the faded flowers of these horrible to look at and cut the whole plant at ground level leaving a bizarre stump. If you have planted the bulbs in containers, after flowering simply lift and remove the soil allowing the bulb to die back naturally, all the energy in the leaves will then be preserved for next year. Store over summer in a cool dark place. If bulbs are in the ground cut the flowering stem so that the bulb does not put energy into seed making and allow the foliage to die naturally, again so the nutrients return to the bulb for next year. This will also help promote the growth of bulblets at the base of the bulb you planted increasing your stock for free.
Bees in the fruit garden
Honeybees, who’s plight has been well documented over the past few years, do not actively fly if the temperature is much below 16c. However, as the month marches on and temperatures increase so bees start to stir and can be seen avidly searching out nectar on warm days.
One way to support the honeybee and actively increase pollinating insect populations in the garden is to plant a fruit tree. Fruit blossom comes into its own over this month and is intoxicatingly beautiful. Apples, pear, plum, cherry and greengage can all be espalier trained and successfully grown against walls and in containers making them ideal even in the smallest space. Luckily for gardeners in urban environments you can almost guarantee a pollinating fruit tree in your vicinity so a crop of delicious fruit will follow in a few short months.
If you have already planted espalier trained fruit, then now is the time to cut out any crossing branches on cherries and peaches and to prune out upright growth on fan trained plums.
Spring is truly here; warm sunny days and a sense of summer spanning ahead. April for me is a month of change when blossoms of apples and other fruiting trees fade to be replaced by swelling fruits, ready in a few months.
Whilst it is safe to, in my garden I shall be eagerly anticipating bluebells and cyclamen with their soft blue and pink flowers like a delicate sprinkling of confetti on the ground. Although poisonous if ingested, the bluebell has a long traction in folklore; perhaps the most romantically full of springtime hope is the myth that turning a bluebell flower inside out without tearing it will win you the heart of an unrequited love.
Decorate like it's Versailles
Similarly, the cyclamen’s popularity peaked in France in the 17th century due to Louis XIV insisting on decorating the halls of Versailles with great bunches of these delicate flowers. Throughout the 18th century, the plant was often given to children and became a symbol of maternal love across most of Europe.
Even in the smallest garden space, watching this change from spring to early summer can be a real pleasure. The garden’s life cycle of blossom becoming hard fruit which grows and swells until the golden rays of autumn’s sun turns them into luscious fruits; to be eaten from the tree then extra bounty stored for the lean winter. Apples, pears and even plums can be grown in containers and trained against a wall, or support making them ideal for natural screens on balconies and roof terraces just as well as old-fashioned trees, meaning this magic of the natural world can be watched high above the city skyline.
This month also begins the cycle of harvest and resowing in the vegetable garden; lettuce and other short turnaround crops will need another sowing this month to continue your harvest through. Crops like radish will be ready to harvest this month, so be sure to check they don’t turn woody and sow another crop every two weeks until June.
Potatoes which you have chitted and planted out will be pushing through the soil so be sure to keep an eye on night-time temperatures and cover the emerging foliage with newspaper, or fleece to protect from frost damage.
If you grow strawberries in containers, or the ground, give them a little feed this month to ensure they produce a bumper crop over the coming two months, I tend to use a seaweed liquid feed as this gives good fruit, but also benefits the roots making for healthy plants.
Sow half hardy annuals
Half-hardy and hardy annuals which were sowed and potted on indoors can now be planted into containers and borders outside, this includes sweet peas, English marigolds and evening primrose. If you have an issue with slugs then use eco-friendly pellets, or alternatively the beer trap works a treat in my experience with the added benefit of my mind being clear that in the slug-o-cide they died oblivious and as my grandfather would say, ‘three sheets to the wind.’
Talking of slugs this is month they become much more active; with juicy plumb stems of prized herbaceous perennials and annuals everywhere in sight it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the slugs. Set traps in raised beds, the open ground and in any plants susceptible such as hostas in pots. Use copper collars, or wool pellets as a top dressing to impede the munch of the slug.
The power of Sempervivum's
Less pretty, but with a powerful history, little succulents are great plants for summer and can start being put outside on warm days from April, but be warned they are not winter-hardy, whereas houseleeks can be left outside, virtually without worry, all year round. Houseleeks also require nearly no care; being drought-tolerant they are ideal for travelling gardeners. Our love of houseleek Sempervivum goes back a long way. In ancient times, houseleeks were credited with the power to ward off witches, and when planted upon a home’s roof they conferred prosperity and safety to those who dwelled within.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne commanded his subjects to plant houseleeks on their roofs to prevent lightning strikes, a practice that probably stemmed from the ancient’ belief that houseleeks were earthly manifestations of Jupiter and Thor, the Roman and Norsegods of thunder. Indeed, regional labels for houseleeks still include Jupiter’s beard, Thor’s beard, and Donnersbart (thunderbeard).
April is also the month I tend to do an annual house plant check. The days are warm enough if space allows to take the plants outside, report or replace soil as needed, check for any overwintering pests, split or divide the plants and water thoroughly. Being outside for the day also means you can wash the foliage gently, but thoroughly to remove the dust of winter allowing the leaves to breathe more easily.
This is great for the plant’s health but also for you - one foliage houseplant per room, such as Sanseriva or Monstera, can improve the quality of the air you breath at home by a factor of up to 5 times. The single space we spend the most time at home is the bedroom, so if you haven’t already treated yourself and your lungs to the benefit of air purifying plants now and you will sleep better, that’s a fact you can depend on.
The early summer is upon us and traditionally this is RHS Chelsea Flower Show month. The great and good of the world of horticulture would normally be descending on the capital and the BBC would be giving the best view of the show, if all too often of the same gardens.
Having lost Chelsea last year to the pandemic, and this year’s show now in September, the once called Great Spring Show will inevitably be very different when it finally returns to its May time spot. Long time exhibitors like Hardy's Cottages Plants, Hillier Nurseries and other growers from the Floral Pavilion will not be there. It will be a time of great change for the show in its 110th year.
The magic of Chelsea will never wear off, wherever I have made gardens at flower shows across the world, there is always a reverence for the achievement of a ‘Chelsea Gold’ and the ones I have are very special to me.
Chelsea gold isn’t just the medal, it's the clever plant combinations and brilliant colour thinking that we can all learn from and use in our gardens, courtyards and even containers on terraces and balconies.
Learn from RHS Chelsea
One of the easiest Chelsea ‘take homes’ is numbers! If you are planting new shrubs in your garden it’s tempting to plant one of each variety and wait, but in reality, it will grow slowly and it will be 3 to 7 years before the shrub takes on form. Planting three of the same closer together actively promotes upward growth and they will fill out quickly, pruning out will develop a good form within 3 years.
Herbaceous perennials should be treated a little like a flower arrangement, in groups of three, five and seven for impact but remembering in a space of 2mx2m choose only seven main laities with one or two accent bulbs for spring and late summer pops of colour. Bigger bolder planting will look impressive and make the space will larger. Small ‘dot’ style planting will ultimately look bitty and not give visual wow.
Containers follow a similar rule: a big display of one plant type or two in a combination which contrasts or sits together in harmony will always look more ‘designed’ and strutted over groupings of random plant types in various mis-shaped pots. I’m sorry to say, but even the classic cottage look follows this discipline, simple aged pots and a collection of pelargoniums are a good example.
What a balm
One of my all-time favourite plants is Melissa, the classic herbal Lemon Balm. Yes, it sends its copious offspring rioting across the garden like the hoards attacking the Bastille, but I wouldn't be without it in the garden and a lot of it actually, as once you understand its many uses it becomes oddly essential.
It’s native to southern Europe, but was introduced to England very early through Monastic gardens; as such it was for a while thought to be native to the southern counties of England. Melissa is highly attractive to bees and its Latin name is derived from the Greek for bee. The common name of Lemon Balm or more traditionally, Sweet Balm comes from an abbreviation of Balsam.
One of its oldest reputed properties is as a restorative and elixir of life, which can’t be bad…if true!
Paracelsus believed it would ‘completely revivify man’, and it was often used in treatments of the disorders of the nervous system. In the London Dispensary of 1696 it says, ‘An essence of balm, given in canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness’. John Evelyn believed it to be an aid to strengthening memory and ‘chasing away melancholy’.
Llewelyn, Prince of Glamorgan, lived until he was 108 and breakfasted on sweet balm tea, as did a chap called John Hussey who reportedly lived until he was 116. Carmelite water, of which balm was the chief ingredient, was drunk by the Emperor Charles V daily. Carmelite water is made with a mixture of spirit of balm, lemon peel, angelica root, and nutmeg, which sounded good enough for me to have a go at make my own the recipe.
Gerard and Dioscorides both stated that it helps in the healing of wounds, Pliny wrote, ‘Balm, being applied, doth close up wounds without any peril or inflammation’. This is now recognised by modern science, as balsamic oils of aromatic plants are used to make surgical dressings.
So now I have extolled its virtues and you have realised yours are languishing on the compost heap, how do you get more?
Lemon balm will propagate readily from seed and cuttings in late spring through to early summer. I tend to sow the seed ripe, as I find this gives better germination rates. In our herb garden, I tend to grow the plain green leaved plant, Melissa officinalis and Melissa officinalis ‘Aurea,’ as this tends to be used in salads in my house, whilst the leaves are young, not bitter or large and hirsute. Each leaf is irregularly splashed with bright drops of golden sunshine colour. Both the variegated form and pure golden, or yellow form tend to suffer from the harsh midday sun so do offer them partial shade.
Historically Melissa was always grown near bees and not just because of their attractiveness in terms of flowers. Gerard stated that, ‘It is profitably planted where bees are kept. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and casueth others to come with them’. Pliny echoes this theory by stating, ’When they strayed away they do find their way home by it’.
Apart from drinking teas made with it and eating its leaves, Melissa gathered in a bunch, tied and hung under a hot tap makes for a wonderfully invigorating bath, which is perfect for long May days working in the garden. It’s a non-stop time of year and so your joints are going to suffer, but know that as the hot water runs over the leaves so its oils are released, giving your bath the ability to soothe, ease and relax the most knotted of back!
Raise a glass to nature
With all the action from lawn mowing, vegetable bed weeding and preparations for planting new borders it’s a heavy month; don’t forget if you have herbaceous perennials which you don’t want to grow up tall and leggy May is the traditional Chelsea chop month. No mystery involved- simply cut the foliage back by halve to reduce the height of late season flowers. But forgetting all the jobs, take time in the warmer weather to have a cup of tea, or something stronger and enjoy being outside in nature noticing the birds, insect life and gentle growth of plants around you.
After the coldest spring for the past eight years and the driest April, May certainly was a very wet month. Let’s hope that June brings some summer warmth and is its true self - the month of the strawberry! In fact, it’s true there is nothing like the taste of a sweet strawberry fresh from the plant in the afternoon sun and unlike their shop bought counterparts they need no sugar, cream or ice cream. Strawberries are such easy little plants that they grow well in the ground but also containers and on balconies. Even with just the smallest of spaces there is no reason not to have some fruit bushes.
You can easily grow thornless blackberries with roses or clematis on trellis and walls, or large containers will make good homes for red, white and blackcurrants. If you like a little formality peaches, apples, pears and plums can all be grown against a warm wall as espaliers which take up little room, but provide fresh home-grown fruit easily.
If you want to add an espalier tree to your garden space, courtyard, garden or balcony then it’s a really easy- a large container, ideally terracotta or perhaps a large galvanised ‘dolly tub’ style planter, with a good layer of drainage and soil-based compost is all you need. Espaliers can be purchased ready grown for instant effect or with time and patience you can train your own. It’s not just woody fruit trees than can be espaliered trained, gooseberries are great for making formal topiary shapes with the benefit of fruit!
Growing fruiting plants in containers long term just requires one (or two) golden rules for success: never let them dry out and feed regularly to give the plants the energy they require for fruit production.
The other glory of June is of course roses, take a walk through the leafy streets of Chelsea and you will see roses tumbling from balconies, growing up houses and filling gardens. Their fleeting glory is part of their charm not to mention their heady scent. I love the older 18th Century traditional roses with full, blousy flowers and soft, grey-green foliage but there are so many to choose from.
Newer David Austin and Andre Eve varieties do repeat flower so in a small space a variety like “Gertrude Jekyll’ or ‘Belle du Tehran’ will give flowers over a longer period. Don’t forget some early flowering shrub roses such as ‘Canary Bird’ have fantastic deeply coloured hips in the autumn giving two seasons of interest, another consideration when selecting plants for smaller city spaces.
Obsession for artichokes
Of course, the other flower, often eaten of June is the Globe artichoke. Cynara scolymus, is one of the oldest continually cultivated vegetables and was a main stay of ancient Greek & Roman tables. Prepared in an earthen glazed bowl with some plump, over-ripe tomatoes, a liberal splash of olive oil, torn basil leaves and course grinding of salt & pepper would easily transport you to a dish served continually from the days of Imperial Rome. The combination oozes not only the warmth, but the intensity of a Mediterranean summer. If you part cook and freeze it, the artichoke can be used year round.
Artichokes were introduced into England in the 16th century and were grown in monastic gardens both for decorative reasons and as a vegetable. However, history is littered with references to them, in the 4th Century BC Theophrastus stated that they were most pleasant boiled, or eaten raw.
In a description of culinary variation I particularly like from 1730, Tournefort says, “The Artichoke is well known at the table. What we call the bottom is the thalamus on which the embryos of seeds are placed. The leaves are the scales of the impalement. The choke is the florets, with a chaffy substance intermixed. The French & Germans boil the heads as we do, but modern day Italians generally eat them raw with salt, oil and pepper”.
The thistle like flowers when not being eaten do make highly attractive border additions, rich violet-blue set off against the grey-green scales stoutly reaching up to 6ft. Some gardeners use globe artichokes in exactly the same way as Cardoon’s, Scolymus cardunculus, blanching the inner leaf stalks in the early part of the year. Cardoon’s need a lot of room and are renowned for their spiny growth, however it has its followers; Pliny recommended its medical properties and Dioscorides makes reference to large scale production around Great Carthage.
Both Cynara scolymus and Scolymus cardunculus, although different genus are related, being members of the Compositae family which is the 2nd largest flowering family. Also a member of the same family and sharing the floral number/key is Jerusalem Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus.
There is an irony with Jerusalem Artichoke, it’s native to the Northern American Plains, prolific in lakes of Canada and reaching Sastatchewan, but it does not grow naturally in the lands historically known to us as Judea. Sadly for me its heritage was not some mystical story, no it is actually a corruption of an Italian word. Italians referred to Helianthus Tuberosus as the sunflower artichoke, due no doubt to the small golden flowers it produces. So in Italian, Jerusalem Artichoke is Girasola articiocco, Girasola meaning, ‘turning to the sun’.
Joseph Hooker writing in 1897 states, “In the year 1617, Mr John Goodyer of Mapledurham Hampshire, received two small roots of it from Mr. Franqueville, of London. In October of the same year, Mr Goodyer wrote an account of it for T. Johnson, who printed it in his edition of Gerard’s ‘Herball’, which appeared in 1636 where it is called Jerusalem Artichoke. Prior to that is was also called by the same name in ‘Paradisus’ published in 1629. He also gives the reader some recipes: boiled and skinned to be eaten with butter and wine, along with baking in pies. He also informs the reader that in some parts they are known as potatoes of Canada, being introduced by the French from Canada and cooked in "milk served with beef”.
I have found it is best to grow them in the same spot for three years and then relocate the best tubers, as left in the same spot they seem to grow smaller in following years. However, the trick here is to be able to clear the ground of the original bed as they grow from the smallest of tubers.
Between the strawberries, fruit bushes roses and of course artichokes, there are plenty of other really good, hardworking plants for summer months in our gardens. As restrictions ease following the pandemic it’s worth checking which National Garden Scheme gardens are open by appointment across the country. In past years, private London Squares and gardens have opened their doors raising money for Macmillan nurses. The benefit for new gardens is often the homegrown plant sales, inspirations and practical advice from other city gardeners, only too happy to encourage others to green the city! You can easily check and book online and it’s a very pleasant way to while away a lazy Saturday without travel.
July always seems to me to be the month of holidays, be they a luxurious week at home or travel, it is a month that kick starts the holiday season. We sometimes take our gardens for granted, but if you are stay-cationing there, there are a few tricks you can deploy to make your garden feel like a far-flung paradise.
The first is scent, choose plants that during hot sunny days realise glorious scents reminiscent of elsewhere. For me, nothing beats both the flowers and scent of Galega! Galega or Meadow Rue to use its common name is an easy to grow, hardy, short-lived perennial. It tolerates poor soils and helps other plants. Great news for gardens, but its flowers are the real showstopper. Clusters of mauve or white flowers release an almost identical fragrance to expensive suntan lotions and fill the garden with a sense of the Maldives!
Other great plants that feel holiday-like include Heliotrope, which in the UK is an easy to grow annual with bobble like flowers in a variety of colours from white to pink and yellow. Its foliage is richly scented and when crushed, smells like the heat-laid streets of coastal Spanish and Moroccan villages.
Combining richly scented plants with colourful cushions, outdoor garden rugs and parasols, will create a great beachside sensation and easily transport you to a relaxing break away.
If you grow herbs such as mint, lemon balm or coriander, you also have some of the core ingredients for some serious summertime aperos! Nothing beats a cool gin with fresh mint and cucumber and luckily both grow easily in containers and city gardens.
Learn to Love Fennel
One maligned ingredient, which also makes a good garden plant, is the trusty fennel. Recently, I heard someone say, ‘A garden is not complete without a geranium’ and I thought: true in late spring and early summer, but it’s fennel that creates a feathery back drop later in the year adding texture to clumps of yet to bloom late season perennials.
Fennel, be it giant, bronze, or green to name the most obvious, is one of those such genus that adds so much. Freely growing in most temperate parts of Europe and self-seeding along riverbanks, it seems to have left its more native Mediterranean and migrated, almost with the Roman conquests, to now stretch from North Wales across mainland Europe to Russia, India, and parts of what was Persia.
Foeniculum was the named used to describe this plant by the Romans, derived from the Latin word for Hay, which for those who studied Latin will come as no surprise. Foenum was then corrupted in the Middle Ages to Fanculum, which, in turn, gives rise to the alternative name and now largely disused common name of Fenkel.
The Romans used to eat the sweet edible young shoots and aromatic seeds. So popular was it, that Pliny attributed 22 medical remedies to it. He observed that, “Serpents eat it after casting their old skins and that they sharpened their sight by rubbing against the plant afore resting in the grass”. Now, luckily in England, we don’t see many serpents, and most ‘snakes in the grass’ are in fact two-legged. In fact, I say this just to illustrate the origin of the phrase.
Throughout medieval England, and Europe, on midsummer’s eve you would have seen fennel hung together with St John’s Wort to ward off evil spirits and witchcraft. Also, it would have been used regularly on its own. Often it was served with fish, in this instance salt fish, during Lent.
Although references are made in early Anglo-Saxon cookery and medical recipes prior to the Norman conquest, fennel was not widely cultivated until Charlemagne ordered it be grown on imperial farms, stimulating the growth of popular crops.
In 1650, one of the most amusing descriptions of its uses was written, and imagine what a reaction such a statement might cause in today’s world, “Both the seeds, leaves and root of our Garden Fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those who are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank”, it’s from William Coles Nature’s Paradise, but it was also mentioned by the great herbalist Gerard in 1597. However, much earlier the ancient Greeks knew fennel as Marathon from the Greek maraino meaning to grow thin. In Edward I’s reign, the poor used to eat fennel seeds to satisfy hunger cravings on fasting days and to make unpalatable foods taste better, along with, I presume, suppressing hunger to ensure a small portion.
Along with its now well-known hunger suppressing capabilities, it is also thought to convey longevity and to give strength and courage.
One of the most well-known uses of fennel is as an accompaniment to fish. In 1640 Parkinson writes, ‘being sweete and somewhat hot helpeth to digest the crude qualitie of fish and other viscous meats. We use it to lay upon fish or to boyle it therewith’. It's this culinary use with salmon or mackerel, in much the same way as parsley, which saw patches of fennel in country house kitchen gardens.
Fennel also has calmative qualities, fennel tea can be made from a teaspoon of bruised seeds and used chiefly for those suffering from over excitement. I generally use small young shoots in salads or in soups. In Italy the stalks, blanched, are eaten with olive oil and pepper.
In the garden, it grows to make a billowing cloud of feathery foliage, a great foil in the middle or back of the border. When the flowers are open, they are a deep sulphury yellow, you can smell its presence in the air. I always associate the smell of fennel with high summer. It works really well to reduce the ‘weightiness’ of some plants. The light, almost dancing, foliage seems to lift other plants in its company. If you are a minimalist fan, I have seen a rather forward-thinking piece of urban planting recently where purple fennel was planted by the 1000’s against a backdrop of bleached timber walling. The foliage seemed to resemble a bubbling moving piece of art as it stretched its way along the lengthy facade.
In fact, the gardening in July can be a heaven of escapism. Create a cosy corner to curl up and read a book, or while the weather is good, bring out blankets and comfy chairs to create an outdoor cinema experience. On warm evenings it is a great way to really feel the benefit of your outdoor space and with micro projectors linked directly to a smart phone, you even create an outdoor cinema on balcony with amazing views of the city to boot!
Being slightly more practical keep an eye on watering. If you have an irrigation system installed, just check the nozzles are all working, and nothing is blocked. If you know you are going to be away from home for a period of time, ask a friend or neighbour to check the watering for you, or consider installing a smart tap which can be pre-programmed to water for a set period each day or activated from your smart phone.
Watering and containers really go hand-in-hand, so be prepared. Even a plastic bottled upturned and filled with water will work to slowly realise water direct to the plants roots on hot days, which can make all the difference, especially to outdoor grown aubergines, tomatoes and other thirst container grown plants or crops.
My top tip for watering with the hose, or Waterman, is to do it either first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. The plants will get more of the water as the midday heat will not have dried the soil. Also never water the foliage, it's a waste, always roots, roots and roots.
Wherever you are in July, enjoy a month of gentle gardening escapism
Traditionally the month of colour explosion with late season perennials really coming into their own and fruit trees bending under the weight of ripening fruit, August can be a highly bucolic month.
If you have grown plants like Dahlias, Zinnias and Cosmos, keep picking off faded flowers to encourage new flowers. These late annuals and perennials will continue to flower right into the frosts at the end of September if you keep deadheading and give a little feed boost now.
Safely visit for inspiration
If you fancy a trip out to really experience the full glory of the month, then a visit to Kew, or the Chelsea Physic garden, will be a highly rewarding and immersive nature experience. You’ll find lots of beautiful late season plants, so if you are concerned you are missing late season “wow” in your garden or containers, this is a great way to find inspiration.
If you can travel a little further afield, then the Festival of Gardens at Chaumont sur Loire in France has been running since 1992. Its mission is to be a testing ground of new landscape planting designs and creative thinking. The festival selects a series of designers from around the world who then create a garden which lasts all summer. This allows the space to change and grow. Alongside the garden festival, the Chateau has a series of art installations around the park, some of which have been made by extremely famous artists. The Chateau itself was once home to Diane de Poitiers. Catherine de Medici acquired the Domaine in 1550, but did not make any significant changes to the Château, which she gave to Diane de Poitiers in 1560. The King's former favourite was forced to leave her original loved home and went to the Chateau, which by the standards she had left was old, ugly and drafty. Diane implemented much of the work which gives it its current appearance; in particular, the completion of the parapet walkways of the tower-flanked entrance and the Saint-Nicolas tower.
Leaving the Loire regions of France and journeying south you are likely to hit the modern gastronomic centre of France, Lyon. A once highly important city for weaving, production and trading of silk, Lyon is a UNESCO world heritage city and has a botanic garden dating from 1796. The Jardin botanique du Parc de la Tête d’Or stretches over 8 hectares and is the largest municipal botanic garden in France with over 15,000 plants in its living collections. The garden is free to enter and open most weekdays, making it ideal for weekend inspiration.
In our gardens, August can sometimes feel a little like the day after the party, as months of lax growth can begin spill over from continuers and borders. Whilst a slightly warm feel is charming, it’s also good to have a little late season cut. Hedges can be cut now so that the little flush of growth next month is not lost in a severe late season cut. You will be surprised how this, along with edging and bowling any lawn you may have, really makes a visual impact on a garden.
A tidying chop
It's also a good time to cut back early perennials with finished flowering stems which are not going to turn into interesting seed heads for autumn. I also tend to cut back stray growth from plants which impedes access or is simply outgrowing its place. If you have climbing roses, this is a great time to tie them back and stop an avalanche of stems coming down in August breezes and decimating the garden beneath.
In all, August is really a month of gentle work to tidy a little and enjoy a good six weeks of colour to come. It's a great time to slowly drift around thinking of where to make new spaces, or how to rearrange containers once the autumn arrives.
If you have been growing, or are tempted to grow, some containerised crops then lettuce, radish and broad beans can be grown now to be harvested mid-September in a final hurrah to summer. You can also sow Brussels sprout, cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli, all of which enjoy a decent sized container for harvesting over winter and in time for Christmas; to me this makes the Christmas meal so special as it’s come directly from my outdoor space.
Don’t forget the story of the early bird, although it won’t be until September that you see autumn and spring bulbs in stores and garden centres; we often forget about them until too late, only to find our spring containers lacking a little lustre. You can get ahead of the crowd and get the pick of the crop by searching online and ordering your bulbs early. They will arrive direct to your door in good time, and you can take comfort that spring container planting is sorted and a colourful herald is assured. My favourites are Parrot Tulips such as silky ‘Belle Epoque’ and ‘Carnival de Nice’ along with lovely little Muscari, like the powdery blue ‘Valerie Finnis’ and miniature Narcissus.
One last amusing horticultural fact, especially useful if you have any family birthdays in August, is that this month’s birth flower is the Gladiolus. Forget Dame Edna, the origins of this flower are of integrity, calmness and infatuation, according to Victorian folklore, and is the traditional gift to give for a fortieth wedding anniversary……………presumably because the recipient has everything else!!
With over 275 species, never mind name cultivars, there is one for all of us. Gladiolus communis subsp byzantinus is perhaps the most tasteful border. Native to Africa and western Asia it has naturalised in frost free locations across the UK. With its linear leaves and bright pink flowers, it is a wonderful sight in grassland habitats.
The glorious swan song of summer, September it s month of rich harvest and golden colours.
This month showcase some of my favourite late season perennials from Heleniums with there richly coloured minor-sun flower type flowers such as intensely mahogany ‘Moerhiem Beauty’ and golden ‘Linley Beauty’ to Helianthus and Vernonia the not so often seen tall flowering Iron weed. Vernonia takes its name from the English botanist William Vernon and there are roughly 35 species however most gardeners only grow one, Vernonia crinita ‘Mammuth’ which is slow going and reached 1.7m eventually flowering from July to October and as the name suggests is very hardy.
Rudbeckia, willowy Althea, Verbena and a host of late season plants also help to keep up the good cheer by bringing burnt oranges and sparkling yellows and shell pink into the garden.
September is the first the month you can smell autumn on the breeze but there are plenty of warm sunny days still to be had.
Keep up the routine
With more sunny days to come don’t be tempted to relax not he routine maintenance, there is plenty of deadheading to be done this month to keep annuals and other flowering plants going. This is also the month to stop deadheading certain plants you actively want to let self-seed or collect the seed of to sow later in the autumn or next spring such as Sweet Peas and Pot Marigolds.
Dahlia’s really are a star performer this month, they will keep flowering until the first hard frost so dead head and pick for vases and remember to keep feeding to ensure good sized tubers for over wintering,
Pelargoniums and other tender annuals which have been put for the summer can be given a good dead head and trim to give them a fresh burst of life for the next few weeks.
In cold frames or the greenhouse you can begin to sow annuals and short lived perennials for next year, you will get much bigger, stronger plants this way and ensure lots of flower. You can also pot up next years spring bulbs now, they may not show for a while but they will start developing roots and make for stronger flowering plants in the spring.
Late summer star
Unlike the herbal Vervain, Verbena officinalis, the tall growing Verbena bonariensis is a native to tropical South America which gardeners have increasingly welcomed into the garden. Still in flower into October, these tall willowy short lived perennials can reach over 2m in height and are easily grown from seed.
So prolific in fact are they that in warmer places they have naturalised themselves. In Washington State whole fields can now be seen of them with their square toped flowers smothered in bees and butterflies. Sown this autumn they will make tall open flowering plants next year in the garden and are well worth the minimal efforts involved to add drama and flower to late season borders.
A time to plan change
If you are making large scale changes to your vegetable beds this is the month to do it, I am making wattle edges to my vegetable beds in places and enlarging others after seeing the reality of using the same for a year, the important thing to remember is that a garden always evokes and changes as your needs change. If you are are simply clearing your beds then sow green manures on any beds you are not using over winter, this reduces soil erosion and will enrich the soil for next year. I tend to sow nitrogen fixing Galega or radish and dig directly back in during February.
Beans, Peas and any other legumes can now be chopped to ground leaving their roots in the soil to be dug in, this is a valuable nitrogen fixing plant and will improve the soil for next years crop!
There are still six good weeks ahead of us if you act fast, so spring onions, radish, hardy peas, rocket and broad beans can still be sown for a late season crop and a fresh bed can be prepared for autumn shallots. Think now about garlic, varieties in advance of sowing as the rule of thumb is plant on the shortest day and harvest on the longest! This is also the right time of year to sow coriander, it will reward you with vigorous tasty leaves for spring next year.
Lastly cut to the ground herbs such as chives, sorrel and if not being left to seed lovage, this with a little feed will be sowing new fresh leaves in a couple of weeks.
Lastly September is a good month to have a plan for all those tender plants now enjoying the terrace. Succulents and Echervia will do well In cool conservatories over winter, where as pelargoniums can be cut right back and stored in an outhouse or garage. Tender fuchsia’s and more exotic plants will require a bright warm space. It’s worth spending a little time thinking about which plants to take cuttings from and which plants you will over winter for next year to maximise the space you have available and to ensure a good display next year.
With days visibly drawing in, October feels like a last hurrah before late autumn’s golden rays give way to the lean months of winter.
October is a month that is rich with colour. Asters are in full bloom - from white to pink and a myriad of lilacs.
The observant will notice the decline of the number of Asters. This big, traditional autumn herbaceous perennial has undone somewhat of a revival and now just as we love its array of colour it has seemingly vanished! You will be delighted to know its not really gone anywhere and that botanists have discovered differences, which means a name change! The most widely known group of New England, novae-angliae and New York Asters, novae-belgii are now know as Symphyotrichum, while the native to Europe group keep the name Aster. Hurrah!
It doesn't really matter to gardeners, but to fanatics of history it’s good news that Aster remains the name for the old world varieties. The Hungarian Revolution of 1918 is known as the Aster Revolution as protestors in Budapest wore the flower, briefly changing history and bringing around the First Hungarians People Republic!
Meanwhile, history aside, back to the garden. Golden Rod, Solidago and its more refined and airy counter part Solidaster give bold splashes of clear yellow now, while Rubeckia brings rich golden hues of burnt orange. In many ways this is the month that shouts colour and no autumn garden would be complete without the addition of the humble yet hard working Dahlia.
Flowers like dinner plates
Dahlias can be grown in the ground, where space allows, through mixed plantings and in large pots and containers. There is almost a unique colour for every single person, so be sure to take time to look through on-line catalogues and visit garden centres in the spring to see a good range. Dahlias require a good amount of feed through the flowering season to really get them going as some can reach well over a meter in height. The key to success, just like a set pea, is regular cutting for the flowers, perfect for taking indoors and enjoying. If you have missed out on Dahlia’s this year, really remember to add them to your container or border planning next year.
While you are enjoying the late afternoon sun of the garden, remember to take secateurs with you and gently remove faded blooms and tidy wayward growth. It’s amazing how this little task will really keep the garden feeling less autumnal as the month progresses. Grass will continue to need to be cut for the rest of the month, and the end of October is ideal for repaying any bald patches with hard wearing grass seed.
Thinking of spring
One of the real joys of October is it’s also the month to cast our minds forward. Spring will really just be around the corner and nothing brings that sensation to the fore like planting spring bulbs. Normally spring bulbs are planted during October and November. This allows them to really get their roots into the soil to put on a good amount of growth and then flower from January onwards.
The beauty of spring bulbs is they can be grown in almost any situation and in any amount of soil - making them ideal for window boxes and small terraces in containers. Tiny Scilla with its porcelain blue flowers and species crocus look amazing in a window box and being alpine plants originally relish the free drawing exposed conditions. This same applies to species narcissus which will grow well in restricted spaces.
For larger containers, consider stylish bulbs such as crown imperials with its towering coronet of gold or yellow and, if you really want to be sophisticated, the rather beautiful maroon Persian Imperial. These are all relatives. The snakes head fritillary, which if you have shade and mositure, would be a wonderful native addition.
Tulips, the bulb that ruined many a great family in the 1600s, also grows well in containers. Like Dahlia’s, Tulips come in almost every colour and form. From simple and elegant vase shaped ‘Queen of the Night’ to blousy and voluptuous like the Parrot Tulips, which have a Flemish 18th century quality.
There are also species tulips. These grow wild mainly in Turkey and will multiply in an open border. They also grow well with larger Daffodils, which don’t enjoy the restrictions of a container. Whichever you go for, spring bulb planning really seems to cut out a portion of the cold wintery months.
Squash and Pumpkin crazy
It wouldn’t be October without pumpkins and squashes. If you haven’t tried growing them yourself then have a go next year. There are a number of smaller types like ‘Potmarion’, which if feed will happily grow on a balcony in a container. If you haven’t grown any, there will be hundreds at local markets and in greengrocers to make a wealth of soups and stocks from. I say this an a gentle reminder that Pumpkins are not just for Halloween and can be turned into something delicious after all hallows eve and most likely pair much better with gnocchi than candles and doorsteps.
November is always a tricky month. Sometimes warm, but often with a sting in its tail; overnight it’s easy to forget winter is coming as it can feel more like the optimism of spring. If you have a balcony or roof garden, this gentle lull of deception can make you feel like there is plenty of time left before much needs to be done with plants, but action now will have long-term benefits. It’s best to prune back any permanent planted containers now before the winds of winter cause damage and root rock, which can kill shrubs. Make sure any climbers are properly supported and remove any tired, damaged or brown growth. It’s good for the plant and reduces its weight over winter.
Lift up to stop rot
If possible, lift containers housing more tropical or tender planting up with ‘pot feet’ to allow the water to drain faster. It’s often the combination of wet soil and cold that kills more plants in containers than the cold alone. Olives really benefit from having a soil covered with sheets of slate, or another material, which severely reduces the amount of water passing through the pot. If you don’t have slate, try using plastic covered with hessian, which is practical and will look attractive. Seasonal containers and pots should be emptied and scrubbed clean with a stiff brush and replanted with spring bulbs. The choice is endless, but for me, easy to grow bulbs include richly coloured tulips and smaller flowering narcissus. Both will stand up well to exposed sites, but if you’re really blasted by strong winds coming up the Thames, for example, then consider Scilla and alpine bulbs, which are often used in windy conditions and won’t burn or break.
In the city, where taller buildings reduce the amount of light, be sure to give everything a last autumn feed. I prefer a high potassium feed, which will encourage the roots to develop ready for next year. Cut back ferns, and other shade loving plants where foliage looks tired, but if its looking healthy my advice is to leave it. In shaded lower ground flower locations, consider planting cyclamen, wood anemones and other smaller woodland bulbs. The conditions are ideal for little spring flowers. In larger city gardens, aside the routine tidying, be sure to aerate and feed any lawns you have. Scarifying the lawn, by dragging a rake over to remove debris and old brown grass, will also help keep it in top condition. And, for most of us, if the winter isn’t mild, then this is the last mow also.
Get ahead by planning ahead
Perhaps the most important job towards next year, as told to me at Malvern Autumn Show earlier this year, is to ensure you sow your sweet peas now! Pinch out as soon as the true leaves appear and allow to slowly push up until planting out next spring!
You still have time to plant up spring bulbs in the ground and containers for colour. This year I am planting Tulip ‘Belle Epoque’ with ‘Forget Me Not’. If you want Paperwhite Narcissus for Christmas, plant up into bowls now and grow in a cool room or cold house.
Continue to cut back perennials and, as frosts takes, cut back or remove tender plants. As leaves fall across the garden, collect up for leaf mulch or composting. Don't allow them to stay on the flower beds as this can promote crown rot of your herbaceous perennials. Of course November is traditional ‘Bare Root’ season, so have a look at garden centres and independent nurseries for any treasures waiting to find a new home with you.
Get out the bio-char
Large cities and towns often have soil that is full of heavy metals. A mixture of historical air pollution and continual habitation combined with soil compaction can be a bit tough going for older shrubs and trees. So if you have noticed over the summer and autumn that some of your mature plants have suffered, now is the time to apply bio-char. This ultra-high heated form of charcoal has been proven, once dug into the soil to increase aeration, to attract beneficial fungus and improve the overall structure of the soil therefore restoring the health of mature plants. Bio-char is easily available with an internet search. Between planting new bare root whips and improving the quality of your soil, you could be tempted to try an age-old Japanese fermented tea made from Birch.
One of the best trees for winter structure is Birch, Betula sp. Be its papery white bark, or peeling red tints of B. nigra, it’s a beauty. Living from 80 to 150 years, they really make great trees for all garden sizes: from the 5ft Betula nana to monster specimens reaching 150ft. Recently I learned of a way to ferment the leaves to make a tea similar to Laphet, the pickled and fermented tea leaf delicacy from Nepal. Birch leaves are high in tannin, similar to tea, so when mixed and fermented with blackcurrant leaves, creates a beverage that has a distinct sour and salty flavour with a slightly fruity taste. Interesting as opposed to a must!
Lastly, if you have the luxury of being able to place a container by your door, entrance, or into the garden, then plant up a container with winter flowering box Sarcoccoa humilis or Skimmia ‘Kew Green’. Enjoy both a delicious scent and glorious little flowers over the next few months until spring appears.
December is an odd month, the city is normally alive with the illuminations of Christmas lights, parties can be observed from the windows of smart town houses, apartments and even offices. The streets hum with Christmas shoppers, but amid all the festive cheer there is a certain gloom, which is stubborn to shift.
I often think it’s the lack of good winter plants to greet you as you come home, or send you off with a cheery floral smile. Sitting on our homes looking at barren balconies, courtyards or gardens evokes a certain feeling of both sadness and frustration. A sense of longing for a different time, rather than enjoying the bounty that December can bring.
Welcoming you home
Aside from ‘decorating’ with foliage, there is plenty we can do to raise the kerb side cheer of our homes. Containers by doors planted with a mixture of Rosemary, Bay and Christmas Hellebores will add a heady rich scent from the foliage as you brush past and flowers for the entire month. Large spaces can also be planted with Cornus; its brilliant red, or orange stems looking like remarkable fireworks during the day. Try Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ for containers as it is the smallest and easiest to grow. Last month I also suggested a winter flowering box with either Sarcoccoa humilis or Skimmia ‘Kew Green; both offer a delicious scent and glorious little flowers over the next few months until spring appears and can also be planted in borders.
Mulching and tidying will also help lighten garden spirits, regardless of whether you are dealing with a whole city garden or balcony pots, any summer herbaceous plants should be cut back, leaves collected and a rich mulch added to exposed soils. If you live in a windy area, consider mulching with dried fern leaves as these tend to ‘knit’ together and are more wind resistant. If you have a tree in your garden, collect up the leaves and chop with a mower. This will allow you to apply as a mulch without storing and waiting for them to break down. Never, a word of warning, be tempted to collect and store leaves in plastic sacks to decompose as a mulch. A lethal fungus develops when leaves are stored in airtight bags, and it has been known to cause fatalities. So, if you are collecting leaves to make a stored mulch, use hessian sacks, or chicken wire cages, for safety.
Adding winter flowering cyclamen or violas will also bring cheer until spring bulbs come through. If you are reading this and now panicking that you haven’t planted any bulbs then it’s not too late, a quick internet search will bring up several good bulb suppliers and you can plant all the way into January in both the open ground and containers, without any detriment to flowering in the spring.
Protecting from the cold
The further from the built-up centres of large cities you live, or the closer to fresh water, the higher the chances of cold gusts and frost. Normally these come in late December to January, but as they say fore warned is fore armed. If you grow anything tender such as tree ferns, Dicksonia, Banana’s or Cyathia outside, then now is the time to wrap the trunks with horticultural fleece (readily available online), straw and hessian. The fleece protects the plants, the layer of straw draws away the moisture and frankly, aside holding it all in place the hessian smartens up the whole affair to look somewhat like a limbless scarecrow!
If you grow apples and other fruit trees, then now, as the sap has stopped moving, you can safely have a little prune and cut out any dead or diseased timbers. The next most important step for fruit trees is to ensure crossing limbs and twigging dense growth is thinned out to allow air to circulate through the canopy. Larger shrubs and wall climbers can now also be pruned back. Take some time and cut growth back to a pair of buds, hedge trimmers and other more brutal machinery will leave you with an unflattering winter look and most likely reduce flower and produce deformed growth next spring.
Of course, it wouldn’t be December without a little myth and legend, so: Why do we kiss under this parasitic plant you may ask? Well, according to legend The Norse god, Balder was the best loved of all the gods and his mother Frigga is goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would ever come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements fire, water, air, and earth to ensure that they would not harm her beloved Balder.
However Loki, a sly, evil spirit, found a flaw……mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood. To make the deed eviller he took the arrow to Hoder, Balder's brother, who was blind. Guiding Hoder's hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder's heart, and he fell dead.
Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's white berries. In the version of the tale with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she makes Mistletoe a symbol of love and promises to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
Lastly, December can be deadly for houseplants; drafts and central heating, or rooms with log burners, can be very challenging, be sure that your plants are not drying out. Often the leaves will tell you before the soil does. Dry leaf tips and lack lustre foliage tell you that the air is dry, so introduce some hydroleca to the saucer, or the pot you stand the plant in, to increase humidity. Ensure the soil is not waterlogged, the top 5% of the soil on ratio should be dry to the touch - this will keep them happy and shiny. Plants in rooms that have low light levels over winter will benefit from being turned once a week else they may drop foliage and grow to one side.