Gardening Guru

Forest FM’s Gardening Guru

Alex Brenton

Hello Forest FM listeners and online followers.
You may be wondering who the new voice is on your gardening spot. I am Alex Brenton and I was asked if I would like to take on the monthly chat about gardening.
Over the last 30 years I have run a small nursery specialising in cottage garden plants, worked as a jobbing gardener and later as garden manager and also have been for a good few years now part of the sales and advice team at Woodlands nursery near Lytchett Mattravers. There are so many wonderful plants we can use in this climate it seems such a shame that so many gardens are so predictable. Everyone can get something out of gardens, space, escape, exercise, creativity, sensory pleasure, satisfaction, competition and backache.


April is full on in the garden, the clocks have changed and it feels like you have plenty of time to enjoy life outdoors, but there are also a lot of jobs you could spend time on. So what to concentrate on when time is short.

A quick tidy up pay dividends.

Throw away old cracked pots and gather together the ones you might use. Use up nearly empty fertiliser packets, put them on the compost heap if you are not sure what they were for.

 Ready to Use chemicals will have decayed over winter in a cold shed so clear them out, if they are dilute ones they can go in the usual bin like any household chemical containers. Try to buy less of them this year.

Be decisive and throw away old plants in pots which are dying, or will never look healthy again, or the compost is grotty. Treat yourself something that will give pleasure.

Use up and rinse out any buckets of rain water lying around, to stop mosquito larva growing there, cover your water buts with fine netting to stop flies getting in.

Fruit garden. It is too late to prune fruit trees or bushes now they are growing but if there are any branches hitting the ground or tripping you over take them out, even though you will lose fruit at least you will not lose an eye.

There is still time to thin dead growth out of Summer Raspberries and tie them in, Autumn Raspberries should be growing new shoots so it is easy to see the old dead ones which you can cut right out.

Feed and mulch all fruit, trees bushes and strawberries. Mulch around strawberries with dry compost bark or chopped straw, water underneath but keep the top dry to discourage slugs.

In the Vegetable Garden, Don’t panic or be purist, the point is to grow things to eat not just to impress the neighbours. There are lots of new ideas and techniques out there, remember your garden is special, and you can mix and match the style to do it your way.

Get your spuds in, plants your onions and shallots. Plant out seedling lettuce and cabbages when they are big enough to handle. Sow carrot, beet, parsnips etc outside, just treat them as successional sowings. It still a bit early to plant out modules of onions leeks etc but when you think they are big enough to handle, move them on.

Still time to sow Tomato, Courgette or pumpkin seeds, or to buy plants from a garden centre.

Shrub and flowers ,

Magnolias are looking magnificent there are lots of different types to appreciate, from the stellate types with shaggy petals to the classic tulip shaped flowers.

The Early flowering shrubs are mostly just getting going so enjoy Forsythia and blossom trees, but have a good look at your Buddleas, Perovskia, Shrubby Fuchsias and  Hydrangeas, they can be cut down hard as they flower on wood made this year, but use your common sense and end with a good shape not just an amorphous blob.

Roses should really have been pruned by now but if there are any forgotten ones or one which have whippy growth, sort them out before they fill will soft growth.

Hardy annuals can be sown outside now if the soil temperature is 10degrees Centigrade or above. But Half Hardy flower seed are still better sown inside just to give them a flying start, and protect from slugs and pests.

We haven’t had a hard winter so there will be residues of aphids and beetles ready to attack the soft new buds, these infestations don’t look good but also can introduce virus into the plants. Wash them off with a jet of water, pinch them off with your fingers ( in rubber gloves) soapy water will break down their waxy coating and make it easier to remove them or wash them off .

If you can avoid overfeeding your plants (which promotes soft growth) or increase the air flow through the plant the harder growth should be less attractive to pests.  In the case of some blackfly it is simple and effective to pinch or cut out the soft growth, as with Black Bean fly on Broad beans or Black Cherry Aphid, when you remove the outer 15cm taking away the pests with you.

What ever happens get out there and enjoy the outdoors, gardening should be pleasant and good for your mental health. Don’t worry about the perfect way of doing things. Plants want to grow whatever you do, so go with the flow.


Inside work
Sort out any half-empty seed packets and throw out any that are now out of date or damaged. Saved seeds left to dry can now be cleaned and packed and labelled.  Organise them into seed tins.
Bulbs and Tubers
Check summer-flowering bulbs and tubers that are being stored over winter. If any show signs of mould or rot, remove the affected one or separate to prevent it spreading.
Bring forced bulbs into a warm room to encourage them to flower.
If you have some bulbs, you have forgotten to plant there is still time in December to get them in. You may get a later flowering but better than letting them rot.
In the greenhouse
Check that greenhouse heaters are working. Remove leaves from greenhouse gutters.
Wash greenhouses, cold frames and cloches to let in more light. On warm days you may still need to ventilate the greenhouse.
Water overwintering plants sparingly to avoid the risk of rot. Try not to wet the leaves when watering to avoid fungal diseases developing.
Look around and pick some pretty things from your garden to add to Christmas wreaths and arrangements.
Pick holly with berries on before the birds pick them clear.
Seed heads, berries and hips: make a wreath using anything you can forage from the garden eg spindle, rosehips, Chinese lanterns, agapanthus and hydrangeas

Outside work
Pruning and Tidying
If we have a ‘white christmas’ remember to shake snow off trees and shrubs after enjoying the sight of them. The weight of snow can damage branches and stems. Don’t worry about snow on low plants, it actually protects them against hard frosts, acting as a blanket over them.
Check newly planted trees and shrubs to see if they have been loosened by winds or lifted by frost. If this happens, gaps form around the roots causing them to dry out. If you see a crack around the plant, firm in again gently with your feet.
Prune climbing roses now; cut away diseased or damaged growth and tie in any new shoots to their support. Prune older flowered side shoots back by two thirds of their length.
Prune ornamental vines. Vines can produce growth of up to 10ft in one season so need to be kept in check. Thin out overcrowded shoots and then prune sideshoots to two buds from the main stems that are kept as a framework.
Keep cutting back dead foliage if it gets mucky or slimy but leave dry seedheads to look good with frost on.and keep an eye out for weeds if it is mild.
Apply dry mulch such as chipped bark around borderline-hardy plants such as agapanthus, phygelius, hedychium and melianthus to protect the crown. With other tender plants, fleece is very effective, but less obtrusive – a circle of wire netting filled with bracken or leaves will keep the cold at bay.

It is still a good time to plant shrubs if conditions are dry and the ground workable. The roots will still grow for a month after the top has stopped.
Fruit and veg
Earth up spring cabbages and other winter brassicas to give them better anchorage in strong winds. Tall growing Brussels are particularly prone to this and may need a strong cane next to them.
Remove yellowing leaves from Brussels sprouts regularly as these can get fungal diseases. Harvest sprouts from the stem upwards.
Continue winter digging so the weather can break down the soil and make preparing seedbeds easier. Cover empty prepared vegetable beds with fleece or clear (not black) plastic, which will warm the soil so it is easier to work.
Sow parsley, chives and basil indoors for windowsill picking.

Established blackcurrant plants can now be pruned to allow the young wood, which will bear most of the fruit, to start putting on growth in spring. All the buds that are intact should remain, but in the case of whitecurrants and redcurrants only the top four should be left, removing all the others.
During winter pruning, do not forget to remove mummified fruit that remained on branches, ideally together with a short piece of the spur to which they are attached.
Remove the netting from the top of fruit cages as heavy snow in winter can make it sag.
Check stored apples and other stored fruits for signs of deterioration and remove any affected fruit and feed to the birds and hedgehogs.

Continue collecting leaves from paths and lawns. Stack them in wire cages or leafmould bags to rot down and produce useful leaf mould.
Clean paths to prevent then becoming slippery and repair sheds, fences and trellises.
Repair lawns if weather conditions allow.
Winter dig if you can can, but don’t overwork the soil, let the frost get into it. Spread compost or manure over the empty ground – it warms the soil and worms will drag it in.
Protect plants vulnerable to frosts as the year enters its coldest phase. Bring in tender plants , geraniums and salvias, dig dahlia tubers, if you haven’t already and put mulch, compost or straw over the top of any in borders.
Keep an eye on container plants and bulbs. Do not allow them to dry out after freezing.
Raise potted plants off the ground to prevent them becoming waterlogged.
If you haven’t already done so, aerate your lawn before winter wet really sets in. You can use either a lawn aerator or simply insert a garden fork at regular intervals and rock it backwards and forwards a little to let air in.
Avoid walking on lawns covered with frost.
Wash, dry and store any used pots, seed trays and containers to remove overwintering pests and diseases.
Check your notes before compiling your seed order to make sure you don’t forget that good idea you had back in May.
Wildlife and pests
Feed birds in colder weather.
Regularly wash and disinfect bird baths and feeders.
Keep cutting back and clearing up any leaves so that slugs and snails can’t shelter beneath them.
In a mild winter, pests may overwinter on plants, so keep an eye out for infestations of greenfly and whitefly and red spider mite which can soon spread.

Presents for Gardeners.
Most gardeners have enough handcream and trowels to last a lifetime. Unless you know the garden well, buying plants is tricky as non gardeners buy yet another rose or camellia which doesn’t suit the garden
Most gardeners would appreciate small items which are useful, but perhaps better quality than they would buy themselves..
A small pack of fine permanent marker, soft 2B pencil and labels, but even better some slate or copper labels.
New small terracotta pots with saucers, very useful to set off small plants like sedums or auriculas on windowsills or in greenhouse.
Good lightweight gloves which are washable and comfortable. I like Showa brand as they are washable and last at least a year.
Unusual bulbs or seeds are always interesting.
HTA garden tokens are always appreciated as you can then buy something which you may have thought a bit expensive. A useful present for fathers and grandfathers, they can have a pleasant hour browsing without guilt, and that what Christmas is for..



Dry drought days and how to enjoy them. We have had a dry month with extremely high temperatures and most gardens are suffering.

Top tips to let your plants survive.

Decide which are the critical plants, which must be watered.
Seedlings, – must have sufficient water as they have no water storage in the roots yet.
Leafy vegetables- the bulk of salad crops is water so they cannot thrive without enough.
Fruiting plants. like apples, raspberries tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins
Newly planted trees and shrubs and perennials, anything planted since March will need extra help for the whole of the summer, the roots have not engaged fully with the soil. Large leaved or soft leaved shrubs are the most demanding – like Hydrangeas, or deciduous Azaleas. They need a good soak 3 times a week as a minimum.
Large leaved shade loving perennials are also thirsty – Rodgersias, Hostas, Pulmonarias, Ligularia

Decide which can be sacrificed or will recover anyway. Lawns –except if you are running a golf course, or a croquet lawn.

Organise your garden to make watering easier. Move all the pots together in an area where they do not get sun all day.
Remove pots from front doors or areas you do not pass by often- You are less likely to neglect a plant you see every-day.
Sink a tube next to the roots of trees shrubs or Roses which need watering, and water through it. This pushes the water down to root level and less prone to immediate evaporation.

Don’t make a rod for your own back.
Set up a watering routine, so different area get watered every other night. A good soak 2-3 times a week is better than a dribble every day. Time how long it takes for your watering can – usually 2 gallon or 9-10 litres, and if you are watering with a hose water one spot for the time it takes to fill your watering can. Then you know how much the plants are actually getting. Use a drip hose amongst your vegetables or borders and put on a timer which switches it off after a set time,that stops you forgetting and leaving it on all night.
Get into the habit of rinsing your old plastic bottles with water and watering the hanging baskets or pots with it on your way to the recycling bin.
Water the ground not the leaves, Plants can be their own worst enemies and the umbrella effect is a problem when the soil is already dry. A sprinkle over the leaves makes the garden feel fresh, but wet leaves over dry soil is asking for mildew to visit.
Do not give extra fertiliser unless the plant is well hydrated, they need water to absorb the fertiliser or it can desiccate them further.
Do not Mulch while to soil is dry, it will just stop rain getting to it. Water well first.
Use alternative water, Use your rainwater buts, If you empty them it is a good time to scrub them out. Set them up to collect from gutters and down pipes, to be ready for the next dry spell.
Wash up in a bowl and use that outside, don’t waste the dregs from the tea pot, it is a useful liquid feed. Just check how much fairly clean water you let down the kitchen sink, if is often surprising when rinsing food or vegetables, that is all good in the garden. Washing up liquid or hand-wash clothes liquid in solution is fine. Siphoning out the bath water is more extreme and perhaps you should be using the shower instead. But leave a clean bucket in the shower and collect the cold water before it get to your temperature.
Grey water from dishwashers and washing machines should be collected in a bucket to let salts settle out as it can be alkaline. the advice on the chemicals used.
Listen to drought saving tips from South Africa where they have coped with extreme drought and cut their water usage by half.

Things to do in November and … Christmas

Lift and store your dahlias..
Deadhead pansies/violas/primulas regularly to keep the flowers coming.
Remove fallen leaves from around the base of plants to prevent slugs/snails overwintering.
Protect tender perennials with a mulch of compost.
Tie in long, loose shoots of climbers to prevent them being damaged in high winds.
Clear and dispose of any diseased rose leaves – don’t add them to the compost heap. Some roses hang on to their leaves. If these are diseased, try to pick them off. It helps to reduce blackspot next season.

Plant bare-root roses/trees/shrubs.
Move any established shrubs or trees when they are dormant..
Enjoy Autumn colour.

Start planning next year’s vegetable crop to allow for a good rotation of crops. Sow pea tips. Sow a box or gutter pipe of pea tips inside, ready for salads, soups or risottos at Christmas. Scatter the seed across the length and width of the compost and put them anywhere cool, but in good light. Sown now, you can pick straight from the gutter pipe – no garden required.
Plant garlic, as it likes a period of dormancy and cold prior to growing away in the spring.
Sow hardy peas under fleece for an early crop next year. If you can keep the mice away.
Clear away climbing beans, then pull up, clean and store away canes and supports.
Improve soil, digging over bare ground and forking in bulky, well-rotted manure. Digging it now will allow time for cold winter weather to break down clay into a more workable soil.

Salad and herbs
Sow boxes of cut-and-come-again salads and hardy herbs for putting right outside your kitchen door.
Pot up leafy herbs to bring inside on a windowsill and use in winter.

Start pruning apple and pear trees. Cut back the leader branches by a third and remove completely any branches that are crossing and rubbing against each other. Mulch after pruning.
Plant a fruit tree – an apple or pear. Dig a hole twice the size of the rootball and break up the base, adding plenty of organic matter (leaf mould or manure). Plant the tree to the same level as it was previously. As with roses, this ensures the graft is below soil level.
Summer-fruiting raspberries and blackberries need cutting back, tying in etc. Leave autumn-fruiting raspberries until later in the winter.
Tidy strawberry beds, cutting back old foliage and congested runners and removing weeds.
Regularly check fruits in storage and remove any showing signs of rot.
Harvesting. Pick your kale and start harvesting leeks. Collect in squash to the greenhouse but remember to eat them, Check over your stored onions and potatoes and be ruthless about throwing away any that are showing signs of rot.

Other jobs
Water pots outside if you have experienced a very dry spell.
Ensure containers are lifted off the ground to prevent waterlogging.
Spike lawns and brush sharp sand or grit into the holes to improve drainage.
Make leaf mold.- Rake up leaves from all around the garden and pack them, still damp, into string sacks or even black bin liners with a few holes pierced through to ensure at least a little air circulation. Then put the filled sacks somewhere out of the way and forget about them for a year or so. The leaves will slowly rot down into leaf mould, perfect for soil conditioning and mulching the garden this time next year.
Avoid walking on the lawn if it is waterlogged to avoid compacting the soil.
Wrap insulation around outdoor taps and water pipes.
Last sowing of green manures early in the month.
Check tree ties and stakes. Make sure the ties are not cutting into the trunks.

Clean your tools. Remove soil from metal tools, wash them and allow them to dry thoroughly. Remove dirt and sap from your secateurs using either lubricant or household cleaner and wipe off with a tissue or rag. Once clean, smear lubricant onto the bevelled edge and rub with a scourer.
Protect any precious ceramic pots by bringing them under cover. In frosty conditions, small cracks soon become large cracks. Make sure any pots left outside are raised on pot feet or bricks so that water can drain out.
Empty the contents of well-composted bins and spread over bare soil.

In the greenhouse
If you haven’t already done so, clean and tidy your greenhouse ready for the winter. Insulate your greenhouse with bubble polythene and check your heaters are working. Check your cuttings and remove any spent blooms and dead leaves from overwintering plants to prevent pests and disease. Keep good air circulation to avoid mildew.
Water less often now conditions are turning cooler.
Keep an eye on pelargoniums. Deadhead spent flower heads and remove tatty leaves off Pelargoniums.
Treat yourself to some ferns or Streptocarpus so there is something nice in the greenhouse.

Wildlife and pests
Apply glue bands or greasebands to the trunks of fruit trees to prevent wingless female winter moths climbing the trunks and laying their eggs in the branches.
Remove fallen leaves and dead foliage from borders and pots to prevent pests overwintering amongst it. But leave leaf piles under the hedge or in unplanted corners for hibernating hedgehogs.
Clean out bird feeders and bird baths and restock with new seed or fat balls. Once you have started feeding it is important to refill regularly as the birds become dependant on your help.. Leave seed heads on plants in the borders if they are not too messy.. Birds are vital to have in the garden and will keep pest numbers down.
Check your bonfire pile for hibernating wildlife.
Clean out nesting boxes so that birds can shelter inside them during the winter.
Leave some berries on plants such as holly and rosehips – they are food for wildlife.


Mad May
May is the junction of Spring and Summer but it is never clear when we slide into summer. The Magnolias and tulips of spring are dropping their petals, and the Cornus and Acers are in leaf.

The Wisteria is out in most gardens now scenting the air with heady talcum powder, not everyone likes it. The May tree is budding up but not open enough yet to scent the air. When the sun is out the garden and countryside look lovely but that wind is still so cold.

Vegetable growing is in full tilt, watering has to take priority when it is dry and the seedlings are still small. The potatoes should be in and showing, but good idea to watch out for frost warnings and cover them overnight. Keep sowing seeds a small patch every week, to give continuity and continued supply of salads and carrots, peas. Daily hoeing after work when the ground is dry is quite calming and zen, a good version of the trendy ‘Mindfulness’.

Remember any new young plant will need liquid feed as started composts only have minimal amounts of fertilizer which run out in 4-6weeks.
For most gardeners different sorts of fertilizer are necessary. A base fertilizer such as Blood Fish and Bone (medium and slow release) when cultivating ground, Concentrated poultry manure can be used instead for vegetables for leafy top growth.
Slow release pellets for use in long term pots and hanging baskets. Liquid feed to use in watering cans, I use Liquid Seaweed at the beginning of the season for healthy growth and change to Tomato feed from the end of June to promote fruiting and ripening.

Although growing vegetables is time consuming it is good fun with chance to try different crops, to compete with friends family and good to teach children and grandchildren about food. They can also be attractive spaces intermingled with flowers, fruit and herbs for picking.

March into the Garden 

This is the time to get warming up and stretching ready for a bit of exercise outside. March can be tricky for weather, one minute bright and mild the next a howling gale pushes you back inside. If you haven’t done a lot over winter remember to warm up first, tighten and loosen your muscles from top to toe, stretch and warm your arms and legs and get those knees bending, don’t use a bent back if you can get close by bending knees. Be prepared as you would doing any other exercise, wear stretchy clothing, don’t let the cold wind get to your bare back, and get some good gloves to protect your hands.
The snowdrops are fully out and getting past their best and the Daffodils are now the stars of the show. When you get the urge to go to the garden centre, look out for something to cheer you up now. Don’t worry that the flowers won’t last for ever, change is the essential quality of growing things, just enjoy them now.

Auriculas come in such perfect shape and form with a wide range of colours, they ought to be grown more often, they thrive kept in pots which can be tucked away outside when they are not in flower and brought up to the eyelevel when they are at their best. Pops plants at Downton have the National collection of Auriculas, and it is well worth a visit when they have their open days.
Violets again have a beautiful shape and form and are often neglected and allowed to become a mass of non -flowering stems. Not all species are highly scented but if you want to know which ones are best, visit Groves nursery at Bridport who have the National collection including some wonderful Parma violets which are semi-double and flower for a long period.
Camellias are beginning to open their fat buds now. With glossy evergreen foliage the plants can look too exotic for gardens which otherwise look bare and empty. The plants can give a valuable solidity to a garden design which relies on summer flowers. I think it is best to use Camellias around the garden as evergreen structure plants so that in summer they have a logical place in the whole scheme. However Camellias also do well in pots when they can be moved near to the door to give a splash of colour on a bleak day.

Looking good this month:- Hellebores, Polyanthus, Crocus, Iris reticulata, Winter Aconites, Daffodils, Hyacinths, Anenome blanda, Hepatica

Things to look out for in the shrub line:- Camellias, Edgeworthia, Stachycurus, Hammellis, Prunus cistina (the purple leaved plum,) Flowering pears, and Flowering cherries. Catkins on willow.

March is the month to start vegetable growing in earnest, with your potato seed chitting, and your onion and shallots growing roots in modules to defeat the birds from pulling them out. Parsnip and carrot, beans and peas can all go in if the soil is warming up, perhaps you have covered the ground in plastic or woven ground cover to help it heat up. But what about those without much vegetable growing space.
Just as having a few pots of flowering treasures near the house is easy. Vegetables can be grown very successfully in pots. So lack of a veg plot is no excuse. The best return for most people is growing fresh salad crops, Cut and come again lettuce, radish, parsley and green herbs, dwarf beans and peas can do well. They are easy to pick fresh in the right quantity for your household. You know they have not been washed in strange detergents and bagged, so you have healthy food at your doorstep.

Don’t worry about the pot, all sorts of containers can be used from hanging baskets, old beer flagons washing up bowls or large tin cans, and the range of containers can be a design feature as well. Just pick up some fresh compost from your local garden centre and some seeds. We are all used to the idea of growing bags for tomato plants but they are also excellent for other quick growing vegetables, whether you use them as they are or stand them up inside tall pots.

Anyway get outside and plant something, watching things grow is good for you.


February ‘Fill-dike’ or Fabulous February

February is one time of year which divides gardeners. Some people look out at acres of mud and puddles and feel Spring will never come.

Others are happy in the green house sorting and seeding and setting out potatoes to chit.
If you are a grower it is the beginning of the busy season, before you get carried away sowing seed, check over and wash your seed trays. It is not easy now to get fungicides to treat and prevent ‘damping off’ of seedlings. Hygiene is the best prevention, so wash and drain all pots used for seed growing, rinse them in a disinfectant – any household products will work, and importantly, let them dry before filling with compost again.
If the trays and pots are getting fragile, replace with new ones they really don’t cost that much. I am annoyed that black plastic is not easily recycled and often ends up in the bulk waste.
Before the rains it would have been great if you had emptied and scrubbed your waterbutts, but if you didn’t. Use that water for only watering established plants and use tap water for seedlings.
Try something different this and every year, a new vegetable, a new cutting flower, a new summer bulb. What keep gardeners going is thinking ahead and trying new techniques and products. So in the next month or so get out and see what is coming into the garden centres. Enjoy the spring and the change of seasons, Primroses and Violas are flowers of spring, don’t go asking for petunias and fuchsias yet.
Pot grown daffodils give you a blast of colour, primroses are coming along nicely. Soon we will have those intense hues of Tulips and Wallflowers. Seasonal pots of flowering bulbs are much better value than cut flowers, and last much longer.
Plants to look out for ……. Auriculas jewel colours on tough plants which can be kept in pots or planted out. Ranunculus have strong colours, strong upright stems and are great for brightening up pots around the house.

Wonderful winter and the coming of the light

On a clear frosty day in January there is a wonderful feeling of peace. The light is increasing daily and although it takes a while to notice, the sunsets are drawing out a few moments. If you haven’t harvested/protected your tender plans nature will take its revenge, so relax. It is too early to start anything much and few jobs are so urgent they can’t wait On a rainy day tidy up your shed and order next seasons seeds and daydream a perfect season.

But on a bright day get outside and enjoy the lack of urgency, look for newly emerging leaves of spring bulbs, and see how many plants are trying to flower. Check the state of your Hellebores it is best to remove the leaves around the new buds so the flowers show up properly when they are ready . Look and admire the few winter flowering shrubs Mahonia Japonica is stately and tough , all fierce leaves and bright yellow fluff on top. Viburnum tinus with its sensible dark dull leaves and demure understated flower heads , and its blowsy sister Viburnum x bodnantse Dawn, all angular meccano stems and sickly sweet flowers. Sarcococca and Eleagnus are flowering now , barely visible but very noticeable perfume. Hamamelis (Wytch Hazels) are flowering well now, the pale yellow Arnold’s Promise is one of the most sweet scented , but I do love the orange Dianne with the warm marmalade scent, it goes very well with Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ as a companion as the flower colour is very similar to the bright stems of the Cornus. There is a marvellous display at Wisley and nearer still at Hilliers in the winter garden where they are teamed with a great display of Daphne.

January is often the best month to notice bark of deciduous trees, the warm reds and copper of flowering cherries, the snakebark patterns of Acers, the peeling ribbons of Eucalyptus bark and Acer griseum as well as the very well- known silver and white birches. The advantage of a simple palette in January is how it clarifies the proportion of everygreen shrubs and trees in a garden. This is a good month to think if you need some evergreen shrubs to define corners and edges, or a beautiful conifer to give height and winter elegance. How about planting a blue Spruce or Abies which can be lit with Christmas lights outside. This is a good month to look out for them in a garden centre and order them in. One delight I find is seeing the silvery soft buds of Magnolias enlarging on the bare stems, and the plump buds of Camellia unfurling, as they promise a great flowering time.

Work wise, if you have time, this is a good month to plant deciduous hedges and trees, bare root fruit trees should be in the garden centres and roses( though these are more common now pot grown all year). Cutting of country mixed hedges is best done now if the ground is dry enough to work on, remember to rake up all the thorny bits wearing gloves, you will regret it in the summer when weeding if you stab yourself with some blackthorn.

If your veg ground is dug and empty a dose of farmyard or stable manure should have time to wash in well , so warm yourself up with some physical work. Last year’s compost heap should be made by now so use it on bare boarders around shrubs and other perennials. Clear out your cold frames and throw away cracked pots, and feel virtuous and ahead of the game.

Happy New Year.


Harvest time
Harvesting and using your own crops is one of the joys of gardening. Your pumpkins are ripening nicely I hope, red tomatoes picked and onions drying off, ready for the apples to make chutney.
Recently many people have grown chilli peppers for the first time and it is tempting to grow the strongest hot ones, it seems obvious the hottest are best, but they can be very hard to use. We tend to grow the medium or mild ones like Hungarian Hot Wax, rather than Scotch Bonnets and Dorset NAGA. Some peppers are so hot they are tricky if not dangerous to handle and it is very difficult to judge how much to use in any recipe. I have learnt to fill jam jars with the hot peppers and cover with olive oil, the oil becomes infused with flavour and it is a predictable ingredient, and one can use a few drops or a tablespoon in cooking. The oil also keeps for years.

For those who don’t grow vegetables there is always the satisfaction of picking and drying some seedheads and flowers, like Allium heads. I am trying this year to dry Hydrangea heads, there is plenty of advice online so I hope for some good results I can use in Christmas decorations.

Autumn colour.
It really is possible to get as long a season of red and gold leaf colour from your plants as flower colour. Shrubs and mixed hedges and any native plants are the stars of Autumn colour I find beech turns goldish green and then stays around for weeks. Many Viburnum such as Wayfaring bush and Guelder rose get deep beetroot tones which along with the crop of red berries are very decorative. Deciduous Euonymus alata shrubs can develop the most wonderful scarlet tones while their weird berries can be quite startlingly bright pink.

Whereas Field Maples can turn a wonderful glowing gold. Garden plants which should be grown anyway for their leaf colour are the Spireas and the Nandinas, and as the season changes they come into their own as stars of the borders. Get out as much as you can now the low light at dusk is quite beautiful, and you must stock up on Vitamin D before the winter to build your resistance to bugs and diseases.

Preparing for the dying of the light.
This is the time before the clocks go back and we lose the working time in the evenings to clear up the garden and remove any hazards. Clearing paths cutting back the overhanging flowers, remove the risk of slipping on wet slabs and cobbles by stripping off the moss and giving a stiff brushing to break up an algae covering. I often use Bicarbonate of Soda to clean slabs, there are many other cleaning products which work, just be careful of the effect on plants or ponds in the area. Overhanging branches and stems should be cut back so as not to catch in your hair or scratch your face in the dark evenings.
If you like fairy lights in the garden or on the house at Christmas, it’s a good time to get them up now, after you have pruned the wall roses and shrubs. Those gently twinkling lights can make the garden a magical place in the Autumn. Some big gardens do a pre-Halloween evening opening around now with lighting to show off the leaf colour, which are well worth a visit, I like Abbotsbury gardens for this but check the websites for others. 

Busy September

It back to school and routine now for everyone, no more lazing in the deckchair, but time to get some organisation back into your garden. Your bedding in pots and baskets will be looking tired, so soon you should be deciding whether to empty the pots and put them away for the winter, or get down the garden centre and buy, cyclamen, violas, pansies, polyanthus, heather and small evergreens, to keep some colour over winter. Remember these plants are not going to bulk up much so you need enough to cover the soil so as to stop soil splashing all over them when it pours with rain.
If you want to buy in Wallflowers, Stocks or Forget-me-nots ask your local nurseries when they will be in as the season when they are available is short and easily missed. Sadly mixed wallflowers have become the norm, they still have the colour and scent but come out in sequence so there isn’t the impact that you get with a mass of one colour out at the same time.
This month is when the spring bulbs come into the shops, so pick out your colour scheme in Tulips, crocus, daffodils and all those special little blue jobs that lighten the heart in the early spring. Even though it is usual to plant Tulips in November, buy them while there is a good choice in the shops which is now. It is tempting to shop around and buy the cheapest but size really matters with bulbs, so do check the size of the bulbs against the price, cheap tulips never give the show that topsize bulbs do. A plant which has gone out of fashion but deserves a comeback is the pot Chrysanthemum, these really can be amazing balls of flower which are available now in garden centres, flowering on for up to 8 weeks. Ideal for extending your flower display until November. The scent of Chrysanthemums always seems like the scent of autumn to me.
Early autumn is the time to give your lawn some attention,, cut it fairly short then scarify it – which means raking or scratching through the surface to cut the weed mats and pull out the moss and old matted grass. On a small area you can do this with a wire or springtine rake, but really good results come from hiring a machine to do the work. After you have collected up all the old grass mat give your lawn a feed, there is no need to be precious about some of the complex feed and weed mixtures available. A simple feed of equal parts N P &K will do fine, this could be in Blood Fish and Bone, seaweed meal, autumn grass feed or similar, you don’t need masses, or anything special just give half dose. Just avoid the high nitrogen fertilizers like rose or vegetable feeds. This fertilizer must go on soon, best before the end of September.
Before the days shorten and working in the garden has to be fitted in between rain, it is best to sort out your rambling roses. Officially you should have done this shortly after flowering but in practice many of us leave it until now. Use your best thorn-proof gloves and your sharp secateurs, and safety glasses. Cut out the old scruffy stems complete with all their offshoots which flowered this year, best to take out some of these shoots right down to the ground. Then tie in the new un-flowered shoots, I prefer to wind them around all in the same direction, keeping the shoots almost horizontal then you will get more flower buds forming. It’s a messy prickly job and always seems a bit harsh, but afterwards they look so much better.
Harvest time is in full swing in the veg plot, with a lot of soft waste hitting the compost heap, but do remember to pick and use your wild fruit too. Hazel nuts , Damsons, Crab apples and Blackberries which seem to grow everywhere, so eat them before the birds spread them around.

So get out there and tidy up, get your soft cuttings onto the compost heap, and perennial weeds and woody pieces into the green-waste bins, unless you have space to stack woody rubbish ready for one of the joys of Autumn a bonfire on a cold clear day.

Flat out in Full summer.
This time of year usually gardening slows down a little. The bedding should be flowering well the vegetable garden is full up with all the tender vegetables planted out, and we be able to sit back and enjoy the long evenings listening to the black birds.

However, this year we have had warm and wet together for the last month and the weeds are high and growing back quickly. Slugs and snails are rampant and fungal disease is building up with the wet damaged foliage. If you can be vigilant and keep the edges and paths clear, try not to let wet foliage hang over other plants to stop the spread of fungal spores from one crop to another. If blight hits the potatoes, don’t hesitate, cut back the potato tops and harvest what crop you have before the whole plant get tainted, the same applies to tomatoes of course.
Gooseberry bushes will need attention to clear some of the new growth out of the centre of the bush. This makes it easier to pick the fruit without getting scratched and the increased air flow deters the Mildew and Sawfly preventing damage. Try to prevent carrot fly by creating barriers about 45cm tall around the carrot crop and fine mesh over the top. Pick out the tops of broad bean plants and eat them ( steamed for 4 minutes) this prevent the black fly getting a grip on the bean plants.. Mix some open daisy flowers like calendula, tagetes or poached egg plants into the vegetable bed, they attract hover flies which eat aphids, as well as looking pretty and nasturtiums and calendula flowers are a good salad mix.

Strawberries are in season and if you haven’t already get out and mulch them with something – of course it used to be straw but now any sort of dry mulch to lift the fruits out of the mud and let the light get to them is used, I have seen wood mulch newspapers and even egg boxes used. The clear plastic ones could do this well and make tiny glasshouses for the ripening fruit. Fine netting draped over the crop prevents bird damage. Damp weather, and slug damage leads to grey moulds. So keep the crop as clean as possible and pick them over often.
In this damp warm weather if any plant gets damaged, it really is worth cutting it back and the regrowth could easily give a second flush of flowers. There is still moisture in the soil.
This is the time of year when gardens benefit from bedding and tender perennials, which do not have the urgency to set seed. Geraniums are cheap as ever and give strong colours and drought resistant. Perennial Salvias such as woody types Cherry Lips, flower for very long periods right into the Autumn and Penstemons and Osteospermum and Gazanias bring large bright flowers to the mix. This year there are some wonderful perennial Nemesia about in blues, white and lilac subtle colours but fantastic scent and these flower well in shade. So have a look around your local garden centre and try something different to top up your flower display.

May is a coming in.

The weather is showing up those old sayings,
Beware the Blackthorn winter!
Don’t cast a clout till the May is out!
Oak before Ash, we are in for a splash.

( Oaks well out now, let’s hope the Ash will be along soon, )

And the May blossom is not ready to bloom yet, though I have heard a cuckoo and seen a Brimstone butterfly – the first true butterfly of the season.
May is full stretch for the gardener, lots of digging and refreshing the soil and raking seedbeds. Where the planting is permanent and the ground clean get that mulch on quickly to hold the moisture in. We all run out of time some years and once the growth really starts it makes more mess to weed than to leave alone, the thugs border may have to be left and hope the proper plants get taller than the weeds.
Time for pruning the winter flowered shrubs like Lonicera fragrantissima, and Garrya and Mahonias.
Be quick if you haven’t finished pruning the late flowering shrubs like Abelia Perovskia and Caryopteris, they flower on this years growth but they do need time to grow.

Where the seeds are going to go prepare your seedbeds. When to sow direct and when to sow in protected pots? Is a judgment call, my rule is if the plant in question has a long tap root like the umbellifers – Carrots, parsnips, Eryngiums, annual poppies and Zinnias it best to sow direct as any disturbance can cause them to falter and not perform well. But for anything else a small pot or seedtray allows you to use the best combination of compost and grit and protect from drought and marauding cats which love to sit on freshly graded soil.

If you started your season too early and sowed seed or planted out tender things, which have now been stunted by the bitter winds and frost in the last week. Don’t give up, it’s a common habit to get ahead of the weather. There will be tomato plants to buy throughout May, and sowing vegetables late, just gives you a later crop, there is a great rush to get early veg but they will taste just as good a couple of weeks later. I like my runner beans to come in after the rest of the crops, I don’t need every vegetable ready the same week.
Rhubarb is looking good, and the currants are flowering and the apple blossom is budding up nicely. May is always beautiful in the garden, so do make time to get out and enjoy other peoples efforts over the bank holidays. Lots of Garden clubs will be having their Spring Plant Sales in the next few weeks so go and join in, and try a different plant this year.

Mad March Days

Refresh renew recycle are the message of the month for March.

Be tough and throw things away. Now the light levels are going up and the days stretch out in lighter evenings, clear the cracked and broken pots away , tip out the old used compost from last years pots into your compost heap or into the flower beds. Use your brown/green bin for coarse old foliage and weeds, or take a load to the green tip. Spring cleaning can be good for the soul.

Refresh the planting in your pots, rake away a little soil from round the shrubs and plants in pots and top dress with fresh compost with a little slow release fertilizer. Renew your seasonal displays, new violas, polyanthus and pot grown spring bulbs give joy to the heart.

Check your soil. Mine is wet clay so I stay off the vegetable and flower beds until a fork full of soil breaks when turned. I work off the path as much as possible but if in doubt stay off. If you have light sandy soil, get out there and dig it over and once clean Mulch Mulch Mulch, with old compost, wellrotted manure ( 2 year old at least) leaf mold, etc. This keep the moisture in the light ground and the air and drainage in the heavy soil and keeps the fertility in both.

You will have refreshed your Permanent planting by forking around the clumps of perennials and shrubs, removing old flowered stems and topped up any mulch and given a little fertilizer. Please check you don’t get carried away and start pruning to tidy up on spring flowering shrubs which are untidy. Let them flower before brutalising them.

Pruning time is now for late flowering clematis, cut them back to strong buds about 30cm or a foot off the ground. Remember to rake around and use slug drench and gravel to prevent slugs ruining the new growth.

Renew your planting with summer bulbs to flower with your perennials this summer. A few Galtonia or Alliums to give structure to your summer daisies. Some strong coloured Dahlias or lilies to jazz up the mid season flowering after the flush of Geraniums and Aquilegia. There are plenty coming into a garden centre near you so call in regularly to see what is on offer.

Its time to get sowing in the greenhouse, I try to get the perennials which flower the first year like Catananche Linum, germinated in February so they can be moved into cold-frames or somewhere cooler before the really tender stuff is sown. It is easy to get carried away and plant too early but unless you can keep the growing plants warm when we get an April chill it is high risk. It is easy to forget that pricked out seedlings take up a lot more room than the first seed tray.

Peppers can be started now if you have somewhere warm enough to get them started, they need a long growing season to crop well. Tomatoes I would leave a bit longer unless you have a heated greenhouse empty as they always seem to catch up.

Even folk without a veg garden can grow a few things in pots or planters, Two or three large planters with salad crops like loose leaf lettuce, sorrel, mizuna, rocket, sown weekly will give plenty of picking for a salad or sandwich filling. I like growing Early variety of peas just until they are about 10 inch tall and cutting them for pea shoot salad or stir fry, the seed is cheap and the crop is quick and can be resown often to give continuity.

Remember gardening is good for you but this is the start of the year so take it gently to warm up and strengthen the muscles before you overdo the digging and get a bad back and give up. A little daily is by far the best option at the green gym just as in those expensive inside gyms, but much better on your pocket.

February. Here we go – the season is starting.

Although the weather is still appalling the days are lengthening and the chance of prolonged cold is getting more unlikely. My general rule is once the wild daffodils are flowering in the woods, spring has begun, this is usually around February half term.
There are so many things to think about in February.
Have you finished your rose and wisteria pruning? Growth is starting. Check your fruit bushes and trees, remember you are pruning to make fruit easier to pick and airflow better through the branches.

Cut your deciduous hedges soon before the end of the February so as not to disturb nesting birds. This is the law, but be careful because even the birds are a bit confused and some in my garden are definitely gathering straw for nests.
Sort out your vegetable patch, even if it is too wet to dig. Clear any old veg debris you left in the autumn, old runner beans canes, dig out old beetroots they will be going very woody. Find those parsnips, eat the leeks, Buy your seed potatoes and put them out to chit, I use old egg boxes setting a tuber in each space. Cool but light space to start the eyes into growth. This gives the tubers a head start when you finally get them in the ground. Gather your new seed packets together and sort them into month of sowing.
Now is time to get going with Sweet Peas certainly, and protected vegetables, Onions, First crop peas , Lettuce, Spring broad beans etc. Space under cover is usually the limiting factor, so plan sowing to get the hardier varieties germinated and pricked out before more tender stuff needs attention. Antirhinums, Scabious, Rudbeckia I start off first.
If you have a greenhouse or conservatory where you can work on a wet day, pot those dahlia tubers into 3 litre pots so they can send shoots up so you can take soft stem cuttings to increase your stock. Any new perennials you buy in those sachets desiccating in a puff of sawdust, will survive better if potted up and kept under cover to start growth before casting them out into the wide world.

But most of all enjoy the increase in light when it isn’t raining, check your snowdrops for interesting markings, watch for the first wild primroses and tell me which are your favourite flowering plants this month.
It is always surprising how many of the early flowers are scented Camellias and Cornus mas don’t smell much. Hammaemellis , Coronilla Sarcococca are very fragrant, as is the winter flowering honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, Viburnum ‘Dawn’ and Daphne bholua .

This month the garden really kicks off, so get out there and enjoy it, go and visit one of the gardens which is great in late winter, Abbotsbury, Exbury or Hilliers winter garden.

Remember Kingston Lacy for the snowdrops, in February, and Shaftesbury has a Snowdrop festival over half term, which is well worth a visit.

December in the Garden.
Despite the gloomy wet weather there are still lots of things to do outside this month. It is important for our health to get outside as often as we can. Fresh air to clear the lungs, vitamin D to absorb from sunlight (or daylight anyway) and enjoy the calming effect of the natural world. Its time for out with the old and in with the new, I already have seen daffodils flowering.
Because of the damp gloomy weather there are not many naturally drying seedheads and stems, so collapsed stems and wet foliage lying on the ground is best removed, to reduce the chance of rots getting into the buds below. If it’s a wet season you need the air flow. Check the drain covers and down pipes and clear gutters so they do not block.

Hellebores should be budding up nicely and if you remove the old leaves the flowers will show up cleanly. Many spring bulbs are beginning to show through as it is so mild, if you need to clear off coarse grass or weeds etc do it now, or you will soon be damaging the new leaves.

A light dusting of tree leaves doesn’t hurt must borders and are positively beneficial under shrubs, but clear the lawns to stop the grass getting slimy, pine needles especially ruin grass so rake them off. Its all good exercise in the Green Gym.
Gather some of your own evergreens for festive arrangements. It doesn’t have to be holly and ivy you can use all sorts of foliage and winter stems. Don’t try to copy the professional standard wreaths from the garden centre, make your own version or buy a basic wreath and personalise it. I particularly like red stems of Cornus siberica or Acer Senkaki either in a vase or cut into little bundles and tied onto wreaths, much cheaper than cinnamon sticks. Dried chilli peppers add natural colour but all sorts of trinkets can be used the quirkier the more personal. Send us pictures of your personalised green arrangements if you are proud of them. Viburnum flowerheads are starting to open and put light into the mix, but you may find all sorts of last flowers, yesterday I found Geranium Shizostylus, Penstemon, Abelia, Catananche, winter jasmine, cyclamen and Hydrangea still in flower, and added them to a wreath.

Over Christmas it is easy to get cabin fever, always in the house or car, so try to find half an hour a day to wander in the garden or greenhouse. Some ideas for half hour jobs. Start your Sweet Peas off in deep pots to give them a good start. Sow your onion seed, Have a good look and plan your vegetable growing.

Cut the grass edges of the borders and veg patch to a clean edge. Rake empty soil lightly and cover with some ground cover fabric to stop rain ruining the texture of the soil, and it helps warm it up for spring sowing.

Sort last years seed collection and throw away anything which has got damp or is far too old.

Clean around the base of fruit bushes and mulch. Prune gooseberries and Blackcurrants to keep them open and manageable.
Feed the birds but clean under the feeders or move them around to stop the build up of rotting seed on the ground.

Autumn the activity season.

Don’t give up yet, you may have cut your evergreen hedges and clipped your topiary but there is lots to do.
Much of the garden is still looking good, it’s a good time to spot those plants which give a long season, check out the best looking gardens around you and ask for the names at the garden centre.

Now the nights are closing in and the temperature has cooled, it is time to get busy outside, the exercise will keep you warm, and shake off the Autumn blues. Concentrate on half an hour at a time so it doesn’t become hard work.
I think it is very important is to make your garden comfortable and safe( not tidy) before the light goes. So clear all the lawn and path edges of floppy plants which spoil the grass and try to trip you up. Clip shrubs which give you a shower when you walk past on a damp day. I think it is vital to cut back any branches or stems which you have to duck past, what is charming in the light becomes a menace and possible eye danger in the half-dark when you nip out to the compost heap in the winter. Clear moss and algae off the paths to save slips and falls, a stiff brush works wonders. If you use a power washer now the path will still dry out, in midwinter you can make a serious slip hazard.
However fallen leaves can look beautiful so leave them alone in borders and under shrubs, remember piles of leaves are a great resource for wildlife like hibernating hedgehogs. As well as being a great source of activity for children to leap about in.
Pots with overwintering plants should be cleaned up and slug and snail colonies removed, and put on slivers of slate or cobble to allow drainage during the rainy season.

Enjoy the colours of autumn, notice which plants colour well before leaf drop and remember to clear the view to them. Dahlias and rudbeckia will keep flowering so continue to pick them. Some border plants like Peony stand strong and colour as well as any shrub and the seed heads are impressive. Fine stemmed Verbena bonariensis, and Alliums can be left alone, they can look spectacular with frost rime in January. But if you haven’t already done so cut back soft straggly growth off Geraniums etc so the underneath can get some light and new growth harden up a bit before the winter.
One thing to do this month is buy bulbs, Tulips are my favourite with so many beautiful vibrant colours, they can be pricy but remember the cheaper ones are usually smaller bulbs so you may need to buy more to make an impact. You can go with subtle combinations or flagrant colour the best choice is available now though it is often recommended not to plant tulips until the soil cools down in November to prevent ‘tulip fire’.
Have fun and remember to build your bonfires safely, I find it best to store a heap and when the weather and the wind is right take the whole heap upside down a little distance away, so dryest stuff is underneath and you have a chance to check for those sleepy hedgehogs again.

Jobs to do

August always used to be dull month in the garden, the midsummer profusion is over and many things are sad and dusty . In a dryish summer like we have had, the question is what should we water? I am not a fan of watering too much in the open garden, a hardy plant with a good root system should cope with a dry spell, a good soaking twice a week mean the water drains down and the plant roots go after it. Generally I trust that the rain will catch up with us in the end.
Camellias are setting buds for next years flowers and a drought now will reduce flowering next spring, so give them a good couple of buckets of rain water from your precious water butt. Any autumn flowering plants such as Michaelmas daisies or Chrysanthemum are just coming up to flowering so soak them once a week this month.
Generally speaking any perennial which has flowered can be cut hard down unless you like the seedheads, water well once and forget about. It should make fresh leaves and fill up the space again quickly. Early flowering shrubs like Forsythia Philadelphus or Weigela can be pruned now ( which saves them wasting water.) Think in terms of thirds, take a third of the oldest or longest branches back hard by two thirds. The rest of the plant is cut back by one third, water once and forget. The green leafy veg like Lettuce and salad leaves, any new seeds and beans need regular water to help them produce in the short term.
Anything in pots is totally reliant on you so your tomatoes, cucumber as well as front door bedding and hanging baskets

Hedges need tidying up now the birds have finished nesting, remember they do not have to be dead square a tapered or chamfered top is better for the hedge as the plants at the bottom get more light. .
Cut Lavender stems, the old rule is 8” on the 8th day of the 8th month. It seems draconian but certainly in the south of England, it enables the plant to heal and grow a little more to harden up before the winter.
Grass I would ignore and if mowing raise the deck height and let the clippings ’Fly’ grass regenerates very quickly when the rain starts again.

August is the last chance to sow biannual seeds like Wallflowers, Sweet Williams and overwintering stocks. It is easy to forget to do until too late, and of course you must water seedlings.
But Please Remember. Enjoy the sun when we get it in August, take some photos of your garden and make next year’s resolutions early, what to change what to keep.
And definitely support your local flower and produce show, have a look at the standards of exhibits and resolve to enter next year.


Alex Brenton



The Perfect Edible Garnish

The sight of brightly coloured edible flowers adorning dishes in restaurants serving ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ or Japanese food can provoke raptures of appreciation. However, there’s no reason why more of us shouldn’t use flowers in our food. They can be an inexpensive by-product of the flower garden, providing a whole range of colours and textures from Spring to Autumn. Not all flowers are tasty or edible, of course, but there are many commonly grown varieties which can be used, and which can also be rather tasty in their own right as well as visually attractive.

Try the petals of our native spring Primrose, for instance (that’s from your garden not from the wild) with its slightly vanilla taste. The petals of Hawthorn are also pleasantly fragrant – and the new spring leaf tips also make a tasty addition to salads. By summer, a wide range of herbs are in flower, giving us Rosemary, Thyme, Chives (ordinary purple Chive petals plus the delicate pink bells of Garlic Chives), the bright golden orange petals of Pot Marigolds, or the blue starry flowers of Borage, with its mild cucumber taste.

The latter in particular can pleasantly surprise your guests if you the freeze the flowers into ice cubes and serve these in drinks, or sprinkle them on ice cream. Naturally fragrant petals such as those of Roses and Pinks (Dianthus spp.) also complement sweet dishes well, and look great as cake decorations, as do the petals of Violets and Violas, Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and Bergamot (Monarda cvs.).

Other flowers, such as the dazzling red, orange and yellow trumpets of Nasturtiums, or the petals of the common lawn Daisy (make sure you haven’t been using chemical sprays on the lawn first) have a less fragrant taste and are better suited to savoury dishes or added to salads.

Some flowers have specific uses: adding dried Elderflowers to a cheap black tea will counteract any taste of tannins and elevate it to a fine breakfast blend. The large, fleshy yellow trumpets of Marrows and Courgettes are beefy enough to be dipped into a lightly spiced batter and deep fried for a couple of minutes to make fritters.

My own personal fruity favourite is a true taste of the exotic – the ornamental shrub, Fejoia Sellowiana, otherwise know as the Pineapple Guava. It needs much more heat than this climate can provide to set its fruit, but we can still eat its thick, waxy flower petals of pink and crimson in early summer. These have an exquisitely scenty fruit flavour which is a harvest in itself.

Be creative and add colour and beauty to your food!

Sue Watts-Cutler


You can’t beat a home grown Strawberry!

With the increase in pick your own strawberry farms, strawberries are now perhaps not the first fruit many gardeners would think of growing. However, there are some very wonderful advantages in growing your own strawberries.

Strawberry plants are small and easy to grow in most ordinary garden soils in sun, as long as they do not get aridly dry. With a little planning, you can be eating home grown strawberries for a longer period than you can afford to buy them – or even are able to buy them in the shops. This is particularly the case if you have some cloches or a greenhouse you can use.

Strawberries do not all crop at the same time, even if each cropping period may be fairly brief. Like potatoes, there are early, mid-season and late varieties. There are also ‘perpetual fruiting’ types which produce a succession of smaller fruit over a longer period from late summer to autumn. By mixing these seasonal types in combination, you can have a succession of fruit production throughout the summer.

If you want to extend the season even further, you can encourage early types, such as ‘Honeoye’ to fruit as early as May if you grow them in a cold greenhouse or under cloches (allow pollinating insects in by day during flowering). At the other end of the season, a late type such as ‘Domanil’ can produce fruit as late as Christmas in a heated greenhouse (once again, allow for pollination).

Another very good reason to grow your own strawberries is that they are likely to taste better then commercially grown ones. This is partly because you are able to choose types which have a better flavour, as opposed to choosing types which have more commercial benefits. However, the final flavour of the fruit will always vary according to the growing conditions involved. The best flavour tends to result from a humus rich soil and regular watering, whereas the same strawberry grown in a mediocre compost, or under neglected or chemically over fed conditions will taste inferior.

Strawberries also tend to be extensively sprayed in many commercial situations, which you can choose to avoid in the garden.

The word ‘strawberry’ comes from the traditional practice of keeping the fruit dry and clean by surrounding the plants with straw. You can achieve the same thing by growing them off the ground in pots, tubs or hanging baskets. The latter are particularly versatile and should be filled with a soil based compost like John Innes and fed with a liquid feed such as Tomorite. Any variety of strawberry can be grown in this way and there is no need to buy special ‘trailing’ types, especially if their flavour is not as good as some other bush types.

In the garden, you can keep the berries clean, protect your ripening fruit from fruit-loving birds and ripen them more quickly by placing the green fruit bunches inside clear jam jars, angled downwards to allow rain to drain out readily. These act like mini greenhouses and the berries ripen more quickly without disappearing before you get to them!

Strawberry plants should be replaced at least every three years (commercial growers would do this more often) since their fruiting capacity drops off with age. The replacement plants are produced by the plants themselves in the form of ‘runners’ – long arching green stems, each with a plantlet on the end, which emerge from the parent plant during the growing season. Insert the base of the plantlet into the soil or into a pot and, when it has established its own roots, cut it off from the parent. These new plants can be re-planted in a replacement patch nearby, ready to take over when it is time to dig out the old plants.

A final culinary tip: try grinding a light sprinkling of black pepper over your strawberries to enhance the flavour and serve with plain goats yoghurt rather than cream. Tastes great!

Sue Watts-Cutler (Brackendale Nurseries)


Planting your own Summer Baskets and Tubs

Although it is easy to buy ready-planted hanging baskets and containers for the summer, planting up your own is easy and can have distinct advantages. For instance, you can tailor the bedding plants which you use to site where you intend to put them. Bedding plants vary in their tolerances of shade, hot sun and drying out. If you have a situation which is extreme in any way – very hot and sunny or predominantly shaded – your display is going to look much healthier for longer if you choose plants which like those conditions, rather than the generic assortment found in most ready-made baskets and tubs, whose tolerance will be patchy.

Plants to choose for particularly hot situations would include Marigolds, Gazanias, Portulacas, Geraniums, Zulu Daisies, or any grey leaved plants such as Helichrysum.

At the other extreme, for persistent shade use Fuchsias, Tuberous and Pendulous Begonias, Ivy, Spider Plants or the large or small flowered types of Impatiens.

For partial shade, Geraniums and Lobelia do surprisingly well.

You can also select your own colour scheme, rather than having a jumble of random colours. This can look very chic if you choose with care. Try the classy pink and grey combination, for instance, or fiery shades of yellow, orange and red. All white can also look very good, the focus being on the shape, texture and size of the flowers rather than on colour.

Here are some practical tips on creating your perfect basket or tub :

– Choose as large a basket or container as you can as the greater the volume of compost, the easier it will be to look after with regard to watering and feeding, and the more tolerant it will be of extreme temperatures.

– A wire hanging basket will need a liner to retain the compost. The most efficient liners are those made of plastified fibrous matting or moulded pulp. Moss is a comparatively poor retainer of moisture as well as being ecologically unsound.

– Use new compost every year and mix in slow release fertilizer (e.g. the Miracle Gro mini balls, formerly known under the trade names of Osmacote or Ficote). This will replace the need to liquid feed for the entire season. Otherwise, apply liquid feed every fortnight.

– Mix in moisture retentative granules (e.g. ‘Swell Gel’). These are definitely not a substitute for watering but they will retain the water you give the basket or tub for longer so that the plants can drink more of it.

– Think about designing your tub or basket before you shop for plants. Mentally divide your plants into three categories: upright feature plants for the centre (e.g. Geraniums or Osteospermums), trailing plants to hang over the edge (e.g. Nepeta), then blobby plants (e.g. Lobelia or Nemesia) to cover the rest of the horizontal surface without competing with the feature plant(s) in size.

Plant the trailing plants around the sides and on the undersides of wire hanging baskets (if the basket is designed for planting underneath). Plant the upright feature plant(s) in a slightly off centre position on the top, avoiding any hanging basket chains, and then fill in the remaining areas with the blobby plants. Bear in mind that summer bedding plants will expand in size quite dramatically over the next couple of months, so balance this consideration with the desire to create a ‘full’ look.

– Water regularly, trying not to allow the tub or basket to dry out completely. Even if plants survive drought, growth will be checked and some cosmetic damage may result so this is not desirable. Consider an automatic drip watering system if you have a number of baskets or containers in close proximity.

Have fun!

Sue Watts-Cutler


Fertilizers for improved plant performance

When plants are not naturally in growth through the winter, they cannot be spurred into action by feeding them so fertilizer applied during the dormant or semi-dormant months will be wasted. However, by April both indoor and outdoor plants are naturally sprouting and this enhanced growing period – which will continue from now until mid summer – is the best time to capitalize on the benefits of feeding. But which fertilizer is the one to use?

In the case of plants in a ‘captive environment’, such as house plants in pots, or outdoor plants in tubs and pots, some sort of feeding is vital to keep them going at all, since, without access to open ground and naturally fertile soil, they have no other means of finding food.

The most common way to feed these so that the concentration of the fertilizer is calculated and even is via a water-soluble feed. These so-called liquid fertilizers are satisfyingly quick to produce results but also require frequent reapplications, often 2-3 weeks apart during the growing period. Orchid food, tomato feed and liquid flower feeds are popular examples of this type of fertilizer.

An alternative method of feeding summer bedding tubs and baskets which are created afresh is to mix into the compost when you make them up a controlled release fertilizer in the form of small gelatinous coated balls, each containing a concentrated fertilizer deposit which is cunningly released slowly over a period of some weeks in the presence of moisture and warmth. With these, water is all you will need to apply directly to the plants.

In the open ground, plants are more independent. The approach of the dedicated organic gardener is to feed the soil (rather than the plants in it) so that natural fertility makes feeding the plants themselves unnecessary. This is achieved by applying regular amounts of organic matter such as compost from your compost heap, along with rotted manure and maybe some additional trace elements in organic form such as calcified seaweed. This in turn builds up the numbers of soil organisms which create natural fertility in the soil.

However, in a small garden with intensive cultivation where specific returns may be required of plants such as fruit, vegetables or flowers in a short space of time, fertilizers can offer more instant returns.

In the open ground, powdered and granular fertilizers are used rather than liquids, the latter disappearing far too quickly into the large areas involved, not persisting for as long and not being cost effective.

These granular and powdered fertilizers come in a variety of formulas and hence can be selected fairly specifically according to the attributes of the plants you wish to boost:

Fertilizers very high in nitrogen (such as the organic poultry manure) stimulate green growth on lawns, hedges and leafy vegetables and ornamentals.

Broader spectrum feeds (such as the organic fish, blood and bone or the versatile Vitax Q4) will encourage flowers, fruit and root growth as well, useful when growing plants such as flowering shrubs, flowering perennials, roses, many vegetables and both tree and bush fruit.

There are also special fertilizers for lime hating plants such as Rhododendrons, Blueberries and Cranberries.

However, do bear in mind when using any fertilizer that ‘more’ is never ‘better’ so do stick to the manufacturer’s recommended application rates. Overdoses of fertilizers – particularly chemical ones – are merely toxic to both plants and to the soil organisms which create natural fertility. (This is why organic growers do not use chemical fertilizers at all). If you kill off these micro-organisms in big enough numbers, the soil will end up in a more impoverished state than before you started. Your plants can also be damaged and killed.

So please feed kindly!

Sue Watts-Cutler (Brackendale Nurseries)


Camellias – A Touch of the Exotic

Originally from South east Asia and China, the camellia has been immortalised in oriental art, religion and fable. The Emperor of China recorded his preferences for green China tea, made from the leaves of one of the Chinese camellias, as far back as 1725 B.C.

Generations later, there are now literally hundreds of types of hardy, large flowered camellias. Their rose-like blooms span from deep red, through shades of pink, to primrose yellow, white and marbled bicolors.

Flower shapes too vary enormously: there are singles with golden stamens, doubles, ones that look like dahlias, or like anemones or like full blown paeonies. Others have massed miniature flowers. All of them are perfectly complemented by glossy evergreen leaves.

Camellias are all the more welcome because they flower at times of year when few other shrubs do. Most camellias flower in spring from February to March – although, like rhododendrons, some buds which formed during the summer may sometimes open in the autumn when temperatures and daylight hours are indistinguishable from real spring.

The majority of spring camellias flower early, around February, and continue into March.

Perhaps less well known are the winter flowering camellia sasanqua types, which produce single or semi double blooms around November to December which (unlike the spring types) are scented with a musky lemon fragrance. Camellia sasanqua types need a sheltered and sunny position at flowering time to perform at their best.

In contrast to these, the popular spring flowering camellias are woodland plants, thriving in sheltered, dappled shade in a humus rich, peaty soil – exactly the conditions they would encounter in a woodland position with overhead trees.

The weather can often be unkind in February and March and frosts can disfigure open blooms if they strike overnight and the morning sun then falls upon the icy coating. This combination leads to a browning of the edges of the petals and for this reason it is recommended that camellias are not planted in an east facing position where the morning sun may fall upon the frost-covered flowers. A sheltered north or west facing site is preferable (south facing tends to be just a little too hot and arid in the summer).

After spring flowering is over, the plant puts on green growth, then prepares to recharge itself and to set new flower buds during the summer, ready for the next season’s display. Feeding it with suitable granular rhododendron food from petal fall to midsummer will maximise the number of buds the plant will form for the following spring.

Another related tip is not to allow the plant to become aridly dry in late summer or autumn when it has formed its flower buds, as dryness during this time can result in the plant aborting flower buds before they have the chance to open the following spring.

Although they will eventually form large shrubs 12 feet (3-4m) in height or so if left to their own devices, camellias can be also be successfully grown on walls or fences if fan trained on wires. In this way their size can be limited. If you wish to fan train a camellia, choose a type which naturally has longer, arching stems such as ‘Debbie’, rather than very bushy and compact types such as ‘Donation’ which will take longer to train effectively.

Camellias also make very showy specimens for large tubs, where they can be grown for a number of years, depending on the size of the pot. Plant them in a mixture of neutral or acid soil and some acid, organic compost, such as that sold for rhododendrons. Alternatively, the bagged compost, ‘John Innes Ericaceous’, already comprises both of these components. A camellia grown in a tub will need to be fed using a liquid or soluble feed such as ‘Miracid’ rather than a granular fertilizer.

Happy springtime! Sue Watts-Cutler

Heathers for colour all year round!

Heathers have a huge contribution to make in the garden. Most are essentially dwarf, shrubby, evergreens which can generally be slotted into even the smallest of borders.

Thanks to modern breeding, there is also now at least one type of heather in flower pretty well every month of the year – winter, spring, summer and autumn. Flowers are each small in themselves but produced in large quantities, pitcher or bell-shaped, and provide good nectar for bees. The flower colours range from deepest crimson, through shades of carmine pink (the deepest of these referred to as ‘red’) to pale rose pink and white. Some types are double flowered; some have contrasting brown central stamens.

The colour of the flowers, however, is not the only attraction: there is a range of foliage colours available too, including mossy Wedgewood greens, golden yellow and silver grey. Perhaps the most dramatic of the foliage types are those (mainly of the Calluna type heathers) whose foliage changes colour at different times of year. The Calluna ‘Wickwar Flame’, for instance, is one type which is golden yellow in summer but changes to fiery red as the winter cold sets in. In springtime, other Callunas, such as ‘Flamingo’ or ‘Spring Torch’ turn into mounds of pink, red, orange or cream as bright, contrasting spring tips appear on the ends of every sprig. Even when not in flower, such heathers can make a colourful tapestry by foliage alone.

Heathers are shallow rooted and hence tend to thrive best on open sites which do not become aridly dry in summer. All heather types prefer an acid soil (if Rhododendrons are thriving where you live and the Hydrangea flowers tend towards violet or blue, this is a good indication of acidity) but some are far less fussy than others. If you think your garden is a little alkaline, choose from the Erica Carnea, Erica x Darlyensis, or Erica Vagans groups. Although digging acid compost or rotted leaves around the plants is always welcome, it will have little lasting effect on the basic ph of the soil, so choose appropriately.

To keep your heathers at their most colourful and to prevent them becoming woody, trim annually around March-April by giving them a light ‘haircut’ with shears or clippers. Avoid cutting back hard into old wood, though, as they may not recover.

Here are some popular groups, although this list is by no means exhaustive:

Erica carnea types – low growing (approx. 12″/30 cms), winter flowering heathers, blooming some time between December and March in shades of pink or white. A few coloured foliage forms are available. Excellent for winter displays.

Erica x darlyensis types – another winter heather, very similar in to the carnea type but taller, around 18″/45 cms.

Calluna vulgaris types – the ‘Scotch Heather’ or ‘Ling’ type. Upright, whipcord foliage in a range of foliage colours. These flower in summer or autumn, according to breeding, but can give foliage displays in winter or spring. The flowers are smaller than those of other types. Height approx. 2ft/60cms.

Erica vagans types – the ‘Cornish Heath’ type with colourful bottle brush spikes of white or pink summer flowers. Up to approx. 12″/30 cms.

Erica cinerea types – the ‘Bell Heather’ produces a smaller number of larger, bell-shaped flowers, often in intense shades of deep pink or red, mid-summer to early autumn. They make a gentle rattling sound when ruffled by the breeze. Height approx. 12″/30 cms.

Daboecia types – the ‘Irish’ or ‘Connemara’ Heath has comparatively large, single, pitcher-shaped flowers of rose purple or white between early summer and late autumn, against dark, shiny leaves. Height up to approx. 12″/30 cms.

Happy Gardening!

Sue Watts-Cutler


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Sue Watts-Cutler


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