Category: Gardening techniques

Oriental poppies can be sheared hard after flowering.

Oriental poppies can be sheared hard after flowering.

If May is the busiest gardening month, June is the month of nurture and bringing the garden to its midsummer best. You’ve made those sowings and now’s the time to plant out, protect and pamper. Here are my top ten tips for activity this month. I hope they’re useful.

1. Keep on mulching

Apply loose organic mulches to the soil now to keep it moist and deter weed growth. Choose a mulch to suit the situation, and apply it when the soil is wet and weed free. A mulch can also improve the visual appearance of a bed, and will act as a safe habitat for all sorts of beneficial creatures, such as centipedes and beetles, that eat slugs and other pests. You can use wood chips after they’ve been left for a year, so that when you put them on the soil they don’t rob it of nitrogen as they decompose. Or sow a ‘green manure’ cover crop on any bare ground. Buckwheat, phacelia, mustard and fenugreek are quick growing green manures that can be sown now. They’ll help to improve the ground, suppress weeds, make a good ground cover for beetles and other predators and, if you let them flower, buckwheat and phacelia are very attractive to bees – and people.

Wood chip mulch (as long as it's at leas ta year old) can be a good mulch to add around planst to conserve moisture and add goodness

Wood chips (as long as they’re at least a year old) can be a good mulch to add around plants to conserve moisture and add goodness

2. Fruit fooling 

Put netting over ripening soft fruit to keep the birds from getting it before you do. A special fruit cage is great, but a temporary structure covered with netting will do just as well. Strawberries should be forming and ripening fast and other soft fruits are coming on stream (though with the mild winter this all may be a couple of weeks earlier this year).  The fruitlets on fruit trees should be swelling. I’ve noticed another good show of blossom on most of my fruit trees this year, as last, and with no frost to speak of, the plum in particular seems to be developing a lot of fruit, so hopefully we’ll have a bumper harvest. Once the fruitlets are visible they can be thinned on apples, pears, plums and other tree fruit – and gooseberries too. This is vital if the ‘set’ has been good to ensure good sized fruit.

It’s also time to start summer pruning trained fruit like plums and cherries as well as trees or bushes. For trees and bushes, after getting rid of dead, diseased or dying branches try to encourage an open, wine goblet shape. Take out strong vertical growth or crossing branches to reduce the weight of the branches and congestion – a maximum of about 10-20% of living material can be removed. Keep watering fruit trees and bushes as much as you can, even after it has rained. Continue to harvest Rhubarb into July. Harvest the stalks with a gentle ‘twist and pull’ motion, rather than cutting them.

Simple net cages can help to protect fruit and veg from birds and butterflies

Simple net cages can help to protect fruit and veg from birds and butterflies

3. Veg and herbs

Earlier sowings of vegetables should be growing well now, with some early harvests possible towards the end of the month. I’ve yet to have my first pickings of autumn sown Broad Beans, but they’re on the way! Small, first pickings of the season are always particularly tasty. Don’t wait until everything is fully grown before you start to harvest. Also, if your first sowings and plantings have failed or are looking weak there is still time to sow some more. Runner beans should be in the ground and need to be encouraged to climb up their supports. They twist the other way from most other beans – clockwise when viewed from above.

Keep an eye on Brassica crops, such as cabbages, sprouts and calabrese, which are favourites with many pests, from aphids and whitefly to pigeons and rabbits – net these with a fine gauge mesh for reliable protection and remove insects by hand or water spray. Plant out pots of basil and other tender herbs.  Snails seem to love basil, so use plenty of deterrents and controls round new plants. You can also keep Basil indoors, on a sunny windowsill for larger, lusher leaves.

Encourage runner beans to twist around their supports

Encourage runner beans to twist around their supports

4. Weeds 

Hoe regularly to keep weeds under control. Keep the blade sharp and hoe when seedlings are small and in dry weather for the best results. Dig out bindweed on sight! This perennial weed hates disturbance, so as long as you can dig it out as soon as it sprouts, it will eventually give up. However, rockeries and shrubberies are difficult. Unless you lift everything out and dig the area over you won’t succeed. Mulching with a durable light-excluding material can work here. But there must be no light, and no holes. The bindweed must be completely smothered.

Create a ‘ Weed End Bag’  – this is a way ofrecycling’ pernicious weeds, such as bindweed, which you shouldn’t add straight to the compost heap. Stuff the plants into a black plastic sack or an old potting compost bag. Leave in an out-of-the-way corner until it all becomes sludge, then you can compost it.

Hoeing regularly makes weed control so much easier

Hoeing regularly makes weed control so much easier

5.  Steady as she goes

Finish off all top-dressing, staking and pruning tasks in the ornamental garden that may not have been completed last month. Cut back spring-flowering clematis this month, and cut down daffodil and other spring bulb foliage now. If possible add a slow release fertiliser (e.g. Fish, Blood and Bone) to feed the bulbs that you’re leaving in the ground – otherwise dig up the bulbs and store in a dry place (important if your soil is heavy and tends to retain moisture which will rot the bulbs left in). Tidy up spring-flowering shrubs now if necessary, by cutting out one third of the old wood to encourage strong new shoots. Forsythia can be hard cut to strong new shoots to encourage new growth that will flower next year. I’ve yet to do this, and the likes of Weigela, Deutzia and Kolkwitzia will also need doing soon, once they’ve finished flowering.

Cut oriental poppies back hard after flowering (mine are later this year, just coming into flower) – ideally, there should be something planted alongside to take over the space (e.g. hardy fuchsias). Deadheading many flowers as they go over this month can result in a second flowering, in particular this is worth doing for your hardy and half-hardy annuals, to ensure their one and only season lasts as long as possible. Perennials will also benefit – for example, later in the month Lupins and Delphiniums can be deadheaded to encourage a second flowering later in the summer.

6. Flower planting 

Fill any gaps in your borders with annual bedding plants. Water them regularly, particularly in drier weather and in the days after planting. Watering in hotter months is always better done in the morning or evening, to avoid scorching plants in the heat of the day. Sow biennials such as Wallflowers and Foxgloves for next year. If you are short of space these will be perfectly happy in pots in a sheltered spot until the autumn when they can then be planted in their final positions (though Wallflowers seem to do best in open ground). Water pots and baskets daily – even when it’s raining! Plants are growing vigorously and June sun can be very strong, so watering twice a day is sometimes necessary.

Phacelia is a 'green manure' and its flowers are a great source of food for bees

Phacelia is a ‘green manure’ and its flowers are a great source of food for bees


7. Greenhouse care 

Temperatures in greenhouses and conservatories will (hopefully) soar this month. Even a couple of days will be enough to cook plants. Ventilation and shading is essential. If you’re going away and have no helpful neighbour, put plants outside, or leave the greenhouse door wide open. Standing a bucket of water in the greenhouse will help to maintain humidity.

Keep newly planted veg well watered- an automatic seep hose system is great if you're going on holiday

Keep newly planted veg well watered- an automatic seep hose system is great if you’re going on holiday

8. Green, green grass of home 

Lawns don’t need watering. Grass may not look at its best in a drought, but it is a great survivor and will come back again when it rains. Unless you have newly laid turf to water in, leave the lawn to look after itself. Don’t mow the grass too short. Cutting height should be about 2.5cm/1” for the summer. If possible, rake before you mow. This lifts weeds up so that the mower blades catch them.

9. Trimming and growing 

Give Box and Yew hedges and topiary and bushes of Lonicera nitida a clip/trim, though, if like here, they seem to be well ahead this year, you might have already done this. Ideally do this on a dull, damp day to avoid the cut leaves of Box turning brown as they dry out in the sun. Give them a feed with a slow release fertiliser after clipping to help them recover. Repeat in September to keep topiary and hedges in a good shape over the winter. When trimming hedges, watch out for nesting birds. Some will still be feeding newly hatched chicks. Leave these areas alone for a few more weeks. June is a good month to take cuttings from some plants, and to save seed from others – early flowering plants, such as Aquilegia and Hellebores, will be setting seed from now on, though the Hellebores seem to have been early this year. If you collect Hellebore seeds before they form a hard seed coat, you can save yourself a lot of time and waiting. The seeds look black and shiny and are still slightly soft and wet. Sow these seeds immediately and they will germinate in a few days, instead of having to wait till the following spring. Take cuttings from hardy fuchsias and penstemons to grow more plants.

Give any Box topiary or hedges a trim this month- tradtionally done on 'Derby Day' in the UK!

Give any Box topiary or hedges a trim this month- tradtionally done on ‘Derby Day’ in the UK!

10. Wildlife friendly 

As we head into summer, bear in mind any little garden visitors you may have. If possible, why not put out a little extra food for birds and also for hedgehogs – warm and overly dry weather can mean there’s a lot less natural food available for these animals. Remember to fill up any bird baths and feeders as often as you can, and consider leaving a small bowl of water out for the hedgehogs too. Contrary to popular myth, hedgehogs should not be fed bread and milk, but actually ordinary cat or dog food is good for them!

Oh, and one last thing- spare some time to sit and enjoy your garden as (hopefully) the warm days of summer arrive!

With thanks to Garden Organic

Old School Gardener

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To Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

As you know I’ve a busy time coming up, travelling about the UK and to Australia, so this may have to be the last letter for a couple months that comments on my gardening life at home. Still, I hope that I can feature some of the places I’ll be visiting – I’m especially looking forward to seeing the many wonderful parks and gardens in Melbourne, Victoria.

Looking back over the past few weeks, a few things stand out. Despite large areas of ground elder remaining in Old School Garden  (it has been so dry I haven’t dared to try to remove any more – along with the plants of course), the garden areas immediately next to the house aren’t looking too bad. Some recent rain has also perked up the large number of plants that I’ve replanted.

In the last few days I’ve also added a few new specimens; two varieties of Veronicastrum (White and pale Pink)  and a Ligularia and Rodgersia in the pond garden. the kitchen garden is also starting to fill up, although, due to being away I’ve limited my sowings and have also gone for a green manure- Phacelia- in some of the beds. I’m especially pleased with the Courtyard Garden , where the Hostas and Candleabra Primula are doing their stuff. Hopefully the garden will survive a number of weeks without weeding and grass cutting and that we get enough rain for things- especially potted plants – to make it through.

Further afield, you may have heard about our latest ‘Groundforce Day’ over at the local churchyard. The new management policy of mowing paths though blocks of longer grass and wildflowers seems to be coming together nicely and a few days ago a few of us started to tackle the weeds and grass that has grown over the drainage strip of cobbles surrounding the church walls; it is satisfying seeing a tidy edge to the rather mole-ridden grass.

And I mustn’t forget that I’ve been spending quite a few hours online studying permaculture, via a course put on by Oregon State University and apparently being studied by over 10,000 people worldwide! This has been fascinating, with a good mix of videos, podcasts, online links and design exercises to put me through my paces. It’s been interesting comparing the Permaculture Design process with the more conventional process I’m used to, and having revisited the Concept Design for the Grow Organisation which I developed a few months ago as the focus of my study, I can see now ho permaculture principles and design processes have enriched my assessment of the site and helped me develop new angles on my earlier design; in putting greater emphasis on water harvesting and management for example.

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I was sorry to hear about your lingering ill health, old friend and wish you better soon. As the weather warms, try to get outside into that lovely garden of yours; it is bound to lift your spirits.. All the best for now and my next letter will come to you from somewhere in Australia!

Old School Gardener










To Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

I hope you and Lise are well. I’ve had a good month in Old School Garden…though having neglected the weeding for a year or two, I’m now paying the price.

I’ve managed to put in a good few hours digging up the borders nearest to the house, removing ground elder and replanting (as well as dividing) the plants. It’s been a bit late I know, but most of the re-plants seem to be recovering from the shock of being dug up. I’ve planted up the two front-door pots with a purple-leaved Hebe called ‘True Love’…and I’m pleased to see the first flowers on the Candelabra Primulas I’ve grown from seed, a nice purply-pink..

 I’m about to plant my second early potatoes (later than usual to try to time them for our return form a long trip to Australia), and the Phacelia I sowed a few weeks ago, as a green manure, seems to be coming on.  I’m also pleased to report a good lot of blossom on the fruit trees, some of which I gave a heavy prune a few months ago. Let’s hope the bees do their job and we don’t get caught by a late frost. Tomorrow I’ll be putting the potatoes in and netting the strawberries, before the deer get in and nibble off the tops.

Plot for potatoes dug over..

I’ve also been doing  a little hoeing, and as one of my blog followers was interested in what my Wolf hoe looks like here’s a picture…definitely one of my favourite garden tools.

The Wolf hoe

We’ve just returned from a very enjoyable trip to the North west to visit our friends Nick and Felicity, and part of this was spent on a very enjoyable visit to Tatton Park, where I was blown away by the quality of the place and especially the Japanese Ggarden…I’ll post a few pictures on this trip soon.

I’m also pleased to report practical progress at the Grow Project in Norwich, where an enthusiastic team is getting some growing beds in place by using straw bales in what will be the Trials area in due course.

The next few months (through a combination of Green Flag Award judging, Jury Service, holidays and a six week trip to Australia) will see me with little time in the Garden, but hopefully I’ve done enough to keep it in reasonable shape until another burst of clearing and tidying (as well as my major push on restructuring the Kitchen Garden), towards late summer/autumn. Hopefully we can get over to see you at some point!

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Old School Gardener










seed sowingWell, how’s the weather been with you? In the last week or two the sun has shone and it’s been glorious gardening in Norfolk!

The weather seems pretty settled, though it’s April, so things can be wet and windy…. If, like me, you might still be a bit behind with one or two things, my first tip won’t be a surprise!

1. Backtrack

Take a look at my last list of tips and see if any still need to be done, as the warmer weather might encourage you to get outside…

As the weather warms divide overgrown waterlillies and maybe add some to your pond

As the weather warms divide overgrown waterlillies and maybe add some new plants to your pond

2. Pond life

April is normally the month to lift and divide waterlilies, replanting divided plants in aquatic compost topped with washed gravel in a planting basket.  It’s also time to plant up some new aquatic plants in your pond, from friends and neighbours, if not the local nursery. Providing a variety of plants will provide food and shelter for many of your pond ‘critters’ in the next few months. Make sure you have enough oxygenating plants to prevent algae developing. While you’re there, and if you didn’t do it last month, check your pond pumps and filters.

Aphids on beans

Aphids on beans

3. Pest watch

Stay vigilant for aphids – green-fly, black-fly – as they will  start to multiply as the weather begins to warm up. Check all your plants regularly, especially roses, and squash any clusters of them with your fingers, or spray with a solution of crushed garlic and water to remove them organically. The first lily beetles may start to appear – pick off the bright red beetles and squash them. Keep (or start) patrolling for slugs and snails and pick these off and ‘dispose’ of them as you wish. Alternatively use a beer trap or pellets that do not contain Metaldehyde.

If you're a keen cook and you have the space, you may want to create a special herb garden like this- or if not just find a sunny spot for a few fragrant favourites!

If you’re a keen cook and you have the space, you may want to create a special herb garden like this- or if not just find a sunny spot for a few fragrant favourites!

4. Heaven scent

Why not sow a range of herbs as the weather starts to warm up? These could include sage, parsley, thyme, fennel and rosemary, which will all add scent to the garden as well as being useful for cooking. Sow the assorted herb seeds in a prepared seed bed in shallow drills at least 30cm apart. You can plant seedlings up into containers or beds – either way they like a well-prepared soil with plenty of organic matter, such as homemade compost. Herbs will tolerate most conditions, as long as they have plenty of regular sun, so be careful where you put your herb plot – mine is too shady!

5. Nature’s gift

Check for emerging self-seeded plants and transplant or pot these ‘freebies’ up before weeding and mulching your borders.

6. Stay in trim

Lavender and other silver-leaved plants will benefit from a tidy up if you haven’t already shorn them of the top few centimetres of growth (but avoid cutting into thicker, older stems unless you want to renovate over-grown specimens – I’ve did this to my rather large rosemary bush last year and its come back fighting!). Start trimming box hedges and topiaries, or wait another three to four weeks in colder areas. Prune early flowering shrubs like Forsythia, Ribes etc. once they’ve finished flowering. Deadhead daffodils as soon as the flowers fade, so they don’t waste their energy producing seeds. Apply a general feed to them like Blood, Fish and Bone.

Red Cabbage seedlings on one of my 'seedy cills'

Red Cabbage seedlings on one of my ‘seedy cills’

7. Transfer window

Prick out and pot on seedlings before they become leggy and overcrowded. See my post on ‘7 tips for successful seedlings’.

8. Under cover

Ventilate greenhouses and cold frames in good weather to prevent a build-up of pests and diseases. Start giving houseplants more water. Protect fruit blossom and young plants from late frosts with horticultural fleece.

Easter time is the traditional planting time for early potatoes in the UK, though I've already got my 'first earlies' in.

Easter time is the traditional planting time for early potatoes in the UK, though I’ve already got my ‘first earlies’ in.

9. Spud you like

Good Friday is the traditional day for potato planting (ideally in ground that is well-manured and weed free)! As Easter was early this year and the weather has been on the cold side, I’m going to put my first and second earlies in over the next week or two.

10. Sow ‘n’ grow

These can all be sown outside, if the weather and soil has warmed up:

  • hardy annuals (e.g. Calendula and Nasturtium), in shallow drills or patches

  • new lawns (and also repair bald patches and damaged edges) – if this wasn’t done last month

  • veg, like runner, broad and French beans, beetroot, carrots, cabbages, salad onions, spinach, herbs and Brussels sprouts.

Vegetables like courgette, marrows, tomato and sweetcorn can be started off indoors.

Old School Gardener

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To Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

This has been a month of really ‘getting going’ in Old School Garden. My hip and back have held up well so I’ve gradually increased my labouring times in the garden…I managed about 8 hours yesterday!

Whilst I’ve made inroads into the weeding- not an easy task with ground elder entangled ‘big time’ among the borders- it’s also been a time of upheaval, especially in the Kitchen Garden.

Here I’ve commenced my major reorganisation by removing the various trellises and posts – for reuse in a different position. I’ve also planted out a new row of summer fruiting raspberries and relocated a row of autumn fruiting too. At the same time the currant bushes and gooseberries have all been moved around, so the new grand plan is taking shape.

Relocated summer raspberries

I plan to use the trellis to more clearly separate off the Kitchen Garden and at the same time create an arched entrance which will be repeated along the sides of the first beds to create a rose walkway- I’ve recently bought six ‘Compassion’ climbing roses which I’m looking forward to seeing clamber up wooden uprights and along either a wooden bar or perhaps a rope swag.

In destructive mode (or perhaps ‘reconstructive’ would be better?) I’ve also removed the three old stumps of a large Ash tree that once overlooked the kitchen garden and which latterly have become clothed in ivy that has got out of hand. I must say the area looks a lot neater and will also open up a corner of the kitchen garden to more light too. It was facinating seeing how the process of decay has taken hold of the inner core of these stumps and how the material gradually reverts to something resembling soil…along with innumerable chrysalis’ of beetles and other rotting wood feeding critters.

With the warmer weather and longer days, this is the time to really get stuck into the garden, so I hope that you and Ferdy are also enjoying yourselves in your beautiful plot. I cut the grass here for the first time the other day and doesn’t that just improve the look of the most untidy garden?!

Today I’ve been to an interesting talk about the ‘Walled Kitchen Garden’ given by a local garden designer. This was very enjoyable and expanded my knowledge of the history and some of the old practices used in these wonderful places. Of course, as you will have been reading I’m really enjoying my volunteering at Blickling with its wonderful regenerated walled garden. I can’t believe its only 18 months since that project much has been achieved.

I’ve mentioned the Allotment Project at Reepham High School, I think. I’m pleased to say that the greenhouse I managed to dismantle and reconstruct is in situ and hopefully it won’t be long before the glass is in and it’s being used to propagate seeds and maybe even grow tomatoes. And I must also mention that the project was the runner-up in a Norfolk ecological competition recently. Well deserved, so congratulations to Matt Willer and all the volunteers at the project!

I also visited a recently established Organic Market Garden at Booton, next door to Reepham the other day. Eves Hill Veg Co. is a social enterprise set up by Hannah Claxton who is gradually relocating herself from her current base in London (where she teaches organic growing) to this base, where currently a number of volunteers are engaged in getting the year’s growing season underway. I was pleased to meet Hannah and some of the volunteers and I wish them every success; maybe I can be of help to them at some point too. I was also grateful to be able to collect a trailer load of compost for free from them; courtesy of a local industrial scale composting facility (which composts household waste). The compost isn’t very fertile but it’s lovely stuff for building soil structure and for mulching, which is how I’ll be using it here.

Thanks for the compost Hannah!

Well, old friend, I think it’s time to be planning my day in the garden tomorrow…I think it’ll be a combination of more border clearance, ground elder removal, replenishing the compost in some long-term potted shrubs, and sowing some Phacelia. As we are going to be away for a longish period in a few weeks, I’m not planning to grow much by way of food this year. So this ‘Green Manure’ is perfect for covering the ground and then enriching it as it’s dug in. Happy gardening!

Old School Gardener








wp_20170225_12_20_02_proTo Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

I’m making progress in Old School Garden– well, sort of. Having a solid five hour stint the other day I was pleased to see some of the front borders looking tidier, and hopefully, largely clear of the ground elder that had started to take over. Here ate the results; both borders now have repositioned roses which will eventually have a spread of Stachys byzantina surrounding them and for late summer/autumn a good number of Nerine bowdenii

Part of this day also involved removing the large clumps of Nepeta that had become too over powering around the roses. I have these in a barrow ready to fill another border that’s in the process of being cleared (and some will also go along the edges of a tunnel of climbing roses. I picked up some Convallaria bulbs (‘Lily of the Valley’) the other day and plan to under plant the Nepeta with these to provide a nice flowering combination- and some scent.

I’ve also carried on with the pruning and tidying elsewhere, but this is a long job and I can see quite a few bonfires on the way! The old cherry tree stump that has been acting as a base for a bird bath has finally rotted away in the ground so I’ve removed it (more firewood!).

wp_20170225_12_19_26_proI can report that my hip is holding up well so far, and I’m (very) gradually building up my muscle strength. I’m due to see a physiotherapist next week, so maybe I’ll have some other useful advice on what else I should be doing. The other day we had that ‘named storm’ called Doris pass by. How were you affected? I imagine possibly quite badly living up north as you do. Did you lose power, have any upturned trees etc? Fortunately we got away fairly lightly; a few garden furniture items fell over, and one pot toppled and cracked…

wp_20170225_08_11_21_proStill, the days are lengthening and some late winter/early spring flowers are doing their stuff…

I had a very interesting visit to a horticultural and associated workshop called ‘The Mount’ which is located next door to (and used by) a unit for those with mental health problems on the edge of Norwich. It’s been going for about 25 years and I was inspired to hear about the many ways the staff engage the service users in all manner of construction and growing projects. We could see an outdoor oven in the course of construction and took a look at the greenhouses and raised beds which are used extensively to grow all sorts of food and other crops. ..

Around 20 service users are involved regularly. I joined a small group of people interested in setting up something similar at a nearby Psychiatric Hospital. We had a good talk about their plans and ideas and I’m going to be involved in helping to develop the project. You may recall I mentioned before my role in a similar project called ‘The Grow Organisation’ on the other side of Norwich. I hope that we can help these and other projects to work together and perhaps to form a useful network of horticultural therapy projects in the area to benefit a wide range of people with mental and other health issues.

My other garden-related project involved spending nearly six hours last week dismantling a greenhouse!  Whilst doing our regular weekly shop we spotted an advert offering the greenhouse for free to anyone willing to dismantle it. We immediately thought of ‘The Allotment Project’ at the local High School and as we suspected the leader of that project, Matt, was enthusiastic about getting it. So having transported it over a few days ago (sadly there were a couple of glass breakages in transit and I had a gashed head for my troubles) yesterday I  went over to help with the process of installing it. Matt and I discussed location and settled, eventually, on a spot opposite the existing poly tunnel. Here are some  pictures…

Fortunately Matt had a few Railway Sleepers which we decided to use as the base, sunk in the ground and which the base of the frame could be screwed to. It was just as tricky reassembling the ends of the house as it was dismantling them- lots of nuts and bolts and very little room to get in a spanner. Still, I left yesterday with the base well on the way to being installed and the frame in a state where it can be fixed. So I’ll be returning next week to help finish off the job. A couple of other guys worked on finishing off the Chicken coop (formerly a childrens’ play house!) and I was also pleased to see that the Broad Beans I’d helped some students sow in the Autumn were coming along nicely (see pics above).

Back home, I’ve reached some conclusions on rearranging the kitchen garden, so hope in the next few weeks to get some of the trellis moved and a new fruit cage created for the raspberries and currants. I’m yet to finalise the position of the three gooseberry bushes I have, but I’m going to take a chance on putting these out in a sunny position in the open. I hope that you and Lise are looking forward to your spring break in Switzerland…you must tell us all about it when we see you at Easter.

 Old School Gardener







New border? February is a good time to cut out new areas ,like this one at Old school Garden, created last year

New border? February is a good time to cut out new areas, like this one at Old School Garden, created in 2012


Apart from some grey, cold days, we seem to have escaped the sort of raw winter in Norfolk. It might not be safe to assume that the worst of the winter is behind us, but Spring is just round the corner so here are my 10 top tips for upping activity levels in the February garden!

1. Where the wild things are…

It’s the last chance to put up bird nesting boxes this month – tits will soon be looking for a new home. Keep putting bird food out to encourage these ‘gardener’s friends’ into your plot. Click here for bird boxes and feeders to buy.

Bird boxes in all shapes and sizes…


2. Breathe deep…..

To help avoid fungal diseases make sure you let some fresh air into your greenhouse or conservatory on mild days.

3. The green green grass of home….

Look at your lawn and if the weather is dry and frost free look for areas that are a bit soggy or damp – use a border fork to pierce it around every 15cms or so to allow ventilation and improve drainage. If you’ve a moss problem, start using ferrous sulphate to kill it off.

4. Fruit shoots…

If you haven’t already done so plant new bare-root raspberry canes (cut the stems down to about 25cms after planting) and also cut down autumn-fruiting varieties to ground level.

February is a good time to dig over your borders- but maybe not quite as deeply as this...

February is a good time to dig over your borders- but maybe not quite as deeply as this…


5. Get Cultivating…..

Keep digging over beds and borders and incorporate organic matter (compost, manure etc.) as you go to help improve its fertility (or if your soil is light, like here, avoid the digging and just layer on the organic stuff for light forking in later). Forking over the ground will help to open it up so that air can get in and expose pests for hungry birds.

6. On the border…

Storms, floods or cold may have battered your borders; or perhaps you’re thinking of adapting them to wetter weather? Now’s the time to review – do you need to reposition or replace some shrubs to improve the structure of the garden in winter or do some shrubs need to be replaced with more hardy/wet – tolerant varieties? Think about the way your borders look at different times of the year – is there ‘all season’ interest? Maybe you fancy creating a new border? – if so plan and mark the edges with pegs and lines (straight edges) or a trickle of sand/hose pipe for more organic shapes. You can also cut border edges where they meet the lawn with a ‘half moon’ or sharp spade to start defining your lawn and making things look a little tidier.

Pruning shrubs grown for their winter stem colour such as Dogwoods

Pruning shrubs grown for their winter stem colour such as Dogwoods


7. Cutting crew…

An important month for pruning and tidying:

  • Late summer and autumn flowering clematis should be cut down to about 30cms above a bud.

  • Improve the shape of evergreen shrubs and hedges where necessary

  • (If you haven’t already) cut all shoots coming from the permanent branches of Wisteria to 2-3 buds of the previous season’s growth (encourages the development of more flowering spurs).

  • Deciduous shrubs grown for their coloured leaves or winter stems– prune down to a couple of buds on each stem (or if you want a larger bush leave a few stems a bit longer).

  • Roses– cut out all dead, diseased, dying or crossing stems. Hybrid tea roses should be cut back to about 20cms to an outward facing bud and Floribundas (flowers in clusters) down to 25- 30cms. Shrub roses don’t need much trimming, perhaps remove 1 in 3 older stems at ground level to encourage new growth.

  • Tidy up the leaves of Hellebores which will be/are coming into flower –remove the old leaves (improves the flower display and reduces the chance of disease)

  • If you have Pansies or Primroses keep deadheading the spent flowers.

8. Gimme gimme…

Feed all your pruned plants with a suitable fertiliser and mulch with manure or compost. Remove the top layer of soil in containers and replace with fresh compost containing a slow release fertiliser once the weather is milder. Likewise remove or incorporate any remaining mulch around fruit trees and shrubs and feed them with an organic fertiliser (e.g. fish, blood and bone) around their roots. Then replace with a fresh mulch of organic material to help feed them slowly and keep the weeds down.

repair/install netting around fruit bushes

Repair/install netting around fruit bushes


9. Protect and survive…

Use garden fleece or cloches around some strawberry plants to encourage an early crop. Repair or replace netting over fruit bushes such as blackcurrants and gooseberries to protect them from birds (some of which like to eat fresh fruit buds). Have a look for ‘frost heave’– where cold conditions have pushed the base of a plant above ground- carefully replace the plant and firm around the base. If you have Hostas it might be worth applying a liquid slug killer to them (repeated at 2 fortnightly intervals) to give them a good chance of avoiding damage later.

10. Get growing…

Sowing seeds in trays or modules can really get underway this month

Sowing seeds in trays or modules can really get underway this month


Early vegetable and salad crops can be sown in seed trays or modules and placed in a greenhouse or inside on a windowsill in bright and airy conditions (but not in direct sunshine)- keep turning the trays to ensure even, upright growth and prick the seedlings out once the first true leaves have formed. Broad beans, early carrots and parsnips can be sown outside under cloches.

Old School Gardener

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wp_20170127_11_44_10_proTo Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

I hope that the early days of 2017 find you and Lise in good health! We’ve had some very cold and frosty weather here in the last few weeks. Coupled with my continuing problem with my hip/leg (which I’m pleased to say has more or less recovered in the last few days), this has meant very limited gardening activity this month.

In  Old School Garden, the only worthwhile job has been starting the pruning of the apple trees and one or two other specimens. As you can see from the picture below, I’ve done some fairly significant ‘formative’ pruning in the orchard, where the lower branches of some of the trees were starting to prove a real obstacle when cutting the grass; and hopefully by removing them this will also improve the yield (though last year’s crop wasn’t too bad).

wp_20170127_11_43_50_proApart from this little bit of practical work, I’ve been in ‘planning ‘mode, especially thinking about the kitchen garden. As you know, I’ve become more and more concerned at the lack of fruit on the summer and to an extent autumn raspberries. I’ve concluded that I need to move the area devoted to these, as it must be many years that they’ve been here, and despite some replacement plants, the rows don’t look that healthy.

So, this could have knock on effects on the rest of the kitchen garden layout and I’m currently thinking through moving all of our soft fruit bushes onto the large raised bed to the north-east of the plot and using this as an opportunity to put in a permanent fruit cage that will be more comfortable to work in (the current one is a little on the short size) and will at the same time enable me to keep the raspberries protected more effectively.

Also, I think I might move the border trellis around to create more of an enclosed feel to the kitchen garden- this will open up some of the southern beds to more sunlight too, so no bad thing. Much of the woodwork will also need a good clean and repaint, so when you add to this my plans to replace my potting shed, it looks like this year’s major project is a refurbishment of the kitchen garden!

Further afield I’ve continued to develop my involvement in ‘Green Care’ most notably with  ‘The Grow Organisation‘ in Norwich, but also recently visiting another project along these line near Fakenham called ‘The Nurture Project’; I’m increasingly aware of a number of these ‘therapeutic horticulture’ projects around Norfolk so am wondering if there would be some benefit in trying to encourage them to network and promote their joint cause with health organisations and others locally… we shall see.

Here’s a very interesting graphic taken from the Nurture Project’s website which captures the therapeutic value of various types of engagement with nature, including the ways in which gardening can help those with mental and other health issues.

green-careMy talk to the Lindfield Horticultural Society went off pretty well, I think, even though my talk extended well beyond the hour I’d been much to say, so little time to say it…The  subject was ‘Heritage Gardening’ and about 80 people came along to a wonderful venue in the middle of this very attractive village, near Haywards Heath.

The other big news is our plan to visit Australia in June and July. We’ll have 6 weeks there, mainly focused on Melbourne where our daughter and her fiance live. Hopefully this trip will involve visits to some interesting gardens and parks…detailed planning is yet to be done but I’m starting to research things. Of course this will also have a bearing on what I plan for the garden this year; for example I’ve just gone for second early potatoes  (‘Charlotte’, safely placed in window cill trays for chitting).

So, for the next few weeks I think it will be a cautious return to some physical work in  the garden and at Blickling (where I haven’t been for several weeks other than to two very interesting talks about the Walled Garden and the wider estate), coupled with efforts to complete research on the Tree Trail (also at Blickling). I must also firm up those refurbishment plans for the kitchen garden….

 Old School Gardener







To Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

wp_20161229_10_13_24_proI trust that Lise and you had a good Christmas. We certainly have, with our children and their partners with us to share good food, drink, walks and talks. Here’s a picture of them all outside Blickling Hall on Christmas Day.

wp_20161225_13_45_52_pro1In  Old School Garden, I’ve been continuing the tidy up, with most of the remaining leaves collected and stored, as well as some long overdue weeding and plant dividing and moving. We have also been harvesting parsnips, chard and leeks for the festive meals and , as hoped, the ‘Red Delicious’ apples I stored have ripened in time for Christmas.

The weather has offered up some mild, dry days but of late ‘real’ winter has descended with frosty, foggy days. Coupled with the weather and the festivities I seem to have developed a problem with one of my hips which has also prevented me from doing as much outside as I’d hoped. A trip to the doctor indicates inflamed muscles and ligaments, so for now I’m taking anti inflammatories to try to reduce the problem, pending an X Ray to make sure nothing more long term is the cause of the problem. To date, the medication seems to have had little impact, so my days have been uncomfortable and at nighttime my sleep has been disrupted.

Still, garden- related activity has continued….I’ve drawn up my planting plan for the Kitchen Garden in the coming year (see below). During the tidy up I’ve noticed very few stems on the summer fruiting raspberries, so it may be that a move of these is called for as harvests have been disappointing in recent years, despite some new planting in gaps left by older plants. so the plan may need a more radical approach in the next couple of months; weather and hip permitting!

kitchen-gadn-2017Apart from this I’ve had some meetings at ‘The Grow Organisation‘ in Norwich; you remember I mentioned this social enterprise and it’s plans to create a ‘Green Care’ centre? Below is an aerial picture of their site and a shot of the concept plan I’ve produced. We’ve had two very promising meetings with Garden Organic and the Mental Health Foundation Trust I’m involved with as a governor. I’m pleased to say both organisations are fired up by the plans and have agreed to work with us to make the vision a reality and get a range of gardening therapy courses and activities underway. Staff are now seeking outside sponsorship and other funding routes to get phase one of the plan completed; this involves creating a number of raised beds and vertical gardening structures on what is currently a tarmaced basketball/football court. And alongside we hope to build a sunken greenhouse and cold frames, and create an outside working space (including a compost demonstration area) next to the existing potting shed. This is an exciting opportunity which I plan to continue to help in the coming year.

Oh, and do you have any spare garden equipment or tools you could pass on, please? The Allotment Project at the local High School has put out a request for these, so if you or someone you know has things they can spare, please let me know. I plan myself to let them have a wheelbarrow and few tools that are surplus to requirements here.

In a couple of weeks I’m giving a talk to the Lindfield Horticultural Society down in Sussex, courtesy of my old friend Jen and her brother, Chris, who is their Chairman. The topic is ‘Heritage Gardening’. Apart from drawing on my own experience and training in this field (especially my time at Blickling Hall), I plan to feature some unusual examples of heritage gardening from around the country and beyond; and some fun activities too! I’ll let you know how it goes in my January letter to you.

Once this is out of the way, I plan to devote more time to researching the Tree Trail at Blickling, and hopefully finalise the content of this to enable us to move into production of the tree information signs and associated leaflets and other paraphernalia. This will include some ‘leaf stamps’ for children to use as they visit a few of the commoner, native trees. Fingers crossed; I hope to have the bulk of this completed by the time I write to you again in a month’s time.

Until then Deborah and I wish you and Lise an enjoyable New Year celebration, and more importantly, a thriving 2017!

 wp_20161229_10_08_31_proOld School Gardener




Make your own Christmas Wreath?

Make your own Christmas Wreath?

December’s key gardening tasks may seem a little like November’s (and January’s too). But it’s important to be determined and to keep on top of some routine jobs, especially leaf raking (and leaf mould making), and clearing away spent stems and leaves from areas where, if left, they will encourage pests and diseases (but don’t be too tidy). On the other hand, the pace of activity has definitely slowed, so you can afford to take it a bit easier this month (well I  suppose that should read transferring your energies from gardening to christmas shopping, putting up christmas decorations etc.).

Here are a few ideas to help you stay connected to your garden during the onset of winter.

1. Digging (and mulching)

Continue to dig over beds and borders and incorporate as much organic matter as you can (spade work in heavier soils, or border forks in lighter soils like that in Old School Garden). This will not only help to prepare the soil for next year, it will reduce some pests by exposing them to hungry birds. If conditions are too wet or the ground frozen, avoid digging and instead spread a good layer of organic mulch- and let the worms do the work for you over the winter.

2. Clearing

It’s important to clear away old plant debris to prevent slugs and snails setting up home in the warm and damp conditions layers of leaves and stems can create.  Take special care to remove leaves around alpines – they will die if covered up in damp material. It’s also worth covering bare patches around these plants with a top up of gritty compost to aid new growth. But don’t be too tidy as you’ll remove valuable cover and shelter for hibernating animals and insects.

3. Planting

From now through until March is a great time to plant deciduous hedging (bare – rooted whips can be bought from nurseries). Some varieties – Beech and Hornbeam for example –  will retain their old leaves over the winter, and provide good screens. Hawthorn is good for a traditional country hedge and provides a natural, dense barrier (you can add in dogwoods, maple, dog rose and guelder rose to increase the wildlife value). To plant hedging first dig a trench a week or two before planting. This will allow the soil to settle. Then plant out your whips when the ground is moist (but not waterlogged or frozen). If the right conditions are a little while coming either ‘heel in’ your plants somewhere temporarily or keep them in compost in containers. Other trees and shrubs can also be planted – but again, wait for the right conditions.

It’s also a good time to take cuttings from rhododendrons, azaleas, and other evergreen shrubs. New growing tips should be cut to about 10-15 cms long, just below a leaf node, strip off most of the lower leaves and place the cuttings in pots of gritty compost in bright light, keep them moist and at a temperature of around 21 degrees C.

Hedeg planting- now's the time to get started

Hedge planting- now’s the time to get started

4. Protecting

Mulch Hellebores with wood chips to protect their flowers from rain splashes and remove any black spotted leaves (a fungal disease).

Lift any Dahlias in potentially cold and wet positions and store them in a gritty compost or vermiculite somewhere dry, cool but frost-free for the winter. It’s best to leave these (and any begonias you want to keep) in the ground for as long as possible to fatten their tubers- lift after the foliage has been blackened by frost.

Keep an eye on temperatures and if there’s a sudden drop forecast, then erect a temporary cover for tender flowering plants like Rhododendrons, Camellias, Azaleas and Daphne. A few stakes driven into the soil around the plant and a covering of fleece or a sheet should do the job. But make sure the material doesn’t touch the plant and remove the cover as soon as the temperature rises.

Avoid your hose freezing and splitting by stretching it out with both ends open, so allowing water to drain completely. It can then be coiled up and put away somewhere frost free. Likewise make sure any outside taps are covered to protect them from freezing.

Prevent your compost bin from getting too wet or frozen (and so slowing the decomposition process), by covering it with old carpet or plastic sheeting.

5. Decorating

Why not cut some shoots and branches for Christmas decorations and maybe make your own wreaths? Add in cones, dried orange slices, cinnamon sticks, and broad, wired ribbon.

If you normally have an artificial or cut Christmas tree, why not consider buying a rooted one this year? They don’t cost that much more and can be planted out to add a feature to your garden as well as saving a living tree! Make sure that you water a living tree well before bringing it inside and limit the tree’s ‘indoor holiday’ to no more than 10 days, making sure you keep it watered and ideally not in a warm room. Here’s a link to advice on caring for your tree.

A living Christmas Tree this year? In some places you can rent them!

A living Christmas Tree this year? In some places you can rent them!

6. Feeding

Now’s when birds start to go short of natural food, so provide good quality bird food and fat or suet balls, ensuring that feeders are out of the reach of cats. And make sure clean water is available and remains unfrozen.

7. Pruning- or not

Have a quick whisk round trees and shrubs and cut out dead, diseased or dying branches. The spurs on smaller fruit trees can be thinned out, and new horizontal tiered branches on Espaliers can be tied in. Apples, pears, quinces and medlars can be pruned. Cut down the canes of Autumn fruiting raspberries (or leave these in place until February if they are in an exposed position) and prune gooseberries, red and white currants.

Now is the time for coppicing native trees and shrubs. This technique is good for limiting the size of trees in small gardens, turning a tree into a multi-stemmed shrub. It will also provide shelter for wildlife and a breeding ground for butterflies, and lets more light through to the surrounding plants that would otherwise be shaded out by a bigger tree. This opens up the possibility of planting bulbs and ground cover plants around the tree.  Pollarding involves pruning to create a single main trunk, with cutting back of higher level stems. If you are growing shrubs for winter stem colour- e.g Cornus, then wait until spring to cut back the stems to the base.

Avoid cutting back all your perennials as they can provide food and shelter for wildlife in the winter. Anyway, many perennials (e.g. Agapanthus and Rudbeckia) have attractive seed heads and so add a little interest to the winter garden. I particularly like to leave the bleached stems of deciduous grasses in Old School Garden.

Bird Feeders just put up at Old School Garden...must remember the water bowl too!

Bird Feeders just put up at Old School Garden…must remember the water bowl too!

8. Harvesting

If you have them, these crops should all be ready for harvesting:

  • Beetroot

  • Turnips

  • Parsnips (best left until the weather has been frosty)

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Celery

  • Swedes

  • Cabbages

  • Leeks

9. Watering

Rain or snow might tempt you to think you don’t need to water your plants, but those which are growing underneath large evergreens or the eaves of the house or in other ‘rain shadows’, may become very dry. A lack of water in winter can be the death knell for these plants.

10. Winter projects

The weather may be good enough for you to complete a special project to enhance your garden:

  • Add a few native trees and shrubs into your borders and more exotic plantings

  • Build a compost heap – use old pallets to get the cheapest, most effective and sturdiest result

  • Feed hedgehogs with tinned dog food (but not bread and milk)

  • ‘Create’ a pile of sticks and logs to make a wonderful ‘des res’ for hibernating hedgehogs and the like

  • Make a leaf container out of chicken wire and posts to make leaf mould out of fallen leaves (it normally takes about 1 – 2 years to rot down). Alternatively they can be stored wet in large black plastic sacks pierced with a fork to make holes

  • Dig a wildlife pond

Oh, and finally, stay off frozen grass!!!

Old School Gardener


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