Category: Gardening techniques


Carrot harvest via vegetables matter blogspotAs the heat (hopefully) builds, July’s the time to ease off and work smarter, not harder in the garden, and actually take time to enjoy it!

1. Food, glorious food…

  • Get a bumper vegetable harvest – now’s the time to reap a lot of what you’ve sown, but there’s still time to plant extra crops – like carrots
  • Pick courgettes before they become marrows
  • Sow chard for a winter crop
  • Summer prune redcurrants and gooseberries once the crop has been picked (or do it at the same time)
  • Keep an eye on the watering and try to do this early or late in the day to avoid evaporation during hot spells
  • Keep on top of the weeding in your food crops

2. Extend your flowering season

Now we’re in July your garden maybe just past its peak, so take some action to prolong the flowering value of some plants:

  • Cut back early-flowering perennials to the ground and they will send up fresh leaves and maybe even the bonus of some extra late-summer flowers (e.g Geraniums, Nepeta)
  • Give them a boost after pruning with a good soak of water and some tomato feed
  • Exploit plants’ desperate need to set seed by removing blooms as they fade. This will encourage them to produce more flowers to replace them
  • Remember that plants in containers are dependent on you for their water as they’ll get little benefit from any rain. Give them a good soak at least once a day in sunny weather

    Early flowerign perennila slike Oriental poppies can be cut back hard to encourage new foliage and some will also flower again

    Early flowering perennials like Oriental poppies can be cut back hard to encourage new foliage – and some will also flower again.

3.   Look after your pond

  • Look out for any yellowing leaves on water lilies and other water plants and remove them promptly- allowing them to fall off and rot in the water will decrease water quality and encourage algal ‘blooms’
  • Remove blanket weed with a net or rake to let oxygen into your pond. Remember to give aquatic life a chance to get back to the water by piling the weed next to the pond for a day. Add a football-sized net of straw to your pond (you can use old tights or stockings) to reduce the nitrogen levels if  blanket weed is a continuous problem
  • Top up water levels. Water can evaporate rapidly from water features and ponds in the height of summer, so top them up if the water level drops significantly. Fresh rainwater from a water butt is best – chemicals in tap water can affect the nutrient balance in the pond

    Water the greenhouse early or late in the day

    Water the greenhouse early or late in the day

4. Stay watchful in the greenhouse

  • Check plants daily, and once again, water first thing in the morning or in the evening to reduce water loss through evaporation
  • Harden off and plant out any plug plants that you have been growing on
  • Damp down your greenhouse on hot days to increase humidity and deter red spider mites; placing a bucket or watering can of water inside can help to maintain humidity
  • Open vents and doors daily to provide adequate ventilation
  • Use blinds or apply shade paint to prevent the greenhouse from over-heating in sunny weather

    Relax (note the old pallet turned into a stylish lounger) and plan ahead...

    Relax (note the old pallet turned into a stylish lounger) and plan ahead…

5. Relax in your Deck/armchair and…

  • Order catalogues for next year’s spring-flowering bulbs
  • Order perennial plants online now ready for autumn delivery
  • Think about which bulbs you would like for next spring – now is the time to order ready for autumn planting
  • Make a note of your garden’s pros and cons at this time of year to remind you of any changes that you need to make for next year – and take photos so that you can accurately see what it looks like once things have died down
  • Have a leisurely walk around the garden and use string of different colours tied to the stems of plants you are marking out for removal, division etc.
Encourage pest predators like hoverflies by attractive plantings and think about creating winter habitats now

Encourage pest predators like hoverflies by attractive plantings and think about creating winter homes for them now

6. Strengthen your alliance with nature for pest and disease control…

  • Look after your aphid eaters – ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings feast on greenfly and blackfly so it is worth protecting them by avoiding pesticides which will kill them as well as the pests. And why not take steps now to prepare suitable winter habitats for these and other ‘gardeners’ friends’ – e.g. bug hotels, timber piles, areas of long or rough grass or nettles etc.
  • Look for aphids on the underside of leaves – rub them off by hand or spray with an organic insecticide to prevent them multiplying
  • Keep an eye out for scarlet lily beetles on your lilies – remove and crush any you see. Also check for the sticky brown larvae on the underside of leaves
  • If your plants are wilting for no obvious reason then check for vine weevils by tipping your plants out of their pots and looking for ‘C’ shaped creamy maggots amongst the roots – treat with nematodes if vine weevils are spotted
  • Tidy up fallen leaves, flowers and compost – this will prevent potential pest and disease problems

7. Stop plants drying out

  • For recently planted large shrubs or trees, leave a hose trickling around the base for an hour. The same goes for established plants in very dry periods – pay particular attention to camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and hydrangeas which will abort next season’s flowers if they get too dry. Mulch around the roots when moist to help avoid this.
  • Recently planted hedges are best watered with a trickle hose (a length of old hose punctured with little holes) left running for an hour or so

8. Give houseplants a summer holiday

  • Many indoor plants benefit from being placed outside for the summer. Moving many plants out of the conservatory will save them from baking under glass, and lessen some pest and disease problems, such as red spider mite
  • Ventilate and shade sunrooms and conservatories to prevent scorch damage to remaining plants
  • Water houseplants freely when in growth, and feed as necessary (often weekly or fortnightly)

9. Paint your wagon…

  • Give woodwork like sheds, fences, pergolas etc. a lick of paint or preserver, while the weather is dry
Give your shed and other garden woodwork a fresh new look when the weather's dry.

Give your shed and other garden woodwork a fresh new look when the weather’s dry

10. Gimme shelter

  • Slow down and give yourself and your plants a rest from the heat; fix temporary awnings to provide shade in the hottest part of the day – for you and your tenderest plants!

Old School Gardener

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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,

Exciting times!! We’re off to Heathrow tomorrow to pick up our eldest Daughter, her fiance and our grand-daughter…we haven’t seen them in the flesh for a year. As you know they are coming over from Australia to get married at our local church, and our grandaughter is going to be baptised at the same service.

We’re looking forward to welcoming you and Ferdy to the service and reception, which as you know is going to be held in Old School Garden. Needless to say it’s been all go here trying to get the garden ready, and as luck would have it, we discovered a ceiling down after a leak on our return from Ireland a few weeks ago…so the builders (who are already restyling our lounge) have some more work to do…as do I on the decorating front!

So apologies (and to my other blog followers) for being a bit absent on the blog front recently…it’s down to lack of time with everything else going on. Still as they say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ I’ll show you a few select shots of the garden at its spring time best…

I’ve also been over to Blickling which is looking splendid…

And the Sandringham Flower Show Garden is progressing nicekly…we are sourcing pretty much all we need from generous companies and others, but have yet to find some largish trees to add height and structure to the design.

And whilst I haven’t been able to devote any time to the Reepham High School and College Allotment Project, we popped over to see it today , as part of the Reepham Food festival, which was a real delight, and where we managed to hook up with a few old friends. The Project has moved on apace with several major features being added, including a rope pump and an outdoor classroom, (this is under construction and is using virtually all reclaimed and recycled materials) and a new hard roadway and french drain to sort out the drainage problems..

I was over at the church yesterday cutting the grass pathways through the rapidly growing meadow environment and recently we had the fantastic help (once more) of the Community Payback Team, who cleared the ‘triangle’ near the church and on which I’ve sown a meadow seed mix….

This was just before another major gathering at the church, this time the 100 Bomber Support Group (our local airfield was part of this), held part of their annual reunion with us…there was music, cake and plenty of memories and history on show..a great time was had by all……..

I hope you and Ferdy are enjoying the warm sunshine as are. sometime I must tell you about our trip to Ireland, which was a great adventure with some wonderful sights and sounds (and Guinness of course). To round off here’s one picture of the Giant’s Causeway, a magical place..

Old School Gardener

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To Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

I’m writing this on one of a number of very sunny and warm days, recently -up in the high 20’s C in fact which is very unusual for April.

On reflection its been a very busy but also productive month in Old School Garden.

I’ll come to the garden shortly, but first I thought I’d update you on the progress with the Sandringham Flower Show garden; you recall I’m designing this for the Prince’s Trust and Grow Organisation?

Following a very useful Design Workshop where I gathered together ideas and other information for the design, I hit upon the ‘5 Steps to Wellbeing’ on the NHS website. The garden is called ‘Grow and Trust’ and is about a young person’s journey to wellbeing. It is important that young people are involved in the design and build process as the garden is the focus of a programme that introduces participants to garden design and gardening as a possible way into further education or employment. Here’s the design, which is pretty blank in most of the zones, as I hope that the young people will fill the zones with a selection of different features and planting to illustrate the five steps:

  • Connecting- all about relationships

  • Giving- in this case to nature

  • Learning- this will focus on creating willow garden features

  • Active- this will show ways of growing your own food

  • Mindfulness-being in the moment and reflection

Now we are focused on sourcing and making elements of the design and I’m pleased to say that a local Nursery, Woodgate in Aylsham, have agreed to loan us the majority fo the plants and other items.

Due to other commitments my sessions at Blickling Hall have been somewhat curtailed recently. but I had a very enjoyable morning there last week initially planting some Asparagus and later edging the borders in the Parterre. It was good seeing my fellow volunteers once again.

Finally, away from home, I’m very pleased that the daffodils and trees we planted at the local church are doing their stuff. Having just reinstated the plaque for the ‘Avenue of Remembrance’ the site looks great…we are planning further improvements like a small area of wildlfower meadow, the seeds for which I’ve just ordered. Here’s a recent picture of part of the approach to the church.

Back to the home garden. Well, I was getting quite anxious about getting on top of weeds before they take hold, in advance of our older daughter’s wedding in early July. Having put in some hours (some days with a very early start to avoid the worst of the heat), and in the middle of last week giving the grass its first cut , that I feel that ‘a corner has been turned’. However, I may regret saying that in two weeks time, when we return from our trip to Ireland! It always amazes me how cutting the grass (and if time edging it too) makes a major impact on how tidy the garden looks.

I’ve also been busy in the kitchen garden, and whilst several construction projects remain, I’ve managed to plant both 1st and 2nd early potatoes and lot of other food crops both directly (Beetroot, Parsnips, Carrots) and in the greenhouse (which has been given its spring clean)- Cauliflower, Calabrese and Runner beans.

With the wedding in mind I’ve been planting out and sowing flowers for cutting, to go on the reception tables. The colour theme is Purple, Green and white so I’ve a selection of flowers that will hopefully fit the bill: two varieties of Nigella and Nicotiana, ‘Bells of Ireland’, Gypsophila, Ammi majus, a white poppy and Cenrinthe purpurascens as well as couple of other more unusual pruple flowers (whose names escape me for the moment). I also visited another local Garden Centre yesterday and bought a number of plants for our two large hanging baskets; again in the same colour theme. these will all rest in the greenhouse while we are away, our next door neighbour having kindly agreed to keep them watered for us.

To finish off, then here area few pictures of the garden as its is today, just the tidier areas of course!

As you read this we will be on our way north for an overnight stay in Dumfries, and then the following day catching the ferry from Cairnryan to Belfast for a couple of days stay. After that we travel around the northern Ireland coast taking in the Giant’s causeway and other sights, spending some time at Sligo before joining 6 of our oldest friends in Galway Bay for a week together. After a very hectic time the idea of a holiday certainly appeals, if only I can relax and switch off that is! All the best for now, old friend. I do hope you are enjoying the good weather, and hopefully it won’t be too long before it returns.

Old School Gardener

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seed sowingWell, how’s the weather been with you? In the last week or two the sun has shone for some of the time, but it’s been cold again in Norfolk!

The weather might seem pretty settled; but 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,

So sorry I missed my letter to you in February! Without wishing to make excuses, it’s down to an incredibly busy month or two …and it seems there’s worse to come!

Let’s begin with the couple of weeks away we had- a few days in each of Iceland and Devon, both very snowy and windy as it turns out!

Our return to Iceland some 34 years after our first visit (in the summer), was something of a ‘saga’ you might say, mainly down to bad weather affecting both of our flights, to the effect that we had added an 8 hour coach journey each way due to flights being diverted.

And the return leg was further complicated by bad weather at our new airport destination (Keflavik)…this resulted in a day’s delay and further complications which all in all rather over shadowed the wonderful experience of northern Iceland in winter.

We managed to see some rather spectacular whales, had a trip out to NOT see the Northern lights (another long coach trip at nightime!), and visited the wonderful Lake Myvatn area with its volcanic landscapes, Godafoss waterfall and hot mud pools; we took advantage of a naturally heated outdoor pool..with beer! Here is a selection of pictures…

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Our trip to Devon was nearly as eventful. A couple of days after returning from Iceland we travelled west just as the ‘beast from the east’ dropped its load of snow  on Eastern England…we picked up our share a day or two later courtesy of the collision of the ‘beast’ with ‘Storm Emma’. We managed to get out and about on Dartmoor  just before this, but poor road conditions meant we delayed our return by a couple of days. Here are some shots to show how cold, normally mild, Devon was…

Back in the garden its been spring cleaning time. I’ve cleared off the borders and pruned back summer flowering shrubs, and hopefully tomorrow it will be time to collect up the rubbish and dispose of it- probably a bonfire for much of it. My efforts on re erecting the trellis in the Kitchen garden have suffered a blow – witness this picture…

As you can see the upright I had to fix in concrete hasn’t survived the winds and so its back to the drawing board; I think I’ll level off the base with mortar and drill some pilot holes for the bolts, then try placing these in a resin compound that my builders’ merchant says will ‘do the trick’! We shall see….

‘m getting a bit anxious about all the things building up for me in the next few months, not least remodelling our lounge (just  had a bit of a shock with the builder’s quote on this) and getting the place ready for our Daughter Lindsey’s wedding reception…and of course all the other arrangements that go with this!

Add to this my usual round of Green Flag judging (I have 4 parks and open spaces to visit in London, including Clapham Common, plus two in East Anglia) and a new project; I’ve been asked to help the Grow Organisation with a design for a show garden at the Sandringham Flower show on the theme of ‘A young person’s journey to wellbeing’. This is being commissioned by The Prince’s Trust. This is an exciting prospect as I will be working with a group of young people to co-design and co-produce the garden.

Volunteering at Blickling Hall continues and most recently I had a very pleasant few hours edging the paths with some of the other volunteers. As you can see there’s also a lot of work being done to restore the Orangery- I had an interesting chat to one of the workmen, who explained how badly decayed a lot of the woodwork is, but it will look splendid once more, in the, hopefully, not too distant future!

And I’m very pleased to report a great success for the Reepham High School and College Allotment Project, where I’m one of the community volunteers; they’ve just won the Norfolk and Norwich Eco School award, which is very well deserved as it is fast becoming a major centre of school and wider community life, exemplifying the principles of permaculture and recycling. I was pleased to be involved in the visit of the Orchards East project, three of whose personnel came to see the orchard and provide some very useful advice on pruning and management; hopefully they can help out with some extra fruit trees next winter to fill a few gaps and diversify the types of tree in the orchard.

So, once again sorry for missing you out in thedepths of winter, old friend; I was pleased to hear that our mutual mate, Les popped in to see that you and Ferdy were keeping well, and I gather he stocked you up with food and few beverages when you were snowed in, too! You can probably tell my anxiety levels on on the rise, so hopefully by next month I will be able to report some real progress in Old School Garden as well as in the many other areas of my horticultural life! Keep well!

Old School Gardener

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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

Winter? What winter? I know that plenty of places have suffered from storms, floods and snow, but in Norfolk, apart from a few windy spells, the last few months have been pretty tame – as last year!  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 action 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. 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…

The recent storms 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.

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 seddlings 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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To Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

Well another New Year! It’s been rather mixed here, weather -wise, of late. Today is windy and cold with some squally showers, but it looks like it will clear a bit later, so that’s when I’ll get outside…

In the last week I’ve been re -erecting the trellis panels in the Kitchen Garden, with a mix of old and new posts (this time concreted in), to provide a clear boundary to the main garden. I’m pleased with the result, though yesterday, in an attempt to refix one post (in a metal clamp) to some concrete, I managed to burn out my electric drill, so that little adjustment will have to wait until a new drill arrives in the next few days.

I’ve also fixed the posts to hold the rope swags I’m planning along the entrance to the Kitchen Garden, up and along which will be trained the six ‘Compassion’ climbing roses I put in last year. The whole thing looks a little unkempt at present due to its original cream paint being covered with mildew. Once Spring arrives I will clean off the woodwork and repaint (in a light grey). I’ve also relocated and tied up the Blackberry to run along the back of this plot (which was previously the home of the raspberries). Here are some pictures of how things look at present…

I’ve also bought seeds for the Kitchen Garden as well as some annuals with an eye on flowers for our eldest daughter’s wedding in July; and some Early Potatoes are chitting (‘Swift’ and ‘Charlotte’).

Having had a satisfying day yesterday tidying up and burning off a lot of the debris from last year’s garden, planting a new Blueberry in a sunken pot and a few other bits and pieces, I feel that I’m making progress…still a lot of major structural work has yet to be done as well as continuing the tidy up.

In my regular visits to Blickling Hall I’ve enjoyed the company of fellow volunteers and the gardening team. Our jobs have included cleaning out the Shell Fountain and pond  where the Irises had invaded the pool and over grown the lilies, requiring a major job of cutting out, splitting and replanting (I’ve brought home a few spares for my own pond). Here are some pictures taken on the day…

Most recently I went in early and worked with fellow volunteer Rory  to clear leaves in the Secret Garden and then with a few other volunteers to mulch the main borders in the Parterre…it was a lovely sunny day and the Orinental Planes looked especially impressive in the winter sun…

I’ve continued my small voluntary input to the local High School allotment project where, with the students, I’ve finished creating some new raised beds and begun the process of mulching all of these with some rather rich compost and farmyard manure. A number of projects are underway here and I’m pleased to have helped arrange a visit of the local Orchards and Apples project to provide some advice about the orchard.

And speaking of orchards I’ve just been sent my data and other guidance to carry out a survey of historic and other orchards in the parish by the project Orchards East. This same project is also visiting the Grow Organisation in Norwich where hopefully they can help establish a new orchard as part of a wider ‘Fruit Forest’ area, complete with underplanting of fruit bushes, ground cover and other plants. The aim is to create ‘plant guilds’ to help establish and develop this important part of the master plan for the site. I’m popping over to them next week to help with designing a strip next to the Hub Building as a wildlife garden, sensory area etc.

Well, that’s about it as far as the past month is concerned. As we are spending a couple of weeks away towards the end of February (including four days in northern Iceland!), I think it will be a month of pottering and odd spells of tidying up rather than anything more major. I think I will also hold off sowing seed until early March….and then things will begin to take off big time!

Old School Gardener

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To Walter de Grasse

Dear Walter,

I hope you and yours have had a great Christmas! We have here with immediate family and some friends to help us celebrate.

As you will appreciate the last month hasn’t seen much action in the garden; mainly clearing leaves (the oaks have yet to give up all their leaves), and planting out of a few choice plants bought (on offer) recently; including some Verbena rigida and a white form of ‘elephant’s ears’. I’ve also managed to get hold of some Monarda (spares from Blickling), some of which I’ve planted out alongside the Kitchen Garden, others potted up for planting later.

I’ve been buying the wood needed to finish the Kitchen Garden so if the weather allows I shall get out and put up the trellis and other structural timber work in readiness for the new growing season.

I mentioned that I’d cleared back some trees along the western boundary and have since planted out a mix of native hedging (Beech, Dog rose, Hawthorn etc.) to fill gaps in the slowly forming hedgeline here.

As there isn’t much to show of Old School Garden, here are a few shots from Blickling taken over recent months. We finished off the year here with lovely party for the garden volunteers and I’m looking forward to another productive year here, especially as the Walled Garden is now pretty much into full production.

So, old friend, we now look forward to lengthening day light and the chance of increasing activity outside. Here’s wishing you, Ferdy and the family all the very best for 2018!

Old School Gardener

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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.

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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