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Mid-Summer

Seeing as we are now, annually speaking, over the hill - having witnessed last week the `Mid-Summer` solstice- I am sure you are wondering what is left to do in the garden whilst we await patiently for the first signs of Autumn and the inevitable Christmas adverts on TV?

Well, there is a lot.

Despite the fact that somewhere our societal calendar has stepped away from tradition and now follows the schools, the garden believe it or not has much to offer.

Your lawns, I am sure could do with a good feed, but instead of running out to the shops and buying some ecologically damaging chemical or other, try a light dressing of something called 7X. If you are not sure what I am talking about, it is a bag of well rotted manure-cum-compost (not an Australian beer), available at the garden centre, high in the vital nutrient nitrogen and perfect for summer feed. It doesn`t smell either and can be walked on immediately unlike the chemicals.

Also, as I am sure the lawn has already seen a fair amount of use, despite the mixed weather, it may be an idea to spike your lawn, offering the roots some air and reducing compaction damage. This can be done with a fork.

Another job for the diligent is the dead-heading of flowering shrubs and roses. Whilst you may extend the flowering season, you are also helping the plant divert its resources from producing off-spring to the vital role of keeping itself healthy.

Indeed, as shrubs finish flowering, it is a good idea to prune them to shape, or perhaps a little harder in order that they still have a chance to grow back into shape and to grow the buds for next year’s flower. Plants like Kolkwitzia, Philadelphus and Deutzia appreciate this treatment more than a general tidy at the end of this year’s play. In fact, it is directly after flowering that these shrubs do well to have the old wood cut out entirely - letting in more air and light and ultimately producing a better plant.

Another great job for the meticulous is weeding. Many see the task as a frustrating chore, to be bemoaned and avoided, but I myself find the exercise very Zen if that is possible for Englishman. I can let my thoughts wander to ideas of what it is to be a seedling or perhaps an ant, whilst the majority of my frontal lobe is in a well-trained auto-pilot discerning unintentional from the intentional. If during this experience, my mind goes blank, even momentarily, I have become one with the garden and Nirvana reached.

Or that`s what I`m told.

Time for a cuppa I think.

 

Spring has sprung

April is an interesting month. It is the real divider in the year between the warm South of the UK and the still cold Northern counties. You may not be aware but April 14th is First Cuckoo Day - the traditional first day of Summer in West Sussex. I am sure there are those in Scotland or Northumbria who would think this mad and will certainly not be celebrating, but there you go. You can’t homogenise the seasons to suit all. That said, the swallows have arrived back so it can’t be too bad!

Here in the South we have enjoyed warm days and clear nights but at 5am you may still notice the ever so delicate kiss of Jack Frost on the car window or on the grass. If you are unsure what this means to the garden, it represents a couple of things. The older generation will be busy putting down a ‘Spring’ mulch about now, because that is what they have always done. Don’t copy them. Break the cycle of mismanagement and learn the science. If you mulch now you are creating a layer of insulation – so effectively you are creating a refrigerated bed which will take longer to warm up. My tip is to put your elbow on the soil and if it feels warm (just like you would  a baby’s bath water), mulch. If not, leave it. Wait until the soil feels warm, water it, then add a mulch. Your plants will love you more and so will the worms.

The cool night-time temps also mean that the delicate plants should not yet be put outside to ‘harden off’. Some tender plants such as the orchid Cymbidium may need a cool night or two to help propel it into flowering, but if there is any sign of a heavy frost repair them back the glasshouse quick smart! If you are looking at planting out your French beans hold off for a just a few more weeks. Whilst talking of veg, don’t forget, successional planting will create a succession of vegetables throughout the year. For example Broad beans planted now, again in a month and then again in June will give you crops up until September if you are canny.

As an update to my exploits with the Town and Country Charnwood Boots, they are still going strong and still excellent. I have worn them at work on most days for the past 5 months and they really are excellent. Still waterproof. Still warm. Still doing the job they were designed for! I can honestly say, I am very pleased with them and will be ordering another pair.

This springs spectacular flowers

This year is going to be a great year for the early flowers! In Sussex the Camellias are spectacular, having had the benefit of no serious frosts for some weeks now. The forests and woods are also remarkable, with Wood Anemones, Crocus, Lesser Celandine, Cyclamen and Winter Aconite all blazing away before the trees come into leaf thus shading the floor in perpetual gloom.

The Azaleas and Rhododendrons are also just coming to the fore. I am told Bodnant Gardens is especially radiant this year and well worth a visit if you live near. But there other gardens with equal displays across the country.

If visiting inspires you to plan your own early flowering garden then make sure to try and copy what nature already does. Just looking at online catalogues will tell you that there are many to Rhododendrons to choose from, with many new hybrids being bred each year. Be advised, read the label well as some species can grow to 50ft high as well as across!

Once you have chosen it is best to think of how your plant grows naturally. Azaleas and for a start grow in shaded valleys high up in mountainous areas (5,000 to 10,000 feet) with a high annual rainfall. They also prefer a soil that is well mulched and high in leaf litter.

The plants are shallow rooted - almost epiphytes in fact -so they really don't do well in shallow or poor soil, therefore it is vital that they get adequate water and food. Of course it should never be forgotten that they are first and foremost ericaceous plants, so require an acid soil. According to the old books on Rhododendron care, the plants thrive best if put in a bed that is lower than the surrounding land. This means that any water will pool adequately to provide a similar environment to the wild lands of India and China, from where the originally came. (It also means you have the space to add a regular mulch of rotted leaf-litter.)

Another thing to consider is the surrounds. Rhododendrons live best in soils where they are not competing with larger, heavier plants that take all moisture, although the paradox here is they cannot tolerate the heat of the full summer sun. Basically a damp, shaded or semi-shaded spot surrounded and overhung by deciduous trees like birch or ash is ideal.

Pruning is pretty simple once the plant is established. Always do it just after flowering has finished. This gives them the time to create new growth over the summer to hold next year’s flower buds. They are pretty disease resistant, although there are a few new fungi to look out for. Just keep them fed and mulched and they should be happy.

Spring - playing catch up!

 

Believe it or not Spring is just around the corner. In Sussex the earliest date recorded to celebrate this most vibrant of months is Feb 22nd, but I have researched the history of the seasons and find the Celts used to celebrate Feb 1st as the first day of Spring.  If you want to know more about our seasonal year, you can go to http://guydeakinsgardening.com/blog/seasons/  for more info.

All that said, we are not quite there yet and there is much to do! As I always say to my clients, we have 12 months in a year, 4 months of that you can actually get things done in the garden with no issue. The rest of the year you are playing catch up. (With this mild winter in Sussex, I am still playing catch up).

At this time of year, I always try to clean the greenhouse from top to bottom. A power washer set on wide spray is ideal for the task of cleaning the glass, however, many of you will have a glasshouse on the allotment so this is sometimes impractical. The best method therefore is to buy a soft broom and a large bucket. If you are organic, fill the bucket with a safe mix of water, detergent and malt vinegar and scrub away – remembering to wear some waterproofs and a face mask as you will undoubtedly get wet. If you don’t follow organic codes, you can also use a single mix of Jeyes fluid or biocide and water.  Remember : Always read the label when using chemicals.

Once the glass has been done, turn your attention to the rest of the area. If you have a hard floor, scrub this. If you have bare soil, turn the soil, adding a slow release fertilizer such as Vitax Q4 and a small amount of slug bait, or set some beer traps. Now your beds are ready for the addition of fresh compost and plants when the air warms sufficiently.

If you like to reuse pots, now is the time to soak them, using the water mixture in the large bucket you used for the glass. Once they have been soaked, use a small stiff hand brush to scrub off any residual dirt or plant material.  Use the same process to clean your spades, forks and any other tool you have been using recently to dig over the wet ground to aerate it. If they have wooden handles a small amount of wood oil, rubbed in with a cloth will not do any harm and extend the life of your prized possession.

Now to your secateurs and other cutting implements. If you have neoprene gloves or similar, put them on. Carefully take the secateurs apart using a screwdriver or spanner, making note of how it went together. Using an old toothbrush, carefully clean the surface of the blades and gently scrub any areas where dirt or plant material could collect (this includes the bolts and springs). If you have a sharpening stone, now is the time to hone the edge to perfection then using a soft cloth, wipe a small amount of oil onto the whole blade. When you are satisfied the tool is clean and primed, put it back together and oil the joint.

If you have machinery, I always try to service mine in November, but if you have not had the chance for whatever reason, then now is the time to get them down to the local mechanic – before the mad rush at Easter fills their books out for weeks! 

Town & Country raises over £7,000 for Greenfingers

We are delighted with the results of our fundraising campaign for 2014, which has seen a huge £7,300 donated to Greenfingers - the charity dedicated to creating magical gardens in children’s hospices around the UK.

The money has been raised through sales of our Master Gardener Secateurs range which was launched at the end of 2013.  We pledged at the launch that a percentage of all sales of the range made throughout 2014 would go to this wonderful charity.

We were pleased to have the opportunity to hand over the cheque at the recent Garden Press Event, held at the Barbican on Thursday, 12th February.  Our marketing and design executive, Nicole Dopson, presented the cheque to Greenfingers Trustee and HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) chief executive, Carol Paris, and Head of Fundraising for Greenfingers, Linda Petrons.

Commented Carol Paris:  “I was on the Town & Country stand at GLEE 2013 for the launch of this promotion to raise funds for the charity.  I am absolutely thrilled with the success of the campaign, which has resulted in such a significant contribution to this wonderful charity which we are all so passionate about.”

Town & Country’s chief executive Barry Page said: “I have seen the work that Greenfingers carries out for children’s hospices across the UK first hand and it is inspirational.  Our aim with the launch of the Master Gardener Secateurs Promotion was to help create a steady income stream for Greenfingers so that they are able to fund more projects and continue to carry out the wonderful work they do.”

Keep the winter chill at bay

 

Before the winter weather really sets in later this month, can I advise you to do yourself one big favour? Buy a pair of Charnwood Boots. I cannot recommend them enough to be honest. I have worn them for the past two months at work and at leisure and I cannot fault them. Perhaps, if I am honest buy yourself a set of sports insoles – I suffer from ‘over-pronation’ so need to enhance any footwear.

So far the boots have survived several longish walks (up to 10 miles) through mud, stone, sand and shingle. Through woods, over dales, across streams, up the North and South Downs and along the South Coast they have performed wonderfully. I can attest that they are fully waterproof (and cow-muck proof), sturdy and thankfully easily cleaned.

An extra bonus?

They are undoubtedly warm. At this time of year I always wear a couple of pairs of socks and still feel the cold, but these boots have taken the edge off any truly frosty morning. I will say here that they are not ‘safety boots’ so do not use them on building sites or in areas where you may need the steel toe, but they are nonetheless useful work boots. Ideal for horse stables too – unlike the similar competitors boots which are merely splash proof.

In the garden it may be an idea to start looking at your fruit trees. If you have a problem with frequent fruiting or disease it always a good idea to prune apples and pear trees on a yearly basis. However, last year I left them well alone as the wet winter was enough stress. Leave the Prunus varieties such as plum and cherry until spring or even mid-summer as they have a different physiology. Remove dead, diseased or damaged branches if that is all you are confident in doing. If you want to learn a  bit more, I have published online a pruning guide at my website pages: http://guydeakinsgardening.com/blog/herb-guide/

Try not to walk on the lawn during heavy frost or even the snow. Grass is easily stressed and susceptible to destructive slime mould at this time of year, so try and keep off it as much as possible. If you do see it waterlogged, using a board to walk on (and to spread your weight), spike it with a sharp garden fork or even better a hollow tine aerator to add air holes. Add a mixture of compost and sand to help drainage.

The most magical time of the year!

 

Here’s a tip for all you hardy gardeners still out and about.

If you have some beautiful leather gloves that have got wet whilst being used in the call of duty, do not fret!

Firstly, do not put them on the radiator! Allow them to dry naturally away from any heat (any direct heat will make the leather go hard). A scrunch up before putting them on and voila – perfect leather gloves.

Yes, it's that time of year again. I don’t know about you, but I always struggle every year to find the ideal gift for the avid gardener. They usually have their favourite tools and new ones are always met with a smile and the ever so telling ‘place reverently down’ whilst moving on to something they really wanted.

Well, let me give you some ideas and you can shout at me instead.

When I worked at Singapore Botanic Gardens, we only used serrated bypass snips for all our flower work. They are extremely versatile and excellent at dead heading - but very little used in the UK. So unless he or she has worked at a tropical Botanic Garden, I doubt they are in the tool kit. Explain to your gardening friend that they are what the professionals use to keep the flowers budding without leaving the tell-tale rip and all will be well.

I am also going to recommend you buy some of the excellent ‘bamboo’ gloves from this site. Environmentally friendly, comfortable and durable. I love ‘em. However, the recipient might be underwhelmed if it is the ‘main’ present. How about offering them as a teaser in the stocking?

In fact if you buy a pair of Town and Country Boot socks, that’s your stockings sorted for the year too! As an added bonus, they are very warm - so much so, my wife wears mine - so I am going to have to invest in some more!

Finally, if your gardener is more of a reader, might I suggest you buy them a good old fashioned book. One of my favourites of all time is ‘The Plant Hunters’ By M Tyler-Whittle. An excellent book which explores how we got the beautiful plants we all admire today. Another book I will recommend is ‘Flora Britannica’ by Richard Mabey. A really, really beautiful book full of wonderful knowledge by the man who brought us ‘Food for free’ – another very interesting book!

Have a great Christmas!

Winter Gardening

I am looking forward to winter in the garden.

The truth be told, last winter was so mild, I psychologically missed the hard frosts and snow. I know that sounds odd, but they have a very useful role in the garden. If you dig over your vegetable areas now - leaving the soil in large lumps - not only will mother nature help break the soil up properly, but the pests like slugs, wire worms and soil living aphids will be killed.

Last winter was so mild for many of us that all these pests continued to multiply causing headaches for us all spring and summer.

I am also looking forward to winter, because I am confident my feet and hands will be warm. The T & C premium suede gloves have never let my fingers down, (when combined with latex gloves for really cold days) and to top it off, I have purchased the Town and Country ‘Charnwood Boots’. Combined with a pair of boot socks, I will be warm and dry for the foreseeable future!

                                            

In the garden things are just slowing down so now is the time to start cutting back the perennials that need it – remember, some need the foliage for protection so look at your guidance notes. In the cool greenhouse,  you can also look at planting some sweet peas in pots for a good display next year. There are some lovely old varieties. On the veg plot, now is the time to sow broad beans and if you are so inclined, winter hardy peas. I am told that those that over-winter have less black-fly, but I have never truly found that to be the case. Either way, the plants get a head start and if the winter is another mild one, you will have a crop of broad beans in April as I did this year. You can always keep sowing from Spring all the way to June to get a succession of crops until September!

If you like tulips, now is also the time to plant them. Last year I must admit was a disaster as many bulbs rotted off or were eaten by the marauding slugs as they pushed up through the spring soil. If this is a recurring problem for you, I suggest you try a different area where the soil is not so wet. Tulips are beautiful, but not necessarily as hardy as narcissi.

Finally, add manure or other mulch to your borders. You will help the plants survive the worst of the weather by supplying the roots with a nice covering. Never apply mulch in Spring as you will keep the cold trapped in the ground for longer.

Trimming your hedges

 

Hedges are a major part of many of our gardens, but we rarely look at them with any discerning eye until they are either suffering from some malaise or have grown rampant and need immediate work.

Over the years I have always been surprised by the lack of interest in such a common garden structure because they are often what we first see. They either skirt the edges denoting a boundary, create privacy where you feel it is needed or are merely left over from a previous owner who must have had a vision but nobody can work out what it was.

The same goes for the treatment of them. Pruned badly, clipped tightly or left to do their own thing until they are difficult to manage. Little care is ever taken to actually work out what the hedge may need to survive and are sometimes expensive to replace.

In fact, hedges are a vital part of our man-made ‘natural’ flora today as many agricultural hedges have been grubbed out or pruned with a flail leaving them weak and thinned , with little value to wildlife.

In law many are protected, especially during the breeding season when hopefully small chicks and perhaps dormice are nesting. In winter the bases of hedges are also vital for hibernating mammals and insects, out of the way of the worst of the winter weather. That is why it is illegal to trim hedges during the spring and early summer and also now during the later months of the year unless you know it does not have any nesting animals ensconced amongst the branches or in the leaf litter.

If you are wanting to cut your hedge, now is the time to do it. However, first be aware of what type of hedge you have. Some hedges will not take a hard prune, (such as with some coniferous trees) – if you cut back to bare branches on some plants, they will not grow back. If you have a holly hedge, it will grow back slowly. A privet hedge on the other hand will continue to grow at a rapid rate once established. If your hedge is very leggy (i.e it has bare stems or trunk and lots of growth at the top), it will only grow leaves on the ‘legs’ if you cut it down closer to the ground and let it start again! However  be advised this only works with certain plants, as some plants don’t like being cut back hard at all. Also, if it flowers, is now the time to prune it if you want flowers again next year?

Now you see the nature of that one simple ‘green thing’ that has always been there may not be as simple as you thought. Best get the plant identification book out and think carefully about how you want to proceed.

Appreciating your garden
August is always the time we most appreciate the garden. It is the time when we supposedly see the garden in full. The flowers are a riot of colour. The vegetable area is providing bounty. The birds are singing, the insects are buzzing. We are at peace.
 
Accordingly, I always go my to my gardening library – which is approaching somewhere in the region of 400 books on the subject - and research the plants I see in other peoples’ beautiful gardens. One thing I am always surprised by is the actual length of time these plants have been in our gardens. Our modern media would have us believe that plants are new and exciting, never before seen, but the reality is that much of what we see at flower shows and in the local nursery are the result of mere tinkering with the genetic inheritance. For example, those most beautiful of garden perennials, the peony were introduced to this country by the , Romans, but the Celts, the Saxons, Normans and countless other immigrants have added to the wonderful mix. For example, Acanthus, Iris, the Sweet Chestnut, the Walnut, Dianthus, Wall-Flower, Asparagus, Cabbage, Onions, Tanacetum, and many other plants we now regard as commonplace. There are of course many plants which are indigenous to the UK, but I think the really exciting thing is to realise just quite how long we as a species have been trying to improve the environment around our home. Imagine being the first man in Britain to have an exotic ‘Yellow Flag’ Iris growing in your courtyard. That is why we still find going to the local flower show or garden centre such fun. Finding a hidden gem I am sure is genetically intrinsic in our nature. But let me offer you some tips on buying.
 
Never buy a plant in full bloom – it will last less time than if you buy in bud.
Check for insect damage or indeed insects attached!
 
Try not to buy a plant that is either pot bound (you can tell by the roots pushing out through the bottom of the pot) or a plant that has a huge amount of moss on the top compost – this means it has sat around for long enough for something to grow on the soil and is therefore quite an old plant for the pot size and something may be wrong with it. Do not buy a plant in a pot that has dried out, this is a bad sign that the plants are not well looked after by the nursery. Try not to buy on impulse. Think of the space the plant is going to fit into. If it is going to get to ten feet tall it won’t fit on your patio.