Setting some gardening resolutions

New Year’s resolutions aren’t confined to those wanting to shed pounds or quit smoking. Gardeners also see the start of the year as the chance to tackle the inevitable ‘to do’ list and gardening resolutions are common.

I’ve yet to come across any gardener who’s happy with what they’ve achieved. There’s always something they want to improve, something new to try or a part of their plot that just isn’t working.

Among the most self-critical are those that open to the public. Nothing concentrates the mind quite like knowing your efforts are going to be scrutinised by visitors.

I’ve been talking to some of the Cotswolds’ National Gardens Scheme members about what they have planned for 2017.

Dealing with a pretty thug

gardening resolutions
Thalictrum is spreading happily among the roses

At Littlefield, at Hawling, Thalictrum delavayi is exercising Federica Wilk’s mind. Planted as a companion to pale pink roses in the Rose Garden, it is doing a little too well and self-seeding profusely.

“For the last couple of years, just before the garden open days, I have gone into the borders and thinned the thalictrum drastically in places, to try to strike the right balance between the roses and this very exuberant tall plant,” says Federica. “This is tricky, but extremely satisfying once the job is done.”

This year, one of her gardening resolutions is to start the job early and not leave it until just before the garden opens in July.

Spare plants are potted up and sold on NGS days where they quickly sell out.

“Visitors seem to like thalictrum a lot, probably because of its dainty, light purple bell-like flowers, which go so well with the roses.”

Another of her gardening resolutions for 2017 is replacing the lavenders in the Yew Walk, which have outgrown their allotted space.

gardening resolutions
Lavender is going to be replanted in the Yew Walk

‘Hidcote’ and ‘Imperial Gem’ will be replanted in spring.

“They vary in colour only slightly but the overall effect is superb, if the plants are placed diagonally opposite each other along the edge of the sinuous path.”

At the same time, Federica will thin out the Geranium ‘Jolly Bee’ so that it is in scale with the young lavenders.

She is also planning to get the basics right with a concerted effort on producing good compost – a long-held ambition.

“It’s looking promising and from next year perhaps I will never have to buy potting compost from a nursery again.”

Making an early start

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Cutting back perennials early will stop a rush before opening

At Barn House, Sandywell Park, near Cheltenham, an early start is top of the gardening resolutions list.

Leaving the tidy up and division of perennial borders until spring is, says Shirley Sills, proving a race to beat the clock of opening day, as the two-and-a-half acre plot is looked after by just her and her husband, Gordon.

“It’s a rush to clean and clear, split and replant borders in time for our first opening at the end of May and a lot of stress and cutting of corners to achieve it. In fact, this has led to a couple of borders not having had plants split for some five to six years!”

She is trying a different approach this year, and has strimmed all the perennials and left the dead top growth as a protective layer and habitat for insects over winter. This will then be raked off in spring, something she is hoping will take days rather than the usual weeks.

gardening resolutions
Perennials and trees are two of the garden’s highlights

“This largely due to fact that new growth has started before I’m ready to tackle it, which involves more care in clearing borders. It’s an experiment but one I hope will work.”

Removing some trees that are growing into the boundary of this walled garden is going to lead to a rethink of one area.

“This will let a lot of light into a previously dark corner but one that until now I’ve been able to ignore as part of a woodland area so needing little maintenance.”

The resulting space is going to be an east-facing border of around 20m wide and 2m deep that will still have a few trees in it, including espaliered apples, a perry pear and Acer platanoides ‘Crimson King’. Clearing the rampant ground elder will be the first task.

“I have promised Gordon that I will not add to our workload with whatever I plan,” says Shirley. “Neither of us are getting any younger and there’s already too much work for us in this garden.”

Taking back control

gardening resolutions
The woodland is a spring highlight

New possibilities thanks to the removal of trees is also shaping the gardening resolutions of Celia Hargrave at Trench Hill, Sheepscombe.

A large area has been cleared of old or dangerous trees and replanted with new plus a mix of cornus and euonymus for stem and leaf colour. One of the felled trees has been turned into a dragon-shaped seat.

“The area is now covered in weeds because we have let in more light and moved soil, explains Celia.

She is determined to “get this area back under control” and plans to plant it with ferns, hellebores, cyclamen and spring flowering bulbs.

“I must also make a decision on how much of this area will be completely tended and how much will be allowed to become more like the majority of the established woodland. The decision is difficult as more creativity leads to more maintenance!”

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More hellebores are on Celia’s planting list

The second of her gardening resolutions is making more of her vegetable garden. Feeling it has been somewhat neglected this year, she is hoping to be more organised both in terms of what she grows and how she uses it.

Top of the list is not over-planting things such as runner beans, staggering the sowing of salad crops and keeping a closer eye on courgettes so that they do not become marrows.

“I love the idea of a beautifully ordered vegetable area but never feel that I achieve this so it seems that early preparation followed by regular maintenance and use is key.”

Creating a new look

The pond is getting a new path and jetty.

The New Year will see some major changes at Brockworth Court, near Gloucester. Tim Wiltshire is planning to revamp both the pond and garden by the historic Tithe Barn.

A new jetty, new path to the water’s edge and some, as yet, unspecified new planting are all top of his gardening resolutions.

“Probably the jetty will be painted the same green as the Monet bridge but I have not yet decided.”

gardening resolutions
Work is being carried out in the rose garden

He is also changing the look of the rose area by creating a pebble path around the central border. It’s going to be edged in cobbles that were in the old stable building.

“There’s a bit of recycling going on.”

Adding box hedging on the outer borders will complete the revamp.

Filling in the gaps

gardening resolutions
Grasses mix with perennials throughout the gardern

Kate Patel at Barn House, near Chepstow, which is known for its grass collection, has a long list of gardening resolutions headed by tweaking what she describes as a “weak corner” in front of her kitchen window.

Originally purple echinacea were used as a contrast to a band of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and drifts of Sedum spectabile but over the years the coneflowers have dwindled leaving noticeable gaps in the display.

Kate has already added clumps of Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ to give some more interest but says the two grasses are crying out for a contrasting hue.

“The answer would be to sharpen the spade and divide the congested clumps of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Pink Glow’ and then remember to Chelsea chop them (done a little later in early June here) to keep them at the right height to contrast with the taller grasses behind them.”

Veronicastrum has already been used as a contrast further down the bed.

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The garden is known for its collection of grasses

“It makes a stunning combination of seed heads against winter-blond grass that lasts right through the dreary winter months.”

Kate is also planning to boost the spring display by adding more bulbs, such as tulips. These need regular replanting as few like the combination of her heavy clay soil and wet winters but she believes it’s worth the effort for the effect of colour among the newly emerging foliage of deciduous grasses.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ is another combination that she likes with the purple pom-pom heads of the allium looking good coming through the nepeta, which in turn hides the uninspiring foliage of the allium.

Other gardening resolutions include renewing some ageing compost bins and growing more veg in 2017. Over the past few years, the vegetable beds have been used mainly for raising grasses and perennials either to restock the garden or to sell on NGS open days.

gardening resolutions
Colourful squashes are on Kate’s list of things to grow

“Now I think it’s time to earmark a few of them for the things I’ve missed most like artichokes, multicoloured beetroots, borlottti beans and colourful squashes that are almost impossible to buy around here but that both taste good and look so attractive in a bowl on the kitchen table.”

Most importantly, she is planning to take the time to appreciate her garden in 2017.

“I want to set my never-ending To-Do list aside and make more time to just sit and enjoy the garden over a cup of tea while watching the dogs play in their paddock.”

As gardening resolutions go, that’s one we should all try to follow.

For opening dates for 2017 see the National Gardens Scheme

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Flower Advent Calendar 2016

Christmas gardening jobs

December is a quiet time in the garden caught between the clear-up of autumn and the busy seed-sowing of spring.

Yet there are still some things that need to be done and what better way to escape the festive frenzy than to ‘disappear’ outside for a while.

Here are some gardening jobs that will while away a few hours over the Christmas break.

Look sharp

Now’s a good time to overhaul your gardening tools – and the potting shed. Make sure trowels, forks, spades and secateurs are cleaned of last season’s grime, blades are sharpened and wooden handles treated with linseed oil for protection.

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Now’s the time to get tools ready

It’s worth putting up some hooks or shelves for storage; there’s nothing worse than wasting time hunting for something.

Check you’ve got enough twine, labels and other gardening bits and pieces now rather than waiting until you need them in the spring.

Plan ahead

If you’re anything like me, you have boxes stuffed with seed packets. Some empty, some half-full. Sorting it out is one of those gardening jobs that pays dividends. Go through and check the sow-by dates; quite a lot will keep but some things – notoriously parsnip, sweetcorn and lettuce – rarely germinate well a second year.

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Get your seeds sorted

Be ruthless. It’s so easy to hang on to something you are never likely to grow (often a ‘free gift’ from a gardening mag). If the seed is still good, why not donate it to a local school, swap it at a garden club or allotment group, or see if there is a Seedy Saturday event near you?

Make a list of what you want to grow and what you need to buy – make sure you include something new. Experimenting is one of the joys of gardening.

Don’t be caught out

British winters are notoriously hard to predict. One year we could be inches deep in snow, the next basking in balmy temperatures. Either way, don’t get caught out.

In the midst of Christmas, it’s easy to neglect those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ plants but it pays to keep a close eye on things in greenhouses and cold frames.

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Keep an eye on things that are seeing out the winter under cover

Make sure heaters are working and that lagging is sufficient. Check that overwintering plants don’t need watering; the recent warm spell has seen things in my greenhouse near wilting. Remove any dying leaves to prevent the spread of disease.

On warmer days, open up the cold frame or greenhouse door for a while to allow air to circulate.

Don’t forget to check for other residents: snails love the shelter of greenhouses and it’s a good idea to regularly check staging and corners.

Look out for pots

If you’ve got pots of bulbs tucked away waiting for their moment of glory in spring, make sure they are in top condition. Lag them with bubble wrap, or move into a more sheltered spot if temperatures drop. Standing them on ‘feet’ will ensure good drainage and help them shrug off winter wet and frost.

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Pots of bulbs are already showing signs of life

I grow mine – including tulips, Iris reticulata and hyacinths, in a corner of the garden and move them into the ‘spotlight’ just as they start to flower. Some are already starting to appear through the soil and will need regular checks to make sure I don’t miss the right moment to show them off.

Help your friends

Keep putting out food for the birds and they will repay you by helping to clear up pests later in the year.

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Old sunflower heads have been feeding the birds

Make sure there is fresh water and disinfect bird tables every so often to help prevent disease.

Bring the outdoors in

If you have one of the wonderfully scented winter shrubs, why not cut a small piece to bring indoors? The winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), mahonia and winter box will all scent a room.

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Winter honeysuckle has a wonderful lemon fragrance

Alternatively, if you haven’t planted early hyacinths or ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi, pick up a pot from a local nursery or garden centre and make a note to plant some yourself next autumn. They are the best antidote to the January blues and help to solve that suddenly bare look when the Christmas decorations come down.

Take time out

One of the hardest things for a gardener to do is to stop and appreciate what they have. It is so easy to see what needs doing – weeding, pruning, digging – rather than what you have achieved.

gardening jobs
Fat hellebore buds are full of promise

So as well as the gardening jobs, take the time to walk around your garden and see what’s already on the move. Snowdrops, hellebores and crocus are just some of the things that are starting to appear in my garden. 2017 is already full of promise.

gardening jobs
It won’t be long before the snowdrops are in bloom

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Tackling the roses at Sudeley

Climbing onto the rose bed, secateurs in hand, I suddenly feel a little nervous. It’s said you can’t be too harsh when pruning roses but that’s of little comfort when they are not yours. I am about to tackle some of the bushes in Sudeley Castle’s centrepiece Queens’ Garden and I don’t want to get it wrong.

Luckily, talking me through it is Jess Hughes, one of the four-strong gardening team, who demonstrates how they prune to get the best display and then watches as I start on the first one.

A few late roses linger in the Queens’ Garden

The secret, she says, is to remove the three Ds – dead, diseased and damaged stems – any stems that are crossing another and then cut back to an outward-facing bud to give an open, goblet-shaped bush. Anything thinner than a pencil is cut right back, the rest is lightly trimmed; the gardeners, led by head gardener Stephen Torode, are experimenting with whether to prune the roses lightly or hard.

I am helping with the long winter task of tidying and shaping the nearly 500 roses in the garden, named for the four Queens who have walked there: Katherine Parr, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I.

Sudeley is steeped in history

It’s not ideal gardening weather with occasional light drizzle and low cloud that almost touches the 150-year-old yews enclosing the rose garden but, if anything, it adds to the almost ethereal feel of the place. With the castle as a backdrop and its historical links – Sudeley was once the home of Katherine Parr, one of Henry VIII’s more fortunate wives – this is a place of romance and I am lucky enough to experience it when it is closed to the public.

Decades-old topiary is one of the features

I’ve been seconded to the gardening team at Sudeley, at Winchcombe near Cheltenham, as part of an experience run by Worcestershire-based Humdinger Days. The chance to garden at the award-winning site – either for a half or full day – is just one of the experiences, which range from learning to joust to spending the day as a leatherworker.

“We helping people achieve things they’ve always wanted to do,” explains Liz Davis, who founded the company with her son, Jordan.

Katherine Parr is entombed in the 15th century church

The firm offers a ‘bucket list option’ so that friends and family can club together to fund something and will tailor-make experiences to fit individual’s dreams. They also provide a personal concierge for each client to make sure everything runs smoothly.

The Sudeley experience is, says Liz, ideal for anyone with an interest in gardening.

“You are working with the professionals and learning as well as having a memorable experience.”

Pruning vines could be one of the tasks carried out

With 10 different gardens at the castle, the tasks could include anything from edging lawns, raking leaves, dead-heading or weeding; each experience would include a mixture of things and there’s the chance to quiz the gardeners and pick up tips; I’m intrigued to see piles of melianthus leaves dotted along the East Border. It turns out they are forming a protective blanket for the plants, which the team have left in the ground rather than lifting and storing over winter.

Melianthus leaves protect the crown of the plant over winter

As well as pruning roses, I’m helping Jess and her colleague Will Thake with bulb-planting; the other member of the Sudeley team is Pete May.

While the castle has always had tulips and other spring bulbs, this season it’s being done on a massive scale with 40,000 bulbs ranging from narcissi and crocus to alliums and colchicums.

“This year we’re adding early spring and end of season interest,” says Jess.

We are planting Narcissi ‘Double Campenella’ in grass alongside the banqueting hall ruins where it’s hoped they will naturalise. The heavy clay soil makes bulb planters difficult to use so the gardeners make the planting holes with metal poles. The narcissi are left uncovered until all are planted so that there’s an even spread and no danger of plunging the pole through an already planted bulb.

Jess and Will planting with the help of metal poles

It’s slow, methodical work but each bulb – many already showing signs of shoots – holds out the promise of spring. I for one will be visiting to see how my work turns out.

For more information on Humdinger Days see here

For details of Sudeley Castle’s gardens and opening dates see here

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Review: Build a Better Vegetable Garden

garden DIY

On the path of garden DIY

I’ve never attempted woodwork since a compulsory carousel of practical subjects in my first year at secondary school. It wasn’t a high point in my school life though I fared marginally better armed with a chisel than with a sewing machine in needlework. Build a Better Vegetable Garden by Joyce Russell may change all that.

Covering everything from building an easy fruit cage to constructing a decorative obelisk, it shows how to save money and improve your veg plot by a little bit of garden DIY.

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An apple store is one of the projects

The book, subtitled ‘30 DIY projects to improve your harvest’, achieves the near impossible by appealing to both the no-idea first-timer and the seasoned DIY expert; the latter are advised that they may want to skip straight to the projects.

Starting with the basics – what tools to buy, timbers to use and even the difference between galvanised nails and panel pins – Russell outlines in clear but unpatronising language how to get started.

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Each project has easy to follow steps

There are tips on marking up timber, cutting and drilling, along with the sort of advice that comes only with experience: keep tools in familiar places so you don’t waste time searching for them; don’t cut anything until you’ve checked your measurements; be aware that cutting metal pipes makes them hot so allow them to cool before touching.

She suggests starting with something easy, such as the broad bean support, fashioned out of poles and string. From that you could progress through the leaf mould container and simple cloches to a mini greenhouse or garden caddy.

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The A-shaped bean frame folds flat for winter storage

Each project is scaled for difficulty and the hours needed to complete. I particularly liked the ‘slug-proof salad trays’, complete with either copper pipe legs or feet sat in jars of water or old welly boots.

Woven through these practical projects are cultivation ideas from how to plant raspberry canes to crops for cold frames and what to put in a hazel planter.

garden DIY
There are ideas for planting in raised beds

Given my previous experience of woodworking, this book did not immediately appeal but it won me over. As Russell says in her introduction: “wherever we are on the gardening journey, there are always more things to learn and more ideas to follow”. This is one path I’m tempted to take.

garden DIY
The wooden planter can be used for flowers or veg

Build a Better Vegetable Garden by Joyce Russell, photography by Ben Russell is published by Frances Lincoln (£16.99 RRP). Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

For more book reviews, see here

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Tips for gardening organically

Worried about wildlife but don’t know how to kick the chemical habit? I’ve been finding out about gardening organically.

It’s not so long ago that gardening organically was considered a bit strange. When I first started writing about gardens, I could number those that used no artificial fertilisers or sprays in single figures. Nowadays, I frequently meet gardeners who have decided to grow more naturally, spurred on by reports of the threat to wildlife and concerns about pesticides on food.

And if organic suggests an ugly mix of weed-smothering old carpet, diseased roses and slug-ravished hostas, you need look no further than the Cotswolds’ flagship organic garden, Highgrove (pictured top), to see that organic can still be beautiful.

Yet, if you’re someone who’s used to reaching for the pellets to protect against slugs, or spraying at the first sign of greenfly, ditching the artificial answer can be a big step.

gardening organically
Highgrove proves organic can be beautiful

The important thing is not to expect an overnight fix, explains Elaine Shears, chair of the Gloucestershire Organic Gardening Group. It takes time to get the right mix of pests and their predators.

“You need to hang on as it takes a while to get the beneficials in place. Don’t reach for the chemical bottle and eventually you will get a really good balance.”

Elaine, who has been gardening organically for 30 years, describes it as a way of life and believes it’s important to treat the garden as a whole rather than limiting the spray-free zone to the vegetable patch.

“What you do in one part will affect plants in another part.”

Here are her ideas on where to begin.

Start at the bottom

The first step to a good organic garden is feeding the soil rather than the plants. Well-rotted farmyard manure, homemade leaf mould, compost made from garden and kitchen waste will improve the structure and nutrients in the soil.

Green manures – available from seed firms – are also a good way of protecting the soil over winter and adding nutrients, either directly to the border or via the compost heap.

gardening organically
Starting veg plants in modules is one way to combat pests

“You can dig them in, cut the tops off and put them in the compost or dig the whole thing up and compost it.”

Elaine also advises rotating crops around the veg plot rather than growing the same type in the same place year after year. This will help stop the build-up of disease and protect the soil’s fertility, as different crops require different things.

Make your own food

When you do need to feed plants, use something made from natural ingredients, such as seaweed or pelleted chicken manure, rather than an artificial fertiliser.

gardening organically
Nettles can be used to make plant food

You can also make your own from comfrey or nettles: cover the leaves with water (weighting them down helps keep them wet) and leave to steep outside somewhere sheltered, preferably with a lid on as the mix will smell. Use the liquid diluted roughly 1:10; the darker it is, the more it needs to be diluted.

“I use comfrey liquid on my greenhouse tomatoes and I mulch the outside ones with comfrey leaves,” says Elaine.

Stop the pests

Most gardeners’ biggest enemies are slugs and snails and Elaine suggests a two-pronged offensive: reducing their number and protecting young plants.

Wet weather brings out slugs and snails and is the ideal time to gather them up, while regular checks under plant pots, in greenhouse corners and under leaves will help to keep the numbers down.

Plastic slug collars put around vulnerable plants help to protect them, as do copper bands and Elaine also uses cloches made from old drinks bottles.

gardening organically
Snails hide in all sorts of places

“I don’t do a lot of direct sowing and tend to grow things in modules in the greenhouse,” she says. “With direct sowing, if I get a problem, I just have to do it again.”

When it comes to beating cabbage white butterflies, Enviromesh, a fine nylon mesh, is her choice but it must be set above the crop to stop the butterflies laying eggs through it. At the end of the season, Elaine puts it through the washing machine to clean it up ready for the next year.

Make good friends

Bring in wildlife to help you fight off pests by giving them what they need: food, drink and somewhere to shelter.

Water is important not only for birds but for attracting frogs and toads; Elaine has sunk half barrels into the ground as there’s no room for a pond.

gardening organically
A bug hotel is easily made

Give wildlife somewhere to shelter: plenty of shrubs and trees for birds; a ‘bug hotel’ for things to overwinter in; or simply a more overgrown area.

“Don’t be too tidy,” advises Elaine.

Make sure fences have gaps under them to allow hedgehogs access into your garden and be careful when clearing piles of leaves in late autumn.

Put food out for birds year-round and grow flowers – particularly those with single rather than double blooms – to attract pollinators and things such as hoverflies that will also eat aphids. Mixing flowers with veg not only looks good, it also gets the good bugs where you want them.

gardening organically
Growing organically beautifully, Hookshouse Pottery in Gloucestershire

Finally, Elaine suggests taking time to make sure you know who’s a friend and who’s a foe; it’s all too easy to squash a ladybird larvae by mistake.

Gloucestershire Organic Gardening Group meets on the third Tuesday of the month at 7.30pm at St John’s Church Centre in Churchdown, Gloucestershire.

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