In common with many keen gardeners, I like to dig over my vegetable patch in the autumn. This allows ground which has become compacted over the summer to be broken up by winter frosts, and also allows me to spread the rich compost which I have lovingly nurtured in my three compost bins over the summer. Digging exposes soil pests, preventing them from building up to problem levels too. This gives the birds a free meal and encourages them into the garden, where they eat even more pests, so everybody wins.
Autumn digging also tidies everything up, so I can settle into winter feeling slightly smug and virtuous, having cleaned away the usual build-up of summer weeds.
Unfortunately, come this time of year, if the weather has been reasonably mild, those weeds will already be making strong headway, and by early new year, Speedwell, Groundsel and other weeds may already be established.
So mild Winters may mean that instead of simply being able to rake over the ground early in the new year, ready for planting, it becomes necessary to dig over the plot again to remove the weeds ~ once the soil is dry enough to walk on without compacting it.
This year, starting to feel my age a bit, I have called in some help. I have bought a small, electrically-powered rotovator. Larger versions of these machines can save a lot of digging, but can be hard work to operate. However, if you have a plot which is regularly cultivated and just needs a going over prior to planting, a small rotovator may well be the answer.
The tines can be set for deep digging or shallow surface cultivating, so you can deep-dig in October and reset the machine to quickly chop up those enthusiastic annual weeds before spring planting.
I found this little machine, which I bought nearly new on eBay for around £100, to be very efficient at producing a well-worked soil ready for planting. However, any deep-rooted perennial weeds should be dug out first, otherwise their roots will be chopped into hundreds of pieces, each capable of producing a new plant
What a slow growing season 2012 has turned out to be. In Spring we were desperate for water and some sunshine, but endured weeks of cold, dry weather instead. Then, no sooner was a hosepipe ban put into place, than we were treated to more rain in a month than we might normally expect over the whole Summer. Must be something to do with that global warming the politicians are always going on about. Me, I'll keep an open mind.
Gardeners are, by nature, planners, but although the recent wide weather variations make life interesting, they can play havoc with our vision of a beautiful garden which is perfect in every way.
Autumn is a useful time to look over your plot and take an inventory of which plants ~ flower or vegetable ~ have best coped with the current year's weather conditions. Some of us will have planted sun-loving Mediterranean plants this year in response to alarming stories that suggested that the Fens, along with the rest of the country, could expect Sahara-type conditions in future. Such plants may have struggled with this season's cold and damp, but others will have shown greater fortitude, so those are the ones to encourage next year.
We can be reasonably sure that however hard the forthcoming Winter proves to be, most Autumn-planted bulbs will survive and produce beautiful flowers in 2013. Therefore now is the right time to look around at where Daffodils, Crocuses and Tulips can brighten up your garden next Spring.
Bulbs need to be planted deep enough to ensure security for the plant against strong winds and against hungry rodents or other pests on the lookout for an easy meal. Planting depth will depend upon the type of plant chosen, but as a general rule, estimate the height of the bulb from top to bottom, then plant at between two and three times that measurement. For example, a 2" (5cm) high bulb should be at 4" to 6" (10 - 15cm) below ground level. The bulb should be upright, with the shoot end at the top and root at the bottom. This is easy enough for Daffodils and Tulips but for corms, such as Crocosmia or Anemones, careful inspection will be needed to determine which side is up!
July and the rest of High Summer is the time that many gardeners will be sitting back and enjoying the fruits of their labours, as we casually harvest our early potatoes and salad crops, casting a proud glance at our colourful flower beds as we listen to the gentle splash of water flowing into the pond.
"Yeah, right," I hear you groan. The reality is that our vegetable crops were delayed by the late, cold, wet Spring, the flowers are all overrun with weeds, and we never got around to creating the water garden we have been promising ourselves for the past three years.
Still, perfection is something that most of us will never fully achieve in our lifetimes, so let us accept the reality of the situation and see what can be done. Gardening is all about timing: what to plant and when, and how to nurture the tender young plants. Avoid doing all your hoeing at once ~ it will become a chore. Do a little every so often, and avoid backache. Hoe in the morning on a fine day, and let the hot afternoon sun kill off those troublesome weeds. Do the same job on a damp day and many of the little blighters will take root again, leaving you to repeat the exercise much sooner than planned. July is not too late to take cuttings of some of your favourite plants, as they will still be growing strongly and most will root easily. Leave the task for another month or so and the cuttings will not have had enough time to develop a strong root system before the onset of the cooler weather. A surprising number of plants will root from cuttings, so if in doubt, give it a try ~ you have nothing to lose and lots of new plants to gain. Use trays or pots with a reasonable depth of good quality compost, and avoid using compost that has been lying around in the bag for a long time as it can encourage disease.
Cut growing shoots 4 or 5 centimetres long, using a very sharp blade such as a craft knife. Strip away any leaves that are close to the cut, dip the end into hormone rooting powder and immediately insert the cutting into the damp compost. Keep the compost damp but not soaked, and although some cuttings will root in the open, they are best rooted in a fairly humid environment, such as a greenhouse, on a window sill, or in a cold frame, out of direct strong sunlight.
Spring into action
April is a vital month in the gardening calendar, as it generally combines a certain amount of planning, seed-buying, and sheer hard work. After a long winter of relative inactivity, many of us could do with the exercise. It's important not to overdo it though, so work up to it slowly if you have any heavy digging to do.
In the vegetable garden you will probably have already planted potatoes. We live in an area where fresh vegetables are easy to obtain, but it is still satisfying to grow your own. If space is limited, first early potatoes are the best bet, as these will give you fresh, 'new' potatoes when they are still expensive in the shops, as they have a short growing season. Maincrop potatoes are fine if you have the space, but you will be lifting them when potatoes are quite cheap in the supermarket, so if the financial aspects are your main concern, grow earlies.
Try to rotate your vegetables to a different patch from last year, as this helps minimise pest and disease attack and makes the best use of nutrients. Keep back salad seed to allow you succession sowing, or you will end up with everything coming at once, followed by a break in supply: back to the supermarket!
In the flower garden I like to seek out plants that offer 'good value.' By this I mean flowers that don't disappear after a few days of glory. Phygelius is one of my favourites as most varieties are very hardy and easy to propagate. This is a woody shrub with beautiful trumpet-shaped flowers of red, cream or pink shades, produced in profusion over a long period. Cutting off flower spikes after they have flowered encourages further flowering. If you have the space, Phygelius makes a great backdrop for herbaceous plants.
Another favourite of mine is Diascia, a low-growing rockery or border flower, usually grown as an annual, but which can survive mild winters. It too throws out fresh pink flowers when dead growth is cut back, producing splashes of colour right through summer.
National Gardening Week ~ 16th - 22nd April
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) launches its first ever National Gardening Week this month with a range of family activities across the UK.
Manea School of Gardening (MSOG) is affiliated to the RHS and will be promoting various events to highlight National Gardening Week and Britain in Bloom.
Wild Flower Sowing Help increase the quantity of important pollinating flowers by joining a grand sowing of wild flowers on Saturday 14th April at 2.00pm next to High Street Stores. All welcome and no equipment needed ~ all seeds donated by the RHS and MSOG.
Manea School of Gardening Open Day Students at MSOG will be available on Saturday 21st April and Sunday 22nd April to offer help and advice on gardening issues, and will be pleased to show their newly-developed RHS plots, the Winter Garden, the Woodland Garden and more.
Other attractions at the open day include Chickens, Ducks and Kune Kune Pigs, and Manea Bee Keepers will be on hand to show off their new Bee Meadow and Apiary. Refreshments, including a barbecue, will be available.
Note The RHS is the UK's leading gardening charity, and is dedicated to promoting excellence in horticulture and gardening. You can support their work by joining the RHS at Manea School of Gardening. The school's core function is running RHS courses, leading to internationally recognised qualifications. See Village Diary for details of regular events at Manea School of Gardening, together with contact details.
Skylark Tips:- Periods of dry weather can see burgeoning numbers of aphids on which can hide right in the centre of your plants. Control the aphids with a contact insecticide such as Bug Clear Ultra, which will kill the aphids on contact and prevent them from coming back due to its systemic action... Once frosts have passed, hardy annual seeds such as Nasturtiums Nigella, (Love-in-amist) & Limnanthes (Poached egg plant) can be sown out doors and will flower all summer long.
A new beginning?
Most of us have little enthusiasm for clumping around a muddy January garden on a cold, soggy day, so the early part of the year is often a planning time; a time to study the seed catalogues while dreaming of balmy days ahead.
Maybe instead of just deciding what to grow, you could plan to remodel the whole garden, or at least one small corner of it. Straight paths and square borders are convenient, but gentle curves are easier on the eye, and make your garden a nicer place to be in once the weather warms up.
Perhaps you could slot in a water feature. Ponds full of Koi Carp are a fine talking point with visitors, but you don't need to be that ambitious; you can buy a small, ready-made, solar powered water feature fairly cheaply. It will need little attention and add interest to a forgotten corner.
A sympathetically designed garden should be like an extra room of the house, rather than a dumping ground for assorted junk. Maybe it's time to look at your garden with new eyes, and perhaps plan a trip to the recycling centre as a starting point?
In these recessionary times, many are turning to their gardens or allotments to help feed their families. However, although the idea is attractive, the costs can outweigh the gains, leading to disappointment. Producing your own compost will improve the soil and reduce the need for expensive fertilisers, and carefully planned planting and crop rotation can cut down on pests and diseases, minimising the need for pesticides and fungicides.
Saving seed from the current year's crop can be very cost effective too. Runner Beans, French Beans, Courgettes, Marrows and Pumpkins can all provide seed for next year. Allow Bean and Pea plants to die back and dry out, then pick the ready-to-burst pods on a dry afternoon when there is no moisture on the plant. Save in paper bags, finishing off the drying process in an airing cupboard if necessary. Courgette, Melon and similar seeds are saved by gathering matured seeds from the well-ripened fruit, then drying them on a warm windowsill before storing in a dry, vermin-proof place.
Flower seed can be saved in the same way. The key is to ensure that saved seed is dried as quickly as possible, then carefully stored away from damp and vermin.
Warning, do not store seeds in plastic bags or condensation will cause them to rot if there is the slightest trace of moisture present in the bag. The same applies to plastic containers.
Perhaps by the time you read this your garden will be ankle deep in floodwater following a summer deluge. At time of writing, however, there has been no significant rain for many weeks in the Fens, and gardeners are naturally very concerned for their cherished plants.
Wise gardeners will already have one or more water butts ready to catch precious rainwater, which always seems to encourage plant growth better than tap water, probably due to the stored water being at a milder temperature than tap water. I have three water butts, and also keep half a dozen watering cans ready-filled, warming in the sun.
"That's hard work," I hear you say. "Better to use a hose." If your garden is large, then a hose will certainly be useful, but avoid sprinklers, which cover your tender plants with icy cold water, slowing growth. Better to use a hand-held hose with a spray nozzle which you can aim directly at the soil, and which also ensures that nearby weeds do not enjoy the benefit of your efforts.
Sprinklers are best confined to agricultural operations, but if you do feel the need to use one, please install a timer to avoid wasting a precious resource.
In drought conditions, prioritise by watering only newly-planted or vulnerable plants and vegetables. Hanging baskets and tubs need constant attention. Don't worry too much about the lawn even if it appears nearly dead; it will spring back to life at the first sign of rain.
Avoid the 'little and often' approach to watering. Inadequate watering just encourages the fine surface roots, which then die off as soon as the soil starts to dry out. A thorough soaking about once every three or four days is better.
I water each plant carefully and generously, then repeat the process after the first application has soaked in, to ensure that the water reaches the whole root structure.
Water late in the day so that the sun does not quickly undo your good work. Failing that, early morning is next best.
Just four years. That's how long Albert Einstein reportedly said the human race would last in a world without bees.
Bees are vital to the success of about 90 major crops worldwide. Most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are dependent on bees, as are crops used as cattle and pig feed. Also, if we can't feed cows, we can say farewell to dairy produce. Nor is it only the food we eat that is inextricably linked to bees. The cotton plant that provides so much of what we wear also relies on bee pollination.
There has been a lot of press recently about the demise of the commercially kept honey bee - primarily due to the tiny Varroa Mite infesting their hives. This, of course, hits the headlines, yet there has been a severe decline in the UK of our other bees ~ the bumble bees and the solitary bees.
Indeed, bumble bees (Bombus Species) are now so widely recognised by farmers for their importance as pollinators that habitat management is now an integral part of farming, with wild flowers being sown on field margins to encourage these and other wildlife to colonise. However, this action was too late for many of our native species. The loss of habitats such as hedgerows, as well as a seasonal succession of forage plants, means there are currently only around six species of bumble bee common throughout the country. The decline in numbers has been greatest in this area.
So, as gardeners, what can we do to help? No, there is no necessity to turn your well-kept plot into a wild flower meadow, though bees would certainly appreciate a small area of wild-flowers if you are able to oblige! Many of our nicest garden flowers make wonderful forage plants for Bombus; they are well adapted to gain entry to many different flowers in search of nectar or pollen.
From hellebores and crocus early in the year, to aquilegia, evening primrose, foxgloves, honeysuckle and hollyhocks by summer. Lavender, sage, rosemary, yes, many of the plants that would have been seen in our 'traditional' English country gardens are wonderfully bee-friendly. Now, there's a surprise.
The Hungry Gap
With several inches of snow or a heavy frost covering everything, the last thing on most of our minds in January is the garden. With a few exceptions, flowers will be notable by their absence or by their wilted, dejected appearance. Most of the vegetables will have gone by now, unless you had the foresight to plant brassicas such as savoy, kale, or broccoli for example. This lack of edible produce in the early part of the year inspired the term 'Hungry Gap'.
Keen gardeners will already be sowing seeds of suitable varieties of onion or tomato, to be started off in greenhouse, conservatory or on a window sill. For many of us though, this is a time for planning, for browsing seed catalogues or wandering pensively through chilly garden centres seeking inspiration.
Our planning can be helped by observation. Snowdrops and crocuses brighten late winter and early spring, and the cheerful yellow flowers of winter jasmine and mahonia are a welcome sight on a gloomy winter's day. So if you have room, why not make a note to put in some of these later when conditions improve? This time next year you'll appreciate your foresight. Canny gardeners take the long view, and try to have something in flower at all times of the year.
Vegetable gardeners know that carrots love our Fenland soil, and main-crop varieties such as New Red Intermediate can be sown as late as July and will produce roots right through the winter. Mark your calendar now to sow some carrots in July, and reap the rewards next winter. Beware slugs though; they too love carrots!
Crocuses and snowdrops look best when planted in drifts (groups of plants), often all of the same colour to add impact. Make a calendar note to yourself for autumn as a reminder to plant bulbs. Dwarf daffodils, such as the pretty Rip Van Winkle, with it's fluffy double flowers, are a great follow-on from the crocuses, then come the tulips, and then...
Grow-your-own is all the rage
Yes, nationally, it is suddenly 'cool' to dig and hoe, and plant and sow. And about time too, so say those of us who have been doing it for years. Why?
Because there is nothing like the taste of fresh, home grown produce, tainted only with the sweat from your brow. To say nothing of the sense of achievement at producing something from a packet of seeds, or a leafless bush planted in the ground.
We may be living in a rural area, yet we are actually lagging behind many 'townies' in actually joining in with the pleasures of being able to eat produce grown ourselves. Many readers of this may have 'escaped to the country' with this being one of the 'objectives',but is it really happening?
No one will pretend that 'growing' is easy. There are countless books and TV programmes telling you 'how'. Doesn't always help though, does it? I don't think I could ever have learnt to cook a meal in this way, and so it is with gardening.
We are fortunate in this area to have soil types and pH that suits most fruit crops. So, provided you can offer a site that does not lay too damp, and is not in shade, then you have no excuse not get fruity.
I know I am restricted here to a page - so here is a very brief introduction to Fruit Growing for Fun.
Top fruit, or Tree Fruit
Apples, Pears, Plums - all can now be grown on dwarfing rootstocks so will fit in all but the tiniest of gardens.
Sheltered garden - lucky you - add Apricot, Peaches, Nectarines and Cherries to your list.
Fancy something different? - how about Quince, Medlar, Mulberry or Hazel nut trees.
Firstly the berries - Raspberries, Blackberry, Loganberry, Tayberry, Boysenberry etc - all can be trained along a wall or fence, so taking up very little actual 'garden space'.
Then there are the Currants: Black, Red or White and the Gooseberries - these grow on bushes, so may be grown in the borders or as a low hedge - useful as well as productive.
Strawberries - so easy - and yet so expensive (and tasteless) when bought form the supermarket.
Add Figs, Grapes and Rhubarb, plus Blueberries and Cranberries if you fancy a challenge - Fruit garden complete.
All you need now is a bigger freezer, or a good stock of jam jars or bottles for the 'surplus'.
All the above may be ordered, at very realistic prices (about half the price of the seed & plant catalogues) from your local nursery, here in the village.
Autumn Gardening Spot
I always think it strange that many 'gardeners' give up with their plots by this time of year. Spring is the time to get on with gardening - or is it? Autumn is nature's time for planting. The soil is still warm, yet we have moisture back in the ground. The cooler temperatures encourage roots to grow, and we are unlikely to be hit with a sudden heatwave or severe frost!
Yes, things arc slowing down, but they are storing up energy ready for bursting back into growth after a well-earned rest. Autumn is a good time to reflect on your garden - where did it fail you? Are there 'wasted' areas? Would you like it to be more colourful, or productive? In the 'good old days,' Autumn was the main time for plant sales. Clay pots and loam composts were heavy and not easy to transport. Garden Centres were very few and far between. Most plants were either exchanged between gardeners, or bought from catalogues. This has, of course, all changed - and plants are available all year round.
However, autumn is the best time to lift and divide many of our best-loved herbaceous perennial plants. Most perennials actually benefit from division every two to three years to maintain health and vigour. This also gives you a chance to put another clump elsewhere in your garden, or 'share' (or swap) with your gardening friends. Hostas, Delphiniums, Lupins, Lily-of-the-valley, Hemerocallis (day-lilies), Hardy geraniums, Arum lily and many more may be multiplied in this way.
Autumn is also an excellent time to order and plant trees and shrubs. Although a wide range of these are always available as 'container grown' plants, it is often worth looking out for 'bare-root' plants. Many varieties of ornamental and fruit trees, soft fruit canes and bushes, roses and hedging plants may be bought this way. They are lifted by the nursery man when conditions are suitable, usually between October and March. Disadvantages include the need to plant, or heel-in, the plants before the roots have a chance to dry out. But advantages include cost and choice. You can save 50% or more compared with a container grown plant, and the range is far better!