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Gardening Blog 2016

Ramblings of a Mileham Gardener

October to December 2016

by Kathy Gray

We are now at that time when gardens start to wind down but it’s been a lovely summer, if a little hot at times. However, much in the garden has looked wonderful. For instance, Dahlias have looked great – I can never understand why they went out of fashion as they give such good colour, shape and form. One of my favourites is called Western Spanish Dancer - a cactus form with lovely colours of red and yellow.

Another favourite is more subtle – Twyning’s After Eight – dark, almost black leaves with white flowers. I particularly love the dark leaved plants and there are many to choose from.

One of the best displays can be seen at Houghton Hall, where a whole border is devoted to these flowers. It used to be good practice to let the first frosts blacken the leaves and then dig up the tubers to store over winter. However, the mild winters of the past few years have meant that many dahlias survive in the ground. I leave the big plants in the garden, but cover the crowns with spent compost or similar and a plastic bell cloche. Smaller dahlias are dug up, with most of the top growth cut off. I then hang them upside down for a week or two to dry out, before storing them in compost in boxes. I keep them quite dry over winter in a frost free place. It seems to work!

Enough about dahlias. Hopefully, you have purchased or are about to purchase the bulbs you want to plant this autumn. Narcissus should be planted as soon as possible. There is a narcissus for all situations, ranging from the smaller growing ‘Tete a Tete’ to the tall imposing, scented ‘King Alfred’. A favourite of mine is Narcissus ‘Thalia’ – with its white flowers in April it’s quite beautiful. However, it is best to wait until November to plant tulips. Unfortunately, these bulbs can succumb to tulip fire – a fungal disease called Botrytis tulipae. It causes the plant to appear scorched, with brown spots and twisted, withered, distorted leaves. There is no control other than destroying the bulbs, but not in the compost! Later planting means that colder soil/frosts can inhibit the spread of the fungus. Again, there is such choice with colour, height and form from the dark ‘Queen of the Night’ to the white, green tinged ‘Spring Green’. If you have a big container available, why not plant it up with layers of bulbs? The bottom layer should comprise tulips, then compost, followed by a layer of narcissus, more compost and the top layer can be early, small bulbs such as Iris reticulata. You then get a succession of flowers and colour. One good supplier of bulbs is Riverside Bulbs – see their website at www.riversidebulbs.co.uk  They offer a wide choice and some unusual varieties.

Bulbs are not the only thing to plant now. Most of us (me included) love to buy and plant new acquisitions in spring and I know I will go on doing just that. However, if you think about it, the months that follow can be dry and hot so new plants can suffer in these conditions. Planting in October and perhaps into November can give the plant a much better start. The soil is warm and the winter months keep it moist. Roots have a chance to develop and the plant gets well established. Of course, theoretically you can plant container grown shrubs, perennials etc. at any time, as long as the soil is not frozen. We just need to use our common sense! However, a plant that should definitely be planted at the end of October is the wallflower. They are a favourite of mine and come in colours ranging from golden yellow to deep ruby red. Try the dark red ones with orange tulips such as ‘Ballerina’ - a stunning colour combination and then there is the wonderful scent………

There is always a debate as to whether autumn or spring sown sweet peas do best. I have tried both and think that you get stronger, earlier plants from sowing in the autumn. They are one of the easiest seeds to sow and germinate. I usually soak the seeds as they have a very hard ‘coat’ and you need to ensure that water can penetrate to trigger germination. I use root trainers with sweet peas as they do so much better if they have a deep root run and they can stay in the trainers for a while once they have germinated. If you do plant them in pots that will require them to be pricked out, and potted on, wait until you get two true leaves, rather than the first two that show, known as cotyledons or seed leaves. Overwinter the plants in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse.  

As winter begins to bite, and Christmas looms, spend time planning what you want to change in the garden next year; hopefully you have kept a photographic record during the year as it makes the task so much easier. I for one can see that there is a lot to sort out in my garden. The main problem here is that I overplant and in the end, as plants mature, the garden ends up looking very messy. That’s my winter and spring mapped out!

Some interesting winter reading can come via the tales of the Plant Hunters. We tend to take the variety of plants available to us for granted but many miles were travelled and hardships endured by these early plant pioneers. For example, read about the adventures of Ernest Wilson, also known as ‘Chinese’ Wilson and his travels to bring back some of our favourite shrubs such as rhododendrons and azaleas. Or how he introduced the regale lily, but broke his leg in the process. He always walked with a limp after the break and called it his lily limp!

In conclusion, I wish you happy gardening for the remainder of 2016. You can then start to look forward to a brand new gardening year!

Ramblings of a Mileham Gardener

July to September 2016

by Kathy Gray

It is hard to credit that half the year is over and what a strange year it has been of late for us gardeners. Rain, especially rain, wind, sun, hail, fog – sometimes  we only needed snow to complete the set! However, despite the weather plants seem to be flowering as well as I have ever seen them. Of course, it is a bad year for slugs – well, good for them (what do you call an explosion of slugs?) but not so good for us and our hostas, vegetables etc. I don’t like using slug pellets as I do not want to endanger our avian and terrestrial friends; a few holes in a hosta is a small price to pay for the pleasure of the birds, hedgehogs etc. However, I do understand the frustration when crops are badly nibbled.

You will all, by now, have planted any bedding plants in baskets and containers. Do keep watering them well, especially in any hot weather (I know it sounds obvious but still easy to forget when life is busy) and also feed them to prolong flowering. Tomato food is as good as any as it is high in Potassium which promotes fruits and flowers. I also water plants such as Agapanthus with tomato food to help flowering, although this is best done earlier in the season. Out of interest, it is Phosphates that promote root growth and Nitrogen that helps with green growth. When you want a general fertilizer, you need to look for one that has equal proportions of the three main elements which are shown as N:P:H on packaging.

Herbaceous borders continue to look good and can do so right through to September and beyond.  We do though, need to keep dead heading plants that have flowered. You will then often get a second flush. For instance, hardy geraniums respond well to being cut down, as do delphiniums.  Grasses and other ‘prairie’ plants can add such a lot to the borders later in the season. One garden designer who has had a great influence on this style is Piet Oudolf. If you have never seen an example of his work, do visit the Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe Natural Park. It’s just beautiful as the year wears on with blocks of flower colour and movement provided by the grasses. For suitable plants I would refer you to nurseries belonging to the Norfolk Nursery Network – www.norfolknurseries.net - and, in particular, Hoecroft Nursery who specialise in grasses and variegated foliage.

Early July remains a good time to sow biennials i.e. plants that take two years to flower. These include many favourites such as Erysimum (Wallflowers), Digitalis (Foxglove), Hesperis matronalis (Sweet Rocket) and Dianthus barbatus (Sweet William) to name but a few. I have mentioned Chiltern Seeds before – www.chilternseeds.co.uk - and I have been particularly pleased with the Sunset series of wallflowers they offer. Sunset Primrose is a most attractive yellow flower and there are other attractive colours in the series. Some have the RHS Award of Garden Merit, always a good indication of tried and tested quality and worth looking for.

Lawns, of course, need attention. Mow them regularly during the summer months; this means once or perhaps twice a week. Do not, though, set the blades too low as this will cause scalping or dry patches, especially if the ground if dry. You can apply a spring lawn feed if your grass loses vigour during the summer months, but stop this treatment by the end of August as the high nitrogen levels make soft growth prone to winter damage. In hot, dry weather I know it’s tempting to water lawns but they will soon recover once it rains. Grass really is an amazing plant!

You may have gathered by now that I am not a grower of vegetables. I love eating them, but do not have the space to grow veggies in the garden. I, therefore, hesitate to give advice on their cultivation. However, I would direct you to a website that I have mentioned before – www.allotment-garden.org – which gives comprehensive advice about sowing times for crops etc.

Anyway, make sure you find time to enjoy your garden and also try to visit those belonging to others. Gardens open under the Yellow Book scheme – www.ngs.org.uk - are interesting and varied. You can get so many good ideas from these visits. Happy gardening.

Ramblings of a Mileham Gardener

April to June 2016

by Kathy Gray

What a bizarre year we are having so far! Warm early on so lots of things flowered early and then a cold spell that has held plants back. It’s almost as if nature is balancing itself out.

Anyway, we  gardeners carry on regardless! I hope you are still taking photos of your garden to see more clearly where any changes have to be made and to remind you of things that work well. Hopefully you have by now cleared borders of debris and weeds, and have  divided any perennials that are too big or have died down in the middle. Now is a good time to feed plants by applying an organic or inorganic food such as blood, fish and bone or Growmore.  It’s also a good time to apply a thick mulch, at least two inches, to the borders to help keep the soil moist. You can use garden compost, farmyard manure or bark and it will also help to aerate and produce a humus rich soil. As perennials grow don’t forget to stake those that are prone to flopping over. How many times have I left things too long and tried in vain to prop up a sagging delphinium or tall campanula.  

April and May are good months to prune evergreen shrubs in order to remove any frost damage and tidy wayward shoots. Shrubs grown for colour such as elder (Sambucus), the smoke bush (Cotinus) and Photinia ‘Red Robin’ can also be pruned back as new growth produces the best colour. In addition, early flowering shrubs such as Kerria japonica and Spirea should be pruned after flowering as they produce flowers on the previous year’s growth so if you prune too late you cut off all next year’s flowers! Not a good idea.

You will also have started mowing the lawn by now; to begin with the blades should be set high, then  gradually reduced as the grass starts to grow more strongly. It’s beneficial to feed (and weed if necessary) the lawn with a suitable proprietary product. Grass is an amazing plant as its growing point is at ground level – it’s called the intercalary meristem – rather than at the top of the plant which is more usual, when it’s called an apical meristem. This is what allows us to keep cutting it! Neaten the edges of borders. Somehow, cut grass and neat edges makes all the difference even if you have some weeds.

You may have already sown some half hardy annuals under cover, but May is a good time to sow hardy annuals direct into the soil. It’s warm enough to encourage germination and this year you might like to think about sowing plants that are particularly good for bees. Try Calendulas, Nigella or love-in-a-mist, Clarkia, Poppies and Gypsophila to name a few.

If you use bedding plants in containers etc., you can start planting up your displays, but do not place outside until any threat of frost has passed. I’m sure most of you know Packwells Nursery in Mileham – a really good place for bedding at reasonable prices. They also have a good selection of perennials, shrubs and climbers this year. I have had a good look round! Another avenue for new plants, (although not bedding) that I mentioned before, are those nurseries belonging to the Norfolk Nursery Network. See www.norfolknurseries.net

For vegetable gardeners, this is an extremely busy time of the year. If you are not sure when to plant the various crops, have a look at www.allotment-garden.org  The site offers a really useful vegetable sowing and harvesting chart.

Lots of hard work in April and May means that we can hopefully sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labours in June. Well....except for the grass cutting, watering, weeding and perhaps sowing wallflowers for next year.....Happy gardening!

Ramblings of a Mileham Gardener

January to March 2016

by Kathy Gray

I am writing this on a cold frosty day in January, but there are still primroses, snowdrops, crocus and wallflowers (yes – wallflowers) blooming outside, testament to the extraordinary weather we have had so far this year. However, whatever the seasons hold for us, it is still a good time to plan for the year ahead and it’s always so exciting to witness the growth in the garden as spring advances. So... take a walk around the garden and be as objective as you can about what is good and what doesn’t earn its keep. It is so easy to hold onto plants because you think they might do better next time round but really, they are just taking up space that could be used more effectively. It took me years to learn the lesson of ‘right plant, right place’ (and I still get it wrong at times!) Earmark any that need to go and also those perennials that could do with dividing. Each plant should have its own space, rather than all running into each other creating a rather messy look. It’s a fine line between a well stocked garden and an untidy one. Try to take photos at strategic points in the garden each month so that you really get to know how your garden changes over the year.

Having assessed the garden, make a list of any new plants that you need to fill the spaces.  It might be that a new tree or shrub is required. It’s always good to have a certain amount of evergreen shrubs/trees to create interest all year round.  The choice is enormous of course, but we have some excellent nurseries around who give sound advice and their prices are reasonable. If you haven’t heard of them before, try looking up the Norfolk Nursery Network for a list of good suppliers - see www.norfolknurseries.net

If you have a greenhouse, early in the year is always a good time to give it a thorough clean – partly to allow as much light in as possible and partly to keep the bugs at bay! If you are overwintering plants such as geraniums, make sure you keep the plants free from debris as this can harbour bugs. I used to line the greenhouse with bubble wrap each year but, and this is just my experience, I felt that it encouraged condensation and mould. Now I have a small electric heater just to keep the greenhouse frost free and I like to keep the air circulating as much as possible. Other cleaning jobs best tackled early in the season are cleaning out water butts and cleaning/staining or painting garden furniture.

When the weather is bad, do your gardening indoors by looking at seed and bulb catalogues. If you haven’t seen it before, get hold of a copy of the Chiltern seed catalogue – see www.chilternseeds.co.uk  It’s full of the most amazing choice of annuals, perennials, vegetables etc. No pretty pictures admittedly, but such a great choice. Fully and frost hardy annuals can be sown in the ground in spring where they are to flower. Half hardy annuals should be sown in containers in late winter, spring or early summer under cover, in temperatures of 13–21 degrees C according to the variety and planted out once all danger of frost has past. Of course, you can grow perennials and so much more from seed and it’s very rewarding even if it takes a little longer. If you like summer and autumn bulbs, the Parkers catalogue is also good - see www.dutchbulbs.co.uk  Although primarily wholesale, you can still buy smaller quantities of bulbs at  very reasonable prices. Many of us think of bulbs in terms of narcissus, tulips and crocus, but there are many that can really add to the summer garden. Think of lilies (if you can stand dealing with the lily beetle – how can something so colourful be so revoltingly awful!), begonias, gladioli (coming back into fashion according to those in the know – but who are these people?), cyclamen and dahlias.

Finally, whether you have several acres or a small back garden, enjoy your gardening.