Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Creating a New Garden


It is always sad to leave behind a mature garden that has taken ten years to create and is now fully functional, i.e. shelter and privacy are in place, we have flowers all year round, the fruit trees give us more fruit than we can use and our two patios mean we can follow the sun around in those rare moments of relaxation.
However life does not stand still. Our needs are changing, as we approach retirement, (its only ever going to be a pleasant thought.) We no longer need a large house as family grow up and travel to the other end of the world, so a nice wee cottage somewhere but with a decent garden would be just right. I then have the task of bringing together a lifetime of growing my favourite plants and starting it all over again. The new garden must be functional so I will take time to design all the features so everything is in the right place from the beginning.
Everybody at some time or another has to confront the new garden and where you begin, whether it is a new build on a new estate with a nice turfed lawn but nothing else, or whether it is a garden left by a previous owner.
When I find my wee plot of potential paradise and start the landscape works I will keep my readers up to date with progress and hopefully pass on a few ideas. There will always be a few success stories mixed with a few disasters. I will try and keep the latter at a low level, but when the brains creativity kicks in anything can happen.


It is a good idea to make a list of all the things a garden must do. Include security around the perimeter if necessary, especially if you are next to a field full of cows or sheep. Shelter from winds from the south west is high on my list and a patio is an absolute essential as I do not want to be grafting in the garden on a hot sunny afternoon, and I will need somewhere to park my sun lounger.
On the practical side find a suitable spot for the outdoor rotary drier, the compost heap and a vegetable patch for some fresh greens and a few home grown chemical free spuds. A fruit garden is a must with room for an apple, pear and plum, and all the soft fruits. Then of course we must integrate space for a year round display of flowers with special emphasis around the entrance and patio areas.
I also like to create a winter garden to be seen from the comfort of the house during the cold dull days and usually fit in a bird table and water bath. Our blackie likes to shower every morning.
This all sounds very ambitious but with careful planning it is very surprising what you can fit into a small garden.

Favourite plants

Every one has their own favourites from scented lilies, flag iris, climbing roses, delphiniums, rhododendrons, flowering cherry, tulips, crocus, daffodils and snowdrops and many more. Give a lot of thought as to where to plant them for their best position.

Colour and Impact

Spring and summer bedding plants can give a huge splash of colour and be very impressive when grouped together at entrances and around the patio. Wallflower and tulips in spring and geraniums and tuberous begonias in summer are hard to beat for impact.
Many border plants, shrubs, roses and trees can all be very special in bloom, though they are all seasonal. Make use of this feature and group together those at their best at different times of year. In March when the Forsythia is in full flower plant some early flowering Red Emperor fosteriana tulips underneath them to give impact and create a contrast of colour.

Shelter and Privacy

There is always a need for shelter from winds in our country and privacy is important today as houses are often built very close together. Open plan frontages may be the modern idea to improve the appearance of a whole estate, but people have to live in the houses and open plan is not to everyone’s taste. A house integrates better into the landscape when the edges and perimeters are softened with trees, shrubs, roses and ground cover. The size and selection of the planting will relate to the surrounding area. If there is a good view to preserve then lower ground cover is best, but if there are busy roads, shops or any eyesores to screen then trees and taller evergreens may be a better bet. However unless you live in the country with your nearest neighbour a couple of fields away do not entertain planting Leyland cypress. It is very vigorous, very tall, its roots rob the ground of all moisture and nutrients and is responsible for feuding neighbours all over the country as their is always somebody unable to control its rampant growth.


The patio is essential and should be sited close to the house for privacy and shelter and built as large as possible. This is where you can indulge in brightening it up with scented climbers, summer bedding, scented lilies, tubs and hanging baskets. This is where you dine outdoors at every opportunity, socialise in the evenings and weekends and relax on that sun lounger after a bit of garden graft enjoying a small glass of Saskatoon wine.


Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Autumn Harvest


 As autumn comes to an end most crops have been harvested and we can assess the results of our gardening skills and the effects of weather on the different plants.
It has been a good growing season for those plants that like plenty moisture, but a poor one for those that prefer a bit of sunshine after a shower. Many plants need a dryish warm and sunny spell at maturity to ripen up. This helps them to sweeten up, improve the flavour and assists their ability to store well. That kind of weather has been in very short supply this autumn.
This is a very busy time to harvest, dry off, clean and find storage space in garages, sheds or the freezer. However there are still many vegetables still growing slowly to take us into the winter with fresh healthy greens. Brassicas have really enjoyed the wet year. Cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts have been excellent, though losses from clubroot and attacks from mealy aphis, caterpillars and cabbage rootfly very serious. Early summer cauliflowers were wiped out by clubroot so I grew a stronger batch in pots for late summer cuttings. These got wiped out by rootfly. Alas the home gardener no longer has any chemicals to protect our crops from these attacks.
At least leeks do not seem to have any pest or disease problems and it has been an excellent year to grow huge Swedes.


My last variety of apple has now been picked. Bramley is a huge fruited cooker that is very reliable giving heavy crops that store right into March. The tree is strong and not affected by many pests or diseases, though I always find and remove a few mildew infected young shoots in spring. These primary infections come from overwintering spores in buds that develop as the young bud grows. However if you remove them quickly you prevent the disease spreading.
The huge crop was more than we can use, so a batch of good windfalls, smaller fruit and those with blemishes was put to immediate good use. I needed 30lbs for a three gallon batch of Sauternes type wine also adding raisins and ripe bananas for body, strength and flavour. With modern yeasts it is not too difficult to achieve a high alcohol content for this sweet dessert wine, if only I can be patient enough to wait till it reaches a fuller maturity. Gardening can be very rewarding. This is what makes the hard graft very worthwhile.
Other Bramleys going into storage are sorted into boxes and kept in my cold garage. They get a regular inspection and any showing signs of brown rot are removed immediately. Bramley is the perfect apple for cooking and numerous recipes abound for crumbles, stewed fruit, pies, stir fries, added to a cooked breakfast, curries, apple jelly, sauces, baked apples.
The gardener has no a bad life!!!
Dessert apples Fiesta and Red Falstaff are in store and continue to be used daily. Red Devil apples were fantastic, but have now all been eaten.


Under glass the Black Hamburg grape continues to fruit, but lack of sunshine has caused some bunches to shrivel up without ripening. Not such a heavy crop as last year and outdoors my Brant grape is late but needed to be picked as the blackbird found them, told his mates and I had to chase four of them off before I could pick them. The berries were picked from the stalks, crushed and put in a pan to heat up and simmer for ten minutes. This helps to extract the juice and sterilise it. It is then strained through a jelly bag and bottled in sterile plastic bottles. These will keep for two weeks in a fridge, and any surplus bottles can be frozen.

Cape Gooseberries

Growth has been excellent but lack of sunshine has prevented them from fully ripening even if they are grown against a sheltered south facing fence. They really need a decent summer if you grow them outdoors. I still await my first fruit and although I have great patience, I am not hopeful.


Swiss chard always looks brilliant in such a wide range of bright colours and it is a very healthy plant to eat. It is having a good year unlike my beetroot which have struggled badly to grow bigger than a baby beet. They might be delicious, but there is nothing to store.
Courgettes were very poor with me as my plants got severely damaged by the gales in May and never really recovered, but other gardeners who kept them protected at that crucial time have had a great crop with massive surpluses.
Pumpkins need plenty moisture, a rich soil with extra feeding and warm sunny weather to pollinate the flowers and produce a good crop. This then needs a lot of sunshine to ripen up the swelling fruit. Sadly my two plants only produced two small pumpkins. I did not need a wheelbarrow to take in this year’s crop. However they do make a terrific soup, so my small crop will be much appreciated even if only for a very short spell.
Leeks are looking very strong and should keep cropping right through winter into next March.
Kale, swedes and Brussels sprouts are also in good form so we should be ok for healthy living if the snow arrives early and if it gets too cold I may just open up a bottle of my Apple/sauternes wine to cheer us up.


Thursday, 17 November 2011



 We have to learn the lesson from last year. Most of us got caught out by the unexpected early winter that seemed to last a very long time, and getting onto the land to do some winter digging had to wait till about March. It is quite noticeable that a lot of plot holders have made a good start this autumn to crack on with the digging. The winter to come may not be as severe as last winter, but you just cannot take the risk.
As soon as crops have been harvested get some compost, leaf mould or manure spread and start the digging, but leave the soil surface as rough as possible to expose a large surface area to the weather.  In spring the soil will crumble easily to a fine tilth for sowing and planting.

Green manures

My early crops of onions, sweet corn, salads, French and broad beans, turnips, beetroot and a bed of strawberries now three years old have all been cleared at the end of summer, dug over, then raked level and sowed with a green manure of mustard.
As soon as I see a few flowers appearing on the mustard I will trample it down and dig it in so it has all winter to rot down to provide humus to improve the soil structure for my spring plantings.
However mustard belongs to the brassica family so can get infected by club root. This does not help crop rotation when you try to plant your cabbages, sprouts, cauliflowers and turnips on clean land not previously had brassicas for a few years. There are other green manures just as good for a quick crop such as tares, clovers and rye grass. Tares and clovers belong to the pea and bean family, so have the advantage of having nitrogen fixing bacteria on their roots which collect nitrogen while growing and then release it back to the soil to be used by next crop after they rot down.

Compost heaps

Every garden and allotment holder should have a compost heap. If you are really serious about growing good crops it is vital that you feed the soil to increase its fertility. Poor soil will produce poor crops, and adding fertiliser, even if it is organic, is no substitute for bulky organic manures. In past times farmyard manure was more plentiful, cheap and available, but today it is a much rarer commodity, so it is necessary to look out other products. However if you find a good source it is as good as you can get, but horse manure is also excellent. Chicken manure is good, but is very concentrated so needs bulking up with compost, old straw, bark chips, shreddings, grass cuttings or whatever you can find. Don’t throw out old used growbags, or compost from tubs and hanging baskets as these can all be reused on the compost heap. However always check them for the presence of vine weevil larvae. Sometimes you can find about fifty in a plant tub. These multiply very quickly, so if you find them remove them and either offer them to your friendly robin always fluttering close by, or squeeze them to kill them. Its a bit messy but it works.
All plant material can be composted, but to help the breakdown process, chop it up as much as possible before you add it to the heap. If it is woody and you have access to a chipper or shredder then you will have an excellent material to mix into your compost heap. Similarly, newspapers, utility bills often quite scary, bank statements showing interest at a very low rate, junk mail, unfriendly letters from creditors demanding payment for unpaid bills can all be very useful to bulk up your compost heap once they have been shredded.
Do not add any diseased plant material to your compost heap as most fungus spores can last for many years.
The compost heap will rot down faster if you keep the material chopped as small as possible and the heap is kept moist. Cover the heap with an old carpet to keep in the moisture and heat, but take it off during wet weather to allow rain to soak in.
Composting worms are different from the normal garden worm. They are present everywhere, and they will seek out your heap so no need to buy them in, but help them out by turning over the compost heap at least once every four or six months.
I use all my compost heap during my winter digging period, theoretically completed before Christmas in a normal year. That was my plan last year, but nature had its own plan and dumped a couple of feet of snow on my allotment without my permission and was in no hurry to remove it, so it took till March to get the soil turned over. Every year is different, so take every dryish day you can find to get the compost or manure dug in as you do not know what lies around the corner.


If you are digging in compost or manure it is better to take out a trench the depth of the spade so you can work backwards and have room to get the organic material incorporated into the soil as the digging proceeds. You will certainly need a trench if you are digging in a green manure otherwise it is very difficult to get it turned over cleanly with everything buried in the soil. At this time of year leave the soil rough to weather down over winter unless you are preparing a planting area for fruit bushes or plants. Any patch destined to be permanently planted with fruit trees, raspberries, blackcurrants, saskatoons or other fruit bushes is better being double dug up to two feet deep.
You will need to take out a trench at least 18 inches wide, but still only one spade depth. Fork up the bottom of the trench, adding some compost. This greatly assists drainage, aeration and gives the new plants an excellent root run to get them off to a good start. If you dig up any clay, keep it in the subsoil layer and do not bring it into the upper fertile zone.
As usual I set my target to complete winter digging by Christmas, but available spare time and the unpredictable weather may tell a different story.


Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Perfect Time To Propagate


Gardeners are always propagating plants. We get a lot of pleasure from seeing a mature plant grow from a small insignificant cutting, or packet of seeds. We know it makes economic sense to grow our own plants rather than buy them in at greater cost. However we have learnt to be patient while our wee cutting roots and slowly grows into a bigger specimen often over a couple of years.
Gardeners know the importance of getting the right variety of plant for the biggest impact, but then there is always an admirer who would just love a cutting or young plant from your impressive specimen.
I seem to have spent years travelling around the UK in my horticultural career, and each time I create a wonderful garden that I leave behind for the next person. However I always try to anticipate a move and start to propagate my specimen plants to have something for my next garden. I have many plants collected over the years that have travelled around the country with me. I am now at that stage again as I see a move coming quite soon (we are down sizing the house, but still need a big garden). I will be leaving behind a mature garden created over ten years, but really looking forward to starting a new garden venture. So the knife is sharpened and taking cuttings of my favourite plants is now in progress.
Autumn is a perfect time to propagate numerous plants. Most have finished growing for the season, and their flowering period may be over, but they are not yet dormant. The soil is also still relatively warm so root action can still be expected.
Some herbaceous plants can be split up, some alpines can also be pulled apart gently, and many shrubs can be propagated by semi ripe and hardwood cuttings. Trees and shrubs that produce berries can be propagated by extracting the seed from the berries which must be harvested before the birds eat them.

Herbaceous plants

These tend to grow in clumps that expand quite quickly. Strong pieces with good crowns can usually be dug out from the perimeter to reuse elsewhere. Replant these in drifts of three or more plants. Doronicums, Shasta daisies, phlox, delphiniums, oriental poppies, paeonias and Anemone honorine jobert will all split up easily. Flag iris has rhizomes that grow along the soil surface. These can be dug up, selecting strong young pieces with at least two or more good buds on them.
Geum Mrs Bradshaw does not form clumps readily, but it can be split up once it has been well established. Oriental poppies grow like weeds and even after they are dug up and replanted elsewhere older bits will still regrow and come back into flower very quickly.
This is an excellent time to replant lilies as the roots are still active although the tops have died down. Take care not to damage the succulent root system and as they need perfect drainage replant into holes prepared with a sandy soil mixture. They are happy to grow on a pile of stones without much soil, as they are not gross feeders but really love a dry soil surface just as long as the roots can find a bit of moisture deep down.


Some alpines such as sedum, thyme, sempervivum, campanula, phlox, mimulus, ophiopogon and saxafrages will spread along the surface of the soil forming clumps which tend to root as they expand. These clumps can be dug out and split up into smaller sections. They readily grow back into the clump or ground hugging shape. Some alpines such as primula and aquilegia are best propagated from seed using a light free draining soil mixture. Lamium White Nancy, aubretia, delosperma and veronicas are better from cuttings. Again use a free draining compost and dibble in the cuttings quite close together and place in a light but not sunny outdoor position. Most plants will be well rooted by spring and will then need potted up or planted out.
Cyclamen hederifolium and aconites can grow and spread into large drifts by self sown seed. Young plants can then be dug out of the drifts which will reform very quickly.

Take cuttings

Shrubs can be propagated by semi ripe and hardwood cuttings as well as layering.
I take semi ripe cuttings of euonymus, ceanothus, cistus and pyracantha with a heel and insert them into a closed propagator with bottom heat. Hydrangeas are best as tip cuttings of non flowering shoots protected in a cold frame
Willow, philadelphus, buddleia, forsythia and shrub roses can all be propagated from hardwood cuttings of young mature shoots about six to eight inches long and inserted into a well drained gritty mixture in a cold frame The optimum time to take  hardwood cuttings is two weeks before leaf fall to two weeks after they have lost their leaves.
Cornus is slower to root so it is better to take a bundle of cuttings and plunge them two thirds into a very sandy mixture in a cold frame. The cutting base should be callused over in early spring and be ready to line out before the buds break.
Kerria suckers very freely, so it is easy to dig up rooted stems to plant elsewhere.

Sow seed

Shrubs such as berberis, cotoneaster, pyracantha and trees such as rowan can be propagated from seed extracted from the berries as soon as possible in autumn. Sow in seed trays and leave outdoors in a shady but cold spot to stratify the seed over winter. Do not let them dry out and protect them from birds and mice. They will germinate in spring. Treat Himalayan blue poppies this way to get a good germination.