Okay, so the meteorologists can never seem to make up their minds so we’re never quite sure what kind of summer we’ve had. The winter has been long, the spring has been late, but though the cold’s been rattling at my bones there’s one thing that’s been all too obvious, and that’s the lack of rain.
You might think, rain? but we’ve had LOADS! In fact, here in London, we really haven’t. I’ll agree…there’s been some very wet days where a lot of rain has fallen in a relatively short space of time. But, certainly in my garden, dig beneath the surface of the soil, and the moisture has quickly drained away. Three days of sun, and my plants are already starting to look rather parched and I’m expecting to put the hose system on tonight to give them some welcome relief to their thirst.
There’s no doubt, that a hot summer is on everyone’s wishlist and we’ll all be very happy sitting out on our porches, verandas and lounging around in garden log cabins (if you have one of the latter, I expect an invite). But what of our plants?
If you’re looking for inspiration, then my Four Ways to Protect Plants from Drought is worth having a quick read. Watering in the evening is the most economical way to water, whilst watering long, hard and infrequently encourages deep roots for prolonged plant health. Changing your plants, too, can help, and using silvery leaved varieties helps to create a drought resistant garden. Mulching heavily around plants can lock moisture into the ground so that you don’t have to water so frequently, whilst ensuring that seeds are planted in-situ, instead of being transplanted, can help with establishing young plants quickly and ensuring that less watering’s required.
Of course, we’re not yet into the summer, and who’s to say that we won’t have yet another complete washout? But, with the hot days of spring arriving, taking the time to ready your garden for drought now, will provide dividends in the coming months is blissful days arrive. And, by watering, mulching and protecting your garden now, all that awaits on hot summer days is a glass of Pimms and a lounge chair on the patio.
You know how it is; you go to the nursery, throw a few plants in the trolley, get to the till and somehow you’ve spent £100. I can never work out how a few plants and a bag of soil always manage to deepen the credit card debt, but somehow they do. Instant gardening – that’s having your garden look beautiful for not a lot of work – is always going to be expensive. But, if you’re a ‘proper‘ gardener, there are a few ways to keep it cheap-ish.
If you’ve ever actually looked in your shed, you’ll probably discover there’s a few rusty tools laying in one corner. As your green fingers develop there’s a growing urge to rush out and buy every horticultural tool possible. But, here’s a little secret, you really don’t need them.
I don’t drive, and people often ask me how I carry all my tools about if I’m a jobbing gardener. Well, the answer’s easy; in my backpack. Unless you’re doing major work in the garden, such as lopping down trees, you can get by with the bare essentials. Obviously, a mowers pretty essential if you’ve got a lawn, but as for big tools that promise to make even the hardest jobs easy? Naa, not so essential. I sharp pair of secateurs, a strong pruning saw, a hand trowel, and a sturdy spade and fork are really all you need. Y0u can bolster your tools with nifty little gadgets, such as electric pruners or telescope handled tree loppers, but if you ain’t got the money, then a few tools will go a long way.
I always find that if I buy a plant from a nursery, I shove it in somewhere and then it subsequently dies, I’m not too bothered. However, if something I’ve sown has a leaf which begins to discolour in the slightest, I’m all over it.
Nurturing plants from seeds is cool…you’re basically growing a new life, albeit it a green plant one. There’s something about seeing your seedlings grow and thrive which really humbles me and brings me back down to earth. Plus, being able to say to friends, ‘oh yes, that beautiful shrub that you’re just dying to have….I grew that myself from a teeny seed,’ give a swelling of pride. I grew these heucheras from seed and I LOVE them!
Avoid Bedding Plants
I’m a little biased here because I hate bedding plants, which means I’m always thinking up good reasons not to use them. One, is that they’re so expensive. Okay, the tray of begonia plugs is less than a fiver, but remember; they’ll only last a season and then you’ll have to buy more next year. Buying perennials is actually far cheaper in the long run because these plants mature and grow over the years, instead of dying at the sign of the first frost like so many bedding plants. In addition, once they’ve thriving, you can easily take cuttings or split plants = MORE plant and FREE plants.
Beg, Borrow and Steal
Well, not so much of the stealing, but you know….you don’t even have to buy plants if you have no money. The pretty amazing thing about plants is that you can propagate them. Cut off a human arm and it’s just a gory and bloody stump of flesh. Cut off a plant’s stem, leaf or root and it’ll grow a new plant! Awesome! Some plants are easier than others, but if you don’t try, you won’t know. If you’re at a friends house, just ask to take a little cutting or two and hey presto, you can populate your own garden for free!
You don’t need those £5.99 plant markers just because they come with a free weather-proof pen. You really don’t. You can use lollipop sticks, painted stones or anything else found laying around the garden. The word here is; RECYCLE. There’s a lot you can do with old products. Carpet makes an ideal compost bin lid and can be used beneath mulch as a weed suppressant. An old tyre sunk into the earth and lined with plastic makes the ideal base shape for a little pond, and will be cheaper than buying a new mould. Old bricks are ideal for creating paths and all manner of various objects make interesting planting containers. Being unique and customise, and you’ll ensure that you have a garden like no one else!
There’s been a lot in the news about the decline of bees over the past few years, and the support for saving these insects has soared. After all, without these vital pollinators, human beings are pretty much stuffed when it comes to the whole producing-enough-food-to-survive lark. But, whilst bees are deteriorating in numbers, so too are butterflies. Last weekend, when the weather finally warmed, there were a lot of butterflies about, resting on fence panels and trying to warm their wings in the sun. But, despite a plethora of spring bulb flowers, food for butterflies was seemingly scarce.
If you were miserable in 2012 because of the wet summer, then just spare a thought for butterflies. The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme revealed that 52 of the 56 species studied, that’s 93%, saw population declines last year, with a lack of mates, shelter and food causing huge drops in numbers. You can’t do a lot of help some species, such as the high brown fritillary and black hairstreak, because they’re very unlikely customers to your garden. However, for a few more of the common garden varieties, you can offer some butterfly feeders as well as growing nectar rich plants.
I already offer bird food around the year, offering local feathered friends an easy place to come and grab some grub when they’re hungry. I grow nectar rich plants for bees, and try to ensure to there’s always something in flower. So, why not offer butterflies something too?
For anyone who’s visited a butterfly house, it’s common to see rotting fruit left out. Why? Because it’s oh such a boozy delight for butterflies to lick up. There’s no reason you can’t do this in your own back garden to offer something extra for passing insects to enjoy. If you’re worried about caterpillars – fear not. The vast majority of Britain’s butterfly’s lay their eggs on wildflowers and not your beloved plant specimens.
If you’re keen on trying something new this year, then the Woodland Trust have got a couple of easy butterfly feeding guides. The basics are to offer slightly rotten slivers of fruit on a flat dish somewhere in your garden. It’s probably best to situate this somewhere where you can actually see the butterflies coming in to feed, whilst keeping it in the open so that the insects can see danger. You can easily make your own nectar solution by simply boiling 1/2 cup of sugar in 2 cups of water. Wait until the sugar’s dissolved, allow the mixture to cool and then use a sponge to soak up all of the liquid. Then simply place the sponge on your butterfly feeder – aka a flat dish with fruit – and allow the eager long tongues of butterflies to arrive.
With the late start to spring, many butterflies coming out of hibernation might be having a problem finding food, so I’m going to try offering food as a priority. I’ll let you know how I get on!
I don’t know about you, but the start of this veggie growing year has begun rather late. I had too much going on in November to get broad beans or overwintering onions in, so the allotment has been completely sparse of any harvests at all. An above freezing day in February got my sowing juices going and I put some broad beans in which, when placed upon the windowsill, quickly germinated and shot towards the sky. This year I made the positive step of actually acclimatising the seedlings fairly on so, yes, whilst they’ve got leggy, they’re not as bad as usual. The small sweet peas that I put in around the same time have also been hardened off – to the extent that they were snowed on and survived – so they’ve now been planted out along the fencing.
With the warm weather finally arriving this past weekend, the first broad beans are in, 120 potatoes have been planted and two rows of parsnips are now sown in the increasingly warming beds. The potatoes range vastly, but I’m glad to have got some charlottes (my favourite) and pink fur apples (a great rot-resistant or so I’ve found potato) in. Luckily, a huge delivery of wood clippings has allowed us to finally get rid of the grass paths completely and mulch the entire plot. Not only should this reduce mowing times, but it’ll also ensure that there are less avenues for those belligerent couch grass roots to invade our beds and pull precious time away from growing. Last year was a hell-of-a-year for veggies, with slugs and the wet weather resulting in minimal harvests all round. 2013? This year just has to better!
As many of you know, I’ve had an allotment for many years and grow a variety of scrummy veggies to harvest for the kitchen table. But all too often I don’t get down to the allotment because it’s raining, because I can’t be bothered to mooch the 20 minute walk through the forest or because I only have a few minutes to spare. It’s hard with an allotment; you need to set aside some real time to go and work. There’s no pottering here. So, this year, in addition to growing larger harvests, such as potatoes and onions, down on the plot, I’m going to be growing some veggies at home amongst the ornamentals.
Due to the allotment, I don’t have a specified veggie path at home. Nor do I want one, because my garden is so tiny that there really isn’t room. I love flowers too much to be digging in a veggie patch, but there are some areas that can be utilised for easy harvests.
One of the crops I’m definitely going to be home harvesting this year are beans. My broad beans are already sown, and I have a spot amongst the sedums ideal for a lovely little bean patch. I also have a large expanse of empty fence and trellis panels which will be ideal for runner beans. The panels in question are right by the house in a south facing spot so, in addition to the clematis, this year they’re going to become home to a swathe of perfumed sweet peas and, hopefully, the heavy stems of prosperous beans. Runner beans are incredibly delicious when picked right off the stem, so having them within backdoor leaning distance will be rather indulgent.
But these two harvests will not be alone, and the yearly salad growing continues with containers of cut-and-come-again greens on the windowsill. There’s no point putting these amongst ornamental borders, unless you’re trying to save your hosta’s from being munched, in which case, throw in some lettuces and watch the slugs devour them. Meanwhile, I’m intending on growing a couple of gourds next to the reading bench, intertwining some French beans on the flowering blackcurrant and planting a few beetroot and carrots at the front of some of my ornamental borders.
There’s no reason not to enjoy your ornamental garden and grow a few home veggies too. And, in many circumstances, being able to pick both edibles and flowers from the same patch will be an additional joy.
As readers will know, I’m as much a conservationist as I am a gardener. I had the following infographic shared with me today, a thought it appropriate to post. As you can see, we’re not only dumping our trash in the oceans, but we’re putting it back into our own food chain. Please recycle.
Created by: MastersDegree.net
It’s my favourite time of year, a time where my godmother wishes me adieu and where my hermiting REALLy excels. It’s the two weeks of Wimbledon.
One of Britain’s most quintessential fruits, and one that is synonymous with Wimbledon, are strawberries. These exotic looking fruit ripen just in time to be swathed in cream and topped with sugar for the mid June tennis. Last year my crop in the front garden was stolen after dark, a burgeoning crop of red jewels that disappeared into someone’s nimble fingers and eager mouth. This year, however, they seem to have been left alone and I’ve just picked a great crop.
I fully believe that front gardens can be utilised for growing, and shouldn’t be smothered in paving and gravel. Of course, on some busy streets, there may be issues of car fumes and pollutants entering crops, but on my small residential road this isn’t something that I’m too concerned about. So, in my little front urban patch I grow herbs, strawberries and the odd tomato plant from which to pick tasty crops from when I arrive at my front door.
The strawberries are planted alongside the main path to my house, and I’ve found that the paving works wonderfully in taking up heat and ripening fruit quickly. It also stops fruit from laying on the soil and becoming rotten. Strawberries are very easy to grow, and fruit very easily – the hardest part being actually ensuring that fruit get enough sun to ripen and are protected from rot and slug damage. I fully encourage you to try so that next year, whilst I’m once again engrossed in Wimbledon, you can enjoy strawberries too.
Blissful and refreshing rain has arrived in London today, quenching the ground and offering that vital life-force towards plants which have begun to thrive after the recent warm spell. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and wet but as one friend stated, it means only one thing; wet, Irish rugby players!
There’s nothing quite like opening the back-door to the wet skies on a warm day and letting the gentle drizzle freshen the home and wash away the grime. Particularly in a cityscape, you really get the sense that the rain manages to wash away the pollutants, dust and stifling grubbiness of surroundings, allowing everything to be fresh and new. But, with drought ahead, it’s important to recognise that this rain is not likely to be a regular occurrence in 2012, and so it’s important to take steps to protect plants and crops when water wells start to run dry.
Certainly in the south-east of England, they’re already discussing hosepipe bans from as early as April 2012. This means that either you abandon watering the garden completely, or you look to labour intensive drenching with a can, running back and forth from the water butt or kitchen as you go. In many ways this is preferable anyway because much of the fine mist provided by hosepipe’s or sprinkler systems evaporates long before it is anywhere near soaking into the soil. So, what to do?
1. Install water-butts
Obviously, one of the best ways to survive a drought is to collect as much rainwater as you can. If you can install water-butts, then your days of running back and forth to the kitchen are over and you can ensure to catch as much rainy liquid as you can on the odd occurrence that the sky plummets down.
2. Water infrequently and hard
If you water your garden only a little, every day, you’ll end up with plants whose roots all lie just under the surface of the soil. This is BAD news, and as a result the slightest touch of drought and lack of watering by you will cause plants to flop and wither. Providing a drenching drink on an infrequent occasion will encourage root systems to develop deeper into the soil as they search for natural water, helping plants to stave off drought effects.
If you want to do a spot of recycling too, you can use plastic bottles to help irrigate plant roots. Simply cut the bottom off a bottle, take the cap off and plunge it upside down into the soil next to your plant. You can water directly into the bottom and the water will escape through the nozzle into the soil where it’s most needed
3. Plant in-situ
If you’re worried about your little seedlings needing constant watering, one way to help them survive the odd day or two without a drink is by sowing them in-situ. This will help plants to acclimatise to their environment as soon as they germinate, rather than being grown in a lovely moist and human controlled environment before being dumped into a relative desert later on in the year. Seedlings WILL still need watering, but they’re more likely to survive dry and hot spells when you’ve forgotten to take a trip down the garden or allotment.
Plants, plants, plants. Some love a good ‘ol drought. Other…not so much. We are a nation of lawn loving individuals (well, some of you) and love our borders to be lush with life. However, not all of these plants are great in a drought and a birds-eye view of many gardens this year is likely to capture an urban sprawl of brown gardens. There are lots of great plants which are slightly better at surviving dry periods, especially those with silver and grey leaves. Use these to your advantage and replace thirsty foliage with succulents, hebes, lavender or lambs ears. Consider reducing the size of your lawn to increase borders or vege-patches, and if you know of particular plants which have caused troubles during previous drought periods, resign yourself to giving up and trying an alternative.
Whether we like it not, droughts will cause the garden landscape to change and without the uses of hoses or sprinklers, there is no way to provide enough water to all flowers and foliage. Nor is the an ecologically sound or economical route to take. So, instead of ignoring the drought and trying to plough on regardless, take a few steps to reduce your water requirements whilst letting your outdoor retreat flourish.
It seems that since failing to conduct my imminently fruitless Big Garden Birdwatch, the garden has become full of birds. The mild winter at the close of 2011 and the start of 2012 meant that many birds were able to remain foraging in their natural habitats due to plentiful foods, instead of having to move into city gardens for a bit of extra grub. However, with thick snow falling shortly after the RSPB’s national survey took place, I was soon inundated with wildlife.
Redwings, mistle thrush, robins, blackbirds, blue tits and hefty, lumbering wood pigeons arrived. On two occasions I saw the tiniest of wrens, whist in the past few weeks a dunnock (hedge sparrow) has sat in the upper most branches of the crab apple tree singing.
It’s important to continue feeding birds throughout the winter, and indeed throughout the entire year if you can. As to my earlier post, consistency is key, and you need to provide birds with a safe place to eat that they can rely on. But, you don’t have to always visit the supermarket to buy your bird food, and you can use recycling waste products and make fat balls at home. Fat is one of the worst waste products from cooking, and you either splodge it into the garbage or run it down the sink with an enormous amount of washing up liquid to make sure that it doesn’t block the plumbing. Saving it is simple, and I simply pour the fat into an old tuna can whilst it’s hot and save it for a rainy day.
All you need for your fat ball is old fat, seed and a means to hang it
The process of making fat balls is easy, and all you need is the regular bird seed that you feed your feathery friends, some fat to soak it in and a means of creating and hanging the ball itself. Again, I use an old tuna can which I put the seed in and then pour the melted fat over. It’s extremely hot, so take care as you place the container in the fridge or freezer so as to set the entire mixture together. Once left overnight, you can simply run a knife around the edges of the tin and bang the mixture on a plate as you would do with a cake to get the fat ball to drop out. Due to my bird feeder, I have a nifty little rod to spear the fat ball with and hold it in place, but you can just as easily place several pieces of string in the seed with the ends sticking out before pouring the fat over it. These can then be used to tie the fat ball in place, whether hanging from a shrub or your bird table.
Birds will go mad for your homemade fat ball
This is a great way to reuse old fat and ensure that products actually go to some good use rather than being washed down the drain or put into rubbish bags to sit and rot in a dump for all eternity. You may find, that in warmer temperatures, fat balls crumble slightly. If this is the case you can simply place the fatty seed on the bird table or let it fall to the ground below where it’ll be eaten by ground feeding birds such as blackbirds and thrushes. It’s a very easy method to create your own homemade fat balls, the birds will love it, and you’ll also be doing a little bit of recycling whilst you’re at it.
There are those who may have read the title of this post with such distaste that they can’t be bothered to continue reading. Out with the perfectly manicured, immaculately English, striped, luminously green and family friendly lawn? Replacing it with paving and paths and non-expansive areas? You must be balmy. Yet, I wonder how many gardeners can look out of their window and actually see this thriving, green and perfect strip of lawn?
More often that not my clients have huge and extensive lawns in their urban gardens. Of course, I don’t expect anything less – the lawn is an established part of the British garden. However, it’s probably one of the most expensive wastes of space in all of the garden environment. Millions of pounds are spent each year on lawn maintenance, from mowers to edgers, to fertilisers and bods like me who will come along and look after your lawn for you for a reasonable price. Grass isn’t that drought tolerant, leading to the brown dessication of lawns at the onset of summer months. The need for a perfectly clipped lawn has turned these green slabs into a pollination free barren landscape devoid of insect wildlife because daisy, clover and dandelion flowers are cut off in their prime. The family pets and children run riot, causing damage wherever they go. And the carbon footprint from actually maintaining this piece of ‘garden’, is far from neutral. Frankly, the lawn is a piece of garden that we could all do without.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has already said that they are expecting an especially dry summer in 2012, with the Environment saying that it could be the driest year for 90 years. This causes a problem for those wanting to keep their lawns green, especially if hose-pipe bans occur. Then we’ll just have a nation of barren brown gardens which could have been put to alternative use.
I’m not advocating that every garden, estate, National Trust home et al in Britain do away with areas of lawn..actually, perhaps I am. Replacing such expanses with huge flowerbeds and vegetable patches isn’t always practical, but replacing some lawn with borders and paving is worthwhile. And by paving, I am in no way talking of poured concrete or paving slabs here. I’m talking about creating entertainment areas and paths. Of developing free draining areas with gravel, or reclaimed bricks and slate. Such areas can be inter-planted to keep them green, will require little in the way of maintanence and all those hours that you tirelessly spend every weekend mowing can be spent doing actual gardening jobs that you want to do. Front gardens in particular are an area which are filled with needless lawns, and you only need to take a look at the RHS Front Garden Scheme to see that you can have complimentary parking and planting so that everyone’s happy.
Gravel and reclaimed brick or stone paths are not only free draining but they offer the possibility to plant within the cracks. Saxifrages, succulents, thyme and camomile could all be perfect for planting in cracks. Instead of having the rectangular lawn with miniscule borders, you can put more land over to growing plants and veggies. And, by avoiding grassed expanses of family ruined, weed infested, chemically sprayed and heftily mowed lawns, perhaps we can reclaim some time, save some money and save the planet by kicking this need for the perfect lawn in the head and instead concentrating on some worthwhile plant growing.