Spring is an ideal time to get on top of your weeds as everything starts to come back to life. But some gardens, especially if you've inherited a neglected plot, will be full of weeds already. A few years ago we moved into our current home, The garden had obviously been loved and enjoyed but neglected for some time. Abundant in verdant growth which was predominantly weeds and brambles we have spent our first years taming the jungle, discovering hidden corners and a few delights.
We have waged a protracted war against determined enemies and quickly learnt not to celebrate victorious battles and skirmishes too enthusiastically; or to at least remember that there will be more battles to come. I am now all too familiar with certain weeds and their wily ways. I have learnt about myself, which battle tactics suit me physically and fit with my personality. The length of the war is partly, maybe largely, my own fault. I garden organically and have never used or wanted to use herbicides in any of my gardens. I am also a sucker for a pretty flower and some of our most vigorous weeds are just that.
Taking on a vast plot of weeds, whether at home or the allotment, can be incredibly daunting. Full of initial enthusiasm and vigour, it’s all too easy to dive in with all guns blazing only to emerge several hours later feeling little has been achieved. Hours of hard labour may leave you with a small pristine patch but have made barely a dent on the overall jungle. That is certainly how I felt.
Faced with a completely overgrown garden, I decided we needed to stop trying to reclaim the whole garden. We needed to focus on one or two specific areas at a time so that we could achieve some early wins and quickly create some areas we could enjoy. For us, the first priorities were a small bed by the backdoor, which is the main view from our living room and an area where I wanted to have a greenhouse. The hardest part of this approach, for me, was trying to resist starting anything else until they were finished.
Whilst we concentrated most of our energy and time on these two areas, we didn’t completely ignore the rest of the garden but chose our battles wisely. The first was stopping weeds from self-seeding. If you aren’t in the mood for full-on gardening or haven’t the time or energy then a quick half-hour dead-heading is time well-spent. It will reduce the future weed population even if it’s still full of weeds now.
Second was to choose one enemy to battle at a time. Two of our most thuggish and widespread weeds were Green Alkanet and Docks, both have long branching tap roots making them hard work to dig out. Alkanet has pretty blue flowers and is popular with pollinators so I decided that we would all enjoy it whilst I started on the Docks. So began my regular “Dock hunts”. At first there were so many I would choose an area of the garden, then ignoring all the other weeds I would just look for and dig out the docks. If I didn’t feel like digging, I would simply deadhead them removing the flower stalks as soon as they appeared. I didn’t try and do the whole garden in one go or feel that I had to always tackle the roots. A “Dock hunt” might last 30 minutes or a whole afternoon, but it felt like time well-spent and productive. After a while, the numbers were falling and my Dock hunts have long since stopped. My other half wasn't interested in digging out Docks but tacking our monster-sized brambles appealed. So I concentrated on one enemy whilst he tackled the other.
Tackling the thugs in this way, has meant then when we were ready to completely clear and weed a new area it was relatively easy to do. It also meant that we didn’t have too much bare ground at any one time, which will soon be full of weeds again if it isn’t in active use full of plants or covered with mulch or cardboard.
We’ve successfully taken the same approach with our other thugs including brambles and nettles. I am still going on regular Alkanet hunts but that’s because I let it grow in some areas of my garden for wildlife and those pretty blue flowers.
We often hear how trees contribute to the health of our planet and its climate. Frequently the discussion focuses on forests, their destruction, protection and creation. However, we can all make a difference by planting trees in our own garden.
There is a wealth of research on how trees improve the urban environment. They provide shade, help manage our city temperatures and some species will reduce noise or pollution. On a global level it is their ability to absorb and store carbon as they grow.
But are some trees greater carbon stores than others? Barcham Trees now publish eco tree tags for all the trees they sell. Using research commissioned from Treeconomics and based on the familiar format used for rating the energy efficiency of appliances, each tree gets a rating from A to E. Fascinatingly they also tell us the rate at which the carbon is stored across the tree's lifespan and the point at which it offsets the carbon produced to grow, deliver and plant it.
Nervously, I thought I would look at the rating for some of my favourite trees which I often use in my planting designs. How would they score and would I need to rethink some of my choices? Luckily many, reflecting their similar garden-friendly dimensions, score a respectable C but the amount does vary from species to species. One of my favourites, the winter flowering cherry (Prunus "Autumnalis") will absorb 685kg of carbon across its lifetime, almost 30% higher than another go-to tree Amelanchier "Ballerina" at just 530kg. Both fall within Group C, but Autumnalis will offset its carbon footprint after just 12 months, whilst Ballerina takes a full three years.
As a simple rule of thumb, the larger the tree the more carbon it will store. Does this mean we should all be planting big trees such as the chart-topping Eucalyptus gunii, scoring A and storing an impressive 7,570kg? Well. as always, the answer depends on the space you have available. If it's for your average urban garden then the answer is no. Barcham points out that a tree needs to grow well and to its full size if it's to store the maximum amount of carbon. Another reason to make sure that your chosen tree is suitable for the conditions and space available.
I still feel comfortable with my favourites, but I have decided to bear in mind how a tree scores when including them in my designs. If I can achieve the desired effect with different trees, then their relative carbon scores will be a useful deciding factor.
For more information on their eco tree tags and how they were developed click here.
If you are struggling with the long grey winter days, then now is the perfect time to order some bulbs and tubers guaranteed to brighten your winter garden next year. An added bonus is that they will also provide nectar for winter foraging insects and bees emerging early from hibernation.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) can be bought as dry bulbs but establish much more effectively if bought "in the green". This simply means that they are actively growing and you will get clumps of bulbs in leaf. Now is the perfect time to order them and although you wont get any flowers this year they should quickly establish and reward you with flowers next January and February.
Galanthus nivalis is the common snowdrop and the one you are most likely to see in the wild. It likes partial shade and will tolerate most soils, if happy gradually spreading to form large clumps. They will naturalise in grass and are ideal for adding winter colour under trees and deciduous shrubs. Make sure to plant some where you can see them from your windows or front door, then you can enjoy then whatever the weather.
January with its short, cold days can be gloomy at the best of times and even more so now we are entering another lockdown. Gardens can seem drab and lifeless and yet there are many beautiful plants which will add colour and interest throughout the winter.
One of my favourites is the winter flowering cherry. There are two varieties; Prunus x subhirtella "Autumnalis" with white blossom and "Autumnalis Rosea" which is a delicate shell-pink. They will tolerate most soils as long as they are not waterlogged and any aspect. Growing around 6m tall, with a relatively light canopy and pollution tolerant they are a perfect choice for city gardens.
At a time when most trees are bare, their branches tantalise with a generous sprinkling of tight buds which gradually open to delicate flowers. Initial flurries of blossom appear in late November and will carry on right through to March. They don't produce any fruit but do have good Autumn colours, soft shades of orange-yellow.
Having fallen in love with our first tree, we now have three "Autumnalis Rosea" in our garden and all are currently full of blossom. In Spring I prefer the purity and freshness of white blossom but the pink seems more cheerful at this time of year and stands out well against grey winter skies.
If you're looking for an enjoyable and educating read this summer then I highly recommend Dave Goulson's The Jungle Garden. Its full of fascinating facts about our native wildlife, many of which we rarely see or probably think about. Although a serious look at the damage gardeners can do without realising, it does so in an entertaining way with lots of suggestions on the small changes we can easily make which will make a difference. There is also lots of advice on building suitable habitats for a whole variety of bugs and creepy crawlies, great projects for children and adults alike. Dave Goulson is the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and a Professor of Biology. Reading this I an envious of anyone attending his lectures. Did you know that Earwigs are voracious eaters of aphids and can eat as many as three rounds of spraying with insecticides can kill? Maybe a few nibbled Dahlia flowers are worth it for such helpful insects...
One of my visits recently was to a young couple who having finished renovating their house are keen to sort out the garden. Apparently it was very mature,"full of enormous overgrown" shrubs when they moved in. I say apparently because now its definitely overgrown but with weeds and brambles. A well-meaning friend told them that the only thing they could do was to rip it all out and they did.
Now of course they want privacy and yes you guessed it a garden that feels established and mature. I wish I had a pound for every time.
I always get the same crestfallen expression when I explain that the only way to replace those overgrown shrubs is time (often in years) and then shock when they realise just how many plants (and £s) it will take to refill their garden.
Its always worth taking time to get to know a garden. Maybe those trees and shrubs are there for a reason, providing privacy or shade or maybe fabulous flowers all summer. Try and get advice from someone who knows about gardens and gardening. They can hopefully guide you as to what is worth keeping and what needs to go, but always be aware that even the best gardeners come with their own baggage and likes and dislikes. If they are saying rip it all out, ask them what do you put in its place and how much will it cost. If they cant give you an answer then their advice might be best ignored.
A weed filled lawn can often be rescued by simply mowing regularly and some simple TLC. The weeds will give up and the grass will recover. Maybe not to bowling green standard but good enough for most of us.
Take stock of the garden and make a plan. Don't strip an area bare until you know what you are going to do with it. As my young couple found out, brambles and weeds love an empty bed. You might not like the shrubs you have inherited but they are better living companions whilst you introduce your own choices.
It might also be worth keeping some of your existing planting whilst your new plants develop and grow. You can then thin and remove as needed over time. Not all plants need to be the star of the show to perform a role and keeping some of the existing plants will give your garden an established, mature feel. It takes time for trees to mature and the one you inherited may not be the one you would choose but take a moment. Do you intend to live their for the 10 years it may take for your new young tree to match the image in your mind? If yes then go for it. If not do not underestimate what that boring tree might be doing for you and what you might miss when it's gone.
I hate hand-washing clothes and I know that if I have any such items, one busy day I will throw them into the washing machine with my fingers crossed behind my back and predictably disastrous results. Consequently I have learnt not to buy anything which needs such dedicated and delicate care, however gorgeous it might be. What has this got to do with a stress-free garden?
Even enthusiastic gardeners have certain tasks they enjoy far less than others or positively dislike. Some of my favourite gardens to visit have immaculate lawns and miles of beautifully clipped hedges. But I know that if I was to have these at home I would be creating my very own stress-inducing garden. Resenting every moment spent pushing the lawnmower or clipping the hedges; I would delay and procrastinate and the untidier they got the more they would annoy, irritate and nag at me.
All gardens, however low maintenance, need some care and attention. It’s the external equivalent of housework and similarly there are things you can do to help minimise and sometimes avoid the jobs you don’t like. As well as thinking about whether you like decking or paving, need a sandpit or fire pit, remember to think about what gardening jobs you do and don’t like. It’s probably the most important aspect of creating a garden you can relax in. You may have fallen in love with a Chelsea Show Garden full of perfect box balls and pleached trees but do you have the patience and time to keep them just so and more importantly would you be able to relax if they were not precise and well-manicured.
But I like box balls, you cry. Avoiding the associated work doesn’t mean that you can’t create something similar; many well-behaved shrubs such as Hebe rakaiensis naturally grow into neat domes without the need for you to wield any clippers.
Hate the thought of pruning or even owning secateurs? Then avoid primadonnas which need regular pruning to be at their best. Many shrubs don’t need any regular pruning if you’re happy to let them do their own thing and grow naturally; the worst that can happen may be slightly fewer flowers or an untidier shape.
Most of us want to do less weeding. Weeds love bare soil, it’s their dream destination so squeeze them out by generously filling your borders and pots with plants you do like or cover bare soil with a mulch such as gravel, slate or bark.
Maybe you love cottage gardens full of flowers, but don’t have time to deadhead or fiddle with all those plant supports?
Then choose shrubs or tough perennials such as hardy Fuchsias and Geraniums which will flower all summer and from one year to the next with minimal care and attention. There are literally hundreds to choose from.
Or maybe you’re new to gardening and getting stressed trying to remember what each plant needs or even what it is? Keep it simple. Choose a few easy-care plants you like and repeat them. You will get a strong look which is also simple to look after.
What’s your least favourite job in the garden?
Over the last four weeks, my annual enjoyment of daffodils has almost become an obsession. We are experiencing the first spring in our new home and I have being watching with anticipation (and some impatience) to see what, if any, spring bulbs we have inherited. I am delighted that my assumption that it would be the usual and very familiar varieties we see everyday was completely wrong. We have at least seven different varieties around the garden and hence my new obsession in the Narcissus family, as I strive to identify which varieties and cultivars I now proudly own.
At the same time, I am also making notes on which appear to be growing the best or need moving and sticking a pea stick in any clumps which haven't flowered. These ones, I will dig up once the foliage has died, as I suspect they have become over-crowded as the bulbs have multiplied over the years. I will keep and replant the healthiest bulbs 5-7cm apart. All bulbs will benefit from a general feed such as Growmore as they finish flowering and I will add some to the soil when re-planting as well.
Spring bulbs, such as narcissus, are an incredibly easy low-maintenance way of adding colour to your garden with some varieties flowering as early as January and February and others as late as April. You can buy pots of narcissus from your garden centre now, but this is a very expensive way to buy them. It's much cheaper to buy them as bulbs, so make a note on your calendar at the beginning of October to remind yourself.
There are many different varieties in all shades and combinations of yellow and white and even some with orange or peach trumpets. The height and size of flowers also vary so you can choose those which best suit you and your garden. There are excellent specialist nurseries and suppliers on-line offering a much wider choice than you will find in the big chain garden centres or supermarkets. I would definitely recommend that you drool over the offerings of Chelsea gold winner Avon Bulbs and Croft16 Daffodils who hold the national collection.
How have I got on naming ours? Well, it's slow work but I think two may be 'Biggar Bountiful' and the honey-scented 'Magnificence. We might also have one of the oldest varieties available 'Telemonius Plenus', which also carries the uncomplimentary name 'Guernsey Cabbage' - although to be honest it has more character than looks. There are so many varieties and the differences can be subtle so I am hoping the experts at the UK Daffodil Society will help me with the rest.
Maybe you have a favourite variety you would like to share?