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This Month - June

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Editorial

Zephirine Drouhin    A couple of scents I though I'd missed out on, but haven't as the flowers are still going strongly are Euphorbia mellifera, just outside the living room window and the Zephirine Drouhin rose that grows around the front door. I planted these a few years ago to bring their scent as close to the house as possible, and therefore get the most from them. The Euphorbia is in a position where it's not easy to get to from the outside, but open the living room window and it's right outside. Last week was the first warm day when I (well ok, my wife) could open the window and bring a gentle scent of honey into the room - this plant is unique in this respect and there's nothing else that is scented quite like it, far better than spraying some chemical air freshener around.

Zephirine Drouhin around the door is a somewhat extravagant planting in that it only flowers the once - but how it flowers! It's covered in lovely mid-pink flowers with the most wonderful fragrance that you get on coming into or leaving the house. My wife's alarm at seeing "some bloke hanging around the front door" yesterday turned out to be her brother seen through the frosted glass, helping himself to some of its wonderful fragrance before ringing the bell. An alternative would be Compassion another wonderfully scented rose that I have in the back garden growing over a wooden arbour, this is about 3-4 weeks later than Zephirine Drouhin in flowering, it's in bud at the moment.

    I've been doing much composting the last couple of days - making and spreading of. The lawns grow like the clappers at this time of the year so a cut even when it's been quite dry produces lots of clippings. Just as I was about to settle back and regard my efforts from a distance, I realised that if I cut the front hedge (a too-quick growing Lonicera nitida, the problem is it's big and if I remove it for something better, there'll be no effective barrier for several years) I could mix the two sets of clippings together. So I had another job to do and a lovely bulging compost heap at the end of it. Lots of green material - grass and hedge leaves, and lots of brown material - hedge twigs. And a knackered (in a good healthy way) gardener looking forwards to a Guiness or two.

    Too many lawn clippings can be a problem as they go horribly smelly and mushy if left to themselves. I store them in large plastic tubs I have to one side and then whenever I add anything else to the compost heap, mix them together. Grass is fantastic for getting things going, but like your favourite sauce, you wouldn't want to just sit down to a bowlful.

    Building up a compost heap means that I need to get rid of the last one made mainly of last autumns leaves. So today I started this process. I made a new bed last year in a particularly shady and dry part of the garden. I've had some surprising successes here and some equally surprising failures, so first thing was to reward the successes with a bucketful of compost around the base and a watering can full of water each.

While emptying the compost heap, I noticed some white shoots which I assumed at first were from ivy shoots and started to pick them out and throw them on the new compost heap. On closer inspection, I noticed they were actually from cuttings of Vitis coignetiae (crimson glory vine) which I have tried to take cuttings from before, but with no success at all. Now here were a dozen or so self-rooting about 2 feet down in my compost heap! A few were duly transferred to a sheltered part of the garden, where I'll keep an eye on them. Also gives me an experiment to try this autumn with some other difficult to propagate plants.

    Another occasional job I did was to expose the ants nest that I sort of look after. I discovered this accidentally a couple of years ago. There was a short row of old scalloped tiles buried in the undergrowth that I dug out. Not quite knowing what to do with them, I just left them where they were for a while. When I came back some weeks later a colony of ants had taken residence underneath them, with many white pupae and larvae seen when I lifted the tiles. They weren't hurting me or the garden, so I left them alone. Then sometime later as I was gardening watched intently by a couple of blackbirds and a robin ever ready to go and investigate disturbed soil for sign of grubs or other tasty morsels, I decided to lift a couple of tiles and let them have a bit of a feed. I now regard it as farming ants for birdsong - which is providing the soundtrack with the French doors open as I type right now.

    The final job was to distribute the potted plants I've grown on after propagating over the last year or so and use up any remaining half-hardy plants in pots and containers. If you haven't already planted them up, then do so as soon as you can. If you need to buy plants to do this, then buy big ones, it's too late for small plugs in summer bedding, they'll be fine come September, but you'll miss the main body of the summer which defeats the object. Plants should at least be in a 9cm/3" pot.

    If you've put any hanging baskets up, then please tie them in at two points at the sides so they don't swing around in the wind. I learnt this trick some years ago when we lived in a house where the very small front garden was on a road down which the wind whistled regularly. I'd put baskets up which would do fine until the first windy day which would spin them back and forth breaking the growth and setting them back a couple of months, tie them in at a couple of points about 120˚ apart and the wind can blow, but the basket doesn't spin (there have to be two points, one just doesn't work properly). Even if you're in a calm situation as I am now, it makes a big difference - don't wait for a windy day for proof, do it now as a priority.

Containers should be watered and dead-headed every day by preference to keep them looking good. The better it looks, the more plants there are in a small amount of compost and so the more water and food they get through. Water at the end of the day by preference and feed with a liquid feed once a week unless you've pushed some fertiliser pellets into the compost to do the job for you.

Jobs / Tips

    You should be mowing the lawn regularly by now, little and often is best, don't leave it more than a week at most. If you have a cylinder mower, then twice a week is better. I know it's a chore, but as the summer progresses and gets warmer, so the grass growth slows down and it becomes easier.

    Trim quicker growing hedges such as laurel, privet and Lonicera nitida. If you've a hedge that you want to extend in any way, now is a good time to take cuttings for more plants, see below.

    Stake tall growing perennials such as Delphiniums and Lupins if you've not done so already before they flop. They will flop as the flower heads open, even if the wind doesn't get them, when it rains the water will weigh down the petals and over the flowering spike will go.

    A good time to start taking softwood cuttings of shrubs. There are very many that can be propagated this way and as it's so easy, you can try with almost anything. Take a shoot 4-5 inches long and make a cut just below a leaf joint, remove most of the leaves, and also remove any flower buds. I place about 6 cuttings in a 50:50 compost:sand mix around a small pot 3-4 inches in diameter which should then be placed somewhere fairly humid and bright, but with no direct sunlight. A cold frame is ideal as is under the staging in a greenhouse. Keep moist and check for roots coming out of the bottom in a month or so, pot up the small plants individually to grow them on.

    Start watering containers regularly. If you don't need to water them daily, they should be checked daily as a hot day, particularly if there's a drying wind, can suck all of the water out of a container. If you're planting up any containers, then go for the largest you can afford. Containers are very popular particularly at this time of the year when filled with the bright flowers of bedding plants, but it is work to keep them looking good, watering, feeding and dead-heading regularly for the best show.

    Feed container plants regularly too. Get a soluble plant food and use it according to the instructions, little and often is best, so have one day a week as your feeding day where you do the rounds. Many container plants are very greedy feeders, that's how they manage to produce so many wonderful flowers for so long.

    Dead-head perennials and shrubs such as roses. This keeps them producing more flowers rather than putting their energies into seed and fruit production. A daily round of the garden in the evening is ideal if you can manage it, or as often as possible otherwise if not.

    Water autumn and spring planted trees and shrubs during hot dry spells. If you "baby" trees and shrubs through their first summer, them they're usually fine from then on. Give them an occasional thorough soaking though rather than a daily drizzle as little and often teaches them to grow shallow superficial roots rather than encouraging long deep roots that help them fend for themselves.

    Look for and remove "suckers" on roses or grafted trees. These are shoots of the wild-type rootstock that the ornamental foliage is grafted onto and will emerge below the graft union which should be fairly obvious as a knobbly irregular region at the bottom of the stem or trunk. If left, then the rootstock being more vigorous (hence its use as rootstock) will take over the ornamental part of the plant.

    Look out for and remove plain green branches on variegated shrubs and trees. I've seen a lot about recently. Like suckers, they are more vigorous and will take over the variegated part of the plant if left.

    Keep pruning spring flowering shrubs as they fade, they can be pruned back to get a good display next year. Forsythia, Ribes (flowering currants),  Kerria japonica, Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) and early flowering Spireas should all be pruned regularly to keep them vigorous and flowering well. Ideally each year you should cut out one in three or one in four of the oldest braches down to ground level. In this way, the plant always has plenty of growth left and no branch is allowed to get old.

If you have a neglected plant, then they can withstand being cut pretty much right down to the ground, drastic renovation is best carried out over at least two years. Leaving some of the more upright and further back shoots intact so as to keep the plant going rather than being totally dependent on reserves in the roots when recovering.

    Keep watching out for aphids and other pests. If you can spot them early, then life gets an awful lot easier later on in the year. Check their favourite plants, particularly roses and perennials, ornamental trees that are now in full growth are often susceptible too.

    If you've an apple tree, then expect the "June drop" this is where the tree rids itself of the excessive fruits that have set. Fruit set depends on the weather and pollinators at flowering time and so is somewhat variable, the tree therefore produces far too much and then thins it out itself as appropriate. These fallen fruits make great ammunition for catapults, if you've a brick wall handy, then chalk a target and fire away - my son and I have passed many a happy hour in this way. Alternatively a baseball bat and dog are another good way to use the fallen fruit, use bat to hit fruit - dog chases fruit - much fun had by all (any substantial stick will also suffice).

New editorials are added every month, back again on the first of July

Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month

    Finally after some respite to the rain - 2 dry days after what seems like a month of rain - I managed to get into the garden and do some heavy duty preparation for summer and start trimming back some wayward shrubs and hedges. I love early summer, it's the best part of the year for me, growth everywhere and promise aplenty, the world is in its youth.

It's been subdued this year by the ever present rain however, not just because of the grey skies and not being able to get out much, but because of the physical effect of the rain on some of my favourite flowering shrubs. The weight of the rain on heads already heavy with flowers has dragged the branch downwards upsetting the shape of some shrubs (I'm very sensitive to such things!). Petals have been folded back over on themselves and the gentle pounding of the rain drops has caused many petals to fall off prematurely. I've also missed out on some scents which seem to get washed out by the rain. I'll just console myself that at least the water table should be full, as are all my water butts.

    Rory (resident robin) - How time flies and the youngsters get bigger and stronger. Pa blackbird started on the "you're big enough to fend for yourself now" act yesterday.

Rather tatty (but less tatty than previously) youngster was following him about enjoying the freedom and more easily available grubs that result from a newly cut lawn, when fed up with the ever open beak pointed in his direction, Pa turned. Poor shell shocked youngster completely bemused with what was going on as the source of all food suddenly jumped up wings flapping and squawking gave him the message that his presence was no longer required or even tolerated.

There's not been much sign from the robins recently, I occasionally see an odd one around, maybe they've been through this process already and the youngster is off on his own learning how to feed himself during the easier days of summer before it all becomes more serious later in the year.

    Grasping the Nettle - This is the third spring / summer we'll have been in this house. It's the third time that a rather large and old, but quite poor variety of white flowered lilac that is (was) on the edge of our outdoor seating area and 30 feet from my study window has done what it does. What it does is to promise everything, with big fat flower buds all over the tree, then the buds open and for about 3 or 4 days there are wonderful scented pristine white blooms - at which point it starts to go wrong. The individual tiny flowers that make up the panicles start to fade - in itself, this wouldn't be a problem as there are many more opening to take their place. The problem is that the tree hangs onto the dead flowers and so each panicle instead of a pure white, soon has spreading brown blotches that eventually take over the whole thing. When entirely brown, the panicle then remains in place so the individually mottled effect spreads to the whole tree.

I decided that enough was enough, combined with this fairly disappointing spring show, the whole tree (strictly speaking, a large bush) was umbrella shaped and while not getting in our way, cast far more than its fair share of shadow around it. So eventually I convinced myself that it was the right thing to take it out - not an easy decision in a mature garden with a large healthy plant.

That was two weeks ago now. In its place went a large 6 foot tall fishpole bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) that I bought 2 years ago as a 10L potted plant about 4 feet tall, grew on in an 18" diameter pot and split into 3 and repotted last spring, this specimen was the largest of the 3.

After an uncertain first couple of days, going downstairs in the morning, opening the curtain and hoping I didn't hate the result, I'm pleased to say it looks great and I'm really pleased I did it. The bamboo is pale green to yellow leaved and makes a good contrast against the purple-leaved maple that is behind and above it, also surrounding it are a Crimson Glory Vine Vitis coignetiae and Gardeners Garters Phalaris arundinacea "picta" both of which give a good variation in leaf shape and colour. The bamboo is on the vigorous side, so I put in a barrier about 12" deep and 24" wide behind it to stop it galloping off next door, and I reckon that the gardener's garters will be able to match it for vigour, I'll just need to keep an eye on both plants and make adjustments for enthusiasm.

I've described this in such detail as it's a way of introducing new plants into old plantings that I've sort of stumbled across that works. Buy your plant (in my case I just buy what I like most of the time - in fact mainly I take cuttings or grow them from seed) then put it in a big pot to allow it to grow on and take your time deciding where it should go. This approach is only good for the plant lover rather than someone who just wants a quick-fix. There's also the advantage that while waiting to go into the soil, the plant is getting bigger to "specimen" size and also saving you plenty of cash on nursery prices for large plants.

Currently awaiting my attention are a 5 foot tall Italian cypress Cupressus sempervivens stricta that I grew from seed 4 years ago - presently in a 10L pot and will probably adorn some special container I purchase for the side of the front door. There's also a Wisteria in a 15L container that I decided to train as a "tree" in the Victorian manner, with a 6 feet high "trunk" and starting to grow horizontally on the wood and wire framework I've given it - who knows where that will go? and a 3-leaved Gunnera in a 10L pot, the largest leaf of which is about 16" in diameter - think I'm going to have to organize some special conditions in the soil for that one. I reluctantly decided today to dispose of a tray of 18 assorted shrubs I've taken from cuttings as I can't fit them in any where - or rather I could maybe, but they don't interest me so much any more.

    Chemical warfare - I should have known better, but I'm a proper gardener me you know - I run a website and everything. So when I decided to remove the inappropriately planted Euphorbia in my back garden that wasn't a very good variety anyway I put on my gloves, but decided that as it was hot I didn't need to put anything long-sleeved on as long as I was careful.

Well it occupied about 4 feet by 2 feet and was 30" high and so required a lot of effort, breaking of stems and exposure of milky sap notorious for causing skin reactions. I did quite well and just noticed a couple of pin-prick sized spots on my forearms which I wiped on the lawn to get rid them, and after an hour or so had removed the Euphorbia entirely along with the bindweed growing through it and the suckers from a damson tree. In it's place went a couple of Aucuba japonica - Cuban laurel (it's a shady spot).

This morning at 5 a.m. I woke up with my forearms on fire, so much for a couple of pinpricks - a big weal about 6" long on the right arm and 2" on the left that felt like really bad sunburn, just about OK now after a day in a t-shirt and nothing at all touching them, going to bed soon and hoping the sheets will be kind. Euphorbias need handling with care!

    Chemical Cure - I put out a hanging basket of Pelargoniums (Geraniums) and Surfinia Petunias a couple of weeks ago that I had overwintered along with another two containers of Petunias. All seemed good to start with and then they started to respond to the light by growing quickly. The Pelargonium leaves went red and the Petunia leaves turned mottled yellow/green, I thought they had a virus and was starting to regret the effort of looking after them since October.

I decided I had nothing to lose so allowed the compost to dry right out until the plants were almost wilting and gave them a double strength feed of soluble plant food, then a week later a normal strength dose. Well we now have a coming-back-from-the-dead event (I now refer to it as my Lazarus basket) with all plants having very healthy looking deep green leaves and vigorous new growth. It just goes to underline how important it is to feed plants - especially summer bedding plants - in containers as they rapidly exhaust the nutrients in the soil. Use a liquid feed when you water or much easier (but more expensive) buy some fertiliser pellets that you push into the compost that will last all season.

    New projects in the garden - not mine, but my son's. He's 13 now and since he was about 6 every year or so has asked for a bit of the garden to have as his own, we've potted up bulbs and seeds, but thinking that I need to give him a separate square or raised beds with lovely soft soil in it or similar I've never got around to it, replacing the activity with vague feelings of guilt instead. A couple of months ago he asked again and I explained my reasoning, so he said could he just have a semi-circle cut out of an existing narrow bed into the lawn. We marked it out and I cut the edge using an edging tool and showed him how to lift the turf, he kept at it for a full 10 minutes and went in to watch TV. Lifting turf is a horribly heavy job over a large area. A few days later I went out and stripped the turf from the area for him, he came out just as I was finishing so I started him on digging it over (it's about 2 square metres).

He dug about half and was going to end when I said, just do a bit more, so he did, then I said "well you might as well finish it now" so he did, suitably tired went he in to tell Mum and enjoy the satisfaction of his first bit of real gardening. There then followed a trip to the garden centre to buy some plants, he likes dark colours and leaves or the opposite really bright yellow/greens. Back we came and I showed him how to plant them with him taking photos of my doing the first one for a page I've meant to do since I started this site. He then did the rest while I pottered around pretending not to be watching, the plants were duly watered in.

I sort of expected this to be the end of it, but he kept going back and looking at his plants getting very excited when I pointed out the emerging flower spike on the "red hot poker". There were a few gaps still so when we were in Woolworths a couple of weeks ago he picked up a packet of bright red gladioli corms (I bit my tongue diplomatically) which we bought. Opening the packet he found a free packet of seeds for assorted yellow flowered annuals. He planted the gladioli and then asked if he could cut out another bit for the seeds. The next day he was out in the garden when I came home from work and eventually when he came in announced "I've been gardening for 2 and a half hours, I felt like a change to skating (skate-boarding) today. Sure enough there was a a new 1/2 square metre extension cut out of the turf sown with the seeds which are now emerging a couple of weeks later.

I'm not in when he gets home from school, but I'm reliably informed by mum that the first thing he does most days is to go straight out and see how his plants are doing. We sat together last week and watched the programmes from the Chelsea Flower Show with lots of wows! coming from his direction. He's even got one of his skateboarding mates interested now too.

Stuff I've learnt from all this about gardening with children (sample size 2 - son + friend):

  • Kids are like plants (bear with me!) they just need guiding, not showing every last detail or having their hand held at every step, give them right environment and a proper start and they'll sort themselves out, just keep an eye on them in case they wander off in the wrong direction.
  • They don't need to be given the softest easiest jobs (though obviously a 13 year old with a small spade can accomplish more than a 6 year old with a trowel) as long as you do the really heaviest parts for them, they will happily do the stuff that dad or mum do too.
  • Quick results are important, but not as much as you might think. Seeds are pretty slow, even quick ones, plug plants will grow more noticeably, get a variety of things - plug plants, plants in larger pots, bulbs and seeds.
  • Plants matter - not design, ornaments or anything else. Plants do things, they change, they grow, the most wonderful flowers emerge from dull-looking mounds of green leaves, it's plants that are the key.

A couple of other ideas if you're gardening with children:

  • Don't bother buying "gardener's gift sets" or the like, most "children's garden tools" are pretty useless too. I very rarely use a trowel in the garden and have never owned a hand fork. Children are not as strong as adults and so will find small hand tools even more difficult to attack the soil with. Use a small border spade instead so they can use the stronger muscles in the upper arm and shoulders. Long-handled tools will allow them to use both hands to greater effect.
  • Don't grow things you're not happy to have in the garden. This might sound obvious, but often "children's gardening activities" suggest things like planting conkers for instance - now they grow into Horse Chestnut trees which are big. Are you really going to have a giant conker tree in your small suburban garden? If you're not, then you're going to throw it on the compost heap which is not the best way to go.

It sounds like I'm making this up, but as I've been typing this I've had a request - "Can I get something out of that plant catalogue today?".

    Pole pole (pronounced poly-poly). A Swahili phrase that means literally slowly-slowly, not the call to idleness that it may seem, more like an African version of the phrase "eating the elephant". Take things slowly slowly a bit at a time and you'll get there, you just need to keep at it and do a little on a regular basis. This is the way we really garden and not the ever decreasing time-scales of the TV make-over programmes. My latest addition I've been planning forever is to buy two rather splendid faux lead containers for the front of the house, one either side of the door just in front of the patch where the rose and clematis are planted in the soil. I've known I wanted two large identical containers since we came here three and a half years ago now, but wasn't sure what, then I found these and they're great. Always buy the largest containers you can, containers are effort, easy to plant compared to in the soil, but they need regular watering and feeding and if they're small the plants will need potting on or splitting before too long.


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