Category Archives: Gardening

Spring flowers at Christmas

Grape hyacinthsWhen the days are short and the weather is dull it’s lovely to have some Spring bulbs in the house,  blooming and filling the air with their sweet scent to remind us that the warmer weather is really just around the corner.  If you’d like some hyacinths in your hallway or daffodils on your dining table for Christmas then now is the time to think about exactly what you’d like to have and how you will display them.

Once you have decided on what flowers you’d like, think about the containers to put them in.  Baskets, of all sizes, lined with thick plastic to make them waterproof are the most obvious but any container given a similar treatment would look equally beautiful.

You will need to buy ‘prepared’ bulbs for Christmas flowering – bulbs that have been specially treated to speed up their growth.  I’d recommend using commercially prepared bulb fibre for potting, especially for containers where there are no drainage holes.  (If you want to use regular potting compost make sure that it is open textured and free draining).

Pink HyacinthPut some well soaked bulb fibre (or potting compost) into your pot or container, leaving enough space to allow the bulbs to be placed inside with the tips just below the rim of the container.  The bulbs can be placed close together but should not be touching.  Cover with bulb fibre and water well.  The container should then be placed in a cool spot such as a shed, or in a shady corner of the garden.  Darkness is not essential but a cool temperature is. Do not put in a black plastic sack as this only encourages mould.

After 10-12 weeks young green shoots should start to appear (these will be paler if the pot has been kept in the dark).  When the shoots have reached about 5cm (2 ins) in height, bring the pot into a cool room and they should flower in time for Christmas.  Spring flowering bulbs at Christmas, planted in pretty containers, make a lovely gift.

Caution: The bulbs of Daffodil, Hyacinth and Narcissus are poisonous so please practise basic care by washing your hands when you have handled them.

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Natural fertilisers

Bugs1If you want to go organic and steer clear of chemical fertilisers in the garden then there are a few natural alternatives.  Common nettles make a good, if smelly alternative to commercially prepared chemical versions  (another good reason to leave a patch of your garden to run wild). 

Rubber GlovesFor obvious reasons, wear some rubber or gardening gloves to harvest, tear and scrunch up enough nettle stems and leaves to loosely fill a watertight container such as a bucket.   Then weight them down, say with an old plate.  Fill the container with enough water to cover the crushed greenery and then leave to rot down.  (This is a bit smelly so you may want to place this somewhere away from the house)! 

The brew should be ready to use in 3 to 4 weeks and needs to be diluted for use – usually in a ratio of roughly 1 part Watering cannettle liquid to 10 parts water (the resulting diluted liquid should look the colour of tea).  You can keep topping up your supply bucket with nettles and water as the season progresses.  Once your flowers have finished flowering and you no longer have use for the homemade fertiliser, just tip what remains onto the compost heap.

Another alternative is coffee grinds.  Sprinkle them around plants before you water or before rain and the grinds will slowly release nitrogen into the soil.

Flower and beesCrushed eggshells are a well-known old-fashioned fertiliser and work particularly well scattered around roses because of their calcium carbonate content. (An added bonus is that their sharp edges also help to deter slugs).

If you’re lucky enough to live by the seashore then some of the best fertiliser is freely available in the form of seaweed.  You can either treat it in the same way as the nettles above and make a ‘tea’ out of it (which again needs to be diluted for use) or, if it is winter time, dig the seaweed directly into plant borders to feed and condition the soil.

Lastly, but by no means least, consider making either a compost heap or set up a worm Butterflycomposting bin.  In my experience worm bins don’t smell (I kept mine in the garage) and given time they produce wonderful, fine compost and the ‘run-off’ is a good liquid fertiliser for the garden (use diluted as above).

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Natural pest control, 2

LacewingI’ve already covered planting to deter aphids and encouraging toads into the garden to munch away slugs, snails and other garden pests.  Everything in nature is in fine balance and in just the same way that certain bugs are determined to eat their way through our efforts in the garden, so Mother Nature has given us other insects that are the natural enemies of the garden marauders and are therefore our friends.  There are many garden friendly insects but the two most recognisable are the pretty green Ladybirdlacewing (Chrysoperla rufilabris …seen above), and everybody’s favourite – the ladybird, the adult and/or larval forms of which will eat aphids practically by the lorry load. 

To encourage garden friendly insects to your patch of green, first and foremost you must stop using chemical sprays (but then I’m sure you probably guessed that already). 

Secondly, if you can leave a sunny patch of your garden to grow wild, then please do.  In fact the ladybird’s favourite plant for nesting in is the humble nettle so where you see nettles Ladybird larvaestarting to grow, please leave them – you will be helping to increase the ladybird population.  Bear in mind that it is sometimes the larvae of garden friendly insects that are the biggest help to us and this is certainly the case with the ladybird, although you may, up until now have assumed that this little chap is just another pest.  He isn’t.  He’s a veritable aphid hoover!

Third, you can give garden friendly bugs a home in which to live.  There are attractive commercially made bug condominiums available to buy but making your own is also incredibly simple.  I made mine (pictured at the end of this post) by cutting pieces of hollow bamboo to a uniform length using secateurs – I’d say, cut the lengths to about 10 inches long.  (Bamboo is often used as plant supports and so can be easily purchased from garden Bugs1nurseries).  Cut both ends off  a large/2 litre plastic drinks bottle and tightly stuff the cut lengths of bamboo into the resulting plastic tube.  Tie string or twist wire around both ends of the newly made ‘bottle condominium’ so that you are able to hang it in a horizontal position.  Place it somewhere warm, preferably near the main problem area in the garden.  Pretty soon insects will find it and start to settle in your bug condo.  By the way, many insects hibernate over the winter months so it may be helpful to put your bug shelter somewhere like a garden shed over the coldest months to help protect it from frost.

Finally, make a compost heap, the simple presence of which will help to encourage insect life into your garden … not to mention providing you with fabulous compost.

If your garden is under serious attack right now, (or you are of a very impatient temperament!) friendly bug ‘attractants’ can be bought on-line.

0088, Bug shelter

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Natural pest control

ToadIf your garden is being swallowed up by slimy slugs this Summer help is at hand from the common toad (bufo bufo).  Contrary to popular belief, the common toad is a major friend in the garden, munching his way through not only slugs but several other garden pests such as beetles, earwigs and larvae. 

To encourage Mr Toad to move in, a water feature in the garden is ideal but failing that, if there are already toads nearby just making a simple shallow watering hole will probably do the trick.  You could partly bury an old shallow dish somewhere shady or use one of the trays that you would normally put under pot plants, place a few rocks in there for him to clamber on and fill the tray with water.  Make sure you keep this watering hole topped up during hot weather.  He’ll also need somewhere to live.  Toads like damp, dark places that they can dig down in so old, broken terracotta pots placed on the soil would do the trick .  They actually need remarkably little space to keep them happy,  as I’ve recently found out.  We’ve just removed a wonky old patio and found several toads hiding under the broken paving slabs – I’m happy to report that all toads have now been removed to a place of safety.  It should also go without saying that to encourage any wildlife to your garden you should stop using chemical sprays.

Here are a few toadie facts that you may not know:

  • The common toad can live up to 40 years. 
  • They are mainly nocturnal creatures. 
  • They live for most of the year in damp areas such as deciduous woodland and it is only during the breeding season that they seek out lakes, ponds, ditches and slow-moving water. 
  • Common toads are solitary creatures. 
  • They hibernate in late October. 
  • Only male toads croak.

Get over any squeamishness you may have about frogs and toads in general, welcome their presence in your garden and pretty soon you’ll be happy to be sharing your space with them because of the great job they do in protecting your plants from hungry pests.

More tips specifically on controlling aphids/greenfly can be found on my page here.  For general gardening tips and advice please go to my House/General index.

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Natural deterrent to aphids

FeverfewBattling with aphids (greenfly) in the garden?  Commercially available insecticides often contain a chemical called pyrethrum which is derived from nature.  Rather than buying bottles of commercially prepared and potentially hazardous chemicals, you can harness the power of nature in deterring greenfly just by some clever planting. 

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a pretty daisy-like plant that contains pyrethrins – very similar to the chemicals in commercial sprays.  Plant Feverfew amongst your flowers and it’s presence will deter the little insect marauders. DaisyGolden feverfew is a pretty plant in its own right – as the name suggests its foliage is a yellow/golden colour – and all plants will readily self-seed all over the garden if you allow them to.  (This plant is also used as a traditional herbal remedy for migraine).

BeeWhilst it is possible to make your own insecticidal spray or powder from these plants I wouldn’t advise it as it is toxic to bees. In its plant form it seems to work well enough for me and does no harm to bees.  Some sources claim that it will deter bees from the garden, although I have never found this to be the case and have often seen bees visiting the feverfew flowers.  

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The Summer garden: colour and scent

PelargoniumWhen I moved to my current home I inherited a garden permanently planted with perennial plants that just grow and grow and need little care except for an occasional gentle pruning session. That’s wonderful, but it doesn’t allow me to ring the changes now and again through the use of Summer bedding plants.  These plants are mostly regarded and treated as annuals, intended really to last just one season (although some can and do last longer – some of them self-seeding all over your garden if you allow them to).  What I love about these Summer plants is that they quickly allow me to be creative with colour in the garden, giving it a different look and feel in much the same way as changing a few accessories in a room will give a fresh new look to a space. 

Just recently we created some new borders along the edges of our terrace and now that May has come around I’m really back in my element, practising my exterior design skills, picking colour combinations of bedding plants and planting them out in the borders.  This year I’ve gone for a combination of pink and white, with an occasional accent of very, very pale lemon yellow.  My reason for picking this pale colour palette was very specific.  Our terrace was Gardening toolsnewly created this Spring and I’m anticipating many evenings spent outside, either lingering over dinner or sitting and enjoying the evening over a glass of wine.  The colour white, or anything near white will reflect back what little light is still available so that the pale flowers outside will act as tiny beacons at dusk.  If you want to be a purist and just work with white alone this can look absolutely stunning, especially when combined with silvery leaved plants against a backdrop of deep greens.    If, on the other hand, you’re looking to create the warm atmosphere of a Mediterranean garden then choose flowering plants that fall in the red / pink/ orange range. 

Another aspect of the garden worth considering is scent.  Most Summer bedding plants don’t carry significant scent Alyssumbut there are some little superstars that I think are well worth including.  Top of the list for me would be the humble alyssum.  Its tiny flowers produce the most heavenly honey-sweet scent so it’s no surprise that I’ve included many of them in my Summer planting scheme.  

The choice of Summer bedding plants is vast and the fun is in working out your own colour combinations and planting scheme.  Go to your local plant nursery, see what is available and take advice from the staff there, always bearing in mind the ultimate height and spread of your chosen plants. 

Just for quick reference, here are a few of my favourite Summer bedding plants:

Geraniums, redPelargonium / Geranium – essentially one and the same plant but they do look distinctly different.    Pelargoniums, which are susceptible to frost, have beautiful frilly flowers and unusual ‘crinkle-cut’ leaves.  Geraniums are sold as both Summer bedding plants and border perennials (plants that flower and/or grow year after year).  Some varietes have pretty, variegated (multi-coloured) leaves.  Flower colours: white, pink, red and red/orange.   Scent: The flowers have no scent but the plant itself has a distinctive and pleasant smell that always reminds me of Summer. 

I like these plants because they tend to be very forgiving and don’t mind the heat.  You won’t find them wilting at the end of a long hot day and if you forget to water them one day they won’t sulk and wither.

MarigoldMarigold:  Once so common in our gardens but I read recently that they have so declined in popularity that some varietes may disappear entirely.  Maybe it’s the colour range that puts people off because they are typically coloured bright orange.  In fact other varieties are also available from red/orange in colour through to yellow and even white.  (The very pale lemon yellow highlights in my planting scheme this year are from marigolds).  Again, they’re fairly robust little plants and have the added advantage that a few flower petals can be used to brighten up Summer salads.  I have also read that their presence in the flower border may help to deter certain garden pests.  This may be something to do with the distinctive smell of the foliage, which is in some ways is similar to the geranium.  Either way, this is also a smell that I associate with long hot Summers.

Alyssum: Only growing to about 4 inches in height, they are best placed at the front of the border.  What they lack in height they more than make up for in scent.  ‘Alyssum’ in Greek means ‘against madness’ and though I can’t vouch for that (!) what I can tell you is that the scent of these tiny flowers always, always makes me feel happy.  I have traditional white alyssum in my plant border and in pots dotted all over the garden but you may find other varieties available in pale pink, through to biscuit coloured and lemon.  This as far as I’m concerned is a ‘must have’ in the garden.

Lobelia:  Another plant for the edges of flower borders, this is also very often used in hanging baskets where it forms a cascade of small blue or white flowers.  Very pretty – and better still, it attracts butterflies to the garden.

Begonia: There are many varieties of this lovely plant growing to all different sizes.  In tropical or sub tropical climates they will go on growing.  Here in the UK they are treated as Summer bedding plants and the type I’m specifically referring to here are the miniature variety and often used as useful space fillers in Summer borders and pots.  Coming in a variety of flower and leaf colours they grow to no more than about 8 inches in height, have an abundance of flowers with deep yellow centres and healthy, fleshy leaves that make them appear particularly lush.

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Displaying plants

Pretty platesPlant pots inside the house need to stand on non-porous trays, plates or saucers.  Be warned that terracotta and un-glazed saucers sold at places like garden centres and DIY superstores may look nice, and may match the pot that you have bought, but because of their porous nature will allow moisture from the plant to percolate down onto your nice coffee table, leaving water damage!

Plastic trays are the obvious solution but they don’t look very nice.  A cheap alternative is to buy a selection of old plates from places like junk stalls and charity shops. Pick ones with pretty edging for a rustic, cottagey feel.  However, be prepared to sacrifice these to your plants because over time water ‘etches’ into the pottery glaze and the face of the plate will be ruined.

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