Summer Issue No. 46

FILL YOUR BASKETS and enjoy the glory in the flower

Now is the time for making your summer hanging baskets. Although they have their detractors, hanging baskets have some amazing qualities in their favour. Not only do they brighten up your walls, they add a new dimension which draws the eye and are only restricted by the extent of your creative impulses. If you only have a small outdoor space, they are essential for providing a pageant of riotous colour which will dazzle for months. So, come on Monty Don, no need to dismiss hanging baskets out of hand – for many people they deliver a perfect gardening solution!

Making a hanging basket can be as easy or complicated as you like. The simplest baskets are the woven rattan types, made in different sizes and shapes. They can be round, square or coned – the choice is yours. Remember to check there are holes in the polythene liner to enable good drainage. Fill with some good quality damp compost, adding a proprietary slow-release granular fertiliser and some gel crystals which will expand when wet and create a reservoir of moisture for the growing plants. A rough guide is a handful of each, which should be thoroughly mixed through the medium. Fill to the top and level to flat surface.

Now for the planting: the simple rule is to have a single upright plant in the centre, and surround it with trailers. The number of plants you use depends on the size of the basket; my own suggestion is to use something like 6 plants around the outside of a 12in diameter basket, and 8 for a 14in basket. With these quantities, the baskets will completely fill out and create a superb spectacle without overcrowding. Ideal bushy plants to use in the centre are Fuchsias or Zonal Geraniums. There are dozens of trailers to choose from: Bacopa, Bidens, Brachycome, Centradenia, Diascia, Ivy Leaf Geraniums, trailing Petunias and Calibrochoa (Petunias with tiny flowers), trailing Fuchsias, Lobelia, trailing Begonias, Lysimachia, Nemesia and so on. Some people like to create matching colour combinations, but don’t be restricted by convention – allow your imagination to take charge!

Maintaining a hanging basket requires some golden rules: never, ever let them dry out (and if they do get too dry, soak them by submerging in a large container of water). This means watering virtually every day when they’re fully grown. A good idea is to cut off the end of a plastic bottle and insert the pointed end into the soil – this can be hidden among the foliage but allows a large reservoir of water to get directly to the roots.

Trailing begonias and centradenia

Later in the season, when the slow-release fertiliser is almost exhausted, give a weekly feed of liquid seaweed or tomato food. And finally, remember to dead head or your plants will stop flowering. Five minutes at the end of the day to attend to your basket needs is not too much to ask and is surprisingly therapeutic!

Wire baskets are more difficult, requiring a liner – traditionally moss but there are synthetic versions available – and cutting holes in the sides first in which to insert plants at measured intervals. These plants can be wrapped in paper to prevent them getting crushed when being pushed through. Once the first level is complete, add a layer of soil and do the next level. Once all the side plants have been inserted, fill with soil to the top and plant as you would a normal basket. Then sit back and enjoy!

Malcolm Linfield

Spring issue 45

At last spring is here – time to get into the garden

Come o’er the eastern hills, and let our winds
Kiss thy perfumed garments; let us taste
Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls
Upon our love-sick land that mourns for thee.

William Blake

By Malcolm Linfield, horticulture manager at Ferring Country Centre, a day-services charity for adults with learning disabilities.

There’s so much to do in early spring, but where to start? Essential maintenance tasks now will ensure the summer garden has the best foundations for a successful season.

If you haven’t done so already, add plenty of well-rotted manure after removing all weeds to give your plants the food they need to produce wonderful summer displays and vegetables. These jobs will pay dividends and shouldn’t be skimped. Watch out for slugs on the tender leaves emerging from herbaceous perennials, but preferably use the wildlife friendly formulations.

When planning your displays, try to create an orderly succession. As soon as the early flowers begin to fade, something else should be taking over. Some gardens look fantastic in May and June, but by mid-July they look jaded and worn out. Use shrubs to provide the main structure, with perennials, bulbs and annuals to maintain visual interest.

Marigolds

Bedding plants dotted through the borders will flower right the way through, as long as they are regularly dead headed. But what to choose? Why not grow some varieties for the benefits they offer. Marigolds, for instance, attract beneficial insects like hoverflies; the flowers of nasturtiums make an imaginative addition to salads, with their vivid colours and sweet, peppery flavour; others provide cut flowers, such as statice and cornflowers; and then there are the fragrant varieties such as stocks, sweet peas and nicotianas. Night stocks will fill the evening air with a rich, enticing honey-sweet scent. Now is the time to start sowing in a warm place.

One little trick worth its weight in gold are self-seeders. Once introduced, these invaluable plants scatter their seed around and will return in subsequent years. Among the early arrivals are the aquilegias, with their bonnet-shaped flowers, priceless in May and early June when there is little colour. Early flowering Nigellas are delightful, with their delicate foliage and blue flowers, followed by ornamental seed pods. Later in the summer, poppies (papaver), alliums and Lychnis coronaria, with grey foliage and magenta flowers are just as amazing. And who could do without Verbena bonariensis, tall and airy with purple flowers? There are dozens to choose from, but if you want them to appear each year and to apply a thick mulch, as I recommend, you will need to ‘tickle’ the manure into the surface to expose the dormant seeds.

Dahlias

Everyone should be growing a few dahlias, not least because they provide essential colour towards the end of the summer and into autumn. They are invaluable for the multitude of shapes and colour combinations. Being tender, it was always recommended that their tubers be dug up after the first frost has blackened the leaves and kept in dry storage. However, here in the south, they can be left in – as long as the soil is well-drained and a protective mulch is applied.

In the vegetable garden, first early potatoes can be planted from mid-March, as can broad beans, onion sets and shallots. Start sowing lettuce, parsnip, turnip, beetroot and peas once the soil has warmed to 13°C (55°F); warm the soil first by covering with polythene. In a heated propagator, sow aubergines, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and chillies at 20°C (68°F). When choosing your tomato varieties, try something different or unusual!

Finally, in the last issue, Joy McAdam of Henfield asked where can she find plants or flowers indigenous to Sussex which she could grow on a ‘local patch’ in her garden. First rule is to only use varieties which thrive in your area as you know they will succeed. It would be worth contacting the Sussex Wildlife Trust wildcall@sussexwt.org.uk who can advise you about obtaining native wildflower seeds and how to sow them. You should thoroughly clear the patch of all weeds, especially perennial grasses; firm and rake to a seedbed; avoid manure or fertiliser as vigorous grasses will outcompete the wild flowers; scatter the seed in drifts, and keep watered to encourage germination.

Winter Issue No. 44

Spruce up that winter garden… And let not winter’s ragged hand deface

By Malcolm Linfield, horticulture manager at Ferring Country Centre, a day-services charity for adults with learning disabilities.

The winter garden, as I’ve said before, can be brought to life by the strategic planting of shrubs renowned for their winter flowers, many of which are fragrant. Dotted around, they stimulate the senses in a more subtle and measured way than the blazing displays of summer. But there are also a number of stunning trees which should also be considered for the added dimension they bring to the winter garden.

Prunus serrula

Some of these are grown for their exquisite bark. One of the best is Prunus Serrula, the Tibetan cherry, a rounded deciduous tree with a gorgeous bark that looks like polished mahogany. Acer Griseum is another wonderful tree with peeling cinnamon-coloured bark. However, it is fairly slow growing and it will take 3-4 years before the bark starts to peel.

Perhaps the tree with the most striking and unusual bark is the snakebark maple, Acer pensylvanicum. The greenish bark has alluring vertical striations that can be likened to a snake skin. You need to be a little patient since it will take a small specimen about 5 years before the snakebark effect appears. But well worth the wait.

Snakebark maple

Another eye-catching tree in winter is Betula jacquemontii, the Himalayan birch, which is grown for its snowy white papery bark that peels in bands, revealing new skin beneath. This tree really stands out even on the dullest days and should have a prominent place in the garden where it can be seen from the house. 

A fairly small tree which is perfect for the winter garden is Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ which can flower from November to March when the weather is not too harsh.  It produces delightful semi-white flowers, pink in bud, but there is also a pale pink-coloured form called Autumalis Rosea’. They need protection from cold winds to give their best display.

As for evergreen trees, there is a huge selection of delightful conifers of all shapes, sizes and colours to appeal to the eye. Sadly, conifers have a bad name, usually because of the unfortunate association with rapidly growing Leylandii, the source of many a fierce dispute between neighbours. This wholesale condemnation is completely unjustified. If planted with winter heathers (Erica), for instance, which bring vibrant colour to the garden from December onwards, conifers will bring contrasts in height, shape, colour and texture and transform the display.  Make a statement with the tall pencil-thin cultivar Juniper ‘Sky Rocket’ which is very effective as an accent plant or in a small group. Another valuable cultivar is Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’, a conical tree with yellow-bronze-gold foliage in winter. There’s a conifer for everyone, including slow-growing dwarf or ground-hugging varieties which also provide a superb display of contrasting colours.

Junipers

Other particularly impressive varieties in the winter garden include the excellent cultivar Thuja occidentalis ‘Lutea Nana’, growing eventually to 3-4m, which appears more golden-yellow in winter than in summer. The blue and silvery ‘Spruces’ in the group Picea pungens ‘Glauca’ have rigid, needle-like leaves arranged around the shoots, adding considerably to the range of colours. There are many cultivars available, such as the small ‘Globosa’ or the conical shaped ‘Hoopsii’, which will eventually reach 4m.

Finally, remember those essential seasonal maintenance jobs – clear up leaves (collect for composting), dig over vegetable beds and add a thick layer of well-rotted manure. Keep weeding during milder weather, remove old brambles, and use the time wisely to renovate overgrown deciduous shrubs by hard pruning. And why not tackle that invasive ivy? There’s plenty to do!