Love your lawn

Words: Sue Beesley

Ah, we English and our love of lawns. No garden would seem to be complete without a smooth patch of green to gaze upon. But a good lawn needs sunshine, good drainage and regular mowing to look its best so after a winter of seemingly endless rain, frost and snow, your green sward probably looks more like a rough cow pasture than a bowling green.

You may throw your hands up in horror, but I see no harm in a scattering of daisies or a bit of moss here and there. And truly, I’ve lost count of glum-faced visitors despairingly telling me that their lawn looks like someone has attacked it with a flamethrower after they had treated it with weed and mosskiller.

The single best thing you can do for your lawn is to improve the drainage, by aerating it. For a small lawn, simply go over it with a garden fork, pushing it in vertically a few inches and pull backwards to lever the lawn up a touch. Even better, use a hollow tined lawn aerator, which pulls out a small plug of turf each time you push it in. Then rake the lawn with a spring tined rake to pull out some of the dead grass and moss to let air and light in.

Finish with a lawn pick-me-up feed of a generous sprinkling of bonemeal and calcified seaweed, then top dress with a fine layer of compost and horticultural sand (not Lawn Sand – it’s got mosskiller in it). Finally, mow it every week to keep it crisp and encourage the finer grasses to outcompete the coarser ones.

The importance of a good comb over

Words: Sue Beesley

I adore ornamental grasses. They add form and movement to the gardens from mid-summer onwards, then hold their own throughout the winter, turning ever blonder and rustling in the slightest breeze. Best of all they hardly need any work – just cutting back once a year in spring or a comb-through tidy up in early summer.

Our deciduous grasses, such as Miscanthus, Molinia, Deschampsia and Calamagrostis were cut back when the new growth started in early spring and are now making soft mounds of fresh green leaves. The feathery Stipa tenuissima, or feather grass, looks good whether you cut it back or not. If you leave it alone you’ll get a lovely blend of new growth through last year’s soft wispy fronds.

Evergreen grasses such as the many ornamental forms of carex and the very lovely pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) can simply be combed through in early summer with a hand fork or your hands (do wear gloves as the leaf edges can be sharp) to remove dead growth. If you’re really fastidious, as we are with our show plants, a slender pair of flower snips does a neat job of nicking out old growth, leaving them looking very smart indeed.

Summer flowering grasses partner beautifully with airy perennials like veronicastrum, gaura and Verbena bonariensis. I also like to soften bolder perennials by planting a gauzy veil of grasses in front of them. If you’re not sure how best to use grasses in your garden, here are a few fresh ideas.

We stock some of the best known grasses here at Bluebell Cottage, but if you’re in southern England, Knoll Gardens stocks the widest range of grasses I’ve ever seen and offers regular ‘walk and talk’ day courses.

Plant a flowering tree

Words: Sue Beesley

There is no garden too small for a tree. Trees give gardens that all-important third dimension of height. They give birds somewhere to perch and trill. A tree gives the ground beneath a break from harsh sun and sharp frosts. And it’s lovely to look out of a window and see blossom a-buzz with bees in spring.

But you have to choose the right tree. Assuming you want a small tree I would go for a crab-apple (Malus), a rowan (Sorbus) or an ornamental hawthorn (Crataegus).My choices would be:

  • Malus ‘Golden Hornet’. It’s a compact form anyway and you’ll do it no harm if you ever need to prune the odd branch back a bit in winter.
  • Sorbus vilmorinii. This tree has the loveliest blush pink berries in autumn and is naturally compact. The birds will eat them eventually, but not before you’ve enjoyed looking at them for several weeks.
  • Crataegus ‘Crimson Cloud’ It’s has beautiful deep pink flowers in spring, but they are single so bees love it and it produces a good crop of red berries in autumn.

Don’t forget to stake your new tree, and if you find yourself with a tree tie in your hand, wondering which bit goes where, here’s a handy video

Sow tender veg seeds under cover

Words: Sue Beesley

Runner beans, french beans, courgettes, pumpkins and sweet corn all originate from warmer climates. Frost will kill them and they won’t grow properly in temperatures below about 10C. This handy map shows the normal last frost date for each area of the UK, so you can work backwards to decide when to sow tender crops. If you sow them too early, your greenhouse will be overrun with leggy plants desperate to be potted on while you gaze nervously at the weather forecast.

My last frost date here in Cheshire is early May, so I sow all my tender veg in pots in the greenhouse in the first two weeks of April. This means they should be ready to plant out in mid-May, but I can keep them inside for another week if need be. I use 3″ round pots and sow two seeds to a pot, except for pumpkin seeds – each seed gets its own pot.

If you don’t have a greenhouse you can sow them outdoors directly where you want them to grow, but you need to wait for a least a week after the last frost date for your region.

Go bold

Words: Sue Beesley

Nervous about yellow? Averse to orange? Chary about pink? Make this the year you cast aside your colour-shyness and go bold. The only rule about colour in my book is to put bold with bold. Pair glowing yellow with crimson, violet with orange, shocking pink with azure blue. Use plenty of green foliage to break up bright splashes – green gives the eye a place to rest between attention seekers.

My mother once bought me a pack of mixed orange and cerise pink tulips for my old garden. I admit I was less than entirely enthusiastic about planting them amid my pastel hued plants. How wrong I was. They lit up the garden for weeks and I was converted.

Christopher Lloyd’s ‘Colour for Adventurous Gardeners’ is a riotous romp through the brightest and best plants for adding zing to your garden. Just seeing the cover on my bookshelf makes me grin.

Not convinced? Sow a patch of annual Californian Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) mixed with Salvia viridis ‘Blue’ somewhere in the sunshine. I think they’ll make you smile for weeks, but if you don’t like it – well, you’re not stuck with it, and the experiment only cost you a fiver.

Vanquish vine weevil

Words: Sue Beesley

Vine weevils are sneaky pests. The adults (all female!) nibble away at leaf edges under cover of darkness. But it’s not the adults that cause the big trouble – it’s their offspring. They lay eggs underneath favoured plants and when they hatch out the larvae munch their way underground through the poor plant’s roots.

The first sign of trouble is when your favourite Heuchera, Primula or Fuchsia simply collapses – all the top growth just falls off. If you poke around in the roots you’ll find small creamy, ‘c’ shaped, orange-headed larvae nestling snugly in the compost. They especially like plants in pots.

There are plenty of chemical vine weevil treatments in garden centres, but I prefer not to use them. They are based on an insecticide (Imidacloprid) that ends up in every part of the plant and stays there for some weeks. It will kill any vine weevil larvae that eat the roots, but there is real concern that it also affects insects that feed on nectar, such as bees and hoverflies.

I use a biological control, Nemasys L. Follow the dilution instructions carefully and water it into your plants using a watering can without a rose. Nemasys works best when temperatures are above about 8C and March or early April is the ideal time to apply it. Do it again in September and you should keep control of the maddening little critters.

Pimp your wheelbarrow

Words: Sue Beesley

It’s the same every spring. A dry, bright Sunday is forecast, you eat a hearty breakfast, don your boots and head into the garden, girded for action. And there, leaning up against the shed is your trusty wheelbarrow , its front wheel squashed flat and split. Thwarted, you trudge dejectedly back indoors and slump in front of the TV instead.

But I hope I’ll never see another of my wheelbarrows pushed aside, slowly becoming unintended water features while they wait for repair. This spring I’ve replaced all of our wheelbarrow wheels with this smart, new solid tyre from Greentyre. Not only will it never puncture or rot, it’s a snazzy green colour too.

Water, water…

Words: Sue Beesley

My big pond looks dreadful after winter – dead reed and iris stems around the edges, slimy waterlily leaves floating below the surface and a slick of blanket weed growing at one end. But that’s just my human-centric perspective on it – from the point of view of frogs, newts, birds and dragonflies it’s just perfect as it is. And it’s full of pure rainwater too after such a wet winter.

So unless your pond has a leak, or has such a thick layer of silt at the bottom that you can’t really call it a pond any more, then go gently with your spring clear up. The priority is to remove any dead plant material from around the edges and any leaves floating in the pond as these will rot in the water and de-oxygenate it. Scoop out any blanket weed as best you can – a rough stick works remarkably well. Leave your pile of debris at the water’s edge for a day or two so that pondlife can find its way home.

Plants in marginal baskets can be lifted out, trimmed back or divided and replanted if you want to keep them under control. In our pond they’ve escaped and rooted into the silt along a sunken shelf and now make our large, artificial pond look like a natural dewpond. I have no idea where the original baskets are now! Spring is a great time to add aquatic plants to your pond too.

Finally, rearrange any stones around the edges to hide re-positioned pots. I push bits of moss gathered from our little woodland corner into surface cracks and corners to hide any errant traces of liner.

Get the drift

Words: Sue Beesley

We all know we should buy perennials in threes, fives, nines or even twenty-sevens to create that much sought after ‘drift’ effect in our borders. But faced with a border to fill, most of us eke out our meagre funds by buying one of everything we take a shine to.

If your planting looks a bit ‘spotty’, spring is the ideal time to put it right. Many perennials that flower from mid-summer onwards can be lifted now and divided. Achilleas, Heleniums, Sedums, Kniphofias, Leucanthemums (Shasta Daisies) and clump forming hardy geraniums like ‘Orion’ and ‘Nimbus’ can all be split now to make new plants.

My preferred method is to lift the plant out of the ground completely, if necessary using a spade to divide it into manageable sections from above. I lay the plant on its side in a barrow or in the potting shed and work my way in from the sides, easing between the roots using a pair of hand forks, with the help of secateurs or a knife where needed. Each separated piece should have a few strong shoots and a healthy set of roots. You can pot them up, or simply re-plant them in the garden, creating larger drifts or repeating the same plant a few yards apart. Your borders will be quite transformed.

Make babies…

Words: Sue Beesley

My horticulture tutor at Reaseheath College, Harry Delaney, would cast his eye over his cohort of mostly middle-aged students and remind us that youthful vigour is the key to propagation success – a helpful (if rather pointed) reminder of why spring is the best time to take cuttings. Shrubs and perennials are pushing out new fresh growth apace and these rapidly growing young shoots are the perfect propagation material.

Snip fresh green shoots about 3-4″ long from your chosen plant. Leave at least one pair of leaves above the compost surface, but take off all the leaves on the bottom half. Mix compost and vermiculite (my preference) or perlite (about 50/50), put in a 3″ pot, and tap to settle it (don’t press down), then insert your cuttings at least half way, quite close together. Water, then cover with a plastic dome or polythene bag. A little heat from below is good, but keep them out of direct sunlight.

There’s so much more to say on propagation, but I’m out of space here. There are some wonderful books on propagation by the RHS and this one (my favourite) by Peter Thompson. I also run propagation workshops at the nursery in April and September.

Sow hardy annuals in situ

Words: Sue Beesley

When gardeners think of sowing annuals in spring, they usually mean tender annuals like Cosmos, Nicotiana, and Lobelia and which need to be started off under cover. But hardy annuals are a tougher bunch. They can be sown outside in early spring where you want them to flower and left to get on with it. They will germinate in spring rain and will be quite untroubled by late frosts.

Our traditional cornfield flowers such as cornflowers, corncockle and field poppies are all hardy annuals, but there a many more you can try, including a huge colour range of stunning Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), golden Californian poppies, (Eschscholzia californica), and Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) which is especially attractive to bees. For a softer look, try Ammi majus.

The seeds need to be sown into bare soil – they won’t grow through turf, but you can weave them through other plants in the borders, as we do here. Fork the soil surface lightly – no need to dig deep, then rake over – it doesn’t have to be too perfect. Scatter the seeds thinly, then rake in very lightly – if the seeds are buried they will not germinate. Water in if no rain is forecast – and do remember where you’ve sown them so that you don’t mistake them for weeds and hoe them away.

For pre-mixed selections, Pictorial Meadows supply carefully selected colour-themed mixes, or Higgledy Garden’s gorgeous cut flower selections.

Earthing up potatoes

Words: Sue Beesley

Cheshire is famous for its early, rounded, firm, white potatoes that thrive in our mild, wet springs and fertile soils. Our first earlies are now off to a flying start in trenches about eight inches deep into which we laid a thick layer of garden compost sprinkled with general fertiliser.

We planted our first row of tubers on the traditional St. Patrick’s Day weekend, but there’s still plenty of time to plant second earlies and main crop varieties during April. If you’re short of ground space any large container will do just fine, as long as it has holes in the bottom for drainage. Make sure newly planted potatoes don’t dry out if we get a fine spell – they do need plenty of water to produce a good crop.

When the leaves are up to about 8 inches we “earth them up”, drawing the soil around the stems to prevent the growing tubers from becoming green and inedible, and also to encourage more tubers to grow.

As to varieties, the traditional Cheshire potato is Ulster Sceptre. But Charlotte is hard to beat for an early salad potato and I like Kestrel for its pretty pink markings and superb keeping quality. For a red-skinned spud, try Maxine, which has been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit. If you want a bit of variety in a small space, a mixed pack is just the ticket.

Don’t buy bedding early!

Words: Sue Beesley

Garden centres make my heart sink in early spring. Vast displays of tiny summer bedding plants shiver in cold winds, tempting buyers with their promise of summer colour. But unless you live in Penzance, or have plenty of space under glass to keep them warm and grow them on, there is no point buying them until mid-April at the earliest. Plant them out too early and they will either die outright or sulkily refuse to grow. Trust me – the garden centres will have new stock every week and you might even get some bargains as spring turns to early summer.

If you really want to get a headstart on bedding, try growing some from seed. You’ll be astonished how many plants you get for a few packets of seed and a bag of compost. If you don’t fancy growing your own, look for a local nursery, or try your local market – I know a few small nurseries that sell their own plants at weekend markets. You’ll be helping to support local skills and jobs as well as finding lovingly grown plants.

The joy of mulch…

Words: Sue Beesley

Our visitors often comment on how weed-free our garden is, which is very nice to hear. And yes, we do spend time weeding, but mulch is by far our most potent weapon.

In early spring, our borders get a generous coating of soft, dark brown, composted green waste, sourced in bulk from our local authority. Not every local authority supplies it, but this is what you’re after. It smothers emerging young weed seedlings, makes the soil surface darker so it warms up more quickly in the sun and, as the worms drag it down, it enriches our sandy soil by adding organic matter that slowly releases nutrients and minerals.For some reason it also seems to cut down slug damage – they can’t slither across it as easily as bare soil perhaps.

I know some people use high fertility mulches, like manure or spent mushroom compost. But then you spend the rest of the summer frantically staking plants or ‘Chelsea Chopping’ to reduce the height. And manure is fiendishly heavy to lug about so save it for the veg plot where it will do more good.

If you can’t get hold of council compost (it’s weed free nowadays as they generate high temperatures when making it), then composted bark, or a proprietary brand like Strulch is great. Don’t use raw bark as it will rob nutrients from the soil and makes a marvellous home for slugs to hide. And certainly don’t use peat. It’s far too lightweight as a border mulch quite aside from the ecological questions over its use.

Spruce up your paving

Words: Sue Beesley

Our back yard (officially a terrace since we had it repaved, but it’s still the back yard to me) faces due north and over winter it grows a fine crop of slimy green algae. It’s not just that the colour of our rather lovely pale grey stone turns alarmingly green. My real worry is that it gets very slippery underfoot and I don’t want me or anyone else to end up in A&E.

You can spend a merry Sunday blasting away at it with a power washer, but that’s a tedious and noisy job and chances are you’ll blow away the pointing as well. Algon is a liquid that you dilute with water then spray on or simply water on with a watering can. It’s labelled Organic and is safe to use around children, pets and wildlife. Pick a dry day, water it on, walk away and leave it. In a few days your paving will be back to its original colour and you can stride out on it in confidence.

Grow flowering perennials from seed

Words: Sue Beesley

The seed racks in garden centres are full of vegetables and annual flowers, but why grow a plant that will last one season, when you can grow plants which will last for years?

Here at the nursery we grow many of our best-loved hardy perennials from seed and although they may not flower in their first year, they will perform beautifully in the second year and beyond. Verbena bonariensis, Knautia, Lupins, Scabious, Echinaceas, Primula vialii and Dieramas are amongst our favourites to grow from seed. If you collected the seed from a named cultivar, then its offspring probably won’t look the same, but for the home gardener that doesn’t matter and you might get something quite new and wonderful!

Top of the easy-to-grow list are Verbena bonariensis (established plants are outrageously priced in garden centres in late summer!) and Lupins. Both are easy to germinate in spring without extra heat – just sow in a seed tray or plug tray, cover lightly with vermiculite and put in an unheated greenhouse or windowsill. They should germinate in a week or two and can be potted up when they have a pair or true leaves and are large enough to handle individually.

For the more adventurous amongst you, Dieramas (Angel’s Fishing Rods) are a joy to grow from seed, rewarding a few years of patient growing on with arguably the most delightful flower in the summer garden.

Perk up your pots

Words: Sue Beesley

Lots of us have hardy flowering shrubs, clipped box, or perennials in ornamental pots that stay out all year round. But after a long, soggy winter, they’ll be feeling a bit sorry for themselves. Nutrients in the compost will have been washed through, the compost may have slumped and the poor plant’s roots may be clawing their way out of the bottom in search of food.

For a quick fix, clear away any dead leaves, and scrape off the top half-inch or so of compost. Then re-dress the top with a sprinkle of slow-release general fertiliser such as chicken manure pellets, Growmore, or fish blood and bone, topped off with mini bark chips, slate chippings or these smooth black pebbles.

For pot-bound plants that you want to put back in the same pot, haul it right out (you might need a friend to help). Then carefully with secateurs (for shrubs), or more violently with a saw (for grasses), remove the bottom few inches of roots, tease out and remove some roots from round the sides and replant in the same pot with some fresh compost, finishing as above. Finally, give the outside of the pot a bit of a scrub, then stand back and admire your sparkling handiwork.

And if your plant needs a new, larger pot, these stunning frost-resistant terracotta pots from Whichford Pottery were featured on Gardener’s World recently – praise indeed!