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Delicious Dahlias


The garden looks different every time I walk around it now, with green shoots pushing through the soil and colour from daffodils and early perennials. There are also flashes of leaf colour as Spiraea ‘Gold Flame’ and Fuchsia ‘Genii’ begin to put on their spring coats of brilliant orange and bright yellow. Early spring flowering shrubs which include my old favourites Forsythia and Ribes are also beginning to flower with a hint of colour on the twiggy growths – a precursor to their main show that is not far away. 


As well as enjoying the early spring flowers, this is a time for planning for the rest of the season and for me, summer tubers and corms are a big part of this. There have been white Lilies (L. regale) which have a sweet, heady scent, in pots in our garden for many years now and last spring, on renewing the compost, I was amazed to find that the corms had grown to a huge size – obviously happy in their containers! Spurred on by this easy summer colour I have decided to try more corms and tubers in containers this year – a change from the usual bedding plants although I am still a huge fan of the ‘half hardies’ that include Verbena, Nemesia and Calibrachoa. 


This year it is Dahlias that have grabbed my attention. I have affection for these plants that dates way back to my childhood. My great grandfather would show Dahlias at local horticultural shows and I remember the purple and white pompon variety that many gardeners grew then, along with smoky orange coloured cactus Dahlias, their spiky blooms the perfect hidey holes for Earwigs! (I also remember my great grandfather telling me that ‘If it can run away leave it be. If it can’t run kill it!’ - his answer to pest control!)


Dahlias are such a diverse group of plants. From the huge species that hail from Central America and Mexico, including the beautiful mauve flowered D. imperialis, known as the ‘Tree Dahlia’ due to its enormous height, to the miniature, perfectly round pompon types that can be planted in containers, at the front of a sunny border or on a free draining wall, there are hundreds to choose from. Not all have green leaves and some of the most dramatic for late colour in borders include the ‘Bishops’. Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ is probably the best known with deep bronze purple leaves that set off the bright red flowers but there are also others including ‘Bishop of York’ with the same deep purple leaves and amber yellow blooms and ‘Bishop of Oxford’ with burnt orange flowers. The ‘Mystic Series’ were new to me last year and include the stunning Dahlia ‘Mystic Illusion’ with almost black foliage and lemon yellow flowers that zing against the dark backdrop. As well as being loved by gardeners up and down the country Dahlias - especially the single flowered ones which are easier for them to navigate – are a magnet for bees and many other pollinating insects. 


Many of these varieties are available as potted plants later in the summer but for now I will be visiting Notcutts to choose from the varieties available in packets as tubers. There is a rainbow of colours to choose from in whatever height and flower shape I desire, from pure white single blooms to gaudy, multicoloured complicated doubles which are not so good for bees but a feast for the eyes none the less - I may even need to purchase some more containers to house all of my choices!



Starting Early Salad Crops

I have grown vegetables for years but have had to give up my allotments through lack of time – the stress of being unable to fit the work around other commitments and the early spring weather made it a chore rather than a hobby so for now, this is how it has to be. 

Taking pity on me and knowing full well that I will miss our home grown vegetables my husband has made me two small raised beds in a sunny spot in our back garden. They are small because our garden is small but they will be better than nothing!

The finishing touches of coloured wood stain are going onto the wooden surrounds now and the compost heap has been emptied to help make up the soil levels. Soon they will be ready for me to start planting and sowing seeds. 

One job that I can be getting on with is sowing seed of loose leaved lettuce into modules ready to plant out later once their roots have established. I have always sown lettuce into plastic modules and grow them on, before planting out when they are large enough to fend off attacks from slugs and snails! A few seeds are placed in each cell and thinned to a single plant once they are large enough to handle. I sow mixed packets of lettuce so need to be careful that I don’t always remove the slower growing varieties which often have the prettiest leaves! 

Broad beans are a must in our household and I am sowing some of these in pots to plant out later. My allotment was in an exposed but sunny position so I have always opted for ‘The Sutton’ an old favourite which only grows to about 45cms and crops prolifically. Nothing beats the hum of contented bees on an early summers evening as they go about their work pollinating the scented black and white flowers on broad bean plants - apart from the sight of Ladybird larvae about their business destroying the Black Bean Aphid which are such a pest to this crop!

I usually sow peas directly into shallow trenches the width of a spade and often lament the loss of them to mice. The Field Mice in our area seem particularly fond of Mange Tout seeds, decimating rows of these on my allotment, so we will see how they fare in the garden with our enormous cat keeping watch! For now, I need to get some peas ready to plant out as soon as I can so these too will be sown into pots. 

Radish, Mustard, Rocket and Lambs Lettuce along with Parsley and Coriander will be sown directly into the soil when the time comes but I still think it is early for direct sowings. I like to wait until plenty of weed seedlings are visible - a sign that the soil is warming up - and then sow a short row of Radish which will come up in a few days if the soil is warm enough. Once the Radish raise their heads, it is action stations and all sorts of seeds can go in! 

I am of the old school when it comes to Parsnips and Beetroot, shunning early sowings in cold, wet soil which these plants seem to hate. Better to wait until May when the soil is much warmer – I have always had excellent results with Parsnips sown early in May month and although there are varieties of beetroot that are resistant to ‘bolting’ (flowering instead of producing a tasty beet) I still think they prefer warmer weather and will germinate more quickly and make a better crop if sowings are begun in May.

Apart from Beetroot, I am wary of planting root crops in the raised beds this year – the soil has had so much compost added to make up the levels that I think it will be too rich and the roots will ‘fork’ and grow into all sorts of shapes!

News Flash! After pondering how I am going to fit all of these vegetables into two small raised beds, a farmer friend of mine who lives very close by contacted me having heard of my allotment plight. He is downsizing on his raised beds and has offered me one to ‘look after’ so it looks as though I have lost two allotments but gained three raised beds – I can’t wait to get started!

Spring Pruning

Pruning shrubs is a subject that causes much head scratching amongst gardeners. The first foray into our gardens after the winter months often reveals tangled masses of branches along with leaf litter and other debris yet to be cleared from the borders. Perennials and ornamental grasses are easy – just remove the dead leaves and stems, taking care not to cut into the new growth which will already be appearing in many cases. Evergreen grasses need only be ‘groomed’ by brushing your hands through them (wearing a good pair of gloves!) to removed the dead leaves that will have built up towards the base of the plant. 


But which shrubs to prune and which to leave? 


To make this decision, we need to remember when the plant flowers. Many a spring show has been ruined by a quick trim in late winter, resulting in the removal of old wood that would have shortly produced flowers!


Many shrubs produce their flowers on the previous year’s growth so by pruning immediately after flowering you are giving the plant the maximum amount of time to make the following year’s flowers. Spring flowering shrubs that include Forsythia, Ribes, Camellias and Magnolias should definitely be left alone now and tackled in early summer. Many spring flowering shrubs will not need pruning each year, so it’s up to you to decide how much and how often to reshape them. 


Buddleia davidii are very fast growing and flower on the current year’s growth in late summer. These benefit from pruning every year and so are definite candidates for a hard prune now! Take tall growing plants back to about 60cm from the ground and remove some of the oldest, woodiest stems completely to allow more light into the plant and allow new shoots to develop. The diminutive, newer varieties (Buddleja ‘Buzz’ springs to mind) that are bred for small gardens and patio containers only need a tidy – they are slower growing than their larger cousins. 


Shrubs such as the glossy leaved Abelia x grandiflora with its clusters of tubular flowers that are so valued for late summer and autumn blooms can also be pruned hard now by removing some of the vigorous stems that have shot straight up and have no blossom bearing twiggy side shoots. The twiggy side shoots will manufacture flowers; the strong, aggressive shoots that go straight up need to be curbed through the summer months by pruning back by two thirds in August to remind the plant that it needs to make twiggy growth, not tall useless ‘water shoots’.


Shrubs that flower at midsummer, which include Philadelphus (Mock Orange) make their blooms on short ‘spurs’ of new growth that come from wood that is two years old or more, so these should be pruned after flowering in late summer. However, early spring is a great time to rejuvenate any old, deciduous shrubs over several years by pruning some of the woodiest stems to the base of the plant. By carrying this operation out over a number of years each spring, you will not lose all of the flowers and the hard pruning will not be such a shock to your plant! 


For all pruning jobs you should be armed with a good pair of secateurs, a pruning saw and a stout pair of gloves. 


Complete the task by giving your plants some TLC. A feed with some fertilizer such as pelleted chicken manure or Vitax Conifer and Shrub, spread around the base of the plant and watered in, followed by an application of homemade garden compost as mulch to keep the soil in good heart will make your plant feel better! 


Remember – the worst that can happen by pruning at the wrong time of the year is that a year’s flowers are lost. Your plant will probably grow back stronger and better for being under the knife!



Shrubs for Shade

It had to be done sooner or later. Our Bog Garden needed weeding and whilst the giant Gunnera manicata is still asleep with just a hint of crinkled green leaves in suspended animation, yesterday was the perfect time to get in there. The first job was to remove the old rhubarb like leaves from the Brazilian giant, revealing the handsome, furry russet trunks that remind me of terracotta warriors. There are two springs running through the area which is very wet in places and never ever dries out! In late spring the whole area is a picture with Candelabra Primulas in deep orange, rich purple and pink shades, up to their necks in soggy clay soil and perfectly happy. At the moment, there is neither sight nor sign of them still in their watery winter beds! 


Iris too are planted there – the water loving Siberian types in deep blue and wine red shades, along with the later flowering Japanese Iris (ensata) ‘Rose Queen’ a stunning shade of clear pink with delicate yellow veining on the falls (lower petals). But for now, no real sign of these either except for the rotten brown leaves from last year which have been cut off after protecting the crowns of the plants through the winter months. Tiny green shoots are underneath and will soon begin to grow away to handsome sword shaped leaves that will frame the flowers at midsummer – fleeting but beautiful and replaced by striking seed capsules for later interest. As these flower, so to do the Himalayan Cowslips (Primula florindae), their sweetly scented blooms hanging in clusters atop tall stems. These seed freely in this area – on the gravel paths and in the watery parts as well and I wouldn’t be without them. Walking past them in the morning on a still day and breathing in the sweet perfume is a highlight of early summer for me!


Everything in this shady, wet area is underground for now and after a tidy up of all the old leaves and a day weeding the Creeping Buttercup and Water Mint it looked decidedly empty and desperately lacking in any winter interest at all. 


Luckily there are plenty of shrubs which will relish the wet shady conditions and a few that will be happy on the shady bank above this area.


Dog Woods are the first to come to mind – they don’t care if they sit in water and will reward with their striking red bark through the winter months. Cornus alba ‘Siberica’ is one of my favourites with bright sealing wax red bark and rich autumn leaf tints of deep plum purple – just the thing to plant behind a white and green variegated evergreen grass. Viburnum opulus has the common name of ‘Bog Elder’ and again will grow in heavy soil. The jagged leaves turn rich shades of red and plum in autumn and the plant has flat clusters of white flowers in early summer followed by red berries for the birds. 


Given that the Gunnera will shade a lot of this area out with its gigantic umbrella like leaves, we don’t have room for too many shrubs in the boggy ground but there is room on the bank running down to the site for shrubs that like moist soil and shade from the trees above.


The bubble gum smell of Philadelphus has to be one of the best summer scents and these hardy shrubs are perfectly happy in part shade and moist soil. As well as a gift for our noses, bees adore the flowers so one of these is essential and will fill the gap between the spring and autumn flowers of the evergreen Mexican Orange Blossom (Choisya ternata) another sweetly scented shrub that is as happy in shade as full sun. There is already a beautiful golden leaved Weigela planted nearby which has stunning burnt red flowers in early summer and is another magnet for bees so to complete the picture and add another shade loving shrub to the collection we have opted for an ornamental Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’ with filigree leaves of golden yellow. Kept hard pruned, it should make a pleasing mound in this area, not unlike a Japanese Maple but more able to stand the ripping northerly wind that hits this area of the garden at times. Who knows? We may even get clusters of white flowers and red berries on it once the plant is established. 


Gardens are never finished – they are always evolving and we have taken a big step with this area. I can’t wait to find out how it looks in a few months time!

Vegetables for Small Spaces

One of the challenges facing many of us nowadays is how to fit all that we want into our smaller gardens. Because of this, vegetables are often overlooked as taking up too much room and fit only for large gardens or allotments. The attraction of growing your own is strong for many of us but time and lack of space often limit our ambitions! 


But there is room for vegetables in the smallest of spaces. Take a look at that sunny fence or the side of your garden shed. In a sheltered spot, you can harness the sunlight and warmth to raise tomatoes, peppers or chillies in a growing bag or pots. And that trellis that divides a sunny sitting area from another piece of the garden is just the place for some runner or climbing French beans later in the season. Compost heaps are the ideal environment for a courgette plant – and after all, one is usually enough to keep a family going or to make plenty of chutney!


The big empty pots that are lurking in the garden shed or garage can be put to use over the next few weeks as well. A visit to Notcutts will reveal a tempting selection of vegetable seeds especially bred for container growing. Even a few potatoes can be planted in a large pot or dustbin for a delicious taste of waxy tubers in late June, lightly boiled and served, skins still on, with butter melted over. 


Choose a sunny, sheltered site for your containers and fill them with a good quality general purpose compost mixed with homemade compost if you have it. 


Sow the seeds of salad leaves such as rocket, mustard and lambs lettuce, along with radish, carrots, spring onions and beetroot directly into the pots once the soil has warmed up or start the containers off in a cold greenhouse. For best results, sow one variety to a container as the seeds will germinate and be ready to harvest at different times. Loose leaved lettuce can be sown in modules or seed trays and planted out into bigger pots when they are large enough to handle. Peas and Broad beans are very hardy and can be sown now, directly into the pots. They should begin to emerge in ten to fourteen days time but watch out for mice which will eat the seeds! Try Broad Bean ‘The Sutton’ a dwarf variety that has stood the test of time and will give a tasty crop of beans over several weeks. 


Mange Tout or Sugar Snap peas are a good bet for containers because they will crop prolifically. Remember to stake the plants as the seedlings emerge, using twiggy branches so that they can twine and climb – this will make them much easier to pick and increase the yield. 


Runner beans and climbing French beans can also be grown successfully in large containers but will need to be staked using bamboo canes and given plenty of water – a can full each day is not unusual in dry weather, when the plants are established and flowering.  


As with all vegetable gardening, it is best to start off small and add more containers as you feel that you can cope with them. As well as using good quality compost for planting and fresh seed from unopened packets for the best results, remember to feed your containers once a week with a liquid feed added to your watering can. Notcutts Pour and Feed tomato feed or Miracle Grow Your Own liquid feed are ideal for this. 


Who knows? When the container grown vegetables begin to take over your garden you may feel ready to start with an allotment!