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Check it out. Knowing your soil is key to a successful and pretty garden.

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The Answer Lies in the Soil

It may seem a bit boring, but the soil in your garden is the key to the success or failure of your garden and is the most important aspect of growing healthy plants.

Happy soil is full of nutrients and creepy crawlies or to put it more scientifically – it has an abundance of fungi, bacteria, nematodes, worms and beetles. They will nourish your plants and improve growth. Where soil has been starved of organic matter, plants will be noticeably struggling and dying (literally) for a generous mulch of lovely garden compost.

You don’t even need to dig it in – just add the organic matter to the surface and let the worms and other organisms drag it down – doing the hard work for you. NOT digging your soil actually leads to a healthier soil population and more vigorous plants – which will be healthier and less prone to pests and diseases. Organic matter can be any form of well-rotted plant material but animal manures are the best form of mulch to improve nutrient shortages. A thin soil (many of us have a thin layer of soil over the top of the chalky subsoil in Milborne) will benefit hugely from a thick mulch (10-15cm) of well-rotted organic matter each year.

To maintain soil health, you should be very careful about the amount of synthetic chemicals you use as they tend to irritate or even destroy many soil inhabitants. Although we all hate slugs, they do have a part to play in speeding up the decay and recycling old leaves and stems into lovely rich humus and nutrients. (I still hate them!!) Slugs & snails are known as gastropods and mostly live under the surface. As well as converting organic waste to a more decomposed form, their excretions also help to bind the soil together.

One way of reducing their numbers is to put a few slug pellets underneath a piece of wood, or anywhere where you know they congregate, then collect them up and bin them.

You can enrich your home grown compost by incorporating animal manures. Horse manure is best for heavy soils and cow manure is ideal for light soils. Although it is easier to find a source of horse manure be extremely careful that it isn’t full of bindweed, ground elder and other invasive weeds.

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Down the Primrose Path

“Down the primrose path”

In Shakespeare’s time a path strewn with primroses was a common metaphor. It means to lead someone down the primrose path, is to deceive them into thinking that things are easier than they actually are.

The flowers of the primrose are definitely a sign that spring has arrived. They are woodland flowers that like the cool, dappled shade provided by woodlands and hedgerows. Primroses even have their own special day, 19 April – the anniversary of the death of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1891. Primroses were his favourite flower and to this day a posy of primroses is laid at Disraeli statue by Westminster abbey every year.

Primroses and polyanthus are part of the Primula genus. You can tell the difference not only by the colour but also by the fact that polyanthus flowers stand proud of the leaves on a single stem. Primrose flowers are carried on the short stems at the base of the plant surrounded by leaves.

Primroses were among the first flowers ever to be grown for the garden, as far back as medieval times. They were grown along with cowslips, verbascums and mallows between the cabbages and onions.   With the introduction of the pink primrose from Turkey known as “Turkie Purple” back in the 17th century, breeders began to experiment crossing this pink primrose with the cowslip, resulting in our much loved and colourful polyanthus.

I can remember picking primrose flowers to decorate the local church for many years until of course the practice of picking wild flowers became illegal. Luckily it’s not too difficult to grow them from seed – so I can still pick them from my own garden.   They will grow on just about any soil as long as they have plenty of moisture and a bit of shade, but they do like good drainage.

Pretty red and yellow Polyanthus

Pretty red and yellow Polyanthus

Although primroses and polyanthus are spring flowering, they will also flower intermittently during mild spells in winter. To create a lovely spring display plant up a pot with Polyanthus and include some low growing evergreens such as Ivy, Skimmia and euonymus; underplant with Narcissus and crocus. If you are too late to plant bulbs, add some Forget-me-nots Myosotis sylvatica as a contrast. Position the pot next to the house and you will have something bright and cheery to look at even on the dullest day.

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Star Perennials of the Garden


Although evergreen shrubs are the backbone of the garden giving you colour and structure in the winter, deciduous shrubs and perennials provide the seasonal colour. Most deciduous shrubs flower in the spring and early summer but some, such as Buddleia, hydrangea and Caryopteris flower later in the year.

Perennials are the showy stars of the garden and come in all shapes and sizes. Some are hardy and some need winter protection; some die down completely in the winter and return again in the spring and some – the woody perennials remain as evergreen plants during the winter. Penstemons and Geranium macrorrhizum are like this.

Every 3 years or so, in either spring or autumn, many perennials need to be divided into smaller clumps. This helps to control their size and also keeps them healthy. Overcrowded perennials often have fewer and smaller flowers and may often appear quite stunted. Another advantage of dividing up the plant is to make even more plants – and if you don’t want them, there’s always someone who will. Or you could grow them on and bring them to the annual Gardening Club plant sale in May.

Perennials such as Penstemons don’t die down in the winter and it is advisable to leave a good amount of top growth on the plant until quite late in the spring (when danger of frost has passed). Then you can prune the plant quite hard almost back to the base and it will re-sprout with nice new healthy growth. The same applies to Verbena bonariensis – leave some of the top growth on to protect the plant from frosts and then give it a prune in the spring.

Geraniums are devils for becoming huge and overcrowding other plants in the border and definitely benefit from dividing up. There is a lovely herbaceous geranium called Rozanne but it does grow into quite a large clump. It is worth trying to find a spot for it as it has pretty blue flowers all summer and into the autumn. Oriental poppies can become a bit over-large and definitely benefit from dividing up every few years.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTUREShot colours hot dahliasTall perennials such as delphiniums and Eremurus (foxtail lilies) do well at the back of the border, but some other tall plants can be placed in the middle of the border so that you have to ‘look through them’. Foxgloves, Verbena bonariensis and Knautia macedonica all look good when planted in small groups in the middle of the border. I saw a lovely display once of deep red dahlias with purple Verbena bonariensis growing amongst the dahlias.

If you plan what plants you want to put in your border you can achieve colour and interest for every month of the year either with different textures created by foliage or flowers. For example Hellebores are great for late winter colour, along with snowdrops and wood anemones; aquilegias, foxgloves and early flowering geraniums give you spring colour; dianthus (Pinks), astrantia, lupins, delphiniums and many others are good for summer interest; and late summer sees Penstemons, agapanthus, rudbeckia coming into their own.

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THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or How to get the best out of your roses

Feeding and pruning your roses is the most important task to do if you want lots of flowers, strong growth and more disease resistance.  The aim is to produce plants that will flower freely with good blooms and be an attractive shape and size.  It is also important to plant your roses to the correct depth.  They should be planted so that the base of the stems are 3 inches (7.5cm) BELOW ground level.  The graft union should not be above the soil.

The best time to prune is in Spring just as growth starts.  Don’t wait until the new shoots are a few inches long as this will waste energy and delay flowering.

 Large flowered / Hybrid tea roses can be cut hard back to about 20cm (8”) from the ground.  Flowers are produced on new wood so the harder you prune the better the flower.  Floribunda (cluster-flowered) roses are pruned less hard.  Shorten stems to about 25-30cm(10-12”) from the ground.  Shrub roses and once-flowering roses only need a light prune.  Take them down by about 1/3 and every so often cut out one or two stems close to the ground to encourage new growth.


Always use clean, sharp secateurs and start by removing dead, diseased and dying wood, and any stems that are crossing over or rubbing.  Aim for a nice, open centre and always cut to an outward facing bud.ImageImageImage

When you have finished pruning, you will need to mulch your roses with garden compost or well-rotted manure and then feed with a rose fertilizer.  After that you should aim to feed monthly throughout the growing season, stopping in Autumn.  Container roses need to be fed every 2 weeks and must not be allowed to dry out.

One other important task is to spray your roses regularly against fungal diseases and aphids.  There are several different things on the market but I find that RoseClear works well for me. 

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Protecting your containers and plants in winter.

Winter container gardening can be tough on plants – they need protection from all the elements that winter throws at us – wind, frost, morning sun, waterlogging and drying out.  Probably the most challenging aspect is protecting the roots from freezing in the pot.  Plants are always better off in the ground during freezing winter weather, but if you can’t bury your pots (or don’t feel the inclination) you need to provide some extra protection. 

Pots are expensive, so make sure that your container is strong enough to make it through the winter.  The more porous it is, the more likely it will crack.  It is worth investing in frost-proof terracotta and glazed pots which are more likely to withstand freezing temperatures.  However, you will still need to protect the plant’s roots.

Don’t let the compost get waterlogged – keep it well drained.  Place the pot under the rain shadow of a wall and group containers together by moving them to a sheltered position – close to the house is the best place.  Raise the container up off the ground to keep the bottom of the pot out of the water – pot feet are ideal.   If you let the pot stand in a saucer or on the ground, water cannot escape and will freeze in the bottom of the pot turning the roots to mush when they thaw out.


Wrap the container in bubble wrap leaving the base clear and put some horticultural fleece around the plant.  Protect the crowns and trunks of tree ferns by wrapping them in layers of fleece or hessian stuffed with straw.  


Spring bulbs can be protected in a similar way although they need more care than bulbs planted in the ground.  You will need to keep the compost moist and protected from frost.  You can protect them by moving the pots close to the house wall, covering the pot with a thick layer of straw or use a cloche or ‘hoop house’ and cover with horticultural fleece.  Remove it when the weather improves.  If you suffer from squirrels and mice eating your bulbs, protect them with a piece of chicken wire and remove when shoots appear.

 All of this will certainly help to protect your containers and your plants throughout the cold and wet winter months. 


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Your Garden in March

 It’s funny, isn’t it – we were talking about drought tolerant plants last year and this year I think we all need bog gardens!  You can never predict the weather – all you can do is go with the flow and be prepared. 

March is a really busy time in the garden with lots of plants needing to be cut back or split if they have got too large; and tidying away all the dead and decaying material from last year.  This will help prevent diseases getting a foothold in the garden. 

Here are just a few of the jobs you can be getting on with.


Late flowering clematis (Group 3) need to be pruned now.  These are clematis texensis and viticella types and are the easiest of all the clematis to look after.  You just cut them down to about 30cm (1ft) from the soil to just above a nice pair of fat leaf buds and tie in the new growth as it appears.  Keep the roots shaded to help prevent clematis wilt and feed regularly during the summer– tomato feed is good for clematis.

Roses will need to be pruned now – aim to leave an open centre and prune to an outward facing bud.   As a general rule, and this applies to most things, remove all dead, diseased and damaged stems, and anything that is crossing over causing the branches to rub together causing a wound.  You should also start to spray the roses for blackspot as soon as leaves emerge and feed them regularly now until late summer.

Lavenders which were pruned in August should be pruned again to keep them looking compact and bushy and prevent them becoming leggy and woody.

Penstemons, Brunnera and Phygelius can be pruned hard back (unless a hard frost is predicted), and you can rake out the dead leaves from evergreen grasses.

Start pruning early flowering shrubs such as Chaenomeles (flowering quince) and Forsythia just after they have finished flowering.  This applies to all flowering shrubs that flower before June.

The time is just about coming to an end to plant bare root trees and shrubs, so if you haven’t already done so – you will need to get a move on.

The garden centres are starting to fill up with all sorts of pretty and colourful perennials and shrubs – the choice is huge. Do check the soil requirements for the plant – we are on lime (chalky) soil, – acid loving plants will not  survive for long unless planted in a pot in ericaceous compost.  Also check how big the plant will get – a Choisya ternata may look quite small and compact in the pot in the nursery, but will soon grow to 2m high and 2m spread – so ensure you have the space for it.

Finally it is a good time to dust off the garden furniture – give it a spring clean and treat wooden furniture ready for the sunny days of summer (we hope) and your welcome glass of Pimms. 


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