Now is the time to get busy in your garden…what the apprehensive gardener can do

Griselda Kerr with Hebe in the garden at The Dower House

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A walk through the garden jobs at The Dower House in Derbyshire with The Apprehensive Gardener, author and gardener Griselda Kerr

How lucky are those who have a garden – even if you have now to work from home you will have the time you normally spent commuting, to get into it and to enjoy some uplift in your life doing something specific which you have never had time to do before. I spent a lot of my life on a long commute and would come back for short periods of time, but never knew what to do in the garden in the time I had.  So I wrote a book to tell me what to do NOW in the garden – not what to plant but what to do to help the garden along.  It took about 10 years of research with the help of very many great experts – many of whom are on Gardeners World.  I still refer to the book – it reminds me if I forget, and helps me prioritise and use my time in a focussed way.

So what does the apprehensive gardener do this month.

Let’s start in our little woodland – well one thing is to divide snowdrops – it is still not too late -snowdrops are really very easy and quite fun and it doesn’t matter if you have ten clumps or thousands.

Let’s wander down through the orchard – here I have just finished clearing round all the trees and mulching them – it is a good time of year to do it to as it reduces competition round their roots. When you mulch them, do not let the mulch build up round the root ball – that is where the tree’s ‘brain’ is and it doesn’t want burying. I have young fruit trees and unusual trees: Golden Rain Tree, Koelreutia paniculata, carpinus fangiana, lots of others which, newly planted, need water every week (except if it starts deluging again).  It is lovely to look at buds as they break – like the Malus floribunda – every tree has its own wonderment.

Now let’s go down towards the lake and pause in the glade – with lots of hydrangea which have now all been pruned: the paniculata hydrangea can be pruned anytime you want from winter onwards, I take it quite low and it can still be done if you haven’t done it – these are the hydrangea with conical shaped flower heads.  The mopheads and serrata hydrangea are a good deal more tender, so I have just taken off their old flower heads now as they were doing a good job protecting the new leaves against frost.  There are a few more to do and I do it very carefully as it is so easy to knock off those buds (the famous Christopher Lloyd used to do it in his shirt sleeves, never in a jacket, in case he did just that).

Griselda Kerr Garden

A gorgeous selection of soft yellows and cream; Narcissus Thalia, Edgeworthia Crysantha, Narcissus Avalance, Coylopsis pauciflora (loved by bees!) Primula denticulata, Fritillaria uva vulpis

And now here we are on the Pool side (it is called locally a Pool rather than a Lake – the Melbourne Pool) – we have the cornus which have given such good winter colour – they have been coppiced this week – I leave the pretty red and yellow ones a little later as they are not quite as hardy:  the greeny yellow ones C. sericea Flaviramea are tough as old boots.

The Edgeworthia was so pretty but it is now almost over:  I only do very limited pruning on it – but I love the way everything grows in threes – the Japanese used to make their best bank notes from the bark so it is called a Japanese Paper Bark. And here is a beautiful Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’ which had the prettiest of catkins on long straight stalks perfect for flower arranging. So I have cut it right down and the new growth will be straight and young and just as pretty as last year.

Let’s move on quickly to the bog area and the bronze crocodile which, when the garden is open to the public, gives small children quite a thrill.  The primula are just beginning to come out – they will fill this area.  I shall deadhead them as they go on flowering for ages if you do.  Otherwise all the astilbe here have been cut down already so this bog looks pretty uninteresting just now (wait till July!) – but grasses – I have just cut them down and there’s a real monster that needs dividing.  I will dig it up, turn it over, not worrying too much about its new growth and saw it in half – literally.  Actually probably quarters – and then replant the bits in different places – if I can find any spaces.  This division must not be done too early – when they are in active growth so from about now onwards.

Talking about division the crocosmia needs dividing so badly – I will dig it up and be quite brutal – in fact there is clearly lots of work to do here – the plants need to be told very sternly where I want them or they will get quite out of control and lose their charm! And geums – including one called Totally Tangerine – needs a very good tidy up before it puts on much more growth.  When we go to the greenhouse we will see the dahlias and cannas that are just being brought into growth – they will go in the ground when the tulips, which are just coming out are over and done with.

Griselda Kerr

Warm reds and pinks; new growth on Hydrangea quercifolia, Cydonia oblonga Quince, Magnolia Susan, salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’, Acer aconitifolium, Ribes x gordonianum

Along the Pool side – you can see what a difference a bit of edging to the lawn does – lots of that gets done now:  we had to renew the lake wall and this path which was an enormous job and took months to do – all the earth and stone was piled on boards on the lawn so that meant a bit of reseeding but it is incredible how resilient grass it.  The rest of the lawn has had a moss treatment and a spiking (a tining) because all the floods did make it very squelchy.  I only mow it on a very high setting still – the last thing it needs is a scalping.

Walking along this long border the key thing now for me is to stake plants – we have very little clay in our soil which makes it very well draining and easy to work but everything falls over given half a chance.  So I stake with metal grids, hazel, old stair rods, bamboo canes on things like delphiniums.  I have only just started – doing it now means I will not be trying to thread new growth through supports whilst trampling on things either side.  It is a bit like buying clothes for an event well before you need them – you can then have great pleasure feeling that you have done it.   

Perennials that are not 100% hardy – like some penstemons can safely be cut back now they are pushing from the bottom.  I leave a lot of dead stalks over winter just to provide cover for wild life but all this can be cut down now and this gives room to do some weeding but weeds somehow take a long time to get to the top of my list.   It has to be done however before mulching which is the best thing you can do for a garden – soil needs to remain aerobic and vibrant with living organisms and not allowed to become packed down and tired.  So if you can get hold of a bag or two of mulch, spread it over the soil and around (not over) the crowns of perennials.  This mulch could be home made compost if you are lucky enough to have it available, bags of mulch bought over the internet (I love double strength wool compost, you can get well rotted farmyard manure in bags) or recycled green waste from the local council but I fear this may not be operating. It might be something for next year.

Griselda Kerr 3

The bark and the light; Lagerstroemia indica ‘Rosea’, Cornus ‘Amy’s Winter Orange’ ready to be coppiced, Penstemon Husker’s Red pushing from the bottom so ready to be cut down

Along the big bank the roses have been pruned already – they were finished by the end of February – and I would not really want to prune off flowering wood now but if I saw there was congestion in the rose – too much growth making air circulation difficult, I could still cut a shoot right at the base, to improve the plant.  And the same thing goes for shrubs.  If you are not sure when something flowers, then do not prune it now – you might be cutting off the wood which is going to flower in June – but again, just like the roses, you can cut a whole shoot from the base if you think it looks really crowded and uncared for.  Just don’t do a ‘hair cut’.  Of course if you know the shrub flowers after midsummer, go for it, there is still time for it to put on its flowering growth this year.  Things like Buddleja davidii, lavatera, caryopteris, leycesteria – they all flower late.

We are nearly there!  There are some precious plants here in the box bed: new growth delicious to slugs – I have frogs in the garden and they deal with a lot of the slugs but if I use a slug pellet it must be sluggo which is not dangerous to children or pets and which adds nutrients into the ground as it dissolves.  New growth of delphiniums (which need staking incidentally) are nectar for slugs as are these eremurus – fox tail lilies.  And as we are here, box.  I love my box and care for it keenly.   I have cleared underneath it – it is a hands and knees job – use a glove – then fed it with a sprinkling of fish blood and bone and then I have mulched it – I am lucky as we make lots of compost.  We use box caterpillar moth traps – they go out this month to trap male moths and monitor the situation, giving me an early warning of their arrival so that I can take action before damage is done.

My book The Apprehensive Gardener has lots on the care of box because I do think we can keep it if we can catch problems early enough.

Another bed, called the peony bed, works very hard – blue hyacinths now followed by tulips, followed by peonies followed by asters.  Something going on from now till November.

And now up we go back up the slope past lots of wonderful Anemone blanda enjoying the sunshine (when I planted these, I rolled the bulbs in chilli powder and that successfully put off the squirrels who otherwise would have had the lot – they were only planted last year). The sarcococca will needs a prune soon – I shall wait till it has dropped its seed and do it sometime in May. These hyacinth bulbs are the ones I forced over various Christmases, planted out when they are over.  Elsewhere I keep colours organised but here it is just a jolly medley.  Any salvia that were left in the ground over winter, I cut back now that new growth is just beginning – just like those penstemon. Leaving them with their top growth over winter has helped them get through the cold months.

The greenhouse is almost our last port of call – there are still things in here over wintering but the pelargoniums can be cut back, cleaned up, repotted if necessary and given a bit of TLC.  There are seeds to sow – half-hardy annuals – cosmos, cleome, nicotiana, zinnia, stocks – millions to chose from as you can get them on line very easily and cheaply.  Veg and herbs too can be sown from seed – I am sowing sweet corn, perpetual spinach and beetroot, parsley and chives now.  If you have no greenhouse, grow them on a cool windowsill, not above a radiator if possible, and turn them every now and then.   

There’s plenty to do in the garden this month, Griselda with Hebe, her West Highland Terrier

Sweet peas – I talk a lot about growing sweet peas in my book – as always I had a lot of advice from the expert sweet pea grower Roger Parsons. These were planted last October, grown hard over winter, not pampered and here they are ready to go into position in the kitchen garden any time now.  The ground has been manured well and deep and the teepees are ready.

Our very last stop:  Pots and containers: have we not all left our pots to fend for themselves year after year as there just has not been time to attend to them?  Well now there is time you didn’t have before.  So check the roots are not pot bound, if they are dig out the plant, cut off some of the roots, check there are no nasties in the soil like vine weevil, and repot it using the same soil mixed with more nourishment from a bag of soil conditioner you will have brought over the internet.  If the roots are fine, just take off the top 5cm of soil and replace it with fresh compost/soil conditioner, incorporating a slow release fertiliser. Water well (and regularly thereafter).  If there are indeed some vine weevils you can triumphantly buy some nematodes over the internet and water them in knowing you have saved that plant.  It’s that easy.

Keep safe, be strong, be supportive by social distancing and love your garden as never before.

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You can see the listing for Griselda’s garden The Dower House here

Copies of her book The Apprehensive Gardener are available from all good book stores and online at Amazon.

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