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This Month - February

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    Garden yourself fit both mentally and physically - I've always been a great advocate of gardening for the body and soul, it's something all gardeners understand instinctively I think, that's why we do it. But the idea seems to be gathering more momentum, albeit slowly. I'm not the sort of person who would go to a gym to work out, it's too much trouble to get in the car, drive there, get changed, go to the gym machines and pose for half an hour or more etc. etc... not that I'm in terrible shape or would be embarrassed, it's just not for me. It also seems that it's not for most people who sign up for gym memberships either as the large majority who sign up annually, give up after a short time. I'm not so convinced by the mental benefits of the gym either, seems like a lot of rushing around still, get there at a certain time before it's too full, or it is too full and then exercise in public - now I acknowledge that there are those for whom the public bit is a big plus, but I'm not one of them.

Now if you have a garden, you have your own private gym. It's out in the fresh air (do you get enough of that?) and as there's no membership fees required you can spend the money on plants and tools. On the subject of tools, the only power tool I have for the garden is my lawn mower, and I've been toying with the idea of getting a push mower for that instead, they bear little relationship to the old fashioned heavy cast iron one that I  remember my granddad pushing around the garden (and getting me to push around the garden as well). Gentle exercise, not heavy weights and lots of repetitions are best for most people and that's exactly what gardening provides. It's the reason I've never bought a strimmer and use a high quality pair of hedge shears instead of anything powered. I just don't see the point of going to the gym and expending effort to just make some weights move back and forwards. If I'm going to make the effort, I'd like to see some rewards and what's more immediate than a neatly trimmed hedge, with the satisfaction that you did it yourself?

If you're really into the idea, you could get an allotment and take the health benefits to another level by growing our own organic fruit and veg. Don't under estimate the time commitment for this though, if you leave it alone for a couple of weeks or more from spring to autumn, the weeds will start to take over and you'll start to get dispirited.

I'm thinking about the possibility of turning part of the garden into a potager, an ornamental kitchen garden as this seems a good way of fulfilling several goals.

Links: American horticultural therapy association | Thrive | Be careful out there! | More links

    Do you grow plants from seed? If you've never done this, you really should as it's one of the most rewarding parts of gardening. Here in the UK and EU it's not so common to do this as we have no border restrictions of plants, but in the USA and other parts of the world it's more of a necessity as it's not so possible to buy all kinds of plants by post as we are able to.

Half hardy plants are usually best bought as plug plants, see below, as many are not so easy to germinate unless you have the propagators required. Busy Lizzie seed for instance will germinate like cress in an enclosed propagator at a steady 20-25ēC if they are sown on the surface and thinly covered with vermiculite, F1 seeds in these circumstances will give 95-100% success. If you can't provide these conditions however, the success rate is more like 5-10%

I'd recommend Morning Glory, Pansies or Violas, Sweet Peas and Sunflowers if you've never tried any plants from seed before. Morning Glory, Pansies, Violas and Sweet Peas seed should be sown under cover, a windowsill will do, or conservatory or other light and cool but protected place you may have. Use seed compost for seeds - not multi-purpose, the germination and success rate is considerably better with seed compost. Pansy and Viola should be sown in seed trays and Morning Glory and Sweet Peas in deeper pots. Prick them out when large enough to handle, don't try it too soon and then gradually harden them off when risk of frost is over to be planted outside, they will all do better in containers than the ground, you can plant excess there too, but prepare it very well first with well-rotted manure or garden compost. Give the sweet peas and morning glory some sticks for support as they get taller and keep morning glory plants apart as they have a tendency to twine around each other  and are difficult to separate.

Sunflowers, now available in a great many varieties of various size and colour can be sown straight into the ground or into a plant pot first, I'd put 3 seeds around the edge of a 3" pot and put the pots some where cool, a sheltered part of the garden will do, or they'll find it too difficult to adapt to outdoor conditions if grown on too tall in soft conditions first.

Baby plants - an annual warning

Fairly soon and certainly before the end of the month, the garden centres and now even the supermarkets will soon be trying to sell us "plugs" and "superplugs" of half hardy plants. These are small plants, often little more than a few weeks old seedlings or rooted cuttings of summer bedding and basket plants. They appear to be good value - just a couple of pounds or so for 6 or 12 plants when later on in April larger versions will be £1.50 or more each. A better approach is to order now for delivery later on, that way you'll get what you want and the nursery will look after them in the meantime.

But be careful when these little mites look at you with their soulful little leaves and temptation of fantastic value. The reality is that unless you make quite a lot of effort and / or have a heated greenhouse, you're better off waiting until later in the year even if it does mean paying more.

Small half hardy plants such as Pelargoniums (Geraniums) along with Fuchsias and myriad other plants, (their varieties get added to each year courtesy of the breeders) are demanding unless you're equipped for them. You won't be able to plant them outside until later in May at the earliest, if you buy many now, you'd better have lots of space!

I was tempted myself a few years ago and bought some Busy Lizzie (Impatiens) seedlings in a pot, brought them home, potted them up and looked after them while keeping an eye on the sizes and price in the garden center I got them from. Come April, those leaving the nurseries where they had been given optimal conditions were larger than mine and worked out cheaper as well!

The main advantage of buying them like this is that you are more likely to get a large number of one particular colour or variety which may not be available later on. If you tend to buy mixed trays of colours, then I wouldn't bother until later when they're larger and healthier than you could ever have managed just given a windowsill.

Selected Plants
prices correct at time of writing - subject to change
Princettia - indoor/outdoor Christmas plant

Lavender Munstead
72 plug plants - £12.99

Rambler Rose
'Rosa filipes Kiftsgate'

super-climber, fragrant, fantastic - and big!
1 plant in 4L pot £12.99

Jobs / Tips

One of the quietest months in the garden, not much to do and if you haven't done it, the weather often makes it fairly unpleasant to start now. For the hardy souls though, there are jobs to do and it can even be pleasant on a calmer, warmer day.

    Time to prune your pomes, but leave your drupes well alone. A pome is a fruit with pips, apples and pears (also quince and medlars) whereas a drupe is a fruit with a stone, plums, cherries, peaches and apricots.

The dormant winter months are an ideal time to prune the over congested spurs from pome fruits. Apples and pears are mainly spur-fruiting trees, meaning that the fruits are produced on short lateral branches some 6-12 inches long. When a tree has been growing for some time, these spurs become over-crowded. The result is a rather untidy looking tree, lots of blossom and lots of small and not very high quality fruit. If you reduce the spurs, then the overall yield won't increase, but you will get a good improvement in the size and quality of the fruit that form.

Remove the older more complicated growth and thin weak stems leaving young vigorous growth behind. It depends on the state of the tree, but you should be aiming to remove about a third of the spur stems. If you repeat this process every year or two, then the tree will eventually be fruiting only on wood that is no more than a few years old.

If you have a very overgrown tree where the fruit is being borne further and further from the trunk each year, then it's a good idea to perform some more drastic pruning. Rather than trying to trim the spurs, you need to cut them all off and about a third of the branch too. Cut back to a fork, and just do 1/3rd of the branches this year and complete it over the next two years.

The dormant season is the best time to this for apples and pears, when the buds begin to burst it's too late. Drupes (stone fruits) on the other hand are pruned in the summer when in growth as winter pruning for these carries a high risk of introducing disease.

    Make plans. Consider plants and planting. Put canes or a hose pipe across the garden to mark out planned beds, patios or other features. Then ignore it for a few days, look out of the window and change it all totally if necessary. Winter is a good time to prepare for the coming growing season. Take your time when deciding on your grand design and get it right before you start on it when the warmer weather and breaking buds tempt you beyond the confines of the fire-side (whether metaphorical or literal). Planning

    If you've already decided, then get a patio or deck ordered and laid now. You'll certainly get it done quicker and probably also cheaper than later on. Make your mind up and order from a contractor in March and the chances are that by the time you move up the queue, you may not get to sit out until June. Hard areas outside extend the season of use of the garden. Lunch alfresco on a warm April day surrounded by the fresh green shoots of spring is a real delight. Hard surfaces

    Feed and continue to feed the birds. This gets more important as winter goes on. Don't forget on the warmer days as well. Hunger isn't nice whatever the temperature.

   Stay off the grass when it frosty. It will recover if left to thaw out, but walking on it can damage many of the blades. I think of it in terms of having cold fingers, simple things like knocking on a door suddenly become incredibly painful, it's like that for the grass being walked on when frozen. Eldest son puts it terms of having your frozen ears flicked by the bigger boys when standing at the bus stop (would he wear a hat when we told him? - No).

    Order seed catalogues and plan what you'll grow from seed this year. I think of this as buying genes for the garden. Perfectly packaged and prepared for growth with all they need to get started. Seeds are natures own genetic technology. If you've never grown anything from seed before, it's one of gardening's main wonders.

    Main tree and hedge planting time (still). The winter months are the best time to plant any trees and hedging or other bare-rooted shrubs. These are bought bare-rooted from nurseries, this way they will be dormant, but have a more extensive root system than those grown in containers. They should be planted as soon as you can so they spend the minimum time out of the ground. This applies in particular  to ornamental cultivars which seem to be less tolerant than most.

Tip. Use an old pair of tights as a tree tie. They're strong, don't rot, are soft and cheap. Tie around the tree and stake in a figure of 8 so that the tree trunk doesn't rub against the stake.

If you can't plant them straight away, then "heel them in". This means cover the roots with soil in a temporary position so that they don't rot or dry out. Don't be tempted to leave them in the bag or other wrapping even for a short time. If you haven't space to put them in the soil, then "planting" them in sharp sand (a couple of quid from a builders merchant for a 40kg bag) will do nearly as well (dries out quicker than soil). You could even do this in a bucket or other container as long as there are drainage holes in the bottom so the roots don't sit in water.

Why bother? Why not wait until it's a bit warmer and more pleasant and plant out of containers?

1/    Bare rooted trees and shrubs are cheaper, as little as half the price for trees and cheaper than this for shrubs though the range of available shrubs is smaller, so you can either save money or spend the same and get a much bigger plant.

2/     Planting now means that they get off to the best possible start in the spring. As soon as the plants wake up and start putting their roots out, they're already in your soil rather in a pot that will then planted in the soil later, one less jolt to the system.

So brave the elements and do it now! Make sure though that you add lots of organic matter to the soil when filling the planting hole and that you stake trees well.

We're still very much in the dormant season still, but already thinking of the growing season to come. I often think how lucky we are to have such pronounced seasonal changes, it all helps to keep us fresh as well the garden. Back again on March the 1st.

Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month

    5th Feb 2010 - Had a snowday today due to about 4 inches worth in N.Cambs and it was great fun. I really don't want to hear about people who crawl to work and feel good about themselves when they get there to leave 10 mins later because it's already the afternoon and there's nothing that can be productively accomplished. If they want to do that, then a loud Hurrah!

I got a call at 7 am telling me I didn't need to go in to work (I woke up at 5 and had a peek out the curtains so was already excited about it). Son (17) went back to bed once he'd established he was off again (2nd day this week for him, 1st for me). As I was up I stayed up and went for a walk about 8 when it was lighter. Cars were having difficulty getting up the road outside our house which is the gentlest of slopes and I saw several slide around and fail to stop at (minor) t-junctions, they locked wheels and glided on by, so I didn't feel bad at all about not attempting the 25 miles to work.

There were lots of people out in the village and everyone was especially friendly, everyone said good morning and had a few pleasant chats with strangers and people I recognise but barely know. Walked down a few winter wonderland lanes and up the hill where it was impressively blizzard like.

Son's friends arrived en masse later for a snowball fight and snow building session while Mrs. Webmaster and I took the dogs out, took lots of pics and a bit of movie on the digital camera. Older dog had enough early on as did Mrs. W. so I went on with young dog down the river, she is small (cairn terrier) but such a dynamo, she runs through the 3-4" of snow as if it's not there and while she was flagging at the end would have followed me all day if she had to.

Son and friends had arrived back home wet and cold but happy, Mrs.W. had vast quantities of tea and bacon sandwiches on the go (I suspect she dreams of running a greasy-spoon by the side of the road). We've just looked at the pictures we took on the computer and the only complaint was that Mrs.W. thought there weren't enough of her (!).

We've all had a great day that will be remembered for years, I'd happily forego a days salary for the privilege. I've always loved snow, especially the way it changes the way the world looks and I love the way it puts normal life on hold for a while as we enjoy it. It is 18 years since this last happened, I think we should enjoy it and make the most while we can, there is more to life than feeling good about spending every day you possibly could at work.

    As I'm sitting down to write this a Sunday morning at the end of January, there's hints of spring out in the garden, the sun is out in a pale blue sky and yellow streaks of light are making the bare branches of my fruit trees look most dramatic. The erect red stems of my dogwood are being picked out very nicely too - I went for elegantissima, the variegated form, not as all round tough as the green leaved varieties or with stems quite as bright, but a better year round performer.

I also noticed with some considerable satisfaction as I opened the curtains this morning and looked out, that there was a small pink splash in the bed just in front of the house. On further investigation I found four primrose flowers and nearby a single pale yellow primrose flower - now that's serious evidence and has cheered me up no end. It won't be long now before the spring bulbs start to come out leading to the crescendo of blooms and blossom of mid and late spring.

The last couple of years I stopped trying new varieties of spring bulbs and have stuck with the traditionals and varieties of those. I found that many unusual species bulbs that are often offered don't perform so well when taken away from their native habitats, whereas horticultural varieties that have been produced by breeders have to be able to grow in many places to be commercially viable. So hardy in fact are some of these varieties that old daffodils that were thought to have been lost forever have been found growing wild along roadsides decades after they were last cultivated and so brought back into cultivation again.

My spring bulb displays consist of daffodils, tulips, muscari and hyacinths, there used to be crocuses too until they decided to first stop flowering and then stop coming up at all, I think they were overcome by a fungus. It might seem a limited palette, but there is so much variety of these types that there's no reason to try anything different. I go for group plantings of one variety rather than plantings of mixed varieties even though the large mixed sacks available in the autumn seem to be better value. The effect is more impressive when they come up in the spring.

    OK I admit it I'm obsessed by the weather. I had thought that this month I'd make a special effort not to mention it. But haven't we had a lot of it? ( weather). Even if the garden's not doing very much, there's plenty to look at out of the window. Floods, horrible soggy squelching underfoot, unseasonable warmth then the world turned white. Subsequently it got squelchy again, and now it's all hard and crispy. One thing has struck me recently about the British approach to the weather is that no matter what it does - snow in winter, sunny and warm in summer - we're always surprised.

In the first week of January I was out one day weeding, the last weeding I did was in November, so I was pulling up what had grown in the two months since - filled a large tub too. I would have mixed the weeds I pulled up with the compost heap that consists of autumn leaves ( some green to the mainly brown mix) but when I moved back the heavy plastic barrel lid and old sacks that cover it, a very cute looking field mouse came to the end of a carefully constructed tunnel, looked at the world, felt overwhelmed and went back again. I couldn't bring myself to destroy his (her?) winter home so it was my best laid plan that went aglay and not the mouse's in this case.

I hope they've built up their insulation now, as they'll need it. Meantime in other parts of the garden (I hope) pests are being killed off, so that there's less of them to feed on my plants next growing season, how fickle I am in my approach to desirable or undesirable pests. I wouldn't actually mind greenfly if they just didn't do the crowd scenes with such gusto.

There's a whole host of pests been waiting in the wings in recent years, encouraged by the warmer winters that allow them to survive from one season to the next. The water hyacinth is one example, you've been able to buy these as pond plants for some years now at garden centers, and it is an attractive and unusual floating plant. Some of the leaves develop into air-filled bladders to keep it buoyant and it has pretty blue flowers. If you've ever seen a picture of a surfacing hippo surrounded by greenery with a bit on the end of its nose - that'll almost certainly all be water hyacinth. It's already devastated warmer parts of North America, is establishing in Portugal and looks like spreading into Southern France.

There are two new species of vine weevil (unpleasant pests in their effects, but I can't help liking their comic book appearance and the way that they can walk across your hand while you shake it about as if nothing is happening), that have been discovered in London attacking a range of garden plants.

Then of course there are also the traditional British pests such as aphids, wasps, cockroaches, fleas, rats and mosquitoes to name but a few that have all been enjoying warmer winters. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

Another interest bordering on the obsession is feeding the birds. I mentioned last month about how the birds seem to like white bread better than brown and that it can't really hurt them that much when compared to the alternative of starving. Rachel Simpson sent in the following by email by way of explanation:

The birds and bread problem is that bread is made of refined flour, i.e.. really fine particles of grain, that are easy to digest for us with fast guts. It also contains refined sugar, the white stuff has quite a lot.

Both of these things give the birds an 'unnaturally' high level of blood glucose very fast, whereas eating whole grain requires them to digest it slowly over a period of time and gives them a slow release of glucose that they would get from their wild diet if we didn't feed them. it's not going to kill them but it means they don't get a diet suited to their digestive system, which is a complex thing.

I think that's why the white bread bad / wholegrains good principle. It's similar to hedgehogs not being compatible with white bread (don't make good sandwiches, too spiky) but they have a high water very low sugar diet and white bread and milk is so radically different from their slug/snail diet that it really harms them.

So I've started looking for the reduced brown bread at Waitrose now instead.

    Robins - Our garden and house lie in the territory of a couple of male robins. They're real story-book characters, though I haven't yet given them the opportunity to perch on a spade or make a nest in an old teapot, I'm sure they'd oblige (separately of course). If the door opens for the washing to be put out, they'll notice and come to see what's happening. They're looking for signs of disturbance in case any juicy worms, grubs or other tasty snacks have been turned up.

It's easy to forget that life in the wild is hard so spare a thought and something a bit more nutritious for the birds, especially now that Jack Frost (the original one, not David Jason) seems to be around a lot more.

Old robin redbreast has a hard spring ahead of him. It's a stressful time being a male robin defending your territory against the young pretenders or trying to muscle in to get a territory. It's the colour that gets them going. A male robin will attack a bunch of red feathers in its territory but ignore a life-like model robin in a more tranquil brown shade. Maybe we should say "red rag to a robin" rather than to a bull which are colour blind anyway, not quite such a threatening vision though - being chased by an enraged robin.

    Well we had our winter wonderland in the North and down through the South East - albeit briefly. Many people even had a "snow day" despite the paltry 2 inches or so that fell. You don't have to be very old to remember that not so long ago, such a light fall would have not even been worthy of note.

It makes all the advice in many books about trees and hedges talking about cutting them into at least a gently sloping shape to shed the snow and to make sure that you remove large build-ups from the tops of formal hedges so the shape isn't damaged all seem rather superfluous. As usual, fairly soon after falling the snow had melted from the tree branches and was largely gone from hedges on all but the most shaded side. I remember as a child when snow fell and I'd look worriedly at where I knew there to be daffodils and other bulbs just pushing through, my granddad would say "It keeps them warmer like a blanket, they're better off under the snow".

We're now back to the kind of weather that England does best in the winter, wet, dreary, cold enough but well above freezing, grey and frankly miserable. I need to start seeing some spring buds and flowers again, maybe I should plant a winter cherry to get me over this time of the year, there's plenty of spring blossom in other peoples gardens a bit later on, so I'm sure I can afford the space for one small tree.

The garden is still pretty dormant at the moment apart from those weeds that are the early risers of the botanical world. Much to my chagrin when I was wandering around looking for weeds I also noticed that the elders and brambles that hang around menacingly in what one of my neighbours loosely refers to as his garden had a whole host of shoots in exceptionally rude good health. Just to add insult to injury, some of my more delicate ornamentals that were doing well through the winter have now taken a bit of a bashing at the hands of jack frost and the wind driven snow.

Still, it will all come good soon - Gardening reminds us that we can plan, we can do our best, we can even try to do the impossible, but ultimately we are working with nature and we are certainly not in control. Gardening reminds us most of all that we are human, not only are we working with nature, we are part of it. It comforts us that it's OK to be human and ourselves, not dancing to some-one else's tune that we can't even whistle. We have our disasters in the garden, but for every unexpected disaster, there's an unexpected success - "nature abhors a vacuum" and there will always be something that will succeed. The only secret I suppose is not to give up - as long as you keep trying, something will come of it, nothing and no-one is a total failure, there's always something somewhere that will work for you.

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