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Blue Hydrangea macrophylla

This Month - July

Fuchsia Giants Collection AFuchsia Giants Collection
5 young plants
- £5
Turbo-charged plants, guaranteed to give a stunning display. Fill your containers with colour all summer.

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The garden is in full swing now and performing the various jobs becomes more and more like spinning plates (you never see that on the telly any more though do you?) take your eye off a corner somewhere and the weeds have a field day. Things are also pretty set for the rest of the summer now, if you haven't got containers and borders planted up, it's almost too late, unless you get large plants.

One exception, I venture to suggest, however is a container of petunias at nose-level by your front door or patio. I have a large pot of dark purple Surfinias by the front door that are held in place with a "hanging pot holder" this is a ring of metal that sticks out horizontally with an attachment for a single screw to fix it to the wall. The pot fits inside it and the lip of the pot holds it in place. They are cheap and easy to use with plant pots of the right sort of size, being somewhat bendable to fit. I haven't found anywhere online to buy them, but they are not that hard to find at ironmongers, diy stores or garden centres.

They are easy to place and in the evening in particular if it is still, give out a wonderful perfume by the door, taking over from my rose which is now over until the second flush of flowers comes later in the season. I love scent in the garden, and I love having flowers that give that scent right by the door, so as soon as you step out of the house, you're in a different world. If you don't have such an experience at the moment, then go and set one up tomorrow, few flowers in your garden will give you so much joy this summer. I like Surfinias, a variety of Petunia, though others can do the same thing. Surfinias tend to be a little informal - untidy if you're uncharitable - and you may prefer a more restrained growth habit. Darker colours seem to have the best scent, my white one is almost odourless (I won't grow them again after this year), I had a double flowered purple picotee (white edges to the purple petals) one year and they were fabulous, though I recall the flowers became smaller as the season went on. Funny really as I normally dislike flouncy flowers, but I love these - maybe the scent reaches me at a subliminal level.

Summer drought and heat - there are a number of things you can do to help the garden

  • Set the lawnmower a notch or two higher than normal.
  • Don't worry about the grass going yellow or even brown, it's a great survivor and should come back again when there's enough water.
  • Water in the evening when there's less chance the water will be evaporated by the sun before the plants can get it.
  • If you've planted any large perennials, shrubs or trees in the last year, they'll benefit from a little help through their first summer. Give them a full watering can or bucket (about 10 litres) each every now and then. Not more than once a week and a big deep drink. Little and often just encourages surface roots and dependency.
  • Get a water butt

Have you got a water butt? I know I bang on about this, but they are just so convenient and useful. In the climate I live in, the garden is watered from the sky and the butts filled at the same time, 90% of the time, by the time the butt empties, the sky does its bit again, dousing the garden and filling the butts again for the next dry spell. It was getting very dry until all the wonderful evening thunder storms and lightening of the last two weeks. I enjoy lying in bed with pyrotechnics going on lighting the room and the rumblings coming shortly afterwards - not so keen when the storm is right over head though, that's a bit too loud - but I've been lucky.

One not so good thing about water butts is the mosquitoes that can start to breed in the water. There's are two possible answers to this:

  • Catch them by scooping up with a fine net and feed them to your aquarium fish
  • Use cooking oil

I tried cooking oil for the first time last year and I'm pleased to announce it works splendidly. You pour some onto the top of the water in your butt and that's it, you could even use discarded oil from deep frying if you have it. As it floats on the surface, the oil prevents the larvae from reaching the air and so kills them, it also traps and kills adults that come down to lay eggs or larvae that trying to emerge. You don't even need to have a continuous layer, about 50% of the total area works just as well, it does start to rot down and turn very peculiar as it does so, but stays effective for around a month or more. I've not been able to gauge how long properly as rain meant that I lost a couple of applications in the overflow, but it has these commendations:

  • It's cheap, any cooking oil floats, so the lowest priced budget brand does just as a good a job as any.
  • It works really effectively.
  • It's totally organic - well it's food isn't it? not a chemical as such.
  • It doesn't seem to kill the rat-tailed maggots in the water butt - indulge me here - these are the ugly looking larval stages of a species of hoverfly, while I don't like the looks of them, I do admire their adaptation to where they live and I do like hoverflies.

The only downside is that you need to keep an eye on it and top it up every now and then if it rots away or gets washed down the overflow pipe. Only use the water from the butt for larger mature plants not seeds or seedlings, but that applies anyway - con or sans oil.

Favourite plant

One of the best things about this time of year is that one of my favourite plants flowers, this is Rosa felipes "Kiftsgate". A fabulous plant that I've always admired. Mine is planted in a pretty bad position, growing up and through a lovely (though overly vast) blue-tinged conifer that hangs over from my neighbours garden. Tired of looking at this tree and even more so of the light it blocks out I decided that the only climber that could cope with the (north facing) position was a rose that really wants to be a tree - enter the Kiftsgate.

It reaches about 12 feet up the tree so far with shoots that disappear into the branches for about another 15 feet above this. At the moment it is a 15 foot by 12 foot spread of profuse yellow centred white flowers that by about 10 a.m. have filled half the garden with the most wonderful scent. There's a bunch sitting on my desk now, they've filled the study with perfume for the last two days, not long lasting as a cut flower unfortunately as they're on their last legs now. If you've room, then get one for your garden, like many roses, needs a bit of looking after for the first couple of years, but once established it's away. Can also be good grown along a low fence as a deterrent to people climbing over it, plant in the middle and train shoots in both directions.

Jobs / Tips

    Prepare container plants for some neglect if you're going on holiday. Try to get someone to call round and give your plants some attention when you're away or the chances are that your lovingly prepared containers may be full of dead or half dead plants on your return. Before you go away place all your containers in a shady part of the garden, in a place that is light, but receives as little direct sunlight as possible - not under the leaf canopy of trees. Baskets can be placed on large plants pots to keep them stable. Try to get your helper to water them thoroughly at least once every 3 days. Don't worry about feeding or deadheading (I've had emails of disasters inflicted by enthusiastic but unknowledgeable friends). If you have any tomatoes, peppers or similar that might produce fruit while you're gone, let them have these as they ripen, it will encourage them to visit and it's better for the plant (well, you really rather than the plant) to have ripe fruit removed regularly. Place a watering can or hosepipe in easy reach, in fact you could just leave a hose uncoiled for easy access -  make it easy for people to help you. Don't forget to bring a stick of rock back as a reward.

    Buy a pot of your favourite herbs from the supermarket and keep them going all summer long. I've had this years basil on the go for over a month now. Get one of the pots that are overstuffed with plants and split it into about 4 equal sized pots, take a quarter of the original clump and split it into 2,3 or 4 and put the new small clumps at the edges of the new pot. Place the new pots in a sunny protected place and don't pick for a while. When you do start to pick the leaves, do just that - pick the leaves not the stems. Pinch out any flower buds that appear and this will encourage the plants to make more side shoots of leaves for your salads and cookery.

    Tie up hanging baskets - eh? Hanging baskets especially in exposed positions can take quite a bashing from high winds which can spin the basket round and break the plants against the wall. I always tie the actual basket of mine to the wall or tree with string. If yours is in a very exposed position, then two screws plugged into the wall and tied to the basket can make a great deal of difference to the state of your plants and the life of the basket.

    Time to plant the big 3. There are three garden perennials that are so easy to grow from seed that I wonder why anybody ever goes to buy them from a garden centre. These are;

Buy delphinium seeds from Dobies on lineDelphiniums
Classic elegance in a range of blues (red ones also available, but why?)
Buy foxglove seeds from Dobies on lineFoxgloves (Digitalis)
Woodland favourites, semi-shade or sun
Buy hollyhock seeds from Dobies on lineHollyhocks
Giant plants and giant flowers, great value.

And now is the time to buy the seeds. Sow them in a seed tray in a sheltered part of the garden but out of direct sunshine, keep the compost moist and they can't fail to germinate. Prick them out 15 (3 x 5) in a seed tray and then eventually into 1L pots and then come the autumn, for a minimal cost per packet of seed you can have dozens (if you look after them all) of plants that will cost between 3 and £5 each down at the garden centre come the autumn.

They really are the easiest of perennials to grow and if you've never grown anything from seed before, this should encourage you to greater and more exotic victories to come.

    This more than any other is the season where we can sit back (can any real gardener sit back in the garden though?) and appreciate what we have helped nature to produce. While it is still possible to plant container grown plants, they are not going to amount to much this year and are for the future. It's more of a time for planning the hard landscaping items in the garden. Is your deck or patio large enough, do you have one at all, would a permanent built in barbecue area be useful?

    Sow seeds of winter flowering pansies and violas. These are also amongst the easier plants to grow from seed and if started off now will be good strong plants by the autumn and so able to flower throughout the winter period finishing off with a final flourish in the spring. Both are strictly speaking perennials and can be kept going, but they are never again as good as they were in the first, so are best discarded and replaced. One of the main reasons I grow from seed rather than buying them as plants is that you can get a group of all your favourite shades and colours, particularly effective in containers if all of one colour. If unsure go for violas, smaller prettier flowers and often more vigorous.

    A good time to take softwood cuttings of shrubs. Cut a piece of new stem about 6 inches long and remove all flower buds and all but the end 3 or 4 leaves. Place several of these around the rim of a small plant pot filled with a mixture of sand and compost. Water and place in a shaded place, don't allow to dry out. Check the bottom of the pot after a month or so and pot up individual cuttings when you see roots sticking through the drainage holes.

I always feel that it's worth trying almost any plant by this method. Even when I read up how to propagate a particular plant I usually try this method as well anyway. It's so simple, it's done at a time of the year when it is warm and you're often out in the garden, and cuttings are frequently plentiful from prunings so it's no disaster if they don't take.

    Shrubs and climbers can be layered now as well. A technique that works with many varieties and is often successful with the more difficult plants. A fairly young shoot is brought down to ground level and a part of the stem buried about an inch or two deep with a small mound of soil on top, it may be necessary to peg particularly whippy shoots with a wire hoop. Then that's it, it will take longer to root than in other methods, but scores in that there's little need to look after the cutting as the parent plant makes sure that it's kept alive. Best left for a about year before detaching and planting or potting up separately.

    Keep watering containers regularly. It's so sad when they are neglected and what began as a vibrant collection of flowers dies slowly over a week or even a few days for lack or regular attention. I've already spotted some that are on their way out on my usual dog-walking route.

Contrary to popular belief containers are not a low-maintenance option, far from it.

If you don't need to water them daily, they should be checked daily as a hot day, particularly if there's a drying wind can suck all of the water out of a container. When planting up any containers, then always go for the largest you can afford so they don't dry out so quickly. Water, feed and dead-head regularly for the best show.

    Keep dead-heading perennials and shrubs such as roses. This keeps them producing more flowers rather than putting their energy's into seed and fruit production. A daily round of the garden in the evening is ideal if you can manage it, or as often as possible otherwise.

    Water autumn and spring planted trees and shrubs during hot dry spells. If you "baby" trees and shrubs through their first summer, them you're usually fine from then on. Give them an occasional thorough soaking though rather than a daily drizzle as little and often teaches them to grow shallow superficial roots rather than encouraging long deep roots that help them fend for themselves.

    Look for "suckers" on roses or grafted trees. These are shoots of the wild-type rootstock that the ornamental foliage is grafted onto and will emerge below the graft union which should be fairly obvious as a knobbly irregular region at the bottom of the stem or trunk. If left, then the rootstock being more vigorous (hence its use as rootstock) will take over the ornamental part of the plant.

    Keep pruning spring flowering shrubs as they fade, they can be pruned back to get a good display next year. Forsythia, Ribes (flowering currants),  Kerria japonica, Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) and early flowering Spireas should all be pruned regularly to keep them vigorous and flowering well.

They'll have all finished flowering by now and any formative pruning or restraining of over-vigorous shoots is best done as soon as possible. Ideally each year you should cut out one in three or four of the oldest braches down to ground level. In this way, the plant always has plenty of growth left and no branch is allowed to get old.

    If you have a neglected plant, then they can withstand being cut pretty much right down to the ground, drastic renovation is best carried out over at least two years though. Leaving some of the more upright and further back shoots intact so as to keep the plant going rather than dependent on reserves in the roots when recovering.

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

    Sunbathing season again for the local birds again. They look quite ungainly on the lawn, usually in the middle or somewhere fairly safe, one wing spread out sideways, beak partly open, feathers fluffed out and looking up to the sky. At first they look for all the world like a cat has got them, but soon perk up if they see you and then adopt the air of some-one who has unexpectedly been caught unawares on the loo.  It's an attempt to help rid the bird of parasites such as fleas by exposing them to the sunlight that doesn't normally reach them. I'm sure there's also more than an element of hedonism in there too, if birds could purr, this is when they'd do it.

    This is the time of year when your garden should be looking pretty much at its best, and feeling that way too, the garden in high summer has a feeling of maturity and fecundity. All the plants are growing strongly, have put on noticeable growth this year and still have the promise for more to come, while many flowers are over, there are still plenty to come.

    Garden Toys - How many do you have? I don't mean those giant darts or chess sets you can get, but proper toys with a motor that "helps" you get through your gardening chores in no time. I've noticed them a lot recently, it's the warm weather that brings them out. One of my neighbours in particular doesn't lift a finger in the garden unless it's to operate a switch of some powered gadget or other which he obtains from a shed and carries out with great ceremony.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing this gardening thing right, my accompanying tool is a pair of secateurs, and sometimes a plastic tub and a small ball of string. I don't make much noise, it takes no time to get prepared and I have a peaceful reflective time in the garden. On second thoughts, I like the way I do it, please think twice before you buy anything with a motor for the garden.

I nearly bought a strimmer once, but was put off with the way they damage the bark on trees when you're cutting the grass around them, even if you don't physically damage the bark, it doesn't do it any good. I carry on like I always did, getting as close with the mower as I can and then every now and then pulling up the long grass by hand that grows up against the tree, shed or whatever. I bet my neighbour irons his pyjamas too.

    Mature garden slow make over - I mentioned last month how I'd taken out a large poor quality lilac and replaced it with a bamboo. A month on I'm pleased to say that it's looking really good. The bamboo is getting established and the other plants that were shaded by the lilac are now able to grow better as they have more light. There's a variegated grass Phalaris arundinacea - gardeners garters, a Spirea I planted at the same time and Vitis coignetiae - crimson glory vine that are all enjoying the extra energy from the sun and easier access to rain water.

So encouraged, I'm now looking elsewhere in the garden for other established but essentially not so good plants. Next on my hit list are one of my favourite plants, the Delphiniums outside the living room window. Now I love the flowers on these plants, but applying a very critical eye this year have decided that while they're good, they could be better. I grew them from seed that I collected myself and while there are some good plants, there are also some that are just so so. I'll probably get some F1 hybrid seed or maybe even one or two named varieties bought as plants to replace them with.

Over the longer term there's another lilac to remove, flowers too dark for me and the plant is too close to the house and so vigorous the flowers are only really appreciated from upstairs windows, and then the biggest decision, trees in the back garden, there's 3 apple trees none of which are very good varieties and a teenage Stella cherry tree that produces blossom and baby cherries, but the birds get them all long before they're any where near eating size or ripe. I need a few months to consider those spaces and what will replace them.

I've got a hankering recently for topiary and trained trees, I fancy big boxwood "pillows" and maybe a cloud-trained shrub of some description somewhere.

    Favourite weeds - Can you have a favourite weed? I do in that there's some I like better than others as they're easier to get rid of. These are ones that grow tall and have strong stems, I can grab the bit that grows up through all the other foliage and pull the whole thing up from the roots without the stem breaking off - makes weeding a whole lot easier. While on the subject of weeds, I'd love to know how it is that even though I go round on a regular basis, that there are some weeds that grow to huge proportions without me noticing? All of a sudden there's one that's about half my height (and I'm not a midget) where a couple of days earlier, I was sure there was nothing there - They're growing fast at the moment - keep the hoe or your weeding bucket moving.

    It's not difficult really... - There's nothing like spring and early summer to make gardening seem easy. The main reason that people fail their plants is that they leave them for too long so they starve, die of thirst or get beaten up by the natives (plants, insects and diseases). Reasonable results can be achieved easily with a bit of regular effort. If you want your garden to look good with minimal effort, then go with the flow, don't grow what won't grow easily and don't dream up with hard work schemes such as of collections of containers that need to be changed regularly, extensive perennial borders, or ornamental ponds.

If you want a garden with regular seasonal interest from ever changing seasonal bedding plants or you want to grow difficult to obtain (grow from seed) or fussy plants, then expect to make more effort and / or acquire more knowledge.

Many years ago when I was learning to drive I had one particularly rubbish lesson, the instructor obviously aware of my exasperation with myself pointed out some little old lady heading confidently off across a roundabout where I was sitting waiting nervously. "If she can do it, then so can you". The same applies to gardening, anyone can have an admirable garden, it only becomes more difficult when you expect it to happen with minimal effort or you expect to be able to dictate to Mother Nature against her wishes.

Rain gods

In ancient times, people performed rain dances - they did it a lot - and sometimes the rain gods were impressed and sometimes they weren't, mostly they weren't, but when they were they made it rain. As we passed from ancient times to donkey's years ago, to longer than your great granny could even remember, to your vague recollection of the oldest person you knew as a child mentioning it once, to the present day, the rain gods became more and more neglected. Rain dances became rarer and the rain gods sadder.

Then one day, we chanced upon the perfect rain dance. Not only was it presented perfectly, but the greatest champions from around the world were brought together to perform it, they and only they were permitted to perform - the gods were pleased, nay, the gods were ecstatic.

The only thing is that the beneficiaries of the rain dance did not recognise the value of what they had created and sometimes cursed the rain gods. The "Great and Good" cursed the rain gods most of all and they were most inconvenienced, though the common people were inconvenienced the least and benefited the most. The gods liked this aspect greatly.

The rain dance was given a name, it was called "Wimbledon Fortnight".

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