Pumpkins, squashes and gourds have enjoyed rather wet conditions this October. These striking fruits (strictly speaking, berries) are not for the faint-hearted but the recent surge in their popularity is no doubt thanks to their combination of vibrant colour, exuberant vigour and extraordinary shape. The fact that the smaller ones and those with bushier growth will fit into small gardens must widen their appeal. Pumpkins, squashes and gourds are tender annuals, most of which come from three species of Cucurbita: pepo, maxima and moschata. They are native to the warmer parts of the Americas, especially Mexico, where they have been grown since 7,000 BC. Their willingness to interbreed has given rise to many cultivars and for centuries they have been cropped commercially, particularly in the United States and France. Most have trailing stems as well as large, lobed, sandpapery leaves, though the shape differs depending on the original species. And all have yellow flowers with male and female carried separately on the same plant. Where pumpkins end and squashes start is not clear cut. One indicator is that pumpkins are yellow or orange and round whereas squashes come in many wonderful colours and shapes. In layman's terms they fall into four groups: summer squashes, such as pattypans and crooknecks, as well as courgettes, none of which store for long; autumn squashes, such as marrows and vegetable spaghetti (so-called because its flesh comes away in strands), which last in good condition for a couple of months; winter squashes, which store for up to a year and include both pumpkins and butternuts; and ornamental gourds, which are grown for their looks, although several, such as the tiny 'Jack-be-Little' and the wonderful 'Turk's Turban', are also edible. These can be dried and used for decoration, lasting for many months in good condition. Bottle gourds, named after their flask-like shape, are derived from Lagenaria siceraria and have white flowers but are not edible. In countries such as Peru they are often intricately decorated. The fruit can be quite smooth, ridged or as warty as an old toad; they can be green, turning orange with age, or any other colour from red to white, greyish-blue or almost black. And striped. Size ranges from a 1.5lb 'Baby Boo' to 'Atlantic Giant', which has weighed in at more than 1,000lbs. Caroline Boisset is a long-time devotee. A trained horticulturist and author who lives in the East Midlands, she became hooked years ago, by chance, after she bought a single packet of seed of 'Rouge Vif d'Etampes' while visiting her parents near Paris. The plan had been to use them as groundcover in her new kitchen garden. But the orange pumpkins grew so well that she began asking friends and family to bring back new seed from their travels to the US, France and Australia. In 1995, she won a Gold Medal for her display at the RHS. Caroline grows about 20 different cultivars each year but, all told, the tally is 100. She sows pumpkin seed in a cold greenhouse, never earlier than April, two to a 6in pot in garden compost, with the seed on edge, and protects them against mice. She plants out the seedlings immediately the frosts are over into well prepared and fertilised soil. She plants seven to a 7ft by 14ft plot and they flower in three to four weeks. This is the moment to keep them well-watered, with a weekly foliar feed; if they dry out, growth stops. They set fruit themselves and often spontaneously drop surplus flowers. When the trailing stems encroach on the path, she turns them back towards the plant. In October a slight frost often melts the leaves, leaving the fat pumpkins sitting on the ground. She cuts them with a handle (a bit of stem) attached, brings them in to a light, north-facing conservatory to cure completely, then stores them in an airy pantry. This way they should keep long enough to try out most of the delicious sounding recipes in her book. Caroline Boisset's recommendations
I started working with Caryn Hibbert, founder of Thyme at Southrop, Gloucestershire, back in 2008. I helped Caryn with the design of her own garden and then the cookery school garden. I quickly realised Caryn was no ordinary person. Previously she had worked as an obstetrician and gynaecologist then, with three children under three, she moved into philanthropic work and helped to raise funds to build a children’s’ hospices. Her next move was to Southrop, where her creativity began to bloom. Having acquired a stunning Cotswold manor house and a range of barns and outbuildings, Caryn decided to develop them into a “village within a village”. Creating this unique place, more lifestyle than hotel, has been her passion and focus for more than 10 years. The beautifully converted buildings sit within 150 acres of farmland, including beautiful water meadows, acres of grazing Welsh black mountain sheep, bees, an extensive orchard and a large kitchen garden. The ethos of the Ox Barn restaurant in the 19th-century former oxen house is local food using that day’s ingredients. Head chef Charlie Hibbert, Caryn’s son, helpfully tips me off to great veg varieties that he is using. Camilla, Caryn’s daughter, is helping to develop the retail and marketing. Green and edible
When we bought our house in 1976, I couldn’t tell an oak from an ash. Growing up in South Africa, my only gardening memories are of my nanny saving her night-time pee to pour, diluted, on to the veg patch, and of my dad, shirtless in the blazing sun, mowing the lawn with a tiny, motorless mower. The smell of newly cut grass and the clack and whirr of the rotary blade still comes back to me 70 years on. And I remember my mother’s pride in her English mulberry tree, which produced more flavoursome berries than the African mulberry that grew in front of the house and which could shelter half a dozen cars under its massive branches. In autumn, mulberries carpeted the floor, staining our bare feet black. I didn’t get the gardening bug until we’d been in our Cotswold house for 10 years or so. In that time, I learnt little and cared less. Which is just as well, as those were the years when the front lawn was for cricket or football and when dogs, hens and children wrecked what flower beds we had. I did grow veg and flowers for my restaurant business, but this was strictly business. Straight rows of produce, much of which would be rejected by our chefs, who preferred carrots to be uniformly straight and free of soil and carrot-fly damage. In the 1970s it was almost impossible to buy mangetout peas, baby cauliflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac, French tarragon, courgettes with the flowers attached or ‘Marmande’ tomatoes. So we tried to grow them. We also grew flowers, which I’d wake early to pick. My husband would drive them to London while I drove the children to school.
Naturally enough, everyone’s attention is focused right now on Covid-19, but it’s worth remembering that other pandemics are available. You may be happy if your garden has the space for a big tree, but given the apocalyptic headlines about ash dieback, you may be less happy if that tree is an ash. However, research published in the Journal of Ecology offers cause for mild optimism. From 2012 to 2018, researchers monitored the progress of the disease in an area of about 23 square kilometres in northern France, around the village of Champenoux near the city of Nancy. The area included a couple of large tracts of woodland, together with areas of agricultural land with scattered hedges and small woods, plus the village itself. In the large woods, ash was usually present at low density, along with oak and hornbeam, while many of the small woods were pure ash. Ash dieback was first reported in France in 2008, and observed for the first time in the study area in 2010. By 2012, two years later, ash dieback was observed throughout the study area, with three quarters of trees showing at least limited symptoms. Clearly, the disease had no trouble spreading among the many ash trees present, which is hardly surprising, given the extremely effective airborne dispersal of its spores. But the researchers were surprised by what happened next. Many trees went on to develop severe symptoms, with large amounts of canopy dieback, but almost all of these badly affected trees were in woodlands, and serious stem cankers in particular were largely confined to woodland trees. Trees out in the open, many of them in hedgerows, generally did not develop serious symptoms. The question is: why not? A small part of the answer was the presence of other ash trees; those close to many other ash trees tended to develop more serious symptoms than those mixed up with other trees. But a much more important factor appeared to be climate.
As with all trends, someone distinctly uncool always has to come along and mess it up. And so it was when photos of Matt Hancock circulated on social media last month, which featured the Health Secretary wearing – in place of his usual pale shirt and pink tie – a blue drill workwear jacket. Some Twitter users saw it as the death knell for the jacket, which had been enjoying a hipsterish following for the past couple of years. “Oh well,” said one, “it was a good look while it lasted.” And yet for gardeners, this staple remains a cool-weather must have, and nothing Mr Hancock does will change that.
We live in a society where, to some, appearance is everything. In our quest for perfection, pristine green lawns and neat borders are the norm and anything that doesn’t fit that vision is tidied away. Personally, though, I prefer the rustic look, with areas of overgrown shrubs, trees edging ever closer to the sun and lawns with blooms of dandelions and clovers bursting through. These so-called “messy” areas are vitally important, and provide a huge amount of habitat for a range of different species. They also allow us to be more laid-back in our gardening and let nature move in. In my garden, we have hawthorn trees surrounded by sycamores and holly. While this could end up being a big pruning and manicuring job each year, instead we just trim a bit off the tops of the trees to keep them healthy and to allow the border to flourish. Having these natural areas provides a home for invertebrates and mammals, and over time, as denser growth develops, leads to an increase in the diversity of wildlife in your garden, especially birds. The charismatic willow tit is the fastest-declining resident bird species in the UK, with numbers dropping by 94 per cent between 1970 and 2012, largely because of habitat loss. Willow tits favour the “messy” damp thorny shrubs that are often cleared in favour of “neater” habitats, and they love the dense vegetation of brambles, hawthorns, blackthorns and birches. This tiny bird has now been listed by the Government as one of 100 priority species whose habitat needs to be regenerated as soon as possible. It is now believed they need seven times more habitat than conservationists had originally thought, so garden habitats are very important. Willow tits will excavate their own nesting holes using rotting willow and birch and use the discarded wood chippings as the lining for the base of their nests. Many gardeners, however, are quick to remove any sign of rotting trees, which often don’t fit in with our idea of perfection, yet leaving just a few of these decaying trees could help reverse the bird’s decline. In your garden, have a think about where you could create spaces for wildlife. Is there an unloved corner you would like to improve? If so, think what else you could do with the space – consider planting some natives, such as brambles or hawthorns, that will fill in those vegetation gaps in borders. Brambles, with their determination to colonise, are often frowned upon, but I love sitting next to them and listening to the buzz of bees, or watching wrens and common whitethroats jumping from branch to branch. If you have a damp or boggy garden, consider planting willow scrubs such as grey willow, bay willow or downy birch, which all look fantastic. Instead of removing messy areas and brambles, we should celebrate the life that they bring. Let your garden go a little – the birds will thank you for it. Dan Rouse’s new book, How to Attract Birds to Your Garden, will be published on Oct 15 (DK, £16.99).
Back in February, Frida Kim, one of London’s most sought-after floral designers, was already fully booked until October with commissions for dinners, parties and private events across the city and beyond. By late March all of those jobs, like those of almost all of the country’s event florists, were cancelled. Luckily, she also has several private clients, and was able to work alone, beautifying houses with her soulful displays that seem to sit somewhere between floristry and decorative art. “I am always checking for harmony and elegance,” says Kim, who often uses just one branch or stem rising up from an elegant bowl. “Sometimes when I see one really beautiful single stem it can speak about our current situation – you can’t show off, you can’t go anywhere, there is all this worry about the whole world.” It’s a metaphor that over the summer months seemed to come to life when she began sharing mesmerising films on Instagram of floating stems of old man’s beard, dried ferns or billowing grasses that would move gently on the breeze of a nearby window or person passing by. Kim grew up in South Korea and worked as a jewellery designer before moving to the UK in 2012 and becoming seduced by flowers. Her light-bulb moment happened during a winter visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden. “I fell in love with the English winter garden that day – because we don’t have that in Korea,” she says. “Back home winter is all white. I got a real shock with these beautiful naked trees, all the fronds of plants and the hydrangeas – especially the hydrangeas.” She retrained as a florist and is now part of a growing cohort of florists who draw on ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, creating sculptural displays that are a world apart from the more-is-more Western floral arrangements that have, in various styles, dominated the past few decades. Even if you’re not familiar with ikebana, it’s very likely that you’ve felt its influence in the precise arrangements of artfully placed branches, in the ethereal installations of cloudlike blooms and the minimalistic displays that have been scattered through social media, shop windows and the pages of interiors magazines over the past couple of years. Although it’s a diverse school, without one definitive style or one set of rules, its guiding principles have chimed with a new generation of florists who share ikebana’s deeply considered and highly stylised approach, its sense of harmony, its boundary-pushing embrace of different mediums but, perhaps most of all, its reverence for the natural world.
For somebody who finds clover more beautiful than grass, it follows that the presence of a mole in the garden is met with interest, rather than despair. Clearly, my patch contains the cycle of life. Moles eat leatherjackets, chafer grubs and other larvae under the lawn – while their powerful shoulders and paddle-like hands aerate the heavy clay, fertilising it and tossing up friable soil. They in turn are preyed on when very young by tawny owls, who also keep the rodent population down. A patch of grass where the mole hill has been scraped away is the perfect place to sow clover. However – I live with a grass enthusiast, whose response to our only mole incident was a sonic mole repeller. Soon, mole hills appeared in the sheep field over the hedge. With moles, you have a choice: persuade them to move along, or kill them. I realise now that we were simply passing the buck to the shepherd. Moles are not good for cud-chewing animals; they dig up bacteria naturally present in soil, causing listeriosis, particularly in silage. Added to this, mole hills trip animals. William of Orange died when his horse stumbled over a pile of earth, breaking his collarbone, followed by fatal pneumonia. Even now, certain groups toast “the little gentleman in the velvet waistcoat” and its notoriety persists. “I kill moles because they’re a bloody nuisance,” says our local catcher, in rural Leicestershire. He operates mainly on farms and at the village sports club. He relies on the scissor or “French” trap – which would be better if it was a guillotine, rather than a chest-crushing box that activates two spikes. These traps need to be checked every day in case the animal is not killed immediately. An alternative is death by drowning, he suggests, with a gushing hosepipe. This doesn’t always work, as moles are excellent swimmers (hooray). “Moles will go anywhere with wet ground and worms,” the mole catcher says. For gardeners who care about their garden’s soil health, let alone a sense of formality, mole activity seems a poor trade-off. “What really gets me is when they go down the edge of the lawn,” says the head gardener at Coton Manor in Northamptonshire, Richard Green. “The grass collapses where the tunnels have been, so it gets very uneven. People could twist their ankles.” Moles are a health and safety issue for gardens that rely on visitors. For 40 years, Green has been battling with a mole called Gerald, named after the John Le Carré character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. With every successful trapping, another mole pops up, in a real-life version of whack-a-mole. Coton Manor is not only immaculate but accommodating, with Mille Fleur d’Uccle bantams wandering around the borders, and flamingos by the stream. When asked for the mole’s ranking in a pantheon of pests, Green puts it fourth after rabbits, squirrels and mice. “In the kitchen garden, they’ll come along and rootle up all your shallots, as soon as you’ve planted them,” he says, laughing. “They know where a seed drill is.” At a large private garden in Wiltshire that is certified organic and run on biodynamic lines, the sudden appearance of mole hills on the striped lawn can be a little awkward for the head gardener, whose job it is to remove them. Phylip Statner, of Hazelbury Manor, does not get too worried: “It’s so rare that they’re an issue.” Recently, a velvet visitor was asked to leave. Addressing a mole hill, Statner used the following tone: “Now come on. I could do with a bit of help here; you’ll need to move somewhere else.” To his surprise – and everyone else’s – the mole has not been seen since.
Gardens are at the top of the wishlist for many home buyers in the current property boom, and so it follows that many movers will find themselves with a larger plot or, perhaps, some outdoor space for the first time. Non-movers, meanwhile, have realised this year how important it is to improve any outdoor space they have. But if you’ve never gardened before, or have a blank canvas in front of you, how do you begin? Six years ago, when I moved back to the Suffolk coast after two decades living in London flats, I was in a similar position. Suddenly I had a large garden and adjoining field – a three-acre space that was a tantalising opportunity for a total novice with grandiose plans and almost zero horticultural knowledge. The learning curve was steep, the calls and texts to my friend Derren, a hugely experienced gardener, were relentless and there were innumerable errors along the way. Very early on I sketched out a plan – it has evolved as I have changed as a gardener, but it gave me a solid idea of how my garden could look. I started off small, with two large beds on either side of a newly installed terrace and planted roses, clematis, hardy geraniums, iris, nepeta and lupins, cottagey plants that were anchored with box balls and hebes. Then, each year, I’d add another section of the garden – a long double border with lots of structural plants, a gravel garden in a sun-baked, exposed south-facing spot and, most recently and still bedding in, an avenue of ornamental pear trees edged with a copper beach hedge and underplanted with a succession of blue and apricot flowers. I went on a lot of study days and garden visits – by far the quickest and most effective way to get ideas and understand what works. I learnt how to propagate – growing from seed and cuttings and dividing plants is the cheapest way to add to bulk up your borders – and I nurtured self-seeders that would do that work for me too. What have I learnt doing all of this? Get your soil right and you will reap the rewards. Digging in lots of organic matter at the outset will make the world of difference to your garden’s overall health and vitality. Use peat-free compost, well-rotted manure or mushroom compost – if your soil is poor and dry it will help it retain moisture and make it more nutrient-rich; if you garden on clay it will help with drainage.
Two years ago, when I started transforming my garden to make it better for wildlife, I planted Hedera helix (common ivy) along the base of the north-facing fence. It hasn’t grown much yet but I have visions of lush green walls alive with nesting birds, buzzing bees, flies and countless other insects, and of not being able to see the edges of the garden. It will probably take five years before the fences are covered; another 10 before the ivy flowers. Still, the wait will be worth it. Because ivy is amazing. Yet it’s almost universally hated by gardeners and homeowners alike. A self-clinging climber with a voracious growth habit once established, its reputation for damaging walls and fences is unparalleled. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told how awful ivy is, how it’s nothing but trouble and will destroy my house and fences. How it’s an ugly weed, how it strangles trees, how it’s full of spiders, how it will form an easy-access ladder for burglars to climb into my home (really). It’s an ivy horror show out there. I’m amazed we allow it to grow anywhere at all. Ivy is amazing. As a wildlife gardener, I couldn’t be without ivy as it’s used by so many species. On fences and walls it provides nesting habitats for birds and general shelter for anything else, including hibernating butterflies, pupating hoverflies and, yes – I won’t lie to you – spiders. Its autumn flowers provide a late source of nectar and pollen for pollinators – you can often hear the buzz of insects on ivy before you see it. Its berries provide sustenance for birds right at the end of winter, when they need to get into shape for breeding. Its leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly and moths including the double-striped pug and willow beauty. It’s versatile: grown vertically, ivy takes up little space and helps blend your garden with its surroundings. Grown as ground cover it suppresses weeds or bare soil where little else grows. You can keep ivy closely trimmed so it looks lush and glossy or let it mature so it flowers and fruits. It’s easy to propagate and it’s cheap as chips. And yet. It’s not just wildlife that benefits from ivy. More and more about this incredible climber is uncovered all the time. A decade ago, scientists at Oxford University concluded that ivy actually protects buildings rather than damages them. That a thick layer of ivy leaves acts as a “thermal shield” on houses, insulating brickwork from temperature extremes and moisture that can cause cracks. Plant ivy against an already cracked wall and its adventitious roots will find them and cause problems. But plant ivy against a good, sturdy wall and the wall will live longer as a result. Other studies show ivy reduces air pollution, with one Birmingham trial proving that metal trellises of ivy planted along a main road absorbed polluting particulates that might otherwise exacerbate asthma and other breathing difficulties. And now a joint study conducted by the RHS and the University of Reading has shown that ivy is “the most effective plant cover for cooling buildings during hot months”. Looking at climbing plants to assess how effective they were at cooling buildings in summer, the study found that ivy is not only the best plant for reducing internal building temperatures in summer but also reduces humidity throughout the year, presumably making conditions more comfortable in summer and less likely to cause damp issues in winter. In the fight against climate change, polluted cities and the loss of biodiversity, we should be planting more ivy, letting it cover our fences, houses, even blocks of flats. Imagine how green, clean, cool and buzzing our towns and cities would be, how nicer our lives would be, if we just grew ivy. Spread the word: ivy is amazing.
On a recent visit to my sister’s house in Somerset, my brother-in-law asked if I could suggest some plants for their front garden. He had just dug up the parched, patchy lawn and was in the throes of creating a dry, gravel garden. I dread being asked this question. I might write about plants, but it doesn’t follow that I have a designer’s flair for planting combinations. Nevertheless, in our post-lockdown world, where an opportunity to spontaneously ‘“pop out” still feels like a thrilling novelty, I jumped at the chance to accompany him to a new local nursery in search of inspiration. Located in Horsington on the edge of the Blackmore Vale, Blooming Wild is conveniently a mile or so from my sister’s village, and, for those who don’t live in the vicinity, it’s a mere 10 minutes from the A303 – in other words, a quick detour if you’re travelling to or from Devon or Cornwall. I must admit, I wasn’t expecting much; after all it’s nearing the end of the season and I’m well aware of the difficulties nurseries and garden centres have faced as a result of Covid-19. However, it didn’t take long to realise my brother-in-law has a complete gem on his doorstep. Rather than the usual assortment of seasonal blooms you might find in a small independent set-up, the plants looked carefully curated. So much so, as my eye wandered over the nursery bays filled with perennials and grasses, it gave the impression of a beautiful planting scheme with drifts of veronicastrum, echinacea and persicaria weaving among calamagrostis, deschampsia and pennisetum. This seemed a bold move (the selection of plants might not be everyone’s cup of tea), but to my mind it is extremely helpful from a customer’s point of view because it’s then easy to get a sense of how the plants will work together in our own gardens. With some relief, I told my brother-in-law to pick out seven or eight different plants he liked, (we could fine-tune the choice later), while I headed off to find the owners, Lauren and Will Holley.
The change from summer to autumn seems to happen overnight in the garden. One day everything is vibrant, leafy and floriferous, the next it’s muted and cold. This year’s autumn is early – the RHS reported early autumn leaf colour and ripening apples up to two weeks sooner than usual, due to “mixed, extreme weather conditions”. I don’t blame the trees for wanting to shut down early this year, I would too if I could. But the leaves of my Morello cherry tree started yellowing in August, which was a bit much, even by 2020’s standards. I’m a terrible autumn pessimist, forever teased by “autumn markers”. I start grumbling when the swifts leave. Soon afterwards the tits and finches start gathering in flocks again, while the starlings take to the rooftops to whistle and whoop before heading to Brighton Pier for the first murmurations of the season. The sedums bloom while summer plants seed and disappear. Then all it takes is one cool morning and whoosh! Hello autumn. I cheer myself up by getting on with “autumn jobs” and planning for spring. I buy things to plant: autumn-planting garlic and onions for the allotment, spring-flowering bulbs for the garden. I plant bare-root shrubs and trees – I have a mixed native hedge to finish this year. I sort my compost heaps out, taking care to do this before it gets cold and animals need them for hibernation. I sieve and spread the compost on the borders to return nutrients, bacteria and fungi to the soil before creating new heaps with the remaining waste, for next year. Other areas of the garden are mulched with last year’s leaf mould, which I collect from street elms in Brighton and Hove. Elm leaves make the best leaf mould, breaking down into a decent mulch in just 12 months. I divide plants and move shrubs. I buy seeds. Collect more elm leaves. As a wildlife gardener, I’m also careful to ensure insects and other wild species living in my garden and allotment make it through winter. I’m selective about the seed heads I cut down so goldfinches have something to eat besides the sunflower hearts in my feeders. I pile sticks and clippings at the back of borders so insects, amphibians and small mammals can take shelter. I leave areas of grass long so caterpillars and beetles can hunker down in the thatch. I try not to be too tidy – there’s no point getting all your jobs done if it means destroying homes for wildlife. Some things can wait until spring. Hedgehogs will soon be looking for autumn hibernacula. Just yesterday I removed old bedding from my hedgehog box, cleaned it out and filled it with fresh hay. I left a trail camera out the night before so I could make sure there were no hedgehogs in there when I opened it. Hedgehogs need to be snug in winter and not disturbed. The hogs tend to use my box as “spring digs”, they’ve not nested or hibernated in there yet – I have crossed fingers for a winter resident. I’ll leave water and food out for them until it’s no longer taken, and keep the cameras out so I can keep an eye out for those that need help. Autumn is a tricky time for hedgehogs, as they need to be big enough to hibernate. Tiny hedgehogs or those out during the day should be taken to a rescue centre. Once my jobs are done, I’ll distract myself with migrant birds for a few weeks before my spring markers start appearing. It won’t be long before the daffodils start poking their leaves though the soil.
With our erratic weather consisting of an exotic medley of droughts and deluges, it seems that the best way to help your plants and garden is to get the soil in good shape. Talking to Tim O’Hare, a soil scientist who works all over the world, advising on soils from Wisley to Oman via the Olympic Parks, it seems current research on soil management, in gardening terms, turns a lot of perceived wisdom on its head. I cannot remember the number of times I have heard gardeners being recommended to dig a massive deep trench when planting a hedge and fill with good soil and well-rotted manure. And, when planting big trees, to take out metre-deep pits, again to be filled with topsoil and manure. But putting topsoil into a depth greater than 30-40cm when planting anything is detrimental. Soil needs air, and it gets starved of oxygen, becomes anaerobic, below this depth: the aerobic bacteria die off and anaerobic bacteria develop. These anaerobic bacteria produce methane and ammonia, which give rise to toxic conditions. The tree roots become short of oxygen, they cannot take up food and water and so they suffocate. Instead, O’Hare recommends just using topsoil for the top 30-40cm when planting. Only dig as deep as you need to accommodate the plant’s roots, or the tree’s rootball. The more you dig soil, the more you ruin the structure, and it is far easier to dig the minimal amount. Digging disrupts the all-important top 70-100mm, which contains the valuable microorganisms, mainly bacteria and fungi, and digging reduces the precious population of earthworms. When O’Hare was supervising the planting of huge trees at the Olymic Park, trees with trunks 60-100cm in circumference, they filled the lower portion of the pits with compaction-resistant subsoils or washed sands and the topsoil was limited to the top 30-40cm.
Every week, Telegraph gardening expert Helen Yemm gives tips and advice on all your gardening problems whether at home or on the allotment. If you have a question, see below for how to contact her. For most of us lucky ones, memories of the extremes of lockdown are, I suspect, starting to blur. Meanwhile, its effects on our homes (much culling, clearing, bagging and boxing-up of the evidence of decades of shopaholism went on in mine) and on our life/garden styles may be starting to filter into our gardens. With the arrival of autumn and the lurking anxiety of more lockdowns, I want to act while fair weather permits, rethinking and simplifying, even culling no-hopers or giving a shrub or two new and improved quarters. Hence a few paragraphs this week on how to move a sizeable shrub successfully – for those who didn’t realise they could. September is a good time. It is lovely to work while light levels are high and the soil still warm. With hopefully a month or two before any really harsh weather kicks in, transplantees should bed-in well. Take your time and do things in a sensible order, described below. Very large subjects may also need to be pruned by half or more first, making them less vulnerable and more manageable (even though flowering may be poor or nonexistent next year). How to make planting hole for shrubs
It can be easy for one to be envious walking around the parks as they turn from green to crimson, but it's easier than you think to create your own paradise in autumn, right behind your back door. Picking and choosing trees for mid-season colour is a job best done in August and September (if you're buying, that is). The Japanese maple, for instance, is a group of small, deciduous trees, which are perfectly happy to grow in large containers in smaller gardens. Make sure to fill tubs with loam-based compost, such as John Innes No 2 and keep the soil moist. A slow-release fertiliser or liquid feed is also a good idea in spring. Transplant Japanese maples into bigger tubs every year or so – April/September is the best time to do this. Make sure to cover or wrap the pots in winter, as the roots can be susceptible to frost. Japanese maples thrive best in slightly acidic, well-drained loam. This is easy to achieve in pots, however if you do not have this soil at home, they might be a little trickier to grow. Make sure to plant them in sheltered area, with some sun. Common beech (Fagus sylvatica) Perfect for…large gardens
Usually when people come over, I tell them to bring ‘just themselves’ and hope for a bottle. The other weekend, though, I had a more specific plea for friends: cuttings from their abundant rosemary bush. There was a rather sad one languishing in the dry, clay-soil beds in my garden that I’d whipped out and put in a pot as part of the Grand Garden Regeneration Plan. It was a kill or cure move, admittedly, and three weeks later little had been cured. I needed more rosemary. Now is a good time for it. The summer’s growth of woody Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary (but also sage and thyme) have had a chance to toughen up, but there’s still enough growing hormone in the plant. Horticulturally known as ‘semi-ripe’, I tend to think of them as teenage – fertile and still growing. But September is also a sensible time to get propagating because you can take cuttings of all those more tender plants that may not make it through the winter: salvias, pelargoniums, lavender. In short, if you’ve loved it this summer, take and plant cuttings. They are, essentially, free plants. Back to the rosemary: our dinner guests brought a large, spiky tote bag full. They’re not gardeners, but made up for whatever inexperience in finding a good cutting in sheer quantity. In a perfect world, especially if you’re cutting and propagating on a warm afternoon, it’s best to get the cuttings into a sandwich bag and then into a pot as soon as possible, rather than abandon the lot on the garden table and fix everyone drinks. For a cutting to have the best chance of taking – or rooting and growing – it’s important not to let it dry out. A good cutting will be growing upwards, not be flowering and come from a healthy plant. Stick to the green, or bendy, growth – you don’t want to be cutting into the woody stuff – and give yourself a decent amount to work with. A good three or four inches will do. Depending on whether you’ve carefully snipped this off with sharpened secateurs or swiftly yanked it from the neighbour’s bush, you may need to tidy up your cutting with a sharp knife. A good, clean edge helps with rooting. Leave the leaves at the top of the cutting intact, but gently strip away any on the stem, which will focus the cutting’s attention on growing roots, rather than improving its foliage, and allow more room to anchor it in the pot. Grab the nearest plastic pot going – 9-12cm is ideal – and fill it with something free-draining: I used soil mixed with a generous handful of grit. You can use perlite or sand, too. Carefully push your cuttings around the edges of the pot, where they tend to root better than in the middle, and keep the whole thing moist. If you’ve got a propagator, then pop them in there, otherwise that sandwich bag can be placed on top as long as condensation isn’t allowed to build up; too much of it and those babies could rot. Within a few weeks they’ll be rooted – a check under the pot will show roots through the holes – and you can pot them on. Alice is the author of ‘Rootbound, Rewilding a Life’ (Canongate, £14.99) and you can follow her on Instagram here. Read more: Composting is the gift that keeps on giving - but only if you do it right How to grow happy houseplants Have you used cuttings to grow your own plants? Tell us your top tips in the comments section below
Every week, Telegraph gardening expert Helen Yemm gives tips and advice on all your gardening problems whether at home or on the allotment. If you have a question, see below for how to contact her. I am writing as the first salvos of what seems to be an early start to the now anticipated autumnal battle with the elements have left my last-legs hollyhocks leaning at 10-past-two and massed cosmos, planted on my allotment for picking, flat on their beautiful faces. While felled flowers are of little consequence in the scheme of things, I am moved to address the subject of gearing gardens up for a windy winter. Here are my thoughts: Trees, young and old Trees obviously whip around alarmingly when they are in full leaf, as they are now. Most important are the youngsters, under two years old, which may still be reliant on the stakes that were inserted when they were planted. These should now have their support ties adjusted so that they do not chafe or constrict. This is also a reminder to those who have large old forest trees on their property, that a lofty cladding of ivy makes tree canopies top-heavy, even when leafless in winter. It is therefore good practice to keep ivy out of tall trees. Large and unruly bush roses These may have roots that are quite small relative to their bulk, and can suffer from “wind-rock”. Check their stability now (and firm them down with your boot if necessary). Later in the autumn, cut out some of the height/weight to make them less vulnerable. Rambling roses They should have made masses of long new shoots that thrash around in the wind unless anchored down. Cut any superfluous ones, not forgetting that this year’s shoots will bear the best of next year’s flowers. Climbers Check that trellises, obelisks and such are firmly anchored and that the plants they support are well tied in. Late-flowering clematis whose performance is well and truly over (and for which February hard pruning is the norm) can be cut back now, to be revisited with the secateurs in spring. Give wisteria its second cut and trim evergreen scramblers (for example, vigorous Trachelospermum and ornamental ivies) just enough to keep them clear of gutters. Young hedges Planted to become protective windbreaks themselves, they will benefit from protective artificial windbreak of their own for their first year (see premiernetting.co.uk). New fences Commonly available slatted fencing (that lets through the wind while scarcely compromising privacy) takes a battering better than solid fencing. Also, on the subject of privacy: fences and trellises to be adorned with climbers or used as a backdrop for tall shrubs really do not need to be above eye-height, since the plants themselves do the rest of the job. Of course, this is just the tip of an iceberg. Most gardeners have a boring maintenance checklist involving niggles with gutters, downpipes, gates, greenhouses and suchlike. We should aim to tick things off it during whatever Indian summer we may hopefully be about to have. From where I am sitting as I write, with wind howling and rain streaming down the window, there seems to be no sign of such a thing. Bring out the kitchen fork
When does adulthood begin? Is it your 18th or 21st birthday, or when you move out, start a career, get married or have children? I’m not sure what my marker is, but, at 28, I know I’m still some way off. During the lockdown, however, I came the closest I have yet come to feeling like an adult. Why? I started looking after plants. There have long been pot plants on our balcony, but this year I took up the protectoral mantle. In April, I bartered with neighbours for the El Dorado of compost, emptied old pots, resurrected winter-beaten perennials, carefully germinated (often unsuccessfully) tomatoes, chillies and peas, and watched (some of) them grow. I regularly checked the weather forecast before bed, surely a sign of early-onset middle age. It seems I’m not alone. Interest in gardening has spiked among people in their twenties and early thirties since the UK was plunged into hibernation. For months, many were confined to their houses, with outdoor activity limited. Those working from home suddenly had time to kill, conveniently coinciding with spring. People lucky enough to have gardens spent more time in them; others were drawn to balconies or indoor plants. Research by ao.com has found that 66 per cent of millennials had more time to garden during the lockdown. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, visits to its website are up 533 per cent year-on-year among 18-24 year-olds; for the 25-34 category, clicks rose by 123 per cent. Its virtual Chelsea Flower Show received 2.1 million visitors; 28 per cent were under 35. Conversely, the charity estimates that only one per cent of visitors to last year’s regular event were aged 16-24, rising to six per cent for 25-34. The ao.com poll says 62 per cent of lockdown gardeners found it vital for their well-being. For the RHS’s director of science, Professor Alistair Griffiths, this isn’t surprising. “There’s a lot of evidence around mental health and gardening. There’s a number of things it ties into. It provides an element of control, it helps restore the mind and there’s the physical exercise aspect.”
The last of summer days are fizzling away but not without a final flourish. Ripe tomatoes jostle for space on vines, and corn, tender and bursting with colour, is starting to emerge from its green blanket to be barbecued or roasted. In September, there might be hot days that require a t-shirt and soft drink; while some mornings will be spent in a light jumper, trimming wilting roses and picking the last of the summer soft fruit. There is still plenty of time to enjoy the abundance of the lighter months, but now is the time to think about change-over jobs. Take a look at the list below for some inspiration. Ripen tomatoes
This is where I emulate one of those personality quizzes from a teen magazine: Have you potted on your houseplants this year? If yes, please click away, and enjoy your weekend. If no, read on. I’m going to suggest something a little out-of-season, but bear with me. If you’ve not potted them on yet, this is the last chance to get to the garden centre and crack on with some belated houseplant husbandry. A disclosure: the traditional time to upgrade your houseplant pots is usually around April, when the days are lengthening and a new boost of space and nutrient-rich soil can encourage a surge of growth as houseplants wake up from winter dormancy. But getting compost in April was as difficult as getting flour. Lockdown encouraged a new-found fascination with gardening, and everyone scrambled for seeds and soil as a result. Throw in the fact there’s been a global pandemic and, in my case, the usual annual late-running of such tasks, and my houseplants remain firmly in last year’s pots. So why do we pot them on? It’s the equivalent of a trip to Clarks with the imminent arrival of the new school year. Happy, healthy plants can swiftly become root-bound in too-small pots, which makes it more difficult for them to take up nutrients or water from the soil. With autumn arriving in three weeks, and the clocks going back in eight (sorry), that gives us two months to break in those new shoes before shorter days see dormancy set in. It’s a simple and satisfying job. I like to gather all of mine from the various places in the house, often clucking over the forgotten ones on top of shelves in the bathroom, and lay them out on a table – if this is inside, put down newspaper. Everyone gets a good drink, because they have been struggling through a hot, dry, summer and potting on with dry soil is messy and stressful for the plant. Then the inspection begins. You’re looking for plants that have roots poking out of the holes in the bottom of their pots. Others, with more shallow root balls, may just look tight against the rim of the pot. Then begins the game of pot roulette: often, those at the smallest end of the scale will end up graduating into another’s recently vacated pot. Otherwise, you’ll need to pick up a few more – I like terracotta, for classic style and porosity. Whatever you get, make sure it has a hole in the bottom for drainage. It’s crucial that the new pot is no more than a couple of centimetres larger than the plant’s current one – any bigger than that and you’ll be surrounding it with too much fresh, wet compost that can rot the roots. A layer of hydroleca balls or gravel at the bottom will improve drainage and save on soil, and try to retain as much of the existing soil around the root ball as possible. If roots are looking black or mouldy, chop them off. Once it’s in, pat down firmly into the new soil. Water well, leave somewhere bright and feel satisfied you’ve finally got around to it. Alice is the author of ‘Rootbound, Rewilding a Life’ (Canongate, £14.99) and you can follow her on Instagram here. Read more: How to holiday-proof your garden What is your recipe to grow happy houseplants? Share your tips in the comments section.