Garden tools – time for a tidy up that will help others!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 28 October 2016.

It is half term here and the last chance to encourage older children to help in the garden: collecting leaves for compost (and fun) and, if it rains, tidying the garden shed to sort out garden tools that can help others or need TLC. Tempt them – a tidy shed now can make space for other things: new bicycles (Christmas is coming), or a garden chair for some hide away time? I recommended tidy sheds in a blog earlier this year, and as we move to the end of the year it is time for another spring clean in mine.

Recycle garden tools

Why keep garden tools that you never use? World and local news challenges us to think about how we can make the lives of people easier and better. Recycling unwanted garden tools is one way I am helping this autumn. Try it – it does wonders for the shed and helps community projects.

Not all charity shops accept garden tools. Some garden centres have ‘amnesty weeks’ when old and unwanted tools are collected to pass to recycling charities and old tools win vouchers toward new ones. Specialist charities welcome garden (and other) tools and find great new homes and uses for them. Workaid has collectors all over the UK who welcome your donations. Try this website for other charities and ask local charities and community groups about projects near you, such as Hope Enterprises in Northampton, that make good use of your unwanted tools.

garden tools
Workaid collects unwanted tools from all over the UK to refurbish and donate to local projects or sell to raise cash for local action. Alastair Holland, 2016.

A volunteer at Workaid amazed me about how much this charity does to repair and share garden (and DIY) tools that people no longer need or want. Projects in the local area and further afield are given renovated tools, and those not neeeded are sold to raise cash for local action. The volunteers who collect and repair tools use and share their skills, helping others learn DIY skills alongside them and gaining confidence. The Workaid Facebook pages might inspire you too to clear your shed NOW and make a difference to people’s lives. As for me – I am taking a full car boot to my local contact: my spare garden tools will do much more good with Workaid than they ever will with me.

garden tools
The WORKAID lawnmower team, see their Facebook page for more information on recycling garden tools

Maintain and repair garden tools

Meanwhile – the garden tools you are keeping need TLC to get ready for the winter and the year ahead. I should check tools when I put them away. But I often head for the tea pot instead. This week I am on a maintain and repair spree – following useful advice, like this old copy of the Daily Express, and this helpful website, to care for the tools I am keeping.

First – clean off mud and dried plant matter from tool handles and edges. I use a stiff brush and wire wool, then soapy water which I rinse off and dry the tools well.

Second – oil moving parts, with something like WD40, and check everything is as it should be. If not, I create a pile for action (read on!). Rubbing linseed oil or wax into clean (sometimes you need to lightly sand) wooden handles makes them look and feel great and it maintains the wood for another year of great gardening.

Third – tighten up loose and wobbling screws and fittings.

All done?

Just sweep and tidy the shed before you and your helpers award yourselves the Best Shed in the Street medal, and feel glad to have shared some tools that can make life easier for others. And maybe order that chair for your shed?

And get out and about and enjoy autumn in some of the Forestry Commission’s top ten woods in autumn and your local park.

Leaf mould – make the most of the autumn leaves bonanza!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 26 October 2016.

Most autumn leaves falling on your lawn, path or road this week can create fantastic leaf mould for use as garden compost. Think of the dark, soft earth under trees and in woodland walks – and make your own! Instead of sending leaves to refuse collections, make a leaf store that will produce leaf mould for your garden. And clearing leaves helps reduce the hiding places for pests and diseases, and keeps the place looking tidy. Clearing leaves is, for me,  THE autumn garden job – just bring on the sunshine !

leaf mould
Beech leaves make great compost. Sarah Buchanan

Make a leaf store to create leaf mould for garden compost

The easy way: fill large plastic sacks with leaves, tie the tops and pierce the bottom with a garden fork and stack them out of sight.

The not too hard way: make a ‘frame’ from chicken wire or any large gauge wire fencing. It is simple to do: bend the wire into a  shape about 1 metre square (or a circle), just using the height of the wire you are using (about 1 metre high is fine)  from chicken wire or any large gauge wire; then push strong bamboo canes or sticks into the shape to hold it upright and firm. Then simply fill it with leaves. Squash them down during the first few months (jumping on them is my favourite method).

Leave your leaf store for two years. After that the leaf mould produced will be a fantastic soil improver. Be patient – it is well worth the wait.

Collect your leaves!

You will need:

  • gloves (leaves are tougher on your hands than you might think)
  • a ‘spring rake’ (those rakes with very wide heads that wobble when you press on them)
  • two ‘leaf boards’: make them yourself by using two pieces of stiff cardboard, plywood or plastic, each about 45 x 30cm. One in each hand makes it easy to scoop the leaves up and move them
  • a wheelbarrow or black bags
  • some people use leaf blowers to gather the leaves together but unless you have a lot of leaves its hardly worth it – and raking leaves is good exercise for you!

Collect leaves from garden lawns, paths, drives, household gutters and all those places where leaves collect. If you live on a tree lined road don’t be shy about collecting leaves from the pavements – everyone will think you are doing a grand job to stop them slipping when it rains. But collecting leaves from busy roadsides is not a good idea – its noisy for you and the leaves will be affected by car fumes.

Ideally collect leaves when they are dry and on a dry when there is no wind. If it is windy, rake the leaves  in the direction of the wind and collect piles of leaves as you go.

garden leaves
Leaves raked in a garden. Dan4th Nicholas licensed for reuse under Creative Commons attribution 2.0 generic.


When you mow the lawn, mow the leaves too and add all the cuttings to your leaf store.

BEWARE! Some leaves are not as good in leaf compost as others because they take a long time to rot.

Read the excellent RHS guide on leaf compost to find out which leaves are best to collect, how to store them and the benefits of leaf collection.



Pot up rooted cuttings, and divide perennials to fill garden gaps

First published by Rattan Direct on 23 October 2016.

Pot up rooted cuttings

Autumn is the time to pot up successfully rooted cuttings, taken earlier in the year. This will give them enough room to stretch out in their own pots and enough time to grow more roots before the winter. As we’ve discussed before, roots are vital to healthy plants.

Despite what we all say to one another about cooler autumn weather, there’s still enough warmth for plants to continue to make roots.

Being organised helps

Interior of the potting shed in the Melon Garden, Heligan, Cornwall. Rooted cuttings
Interior of the potting shed in the Melon Garden, Heligan, Cornwall. The potting up of plants was a major task in such a large productive garden and the potting shed is laid out to enable this work to be carried out in a most efficient manner. © Rod Allday and re-used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.

Whether your space is large or small, being organised helps enormously. Get your pots, compost, small fork (I use an ordinary old dining fork), labels and watering can all ready beforehand.

I lift the rooted cuttings out very carefully with the fork and pot them up in my usual compost mix. Then I water carefully to distribute the compost around the roots. Have a more detailed look at a North Carolina approach here.

Clear a space for them to live as well. I mentioned when talking about garden rooms that this is where my pelargonium cuttings are going to spend the winter, keeping warm with a view of the garden they’ll be in next summer. Other rooted cuttings will be out in the cold frame and still others will be taking their chances in a sheltered spot in the open garden. If you’ve got a greenhouse, that’s a good place too.

These rooted cuttings have been potted on. © peganum and re-used under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.
These rooted cuttings have been potted on. © peganum and re-used under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

Fill the gaps

I like to spend a little time each day walking round the garden taking stock. I look for what’s doing well and what’s struggling, and I try to work out why. I notice gaps where some plants didn’t make it through the winter and their gap wasn’t filled by neighbours, or this year’s plants just failed to thrive. These are the spaces that I’ll fill with perennials I’ve divided or with bigger and stronger cuttings that are ready now and keen to make their own way in the world.

Sometimes, for a touch of excitement, I use ‘mystery plants’ for this. In rescuing some nerines, I found myself with a tiny scrap of a geum. Potted up, it’s grown like mad and its roots would be very much happier in the ground over winter than exposed to the cold in a pot. I’ll have to keep an eye on it though. Firstly, I may not like what I’ve found! And secondly, it’s clearly vigorous so it might start to take over and become a garden thug.

Geum - is mine going to be like this? Rooted cuttings
Geum – is mine going to be like this?
© zenbikescience and re-used under CC BY 2.0 licence.

This summer I also discovered some Japanese anemones cadging a lift with some other plants. They are the pink sort and I’ve always rather hankered after the white sort but we gardeners are notoriously reluctant to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m thinking about putting them near the bay tree where there is a rough pile of this and that. This is where I grew nasturtiums, very successfully, this year to cover the rough pile of this and that. Big mistake! That’s because nasturtiums are loved by the large and small ‘cabbage white’ butterflies which then got the bit between their teeth, as it were, and moved onto my brassicas.

Well, we live and learn, which is one of the reasons I love gardening.

Plant trees now, and celebrate Apple Day!

First published by Rattan Direct on 21 October 2016.

Trees have so many benefits that if they didn’t exist we’d have to invent them! Plant one this year to enjoy next year. And 21st October is Apple Day, celebrating the hundreds of apple varieties that grow in this country.

Beech and spruce tree canopies in Malý Blaník Nature Reserve, Benešov District, Czech Republic. Trees
Beech and spruce tree canopies in Malý Blaník Nature Reserve, Benešov District, Czech Republic. © Juan de Vojníkov and published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

The many benefits of trees

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this sonnet she could have been writing of trees and the benefits they offer.

Above all, beauty.

And trees play a part in:

  • ecosystems and microclimates
  • cooling by providing shade
  • warming by protecting against cold winds>

They contribute to our:

  • health
  • relaxation and calm
  • enjoyment
  • gardens
  • community wellbeing.

They help to:

  • link us to past and future generations
  • define space and screen unattractive views
  • reduce erosion
  • save money.

They give us:

  • fruit
  • nuts
  • firewood
  • timber.

Indeed, without trees we’d be a bit stuck. So if you can, plant a tree for next year – even in a pot.

How to plant a tree or large shrub

Prepare the ground

Trees grow well where the soil contains some air and is not too wet nor too dry. Prepare your tree planting hole with four simple steps.

  1. If you are planting in the lawn think about mowing: circles are easier to mow around, but square holes are better for roots. Go wild – dig a square hole but remove turfs to make a circle around it.
  2. Dig a hole that is slightly deeper than the pot or rootball of the tree, and over an area at least three times as wide.
  3. Break up the sides of the hole with a strong fork so the roots can get into the surrounding soil.
  4. Dig in a bucketful of well rotted garden compost

Small and young trees don’t need staking unless they are in very windy sites. If you need a stake plant it very firmly at least 20cm/8in from where the trunk will be.

Plant it

  1. Soak the tree in its pot or soak a bare-rooted tree in a bucket of water for about 30 minutes before you remove it from its pot or wrapping.
  2. Loosen any roots that have become crammed together in pots and spread out the roots of bare-root trees.
  3. Holding the tree upright, place it carefully into the planting hole so that the very top layer of roots are level with the soil surface when you have filled the hole. You may need to scrape away top layers of compost on container grown plants to find the top roots. Don’t plant the tree any lower – it will be vulnerable to disease.
  4. If your soil is poor, throw a handful of mycorrhizal fungi (e.g. Rootgrow) over and in contact with the roots.
  5. Refill the planting hole carefully, placing soil between and around all the roots.
  6. Firm the soil gently, avoiding compacting the soil into a hard mass, and water it in well.

Have a look at this YouTube clip for more advice.

A Chinese proverb is always a good way to end. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Apple Day

Many, many different types of apples grow in this country. Hundreds of them. There are eaters. There are cookers. There are dual-purpose apples. And there are cider apples. Oh, and crab apples.

Their colour, shape, size and taste vary. Their names are those of old friends or new friends to be discovered and made. One variety is actually called Discovery. And meet Annie Elizabeth (she’s lovely), Beauty of Bath, James Grieve (we go back a long way), Blenheim Orange, Bardsey and Lord Derby. Can I introduce you to Charles Ross (I’ve known him since I was little), Bloody Ploughman and Lemon Pippin? Also Scotch Bridget and Reverend W. Wilks.

Supermarket shopping rather narrows the focus with regard to apples. Apple Day pulls in the opposite direction, broadening horizons and introducing us to all kinds of apples that grow locally.

Colwall Quoining. One of many varieties of apples on display at Colwall's 2011 Apple Day, Herefordshire. Trees
Colwall Quoining. One of many varieties of apples on display at Colwall’s 2011 Apple Day, Herefordshire. © Bob Embleton and published under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

Apple Day is 21st October but really it’s a moveable feast, reflecting different harvest times from year to year, and from place to place. (Where I live, the 2016 harvest is two weeks later than usual.) Apple events in some areas go on all month.

Apples are for chutneys, jellies and pies, for eating with pork and bacon, for fruit juice, cider and calvados. Enjoy!


Clip Virginia creeper and other late autumn gardening jobs

First published by Rattan Direct on 19 October 2016.

Virginia creeper has started to cover the windows so the next few weeks are the time to clip it back. It’s also time to ‘renovate’ tangled climbing and rambling roses. Keep an eye on the weather, too, and protect your plants if frost is forecast.

Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, Gwynedd. Virginia creeper
Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, Gwynedd. Do they use ladders or do they abseil down to clear the Virginia creeper from the windows here? © Denis Egan, published under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

Autumn is definitely with us now and I’m scrambling to get jobs done before the weather turns nasty. Like all of us, I’m busy but I know that if I don’t get these jobs done I’ll regret it.

Clip back the Virginia creeper so you can see out of the windows

You probably know Virginia creeper, a vigorous large deciduous climber whose leaves turn bright red and orange in the autumn. It grows very high, more than 12 metres according to the Royal Horticultural Society, and it grows so vigorously that windows can be quickly veiled by the leaves. It will soon be time to cut it back so that you can see out again, and more light can come into the house over the autumn and winter. (Or you could leave it till early spring.) It’s a two-person job if you’re working at height on ladders or with ropes.

Renovate climbing and rambling roses

My rambling rose, Félicité et Perpétue, has been sadly neglected for a number of years. I offer no excuses; it’s just one of those things that sometimes happen in a life and a garden.

It’s grown enthusiastically and has become very tangled. Often roses in a tangle don’t flower very well and although this hasn’t happened to F&P yet, it’s only a matter of time and I’d like a mass of flowers next summer.

Early August is the time for light pruning. Late autumn and early winter is the time to ‘renovate’ climbing and rambling roses as you can see their structure more clearly when they’ve lost their leaves. Renovation will boost the plant ready for flowering next year and is good for disease prevention, as more air and light can get to the plant.

The Royal Horticultural Society gives the same advice for renovating both climbing roses and rambling roses, given here in brief.

  1. Remove all dead, diseased, dying and weak shoots.
  2. Cut some of the old woody branches to the ground, retaining a maximum of six young, vigorous stems that can be secured to supports.
  3. Saw away any dead stumps at the base of the plant, where rain can collect and encourage rot.
  4. Shorten side shoots on the remaining branches and prune back the tips by one third to one half, to encourage branching.
  5. Give pruned plants a boost in the following spring by spreading a granular rose fertiliser over the soil and mulch them with a 5cm (2in) layer of garden compost or well rotted manure.

It’s not quite late autumn/early winter yet, so I’m giving myself fair warning that this has to be done!

Finally frost

Back at the beginning of September we started to talk about protecting plants from frost. Some of us have seen temperatures down to zero already, so watch the weather and make sure everything is protected if frost is forecast.

Good luck with keeping on top of the garden before bad weather starts in earnest.


Crab apples – choices for an autumn WOW!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 16 October 2016.

Autumn fruits and berries are vibrant in gardens and hedgerows now. This week crab apples became one of my favourites: crab apples in yellow, orange, crimson and maroon are perfect cheer for autumn days. And they make wonderful jelly: so, what’s not to like?

I would like one in my garden. Which variety? And how to choose? Try this one of many websites that can help you choose one for yours. Here are some of the things to consider.

Choosing crab apple trees


These are The Thing now. Cheerful red, such as ‘Red Sentinel’, or bright and light yellow ‘Butterball’ . Fruits vary in size too: small and berry like on ‘Floribunda’ or the size of plums on ‘John Downie’.

crab apples
Malus John Downie – gorgeous to look at, and to make jellies: there is a quick recipe at the end of this blog.


In a garden many years ago I planted ‘Malus Floribunda’. It is also called ‘showy crab apple’ and the flowers were certainly a show stopper: soft pink with darker centres and so many that the tree looked as if it was covered in foam. Or try the dark red flowers that smother ‘Malus Cardinal’.

Leaf colour

The bronze leaves of ‘Malus Royalty’ are stunning from spring to autumn when deep red fruits add a shine. More common are the soft green leaves like ‘Malus Golden Hornet’ which make a great background to the fruit.

Shape and size

Some are upright and neat – great for a small space. Others spread into umbrella  or weeping shapes. These need more room for the best effect and can create a large area of dry ground underneath (no problem: plant bulbs for spring and autumn and ground cover plants there!). A decision on where the tree will be dictates the size and shape the garden can manage, but I do love the spreading look of ‘Malus Louisa’.

Whatever I choose, I need a tree on a ‘dwarfing rootstock’ (which means it won’t grow huge) for the garden spot I have in mind. Others will grow to 5 or 6 m high – lovely if you have the space.

What next?

There is no rush. I will keep looking at gardens and parks, visit garden centres and browse online catalogues. If I buy a pot grown tree I can plant it any time. But a bare root tree must be planted when the tree is dormant (the leaves and fruit have fallen and the tree has stopped growing for the winter). For crab apples that is between late October and early March, and I like to choose a time when the ground is soft and damp.

crab apples
Crab apples near Glewstone. Jonathan Billinger. Geograph 978786. Reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

And a nice idea as I write this blog – the crab apple ‘Wedding Bouquet’ has masses of ivory-white blossom in spring, and small dark red fruits in autumn. A perfect wedding present any time of year!

A recipe for crab apple jelly

  1. Wash and chop about 2kg unmarked apples in half.
  2. In a saucepan (not aluminium) just cover them with water and bring to the boil.
  3. Simmer until the fruit is soft (how long this takes depends on the amount of apples, but reckon on 30 – 40 minutes).
  4. Remove from the heat and mash the fruit down. Carefully pour the pulp into a jelly bag and let it drip overnight into a steel, glass or plastic container (not aluminium).
  5. Do NOT squeeze the bag: that will make the juice and the jelly go cloudy.
  6. Measure the juice and for every 600ml of juice, add 450gm of warmed white granulated sugar in a good sized pan. Heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  7. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes, or until setting point is reached.
  8. To test for setting point put 2 or 3 teaspoons of the jelly on a saucer in the fridge for 5 minutes. Run your finger over the top of the jelly: if a skin has formed that wrinkles with your finger the jelly has reached setting point. If not, keep boiling and try again.
  9. At setting point, remove the jelly from the heat and let it stand for about 5 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars, adding wax covers and lids and store in a cool dry place.
  10. Enjoy this taste of autumn with scones and cream, on breakfast toast or when adding marzipan to rich fruit cakes.

Autumn preparations for winter in the garden: part 3!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 14 October 2016.

Never mind spring cleaning – autumn preparations are essential to protect your garden from the worst of winter. Use our top tips to guide you.

Autumn preparations: tidy up

I am still picking runner beans, and glad of suggestions for what to do with a glut. Within a week or two I will be sad they have ended. One school of thought suggests I leave my runner and climbing French bean plants in the ground until the frosts because until then they will go on fixing nitrogen in the soil – a good thing. Another school says TIDY UP as soon as the last bean is picked. Either way, autumn preparations will require you to cut the plants down, chop them up and put the choppings and roots firmly in your garden compost store.

The same goes for other veg. and flowering plants that are past their best. Even a late spell of sunshine now won’t give you much pleasure, and it is so much nicer working in the garden in autumn sunshine than in winter rain.

Autumn preparations: dig and mulch

Where you tidied up veg. and other short lived plants, dig over the soil with a good fork to loosen it and pull out the weeds. Throw a good layer of well rotted garden compost where you have dug. It will rot more during autumn and winter, help stop the rain compacting the soil or washing it away. And you are ready to dig it in to plant veg. and flowers in the spring and early summer.

Friends living in areas of mild winter weather sow ‘green manure’ on bare winter soil to protect and feed it. Try it if your climate is suitable.

autumn preparations
Compost bins at Potterton’s allotments, East Warwick, showing good lids to keep them warm. Robin Stott. Geograph 4050830. Reuse under Creative Commons licence.

Autumn preparations: keep it warm

Your compost store likes to be warm in winter (don’t we all?). Firm the contents down well, and put a lid on it. Purpose-built compost stores usually have tight fitting lids that keep the warmth in to help the materials rot. If yours doesn’t have a lid make one from carpet, wood or sacks.

Plants you know are tender, or have been advised to protect from cold winds and damp, need to be prepared now for their winter coats. Cut off damaged leaves and any top heavy growth that won’t look good next year, clear weeds and leaves from the bottom of the plant and leave a clean and drier base. Different plants like different wrappings so follow the instructions that came with your plant. Don’t forget to tie the covering firmly or the wind will whip it off and damage the plant in the process.

autumn preparations
Tree fern in a winter coat, Kew gardens. David Hawgood. Geography 1088968. Creative Commons licence for reuse

Autumn preparations: keep it dry

Feet (or even bricks) under your lovely patio pots will keep plant roots out of water that will rot them or freeze the base of the pot.

Spread a little gravel around the base of Mediterranean plants, succulents and plants that love to be baked by the sun. It will stop muck and damp collecting there and rotting the stem or roots.

All preparations done? Time for a sit down and a coffee in a warm conservatory or orangery (see our blog to find out more!).