Category Archives: Writing & research

Feed the birds! And build a toad abode …

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 13 November 2016.

If you feed the birds in your garden you are helping wildlife, enjoying bird life near you and encouraging a band of live-in helpers to regularly visit your garden not only to eat what you feed them but also the garden pests that make your garden life a misery.

Wildlife experts reckon that they can tell where birds are fed, not just by bird-filled gardens but because in the area around a garden where birds are fed regularly there are many more birds than areas where there is no added food on offer. An army of helpers to eat those insects, slugs and snails that can ruin your plants.

Birds can be a garden’s best friend, so here are some tips to put more birds on your side.

Feed the birds
Blue tit in a garden, Chedworth. Christine Matthews. Licensed for re-use under Creative Commons attribution share alike 2.0 generic

Feed the birds – winter opening hours!

Feeding birds in gardens all year is recommended by conservation organisations but in winter food supplies are at their lowest, and even if you only feed in winter you can make a difference. And because food is in short supply you are likely to get visitors soon after you put food out, whereas in summer it can take a while for your bird food to hit the ‘must have place to eat’ guide among the local birds.

Try to balance the amount of food that you provide against the number of birds visiting you. That way you don’t create a surplus of food that can go mouldy or attract unwanted visitors, particularly rodents.

Good practice is to remove any uneaten food from a bird table each night and sweep away food dropped on the ground under it. Hanging bird feeders don’t need to be emptied but it is still good practice not to put out more food than is being eaten over a day or two.

Find more advice from the RSPB.

What’s on the menu?

Different birds like different food so offer different food to see which birds arrive. Read the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) simple guide on the foods that attract different birds.

Garden centres, pet shops, supermarkets and the RSPB sell a selection of seeds, suet and nibbles to suit garden birds. Why not feed the birds for Christmas with the RSPB bumper bird food gift box (or give it to the nature fan in your household and do two jobs in one!)

What’s never on the menu?

  • Any salted foods (which will dehydrate birds)
  • Loose peanuts that are not in a bird feeder where birds can peck and break them rather than take them whole (and choke)
  • It is not a good idea to feed cooked meat or  meat stuffs other than in fat balls because cooked meat may attract unwanted rodents.

How to feed the birds in your garden

Find a sturdy bush or tree you can see from the house, or a post or hooks where you can hang feeders, or buy a purpose built feeder station. Buy, fill and hang up feeders for different foods:

  • one that can hold black sunflower seeds and another for sunflower hearts that will attract finches, tits and sparrows
  • one for peanuts that will attract mainly tits
  • one that can hold fat or suet balls to attract mainly tits and sparrows.

Maybe as a Christmas present, add a ‘nyjer seed’ feeder to attract goldfinches. And go wild with a sturdy covered bird table where you can offer shop bought oat/fruit/fatty nibble mixes that will attract robins and blackbirds, apples (those soft ones that no-one will eat), finely chopped stale bread, uncooked oats, left over cooked rice.

Or give a window fixed bird feeder to friends without a garden so they can watch birds up close from their kitchen.

feed the birds
Bird feeding station, Loch Garten osprey centre. Hugh Venables. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License attribution share alike 2.0 generic.

It’s not only birds that can help your garden, ‘give nature a home’ and lots of wildlife will help

The RSPB isn’t only about birds either – though it’s called the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. By focussing on ‘give nature a home’ the RSPB is helping us recognise that all sorts of wildlife support each other – and can support us in our gardens. They offer a fantastic interactive website filled with with easy to follow instructions on how to make special places for wildlife in our gardens.

Today I am going out to set up a new bird cafe of feeders in a small tree in the middle of the garden and to build ‘a toad abode’ that might just become home to a gardening team of slug and insect eaters.

Hard landscaping and lawns make all the difference to winter gardens

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 11 November 2016.

Hard landscaping and lawns are the essential, and often unloved, elements of every good garden. Look around – fences, trellises, arches, walls, paths and no end of other hard landscaping things make the framework of the garden, offer places for plants to grow, and shine, and places for people to rest and enjoy the garden. Now is a great time to take stock, repair and renew your hard landscaping and plan ahead for a new gardening year. And the same goes for your lawn.

Why work on hard landscaping and lawns now?

Winter is hard on gardens – the plants and the hard landscaping elements – and yours may benefit from TLC now to prevent winter damage and make them look their best next year.

Most plants are dormant so you can trim them back or move them temporarily, to get behind or under to repair the fence or wall they look so lovely climbing over (and pulling down).

And because the garden is largely dormant, now is a great time to build an arbour, summer house or gazebo where you can enjoy coffee in the spring, iced drinks in the summer, and warming soup in winter.

Choosing hard landscaping features

Try our garden and house revamp blog for some inspiration. There are lots of DIY and ready-made hard landscape features on sale in garden centres, DIY stores and on-line. Before you start to build or buy, be sure that what you have chosen is what you want. All too easy to build it and then find you can’t fit that lovely rattan garden lounger in the shade!

landscaping and lawns
Arbour at Tintinhull Gardens. Rod Allday. Licensed for re-use under Creative Commons licence attribution share-alike 2.0 generic.

Caring for lawns in winter

Just like hard landscape elements, lawns are an essential part of almost every garden. Making your lawn look good in winter is hard – and gardening books and websites generally advise us to Keep Off The Grass in winter.

landscaping and lawns
Please keep off the grass, Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge. Hans Wolff, who grants anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

And we should definitely keep off in frosty or wet weather.

The thing to do in winter is keep the lawn tidy and prevent the humpy bumpy look of an unloved lawn. So, in mild and dry spells there are three jobs that help make your lawn look good in winter and prepare it to look great in spring. If you read our autumn lawns blog, you might be ahead on these jobs!

  • If you haven’t already aerated your lawn, do it before winter sets in. You can use either a lawn aerator or simply insert a garden fork at regular intervals and lean it back slightly to let air in.
  • Clear fallen leaves from the grass (they may look lovely for a short time but they rot the grass and the effect looks bad for a longer time). (Don’t forget to add them to your leaf store or compost store.)
  • Mow the grass (and the fallen leaves). Raise the mower blade to number 4 or 5 so that you don’t expose the young grass to frost or risk digging the mower into the soil. Mowing will keep the height of the grass tidy and the pressure of the mower firms the lawn up, doing a lot to stop that unloved field look creeping in.
  • Create clear, sharp lawn edges against borders and paths. It makes the whole garden look loved and it’s easier to care for paths and beds too. If you are using a half moon lawn edge cutter don’t do this on damp and soggy days or you will leave a trail of mud and batter your lawn. Wait for a dry spell. Or now is a good time of year to invest in hard edging.

Love your garden by clearing up and using garden compost

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 9 November 2016.

Clear up and use your garden compost to sort out your plants and improve the soil ready for next year. It will make your garden look and feel loved for the winter too. We have given you tips for autumn tidy ups in our previous blogs, and now we are gearing up for winter.

Q: So why clear up now?

A: Well, it is warming work for the gardener, the right time for you to move plants or care for old favourites, and it empties one compost store and creates a new supply of trimmings for another.

But beware: this is a muddy job on a rainy day.

Clear up – tidy garden beds and borders

  • Cut back the yellowing and dying leaves of herbaceous flowering plants and tidy the plant into a good shape with stems cut back to about 15-22 cms (6-9 inches). Leave the stems of taller plants at about 30cm as the old stems will help hold new spring growth in place. Leaving stems above the plant offers some protection against winter winds, frost and snow.
  • Tidy rockery and alpine plants to remove dead or over long growth.
  • Tidy evergreen plants to remove any long and wispy stems which the wind may catch and rock the roots of the plants. If in doubt, read our blog on preparing for wind, and stake wobbly plants in windy spots to keep them and their roots sturdy through the winter.
  • Remove annual veg. plants that have stopped producing veg. for you, weed and dig over where they grew.
  • Weed and tidy around the base of shrubs and trees to keep their bark and any new stems clear of weeds and damp.

What to do with all your trimmings? Head for your garden compost container. Haven’t got one? Read our earlier blog here, make a leaf store to make leaf compost and read more at this specialist site.

And if you have room – please leave an untidy patch, out of the way of footballs and barbecues, where wildlife may shelter.

Use garden compost

How do I know when my garden compost is ready?

When it is what gardeners describe as ‘well rotted’: dark brown, smelling nice and earthy, slightly moist, with a fairly loose and easily crumbled texture.

It won’t look like compost you buy in sacks. Mine always has twigs and eggshells sticking out of it. And it is still perfectly good to use: pull out the larger twigs and any material that hasn’t rotted and put that ready for a new compost heap.

clear up and use garden compost
A cross section of a compost store – the top is dry and not rotted so will join the new compost store, the rest is ready to use, apart from the new leaves arriving on the wind! Sarah Buchanan. November 2016

How do I use garden compost?

Gloves on, use a garden fork to remove any loose plant material (usually on the top: just like my heap in the picture above!) that has not rotted. Put that on your new compost heap or to one side ready for it. Fill a bucket or wheelbarrow with compost and head for your borders.

Around established plants, trees and shrubs, spread a loose layer (10cm or so deep) of compost roughly over the area of the roots. Be sure the compost doesn’t swamp the stems of woody shrubs and trees or it may cause rot.

On bare ground (yes, you removed the weeds before you started on the compost), like the veg patch and where you grew annual flowers, loosen the soil with your fork and spread a layer (10cm or so deep) of garden compost over the surface. If your soil is poor, leave the compost there for worms to work on it and pull it into the soil. On better soils, you can dig about one spade or fork down and turn the soil over the compost. This is great work to warm you up!

clear up and use garden compost
Scatter garden compost between herbaceous perennials. November 2016. Sarah Buchanan

Planting new delights? Mix some of your compost into the soil you dig out and put back in around the new plant, but don’t over-do this in the autumn as compost will hold moisture and if we have a wet winter it may rot young roots.

If you don’t need all the compost your store has created now, put it in old shop bought compost bags and store ready for the spring, when you can spread it around in the way I describe above.

Layering tulips and other bulbs in pots

First published by Rattan Direct on 6 November 2016.

Tulips, daffodils and irises are the bulbs I’m going to plant in layers in a container, to produce wave after wave after wave of flowers in the spring. I’ve waited until November to give the tulips a fair chance of avoiding disease, which should be killed off now by colder temperatures and frost.


Tulips and hyacinths

In September, a long time before the clocks went back, we talked about planting bulbs for spring – in the garden and in pots.

But we didn’t plant tulips or hyacinths in the garden. They are planted now, in November, as a way of avoiding tulip fire, and other viral and fungal diseases that like warm temperatures and damp conditions. The colder temperatures and frosts of November tend to kill them off so it’s worth waiting.

More than one type of bulb in a pot

So I’ve waited, as I want to have tulips as one of several waves of flowers in a container.

The idea is to plant the bulbs in layers: put the bigger bulbs in first, then the next biggest ones and finally the smallest ones. Many people top the container off with some winter pansies but I think slugs and snails would do for them pretty quickly here, based on local experience.

Have a look at this no fuss guide from Gardeners’ World.

My choice of bulbs

I looked in gardens and read around a bit before I made my choice. It’s going to be small irises (flowering in January to February), small daffodils (March to April) and tulips (May).

For planting, tulips go in first, about 15-20cm deep, because they are the biggest. Tulipa Florosa is a pink, cream and green tulip, a lovely combination of colours, and it flowers in May. As the flowers open, the pink intensifies. Tulips like full sun and don’t like strong winds.

Next comes a small and lovely daffodil called Narcissus Toto. It’s yellow fading to cream in colour and has, according to many bulb growers, a slightly windswept appearance. That will match how things are here when it is in flower from March to April. It’s planted about 10-15cm deep.

Last into the pot, 5cm deep, is Iris reticulata ‘Alida’, a mid-blue little iris with splashes of yellow on each fall. Its leaves are sword-shaped. It’s very hardy and flowers from January to February. It likes full sun.

Iris reticulata 'Alida'. Tulips
Iris reticulata ‘Alida’. © Chris Mealy and re-used under CC BY-ND 2.0 licence

Where am I going to put the container?

In my dreams this lovely container greets me at the front door – but my front door doesn’t get full sun in the spring. Perhaps elsewhere in the front garden? But that can be a very windy place in spring as mad March winds race across the Atlantic. Outside the back door, then, could that be a possibility? Maybe but I’d have to move …

Yes, gardening’s full of challenges as we strive for Beauty.




Protect wildlife on Bonfire Night, and use the ash in your garden

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 4 November 2016.


This year Bonfire Night falls on a Saturday and you may be having a party. You know we’re keen on wildlife so you won’t be surprised we’re reminding you to check your bonfire for wildlife before lighting it, and to be careful where you light your fireworks. Use the ashes in the garden as any potassium they have is good for flowers and fruit.

Protect wildlife from death or injury when you have a bonfire

We’re talking about hedgehogs, of course, but also toads, frogs, newts, rabbits, mice, voles, slow worms …

  1. Stack material until you’re ready to build the fire on the day. If it’s already built, move it to a clear area before lighting so any wildlife that has moved in can escape.
  2. Move bird feeders and other wildlife food away from the bonfire site at least a week before.
  3. Divert toads, frogs and newts away from the bonfire by creating small piles of leaves and logs as alternative shelter. Place a hedgehog house or simple hutch with clean and fresh straw as an alternative home for any visiting wildlife.
  4. Check, check and check again before lighting the fire. Use broom handles to lift the bonfire up to check for wildlife inside. Use torches to check underneath and listen carefully for any signs of life.
  5. If you do find any hibernating hedgehogs at the bottom or in the middle of your prepared bonfire, pick them up (using gloves) and move them somewhere sheltered, such as under shrubs.bonfire
  6. Light the bonfire at one side rather than all round so that any animals or birds have a chance to escape.
  7. Light bonfires and fireworks away from overhanging trees, bushes and hedgerows to minimise disturbance of birds in nest boxes and animals. Don’t pin Catherine wheels to trees; attach them to fence posts or stakes in the ground instead.
  8. Have a bucket of water available in case you need to put out the fire or an animal on fire.
  9. Know who to call if you find an injured wildlife casualty.
  10. Make sure the bonfire is out, or safe, before leaving it – a large bonfire will produce a pile of ash that could be hot and dangerous to wildlife for days afterwards.
  11. Don’t leave dead fireworks or litter around as cans and bottles can trap small mammals or get stuck on their noses.

What to do with bonfire ash or ash from wood burning stoves

Depending on what’s been burnt, wood ash can contain useful amounts of potassium (necessary for flowers and fruit) and trace elements. Protect it from rain, though, as these are easily leached out by rain.

Wood ash is useful to add to very acid soils as it has a liming effect.

I add mine in small amounts to the compost heap but it can be added directly to the ground in the winter. Don’t use it on fruit, roses or rhododendrons, though, as they all do best in a slightly acid soil. Don’t use it where potatoes are to be grown, either, as it can encourage potato scab. Useful information from the Royal Horticultural Society here.

Have a great Bonfire Night!


Free plants: the hardwood cuttings edition

First published by Rattan Direct on 2 November 2016.

Welcome to another blog post in our occasional series about taking cuttings to make plants for nothing. For nothing, that is, if you’re prepared to put in a little time now and you’re not in a hurry. That’s because hardwood cuttings take about nine to 12 months to establish a root system.

The dormant period, when plant growth has slowed to a standstill, is the best time for hardwood cuttings. This is from October to about February, just before growth starts again in the spring.

Which plants are suitable for hardwood cuttings?

This fantastic display of colour comes from various dogwood species (Cornus), at Broadview Gardens, part of Hadlow College. Hardwood cuttings.
This fantastic display of colour comes from various dogwood species (Cornus), at Broadview Gardens, part of Hadlow College.
© Nick Smith and reused under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence.
  • Many ornamental shrubs and trees including dogwoods, flowering currant, forsythia and willow.
  • Roses. If you’re renovating climbing and rambling roses you might be able to use some of the prunings.
  • Climbers like jasmine and honeysuckle.
  • Fruit bushes like gooseberry, blackcurrant, redcurrant.
  • Deciduous hedgerow trees.

How to take hardwood cuttings

  1. Take fully ripe (hard) one-year old stems, about the thickness of a pencil. You’ll be making cuttings of about 25-30cm (10-12 inches) long.
  2. Make a cut above a bud at the top (a sloping cut will mark the top and will encourage rain to run off) and below a bud at the bottom (a straight cut will mark the bottom and allow you to push the cutting into the soil easily).
  3. With redcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries, remove all but the top three or four buds to create a clear stem. (Leave all the buds on blackcurrants.)
  4. Some people use hormone rooting powder to encourage root formation and to discourage rotting … and some people don’t. This year, I’m not using any and will see how it goes.
  5. You can either put hardwood cuttings round the edge of a big pot or in the open ground in a slit trench.
  6. A big pot filled with gritty potting compost (say 50:50 coarse grit and multi-purpose compost) works well if you’re only taking a few cuttings. Push them about two-thirds in, close to the edge which helps drainage. Firm them in, then water well. Keep the pots in a sheltered cold frame, unheated greenhouse or somewhere very sheltered until next autumn.
  7. To make a slit trench, drive the spade in and move it to and fro a bit. Add a good handful of grit or sharp sand. Then insert the cuttings to about two-thirds of their length, spaced 10-15cm (4-6in) apart. Firm them in, then water well.
  8. Look at the cuttings every fortnight or so and water during dry spells or if the pots are drying out. Standing pots on a tray of gravel with some water in it can help.
  9. Leave the cuttings where they are for at least 12 months or until they are making visible new top growth.
  10. Move them to their final destination next autumn or winter, the next dormant season.

More detailed advice from the Royal Horticultural Society here.

A Gardeners’ World video with David Hurrion here.

Good luck!

Winged thorn rose, Rosa sericea omeiensis pteracantha, grown from a hardwood cutting. Hardwood cuttings
Winged thorn rose, Rosa sericea omeiensis pteracantha, grown from a hardwood cutting
© peganum and re-used under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence


Create a Halloween garden and treat your neighbours!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 30 October 2016.

Halloween on 31st October is ‘All Hallows Eve’, the day before All Saints Day, when the dead, martyrs and saints are remembered. The traditions we associate with Halloween began in Celtic harvest festivals and have become closely linked with more recent games and treats. Apple bobbing, making a pumpkin lantern for our door step and dressing up as a ghost or a witch was about as far as it went when I was young. In other parts of Britain ‘trick or treating’ was the norm, but with different names and a strong history going back to the sixteenth century when children in costume went house to house singing for the dead and asking for special Halloween foods such as ‘soul cakes’.

Halloween garden
Halloween ‘guisers’, the precursors of ‘trick or treaters’. Baltasound, Shetland. Mike Pennington, licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0

Make a Halloween garden

In America, decorating houses and gardens is common. This year my Halloween garden aims to scare the neighbours! Pinterest is the place to look for ideas and action – and this outdoor Halloween board has given me wonderful quick and easy (and more complicated) ideas to frighten family and neighbours! Luminous eyes on trees, foam cut outs of bats on the garden shed, and – best of all – a ghost (made from an old grey curtain) sitting on my favourite garden seat to welcome the neighbours when they come round to party. What will you do?

Halloween lanterns on your patio

Jam jar Halloween lanterns light up a patio party. Hanging from trees or standing along paths, they add to the look of a Halloween garden. Easy to make and ideal for children to create on a wet afternoon, these instructions from ARGOS are simple enough for me to follow.

Carved or decorated  pumpkins, marrows or squash. Why not all three for your porch?

Carved or decorated pumpkins, swedes, marrows and root beets are for me THE Halloween look, perhaps because these are such great autumn produce and look so beautiful painted or carved, and just as they are. Mine always sits on the porch, but this year I will spread a few more in my Halloween garden – a giant marrow decorated as a glowing snake will peer out of the veg patch while pumpkin faces will glow in the greenhouse……

Halloween garden
Pumpkins at Myddleton House, Christine Matthews. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence share-alike 2.0

These wikiHow instructions for carving a pumpkin lantern will help, if you are not sure where to start or how to end. Use the same approach for root beet, large marrows or squash.

If you carve a large pumpkin or marrow, or a few small ones, you will end up with a lot of pumpkin seeds and flesh on the table. And you can use it all without scaring anyone!

  • Put the seeds on your bird table
  • Put the stringy bits of the flesh in your garden compost heap
  • Cut up the firmer flesh and make soup.

Serve a simple, tasty pumpkin soup!

Cook two finely chopped onions in 1 tablespoon of oil until soft but not browned. Add the pumpkin flesh (about 1kg will make soup for 6) and cook for about 10 minutes. Add 700ml of vegetable stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes until the pumpkin is very soft. Season to taste – perhaps with some paprika to keep the cold away. Blitz with a stick blender or liquidiser and stir in a pot of cream. Serve with parsley and croutons sprinkled over the top.