Tag Archives: garden care

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.

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!


Frost! Stop feeding pot plants and cover those tender courgettes!

First published by Rattan Direct on 23 September 2016.

The first frost often comes in October and it kills lush and tender growth. Time to stop feeding plants in pots and containers. Time to wrap up your courgettes to get a few more weeks of vegetables from them.

Pelargoniums high above the Hebden Water valley, Calderdale. Frost
Pelargoniums high above the Hebden Water valley, Calderdale. These tender plants are in the porch, safely out of the frost.
© Copyright michael ely and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence.

Hard to believe

After some glorious September weather in many parts of the country it’s hard to believe that cold and frost could be just around the corner. It won’t affect everyone straightaway and those of us who live in sheltered western places or warm cities may, perhaps, escape entirely. It’s hard to know. As always, the British weather is predictably unpredictable! Very frosty one year, not very frosty at all another year.

Weigh up the risks and take precautions. Yes, frost on frozen plants can look lovely but a great deal of damage can be done when they defrost. Ask yourself whether you prefer green plants or plants blackened with frost?

Stop feeding plants in pots

Feeding plants in pots promotes lush new growth and flowers. That’s great during the spring to autumn growing season but no good at all when growing stops in the late autumn/winter.

The lush new growth and flowers of your pot plants are all very attractive indeed to the cold fingers of Jack Frost. He wraps his fingers around your plant and it all turns black. Result: you have a very unattractive (possibly dead) plant.

So have a look at your outside pot plants. Stop feeding them now, tidy up any dead leaves and flowers, and allow them to toughen up a bit before the first cold snap.

Protect courgettes

Congratulations if your courgettes have made it through the challenges of slugs, snails, mildew and rust!

Congratulations if you’ve been picking your courgettes regularly and none has turned into a marrow!

There’s every chance you’ll be able to harvest courgettes on into October except … they’ll have to be protected from the frost.

Courgette plants. Frost
Courgette plants
© Dinkum and made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Courgettes are big and sprawling plants. Horticultural fleece can be thrown over the whole lot. Remember to weight it down as autumnal gales are also on the horizon! Otherwise, put a cover or protective packing around the base. You could use compost, leaf mould, straw, hay or bracken.

I don’t mind Jack Frost

I don’t mind the arrival of Jack Frost. The sharp, crisp air in the morning can be a bit of a relief after hot and muggy days. But I must take the time to prepare for him.


Protect tender plants and take the tomatoes in hand this autumn

First published by Rattan Direct on 9 September 2016.

As the cooler weather of autumn arrives, it’s time for us to help the last of the tomatoes to ripen and to protect more tender plants.

Time has flown and here we are in September. Like it or not, the summer is bowing out and the autumn’s gales and rain will soon be coming on stage. Perhaps not straightaway (I’m quite happy to accept some of those lovely Indian summer days first) but cooler air will be here in due course.

Take the tomatoes in hand

Light levels are starting to drop and tomato plants are slowing down. Keep picking the ripened fruit and remove all the leaves so that absolutely all the plant’s energy is put into the tomatoes.

After a while, though, the tomatoes will seem to stop ripening. There are three ways I know to encourage ripening.

  1. Take off the trusses (don’t pick off the individual tomatoes) and lay them on cardboard or newspaper in a sunny place indoors.
  2. Pull up the entire plant gently and hang it upside in a cool place (like a garage).
  3. Put the green tomatoes in an enclosed space (like a paper bag) with fruit that naturally gives off ethylene, the ripening hormone. A banana works very well. You could also try an apple or a pear. Or a ripe tomato!
Green tomatoes on vine. Protect
Green tomatoes on vine
© Chris Haines, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Start to protect tender plants from rain, cold and wind

It may seem very early to start thinking like this but rain, cold and wind are in our future. And the weather is full of surprises. Best to plan ahead.

The amount of protection your plants will need depends on how exposed your garden is. Tender plants in some sheltered city gardens may not need any protection at all. Those in gardens located in the teeth of raging autumnal gales need your help now.

Move plants into shelter to protect them

Houseplants that have been outside for a summer holiday, benefitting from fresh air and rain to clean their leaves, should be moved back indoors.

Winter containers do better near a wall or in a sheltered corner rather than in an exposed spot. But avoid soggy or too damp spots.

Other plants are better in a cool and frost-free place. That’s not so easy if you haven’t got a garage, shed or porch but Lia Leendertz has solved the problem to some extent with a mini-greenhouse next to her kitchen.

And be realistic: pull up any plants that aren’t going to make it through the first frosts, such as outdoor bush tomatoes and tender annuals.

Stake and batten down

Stake plants which are going to stand the winter, like cabbages, kale and other winter greens. Push a short cane or stick close to the plant stem and tie them together. Tidy away, or batten down, anything that might fly off.

Protect from puddles 

Make sure containers don’t sit in puddles (put them on feet or bricks) or under overflowing drainpipes or gutters.

Spread horticultural grit around plants that don’t like to be too wet (especially those in containers and herbaceous perennials that like a dry-ish soil) to stop moisture collecting around them and the rot setting in.

Protect by covering and insulating

Most of us are not quite at frost levels yet (!) but think ahead to be sure of a good display from your plants next year.

Put a good layer (5 – 15cm / 2 – 6 inches) of mulch around tender plants to insulate their crowns against frost and to keep the roots warm. You could use compost, shreddings, leaves, straw or bark. As the mulch breaks down over the winter it will add organic matter to the soil and improve the drainage. Some gardeners leave some of the year’s soft growth as a canopy for the winter and clear it away in spring.

Kitten on hardwood mulch. Protect
Kitten on hardwood mulch
© AnIndianaGirl and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Wrap your plants up warmly, if necessary, but also let them breathe! Air must circulate and moisture must evaporate if plants are not to get all sweaty and rot. You could use horticultural fleece (it’s very light) or straw, tied around the base of the plant. Hessian sacking or old blankets work too but are quite heavy when wet. Newspaper blows away in the wind or gets very wet but is a good temporary cover for the night you just know the frost or wind is coming and you are not ready. And bubble wrap is OK for pots, but not for the plants themselves as it doesn’t allow them to breathe enough. With all insulation material, you may have to take it off and put it on, just like we do with our jumpers.

Anything else to cover? You’ve got covers for your garden furniture?

Have an insurance policy

Take cuttings of your favourite plants (I’ve done this with some pelargoniums and fuchsias) in case they don’t survive.

Cuttings from precious pelargoniums. Protect
Cuttings from precious pelargoniums
M K Stone

Where did the summer go?

To round off, I’d like to put it on record that I’m always happy to welcome autumn. It’s probably my favourite season. But I have to ask: where did the summer go?


Potatoes to store, and some to eat now

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 2 September 2016.

It was hot earlier this week so it was definitely time to dig up the last of the potatoes. A gardeners’ law might be that the hardest jobs are done on hot or wet days. If you read our blog on harvesting potatoes, you will be ready for this one on storing them.

‘Early’ potatoes don’t store well but if you planted ‘main crop’, this blog is for you. All potatoes should be lifted by mid-October at the very latest if they are to avoid damage by slugs, weather or blight. Lift ‘main crop’ when the green tops have all died back and, when pressed gently, the potato’s skin feels firm. Ideally lift them after a spell of dry weather which will toughen the skins up (so, that is why it is always hot when I lift my potatoes!).

Leave potatoes on the ground to dry before storing them. Sarah Buchanan

How to store potatoes

Here is a summary of advice from the RHS and other gardening sources with some of my own do’s and don’ts.


  • Lift the potatoes on a dry day, go for a coffee and leave them on the ground for two or three hours to dry off.
  • Handle them gently: they bruise easily and if bruised they don’t keep well.
  • With your hands brush off loose earth and, as you go, pick out to use now or very soon any that are grazed or marked or have green areas (because light reached them while growing).
  • Spread the unmarked potatoes loosely in a cardboard box, or open paper bags or sacks, covered loosely with newspaper in your shed or garage for 10 days or so, then remove any that feel soft or you didn’t notice were marked.
  • Store the unmarked potatoes in hessian or paper sacks, or in a newspaper lined and covered cardboard box, in a dark, cool (but not very cold), dry and airy place (the back of a shed or garage often works well).
  • Protect from mice! I am following the advice of Sally Nex, in her column in the September issue of ‘The Garden’ (you need to be a member of the RHS to read it now – there’s an idea for a birthday gift!), and will hang hessian bags of potatoes from the roof of my shed.  This has the added advantage of making sure they are in an airy place.
Hessian bags are perfect for storing potatoes and other root veg. Can’t find any? Make your own from hessian bought from fabric or DIY shops. Sarah Buchanan.

And DON’Ts:

  • Wash the potatoes before you need to cook them.
  • Store them near apples, which give off gases that can encourage the potatoes to sprout.
  • Store them in plastic materials, including plastic-lined paper sacks, because the moisture from the potatoes can’t escape and you will end up with a rotten mess
  • Store them in warm corners of the kitchen (under the sink is OUT).

And a final DO from me, to think about the varieties of potatoes you might plant next year.

Our co-blogger, Anna Hussain, offers helpful advice about varieties in her recent blog.

Happy eating, this year and next!


Glorious hanging baskets – it is summer!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 22 July 2016.

It is summer – for now! A long weekend in the Cotswolds proved it – everywhere was awash with flowers spilling out from hanging baskets, pots and garden borders.

Hanging baskets – ingredients for success

  • Good planting early in the season (and a mix of plants that grow up and hang down to create a ball shape)
  • Regular water and food
  • A good dose of love and pride!
Hanigng baskets need water
Hanging baskets need more water than you might think. Sarah Buchanan

No need to do anything here then, I did all that and it is going to rain…

Long range weather forecasts suggest changeable weather over the next few weeks (no change there then!). Dry and sunny spells between bands of rain and showery spells are ideal for gardens, if not for holiday makers. But we can’t rely on rain for hanging baskets and pots, places where the plants have a limited supply of soil to draw on. The key job in the garden now is to get on top of watering and feeding so that plants look great all through the long, hot days of summer.

How much water?

Enough to make the soil moist, but not wet.

Plants that like dry soil (remember our blog about the wonderful pelargonium?) need less water but they need some so don’t let their soil turn to concrete because they do need some water.

Hanging baskets
Pelargoniums love hot and dry weather, and need water. Sarah Buchanan

Make the most of water

  • Water in the evening and early morning so that the sun does not burn plants or make the water evaporate quickly. Hanging baskets in the full blaze of the sun may need to be watered twice a day – don’t wait until they look limp.
  • ‘Saucers’ under pots hold water that may run straight through a hot and dry pot and enable the plant to take up water slowly.
  • It is best to water from underneath a pot – fill the saucer, often!
  • When watering a hanging basket, a bucket underneath catches the drips and overflow.
  • Target the soil in a hanging basket – you may need a step ladder. This is important for hot dry plants which don’t like water on their leaves.
  • Water once, and go back and water again to give the soil a chance to absorb the water.

Save and reuse water

  • Store water – it is never too late to fit a rain water butt
  • Recycle water – from tumble driers and dehumidifiers, paddling pools, the water in which you prepare vegetables, and during droughts keen gardeners will often empty their bath tubs with a bucket….

Help: we are going away – what do we do?

  • Recruit a neighbour: “You water my plants and I will water yours”. Be sure to leave full watering cans and tell them what to do.
  • Install a watering system.
    • DIY: sit pots on a towel that is soaking water up from a bucket or bowl. Follow different ideas on YouTube, all you need is a plastic bottle and thick string or strips of fabric.
    • Purpose made systems include automatic irrigation systems available from DIY stores and garden centres.
  • Next year (!) plan ahead and insert gel watering mats or compounds in your hanging baskets pots to help the soil hold moisture for longer.
Water hanging baskets
Watering cans ready for the neighbours. Sarah Buchanan.

Feed hard working plants

Hanging baskets and pots that sparkle with flowers are well fed. Many will have enjoyed a fertiliser mixed into their soil, and now it is running low. Follow the instructions to add a liquid fertiliser that encourages flowers when you water.

Feed hanging baskets
Use a plant food that encourages flowering. Sarah Buchanan

Feed plants to flower next year

Camellia, rhododendrons, azaleas and others that gave you a great show earlier in the year need food if they are to do it again next year. Acid loving plants (like those I’ve just listed) need a special fertilizer. Look in garden centres for the one that suits your plants.

Next year … plant for the weather you live in

It is so easy to buy plants that look great in someone else’s garden, and find they don’t like yours. And it takes time to find out which plants suit the place where you live. Use each season to find out what grows well in your garden, and follow the lead of those plants.  If you and your neighbours are ablaze with delphiniums, penstemon, lavender and poppies the chances are you have dry and sandy soils. With me those plants struggle in all but the driest part of my garden, while ajuga and rubus odorate (ornamental blackberry) are taking over the damper spaces. So next year I will plant more plants like those (and offer a bucket full of ajuga and rubus to friends and garden fetes – they are great weed control in cool, and woody areas!)

The RHS website is a great resource to help you find the right plants for your garden.

That’s a great reason to sit in the sun and start planning…..


A little light summer pruning, then a little light summer pudding?

First published by Rattan Direct on 15 July 2016.

It needs cutting back

Busy friend: Have you seen the state of it? I’m going to go out there and tidy it up. I’ll hack it into submission. I don’t have any time at all for fancy techniques or anything.

Me: [Deep breath] Look, in this post, I’m going to tell you a little about summer pruning: what the point is, and how to do it. Just bear with me: it might make things easier.

Work with the plant

The key to all pruning is to enhance the plant’s qualities so it becomes more beautiful and more productive. It’s not just hacking plants to size or to look a bit tidy. Pruning a plant will give it:

  • shape
  • space to grow
  • space to flower more
  • space for fruit to form and ripen
  • air for ventilation so it doesn’t become infested with pests or get a fungal infection.

Making Rambling Rector and his friends look more beautiful next June

Rambler roses, like the wonderfully named and enormous Rambling Rector, flower on growth that happened late last summer and autumn. After they’ve flowered in June or July, ramblers often produce lots of strong fresh growth, sometimes from the base of the plant, in late summer. This new growth, together with the old growth, is what you should work on for lovely roses next June and July.

  • Take out anything dead, diseased or damaged.
  • Remove one in three of the old growths entirely. If space is limited, remove all of them.
  • Tie in the new growths to take their place, fanning them out as much as possible.
  • Shorten side shoots by about two-thirds.

While you’re about it, you could also thin out some of the old wood on enthusiastically rampant honeysuckles.

Honeysuckle near Comber and Lisbane, County Down. Pruning
Honeysuckle near Comber and Lisbane, County Down. © Albert Bridge and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence.

Be flexible with pruning

With summer pruning of shrubs such as Weigela and Philadelphus (mock orange), you’ll be taking out the old flowered pieces of wood. You have to be flexible, though, and adapt pruning to the weather, the location and the vigour of the plant. As Sean Harkin tells us in this RHS video,

‘If it’s been a particularly dry year, or a particularly late year where the shrub’s flowered late, or it’s been over-pruned in the past, it’s fine just to give it a year off. Let the shrub recover and then go back to the normal shrub pruning the following year.’

Philadelphus coronarius (sweet mock-orange), Malleny Garden, Balerno. Pruning
Philadelphus coronarius (sweet mock-orange), Malleny Garden, Balerno. © Barbara Carr and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Let the sunshine in with summer pruning!

One of the two of us who write this blog has espalier apples and, sadly, it isn’t me. I do know, though, that summer pruning allows more sunlight onto the fruit to ripen it. And it will help to produce good crops next year. It’s the main form of pruning for restricted forms of fruit like espaliers, cordons, fans and pyramids.

Espalier fruit tree at Standen, West Sussex, England. Pruning
Espalier fruit tree at Standen, West Sussex, England. Released into the worldwide public domain by Graham Bould.

When you prune varies, depending on where you are in the country, but it should be when the bottom third of the new shoots is stiff and woody. Generally, that’s from mid-July for pears and from the third week in August for apples. To reduce the possibility of the tree shooting again, you can leave this job until late August.

You’ll be taking off anything you can’t train into the basic shape. So cut it back, leaving just three pairs of leaves. The RHS gives you much more detail.

Congratulate yourself

Summer pruning is a job well done. Time for some summer pudding with berries? A little cream with that?