Tag Archives: garden tips

Plant spring bulbs in pots now to lift your spirits in 2017

First published by Rattan Direct on 7 September 2016.

Planting your choice of bulbs now, in your choice of outdoor pots, will give you hours of pleasure as winter slowly turns into spring.

And, as Christine Skelmersdale of Broadleigh Gardens says:

It needs no special skills and is virtually fool proof.

Prepare now – even though it feels like spring is months away!

Spring bulbs are so encouraging and cheerful at a cold time of year. In those bleak early days of 2017 you’ll be pleased and impressed you planted your very own bulbs in your very own outdoor pots. They’ll grow quietly over the winter and be ready to poke their green shoots up in the first few weeks.

As my co-blogger, Sarah, has already remarked about containers and pots:

Winter colour is such a welcome boost on rainy grey days that I always wish I had done more to create a bright spot to enjoy as I come home or look out of the window.

Most bulbs can be planted now, in September and October, but not tulips and hyacinths. Wait until November to plant these.

How to choose?

I choose what I like!

  • Scented flowers near doors and seating areas, and on the patio – they lift the spirit.
  • Bulbs that bees like. I like bees and I want to help them find early nectar when there isn’t much about. Seeing them going about their business, collecting pollen on quite cold days, is very therapeutic.
  • Flowers in colours that I love.

Which bulbs are good in pots and containers?

Oh, the choice!

I do love irises and for flowers in January it has to be Iris reticulata. That’s a sweet little iris, 10-15 cm (4-6”) high. Blue, cream, yellow or pink. Bees love them too.

Iris reticulata. Bulbs
Iris reticulata
By Rasbak, GNU Free Documentation Licence

In February and March small daffodils (Narcissi) always look good. You’ll have seen bright yellow ones (perhaps the Tête-à-Tête variety) on sale in the shops, selling you a bit of spring. But there are other colours too, ranging all the way through pale cream to white. ‘Minnow’ has an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society and smells heavenly. The little creamy flowers, five on a stem, have lovely yellow centres.

Tête à Tête daffodil with the heather Erica carnea in the background. Bulbs
Tête à Tête daffodil with the heather Erica carnea in the background
© Mawis and shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Muscari, grape hyacinths, smell wonderful (bees love them) and are very amenable to being grown in containers. They’re a good bulb for children to plant.

Colourful daffodils and grape hyacinths on a Cornish hedge beside the Gannel, Cornwall. Spring bulbs
Colourful daffodils and grape hyacinths on a Cornish hedge beside the Gannel, Cornwall. © Rod Allday, licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence.

Or you could choose:

  • the shining yellow of winter aconite
  • the starry blue, white or lavender jolt of chionodoxa (glory of the snow)
  • scilla (squills) with two to five nodding blue flowers on a purplish stem
  • erythronium (dog’s tooth violet) with several nodding creamy-white, yellow or pink flowers on the stem.

And crocuses, of course!

Crocus chrysanthus 'Prins Claus' © Ghislain118 www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net Bulbs
Crocus chrysanthus ‘Prins Claus’
© Ghislain118 http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net
Shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

And later, tulips – we’ll come back to them in a few weeks, along with how to layer bulbs in a pot.

How do I plant spring bulbs?

Tips for success from the Royal Horticultural Society and a few points of my own.

  • Choose a pot that’s big enough for the bulbs and the plant they will grow into. Tall daffodils are going to be forever falling over if they’re in a small pot and they’ll look silly too.
  • Like all winter containers, bulbs don’t like being waterlogged. Put some pebbles or old bits of pot over the pot’s drainage hole, put it on feet or bricks and make sure it’s out of the worst of the rain.
  • For just one spring’s display, use a mixture of three parts multi-purpose compost and one part grit. For longer term displays, use three parts John Innes No 2 compost mixed with one part grit. You don’t have to use bulb fibre.
  • Plant at three times the bulb’s depth and one bulb width apart. And, technical term, pointy end up.
  • After planting, water well to settle the soil gently around the bulbs.
  • (For indoor plants) Put the pots in a cool garage (max 10°C) or other well ventilated, dark place. Bring out when the shoots are about 10cm/4” tall and move the containers to a cool bright position indoors (approximately 16°C).

Enjoy! You’ll be so pleased you did this!

Enjoy summery days and prepare for winter!

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 17 August 2016.

Where I am, in lovely summery days, gardeners are starting to prepare for winter. For me, winter is not a welcome thought but deep in my bones there is an urge to save some summer to enjoy in winter. So this week I have two garden jobs that make the most of summer days and prepare for winter.

Collect and store the flavour of herbs for winter meals

There are different techniques for this. For each one, the day before has been warm and sunny, the herbs have flowered, and, when the leaves are dry, three or four clean and healthy stems covered in leaves are cut off. Next, rinse the stems in cold water to remove insects or soil, and shake the water off.

Store herbs
Sage leaves ready to cut and store for winter. Sarah Buchanan.

Either: air dry. Tie and hang the stems in bunches in a warm, dark and dry place until they are dry (at least a week), or hang them inside paper bags in the sunshine (bring them indoors in damp weather and at night).

Or: oven dry. Spread the herbs on a wire tray over a baking tray in a cool (barely warm) oven for an hour or so.

Or: microwave dry. Spread the herbs on two sheets of kitchen towel, with another sheet over them, and microwave on high for no more than a minute. Move them around and microwave for another minute, and so on (you shouldn’t need more than five minutes) until they are dry.

Once dry, remove the stems and any twiggy bits and crumble the leaves into sealed and labelled jars. Each time you need a herb, open up and enjoy the aroma and flavour.

Or: freeze. Finely chop the leaves and pack them into ice cube trays. Top up each cube with clean water and freeze. Once frozen, empty the cubes into labelled bags. Each time you need some herbs, pull out a cube.

Or: flavour oils. Put a clean dry stem of your chosen herb in a bottle of oil, seal and store in a cool dark place for a month or more.

TOP TIP: flavoured oils in pretty bottles make a lovely Christmas gift. (We gardeners always plan ahead!).

Store herbs
Cut sprigs of rosemary to flavour oil. Sarah Buchanan.

Prune summer fruits to encourage a good crop next year

My Dad did this, but some gardening books don’t talk about it. I do! Summer pruning helps keep a bush or tree in ‘shape’ and encourages fruit buds. Here is what I am pruning this week.

Summer fruiting raspberries: with sharp secateurs, remove the stems (called canes) that have carried fruit this year. Cut them about 2.5cm (1 inch) above the level of the soil. Don’t put the canes in your garden compost bin as they might carry disease: burn, or bin them in your green bin. As ever, the RHS provides great advice to help you.

TOP TIP: don’t prune autumn fruiting raspberries – sounds obvious but just check you are cutting canes that have fruited. They look dry and brown, and will have remnants of fruit cases on them.

Prune summer fruiting raspberries - look for the remains of fruit heads. Sarah Buchanan
To be sure you are pruning a summer fruiting raspberry look for the remains of fruit heads. Sarah Buchanan.

Gooseberries and redcurrants: cut about 1/3 off each side shoot and cut off any shoots growing from the very bottom of the central stem of the bush.

Blackcurrants: cut two or three of the older stems close to the ground.

Compact and trained apple trees: we mentioned this in an earier blog, so this is a reminder and encouragement. Remove any vigorous shoots that are growing straight up. Reduce the length of any long (more than 20cm or 8 inches) straight shoots that grew over the summer. And prune shoots from the sides of the tree (‘lateral’ shoots) like this:

– cut back new shoots growing from the main body of the tree to the third leaf from the base of their stem

– cut back new shoots growing from side shoots on the tree to one leaf from where they join the side shoot.

prepare for winter
Summer prune ‘lateral’ shoots on trained and compact apple trees. Sarah Buchanan


In damp areas it is good practice to treat pruning cuts on apple trees with a fungicide (such as MEDO) to prevent apple canker which can seriously damage or kill a young tree.


And after those jobs – enjoy the summer!

More free plants to share with your family and friends

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 20 July 2016.

Another idea for free plants for your garden!

Readers know I love a bargain plant. I love even better sharing favourite plants with family and friends. Softwood cuttings at this time of year are a great way of creating free plants from the plants you all already have. Just this week an old friend gave me four young plants grown from cuttings of a plant that I had given her, and which another friend had given me, many years ago and which I had lost meantime. Welcome back to Pat’s Dad’s pink daisy (actually, an osteospermum)!

Softwood cuttings are not difficult, and said to have the best chance of any cuttings of rooting well. It is so satisfying to see a new plant growing well. Here’s how to do it.

What are softwood cuttings?

The young, soft and flexible shoots of plants which, in soil, are able to produce roots. Softwood cuttings are usually 8 to 12cm long and look a little like a miniature plant. They root best from plants that are producing lots of strong young shoots and which are usually 2-3 years old.

Which plants can I use?

Pinks, perennial wallflowers (proper name is eryisimum and the well known variety is Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’), penstemons, aubretia, pelargoniums and fuschias are perfect candidates. These plants are not long lived and can become woody and leggy.

Softwood cuttings from pinks create free plants.
Take softwood cuttings from pinks and other short lived plants to create free plants. Sarah Buchanan.

Softwood cuttings also work well for some soft shrubs, such as buddleia.

There are other ways to make new plants from old read about some in our past blogs and start sharing plants.

How do I do it?

  1. Almost fill a flower pot (about 10cm across) with seed compost with some ‘silver sand’ or very fine (horticultural) grit mixed in (to help with drainage). All the ingredients are for sale in garden centres.
  2. Use a sharp penknife or kitchen knife and cut new and non flowering shoots from the parent plant. This is best done during the daytime. Each shoot is likely to give you a free plant, so cut the number of new plants you want, and a few spare. These are your cuttings.
  3. Cut off the base of the stem, cleanly, just below a joint with a leaf to ensure you don’t have any of the woody older plant attached. Then very ( and I mean very) carefully pull the leaves off the bottom two thirds or so of the cutting.
  4. Some gardeners then dip the base of the cutting in rooting powder, as the powder can help prevent rotting and encourage root growth.
  5. Using a pencil or something similar create a hole in the compost at the edge of the pot, and pop in the bald end of the cutting. Five cuttings will fit around the edge of the pot.
  6. Firm the soil gently, water gently and stand the pot on a shady windowsill. Keep the soil moist but not wet.
  7. After about eight weeks the cuttings are likely to have rooted. Gently pull them to see if they are. If they have rooted, move them carefully into a pot of their own and keep them moist. To create a good bushy plant, nip the growing tip out of the plant.
  8. Keep these free plants growing in their pots where you can ensure they are moist and protected from harsh winds. They will be perfect to give away or plant in your borders in the autumn or spring.
Pink pipings create free plants.
Pink cuttings, also called pipings, ready to grow into free plants. SarahBuchanan.

Fuschias and other thin leaved plants need some humidity – a clear plastic bag about 10cm taller than the cuttings and tied around the pot will help. Readers of our past blogs will know that pelargoniums like it hot and dry so leave them as they are.

Why now?

Softwood cuttings are best taken from May to July. It is a quick job on a dull day. And now’s your last chance!

Root for roots in late summer and early autumn cuttings!

First published by Rattan Direct on 13 July 2016.

Midsummer onwards is the time to take cuttings from some perennials, climbers, shrubs and trees. Stems of periwinkle, passion flower, hebe, box, bay and holly, for example, have now got six to eight weeks of new season’s growth under their belts and they are at the semi-ripe (or semi-hardwood) stage. Take a shoot between your fingers and bend it. If it’s pliable and hardening at the base, then it’s half-ripe and ready for you to take a cutting.

Box hedges, Greenway, Devon. Roots
Box hedges, Greenway, Devon. © Derek Harper and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) Licence.

Helping cuttings to grow roots

We want cuttings to produce roots as quickly as possible. That’s because roots anchor the plant in the soil, act like straws in seeking out and absorbing water and minerals from the soil, and store extra food for future use. Once this system is set up, then it’s time to for the cuttings to start growing strongly from the top again.

All plants have rooting hormones but gardeners sometimes also apply something extra in order to get a plant to produce more and denser roots. This increases the growth potential of the cutting, and so the plant’s chance of survival.

You could use commercially prepared hormone rooting compound or home prepared compounds such as willow tea  or soluble aspirin (whose active ingredient is also present in willow). Honey water (see link) made from natural (non-heated), dark honey has anti-bacterial properties and is said to help rooting. Cinnamon powder is said to act as a fungicide.

Anglesey black bee honey. Roots
Anglesey black bee honey. M K Stone.

How to take semi-ripe cuttings


Get your cuttings mixture organised: buy it or make it yourself from half all-purpose compost and half sharp sand or vermiculite. Fill some 9cm (3in) pots.

Select your semi-ripe cuttings from this season’s growth. Suitable cutting material will be available from midsummer to mid-autumn. Choose good-looking typical shoots which, for preference, haven’t flowered.


Cut just below a leaf to give you a stem about 15-20cm (6-8in) long.

Strip off any surplus leaves carefully at the bottom of the cutting. Nip off the growing tip if it’s very soft, and cut any large leaves in half to reduce water loss. This will give you a prepared cutting about 10-15cm (4-6in) long.

Apply your chosen rooting hormone, anti-bacterial or anti-fungal agent to the cut.


Insert about 5cm (2in) of cutting into the pot. Water well and allow to drain.

Place the cuttings in a greenhouse or cold frame, away from direct sunshine but not dark. Or you could cover pots with a plastic bag and put in a warm, light position, out of direct sunlight.

And afterwards

Remove excess moisture from inside the plastic bag but keep the compost damp.

The cuttings should root in six to eight weeks. Then feed them with a general liquid feed for a couple of weeks. Pot into single pots once the roots are well established and they have started to grow at the top.

Watch this Gardeners’ World video to be sure.

What actually works?

I’ve had my share of cuttings failures. This year I’ll be running a small experiment with four pots: one without anything extra, one with commercially produced hormone rooting powder, one with soluble aspirin, one with honey water. Oh, make that five, to include one with powdered cinnamon. I’ll let you know how I get on. [October 2016. Edited to add that soluble aspirin is way out ahead, followed by ‘nothing extra’. Interesting.]

A nurse dropping an aspirin pill into a glass of water; advertising soluble aspirin. Roots
A nurse dropping an aspirin pill into a glass of water; advertising soluble aspirin. Colour lithograph by M. Cliot, ca. 1910 ©Wellcome Images, made available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0




Help! Slugs and snails are destroying my garden!

First published by Rattan Direct on 29 June 2016.

Yesterday (at the time of writing) saw torrential rain here in Slug and Snail Country and levels of infestation have rapidly risen to Plague Level. I’m just in after a very depressing walk round the garden. Slugs and snails of every colour and size are on almost every other plant. Grazing, munching and oozing along. You really do forget, in mostly dry weather, how terribly destructive these wretched creatures are.

Helpful friends make helpful comments about what to do, which is kind of them but I don’t think they really understand my suffering. You have to live it to really get it. Anyway, here are a few of their suggestions plus my comments.

The natural way

Helpful Friend: Encourage natural predators like frogs and toads and hedgehogs.

Me: Fair enough and I’m delighted to have them in the garden but they don’t seem to be able to keep up with the supply.

A wall of snails. Slugs and snails
A wall of snails. ©Andy Rammy and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

HF: Use nematodes. You know, that parasite thing.

Me: Good idea and I’m doing that this year. It seems to have worked in some areas of the garden but it’s fairly expensive compared with other methods so I may have to make my own.

HF: Grow plants they don’t fancy eating. What about bear’s breeches, lady’s mantle, foxglove, euphorbia, fennel, geraniums, ice plant?

Euphorbia growing in the flower border at Dalby Hall, Lincolnshire. Slugs and snails
Euphorbia growing in the flower border at Dalby Hall, Lincolnshire. ©Dave Hitchborne and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.


Ice plant, Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy'. Slugs and snails
Ice plant, Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ (Hylotelephium spectabile ‘Herbstfreude’). ©Darkone and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

Me: This is how I’ve been getting by for years but I want to grow other things and I do miss having a fruit and vegetable garden.

The exclusion zone

HF: Have you tried copper tape or copper rings?

Me: I’ve tried copper tape. For snails you have to cut zigzags into it and then it’s very fiddly and easy to break. I found some in the shed yesterday and fiddled it on to a pot of mint. Today I found that one of the mountaineering snails had shimmied up a nearby pot and just leant across to have a nibble. I haven’t tried copper rings yet: they seem a bit expensive but I suppose if you’re desperate …

Slug cruising down the outside of the bedroom window. Slugs and snails.
Slug cruising down the outside of the bedroom window, April 2013. M K Stone

HF: Put sharp, scratchy things round your plants, like grit or something. Slugs and snails don’t like scratchy things on their tummy.

Me: I think it’s their foot rather than their tummy but yes, I get the point. The most effective thing so far has been the very raised bed with a band of sandpaper (for a belt sander) all around the top. When I filled it with soil I put in a layer of slug pellets. It’s been fairly successful except that new garden compost from the compost bin can harbour small slugs and snails or their eggs. And they sometimes drop in from the trees. But the big, mountaineering kind seem to have been put off.

HF: What about an electric fence? I read about one in Sweden.

Me: Yes, I read about that too. It seems fairly straightforward so I might consider it.

Put them out of circulation

HF: Take them for a long walk to another place.

Me: Good: you get some exercise and they get to see the country. Not so good: snails have a homing instinct.

HF: Throw them in the field or on the road.

Me: I do that sometimes. It does depend on how busy the road is, and I think the snails come back here after they’ve had a nice holiday in the field.

Kill them

HF: Drown them. Beer traps are a really good idea. What a way to go!

Me: Yes, I sometimes do this in a bucket of salted water with a heavy piece of wood on the top. I gave up beer traps years ago but perhaps I should look at them again.

HF: Keep hens and/or ducks.

Me: Yesterday my neighbour had already shut her chickens in for the night or I’d have given them something for supper.

HF: Use slug pellets.

Me: The iron phosphate ones are safe to use. It interferes with calcium metabolism and makes snails and slugs stop eating almost immediately. They die three to six days later. I don’t like the metaldehyde ones because they can be harmful to dogs, cats, and fish and they’re not recommended for use around edible vegetables. But it dehydrates them pretty quickly.

I really hope you’re not suffering with slugs and snails in your garden. Do count your blessings if you’re not. But, if you are, I recommend this more in-depth coverage of ways of dealing with the blighters.


Gardening tips: buy bargain plants and make your bulbs last

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

Bargain plants and making bulbs last from one year to the next can reduce the cost of gardening.

Top tip: bargain plants

Garden fetes, plant tables at school fairs and pop up plant stalls outside people’s homes offer a great opportunity to buy locally grown, tried and tested plants. Bargain plants! These may be rooted cuttings, established plants or leftover seedlings and young plants grown in local gardens. Prices are usually competitive, funds may go to good causes and – just as important – these plants are growing near you and are likely to thrive in your garden.

Bargain plants are plants that thrive in yoru garden
Look out for pop up plant stalls near you – they are likely to sell plants that will like your garden, and often at good prices. Sarah Buchanan, Somerset.

Other year-round sources of bargain plants include garden centres that offer plants just past their best at reduced prices, and I have many of these ‘casualty corner’ plants thriving in my garden. But beware the dried up, tired and feeble looking plant whose roots are bursting out of the pot and which, frankly, does not look as if it will live. It won’t be a bargain if it dies soon after you plant it at home. But shrubs and perennial plants that are just past their peak are a great bargain, and it is often a better time to plant them rather than when they are about to burst into flower or fruit.

Top tip: make bulbs last from one year to the next

Flowering bulbs are planted while they are dormant and grow underground to give us fantastic flowers as varied as allium, crocosmia, daffodil, gladioli and hyacinth. Look after your bulbs as they grow and they will reward you with flowers from one year to the next.

Water and feed

Make sure the soil around bulbs in pots doesn’t dry out when the bulbs are showing leaves and flowers, and for at least six weeks after they flower. The soil should feel moist, not wet, to the touch.

Apply a general-purpose fertiliser, such as Growmore (35g per square metre/1 oz per square yard), to bulbs in your borders during late February to encourage bulbs to flower well in the following season. In pots, apply a liquid high-potassium feed, such as tomato fertiliser, from early spring until six weeks after flowering ends.

Deadheading and cutting back leaves

Cut back dead flowers to the base of the flower stalk. Six weeks or more after flowering is over, cut back leaves that are yellow, brown and straw-like. It’s an old, bad, habit to tie or knot the leaves after the flowers are over. The leaves feed the bulbs for more flowers next year – give them the best chance to stun you with their flowers.

Bargain plants
Wait for the leaves of bulbs to die back before removing them. Sarah Buchanan

Lifting and storing bulbs

There is a lot of debate about this. If you want, or need, to lift and store bulbs, only do it once the leaves have died down. Then, use a small fork to ease the bulbs out of the soil, taking care not to damage them. Clean the bulbs, trim back roots with secateurs and remove outer loose, flaking layers. Only keep good sized, healthy bulbs (looking like ones you might buy) because damaged or diseased bulbs will get worse in storage and affect others. Dry the bulbs in an open tray in a shed or garage for at least 24 hours before storing them in labelled paper (not plastic) bags, cardboard boxes or nets in a dry, cool place.

The RHS advice is to ‘lift and store bulbs where this is practical’ and to leave in place bulbs in grass, borders or containers where they are underneath, and coming up through, shrubs or perennials. But read on about tulips – the special case in bulb circles.

Tulip bulbs need special care

Most bedding type tulips won’t flower year on year unless they are lifted, dried and re-planted. Follow the advice for other bulbs until they their leaves have turned yellow (about six weeks after flowering). If you have to move them sooner, put the bulbs and foliage loosely in trays until the leaves become yellow and straw-like. Clean the soil off the bulbs and discard any that may be diseased or damaged. Make sure the bulbs are completely dry before storing in trays or nets in a warm, dark well-ventilated place 18-20°C (65-68°F) before replanting in the autumn. Even after all this, another year of flowering is not guaranteed so plant the old bulbs in the less important beds, borders and containers in your garden and the new bulbs in the most conspicuous areas.

Within the tulip family, dwarf species (such as Tulipa kaufmanniana, T. fosteriana, T. greigii and their hybrids) often flower year on year without lifting,  and only need to be lifted to divide when overcrowded. And in warm soils, where the bulbs can be baked in summer, some species may flower from year to year and possibly multiply.

Bargain plants
Many tulip bulbs need to be lifted and stored if they are to flower year on year. Image by Rosendahl, in the public domain.

Strawberries! And be a sparkling cordial host

First published by Rattan Direct on 15 June 2016.

Why are strawberries called strawberries?

Strawberries planted back in April are starting to swell now. Soon they’ll be ready to eat. But before they get to that mouth-watering bright-red-all-over-stage and the weather is warm and they are at their most delicious, the plants need a little more care and attention. Especially if they’re in the ground rather than in a planter.

Garden strawberries (fraises du jardin). Cordial
Garden strawberries (fraises du jardin). © Gilgil and licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Keep watering and feeding them every week or so with a liquid potash feed (such as a tomato feed). Water from below to avoid rot.

Bad things? Oh no!

As the berries begin to develop, they become heavy and may lie directly on the soil. If the ground is wet, two bad things can happen: (a) they rot, especially if they get dirty (b) slugs and snails will eat them.

The solution

Just before the fruit gets to the heavy stage, raise the berries above the ground in some way.

  • Traditionally, straw was used, and that’s why they’re called strawberries! Tuck some straw underneath them. Straw doesn’t retain water if it rains (unlike hay) and lies randomly giving some ventilation under the fruit.
  • You could use special re-usable strawberry mats, impregnated with copper to repel slugs and snails.
  • You could make your own strawberry mat, backed up with your favourite slug and snail repellent. Just cut out a 30sq cm square of cardboard, make a slit from one edge to a hole in the middle and place them round individual plants.
  • Or you could use black plastic sheeting, kept in place with stones. Make some small holes to stop water gathering on it.

These methods keep the fruit dry. And in hot weather they act as a mulch, suppress weeds and help keep the soil moist.

Home grown strawberries are much more delicious than bought ones and these methods give your berries a very good chance of ripening and remaining whole. But slugs and snails seem to have their own agenda (and we’ll be coming on to this in another post) and some do like to hide in straw. Wood lice also like strawberries. And birds do as well so you may want to protect your berries with taut netting (taut and well above the fruit so that birds don’t get caught in any loose folds). Keep a close eye.

After your strawbs are over, remove whatever mulch you’ve used so pests and diseases don’t build up. And remove the old leaves with secateurs or hand shears.

Be a sparkling cordial host yourself

Homemade cordial is streets ahead of any you can buy.

The elder is now in flower – time to make elderflower cordial. It’s gorgeous on its own or with sparkling water. And I gather it’s brilliant with white wine and tonic, and possibly a touch of gin.

Elder flowers (Sambucus nigra). Elderflower cordial
Elder flowers (Sambucus nigra) near Muir of Lochs, Moray. © Anne Burgess and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When the sun is shining, pick creamy white heads with no trace of brown blossom. Try these recipes from Lotte Duncan and from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Elderflower cordial in bottles.
Elderflower cordial in bottles. © Jim Champion and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.

Rhubarb cordial is also fabulous. Here Sarah Raven experiments with rhubarb, strawberry and rose-geranium lower sugar cordials.

Rose geranium, Pelargonium graveolens. Cordial
Rose geranium, Pelargonium graveolens. Released into the public domain by its author, Laitche (http://www.laitche.com/)

Bertie Wooster, always cordial

P G Wodehouse’s character Bertie Wooster likes to see himself as a pleasant, cordial kind of chap. Cordiality is something that makes his world run smoothly – in the main, but not always. And Bobbie Wickham, with whom he falls in love on several occasions, is generally trouble, however cordial.

[Bobbie] greeted me cordially as I entered – in fact, so cordially that I saw Jeeves pause at the door before biffing off to mix the cocktails and shoot me the sort of grave, warning look a wise old father might pass out to the effervescent son on seeing him going fairly strong with the local vamp. I nodded back, as much as to say ‘Chilled steel!’ and he oozed out, leaving me to play the sparkling host.

Episode of the Dog McIntosh (1929) in Very Good, Jeeves (1930)


Tips for planting out seedlings

By Sarah Buchanan. First published by Rattan Direct on 8 June 2016.

Follow our tips for planting out seedlings of green leafy veg and leeks

When seedlings are at least 10cm tall:

  • Water them well the day before you plan to move them
  • Dig over and clear any weeds from the place you want to plant them
  • It’s best to move the seedlings in the evening, when it’s cooler
  • Use a trowel to make a small hole in the soil, about 10cm deep and as far apart as the seed packet suggests: cabbages and greens are usually around 30cm (about a 12″ ruler). Planting out doesn’t have to be in rows but it can be easier to care for and harvest plants if you do that. The space between rows should follow the seed packet advice; for green veg it is usually about 30cm apart
  • Fill each hole with water and let the water drain away
  • Next, separate the seedlings. Seedlings in pots need to be tipped out gently (sideways, not head first!) onto a spare seed tray or plastic sack, and seedlings in the ground need to be eased up and out with a small hand fork
  • Drop a seedling into each hole, firm the soil around them with your hands and water them well.

Some green veg plants, such as cabbage, are prone to cabbage root fly. You can head these critters off in one of four ways.

Option 1

Fit a ‘brassica or cabbage collar’ around the base of the seedling’s stem to stop the female fly laying eggs on the soil close to the plant. Ready-made collars can be bought from garden centres.

planting out

Option 2

DIY with circles or squares, about 8-15cm across, cut from carpet underlay, roofing felt, cardboard or something similar.

planting out
DIY collars for green veg to head off cabbage root fly

Option 3

Protect the seedlings or plants by growing them under a loose tunnel or the cover of horticultural fleece or insect-proof mesh.

Option 4

Use ‘Nemasys Grow Your Own’. This mixture of pathogenic nematodes is sold as a biological pest control and used against cabbage root fly larvae and other pests (including carrot fly, onion fly, leatherjackets, chafer grubs, sciarid flies, caterpillars, gooseberry sawfly, thrips and codling moth).

Longer term, reduce the risk of cabbage root fly by ensuring you don’t grow the same plants in the same place every year (crop rotation).

Special treatment for leeks

Leeks – the must have veg in so many recipes – need some special treatment. We want to eat long straight stems,  so planting out starts them off in deeper holes with clear edges (so they look like a tube).

  • Ideally use a ‘dibber’ to make holes 15cm deep, 15-20 cm apart and in rows about 30cm apart
  • Fill each hole with water, pop the seedling in and re-fill the hole with water again – no need to firm the soil around the seedling
  • No dibber? Use a trowel but make the hole as much like a tube as you can. Or shape an old tool handle to create a point.
planting out
Dibbers, a DIY model made from an old tool handle and a purpose made one.


Care and protection

Seedlings grown indoors or under shelter are likely to need some protection from winds or a day of too-hot sun. Put a loose layer of horticultural fleece over them, or over a ready-made or make-shift tunnel, for a week or so until they look settled.

plating out kale with wind protection
Kale seedlings planted out with temporary wind protection


Seedlings of tender plants – such as courgettes, pumpkins or beans – are best moved into a larger pot until they are small plants, then follow our tips for planting out.

Keep an eye on your vegetable youngsters

Water seedlings and plants, using a spray or rose on your watering can or hose, each evening for at least a week or so after planting out. Watch out for damage by slugs, snails or other pests, and take action to keep your veg for your table. Some seedlings or plants may fail – fill the gap with any spare seedlings of the same type. If there are lots of gaps it may be worth using the space for another plant – sow carrots, lettuce or another quick crop.

And if you didn’t sow seeds – buy ‘strips’ of seedlings or small plants, and follow the tips above to plant them out.

Bon appetit!

Take cuttings and be part of the spring/summer surge

First published by Rattan Direct on 1 June 2016.

Benefit from the impetus of the ‘May flush’

The ‘May flush’ is that wonderful swelling of energy when everywhere begins to burst enthusiastically with fresh new growth. Over these past few weeks I’ve been travelling regularly across North Wales and North West England, a complete and utter delight as the hedgerows, verges and front gardens have rolled past in mile after mile of foamy abundance. The hawthorn (may), cow parsley and mountain ash (rowan) have all been glorious in cream. The forget-me-nots have passed by in a blur of indistinct blue. The lilacs have been variously cream, dusty mauve and deeper red. Cream is always my favourite but I’m coming round to the other colours. They are all wonderful in the right place.

May (hawthorn) blossom lining the hedgerows at Hodge Lane, Hartford Junction, Cheshire. Take softwood cuttings at this time of year.
May (hawthorn) blossom lining the hedgerows at Hodge Lane, Hartford Junction, Cheshire, between the bridges. © Copyright Jo Lxix and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s had elements of the road movie. Travelling, travelling. Watching that amazing spring surge but somehow not being part of it.

But you and I can be part of it. The May flush has produced lots and lots of soft and sappy growth, ideal for softwood cuttings. It’s easy to take cuttings and grow your own plants. Doing this, somehow or another, you feel more part of what’s going on. No longer a watcher but a player.

Softwood cuttings

Softwood cuttings are taken from young, soft shoots early in the growing season before they ripen and harden. There is such energy in these cuttings that they will usually root very readily.

Taking a few small cuttings usually does no harm at all to a vigorous plant and the gentle pruning (which gives some shaping at the same time) may benefit it. When I was out and about last week I begged a few slips of the exotic French lavender from some acquaintances. This was my ‘recipe’.

French lavender. Propagate by softwood cuttings.
French lavender, Lavandula stoechas, looking good in Sardinia, Italy. Copyright Hans Hillewaert, licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Recipe for softwood cuttings such as lavender

You will need:

1 very sharp knife or nail scissors (or a sharp fingernail will do) so you don’t crush the stem

6 slips (small shoots) of very young growth

13cm / 5” pot (terracotta for preference as it allows cuttings and potting compost to breathe)

Some open, well-draining compost (something like half potting compost and half horticultural sand)

1 or 2 see-through plastic bags big enough to cover the pots, to prevent the cuttings from drying out.

What to do:

  1. Nip off six slips of very young soft growth about 10-13 cm / 4-5” long. Put them straight into the plastic bag and fold over the top.
  1. One at a time, take the slips from the bag and cut just below a leaf node (where the leaf is joined to the stem) where rooting hormones are most active, so they are about 5-10 cms /2-4” long. Cut at an angle as that will increase the area for rooting. Remove lower leaves, leaving an inch or so of stem bare; this prevents rot and encourages root formation at the node. Cut any large top leaves back by half, to prevent drying out.
  1. Using a pen or pencil, make six planting holes to accommodate two leaf nodes or about half the depth of your cutting, very close to the edge of pot. Drop in the cuttings and firm soil in place around them.
  1. Put the plastic bag over the top of the pot, possibly secured by an elastic band. Make sure the bag doesn’t touch the cuttings; you may need to support it with twigs, or a bit of metal coat hanger.
  1. Put in a warm place out of direct sunlight. A north or north-west facing window sill where the light and temperature is steady is ideal.
  1. Remove the plastic bag for 10 minutes or so every day to allow air to circulate and reduce risk of mould.
  1. Watch for new growth and, after a few weeks, test for roots by pulling gently on each slip. If the cutting has rooted (‘taken’), then pot it into its own 10cm / 4” pot. When the roots have filled that, either pot on again or harden off and transplant into the garden.

Watch Monty Don take rosemary softwood cuttings for Gardeners’ World.

My French lavender cuttings are looking fairly happy and I hope they’ll have rooted in three or four weeks. I’ve also taken some cuttings of other lavender to replace plants lost to winter frosts, and some rosemary for a small and fragrant hedge just where the front gate swings open. Later in the year I’ll take some pelargonium cuttings from a plant with a particularly lovely deep red flower.