Professional Gardener Blog

Winter ❄️ becomes Spring 🌱

Last time I wrote I was extolling the beauties of autumn.  Within days winter arrived with a bang! We had the heaviest snowfall we’ve had for a number of years and in spite of some lovely sunny weather there has been consistently cold weather, especially at night.  And now, at time of writing, we have the coldest snap for 10 years.  Just when spring was in sight, when the snowdrops have been brilliant and all the other bulbs are pushing through and buds fattening on the spring shrubs, it is like the whole lot has been shoved in the freezer.

The snow in early December caused a lot of damage.  Virtually every conifer suffered.  Either branches broken clean off or twisted and bent out of shape meaning they could not be repaired.  The problem was the sheer weight of snow: 8 inches fell in 12 hours, froze overnight and stuck like glue.  Some larger shrubs keeled over.  Made top-heavy with snow they were levered out of the ground.  Suffice to say, 48 hours of snow created three weeks of clearing up!

Normally on March 1st I would be pruning roses. Not this year! 🌨

Using a combination of chainsaw, pole-pruner, pruning saw and loppers the whole lot had to be carefully and safely brought down to the ground, cut up and carted off.  If nothing else a great winter exercise routine.  There are many reasons gardeners are fit and healthy and this is just one of them!

The good news is that when we have not been pre-occupied with clearing up after winter, there has been time to actually make changes in the garden: to work on new planting schemes and make adjustments to the layout of beds and borders.  The new woodland corner has been completed, plants and all, and the construction and planting of a brand-new fernery, tucked away behind the priory church in the space of an old chapel, is nearing completion.

Believe it or not there has also been time before this cold snap to cut the grass.  Taking advantage of a dry spell in January I have been able to get the mowers out and go over all the lawns on a high cut.  It is not so much to cut the grass, although in one or two places it did need cutting, it is more to consolidate the ground.  Iron out all those bumps and lumps that winter and worms combine to build, so that the surface is good and even ready for the coming season.

Normally by now I would have been looking to rake and scarify the fine lawns.  This achieves several things, but mainly it takes out any moss and aerates the surface.  It has been a good(!) autumn and winter for moss, there is plenty of it.  Normally, when it is a bit warmer than we have had of late, I would first treat the moss with a proprietary moss-killer.  This quickly kills the moss (you know it’s dead because it goes black) which is then easier to rake out.  Looks like I’ll have to wait a while for this job, but as long as it is done before the grass really gets going it’ll be OK.

Other tasks in the next month or so include pruning the roses.  I have many different varieties to look after and although there are exceptions, my rule of thumb is to carry out the major prune at the start of March.  So much is written about pruning roses it makes people nervous.  And yes, there are some right ways and wrong ways to prune them.  But one thing I would say to bolster confidence, is don’t be shy.  Roses are vigorous growers, so get stuck in.  Once pruned remember to feed: I use pelleted chicken manure and a mulch of well-rotted garden compost.  Roses are hungry plants too.

On the other hand, snow can transform the garden into a winter wonderland! ☃

The last days of winter are the ideal time to make sure tools are oiled and sharpened and ready to go in spring.  Well maintained tools, both manual and mechanical, do a much better job and make life easier.  Whether you do it yourself or take your tools and machines to a local lawnmower shop, it is an investment that repays itself.

Here’s to a fantastic spring, good gardening to you!

Autumn 🍂 fades to Winter ❄️

What a wonderful autumn it has been for colour.  Even in the last days of November the magnolias and field maples are golden yellow and the oaks and beeches golden brown.  The weather has been kind to us so far, not much frost and no really cold weather, so there has been no excuse not to be busy in the garden.

Last time I wrote I still had the long yew hedge to cut:  300 yards of mixed topiary.  Well it is all done now with the help of a variety of hedge trimmers.  For the first time I used battery powered trimmers as well as conventional petrol engines and I have been impressed with the performance.  Of course, I made sure the trimmers were kept very sharp.  Any tough, woody material takes its toll on blades and a blunt cutting edge will use the battery more quickly, so a daily sharpen with a diamond file kept them in good shape.  It is better for the plant too, as a clean cut will heal better than a tear.

Topiary yew hedge before…
…and after its Autumn haircut ✂

It won’t surprise you to hear that a 10-acre garden with lots of lovely ornamental and mature trees produces a lot of leaves!  Some years autumn seems to consist of nothing but leaf blowing and collecting for weeks on end, and others years somehow the leaves disappear magically in the night, blown out of the garden into surrounding fields and countryside.  This year has been the former!

But the good news is leaves are very, very useful.  Leaf-mould is a brilliant soil conditioner, pulled down and mixed into the soil by earthworms, it opens up the structure of the soil.  Over time it will help with aeration and drainage and reduce soil compaction.  What I like to do is collect the leaves with a lawn mower.  Not only does this shred the leaves so they rot down quicker, but the little bit of grass you cut at the same time adds a bit of moisture which helps the leaf-mould break down even more quickly.  I then put this straight on to beds in a thick layer and hey presto, instant mulch.  Leaf-mould done this time last year is now a lovely workable planting medium.  And it’s easy to weed too.

One thing I found when mowing up the leaves is that a mower without a rear roller is so much better.  Leaves just get stuck in a roller and you can end up making a right mess.  The same goes for cutting grass at this time of year.  Because it has been a very mild autumn the grass continued to grow, albeit more slowly, but enough to need a cut even in November.  Because the grass is damp the chances are a rear roller will skid and smear the turf, so a mower without one will do the job with little or no damage.

Obviously autumn is when the garden is put to bed for the winter.  Herbaceous borders are tidied up, beds get the final weed and various shrubs get an end of season haircut.  It’s also the time when I start to think about any tree work I need to do.  Most trees are pruned in their dormant period, winter, when they are not actively growing.  It is also easier to see what you are doing once the leaves are down.  During the year I make a note of any trees that need attention, maybe marking branches that are a problem. Then over the course of the winter months I work my way round making the necessary changes.  The most useful tool for this is a pole pruner, i.e. a small chainsaw on pole.  This enables me to work from the safety of the ground removing any low or damaged branches.

A magnificent Pride of India tree ‘Koelreuteria paniculata’ in all its autumn glory 🍁

Autumn is also the time when trees and shrubs are planted.   The ground is still relatively warm, so roots can get a head start, and hopefully the winter rains will provide ample water to help plants establish.  It is the time of year when we do bigger projects:  maybe a larger planting scheme, new beds, or as I am doing, a new woodland corner with a set of steps sweeping down a steep bank to open up a part of the garden previously by-passed by visitors.  It is work in progress, but by next spring it should be an interesting and colourful addition to the garden.

Summer ☀️ meets Autumn 🍂

As we moved into summer I was desperately hoping for rain.  A dry winter and spring had taken its toll and just about every type of plant, including trees, was beginning to show signs of stress.  Grass which normally grows fastest in April, May and June before slowing down in high summer, had already virtually stopped.  Trees were dropping leaves as though the onset of autumn was imminent, and more generally fruit and flowers were coming early.

All of which meant plenty of watering, and I mean plenty: hoses, watering cans and irrigation systems.  I hate to think of the water bill.  We have a lot of large terracotta pots with mixed displays of pelargoniums and summer annuals so daily watering was vital, remembering to feed the pots with seaweed extract weekly.  In the spring I planted 75 metres of new beech hedge and without regular irrigation by now it would have given up the ghost.  Newly planted trees from last autumn would normally expect to have received a good drink over winter, but like the hedge they have also been regularly watered.

Luckily as soon as the school holidays began we got some rain.  You could almost feel the garden, and the gardeners, breathe a sigh of relief.  Of course one down side of rain is all the weeds which have held back suddenly burst into life!

Grass care has been different this year.  The warm, dry spring and early summer meant I had to hold back on fertilising the lawns.  A smaller lawn could have been treated and thereafter watered with a sprinkler, but I have too great an area of lawn to do this, so I just had to wait and let the lawns turn brown.  Now though they have recovered to a good shade of green, as they always do.  Grass is so resilient.

Because I have not been cutting grass as much this season, one thing I did out of season was to scarify an area of grass that always seems to be very mossy.  I took advantage of the dry conditions firstly to treat the moss with moss-killer and then a week later use a mechanical lawn rake to remove all the dead and blackened moss.  This is a job I would normally do in spring or autumn but the dry conditions made the job lighter and easier.

In the garden, I have hundreds of yards of yew hedging to prune.  This is a huge job, but one I really look forward to, but given the time it takes I can only afford to do it once.  In previous years this has all been done in one hectic week in late September to ensure that there is no re-growth after cutting and that the topiary shapes and hedges retain nice sharp edges through until next spring.  This year however I decided to spread the workload and made a start in August.  Yew seems to put on all its growth, up to 12 inches, in just a short time from May to August.  I use a variety of powered hedge trimmers, including long and short reach tools, and make sure they are good and sharp. I still have a long way to go, about 300 yards, but I am getting there.

I love the clean, sharp lines of newly cut yew hedges.

Another big task coming up is to cut back the wildflower meadow and all the areas of long grass where the daffodils grow.  We let all our daffodils die back naturally which means by the time they have done so the grass is quite long.  Rather than cut this during our open season and have great patches of yellow grass, we leave them until the garden closes to visitors.  To cut down the grass and meadow I use a variety of machines and tools.  Small areas are done with strimmers, but the larger expanses are done using a powered scythe.  This makes short work of thick long grass which can be left for a week or so for all the flower seed to drop through to the ground before the dry grass is raked up and put on the compost.

With high summer coming to a close autumn will soon be upon us: dewy mornings and leaf fall, preparations for harvest festival and the end of grass cutting for another year.  But while it lasts enjoy the spectacular colours of perennial borders and all that produce to be harvested in the kitchen garden.

Enjoy the hot colours of a stunning late summer border.