Prune spring flowering clematis

Spring-flowering varieties need a chop.

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Spring flowering clematis are always a welcome sight with their scrambling habit and masses of flowers. There are several different types of clematis that flower in spring such as the very popular Clematis montana that flowers through May with white, pale pink or deep pink flower, depending on which cultivar you are growing. Other spring flowering types include the lovely Clematis alpina and C. macropetala, both of which have bell-shaped flowers in various shades of blue and C. armandii, a vigorous evergreen variety with its dark green glossy foliage and small saucer-shaped flowers in early spring.

All of the spring flowering types produce their flowers on the previous season’s growth and are in flowering group 1, which means any pruning is carried out after flowering. This then gives the plant all summer to make new growth that will flower next spring. These early types also tend to be vigorous and in just a few years they can grow into a very large plant, so a little annual pruning at this time of the year will help to keep the plant manageable and under control. For annual pruning to maintain a shape or the size of the plant, aim to cut back the old flowered wood, but if the plant is getting a little too large, prune back a little harder.

Using nematodes on fruit and vegetables

Be on the lookout for pests now and apply as soon as you spot them.

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With warmer weather and moist soils, fruit and vegetables should be growing well in the garden. Good growing condition are also the ideal conditions for many pests such as slugs, caterpillars, cutworms, carrot root fly and gooseberry sawfly, all of which if not controlled can ruin our crops very quickly. With the lack of chemical controls and the desire to grow our food as naturally as possible, many people are turning to the use of beneficial nematodes to help control garden pests on fruit and vegetables. Nematodes are microscopic creatures that cause no harm to the plants while searching for their pray. Once found they infect the slug, caterpillar or larvae with bacteria that causes infection and death. They are used to control the pest when it’s present on the plant and are not preventative. To work, the nematodes need the pests to be active on the plant or in the soil, otherwise they will simply die. There are various nematodes available, some such as slug killer are specific to molluscs, where as other are mixed using several different nematodes to help control a wide range of pests. Apply the nematode solution as a drench to moist soil or as a spray as soon as the pest is spotted and repeat through the growing season as directed on the instructions.

Codling moth traps

Protect your apple crops with this simple-to-use control.

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One of the main pests on apples and pears is codling moths. The moth itself doesn’t harm the fruits, but their caterpillars burrow into the core of the fruit to feed over the summer months causing a great deal of damage to the inside of the fruits. Commercially grown apples are sprayed with insecticides, but there are no effective chemical controls available to home-gardeners. An excellent chemical free way to reduce the damage cause by the grubs is to use Pheromone traps in the tree.

These are very simple to use and they work by luring the male moths into the trap by using the scent of the female moth. Once inside they become trapped on a sticky paper. Originally used on fruit farms to monitor the activity of the small brown moth in preparation for spraying, in a garden situation they work very well by reducing the number of male moths that would normally breed with females! Fewer fertilised females of course means fewer caterpillars to burrow into the fruits.  One trap will protect several trees and when used annually they really do help to reduce the Codling moth population. Traps are usually hung in the trees around mid to late May as the moths become active and they are available mail order or from garden centres. 

Divide and propagate polyanthus

It's a quick way to increase your flower power.

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Polyanthus are a type of primula and over the years they have been hybridised a great deal by plant breeders to create some excellent forms for the garden. They differ from primroses in the fact that polyanthus flowers are borne in a cluster on a thick stem, whereas primroses produce single flowers in slender individual short stems. 

They are hardy and will grow in most soils and the flowers come in a wide range of colours from soft pastel to very bright, plus unusually marked and edged flowers. Flowering can start as early as February and they can still be in flower up to the end of May.  Young plants are available for autumn planting or they can be bought in spring in flower to give instant colour.

Polyanthus sold in garden centres are all grown from seed and many are F1 hybrids that have vigour and excellent flowering ability. Some of the older named varieties such as Polyanthus ‘Gold Lace’ are also seed raised, but these tend to have smaller flowers and are more delicate and look great when naturalised in a border or grown in clay pots.

Another method of propagating polyanthus is to divide established clumps after flowering. This method is a fast and easy way to bulk up numbers, especially unusual or rarer colours.

Plant herbs for summer barbecues

Good to look at and eat, freshly picked herbs are a treat!

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The long, balmy summer days are not far away now and for many people that means the garden becomes an extension to the kitchen! Barbecues up and down the country are lit and families enjoy meals outside in the warm evenings.

And what better to add to your feast than herbs grown in your own garden, either to flavour meat or to add to salads? They’re easy to grow and can be started now in time to add extra taste to your summer.

Herbs have been grown in this country for hundreds of years, for medicinal as well as edible value. Either in the ground or in pots, as annuals (see page **) or perennials, there is a huge variety from which to choose – go with the ones you like and perhaps add in something new to try!

It’s a good idea to grow successionally so you have a long supply through summer and into autumn, and to grow near the house to make them easier to harvest. Herbs generally like a sunny spot, but young seedlings are as tasty to slugs, snails and birds as they are to us, so give them plenty of protection!

Fill shady areas

Many plants actually love these tricky spots!

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If you have an area of your garden that’s in full or dappled shade there are many different and interesting plants that you can grow with great success. Dappled shade is when light conditions are still fairly good, but overhanging branches and foliage filter the strong sunlight out.

Many plants favour and indeed prefer shady spots to grow and thrive. They are protected from direct sunlight which can cause young foliage to scorch and very often the soil retains moisture for longer because the heat of the sun doesn’t dry it out.

The range of plants that can be grown include spring bulbs, perennials and shrubs and by carefully selecting the plants you can easily create an attractive woodland-style border that will provide colour and interest for most of the year. 

Planting while the soil is still moist and mixing in some garden compost to improve the soil will help new plants settle in for the summer. For the first growing season it’s important to water around the roots in dry weather to make sure the plants establish well.

Grow easy veg

Try our favourite cucurbits for guaranteed crops that are ready to harvest quickly.

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It’s tempting to stick to old favourites, because they’re tried and tested and we know we can grow them well. But sometimes it’s good to think outside the box, giving ourselves new projects to try and new taste sensations!

However, often we don’t want to upset the apple cart and attempt to grow duds that just don’t work for us. But what if you could guarantee good germination, good growth, quick harvesting and prolific fruiting? Well, here’s our selection of colourful cucurbit characters, all from the same family of easy-grow veg, but with extra taste and unusual form. Wow your visitors with some crazy crops!

All will be ready to harvest from midsummer, only around 10 weeks or so from sowing, and are representative of their cucumber family by being undemanding – and not backward about coming forward in the amount of fruit they give off. Enjoy!

Grow hellebores from seedlings

They may take two years to bloom, but it's worth it!

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This spring hellebores have flowered well in the garden, although in some parts of the country they were a little later starting into flower as a result of the cold, wet weather. As border plants they produce a wonderful display of flowers in a range of colours for many weeks. Over recent years the popularity of hellebores has increased and there are some excellent new hybrids to choose from. As a result of all the cross breeding, new plants are no longer called by their original species names and instead are now all grouped together as Helleborus hybridus.

To propagate named varieties and keep them true to type, plants need to be divided in early spring, but if grown from seed they will naturally hybridise as the bees pollinate the flowers and you will get variations in colour. Most hellebores will self-seed if you leave on the seed pods after flowering and in spring seedlings will pop up around the parent plant. If carefully pricked out into trays of compost, kept in a semi-shaded area and then potted up into a rich compost as they grow, they will develop into strong plants. It normally takes two or three years to reach flowering size, but it’s worth the wait for the interesting mix of colours that will be produced. 

Plant up a strawberry patch

Start them now for a summer full of tasty, sweet fruit.

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It’s time to get your own little strawberry patch going now, if you didn’t plant one up in autumn. If you planted one up then, ensure you’ve tidied up the old leaves, the soil has been mulched and feeding has commenced.

Strawberries don’t mind most soils – the key element to strawberry growing is to keep the plants situated in really well-draining soil. Strawberries are versatile when it comes to soil type but when it comes to wetness, if they get waterlogged they may rot and die off.

Straw placed underneath the plants has a few benefits – it can retain moisture in really dry periods, prevents leaves and fruit from touching damp soil and rotting off, prevents weeds and also helps to deter slugs and snails, who may find the straw surface too rough to crawl across. Replace this straw if it gets soggy and muddy.

Plants grown in raised beds ensure nicely-drained soil, and strawberries in hanging baskets makes for a fun feature and means slugs and snails can’t get to them. Harvest fruit in dry, sunny weather so they taste sweeter, and continue to grow from the same plants for around two years – then replace.

Take pelargonium cuttings

It's an easy and successful way to get new plants.

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Pelargoniums you have housed in the greenhouse, overwintered and now springing up with new growth, can be propagated easily. Buying lots of new pelargoniums to beautify your patio can get expensive, so if you have a favourite that’s come through the winter, why not increase your stock for free? Plus, if you’re looking for a straightforward, successful propagating project to try, pelargoniums are best for guaranteed results, so it’s really satisfying.

Fresh shoots root more easily, so if you’re taking cuttings from your plants now or further into the summer, choose younger, non-flowering shoots as good material. Remove all the lower leaves, but ensure you leave around two or three leaves left at the top of the plant, so the plant can continue to develop. Too many leaves left on, however, means your cutting may lose too much moisture and falter. Ensure at least 18C for your cuttings to root, and keep the compost lightly moist at all times. Once your plants have rooted in at least six weeks – you can test them by pulling them gently and they’ll stay put, and they may also have the telltale sign of new leaf growth – then pot them on individually for growing on and planting out in summer.

Plant dahlias

Now’s the perfect time to get tubers in the ground for blooms all summer. Try our three favourite varieties:

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‘Gallery Rembrandt’
An outstanding decorative dahlia, owing to its tightly-packed, fuchsia pink double petals and yellowish centres. Compact height of 40cm (16in).

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‘Bishop of Llandaff’
One of the most sought-after old semi-double dahlias from the 1920s, with scarlet red flowers and bronze foliage. Height 1.1m (43in).

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‘Moonfire’
A well-known vivid single dahlia with attractive, deep purple foliage and fiery red and yellow blooms. Height: 80cm (32in).

Plant early greenhouse tomatoes

Why not try the 'halo' method, which promotes strong roots and good crops?

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Although it’s still a bit early, if you have a heated greenhouse or live in a really mild area, you can think about planting early tomatoes now.

The most popular method, especially with beginners, is to plant straight into grow bags, which have some advantages – the compost inside should be free from pests, diseases and weeds, and contain a balance of nutrients ideal for tomatoes.

Plus, you can also try ‘plant haloes’ to make the process even easier – either in your grow bag or into a greenhouse border of compost – which involves growing your tomato plants in tomato rings with a watering moat around the outside, pushed into your growbag planting hole. Put consistent amounts of water into one ring, and apply liquid feed to the other. This is supposed to help your tomato plants develop separate sets of searching roots – one for water and one for feed – meaning stronger, bigger roots and higher yields. Also it directs food and water specifically to each plant and not to the whole bag of compost!

Another method – ring culture – involves bottomless pots placed on a bed of aggregate, such as gravel. Many also find watering and feeding easier to control using this traditional method, and it keeps the root area strengthened, sterile and free of disease.

Harden off edibles

Help your baby plants get ready for the great outdoors.

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Most plants you buy when they are young, or those you’ve grown to baby stage at home, will need a period of acclimatisation to outside weather. Plants are sown or grown indoors into a false environment, so they’ll just need a period of time to adjust to the real world outside!

Environmental shock and unexpected plummeting temperatures can put paid to all your new little plants, so tease them in gently, before planting them out properly from next month. A little bit of wind is good too, which will help strengthen plant stems. The more tender plants, and those sown into warmer conditions, will need more hardening off than hardier types.

Depending on how many plants you have to harden off, you can bring them in at night, or if you have lots leave them outside and fleece them well.

It takes about two or three weeks to properly harden off plants, but do it for longer if you live in colder regions of the country, and leave it later to plant out if bad weather is forecast. Here are some key tips to successful hardening off.  

Try some exotic houseplants

Get a glorious head start on summer with colour under cover.

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As the weather finally warms up it’s easy to get carried away and think about sunny days, and all the tender exotic plants we grow. So how about creating your own mini jungle indoors or in the greenhouse to give you that exotic feel?

Bromeliads – a family of tender plants including the pineapple from, among other places, South and Central America, are actually really easy to grow. They often have showy leaves, and even showier coloured bracts or flowers, and appreciate bright light and temperatures above 10C in winter, with around 20C or so encouraging flowers to be produced once the rosettes become mature. After flowering the individual rosettes of many species dies, but new suckers are produced to create new plants. The bare root offshoots you can plant up are charmingly called pups.

Gesneriads are a different family of largely tropical plants, from South East Asia among others. In this family are some popular house plants, including African Violets and streptocarpus, as well as primulinas and gloxinia. See below for some superb types of both these families to try now.    

You may find some as part of the house plant section of garden centres, or you can find plantlets or bare-root plants online to try growing. Ebay and Amazon are two handy websites for the rarer specimens, but be sure of what you’re buying. Dibleys Nurseries (www.dibleys.com) have a superb selection of all sorts of gesneriads to browse. Time to create your own little unusual collection!

Plant early potatoes

And you'll harvest tasty spuds from June

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There is nothing nicer than the first new potatoes of the season dug fresh from the garden.  Early varieties of potato grow fast and planting to harvesting is around 13 weeks, depending on the variety and the soil temperature. For the tubers to start growing the soil needs to be warming up. Planting time varies depending where you live, but for much of the country late March and early April is when we’d normally start to plant. However, this year with the cold weather and snow, if you feel your soil is still too cold and wet, hold back for another week or so before you plant. In cold soil conditions the tubers will simply sit there and possibly rot! When it comes to varieties, there’s plenty to choose from and a few popular first early potatoes include ‘Rocket’, ‘Red Duke of York’, ‘Accent’, ‘Swift’ and ‘Aaron Pilot’. All have their own distinctive flavour and texture, so ideally grow more than one variety to try them.

Potatoes that have been ‘chitted’ in a light cool place to produce shoots, will start to grow faster, but if you’ve not already started them into growth, don’t worry as they will still grow. Plant into well prepared soil spacing the tubers 30cm (12in) apart. Alternatively, they grow well in pots of compost.

Plant up a hanging basket for the greenhouse

Start one off now ready to put outside next month

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Much like you may have been potting up bulbs and plug plants to grow on indoors before planting them out, you can do the same with hanging baskets. Much of a gardener’s work is planning and preparing for the next stage of the season, and this is a little job you can do with a couple of hours spare. It’s a lovely job, and will bring on the excitement of when you can hang them up next month!

In a wire basket, line with a fibrous mat, a ready moulded cardboard liner, or go naturalistic with some lawn moss. Put the basket into a pot to make it steady enough to plant in, and then cut some little holes in the sides for trailers. Unless your display is more permanent than about a year, use a really good multi-purpose compost that may have feed already in – your plants have a long season ahead of them producing flowers so they’ll need lots of nutrition. A John Innes no.2 will be better for longer term plants. You can also place controlled release (slow release) fertiliser to the planting mix too. Water retaining granules will also take away some of the chore of watering through the summer. Choose an array of colours and heights and habits of bedding, and tuck them in carefully, ensuring you’re not squashing lots in without enough room for their roots to grow.

Fill around with compost and firm in, watering well. Place your baskets in prominent positions in the sun next month.

Sow and grow parsnips

Start them off in the ground now for tasty winter crops.

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A very tasty and reliable winter vegetable is the parsnip. This winter root veg is hardy, meaning it can stand out in all weathers without being damaged. Roots are ready to start pulling in autumn and can continue to be lifted through until the following April. Parsnips are fairly easy to grow given the correct conditions. They prefer a good, well-drained soil as in heavy clay soils or stony soils the roots can be stunted or forked. Never manure the plot before growing parsnips as this also causes the roots to fork. It’s often thought that parsnip seed takes a long time to germinate and needs sowing early in the season. If sown too early in cold wet soils, the seed will simply sit there and rot. However, if sown at the end of March or early April as the soil is warming up, the seed will germinate and grown much faster. Exhibition growers start the seedlings off in deep containers, but for kitchen use it’s best to sow directly into the soil to prevent the tap roots being damaged as they grow. Always use a packet of new seed and choose one of the many excellent F1 hybrid varieties such as ‘Duchess’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Excelsior’ or ‘Palace’ that have good disease resistance to canker and produce good quality and tasty roots. 

Plant gorgeous gladioli

Start them now for stunning summer blooms.

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Gladioli are one of those wonderful plants where its impactful beauty and glamour far outweighs the work involved in growing it – a gardener’s dream, a real jackpot plant! With a bit of simple bulb planting, you’ll get impressive, tall, bright blooms all summer and into autumn.

It’s a more tender summer bulb than some, so shouldn’t really be planted out properly in the garden until late spring, but it’s well worth getting them going now in pots, popping them in a frost-free place to grow on and then they’ll be ready to bring out to the patio, or plant out in borders, when the frosts have gone in your area for the year. You can even keep them in the pot they’re growing in, creating a hole just big enough for the pot and its contents in your borders, and whip it out again in mid-autumn for overwintering. In milder areas of the country, you may plant gladioli bulbs out in the garden in late spring, leaving them be except for a thick mulch in late autumn to keep them warm.

When planting in pots, simply pack them closely but not touching, about 2cm apart, in pots filled with good multipurpose compost. Plant them 15cm deep.

A good tip is to plant them successionally from now, every 10 days or so for a couple of months so you’re blessed with a longer season of colour.