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.

Plant asparagus

It needs patience but start it now for tasty crops that are worth the wait!

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Though a long-term crop that you have to invest in for more than a few years, it’s such a worthwhile crop to get going – but be patient! It can take two or three years for a suitable crop of spears to emerge, but this perennial will give you delicate-tasting spears for ten years or more. It needn’t be a large bed too, a few crowns will suffice, but make sure you plant at least three to get a decent harvest.

It’s easier than you think to grow – the latest varieties grow well in simple trenches and cope well with the weather, and once you’ve got it in, there’s only a little maintenance and your crop will perform year on year.

If you have heavy or clay soil it can take a bit of work to prepare the planting area, as they like really well-drained, compost-improved soil. Grow your asparagus in a trench to make it easier to provide the crowns with the right conditions. At the base of your 30cm deep and 30cm metre wide trench, mix in lots of compost and grit, as well as a few handfuls of blood, fish and bone.

Make a central long mound in the trench and put the crowns on top of the mound, draping the roots out and over the ridges of the mound. Cover over with the top soil. Choose a sunny spot for your trench, removing as many weeds as possible.

Cut all the foliage to the ground in November this year, mulch the bed, and then lightly pick a first crop next year, and increase your harvesting amounts each each year after that.

Repot orchids

They appreciate fresh compost every few years

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Spring is an excellent time to get things in order, check over plants for signs of damage or stress and help them out for the coming season. Orchid houseplants can eventually outgrow their pots, the roots becoming congested inside, and will need repotting. However, regardless of whether they’ve outgrown their pot, you should repot your orchids every couple of years as you can then provide it with fresh compost – the airy, bark compost tends to naturally break down, becoming too congested for the roots, which like air and light getting to them.

Your orchid’s clear pot is clear for a reason – the stringy aerial roots, even when tucked away in there, will get the light to them, which is essential to them. It also helps you see inside, to check healthiness and to see whether it needs watering, so try and keep your clear pot if you can, or source new ones from a garden centre. Always leave alone the roots that are poking out into the air at the top of the pot of their own accord; don’t try to tuck them tidily away inside as they like to search for air and light.

Once you’ve repotted, water well but don’t let it sit in water. Going forward, a good tip is add a couple of ice cubes onto the surface of your orchid – keeping away from the foliage – every week for watering. They slowly melt, giving time for the roots to absorb the water without being swamped immediately.

Sow tomato seed

They just need a little gentle heat in a frost-free greenhouse.

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There is nothing finer than being able to pick your own fresh tomatoes in the summer. The taste is wonderful, simply because you can allow the fruits time to fully ripen on the plants and therefore develop their own, individual flavour.

Growing tomatoes from seed is not difficult as long as you can provide a little gentle heat while the seeds are germinating and also to nurture the small seedlings on afterwards. A propagator in a frost-free greenhouse is ideal, or a small windowsill propagator can be used as an alternative.

The secret is not to sow too early in the season. If you want plants to grow in a cold greenhouse now is a good time to sow to produce plants for planting out or potting into large pots or grow-bags in late April. To raise plants to be grown outside, wait a few more weeks as you don’t want the plants to be ready until late May or after the risk of frost has passed. If you start too early, you often end up with weak, leggy plants.

After the seed has germinated which can take between one and two weeks, depending on the temperature, the seedlings will need light, warm (but not too warm) conditions to grown on for several weeks.

Plant a peony

Conditions are perfect right now, and plenty are available to buy.

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For a plant so bold and with flowers so big, beautiful and dramatic, it’s always amazing to know that peonies are really easy to grow, and with good siting and a little ongoing care, they will perform wonderfully each year for you.

While autumn is a good time to settle in bare root peonies, so they develop good root systems, it’s also perfectly fine to get planting both now, in early spring as the soil warms up again. Perfect for those who didn’t manage to plant one then, or didn’t have the space till now. Potted peonies can be planted at any time as long as the soil is pliable – the soil is pliable and warm now, providing the perfect conditions. And right now there’s a whole host of varieties available in garden centres and online to plant up, too.

In a sunny or partly shady, moist but well-drained spot, dig in a helping of compost or well-rotted manure before you plant. For bare root, plant with the ‘eyes’ (new buds) just below the surface – about 3cm down. Potted peonies can be planted as other container plants – level with the top of the compost to the soil surface. And that’s it – just water them in well. Stake plants if needed and cut back the foliage to the ground in autumn.

Sow perennials

It's a cheaper way to provide lots of plants for your borders.

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Perennials are great for adding colour and interest to the garden where they can either be planted on in an herbaceous border, or they can be used as part of a mixed border with shrubs and annuals. Many perennials are propagated from either cuttings or by division, but you can also grow them from seed with great results. This is ideal where you want large numbers of plants and it will work out much cheaper than having to buy in lots of plants from a nursery or garden centre.

Traditionally perennial seed was sown in late summer to produce small plants for planting out the following spring into their flowering position, but by sowing in early spring, many types of perennials will produce a flush of flowers in their first season. The flowers in the second year will be stronger, but by getting them to flower in their first year, you can weed-out out any colours you don’t want, or weak plants, keeping the best to grow on permanently. To get the seeds to germinate this early in spring, the seeds need to be sown undercover in a greenhouse or conservatory and they will need gentle heat. The easiest and most cost-effective way to do this is with an electric propagator that provides gentle bottom warmth as they grow.

Grow fruit and veg on the patio

You can save space but reap the rewards of plentiful harvests

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Not many of us these days have a lot of room for a thriving veg patch as well as beautiful flower borders. But if you’re really keen on growing a wide range of veg without taking up too much ground space, you can always get growing on the patio.

It’s amazing the amount of produce you can harvest from containers, and in many cases it’s better for the plants to be grown this way – good quality, crumbly soil with a long root run and all the right watering and feeding is far better sometimes than the hazards of the open ground.

There are lots of specific kits out there at the moment with growbags, compost mixes and all the vegetable material you need to make it easy for you to make yourself a mini potted allotment, but you can also do it yourself with old potato growbags and large pots. As long as you emulate the conditions the plants need in the open ground, and are mindful that containers need more watering and feeding than ground-grown plants, then it’s an easy, fun job for a summer of tasty food!

Turn the compost heap

This vital job will help you assess its progress and keep it healthy.

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How’s your heap going? Perhaps you started one up last year, and slowly you’ve begun gathering kitchen and garden waste to transform into compost goodness to give to your plot over the coming years. Well it’s a year-round job to keep on top of it, to make sure it’s got the right amount of different materials inside, is kept healthy, moist and airy at all times and turned over regularly.

Turning your heap is one of the essential jobs, which helps all the good bacteria that decompose your waste speed up the process and rot it all down effectively. It’s also a good way of assessing the moisture content and the smell, and gets vital air into the heap. If your heap’s cold and frosty it may be that it’s not composting quickly enough due to its low temperature – consider a closed heap in a sheltered spot, which will warm it up a bit and help the composting process.

Ensure your ratio of waste is kept correct – aim for up to about half of the heap as wet grassy waste, kitchen waste, annual weeds and perennial trimmings, for example, with the rest as woody waste prunings. This will set out the right balance for you first off, so that turning the heap will simply be a case of maintaining the equilibrium.

Plant the ultimate spring pot!

There are plenty of plants to choose from right now.

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It’s always great fun at this time of year to see what’s on offer in the garden centres, and pick out some super spring blooms to show off. There are plenty of potted bulbs, but have a look round to see what else you can bring together beautifully, for an unusual but spring-like creation. Alpine and rockery plants are usually making their first appearance in garden centres for the year, so consider some of these in your plantings.

For a temporary display, use multipurpose compost, and feel free to add a few evergreen plants such as ferns or shrubs such as small hebes, leucothoe or skimmia – once you dismantle the contents of the pot these can be planted out in the garden. Often the effect with these temporary plantings is glorified flower arranging, until you transfer some of the plants elsewhere.

If your pot is larger and intended to be more permanent use a soil-based compost such as John Innes no.2. A wonderful way of making your pot more naturalistic looking, as if it’s just stepped out of an established garden scene, is to top it with moss – florist’s moss, lawn moss or packeted sphagnum moss that you can buy. This also serves as a nice weed suppressant and moisture retainer if need be.

Pot strawberries in containers

Get growing now and you can start picking in June!

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There’s nothing nicer than a strawberry picked fresh from the garden in early summer. Their flavour is wonderful, especially when the fruits have been allowed to fully ripen on the plants in the warm sun. Strawberries are very easy to grow and can be grown in several ways. Traditionally, they’re grown in the garden, but they also grow very well in any type of container such as a hanging basket, pots or troughs. One of the main advantages of growing in containers is you can grow them undercover in a greenhouse or conservatory to get an early crop and being in pots makes them easier to protect from birds and slugs, both of which love the ripe fruits! They will also grow very well outside on a patio or in a sunny spot.

For fruits this summer there is still time to plant in containers and you’ll find bare-root runners for sale from mail order companies or potted plants in garden centres. Once you have the plants all you need is some containers to grow them in and a bag of good quality multipurpose compost as the strawberry plants are going to be in the pots for two or maybe three years. If you pot now, by June you’ll be picking your first strawberries of the season!

Prune Group 3 clematis

Some simple care now will see your climber bloom again in summer.

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Clematis are one of the most popular climbers that we grow in our gardens and the range of different types is huge. With just a little planning it’s possible to have clematis in flower for much of year, from mid-winter through until late autumn. Flowers come in all shapes, colours and sizes and the foliage also varies, with some varieties being evergreen.

Clematis are divided into three groups, depending on when they flower in the year. As a guide, Group One flower from mid-winter to mid-spring, Group Two from late-spring to mid-summer and Group Three, from late summer into autumn. The group the clematis are in also determines when the plants should be pruned, so even if you don’t know the name of your clematis or have lost the label, by noting when it flowers, you can easily tell what group it’s in and when to prune.

For group three clematis such as ‘Jackmanii’, C. texensis, C. viticella, C. tangutica and the other late flowering hybrids, we prune in late winter, before new growth starts. This is because they flower on the current season’s growth, meaning all the new shoots made this spring and summer will produce flower buds. Pruning of group three clematis is very easy and is simply a case of cutting the plants back hard. 

Chit your potatoes

Prepare them now for a healthy head start before planting out

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Seed potatoes for planting this growing season are now available in garden centres or from mail order companies. Depending on where you live in the UK, planting early varieties of potatoes is usually done between mid-March to mid-April, or when the soil naturally starts to warm up. However, once you’ve got your seed potatoes you can start to prepare them ready for planting. This is known as chitting and is when the dormant buds or eyes at the top of the tuber are gradually started into growth to develop into short, green shoots.

Although seed potatoes can be planted and will grow perfectly well without being chitted, those that are started into growth will get off to a head start once they are in the ground.  Normally it’s only first and second early varieties that are chitted as they’re the ones that are planted early in the growing season. To start them into growth stand the tubers, eyes upwards, in trays or old egg boxes and place them in a light, frost-free place. An ideal temperature is between 5C-10C. If too cold they remain dormant and if too warm, the growth will be thin and spindly! The process takes around six-weeks for the shoots to develop properly, so early to mid-February is a good time to get them started. 

Make it a year for marigolds!

These glorious plants will bring colourful beauty to your garden.

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Did you know 2018 is the Year of the Marigold? It’s part of an international campaign that takes place every year to help boost different plant and seed sales – this year it’s the turn of the lovely, humble marigold. And yet, some of the glorious varieties available to grow these days look anything but humble! See below for some real stunners to add a fabulous addition to your garden.

Both types we’re familiar with – African and French marigolds – can be sown now indoors, with a bit of gentle heat to get them going. Sow the dainty, flaky seed batons finely on good, lightly moist seed compost, and then cover up with a thin layer of more compost. Kept at around 15-20C, germination should take between a week and two weeks, and once large enough to handle you can prick them out, transplant them and grow them on in separate pots. Plant them out in your best patio pots in a sunny spot at the end of May, for all to see their colourful beauty. You can even sow them directly outside from around April.

Many seed companies and garden centres also offer ready-grown plug plants, so for those with other, more pressing garden jobs to be getting on with, it’s is a nice, simple and easy way to bring beautiful summer container bedding to your garden.