Build a mini alpine trough

Try this fantastic early-season project


These make great outdoor table centres, or larger ones are perfect spring additions to your patio planting. Head down to many garden centres now and you’ll see fresh spring alpine and rockery plants on display for sale, such as tempting spring blue-flowered aubretias, sedums, erodiums and iberis, plus echeverias and other succulents.

Larger garden centres, such as Dobbies in particular, have a vast range of paraphernalia to make your own mini troughs – a fantastic early spring project to get you going for the season!

Pick a trough – light plastic replicas are perfect for the job, and will be lighter and more manageable than real ones. Ensure it has drainage holes.

Next select your rocks if you have room, small and large in different coloured striations. Cover the drainage holes with a few large pebbles and gravel to aid drainage and prevent holes clogging up, and then fill up your container with a light free-draining compost such as 50 per cent John Innes no.2 mixed with 50 per cent grit. Arrange your plants and set them in, firming down nicely. Place your rocks and stones around and finish with a later of grit or gravel on top around the plants.

Here are GN’s recommendations for a spring rockery. Click the images to find out more!

Choose new pea and bean varieties

Don’t miss out on some of these wonderfully colourful and tasty crops


Taste is, of course, key to growing your own crops, so once you find a variety you like, it’s sensible to stick to it. But on the other hand, when it comes to the kaleidoscopic world of peas and beans, you don’t want to miss out on a whole heap of colour and variation available from seed companies.

Why not go online or sift through your seed catalogues to pick out a few fresh and exciting ones to grow now – all peas and beans are easy to grow, too. You might find a few other varieties you love for both taste and colour, to freshen up your cooking. You’d never know of the wonderful range you can try from supermarkets, either, who seemingly stock for utility. And there’s no doubt about it, nothing is nicer than picking your own fresh, intensely flavourful, unusually colourful crops!

As peas like cooler weather, you can start them and mange tout off now outdoors, as well as broad beans, and now’s the perfect time to order in some new runner or French bean seed for April planting.

You can also start off all types in pots for the greenhouse over the next few weeks, ready for planting out later as young plants to get you ahead for the new growing season. Plant out into a moist but well-drained, open sunny spot, or grow in pots for the patio – but remember to water and feed them well in containers.

Below are our recommendations of four to seek now! Click the images to find out more…

Cut down deciduous grasses

Pruning is simple and encourages healthy growth this spring and summer

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Ornamental grasses in all shapes and sizes are good for adding colour, structure and texture to the garden. Many are grown for their attractive summer foliage, but even in winter when the foliage has turned golden-brown, they still add height and movement to the garden.

Deciduous grasses are like herbaceous perennials in the fact that the foliage dies in winter and new growth is made from ground level in spring. By late winter after rain, snow, frost and wind, many grasses that are still standing are starting to look a little tatty around the edges. This is the point that they need cutting back to encourage a new flush of growth over spring and summer.

Pruning is very simple and with all deciduous grasses is simply a case of cutting all the old growth back to an inch or two off ground level with shears or secateurs. All deciduous grasses, such as miscanthus, calamagrostis, molinia, and hakonechloa can be cut back now. Evergreen grasses such as carex, festuca and luzula are not usually pruned hard, but there are a few semi-evergreens including stipa and anemanthele (pheasant’s tail) that do respond to being cut back, especially if their foliage has been damaged by winter weather. Cutting back now will ensure a healthy clump of grass in summer.

Chit your potatoes

Early varieties can be started off now for a summer harvest

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It’s that time of year when we start to think about the vegetable garden and one of the first we can get started with is early potatoes. It’s too early to plant them in the garden, but it’s the perfect time to buy seed potatoes to prepare for planting. There are three groups of potatoes, first earlies, second earlies and maincrop. Early potatoes are faster maturing and lifted and eaten fresh through the summer, whereas main crop is harvested in early autumn and can be stored over winter. Seed potatoes, which are virus-free tubers grown for planting, are available now from mail order companies, or in garden centres and nurseries, and it’s a good time to buy them.

To give early varieties a head-start we normally chit them, which basically is starting them into growth to encourage the dormant eyes (buds) to develop small shoots. Main crop potatoes aren’t usually chitted because they’re planted later and have a longer growing season. 

To chit the potatoes you need to stand the tubers in a light position with a temperature of around 8-10C (46-50F). Much warmer and the growth will be leggy and weak and if colder, growth will be slow and chitting will take a couple of weeks longer. In the correct conditions chitting takes around six weeks.

Prune clematis

Groups two and three will benefit from a chop now


Clematis is one of the most popular climbers that we plant in our gardens They’re grown for their wonderful displays of flowers, which are often followed by fabulous seed heads through autumn and winter. As a group of plants, clematis come in many shapes, sizes and colours and by choosing several different species for your garden, it’s possible to have flowers for much of the year. 

Pruning can confuse some people, but as long as you know what group of clematis you are growing, or what time of the year it flowers, you can easily work out when and how to prune.  

Group one clematis flower from early to late spring and usually have small flowers that are produced on last year’s growth. This type isn’t pruned now as you’d be cutting off the flowering wood. Any pruning should wait until after flowering in late spring. Group two flower in early summer, from late May to July, on side shoots from a framework of branches. They can be pruned now by reducing growth back to fat buds lower down the plant.  Group three are the late summer flowering types and they can be hard pruned now to within 15-30cm (6-12in) of the ground. Flowers will develop in late summer and early autumn on the long new shoots. 

Get tomatoes going now

It’s the perfect time to start off new varieties or old favourites


There are two tomato seasons – the one in late summer when your plants are dripping with fruit for harvest, and the first one is now. This is the time – if you haven’t done so already – to invest in some intriguing new varieties (or old favourites), before sowing and nurturing plants to maturity. 

Being sown here is the variety ‘Ildi’, which is slightly unusual – it’s a pear drop-shaped yellow type, which is compact growing and perfect for a hanging basket. As tomato plants can get large and gangly on a small patio, try tucking them away in a basket to droop temptingly in summer, while not taking up much room.

Sow now in a heated greenhouse or propagator, or indoors to put on a warm windowsill. Use moistened seed or cuttings compost levelled out in small pots. Sow thinly on the surface, keeping seed apart so seedlings don’t grow too closely to one another and ‘damp off’ or rot. Once sown, cover with a thin layer of compost and water again lightly. Keep your pots at around 20C, and you’ll see growth progress after about two weeks. Once plants have germinated keep your seedling pots nice and ventilated at a couple of degrees lower to grow on. Prick out once they have two sets of leaves into their own pots, by holding their leaves and firming into dibbed holes. Water and grow on in good light, and reduce their temperature if they get too leggy.

Here are some more excellent coloured varieties to try now - click the images to find out more…

Create the perfect seedbed

Use it for root crops in situ or as a place to start off plants

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If you’ve got a spare spot on the plot, put it to good use as a seedbed, an area of well-cultivated soil in which to raise young plants.

You can either use it simply as an extra bed in which to cultivate direct-sown seedlings that can stay growing in situ – such as plants that don’t like being moved, like root crops. Or you can use it as a temporary place to start off plants, and once they’ve grown on they can be transplanted to their final positions.

This ‘nursery bed’ saves space, as when crops are sown temporarily they don’t need as much room to grow and can be sown densely, then pricked out and transplanted elsewhere to grow on for successional harvests. This means you’re not taking up endless space with crops initially. 

Seedbeds can be in a greenhouse or outdoors – it’s always difficult at this time of year to try and find space to put extra plants to sow, so this is the best way of utilising spare space where you can. 

However you use your chosen seedbed, the key to success is good preparation now.

Boost shrub roses with pruning

A good trim will keep them growing well


There are two things that help your roses flower and grow really well each year, and that’s lots of feeding and excellent pruning.

Giving them their annual trim also keeps them in good shape and helps them not get too tall, spindly and leggy. Shrub roses are best done in February, though if the weather in your area turns harsh, as it so often does these days in late winter, leave it till March.

Young roses – those that you’ve only grown and flowered for one season – should be sparingly trimmed. That is, any overlong shoots cut back to fit in with the rest of the shape, and flowering shoots trimmed by a few inches. In year two, prune a little more – cut back all stems by a third.

Each year after that, you can prune mature roses how you wish – perhaps a full renovation is in order, or alternatively you wish to create a taller plant? For a full on cut, prune back stems by at least a half, or to grow a taller rose bush don’t prune very much at all – under a third off each stem.

Never fear pruning roses – they’re resilient and will spring back if over- or under-pruned. Here’s some tips on getting it right.

Prune gooseberries

A good winter chop now will encourage healthy new growth


When it comes to growing fruit in the garden, gooseberries are not often at the top of the list, but they’re a good, reliable crop to grow and are very tasty. What’s better than a gooseberry fool on a summer’s day or a gooseberry crumble to warm you up as the temperature drops? The fruits can be cooked in many ways, included jams and chutneys. 

Gooseberry bushes are easy to grow and grow well in most soil types. If pruned on a regular basis, the bush should be productive for up to 15 years, although many will carry on for much longer.

Ideally, pruning should be done twice a year, summer and winter. The summer prune is to shorten the long new stems and in winter a more thorough prune is done to open up the bush, thin crowded stems and shorten side shoots. The aim is to establish a permanent framework of branches that is open in the centre to allow good air circulation. The fruit is produced on short side shoots that grow from the older framework and these are shortened to produce fruiting spurs. Occasionally, old branches can be removed if the bush is getting crowded and this will also encourage new growth to develop. Gooseberries are thorny, so it’s best to wear gloves when pruning. 

Start fuchsias into growth

With a little care you can keep plants going from year to year


Fuchsias are great summer flowering plants and ideal for use in containers and hanging baskets or grown on their own as specimen plants.

With just a little care and attention it’s easy to keep the plants for many years. Pruning back the stems of pot grown plants in autumn and over-wintering them in a cool but frost-free greenhouse is a reliable way to keep plants from year to year. The compost should be kept just moist and only watered over the winter months when it dries out. In these growing conditions the plants tick over in a state of semi-dormancy.

As the days gradually start to lengthen at this time of the year, the plants naturally start to wake up after their winter sleep, and what were dormant buds will gradually start to develop. As soon as this happens stand the plants in good light and check them over for signs of pests and pick off the remains of any dead leaves. The plants may also need a little extra pruning to tidy them up and to encourage strong new growth from the base of the plant.

To really start the plants into growth, raise the temperature by a few degrees, increase water as the plants grow and start to feed regularly as the plants make more growth.

Make your own hotbed

This age-old method lets you grow early crops and save on your electricity bill, too!


These relics of the Victorian kitchen garden are still popular today, and are useful areas to get a head start on growing crops by a month or so. In those days, when they had no electricity, it meant you could have a continual succession of edibles, growing salads through winter and sowing seeds early. These days the benefits are much the same – you can start up courgettes, melons and other warmth-lovers earlier, or grow beans, peas and salads before you normally would. If you’re finding you use a lot of electricity on your plot, this is a great way to lessen the cost a little. A hot bed provides bottom heat, using manure instead of electricity so plants grow quicker.

Make your own raised bed section or designate an empty raised bed as your new hotbed. It needs to be quite deep at over a metre, and at least 4ft x 4ft wide. Fill the bottom 75cm or so with a straw and manure mix. Trample this down well to compact it. Fill up the rest of the bed to a depth of about 25cm with half and half topsoil and compost. Leaves or water added to it will break up the heat if your mix gets too hot – it should be no more than around 24C, so do take your hotbed’s temperature with a thermometer regularly. Here’s our step-by-step on how to get it going after you’ve built it.

Prune ornamental trees

Simply cut out dead wood and thin branches


Ornamental trees, whether grown for their blossom, berries or coloured foliage are a great asset to the garden. They add height and structure to the garden, provide shelter and shade for other plants and many also attract wildlife by supplying nesting sites and food. Ornamental trees come in all shapes and sizes and there’s one to suit all garden styles and sizes, large or small.  

However, in time most trees will need a little pruning to keep them in shape and growing healthily. Often trees grow taller or wider than the label says, and in these situations a light prune is needed to keep them in check.

For deciduous trees the ideal time to prune is during the dormant season, from November until early March. One of the man advantages of pruning in winter is you can see the bare branches, which makes pruning much easier than when they’re in full leaf. Ideally, it’s best to prune trees every few years before they get too big and this way you can manage their size.

With most trees it’s simply a case or cutting out dead wood, thinning over-crowded branches, lifting the canopy to allow more light to the plant below and reducing the width and height slightly. Most important though, is to maintain a natural shape.    

Care for moth orchids

A little TLC’s all that’s needed to keep them blooming

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Moth orchids (phalaenopsis) are one of the most popular plants that we grow in our homes. As a result of their popularity lots of new hybrids have been introduced by large commercial growers and these have been selected for their flowering ability.

In good conditions moth orchids should flower for at least three months, but it’s not unusual for them to carry on flowering for much longer. To grow well they need a light position out of direct sunlight. An east or west facing windowsill is ideal, but they’ll also be fine in a north facing window. They also need warmth, but not too hot. Average room temperature is fine.

Correct watering is essential and sadly, more moth orchids are killed by over-watering than under watering! Watering once a week is all they need and always allow excess water to drain through the pot before placing the plant back in its decorative pot-holder. If the roots sit in water they very quickly rot and the plant will collapse. 

With just a little care it’s easy to get the plants back into flower. As the last of the flowers fade, cut back the flowering stem to a lower node,
carry on watering and feeding with orchid fertiliser and after a few months a new flower stem will develop.  

Maintain step-over apples

Give them a check over and prune now to get them in shape


There are various ways that you can train apple trees and one of the simplest is to grow them as step-overs. These low growing trees have gained popularity over recent years, but they have been around for a long time and were planted in Victorian kitchen gardens as edging around fruit and vegetable beds.

A step-over tree is basically two horizontal branches growing from a short trunk and normally they are trained to be between 30-45cm (12-18in) tall. They get their name because you can step over them!

As well is in a fruit garden, step-overs can be planted in other parts of the garden as a low hedge, with the bonus of producing a crop of apples. They are also very simple to maintain, with most of the pruning being done in late summer, by cutting back the long new shoots to produce short fruiting spurs.   

In the winter when the foliage has dropped, established trees should be checked over and any final pruning done to remove thin, wispy shoots. On older trees the clumps of fruiting spurs can become crowded, so you may need to thin them out to allow room for the fruits to develop. It’s also important to make sure that the horizontal branches are well supported so that they can carry the weight of apples in summer. 

Sow blooms indoors

Prepare to fill your borders on the cheap by sowing on the windowsill now


Many flowers can be sown direct from spring, of course, or planted from garden centre plants or plugs later on, but there are good reasons to start plenty of them off from seed now. 

Garden centres still have lots of bargains in the seed aisles – they like to reduce prices heftily to make way for new spring stock, so grab some on the cheap now. That’s quite a number of plants for the grand sum of 50p, perhaps, or £1! Nevertheless, seed sowing is cheap anyway, as you’re able to bulk up borders from scratch for not very much money.

Secondly, starting from seed now means you can exercise an element of control in their growth, keeping an eye and nurturing them to fruition, so you can plant out healthy, well-grown plants from spring. 

You’ll be able to choose yourself where you plant them out later, plus any donkey work you can tick off early in the year will save you a few jobs down the line. 

Essentially you need to surface sow your seed onto trays of moist, well-drained seed compost, covering with a very thin cover of compost. Leave at around 18 – 20C, using a plastic bag over the top to up the humidity if needed. Transplant seedlings when large enough into bigger pots and grow on, planting out in late spring.

Get ahead for early rhubarb

Forcing them now will give you a sweet crop in spring.


This is a nice, traditional task to be doing now – in gardens of old, huge terracotta rhubarb forcers were used to trick the plant into growing fruity stems earlier, and many people still use them today. You can easily buy forcers new from online garden outlets, or search for a lovely antique one. You can, of course, just use an old bucket or dustbin, too! 

By depriving your rhubarb of light it encourages early growth in search of light, so you can be picking tender stalks of this prolific, tasty fruity veg from around early March. The rhubarb you grow in summer – though wonderful – is always tougher and more tart than delicious early rhubarb, which is slimmer, sweeter and more tender, so well worth doing. You must pick mature plants to use though, as they’ll have enough energy to both grow early stems and then continue on as a robust plant afterwards.

If you enjoy growing forced rhubarb, ensure you always have more than one crown growing, so you can use each plant in alternate years to prevent weakening them.

Move deciduous plants

Most young plants will be happy if you need to relocate them.

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As soon as your deciduous plants have dropped all their leaves and are dormant, that’s when you can move them. It may be that they’re growing in the wrong place or they’ve grown too big for their boots, so now’s the time to help the thrive somewhere else.

Large, mature specimens over five years old may not survive the transplant, and renovation or removal may be the solution. Some plants don’t like root disturbance, such as magnolias or roses, but young plants of most things will be happy to move.

Give the soil around the plant a good long soaking before you start digging, and after planting, water really well in dry spells, but not in frost. Mulch with compost and feed with a general fertiliser in spring. Evergreens should be left till March or April before moving.

Start pruning apple trees

A light chop every year keeps them happy and fruiting.

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You don’t have to prune apple trees, but in order to keep them to a manageable size, healthy and producing fruit, it’s advisable to carry out some pruning. By pruning lightly every year you can easily keep the tree to size and you’ll get fruit every year. As well as winter pruning, which is done in the dormant season, you can also lightly prune in late summer to reduce new growth and encourage fruit buds to develop.

However, at this time of the year when the tree is totally dormant, we can do structural pruning to maintain the shape and size of the tree and to keep a good balance of older branches that form the main framework, and new fruiting wood. The aim is to produce a tree that has an open centre to increase air circulation and reduce fungal diseases, with a framework of evenly spaced branches that will produce blossom and fruit this year and every year.

Don’t be tempted to prune off too much as that will result in vigorous growth and fewer or no fruits. Carefully prune to thin out crowded branches and any thin twiggy branches in the centre of the tree. Prune a little, stand back to look at the shape and balance before pruning out any more – and don’t rush!


Take evergreen cuttings

Provide them with a little base heat and you’ll soon have more free plants.

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If you have a heated propagator that provides gentle base heat, now is a good time to take cuttings from several types of evergreens such as holly, euonymus, senecio, hebe and Viburnum tinus. These are all good, reliable garden shrubs that have attractive foliage and flowers at various times of the year, and they are great for adding structure to the garden. Cuttings can be taken from now until around the end of February and with all of them you take them as nodal cuttings. The length of the cuttings will vary depending on the size and vigour of the stems, but ideally aim to produce cuttings around 7.5cm (3in) long.

Select last season’s growth using the tips of healthy shoots and insert them into a rooting mix of multipurpose compost and perlite or vermiculite. This mix will retain moisture around the cuttings, but also allow drainage and air movement. To root, the cuttings will need base heat from a propagator, but it doesn’t matter if the tops of the cuttings are cold. If stood on a sand bed with soil warming cables or in a propagator in a greenhouse the base of the cuttings will get enough heat. The foliage can be misted regularly or covered with thin polythene to retain humidity. In the correct conditions roots develop in around eight weeks.

Start winter digging

Get your ground in perfect condition for spring sowings.

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To dig or not to dig, that is the question? Traditionally vegetable gardens and allotments are dug over in the winter to prepare the ground for the coming season. The alternative is the no-dig system where the ground isn’t cultivated at all and in spring a layer of organic matter is added to the surface into which you sow and plant new crops.  

For those that do dig, now’s the time to get started to make sure the ground is in good condition for spring. Digging over your plot has many advantages. Turning over the top spit (a spade’s depth) buries any annual weed growth, allows you to mix in organic matter and it breaks up any compacted soil. This allows air down into the soil and improves surface drainage. Gardeners of old would say that digging the soil means you start the new growing season with a clean plot. Digging is also good exercise as long as you do it steadily, and it’s a great way to burn off calories after Christmas! 

Heavy clay soils need digging over as soon as possible to give the winter rains and frosts a couple of months to break down the lumps of clay. Lighter sandy or loamy soils can be left until February as they break down much faster.