Gardening: Sticky situations

However much energy you devote to your garden, your efforts will be in vain unless you protect your plants from the wind and the rain, says Sarah Raven. Wooden supports, canes and screens will all do the trick, and they look pretty too
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WIND IS the bane of my life. I live near the top of a hill, and the garden is open to the west and east. A westerly wind is tearing through at the moment, and has done so for several days a week all the way through spring. It's not a gale, or a whistling wind, but a broken, gusting wind which shakes the boughs of the trees.

It's creating havoc in my new unprotected area of garden. The pelargoniums I've just planted in pots are wind-burnt. The leaves are curled at the edges, with a border of yellow, which turns dark brown and crisp within a couple of weeks. There is a pathetic horse chestnut planted by the people who lived here before. It's been there for eight years and is still only 1m tall.

The lofty, elegant, oat-like flowers of the newly planted Stipa gigantea are no longer standing a metre high; their stems are broken off at the base. I just found one of them 10 metres away on the other side of the garden. If you feel the soil, the top 5 to 8cm are dry, even though we had a thunderstorm in the night. That's what wind does. It's a killer and you need to shut it out. Plants can't grow if they're being blasted and they end up looking a mess.

What you need are windbreaks. In a new garden, it's one of the first things to do, but even in an old one you should check that you've got enough to garden well. Windbreaks give shelter for a distance five times their height downwind (that means an average 2m fence, wall or trellis will protect your plants for 10m and have a lesser effect over twice this distance).

The perfect windbreak has an open structure, with small gaps spread all the way through making up about half the surface area. You don't want the big holes you get with a wooden trellis (although this is fine if covered with an evergreen climber), and you don't want a solid lap larch fence or wall either. Strong winds will hit the solid barrier, throw it up into the air and send it crashing down, causing damage to whatever happens to be on the other side.

The ideal windbreak is a filter. The wind can get through but the sting is taken out of its tail. A hedge is perfect for this; evergreen or deciduous, the branches and leaves are sturdy enough to avoid being torn apart, and the strength of the wind is lessened by the thick, yet open structure.

The trouble with a hedge is that it needs its own windbreak to get established. However sturdy hawthorn, privet, beech or hornbeam may be, they grow slowly unless protected from the wind. But hedges are hungry and thirsty, and you may not want them every 10m in the garden, creating dry and shady places. They also take a while to grow, perhaps four or five years to reach 2m.

There are lots of plastic windbreaks available at garden centres in green or black, but they are all ugly. The alternative is panels of willow, bamboo, chestnut or hazel made up into hurdles. These look lovely, but they are expensive. There is a company, Thatch International Ltd, that do mail order hazel, willow and heather screening and wattle hurdles. They charge pounds 61.16 (plus VAT) for a 2 by 2m hazel panel, but they come with a 10-year guarantee. I bought some cheaper ones five years ago which have already fallen apart so the guarantee is worth having. English Hurdle make a similar size in willow for pounds 51.70 (including VAT) and will send them by courier anywhere in the country.

You may want to make your own. This does work out cheaper, but it can be time-consuming. I'm just about to start making a screen around the new garden here.

Find a supply of 2 to 2.4m posts with 5 to 7cm diameters from a builders' yard or a good garden centre. Chestnut or treated softwood are the best as they are slow to rot. For chestnut, ring your local council for the number of their woodland scheme. There are lots of these and they encourage the harvesting and use of coppiced wood.

Make a framework for your screen with these posts as vertical supports, dug into the ground to a depth of 45cm. You want them to stand about 2m high, enough to give decent protection, but not so high that you create the feeling of Colditz inside. Space the verticals at intervals of 1.5 to 2m, and attach to these lengths of unpeeled reed screening, which is the cheapest material (Thatch International, pounds 27.32 plus VAT for 2 by 6m lengths). It will last outside for five years, which is long enough for a hawthorn hedge to grow to 2m. Smarter and longer- lasting is their willow screening (pounds 66.50 plus VAT for 2 by 5m length). Just attach this to the uprights with wire.

It's not only windbreaks you need to protect your garden against the wind. You must stake and support all your tall plants too. By the middle of summer, you will have chaos on your hands if you haven't surrounded clumps of your larger herbaceous perennials such as delphiniums, phlox, acanthus, cardoons and heleniums, as well as your dahlias, sunflowers and Nicotiana sylvestris with a decent corset. It's not just wind which will wreak havoc with these. A heavy rainstorm after a hot day will flatten the lot.

For tall-growing, individual stems like dahlias and sunflowers, push in three or four canes among the plants and tie a central stem to each one. A clove hitch is the knot to use. It's impossible to describe. If you don't know how to tie one, ask a friendly gardener (or sailor) to show you. For the most effective support, the cane should be about a third of the height of the plant when it is fully grown.

For heleniums, paeonies, euphorbias, oriental poppies and other perennials that won't grow to more than 1m high, a quick and easy thing to make is a hazel teepee. Make a circle of six to eight hazel twigs, standing 30 to 45cm high, around your clump, then bend them together at the top and tie with a piece of string. Once you have done this, weave a bit of string, willow or pliable hazel between the uprights to bind them together.

For bushy, rather than tall plants such as penstemons, arctotis and cerinthe, a network of broken, branched hazel pea-sticks arranged throughout the clump is the best option. Providing they are brushy enough, you won't need to use any string - just poke them into the ground and leave them standing about 30cm high. You can arrange these at 7 to 10cm intervals along the edges of paths to stop the flowers from flopping over into the mud.

If you can't get hazel pea-sticks from your garden centre, canes will do. Place the uprights about 45cm apart throughout the clump and in a circle around it. Zigzag the string from the outside of the clump to the middle, as well as making sure that there is a full circle around the outside at about a third of the height of the plant. You can also buy plastic and wire plant supports, which look like small mesh tables, but these are ugly until covered by new growth.

In an ideal world, these supports would have been in place in April and May, so that the plants have had time to grow up through their woody nest, hiding the support. But it's better to do this now than not at all, and once in place your plants should hold up whatever the weather.

Thatch International Ltd, Faircrofts Offices, Stratfield Saye, Reading, Berks, RG7 2BT (01256 883441)

English Hurdle, Curload, Stoke St Gregory, Taunton, Somerset, TA3 6JD (01823 698418)

1 Remove the growing tips of half-hardy annuals such as nicotianas, zinnias, antirrhinums and cleomes now, to encourage them to bush out. Pinch out the tips, leaving a couple of buds below. In less than a week you will see side branches breaking in the joint between the leaf and the stem. If in doubt, pinch them out

1 Whenever I sow rocket, the peppery salad leaf, the leaves are always covered in tiny holes as soon as it germinates. This is the work of the small, shiny, black flea beetle. To prevent this, cover the line of newly sown seeds in a cloche of wire hoops with a line mesh net, or polyester fleece stretched over it. Once the plants have two or three pairs of leaves, remove the cloche - the beetles seem to like the mature plants less. Pick the leaves every two or three days, or they get too hot to eat

1 Clear the stems and leaves of your spring bulbs now that they are completely brown and floppy. The goodness will have gone back into the bulb and it will flower better the next year. Leaving decaying foliage will encourage blight. Rake over the area after pulling out the stem: the hole left is the route of infection for tulip or narcissus fly