Ground work: May is the time for sweat and toil in the garden but you'll reap the benefits all summer long

In a garden, timing counts. That doesn't mean clock-watching. It doesn't matter whether lettuce seed goes in at 11.23am or 4.26pm. It will still probably grow. But May is a kind of watershed in the garden. If you can guide the place in the right direction this month, then there should not be too many wobbles during the rest of the summer. If you lose this slot, then somehow you never catch up.

Even if the garden is no more than a place to sit with a glass of wine between Met Office weather fronts, the principle is the same. It's more relaxing to sit in surroundings that give pleasure. So, although I hate to see a garden reduced to a list of jobs, here are some ways to set up a stress-free summer in the garden:

1. Chuck. Call it editing, if you think it sounds less cruel. Every spring our eldest daughter does it with her clothes – wardrobe editing – and is terrifyingly ruthless. But look round your garden. There are probably plastic pots with nothing in them, pots with dead things in them, bundles of torn plastic netting that will never again keep a blackbird off a currant bush, bits of toys and tools that you once thought you would mend but now know you won't. Bin them. Or empty the pots, wash them and stack them out of sight. Pull up the canes and stakes marking the graveyards of dahlias that died in the winter. You do not need to be reminded of them. Tie the stakes/canes in bundles. They are easier to stack that way. Get rid of the bald tennis balls and punctured footballs that during your clean-up will emerge from behind the raspberry canes or the berberis. Take a long hard look at the greying fleece that may still be swathed around the head of your banana plant. Does this sight make your heart lift? Is there joy, redemption, delight invested in this thing? If not, think hard about the banana as well as the fleece in which it has been wrapped for so many long months.

2. Mow. Unless of course you have abandoned grass in favour of gravel or smashed slate. If you have something you think of as lawn, it needs to be looked after. Foot for foot, lawns need more maintenance than any other part of the garden, but it's true what they say. A stretch of green soothes the mind and gives whatever plants you have around it a cool, calm setting. I positively like daisies, speedwell and clover in lawns. Not plantains and not dandelions or docks. Their skirts are too wide. They smother too much grass. Cut them out quickly with a sharp knife. It's better than dosing the whole lawn with herbicide. If you stop them seeding, you will avoid a great deal of trouble in the future. Mow, but don't scalp. Your children will be doing more than enough scalping on their own. Don't set the mower blades lower than 20mm. Attend to the edges. Good edges give an immediate impression that here is a well-tended plot. The job is easier to do if your lawn is bounded by boards or metal strips. If not, edge anyway. You don't need special long-handled clippers. Ordinary shears will do the job. Where lawn butts straight on to a hard surface, you don't notice the wispy bits as much as you do when the lawn joins earth. Concentrate on those bits and keep them sharp.

3. Prune. Anything that has already flowered in the garden has already given you its best shot. Forsythia, in particular, has nothing left to say. Its leaves are boring. Its habit is stiff. It has no fruit. It has no autumn colour. Many shrubs flower better on new wood than they do on old (but remember, I said many, not all) and pruning encourages fresh new growth. Many shrubs are allowed to take up far more space in a garden than they deserve. So if you are looking at an early- flowering shrub such as forsythia that has elbowed itself into areas that would be much better given to the rose that's hoping to flower next month, get out a saw, long-handled loppers or secateurs. Good cutting tools are essential in a garden. Most of us use our secateurs to do jobs that would be more easily and comfortably achieved with loppers. If you have good cutting tools, you need very little actual strength to achieve your purpose. I use Felco secateurs as well as loppers and a saw made by a Swedish firm, Bahco.

If you are looking at a forsythia that is bare at the bottom, congested and tangled in the middle with new growth only at the top, you need to act. Typically, forsythia is a shrub that flowers on several stems springing from the base. The oldest stems are generally the thickest. If the shrub has not been tackled for some time, you could start by taking out the biggest stem entirely, cutting it as low to the ground as you can. This will be a job for a saw. With saws, you don't need to push too hard. If you do, the saw binds (it gets stuck in its groove). Think of the stem as butter and let the saw quietly motor its way through.

When that stem is cut and dragged out of the way, mark in your mind the stem that you will remove this time next year. And the year after that. Many shrubs that have got too big for their boots can be refreshed and renovated on this basis – a three-year cycle of removing all the really old stems to stimulate fresh growth.

Then take a look at the rest of the shrub. Some of the new growth will be springing out halfway up an existing branch. Cut back to the new growth. The stuff you are chucking will be the shoots that flowered this year. Do as much of that as you feel like. Then take at look at your wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) and your other early-spring-flowering shrubs and see if they, too, need drastic action. It's amazing how much bigger a garden can seem when shrubs are properly pruned and tied in, if necessary, to walls or supports.

4. Weed. I love weeding, though I don't expect others to bend to it with cries of joy. But if you weed now, you won't have so much to do later. Annual weeds grow at a fantastic pace this month. Some, like bittercress, may have already catapulted their seed cargo. Five thousand seeds per plant. At least. Argh! Don't race at weeding feeling it's all got to be done at once. Just get into the habit of pulling at least 10 every time you pass through the garden to do something else. While they are young, weeds come out easily. Concentrate first on the annual ones, to stop them seeding. Then keep a watch for the first juicy shoots of bindweed. Be ready with the spray bottle. It's one of the few occasions I reach for poison. If you catch it young, bindweed is not yet tangled with things you don't want to kill.

5. Mulch. I've written much in the past about the importance of mulching, and it's all true. It suppresses annual weeds, and as it breaks down it provides humus and trace elements for your plants to feast on. It also conserves moisture in the soil, but the moisture has to be there in the first place. Only mulch after a good downpour. Right. Enough! I'm off to fight the ground elder.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
life...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice