THE SUMMER STARTS HERE

May and early June are the busiest times in the garden. In part two of her Reluctant Gardener's Guide,; Mary Keen explains how to survive and thrive
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The Independent Online
Reluctant gardeners resent the demands of everything out of doors in summer. Grass grows, weeds choke and plants seem to need constant watering or spraying. Many varieties fail to flower and others often fall over. By the end of the season anyone who has had to react to a series of crises in the plant kingdom may feel thoroughly fed up. With not much to show for all the time and money spent, gardening must seem something of a con. Proactive gardeners, however, are different: by anticipating trouble, they spend less time and money and enjoy themselves more. My spring guide dealt with grass care, how to prevent weeds, and also covered the pruning of spring-flowering shrubs. This batch of notes should help with the planning of the summer's work.

BEDDING PLANTS

Bedding plants in most of the country will be going in now that the last danger of frost is past. If you have not already bought your plants, look for strong growers (which means bushy, not spindly shapes, with rich green, rather than yellow, leaves.) Wherever you plant, whether in beds or pots, hanging baskets or window boxes, the soil should be fresh and not the stale old caked stuff that you used last year. In large containers you need not throw it all away. Refresh it by mixing a third to a half the amount of old soil with new compost. Peat based composts are not acceptable to most people with green consciences now, but cocoa fibre is as light to handle. It is heavy, but that can be an advantage with pots in windy places. If you mix it with Vermiculite or Perlite it goes further, and both of these come in sacks that you can pick up with one finger. If you want to cut down on the work of watering and feeding container plants, there are several things which you can add to the compost at the time of planting.

The new water retaining crystals, sold as Hydrostock or Swellgel, are worth using in a dry summer, which is what everyone says we are about to have. You add very little, about a teaspoon to a large pot, and when the pot is watered, the crystals turn into frog spawn-like jelly, so that they keep the compost damp for long periods. I have to admit that in rainy summers this can be a disadvantage. Mediterranean plants, like geraniums, do not thrive with their roots in wet jelly. Lovers of damp conditions like fuchsias and lobelias are more suitable for this treatment if a rainy summer is predicted. This is something only you can decide. It may be safer to use Hydrostock for growing fuchsias in East Anglia where rainfall tends to be light, than for geraniums in the West Country, where wet weather is much more likely.

Everyone can benefit from the new long lasting fertiliser granules that the growers use. A few pellets of Osmacote or Summerlong in the container will feed the plant right the way through the flowering season. This saves time on mixing liquid or powder feeds with water. It also cuts out the need to remember to feed plants once a week, which is what they ought to have if they are to perform at their best.

Some plants grown in containers are susceptible to pests, especially when they are under stress. If you forget to water them and never feed them, attacks of greenfly are more likely than if they are well grown. For plants such as fuchsias and regal geraniums which often succumb to aphis, you can buy little cardboard labels impregnated with insecticide. Sold as "plant pins," you bury them in the soil around the plant, and they seem to remain effective for about six weeks. I find them extremely useful.

PLANTS THAT FALL OVER

Once a plant has fallen over, it is hard to prop it up again, so y

- !"#$%&'()*+,-./0123456789:;<=>?@ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ[\]^_`abcdefghijklmno tuvwxyz{|}ou have to stake it first to stop the wind or the weight of the flowers from causing it to collapse. Heavy headed peonies, giant delphiniums and lanky asters are the worst offenders. If you can't face staking them choose single petalled peonies, the small Belladonna delphiniums and species asters. If you must have towers of flowers, pea sticks, stuck in as the plant starts to grow, provide the best and least noticeable support. Link stakes, made of strong steel are expensive, but last for years. If you start early enough in the year, try circles of pig wire, supported by canes. They are cheaper to buy and just as efficient. You put them in over the growing plant and as the leaves emerge, you coax them through the layer of netting which should be about nine inches off the ground. For very tall plants you may need several tiers of support. The least effective way of staking is to go out with bamboo and string after the plant has fallen apart.

WATERING

Watering may well be banned this summer almost everywhere. In flower beds, if plants are put in with plenty of moisture retaining compost beneath them and then mulched around their base as described in the spring guide, most will survive without water. Thirsty plants, like the large lobelias, dahlias and those which normally grow near water will need occasional spot watering with collected rainwater, or bath water. If you have to do this, water in the early evening when the sun has gone down. Draw the layer of mulch back from the plant while you give each plant a good soak and then put it back on top of the wet ground (add some more if it has disappeared so that there is at least three inches of bark, cocoa shells or compost above the earth and around the plant). Newly planted trees and shrubs will also need water and with all of these it is better to give a good soaking at intervals than to adopt a little and often routine. All soils are different. Clay soils hold moisture better than sandy ones, but even in a drought on the lightest, fastest draining soil, it is not necessary to water more than once a fortnight, if you do it properly. One two-gallon can should be enough for a bush rose or a large herbaceous plant, but for a standard tree, three times that amount every three weeks should see it established. By July growth starts to slow down and if you have looked after your plants well in the early part of the summer, the intervals can be longer.

If you regularly find you are having to water for things to survive it may mean that your soil is too free-draining and does not hold the moisture. Bulking-up the soil with compost in winter will improve things, but it would be less work to change to plants which like the conditions on offer. Make the summer the time for seeing that plants do well, locally without water. Lavenders, iris, cistus, ceanothus, poppies, dianthus, masses of shrubby herbs and rock plants would all mean less work and probably be more rewarding on this soil than peonies, delphiniums and roses.

In my earlier guide, I suggested that grass cut slightly longer grows less fast than when it has been scalped. For those with too large a lawn this could be the year to start leaving some of it to grow to hay height, with paths cut through it; a garden meadow makes an exciting place for children to play. Hire or borrow a strimmer to cut the hay in mid- July and it should be removed once it has dried off. It can be composted or given away as fodder.

New management techniques can make all the difference. Once you find what suits your plot there will be more time to sit out of doors - the real purpose of summer gardens. !

! The photographs of deadheading and climbers on these pages are taken from 'RHS Pruning and Training' (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 19.99).

CLIMBERS

Climbers tend to get out of hand if they are not regularly tied in. It is much easier to tackle the training of any wall shrub while you can still see where it is meant to go. Left to themselves, clematis prefer to grow in a bunch of shoots which rush up the wall in a tangle. You need to tease them apart and direct the new shoots in different directions. Shrubs like winter jasmine and japonica (Chaenomeles) should have been pruned back to the wall after flowering by now and they will need some retraining. The vital thing to know is that you want the jasmine to make as much new wood as possible for flowers next year, but the japonica has to be restricted to the old stems, because that is where its best flowers occur. Because pruning is such a complicated business, everyone should keep a simple guide to hand for reference: proper pruning done at the right time means less work and more flowers in the long run.

DEADHEADING MADE SIMPLE

Deadheading always conjures up pictures of lady gardeners with hats and trugs. It may seem to be light work for the lazy, who like to have things "just so," but it is the most useful thing you can do to your plants, if you want them to flower non-stop. As soon as a plant sets seed it has fulfilled its purpose in life and it starts to decline. Your aim is to frustrate that aim, by nipping off the flower heads before they turn to seed heads. The plant then produces more flowers in a desperate bid to beat the biological time-clock before the end of summer. When someone is ill they are occasionally described as seedy: the last thing you want in the garden is a lot of seedy flowers. With herbaceous plants, the ones which go to ground in winter, it is enough to pick off the heads with finger and thumb, but if you can spare the time to cut the length of stem below the flower back to the next bud or joint, the plant will look better. With roses you must cut the stem because the piece of stem left invariably dies back and looks dreadful. The more time you give to deadheading, the more flowers you will have. I have seen aquilegias tricked into flowering as late as July. Some plants, like violas, are too small to be individually deadheaded and they can literally flower themselves to death if they are not given an enforced rest. Shearing them down to the ground when they look exhausted (usually around July) gives them a new lease of life and they will then flower again in the autumn. Delphiniums treated the same way and given plenty of food and water will also put on a second show.

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