Your year in gardening jobs – what’s new and when it’s better to be traditional
Here are the key gardening jobs for the gardening year, with up to date expert advice on the best way to do them.
On the Middlesized Garden I often interview both professional gardening experts and talented, experienced amateurs. Sometimes they use traditional gardening techniques. At others, they adopt new methods.
Things change in gardening, just as they do in everything and sometimes traditional advice isn’t always the best for you and your garden. But sometimes it is!
Late winter/ early spring gardening jobs
If your garden is covered in snow or there’s continual hard frost, then not much is going on. The lawn won’t grow, weeds won’t grow and garden pests will be keeping their heads down.
But the last few winters in the UK have been exceptionally mild and this means our lawns and weeds do grow.
Start slug and snail control early
Professional gardeners now start slug and snail control as soon as new shoots start to push through the soil in late winter or very early spring. That’s often around February in many parts of the UK.
Traditional lists of gardening jobs often list slug and snail control later in the year – in March, April, or even May. Award winning garden writer and head gardener Tom Brown explains that it’s essential to start slug and snail control in early February in order to break the life cycle. ‘Two slugs in February turns into 50 slugs a few weeks later, and 500 slugs by mid-summer.’
Use your preferred method of slug control, such as beer traps or organically approved slug pellets. But use the slug pellets lightly, advises Tom. Just three or four tiny blue pellets is all you need for a square metre. Tom also puts a couple of slug pellets in places where slugs might shelter, for example under a roof tile propped up by a stone.
Organically approved slug pellets
I’ve definitely noticed that many professional gardeners now either don’t use chemical pest controls or use as little as they can. Gardens such as Hever Castle, Beth Chatto Gardens, Great Dixter, West Dean Gardens, the Canterbury Cathedral Gardens (under head gardener Steve Edney) and many more don’t use any pest control sprays at all. Traditional gardening jobs lists do often suggest you spray, although the RHS is now emphasising a softly-softly approach with minimal or no chemicals. They also suggest that we tolerate mild pest damage in many cases.
Organically approved slug pellets include Sluggo, Richard Jackson’s Slug & Snail Control and Doff Slug & Snail Killer. They contain ferric phosphate. Avoid any slug pellets containing metaldehyde as they are not wildlife or pet friendly.
Wool barrier slug pellets are another wildlife-friendly, pet-friendly way of reducing slug damage, but these work in a different way. You should scatter them thickly. Wool slug pellets are a barrier method. They need to create a dense barrier around plants that slugs particularly love. Brands of wool based slug pellets include Slug Gone.
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Can you mow the lawn in the winter?
The traditional advice is to put away the mower in late autumn and bring it out again in spring. However, in mild winters, the grass keeps on growing. A professional head gardener once told me that ‘the mowing season ends in December. And it starts again in January.’
This winter has been very mild in the south of England so if your grass is looking tufty, don’t hesitate to mow it. However don’t mow if the ground is sodden. You certainly mow less often in winter and use higher blades.
When should I start weeding the garden?
If the lawn is growing, then so are the weeds. You won’t usually find ‘weeding’ on the gardening jobs list for January, but the to-do lists were sometimes written when winters were harsher.
If your ground is frozen solid and your temperatures generally below 5C or about 40F, then your weeds probably aren’t growing. But we’ve certainly had a very mild winter so far in the UK and that means that the weeds are growing. And if they’re growing, they’re spreading.
I’ve interviewed a range of experts on weeding, but there seems to be no substitute for regular hand weeding. Yes, the weeds will come back, but they will also come back if you spray with chemical solutions or vinegar. And anything you spray has the power to harm the non-weed plants nearest to it.
There is no way of avoiding weeding in your garden, however ‘low maintenance’ you try to make it. Weed seeds are blown in by the wind or dropped by birds. They can find a foothold anywhere. And weed roots spread from garden to garden.
You can’t avoid weeds by covering areas with weed control membranes, paving or using artificial turf. There are several front gardens near me which now have artificial turf, and I’ve seen weeds in all of them. Nature will find a way.
My favourite gardening tools
My favourite weeding tools are a hand hoe – I use a stirrup shaped one from Implementations and Burgon & Ball have a similar one. A ‘dandelion weeder’ is also useful for winkling out deep tap roots. And many people swear by the Japanese weeding knife, the hori hori.
A standard hoe is useful in a veg garden, where there are neat rows. But I’ve never found it particularly easy to use in a crowded flower border.
Really, the only way to deal with weeds is to start early and weed regularly. I need to take my own advice as I am always leaving weeding until it is too late.
Updated gardening jobs – no dig gardening goes mainstream
No dig or ‘no till’ gardening is now mainstream, although it doesn’t feature in all gardening jobs lists. Don’t dig your garden or rotavate the soil at all. The only time you dig a hole is to plant a plant or to take one out. And you cover the soil in a 2″-3″ layer of well rotted manure, garden compost or other mulch once a year in either spring or autumn. Don’t dig it in. You let the worms and micro-organisms in the soil work it in for you.
There is evidence to show that there are fewer weeds in no dig/no till gardens, because you’re not turning soil over. Turning the soil brings dormant weed seeds to the surface and activates them. So as well as less digging, you should have a little less weeding too.
But the main principle of no dig/no till is that digging damages the soil structure and interferes with the action of its micro-organisms. If they are allowed to get on with their work, then the soil will be more fertile, it’ll drain better or retain water better and you will grow better plants. An increasing number of farmers in the UK and elsewhere are switching to no dig/no till for their crops.
I’ve been no dig since I started gardening, because it hurts my back to dig. A friend told me, quite early on, that I didn’t need to dig – that I could lay mulch on top of the earth – so I didn’t.
Traditional gardening jobs lists often still often advise you to ‘improve the drainage of heavy soil’ by working in lots of organic matter, but I’d suggest you at least test no dig on one of your borders and see how it goes.
It’s an approach that has largely been pioneered by the veg growing world, but the principle works exactly the same for flower gardens. Charles Dowding is a leading advocate of no dig/no till. I interviewed him on no dig for flower borders here.
When to sow seeds under cover
By mid-spring, we can start sowing seeds. Many seed packets say ‘sow February-April’ or similar. But when I first started gardening I went on a Sarah Raven gardening course. She said that she got better results from seed sowing under cover when she did it later rather than earlier. By mid to late March, the days are longer, lighter and warmer. Seeds germinate better and don’t seem to get as spindly.
Unless you have a heated greenhouse, a heated propagator, or grow lights, then don’t try to get ahead by planting seeds earlier. It’s also worth remembering that Sarah Raven does indeed have heated greenhouses and even so, she advised starting seeds under cover later rather than earlier. See what works for you, but if you sow seeds earlier and they don’t germinate well, then you’re not necessarily doing anything wrong. It may just be too early.
There’s good advice from British flower grower Sue Oriel of Country Lane Flowers on how to sow seeds for more flowers and better germination. The post is focused on sowing seeds in autumn but the sowing techniques work just as well in spring.
When should you mulch your garden?
All professional gardeners I’ve interviewed mulch their gardens, either in spring or autumn. It’s probably the most important gardening job you’ll do in the year. Add a 2″-3″ layer of well rotted manure, garden compost, Strulch, wood chippings, grass clippings or leaf mould to your borders. Most of the professionals I’ve spoken to don’t dig it in.
Most professional gardeners mulch their gardens once a year. However, Philip Oostenbrink, head gardener of Walmer Castle and author of The Jungle Garden, only mulches his own garden at home every two years. It’s a largely foliage based ‘jungle’ type garden, so doesn’t have lots of flowers. If you want lots of flowers or a good vegetable crop, you’ll definitely need to mulch once a year.
At the more extreme end of the spectrum, I’ve interviewed Paul and Frances Moskovits, who add up to two feet of garden mulch onto their amazing herbaceous border.
How to have an eco-friendly lawn
Never water your lawn, unless it’s just been laid. Don’t use fertilisers or weed-killers, and mow it with a push mower if you can Or mow it every two weeks rather than weekly. That allows some low-growing lawn flowers to emerge to feed pollinators.
There is now a lot of discussion about whether lawns are good or bad for the environment. But as with everything, it’s a question of degree.
A lawn is a good carbon sink. The soil beneath it is host to a wonderful infrastructure of worms and micro-organisms. However, using lots of water or fertilisers on a lawn and mowing it with a petrol mower once a week gives the lawn a heavy energy footprint.
So it’s all a question of balance. You can have an eco-friendly garden and still have a good lawn. Lawns don’t need watering, for example. They’ll bounce back if they grow brown in a heatwave. Cut the petrol consumption, save your own time and improve your lawn’s value to pollinators by only mowing once a fortnight, and letting the grass grow a little shaggy.
Jane Moore, author of Planting for Butterflies and Planting for Wildlife introduced us to this compromise between a traditional lawn and a meadow lawn. It’s worked very well for us, although our lawn definitely doesn’t look as smart or tailored as most other lawns. Find out more about this approach in Why You Need a Butterfly Garden.
When to stake plants in your border
This is another job you should do earlier rather than later. Lists of gardening jobs usually start to talk about staking and supporting in May, but once again, go by how your garden is growing. Many professional gardens I’ve visited start earlier than that. Get in there once the plants are clearly starting to grow, but before there is any chance that they will flop on top of each other or over the lawn.
Supports and stakes will soon be covered up by the growing foliage. But you can also make your own natural-looking supports, such as those made from tree clippings.
Lift and divide perennials
Plants that are getting too big for their boots can be lifted or divided in autumn or spring. The reason why you don’t divide them in summer is that it’s harder for plants to re-establish in hot, dry weather.
The gardening jobs lists suggest lifting and dividing perennials in March, April or May. Not much has changed about how people lift and divide perennials except that I have never known anyone who has used two forks back to back to split a chunk of roots. Most gardeners pull the roots apart or divide them with a spade. If the clump is determined to resist, many people use a knife or saw.
There’s more about the honest truth about dividing perennials here.
The key to keeping your flower borders looking good all summer
Dead heading is the key to keeping your borders full of flowers all summer. I have seen gardening jobs lists suggest that you dead head once a week.
Frances Moskovits dead heads her flowers several times a day. See How to Tweak a Flower Border to Perfection.
It’s often a question of what suits you. I’d certainly suggest dead heading more often than once a week. But all gardening jobs need to fit into your lifestyle. So you decide how often you want to dead head. But if you take a stroll around your garden every day, take a pair of snippers with you. Frances uses Darlac Compact Snips and I have bought some myself, too.
Try to snip the flower head off at the first junction of leaves. It will look tidier and healthier. But if the border is very crowded, Frances just snips the heads off any way she can.
More expert advice on video
There’s more expert advice on the How to Garden Now video here, with tips on planting and planning borders too.
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