Welcome to our blog!
We’re starting with a guest post from a good friend, which will hopefully become a monthly staple!
Gardening (and Wildlife)
My name is Yvonne and I love gardening.
This is the first of a monthly article for the Grow Outside blog, intended to provide some guidance to those of you who have no, or limited knowledge of gardening. It will be based around gardening tasks to do in the following month, so this first post will be looking at February.
A few comments before starting my first missive.
I have been gardening for many, many years but am not formally trained. I have learned as I’ve gardened.
I can’t pretend that I know all there is to know about gardening but will have a good guess. However, my knowledge of growing fruit and veg is non-existent and I am not a fan of evergreens like conifers, or acid loving plants (more on these later), like rhododendron and azalea.
I don’t garden much, if at all, between November and March as you can often do more harm than good gardening during those times. However, there are exceptions.
The points I offer are my opinion only and other gardeners may, of course, disagree.
What does it take to be a good gardener?
My personal thoughts about what qualities make a good gardener are patience, patience and patience (along with common sense, a dose of curiosity and some amount of commitment). Gardening is not necessarily an expensive pastime, although parting with some money is inevitable.
Gardening is NOT rocket science; often it is just a bit of trial and error. Give a plant what it wants and 99% of the time it will be very happy and will thrive, so, eg. putting a fern in full sun in soil that does not hold much water so dries out easily, means certain death for your fern. They will be much happier in damp shade, so when planting, think about the environment that the plant grows in naturally.
So, off we go.
On the gardening calendar, February is regarded as late winter and as such, there appears to be very little going on, at least to the human eye. However, in the ground, there will be some stirrings of life. You may probably already be aware of some bulb shoots beginning to appear, perhaps snowdrop and daffodils, but the growth of these will be checked by the weather and if we have snow or a very cold snap, they will simply cease growing for a time. I have known people who have been concerned that daffodils die if they grow too much and then the weather goes very cold, but I have never known this to happen. Daffodils are as tough as old boots and will simply begin growing again when the weather warms up. I mean …. they grow in Wales. Must be chilly on those high hilly slopes.
Take it easy…
Do not be tempted to do very much even if we have a mild spell. The weather can change rapidly as we know and ruin anything you may have done, or kill anything you may have planted. If you have a lawn, keep off it as much as possible to avoid compacting the wet surface, which will not serve you well come the spring. Don’t be tempted to cut the grass.
A bit about soil…
One thing you can do if you want to get started outside, is begin to dig and improve your soil. Anytime from late autumn to early spring is fine to do this. If you have established beds and borders, obviously you need to be careful what you may be digging up, but from scratch, just get stuck in. Have a look at the soil as you dig it to try and work out what type you may have. Clay soil may stick to the spade and be heavy and dense, like slicing sticky chocolate cake. Sandy or ‘thin’ soil may simply fall off the spade and back into the hole very easily. If in doubt about your soil, take a bit to your local garden centre and get their advice. You don’t have to buy anything(!).
Most soils could do with improving with organic matter. I make compost (I got a compost bin from Get Composting – cheapest large one is £18 plus delivery at around £6), and add to it peelings, scraps and used tea bags from the kitchen and all softish, non-fibrous matter from the garden (dead flower heads, fallen leaves, some grass cuttings, most of any plant I dig up except the roots).
A simple guide to putting things into a compost bin is, if it is soft or bendy, it should be fine. Woody material like very thin branches will need cutting into tiny pieces and if there is a lot of this, this is a dull pastime. I spread the compost on the garden in early spring every year once I see that it has rotted down into a dark crumbly sort of mix in the compost bin. It saves buying bags of organic matter to improve your soil, which is not cheap. I should mention that tea bags, unfortunately, may have a plastic content to them. I only realised this when I saw quite a few lolling around in the garden after I had spread the compost, in other words, they won’t rot like all-paper tea bags.
The main consideration for a good compost mix is to vary the contents. Grass cuttings are fine to put in but perhaps not every time you cut the grass, otherwise you may end up with a slimy smelly mix. Perhaps contrary to popular belief, compost does not smell.
A lot is often said about testing the pH value of your soil when you begin gardening with a new garden; this means its acid/alkali balance. I have never done this. I would bet that most soils are alkali around here (4-ish miles south of Birmingham centre), which means you can grow a greater variety of plants. Some plants that love acid soils are pieris, rhododendron, azalea and camellia, i.e. the type of plant with large showy blooms and quite thick leaves. Heathers are also acid soil lovers. If you have any of these in your garden and they thrive well, it is likely your garden has a more acid pH content in the soil, or a tonic to make it this way is added regularly. Hydrangeas can also be acid loving plants; they will flower blue if growing in an acid soil but more pink in an alkali soil. They are exceptional as they clearly will thrive in either soil but an azalea, for instance, will not be happy in an alkali soil and will eventually wither and die.
If you are looking at your garden for gardening potential for the first time, before you begin anything, take a couple of days to clock the passage of the sun so you can work out which way your garden faces. This will help in future when choosing what to plant and grow. Also take into account any mature trees or shrubs you already have in your garden which may throw parts of your garden into shade at certain times of the day. A lovely garden can be raised whichever way you face, but it is handy to know what aspect it has before you begin. In mine, the sun rises to the left of the garden and sets on the right side and the sun is more or less straight ahead at midday so my garden faces roughly south.
One more thing you can do this time of year, is to remove any diseased or dead wood from any shrub or tree you may have. But only do this, do not be tempted to cut any other part of the plant or it may not flower when it is due to. More information on pruning to follow next time…
If you don’t already, please consider feeding the birds. It is not an exaggeration to say that it really can save their lives in the winter and you are quite literally investing in their fertility. A well fed bird will be more likely to meet the spring and breeding time with much more vim and vigour and therefore better prospects for raising chicks. And if you are lucky, they will bring the chicks to feed in your garden when they have fledged (see images below). I have been feeding the birds consistently now for some years and my garden is often visited by as many as 14 species regularly. I regularly use fat balls, sunflower seeds, peanuts and wild bird food (Poundstretcher and pet shops sell different types of bird food).
If you use feeders, scatter a little on the floor for those birds that aren’t great perchers like blackbirds. Sparrows and robins will attempt perching on feeders, but it’s not really what they prefer and sparrows need help as their numbers have decreased a lot in recent years due to habitat loss. People just don’t like growing hedges like they used to and this has also affected the blackbird population. You may find that you have to chase the odd squirrel away but I have found a good aim with a high pressure water pistol puts them off… Watching birds is a great mindful activity as well.
I had never, until last year, had a bird bath and now I don’t know how I did without the delights of seeing birds queue up to get in it. It was in much demand throughout last year’s hot summer. One warm evening whilst I was out there quite late taking photographs, I saw a blue tit chick perch on the side of it. This was followed by a sibling (see images below), and then another (forgive the fence in the way, I was caught on the hop), so that finally, three blue tit chicks were in the bath.
Finally if you have a wisteria I expect you already know what to do with it but if not… now is the time for a prune, the sooner the better. You should cut to just above the second or third bud on each shoot (buds are the small bumps on the bare shoot which will produce new growth in spring). Now is also the time to remove any growth you don’t want, for example, shoots growing from the base of the trunk.
Really, really finally… dead head winter flowering pansies/viola (I have been told this is a misnomer – they are not winter flowering pansies but pansies that just happen to flower in winter as well as at other times. Learn something new all the time).
So that’s all for this time and will be in touch in a month’s time with gardening tips and tasks for March, when hopefully things will be hotting up!
Below are more images of plants and birds in my garden.
Two pictures of goldfinches: one of a fully grown male and the other on the feeder, a chick showing its back markings. The red colour on its head is yet to form.
A corner of my garden last June with the lovely apricot coloured foxglove. I adore these plants and grow them every year
The yellow flower is a winter flowering jasmine, which is in a pot in my yard and is just beginning to flower. It is an easy plant to look after with bright yellow flowers appearing around now. It can be a bit of a leggy plant but by growing it in a pot, some control can be exerted over the growth.
Til next time……
Yvonne Cook lives in south Birmingham. She is the owner of the Pathway Acupuncture Clinic where she works as a Traditional Acupuncturist and she also teaches students of acupuncture at The Acupuncture Academy in Royal Leamington Spa. In her spare time she indulges in much gardening, rambling, singing and crafting. You can also find Yvonne on Facebook.