96 Church Walk  Burgess Hill   RH15 9AS

Part three of our Northern correspondents garden exploits

Hi everybody,

During this, our first Autumn and as we have no real plants in the back garden, it all looked bare when viewed from the house so I set about planting up some of the many pots that came up with us. We now have two half baskets attached to the back of the house and a small pot on the garden wall at the edge of the patio. All of these are planted up with winter pansies both ordinary and trailing varieties.  Also some spring flowering bulbs have been planted in various pots and pans.

  We have a large blue pot (which had a large Hosta in it in Sussex) and into this I have placed some Hyacinths which have a strong perfume, some dwarf Iris and a mixture of Crocus. All should flower between February and April.

  Into pans on their own I have planted some Fritillaria meleagris, Iris ‘J.S.Dyt’ and some more Crocus. Then into large clay pots I have some Lily ‘Tiger Babies’ and in another large clay pot Allium ‘Pink Jewel’ these will flower between May and August. This means that we will have a floral display from February to August and once they have flowered and become dormant I will incorporate them into the garden beds proper.

  Also I have made a four foot square raised bed which at the moment is being used as a cold frame and rather than being filled with soil the pots have been placed to keep them through the winter with some protection.  **See below in January to February 'Things to do' section for constructing your own raised bed.

  Once the bulbs start poking through the soil they will be placed onto the patio on pot feet so that any heavy rain will drain out.

  As to my foray into getting a compost heap hotter than the normal temperature, it has so far obtained a temperature of 40C. This means that when I add some green waste the volume will have halved by the next time I add some more. In November (90 days after starting the compost heap) I harvested some of the compost and it was as dark as treacle and crumbled in the hand, moist but not wet, so added to the border under the front room window. We will see how the plants grow in the spring when they get added to this blank border.       

  To help with watering in the summer two water buts have been installed to collect water off the garage roof and will be used to water plants in the greenhouse lean to which is attached to the back of the garage to use the stored heat in the bricks overnight. This is south facing and should have good light levels even in winter.

  As you can see I am still getting the hard landscaping in place in the back garden before I start thinking about flower beds and lawn shapes etc. This I will worry about in the late Spring as my focus for early Spring is the front garden as mentioned last time.  

  In the meantime, as the weather has not been kind to me here so far, I have volunteered at RHS Bridgewater and it has been fun but hard work. I have met some like minded people and when chatting during the lunch break have picked their brains as to the average weather conditions I can expect during the growing season. 

  Some of the jobs I have been involved in are tree clearing (diseased and poor specimen’s only), soil preparation and bulb planting on a massive scale and lastly stone picking on the beds around the car park and walkway to the entrance.

  This last task reminded me of my early professional days when you were sent out to do this if you had been naughty or cheeky to the foreman. I mentioned this to the RHS staff gardener who was overseeing the operation and he also had the same punishment. Little did I think then that 50 plus years later I would be doing the same back breaking work, but this time I had volunteered ...................... I must be mad.    

That is all for now and I hope all of your gardens are behaving themselves.

   Look out for more from you northern correspondent as the gardening year progresses.

Top jobs for January.  

  • Recycle your Christmas tree by shredding it for mulch.

  • Ventilate the greenhouse on sunny days.

  • Dig over any vacant plots that have not been dug already but only if the soil is in a good condition, i.e. No frost in the top inch of soil and not wet and sticky, especially as we have clay around here.

  • Repair and re-shape lawn edges.

  • Inspect stored tubers of Dahlia, Begonia and Canna for rots or drying out.

  • Prune apple and pear trees but not if the branches are frozen.

  • Start forcing rhubarb.

  • Plan your vegetable crop rotations for the coming season. 

  • Prepare a polythene shelter for outdoor peaches and nectarines, to protect them from peach leaf curl, especially if espaliered against a wall.

  • Monitor the water level of your pond, as hard frosts can cause defects in the liner and in concrete structures. If the water level drops considerably, then it may have developed a leak. Be sure to keep it topped up until repairs can be carried out in the spring.  

  • Rake out fallen leaves or shake off those that have gathered on protective netting.

Top ten jobs for February.

  • Prepare vegetable seed beds, and sow some vegetables under cover.

  • Chit potato tubers. 

  • Still protect blossom on apricots, nectarines and peaches.

  • Net fruit and vegetable crops to keep the birds off.

  • Prune winter-flowering shrubs that have finished flowering.

  • Divide bulbs such as snowdrops, and plant those that need planting 'in the green'.

  • Prune Wisteria

  • Prune hardy evergreen hedges and renovate overgrown deciduous hedges.

  • Cut back deciduous grasses left uncut over the winter.

  • Check your glasshouse insulation is still secure for the remainder of the cold weather.

Raised beds.                                                                         

At this time of year my thoughts turn to major projects that I am thinking of completing in the New Year ready for the coming growing season.  Some of you may also be considering building a raised bed or two as well, so here I set out the steps to take to make sure the raised bed will work as anticipated.

The site.

First you need to think about the site for the proposed raised bed, for example will it be next to a building or a wall? If so and you want to grow some plants that have a high water requirement then because the building or wall will act as a barrier to getting rain to fall on the bed you may have to water more often. This is due to the bed being in the ‘rain shadow’ of the wall etc. If you want to grow alpines then this could be an ideal site. Also on what surface do I place the raised bed? If it is going on soil or grass then you need not worry about drainage from the bed. If it is going to be placed on a hard surface and the hard surface is already laid then you will need to think about adding some drainage outlet to allow excess water to escape from the bottom of the bed.

 Construction.

The next thing to consider is the construction, which materials should be used and how permanent do you want it to be. If the raised bed is to be permanent then it could be made from brick with a coping stone on top to act as a seat, this is the most expensive type of construction but also is the most durable. For example wood would need to be replaced after a period of years, how often would depend on the wood type and any treatment that has been applied. Which wood should I use?   A naturally resistant wood like redwood or cedar is ideal but pricey and so most people use softwood like pine and treat it with preservative. If using the raised bed for vegetable production then the old treatment of chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a compound using arsenic as its primary rot protectant should be avoided as it could contaminate the soil nearest to it. The last thing to decide before construction begins is the height, width and length. The height will depend on what you wish to grow and how far you want to bend down etc. The lowest height for plants to grow is 6 inches (152mm) but I would suggest for most plants a depth of a foot is sufficient.  But for the following uses the guide line height would be for standing about 39 inches (1 m), for sitting 29 ins (760mm) and for wheelchair use 24 ins (615 mm). These are suggested heights and you may need to adjust them for your particular requirements. As to width I usually suggest that you extend your right arm and measure form armpit to wrist and then double that measurement less 1 inch. This means that you can stand or kneel at the side of the bed and then still reach the middle without walking or standing on the soil, the added benefit is that you need never dig the raised bed as it will not become compacted. As to the actual building of the raised bed the simplest construction is to lay the planks on their side with the corners just touching. Next you raise them upright to stand on their edge and then hammer in supports to keep them in position. The trick when raising the boards is to make sure you do not pick them up and thus lose the contact with the other boards. If you use sleepers then place them in position and again hammer in supports to keep them in the correct place. If you come across old creosoted railway sleepers then avoid using them as the seepage from the old wood will cause problems both for plants and your clothes.

Soil to use.

We now have the beds built to the height and width you want and so it is time to fill the empty space. But before that is done you need to consider if you are going to line the bed if it is built of wood.  If the wood is treated then it will probably last for 10 years plus and should therefore not need to be lined. If the wood is untreated then lining the side with landscape fabric will prolong the useful life of the timber. If you use plastic sheet then this could retain too much water and discourage beneficial insects and worms as it does not allow the movement of excess water through the sheet. Having lined or not the bed you need to fork over the bottom of the enclosed area to stop soil compaction and allow free drainage. If the bed is standing on grass then you just need to pierce the grass surface with a fork at 6 inch (152mm) intervals across the area. If the site is on hard standing then having added drainage holes at the bottom of the wooden sides this is all that is needed.  Now add the soil, here we have a choice, if you are going to grow small plants with a relatively shallow root system then you can use the propriety potting or basket compost mixes we see at the garden centres. If you are going to grow plants or even small shrubs and trees in the raised bed then I would suggest you use a mix of top soil, garden compost and potting or basket compost. If the bed is quite deep (at least two planks or sleepers deep) then I would fill the bottom of the bed with sieved top soil for half the depth and then use the following mix for the top half. Mix 60% topsoil with 30% garden compost or other organic matter and 10% propriety potting or basket compost. The ratios by volume is 6:3:1, so 6 buckets of topsoil, 3 of garden compost and 1 of potting compost. The bed should be filled to the very top so that the soil is level with the top of the sides. This is to allow for settling over the next two weeks and thus it will be just below the level of the sides once this has happened.

Once the settling of the soil has stopped after about two weeks then you are ready for planting. If you have made your raised bed during the winter then wait for spring and the soil to warm up before planting or sowing in it.    

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