Creating an ornamental lawn

Recently we had some friends over for a lunch party and without prompting, two of the male guests, (why is it a bloke thing? I don’t know why it’s a bloke thing, but it’s a bloke thing) quite independently, gazed at my lawn and said with a hint of envy “Nice lawn. How’d ya manage that?” Being summer, most of the grassy areas that pass for garden lawns have browned unevenly, and can’t decide if they are actually composed of grass or random broad-leaved perennials. Mine, however, was looking good: a deep velvety green, plush and even. Not a weed in sight or blade out of place. It’s a lawn you want to lay down on, a lawn begging for a picnic.

“Oh,” I said nonchalantly, “I vacuumed it this afternoon.” I wasn’t kidding.

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How to grow carrots – for beginners

Carrots_in_close_upCarrots as a main crop are well worth growing. They can be temperamental, but once you get the hang of it you can grow all the family needs for six months of the year. Carrots are not a posh crop like asparagus or melon, but the flavour when they come straight out of the garden and are on the plate within half an hour cannot be beaten by anything in the supermarket.

They can be planted between March and June for harvesting from July to April Overwintering is easy either by lifting and storing, or as I do, leaving them in the ground where they will keep best with little or no protection.

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Fan Trained Pear


If you purchase trained fruit at a garden centre they often come attached to an impressive bamboo frame like the one above. The frame can be a real distraction because what you are actually getting – and what you need to think about before parting with your cash – is the structure of the tree strapped to it. The photo above right shows the same tree in the nude, looking a lot less impressive. The trick when purchasing is to take note of the actual tree form, and see past the fancy-pants frame. In the case of the tree above, the shape was something I could work with, so was ideal. Continue reading

Ten ways to plug the August gap

The result of some late summer TLCBelow I’ll show you ten tricks that refreshed my woodland garden and transformed the drab late-summer muddle of seed heads and dying foliage into a crisp, minimalist space, calm and stylish…

By late August many of the plants that have provided colour throughout the spring and summer have finished, and their seed heads are brown, their leaves tatty: The garden looks tired and uninspiring. It generally stays that way until the autumn tidy-up. This ‘August Gap’ is particularly notable in the shade garden as most woodland plants flower in the spring before the canopy closes and light levels fall. There are very few shade plants that flower in autumn. Continue reading

Summer Pruning step-by-step

Summer pruning is necessary for wall trained fruit to develop and maintain the desired form and encourage fruit production. It should be carried out in July for cherries, gages and plums and in August for apples and pears. You will need nice sharp secateurs, bamboo canes and plant ties.

The purpose of summer pruning is:

  1. To remove new vegetative (leafy) growth
  2. To reduce the tree’s vigour
  3. To allow air and sun to get to ripening fruit
  4. To remove shoots growing towards the fence or wall
  5. To encourage the formation of fruiting spurs
  6. To extend the permanent framework

Getting started

Look carefully at the two photos below, showing a trained (fan) fruit tree before and after summer pruning.

Before summer pruning – note the long new shoots.

After summer pruning – the long shoots have been shortened or tied in to bamboo canes to extend the permanent framework.


1. Identify the long shoots that have grown this year.

2. Take one of the shoots and count up 4 or 5 leaves from the base.

3. Cut off the shoot at this point just above a leaf.

4. Only a short ‘spur’ with 4 or 5 leaves should remain. This spur will tend to develop flowering buds in future.

5. Any shoots that are growing towards the fence should be cut out entirely at their base, flush with the branch they sprout from. This will prevent regrowth from this point in the future.

To extend the permanent framework

6. Identify a shoot that is in the right place to create a new permanent branch to extend your trained form. Prune back all other shoots as per 2-4 above.

7. Tie the remaining shoot to a bamboo cane and gently bend it into position. Tie the cane to the wire supports on your fence or wall.

8. Shoots coming from the tips of permanent branches can either be tied in to extend the framework or they can be cut off if they have reached the required extent.

Adjusting the permanent framework

9. As permanent framework branches become longer than their supporting canes it will be necessary to replace the canes with longer ones.

10. If branches are only one or two years old they will probably be flexible enough to raise or lower by a few degrees if required to adjust the shape and spacing of the framework, but as branches age they become more brittle and may snap if bent too far.

10. Finally, check all old ties and ensure they are not strangling the growing stems. Loosen and replace them as necessary.

>Recommended Link: Video tutorial on Summer Pruning

Current Fans

I have three currents trained as fans growing against fences: two red and one white current. White and red currents lend themselves readily to this kind of training, because unlike black currents they fruit well on ‘old wood’. Hence, they can be trained to make a permanent framework of branches (in this case in a fan) from which they will produce short fruiting side shoots. Black currents, on the other hand, will only fruit on relatively young wood – they need a third of their main stems removing every year to rejuvenate them, so could not be pruned to a permanent framework.

Unlike many fruits we grow in the UK currents are fairly shade tolerant and will thrive in the dappled light under tall trees or against a north wall. My plants are very productive – the red current in particular holds its fruit in a good state right through the summer, autumn and into the early winter – we simply pick the fruit as required. For some reason the birds seem to leave the red currents alone. The fruit is very decorative, hanging in many trusses of bright translucent scarlet pearls.

Fan Training Currents

Currents are usually purchased as young bushes, either bare-rooted or pot grown. They usually have several stems, or whips, two or three feet long. If you want to train them as a fan choose plants that already have stems lying roughly in a flat plane so they lend themselves to training as a fan.

After planting, tie the young whips to canes and bend them into position so that the canes form a basic fan shape, and tie the canes to supporting wires. If your plant does not have enough canes to create the shape you want, there is no harm in adding additional canes even if they are bare for now – you can train in additional shoots as they grow. If some of the stems fork try to use them to create two branches on adjacent canes. If there are any stems or side branches that can’t be accommodated don’t be afraid to cut them off – currents are very robust and vigorous – they can take a lot of abuse!

In subsequent years prune in summer and winter as follows:

Summer pruning – July or August-ish

  • Tie in any new growth from the tips of the main stems. If these extend beyond their alloted space simply cut off the excess.
  • Tie in any strong new shoots that might be useful to extend the framework and fill in spaces in the fan.
  • Cut out any stems that are growing the wrong way or are superfluous.
  • Finally, trim back side shoots to a few inches long – this encourages fruiting buds to form.

Winter pruning – Any time the shrub is leafless

  • Repeat as for summer pruning – dealing with any subsequent growth or any bits you missed.
  • Now is a good time to replace canes or add new ones.

 Diary of my current training

2007 This photo was taken just a few weeks after planting. The young bush only had 6 stems. You can see how I have tied them to canes and secured then to create a basic fan shape.

2008 During the winter prune I have replaced all the canes with longer ones, adding five more to bring the total to eleven. I have tied in the new main shoots and shortened the fruiting side branches. Notice how where the main branches fork they are attached to adjacent canes.

2010 By the end of 2009 I had replaced the canes with longer ones and increased the number of branches forming the main framework further, taking the total to 18! Notice that every other cane is a half-length one allowing me to fill in the space that appears as the fan gets larger.

 2012 As you can see, the fan is now well and truly established and has almost filled its alloted space. The training is virtually over and from now on I will mainly be pruning new growth back to this basic framework. With only a minimum of attention it should remain productive, and look fantastic, for the next twenty years or more!

To be continued and updated…

How to grow potatoes – for beginners

 To grow potatoes you need to buy seed potatoes which are guaranteed virus free, rather than use old potatoes from your fridge or left over from last year’s crop. The reason for this is that potatoes are prone to diseases, and although you may get away with it for a year or two you are sure to store up trouble for yourself in the long run. The potato plant propagates asexually by producing more potatoes which are storage organs (tubers). If left in the ground over winter any that survive go on to produce new potato plants. As they are simple vegetative clones once they develop diseases they can pass these on from year to year too. We prevent this disease cycle by growing them from certified disease free stock (seed potatoes). Many of these are grown in Scotland where the acidic peat soil and cold winters discourage the development of viral and other diseases. Anyway, seed potatoes are relatively cheap so there is no excuse! 

You want to start planting out your potatoes from late March, but any time up to the end of April is usually fine. You will need you seed potatoes from about 4 weeks before this to start them off (chitting). 

 1. Chitting 

Chitting is the process of encouraging potatoes to form strong shoots prior to planting. It is said that this will lead to more potatoes in the long run, but I have not actually tried planting potatoes without chitting, so I can’t vouch for this! Simply place your seed potatoes in an egg box or other suitable tray, with the eye end uppermost (if you look carefully at a potato you will see that it has more eyes at one end than the other). Leave them in a bright place for a few weeks until they have formed good strong sprouts about 1in (3cm) long. They should look dense strong and dark coloured – quite different to the weak anaemic straggly shoots that form on potatoes left in the dark too long. 

2. Prepare the bed 

In the weeks waiting for you seeds to chit, get the bed ready. Deeply dug soil is best, so the shoots that grow from the potato stems. If yours is heavy or hard give it a really good digging over to about 12in (30cm) or more deep. Potatoes do not like manure or lime, but incorporate compost if the soil is lacking in organic matter, or sand or charcoal fines is the soil is hard to make it more friable. 

Next create trenches, digging the soil up into  mounds either side. Trenches should be about 2ft apart. In the photo you can see I have made two short 4ft trenches across one end of a bed. (I used to plant four 8ft rows but our family are eating less carbs these days!). 

3. Warming the soil 

Potatoes need a warm soil to get growing quickly. Too cold and damp and they can sulk or rot away. So place fleece, black plastic or corrugated plastic (as in the photo), over the trenches so that the sun can warm the deep soil. You need to do this even if recent weather has been fine and warm because it takes months for the deeper soil to warm up.  

 4. Laying out 

Once your potato tubers have chitted, remove the plastic you have laid over the trenches. Lay out your chitted seed potatoes in the bottom of your trench, spacing them about 6-8in (15-20cm) apart for first earlies (new potatoes), 9-12in (27-30cm) apart for second earlies or main crop. The purpose of laying them out is that it is easier to adjust them to get them spaced evenly at this stage rather than when some have been planted. 

5. Planting 

Using a trowel to dig a hole 6 to 8in (15-20cm) deep and plant each of the potatoes in the position you have determined. Ensure the tuber is the right way up. Cover them with a couple of inches of soil (5cm), but do not fill up the hole in one go. We want to encourage leaves to break the surface soon to start photosynthesis. 

6. Cover them up again 

Water them in if the soil is dry, then put back the protection to warm the soil further and protect them from the worst of the spring cold. This will help them get off to a good start. 

Check for signs of shoots emerging every week. It will take a while, be patient… 

7. Earthing-up 

Eventually you will see shoots pushing their way up above soil. Let them get about 6 to 8 in high (15-20cm) then they need earthing-up. 

 This simply means heaping soil around them until the stem is buried and only the top leaves are above the soil. The purpose of earthing-up is to ensure that there is a maximum amount of stem below ground. It is from the stem that new tubers are produced. Earthing up helps to produce the greatest amount of tubers per plant. 

…Like this! 

This photo shows the same potato shoot once it had been earthed-up. 

This process needs repeating every few weeks as the potato plants grow. Eventually, the trenches you originally dug become ridges and the ridges become trenches as earthing up proceeds. At that point earthing up stops and the plants continue to grow. 

8. Looking after the crop 

Potatoes need adequate water, so keep them irrigated if the weather is dry. Check the leaves regularly for signs of disease. 

By June your potato plants will be growing quickly.  Potato plants grow quite tall,  3ft (90cm) or so, as you can see in this 2008 photo. I use stakes and string to keep them in place otherwise they tend to sprawl. 

 10. Harvest – the good news! 

This is great fun, like unearthing buried treasure! If you have got this far you deserve it. 

When it is time to harvest your crop (1st earlies ~June, 2nd Earlies ~July/August, main crop ~Sep/Oct), carefully dig from one end of the row, lifting soil with a garden fork. Work with care, and any you prang with the fork put aside for immediate use – they won’t keep. Try not to leave any behind – they can be a nuisance or sourse of disease next year. 

With first earlies it is better to just dig up a few at a time, so you can eat them immediately – they don’t keep well and are just magic taken from earth to plate in under an hour. The rest will keep growing happily and getting a little bigger each day. 

For second earlies and especially main crop that you intend to store, place them on a bench in the sun (or on the ground if dry) to dry for a few days –  this helps the skin harden and improves their keeping qualities. Remove any that are damaged or diseased and either bin them or eat them soon. Brush off any dry loose soil, and store the good ones in sacks or trays. I separate them in layers with newspaper, so that if one starts to rot it does not infect the others so readily. Store them in a cool frost-free place – a shed or garage, in the dark. Check them over every now and then, and remove any that are deteriorating promptly. They should keep until late April, unless you eat them all before! 

11. Diseases – the bad news! 

This section really comes between growing and harvest, but I didn’t want to spoil the joy of harvest, so I’ve placed it at the end. 

Although potatoes are considered an easy crops to grow, the increasing prevalence of Blight can make many varieties all but impossible in bad years. So, keep an eye out for diseases and take action quickly if you think you have problems. Yellowing leaves, low down on the plant are not a sign of disease on their own – some yellowing is inevitable – they are simply lacking light and getting old. The commonest potato problem you need to know about is Blight, both early and late varieties.

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