By mid-July, the spring freshness has usually left the garden, but we can start to enjoy the fullness and scents of the true summer flowers like lilies, salvias and verbena, and begin to harvest the fruit and veg we sowed and tended so hopefully early in the year. Let’s get on with a bit of that harvesting, as well as cutting back currant-bushes, and thinking about how to tackle a temporarily neglected garden……..
Help! The garden’s a jungle!
I remember being horrified coming back to a garden that I wasn’t able to reach or tend during the months of the pandemic lockdown. But now that we’re able to go on holiday, our gardens can get just as over-run in our absence at this time of the year.
It’s easy to feel rather despairing when you find that a previously-neat and well-ordered patch has been colonised by thug-weeds the size of small pylons, all the roses are studded with soggy blobs of dead flowers, and the clematis is just strolling all over the unmown ‘lawn’ and ignoring the pergola for which it was intended.
I remember being faced with all this and more (the feature pic is one of my gravel paths!), including very verdant-looking ash saplings among the shrubs and perennials. I bet lots of you have similar tales to tell – one friend was met with a triumphant line of black bamboo (supposed to be clump-forming and not a spreader) marching determinedly through the metre-high grass of their front lawn…….
I’m here to tell you not to panic. The trendy phrase is ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ and I really think that is right in this situation. Charging about like a blue-arsed fly, bemoaning every flopped delphinium or gigantic thistle will make you feel the task is hopeless. So try to take a longer view, and concentrate your efforts on a few important areas, and if it means that the garden stays quite a lot shaggier than you had intended this year, well so be it. Here are a few ideas on how to tackle the problem without it overwhelming you so much that you retreat back to the boxsets and chocolate digestives, defeated.
a) Deal with overgrown hedges, lawn edges and paths first, and sweep/clean paved or decked areas. Honestly, attending to ONLY those things will make you feel so much better about the garden as a whole. And if you have a lot of such things – say, 30 yds. of hedge, or paths in different sections of the garden, then just tackle one section at a time.
b) Strim and then mow an overgrown lawn, or consider just mowing paths through it – maybe this could be the year you embrace the idea of sections of meadow grass to help our insect population? – it, and you, will survive, with very little long-lasting harm done.
c) It’s better not to strim tall weeds along hedgerows etc. because by now, many will be setting seeds, and the strimmer will give those seeds a helping hand to be spread all over the place. If you feel you must strim, then it’s definitely worth going along and cutting off the seed-heads by hand first.
d) Tackle weed-infested flower-beds one by one, and I find it enormously helpful if you water the soil thoroughly first. This makes the soil much softer, and weed-roots are less likely to break off as you yank them out. If the task is huge, and the border is full of perennial weeds like docks and dandelions, then just take off the seedheads for now. Work through the border again later in the year at a nice calm pace, digging out the nasties and re-establishing control. And if you have weeds coming up through some of your precious clumps of perennial flowers, the autumn will be a much better time to dig up the clumps, disentangle the weed-roots, and do a bit of plant-division at the same time.
d) If a shrub has gone seriously wild and enormous, resist the urge to hack the whole thing back within bounds all at once. Not many plants could withstand such an attack – your shrub may even turn up its toes. So do your tidying-up in stages – a few branches now, a few more next year and so on. Give it a chance to recover each time, and within three years, you’ll have a ‘new’, smaller rejuvenated shrub.
e) I think I’ve mentioned before that I am a keen advocate of the Chelsea Chop – cutting perennials down by half in the last week of May, to make them flower up to six weeks later than normal. But of course I wasn’t here in May this year!
So now we have the Hampton Hack – cut down already-flowered lupins, delphiniums and geraniums (that you probably missed seeing!) and they may even flower again for you in September. Cut down a third of the flopping stems of phlox, helenium or sedum by about half their height and you will extend their flowering period maybe right into November. Chop off all the flowered stems of alchemilla and euphorbias before they fling their seeds all over the garden. Deadhead roses when you find the time.
Above all, don’t get disheartened. Be patient – with yourself and with the garden. You will get it back how you want it, even if it’s later rather than sooner. You may even find a renewed appreciation of the value of a little more ‘looseness’ in the garden – a little less strait-jacketed organisation, a little more romantic abandon, anyone?
You may well have already been harvesting delicious new-season broad beans, garlic and peas for a little while, but July is usually when a LOT more veg is ready for picking, and heaps of soft fruit becomes available – hurray! Keep your eye on the tomatoes, with a weekly feed of high-potash feed to encourage the fruit trusses to form.
As long as you have kept them well-watered, courgette and marrow plants should be starting to produce good fruit, and the more you pick, the more fruits they will develop (don’t pull them off, by the way, or you may damage the plant or allow mould to get in. Just cut them off through the stem with a clean sharp knife.) peas should be ready for picking, with runner and french beans not far behind.
Early potatoes will be ready to harvest – do it carefully by loosening the soil round the plant with a trowel or fork, and then gently rootling around for the hidden treasure. The first beetroot, Calabrese, spinach, leaf beet, carrots, globe artichokes and cauliflowers may also be coming on tap.
Onions and shallots are another crop that should be just about ready this month. You can actually harvest onions at any stage of their growth, but they will bigger if you leave them longer until their top growth has begun to wilt, go yellow and flop over. If any of your plants have begun to form flowers, dig them up first and use them straight away because they will be pretty hopeless for storing.
Loosen the soil around the bulbs, pull them out and leave them on the surface to dry out for a few days. If it’s rainy, put them on a tray in an airy shed or somewhere similar – what they don’t want is anywhere damp at this stage, or they might start to rot. After that, they can be kept in a mesh bag, or even made into a lovely string, like I do.
And what about all the fresh fruit ! – white- and redcurrants, cherries, blackcurrants, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries………….all those delightful summer treats will be ready to harvest this month. What a magnificent return for all your hard work and care earlier in the season!
I know a great bank of mophead hydrangeas can look rather drab and Victiorian somehow, but some of the more choice varieties are extremely pretty ornaments to the garden, I think, and now is a good time to take cuttings of your favourites. It’s a simple process:
Cut four or five shoots, 4-6″ (10-15 cm) long off a mature bush just below a leaf joint. They should be soft at the top, but harder wood at the bottom.
Take off all the leaves below the top one or two, and halve the size of any big leaves. Take off the top bud if its very soft.
Push the cuttings into a very free-draining (half perlite, vermiculite etc., half compost) mix around the edge of a plastic pot.
Keep the compost moist but not soaking, and if you can keep the air moist around the cuttings with a plastic bag or propagator, so much the better.
New growth will mean a cutting has rooted, and is ready to be potted up individually.
If you have variegated shrubs that have a few branches that have not got the variegation, cut these out before the plain green branches overwhelm the other ones.
Once you can see that your vine has flowers, cut off the shoot at two leaves past the flower-truss; cut off any shoots that don’t have flowers on them to six leaves from the main framework.
Don’t forget the watering this month – plants will never put on their best show nor produce the crop you are hoping for, if they are suffering from an erratic water-supply. A pot sunk into the ground next to a plant will allow you to get the water to the roots easily. Early evening is a good time, but any time is much better than not at all!
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