Gardening tips from our experts

The Sunken Garden at Castle Ward in spring bloom

Getting outdoors has never been more important. As we spend more time at home, our gardens have become our greatest sanctuary. For those lucky enough to have access to their own green space, what should you focus on in your garden to grow great results. Andy Dainty, Senior Gardener at Castle Ward and Tim Stapleton Propagator at Mount Stewart know how to care for a horticultural haven, so we asked them to share their top tips to help you get going with growing.

Plan to bee-happy

Build a nature-friendly garden and spread the joy of your effort and space. Giving birds and insects a natural place to thrive is not only good for the environment but will fill your garden with nature’s natural sound effects. To develop your space in this way, pick plants loved by bees, butterflies and other insects. For those with established gardens, you can achieve this by letting your existing plants grow a little more each year. It’s the perfect strategy for the a la carte gardener.

Bee on a cornflower
Bee on a blue cornflower
Bee on a cornflower

To open your door to a dawn chorus each day, Tim advises carefully trimming shrubs, trees or hedges as many birds use them for nests. Andy also recommends allocating a small - or big - patch of your garden to wildflowers. ‘If you have an area that has poor soil quality which is low in nutrients, this could be the perfect spot for wild flowers as they thrive in this type of soil.’ Without access to garden centres, working with wildflowers is a great tactic to take.

" ‘If you have an area that has poor soil quality which is low in nutrients, this could be the perfect spot for wild flowers as they thrive in this type of soil.’"
- Andy Dainty, Senior Gardener at Castle Ward

Picking the perfect plants

When you can get to the Garden Centre, Andy advises looking at the labels on each plant to pick the perfect bloom. Most labels indicate if they attract insects and bees. ‘These are likely to include Lavender, Sedums, Crocus, Foxgloves, Monarda, Chives and Verbena along with many others.’ For shrubs that attract wildlife, look for Berberis darwinii and roses. ‘Two of the most important are Sarcococca (Christmas/sweet box) and Mahonia as both flower in the winter months giving food to any bee that is hungry on a warmish winter day, and the Mahonia berries are loved by birds. A plant I always have in my garden is Geranium phaeum ‘samobor’ or the common name is dusky cranesbill which attracts bees for the nectar and later seed eating birds such as bullfinches. These Geranium will also flower twice a year.’

If you are a beginner gardener, Tim picked out one overlooked plant that is extremely easy to grow: ‘I know some people will think of Buddlejas as weeds, but they produce lots of flowers, which look good, smell nice and are loved by all manner of insects.’

Ditch the digging

Accepting that weeds often need to be weeded, embracing a no-dig approach to flower and shrub beds can actually be ideal, and not just for your back. According to Tim ‘Keeping the soil for the most part undisturbed can be a big help in ensuring your plants produce a large enough and healthy root structure’. Andy agrees advising that you should ‘Just add compost or manure to the surface before planting.’ This is particularly valuable when it comes to planting vegetables as ‘This gives your next crop the necessary nutrients they need to grow and also helps with water retention.’  

" ‘Keeping the soil for the most part undisturbed can be a big help in ensuring your plants produce a large enough and healthy root structure.'"
- Tim Stapleton Propagator at Mount Stewart

Bark up the right tree

If you have access to mulch such as bark chips, leaf litter or homemade compost then put this between your plants. Tim deems this important because ‘covering the soil surface will make a massive difference in keeping the soil damp. In the hot, dry summer of two years ago, I simply found a couple of inches of small bark chips and it kept the soil damp for almost a week.’

Water, water everywhere

A gardener is always pleased to see rain after a dry spell. When rain isn’t around to work its magic, a gardener needs to adopt the right level of watering work. ‘It’s surprising how much difference the right amount of water, as opposed to just a little, can make to eventual plant size.’ explains Tim. Getting out and watering your plants makes gardening good exercise as you add to your daily step count.

If you’re an avid gardener and want to scale up your ambitions, creating a pond will offer an ideal water source for this work. If you have the space, ponds can be a lovely focal point in any garden for both humans and wildlife. Ponds attract a wide array of wildlife from dragonflies to frogs. Andy uses his as the main water supply for his honey bees and has a few recommendations when considering building your own. ‘Something to be mindful of when thinking of creating a pond - is the site. Don’t create one too close to a tree as falling leaves become a problem in autumn. As you build it, remember to create deep and shallow parts in the pond for different plant species. When you’re done, let your pond fill naturally with rain water rather than tap water which contains nitrates and chlorine'.

" ‘Something to be mindful of when thinking of creating a pond - is the site. Don’t create one too close to a tree as falling leaves become a problem in autumn.'"
- Andy Dainty, Senior Gardener at Castle Ward

Food for thought

You do need to feed your plants, but in many cases, it needs to be a calorie-controlled diet. Tim recommends researching what you choose to feed the plants you’re trying to nurture. The ‘everything in moderation’ adage applies to plants too. ‘It is possible to kill some plants with kindness. Simply being over enthusiastic with the fertiliser can lead to leaves falling off or going off colour.’

" ‘It is possible to kill some plants with kindness. Simply being over enthusiastic with the fertiliser can lead to leaves falling off or going off colour.’ "
- Tim Stapleton, Propagator at Mount Stewart
Mount Stewart house overlooking the Italian Garden
Mount Stewart house overlooking the Italian Garden
Mount Stewart house overlooking the Italian Garden

Our final tip is to enjoy your garden. While there may be lots of things you’d like to do with your green space, stopping to enjoy it is what makes it the special place you treasure. Whether you fill it with family or use it as a place to switch off, our top tips are there to enhance the buzz and the beauty you hopefully already find there.