Gardening tips: From our garden to yours
While you can't admire the spring blooms at the places we care for, we’ll do our best to bring them to you and help you make the most of your own garden or growing space. Every Thursday we'll be bringing you tips and updates on a variety of topics including, planting vegetables, potting, flower borders and dealing with plant shortages.
While you're away, a small number of our gardeners are working hard to look after the gardens in our care. They are irrigating precious plants in glasshouses, managing the weeds, and carrying out lots of other vital work to ensure we can open up gardens as quickly as possible once the restrictions have been lifted.
Beccy, Kate and Simon, our gardening experts, have already started answering our member's gardening questions, and will continue to do so during the coming weeks.
Liz Kemp, a volunteer gardener at Emmetts Garden in Kent
When Liz returned to the UK in 2008, after 25 years of living in high-rise flats in Hong Kong, she realised that the one thing missing from her life was gardening.
Liz decided she wanted to volunteer for a public garden when she was recovering from a foot injury and started at Emmetts in 2013. Her weekly visits became one of the most special parts of her life and she can’t wait to return to the garden when it’s safe to do so.
Why is Emmetts Garden so special to you?
Emmetts Garden can be enjoyed on so many levels. It is a wonderful Edwardian garden created in the early 20th century and was lovingly cared for by its owner Frederic Lubbock who was passionate about plants. The garden is not only known for its superb planting there is also a meadow, a forest play area (complete with tepee and outdoor kitchen) and woodland paths for families to explore. But there’s also space for peace and solitude, allowing me to indulge my passion for rare trees and shrubs.
What have you learned from volunteering and how has this helped you during lockdown?
I’ve learned how fun it is working as part of a friendly team to create a gorgeous garden for people to enjoy. I enjoyed giving garden tours and helping visitors see the garden with new eyes. It has been agony during lockdown not to be able to visit. Spring is the most important season and it’s sad not to see the results of all our hard work. But lockdown has also given me time to experiment with growing veg from seed and creating a small veg patch at home. My husband jokes that I’m trying to create a mini Emmetts.
I’ve been sharing seeds and small plants with friends, neighbours and the people I meet during my community shopping rounds. Enjoy nature and smile at everyone you see. We will all get through this together and our favourite gardens will be waiting for us.
Liz's top tips
Enjoy whatever space you have and experiment with household objects. You could grow vegetables in an old washing up bowl with holes punched in the bottom. Or make plant pots for seedlings out of newspaper.
We will get through this together and our favourite gardens will wait for us. Looking after plants in a large garden, an allotment or on the windowsill is good for our wellbeing as it gives us something special to care for.
Share your love of gardening
Share tips, seeds and small plants or cuttings with friends and neighbours. During my community shopping trips, I’ve shared sweet-pea seeds and tomato seeds. Tomato or bean plants are a lovely gift for new gardeners.
Get to know your fellow gardeners
Gardeners are lovely people and are always happy to share tips, experience and plants. As volunteers we often swap and share plants, cuttings and seeds. Get to know the gardeners on your street and look out for voluntary projects.
Disguise and trickery in the garden
Take a closer look at any garden and you’ll discover a miniature jungle. To survive and reproduce, plants and animals have to outsmart their rivals by using all kinds of strategies and tactics. Some use camouflage to hide from their predators while others pretend to be something else to trick pollinators or unsuspecting prey.
Tricks of the trade
Many insects survive through camouflage. This buff tip moth is an expert at sitting on just the right birch log to become almost invisible to birds and other predators.
Peacock butterflies startle potential predators by opening and closing their wings to reveal what appear to be the eyes of a much larger creature.
It's a trap
Sundew plants grow in poor soils and complement their diet by catching unsuspecting flies with sweet, sticky droplets on their leaves.
A sign of danger
Yellow and black stripes are often a signal of danger. This can be used to warn off predators even when you’re quite harmless like this caterpillar of the cinnabar moth.
One way to trick an insect into passing your pollen is to dress up as its mate. With its resemblance to a female bee, the bee orchid is a master at this. Some orchids also release a female scent.
Flowering plants and the animals that pollinate them have evolved alongside each other for millions of years in intricate give-and-take relationships. Primitive plants such as magnolias evolved long before bees and flies existed and are designed to be pollinated by beetles.
In most cases, where bees, butterflies and other pollinators are involved, the plant’s lure is sweet nectar and the pay-off, a free pollen courier service. Plants like bee orchids have adopted a particularly sophisticated way to attract their chosen insect. The centre of the orchid looks like a female bee. This attracts male bees, who fly in to try to mate with it and inadvertently end up pollinating the flower.
Other plants produce flowers with flamboyant look-at-me petals and intricate mechanisms to ensure that the pollen is successfully transferred from one plant to another to ensure fertilisation. The horse chestnut tree has taken this a step further with flowers that have patterns called nectar guides, which direct bees to where they’re needed most. As individual flowers become fertilised, the colour of the patterns turns from conspicuous yellow to invisible red, in the bee's eyes that is.
Whether you live in the countryside or the city, our gardens represent valuable havens for wildlife to thrive in even the most built up landscapes. By making them attractive to insects and other animals, gardens also give us the chance to observe wildlife up close. Even a small garden can be transformed from a wildlife desert to a species-rich habitat if you choose the right plants and are not overly tidy.
Our gardens at home are important havens for our wildlife, including many insects, birds and other animals.They also allow us get up close and personal with nature on a daily basis. Flower-rich borders, shrubs, mini-meadows, bird boxes and bug hotels all help to support and attract wildlife.
This week our gardening experts are joined by Ben McCarthy, National Trust’s Head of Nature Conservation, as they take on the topic of wildlife-friendly gardening.
Can you suggest a range of flowering plants to attract insect pollinators?
Grow plants that flower from spring to autumn to give continuity. Bees love herbs such as thyme and marjoram. Primrose, lungwort, foxglove, coneflower, ivy, ox-eye daisy are also good.
How can I control greenfly on my roses without harmful chemicals?
Firstly, don’t worry about a few pests as they provide food for insects like ladybirds and help to maintain a balance. For major outbreaks, use ‘contact’ insecticides like soap-based ones that are less harmful.
Should I feed birds during spring and summer?
What garden birds and their young most need during the breeding season is a natural diet of insects and caterpillars. Well mulched beds and borders provide a rich menu of prey, including worms, caterpillars and beetles.
Growing and using garden herbs
Herbs are grown in most the gardens we care for, whether as part of a kitchen garden for culinary use, as ornamentals in a flower border or to show how they were used historically as medicinal plants in designated herb gardens.
Potted herbs are usually in high demand in our café kitchens for adding to soups, salads and savouries. Luckily, as most are perennials they won’t be wasted during our period of closure. Rosemary, sage, chives and oregano will just need a trim once they have finished flowering to keep them from getting too leggy.
On Monday we had our first live Q+A on twitter, where Simon and Kate answered your gardening questions. Keep reading to get answers on how to grow and use herbs.
Supermarkets are short of fresh herbs, what grows well in a window box?
It’s a good time of year to sow annual herbs such as basil, dill and coriander. Start the seeds off indoors before transplanting them to a sunny window box.
How do I care for sage and lavender?
As perennial herbs from the Mediterranean, lavender, thyme and sage all prefer sunny, dry conditions. You’ll need to give them a hard prune in late spring to keep the plants compact.
What's the trick for growing parsley?
A little boiling water in the seed tray before sowing the seeds helps to break down their tough coating. Then put the tray in a warm place until they germinate.
Can I use bay leaves straight from a tree?
Yes, though the flavour is more subtle. Make sure you wash them, as they can have been on the tree for some time and tend to get dusty.
What do I do with all the herbs I've grown?
At this time of year many herbs are flourishing and producing leaves faster than you can use them up in the kitchen. First of all, don’t panic, they are beautiful plants in their own right, so enjoy their foliage and flowers as part of the garden.
Secondly, they store well for use in the winter months when they tend to be much less prolific. You can chop the leafy herbs (parsley, basil, coriander, mint) and freeze them in ice-cube trays, so they are ready in small quantities to use. Alternatively put the leaves in bags to freeze. They will crumble when frozen so that you can just pour out what you need.
Many shrubby herbs dry really well. Sage, rosemary, thyme and bay can be hung in bunches around your kitchen to use in cooking or as herbal teas.
Herb oils and vinegars also work well for making flavoured salad dressing. Just put a healthy bunch of leaves (tarragon is a great one) in a bottle of your favourite oil or vinegar and leave it for a month or so to infuse.
Weeding and composting
Weeding and composting may not be glamorous, but they are two of the most important parts of gardening. Keeping on top of weeds now will mean your vegetables and flowers perform better this summer. And turning your garden waste into compost to feed the soil in winter will give you even better displays next year.
Keeping on top of the weeding
Are all weeds bad?
No! Weeds growing around garden plants are best removed as they compete for light, water and nutrients but weeds like nettles in the corner of the garden and dandelions in the lawn are great for wildlife.
How do I get rid of weeds?
Annual weeds which grow from seed now have small roots and can just be pulled off by hand. Perennial weeds often have deeper roots and you need to use a handfork to get them out.
Can I ever get rid of bindweed?
Yes. Use a fork to dig deeply and pull out all the annoying white roots. Even a little bit left in the ground will regrow but if you keep digging it out, every time it appears, it will give up eventually.
What do I do with all my garden waste?
You can compost it. Weeds, grass clippings and hedge-trimmings mixed together compost brilliantly. If you don’t have a compost bin, make one with boards or an old dustbin or even just pile it up. If you have space, two bins is ideal.
What else can I add to my compost heap?
Add your veg peelings, eggs shells, egg boxes and coffee granules to your compost heap but avoid any cooked food which could attract unwanted visitors such as foxes or rats.
What do I use compost for?
Compost made from garden waste is great for adding to the soil in flower beds and veg plots. It can be dug in or spread on top. It is different from multi-purpose potting compost which has been specially formulated for growing plants in.
Can I put all my weeds in the compost?
In many garden compost heaps it takes about a year for the garden waste to turn into compost. During this time all annual weeds and thick fleshy roots like dandelions and thistles will definitely rot down.
However, because these kinds of heaps never get very hot, some perennial weed roots and seeds of annual weeds may survive. This is why many gardeners put the worst weeds such as bindweed and ground elder in their council green waste bin instead. Huge council compost piles get very hot and kill most weeds, seeds and plant diseases too.
With green waste collections not happening and recycling centres closed, you can add your weeds to your compost instead. Just make sure you chop them up well and turn the heap every few months so it gets nice and hot. When your compost is ready and you use it on vegetable beds or in border and seeds or bits of root start to germinate, you can just hoe them off or fork them out as soon as you see them.
The very worst weeds, like mare’s tail and celandine tubers, can be soaked in a bucket of water for a few weeks to kill them before adding them to the heap. If you add some nettles or comfrey, the green gloopy liquid will make an excellent feed for plants in pots.
To dig or not to dig?
Attitudes towards digging have changed. Every time earth is turned over the soil structure is damaged and carbon is released. It’s better to top dress with compost, leaf mould and manure, and let the worms do their work.
Why do I need to thin seedlings?
If seedlings are too crowded they will not thrive, so if you have sown in the open ground thin twice. First leave twice as many plants as you will need. At the second thinning remove every other plant in the row.
Why do I need to earth up potatoes?
May can still bring a late frost which would damage exposed shoots. Earthing up helps to keep the stems upright, and prevents the tubers from being exposed to the light, which can make them go green.
What is the purpose of mulching?
Both peas and beans specially need moisture to produce a good crop. In very dry weather, instead of watering, spread grass mowings, decayed leaves or compost to a depth of one inch along each side of the rows.
Which birds are your friends?
Robin, wren, hedge-sparrow, song-thrush and many others will be looking for food, and in doing so will help you keep garden pests under control.