Gardening tips: From our garden to yours

A bee orchid on the Isle of Wight

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


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

Special relationships

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. 


Nature-friendly gardening

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. 


Nine ways to make your garden nature-friendly  

You can get even closer to your local wildlife by making your back garden a safe haven for nature. Here are nine things you can do in your garden to help birds, insects and animals.

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.

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.


How to grow herbs

Fresh herbs are a great way to add zest to your home cooking and can fill your outdoor space with wonderful fragrances. They're not as hard to grow as you might think, even if you only have space for a few pots. In this film, our Gardens Training Specialist Kate Nicoll shows you how to get the best out of some of the most popular garden herbs.

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

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.


Meet the experts

Rebecca Bevan at Mount Stewart

Rebecca Bevan, garden researcher

Beccy trained at RHS Garden Wisley and has worked as a Head Gardener and a Horticultural Researcher for BBC Gardeners’ World before coming to the National Trust. Her job involves providing advice to Trust gardeners and writing books and articles about gardening. During lockdown she was delighted to be helping members with their gardens by sharing hints and tips, plus spending more time than ever before in her own.

Kate Nicoll demonstrating pear pruning in the walled garden at Attingham

Kate Nicoll, gardens training specialist

Kate spent 15 years as a BBC producer before her childhood love of gardening led to a career change. After completing a gardening apprenticeship she became senior gardener at Attingham Park. Kate is now responsible for training opportunities for all our gardeners and apprentices, but during the current crisis she is busy writing and even filming in her own back garden in North Wales.

Simon Toomer, national specialist, plant conservation

Simon Toomer, national specialist, plant conservation

Simon is the Trust’s specialist for all areas of plant conservation in gardens and parks. Most of his career has been in arboriculture and forestry and Simon was previously Director of Westonbirt Arboretum.

Robin at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Give back to nature 

This year, more than ever before, nature has been our source of comfort. But climate change is accelerating the decline of these green spaces. Nature gives us so much, donate today and help us protect these precious places and the wildlife that live there.