Here's how to get the most out of the Bank Holiday weekend and prepare outdoor space ready for summer
As a garden designer I help others transform their gardens on a weekly basis, but recently I’ve been looking from my garden back to my clients’ with increasing envy. After a battering from last year’s snow and drought, our small London yard is ready for a little zhushing up. Thankfully 2019 is set to be a turning point for gardens; retailers are flooding the market with characterful and useful products while gardening experts are full of ideas for wildlife and naturalistic planting.
Trends such as living walls may be dwindling, but sustainable, environmentally conscious ideas are firmly in – and they’re not skimping on style either.
Practical green fingers
1. Colour your borders
Some of the most striking gardens have a bold colour theme, giving instant impact. Rosemary Hardy, of gold medal winning nursery Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, recommends the strong coral (Pantone colour of the year) Verbascum ‘Cotswold Beauty’ – good for shade – and Dianthus ‘Doris’ for a sunnier position. Or start your own trend: “Unusual plants for a shady spot include Uvularia perfoliata, and we really recommend Geum ‘Scarlet Tempest’ for long season colour. Other favourites for long season flowers are Geranium ‘Brookside’, Veronicastrum ‘Rosea’ and Anthemis ‘Sauce Hollandaise’.”
2. Irrigate with ease
If, like me, you remember (with dread) the hours spent chained to a watering can and hose during last summer’s drought, now’s the time to invest in an automatic irrigation system from Gardena or Hozelock. Both companies sell fairly easy to set up kits and also offer smart timers that can be controlled by an app on your smartphone. The Gardena Smart Water Control Set, for use via smart app, costs from £324.99 at homeandgardencentre.co.uk.
3. Store rainwater
To save on mains water when watering your tomatoes, buy a large water butt to store rainwater instead. In fact, if you have space buy two or three for good measure. Ecosure.co.uk offers a range of slimline, space-efficient water butts that look pretty good compared with the standard round, green tanks – especially the style that comes with a built-in planter (£159). Or avoid plastic altogether with a galvanised steel tank usually found in lofts; they’ll take some DIY to connect but will last a lifetime.
4. Order nematodes
Nematodes are a great natural way of controlling pests like slugs and vine weevil. I’ve used them for years at home and on my allotment to great effect – unfortunately they don’t work on snails (nematodesdirect.co.uk).
5. Pot on early veg
It’s also time to pot on tomatoes and chillies, or if you forgot, get sowing quickly, there’s just about enough time if you grow the seedlings on inside for a while (alternatively buy plug plants from dobies.co.uk).
6. Grow perennial veg
“Perennial veg!” says grow-your-own guru Mark Diacono, who’s seen a shift in demand, not only for the usual globe artichokes and asparagus: “It’s others that are really making a move: Babington’s leek, Japanese ginger, wasabi, sea kale, yacon and oca.” Diacono adds: “There’s a lot to be said for being able to buy something once and it be productive for years.” (otterfarm.co.uk).
7. Hug a spider
Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter, East Sussex, says: “New in the garden for 2019 will be a love of spiders and all the ‘creepy crawlies’ that make up the web of life.”
I’m left wondering how many people are ready for an eight-legged trend, but with two thirds of gardeners growing plants for wildlife (Wyevale 2019 Trends Report), he may be right. And it makes sense, as spiders eat plant pests. Encourage them with dense planting for shelter when they emerge, then grow tall plants that hold their form, like monardas and heleniums. These encourage the insects that spiders feed on, and provide a structure where their webs can sparkle in autumn dews.
8. Plan a rotation
Charles Dowding, who popularised no-dig gardening, recommends rethinking crop rotation. He doesn’t leave space empty as one crop finishes: “Many vegetables mature in half a year, so two crops are possible and could be different families, doing the same again next year.” This makes the rotation faster at every six months, to seemingly little detriment, provided you rotate the four traditional veg groups each time – legumes, potatoes, brassicas, onions and roots.
9. Go peat free
This year New Horizon, Sylvagrow and Dalefoot have a larger range of peat-free composts than ever, and Sylvagrow reports that sales of ethical peat-free products increased by 50 per cent over the past year. With more gardeners making the switch, it’s time to jump on the bandwagon.
10. G.Y.O. cut flowers
Grow your own cut flowers this summer by planting those that repeat-crop in summer now, including dahlias from tubers, zinnia and cosmos from seed, plus eucalyptus for foliage. Rowan Blossom, the florist, suggests we be more maverick in how we display them in her new book, Living With Flowers: “Use chicken wire to create a cloud shape hanging over your table, stuff with tough foliage, dot cut flowers in to add prettiness. Place them in little vials of water, or wrap the stem in damp tissue paper.”
12. Aim for natural style
Professor Nigel Dunnett, famed for his public plantings at London’s Olympic Park and concrete wonder the Barbican, thinks gardens can be better with designed, yet naturalistic borders. He says: “The easiest first step is to think about a framework of plants with long-lasting structure.
One of my favourites is the semi-shrubby Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, which flowers from late winter to early summer but has evergreen year-round presence. A plant such as this is like an anchor – a point around which you can start to build up planting. Aim for a succession of such plants, organising them like satellites around the anchors.” Perennials in Prof Dunnett’s plantings include Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’, Achillea ‘Terracotta’ and the grass, Sesleria nitida. He says, “Use spring and summer bulbs and annuals as ‘pop-ups’ among the more permanent planting.” Read all about it in Prof Dunnett’s new book, Naturalistic Planting Design.
13. Choose tropical show-stoppers
Tropical-look gardens are ever more popular, thanks to a slew of new plants. Partly responsible is Sue Wynn-Jones, a plant hunter who sells many unusual finds from her nursery (crug-farm.co.uk). Wynn-Jones says: “Tetracentron sinense is my favourite tree at the moment.” She also suggests growing tetrapanax, merrilliopanax, oreopanax and Schefflera delavayi.
Philip Oostenbrink, head gardener of Canterbury Cathedral, is a fellow tropical lover. He says that in addition to hakonechloa grass and aspidistra (he holds the National Collection for both): “Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’ is the perfect combination of colour and lush foliage, as the leaves are dark purple with even darker streaks.
“Begonia luxurians, too, at a metre tall, is always a talking point. It is so unlike the little bedding plants we all grew up with.”
14. Be with the bees
“New to me are the bee boxes from nurturing-nature.co.uk,” says Jo Thompson, multiple gold medal winning garden designer, who thinks they are “excellent products which are intelligently designed”. The boxes can be cleaned, which is vital in order to avoid disease. Made for wild solitary and bumblebees, some even have little windows to observe our fuzzy friends.
15. Think meadow, not lawn
Designer Helen Elks-Smith has seen a rise in popularity of meadows. “Meadows have been popular for a number of years and interest continues to grow. Establishing a meadow from a wild flower turf mix can be a very successful approach, and the resultant wild flower mix can readily be tailored to your garden by plug planting into the turf. There are many plants to choose from and they can be selected for the soil and site conditions, giving a regional look and feel.” For native wild flower seed mixes visit habitataid.co.uk, which also sells wild flower turf if you call.
16. Heal with herbs
Use the Easter break to prepare and plant a herbal bed, not only for cooking but for well-being. Best-selling book The Complete Herbal Tutor by Anne McIntyre has recently been revised with a new edition explaining why and how plants can nourish the body. Plant herbs known for healing properties, such as camomile, rosemary, sage, calendula and peppermint (but keep that in a pot to stop spreading.)
15. Love your lawn
By now you should be mowing your lawn once per week (don’t worry, most people won’t be either) going up to twice a week in summer. If your patch of green is looking a bit worse for wear, remove weeds with a trowel and backfill gaps with a little compost. Apply Maxicrop organic moss killer and lawn tonic where necessary and sprinkle grass seed sparingly on bare patches. Or, try my preferred look and just let the moss and weeds run rampant for colour and wildlife. Organic lawn fertiliser, such as chicken manure pellets, should also be added now, following instructions to the letter.
16. Sow veg now
While most people are dreaming of egg hunts and chocolate, for gardeners Easter is the starting pistol of the growing race. Sow vegetable crops, such as courgettes, brassicas and carrots, this weekend, and get those seed potatoes in the ground.
Green and geeky
17. Identify plants with an app
SmartPlant, one of the best apps for plant identification, is currently free for a month to all shoppers at Homebase who buy a plant. Another useful one is the main Google app, which uses photos through “Google Lens” to find the nearest match online.
18. Play music in the garden
While gardens are a sanctuary from busy, noisy life, there’s room for calming music to accompany outdoor dinner parties. The Diggit Bluetooth outdoor speaker by kitsound.co.uk (amazon.co.uk from £28) is a portable, rechargeable speaker with spike to stick into the ground (perhaps out of sight behind a shrub). Buy two for stereo.
19. Try grow-lights for window crops
Tanya Anderson, the popular vlogger of lovelygreens.com, has a canny solution for windowsill seedlings that grow leggy: “Get a grow-light that clips on to your windowsill. The light is fixed to a bendy extension so you can adjust its height as the plants grow.” Clip-on grow lights, from amazon.co.uk from around £13.99.
20. Create a fancy floor
For patios, paths and steps, consider a number of new paving options causing a stir among designers. The range of beautiful clay pavers in hundreds of colours at chelmervalley.co.uk will breathe new life into outdoor spaces. Decorated tiles from toppstiles.co.uk and porcelain slabs from londonstone.co.uk include convincing wooden board effects.
21. Make furniture your focal point
Statement garden furniture in the UK has been in short supply, until now. I’ve ordered stylish black Tice rocking chairs – yes, rocking chairs – from made.com for my own garden (£79). More can be found in ever expanding ranges from Habitat, John Lewis and Ikea. For something unique, Ula Maria, a garden designer exhibiting at Hampton Court this year, recommends 1stdibs.com. She says: “It is the most beautiful and enthralling marketplace where one can find outdoor furniture from the most exciting designers. Many of the items are unique, which I find very appealing. However, most of them do come with a price tag to match.”
22. Use outdoor storage
Ikea’s new Kolbjörn range of white weatherproof cupboards and shelves can be used indoors or out – a great storage solution.
23. Use paint for an instant uplift
We don’t use paint enough in British gardens. It’s a wonderful way to make an area feel fresh for little effort. Helen Elks-Smith, the Chelsea Flower Show garden designer, sees a growing trend toward darker colours: “There is less and less demand for cool white limestone paving; it’s being replaced with an interest in darker paving. This is also reflected in paint colours picking up the richer palette of many interiors.” Alitex is about to launch its first outdoor range of paint to transform windows, doors, sheds, fences or furniture. Using their Graphite Grey paint as a backdrop to plants can really make flower and foliage colours pop. Also, the new Indigo modular corner sofa from bramblecrest.com echoes this move towards a darker palette outdoors.
24. Light up a tree
On a recent stay in Los Angeles, I noticed that tree trunks and branches wrapped in low-cost LED fairy lights were creating a magical – if occasionally over-the-top – year-round feature. Festoon lights, plain bulbs on black wire (from coxandcox.co.uk) lend a relaxed summer look when strung across a pergola or between trees.
25. Shades and sails
It’s possible to spend a lot of money on retractable awnings for shade. A simple alternative is a shade sail from wayfair.co.uk, a triangular or square piece of waterproof material hooked above seating areas when required. Consider using two or three sails together to create a minimalist work of art rather than necessarily opting for one large sail. Kate Gould, five-time Chelsea gold medal winner, says: “A fully automated and retractable awning is a great choice for creating shade – and you can remove it on darker, cooler days, allowing your house to retain as much light as possible. Modern awnings can be supplied with integrated lighting and heating. Try weinor.com for a good selection.”
26. Picnic in style
In Wyevale Garden Centres’ 2019 trend report, portable picnic equipment such as foldable lightweight furniture topped the list with shoppers.
Caroline Mann, Wyevale’s outdoor furniture buyer, is fond of the Piccolino Kettle Barbecue (£45): “In various colours, and designed with portability in mind, this lightweight and compact barbecue is ideal for taking on family days out.”As I own one myself, I can confirm that it packs a lot of heat for its size.
Out and about
27. Learn from other gardens
Visit a contemporary, designed garden this spring for some fresh ideas. Stephen Parker, a garden and design historian, visits hundreds a year, and these are his top picks. “Gordon Castle Walled Garden in Scotland, designed by Arne Maynard, is incredible. In Yorkshire, an absolute gem with a vast, fantastic garden is Middleton Lodge, designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, though it’s only open to hotel guests. Open to the public is Dove Cottage Nursery Garden near Halifax, Yorkshire, which is absolutely beautiful.
“Cornwall has Kestle Barton by James Alexander-Sinclair and in Somerset it’s worth seeing Hauser & Wirth’s Piet Oudolf garden. If in Ireland, Jimi Blake’s Hunting Brook garden is a must.”
28. Be inspired by rhododendroms
Scottish Rhododendron Festival (daily until May 31)
Flowering across the country, the festival comprises more than 50 events, with swathes of colour in woodlands, estates and gardens, including the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (visitscotland.com).
29. Book tickets for Blenheim Palace Flower Show
Blenheim Palace Flower Show (June 21-23)
This year’s show is set to be the biggest in the event’s history. Opened by Carol Klein, expert gardener and BBC plantswoman, the event will feature its first ever walk-through orchid tunnel and a collection of tropical plants (blenheimflowershow.co.uk).
30. Plan a visit to Fibrex Nursery
Gardener’s gathering at Fibrex Nurseries, June 22; Honeybourne Road, Pebworth, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire CV37 8XP (fibrex.co.uk).
A one-day show crammed with plants galore, excellent advice and talks from expert growers. Includes the National Pelargonium Show and Competition, plus the Pelargonium and Geranium Society, British Pteridological Society and National Begonia Society will give hints and tips on growing. Pheasant Acre Plants and Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants will also attend. Tea, coffee, homemade cakes, great company and a relaxed atmosphere. Free entry and free parking.