40 Top Gardening Tips
Ever wondered what is the most effective way to prevent slug damage, which roses will last longest, and what you should do with all those unripe tomatoes in autumn? In her inspiring new book, Top Tips: A Treasury Of Garden Wisdom, Gardeners’ World producer Louise Hampden lets us in on her favorite gardening tips and tricks of the trade.
1. Autumn is the perfect time to collect seeds of hardy annuals, sweet peas and other favorites. Seed needs to be absolutely dry before being stored – damp seed will only rot.
2. Annuals, which are grown from seed and then die the same year, are the easiest plants to grow. Within 12 weeks of sowing, an annual will be flowering its socks off. The secret of success is to understand that their sole purpose in life is to make seed, so if you dead-head them regularly, they will keep on making more flowers in a desperate attempt to produce seed.
3. The great thing about annuals is that it doesn’t matter if you sow them late – they’ll just flower later. As long as they have 12 weeks of warm conditions in which to grow and flower, they will do so.
4. Among the failsafe annuals are love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica), cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), larkspur (Delphinium consolida), poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii) and opium poppies (Papaver somniferum).
5. Annual seeds are best sown in rows – this helps you tell the seedlings from the weedlings, which grow randomly. On Gardeners’ World, we often sow in circles, arcs and crosses, sometimes using a bottle of sand to mark out the shapes.
6. Seeds need to be kept cool, dark and dry over the winter. Store envelopes containing seeds in an old ice-cream carton or biscuit tin and put it in the fridge.
7. Roses are the highlight of the summer garden, but if you have only a small plot, look for roses that flower all summer long. A rose that takes up a lot of space in return for just one month of glory can be disappointing. Thoroughly good ‘doers’ include the shrub roses ‘Buff Beauty’, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, and ‘Graham Thomas’, the climbers ‘Ena Harkness’, ‘Blairii Number Two’ and ‘New Dawn’, and old roses Rosa ‘Mutabilis’, ‘Charles de Mills’, and ‘Blanche Double de Coubert’.
8. Climbing roses will flower better if the branches are trained horizontally. The hormones that are normally concentrated just at the tip are now spread equally along the stem, encouraging each bud to break into leaf and later produce a flower.
Potted plants advice
9. If space is in short supply, then use bulbs in pots for an immediate impact. When they are just on the point of flowering in the spring, you can plant the whole pot in a border to provide an instant splash of color.
11. Terracotta pots absorb water, so a plant in a terracotta pot will dry out a lot quicker than one in a ceramic or plastic container. If you’re using a terracotta pot, it’s a good idea, therefore, to line it with plastic or an empty compost bag with holes punched in the bottom before planting; this will keep the soil moist for longer.
12. Figs will fruit much better if you restrict the root growth, which makes them ideal for growing in containers. They can even be planted within a leather bag or pot and then buried to restrict the root growth. Planted directly into the ground, figs make lots of leaf growth and become large without producing much fruit.
An eye for design
13. A bench or seat around a tree always provides an excellent focal point. Just make sure you leave enough room for the trunk to expand.
14. To achieve the best and most natural effect, never plant bulbs in a row. Plant them in clumps of at least five, seven or nine.
15. Want to attract wildlife into your garden? Bees and finches love lavender. Daisies, whether in wild or cultivated form, are essential because their centers contain an abundance of nectar. Ivy provides nectar for insects and berries for the birds; it also offers shelter: blackbirds, robins and many other birds build their nests in its branches.
16. Nature hates a vacuum and will always fill an empty bit of soil. It is better to fill that space with a decorative plant before nature does it with a weed.
17. Bright light washes out cooler colors, so blues, greens and purples are better suited to shaded areas.
18. When planning patios or decks, allow a minimum of 2.4 square meters for a table and a few chairs.
19. To get a ‘designed’ look in a small space, use only a few different plants, but use them in quantity. And limit the color range.
20. Cramped borders don’t work. They need space, and that means 1.5 or even 2 metres from front to back. Anything less means you will only be able to plant single plants – you won’t achieve any decent depth or combinations, and shrubs and perennials will either spill over a lawn and kill the edges, or obstruct a path and need constant cutting back.
21. Experiment by positioning plants in their pots before putting them in the ground. That way you can move them around and adjust them to arrive at the best look.
22. Don’t put a compost heap in a part of the garden that is rarely visited. You won’t use it. Put it where it is easily accessible for the kitchen and the garden. You’ll know when compost is ready for use on the garden when it smells pleasant, is blackish brown, moist, crumbly, and has no large, recognizable bits of vegetation in it.
Fruit and vegetables
23. Digging should only be done when the soil is reasonably dry – never when it is wet enough to stick to the soles of your boots. If too wet, the soil becomes compacted, which ruins its structure and defeats the whole object of digging.
24. Don’t try to propagate your own garlic. By nature it becomes progressively more diseased when growing in the soil. It is also not advisable to plant cloves bought from a supermarket, as they may carry disease. Buy them from a garden center or mail-order supplier.
25. Save space by sowing two different crops in a single row. Mix a slow growing crop such as parsnips or carrots with something faster such as lettuces or radishes.
27. Parsley seed can be very slow to germinate. To speed things up, soak in warm water overnight before sowing.
28. Thyme can be used for ground cover and is happy to grow in the cracks between paving stones or rocks.
29. If you’re starting a veg plot on very weedy ground, potatoes may help swamp weeds with their rapidly growing foliage. They are often planted to ‘clean the ground’ in this way.
30. Putting almost ripe tomatoes in a paper bag with a banana will speed up the ripening process.
31. Tomatoes and potatoes are both members of the nightshade family and susceptible to the same diseases, so they shouldn’t be planted in a bed in succession.
32. If you have lots of green tomatoes at the end of summer and don’t want to ripen them indoors, use them to make chutney instead.
33. A scaffold board is a useful piece of vegetable-planting kit. You can stand on it for planting so the soil surface is never compacted, it can be used as a straight edge for marking a line for sowing seeds, and it’s the perfect spacer between rows of veg.
34. Strawberries belong to the rose family and are the only fruit that have their seeds on the outside, rather than on the inside. They are rich in vitamin C, a good source of folic acid, and high in fiber.
35. Pear trees blossom early, so it is best to plant them against a warm wall or in a sheltered spot to prevent the flowers from being damaged by frost in the spring.
36. Slugs and snails often make a beeline for newly-planted specimens, so concentrate your efforts on protecting these, rather than every plant in your garden.
37. Slugs hate caffeine, as it causes them to produce an excess of slime, which immediately dries them out and prevents them from moving onto, and then eating, your plants. Spent coffee grounds spread around a line of emerging seedlings or a new plant will keep the slugs off.
38. Don’t worry about ants in pots. They may disturb the roots if they build their nests in pots, but they won’t kill the plants.
39. Mice and squirrels love bulbs, so cover the pots or the area just planted with chicken wire, to prevent them from being dug up and eaten.
40. The joy of gardening is that nobody ever gets it right first time. Or even second time. It is fine to constantly move plants, replant areas and tinker with color schemes.
No part of the garden will ever be completely perfect and, if it is, the perfection is momentary. But throughout the gardening year there are sometimes quite a few of those moments. It is the reason why gardeners garden.