Who better to advise on how to achieve a show-stopping summer garden than a National Trust head gardener from a stately pile with blooming borders, an ancient wisteria and a veg patch to die for? Introducing head gardener from Oxon’s Greys Court, Tim Martin, with his tips on preparing your garden for a summer of wow!
Greys Court is such a pretty and romantic walled garden – or walled gardens, I should say, as there are lots! One garden room leads to another through a series of concealed doors and little gateways in the walls – it’s really rather magical. At this time of year, you might catch the last of the mighty 130-year-old wisteria, but right now, we’re all eagerly awaiting the roses to burst into bloom. Otherwise we’re busy getting prepared for summer – here’s what we’re doing:
Resist trimming back your bulbs
After they’ve stopped flowering, bulbs are still gathering energy from the sun through their leaves to store in the bulb for next year. If you cut the leaves off, it’s like covering up a solar panel on your roof – they can’t gather energy. You can cut them back when they’ve gone brown later in the summer. Or if you really can’t bear it, lift and move them to let them die down or put them in old containers with a bit of leaf mould or compost.
Speaking of compost…
Here at the National Trust, we’ve been peat-free for some time. Protecting peatlands is really important as they store carbon, control flooding and create homes for wildlife. We use compost based on coir or wood fibre from sustainable forestry along with lots of our own compost that’s been well-rotted here at Greys Court. Make your own compost by piling up garden waste with a good mix of green (grass cuttings, fresh weeds, raw fruit and veg peelings etc) and brown waste (small twigs, straw, shredded paper and cardboard). Read more about making your own compost here.
With the threat of frost diminishing, you can think about planting out your tender bedding plants like pelargoniums, snapdragons or salvias. In the veg garden you could plant out your salad crops, peas and beans. I’ve planted runner beans in my own back garden but we’ve got a resident wild rabbit who patrols the veg patch looking for lunch, so I’ve planted it in a ‘cage’. You can use chicken wire or netting to keep rabbits and pigeons at bay.
If you don’t want droopy peonies, you’ll need to stake them. Gardeners traditionally used sticks from hazel coppice for staking. We have lots of woods around us at Greys Court with a ready supply of coppice, so we continue the tradition. You put one end of the stick in the ground, cut a notch or snap it at calf height and fold the stick over, securing the other end in the ground to make an arch. Carry on doing this around and over the plant and it makes a kind of inverted basket for the plant to grow through with support.
At the end of the season, you can just compost the lot. You can also buy metal frames that you can re-use every year.
It if turns hot, raise the cut on the lawn mower and don’t suck up the grass – just let it fly. The grass cuttings act as compost, adding nitrogen to the garden and slowing the moisture evaporation in the heat.
Try and keep on top of your weeds so they don’t get too big. The hoe is a gardener’s best friend. Hoe out the weeds and leave them to wither in the sun. Try and use the correct handle-length for your height. The hoe should reach your ear lobe if you hold it next to you.
In order to avoid using chemicals on weeds between paving stones, we whip the top of the weeds with a battery strimmer. This stops them photosynthesising and weakens them.
Summers are getting drier and warmer and watering is a must. To make sure we’re being thrifty with water-use, we use a watering can rather than a hose. We’re also careful to concentrate the water where it’s needed at the roots of the plant, rather than on the leave, so we’re not wasting it. I love to water in the early evenings with a G&T – it’s very relaxing.