How to prepare your garden for a holiday

Car packed full of holiday luggage

Plan ahead to help your garden survive your summer holiday
Image: Africa Studio

You’ve invested blood, sweat and tears into your garden, so it’s perfectly natural to worry about leaving your plants while you enjoy a break from the day-to-day routine. 

We asked garden designer, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays, for her professional advice on how to keep things looking their best for when you return. Here are six practical suggestions to help prepare your garden before you go on holiday:

1. General care

Closeup of lawnmower and cutting grass

Cut and edge the lawn before you leave
Image: kurhan

I’m looking forward to some time away to relax with my family this summer, but at the back of my mind I can feel a niggling anxiety – how will my plants cope while I’m away? Will the lettuces bolt and the sweet peas set seed? How will the dahlias survive if there’s a heatwave? Last year we returned to find that wasps had devoured almost every greengage. Unfortunately, the whole crop was ruined.

To keep things tidy while you’re away, take care of a few general tasks before you leave. Weed borders and paths, and cut the grass in any areas that you’re not growing long for wildlife. Make sure that any top-heavy plants are staked to avoid high winds causing damage to stems while you’re gone.

2. Containers

Pots and containers in Nic Wilson's dogwooddays garden

Group pots and containers together in a shaded spot
Image: dogwooddays

Group all your containers together in a shady spot and provide automatic watering via an irrigation system. Failing that, sit the containers in trays of water.

Take down any hanging baskets and place them with your other containers in the shade. Terracotta pots dry out more quickly than plastic ones, so make sure they’re well watered before you leave.

3. Greenhouse

Stock image of a greenhouse with door open

Nic leaves her greenhouse open while she’s away
Image: a40757

Ensure that your greenhouse plants have adequate shade and that the windows, vents and doors are open during the day. With a small greenhouse like mine, I leave the doors and windows open when we go away in the summer to avoid my plants overheating.

Water all your plants well and stand the pots on capillary matting so they can take up water slowly from the base reservoir. Plants can also be watered with an upside-down drink bottle with a drip end attached, or from a self-watering globe, or a mighty dripper.

4. Fruit and vegetables

Basket of harvested plums from dogwooddays

Nic harvests as many plums as possible before she leaves
Image: dogwooddays

Pick as much as you can before you go – our last job will be to harvest, eat and freeze our ‘Opal’ plums if they ripen in time. Ask a friend or neighbour to visit every few days to harvest crops so the plants will continue to be productive.

By thoroughly watering and mulching the beds before you leave, you can make sure that the soil stays moist for as long as possible. Protect your crops with specialist netting to avoid damage from pigeons and cabbage white butterflies.

5. Flowers

Image of Happy Single Date dahlias

Nic removes the heads from her ‘Happy Single Date’ dahlias before setting off
Image: dogwooddays

Summer-flowering plants like dahlias, sweetpeas, osteospermum and zinnias might be covered in blooms now, but these will have faded by the time you return and the plants will be starting to set seed. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, remove open and spent flowers before you leave and feed plants to encourage a flush of new blooms upon your return.

6. Biosecurity

Oranges infected with CVC, a disease caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa

Oranges infected with CVC, a disease caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa
Image: Alf Ribeiro

Don’t bring back plant material back from your holidays, for the long-term health of your own garden and all plants across the UK. Diseases like Xylella have the potential to cause devastation to a huge range of cultivated and wild plants, so return with photos and memories, not with the plants themselves.

 

Basil bonanza

closeup of basil leaves against a wooden table

Discover how to cultivate this fast-growing annual
Image: isak55

Early summer is the ideal time to sow basil seeds for late summer pizzas, salads and pasta dishes. In fact, professional garden designer Nic Wilson of dogwooddays says one of her favourite jobs of the year is collecting armfuls of basil leaves to blitz for pesto, filling her kitchen with the sweet, spicy smell of this fast-growing annual.

We asked Nic to share five of her favourite basil plants to grow from seed, along with some insider tips to guarantee success!

Five best basils to grow at home

There really is a basil to tempt every palate and suit every garden. Some of my stalwarts are chosen for colour, as well as flavour and aroma – including the sweet leaves of ‘Classico’, the dark purple foliage of ‘Crimson King’, and the liquorice aroma of ‘Siam Queen’. Here are my five all time favourites:

1. Basil ‘Pesto’

jar of green pesto

Nic loves making pesto from her homegrown basil leaves
Image: New Africa

Although I’ve been growing basil to use in pesto for many years, this is the first year I’ve grown ‘Pesto’ itself. This variety has been especially selected to grow well in UK temperatures and has a strong flavour perfect for a peppery pasta dressing. Flushed with delicate purple, the leaves are carried on deep purple stems. The flowers are a pretty pale pink, so it makes a great ornamental choice too. Whether it’s grown in containers in a sunny spot or in the vegetable patch, basil ‘Pesto’ will add a touch of spice to any garden.

2. Basil ‘Lemonade’

Basil 'Lemonade' from Thompson & Morgan

The perfect addition to your glass of Pimm’s
Image: RHS/Karen Robbirt

This variety is high on my list to try next year. It has a lemon sherbet flavour making it perfect for adding to fruit salads and summer drinks, as well as adding a citrus tang to savoury dishes. Not all basil varieties thrive in the changeable UK weather – but ‘Lemonade’, like ‘Pesto’ is tolerant of British summers and can be grown successfully outside once the plants are established and hardened off.

3. Basil ‘Siam Queen’

Basil 'Siam Queen' from Thompson & Morgan

Bring your Thai curries to life with homegrown herbs
Image: Thompson & Morgan

This Thai basil is a wonderful ingredient for spicy curries and soups. We grow ‘Siam Queen’ in pots in the greenhouse alongside Kaffir lime, chillies and peppers as the base for summer Thai green curries. Slightly taller than sweet basil at 45cm, ‘Siam Queen’ has larger, more elongated leaves and a spicy liquorice flavour. A little goes a long way in salads, and it’s one of the best varieties for cooking.

4. Basil ‘Crimson King’

Two packets of Crimson King from Thompson & Morgan.

The beautiful colour of ‘Crimson King’ brightens up any greenhouse or garden
Image: dogwooddays

As soon as the tiny seedlings emerged, I fell in love with this basil. Not only does ‘Crimson King’ have a sweet flavour and softly cupped leaves, but the deep plum-coloured foliage means it’s a beautiful ornamental plant to grow. Some of my ‘Crimson King’ will stay in the greenhouse over the summer, but I’ll also dot some around the herb garden to add a splash of colour between my parsley and thyme.

5. Basil ‘Christmas’

Basil 'Christmas' from Thompson & Morgan

Basil ‘Christmas’ is edible and ornamental
Image: Thompson & Morgan

Basil Christmas is a new variety – a cross between Genovese and Thai basil. It’s another great addition to both edible and ornamental gardens with glossy foliage and beautiful spikes of purple flowers that are a magnet for pollinating insects. With a spicy mulled wine flavour, ‘Christmas’ makes a delicious pesto that can be frozen and added to festive pasta to bring a taste of summer to dark winter days.

Top tips for growing basil

Pot of Basil 'Pesto' ready to prick out and pot on. Photo from dogwooddays

Basil ‘Pesto’ ready to prick out and pot on
Image: dogwooddays

Sow your basil seeds on peat-free seed compost and cover lightly with vermiculite or sieved compost. Water and place in a propagator or cover with a plastic bag. Germination should take around 14-21 days. When seedlings have developed true leaves, prick out into small pots and grow on. Eventually the basil plants will need to be potted on into 20cm containers. For outdoor basil, harden plants off over a 10-14 day period and plant outside after all risk of frost has passed.

Slugs and snails love to munch on basil seedlings, so I bring mine indoors at night until they’re large enough to withstand a little nibbling. Basil dislikes drying out, but also hates wet roots, so aim to water plants in the morning. Pinch out regularly to keep your growing plants bushy and vigorous.

 

Perfect for pollinators

Image of a butterfly pollinating purple flowers

Give your garden a pollinator friendly makeover
Image: Dogwooddays

Planting for pollinating insects has never been more important. As insect populations decline across the world, we need to find ways to help these essential invertebrates, for our future as well as theirs.

Gardeners can play a vital part in this recovery. With over 400,000 hectares of garden habitat across the UK, filling our gardens with plants that provide food sources for butterflies, bees and other pollinating insects can have a significant effect.

We asked garden designer, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays, for her thoughts. Here are eight simple suggestions to help make your outside space perfect for pollinators:

1. Add pollinator-friendly trees

closeup of apple blossom from Dogwooddays Nic Wilson

Beautiful blossom on Nic’s espaliered apple tree is a great source of pollen
Image: Dogwooddays

Trees provide important sources of pollen and nectar for insects, especially bees, as they have many flowers close together. Flowering cherries like Prunus ‘The Bride’ and Prunus ‘Little Pink Perfection’ are ideal small garden trees, reaching two metres at maturity.

Fruit trees also offer masses of spring flowers and have the advantage of a delicious harvest. My family love the honeyed fruits from our greengage tree and we also grow several apples as cordons and espaliers. With a dwarfing rootstock and a trained form, fruit can be grown in even the smallest of spaces.

2. Consider flower shape

Campanula medium (Mixed) from Thompson & Morgan

Pollinators love Campanula bells planted en masse in blues, whites and pinks.
Image: Campanula medium (Mixed) from Thompson & Morgan

Choose cultivars with single blooms as the pollen and nectar producing organs in double flowers have often been transformed into extra petals. With single-flowered perennials like Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and Echinacea purpurea, you can fill your garden with food for native insects.

Growing different flower shapes such as bell-shaped (campanula, bluebells), tubular (heather, verbena), and flag (pea family) will attract a range of pollinators.

3. Plant in swathes or drifts

Salvia 'Hot Lips' collection from Thompson & Morgan

Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ looks stunning when planted in swathes
Image: Salvia Hot Lips collection from Thompson & Morgan

Insects use less energy if their food sources are close together, so planting in swathes not only creates a sophisticated effect, it also makes feeding more efficient. For a late summer combination, fill containers with a collection of salvias like Salvia ‘Hot Lips’, ‘Cherry Lips’ and ‘Amethyst Lips’.

Alternatively, plant intertwining drifts of Eryngium planum ‘Blue Hobbit’, Echinacea ‘Rainbow Marcella’ and Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’. The contrasting blue and orange tones will create energy in the border and the pollinators will love this late food source.

4. Fill gaps with pollinator-friendly annuals

Stock image of red and yellow rudbeckia

Pollinator-friendly annuals like rudbeckia are a striking way to fill gaps in borders
Image: Del Boy

Sowing annuals is a flexible way to provide a food source for pollinators as you can vary the mix each year based on which flowers are most popular with the insects. A few of my favourite pollinator-friendly annuals include: borage, calendula, Cerinthe major, snapdragon and rudbeckia.

5. Avoid chemicals

Defenders slug trap from Thompson & Morgan

A re-useable slug trap can be used again and again
Image: Defenders slug trap from Thompson & Morgan

With increasing evidence about the effects of chemicals on wildlife, especially insects, we now know how important it is to avoid chemical control in the garden.

Use physical methods to control unwanted pests like squashing or dislodging aphids with jets of water, or using copper tape and wool pellets to discourage slugs. Try biological solutions like nematodes for slugs, vine weevils and thrips. Encourage ladybirds into your garden to eat aphids rather than reaching for chemical sprays. As Alys Fowler recently wrote in The Guardian: “these are chemicals that silence the soil.”

6. Think seasonally

Aster novi-belgii 'Dandy' from Thompson & Morgan

Michaelmas daisies provide a stunning food source right through until late October
Image: Aster novi-belgii ‘Dandy’ from Thompson & Morgan

Pollinators need food sources from early spring into late autumn, so plant with the seasons in mind. Spring flowering perennials such as lungwort, cowslips, honesty and flowering currant are ideal early nectar sources and autumn stalwarts like Michaelmas daisies, dahlias and sedum offer food when many other flowers have faded.

7. Create a herb garden

Herbs in a plant pot in a garden

Plant herbs in pots on a patio or balcony if you don’t have a large garden
Image: pixfix

Planting herbs in a sunny spot is sure to bring in the pollinating insects. My lavender is covered with bees and butterflies in the summer months, while the chives, marjoram and thyme all attract pollinating insects and provide me with harvests for salads, soups and pizza.

8. Make a mini-meadow

Mini meadow in raised beds along a border

Contain your mini meadow in a raised bed if you prefer a bowling green style lawn
Image: Dave Head

One of the most exciting projects we’ve undertaken in the garden this year is to leave a small strip of lawn long and plant wildflower plugs to create a mini-meadow. Bare patches of ground can be sown with a meadow seed mix, but areas of long grass should be planted with wildflower plugs or container-grown plants. We can’t wait to see what pollinating insects are attracted to our mini-meadow later in the year.

By putting nature at the heart of gardening, we can enjoy the beauty of plants and animals working together in healthy ecosystems, knowing that our gardens are contributing to the wellbeing of the living planet that we all inhabit.

 

Growing with kids: Mr Men and Little Miss seeds

Photo of Thompson & Morgan range of Mr. Happy's 'Tomato Sweet Apéritif' Seed Range

Tomatoes are one of the easiest things to grow with children
Image source: dogwooddays

Children love watching plants grow – from that miraculous moment when a tiny seed’s first leaves emerge from the ground – to enjoying the flowers and fruits that appear later in the season.

Professional garden designer Nic Wilson of dogwooddays thinks it’s a great idea to get kids involved with gardening at an early age. Here’s what she and her kids made of Thompson & Morgan’s Mr Men and Little Miss seeds when they tried them out at home.

Encouraging kids to sow and grow

Hand holding three packs of the Mr Men/Little Miss Seed Range from Thompson & Morgan - photo by dogwooddays

The seeds Nic’s children decided to start with
Image source: dogwooddays

Last year, Thompson & Morgan partnered with Mr Men and Little Miss to produce a selection of seeds and gardening products to encourage kids to grow their own. The range was launched in the fabulously colourful Mr Men themed garden at Hampton Court Flower Show – a hugely successful space loved by adults and kids alike.

The seeds include easy to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables such as Little Miss Sunshine’s Sunflower ‘Helios Flame’, Mr Sneeze’s Pepper ‘Boneta’, Mr Strong’s Broccoli ‘Bell Star’ (which Mr Strong suggests should be eaten with cheesy scrambled eggs for a fortifying meal) and Mr Tickle’s ‘Extra Curled’ Cress – simple enough for even the smallest growers to handle.

Best fruit and veg seeds for kids

Action shot of child making lollipop markets for seed pots

Making markers for seed pots is part of the fun
Image source: dogwooddays

My kids decided to start with Mr Happy’s Tomato ‘Sweet Apéritif’ – because tomatoes are one of our favourite summer snacks. We sowed the seeds in peat-free compost in newspaper pots that we’d made ourselves, and then popped them into the windowsill propagator.

Each day the kids checked the pots, and there was great excitement on the morning that the first leaves unfurled. Indoor germination makes it easy for children to get involved in watering the plants each day and watching the seedlings develop.

This week we’ll be pricking the seedlings out and the children will be growing them on in their bedrooms. We’re planning to plant them out after the first frosts and hoping for big bowlfuls of cherry tomatoes later in the summer! We’ve also sown Little Miss Giggles’ Cucumber ‘Diva’ which should give us plenty of small fruits for picnics and lunchboxes.

Best flower seeds for kids

Mr Small’s Nasturtium Whirlybird Mixed from Thompson & Morgan

Stunning cherry, rose, gold, orange, scarlet, tangerine and cream Nasturtium flowers
Image source: Mr Small’s Nasturtium Whirlybird Mixed from T&M

For a shot of colour, we decided to sow Mr Small’s Nasturtium Whirlybird Mixed. Nasturtiums are one of the best flowers to grow with young children as they have such cheerful flowers. Kids love the fact that they have edible peppery leaves and they also enjoy harvesting the petals to add to pretty summer salads.

Another flower with brightly coloured, edible petals is Mr Clever’s Calendula ‘Fruit Twist’. Calendula readily self-seeds in the garden, so in subsequent years it’s fun to see what new colours emerge as the seedlings mature.

Gardening skills for life

Child standing amongst tomato plants - photo from dogwooddays

There’s nothing quite like harvesting your own snacks as a child!
Image source: dogwooddays

Growing these easy crops and flowers teaches children how to sow seeds, prick-out seedlings and look after plants once they’re outside in the garden or greenhouse. The sense of achievement when they pick their first tomato or create a posy with their own flowers is enormous.

Even better, it has encouraged my kids to enjoy fruit and vegetables that they would have otherwise refused to try. And with 25% of each packet sold going to the Children With Cancer UK charity, growing these seeds is sure to bring a smile to everyone’s faces – not just Mr Happy’s!

If you’ve been inspired to get your kids or grandkids out into the garden this year, the Mr Men and Little Miss seed range includes:

 

How to create beautiful displays with annual flowers

image of Nigella Damascena on a summers day

Nigella damascena provides a beautiful display all summer long
Image source: Shutterstock

Once March arrives, Nic Wilson’s potting shed is launched into action as her annual flower seeds come out.

Here, the experienced gardener behind dogwooddays talks to us about the many roles that annual flowers play in her garden. Affordable, beautiful, and easy to grow, Nic shares her favourite annual flower combinations, and tips on how to use them to create a fresh new display every year.

Sowing annual flower seeds

Calendula officinalis nana 'Fruit Twist' from Thompson & Morgan

Calendula is a quick and easy annual that’s easy to grow in almost any garden
Image source: Calendula officinalis nana ‘Fruit Twist’ from Thompson & Morgan

You can sow many hardy annuals like calendula, sunflowers, nasturtiums and Californian poppy indoors from March, in seed trays or modules, then potted on and planted outdoors when they’re large enough. Alternatively, from April, sow annual flower seeds directly outdoors to create interest throughout the summer:

  • Scatter the seeds in swathes through mixed borders
  • Sow in vegetable plots to attract pollinators and as companion plants
  • Sprinkle over gravel gardens

When designing gardens, I often include annuals to add variety and fill gaps until shrubs and perennials develop. Many annuals self-seed, like nigella, borage and calendula, so they create maximum impact with minimum effort. They’re beloved by bees and butterflies, are ideal for cutting, and some provide edible flowers too. Annuals really do offer something for everyone.

Best colour combinations

blue-purple plants with a self-seeded green centre

Self-seeded nigella
Image source: dogwooddays

One breathtaking colour combination I wouldn’t be without is purple and orange. One of my favourites is the delicate bell flowers of Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ contrasted with Calendula officinalis nana ‘Citrus Cocktail’ or Californian Poppy ‘Sun Shades’. These flowers last for months and self-seed in my garden, but are easy to remove in areas required for other plants.

Blues and whites create a cool, sophisticated combination. I particularly like the lofty umbels of Ammi majus or Orlaya grandiflora underplanted with Nigella ‘Blue starry skies’ or the diminutive cornflower ‘Dwarf Blue Midget’.

I also love velvety chocolate-purples and deep reds set against white. Try planting the opposing shades of Scabious ‘Ebony and Ivory’ or a contrasting display of sweet peas like ‘Night and Day’.

Best annual flowers for containers

Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ from Thompson & Morgan

Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ is ideal for containers
Image source: dogwooddays

One year I was given a packet of Coreopsis x hybrida ‘Incredible’ which I sowed in a spare container. The result was a blaze of colour throughout the summer – I’d definitely recommend these easy-to-grow, eye-catching flowers.

Other container successes include calendula, which I also grow in the vegetable garden.

My favourites are Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ which lasted through the winter this year, and my desert island flower, Calendula ‘Sherbet Fizz’ whose faded bronze petals I first met in Nick Bailey’s Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden at Chelsea in 2016 – it was love at first sight!

Edible delights

collection of sunflowers in a garden

Nic’s children like growing sunflowers
Image: im pany

Annuals offer quick rewards for children, both in terms of their prolific flowers and the edible qualities of many blooms. My kids like growing nasturtiums to eat their peppery leaves, petals and (later in the season) their pickled seedpods – a favourite pizza topping in our house.

They also grow sunflowers, especially the dwarf varieties and sunflower ‘Velvet Queen’ with its large, maroon-coloured heads. If you want to grow a range of different sunflowers, try sowing seeds from the T&M sunflower collection which includes ‘Harlequin’, ‘Italian White’ and ‘Velvet Queen’.

What’s your favourite annual flower? Leave us a comment and remember to tag us on your photos this summer.

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