Pruning and planting soft fruit

Nic Wilson's soft fruit growing area with obelisks and pots

Nic grows soft fruit in a cage
Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

Never grown soft fruit before? Not sure what to do with your rapidly growing berry bush? We asked experienced gardener Nic Wilson how she grows such bumper crops. Her generously shared tips make growing some of the most expensive shop-bought produce as easy as pie. Here’s what she told us…

Planting tips for soft fruit

collection of blueberries in a hand

These enormous, juicy blueberries grow best in ericaceous soil
Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

I’m watching a pair of blue tits flitting through the branches in the fruit cage, picking off tiny insects before disappearing through the open roof space and over next door’s fence. The industry of these little birds, cleaning the fruit bushes of overwintering pests, reminds me that there’s work to be done before the weather starts to warm in early spring.

In the early months of the new year, there’s still time to add new soft fruit to the patio, garden or allotment ready for bumper crops in the summer. I remember propagating a gooseberry from one of my plants several years ago and giving it to friends for Christmas – a bare, spiky twig – not the most extravagant looking present! But we all knew, come summer, the bare-rooted plant would look very different. True to form, the gooseberry has provided them with many crumbles since then.

Classic choices for soft fruit include raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, currants and gooseberries. Here are my planting tips for each:

Raspberries

Raspberry ‘Polka’ from Thompson & Morgan (Autumn fruiting) - available to buy now

Featured: Raspberry ‘Polka’ from Thompson & Morgan

My favourite raspberries, based on taste, are ‘Glen Ample’ (summer) and ‘Joan J’ (autumn). I’ve also added ‘Glen Coe’ this year with its deep purple summer fruits that, I’m told, taste sweet and delicious. For small gardens or patios, try summer fruiting Ruby Beauty’ or ‘Yummy’ – perfect for container growing.

Raspberries prefer slightly acid, fertile, moist soil in a sunny position, although I grow mine in alkaline soil enriched with plenty of organic matter and they crop well. Avoid planting too deeply (no more than 5cm below the surface), and ensure they’re tied into supports – usually posts and wires – as they grow.

Strawberries

Strawberry ‘Just Add Cream’ from Thompson & Morgan - Available to buy now

Featured: Strawberry ‘Just Add Cream’ from Thompson & Morgan

If you’re planting a new strawberry bed, a collection of different varieties helps to spread crops across the summer. Favourites of mine (as always, based on flavour) include ‘Just Add Cream’, ‘Honeoye’ and ‘Florence’.

If you don’t have space in the ground for strawberries, try growing them in a hanging basket like we did last year with Just Add Cream. It saves space, the pink flowers are attractive and the fruits are kept well away from hungry slugs and snails.

Currants and gooseberries

Pinkcurrant ‘Gloire de Sablon’ from Thompson & Morgan - available to buy now

Featured: Pinkcurrant ‘Gloire de Sablon’ from Thompson & Morgan

Bare root currants and gooseberries can be planted until March. Although they prefer sunny conditions, they can tolerate partial shade. Plant in fertile, moist, well-drained soil and ensure bare root blackcurrants are planted 5cm deeper than the current soil mark to encourage extra shoots from below ground level.

We grow black, red and white currants, but if you don’t have much space you could try blackcurrant ‘Ebony in a large container or pinkcurrant ‘Gloire de Sablon in place of redcurrants and whitecurrants.

These days I avoid gooseberries in our small fruit cage after too many painful encounters with sharp spines in the past, but if I had room to grow one, I’d choose a red variety like gooseberry ‘Xenia’ for sweeter fruits and fewer spines.

Blueberries

Blueberry ‘Bluecrop’ from Thompson & Morgan - available to buy now

Featured: Blueberry ‘Bluecrop’ from Thompson & Morgan

Blueberries are my favourite fruit – we grow ‘Earliblue’, ‘Patriot’, ‘Bluecrop’, the enormous ‘Chandler’ and ‘Pink Lemonade’.

They need to be planted in ericaceous soil (ours are in pots), watered with rainwater, and given an ericaceous spring top dressing and feeding once a month throughout the summer if they’re in a container. The other essential is to protect the berries from the birds – although our pinkberries were outside the fruit cage last year and nothing seemed to touch them, possibly due to their lighter colour.

Quick pruning tips for soft fruit

  • My autumn raspberries (primocane) only stopped cropping a few weeks ago – last year we picked the yellow-berried ‘All Gold’ on Christmas Day – so now’s an ideal time to cut the canes to the ground and check the new growth at the base of each plant that will become the fruiting canes for this year.
  • Summer fruiting raspberry plants (floricane) should already have been pruned last year after fruiting. Check that this year’s canes are tied in for support in windy conditions.
  • Established blackcurrants need a quarter to a third of their old branches removing now, starting with any dead, diseased, weak or crossing branches. Make the cuts as low down as possible to encourage strong, new growth.
  • Other berry fruit such as redcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries only need light winter pruning. As with blackcurrants, first remove any dead, diseased or weak branches, then reduce new growth by half to encourage branching.
  • Blueberries also need little winter pruning: simply remove a quarter of the old wood at the base.

Unusual soft fruit to try

Chilean guava from Nic Wilson's garden. Pink flowers on a green bush

The Chilean guava is a beautiful addition to any garden
Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

Although I love the classics, I wouldn’t be without some more unusual soft fruits like honeyberries (ours cropped for the first time last year), tayberries and Chilean guava. I find it fascinating to experiment with new varieties and flavours – summer puddings are never the same in our house from one year to the next!

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2018). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at dogwooddays.

Dreaming of a green Christmas

Wooden wreath with berries and leaves

Simplify the season of goodwill
Image source: Galina Grebenyuk

Christmas is the season of goodwill. A time for giving, and enjoying festivities with family. But all too often it becomes the season of ‘stuff’ – unwanted presents, plastic packaging and reams of wrapping paper – symptoms of the over-consumption that has such a negative impact on the natural world.

If you want to simplify the festive season, accumulate less ‘stuff’ and reduce your carbon footprint, here are a some ideas for a greener Christmas…
(more…)

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2018). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at dogwooddays.

Winter hanging baskets – planting ideas

Red berries look glorious against a variegated silver leaf for the winter season
Image: dogwooddays

Once the last of summer’s flowers have faded, it’s tempting to discard the plants, store the baskets behind the shed, and give up until spring. But that would be to miss out on the colour, texture and form offered by dwarf evergreen shrubs and winter perennials, annuals and bulbs.

My own hanging baskets are limping sadly towards the end of autumn. The trailing Nasturtium ‘Milkmaid’ is still blooming bravely in the face of the chill November breeze, but my petunias are disintegrating and the verbena has just closed its final flower spike. Replacing these fading blooms is a quick and easy November task that will ensure cheerful colour and interest during the chill months to come. Here are two of my favourite winter hanging basket schemes for inspiration.

Lime green and gold hanging basket

The striking dwarf lemon cypress adds structure and texture
Image: dogwooddays

Create a warm atmosphere on even the coldest day with bright lime green and variegated gold foliage. Dwarf Lemon Cypress (Cupressus ‘Goldcrest’) adds height to the centre of a hanging basket with striking lime green foliage and a conical shape. Slender sweet flag grass (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’) is another option to add height to a container display. Its soft semi-evergreen lime leaves cascade from the centre of the basket and blend beautifully with other lime foliage or darker colours, like the smaller black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’.)

Add heuchera foliage for interesting shapes and colours – one of my favourite varieties is ‘Marmalade’ which has lime green and brown leaves that mature to warm oranges and pinks. Or try the heucherella trailing collection for a mix of lime, red and purple leaves that will cover the edges of the basket and soften the display.

Ivy is also ideal to trail over the edges of any hanging basket and Hedera helix ‘Goldchild’, with its olive-green lobed leaves edged in gold, will pick out the lime and gold highlights elsewhere in the display. You can add more colour for early spring by planting some Crocus ‘Yellow Mammoth’ bulbs now for a hanging basket that will really light up your entrance until the warmer weather returns.

Red, white and silver hanging basket

A winning combination
Image: Thompson & Morgan

This vibrant colour combination spreads a little Christmas cheer throughout the entire holiday season. As a central focus, choose the evergreen Checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens) whose luscious scarlet berries follow delicate white bell-shaped flowers. Or try Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ – another dwarf shrub with red berries and glossy dark green leaves. Both of these shrubs prefer acid conditions, so fill the basket with peat-free ericaceous compost and water with rainwater where possible.

Red cyclamen complement the scarlet berries of the shrubs perfectly, or go for a mix of white and red to create more variety. Snowdrops bring a touch of class to this display and have the advantage that you can look up into the exquisite flowers rather than having to lie on the ground to explore their intricate patterning! Finally, add the shimmering beauty of Heuchera ‘Prince of Silver’ to enjoy its large silver-green leaves patterned with dark purple veining.

For a flash of excitement come the spring, try adding lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor f.alba ‘Gertrude Jekyll’) with evergreen foliage and starry white flowers for trailing interest. Or choose another ivy – Hedera helix ‘Glacier’ with dark green and silvery grey leaves.

Selecting primarily shrubs, perennials and bulbs for your container displays is a sustainable option as, in late spring, the baskets can be put to one side to rest until the following autumn. Alternatively, transplant the plants and bulbs to a position elsewhere in the garden for another burst of seasonal colour next winter.

What do you like to plant in your winter hanging baskets? Share your pics over on our Facebook page or tag us on Instagram.

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2018). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at dogwooddays.

Green roofs: the only way is up

The top of Nic’s green-roof bin store in all its glory.
Image source: dogwooddays

So your flowerbeds are full, the greenhouse is overflowing, there’s no more room for pots on the patio and every vertical surface in the garden is covered in foliage. How do you find space for new plants and enjoy the thrill of a fresh challenge in the garden?

The answer? A green roof bin store. As well as screening your unsightly plastic monstrosities from view, a custom-made green-roof bin store provides the perfect place to grow attractive, scented and edible plants for instant kerb appeal and a lasting first impression. Here’s how I designed mine…

How to build a green roof bin store

Nic’s bin store was inspired by this version in the RHS Community Garden at Hampton Court.
Image source: dogwooddays

Inspired by the RHS Greening the Grey Community Garden at Hampton Court Flower Show back in 2015, I fell in love with their fabulous bin store with a thyme and wild strawberry green roof.

Working with a local carpenter, I created my own version of a green roof store that would accommodate two bins and give me room to grow plants on the top and up the trellis sides. I also planned a selection of different sized holes in the side panel for solitary bees. Over the last three years these holes have been used regularly. I often see bees going in and out with their mud pellets blocking the holes.

Once the bin store was complete, I lined the top with heavy duty plastic sheeting and covered this with 20mm gravel to improve the drainage. I left a hole at the back through which the water could drain down a hose to the ground and screwed an upturned tea strainer over the hole to prevent blockages. I filled the rest of the top with a low-nutrient green roof substrate based on crushed recycled brick and green waste compost – and I was ready to plant it up.

Best plants for a green roof

Miniature succulents look stunning on a sunny ‘green roof’.
Image source: dinodentist

The bin store is in full sun, so I chose plants that prefer sunny, well-drained conditions like alpines, succulents and herbs. The sunniest side is filled with lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) and Thymus ‘Silver Queen’, salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) and winter savoury (Satureja montana). All have thrived and they are self-seeding on the roof, so I know that the conditions are right for them. Thrift (Armeria maritima) has also done well and self-seeds all over, but perhaps the most successful planting has been the succulents. I positioned them at the front so their delicate foliage and tiny flowers are at eye-level when I pass to empty the bins or get in the car.

In the spring, Sedum ‘Cape Blanco’ and Sedum spathulifolium ‘Purpureum’ have small starry yellow flowers and Saxifraga ‘Buttercream’ adds its soft milky flowers to the mix. During the summer months, Sempervivum arachnoideum sends up pink starry blossom spikelets and I grow annual climbers up the sides of the bin store – this year the trellis has been covered in the apricot shades of Thunbergia ‘African Sunset’ mixed with the deep purple bells of Rhodochiton atrosanguineum.

More than just a screen

Holes for solitary bees have been put to good use.
Image source: dogwooddays

The bin store has been a practical success, but it’s added more than just a screen to the garden. I’ve been able to include plants which struggle in the shadier conditions of the back garden and bring some miniature succulent treasures into the limelight.

Although sedum matting is a great way to cover a green roof, if you’re hankering after extra growing room I’d encourage you to be ambitious and experiment with a range of species – perhaps herbs, alpines and different succulents, or even an elevated wildflower meadow – the sky really is the limit!

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2018). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at dogwooddays.

Some like it hot

A summer heatwave is ideal for chillies
Image source: Nic Wilson

It’s been a hot year in the greenhouse and the chillies have enjoyed every sweltering second. Sown in early January, they developed into sturdy seedlings by March and were ready to go out in the greenhouse by late May. I chose fewer varieties of chilli seeds this year in an effort to fit all my plants in the available space alongside the cucumbers, tomatoes, basil and cucamelons, and it worked – just!

Best chilli varieties to grow at home

A jar of pickled chillies to enjoy over the winter
Image source: Nic Wilson

I picked varieties based on their heat, flavour and uses – some for chillies and curries, some for our spicy homemade chilli jam and pickles, some for their ornamental value, and others for stuffing.

Prairie Fire’, described as an ‘ornamental edible’, and the stunning ‘Numex Twilight’ add interest to the kitchen windowsill or patio table with their upturned chillies ripening from green through cream, yellow, orange, red and purple. They produce hot fruit – great for curries and for extra-spicy jam.

Hot Lemon’ is an attractive variety with prolific yellow fruits and an aromatic citrus flavour. It suffuses my pickled chilli liqueur with a sweet tang, works well in Thai soups, and is delicious stuffed with cream cheese for those with an adventurous, heat-loving palate. Another prolific cropper this year is ‘Joe’s Long’. My plants have produced many long fruits which look like curled cayennes and are fabulous dried and hung in the kitchen ready for winter chillies, stews and broths.

Chillies to bake

Sweeter, mellow-flavoured chillies are ideal for stuffing and baking
Image source: Nic Wilson

Baked chillies stuffed with cream cheese is one of my favourite autumn suppers: for this I tend to use varieties with sweet, fruity flavours and less heat. The mellow ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ and the mild but flavoursome ‘Trinidad Perfume’ are particular favourites, along with ‘Ubatuba’ and ‘Bolsa de Dulce’ (both Capsicum baccatum rather than the more common Capsicum annuum). Baccatum means ‘berrylike’ and ‘Bolsa de Dulce’ translates as ‘bag of sweetness’.

This variety certainly produces fragrant, large fruits rather like sweet peppers but more aromatic and productive, and we’ve had more chillies from these varieties this year than ever before.

Try a chilli tree

Chillies come in a variety of colours, shapes, heat levels and harvesting times
Image source: Nic Wilson

Tree chillies (Capsicum pubescens) are an another unusual type that require a long growing period and plenty of heat to mature. I grow ‘Albertos Locoto’ and use the extremely hot fruits for baking, frying or slicing into salads, as they work best fresh.
One advantage of tree chillies is that they tolerate lower temperatures which means they’re well suited to over-wintering and can continue fruiting for up to fifteen years. I’ve had tree chillies in the house fruiting on Christmas Day in previous years.

Extend the chilli growing season

The glossy dark ‘Hungarian Black’ chilli ripens to a scarlet red
Image source: Nic Wilson

It’s possible to kick start the fruiting season early by growing varieties like ‘Vampire’, and ‘Hungarian Black’. These dramatic chillies have deep purple flowers and relatively mild, Jalapeno-shaped fruits with an eye-catching purple-black shine. They both begin fruiting in July, so by growing these attractive plants alongside tree chillies, it’s possible to extend the fruiting season significantly.

We have a busy few weeks ahead: drying and pickling our chillies, and preserving them in jams to make the most of the bounty brought on by the hot weather. And, as the nights draw in, I’ll be sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of baked chillies, leafing through the seed catalogues, happily concocting my fiery chilli plans for next year…

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2018). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at dogwooddays.

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