The garden is really racing ahead and it’s a job to keep up with it. Getting on with tasks now will enhance your summer displays, but don’t forget to give yourself some time to relax outside and just enjoy it!
Spring bedding will be fading and it’s time to switch to summer varieties. If you live in cold parts of the UK and you don’t have a greenhouse or cold frame then you will need to resist the temptation to buy these frost-tender plants too early. Tender bedding plants need to be gradually acclimatised to outdoor conditions after purchase, but you can save yourself the hassle with our Garden Ready plants which have already been hardened off for you. Our pre-planted hanging baskets are also great time-savers.
It can get really hot in the greenhouse so ventilate it as much as possible. Invest in a maximum /minimum thermometer and keep an eye on temperatures. Ideally, you don’t want them to climb above 80 °F or 26 °C. When a greenhouse gets too hot plants stop growing, become stressed and succumb to pests and disease. Aphids, whiteflies and red spider mite will quickly take hold and multiple rapidly in these high temperatures.
In an overheated greenhouse small seedlings can be frazzled incredibly quickly. Seedlings which have just been pricked out are especially vulnerable and it’s important to have a cool, shady spot for them somewhere. Cool down your greenhouse and protect your seedlings by painting some greenhouse shading on the glass. I tend to paint shading onto one side of my greenhouse, which I use for seedlings, but leave the other side for my sun-loving succulents. The other way to cool an over-heating greenhouse is by ‘damping down.’ This simply means flooding the floor with water which will cool the greenhouse quickly by evaporation.
At this time of the year winter rains have washed a lot of nitrogen out of the soil and plants may start to look hungry and exhibit yellow leaves. Specimens which have been permanently growing in containers will have used up all the nutrients in their compost and can struggle to put on new, leafy growth. Top dress them with a balanced fertiliser which includes trace elements such as Vitax Q4.
When potting up seasonal containers and hanging baskets, professional gardeners always incorporate slow-release fertilisers into the compost. This saves an enormous amount of time on applying liquid fertilisers. Liquid feeds can be useful as a top up but are more wasteful as much of the feed simply drains out of the pot. They also tend to result in inconsistent feeding, promoting surges of soft, sappy growth. Try using a controlled release product such as Incredibloom instead – it will continue to feed your plants for about 7 months.
Feed hungry roses with a proprietary rose feed now. These contain high levels of potassium to promote flowering.
Pelargoniums will also benefit from a flower-boosting high potash feed. Avoid giving them nitrogenous feeds, which will encourage the production of leaves over flowers and create soft growth which is more vulnerable to fungal diseases.
Plant supports & ties
Plants are growing rapidly and it’s important to get them supported as quickly as you can. If you are like me, you probably tell yourself this every year, promise to do it next weekend, and then, before you know it, the plants have shot up, the first rain storm hits and everything falls over into a mess! It’s a wise idea to purchase some supports early on so you can avoid getting yourself into this pickle.
All your other climbers, such as climbing roses and clematis, will need regular tying in. Sweet peas left to trail along the ground not only grow poorly but are targets for slugs and snails so tie them onto their canes or obelisks early on. I prefer natural jute twine as it’s biodegradable and blends in unobtrusively. Tie the twine in a figure of 8 allowing room for the plant stems to expand. I like to put the string around the plant stem first and then wind it around the support twice. That way you can hide your knots on the back of the support and the tie won’t slide up and down.
Springs have become increasingly dry and the recent weather has been warm but windy. This combination of high aerial temperatures and wind really licks the moisture out of plants and can quickly desiccate them.
Before you plant new plants, soak the root ball by plunging them into a bucket of water. After planting, water them regularly in dry weather. It is best to give plants a generous soak at longer intervals rather than frequent but sparse watering which only encourages surface rooting. Once the root balls of containerised plants have dried out underground they tend to repel water and can remain surprisingly dry after watering attempts, so aim to keep them moist.
Early spring-flowering shrubs
Prune established spring- flowering shrubs such as forsythia, Ribes (flowering currant), Spiraea ‘Arguta’ (bridal wreath), Exochorda (pearl bush) and Kerria japonica. These shrubs flower on growth produced in the previous year and so they need to pruned immediately after flowering.
You can take out up to one third of the oldest stems, cutting them back to a shoot/bud near the base. Pruning out the oldest stems will encourage the formation of new ones so that the wood is continually renewed. With Kerria japonica you can cut back all the previously flowered stems.
You can also trim back the top of stems to keep them tidy but bear in mind that these shrubs have an arching habit which you don’t want to ruin. Always try to prune them back to a convenient shoot lower down rather than leaving stubs.
Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) has a twiggy rather than arching habit. Shorten the new growths to encourage the formation of lots of short, flowering spurs.
Inspect evergreen shrubs and prune out any frost damage.
Wall trained pyracanthas can be pruned back now, reducing outward-facing shoots to a few inches and removing completely any shoots growing into the wall. This will inevitably remove some flowers but it will promote the formation of short spurs which will become crowded with future flower buds and berries.
Dahlias, cannas and other tender perennials
Harden off your tender plants which you have been overwintering in a frost-free place. Plant them out when all danger of frost has passed. This is always a gamble but generally you should be safe by the end of the month.
If you don’t see signs of growth on your tender perennials don’t give up on them too soon -they are slow into growth. All the top growth of tender Salvias may completely die off but don’t throw them away in haste – many varieties will re-sprout from the base.
Enjoy the Chelsea Flower Show which runs from 24-28th May this year, and use it as a reminder to try out a pruning technique called ‘The Chelsea Chop’.
If you want to keep your herbaceous perennials shorter, sturdier and more compact, you can chop them back by up to a half in late May or early June. This pruning technique will produce plants with shorter, self-supporting stems and more (but usually smaller) flowers. Not all perennials will respond to this treatment but those which do include: Asters, Echinacea (coneflower), Helianthus x laetiflorus (perennial sunflower), Hylotelephium (Sedum), Monarda (Bergamot), Nepeta (Catmint), phlox and rudbeckia.
- The soil is lovely and warm now and hardy annuals can be sown directly into the ground. Rake the soil well to make a fine tilth and sow them in rows. Sowing in rows makes it much easier to distinguish between your flower seedlings and weed seedlings. Once the seedlings have grown and you have thinned them out, you won’t notice that you originally sowed them in straight lines.
- Thin out/pot on any annuals sown earlier.
- It’s a bit late now to sow most tender annuals – best to buy them as ready-grown plugs.
Don’t forget to sow biennials for next years bedding plants. Wallflowers like the sumptuous ‘Scarlet Bedder’ and dainty forget-me-nots will make fabulous partners for next year’s tulips. Pansies sown now will provide vibrant colour in the winter, whilst Bellis perennis ‘Pomponette’ will grace window boxes and border edges with bright pom poms next spring. For cut flowers, you can’t beat clove-scented Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus).
If you are looking for some flowers for the wildlife garden, foxgloves will provide plenty of food for foraging bees. They should be sown now on the surface of trays of fine compost or in a patch of spare ground. The tiny seeds are like dust and shouldn’t be covered – they won’t come up if you do! Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) will also attract pollinating insects with its sweetly fragrant blooms.
Apply spring fertiliser to lawns. If you only have a small to medium family lawn ecofective Lawn Feed is an organic treatment which will treat up to 150 square metres and is safe for pets and children. For large lawns, Sportsmaster Spring & Summer is a high nitrogen, slow-release formula which you can use all growing season.
Try to keep your use of weedkillers to a minimum. Remove deep weeds by hand or spot treat them. If you are going to resort to chemicals, it is much more effective to use a separate fertiliser followed by a weedkiller product, such as Weedol, rather than a combined treatment. Fertilising first boosts the grass in its competition with the weeds, enabling it to quickly grow into gaps after treatment. Meanwhile the weeds will put out more leafy growth, which will absorb more weedkiller.
Keep mowing your grass every week, gradually reducing the height of cut as the weather gets warmer. Better still – stop mowing and weedkilling altogether! And join in with No Mow May – see below.
- All this warm weather means that pests are rapidly multiplying. Use environmentally friendly sprays such as ecofective Bug & Mildew Control to keep on top of aphids, black fly and red spider mite.
- Order biological nematodes to control a range of pests which rapidly emerge in spring including slugs and vine weevil.
- Whitefly in greenhouses can quickly become a real problem, so introduce the parasitic wasp, Encarsia formosa, before pest populations build up.
- Treat roses with a preventative anti-fungicidal spray before blackspot, rust and mildew take hold.
- Regularly tie in clematis to its support.
- Clematis montana does not need regular pruning but if it’s getting out of hand in a confined space you can trim it back now and remove any dead or diseased growth.
- Take softwood cuttings from hardy perennials, shrubs and tender perennials such as pelargoniums and osteospermums. Although softwood cuttings should be pliable, the very softest growth will often wilt quickly and is less successful. Wait until the material has firmed up slightly and gives a little snap when you bend it.
- Once they have finished flowering, cut back and divide spring flowering perennials such as Pulmonaria (lungwort), Doronicum (leopard’s bane), Brunnera (Siberian bugloss) and primulas.
Spring flowering rock plants such as alyssum, arabis and aubretia should be cut back hard now to keep them trim and tidy.
Early spring bulbs & flowers
- Continue dead-heading daffodils and tulips but leave the foliage intact for at least 6 weeks after flowering. It is not worth doing this to ‘bedding’ tulips, which decline after the first year, but some tulips, such as Darwin hybrids, are reliably perennial and will continue to flower again next year.
- Once the foliage is yellow, lift congested daffodils which didn’t flower well this year and replant them.
- Fading spring bulbs which you want to keep for next season can be lifted and transplanted elsewhere to make space for summer bedding. Feed all your spring bulbs now, preferably with a low nitrogen, high potash feed.
- Pulmonaria (lungwort) and Brunnera (Siberian bugloss) invariably get mildew at this time of the year. Simply cut all the foliage off and give them a good water and they will reward you with healthy new foliage.
- Buy or sow insect attracting summer plants such as Nicotiana, (tobacco plant), Calendula (pot marigold), cosmos, sunflowers, salvias, heliotrope, Agastache (giant hyssop), wallflowers, Lobularia maritima (alysum).
- Gently clear the pond of pond weed leaving the debris on the side so pond creatures can easily crawl back in.
- “Join legions of gardeners and say “no” to the mow this May to help our bees, butterflies, wildlife and us!” says Plantlife. You don’t have to do much. Nothing in fact. Just relax in a garden armchair and let the wild flowers in your garden provide a feast for hungry pollinators. You might be amazed at what pops up in your lawn when you stop mowing. Instead of telling yourself that there’s nothing you can do to help the planet, do just this one simple thing and help to reverse the drastic decline in our insect populations.