After a warm and beautiful April, May had a week of unseasonally cold weather. In southern England, particularly in urban areas, it’s quite normal to plant out tender annuals and vegetables in early May, this year many plants and budding fruits have been damaged or killed by the late frost. Some will just have had their tips singed or blossoms damaged so reducing the fruit crop. Smaller or more delicate plants may have been completely destroyed. Additionally the high winds in late May this year caused drying and stress to plants, they’ve been through a rough month. Once the weather is calmer again, feed and water may help them recover but some may be lost and need replacing.
Towards midsummer the evenings lengthen, days are warmer, the sun is shining, time to sit out and enjoy the garden. Adult birds are gathering food for their fledglings and bats are skimming the evening skies for insects. Painted lady butterflies are arriving from North Africa, looking for thistles, nettles or mallow to lay their eggs on. Lacewings, with their green veined, transparent wings are welcome garden visitors; both the adults and their larvae eat aphids. If you’re lucky you may see a hummingbird hawk moth, hairy, grey and orange with wing beats so fast they hum. It can be seen hovering at flowers such as honeysuckle and buddleia, probing them with its long proboscis.
In the garden
There are many flowering perennials putting on beautiful, transient displays. The flowering, crimson cones of Red valerian (Centranthus rubra), the star shaped red campion (Silene dioica), and bright orange and yellow English marigolds (Calendula officinalis) are still showing well from last month while the blue starry flowers of Love–in–the–Mist (Nigella), the brilliant red blooms of Geum ‘Mrs Bradshaw’, and the vivid orange bowl shaped flowers of the Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica) are emerging. Meanwhile there are flower buds forming on lavenders, poppies (Papaver sp.) and corncockle (Agrostemma githago), which should all begin to open this month and go on well into July. Plants such as Teasle (Dipsacus Fullonum), Cone flowers (Echinecea sp.) and Sneezewarts (Helenium sp.) are still putting on height and weight and prepping for a late summer show whilst Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’s pom pom flower heads, and delicate Columbines (Aquilegia sp.) are transitioning to seed heads for later collection.
In amongst the flowering perennials; button shaped Hattie’s pin cushion (Astrantia), Oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis) with their huge, cup shaped blooms, the long flowering Cranesbills (Geranium sp.), and the upright, velvetine flag and Siberian irises there are many flowering shrubs. Cornus kousa, the Korean dogwood with its prominent, four petaled bracts, Mock orange (Philadelphus), an unassuming, twiggy shrub for most off the year but with an exquisite scent when flowering, Deutzias with their starry blooms, the reliable, long flowering Hebes and the lax, shrubby Lavateria or Tree Mallow with its large, cottage garden flowers.
Many roses are flowering prolifically this month too. There are a huge range of species and cultivars suitable for almost all locations from dwarf roses in pots to huge sprawling ramblers that can cover walls or scramble up trees. Their lax and informal habit with an abundance of flowers make them enduringly popular. In addition to a range of colours and forms, many are exquisitely scented and look beautiful in vases. They can look wonderful under planted with perennials that do not compete too much for nutrients as long as the rose is given a good clear space around the stem. Alliums, geraniums and nepetas are all good partners. Roses need thorough watering at least in the first few years in open soil and always in pots. Prolific flowering means they benefit from regular feeding with a liquid feed throughout the growing season and mulching in the spring. Deadheading will mean that repeat flowering varieties continue their display, but leave the flowers of species that produce hips in the autumn, as these provide a food source for wildlife throughout the winter.
The longer, hotter June days can quickly dry out the soil and put many plants, especially those recently planted or in pots, under stress. It is sad to see wilting plants gasping for nutrients which are also delivered up their stems along with the water. Check the soil moisture and be ready to give isolated plants or whole beds a long drink once a week or more. Here are a few key points concerning watering:
- A good soaking is much more effective than a light spray, which will barely penetrate the soil and encourage shallow, horizontal roots.
- Water close to the base of the plant to ensure that its roots are reached and rotate the water source to and fro between the plants so that it can be absorbed gradually. Take time to ensure that the water reaches beyond the base of its roots to encourage them to grow a strong network downwards, which makes for a healthier plant that can seek out water in times of water stress.
- Do not be fooled into thinking that if water sits on the top of the soil it means that the soil is well irrigated, it is more likely to mean that the soil is hard to penetrate.
- If the soil is compacted, carefully scratch the surface around the plants with a hand fork, a hoe or a three pronged mini fork to loosen it and make it more receptive to watering.
- Plants in containers are especially vulnerable to water stress and are likely to need a good watering as much as daily. Irrigate until the water dribbles out of the base. Containers are unlikely to be irrigated by even the heaviest of rainfall as the water is more likely to drip from the plant’s foliage over the edge of the pot than to reach the soil.
Deadheading spent blooms
Deadhead flowers as the spring blooms begin to fade. This is not, necessarily to keep a plant looking tidy, in fact many seed heads are attractive and benefit wildlife too, but encourages more blooms by removing the energy put into seed production and puts it back into flowering. Plants such as the repeat flowering roses and hardy geraniums can be deadheaded. Simply cut to above a healthy bud further down the flowering stem and let the plant do the hard work. I have just snipped out the fading blooms of my red campion (Silene dioica) to see if I can’t encourage a few more flowers before I allow the seed heads to develop and remain on the plant as wildlife habitat later in the season.
Camelias and rhododendrons should have spent blooms pinched out this month too. For these it is mostly because they are rather unsightly and have no wildlife value. Be careful with removing the withered blooms as the new ones are developing close behind them.
Plastic in the garden
Plastic is a very functional product but its manufacturing and disposal is causing serious damage to the natural world. Tiny particles of plastic can be found in the deepest oceans and on pristine mountains. Watering cans, pots, netting and protective clothing can all contain plastic but there are many things we can all do to reduce its use in our own gardens.
- Reduce: Question all plastic use in the garden, can you use a natural or recyclable alternative? Lollipop stick plant labels, coir pots (eg hairypotplants.co.uk), trays made from recycled plastic (eg Plantpak trays from www.crest-garden.com).
- Reuse: Use kitchen plastic such as yoghurt pots with drainage holes for your seedlings, make labels from cut up milk containers then recycle with your household recycling, make recycled newspaper pots.
- Consumer pressure: Lobby garden centres and the horticultural trade about their own use of plastics. Ask for biodegradable pots, trays, netting etc.
- Recycle: We use 500 million unrecyclable black pots in the UK each year. Find out if local horticultural groups can use them, will your garden centre take them, is there a local specialist facility that can recycle them (eg filcris.co.uk).
- Use cardboard rather than black plastic as a weed suppressant mulch.
- Grow year round salads in window boxes, on balconies, in gardens and back yards rather than buying in single use plastic bags.
Edible, aromatic, coulourful and productive, herbs are easy to grow even on a window sill or balcony. Many are evergreen, so their foliage is visible throughout the year and their flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. Use a loam based growing medium or compost to plant up containers for herbs. Annual herbs such as parsley, chervil, basil, coriander and dill can be grown from seed. Simply scatter the surface of the compost with seeds, cover with a very thin layer of soil and water in. At this time of year seeds will germinate quickly and can be thinned out as they grow, the thinnings can be eaten too. Perennial herbs can also be grown from seed but it’s a longer process. Its quicker to grow herbs such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, mint and chives from small plants, these are cheap and put on growth quickly. Feed the growing plants with a liquid seaweed and harvest regularly by pinching out shoot tips or picking individual leaves or small bunches of foliage to maintain productivity and keep plants compact.
Some of the spring flowering blooms that have not been deadheaded will already have an abundance of seeds ready to harvest in June and these will provide a fantastic bounty for next season’s crop. I have had my eyes on some holly leaved hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius) for some time now, just waiting for the right moment to harvest the seeds before the seed pods explode and cascade into the beds below. Use secateurs to snip out these pods carefully because all hellebores have an irritable sap.
English marigold seed heads (Calendula officinalis) are not nearly so feisty and can be lightly crumbled out of their base and sown directly into the soil or saved for sowing next year. Store all seeds in a cool, dry, dark place such as paper envelope in a cupboard. Remember to label the container with the plant name and date of collection as many seeds look very similar away from their parent plant.
Wildlife friendly lawn care
A lawn can be a cooling, soft space for humans that can also provide useful shelter for wildlife. Sadly, more and more people are installing fake grass these days as they are tired of what appears to be a rigorous mowing and lawn care regime. Perhaps a shift in view of what a lawn is supposed to be and how it is supposed to look is helpful before opting for the lifeless option?
Try to reduce the rigorous mowing regime; only mow every couple of weeks or so, on a slightly higher blade setting, to allow the grass to grow longer and softer. Also allow for even longer edges on the borders of paths and planted beds. Apart from further reducing the workload by taking out the job of cutting the grassy edges, it creates an attractive, graded planted edge and provides effective transitional habitat for ground based wildlife. Daisies, buttercups, clover and other flowers will bloom, creating a feast for pollinators and helping to replace the drastic loss of wildflower meadows.
Pruning spring flowering shrubs
June is a good time to prune back spring flowering shrubs such as mock orange (Philadelphus), Weigela, and Deutzia, but not until the flowers have faded. For established plants and using sharp tools, firstly removed dead or damaged stems cutting back to a healthy stem joint or leaf. Then remove about a third of the oldest and thickest stems back to the ground to reduce congestion. It may help to stand back and assess the plant after each cut to maintain an even form. Water, feed with a general organic fertiliser and mulch the plant to give it a boost to put on new flowering stems for next year.
Making nettle and comfrey ‘tea’
It’s easy to make your own ‘tea’ or liquid fertilizer from nettles or comfrey. Take a bucket, half fill with crushed or bruised plant leaves then cover with water and place a weight on top, leave to rot for 2-4 weeks and use the resulting, nasty smelling liquid as a feed for your plants, diluted to tea colour, roughly 1 part liquid to 10 parts water before using on plants.
Stag beetles have a significant population in London. These striking creatures can be sighted particularly on humid evenings in May, June and July, flying rather slowly and clumsily or displaying on roads, gardens, railway platforms or anywhere else they stumble upon. Stag beetles breed on dead wood and their larvae live in the wood for up to seven years while maturing. Clearing of woodland, parks and green spaces means their natural habitat is reducing and their numbers are in decline. Help them by creating a part buried log pile in your garden or green space and recording any sightings on either GiGL or London Wildlife Trust.
Gardening tasks in June
- Pinch out the faded blooms from camellia and rhododendrons taking care not to damage next year’s buds and also lilac (Syringa sp.) by cutting back the flowering stem to above a pair of leaves or buds.
- Prune early flowering shrubs such as philadelphus, weigela, deatzia, lilac, forthysia and spirea once flowering is over to give them time to develop new flowering stems for next year’s display.
- Take softwood cuttings from shrubs such as lavender, hydrangea, philadelphus, fuchsia and spirea.
- Deadhead plants such as repeat flowering roses, and hardy geraniums using sharp secateurs, to encourage further blooms this season.
- Cut out spent Euphorbia flowers to protect against powdery mildew.
- Stake any plants that are tall and floppy such as delphiniums and dahlias to keep borders upright and blooming.
- If you want to fill gaps in your borders or to plant out pots and containers there are plenty or summer bedding plants available now.
- Prune evergreen shrubs such as privet, box, Viburnum tinus and Lornicera nitida if necessary, taking care to check for nesting birds first.
- Tie in the fast growing shoots of climbers such as clematis and honeysuckle.
- Net fruit bushes vulnerable to birds and small mammals but check netting regularly for any trapped creatures.
- Check strawberries regularly so you can pick fruit in prime condition.
- Pot up strawberry runners.
- Remove raspberry suckers.
- Thin gooseberries by picking alternate fruits, cook as they may not be quite ripe but those left on the bush will become larger and sweeter.
- Plant out cape gooseberry and sweet melon seedlings for autumn fruits.
- Tie in new blackberry canes for fruiting next year.
- Thin out apples and pears to prevent overcrowding, some will fall unassisted.
- Thin out plums, damsons and gages leaving about 2.5cm between individual fruits
- Prune side shoots of vines to allow the bunches of grapes to ripen in the sun.
- Continue to put out feed and water for birds.
- Create a stag beetle habitat so they can breed in your patch. Large logs (10-50cm diameter) with bark still attached should be sunk vertically about 60cm into the ground, with some emerging, in partially shaded areas.
- Water plants well at least once a week during periods of dry weather. A good soaking is better than a quick spray. Container grown plants are likely to require more regular watering.
- Collect seeds for next season. Wear gloves for the job and use secateurs if the plant has an irritable sap. Store seeds in a cool, dry and dark place. Label the containers with the plant name and date of collection.
- Remove competitive weeds by hand or using a hoe. Aim to catch them while they are small but also consider having some tolerance for less invasive weeds while bearing in mind that they may self-seed and become much more invasive in time!
- Cut back any remaining bulb foliage once it has died down.
- Plant any small plants you have raised from seed and keep them well watered until they have settled in.
- Thin out any hardy annuals planted from seed to the recommended spacing, it can seem cruel, pulling up infant plants, but those left will grow much better. If you can, transplant them, seedlings can be potted up and given away or planted in a space in your own garden.
- Mow lawns regularly but leave grass longer and allow some flowers to grow for a more relaxed and wildlife friendly regime.
- Have a general tidy of dead and damaged foliage on plants throughout the garden.
- Keep an eye out for pest and diseases particularly lily beetle which is bright red, slugs and snails and vine weevils. Check for unusual scarring, stickiness, webbing, curling, lumps or discolouration on plants. Remember to check under the leaves too. Look for the presence of insects, larvae or pupae. Identify if there is problem with a pest or a disease and remedy as appropriate using organic and biological methods. Remember that many problems with pest and diseases can be prevented and controlled by good garden hygiene and good growing and feeding practices.
- Check plants for aphids, while they may weaken plants they are in fact a useful food source for garden birds, ladybirds and hoverfly larvae. If infestations become out of control they can be squashed by hand rather than resorting to other controls.
- Remove invasive duck and blanket weed from garden ponds, leaving a third of the surface as open water.
The Handmade Apothecary: Healing herbal remedies
Kim Walker and Vicky Chown
With recipes for remedies and a wealth of information, the book details how to use herbs to treat ailments and improve wellbeing.
London is a Forest
London has as many trees as people, is it a forest? Following trails from suburbia to the cities heart, the stories of the tree species living alongside us are uncovered.
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Things to see, places to go
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic most activities and events have been postponed or cancelled. However many organisations are now posting online activities and events. Here is a selection.
Container Growing – a guide to the essentials of growing food in containers
An introduction to help you get started on growing food plants in containers, small and large. Free zoom event via laptop/desktop/tablet (donations welcome).
4 June 2020, 7 - 8.30pm
Capital Growth: An introduction to medicinal plants
Celebrate the history and the medicinal properties of some plants you can easily grow or forage in your neighbourhood, and how you can use them at home to boost your wellbeing. Free Zoom event via laptop/desktop/tablet (donations welcome).
23 June 2020, 6 - 6.45pm
Escape to Kew Gardens and Wakehurst from your sofa.
Currently available online whilst Kew Gardens are working on their reopening plans