The long, warm, hazy days bring fields full of bright red poppies and verges dotted with ox eyed daisies; an abundance of flowering plants, swaying grasses, fragrant scents and wildlife to our gardens. Plant growth reaches a peak and nectar is plentiful, enticing a wealth of butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Moths are frequent visitors, many have fascinating, characterful names such as the Dingy Footman, the Beautiful Hook-tip or the Smokey Wainscot. On summer evenings bats are at their most active, feasting on the insects attracted to night scented flowers, garden ponds and open water. With longer, warmer evenings it’s the time of year to sit out, to enjoy the garden and its wildlife.
June has thrown the lot at us: heat, cold, hot sun and heavy rain. Plants seem to have enjoyed the weather, green spaces are looking lush and verdant though slugs and snails seem to have enjoyed the weather too, silvery trails leading to damaged leaves and stems. In some places weeds have got out of hand, a few weeks of neglect and bind weed can cover shrubs, alkanet grow up between ornamentals, dandelions send down deep taproots and couch grass entangle itself in borders.
In the garden
Flowering plants, many sweet smelling or brightly coloured, are the attractions of the month. Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), a wonderfully fragrant, evergreen climber with clusters of star shaped white flowers, flourishes throughout July. Lavender (Lavandula) is often at its best with mauve clusters of perfumed flowers blooming on long stalks providing a mecca for bees and butterflies. Bowman’s root (Gillenia trifoliata) with its delicate five petalled flowers, dances between more sturdy plants. The tobacco plant (Nicotiana sylvestris) with fragrant, soft yellow, trumpet shaped flowers and evening primrose (Oenothera fructicosa) with large bowl shaped bright yellow flowers are both night scented, making them attractive to moths.
The dense, brightly coloured clusters of Phlox paniculata, which will flower through until autumn; button shaped masterworts (Astrantia sp), which are happy in shady spots and do well as dried flowers and the tall, lighter sprays of the purple top vervain (Verbena bonariensis) that sway gently and frame glimpses of planting through their stems are all in bloom. Amongst the perennials the bold purple, pink or white slightly raggedy daisy like flowers and feathery foliage of cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), a free flowering annual plant, can be found. If grown from seed every year it can fill in any unexpected gaps in the borders.
It’s high summer for butterflies, which are becoming more common to spot day by day and joining the rest of the nectar loving hordes to feast on and pollinate the variety of plants on offer. Birds are still nesting, often with repeat clutches through July and the earlier batches of fledgling chicks are finding their wings. Aphids and other garden bugs are a reliable food source for fledgling birds but intense competition for food means topping up the bird feeders and providing fresh water too can be very helpful. Be alert for fledglings that may have left the nest and be unable to fly for a couple of days yet. Their parents will still be keeping an eye on them, so do not get too close unless they are very visible or in danger, in which case carefully reposition them somewhere close, high and sheltered, out of the way of prowling cats.
The more diversity of plants in the garden the better it is both for visual pleasure and also to attract as much beneficial wildlife as possible. This will keep a balance with the pests and predators that are inevitable invaders. Ladybird adults and larvae (Coccinellidae sp), are a frontline defense beetle that feed on aphids, thrips, whitefly and mites amongst other pests, with each of these little, rounded, spotty adult beetles able to eat up to 5000 aphids during their lifetime. A female ladybird will lay her eggs on the underside of leaves often near larval food such as aphids and the emergent larvae will munch on these and also wander some distance in search of food. Be aware that the flightless ladybird larvae look nothing like the adult and are often mistaken for a pest when in fact they are a great pest munching ally.
Sadly, the non-native Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) has landed in Britain and is fast invading the country. It is much bigger and spottier than our native species and is predicted to spread rapidly and possibly outcompete our homegrown ladybirds and other insect groups too. There’s more information at The Harlequin Ladybird Survey where you can help track their spread.
Planting summer containers
Even with only a windowsill, balcony or small back yard, colourful containers can help pollinators, provide culinary crops and brighten up your home. Tender perennials often flower for long periods and with regular deadheading, feeding and watering can last for months; try marguerite (Argyranthemum frutescens), vervain (Verbena) or petunia (Petunia). Herbs can grow well in containers and can also be used for cooking, try sage (Salvia officinalis), thyme (Thymus sp.) or oregano (Oreganum vulgare). Annual bedding plants such as nasturtiums (Tropaeolum), marigolds (Calendula), blanket flowers (Gaillardia) and zinnia (Zinnia) add a bright and colourful element. Mediterranean plants with their grey, hairy leaves are drought tolerant. Lavenders (Lavandula), sages (Salvia), lambs ears (Stachys byzantina) and catmint (Nepeta), with a little care, can cope with the hot, dry conditions of sitting out on a windowsill or rooftop.
High summer is usually hot and dry and watering is necessary. It’s easy to get out the hose and water everything on a regular basis, but water is a limited resource so think carefully about where and how you water. Most importantly, if you have the space, get a water butt. Water can be diverted into a butt from a downpipe and summer storms often produce a large amount of water that often just runs off the dry soil surface and overwhelms the sewers. If you don’t have the space for a butt use some grey water from the bath or sink to water the garden when possible.
The plants that most need water are those in containers and those that are newly planted, especially trees and shrubs. Lawns do not need watering, in dry periods they will turn brown, but quickly recover after new rainfall. Borders can be mulched after heavy rain to retain as much moisture as possible and watering in the evenings and directly on the soil, not the leaves will help reduce evaporation.
Fruit trees and bushes, canes and strawberry plants all need adequate water as the fruits swell and ripen. Keeping the ground around the plants or trees free from weeds will help keep competition for moisture down and giving the ground an organic mulch such as well rotted stable manure will help retain moisture. Water all fruits copiously in dry weather, heavy weekly watering is much better than daily light watering as it encourages deeper root growth.
Drought tolerant planting
All plants are adapted to grow well in the conditions provided for them by their native habitats, those growing in Mediterranean regions and other dry places have developed to be drought tolerant. Climate change, longer, dryer summers and conditions on rooftops, balconies and windowsills often require a plant to tolerate drought to survive and flourish. There are many plants that do well in these conditions. Some have silvery or grey leaves to reflect the sun, others have fine hairs to trap moisture around the leaves. Some have shiny, thick leaves to prevent moisture loss and those with succulent leaves have developed to store water within them. If you are gardening in these conditions, think about planting drought tolerant species rather than trying to grow moisture loving alternatives. Drought tolerant plants include, euphorbia (Euphorbia), sedum (Hylotelephium), lavender (Lavandula), mugwort (Artemisia), hebe (Hebe), Russian sage (Perovskia), cotton lavender (Santolina), false blue indigo (Baptisia), false dittany (Ballota), catnip (Nepeta), globe thistle (Echinops), vervain (Verbena), sea holly (Eryngium) and many more.
Green, pristine lawns are one of the most unsustainable elements of a garden. They require a lot of maintenance, heavy watering to remain green in summer, aerating, feeding and constant vigilance to suppress ‘weeds’.
If a lawn is neglected the weeds will begin to flower. Daisies, buttercups, clover, self heal, cranesbill, trefoil, sages even orchids may all move in opportunistically. To encourage your lawn area to flower, reduce your mowing regime, mow monthly at a higher setting, around 10cm, remove the cuttings that feed the soil and allow self seeded plants to grow and flower. For a spring flowering lawn you can add snowdrops, aconites, small narcissi, crocuses and cowslips to this, leaving the first cutting till the end of June. If instead you cut from September until April you can encourage summer flowering species; vetches, knapweeds, bedstraws, ox-eye daisies, cranesbills, thymes and marjorams. The species that appear can be added to either by seed or small inexpensive plugs, increasing the number and diversity of plants. A flowering lawn is not neat or hard wearing as a grass lawn but bees and butterflies will benefit, there will be less work and less damage to the environment.
Summer garden pests
Pests can seem overwhelming, particularly in summer. Plants that are not stressed will deal much better with a pest attack so water if it is dry and feed plants that need extra nutrients. Growing a wide range of plants and attracting birds and other predators such as ladybirds and lacewings into your garden will also help keep pest numbers down, birds are easily attracted by feeders and beneficial insects with flowering plants. Wasps though they eat garden pests can also damage ripening fruit. If they become a nuisance they can be trapped a jar of jam and water. Birds too can enjoy your fruit. If you don’t have enough to share you need to net the fruit but be careful to construct a tightly fitting net so birds and small mammals don’t become trapped inside the netting.
Collecting common wild flower seeds
Gathering the seeds of wild flowers to create a wild flower patch is legal if you do so sparingly, for your own use and only from common flowers. First try to identify the plant and check that it is a common species. Flowers will naturally drop their seeds when they are ripe so check that the flowering head is dry and the seeds beginning to fall away from the carpel or rattle in their pod. Harvest the seeds by cutting off a dried stem and placing it in a paper bag marked with the name of the plant. Dry the seeds further on sheets of newspaper left in a cool dry and airy place, again marked with the name of the plant. Once fully dry transfer them into paper envelopes marked with the name of the plant, the year collected and if you like the place and person who collected them.
Seeds to collect in July include red campion (Silene dioica), yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), field poppy (Papaver rhoeas), columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).
Summer pruning trained fruit trees
Trained, spur-bearing fruit trees, such as cordons and espaliers can be pruned in summer to increase cropping the following year and to improve the abundance, taste and colouring of the current years harvest.
First check you have a spur bearing fruit tree, one that carries fruits along the branches rather than just at the tips. Then look at the new growth; if the stems with clusters of leaves all look fully formed, rather than having one small, lighter green leaf and have a lignified stem (one that has become stiff and woody), these are ready to prune. Cut back to around a 7.5cm length that will be carrying 2-3 buds. Also cut back hard to the branch any tall, straight, upright, vigorous stems that are drawing energy from the tree. The fruit remaining on the tree will ripen more fully with reduced shade. Freely circulating air will help with colour and sweetness. Strangely, removing some new shoots will also increase the next year’s harvest.
Reducing plastic use
The ratio of plastic to plankton in the sea is now 1:2 and the gardening industry is heavily reliant on plastics. The RHS states that gardeners use 500 million plant pots per year, most composts come in large plastic bags, and then there are polytunnels and plastic cloches, much of this plastic once used, is headed for landfill. On an industrial scale, changing practices and legislation are needed; on a backyard scale there is plenty we can do.
- Make your own newspaper pots with a ‘Paper Potter’ a small wooden former that can construct a simple seed pot from newspaper. Seedlings can be transplanted without being repotted as the pot biodegrades.
- Buy wooden or plant based pots and trays made from bamboo, coir, grain and natural gums.
- Use wooden lollipop plant labels, or make your own with a bit of whittled stick, write on them in pencil so they can be reused.
- Use natural jute or sisal string.
- Try biodegradable netting and liners.
- Buy fertilizers and other granular products in cardboard containers, just remember to keep them dry.
- Find your local plastics recycling company where used plastic can be picked up and recycled into other products.
- Remember the maxim: Reduce, reuse, recycle!
Environmental benefits of gardening
Gardens and green spaces benefit the environment in many ways. Growing even a few pots or window boxes will help.
- Plants use the process of photosynthesis, transforming sunlight and drawing carbon dioxide from the air and water and nutrients from the soil to create energy for the plant and oxygen for the atmosphere. This reduces the carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change.
- Plants chosen to attract pollinators benefit biodiversity, helping not just these creatures but the wider food chain of birds, mammals and amphibians that feed on insects.
- Growing and eating your own fruit and vegetables reduces your carbon footprint. Transport costs are zero and eating more fresh fruit and vegetables reduces the need for meat and diary products that have a high carbon footprint.
- Increased areas of concrete and asphalt in cities creates a heat island effect which when temperatures are high can be dangerous for vulnerable people. Growing plants on roofs, walls, windowsills and outdoor spaces reduces temperatures and helps keep us cool.
- Plants can absorb air pollution, some more than others. Planting trees, hedges and climbers in particular can help increase local air quality.
- Planted areas can act as a sponge during heavy rainfall. Rather than running off the surface and overwhelming the sewers, plants and soil absorb rainfall leaching it slowly into the drains and helping to prevent flooding.
July is a great time of year to visit public gardens that are open year-round or local gardens that may be open for a day or two as part of the National Open Gardens Scheme. Currently many gardens, public and private, are beginning to reopen with restrictions to comply with health and safety advice brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many offer strict timed bookings only, so if you want to enjoy a garden remember to check the website, pre book and also to cancel if you can no longer go so some one else can take one of the limited places.
Visiting a variety of other gardens is an opportunity to get inspiration from their layouts, material use and planting combinations. There is often a stall to buy plants from and teas on site for refreshments. Personal favourites include Great Dixter in East Sussex, which has spectacular meadows and contemporary saturated colour planting combinations, and Beth Chatto’s Garden in Essex with it’s woodland garden, perfect for inspiration for shady courtyards and an inspiring drought tolerant gravel garden, developed on what was previously a car park and managed without irrigation.
Gardening tasks in July
- Prune June flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus and Weigela after flowering.
- Feed roses to help with a second flush of flowers.
- Step back and take note of the beds for autumn remedial works on plants that are in the wrong place due to poor height, colour or texture combination or those that will need of dividing.
- Deadhead plants such as repeat flowering roses and hardy geraniums to encourage further blooms this season.
- Collect seeds for next season. Store seeds in a cool, dry and dark place. Label the containers with the plant name and date of collection.
- Order spring bulb catalogues.
- Continue to tie in climbers.
- Continue to stake tall plants.
- Divide Iris tubers.
- Plant autumn flowering bulbs such as amaryllis, colchium and nerine.
- Water bushes, trees and canes with swelling fruits regularly
- Keep the base of trees and bushes weed free and mulch to help keep in moisture in the soil
- Further thin crowded apples and pears to allow for maximum growth of each fruit
- Summer prune spur-bearing trained fruits trees such as cordons or espaliers
- Pick cherries with their stalks, strawberries, raspberries, currants and gooseberries as they ripen. Surplus fruit can be frozen or bottled
- Prepare new strawberry beds to plant out runners from established beds
- Cut out old raspberry canes after fruiting
- Cut old leaves and runners off summer fruiting strawberries
- Train in new blackberry canes as they grow
- Support heavily laden fruit tree branches
- Feed Melons with a high potash feed
- Continue to put of seed and water for birds.
- Check any netted fruit for trapped wildlife at least daily.
- Fill pots and gaps in the border with nectar plants for butterflies: Yarrow, large blue alkanet, thrift, common marigold, cosmos, gaura, avens, lavender, jasmine, begamont, flowering tobacco, oregano, rosemary and sage are all good.
- Do not prune hedges until the last of the fledglings have left their nests.
- Water plants well at least once a week during periods of dry weather. A good soaking is better than a quick spray. Newly planted trees and shrubs need a lot of water so water these well.
- Container grown plants are likely to require more watering and be sure to water these so that the water just dribbles out of the bottom of the pot.
- Keep ponds topped up with harvested rainwater if possible. Clear dead foliage from the pond to avoid it building up to a foul smelling sludge.
- 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, bearing in mind that they may self seed and become much more invasive in time.
- Mulch borders to retain moisture.
- Have a general tidy of dead and damaged foliage on plants throughout the garden. Thin out competitive plants to give their neighbours some space.
- Keep an eye out for pest and diseases.
Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses
Robin Wall Kimmerer
A fascinating and passionate exploration of mosses, their biology and place in earth’s ecosystems, written by an academic and Native American of the Potawatomi Nation, whose unique vision stems from her cultural heritage and respect for nature.
How to Garden the Low-carbon Way: The Steps You Can Take to Help Combat Climate Change
Reduce the carbon imprint of your outside space with the steps outlined in this instructive book.
I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain
A journey of reclamation through the natural landscapes of the North from a powerful and refreshing new voice in nature writing.
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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.
The Woman Who Feel in Love with an Island: Exhibition and Trail
Exhibition exploring Tove Jansson’s island home and the inspiration she took from nature with a ‘Mommin Trail’ of the wetlands to showcase London’s wildlife.
Until Thursday 23rd September 2021. 11.00-16.00 daily
Walthamstow Wetlands, 2, Forest Road, Walthamstow London N17 9HN
Pest management for Organic Growers
Capital Growth online training session to learn about how to manage garden pests without chemicals. Cost: £10.00 + £1.19 booking fee.
21st July 17.30-19.00