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Written by: Farah Alkhalisi, consumer and lifestyle journalist, and passionate weekend gardener.
After one of the coldest springs on record, your garden may be a little neglected; only the keenest of us will have ventured out in sub-zero conditions.
Now that the snow has finally cleared, the frosts have eased and the evenings have lengthened, it's time to take stock. It's not too late to whip your outside space into shape as a splendid summer retreat, and you don't need to spend a fortune or call for Monty Don.
Make do and mend
Before rushing out to your local nursery or garden centre, assess carefully what you really need and what you'd like to change this year. Now's the time, before the summer growth gets going, to tend to fences, sheds, the washing line and any other fixtures which may need attention.
A tatty outbuilding could be transformed by a coat of paint or creosote; a dull brick wall could be whitewashed or plastered – and at the very least, scrub down decking or paving stones and clean up your pots. Sow grass seed on the bare patches, and clear out any accumulated rubbish, weeds and overgrowth.
Relatively small changes can make a difference, as Lucy Harknett, a teacher and mother-of-two from Hove, East Sussex, found.
“I was despairing of my dingy backyard,” she says. “But once I'd hacked down the load of horrible overhanging creepers that made it so dark, and got rid of my boys' outgrown bicycles and broken toys which were littering it up, it suddenly looked a whole lot better.”
“Now I've got space for a table and chairs under the pergola, which emerged from under the creeper for the first time in years. I threw out a car-full of cracked old pots, replanted the best ones, and the whole makeover cost next-to-nothing.”Now I've got space for a table and chairs under the pergola, which emerged from under the creeper for the first time in years.
Think about areas which could benefit from evergreen shrubs and year-round interest, then use bedding plants, flowerpots and hanging baskets to fill in bare corners on a seasonal basis; plot your planting carefully, thinking about where the gaps and unsuccessful experiments were last year.
Any major landscaping is best done during the winter, when you can see the garden's ‘bare bones'. But if you couldn't face digging in the dark, it's still not too late to alter the shape of flowerbeds, build raised beds for vegetables, lay a path or make other basic layout changes.
“It's a transition time right now,” says Iain Wilson, a professional organic gardener from Brighton, East Sussex.
“Over winter, you should have trimmed deciduous trees and shrubs, anything with leaf-drop. Once the buds have started to burst and bloom again, it's not a good time to cut back. You can prune, but not anything that's going to flower before mid-summer or over the next three to four months, and only once the danger of the last frosts has passed. There's no harm in digging beds now – it's a good time to get new trees and shrubs established – but it's a little bit early for herbaceous plants, which can be tender.”Any major landscaping is best done during the winter, when you can see the garden's ‘bare bones'.
Have you been building up a compost heap? You should, especially if you're hoping to grow your own fruit and veg, as you can reduce your household waste going to landfill as well as boosting your garden's organic credentials by digging in your nutritious home-grown soil improver.
You could buy a compost bin, build a container or even get one from your council's waste and recycling department – though you can also just build a heap and cover it with polythene or tarpaulin.
Compost-making is not complex; throw in the right ingredients and let nature do its thing – but remember these tips:>Keep a good balance of ingredients with drier matter such as straw, leaves and grass cuttings as well as vegetable peelings and fruity waste – you don't want it to turn slimy.>You may need to add torn-up newspaper or cardboard from time to time to stop the mixture from becoming too liquid and to bulk it up.>Don't put cooked food waste in your compost – it may encourage rats or other vermin.>Turn the mixture over with a fork occasionally to aerate it – compost needs oxygen.>It'll take up to a year to turn into brown, crumbly goodness – and then you can dig it in.
“The golden rule is to make sure you've got a mix of wet and dry stuff, green and brown,” says Iain, who suggests using organic pesticides and fertilisers rather than petrochemical-based substances, as well as peat-free composts if you need to supplement your own mix of ingredients.
“Think about your compost heap as a living thing – it needs air and water, and a mix of fuels.”
Ways to save water
We can but hope for some sunshine, but a hot summer could bring drought conditions and a hosepipe ban. Invest in a water butt to save rain water, and some lightweight but strong watering cans, mulch your flowerbeds and select plants and flowers which don't require constant watering. It's also well worth reading Beth Chatto's The Gravel Garden for some ideas – as she says, you should learn to garden with nature, not against it.
“Mulching holds the water in the soil and keeps the weeds down”, advises Iain. “It saves you time watering, and saves water. Now's a good time to do it.”
Staff at your nearby nursery should be happy to advise too, and gardeners in your neighbourhood will be best-placed to advise on what works in your local soil and climatic conditions. Look out too for events at local community gardens and allotments, and open garden days (often annual events for charity, such as the National Garden Scheme ‘Yellow Book' openings), where you can often pick up reasonably-priced plants grown in the garden you've just admired.
Swaps and savvy shopping
Swap seeds, cuttings and surplus plants with friends and neighbours, and look out for seed swaps or similar community events organised in your area. Growing from seed or cuttings is invariably the cheapest way to stock your garden, though if you're impatient or lack space for propagation, avoid buying the largest plants or shrubs – they're always the dearest.
Second-hand gardening equipment, furniture and tools can be found at car boot sales if you're a bargain-hunter, and many charities sell recycled and reconditioned items, often as part of their work with the disadvantaged.
Growing from seeds or cuttings is invariably the cheapest way to stock your garden.
Emmaus shops are good for gardeners (some sell plants too) and you could also try your nearby YMCA furniture outlet, or other local initiatives. Recycling centres and community waste facilities often sell off salvageable items for charity – my local tip is a good source of terracotta pots – and don't forget Freecycle.
Be imaginative – look around the house or raid a jumble sale for things which could be repurposed. Vintage crockery, interesting containers, colourful buckets, wooden boxes and old crates can look pretty when filled with flowers or herbs, though you may need to drill or punch holes for drainage. Old kitchen chairs, painted with a strong gloss or waterproof acrylic, can give a season or two's service outdoors if you bring them inside during wet weather.
Have fresh herbs to hand for cooking, and they'll make your garden smell lovely, too. Mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley and chives form the basis of a useful kitchen garden – and you can always use the mint in tea or a gin and tonic.>You may need to plant herbs in a high container to keep them safe from slugs and snails.>The pink pom-poms of chives and high, feathery fennel can both look quite spectacular; for a really exotic touch, try bergamot, which grows tall with beautiful bright red flowers.>Mint is really easy to grow, but it can spread very rapidly – it's best in a container, or it might take over.>Basil is easily grown indoors from seed, but don't plant your seedlings out too early – the cold will kill them off.
Visit the wild side
Even a small corner of unmown grass can become a lively habitat for wildlife, and create a haven for insects, bugs and other tiny creatures crucial for maintaining a healthy eco-system.>Think about planting shrubs like buddleia, which is easy to grow and adored by butterflies. Sow wildflower seeds into your lawn, and plants that will encourage bees, such as honeysuckle, comfrey and foxgloves.>Leave small piles of wood and rotting leaf-matter in an unobtrusive place for the insects and invertebrates.>Even a tiny pond will encourage frogs, newts, toads and other amphibians.
No garden is complete without birdsong.
>Hang containers for seeds, nuts and fat balls from branches, and consider hanging up a nest box out of the reach of cats and other predators. Clean all feed-holders regularly and keep the food on offer fresh.>Birds need clean water too; even a simple shallow dish can serve as a bath and a drinking source.>Don't be too quick to chop back bushes and shrubs, which may be used for nesting, and leave seeds, rosehips and similar on branches in late autumn.>Birds need feeding in summer as much as in winter, as they use lots of energy in their mating season and when raising their chicks.
Expert advice and local
knowledge – on a budget
If you're stuck for ideas and cash, there's plenty of advice out there for free. The Royal Horticultural Society website is a great place to start, packed full of advice for gardeners at all levels, Gardeners' World is practical and hands-on with its tips; and you can see how the professionals plan a garden at Pro Landscaper.
You may not be able to commission Diarmuid Gavin to style your plot, but many of our best-loved TV gardeners and gardening writers have websites and blogs which you can browse for inspiration:
Landscape gardener Dan Pearson has some great ideas and beautiful photos.
The Independent on Sunday's Emma Townshend is great on urban gardening and creating exotic displays.
The Independent's Anna Pavord is wise, accessible and always timely.
The Telegraph's gardening section provides an extensive resource.
More useful links>
ROYAL HORTICULTURAL SOCIETY
The leading UK gardening charity
THE NATIONAL GARDENS SCHEME
Find open gardens near you
The Environment Agency's advice on saving water in the garden
FEDERATION OF CITY FARMS AND COMMUNITY GARDENS
Learn about community gardening
Useful composting tips
The views expressed here are solely those of the author,
and do not necessarily reflect the views of M&S Bank.