While some may be getting ready for the Olympics, I am checking over my bamboo canes, sharpening my saw and sorting my hurdles. Success on the sports field takes hard work, and it's the same in the garden. For those with fulltime jobs, children and other commitments, a bit more skill is needed to get results. With a little help from experts such as Charles Dowding and Kim Wilde, here is my guide to spring gardening for busy people:
THE VEGETABLE PLOT
Charles Dowding is a professional vegetable grower. Like me, he uses the "No Dig" technique and finds it saves time and gives great yields. I never dig my veg (and rarely/ever ornamental borders) but just pile organic matter on (spent mushroom, garden compost) and the soil structure is brilliant.
If you have just a couple of raised beds and have extra space, then make another two (about 2.2m x 1.2m/7ft x 4ft) perhaps from old scaffold boards, and form a mini potager. Site them close to the house, so that you can have a quick potter, post-breakfast, to slay a stray weed and eye up what is ready for supper at the same time. Even if you're suited and shod for the office, raised beds will allow you to reach everything without getting mulched yourself. Charles's new book Vegetable Course (Frances Lincoln) is a must for the time-stretched.
Sowing and picking: Charles recommends pick-and-come-again instead of cut-and-come for salads. Careful, weekly picking of salad plants' outer leaves enables them to live longer, so you need to sow less often.
"I have been practising it for nine years on all kinds of salad, including pea shoots and lettuce varieties such as Little Gem," says Charles. "The same plants give leaves for 10 or 12 weeks, saving much time on sowing and clearing. For lettuce just two sowings - now and one in June - can give you leaves all the time from May to early autumn."
Some plants require less attention than others, such as courgettes (try Defender), beetroot and chard (Fantasy F1, which is more spinachlike). But you rarely have something for nothing, and these plants need regular picking over to keep them in top condition. Other vegetables can be picked in a way that prolongs their productive life, to reduce time spent on sowing and raising new plants. Outer leaves twisted off spinach keeps it producing for longer than plants cut across the top. Beetroot grown in clumps, with just the larger ones twisted out when ready, allows the remaining roots to swell up. The same goes for carrots.
Have pots of herbs like thyme, lovage, chervil, parsley, lemon verbena and sage near the kitchen door so you can cut quicker than you can find the pack of the dried version.
Getting cottage garden borders to perform well in dry conditions takes a bit of juggling.
Firstly tackle the weeds, don't plant anything new until you have outed perennial weeds. For this I would use glyphosate. No weeds must be allowed to seed (or even flower), so regular hoeing and/or the application of a thick mulch will sort this out. No digging allowed.
Get to know your weeds so you recognise them when small. Mulching (50mm/2in of coarse mulch) applied after watering is key. Use newspapers covered with copious grass cuttings to mulch wilder areas such as under new hedges.
Kim Wilde has an exceptionally busy and high-profile singing career, yet is an avid gardener. Here are her top tips for having great borders with less time:
"Without doubt, one of the most time-consuming activities in the garden is weeding. If planting an area for the first time, consider the use of landscape fabric (MyPex). Plants have a chance to establish and grow without weeds getting too much of a look in. Choose low maintenance, fastgrowing herbaceous plants like ground-cover geraniums or Alchemilla mollis in areas where bulbs like tulips or alliums are to grow in the border, and landscape fabric is not an option. I grow G. macrorrhizum, and G x magnificum. These plants can be divided every few years, spread around the garden or given as Easter gifts." Kim adds: "Before embarking on a love affair with your chosen plant, spend a few minutes researching its optimum growing conditions, i.e. likes a warm sunny sight, or prefers a damp shady spot. Giving your plant its ideal growing conditions will save you time and money in the long term."
If you are short of time, having many different types of plants in your borders takes a lot more management than a few really generous clumps of the same plants. These bigger clumps need a good season of interest to work.
Helen Dillon, the gardening author and broadcaster, has a huge knowledge of plants and her garden in Dublin (dillongarden.com) is inspirational. Helen raves about cottage garden flowers, such as the mauve honesty, which produces beautiful, luminous flowers in spring, and then sets seed for next year. If you tend them and deadhead they perform for far longer (May-July is not unusual).
The unusual perennial honesty, Lunaria rediviva, is a "Helen gem". This has white flowers and large, pointy oval leaves. It gets to a metre (3ft) tall and has wonderful evening scent from its white flowers. The only place I have seen it for sale is at Jelitto Seeds (jelitto.com), which specialises in wholesale perennial seeds. A plant Helen rates for later interest is Briza maxima (giant quaking grass). Sow it now and it will flower in August and last to December with its airy 3ft stems. Sow it again in August and it will flower next May.
Sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and the perennial stock, Matthiola incana, with its useful, ever-grey leaves and scented flowers, are also her cottage garden musts.
The lawn is high input. A designed lawn, rather than just being the leftover space after you snatched bits for borders, paving and paths, makes a massive difference. A hard-working, green mown surface is a more realistic title than "lawn". Leaving the wilder parts slightly longer and cutting and collecting at as long intervals as the machine will manage (maybe three weeks), but mowing paths through, gives a more romantic look. Mulch mowers (such as the John Deere JS63V) remove the need to collect, and help with drought. Longer meadows, left until early July for their first cut, look stunning in late spring but can get tatty later. But if these areas are limited to defined swathes, it makes them visually far more acceptable later on.
- Do not feed grass if you have little tending time
- Cut a bit longer to encourage thymes, self-heal and other herbs so the area will stay greener in drought
- Spot-treat coarser weeds you do not like, such as dandelions, with selective lawn weed killer (I spot treat broadleaved weeds such as dandelions and dock with Verdone)
- Remove fiddly bits and replace with gravel, ground cover or easy planting
- Do not skimp on a mower but invest in one that is a joy to use (I love my Hayter)