fruit against fence1 We’re just at the tail end of the pruning season for apples, pears and soft fruit such as raspberries and gooseberries.  For stone fruits such as cherries and plums there’s still time as these aren’t really pruned until they are well and truly showing growth, usually July/ August to avoid bacterial canker and silver leaf.

Key to pruning apples and pears for the garden is to always remove dead, diseased and damaged growth, any suckers from the rootstock, reducing crossing branches by cutting back to outward facing buds and light shaping of the overall canopy.

For summer fruiting raspberries cut out last years growth and tie in vigorous canes into a support system leaving around 10-15cm between each cane.  Take out weak growth.  The tops can be bent over the top wire and tied to it.  Make sure ALL canes are securely attached to supports to avoid any damage during the season.  I’d then remove any growth creeping into paths; these can be used to plug any gaps in the row.  Feed with a high potash feed; personally I use Top Rose at a rate of 50-100g/m2.  Lastly, apply a healthy layer of well rotted organic matter to a depth of 10cm.  Autumn varieties can be cut hard to the ground as they flower and fruit on present seasons growth.

For blackberries and other hybrids treat in a similar way to summer fruiting raspberries by removing last years growth and then tying in the shoot growth to a support system by weaving the growth between the top wire and middle wires. Tie in to secure stems.

With blackcurrants minimal pruning is required. You’re looking at developing a goblet shaped plant. Only remove central older stems if supported by new growth at its base. Any growth growing towards neighbouring plants is cut back to the ground or to where there is an outward facing bud.

bare rootWith gooseberries, red and white currants treat them together. These all produce flowers and fruit on spurs. Again you are looking at developing a goblet shaped plant. Work logically round the plant by taking each branch leader, pruning hard any side/ lateral growths to 1-2 buds and tipping leader. With gooseberries try to maintain a clear ‘leg’ to enable good air flow and reduce powdery mildew. The leg is an area of clear stem between soil level and where the canopy of the plant begins; its roughly 15cm in length.

Why not try blueberries this year in pots if you haven’t got acid soil. If buying plants for the first time plant them in pots at least 75 x 75cm and do not prune for at least 2-3 years as this will enable the plant to produce a great framework to support flowers and fruit.  Feed during the growing season with liquid feeds high in potash. If yellow young leaves develop drench plant with any products containing sequestrene (contains iron) and mulch the top of the pot with ericaceous compost.

Good luck and happy gardening!

If you have any garden questions email me at Alternatively, post your questions to Tom Cole, Senior Horticultural Lecturer, Writtle College, Lordship Road, Writtle, Chelmsford, Essex, CM1 3RR.

Daffodil Cheerfulness

Daffodil are already in bloom in many gardens

We’ve seen usually high temperatures over recent months, but we mustn’t forget that very often February can be the coldest month of the year. The milder spells has encouraged the growth of plants and bulbs, with Daffodils, a flower you would normally associate with spring seen in bloom.

If you have Cyclamen Coum their bright pink blooms will also be creating a warm glow in those sheltered areas of the garden. Remember Cyclamen like well-drained soil, so they are sometimes better grown beneath trees where they will self-seed. These can also be bought from garden centres growing in pots, as can many other bulbs if you’re containers and planters were not planted up in autumn. Tulips, Narcissi, Scilla and Hyacinths when planted up in your containers can suddenly make you become the envy of your neighbours.

We can all be impatient sometimes but we shouldn’t put plants out in the garden yet that aren’t fully hardy. Always have some horticultural fleece on hand to cover some of those softer plants that you might have planted in the garden last year.

Whilst talking about this coming season it’s a great time to get out to your local garden centre or shop to plan what annuals you might be sowing in your garden this summer. Remember many annuals can be direct sown to create masses of colour through the summer. If you have the use of a conservatory or greenhouse then you could think of growing some more annuals under glass, nurturing them until after Easter when we can plant them out in the garden.

If you’re feeling brave enough venture out yourself to do some real gardening, instead of sitting indoors reading seed catalogues. Most gardeners, however, will be spending their time looking forward to warmer weather with indoor seed sowing in mind perhaps on the kitchen or bedroom windowsills.

Watch and wait till the days start to get longer and light levels start to increase. Some seeds are hardy and will germinate quickly and make seedling plants in just a few weeks – others are tender and take many weeks to grow to flowering and can’t be planted out until frosts are finished in May.

These slow, tender ones, often called Half-Hardy Annuals (HHA) are the seeds that need the space and warmth of indoor cultivation. Among them are bedding geraniums, regal pelargoniums, bedding begonias (B. semperflorens), salvia and verbena.

For maximum germination of small and relatively expensive seeds, sow them in good Seed & Cutting Compost. Follow the instructions on each packet and place the tray in a propagator or warm place to maintain an optimum temperature of 70-75F (21-24C). Provide a steady soil temperature both day and night for best results

If the weather stays mild regular mowing of the lawn is essential even at this time of the year. However, never cut your grass if it is wet or frozen as this will damage it. Set the blades high when mowing which nips the grass back and helps it to grow tightly and produce stronger growth. Always remember to brush away any wormcasts with a besum broom or a yard broom prior to mowing, if not it can result in a muddy mess.

For me it is too early to prune established bush roses, I like to do it at the beginning of March. Importantly though, gather up all fallen leaves and any other foliage that show the dark brown patches of rose blackspot disease. By removing foliage that was infected last year you will reduce the carry over of the disease to next season’s growth.

If your roses suffered from blackspot disease last year, remember to start spraying your rose bushes when buds burst in March, so that they have a clean start to the season. Also give them a good feed of a balanced fertilizer to get them going.

Galanthus nivalis

Snowdrops are already starting to bloom

Continue to plant hardy trees, shrubs, climbers, roses and hedges on fine days, as long as the soil isn’t frozen solid or waterlogged. At this time of year you may be able to get your hands on bare-root plants or root balled. These are cheaper than containerised plants, so a better bet when you have a lot of planting to do – such as a new rose bed or hedge or maybe some tree planting.

Last but not least, I can’t finish without mentioning my favourite early bulb: Snowdrops. These are already starting blooming. Remember to divide any overcrowded clumps immediately after flowering has finished as the bulbs move much better when the plant is in leaf, also called ‘in the green’.

Most importantly enjoy your garden.


Magnolia campbellii

Magnolia campbellii

The Magnolia sprengeri var. diva is coming into flower, two months early at Borde Hall Garden near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, but with hard frost forecast could this damage the flowers?

We shouldn’t worry too much – after all there is nothing we can do to stop Mother Nature’s quirky turns – and instead of searching on Amazon for arboreal-sized duvets, perhaps we should look forward to what we can expect to see during the ‘normal’ spring magnolia flowering period of March and April.

Borde Hill has a fine collection of Magnolias, many planted in the 1920’s by the gardens founder, Col. Stephenson R Clarke, a mad keen plant collector and a committed magnoliaphile.  Seven are classified as ‘champions’ and two as ‘remarkable’ (champion near miss) by the tree measuring folk. Magnolia campbelli at 19m tall is always an impressive sight – a bright pink beacon in the Sussex countryside indicating to planes in the Gatwick stack that you are over Borde Hill. Another ‘wow’ is Magnolia sargentiana var.robusta.  First flowering in 1938 with five fine blooms (we are told) and again in 1940 with over 100 blooms, nowadays the bloom count must be in four figures.

Whilst having plants in the size ‘premier league’  is important, we, as all good tree folk should, think to the future . In  Col. Clarkes day, magnolia varieties were quite limited. Today there are 100’s to choose from – pinks, whites, purples and even yellow – yes, yellow.  In the past few years we have planted over 75 new varieties including Banana Split, Joli Pompom and Star Wars (whacky names is not usually the main criteria when choosing  new plants).

So as Jack Frost hops around your garden tonight  turning your impetuous blooms brown, rest assured that most magnolia flowers are still tightly tucked up in their furry perules (botanical overcoats) waiting for the warmth of spring to reveal themselves.

For more information visit

Borde Hill Garden, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex is open to the public daily between 10am-5pm weekdays and until 6pm weekends from 19th March-2nd October and 22nd-30th October.

Entry is £8.20 for adults, £7.80 concessions and £5.50 per child.  A family ticket (2+2) is £23.

Planted container

Inject some colour and scent into the garden by updating your containers

It’s time again to revamp any container that has escaped you over the last few months.  Is it looking tied and sad?  Tom Cole, Head of Faculty for Land & Environment at Writtle College has decided to grab the bull by the horns and step into action and give his containers a much needed makeover.

This gives me a great opportunity to even change the container and opt for a complete change and this in turn has enabled me to putting something new in.

The one pot I’ve got to look at is a lone container residing in a dustbin corner.  Yep… where our bins live for most weeks!  Well I thought I’d jazz up the planting and bring in a few scented smellies and keep to a theme of evergreen foliage with some flowers for a bonus.

The previous pot was an old fibreglass vision around 1.5m high and had a glorious old ivy and a few crocus… slightly sad looking if I had to add anything else.  Out with this and in with a lovely new terracotta urn of around the same height and spread.  The area is light early in the day and a little shady during winter months at the end of an alley between two houses.

As a key plant I had to go with Sarcococca confusa (Sweet or Christmas Box).  This is one of the my most favourite plants for producing a vanilla-like scent which can be quite heady during the winter months.  At Writtle College we have these doted around the campus and they are just lovely.  The leaves are glossy and deeply green.  It is a great compact, thicket-forming shrub that will get to around 2m high if you let it!  A bonus is that towards the end of Winter you’ll get spherical, black or blue-black berries.

For a change in texture I love to use ferns, so what better than to use Dryopteris erythrosora (Japanese shield fern). This is a semi-evergreen producing fronds up to 75cm.  It is a clumped plant where the foliage often turns coppery-pink when young going to green.  In the same tub I’ve added another called Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Angustifolia’ (Harts Tongue) as this one has long, narrow crimped edged fronds.

HeucherellaTo break up the green I’ve added brightly coloured foliage in the form of Heucherella (a cross between two distinct plants, Heuchera  and Tiarella, and shows similarities to both parents).  Although there are many forms; check out this link:, I’ve used Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’ with deeply-lobed leaves that change with the seasons. In the spring leaves are amber-orange with a cinnamon-brown star pattern in the centre while in summer, russet, copper and cinnamon tones dominate.

Added to the melting pot try out Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) with lovely leathery foliage and perfect white flowers from winter through to spring.

Lastly, don’t forget to use bulbs or corms to give a burst of colour early in the New Year.  Check out the overall height and try and keep within the scale of the container. Try crocus, snowdrops, winter aconites and or dwarf daffodils (especially ‘Minnow for small bright yellow trumpeted blooms).

All the plants used will be perfectly fine in this sized pot for at least a couple of years…don’t forget though that water does need to escape through winter.  Either pop container on little ‘feet’ or stand on gravel; this will save your pot if terracotta and protect your plants from overly standing in water for too log leading to rots.

Good luck and happy gardening!

For any gardening tips why not contact Tom Cole, Senior Horticultural Lecturer, Writtle College, Chelmsford, CM1 3RR by post (including a SAE) or by email at

It’s a busy time of the year as there’s so much to do in the garden. Ensuring the containers are looking the best they can be is one of the priorities for Tom Cole, Head of Faculty for Land & Environment at Writtle College.

This weekend will see me mostly revamping pots so that they look fabulous from now through to the spring. I’ve moved away from really traditional schemes using ‘spring bedding’; forget-me-nots (Myosotis alpestris), wall flowers (Erysimum cheiri), polys (Polyanthus cvs.) and good old daisy (Bellis perennis) and have instead moved to combining these good old favourites with perennials for a longer and more sustainable planting scheme.

Now, whether it is a hanging basket or floor mounted pot/ container do re consider your choice of plants and go for using hardy perennials and some woodies wherever possible. In between the gaps of these plants use conventional bedding to give splashes of colour. Whatever you do don’t forget to underplant ALL with bulbs and or corms to extend the season of interest.

Daffodill bulbsIf using bulbs or corms pick your varieties carefully. Consider height and spread as this is key to success and ensuring your planting scheme is in scale with the container and location. There’s no good adding daffodils such as Narcissus ‘Carlton’ to a 12-14” (30-35cm) hanging basket as it reaches the lofty heights of around 18” (45cm).

Best to use those bulbs that reach no more than 6” (15cm), preferably less than this…say 4” (10cm). Examples such as ‘Tête-a-tête’ (easy to grow, and always a mass of flower plus good in the lawns or around trees), ‘Minnow’ (a dwarf white but with canary yellow shallow trumpet – likes to look up – so very attractive) and ‘Rip Van Winkle’ (this is very different. It’s a golden yellow – but flowers are more like a cactus dahlia – but smaller!) Of course do try Crocus cvs, Galanthus sp., (the snowdrop) and my favourite winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) with their cup-shaped flowers held above a collar of deeply lobed stem leaves.

Take care re aftercare, during the winter baskets and pots are prone to waterlogging and can sometimes freeze solid. For winter planting it is better to use free draining baskets and liners such as a wire basket and moss, which keeps the compost drier and increases frost resistance. For free standing pots ensure excess water can escape; raise planter off ground using ‘feet’ or bricks. Also, keep deadheading where applicable by pinching out dead and dying flower heads back to a leaf as this will promote more flowering and a bushy habit.

Try these links for further information:

Good luck and happy gardening!

For any gardening tips why not contact Tom Cole, Head of Faculty for Land & Environment, Writtle College, Chelmsford, CM1 3RR by post (including a SAE) or by email at