Garden in Umbria - Jobs to do now

Jobs to do Now

Here are suggestions of what jobs to do each month in the garden. These are not hard and fast rules as it depends a lot on how the weather has been this year and on the altitude and aspect of your garden. Click on the links below to go straight to the month in question.

January - February - March - April - May - June - July - August - September - October - November - December

Bring branches of shrubs indoors and watch them bud and break into leaf and flower.

Water citrus: plants in pots brought indoors for winter need light and water. In their natural environment, orange and lemon trees expect winter rains and do a lot of growing and fruit development at this time of year. So do remember to water them regularly (but not too often as they must not get waterlogged) and give the occasional liquid feed.

Order seeds: buying ‘packets of dreams’ as my mother used to say. I tend to sow seeds too late and get weak plants; best to get them going as soon as possible. The windowsill is a good place to start.

Feed roses: ideally with farmyard manure but I never seem to be able to find any locally, at least not a source I can trust. I prefer the products made by Toprose or Compo, plus organic ‘Stallatico’. Getting the fertilizer on early gives it time to break down with the winter rains.

As night follows day, after all the winter rain will arrive … weeds. What better ‘mindful’ activity than weeding. Whenever there is a spell of decent weather why not get outdoors and have a good go at them.

Rose experts tell us to get on and prune right away – if not earlier: I read an interview with Michael Marriott, the chief rosarian at David Austin, who says he often does his on Christmas Day. But even in a mild spell, I can’t help but look back to February 2018 when a warm start to the year then plunged into the freezing ‘Beast from the East’ conditions in late February, not to mention a second cold snap in mid-March. Perhaps if I had resisted and waited until March my China roses might have survived. This year I am going to hold off until the full moon in February and see what the weather forecast looks like. In any event I will be pruning during a waning moon.

If and when you do prune roses, even the once-flowering types that you already pruned in summer (you did do this, didn’t you?) will need to be checked for dead and damaged stems. Repeat-flowering types should be cut back more or less drastically depending on the variety. The China roses in my garden were doing fine in September but when I went to prune them in February there was a massive amount of dry wood and die-back. A result of the dry winter?

Trim autumn flowering shrubs: strangely, many shrubs grew enormously last year, despite – or because of? – the drought. Cut out any dead and damaged branches then trim to shape.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum): when it finishes flowering, prune back some of the flowered stems, right back to the main branches from which they arise. This is also a good time to layer longer, trailing branches to make new plants. Dig up a little scoop of earth, lay a branch along it, then bury it again. Pin it down with a twig or stone and water it. This time next year you will be able to sever the little rooted section and pot it up to make a new plant.

Now the worst of winter is past, it is time to venture out and inspect for damage. Several plants in my garden – especially Chinese roses – get burnt a little by the frost but not actually killed off. A bit more pruning back may be required to encourage fresh new growth. Snow may have broken some branches but generally snow is beneficial: not only does is melt slowly and release water into the ground gradually, it formed a protective layer covering the plants so they were less affected by the freezing cold. 

Be careful not to disturb nesting birds. There is somebody (a finch?) who usually makes a very small, neat nest in a shrub close to the ground – but never in the same place so I don’t know where to look out for it.

Cut back now those late-summer flowering shrubs such as Buddleia, Caryopteris, Cornus and Perovskia. Clematis also can be cut back hard now – except of course the early bloomers like Montana, which you should do once flowering is finished.

Leave spring flowering shrubs alone - if you can - until after blooming has finished. Forsythia, Philadelphus, and Sambucus are in this category.

Roses should only be pruned hard now if they are modern hybrids which flower on ‘new’ wood. Old fashioned roses need only dead wood removing and a tidy up. Once-flowering ramblers should not be pruned until summer as they flower on the previous year’s growth.

Trim grasses: be careful not to touch the new green shoots that are just emerging. But please remember NOT to cut the Stipa but instead ‘comb’ it to pull out old dead growth.

Last minute planting can be done now – but no later than the end of this month.

With the traffic muted and the absence of aircraft booming overhead, a certain peace descended on the garden (in April 2020). So quiet in fact that the bird song seemed very loud. So why not go out and look at the garden in its spring freshness - take a glass of something with you if you like – and listen to the birds in their joy. Think about the year ahead and what bulbs you will plant in autumn.

Stamp out lily beetle. Well not literally as you might squash the plant. Better to pick off the bright scarlet beetles and dispose of them in whichever manner pleases you. Failure to do so will result in a disgusting black mess on the lily stems and the plant will shrivel up and die. On my Madonna Lilies, though, the little blighters run and hide in the crevices of the foliage and can’t be caught so I reluctantly resort to a spray. It is me (or rather the lily) or them.

Geraniums: buy new plants and pot them up. Refresh the compost in pots that have over-wintered. Feed with granular fertilizer that will keep the plants flourishing right through the summer – Compo make a good one for ‘balcony’ plants.

Weeding: I admit that we don’t always want ‘weeds’ running riot amongst our treasured plants. Indeed, a monoculture of weeds is to be avoided. The best way to deal with them is to get out there with the trowel right now: there is no time to waste.

Weed killers: some weeds such as ground elder may need drastic action. Round Up is a bit controversial but it is supposed to become ineffective the moment it touches the soil. ‘Natural’ weed killers such as vinegar or salt could be an alternative, but ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean harmless: the Romans supposedly sowed the fields of defeated Carthage with salt so they could never grow crops again. Consider Roundup Gel which is applied with a brush to individual leaves without risk of splashing onto other plants or soil.

What to do about the plants in your garden if they have been damaged by the frost? (as happened in April 2021). A rather dispiriting task, I know, but go outdoors and take a close look at your plants and see what damage there has actually been (take a fortifying drink with you if required). You may find that there are more signs of life than you feared. Indeed, this is not the moment to take drastic action: watch and wait to see what recovers. A plant that has extensive damage to its branches (e.g. ornamental Salvia) may start to sprout with new growth from the base; only then should you trim away to dry branches. Plants in pots that are suffering should remain dry until the weather warms up – cold wet compost is fatal. But with some losses - like the flowers on my wisteria - we can only look forward to bountiful blossom next year.

I am going to let you off lightly: I want you to go out into your garden and look – really look properly – at what is in bloom and how the garden works as a whole. Are there any gaps or unhappy looking plants? Could you improve the colour combinations? Which is your favourite plant? You might take a cup of tea – or even a glass of wine - with you.

I then would like you to take a walk in the country – perhaps by your front door or somewhere further away. Take a look at the verges and hedgerows. Which plants can you recognise? It is surprising how many ‘wild flowers’ are actually plants that work well in the garden, perhaps in a more sophisticated form. All these plants live quite happily without any help from us and certainly never get water beyond the natural rainfall. Does this give you clues about which plants will do well in our gardens?

When you have finished meditating perhaps you will have identified a patch of weeds that needs attention or a shrub that has finished flowering and wants a trim. Time to get back to work!

Keep inspecting your lilies for the dreaded lily beetle – if April was cold then they may only be emerging now.

Now is the time to take a look at the shrubs that already have flowered this spring and decide whether they would benefit from a trim. Cistus, Teucrium fruticans andForsythia almost certainly will. No need to hack them right down, just shape them nicely and perhaps take out the occasional old stem. Topiary balls are not compulsory.

It is also time to prune once-flowering roses. These old-fashioned roses need to develop mature growth (‘old wood’) for flowering next spring. In this group are Banksiae and many of the tall ramblers. Just take out dead and weak branches and perhaps cut a few out if you feel the plant is getting overcrowded, but that’s all. Modern hybrid roses flower on the current year’s growth (‘new wood’) and hence are pruned hard in late winter. Do not prune roses that produce nice hips in autumn such as Rosa canina.

Spray roses against fungal disease: that is certainly a problem in warm weather after rain. You will notice the farmers are busy out in the vineyards where the vines get the same sort of diseases as roses, hence the tradition of growing roses at the end of the rows as an early warning system.

Whilst you are about it, think about how you could improve the rainwater conservation in the garden.

Divide Irises and other clump-forming perennials such as Day Lilies – but this task can be left until September if the ground is too hard and dry now.

Watering. Yes, that’s right: watering. But only those plants that you put in the ground during the last autumn/winter season. We often get quite a lot of rain in winter and into June, so we need to watch out for those plants who might not yet have got the message that they are supposed to be ‘dry’. It is important not to water too often: once a fortnight is quite enough. But when you do water give them a real soaking: I reckon on at least 5 litres per plant, a lot more if it is a large shrub or tree. After this first year though they should have learnt to survive without your help.

Stay cool. Dream about what you are going to plant in autumn. Order plants.

Trim shrubs and perennials once we get some rain (if ever?) but avoid going into old wood. This is a good time to cut back lavender, Cistus, Santolina and Teucrium but leave rosemary until spring.

Leave seedheads on ornamental grasses and perennials such as achillea over winter to protect the plant and provide food for the birds.

Order plants and bulbs ready to plant in October.

Did you divide your irises yet? There is still time.

Self-seeded plantlets: if they are in the wrong place then why not lift them carefully, without breaking the roots, and pop them into a small pot to grow on and be planted out in spring somewhere you prefer or given away to friends.

Go out into your garden with an exercise book – or whatever you like to write on – and plan your planting scheme around what you see has survived and those – ahem – opportunities (the gardener’s euphemism for the gaps left when something has died). Order the plants right away and get them planted as soon as they arrive. If possible, choose small plants grown in square pots. They find it easier to get their roots down and out of harm’s way before the summer heat arrives.

October is the best time to be planting. The plants will have woken up from their summer dormancy and will be able to get their roots deep down into the soil that has been loosened by the autumn rains.

If you haven’t already done so, give a trim to summer flowering shrubs like Santolina and Teucrium.

Time to plant ‘prepared’ bulbs for indoors: fragrant hyacinths and Paperwhite daffodils can be in bloom by Christmas. Get them started now in a bowl of compost or a glass container filled with gravel and water and leave in a cool dark place until they show their first leaves.
Amaryllis is a spectacular indoor plant but I have never succeeded in getting the bulbs to come back for a second year. They need special treatment so it is best if I just refer you to some expert advice here. And perhaps you might try some spring bulbs in pots to bring indoors: crocus and Iris reticulata should flower in February and will be a welcome pick-me-up during those dark days.

Spring flowering bulbs can be planted outdoors now and through November. Tulips should wait until the weather cools down – even as late as December: put them in too early and they will come into growth and then be burned by the frost or catch the fungal disease ‘tulip fire’.

Travel in your mind through to next spring with a catalogue of seeds. My favourite online is Thompson & Morgan with a vast selection of flowers and vegetables available by post. Nearer to home (and not restricted by Brexit) is Bavicchi in Perugia with their famous range of seeds to order online.

Plant roses: I prefer bare root roses because they seem to get established more quickly and thy don’t bring soil from other gardens which may contain disease. Sprinkle RootGrow (Mycorrhizal Fungi) onto the roots for strong root development. Roses are greedy plants so add bonemeal (which you have to bring from UK) or TopRose granular fertilizer (Compo also sell quite a good one) and manure if you have it, otherwise stallatico.

Plant trees and other shrubs: don’t forget the Rootgrow to get them assimilated with the soil more quickly.

Plant tulips and any other bulbs that you haven’t got around to yet provided the weather is cool.

Bring lemon trees indoors or wrap them with fleece as they cannot withstand frost and prefer temperatures above 4 degrees.

Temperatures are dropping now so make sure that any tender plants are covered with fleece (“tessuto non tessuto”) or bubble-wrap or straw before the frost arrives. But do make sure that these wrapped up plants don’t dry out too much – lemons particularly benefit from the occasional watering and even a little feed.

Leave water out for birds and check regularly that it isn’t frozen.

Bring potted indoor bulbs into the light so that they can be blooming by Christmas.

Plant roses this also month if the weather is not too cold.

Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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