It seems summer finally arrived in July with some very warm days indeed. We were also rather fortunate because, while neighbouring villages experienced a major hailstorm in the middle of the month, which shredded young leaves from trees and left the ground with a strangely autumnal look, our trial ground escaped the battering. Both flowers and vegetables are looking well ahead of our annual open day for the gardening media in August. Brian and his team are working flat-out to ensure everything will be looking as good as it can for the journalists' inspection of our plot. The trial is always a credit to Brian and his dedicated staff. His whole working life has been in horticulture, and we are fortunate to benefit from his huge experience and dedication.
Having said that, the trial ground is not primarily a showpiece or 'shop window' for our plants, but rather it is where we test new varieties to see how they cope with our conditions and check the trueness-to-type of those we already list. Our team of experts take a trials walk at least once a week at this time of year, and their comments and observations are logged for future reference. Nice work if you can get it!
Regular feeding of flowering plants, especially those in hanging baskets and other containers, certainly pays dividends. Never exceed the dose stated by the manufacturer and, if anything, use it at a slightly lower rate than suggested. This will give them a boost which, with regular dead-heading too, will keep plants blooming well into September and perhaps even beyond.
Plants that have dry roots are often more prone to attack from powdery mildew, so keep a look-out for any which start to wilt and give them a good watering or two to help revive them. Ensure rhododendrons and camellias are kept really well watered, as this will aid good flower bud formation next spring. If they become stressed, they may not show the signs now, but they will not flower as they should next year.
If your roses have blackspot on the foliage, clear all fallen leaves from the ground, as this will help to prevent the spread of the problem. Rambling roses can be pruned back once they have finished flowering. Stems which have flowered can be cut down to the base, while fresh green stems can be tied in to the support framework. Hebes and lavender plants can be trimmed back lightly, removing flower stems and about an inch of new growth.
Autumn-flowering colchicums, commonly known as autumn crocus and, rather more saucily, naked ladies, can be planted in August. Their large, goblet-like flowers open before the foliage appears. They do best planted in the sunniest spot in the garden, where they will flower reliably year after year. Colchicums should be planted shallowly, with the tip just below soil level. Summer-flowering Madonna lilies can also be planted this month, giving them plenty of time to develop ahead of next year's display of colour.
Home-grown sweet corn is an absolute treat, especially when eaten within minutes of picking. To check whether a cob is ripe, wait for the silky 'plume' at the top to turn brown and then gently press a kernel with a fingernail. If a milky juice is exuded, the cob is ready for eating. Delicious!
Seed of spring cabbage can be sown in August for a crop of spring greens or hearted cabbages next year. Good old Offenham 2 Flower of Spring still takes some beating, producing tasty, firm conical heads next spring. We must also mention the superior Advantage F1, another British-bred strain with great vigour and disease-resistance. And if you like to be different, sow Spring Hero F1, which will, unusually for spring cabbage, produce spherical rather than conical hearts. It has a good texture and flavour too, so is not a gimmick!
Tomato feeds are not just good for tomatoes. Rich in potassium, they can also be used successfully on chillies and sweet peppers. This will help the plants to produce further flowers and more fruit for picking later in the summer. Many gardeners water their greenhouse tomatoes and peppers with a good drench in the morning; the plants dry out as the day goes on and this reduces the risk of fungal infections, which may develop if they are watered in the evening and are then growing in a humid atmosphere through the night.
The vegetable garden is often at its most productive during August, hopefully with abundant crops of French and runner beans, courgettes, onions ready for lifting and drying, maincrop potatoes and so much more. Pick beans as young as you like, before they start producing seeds and slowing down. Both French and runner beans can be sliced, blanched in boiling water, chilled instantly in cold water, dried and frozen for future use. They will come out of the freezer almost as fresh and delicious as the day they were frozen.
Gently prise onion bulbs out of the ground with a fork, taking care not to damage them. Leave them on the soil for three or four days to 'cure' or the skins to set before storing them in onion nets in a cool, dry, airy and frost-free place for use in the months ahead.
Chives, another member of the Allium family, are one of the most useful and easy to grow of herbs, imparting that lovely, mild onion flavour and beautiful green colour to a host of savoury dishes. They can readily be grown from seed, but mature clumps of the herb can also be split and divided at this time of year, either to increase your own stock or to give away to friends. This process also helps the plants to remain vigorous. Water the clump well before gently lifting it with a fork, dividing into smaller sections and replanting or repotting at the same level as before. Chives can remain productive almost indefinitely. Easy!