Sue Gibson's School of Gardening

A Year of Handy Hints


Three different types of bluebell

Our dear little English bluebell, like a delicate ballet dancer, bows her head, has deep purple-blue flowers on one side of the stem and yellow stamens.  The Spanish one on the other hand is more like a robust flamenco dancer.  The flower stems are strong, upright, the paler blue flowers grow all around the stem and have green stamens.  The hybrid is more like her Spanish antecedent but with darker flowers that turn mauve with age, slightly bowed head and green stamens.

Enjoy this heavenly sunshine.

Tips for May & June

The end of May to mid-June is the time for doing the Chelsea Chop on perennials.  Cutting back stems by one half to two-thirds extends the flowering times of many plants, results in better blooms and sturdier plants.  For example, asters, phlox, achillea, perovskia and rudbeckia.

Later on in the summer some perennials should be hard pruned after flowering, such as alchemilla, aquilegia, geranium and oriental poppies.

The techniques for pruning perennials will be covered in my pruning course when we are once more up and running.


DON’T DIG BUT MULCH, MULCH, MULCH!   A 2 - 3” thick layer of organic matter spread over all your borders (but not touching the plants) will retain moisture, reduce growth of annual weeds, and improve the soil, thus giving the best possible growing conditions for all your plants throughout the growing season.  The best mulch for improving the soil is well rotted manure but mushroom compost or your own garden compost are also excellent soil improvers, and composted bark chippings can also be used.  It is not only unnecessary but also damaging to dig your borders:  give your soil and your back a rest!  Let the worms do the work for you.

Tips for July and August

Early flowering shrubs should be pruned as soon as possible after flowering has finished, such as Weigela and Philadelphus.  Flowered stems should be removed and, in congested plants, complete stems cut out at ground level. The one in three system works well.

The mulch you put down in late winter/early spring may have broken down on your borders leaving a fertile weed bed! Now is a good time to apply another two-inch thick mulch of well rotted organic matter, such as manure or mushroom compost, on any bare soil.  Provided it is put on to moist soil, it will help retain the moisture, deter annual weeds and strengthen root growth.  Ensure it does not touch plant stems.

August's Fruity Tips

There is still time to thin fruit:  cooking apples:  one every 6 inches;  eaters:  every 4 inches;  pears:  two per bunch;  plums:  one every 3 inches.  It may seem wasteful, but the fruit will grow and ripen better and the quality will be improved.  It also helps to prevent trees from becoming biennial, that is, fruiting heavily one year and taking a rest the following year.

Grape vines can also be pruned:  fruiting stems cut back to two leaves after a bunch of grapes, non-fruiting stems to five leaves.   Only one bunch of grapes should be left per fruiting stem.   The tip of each bunch can also be cut off to encourage better quality fruit.

At the end of this month, or two weeks before harvest, trained fruit trees should be given their annual pruning to reduce leaf growth and encourage ripening of fruit.

My course on Growing and Training Fruit in Small Spaces will take place when we are once more running courses.

Bon appétit!

Tips for Late Summer / Early Autumn

Start haunting the garden centres for reduced price plants.

These bargains can often be rescued to flourish again with a little tlc. If the compost is dry, place the plant in its pot into a bucket of water and leave it until the bubbles stop rising. Remove from the bucket and allow to drain. Remove all the algae growing on the surface of the compost, gently tease out roots which are circling the plant to prevent it becoming root-bound, cut off any overlong roots and plant it into well prepared ground at the same level as in the pot. Cut off any dead, damaged or diseased stems or leaves.

Sow sweet pea seeds now for an earlier display next summer.

Leggy shrubs such as Lavatera, Buddleia and climbing roses can be reduced in height by about one-third to prevent root-rock in the winter. Apart from these plants, DO NOT PRUNE ANY SHRUBS! Autumn is the time for planting, not pruning.

Congested herbaceous perennials such as hardy geraniums can be lifted, divided and replanted in the autumn. The old centre of the plant should be discarded and the remaining sections, with at least three growing shoots each, planted out into well prepared ground, allowing enough space between the plants for next season’s growth.

Tips for February

Sweet Pea seeds should be sown now into tall pots of seed compost, 5-6 seeds per pot, 1 1/2" deep, and placed in a greenhouse or cool conservatory.

Many roses can be pruned from the end of January onwards. Hybrid teas and floribundas should be goblet-shaped with last year’s stem growths cut back to about 6” (15cm) to an outward facing bud. Pruning encourages growth, so vigorous stems should be cut less hard, weak ones harder. Climbers should have their stems trained as horizontally as possible and all shoots from these pruned back to 2 buds.  Rambling roses should not be pruned until after flowering.

The techniques for pruning shrubs and roses will be covered in my pruning course when we are once more running courses.

Enrich the soil around all plants with a 2”/5cm layer of well rotted manure or other organic matter, making sure the manure does not touch the stems.  Doing this will improve the soil's structure and fertility, help to retain moisture during the summer and reduce annual weeds.

Tips for March & April

Snowdrops will grow much better if they are planted “in the green”, that is in growth after flowering, rather than as dry bulbs in the autumn.  Compacted clumps can still be lifted, split and replanted now in groups of about 6 bulbs, with a few inches between each bulb.

There is still time to lift and divide perennials.  Discard the old, woody centre of each clump and replant the young growths from the edges of the plant.  Each clump should have at least 3 young shoots.  Plant at the same level as the parent plant into soil that has been forked over and improved with organic matter, such as garden compost, leaf mould, mushroom compost or well rotted manure.

Put in supports for your perennials now while they are still small.  Once the stems have grown they can easily be broken or damaged.

A quick tip for making your garden look manicured if you are pushed for time. Neaten the edges of your lawns by cutting them with a sharp spade. Bank the soil away from the lawn up into the border, thus forming a shallow trench between lawn and border. This also helps to prevent lawn weeds such as couch grass spreading amongst your plants. Any waste turf is a good activator in the compost heap as it accelerates the rotting process.


I have so enjoyed this course - the highlight of my week since September and have learnt such a lot from you.  Many, many thanks.  Ellen, Bristol

Your boundless enthusiasm and knowledge have been such a joy to me.  You have made such an impression on my life.  Thank you - with love, Patricia, Lackham College, Wiltshire