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Everybody needs good neighbours

Carole Elgueta

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Carole Elgueta

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Particularly if you’re gardener. Because who else will look after the greenhouse, and water the plants when you go away on holiday? Stuart Logan explains how you can prepare your tubs and containers to make their task a little easier

We’re very lucky to have some good neighbours. You know the sort – the ones you can ask to prowl around your curtilage when you’re spending the weekend with the kids; who will take in that large parcel that Amazon waits to deliver until the very moment you go down the pub; or who water your plants when you’re on holiday.

I won’t reveal the name of my neighbour because he doesn’t like a fuss, but he’s a keen gardener and I know that when we go away the greenhouse seedlings and tomatoes are in good hands, as are the hanging baskets and container- grown displays. On one occasion, when we returned from a particularly soggy holiday on Mull, our neighbour briefed us on how hot and sunny it had been in Berkshire. Nevertheless, I thanked him for all that he had done and said (through slightly gritted teeth) that his job would have been much easier had the weather conditions been reversed. His next remark surprised me.

He said that our tubs and baskets had needed much less watering than his own and he was at a loss to explain it. He had checked the compost and it appeared to be identical to his own, while the plants growing in the containers were equivalent in size and water needs. Did I have a secret technique? Of course I did, but I cannot reveal it here – unless you promise to keep it to yourself. For containers, both my neighbour and I use a mixture of oak halved-barrels, large glazed ceramic pots and wire hanging baskets. So the difference isn’t in the containers themselves, but in the initial preparation of them.

Shh! Here’s the secret. When they were new and in their allotted, sunny positions I filled them just over half full with good weed-free soil from the vegetable plot. If you do this, it is essential that all traces of deep-rooted perennial weeds are removed. The soil should be friable, well endowed with humus and may contain a moderate amount of stones. The effect of this lower stratum of soil is to retain moisture more effectively than garden-centre potting compost.

Having the garden soil in place, it’s then a simple matter of emptying one complete 70-litre bag of potting compost on top and then insinuating in the container annuals and bulbs, arranged in a tasteful and harmonious manner. You can try garden soil in the base of hanging baskets, too, but it’s probably more effective to incorporate a deep saucer on top of the sphagnum moss lining to bottom of the basket.

Although the basket is filled with potting compost as a growing medium, the saucer creates a perched water table or small reservoir of dampness to tide the plants over in dry weather. At the end of the season, when summerbedding is removed, dismantle the hanging basket in the normal way, but dig out the spent potting compost from the containers and add it to the vegetable garden, before replacing with a fresh bag ready for the winter bedding. The head gardener prefers a container to be monochromic (she says that only council schemes mix colours), while I do like to try mixing and matching with similar hues.

Either way, edge the container with trailing Lobelia erinus (light or dark blue), Bacopa ‘Snowflake’ (white), Pelargonium peltatum (white through red) or petunia hybrids (pinks, mauves, blue, red, white and some are scented). In partial shade, try a whole container full of nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), but mix 50 per cent sand into your compost. Begonia tuberhybrida and B. pendula are also suitable in the same lightly-shaded container, or alternatively, mix trailing and upright fuchsias I’m a great fan of marguerite daisies which are generally Argyranthemum frutescens but may masquerade as different species.

Likewise Dimorphotheca aurantiaca is another daisy-flowered subject that suffers from name confusion. Many nurserymen refer to it as Osteospermum or ‘Star of the Veldt’. Either of them is a good subject for the centre of the tub and, if deadheaded regularly, they’ll be floriferous all summer. There are many other plants that can be used in containers and I’m sure that your local garden centre would be happy to advise (see left). However, I’ve had success with all of those mentioned and, because of their drought-tolerance, they don’t make holiday watering too onerous.

However, just in case, here’s a big thank you to good neighbours, wherever you may live.

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