Gardening spotlight: Janette Merilion

Recently we were fortunate enough to speak with Janette Merilion, a highly experienced horticultural speaker and gardening specialist. Janette runs her own garden design business as well as finding time to lecture in horticulture and speak to groups about a variety of gardening topics. We asked her about the following topics to get some more insight into the gardening world.

Preparing the garden for winter

One of the things that I do not do is make the garden too tidy. Fallen leaves and dying foliage provide cover for the soil during winter and also help to preserve moisture - this in turn proves to be helpful for foraging birds and other animals. It brings the birds into the garden where they can scramble around and find worms hiding beneath the foliage along with other insects.
I do, however, remove any leaves from lawns as they will damage the grass and I usually store these in a bag with holes in to rot down and become a good mulch to put amongst the borders later on.

I also provide lots of bird feeders - fat balls (in feeders rather than nets -because birds can often damage their feet if eating fat balls through nets). Seeds such as Niger seeds encourages goldfinches and others into the garden while peanuts bring in all varieties of tits. I generally use a No Grow mixed seed for my main feeders to save on plants growing beneath. Not all birds will eat from feeders so I also provide food on the ground - each day I give them 5 slices of wholemeal bread, mealworms that have been pre-soaked to soften them, some No Grow seeds, some suet and some sultanas - this usually goes in around 10 minutes of putting it out. It is so important to feed the birds in winter as they will remove pests such as snails and other pests throughout the year. Water is so important for them too - for bathing and drinking - I have several shallow bowls around the garden which I keep topped up and defrosted apart from my pond and bird bath. So entertaining when a mass of blackbirds decides to take a bath to keep their feathers in pristine condition.

When it comes to plants - November through until March is a good time for planting shrubs and trees and you can save money by buying them bare root. They get a better start in life with getting their roots well down before foliage emerges. It is also a good time to plant a hedge to provide cover for wildlife, nesting places and fruit such as hips and haws on roses and hawthorn (Crateagus), I've given the Latin for the latter because in the UK there are over 48 common names given to this plant such as May, Quickthorn, Bread and Cheese etc.

Any leftover annuals are usually looking pretty sorry for themselves and are therefore best removed and composted. But some plants can be preserved by moving them to the greenhouse, like Pelargoniums (Geraniums) and Fuchsias. You do need to cut down on the watering, though, as fleshy leaves are more prone to frost damage in an unheated greenhouse.

Other plants that are not frost hardy I wrap in fleece, you can buy rolls of it or various size bags that will fit over plants. I do not generally use plastic wraps as although they protect from frost, they often increase the moisture content which can then damage the plant more.

I plant things that are not only going to give me winter colour but also scent - when I go to collect my coal and wood, I walk past a border that contains Buddleia Auriculata, Chimonanthus Praecox (Winter Sweet), Sarcococca (Christmas Box) and Hamamaelis (Witch Hazel) all giving wonderful fragrance and flowers in mid-winter. As for climbers - I grow Clematis 'Freckles' - supposedly flowering in winter but I find my one flowers from July to March - it needs a west or south facing wall, is evergreen and has a slight perfume of citrus making it a joy for such a long period.

Early winter is a good time for splitting perennials that have outgrown their space - sometimes with a bare middle - and these can be replanted elsewhere, preferably in groups of 3's, 5's, and 7's to create a dramatic impact when they are in flower.

Small Space Gardening/City Gardening

Usually intimate and inward looking and necessary to use restraint. Keep it simple as lots of bits and pieces - bird baths, sundials and statues can make the garden look cluttered and not easy on the eye.

Containers are useful and to save on watering use a product such as Swell Gel which retains water; any terracotta pots should be lined with plastic to save on evaporation.

Different heights are essential particularly in a fenced or walled garden using vertical planting wherever possible and taking into account the surrounding landscape - if a neighbour has a lime coloured tree then a burgundy leaved plant in your garden would complement it.

A few evergreens such as Box Balls will add interest all through the year and give some structure to the garden but keep it simple at the same time.

In a small garden lawns often have to be avoided to provide sitting areas to eat out. When it comes to eating out 10 sq. metres is usually needed for a table and chairs so that you can easily manoeuvre around it and not push chairs back into borders when you have finished eating and just want to relax. Pathways are best just under 1 metre wide for easy movement.

But don't have everything too small - it just looks twee - a sizeable plant will give more drama to a garden and create some mystery of what is beyond.

Having said that check on eventual spread – the average shrub gets 1.8 metres wide and so will not be happy in a border just 60cm wide. Most people seem to check on height and forget about the spread. You probably think it doesn't matter because you can prune it back but pruning is all about making a plant grow, so by pruning you are eventually making yourself more work. One branch cut makes 2 branches and so it goes on 1 branch = 2, 2 branches = 4, etc. etc.

Using mirrors in the garden can create more light and make the garden look larger, but so can the positioning of the beds - a triangular bed on the left at the start of the garden, a triangular bed in the middle of the right-hand side half way down the garden and one on the left at the end of the garden will lead the eyes back and forth and make the garden look larger. Just the same as a false perspective - a pathway wider at the front than the rear will give the impression that the garden is longer than it really is. Use of plants can also fool the eye with broad large leaves at the front and smaller leaved plants at the rear will make the beds look larger. Hot colours (Red, Orange and Yellow) are what we call advancing colours and will make a garden seem smaller - muted shades will make the garden seem larger.

Vertical planting in a small garden is so important either on a wall or fence or perhaps grown through a shrub like a forsythia, which is glorious in the Spring but boring the rest of the year, and a Clematis Viticella will flower from May until November and make it more interesting

Benefits of Gardening

Fresh air, exercise and also keeping the brain active remembering the names of all of the plants!
Gardeners are known to live longer lives - perhaps because there is always something to look forward to and because the garden is ever changing.
It encourages wildlife which is always a joy to watch and you can always grow your own food even multi-coloured lettuce looks good planted amongst herbaceous perennials.

Permaculture

I prefer to call this Common Sense gardening - many people already practise it but don't know they are doing it. It is all about earth care - people care and fair shares.

Digging is not only hard work but it also damages the soil structure - better left to the worms to do the work for you. Treading on the soil compacts the earth and stops the air getting to it and the water from passing through, so better to have beds that are accessible without walking on them.
Working with nature - in nature plants grow in layers and cover the soil, so gardens need the same treatment with trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs beneath to cover the soil.

It is also good for pest control - covering the ground means that worms, frogs and insects can hide while birds and other wildlife have somewhere to forage. Nectar-bearing plants brings in the bees and the butterflies as well as hoverflies, ladybirds and lacewings so chemicals are not needed in fact they kill the good as well as the bad.

Growing such things as Broad beans which are then cut down and put back into the soil provides nitrogen in the soil and is preferable to removing.

Companion planting like marigolds with tomatoes keeps away the aphids.
And perhaps the most important thing about growing your own fruit and vegetables is that you know how it has been grown and when you have excesses you can share them with friends and family.

Common Gardening Myths and Mistakes

Drought-tolerant plants do not need water - mistake. In the first year, plants do need regular watering and after that if it is dry a monthly soaking is good.

Adding sand to clay to improve - Mistake - just makes a real mess and doesn't work. To break up clay compost, farmyard manure and grit should be added on a regular basis which will eventually make the soil more workable and create better drainage.

The spread of plants - most people worry about the height and don't take into account the spread – Mistake – the spread is just as important; people think they can prune things back but this just encourages growth.

All trees need staking - Myth. This can weaken the tree by not allowing it to sway and build up strength. If on a windy site, trees need staking low down at an angle into the prevailing wind to stop it rocking and causing root disturbance. This allows strength to build up on the upper part of the plant - all stakes should be removed after a year or 18 months.

Sowing too many seeds - Mistake. You end up with too many tomato seedlings with not enough family or friends to share out.

Double digging – Mistake – this actually harms the soil - perhaps dig it over in the beginning but not after that to retain air, moisture and structure.

Bird boxes positioned facing south or west – Mistake – the fledgelings will roast in the box and so you will not achieve what you desire.

Painting over wounds on pruned trees – Mistake – often seals in disease and, therefore, does more harm than good.

Over feeding stressed plants – Mistake – usually stress is caused by compacted soil, heat or plants being in the wrong aspect.

Gravel boards on fences – Mistake – hedgehogs who are friends to the gardener will not survive - they need around 6 gardens to sustain them. Gravel boards prevent movement between gardens so leave a small hole and talk to your neighbours - some say that hedgehogs will become extinct because of this.

Should children be involved in gardening?

Most definitely yes - it introduces them to fruit and vegetables so they know how they are produced.
They get a real kick eating things they have grown or just watching them grow. Sunflowers for height are quick and so are radishes for eating – it is best to give children something they can see quickly than something that could take a long time to develop.

They get fresh air, exercise and by giving them a small plot or a container to grow things in they develop a liking for it.

They also acquire some form of wildlife appreciation, such as birds, bees, frogs (frog spawn) and other things like hedgehogs.

Gardening will also help to develop all the senses, for example:

  • Sound – Rattling Poppy seed heads, rustling grasses
  • Sight - Colour and shapes
  • Taste - fruit and vegetables
  • Scent - fragrance throughout the year some lovely and some horrid
  • Touch - texture like in lambs ears (soft) grasses, even prickly things like holly to avoid

Take a look at some of our other expert gardening guides