Gardening spotlight: Phil McCann

Recently we were lucky enough to interview Phil McCann. Having worked on BBC's Gardeners' World and previously working as a horticultural consultant for the Royal Horticultural society Phil is truly an expert in his field.

Our gardeners spotlight gives us a chance to gain expert advice and pass it on. The beauty of gardening is that there is always something new to learn. So whether you're a budding beginner or a well-seasoned gardener, Phil's commentary around the following topics is bound to provide you with some great tips and insights into keeping your garden.

Protecting From Frost Damage / How to Winterize Your Garden

It's that time of year – the first frosts, plants being blackened and the furrowed brows of greenhouse owners around the country. It is, however, a great time. You can clearly see the structure of the garden and a bit of cold will kill off some pests and diseases. But your treasured tender plants need help. Plants like tender fuchsias, solenostemons and begonias all need the protection of a cool greenhouse or a frost free, light shed. Take them under cover before the frosts. After the first frost or two your dahlias will be looking sad. Blackened stems mean the plant has died leaving the tuber, full of next year’s energy store, in the soil. You can, in milder areas on free draining soil, leave them in the soil. For most it is safer to lift the tubers, knock off the big clods of soil attached and dry them in trays of compost. You don't need to water them. Just leave them until spring (but do check for signs of rotting and cut them out if it appears) and replant in the soil when the frosts have finished.

Many gardens have pots and containers and they too can suffer in the cold. Clay pots are sometimes labelled as frost proof. Others are not and can flake even after one year. Lift them under cover, put them against a wall for added protection if they are vulnerable. However, larger pots or ones filled with hardy plants are heavy and have to stay outside. These pots can be wrapped in bubble wrap or Hessian for protection. Large empty pots can be lined with plastic (an old compost bag is ideal) and then planted up with winter plants.

If your pots are left outdoors make sure you raise them off the ground using broken bricks or tailor made pot feet. This allows water to drain from the pots reducing the problems of water logging and frost damage.

Small Space Gardening / City Gardening

I reckon anything can be grown in a pot – so however small your own space is there's no excuse not to garden. In cities and urban areas, it is also vital to wildlife – either the big stuff like birds enjoying the seeds or bugs on your plants, or the little things like bacteria and fungi working away in the soil. If growing in containers keep a close eye on watering. Once leaves form a large canopy any rain will not reach the compost surface. I'm just back from visiting New York and, in particular, the High Line – a superb example of small space gardening. OK, it's two miles long but only a few metres wide and a metre or so deep. It's the old railway running through the Meatpacking area and had run to ruin. It's now.....breath-taking. Scale it down for your patch. Or just shove a hanging basket on the wall outside your front door, grow some herbs and tomatoes and grow your own veg.

Companion Planting

Companion planting is clever. The idea is that you grow a couple of different types of plants together to help stave off an attack from pests and diseases. For example, grow marigolds near your tomatoes and whitefly, a perennial pest of toms, will be put off by the smell. Here's a good one – grow alternate rows of carrots and onions. The smell of the carrots puts off onion fly and the smell of the onion puts off carrot fly! And lavender, along with other plants, actually exude chemicals from their roots to prevent weeds growing (the 'idea' is that it reduces competition in the soil so the lavender can grow away strongly. Plant garlic near your roses if blackfly is a problem. All clever stuff – and all natural!

Permaculture Projects

Permaculture underpins everything we do in gardening – or should do. Derived from two words, permanent and agriculture, permaculture is an all-encompassing word for growing with nature, copying nature and utilising nature for the benefit of all. A nice definition! Small scale things such as recycling as much as we can have to make sense from an environmental and economical viewpoint. Making your own compost from your garden and home waste reduces landfill, increases the fertility of your soil which in turn improves your fruit, veg and flowers. Harnessing solar and wind energy in our plots can help ….there's a big debate there to be had! So, you’re probably not going to go the whole hog and be 100% self-sufficient for the benefit of all, but you can make smaller differences to the way you garden.

Common Gardening Myths & Mistakes

Pruning is scary. Lots of gardeners are terrified of taking up the secateurs and getting stuck into a non-production apple tree. They shouldn't be. It's a myth you can kill by pruning. The worse you can do is delay flowering by a year ( I savaged three apple trees in my own garden, stood back and was shocked at how they looked. I missed flowers the following spring (and, therefore, no apples) but the year after that they were magnificent. Same thing goes for early summer flowering plants. Cut them hard in spring and chances are you are cutting off the flowers! Prune after flowering and the new wood produces next year’s buds.

There are of course debatable myths on gardening – talking to your plants increases their growth.....we breathe out carbon dioxide and plants take it in so maybe there is truth in that. Gently stroking over the tops of seedlings improves growth – there is evidence to suggest the stems are strengthened and, therefore, grow more strongly. I could go on – burying banana skins under shrubs makes them (the plants!) grow well- potassium in the skins does get released as a natural fertiliser.
The best thing to do with a myth is if it isn't dangerous, give it a go and find out yourself. There is nothing more satisfying than being able to say ' it works for me' – and keeping the myth alive!

Should Children be Involved in Gardening and why?

It's vital for children and all of us that they are involved in gardening. Think of the exercise, the education, the chance to get dirty without being told off and then the healthy veg at the end of it all. No wonder it is part of the national curriculum! However, don't think that asking your five-year-old to help weed for an hour is going to encourage them onto a pathway of horticulture. It won't. Fence off a part of the garden that belongs to them. Buy a playhouse so they can let their imaginations run riot. Encourage them to grow sunflowers (bigger and brassier the better), sow radish seeds for crops in weeks and carrots in pots – the finger length ones or golf ball shaped for fresh from the garden tastings. And don't shout if they get muddy hand prints on the furniture – blame the gardener in you!

Gardening on a Budget

Gardening can be expensive but it doesn't have to be. There are ways to save money when gardening on a budget that will keep your garden looking great and your bank balance healthier. Little things like pots and labels can cost a few quid. Use egg shells to grow small seedlings and label them up using cut strips of empty plastic milk containers. Growing fruit and veg is a great way to save cash but not if the birds (pigeons in particular!) ravage the whole lot. Shop bought frames are costly so construct your own using mesh (it will cost something) and old tennis balls as the joints for the frame. Ask down your local tennis club for non-bouncy balls.

Compost heaps – the heartbeat of the garden, need to be fed! Don't just throw in tonnes of grass clippings and expect to get out crumbly compost. Go for a 50:50 mix of green matter and brown – green is obvious (grass cuttings, leaves) and brown is torn up newspapers and strips of cardboard boxes you get for free down at the supermarket. Plant the right plant in the right place from the start to prevent problems later and plant certain plants together to ward off pest attacks. And right at the beginning of your gardening experience buy seeds and share them (share the cost) with neighbours. And then collect your own seeds wherever you can to save for the future.

How to Encourage Community Gardening

Gardening can be solitary – the hours spent on your hands and knees weeding what is in front of your face – but also a community act. Every garden we help create is for someone else as well – front gardens are admired, allotments have close neighbours and back gardens are often overlooked. Get to know your neighbours and their gardens and suddenly you will have a source of local knowledge, someone to get help from when your mower breaks down and somewhere to offload the next tonne of runner beans in the height of the season. Public spaces within a community bring people together – take a look at the RHS Britain in Bloom studies to see the differences that can be made by us all. Join a community scheme, even if only to get on the hanging basket watering rota, and you will be joining a much wider community.

Take a look at more of our gardening guides