home-grown tomatoes on the vine

How to cheat at gardening

I’ve been a professional gardener for 25 years, and during that time I’ve picked up plenty of tips, tricks and short cuts that help save me time, money or allow me get the best out of my garden. Here are ten of my favourite gardening hacks that I think every gardener should know.

Filling gaps in beds

Before moving to the south coast I used to live in London, where I regularly opened my small plot for the National Gardens Scheme. I’d spend months preparing my plot for the big day only to be mortified to find that a few hours before opening that there were some unsightly gaps in my beds. Rather than let anyone see my less than perfect displays I would plug the gaps by filling them with a few carefully placed plants in pots. It’s a great trick that anyone can use to fill holes and give planting schemes a fuller look. 

Free plant supports

Don’t shred or burn prunings from trees and shrubs. Twiggy sticks will come in useful as supports for perennials that tend to flop under the weight of their own flowers in summer. Push them into the ground around clumps in early spring and the emerging stems will cling or rest against them as they head upwards. 

Grow the best tomatoes

Every year I grow three few different varieties of tomato in a growing bag. Unfortunately there’s not a great depth of compost in bags, resulting in plants needing frequently watering as their roots take up the available space. My way to provide plants with a longer root run is to cut off the bottoms of three 5-litre pots and then ‘screw’ them into the growing bag before filling with compost. An added bonus is the pots make it easier to water the plants. 

Mulch, mulch, mulch

Mulching is a simple job that will make a big difference to you and your garden. Apart from improving the structure of soil and encouraging beneficial organisms, it will save you time carrying out weeding and watering, because a layer of garden compost, composted bark or leafmould will prevent weed seeds germinating and locks moisture into the ground. To apply, spread a 5-7.5cm (2-3in) layer of your chosen mulch over the ground and rake level. Leave a gap around plants as the material can cause stems to soften, leading to rotting. 

Martyn Cox laying down mulch in border
Save time on weeding and watering by spreading a layer of mulch around your plants. Image: Louis Cox

Hanging baskets

Don’t despair if you’re struggling to get hold of bags of sphagnum moss to line the inside of a traditional wire hanging basket. Many lawns have a shaded or damp spot, where moss grows naturally. Collect it by scratching out with a spring tine rake. As a bonus, you’ll be improving the quality of your lawn at the same time.

Save compost 

There’s a great way to save compost when planting up large containers. For example, if you want to display a compact plant in a tall, tapering pot, it’s unlikely that the roots will reach the bottom, so there’s no need to fill it to the top with compost. Instead, upturn a smaller plant pot and place it in the base before adding compost – the internal pot will improve drainage, lighten the container and help save compost. Similarly, it you are planting bedding in a half barrel, place chunks of polystyrene packaging on the bottom to reduce the compost required. 

Easy weeding

In my opinion, the best way to keep on top of weeds is not to spend hours down on your hands and knees when the things are choking your beds and borders, but to tug them out little and often. Spend five minutes a week hoicking them out while they are still seedlings and you’ll never be faced with an infestation. If you have an allotment or large veg beds, whizz around with a hoe on a hot day and leave the decapitated weeds to wither on the surface. Aim to despatch weeds before they flower to prevent them setting seed and intensifying the problem.

Hand weeding in garden

Keep container plants snug

The roots of trees, shrubs and perennials in containers are vulnerable during a cold snap, as frost can penetrate the sides and kill roots. In order to keep the roots of new specimens nice and snug, line the inside of pots with a piece of bubble wrap when potting up this spring – make sure you puncture a few holes in the base to allow water to drain away and cut off surplus at the top so the material doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

Make containers work hard

If you’ve got a small garden make the most of large containers that house a single plant. These often have an expanse of visible compost at the base, so make the pot work really hard by under planting the permanent resident with bedding plants. This is a clever way of making the most of your space, as you might be able to squeeze five or six plants on the surface of 30cm (12in) pot planted with a tree.

Martyn Cox painting garden fence
Image: Louis Cox

Paint your fences

Fences left in their natural state have their place but painting one will transform your garden instantly – a coloured backdrop makes the perfect foil for plant displays and provides interest even if you haven’t used them to support climbers. Unless you have a Mediterranean style courtyard, steer clear of light, bright shades and go for mossy greens or black – darker shades are recessive, meaning fences won’t stand out like a beacon. 

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