A garden is like a big, lovable pet dog. To stay healthy and looking good, it needs water, food, cleaning -- weeding -- and the occasional trim, or prune. Young plants, like puppies, need plenty of attention, but an established garden thrives with simple, regular maintenance tasks. Thankfully, you don't need to take your garden for walks.
Our wonderful British weather supplies your garden's water needs most of the year, but in dry spells and when plants are young, Mother Nature needs a helping hand. How often you need to water your garden depends on the plants growing there and soil type. Vegetables and soft fruits produce their best crops when the soil is constantly moist, but not wet, to a spade's depth. Shrubs and trees may only need watering when there has been no rain for a month. Sandy soils lose water quickly, but heavy clay drains poorly and hold on to water for days or weeks.
• Water your garden in the morning or evening so that plants have time to absorb the water into their roots before the midday heat evaporates it.
• Apply enough water to moisten the soil to a depth of 60 cm (2 feet). Few plant roots grow deeper than this.
• Concentrate the water over the root areas of the plants, not on bare soil, which can encourage weeds.
• Spread mulches over bare soil to shade the ground and conserve soil moisture.
As well as sun and water, plants need food to grow well, and they get their nutrients from the soil and from fertilisers. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the main chemicals fertilisers provide, in granules, powders or liquids, or in organic form, such as well-rotted manure and compost. Some plants, such as roses, vegetables and sweet peas, need high levels of fertiliser; others, such as established shrubs, grow well on moderate amounts.
• Apply a slow-release, granular, general purpose fertiliser to established garden beds in spring and later in the season, according to the instructions on the packet. Water the fertiliser into the soil if the weather is dry.
• Dilute liquid fertilisers according to the instructions, and apply them to plants with high nutrient needs.
• Well-rotted manure and garden compost also feed plants, though the amount of nutrients they contain is difficult to determine. Bloodmeal, bonemeal, chicken manure and other organic fertilisers often display a breakdown of the chemical content on their labels, and these can be used in place of chemical fertilisers.
"Little and often" is the mantra for weeding. A week's weed growth might not seem like much, but if you ignore weeds for too long, your garden soon turns into a jungle. A trowel helps with hand weeding between plants, and a hoe is useful for weeding larger areas, such as between vegetable rows.
• Remove weeds in established beds every week during the growing season. A day after rain is the best time for weeding, when the soil is moist and the weed roots are easy to remove without breaking them. Even a small piece of perennial weed root can grow into a new plant. Dig up weeds with a trowel, removing as many of the roots as possible.
• Hoe weeds in large, open garden areas when the soil is dry, which avoids clogging the hoe blade with wet earth. Cut through the weeds at soil surface, and remove the top growth. Perennial weeds regrow from their roots, but cutting them down every week helps keep them in check.
• Don't put perennial weeds or weed seeds on your compost pile.
Pruning limits the size of vigorous shrubs, and opens out shrubs congested with old, bare wood. Few evergreen shrubs need pruning, but many deciduous shrubs can be pruned before new growth appears in early spring. Spring flowering shrubs usually flower on the previous year's wood, so prune these after flowering.
• Prune the main upright branches on shrubs that are outgrowing their allotted space. Prune the remaining branches to the desired length, just above an outward-facing shoot.
• Prune dead, diseased and crossing branches and stems to open out the centre of a congested shrub and allow light in, which encourages new growth.
• If a branch is too thick to cut with secateurs, use a pruning saw. Cut upward on the lower side of the branch, just outside the raised ridge where the branch joins the trunk; then cut downward to meet the upward cut.
Perennials are plants that return year after year. After three or four years, many perennials lose vigour and flower poorly. Digging up these plants in spring, and splitting the roots into sections before replanting, gives perennials a new lease of life.
When new growth appears in spring, dig up perennials with a garden fork. Divide the root systems into three or four sections by pulling them apart or cutting them with a sharp knife. Plant the sections at their original growing depths, and keep them well watered as they establish over spring.