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Sensible answers to the top ‘is it too late to’ gardening questions – The Middle-Sized Garden


February 12th, 2021 Posted In: Gardening know how

Is it too late to prune roses or apple trees? Trim lavender? Or plant spring bulbs? What about mowing the lawn? Is there a time when you should definitely put the mower away?

I had a gardening ‘to-do’ list for this week. Then it snowed. So most of the list went out the window.

A sudden fall of snow means that my too-late gardening jobs are even later still…

Unfortunately, many of the jobs I’d planned were already a little overdue. So often I find that gardening jobs can’t be done at exactly the time suggested in the ‘Jobs to do in your garden this month.’ Sometimes life gets in the way of gardening.

I’ve also had a few queries from readers asking if it’s too late to trim their lavender or cut their hedge, too. So I thought I’d round up the common ‘is it too late to…’ queries in gardening and ask some experts for their answers.

When is it too late to prune my fruit trees?

In the UK, you’re generally advised to prune apple and pear trees in December and January, which is mid-winter. We are now currently in late winter – mid February. The idea is that you should prune fruit trees when they’re dormant.

But I’ve left pruning the crab apple and apple trees this late. And now it’s snowed. Should I wait until the snow thaws? But will that be too late?

Some friends nearby are fruit farmers. They have to prune thousands of apple trees, and make sure they get the best possible yields. ‘We go on pruning fruit trees in the snow,’ they told me. And they hadn’t finished pruning by late winter either. ‘It’s fine to prune apple and crab apple trees up until around the middle of April,’ they told me. ‘And later is better for canker-prone varieties because the sap is rising which helps prevent canker.’

So it’s fine to prune your apple and crab apple trees up to about three months later than it says in the gardening books. And you can prune them when it’s snowing. If you have to.

Note that peach and plum trees should only be pruned in the summer.

Crab apple trees

Even though it’s snowing, it should be fine to prune these crab apple trees beside my front gate. This is Malus hupehensis in spring.

When is it too late to mow the lawn?

If you look outside your window in winter and see that the grass has grown, then mow it. If your grass isn’t growing or is covered in snow, then you don’t need to mow it. It is as simple as that.

Landscape consultant Matt Jackson, who has run major gardens for the National Trust, says that professional gardeners who run large gardens in temperate climates almost always mow throughout the winter. ‘When I started learning how to be a professional gardener, I was told that my mowing season should end in December,’ he says. ‘And it starts again in January.’

Gardeners are often told that October is ‘your last chance’ to give your lawn a final mow. But that only applies to areas where winter days are regularly close to freezing point. If your winter weather is regularly above 5C or 40F, then the grass will grow.

However, Matt advises that you mow with the blades on a higher setting in winter. Don’t cut the grass too short. And don’t mow if the lawn is very wet, because the weight of the mower may churn up the grass and give you bald patches.

Should you mow the grass in winter?

Our lawn in December. You can see that the grass needs mowing.

And if you mow throughout the year, then you’ll need a reminder to service the mower. The great advantage of a ‘put your mower away’ in a gardening ‘to-do’ list is that you will remember to service it when you get it out again.

When is it too late to cut my lavender back?

We trim our big lavender bushes in late summer – around August.

Simon Charlesworth of Downderry Lavender lavender growers, holds National Collections of both lavender and rosemary. ‘The best time to trim lavender is immediately after flowering as the flowers fade away,’ he says. For us, here in South East England, that’s August. I’ve cut my lavender back in September, too, and it’s been fine.

But if you miss that late summer slot, Simon recommends you wait until spring. ‘The next best time is when the sap is rising, which could be late March/early April. Prune back about one third into the foliage of the plant.’

When to cut back lavender

Our lavender in high summer. It should be cut back once the flowers have faded, but if you get to winter without cutting it back, wait until spring.

As for planting lavender, Downderry Lavender dispatch their plants to buyers in mid-to-late April, in the spring. ‘There is no advantage to planting lavenders any earlier.’

Is it too late to plant spring bulbs?

If you’re a punctual gardener, you’ll be planting your daffodils and most other spring bulbs in September and October. And you’ll plant tulips in November and December.

But, if like me, you find a bag of bulbs sitting in the potting shed in January, what do you do? Too late to plant?

One of Britain’s best tulip gardens is Ulting Wick in Essex, open for the National Garden Scheme and for groups by private appointment. The garden’s owner Philippa Burrough and head gardener Lou Nicholls plant 1,400 tulips in January. ‘As long as they’re in by the end of January, that’s fine by us,’ says Philippa.

Lou says that you’re fine to plant tulips once there has been a ground frost. ‘If you’re planting them late, make sure they’re the right way up, so they don’t have to spend time and energy righting themselves. And check that the bulbs are still firm, not mouldy or shrunken and dry.’

When is it too late to plant spring bulbs

Yes, you can plant spring bulbs in January, but daffodils may be shorter or may not flower for as long.

Last year, I also planted some daffodils in January. Many came up, although it wasn’t quite as good a display. Gardening Which, who do much larger tests and trials than I ever could, did a trial. They concluded that daffodils could be planted in January although they were likely to be shorter and not to flower for as long.

If the ground is frozen, plant the bulbs in containers.

Is it too late to prune my roses?

Late winter is the best time to prune roses. That’s late February/early March here in South East England.

Rose growers Peter Beales have a ‘worry-free’ guide to pruning roses here. Although, ideally, you should prune different roses differently, you may not even know what kind of a rose you have. Broadly speaking, take out dead stems or stems that cross and touch other stems. Then take about between a third and a half of the height of the rose. Most roses will be fine with that, and as you get to know your rose better, you can finesse your rose pruning technique.

There have been several trials on pruning roses, which have compared trimming the roses with hedge trimmers with careful pruning with secateurs. The conclusion is always that you can trim your roses with a hedge trimmer, and they’ll look fine. You’ll probably get a better shape with secateurs, but it’s not critical.

I did my own trial with a row of Little Pet roses. I pruned half the row with shears, just clipping straight across. I spent time carefully pruning the other half with secateurs. The half with secateurs bloomed earlier, but the half cut with shears was only a few weeks behind. Both flowered for a similar length of time.

when to prune roses

If you know what kind of rose you have, look up the correct pruning advice. But if you don’t know, or you’ve forgotten, most shrub roses will be fine if you reduce them by between a third and a half some time in late winter.

If you do know what kind of rose you have, you can be a perfect gardener by pruning it exactly right. There are more rose growing tips here.

Doing it right gets better results…

If you know what variety of plant you have, and you follow the instructions for its care exactly, then you are most likely to get the best results. Those gardening ‘to-do’ lists are built on years of gardening experience.

But plants want to grow and flower, so even if you get it wrong or do something at the wrong time, your garden can still look beautiful.

It’s also worth remembering that even temperate gardeners live in different weather zones. If you’re in the North of Scotland or New England, the time frame of your gardening to-do list is not going to be the same as a gardening to-do list in Cornwall. See this post on winter gardening to find out how much difference this makes to the way you garden.

In the end, you’ll find out what works for you. There’s a saying ‘Gardeners learn by trowel and error.’ I shall put that on a mug, I think.

Shop my favourite gardening books, tools and products…

I’m often asked for recommendations so I have a list of my favourite gardening books, tools and products on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Links to Amazon are affiliate which means I may get a fee if you buy but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. And I only list things I use myself or which have been recommended by reliable fellow garden-lovers.

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