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Smell the honey

What can be more alluring than the scent of honeysuckle wafting round your garden after a summer shower? A drop of rain always seems to make the scent more pronounced. Not reason enough in itself to wish for rain, of course – we had plenty of that last year.

Now, many plants have the reputation of being difficult to grow, although this is often more attributable to myth than fact. But even if the colour of your fingers is anything but green, you simply cannot go wrong with honeysuckle. It is so tolerant and undemanding, it could give lessons to this human world.

It will tolerate full sun, partial shade, or even (some varieties) full shade. Any soil type will do. It will put up with being too dry, and also being too wet, although not waterlogged. It will survive with no pruning. It will even survive with no feeding.

Let’s not get carried away. It will survive in neglect, unlike so many other plants which will give up the ghost. But that’s not to say it likes to be ignored. And a little attention will produce a stronger, healthier plant, and consequently more flowers – which is what it’s all about, after all.

So how can we help our new honeysuckle?

It will be happier in a site which tends to be drier rather than wetter. Plenty of organic matter at planting time will give it a boost (shrub planting compost, your own garden compost, or good old FYM). A handful of bonemeal in the planting hole will help establishment. Thereafter, feed annually with a balanced fertiliser such as Growmore, and for better flowering, give it an occasional dose of tomato food during the flowering season.

Best location for our honeysuckle? Well, it’s a climber, obviously, but not a self-supporting one like ivy. Although the stems will twine around anything in its path, to enable it to hold on, it needs tying in to start with. It can be grown up a wall, on trellis. It is ideal growing up and over a garden arch or pergola. Consider, too, planting it at the base of a mature tree, and letting it climb up through the branches. If you have a large area of shrubs, honeysuckle can be planted among them, without support, and it will spread over the ground through the other plants.

Honeysuckles are vigorous growers. In fact, the word rampant springs to mind. So regular pruning is necessary, if for no other reason than to keep the plant within its allotted space. I had the task this autumn of cutting back a honeysuckle whose owners decided it was in need of a prune, when it appeared in the kitchen. Yes, the kitchen. Through a joint in the ceiling. It had grown up the wall outside, under the eaves, into the roofspace, and was now coming through the kitchen ceiling! I would suggest you don’t wait that long to give it a trim.

You won’t kill honeysuckle, no matter how hard you cut it back. And if you know nothing about pruning, then simply cut it back to within the space you want it to occupy, every autumn. The only problem with this is that after a few years, all the flowers and foliage will be at the top of the plant, and the lower stems will be bare. To overcome this, cut a few shoots back to within a few inches of the ground every year. New growth will come from the dormant buds beneath your cut, and will give you young growth further down the plant.

And if, like me, you are always on the lookout for plants for free, honeysuckle is easy to propagate. Take hardwood cuttings any time from October to March. That is, sections of stem about pencil thickness, with 3 or 4 joints (nodes). Cut cleanly just below, and just above, a node. Make a slit trench somewhere in the garden, preferably in shade. A slit trench simply means shove a spade in to its full depth, and shove it back and forth, to produce a V-shaped trench. Fill the slit with sharp sand, or even spent compost will do. Insert the cuttings to about two-thirds of their length, and firm the slit closed with your foot. That’s it. Enjoy your garden for the summer. Come back to your cuttings in autumn, lift them carefully, and I’ll bet most will have roots. You can plant them straight out in the garden at this stage, but they may struggle. Better to pot them up in a good potting compost, and grow them on for another season. A sheltered spot outside is fine – a greenhouse is too warm. But don’t forget to water them. By the following autumn you will have plants as good as (or maybe better than) you would buy at the Garden Centre.

And finally, varieties. Personally, I like the native honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum. Or if you’d rather have something with a little more vigour, or a slightly longer flowering period, the varieties Belgica or Serotina are worth a try. They are both bred from the native. For something a little different, there is an evergreen honeysuckle, Lonicera henryii. It may not be as readily available, but is worth seeking out.

So that’s all the work done. Sit back, wait for the summer sunshine, watch the bees feasting on the nectar in your honeysuckle flowers, and smell the honey!

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