I recently caught up with Martyn Cox, probably Southsea’s best-known gardening expert, to ask his advice on how to make the most of our gardens and outside spaces this spring. A prolific writer and broadcaster, Martyn was named Garden Journalist of the Year last November. Author of 11 books, he is also the gardening columnist for the Mail on Sunday, and has worked and written for many top gardening publications such as BBC Gardener’s World.
You may have heard Martyn on radio or TV too – he speaks widely on local radio, has appeared on Channel 4’s Superscrimpers, and has been the gardening expert for shopping channels QVC and TJC. Martyn lives in Southsea, sharing his garden with his family and two dogs.
First of all, what brought you to Southsea?
It was a combination of things really. I realised I didn’t actually need to be in London any more for my work, and we wanted more space as a young family. We happened to come to Southsea for a family event, had a look around and loved the seaside! We made the move here in 2012.
In my spare time, I enjoy playing competitive tennis, going to gigs (I’m a big music fan and Portsmouth is brilliant for that!) and walking our two dogs along the beach.
A hidden gem I love exploring is Milton Common, with its birds of prey such as kestrels and hawks and its wildflowers and orchids. It’s not something I expected to find in a city!
How can we get the best from our (usually small!) outside spaces in Southsea?
The most important thing is to make the most of what you’ve got! It doesn’t matter how small your space is, you can always do something with it. Using outside containers, window boxes and window sills indoors, you can always bring plants into your space even if it’s a second-floor flat.
With our relatively sunny climate and dry sandy soil, Mediterranean plants grow surprisingly well here, such as lavender, salvia, convolvulus cneorum (silverbush), and phlomis (Jerusalem sage).
Or how about a palm tree? The Chusan palm from China is hard as nails, does incredibly well here and is readily available. The chamaerops (fan palm) is another great option. Or consider the Torbay “palm” or cordyline which is a little more vulnerable but very fast-growing.
Of course, you can’t escape the wind here in Southsea, so you need plants which can cope with the salty air and won’t get ripped to shreds! For example, Japanese acers look lovely but don’t do well in wind – if you buy one you’ll need to make sure it has shelter and semi-shade. It’s a similar story with laurel, which is popular for hedges.
What about those of us who have north-facing gardens?
Actually, my own garden is both small and north-facing! I’m mad for exotic plants and have two lovely tree ferns in a sheltered spot. I even have a mini banana “grove” with nine stems in my garden. It’s a chore to protect it in the winter but I love it!
For something easy, consider heucheras which love the shade. Their attractive evergreen foliage comes in lots of different colours, from red and green to brown and black (and they flower in summer too). Hostas are brilliant too and come in various green, yellow, white and variegated shades.
Given the cost of living crisis and supply issues, what about growing our own fresh produce?
Cucumbers, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, peppers and chillies can all be grown here. Now is the perfect time to be sowing seeds, using windowsills and conservatories to propagate the plants before moving them outdoors around mid-May. And if you don’t have the patience to start them from seed, you can always buy them as plants instead.
Or how about some mixed salad leaves? Instead of letting your £1 bags of lettuce go mouldy in the fridge, you can grow your own leaves from seed and pick them when you want. They’ll be ready in as little as 30 days, and you can harvest them for 3-4 weeks and sow more for a full summer’s supply.
One thing I really like about growing your own from seed is that you have a much greater choice of varieties compared with what you’ll find in the supermarkets – you can grow some really wild and wacky ones!
Strawberries are also dead easy, using bare-root runners or plug plants – they love sunshine and are perfect for baskets too. But if you don’t have too much sun, all is not lost – you can always try alpine strawberries that like shade instead.
And what herbs are easy to grow?
Right now is the perfect time to be sowing herb seeds. Basil is a ‘must grow’ for me, and coriander, parsley and chives are also straightforward. For something different, you could try Vietnamese coriander which is more pungent and lemony.
There are some great herbs that you grow from plants too. I like thyme, mint (but keep this one in a pot to avoid it going crazy!) sage and rosemary.
How did your latest book come about, and what can we learn from it?
During lockdown, a lot of people were spending more time in the garden and growing their own for the first time. So I came up with the idea of writing a new, practical book that basically helps you understand what you should be doing in your garden, and when.
I called it The Gardener’s Yearbook and it sets out everything month-by-month, with lots of inspiration, interesting facts and advice – such as info on how to grow fruit and veg and a chart of when to sow different things throughout the year.
The format was also inspired by an old Reader’s Digest book which helped my mum and dad look after their first garden when they got married. I love it, but it’s now full of out of date info and advice on using nasty chemicals and how to do crazy paving! So it’s a kind of an update to that too.
Of the 11 books I’ve written so far, this is the one I’m most proud of. It’s written with the beginner in mind, but everyone can get something from it. It’s got a unique feel with beautiful illustrations throughout – and there’s a lot of fun in it too as I’m a firm believer that gardening should be fun and enjoyable!
The Gardener’s Yearbook is widely available in bookshops and online, for example from Amazon at £9.99 at the time of writing.
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