If plants ruled the world, and it would be a more harmonious place if they did, then March would be a logical point to pick as the first month in the calendar.
The longer days, with correspondingly warming soils, have a cumulative effect on all sorts of natural activity; birds are fighting for the best mates and best nests, weeds are popping up all over the place in their genetically programmed attempt at garden domination, all sorts of pests and diseases are girding their loins to explode out of winter quarters. You get the idea, everything is ‘Marching’ forwards.
Spring bulbs are fully into their stride and are the star performers, even in the tiniest garden. They are so adaptable because a single example, say a hyacinth, preferably in a beautiful antique terracotta pot, takes up no room at all. It can be left in the garden, tucked away for most of the year, then brought into the house where it can be centre stage, while it is in flower, before being retired back to the garden, having removed the fading bloom, to recover its strength for a repeat performance next year.
For guaranteed blooms it’s always best to start with fresh bulbs, ordered and planted up in the autumn, but I find that, if the bulbs are fed with a liquid feed while in leaf, their ‘career’ may last for a few years before they are permanently ‘retired’ to live out their days naturalised in a sunny border.
Although now’s the time when spring is sprung we must not forget that March weather is mercurial. Just because you’ve spent one day blissfully flitting round your garden, with the sun on your back, does not mean that it will be all dry and warm for evermore. It can still be bitterly cold for a good few weeks yet; frosts in May are not impossible (although, thankfully, very rare here in the southwest).
Cold, desiccating, winds will play havoc with early flowering shrubs so any that flower at this time of year are best planted somewhere with a bit of shelter, or against a wall with a favourable aspect. Camellias, if you have a soil on the acid side of neutral, are a case in point. They have the added requirement that they should be shaded from the morning sun because frozen buds will turn brown if they don’t get a chance to thaw, gently, before the sun hits them.
When you’ve finished admiring the good things in your garden, it’s time to get on with a few essential tasks at this critical time of year. The traditional ‘winter’ jobs must be completed this month. These include; planting bare-rooted hedging, rose pruning, mulching of beds and borders, winter digging, wholesale clearance work and anything which involves too much disturbance of nesting sites.
There are some plants that really need to be sown now, if they haven’t been already; sweet peas are chief amongst these but so are any bedding plants that are relatively slow to reach flowering size. I am growing more from seed this year but I find it very difficult to juggle enough warmth, to get the little buggers to germinate, but not so much that they cook! This involves lots of lifting lids on and off propagators, to prevent overheating on sunny days, but then keeping them snugly covered, with regulated bottom heat, overnight and on dull days.
You can cover propagators with single sheets of newspaper, for shading from excessive sun, but this is only really possible before germination takes place. Light levels under glass, and especially under glass and then under the Perspex propagator lid, are already reduced, compared to natural conditions outside. Any additional shading simply results in etiolated (‘stretched’) seedlings, which then succumb to damping off. If you are similarly ‘germinationally challenged’ then waiting for them to become available as bedding plants, in the garden centre, or ordered as ‘plug plants’, sent through the post, is more expensive (but less traumatic).
Raising a few plants from seed is a positive step towards filling your garden with colour later in the year. Any gaps in your borders, which you will have spotted and made a note of while mulching (!), can have a few filler annuals allotted to them now. Similarly, if you are planning to fill a new area with herbaceous perennials, you can dig up and divide older specimens now, using the divisions to extend your garden free of charge. The ‘expansion gaps’, between the perennials, can be plugged with your annuals which will crowd out the weeds and provide an extra fillip to the border.
If dividing and replanting the divisions, or planting out small plants obtained elsewhere, I refer you back to my earlier reference re: ‘mercurial March’. Be ready to protect newly planted areas with horticultural fleece, pinned down with whatever comes to hand. I like to fashion hoops out of galvanised wire for this purpose; push the ‘u’ shaped pin through the fleece and into the ground below. A selection of previously dug up rocks (whole breeze-blocks in the case of my current garden) come in useful too, to weigh down the fleece, wherever wire hoops would not work or are not available.
It’s too early to plant out tender plants, which you’ve been keeping under cover, but potting them into new compost is a good idea if you don’t want to check their growth. Keep a close eye on watering in greenhouse situations as plants don’t want to dry out, as they are starting to make new growth, but a drop in temperature could induce rotting if they are kept too wet—this gardening lark can be a tricky balancing act.
Tuberous plants, I’m thinking especially of dahlias, which have been kept dry, frost-free and dormant over winter can be gently coaxed back into life. Just like chitting seed potatoes, leave them in trays on top of the greenhouse staging and pot them into barely moist compost as soon as they have produced plenty of new shoots. Some of these shoots can be carefully pulled off, leaving at least one strong shoot per tuber, and treated as cuttings to produce new dahlia plants which will, unlike seed raised plants, be exactly the same variety as the tuber they came from.
Before I sign off I must just mention that 2016 marks a decade since the sad demise of the gardening legend Christopher Lloyd. He was born on the 2nd March 1921 and, being someone who only celebrated living, not dying, it is fitting to remember him in the month of his birth. I don’t think that a day goes by when something I’m doing, or seeing, reminds me of him. It’s just as likely to be the way he scrubbed pre-used plastic plant labels (with ‘Vim’ and a wine cork), or treating myself to a cheeky ‘Laphroaig’, as it is anything floral. If ever you ever need a horticultural shot in the arm, then a visit to his home and garden, ‘Great Dixter’, in Sussex, could be just the tonic to set you right again.