With April, so far, having been peculiarly dry and bright, I am loathed to second guess how May will behave. Apparently, we’ve just had the driest winter for many years so, if this month proves hotter and drier than normal, it begins to store up problems if the lack of soil moisture becomes a limiting factor on plant growth. It may not be good for our, ‘post-Broadchurch’, tourist industry but I’m hoping for a good spell of rain to redress the balance (sorry).
With clear skies, bringing sun by day, there is always the danger that the night time temperature may drop low enough to produce a ground frost. With that caveat, in the relatively mild southwest, it should soon be safe to plant out tender bedding plants, having grown them to a suitable size under the protection of glass. Keep a ‘duvet’ of horticultural fleece to hand just in case overnight temperatures take a tumble.
If you buy your bedding plants, or tender perennials, from a garden centre then it’s always a good idea to acclimatise them first, by bringing them in at night before final planting out, as the chances are they will have come straight from a nursery’s heated glasshouse, via the garden centre. The shock of a cold night, in the cold ground, will stress them even if it doesn’t completely kill them.
I’ve been experimenting a bit with overwintering ‘one hit’ bedding plants. Last year I grew a white Antirrhinum (‘Snapdragon’) from seed and it produced good, almost woody, plants by the time the summer bedding displays were dismantled in the autumn. I had noticed previously that Snapdragons often survive the winter, albeit somewhat weakened, so it was logical to pot up the best mature specimens and keep them in a cold frame over winter. These plants are currently already trying to flower and will be weeks ahead of any raised anew from seed. Success all round I’d say.
The Cleome, ‘Spider Flowers’, that I grew last year proved to be really good gap-fillers, in the main border, so I’ve sown more but shall deploy them earlier this time as they spent too long suffering, in tiny pots, last year because I didn’t entirely know what to do with them! In fact, this annoyingly dry April has reminded me just how time-consuming it is to keep plants, in pots, well-watered if Dame Mother Nature isn’t doing her job by providing natural overhead irrigation.
The garden I work in is blessed with an ample quantity of garden taps and hose-reels, so there is no part that cannot be reached if watering becomes a necessity. When I used to ‘Design and Maintain’ London gardens, straight after leaving Uni, the first thing we always did, with a new client, was to ensure they got a plumber to install an outside tap, if there wasn’t one already. There is absolutely no point in spending hundreds of pounds on lovely new plants if they end up dying because watering becomes too much of a chore.
It goes without saying that, where at all possible, you should be collecting and storing rainwater, there are loads of products available for this, rather than using good, clean, mains water on plants that, frankly, don’t appreciate the effort that has gone into making drinking water safe for we delicate humans. Also, most of the fancy orchids, along with other exotic plants sold as houseplants, are poisoned by the water that comes out of our taps.
The reason for this was explained to me recently, by an impressive young plant expert from nearby Chideock. Even though I remember it was due to microscopic pores getting clogged, by the stuff in tap water, the precise mechanism of damage went a little over my head. It’s been a long time since I sat in a lecture room learning about active and passive solute movement on a plant cell level!
Back to the macro level; shrubs which flowered in the spring should be pruned this month, now that their flowers have faded. Employ the ‘one in three’ method; prune out the oldest wood / flowered stems so that established shrubs never get the chance to become senile. This maintains the best balance between vigour, flowering capability and youth. Good, old-fashioned, ‘Woolworths shrubs’ (weigela, deutzia, philadelphus etc.) soon become dull great lumps if not kept invigorated by this routine maintenance.
It’s a good maxim to remember, while gardening, that a vigorous plant is a plant more fit and able to fight off pests and diseases. This is why you do all the boring stuff like feeding, weeding, mulching and watering. If the soil is kept healthy then it follows that the plants that rely on it, for their every need, will grow better if that soil is improved and nurtured on a continuous basis. Again, in a similar vein, I feel that I should mount a campaign against soil compaction…
I really do think the most gardens suffer much more than we realise simply because the soil has had all the life squeezed out of it. Spiking and gently lifting the soil, to a fork’s depth, gets air back into the upper root zone and allows water, plus surface applied nutrients, to enter the soil structure.
I was always taught, as a volunteer in National Trust gardens, to keep a border fork handy at all times and to ‘lift out’ EVERY footprint made when walking on cultivated ground. I still endeavour to do this, or at least make a mental note that, having stepped into a border, I must return and aerate the areas that I’ve stepped on. It’s just ‘good horticultural practice’.
As it warms up, ponds and water gardens can be tidied by removing overgrown aquatic plants and re-establishing the balance between the amount of plant cover and the area of open water. Vigorous water plants, irises, reeds, rushes and the like, may need to be decimated, every now and again, to keep them in check. Do not dump these in the wild, where they may become a pest of natural water courses, but chop them up and compost them.
My own, ‘tiny but deep’ (i.e.not child friendly), formal pond has matured nicely to the point where there’s been a frenzy of newt activity going on in recent weeks. I love all the indigenous aquatic life, but it does take a toll on my ‘White Cloud Mountain Minnow’ fry. The minnow population is self-sustaining, in a good year, but new adults must be added, in high summer, if not enough fry survive to maturity. Bigger fish, like the ubiquitous goldfish, would survive without needing to be replenished but they would wipe out the smaller aquatic life. ‘WCMMs’ ensure midge larvae can’t get established but at the expense that they themselves get predated by dragonfly larvae, et al, if not the newts. It’s all part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ I guess.
May is the month that the garden tapestry gets rich and saturated. If you are not privileged enough to have your own pleasure ground, it’s a good time to get hold of the ‘Yellow Book’ (‘National Garden Scheme’ guide to garden openings) and plan to visit gardens open for charity over the summer. You get all the loveliness of a well-tended garden… with none of the back-breaking work 😉