Gardening is a funny mix of certainty and uncertainty—if I were feeling glib I’d add “much like life in general”. Some tasks are firmly fixed in the schedule, like doing the second shortening of wisteria shoots (round about now, I guess), while others are more random and totally reliant upon the state of the season.
Even before the onset of global warming, the vagaries of the British climate have always ensured that no two years follow precisely the same pattern. The comparative ‘earliness’ or ‘lateness’ of the season gives gardeners plenty to chat about and, as always, there are pluses and minuses to each scenario.
In the autumn, having left my ‘live-in’ gardening job, which was draining the joy out of life, I spent a temporary, ‘relief’ head gardener, stint in a (gorgeous) garden near Wincanton. Even though I knew I wasn’t going to be there long enough to plant them, let alone see them bloom, I spent £100’s of the client’s money on early spring bulbs—such a refreshing change to find that an owner actually wants you to improve their garden.
I imagine that the squills are beginning to show, Crocus tommasinianus already blooming and the ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ daffodils (Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus) still weeks away from their appearance on the main stage.
With bulbs emerging ‘left, right and centre’, this may be your last chance to add a good layer of humus rich mulch, well-rotted horse manure or whatever, to your beds. I always find it hard to get the timing right for this particular task. I don’t like to add a thick layer of organic matter right at the onset of winter where it will then sit, in a soggy mess, rotting the crowns of slumbering herbaceous perennials.
I may be worrying needlessly but I fear, in the wetness of West Dorset, that this suppurating carpet of decaying matter could do more harm than good. If a cold, dry, winter could be guaranteed then the protective properties of a mulch would offset any potential rotting drawbacks—but how often do we get really cold, dry, winters these days?
Adding your mulch now, just as plants begin to break out of dormancy, means that it still traps winter rainfall yet the plants will be active enough to fight off any potential ‘smothering’ implications. Forking a generous quantity of your chosen fertiliser, I still rely on ‘fish, blood and bone’, into the bare soil between plants, ensures that the fertiliser is protected somewhat against being washed straight through the soil.
This ‘fork / weed / feed / mulch’ process continues until all my planted areas are reinvigorated in readiness for the seasons ahead. It’s amazing how plants can practically double in size overnight, once they sense the onset of spring, given a little TLC now. I firmly believe that the biggest crime against gardening is, maybe second to ‘trampling on beds’, lack of soil care—it’s all basic stuff.
Other tasks will become apparent as you go along and that’s why it’s a pleasing thing to undertake at this, comparatively ‘nude’, time of year.
For example; Oriental hellebores really benefit from having their old leaves removed both to show off their fabulous flowers but also to break the cycle of fungal re-infection, from the old leaves to the new, would otherwise take place. Epimediums are even better candidates for leaf removal as the leathery leaves can totally obscure their exquisite blooms.
This may be a bit extreme but, as I sit here contemplating ‘mad gardening’, I wonder how fantastic it could look if a mahoosive bed of bergenia were treated in the same way? I’m sure these Jekyll favourites are only out of fashion because ‘decent’ folk (decency is, I’ve discovered, only a wafer-thin veneer!) find their ‘Elephant Ears’ foliage just too “coarse” to feature in ‘polite’ little gardens…
Anyway, back to practicalities: getting a head start with a few propagating tasks, undercover, is always a good idea. Slow growing annuals can be sown towards the end of the month, if you can provide them with supplementary heat and a bright, not direct sun, position.
Also, a timely tidy-up and stock-take, in readiness for the main seed sowing, makes sense. Re-pot tender perennials cuttings, which have been overwintering, but only into marginally bigger pots or they could rot off. Keep everything else merely ‘ticking over’ because there’s still at least a couple of months of potential frostiness ahead.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten stuff that could be done now (have I mentioned ‘bare-rooted’ planting season recently?!) but, at this relatively slow time of year, there’s nothing that can’t wait until next month because plants don’t keep diaries and they have a cheerful habit of doing all they can to catch up—even if you are a bit slow off the mark.
I’m hugely behind with my plans to reinvigorate my own small-holding—starting with making a proper veggie patch—but that’s the least of my worries, at this precise point in time, and, as my friends keep telling me, “sometimes you’ve got to choose which battles to fight”!