As I write this there is snow laying on the ground and a chill wind blowing. I think I opine every autumn that it “might be nice to have a ‘proper’ winter” due to its cleansing action on the myriad pests overwintering in the garden.
Well, the old “be careful what you wish for” adage is apposite here—having snow in March was not quite what I had in mind. The problem with the white stuff is that it really does get in the way of doing anything in the garden. Having it so comparatively late in the winter / spring will certainly throw a slight spanner in the works.
Having said that, from experience, I know how mercurial the weather can be at this early stage of spring. As soon as the cold spell is over and the temperatures start to rise, in this post-equinoctial period, plants will rapidly burst into growth and the snow will be a distant memory. Nature has a great propensity for making up for lost time so that even though cold weather freezes progress, while it lasts, the season will even itself out in no time at all once it has passed.
This month, more than ever, what you can do in the garden depends greatly on the state of the weather conditions, so any advice I give comes with that caveat. Frosts are still likely in April so if you do manage to get on and plant out young, hardy, plants it’s wise to keep some protective horticultural fleece, cloches, even bubble-wrap, on hand to throw over them if another cold spell is forecast.
Don’t be tempted to plant out your tender beauties, whether they be fresh from the garden centre or lovingly coaxed through the winter in your own greenhouse, until you get that feeling that we’ve had the ‘last frost’. This is, of course, one of those horrible conundrums because it’s impossible to know, with absolute certainty, that any frost is the ‘last frost’ until more time has passed! It’s just a kind of feeling you get, if that makes any sense?
A lot of plants which are described as needing to be sown, with heat, in ‘Feb-Mar’ can still be started off now (but be quick) and should nearly catch up with the earlier sowings by the time summer is upon us. In the case of bedding plants, the early start date is based on the assumption that you want to get them to ‘planting out’ size as soon as possible. This is fine if you can provide loads of supplementary heat, and sometimes light, to counteract the earliness of the season. Leaving it a little later alleviates the need for quite so much artificial stimulation. As I said a little earlier; plants have real knack of catching up from a late start.
If you did get sowing as early as February or March, there will be plenty of ‘pricking out’ and ‘potting on’ to be getting on within the greenhouse / windowsill area. I must admit that I am very lazy at doing this and often have trays of congested seedlings sitting around. If you do leave it too long, at any stage, there will be a check in growth which slows down the seedling development and has a detrimental effect on quality.
Some other gardening tasks to be getting on with; spring flowering bulbs should be allowed to die down naturally although a sprinkling of ‘blood, fish and bone’, gently forked in around them, will help to build up flowering strength for next year.
The lawn should be growing actively now so will require regular mowing. If we have a good, clement, period of weather then raking out the accumulated thatch and moss is beneficial. If this reveals any ‘bald’ patches then a sprinkling of lawn seed, mixed into good loam, can be worked into the damaged area to thicken up the sward.
Although now is, traditionally, a good time to sow lawns, there may be a problem if the ‘April showers’ turn out to be more deluge-like. Torrential rain will wash away a newly sown lawn—using turf avoids this risk but is a lot more expensive.
It’s a good time to plant out containerised trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials as they are in active growth, which makes establishment easier, and water is in good supply. It’s good practice to water in all new plantings, even in wet weather, because this initial watering in is to ensure an intimate bond between the newly introduced root ball and the surrounding soil. Further watering, in dry spells, remains essential for the whole establishment period at least.
This is the real window of opportunity for planting evergreens which need to be planted after any freezing winter weather has passed and must never be allowed to go short of water. The recent blanket of snow has reminded me just how good clipped evergreens, especially yew, look in wintry splendour. When nothing else in the garden is showing, it is the structure provided by evergreens, trees and hard landscaping that comes to the fore.
While considering the importance of garden ‘structure’, I was very sad to read the other day that the eminent garden designer, John Brookes MBE, had passed away. He was hugely influential, even at the time I was getting into horticulture, although he first came to prominence in the late 1950s. I tend to think of him primarily for designing small, usually enclosed, spaces and he’s the designer who first wrote about the garden as the ‘Room Outside’—combining interior design with the exterior. He was revolutionary then, and is still relevant now, because his ‘grid design’ method of laying out a garden plan is a concept that is simply fundamental to any designed space.
Another garden cue, I took from him, is the importance of trees even in the smallest garden. From memory, he had a signature small tree that he used in many of his town garden schemes—Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’, I think. Seems to be a bit ‘out of fashion’ these days despite being a good compromise between vigorous growth, airy foliage and manageable size at maturity. I imagine its propensity to sucker may have been its downfall but, like everything else in the garden, it’s just a case of knowledge and timely intervention.