I remember how much snow and low temperatures we were still enduring at this stage last year. As I write, we are enjoying a, jet-stream powered, unseasonably mild spell. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security so, although comparatively warm days should be on the increase this month, it’s always worth remembering that we are not ‘out of the woods’ yet.
In fact, March is the last month that the traditional ‘winter tasks’ need to be completed. I often don’t tackle rose pruning until now because I’m always more afraid of promoting early bud break, whenever a mild spell follows a good pruning, than the risk of removing a few already growing shoots by leaving it until the end of winter.
If a severe frost kills all the breaking buds, on roses that have already been shortened by the maximum amount, then pruning them back even further, to remove the blackened shoots, will inevitably leave them pruned back more than you originally intended.
Having said that, most gardeners are too afraid to commit to a really hard prune so a further shortening may actually do a power of good. As long as the rose is still vigorous, a good rose fertiliser and organic mulch applied now helps maintain vigour, then the chances are it will bounce back from a hard prune to flower better than it ever did before.
Roses are, when all is said and done, just a special type of shrub and there are other shrubs in the garden which benefit from a really hard prune right now. Shrubs grown for their winter stems should be stooled (cut almost to the ground) now and given a feed with something like ‘fish, blood and bone’ to encourage strong new growth, in the summer, which will provide the brightest colour next winter.
If you have really thick, tangled, shrubs, of any persuasion, then getting in now and removing the oldest stems, in their entirety, will cheer them up no end. Airy shrubs with good space between the branches are healthier and more graceful than dumpy, congested, old lumps. Take a look at what you’ve got and remove anything that you can easily identify as being dead, weedy or overgrown. The worst you can do is to lose a season’s flowering, or weed out an ornamental plant which has become rampant, but neither of those is disastrous.
If the mild weather has initiated lawn growth, average temperatures above about 7°C will suffice, then it might even be necessary to cut the lawn this month, on a high blade setting, if it’s dry enough to undertake without damaging the ground. I always try to cut the meadow grass short this month, in many years it’s just too wet to get the topper onto it, because it helps to maintain the diversity of the sward and prevents the coarser grass species from taking over.
Shortening the meadow grass now allows more light to reach the soil surface, promoting the germination of annual meadow species which need to get established before the perennial components shade them out. ‘Yellow Rattle’ is the most important annual that needs to gain a foothold in newly created meadows. It is semi-parasitic on grass species which would otherwise prove too vigorous in an establishing meadow, especially one that is not on an impoverished soil. By keeping the more bullying grass species under control, the rattle allows the finer species to compete on a more level playing field—hence leading to a greater plant diversity and that’s the name of the game when it comes to supporting the largest number of other wildlife.
It’s still too early for direct sowing, outdoors, but there’s plenty of perennials, annuals and half-hardy bedding plants that can be started off now on windowsills or in the greenhouse (as long as it can be kept frost-free). In an unheated greenhouse it’s worth experimenting with heated propagators because then it’s possible to supply gentle heat for germination even if it’s uneconomical to heat the whole space. By the time the seedlings are large enough to prick out the season will have advanced by a few weeks and the unheated greenhouse will be warm enough to sustain them.
Raising plants from seed can be a little hit or miss. One sure way to propagate extra plants, which is almost foolproof, is to dig up large clumps of herbaceous perennials, before their growth is too far advanced, and then divide them into smaller ‘offsets’. Species such as perennial geraniums are easy to tease apart with ‘back-to-back’ forks or simply by brute strength. Perennials which form woody bases, I find phlox fall into this category, may need to be chopped into smaller pieces with a spade. Really congested, or tough, specimens may be sawn into submission with an old woodworking saw kept specially for the purpose.
Plant a few of the newly divided portions back where the original clump was growing, incorporating organic matter and some ‘fish, blood and bone’ fertiliser into the planting hole, and pot up the rest of the divisions using new compost. If you have other spaces in the garden, which require new plants, then the divisions can be planted directly, improving the soil as before, which will save on pots and aftercare. Always water in new plants, with a can of water, in order to settle the soil around their roots and ensure that they do not dry out—rain alone is seldom enough during establishment.
Of course plant lifting, dividing and replanting all depend on decent weather conditions, mild and dry being preferable, so, at this point, I shall hope and pray that winter does not linger too long and that March yields plenty of days which veer more towards ‘balmy’ than ‘arctic’!