March in the Garden

There’s a headlong rush, into spring and summer, from this point on in the gardening year. Unless you are a very keen and/or organised gardener there will be plenty of winter tasks that still need completing in your garden. The end of winter dormancy is a real turning point in the growing cycle of plants, especially deciduous trees and shrubs, and as such it marks the end of jobs that can only be completed before ‘bud burst’ : bare-root planting and winter pruning are chief amongst these.
It’s also the end of the time window for one of the easiest propagation techniques—hardwood cuttings. Most deciduous shrubs, and many climbers, are suited to this method of producing new plants. This is particularly felicitous because it also ties in with when I tend to cut ornamental dogwoods, Cornus, to the ground in order to force them to produce shiny new stems which will have the brightest bark to light up the winter months.
Newly planted dogwoods, and any other shrubs which are habitually ‘stooled’, need to establish for a few years before they are subjected to a full cutting back. If the shrubs are providing screening, as well as winter colour, then the usual rule of pruning out one in three stems, the oldest third, annually is a good compromise. Forking in a little general fertiliser, such as ‘fish, blood and bone’, and applying a surface organic mulch will promote good strong regrowth.
The stems that are cut off, during the stooling process, provide plenty of material for preparing hardwood cuttings. They have to be a decent thickness, ‘pencil thick’ is the term usually applied, and around six inches in length. Long twigs may yield numerous ‘pencils’ and the important thing is that each one has a few healthy, dormant, buds along its length. Make clean cuts below a bud at the base of the cutting and above a bud at the top. If you are in any doubt, as to which way up the cutting should be, then compare it to a stem that still attached to a deciduous shrub and note which way the buds point.
Prepare a cuttings bed, or trench, by forking over an area of ground, in a tucked away corner of your garden, and incorporate some compost (for moisture retention) and coarse grit (for good drainage) into the forked soil. The soil should be loose enough to allow your cuttings to be pushed into the ground without bending. I reckon that about two thirds underground, to one third above, should provide enough stem in the soil, to produce roots, and enough buds exposed to make shoots.
Don’t let your cuttings dry out in the summer and, especially with specimens like Cornus, some form of protection, such as a cloche, may aid rooting. It can take a whole year before you know whether they’ve rooted or not—hence the need to place them in a tucked away spot where they won’t annoy you too much while they ‘do or die’.
It’s always cheerful to fill every square inch of the garden with summer flowers. Hardy annuals are one of the cheapest and easiest ways of doing this and they can be sown as early as March if the weather starts to warm up. As long as your flower beds are relatively weed-free then sowing the seeds in situ couldn’t be easier. If you are worried that you’ll not recognise weed seedlings from your chosen hardy annuals then sowing in rows, just inches apart, means that they will be obvious once they start to grow.
The regimented lines completely disappear once the annuals fill out and meld together. If conditions take a turn for the worst, or there is a danger of birds and other wildlife disturbing the seed-bed, then covering it with horticultural fleece protects the seedlings until they are out of danger. Some favourite, ‘cottagey’, hardy annuals include; pot marigolds (Calendula), candytuft (Iberis), Nemophila and ‘Love-in-a-Mist’ (Nigella).
If you are growing your own tender annuals, the sort that are generally available later as ‘bedding plants’, you will need somewhere heated and light. In a cold greenhouse the extra heat may be supplied with an electrically heated propagator. If such contraptions aren’t available, a warm windowsill may suffice. Some experimentation is required as a sunny windowsill could ‘cook’ your seedlings, while a north facing spot may never get warm enough for seeds requiring a steady 65-75ºF to germinate. Buying bedding as ‘young plants’ or ‘plugs’, in a few weeks time, may make more sense where providing the extra heat is not feasible.
Elsewhere, lawns will be growing now whenever the temperature is above 6°C or so. If the weather is dry then mowing with the mower on a high cut will help to keep on top of things. Letting it get really long before the first cut means that, when you do get around to it, the task will be more onerous for you, the mower and the grass.
In my meadow I try to get one last cut in, on the highest setting with the collector on, which weakens the grass just as the wild flowers put on a spurt of growth. The timing of this is tricky; if I cut the meadow too short I will be damaging a large quantity of newly germinated plants, sown at the end of last summer. If I don’t get a late cut in, now, then there is a risk that the grass will get the upper hand and shade out some of the finer meadow plants, reducing the diversity of the meadow. If you think that meadows are an effortless / easy form of gardening—think again!