Each month Paul shares insights from his own garden here. From pruning roses, to tackling slugs, Paul’s gardening advice and anecdotes are a valuable read for any novice, or expert gardener.
March always feels like the start to me, the days are warmer, sometimes short sleeved warm and the air smells like plants are growing.
n fact, by the end of the month some trees will be in leaf and many varieties of value and prunes will be in full blossom. If you are thinking of adding a smaller, shrubby, flowering cherry into your garden, or even into a container, this is the perfect season to select the one you want. There is such enormous variation of petal shape, colour and composition that selecting the blossom in person makes choosing much easier than from the internet, or a catalogue photograph.
March is the month of sowing directly outdoors, so if you grow vegetables, then lettuce, radish, spring onions, beetroot and carrots can all be sown now into finely prepared beds, or containers. I love ‘cut and come again’ lettuce as these can be sown in containers and continually harvested as needed for up to 8 weeks, also pots of lettuce look rather amusing on outdoor tables and have a great ‘salad’ bar attitude.
Companion planting with potatoes
Towards the middle of the month any early potatoes planted last month will have foliage breaking through the soil, this should be continually mounded over to give the appearance of an old ridge and furrow field. When the foliage can be earthed, or mound no further, towards the beginning of May the foliage may have to be covered to protect from late frosts. The furrows created by mounding up the young potato foliage is an ideal space to plant ‘quick’ crops, which germinate fast and can be harvested within 6 weeks. Ideal candidates include salad onion and radish, but worth trying are some of the early salad leaves such as red lettuce that do better with shelter and rocket. By the end of May the potato foliage will have grown too large and will block out any light in the furrow so be sure to act quickly to utilise this space.
Generally in the garden this is a month of getting ready; hard landscaped areas, gravel paths or terraces laid in stone and porcelain can all be given a good clean to remove the winter grime, you will be surprised at the results from this annual wash down.
On fine days wooden structures, gates, arches, sheds, and toolboxes can be sanded and repainted and given a new colour make-over. It is a good month to make larger changes as well, new wider borders can be dug in a different shape and planted so that by summer you will not notice the changes. Any replacements to balustrades, fences, walls and other hard landscaping jobs can be undertaken now with the same view in mind- do the work in March, reap the benefits in June and July.
You will notice many herbaceous perennials will have started to shoot, over winter they may have seemed dormant and unmoving to our eyes, but now you will see some have doubled in size. If you are making new spaces, or even thinking you could use a little of the same plant elsewhere March is a great month to lift the perennial in question by digging it up and simply splitting in two or three size dependant pieces with a spade to make new plants. If you have gardening neighbours, or friends this is a great way to extend your range of plants for free by holding a little plant swap!
Pruning for maximum benefit
One of the glories of spring is the Forsythia, its clear, yellow flowers truly signal spring has arrived. By the middle of the month the flowers are all but gone and to ensure a good show next spring now is the time to prune. Forsythia flowers on the growth made during the previous year, so leaving pruning too late can seriously affect the following year’s flowers. Sounds complicated but really the simple rule is to get out with the secateurs as soon after flowering as possible. Be brave and cut back all stems, which have flowered, to a good healthy pair of buds, depending on your variety and its vigorousness you will be cutting back by 30cm - 60cm. With established shrubs, now is also a good time cut one or two branches right out to within a couple of inches of the base, this will encourage basal shoots which will keep the shrub from becoming old and woody.
For inspiration, March usually sees the National Garden Scheme start up with lots of otherwise private gardens open for the public around London. The Chase, an extraordinary garden with over 1000 tulips in Clapham is one of my all-time favourites. Talking of tulips, this month these bulbs will be shining in the garden from our hard work planting over the winter and the daffodils will just be at their peak.
Many people find the faded flowers of these horrible to look at and cut the whole plant at ground level leaving a bizarre stump. If you have planted the bulbs in containers, after flowering simply lift and remove the soil allowing the bulb to die back naturally, all the energy in the leaves will then be preserved for next year. Store over summer in a cool dark place. If bulbs are in the ground cut the flowering stem so that the bulb does not put energy into seed making and allow the foliage to die naturally, again so the nutrients return to the bulb for next year. This will also help promote the growth of bulblets at the base of the bulb you planted increasing your stock for free.
Bees in the fruit garden
Honeybees, who’s plight has been well documented over the past few years, do not actively fly if the temperature is much below 16c. However, as the month marches on and temperatures increase so bees start to stir and can be seen avidly searching out nectar on warm days.
One way to support the honeybee and actively increase pollinating insect populations in the garden is to plant a fruit tree. Fruit blossom comes into its own over this month and is intoxicatingly beautiful. Apples, pear, plum, cherry and greengage can all be espalier trained and successfully grown against walls and in containers making them ideal even in the smallest space. Luckily for gardeners in urban environments you can almost guarantee a pollinating fruit tree in your vicinity so a crop of delicious fruit will follow in a few short months.
If you have already planted espalier trained fruit, then now is the time to cut out any crossing branches on cherries and peaches and to prune out upright growth on fan trained plums.
Spring is truly here; warm sunny days and a sense of summer spanning ahead. April for me is a month of change when blossoms of apples and other fruiting trees fade to be replaced by swelling fruits, ready in a few months.
Whilst it is safe to, in my garden I shall be eagerly anticipating bluebells and cyclamen with their soft blue and pink flowers like a delicate sprinkling of confetti on the ground. Although poisonous if ingested, the bluebell has a long traction in folklore; perhaps the most romantically full of springtime hope is the myth that turning a bluebell flower inside out without tearing it will win you the heart of an unrequited love.
Decorate like it's Versailles
Similarly, the cyclamen’s popularity peaked in France in the 17th century due to Louis XIV insisting on decorating the halls of Versailles with great bunches of these delicate flowers. Throughout the 18th century, the plant was often given to children and became a symbol of maternal love across most of Europe.
Even in the smallest garden space, watching this change from spring to early summer can be a real pleasure. The garden’s life cycle of blossom becoming hard fruit which grows and swells until the golden rays of autumn’s sun turns them into luscious fruits; to be eaten from the tree then extra bounty stored for the lean winter. Apples, pears and even plums can be grown in containers and trained against a wall, or support making them ideal for natural screens on balconies and roof terraces just as well as old-fashioned trees, meaning this magic of the natural world can be watched high above the city skyline.
This month also begins the cycle of harvest and resowing in the vegetable garden; lettuce and other short turnaround crops will need another sowing this month to continue your harvest through. Crops like radish will be ready to harvest this month, so be sure to check they don’t turn woody and sow another crop every two weeks until June.
Potatoes which you have chitted and planted out will be pushing through the soil so be sure to keep an eye on night-time temperatures and cover the emerging foliage with newspaper, or fleece to protect from frost damage.
If you grow strawberries in containers, or the ground, give them a little feed this month to ensure they produce a bumper crop over the coming two months, I tend to use a seaweed liquid feed as this gives good fruit, but also benefits the roots making for healthy plants.
Sow half hardy annuals
Half-hardy and hardy annuals which were sowed and potted on indoors can now be planted into containers and borders outside, this includes sweet peas, English marigolds and evening primrose. If you have an issue with slugs then use eco-friendly pellets, or alternatively the beer trap works a treat in my experience with the added benefit of my mind being clear that in the slug-o-cide they died oblivious and as my grandfather would say, ‘three sheets to the wind.’
Talking of slugs this is month they become much more active; with juicy plumb stems of prized herbaceous perennials and annuals everywhere in sight it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the slugs. Set traps in raised beds, the open ground and in any plants susceptible such as hostas in pots. Use copper collars, or wool pellets as a top dressing to impede the munch of the slug.
The power of Sempervivum's
Less pretty, but with a powerful history, little succulents are great plants for summer and can start being put outside on warm days from April, but be warned they are not winter-hardy, whereas houseleeks can be left outside, virtually without worry, all year round. Houseleeks also require nearly no care; being drought-tolerant they are ideal for travelling gardeners. Our love of houseleek Sempervivum goes back a long way. In ancient times, houseleeks were credited with the power to ward off witches, and when planted upon a home’s roof they conferred prosperity and safety to those who dwelled within.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne commanded his subjects to plant houseleeks on their roofs to prevent lightning strikes, a practice that probably stemmed from the ancient’ belief that houseleeks were earthly manifestations of Jupiter and Thor, the Roman and Norsegods of thunder. Indeed, regional labels for houseleeks still include Jupiter’s beard, Thor’s beard, and Donnersbart (thunderbeard).
April is also the month I tend to do an annual house plant check. The days are warm enough if space allows to take the plants outside, report or replace soil as needed, check for any overwintering pests, split or divide the plants and water thoroughly. Being outside for the day also means you can wash the foliage gently, but thoroughly to remove the dust of winter allowing the leaves to breathe more easily.
This is great for the plant’s health but also for you - one foliage houseplant per room, such as Sanseriva or Monstera, can improve the quality of the air you breath at home by a factor of up to 5 times. The single space we spend the most time at home is the bedroom, so if you haven’t already treated yourself and your lungs to the benefit of air purifying plants now and you will sleep better, that’s a fact you can depend on.