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This Month
April

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Editorial

Lila the Cairn terrier - a bit older than 5 months hereTake time to enjoy your garden and smell the flowers - I sat down at my computer yesterday morning to update this page but was sidetracked by my 5 month old puppy wanting to go out, so I went into the garden with her and the older dog.

I ended up sitting for about an hour on a rustic chair I've made from old oak fence-posts in the sun under the plum tree that is starting to come out in blossom. There was constant bird song, Brimstone and Red Admiral butterflies and honey bees that the sun had woken up were flying about. The dogs were playing and little one would run up my outstretched legs every now and then for reassurance and a general big fuss. There were daffodils, Forsythia, primroses and the scent of hyacinths, the whole garden was in puppy-mode in fact. Make sure you take the time to enjoy your garden.

Rustic chair made of oak fence postsTwo years ago I planted some seeds of wild primrose in a seed tray that went out in a cold frame. Doing things properly I sowed them in the autumn, but didn't expect them to germinate until the following spring. The following spring came - and went, the seeds didn't appear. Doing things properly I left the seed tray in the corner of the cold frame and kept it watered throughout as sometimes wildflowers can take a year or more to germinate. 18 months after sowing the seeds I gave up and threw the contents of the tray on the compost heap.

So why am I telling you this? Well I spent some time in the garden this afternoon when I dug up about a dozen small primrose plants from various spots around the lawn and re-planted them out of the range of the lawn mower. We have some primrose plants in the borders, but we don't get primroses self-seeding there. Lawns are supposed to be hugely difficult and competitive environments for young plants of any kind, but the only success I've had with primrose from seed are these self-seeded specimens in the middle of the lawn.

Is there something to be learned from this tale? Maybe that nature will do what she wants despite your best efforts and so you should just try to fit in with this system than impose your own will which will always be weaker. As for me, I'm very pleased I have a dozen very strong and healthy primrose plants that I didn't know about!

Don't you love the spring? It seems almost corny to love the spring, but not to do so would be to not love youthful exuberance and the promise of treats to come at their best. The garden gets tattier and tattier through the winter, as the buds, flower and leaf, sit there protected waiting patiently for the right moment to emerge. Just as the darkest hour is before the dawn, so the darkest days of winter are just before the spring. Having taken the battering of winter storms and the subtler but more pervasive and far-reaching effects of short days, low temperatures and a lack of growth, the garden really is at its lowest ebb. At this time it is rescued just in time by the express train of warmth, daylight and rising sap.

Get out into the garden

It's all starting to happen out there. If you haven't yet had the mower out of the shed then make sure you do it as soon as you can. Set it to near the highest setting to begin with and collect the clippings, then a week or two later, set it to the normal setting and collect or not as you normally do (or don't).

If it's a while since you took a stroll around the garden looking very closely, you'll see an awful lot of weed growth, they're always the first ones up and out of the starting blocks. I pulled up two barrowfuls last weekend of weeds and the remains of last summers growth -seed heads and the like - that had died, but not been cut down previously. If you pull weeds up and get a clod of soil on them, bash it on the ground first to shake the soil off, otherwise you're moving stuff around unnecessarily and there's a greater chance the weed will survive with the roots intact in soil.

If you've any rotted garden compost that's ready to use, this is a good time to dump it around the more mature garden plants and trees as a thick mulch. I use up to about half a barrow-load around young trees and large shrubs. It looks a bit odd at first with brown mounds at the bottom of the trunk, but it soon gets mixed in by the worms and continues to rot and improve the soil. The effect is far from immediate, but within a year or two, it's quite noticeable, the improvement in soil texture and the slow-release fertiliser effect it has will boost anything you place it around. Just be careful not to bury small plants with it, or put it where you plan to plant bedding plants over the next couple of months or so - it will help them too, it's just that garden compost tends to be rather too coarsely textured for small plants to cope with.

Jobs / Tips

    Get out and mow the grass as soon as possible if you haven't done so already (I'm writing this in East Anglia - England, but it applies to pretty much the whole of the UK and much of Europe and North America too). If it's looking a bit tatty it's because it's started to grow! Set the mower a bit higher than normal for the first cut and then follow it up after a few days with a dose of  "feed and weed".

    Begin to look out for weeds and get them as soon as you can. Weeds are always early risers in the spring and are much easier to remove while small than when they get larger. It's a good time to spread a mulch on the bare soil between plants if you haven't done so already, this helps keep the weeds down.

    Finish pruning back tall stems of Buddleia, dogwoods, willow and any others left over from last year.

    Protect young shoots from slugs and snails, scatter pellets / slug pubs or whatever particularly around clematis and herbaceous plants (they love Delphiniums). As soon as there are shoots to eat the slugs and snails will appear from nowhere.

    Watch out for early signs of aphids too. There will hopefully be less this year due to the cold weather we've had, but it's about now that they start to come out of hiding and build up their numbers. If you can spot aphids early, then life gets an awful lot easier later on in the year. Check the newly emerging shoots of their favourite plants. I gave my plants under cover their first spray last week at the end of March as aphid numbers were already starting to build up, it's easy to miss them too as you probably don't check so often at the moment.

    Did you sow all of the seeds you intended? March is the main sowing time for many plants, hardy or half-hardy. I've still got a few packets left that I haven't yet got around to using.

    If you've never tried growing your own vegetables, or grown anything from seed, then this is a good month to sow. I tend to go for things that are either expensive in the shops or difficult to get really fresh. I don't see the point of struggling against the slugs and weather to get a crop of lettuce that I can't possibly eat quick enough at the time when they are almost giving them away in the shops (though you could try lollo rosso, rocket or other such exotics to good effect).

Beans are easy and don't travel well so the ones in the shops are never as good or fresh as home grown. Broad beans are good as are French beans and very easy too. French beans don't need all the long canes that runner beans need, but wait until the end of the month though or early May before sowing them outdoors. They can be started off if you like in 3" pots in an unheated greenhouse.

I also go for spinach because I like it in salad better than any other leaf (apart from watercress, but I don't have the appropriate flowing watercourse). There's probably many others that fit into my "reliable in the garden, expensive and limp in the shops" category, but I know that these work.

    Absolutely last chance for an end of winter tidy-up if you haven't yet done so. Dead leaves, twigs and other debris laying around under shrubs and around borders looks untidy and can harbour pests and diseases. So rake it up and put it on the compost heap before there's too much foliage about that will make this a harder job to do.

    Lift and divide summer flowering perennials. Get free plants to spread around the garden or your friends and neighbours in the process. They should be fairly easy to dig up with a fork as there won't be many fine roots yet. Pull them apart gently but firmly so that the plant divided at its weakest point/s.

    Make plans. Consider plants and planting. Put canes or a hose pipe across the garden to mark out planned beds, patios or other features. Then ignore it for a few days, look out of the window and change it all totally if necessary. Take your time when deciding on your grand design and get it right before you start on it when the warmer weather and breaking buds tempt you beyond the confines of the fire-side (whether metaphorical or literal). Planning


Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month

    In like a lion and out like a lamb - that's March - as the old saying goes, and I say this every year I know, but how true this year more than any recent year. The change in the clocks to British Summer Time helps to catapult us from mid-winter to mid-spring in a single month and even though things are a little behind where they normally are at this time of year, there's plenty of life and activity, buds bursting and a growing green bloom covering the trees and shrubs even if the leaves are not properly out yet.

I don't know if it's the fact it hasn't been very warm yet or that I'm suffering from a winter lethargy still, but I'm finding it difficult to get going with my planting plans this year. I've some small Surfinia Petunias that I need to pot on to larger containers and seeds to sow, normally, they would be rather late, but I don't think it will make much difference because of the temperatures mean that not much growth has been missed out on so far.

out with the old - in with the new    What I have done at long last is to replace my elderly and battered looking lawnmower. The one I had I bought at an auction about 7-8 years ago for £14, my previous mower had broken irreparably and as it was past mid-summer I just got it as a stop-gap. Despite having seen cosmetically better days, it cut the grass very well, and being a simple push petrol rotary with no frills, there wasn't much to go wrong. The next spring I got it out, changed the spark plug, fired it up and off it went - I always meant to replace it, but never did. Over the years, I repaired the handles when one just snapped, fixed the wheels on when they fell off with a plate of metal to replace the bent part of the deck it fell from etc. etc. but still it fired up every spring and so I used it. Last Saturday, the same happened again, but this time the grass which was very long was also very wet, so I thought I'd leave it to dry out before I carried on.

Now I had already decided what I wanted to replace it, a Honda IZY 41cm (18in) push mower, I was going to buy one off the web but as I was in a lawn-mower frame of mind, went to local lawnmower shop instead to see what they had. I stood around for 20 minutes being ignored while the lawnmower salesman gave a couple a rundown of every machine in the shop, including a potted history of past and planned future models. Eventually, I spotted someone in a different department who I asked about prices (unhelpfully, nothing at all was priced ) and within 5 minutes had found that they had the Izy at the same price as on the web (including p&p) so I said I'd have one - except I had to walk back home to get the car (even though I live in a small village, the only shop other than the usual convenience store (used to be a post-office too until they closed that side down) is rather bizarrely a large agricultural supply and machinery place).

that's where the blade spins round on the old machine - don't try this at home!Back I came, another standing around for 15 minutes before the guy was ready to take my money, I mentioned that I nearly bought it on the web instead and got a lecture about why I was wise not to, the longer this went on, the more sure I was that I should have done. In all it took me about an hour to buy an in-stock machine that I knew I wanted, all they had to do was take my money and give me a box.

I'm having a similar time with a router to get the internet on my son's computer at the moment, but that's another tale, when I've written this, I'm taking the first one I bought back to the shop for a refund (wrong plugs and sockets - just can't plug it in) and then I'll order one from Amazon. The web will never replace real-world stores of course, but for many things, I'm realising I'm just not temperamentally suited to the journey/queue/uninformed assistant method of offline purchasing. A five or ten minute session on the appropriate web-site and I'm sorted for an awful lot of what I want. It's also exciting to someone with a memory like a sieve like me, as I forget I've ordered anything at all until a van turns up out of the blue with the delivery - how exciting is that!

The new mower is great, starting it compared to the old machine, is like the difference in effort of opening a drawer and shifting a sideboard. It's got a safety device to stop me chopping bits off myself, whereas the old one had an open area at the side (something had fallen off irreparably) where you could see the exposed blade spinning round and no dead-man's handle - I must admit, the gap did worry me. The new safer (and complete) machine also means I can now in all conscience get my son to cut the grass to earn his pocket money.

I've mowed the lawn once at the highest setting (couldn't change the height on the old one, the repairs precluded that) and will lower it (with ease!) in about a weeks time to make the lawn look neat and lovely. I used the clippings that I collected in the bag (you've guessed it - old one - broken) to mix with some semi-rotted leaves from last autumn to restore the correct brown/green compost mix and should have some nice compost by mid summer. The autumn leaves stop the grass from turning to a sticky slimy mess, and the grass makes the leaves rot properly rather than just become sort of mummified in mid-rot which they can do for months on end.

The old mower is sitting outside looking very forlorn, I must take it to the skip to dispose of it, but it feels like turning my back on an old companion that despite their faults always did the best they could and most of the time managed it well. Another week though and my wife will doubtless overcome my mawkish anthropomorphism and reality will take over.

    Spring is a miracle time in the garden. We try to keep the garden interesting in the winter, but I think what really happens is that our expectations change. The few stalwart (but very much appreciated) winter flowering shrubs that seemed so wonderful a month or so ago would be rather dull compared to the near embarrassment of riches in the spring when half the world seems to be in flower.

Spring also stirs gardeners into action and sometimes the result is as with spring flowering shrubs. A spectacular effort for a short time followed by very little for the rest of the year. This is I think the reason that there are quite so many spring flowers planted in gardens. The reluctant or seasonal gardener goes off to the nursery or garden centre and buys what looks good there and then. The result - gardens full of plants that look fabulous at the time of year that you first went plant shopping and pretty dull the rest of the time.

Still, I thank them all for making the overall display brighter and more exuberant if a little too fleeting.

    330 days of mowing the lawn - Climate change is meaning that we are getting more and more growing days in the year. In central and southern England, there are now 330 days in the growing season, more than a month more than there was a century ago. Over the last 20 years the pace of change has accelerated giving an extra day per year. This according to the Tyndall Research Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.

The growing season starts when the average temperature is over 5C for five consecutive days and ends with five days below  5°C. The blame lies with the greenhouse effect due to a build up of "greenhouse gases".

The immediate effect on the gardener is that everything is growing longer and shooting earlier, grass, spring bulbs, spring buds etc. In the autumn, things are happening later, last year beech leaves turned colour on average 3 days later and field maple 5 days later. Many birds too are leaving later in the season or in some cases not at all.

It also means that pests such as aphids are not being killed off as they used to be....

     Rory - Winter's over as far as my resident robin and his robin rivals and blackbird chums are concerned. The birds are to be seen more and more with twigs, straw and the like in their beaks, and they are all more interested in each other, as mates or rivals, almost as much as they are in the food that I put out.

Why do birds like bread so much? I've tried all sorts this winter, all kinds of left overs have been placed on the bird table to tempt the avian palate. Here's me worrying about supplying a balanced diet, whatever I put out, the bread always goes first. I've had to take down bits of prime fat cut from gammon joints because they're in danger of going rancid before they're eaten. I've put out chicken carcasses (we've a walled garden and cats rarely get in) expecting them to be picked clean. The odd starling has had a bit of a go at it, but it's always the bread that has gone first. They even seem to prefer white to brown irrespective of species, robin, blackbird, blue tits. collared dove, whatever.

Perhaps it's the bird equivalent of fast food, or maybe it's more comforting when it's cold and miserable.

    Cherry tree time - Already started and continuing over the next month or so, cherry trees all over the country will be bursting out into blossom.

    April 2003 - I checked the April newsletter I sent out last year for my own personal first sign of spring - the first Brimstone butterfly - the butter yellow ones that give all butterflies their name - coming out of hibernation. Last year it was the 16th of March, this year the 15th. A bit surprising as I'd thought that this winter was harder than last, maybe it was the same length, but just deeper into the cold. We're still a long way to go, there was frost in the hollow at the bottom of the garden this morning, though it was soon gone.


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