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click for larger picture This Month - March click for larger picture

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Editorial

    I think we can actually say for once that we have had a "proper winter"!!!. Much snow and cold weather in February, the most for 18 years in the South East gave us some very pretty days and some welcome days off work too to appreciate the world of white and our children playing in it. There have been a lot of hard frosts too this winter which should have killed off more over-wintering pests and diseases than previous years too, so hopefully this coming year won't have the problems with pests that we have had in recent years.

    There can be lasting problems of such snowfall though it that it can have an effect on trees and shrubs by the sheer weight of snow laying on branches. Try to get out and see if it affected any of your mature plants when you can. For instance there's a branch about 10 feet long that half fell over my fence at the bottom of the garden from a large conifer belonging to my neighbour. Snow built up on it so heavily that the weight split it from the trunk. This leaves a messy wound that can become infected with fungal diseases and so eventually potentially threaten the whole tree. Take a look to see if you have any similar damage. If you have then cut the broken branch stump back close to the tree as cleanly as possible to help keep disease out.

I also have a large golden bamboo that has a couple of canes that were weighed down and are permanently now at about a 30 degree angle to the ground sticking out across the lawn, when it gets a bit warmer I will cut those off to tidy up the shape of the plant again. Hedges may also be damaged by snow if it build up and "splits" them down the middle if they have a flat top and straight sides, if you are affected by this leave them for a while to start to grow again before you start to renovate them back to their former neat shape.

    This is the best time of the year to plant snowdrops. It's a relatively little known fact that snowdrops are best planted "in the green" when they have finished flowering but still have all of their leaves. They should be dug up and replanted as soon as possible and are much more successful when treated like this than if planted in the autumn as shrivelled little bulbs that are far more likely to rot than grow the next spring. There is only a short time that they are available in this manner so be on the look out in the next month or so. Make sure that you are buying bulbs that have been cultivated, there are many unscrupulous "suppliers" who will go and dig up wild bulbs from woods or wherever they find them to sell on. The small ads of gardening magazines or papers are good places to look. You might also like this site which is enough to turn anyone into a snowdrop enthusiast, take a look at the picture pages.

    Water butts - do you have one - or more? A water butt is an ideal way of watering the garden with rainwater that the plants prefer, it helps you to work around the hosepipe bans and also to reduce your water bill if you are metered as most of us are these days. With relatively little rain, it'll take time for the butts to fill, so if you get one at the height of summer, it'll probably not fill until the autumn or winter. Get one as soon as you can and get as big a one as you can.

    It's a good time to plan for the growing season now too and buy plants in advance or as seeds or young plants to be delivered when they're ready. You're more likely to get what you want this way and the sooner you get them and plant them ready for active growth, the quicker and better they will establish.

I'm thinking about plants I'd like to grow this year that are going to be new to me and I've decided first of all I have to get some Cardiocrinum giganteum - the Giant Himalayan Lily. I've looked at these on a regular basis in recent years, but never really made the decision, but this is the year to get this plant. Others on my list are Callicarpa bodinieri - Beauty Berry and Phyllostachys Nigra - Oriental Black Bamboo, though these two will need rather more thought about where they are going to be planted as they will grow quite large.

How about making the decision now then? That plant or particular variety that you've always admired, but maybe put off because it's a bit too expensive or you're not sure where it would go, get it sooner rather than later so you can enjoy it longer. If you really feel you can't afford it, how trying to grow it from seed or get a cutting from somewhere. Unless you want truffles or some hugely rare and exotic orchid, then nearly all varieties of plants are within the means of nearly all people - go on, you know you're worth it.

    March comes "In like a lion and goes out like a lamb", it seems difficult to believe here at the tail end of winter that we are so close to spring, but in four weeks time we should be well into a different season altogether. In only 3 weeks time, we'll be getting 12 hours daylight when we reach the spring equinox. Day length changes fastest at these times and there'll be noticeable changes over even just a week. I've really appreciated this seasonality since spending a year living almost bang on the equator some years ago, 12 hours day and 12 hours night almost unchanging for 365 days a year gets very monotonous - give me higher latitude seasonality any time.

Jobs / Tips

    If you have any hardy container plants that you have propagated and intend to plant them out in the garden later, then now is a good time to pot them on into larger pots. Add about 25% by volume of sharp sand or fine gravel to the mix to help drainage. Our springs tend to be wet and compost alone can get very soggy and overgrown with liverworts. The sand and gravel also encourage a greater extent of roots that will stand the plants in good stead later on. By early to mid summer they will need either planting out or potting on again, this time into 100% compost.

    If you buy any small potted hardy shrubs or perennials, it's also a good idea to grow them on for a while by potting into a larger container and placing it in a warm sunny location. The other school of thought on this says that plants should establish themselves better if planted small, this is true, but they can also sometimes get overwhelmed by weeds and this is often the most important factor. I grow them on until they comfortably fill a 2 litre pot, then they're about ready to go into the garden.

    March 17th St. Patrick's Day. What are you going to do? Drink lots of green dyed Guinness, walk around with a shamrock in your buttonhole? St. Patrick's day is the traditional day to plant sweet pea seeds. You've just over two weeks to select some, plant them outside in containers (long deep ones are best as sweet peas have long deep roots) in a sheltered spot or a cold frame or cold greenhouse if you have one. Sweet peas are one of my favourite annual flowers, coming as they do in a variety of pretty colours, delicate simple flowers, and a wonderful fragrance.

Go on - buy a packet or two and sow them. They do well in a large container with some canes pushed in and tied together at the top into a wigwam arrangement.

    Last chance for an end of winter tidy-up. 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. Young shoots and leaves will have an easier time if they aren't pushing through last years matted leaf fall.

    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.

    Cut back ornamental grasses. Give them a severe hair cut to about 3 or 4 inches above the ground. Only do this if the leaves are brown and dead - not evergreen, or they'll take all year to recover.

    Protect young shoots from slugs, 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.

    Still time to prune your pomes, but leave your drupes alone. A pome is a fruit with pips, apples and pears (also quince and medlars) whereas a drupe is a fruit with a stone, plums, cherries, peaches and apricots.

Do it quickly though because they'll soon be growing actively.

The dormant winter months are an ideal time to prune the over congested spurs from pome fruits. Apples and pears are mainly spur-fruiting trees, meaning that the fruits are produced on short lateral branches some 6-12 inches long. When a tree has been growing for some time, these spurs become over-crowded. The result is a rather untidy looking tree, lots of blossom and lots of small and not very high quality fruit. If you reduce the spurs, then the overall yield won't increase, but you will get a good improvement in the size and quality of the fruit that form.

Remove the older more complicated growth and thin weak stems leaving young vigorous growth behind. It depends on the state of the tree, but you should be aiming to remove about a third of the spur stems. If you repeat this process every year or tow, then the tree will eventually be fruiting only on wood that is no more than a few years old.

The dormant season is the best time to this for apples and pears, when the buds begin to burst it's too late.

Drupes on the other hand are pruned in the summer when in growth as winter pruning for these carries a high risk of introducing disease.

    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. Winter is a good time to prepare for the coming growing season. 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

    Feed and continue to feed the birds. This gets more important as winter goes on. Don't forget on the warmer days as well. Hunger isn't nice whatever the temperature. Most wild animals that die over the winter do so just as spring is arriving, it's not the cold that gets them so much, as the lack of food.

    Order or buy seed and plan what you'll grow from seed this year. I think of this as buying genes for the garden. Perfectly packaged and prepared for growth with all they need to get started. Seeds are natures own genetic technology. If you've never grown anything from seed before, it's one of gardening's main wonders.

    Last chance to plant trees and hedges from bare rooted stock, many nurseries will stop lifting field grown plants this month if they haven't done so already.

There's no time left to leave plants "heeled in" as the roots will soon be starting to grow, if you can't plant them very soon then pot them up in plant pots with some potting compost.

Tip. Use an old pair of tights as a tree tie. They're strong, don't rot, are soft and cheap. Tie around the tree and stake in a figure of 8 so that the tree trunk doesn't rub against the stake.

Why bother? Why not wait until it's a bit warmer and more pleasant and plant out of containers?

1/    Bare rooted trees and shrubs are cheaper, as little as half the price for trees and cheaper than this for shrubs though the range of available shrubs is smaller, so you can either save money or spend the same and get a much bigger plant.

2/     Planting now means that they get off to the best possible start in the spring. As soon as the plants wake up and start putting their roots out, they're already in your soil rather in a pot that will then planted in the soil later, one less jolt to the system.

So brave the elements and do it now! Make sure though that you add lots of organic matter to the soil when filling the planting hole and that you stake trees well.

Back again on the first of April


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

    Before the cold really started again I started some heavy duty gardening in the form of erecting a fence. There's an area at the top of the garden between us and next door where there was an original wooden fence about 3 feet tall, but this was overgrown with ivy and next door had placed a trellis up to about 6 feet. The result was a very large dark ivy "hedge" supported by various bits of wood that made it very difficult for other plants to grow nearby. Well the previous neighbour moved out and in agreement with the new one, I started to take it all down and replace it. What a major job it turned out to be too! Each fence panel (6 feet wide) required a whole pile of vegetation to be removed and of course a big pile of semi-rotted timber from the fence. This was disposed of at the bottom of the garden with a substantial bonfire - I know, not ideal, but it would have been forever to shred the ivy and then there was all the old rotten timber too.

I made something of a rod for my own back as I was trying to leave some plants untouched rather than do the usual builder  trick of leaving a blasted landscape in my wake. With canes and sheets of board propping branches and leaves out of the way however I eventually did it. It's quite a substantial fence 6 feet high, gravel board at the bottom as it's on a slope, from 6 inches at one end to nothing at the other, and then a 1 foot high trellis on top. It's a pretty straightforward job, the main things you need to make sure of that the posts are truly vertical and that the holes are deep enough (2ft). I used "Postfix" ready mixed quick drying cement and aggregate, the last thing to do is make final adjustments to verticality and then add the mix to a temporarily braced post. I put it together with long screws power-driven rather than using nails in as it's easier to be accurate, you don't disturb the nearly-set concrete and it will be easier to take apart again one day if I ever need to.

The best thing though is that having dug up the roots with mattock, I will now be able to plant right up to the fence. A bit of judicious disentangling meant that I was able to move some substantial shoots of a Crimson Glory Vine (Vitis coignetiae) so they will cover part of the trellis when the shoots arrive in a few weeks time. I'm forcing myself not to buy any plants for the area at the moment so I can change my mind several times before planting.

2nd shot in the foot is that the wife now likes the idea of extra privacy so much, that I've now got instructions to extend the fence another 30-40 feet down the garden for when she sits in the hammock suspended from the walnut tree in the summer.

An unexpected bonus is that the lower level of holes in the trellis have become a favoured perch of the smaller birds. Seems to be a safe height above the ground and with something above them to protect them from a hawk or other bird that may be on the lookout for an easy meal.

    On the other hand, England is very green - all winter long, the rabbits, squirrels, robins, blackbirds, magpies, doves etc. frolic around the garden like they're following a Beatrix Potter script, early spring blossom is already out and sheltered daffodils are doing the rotating through 90 degrees thing they do before flowering properly, snow drops are almost over and winter irises are coming out slowly - I love this time of year as the garden starts to wake up.

    So much for me going on about spring around the corner last month! Although much of the month was taken up with weather reports of impending blizzard conditions that never actually arrived in most of the country. My son (and I) watched with jealousy at the reports of "snow days" and of deep falls in some Northern parts of the country with ideal sledging conditions. I like the idea of waking up one morning to find the whole world has turned to magical whiteness and that transport and therefore most of the world's plans for that day have to be put on hold. Especially these days when a couple of centimetres of snow becomes newsworthy, I can't ever remember a single "snow day" as a child - when snow falls were much more frequent and heavier when they came too.

It's the last day of February today and last night was the coldest night of the winter in much of Britain, maybe so much so that it reached that awful state that my grandmother used to announce when I was little and felt that I'd burst if it didn't snow "it's too cold to snow now" - oh the crushing enormity of that sentence! What if I'd been wishing too hard and went too far?!

    It doesn't seem much like it at the moment, but March is when spring blossom - our compensation for enduring gloomy, wet winters - really gets going. The earliest flowering cherries in sheltered locations are opening now and fairly soon we'll have blossom of pears, apples and plums. Many flowering cherries are actually rather vulgar - nicer in other peoples gardens than your own, (and like that rather loud but entertaining bloke at work or the pub, you enjoy the company in that situation but wouldn't want him sat on your sofa). Cheerful bright pink cherry blossom on dismal March days with grey skies and drizzle coming down make it difficult not to admire them.

Best of all, the furry buds of Magnolias are full of promise preparing to burst open into the starry white flowers which look so beautiful against a blue spring sky.

    I'm greatly entertained each morning at the moment by one or other of the pair of grey squirrels that include my garden in part of their range. When I come down for my first cup of tea, one or other is invariably hopping around in a very theatrical  Beatrix Potter manner just outside the kitchen window. They were very much in attendance in the spring, absent for much of the summer and now they're back again.

We've a large old walnut tree at the end of the garden which is the great attraction for them, as are the large containers that I have holding plants I'm growing on because I haven't decided where to put them yet or I'm saving for future gifts or raffle prizes (I always seem to get asked to donate one or two by some-one). These container plants provide the ideal medium for the squirrels to hide their nuts in. For ages I thought the disturbed compost was blackbirds looking for insects (maybe it is as well), but mainly it's the squirrels. It's a minor inconvenience compared to the pleasure that I get though. Not to mention the pleasure and exercise the dog gets as she spends much of her day running up and down the garden following their arboreal procession at ground level and making the most peculiar noises in the process in a hope that they'll come down and fight.

    The garden has just passed by what was its worst time of the year. Early to mid February is a pretty miserable time really, I'm sure that's why Valentine's day was put there to try and add some brightness to the gloom. No new growth to speak of, the evergreen leaves that there are, are looking pretty bashed about by winter winds and the frosts of which we have had many - and deep ones too. If you've had much heavy snow you may well have some damage to branches weighed down, even split or evergreens split through the foliage by the weight of resting snow.

But just as the proverb says "The darkest hour is just before dawn", so here we are only two weeks later and there are loads of buds forming on shrubs. Some of the more enthusiastic ones in my front garden have an all-over bright green bloom when seen from a distance. Daffodils are growing in earnest, many of the flowering spikes are at the point where the bud goes from growing vertically to turning to face the crowd ready for the grand entrance. In more sheltered spots daffodil flowers have been out for a while now. My indoor hyacinths are now coming to an end, just one particularly magnificent bowl of four pale blues left, so the outdoor ones are starting to push up their flower spikes to take over the show.

I am so glad that I took the time to plant up some pots and bowls with hyacinth bulbs last September. It seems such a chore at the time and particularly when there are so many flowers around providing instant gratification. The idea of planning for a distant display when there is already so much around at the time makes it far easier to sit in the sun with a good book. I'm now looking forwards to my 2 huge bowls of oh-so-elegant pink and white lily flowered tulips to come. Like the hyacinths, they'll be weeks ahead of those outside, longer lasting than cut flowers and far bigger and better than the smaller bulbs planted in too-shallow bowls that you can buy all over the place. Mine are mostly in deeper plant pots or similar containers. The extra root-run downwards seems to translate directly into extra flower spike height (and so more flowers) upwards.

    I must also remember to go and cut some branches of pussy willow catkins to put into a vase, they remind me doubly of spring, of spring now, and of the spring time when I too was in my spring time.


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