The Garden in March
At last ‘marvellous’ March is here, the first of the spring months and the true beginning of the new gardening year. The often dark, dreary and wet winter is behind us and there is much to entice us back into the garden. However, don’t forget that March weather can be very changeable with sometimes all four seasons of weather coming on just one day! We gardeners need to make the best of the good weather days but don’t be tempted to do too much physical work too soon. We have all regretted digging over the whole of the vegetable bed on one afternoon only to find the simple act of walking a struggle the next day! Having said that there is plenty to do in March so a little but often might be the best approach and also to look forward to the latter part of the month when the clocks go forward and we can enjoy working on into the early evenings.
Looking back over February I did warn you that it can be a cold month but even I wasn’t expecting such a cold snap coming at a time when the garden just seemed to be coming back to life. The Snowdrops (Galanthus) that were ahead of some of the others were flattened by it and looking very sorry for themselves but as they always do they revived very quickly and are still going strong at the end of the month. The same was true of the Hellebores and I was sure that one group of flowers which had only just opened would never survive but they did and it just goes to show how hardy these late winter/early spring flowers are.
Revived Snowdrops… and Hellebore
The shrubs such as the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis), Cornus mas and Sarcococca (Christmas Box) have also been bringing lots of colour, interest and perfume to the front garden even though they had to survive not only the cold spell but also some very strong winds in the last few days. My attention has now turned to the Forsythia at the front which seems to be visited by a female Bullfinch most mornings. Hopefully there are enough flower buds on it for her to have a good breakfast and for us to enjoy some flowers at some time in March!
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) Cornus mas
It is also really good to see the long catkins on the Hazels (Corylus) in the hedge and those of you who have a weeping Kilmarnock Willow (Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’) will no doubt be enjoying its more rounded, slightly grey, male catkins with striking yellow anthers at some stage in the month. I mentioned the Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles) last month and although ours has been slow to open during the cold, wet and windy weather it is now starting to show quite a lot of flower colour on its bare branches. The Camellia has also very sensibly taken the same approach. It is full of swollen flower buds but has kept them tightly closed until a few days ago but I am sure that by the end of March it will be in full flower. It is still quite a young plant and this will only be its third year in the ground yet it has well over thirty buds on it and is certainly living up to its name, C. x williamsii ‘Anticipation’!
Chaenomeles Camellia ‘Anticipation’
At ground level the daffodils (Narcissus) are now beginning to take over from the Snowdrops and this year there will be plenty in flower for St. David’s Day. We favour the dwarf varieties which fare better in our windy garden than the larger types. One favourite is N. ‘Tete-a-Tete’ which is very hardy, reliable and will continue to flower well over many years. It is particularly good because it has several flowers on each stem and therefore gives a really good display. N. ‘Pipit’ is another good plant with again two or three flowers on each stem, these being sweetly scented and pale lemon-yellow. N. ‘Thalia’ is also a lovely, white daffodil with generally more than one flower on each stem. My plant encyclopedia lists well over a hundred different species and cultivars, although I think they actually number in the thousands, all with slightly different combinations of the six outer petals (making up the perianth) surrounding the inner corona (cup or trumpet) and varying in shape, size and colour. There literally is something for everyone’s taste and as I mentioned last month if you have space for more bulbs of any kind they are available at this time of year from garden centres as potted plants. You may be wondering at this point why I haven’t mentioned the Crocus and the truth is that I am not that keen on them. They are lovely when they first come through but once they are open they seem to succumb very quickly to any bad weather unlike the Snowdrops and Daffodils. However, I have to admit that we have a few clumps of purple Crocus coming up through some hardy Geraniums at the front at the moment and they do look good!
Dwarf Daffodils Purple Crocus
Also at ground level I mentioned the Pulmonarias last month and in March they are joined by the Primulas to give some welcome colour as well as early nectar for the bees. They fall into three main groups- the Auricula primulas, the Candelabra primulas and the Primrose-Polyanthus primulas. The evergreen Auriculas are generally thought of as the ‘show Auriculas’ with their beautifully coloured and patterned flowers in clusters on a stalk but there are several ‘border Auriculas’ such as Primula ‘Argus’ and P. ‘Mark’. The Candelabras have several whorls of flowers arranged in tiers up tall, sturdy stems and at their best in moist soils near streams and in bog gardens. Primula beesiana is a reddish-pink with yellow eyes and P. prolifera has golden yellow flowers. There is a particularly good display of Candelabra primulas in the woodland and stream garden at Aberglasney and I for one cannot wait until the garden can open up to visitors again. The third group is the extremely diverse one of the Primrose-Polyanthus group of which many are spring flowering. They are divided into two sub-groups although interbreeding has blurred the distinction between them. Basically the Primrose group produce single flowers on short stems just above the leaves and the Polyanthus group produce a cluster of flowers at the top of a substantial stalk and are therefore held well above the leaves. Whichever you choose they come in a variety of colours and are a great asset to the spring garden. I have a soft spot for the species types which include Primula vulgaris (Common Primrose), P. elator (Oxslip) and P. veris (Cowslip) but the cultivars P.’ Wanda’ and P. ‘Wanda Supreme Series’ will not disappoint. We added two new plants last year, a white drumstick Primula, P. dendiculata alba and P. vulgaris ‘Drumcliffe’, a primrose type with chocolate coloured foliage and flowers which change from a delicate pink to white as they age.
Many of the Primulas prefer to grow in the shadier parts of the garden and this is also true of two of my other spring favourites- Brunnera and the wonderfully named Omphalodes both genera belonging to the Borage family. Brunneras have elongated, hairy leaves, some with cream margins, and delicate clusters of forget-me-not blue flowers on fairly long stems which are much sought after by bees. For us they start flowering in late February but will continue on into late spring and sometimes even flower again later in the year. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is a particularly good plant with its variegated leaves which look good throughout the growing season. Omphalodes (Navelwort) is generally another blue flowered plant although some species have white flowers. Ours is normally evergreen but this year the February cold snap turned the old leaves brown. These will be removed at the start of the month to reveal the new growth coming through and I am sure we will have our first flowers before too long. Our plant is Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’ with its deep blue flowers and is named after the great plantsman who is best known for the Japanese Cherry trees which he helped cultivate and preserve, Collingwood Ingram.
What about all the jobs in the March garden I hear you say! Well there are plenty as I am sure you are aware and as usual a comprehensive list is given in the blog archives for March 2019. We will be finishing off top dressing the beds, borders and vegetable patch with our own compost if we haven’t got it all done before the end of February. The green manure in the vegetable beds has already been cut down and lightly forked in and I was delighted to see plenty of worms presumably enjoying the manure which was added at the beginning of winter. The compost on the beds not only improves the soil and acts as a weed suppressor but it also acts as a mulch to retain moisture, not that this is a problem at the moment having had around 9” of rain in February! Before adding the compost we always weed the beds first, add some chicken pellets and also trim the edge of the lawn which makes the whole lawn look better straightaway. Even if we are not adding compost to all the beds they do all get a sprinkling of chicken fertiliser pellets just to keep the fertility levels up. As you work on the beds you will begin to see the first of the new growth on the herbaceous perennials and this is a sign that they are ready to be lifted, divided and replanted if you think this is necessary. It is worth doing every few years particularly if you see that the old centre of the clump is not showing any leaf growth. Large clumps will probably need prising apart with two forks back to back or even cutting up with a sharp spade. Pieces can then be trimmed to remove any damaged root ends and one piece replanted in the same area after the addition of some compost and fertiliser. Other pieces can be moved to new areas of the garden, passed to friends or potted up for later use.
March is also the time for pruning some of the shrubs in the garden and the most obvious candidates are all types of roses apart from the Ramblers which are pruned in the late summer after flowering has finished. Many gardeners start their rose pruning in late February but it is fine to carry this on into March but aim to get it all finished before the end of the month. As the exact method of pruning depends on the rose type I have already posted a blog on this topic and if you need any advice on rose pruning or would just like to know a little more about roses and general pruning techniques I would encourage you to take a look. If you have been enjoying the coloured stems of the Dogwoods (Cornus) over the winter this is now the time to give them a hard prune in order to produce lots of new, young shoots which always have the best colour. Prune all the shoots back to within one or two buds of last year’s growth. This will significantly reduce the size of the shrub and if you think this is rather too drastic then you can just prune around one third of the shoots one year, a second third next year and so on. This is also the time of year to prune the late-flowering shrubs such as Buddleja, Lavatera, Sambucus (Elder) and Leycesteria (Pheasant Berry). This will give the new growth plenty of time to grow and produce flowers later in the season. They need to be cut back hard to within one or two buds of the older, woody growth at the base. One of our Buddlejas is an old specimen and has lots of very old, damaged wood at its base and this year we are going to give it a good clear out at the same time as pruning back last year’s growth. Hardy Fuchsias as they are also late flowerers benefit from a hard prune at this time, cutting right back to within a few inches of the ground. We will leave the Hydrangeas until late in the month or even into April so that the old flower heads can protect the buds beneath from any late frosts. Last year we pruned a little too early and the new growth was caught by an April frost. The plants didn’t suffer any long term damage and still flowered extremely well but for a few weeks the top leaves were a bit unsightly. We will also leave the Penstemons until April cutting back to new shoots lower down but not too far into old wood. Normally this means removing lots of perfectly good looking growth but this year after the February cold snap they are looking very sorry for themselves and it will be a pleasure to prune them back hard. This is also a good time to remove the dead growth from the ornamental grasses. The deciduous ones are easier to deal with as the brown growth is simply cut back to the ground or just above any new green shoots at the base. The evergreen ones are a bit more of a challenge as the old growth needs to be ‘combed out’ with the hand or cut off with scissors as low down as possible.
Work on the lawn can also be started in March. I have already mentioned the benefit of redefining the lawn edges and the lawn will look even better following its first cut which we will do as soon as it is dry enough. Once that is done you can think about scarifying the lawn to remove the ‘thatch’, dead grass which builds up over the year. If your lawn has a lot of moss which is quite likely after such a wet winter it needs a moss killer treatment before scarifying or you will just spread the moss all over the lawn. Moss also likes a compacted top so aerating the soil with a fork or special machine is also a good idea.
March is also the first good month of the year for seed sowing both under cover and outside. In the greenhouse some early vegetables and hardy or half-hardy flower seeds can be started off either in seed trays for pricking out later on or in individual modules to avoid root disturbance when transplanting. Outside the vegetable bed can be prepared for sowing and planting by raking the surface to produce a fine ‘tilth’ and by adding fertiliser. Cloches can also be used to warm the soil for some early sowings. However, don’t be tempted to sow too early especially in cold districts and a good tip is to wait until you see some weed seeds germinating before you start sowing vegetables. Onion sets can also be planted in March as can some early potatoes but be aware that young potato shoots are very vulnerable to frost damage and need to be protected by polythene, fleece or by ‘earthing up’ in ridges. The traditional time for planting first early potatoes was always Good Friday but as this date varies from year to year I am not sure how good a guide it is. We will get a few tubers in towards the end of the month and the rest planted in early April just to hedge our bets. The tubers are ‘chitting’ nicely in a light but frost free place so that when they go in they have already begun to produce some shoots. We only grow early potatoes on our limited amount of land as there is nothing quite like your own earlies and once the ground is cleared in June the area can be used for other crops.
I hope that you enjoy your time out in the March garden and that by the end of it you are pleased with all your efforts. We spent a good part of yesterday in our garden and although feeling a few aches and pains today we made really good progress in just a few hours.
As this is the start of the new growing season I thought that my next blog later this month might be a summary of all those posted in the last twelve months so that you can go back to those that you think might still be useful. This will be followed by the Garden in April and then May which will complete the full twelve months as I started the ‘month’ series in June of last year.
Until then take care out there and enjoy getting back into the garden and hopefully it won’t be too long before we can all return to the Old Railway Line, I know they are desperately keen to welcome us all back as soon as they can.