As I get older I love March more and more. As I write this the snow is howling through Longmeadow on a bitter wind but I know that before long there is a real chance of some sunshine and a few precious hours outside working in shirtsleeves.
The weather can be capricious, ranging from warm drought to snow and gales – sometimes on the same day – so do not be lulled into an over-eager false sense of security. Although all instinct is to make as much headway as possible it is better to be a bit late in Spring than early. What really matters is to get the garden ready after a long winter, preparing the soil, sorting equipment, splitting and dividing perennials as they start to grow- getting the garden shipshape. Not forgetting, of course, to enjoy every moment of wonderful new growth.
What to do in the garden this month:
If you have not done so already, then now is the time to get on and mulch your borders. Mulching is very effective but very simple. All you have to do is spread a layer of organic material over any bare soil.
This will do three important jobs simultaneously. The first is to suppress any annual weeds and weaken any perennial ones. The second is to reduce evaporation and therefore keep in moisture, and the third is that it will be incorporated into the soil by worms and improve the structure and nutrition.
The very best material to use is good home-made garden compost as this will be rich with the bacteria and fungi plants need to be healthy. However, mushroom compost is excellent, as are bark chips or very well rotted manure.
Whatever you use, it is important to spread it thick enough – no less than 2 inches deep and twice that if you have enough material. It is better to do half the garden properly than all of it with too thin a layer of mulch.
DIVIDE HERBACEOUS PLANTS
Any herbaceous plant can be divided this month. Dig the whole plant up and discard the centre section to the compost heap, replanting the more vigorous outside parts of the plants in groups which will grow together to make one large plant. It is worth doing this to all herbaceous perennials every three to five years.
The grass will need mowing in March, but do not cut it too short. Just give it a light trim for the rest of this month and the grass will be a lot healthier – and better able to resist summer drought – as a result.
March is a perfectly good time to prune any shrub roses, late-flowering clematis, buddleia, dogwood, rubus, willows, and deciduous ceonothus. Just remember two rules: cut hard to stimulate vigorous regrowth and always cut back to something, be it a leaf or a bud.
DECIDUOUS & EVERGREEN GRASSES
Deciduous grasses like miscanthus, calamagrostis and deschampsia should all be cut back hard to the ground before the new green shoots start to grow too long. Evergreen grasses like the Stipa and cortaderia families should not be cut back. However, comb through each plant with a rake or your hands (I advise wearing stout gloves as grasses can be very sharp) pulling out all dead growth. The old dead growth can be shredded and composted.
When you have finished clearing and cutting back, give the grasses a thick mulch with a low-fertility material – i.e. not garden compost or manure. I use a pine bark mulch. However, do not divide or move any grasses at this time of year. They must be growing strongly to have the best chance of surviving so wait until late May or even early June.
ALLOTMENT /VEG GARDEN
- Sow seeds under cover such as cabbage, lettuce, celery, beetroot and tomatoes.
- Do not sow any seeds outside if the ground feels cold to touch. If warm and dry enough, sow Broad beans, beetroot, rocket, spinach, mizuna, parsnips, radish and winter lettuce.
- Chit potatoes and plant out at the end of the month if the ground is dry enough.
- Plant out onion and shallot sets. Cover them with fleece for the first couple of weeks to stop birds pulling them from the ground.
- Dig in overwintering green manure.
- Dig any unprepared ground and/or make raised beds by the end of the month.
- Prune Gooseberries and red and white currants.
What to spot – wildlife
When tidying up the borders, watch out for hibernating hedgehogs who may have wrapped themselves in fallen leaves and stems and are still hibernating. These are becoming increasingly and disastrously rare in the countryside and gardens are by far the most important habitat for them in the UK.
Ponds are an essential component of the wildlife garden and no creature enjoys or uses them more fully than the common frog, Rana temporaria. In return they will eat slugs, caterpillars, mosquitos and flies and are also a very useful indicator of the environmental health of your garden. Frogs can be differentiated from toads by their smooth, olive coloured skin and longer back legs. If you have lots of frogs, it is a sure sign that the eco-balance is good. This is because they breathe through their skins and are thus extra sensitive to toxins so are amongst the first creatures to suffer from pollution of any kind, and especially the result of using chemicals in a garden.
Having spent winter submerged in mud and hidden in amongst piles of wood and leaves, frogs are drawn by smell of glycolic acid that is produced by algae in ponds in order to mate. They need still fresh water, so garden ponds without a fountain are ideal.
The female will lay up to three thousand eggs, usually at the shallow edge of a pond where the water will be warmer and receive more light. Each seed-sized egg is wrapped in a globule of jelly and the spawn of several frogs will join to form a gelatinous raft on the surface of the water.
About three weeks later these hatch into tadpoles which will live in the pond as they develop into young frogs over the summer. They leave the water about 12 weeks after hatching, sometime between midsummer and early autumn, and you will find that your garden is suddenly full of small froglets, seeking out cool, shady spots. They will not return to the water until they are old enough to breed, which is usually after about 2 years.