March

Of all the months of the year March is the most fickle. If it flatters, it does so only to deceive. If it threatens, it just as quickly cajoles. Last March, here at home we had snow, ice and a wind from the arctic that cut through every layer of clothing like a knife. The garden cowered under the onslaught for weeks. This year we go into March after the warmest February ever recorded. If nothing else, climate change  is throwing all familiar patterns into the air. 

But the garden adapts, resists and responds gently to the slow drift of the seasons regardless of day to day weather and the influence of the growing light is just as important as the weather. Here in the UK the clocks go forward on the 31st and we are presented with a glorious extra hour of daylight in the evenings on top of the effect of the seasonal lengthening of the days. 

And whatever the weather decides to do, March is Spring. It may be a few brave bulbs peeking through the snow or a whole mass of daffodils, early blossom and even some tulips, but Spring is surely here.

MARCH BIRDSONG

By mid March the sap is rising and the new surge of energy pulsing through the natural world flows in my veins too. Every day more new leaves break bud and the hedges start to glow with new green like stained glass. 

The garden takes on a substance, acquires body and fills out from the bony starkness of the winter months. When the new growth appears, filling the voids, rounding the edges and gradually smudging across bare lines against the sky it always does so with a flare of surprise, a gift that arrives, for all the predictability of the calendar, unexpected.

Of course the weather can be vile. Heavy snow, ice, biting east winds are all possible and even probable but no weather in March stays long. Everything about the month is predicated on change, even from hour to hour and this trend continues as the month progresses and moves from winter into the full tide of spring. 

But of all the changes the one that I love most is the dusk chorus. The Dawn chorus gets most attention – and rightly so – but it reaches its peak around the end of May. The chorus in March is much briefer, more limited and, because the light is sinking, more defiant as the garden dissolves into the dusk. 

The dusk birdsong on a March evening is wistful rather than sad because  in March tomorrow always holds the promise of more light, more day, more sunshine, more growth – even more birdsong.  

FROGS

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. 

Frogs can be differentiated from toads by their smooth, olive coloured skin and longer back legs. 

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. 

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 to do half the garden properly than all of it with too thin a layer of mulch. 

  • 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.
  • 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 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, elder, 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 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 – ie 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.

June

I always feel that June answers questions that the rest of the year poses. Some of these are practical – how will this border look at its very best? How sunny will this corner be at the very peak of the year? Where does the sun rise on the longest day? But most of the answers are to much more philosophical and personal questions, such as: Why do I garden? Or how does such a small patch of this earth give me so very much pleasure?

Colour arrives like a carnival and should be celebrated with high abandon. There are Oriental poppies with huge orange blooms, Bearded Irises topped with some of the richest colours in the whole floral world, large-flowering clematis and, as the month unfurls, roses, glorious roses of every shade of pink, white, red and yellow. The only sane response to this panoply of flowers is to bathe luxuriously in the colour.

I am sure that the secret of June is that it is not the peak of the garden’s year or aspirations. The vegetable garden is still surprisingly empty at the start of the month and although a June border is always lovely, it never has the range of plants or colours that come along later in summer. But because so much is still to come there is not that pang of incipient loss in the way that autumn is glimpsed around the corner of a late summer’s day.

Although trees, hedges and shrubs now have all their full summer foliage, everything still has the freshness and inner glow of spring. Nothing is jaded. Nothing has yet been taken for granted. June is growing and every moment is a celebration. In fact the weather can often be too cold, too wet or, just occasionally, too hot. No matter. This is minor stuff. The British garden – and countryside – is at its very best and I adore every second of it.

Midsummer’s Day, the summer solstice, is a real place in the same way that New Year’s Day or Easter is a meaningful place in the cycle of the year, and should be celebrated with as much energy and enthusiasm as these holidays – which, of course, our pre-Christian, megalith-building ancestors did. From June 24th onwards the days imperceptibly tip towards winter, so June must be savoured to the very last drop.

My idea of horticultural heaven is to be weeding or planting with light enough to work until after 10pm – although weeds have been known to be planted and seedlings weeded in the half-blind rapture of the June twilight! I carry these few precious evenings with me for the rest of the year rather like a pebble in my pocket that I can touch, and they see me through the dark days of winter.

BEES

Swarming bees are a sight that can be alarming at this time of year but in fact they are highly unlikely to attack or bother you at all. The queen will leave her hive looking for a new home, taking with her thousands of male worker bees. They will circle furiously, making a sound like a hundred motorbikes before settling on a branch in a huge living cluster, before heading off for an opening in a hollow trunk or a roof to establish the new colony.

GREENHOUSE /ALLOTMENT

The vegetable garden is coming out of the ‘Hungry Gap’ – that period between the last of the winter crops and the first of summer’s harvest – but there is still time to start a vegetable garden from scratch although there should be some urgency to do so. Tomato plants, courgettes, squashes, runner beans and sweetcorn can all be planted outside now the nights are warming up and aubergines, peppers, melons, cucumbers and more tomatoes grown in a greenhouse. It is important to keep a succession of lettuce going this month, making small sowings every two or three weeks to ensure a steady supply of fresh salad leaves. And of course keep on top of the weeds and water regularly if it is dry.

What to do in the garden this month:

TRIM VERTICALS

It is amazing how forgiving the eye is of the broad expanses of hedge, grass, border or anything really, as long as the edges, in any direction, are suitably straight and clean cut. It is too early to cut hedges because not all young birds have left the nest, but you can cut all entrances and exits and vertical planes in gaps in hedges to crispen them up and whilst this is quick and easy to do and clear up, it can transform the garden. Then, in a month’s time, all the hedges can have a proper trim and your edges, which by then will have become a little fuzzy again, can have their second cut.

SOW BIENNIALS

Biennials, such as Wallflowers, Honesty, Foxgloves, Forget-me-nots and Aquilegias differ from annuals, which grow, flower and set seed all in one growing season, in that they grow fast from seed and develop strong roots and foliage in one season and then flower in the next. For most this means that they germinate and grow without flowering in summer and autumn, remaining dormant over winter, then have another burst of growth before flowering in spring and early summer.

Sow them now in a seed tray, pots or in rows in the vegetable plot and prick them out into pots or thin so that each plant can develop healthy roots and foliage before planting them out where you want them to grow in autumn.

THIN APPLES, PEARS AND DESSERT GRAPES TO ENSURE GOOD SIZED FRUIT

It can be alarming when your precious apple tree suddenly deposits hundreds of small fruits on the ground, but this is perfectly normal and known as the ‘June Drop’.  The tree is just reducing the quantity of fruit it carries in order to successfully ripen those that remain. However it is indiscriminate about which fruit it lets go, so it is a good idea to selectively remove the smallest fruit at this time of year before the tree does it for you.

Reduce each cluster on a spur to just two fruits that are not touching each other. Not only will these grow and ripen better as a result, but also the risk of damaging the branches by the weight of the fruit later in the year is greatly reduced.

THE CHELSEA CHOP

‘The Chelsea Chop’ refers to a pruning herbaceous perennials so that they both flower later than they otherwise would and so that their flowering can be staggered if you have a number of plants. It also means that the plants will be more compact and sturdier, needing less staking. It is called the ‘Chelsea Chop’ because the time to do it is just after Chelsea Flower Show has finished.

The trick is to cut back the strongly growing foliage and stems of late flowering herbaceous perennials such as rudbeckia, heleniums and solidago, removing between a third and a half of the growth. This will stimulate fresh side shoots that will carry extra flowers, albeit appearing a little later and a little smaller than they would have done if left to grow freely. You can selectively do this to part of a large clump or to some of your plants and not others so that the flowering season is extended later into autumn.

DEAD HEAD ROSES TO PROLONG FLOWERING

Dead heading roses is really worth doing at least once a week- and preferably daily – in mid summer.

When you dead head, you are effectively pruning and thus stimulating fresh sideshoots which will bear new flower buds and therefore extend the flowering season. Dead heading also stops the plant developing seed and so increases the chance of repeat flowering as seed always takes precedence from the plant’s supplies of nutrients and water.

Just pulling off the old flower heads will help but by far the best approach is to use a pair of secateurs and to cut back to the first leaf below the spent flower. A new shoot will then grow from this point.

Of course some roses, especially the species bushes, have glorious hips in autumn and these will only develop if the flowers are allowed to set seed and fruit. So, enjoy the flowers as long as they last and then wait for the autumnal display that they will produce from their fruit.

PRUNE WISTERIA, CUTTING BACK ALL NEW GROWTH TO SIX INCHES

Wisteria produces its flowers on new growth, which in turn emerges from spurs off the main shoots. Now is the time to prune all this year’s new shoots back to a spur, leaving no more than about 6 inches of growth. In the process the whole plant can be tidied, trained and tied in so that there are no loose, trailing shoots. If there is any doubt about how hard to prune err on the side of cutting too lightly and then in the new year, when the foliage has all died back, you can prune again, reducing each side shoot to just 2 or 3 inches.

PRUNE EARLY FLOWERING SHRUBS

The Spring flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus, Amelanchier, Deutzia, Weigela and Rubus all produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should be pruned now. This will give the new growth plenty of time to ripen before winter and thus bear maximum flowers next spring. Mature shrubs should be pruned hard, cutting back most of the flowering stems to a healthy new shoot and taking the oldest growth (but no more than a third or quarter of the plant) right back to the base so it is completely renewed every three or four years. A very overgrown shrub should be renewed in this gradual manner too. Young shrubs should have the weakest growth cut back with the remainder pruned just to shape and size. Weed, water and mulch with compost after pruning is done and take semi ripe cuttings from healthy, straight non-flowering pruned stems.