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.

October

October is a yellow month, with the Field maples, hawthorns and above all elm hedgerows blazing brilliant yellow before falling.  It is an earthy time with the smells of fruit, wormcasts, fallen leaves and woodsmoke sifting through the afternoon air.

There comes a moment in October when you realise that the garden is running out of steam. I like the way that the season can shift almost overnight in October with soft days glowing with light and midday sun warm enough for shirtsleeves and then blasts of weather that send you huddling for warmth and shelter.

However good the weather, you cannot avoid the evidence that the garden is drifting steadily into winter. Every sunny day is borrowed. The light – although often the softest and most golden of the whole year – is slipping away.

Every second of light is precious because finally, on the last weekend of the month, the clocks change and a door closes tight until next spring.

Despite the way that light, colour and human and plant energy are all on the wane, it is time to take stock and to plan ahead. It is not so much a time to put the garden to bed but to gently prepare it for action. The more that you can get done between now and Christmas to prepare the garden for Spring, the better it will be for you and the garden.

AUTUMNAL BIRDLIFE AT LONGMEADOW

The whole relationship between the garden and birds changes as soon as the leaves start to drop. For a start they are more visible. They crowd the branches as a series of shapes rather than sound then the outline of a small tree will suddenly fragment as a flurry of birds leave scared away from grabbing berries whilst they can.

It makes you aware of how present the soft midsummer sound of unseen birdsong is, how important an element in any garden. Winter bird sound is much harsher, a series of warnings rather than melodious love songs. Occasionally a Robin will astonish the afternoon with a clear burst of song, but a November afternoon in this garden tends to shuffle with staccato bird sound, like overhearing an argument in another room.

You know when winter is round the corner when the Fieldfares and Redwings arrive from their summer quarters in Siberia. They are heralds of the season just as surely as summer is certified by the first swallow. But the swallows arrive with a kind of soaring familiarity, reforming intimacy with the garden and the precise details of the house like a child returning home after weeks away. Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) on the other hand are a curious mixture of awkward truculence and shyness. They look like large thrushes with handsome grey head, chestnut back, black tail and spotted underparts but are always seen in flocks, whereas the resident song thrushes are much shyer, more solitary birds – and have a much sweeter song.

Fieldfares rise in a clucking, chattering cloud if you so much as appear within their sight and yet are always pushing aggressively forward as soon as they think your back is turned. Everything about them is harsh and jerky. Yet I like them. They are of the season. They like the apples left in the orchard best of all and will fiercely defend a tree with windfalls from other birds. They also do a lot of good for the gardener, eating snails, leatherjackets and caterpillars.

The other winter thrush, the Redwing, is smaller, daintier and less intrusive. Whereas the fieldfare has an instantly recognisable mauvey grey head, the Redwing is only really distinguishable from a song thrush in flight when the red flash under the wing is very visible – although its tendency to flock, like the fieldfare, is also a giveaway. In the dead of the country night, in an otherwise silent pitch blackness I sometimes hear their thin rather ghostly flight calls as they fly overhead.

What to do in the garden this month:

SCARIFY LAWNS

A bit of work on your lawns now will be repaid many times next spring. Start by raking it hard with a spring-tine wire rake. This will remove a surprising amount of thatch and moss which can be put on the compost heap. Do not worry about bare patches – if large a little seed can be sprinkled on them but otherwise they will fill naturally.

Then aerate it to remove compaction. On a small patch, a fork thrust in as deep as possible every 9-12 inches will do the trick but you can hire aerating machines for a larger lawn that remove small plugs of soil.

When you have finished, brush any plugs or loose soil across the surface and if it is very compacted, also brush sharp sand into the holes you have made. Don’t worry if it looks rough –  it will quickly recover in time to face whatever winter can offer and start next spring in the best possible condition.

•   If you do not already posses them, invest in horticultural fleece and some cloches. The point is that these are only useful if you have and employ them before you need them and there is no guarantee that there will not be a hard frost in October. Cloches are very good for rows of vegetables, keeping them dry as well as warm (although I always leave the ends open – happy to trade some heat for some ventilation) and fleece is the best temporary protection against frost, either laid out over small plants or draped over shrubs and bushes.

•   Keep deadheading throughout October, particularly the equatorial plants like dahlias. This will extend their flowering season and squeeze the last bloom from them.

•   Save yourself a fortune by collecting seeds from perennial plants, using paper (not polythene) bags. Always label seed packets immediately. Store in a cool, dry place until ready for sowing.

•   It is not too late to take cuttings and there is no more satisfying process in the garden if it is successful. Choose healthy non-flowering growth, use a sharp knife and very free draining compost (I use 50:50 sharp sand and sieved leaf mould) and keep the humidity high. Most things will strike now and overwinter successfully without needing potting on.

•   It is worth taking trouble to store the fruit so that it lasts as long as possible. Only store perfect apples, which discounts nearly all windfalls. A cellar is ideal or a cool garage, but polythene bags, folded not tied and punctured with pencil holes work very well. Put the bags somewhere cool, dark and dry.

•   You can plant or move deciduous trees, shrubs and hedges even if they are still in leaf as they have finished growing and the soil is still warm so the roots will begin to grow immediately. I once moved a 4 year-old, 20 metre long hornbeam hedge in October. It never batted an eyelid and grew away the following spring stronger than ever. It is essential, of course, to give them a really good soak when you do so and to repeat this weekly until the ground is really wet or the leaves have fallen. But if you are planting or moving a number of trees or shrubs  It is best to start with any evergreens before deciduous plants as they need to maximise root growth before winter kicks in.

•   Plant or move biennials such as forget-me-nots, wallflowers, foxgloves, onorpordums and mulleins. Dig up healthy Verbena bonariensis, cut back and pot up to use to take cuttings next spring and take cuttings of penstemons and salvias.

•  Continue planting spring bulbs but wait another month for tulips.

SOW SWEET PEAS

By sowing sweet peas in October you will have bigger plants with a stronger root system that should give flowers next spring earlier and last longer. But the disadvantage is that these young plants will need storing and some protection over winter if the weather is bad. So I sow some now and another batch in February and spread the risk.

I sow three seeds in a three-inch pot although root-trainers also do the job very well. Use a good potting rather than seed compost. Put them to germinate on a windowsill or greenhouse and once the first leaves have grown, place outside in a cold frame or protected spot. They only need protection from hard frosts, mice and becoming sodden, so do not provide any extra heat. They will be ready to plant out in April.

•   Cut back and compost all rotting foliage in the borders but leave as much winter structure as possible.

•   Start digging any ground that you want to replant this winter or use next spring. Doing it at this time of year means that it is accessible, dry and there is more daylight to do it in! But if this seems daunting do 30 minutes a week in two 15-minute sessions. Leave the soil in large slabs for the weather to break down over winter.

•   If you have raised beds – and if not October is an ideal month for making them – mulch them with an inch or so of garden compost as they become clear, leaving the worms to work it in ready for sowing or planting next spring.

•   Unless the weather is bad, most leaves do not start falling until November but gather them all and store every last one – nothing makes for a better soil conditioner or potting medium. If you do not have somewhere to store them sort this out early in the month. A simple bay made from four posts and chicken wire is ideal.

•   Sow ‘Aquadulce’ broad beans outside for an early harvest next May or June and sow sweet peas in pots and over-winter in a cold frame.

•   Keep cutting the grass for as long as it keeps growing, however it is better to have the grass too long than too short over the winter months. Rake out thatch and moss and add to the compost heap.

•   Cut off any hellebore leaves that are obviously diseased and mulch around spring-flowering perennials with a 50:50 mix of last year’s leaf mould and garden compost.

PRUNE CLIMBING ROSES

Climbing roses flower on shoots grown the same spring so they can be pruned hard now. (Rambling roses on the other hand produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should only be pruned immediately after flowering.) Start by removing any damaged or crossing growth or any very old wood which can be pruned right back to the ground. The main stems should be fanned out at an equidistance as horizontally as possible, tying them to wires or a trellis. Then all the side shoots growing from these main stems – which produced this year’s flowers – can be reduced to a short stub of a couple of leaves. The effect should be a tracery of largely horizontal growth with pruned side-shoots running along their length. Finally make sure it is all tied firmly in to avoid winter damage

•   We give our deciduous hedges – hornbeam, hawthorn and field maple – a light trim in October which keeps them crisp right through the winter and looks really good when everything else has sunk into decline.

Finally, and most importantly, get outside and relish every second of October sun. It will be a long time gone.