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.

November

Although October is conventionally the month of turning leaves and brilliant colour, it is increasingly November that lights the autumnal torch brightest – at least in the first half of the month. But that leafy flame is becoming daily more fragile and the leaves stream to the garden floor with every wintry gust of wind. All these fallen leaves are gold dust and should be collected every last one to make leafmould which makes superb potting compost and is the ideal soil improver for all woodland plants and bulbs.

If November begins in autumn it ends unambiguously in winter. The days become shockingly short and the chances of frost – or worse – are real enough to make the business of protecting and tidying the garden urgent, so it is a busy month, especially as bad weather can bring work to a juddering halt for days or even weeks at a time. There is ground to be dug, deciduous hedges, trees and shrubs to be planted, tulips to be got into the ground and pots and the borders to be cleared and put to bed for the winter.

But for the gardener all November work is dictated by the weather. If there is a cold, clear spell then the days can be fresh and invigorating and much of the work of setting the garden to rest at the end of the year can be completed. In hope of these days I cut down as little as possible so that the dying stems can catch light and frost as well as provide cover and the seeds some food for birds.

But however positive I try and be, November is a low time of the year for me. December is little better other than it culminates in Christmas, which is fun. The days draw in like a noose and the garden seems to slowly implode, losing all the things that gave it worth. The only answer to this is to tend it dearly, looking after it like an ailing friend both to honour its better days and to prepare for the inevitable recovery in the New Year.

FROST

Frost always arrives at Longmeadow before the end of November – in fact this year we had frost in September and a few quite sharp frosts – down to -5 – in October. But even in a mild year there is no avoiding November frosts. I gathered in all the tender plants before the end of last month and protected those too big to move with a layer of fleece. I have one greenhouse wrapped up on the inside with a layer of bubblewrap and the other has a heater to keep the temperature above 5 degrees. That is enough to keep even the tenderest plant alive and well despite icy winds and arctic frosts all around it.

I am always happy when the ground rings under my boots like iron and the soil is locked intractably into position. It means that the cold is really working its magic for the garden. So what is that magic? After all, it is an unlikely benefactor. Less than 10% of the world’s plants are resistant to it, although a good number of those make up the majority of our British garden plants. However, it is like a purgative for the garden. Fungi, slugs, snails, viruses, insects, mammals like rats, mice and moles, even weak and damaged plants, all get blasted by it. Where it does not kill it does at least slow down proliferation. Just as a healthy person always feels better for a short fast or an icy plunge, so the garden seems to be healthier for a good freeze.

As long as you keep moving and there is not a strong wind blowing it is also surprisingly pleasant weather to work in. Frosty days are ideal for winter pruning – not least because you can stand on the soil without causing too much damage. The truth is that at Longmeadow there are only two kinds of winter weather, cold and dry or cold and wet. Give me cold and dry every time.

FEEDING BIRDS

There is a huge pleasure to be had from watching birds at a bird table and by putting out daily food you can greatly increase the chance of survival for many and subsequent breeding success, especially if it is a very cold winter. Once you start to feed try and be as regular as possible with the supply, as the birds use up precious energy in coming to your bird table which is then wasted if it is bare. Also always put a saucer of water out for them to drink.

Obviously it helps for the food to be as calorific as possible and seeds, nuts and fat are best of all. Left-over pastry, bread and rice always get eaten fast and fruit is good, especially for blackbirds and thrushes. Grated cheese is popular as well as cooked (but not raw) potatoes. Avoid anything salty such as crisps, salted peanuts or bacon. I buy dried mealworms too which robins, tits and wrens gobble up greedily. If in doubt sunflower seeds and fatballs – preferably hanging so tits can land on them without being bullied away by more aggressive birds – are invariably popular. Another way of making sure that all the food does not get gobbled up by pigeons and starlings is to find an old log with lots of cracks and crevices and pour seed over it. The smaller birds will extract every last bit from the fissures that bigger ones cannot reach.

One of the great joys of winter-feeding birds is that you can place the bird table right outside a window so you get a really good sight of them. Have a bird book or app to hand so you can identify them and I always have a pair of binoculars ready too. You don’t have to be a gardener or twitcher to enjoy the diversity and richness of these hungry winter birds, many of which you would never otherwise see, and the more you find out about them, the more fascinating they become.

What to do in the garden this month:

PLANT TULIPS

November is tulip-planting time. This is, to my mind, the most important and best job of the month. It is actually something that can be done at any time between now and Christmas although the earlier they get into the ground the earlier they will flower. The essential thing with all tulips is to make sure that they have good drainage. This matters less if they are to be treated as annuals and dug up after they have flowered but even so they will be happier with plenty of grit or sand added to heavy soil. If they are to be permanent it is important to plant them as deep as you can – I have done so using a crowbar before now to make a hole 12 inches or more deep – and the deeper they are the stronger and straighter the stem will be.

If you are growing them in a container then drainage is easier and they do not have to be so deep and can also be planted in layers – a tulip lasagne, with an earlier variety such as ‘Orange Emperor’ planted deepest that will flower first, followed by a mid-season variety like ‘Negrita’ planted above it and then finally, in the top layer a late-season one such as ‘Queen of Night’.

LIFTING DAHLIAS

Frost reduce Dahlias to blackened tatters so it will be time to bring them in. However the tubers will not be harmed unless the ground freezes, so do not panic. Wait until the top has fully died back and then cut back the top growth to 6 inches whilst they are still in the ground and carefully dig up the tubers, removing as much soil as possible. Stand them upside down for a few days to drain any moisture from the hollow stems and to let the tubers dry a little and then store them in a tray or pot packed with old potting compost, vermiculite, sharpsand or sawdust.

The idea is to keep them cool but frost-free, dark and dry but not to let them dry out completely or else the tubers will shrivel. I lightly water mine after layering them into large pots or crates and then check them every month to see if any are mouldy or shrivelling up.

LEAVES

Keep gathering fallen leaves, mowing them, keeping them damp and storing in a bay or bin bags to make leafmould. Leaves decompose mostly by fungal action rather than bacterial which means that dry leaves can take an awful long time to turn into the lovely, friable, sweet-smelling soft material that true leafmould invariably becomes. So either gather leaves when they are wet or be prepared to dampen them with a good soaking before covering them up with the next layer.

It also helps a lot to chop them up. The easiest way to do this is to mow them which also gathers them up as you do it. Of course if the leaves are too wet they will clog the mower up so I try and sweep and rake them into a line when dry, run the mower over them and then give them a soak with the hose when they are in the special chicken wire-sided bay. If you don’t have room for a dedicated leaf bay then put the mown leaves into a black bin bag, punch a few drainage holes in the bottom, soak them and let it drain and then store it out of sight. This system works perfectly well. Either way the leaves will quietly turn into leafmould over the next six months without any further attention. You can also use them in Spring in a half-decomposed state, as a very good mulch around emerging plants.

PLANT TREES, HEDGES AND SHRUBS

Continue to plant deciduous wood material such as trees, hedges and shrubs. From the beginning of this month nurseries will be selling bare-root plants. Buying woody deciduous shrubs, hedging plants or trees ‘bare-root’ – ie straight from the ground and not in a container – tends to be much cheaper, better quality and offers a much wider choice. But these must be planted when dormant so this is becoming a job that needs doing urgently. Plants in pots can wait a little longer if necessary.

As soon as you receive the plants give them a good drink in a bucket of water and keep them moist until ready to plant. Prepare your planting hole, remembering that a wide hole is much better than a deep one, and do not let the roots dry out even for a minute as they will die back very quickly so keep them covered or soaking in a bucket of water until the very last minute. Plant firmly, keeping all the stem above soil level, stake if necessary, water well and then always mulch thickly.

PLANTING PAPERWHITES FOR XMAS

Paperwhite daffodils, Narcissi papyraceus, will be flowering for Christmas if you plant them at the beginning of November. Unlike most daffodils, it is native to the Mediterranean and does not require a period of vernalisation – or cold – to induce flowering. So plant the bulbs just beneath the surface of your compost in a container (ideally with drainage but a normal bowl can be used if you add some charcoal to keep the soil sweet) keep them watered but not soggy and place in a warm, light place. The bulbs will grow strongly and if indoors in the warmth flower in 4 weeks. To delay and prolong flowering keep them cool but frost-free.

HARDWOOD CUTTINGS.

Hardwood cuttings are easy to take, slow to grow roots but a remarkably straightforward way of creating new shrubs, bushes and even trees from existing favourites. Fruit bushes, roses, any flowering shrub or tree are ideal for this method of propagation. Unlike growing plants from seed, cuttings always ‘come true’ – in other words they are exactly like the parent plant so it is the best way of reproducing favourite plants as well as being almost totally trouble free and needing no extra equipment or shelter.

Cut a 12-24 inch length of straight stem the thickness of a pencil of this year’s growth, and divide it into lengths between 6 & 12 inches long. Cut straight across the bottom and at an angle at the top so you remember which way up to plant it and to provide an angle for water to run off.

Strip any remaining leaves from it so you have bare, straight stems and either place the cuttings so only one third is above soil level in a deep pot filled with very gritty compost (4 or 5 can fit into each pot) or outside in a narrow trench backfilled with gritty sand to ensure good drainage. Leave them until next autumn, watering well once a week and a good percentage will make young plants ready for potting up or planting straight out.

WASHING SLIPPERY PATHS

At this time of year brick and stone paths can be very slippery and dangerous. This is due to algae that grows on the surface, especially if wet and shaded and at this time of year they may stay wet and slippery for months. The best way to reduce the slipperiness is to wash off the algae with a pressure hose (which can be hired by the day). When this is done brush in sharpsand. If the path is brick or stone the porous surface will absorb some of the sand. A quicker – but still quite laborious – alternative is simply to work sand in with a stiff brush without the washing. Either way you have a very effective way of making a path safe without resorting to chemicals.

 

August

August always has that bittersweet combination of long summer days and a real sense of summer slipping away. August evenings are velvet-rich with golden light as the days draw in, and the month has a fullness, like the aftermath of a delicious meal, that pervades the whole garden. The August borders take on a kind of mature, leonine energy with strong colours made richer by the combination of heat and falling light.

Longmeadow takes on a new suit of clothes. There is a new richness of colour dominated by oranges, burgundies, purple and gold. Every day that passes is a bite out of summer and the movement is towards autumn. Yet the borders gain an intensity as though to counter this.

There used to be a piece of received wisdom that August was somehow a dead month in the garden. Maybe climate change has had an influence but if it ever was true it is certainly not so now. Whereas our July gardens started to feel worn out by drought and heat the August borders take on a kind of muscular energy, full, mature and assured. The sun is lower in the sky and the evenings, by the end of the month, much shorter so my favourite time of day is when the early evening sun hits the rich colours in the borders so that they glow with regal intensity.

August is also the peak of the vegetable year. It is the month of harvest. Gradually, one by one, all the crops are gathered in from the glut of tomatoes – perfect for freezing for sauce deep into winter – to that first ripe corn on the cob or my favourite August dish, a ratatouille made from my own onions, garlic, courgettes, tomatoes, dwarf beans and chilli.

EARWIGS

At this time of year it is very common to find that the petals of dahlias are clearly chewed and nibbled, often reducing them to tattered rags and pale imitations of their supposed glory.

The culprits are earwigs that have a distinct penchant for what is – to them at least – a juicy and delicious dahlia flower.

Conventional horticultural advice is to trap the earwigs overnight by placing an upturned pot or a matchbox on a cane by the dahlia and stuffing it with straw. The earwig goes into this at dawn to rest up, thinking it a convenient safe haven but realising that you, the gardener, are about to come along and extract you from your strawy bed before doing something very unpleasant and probably terminal.

But the common earwig, Forficula auricularia, is a fascinating creature. Earwigs certainly do not rely upon the dahlia for their daily diet, being pretty much omnivorous and will eat other insects that gardeners consider as pests. They thrive in mild, damp conditions which makes the UK almost ideal for them but can most readily be found under loose bark or any woody crevice in great clusters – attracted to each other by scent pheromones that they release. The females lay about 30 cream coloured eggs in underground nests in the new year and the nymphs hatch out in April and go through a number of cycles during which time the female will protect and feed them, until they are large enough to foray out on their own.

They seem to like dahlias because in late summer and autumn – when dahlias are at their best – the massed petals of the flower heads provide ideal shelter for them and once ensconced they nibble a little at their surroundings.

What to do in the garden this month:

CUT LONG GRASS

If you have areas of long grass – especially if they are planted with bulbs like daffodils or crocus, they should have been left uncut to at least the beginning of last month to allow flowers to set seed and bulb foliage to die back. But by now all long grass should be cut as short as possible. The aim is to expose areas of bare soil so that fallen flower seeds can make contact and germinate.

This might mean hiring a powerful cutter or using a strimmer – although a scythe still does the job as well as anything. Once the grass is cut it should all be raked up and put onto the compost heap (making sure that it is thoroughly dampened with a hose unless it is a very small amount). It is important to remove all cut grass as otherwise it feeds the soil as it decomposes and this will encourage lush regrowth at the expense of the wild flowers and bulbs. However, as long as the grass cuttings are collected, it may be kept mown short right up until winter.

DEADHEAD DAHLIAS

Dahlias will keep producing new flowers well into autumn as long as they are deadheaded regularly. The easiest way to tell the difference between a spent flower and an emerging bud is by the shape: buds are invariably rounded whereas a spent flower is pointed and cone-shaped. Always cut back to the next side shoot – even if it means taking a long stem – as this will stimulate new flowers and avoid ugly spikes of stem.

And if you do not have dahlias then deadhead anything and everything daily – nothing else is so effective in keeping summer flowers lasting as long as possible.

TOMATOES

As August progresses, tomatoes steady ripen, working their way up the growing cordons. From now on the aim should be to develop as much fruit as possible and not encourage much more actual plant growth. A high potash feed such as liquid seaweed or home-made comfrey tea will help and I remove all the leaves around ripening fruit which exposes them to sunlight, increases sugars and speeds up ripening whilst also adding ventilation and reducing the risk of blight or viruses.

TAKE CUTTINGS

As August progresses semi ripe cuttings taken from current season’s wood that has started to harden off are increasingly available and also increasingly likely to root quickly. In principal it is best to take cuttings in the morning whilst the plant is full of moisture but in practise it is something best done as and when you are minded to do it.

Always choose healthy, strong, straight growth free from any flowers or flower buds. Once you have taken material from the plant and placed it in the polythene bag go and pot them up immediately.

Strip off all lower leaves and side shoots so that only an inch or less of foliage remains. Cut the bare stem to size with a sharp knife or secateurs and bury it in a container of very gritty or sandy compost.

Put this somewhere warm and bright but not on a south-facing windowsill as it may scorch. Water it well and then keep it moist with a daily spray from a hand mister to help stop the leaves drying out before new roots have time to form. You will know that the roots have formed when you see fresh new growth. At that point the cuttings can be removed from the pot and potted on individually before planting out next spring.

MAKING NEW STRAWBERRY PLANTS

After the early strawberries finish fruiting – usually the middle of July – they put their energy into producing new plants via runners. These are long shoots with one or more plantlets spaced along their length. As the plantlets touch the soil they put down roots, establish quickly and so the plant regenerates itself. By pinning them to the soil or onto a pot with compost in it and then separating it from the mother plant these can be harvested as new plants that will have more vigour than the parent and keep your stock replenished and refreshed. I dig up and compost the parent plant after four years as their productivity rapidly declines after this and they often accumulate viruses.

By the end of August the rooted plantlets are ready for planting out into a new bed that has had a generous amount of compost added to it as strawberries are greedy feeders (they should always be planted on soil that has not grown strawberries for at least three years to avoid possible viruses). Space these at least 12 inches apart and ideally twice that to allow for maximum growth and productivity. Keep them well watered and mulch with more compost in autumn.

SOWING AUTUMN SALAD CROPS

Sow hardy salad crops such as ‘Rouge d’hiver’ and ‘Winter Density’ lettuce and Corn Salad, Rocket, Land Cress, Purslane, Mizuna and Mibuna. Make one sowing now for harvesting in October and November and another in a month’s time that will crop in the new year if grown under cover. Either sow them into plugs that can be transplanted as seedlings or sow direct in rows. Thin the seedlings as they emerge and keep them weeded and well-watered.

PRUNING LAVENDER

To avoid woody, leggy plants, lavender should be pruned every year. The best time to do this is as soon as the flowers start to fade, which, depending on the variety, can be any time between midsummer and the end of August. But do not wait for the seed heads to form or the flowers to turn brown as you want to allow the maximum amount of time for regrowth before winter.

Cut back hard to a good compact shape but be sure to leave some new shoots on each stem – lavender will often not regrow from bare wood. These new shoots will grow fast and provide an attractive and healthy cover to protect the plant in winter and provide the basis of next year’s display.

COLLECTING SEED

Growing your favourite plants from seed is easy and practically without cost. Not only will this give you dozens of free plants for future years but also spares to give or swap with friends and family and August is the time to begin collecting seed from your garden.

Use brown paper envelopes – A5 is the ideal size – and either carefully cut the seed heads and upend them into the envelopes, seed head and all or else place the envelope over the seed head, seal it and then snip the stem off and store it upside down. Label each envelope clearly with the date, name of the plant and, ideally, the position in the garden, and store them in a cool, dry place.

After a week or two the seeds should be dry and can then be sieved, cleaned and stored in sealed packets. For longer term storage, a plastic tub with a tight lid stored in the fridge is ideal.

WATERING CAMELLIAS, AZALEAS AND RHODODENDRONS

Camellias, Azaleas and Rhododendrons form their flower buds in late summer and autumn. In other words the display that they give you next spring is largely determined over the coming weeks. If they are too dry the buds will not form properly and those that are made quite often subsequently drop off in the spring before flowering as a result of dehydration the previous autumn. So give them a good soak – with rainwater if at all possible – especially if they are growing in a container, and do so each week for the next couple of months.