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.

February

I know that many people find February a difficult month. Winter had gone on too long and Spring seems too far. But I like February. I like the way that it opens out and releases the valves for Spring. I like the way that the days reach out, stretching, limbering up.

February is the month of small but powerful things. Catkins, snowdrops, aconites, crocus, hellebores, violets, primroses, all resist snow, ice and scything east winds to blaze with jewel-like intensity. There is something entirely hopeful and brave about these harbingers of Spring that fills me full of cheer and whets my horticultural edge. If they can feel Spring around the corner, then so can I.

There is an urgency to finish the planting of any deciduous trees and shrubs and the pruning of those already established. I also start to sow in earnest, beginning with the seeds of hardier vegetables like beetroot, spinach and winter lettuce varieties in plugs and seed trays so they can germinate and grow into strong seedlings in the protection of the greenhouse, before being hardened off and planted outside when the soil warms up in March or April.

If it is not too wet or too frozen I will try and complete the mulching of the borders as well. Whereas up to Christmas I have a strong sense of laying the garden to rest for winter, all February work is about setting things ready for what is to come and feels like the household preparations for a party.

What to do in the garden this month:

BARE ROOT PLANTS

Most people buy all their plants in a container from a garden centre. But woody plants such as trees and shrubs of all kinds can be bought ‘bare-root’. This means that they are raised in the ground and only lifted just before delivery. They will arrive with the roots wrapped in a bag of some kind but with no soil around them. I always try and buy bare-root trees and shrubs if I can.

The advantages of these bare root plants for the gardener, is that they are invariably cheaper, usually better quality and there is always a much wider range of types and varieties of bare root plants to choose from as opposed to containerised ones. They also are more likely to get established and grow quicker in your garden than container grown ones.

The only disadvantage is that, unlike a tree in a pot, you cannot put it to one side and plant it whenever you have the time or inclination. As soon as it arrives it should be placed in a bucket of water for an hour to give it a drink. Then either plant it immediately, taking it straight from the water to the planting hole so the roots do not dry out even for an instant, or heel it in until you are ready.

‘Heeling in’ means digging a trench or hole in a spare piece of soil (usually the veg patch) and, without any of the finesse of actual planting, burying the roots to protect them. It is best to put trees in at 45 degrees so they are not rocked by wind and if you have a number of hedging plants or young trees they will come in a bundle. This should be un-tied and the plants placed individually but closely spaced so the roots do not get entangled as they grow if they are left for a while (and I have left such plants heeled in for more than a year with no apparent ill-effects).

CHIT POTATOES

Leave potatoes at this time of year in the dark and they start to sprout long translucent, brittle shoots. But put them in a frost-free, brightly lit place and they slowly develop knobbly green or purple shoots which are ready to grow quickly when placed in the soil. This process is called chitting. Whilst chitting is not necessary for maincrop varieties, First or Second earlies benefit from being chitted by being ready to harvest at least a week, if not two, earlier than those planted unchitted – and an early harvest is always desirable for new potatoes and has the advantage of increasing the opportunities to lift the tubers before the risk of blight.

Put the seed potatoes in a seed tray or egg box, placing each one upright to encourage a tuber to grow from the end. Place them in a sunny, frost-free place such as a cool windowsill for 4-8 weeks so that when you are ready to plant them – usually around Easter – they will grow away fast.

SOW TOMATOES

It is a good idea to stagger the sowing of tomatoes because a lot will depend upon the unknowable weather we will get in Spring and Summer – so having two or even three batches of plants covers most bases. Scattering the seed thinly on the surface of peat-free compost in a seed tray and then very lightly covering them either with a layer of more compost or of vermiculite. Water them well and put them in a warm spot to germinate. A window sill is fine.

When the seedlings emerge make sure that they have as much light as possible and when they develop their first pair of ‘true’ leaves – that is to say leaves, however small, that are recognisably a tomato rather than the ones that grow initially – you know that they have roots and should be pricked out into better compost and individual pots or plugs to grow on into young plants ready to plant out into a greenhouse in May. I make a second sowing in a month’s time which will be better for outdoor plants.

SOW SALAD SEEDS

The increasing light levels in February mean that salad crops planted in a greenhouse in Autumn offer a generous supply of fresh leaves every day. Rocket, Mizuna, lettuces like Winter Density and Rouge D’hiver all survive the winter with a little protection (I always grow them in an unheated greenhouse) and then start to grow very strongly. I sow another batch of seed in early February which will be ready to replace this batch of plants in mid-March.

At the same time I sow broad beans under cover in pots or root trainers so they can be planted out into a raised bed as healthy plants in early April. Raised beds do (or should) not need digging in winter but a top-dressing of an inch or two of garden compost spread over them will incorporate into the soil over the coming month or so whilst the soil warms up sufficiently to sow direct.

PRUNING

By mid-February all the late winter/early spring pruning of climbers and shrubs can begin and continue until the middle of March. I practice this, focussing mainly around roses, clematis and shrubs such as buddleia.

Roses

There is no mystery to pruning roses and there is practically nothing you can do that the plant will not recover from. So relax and enjoy it! The only rules are to use sharp secateurs or loppers so the cuts are never forced and to try and cut just above a bud or leaf and don’t worry if it is outward facing or not. Any bud will do.

First remove all damaged or crossing stems. Then cut back hard any stems that look too weak to support their own weight. Finally remove any old, woody stems that are crowding the shrub by cutting right down to their base. Most shrub roses do not need any other pruning but can be reduced by a third to encourage early budding and a more compact shape. Hybrid teas, Floribundas and China roses follow the same sort of remedial treatment and then have all remaining healthy shoots cut back by two thirds to leave a basic framework from which the new flowering shoots will grow.

Climbing roses should be pruned to maintain a framework of long stems trained as laterally as possible with side branches breaking vertically all the way along them. These side branches will carry the flowers on new growth produced in Spring so can all be pruned back to a healthy bud – leaving no more than a couple of inches of growth.

Ramblers differ from climbers, which tend to have large flowers, often appearing more than once in the summer and on, some continuously for months – Ramblers have clusters of smaller flowers that invariably flower just once in mid-summer. These include ‘Bobbie James’, ‘Rambling Rector,’ and ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’. These need little pruning at all and never in winter or spring as the flowers are carried mostly on stems grown in late summer. Any pruning to train or restrict them should be done after flowering.

Clematis

The simplest rule is ‘if it flowers before June, do not prune’. So for early flowerers like C. montana, C.alpina or C.armandii, do not prune at all save to tidy their sprawl after they have finished flowering. Clematis with large flowers like ‘Marie Boisselot’ or ‘Nelly Moser’ should be cut back by about a third.

The late flowering clematis (i.e. flowering after Midsummer’s day, June 24th) such as C. viticella or C. jackmanii, produce all their flower buds on new shoots which are beginning to become visible now. If you leave them unpruned you end up with a mass of old, brown growth at the base of the plant and all the flowers at the top. So now is the time to cut them back hard. You cut right down to the bottom decent-sized bud although I like to leave a foot or two as an insurance against further really bad weather. In any event you can be very drastic, reducing a large clematis like C. rhederiana from 20 plus feet of thick growth to a few twigs. However this will ensure healthy flowering later in the summer from low down on the plant right to the top.

When you have cleared away the prunings, mulch the clematis very thickly with whatever organic material you have, this will feed the growing plant but more critically, help conserve moisture as clematis hate dry conditions. And if you are not sure what your clematis is (or whether your rose is a climber or a rambler) then leave it, let it flower and make a note for next year.

SHRUBS

Spring flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus, Deutzia, Weigela and Rubus all produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should not be pruned until after they have finished flowering.

However shrubs such as Buddleia, Cornus, Salix, Spiraea, deciduous Ceonothus, Fuchsia fulgens and Magallinica, all flower on new wood, so can all be cut hard back very hard just like late-flowering clematis. The harder they are cut, the more they will flower.

FORCING RHUBARB

One of my breakfast treats at this time of year is stewed rhubarb and yoghurt. No combination has a cleaner, sharper and yet hauntingly sweet taste that is guaranteed to brighten the sleepiest head and set you up for the rigours of the day ahead.

I grow a number of different varieties that provide a staggered harvest from the first fragile shoots that we pick to eat at Christmas to the last harvest at the beginning of July. Early and extra sweet rhubarb can be forced by excluding all light from the plant which in turn suppresses leaf growth down to a yellow flame at the end of a long pale pink stem whose sugars are greatly increased as a result. I tend to use ‘Timperly Early’ for this early harvest and it is, as the name suggests, an excellent early forcing variety. But if you do force rhubarb by blocking all light with an old chimney pot, or, if you are fortunate to find one, a proper terracotta rhubarb forcer with a lid, the later growth will be weakened so I suggest rotating the plants yearly for forcing duty to allow them to replenish their energy.

CHECK SUPPORTS

This is not a glamorous job but an important one. Go around your garden checking all supports, wires, ties and structures that will be carrying climbing plants this year. Any that are damaged or a bit ropey should be repaired or replaced now before they need to be used and before new growth begins that might be damaged by such repair work or even your heavy footwork in a border.