March 11 – ‘A Challenging Spring’

IT’S been a long time coming but at last the signs of spring are everywhere. The blackthorn blossom is out in the hedgerows, the dazzling daffodils are shining through the gloom and the birds are happily chirping away whilst building their nests. But before we get too giddy about the spring there are still some winter casualties to deal with.

 Most gardens have had plants die or damaged due to the extreme cold over the last few months. The usual ones that you might expect are Cordylines, palm trees, tree ferns and tender exotics such as bananas and oleanders. But others that are less predictable are Hebes, Olearia, Ceanothus and bay trees. With some of these we just have to bite the bullet and dig them up but with others such as Ceanothus and olives we just have to be patient and they should recover.

 But if you think your garden has suffered then spare a thought for the poor grower. We have heard several stories of growers and nurseymen in Holland and Italy, not to mention the UK, losing hundreds and thousands of pounds worth of plants in the winter weather. One grower lost all of his stock of topiary bay trees, another all of his Trachelospernum climbers and one who is going to have to stop growing Phormiums and Cordylines altogether. All because they can’t take the risk that the winter weather might damage their livelihoods.

 Does this mean we have to re-think what we grow? Personally, we don’t think so. Don’t be deterred, keep that British stiff upper lip and don’t abandon the trend towards growing more semi-tender plants.  Our varied climate in the UK gives us the opportunity to chance our arm and experiment with many different plants. This is what makes gardening in the UK such good fun. We just need to ensure we protect them adequately over the winter. Alternatively, with tender palms such as Phoenix canariensis (The Canary Island Palm) we will have to start treating them as annuals or bedding plants and accept that they will die over winter. In a lot of DIY superstores and market stalls you can pick them for only a few quid and for that sort of money it doesn’t matter so much if you loose them. The small ones make great centre-pieces in pots or hanging baskets.

 We realise that for a lot of people plants are a great expense but it would be a great shame to abandon some of these more tender plants altogether. Some of them are fabulous. If you do have a few gaps then wait a couple of weeks and then make a trip to your garden centre and think about getting some replacements if you can afford to.

 Sometimes the gardening press can be a bit dictatorial, telling us which plants to grow, one minute growing plants for drought conditions, the next minute growing your own vegetables. We always say stick with plants you love and don’t worry about gardening fashion. Your garden should be a reflection of you and not of other people.

 With the arrival of spring comes a whole lot of new gardening jobs to get stuck into.

Top of the list is to start pruning your roses if you haven’t already done so. Don’t get too stressed about the technical side. What you should do is prune back to an outward facing bud, taking the bush down to about half to a third of its height. You should also prune away any dead or diseased stems and burn them and prune away any stems that cross each other. You are aiming for a good open bush. This isn’t something to worry about too much – I know of at least one rose grower who does his rose pruning with a hedge trimmer and it doesn’t affect the flowering one bit.

Early spring is also a good time to move and divide certain herbaceous plants such as Phlox, Asters, Rudbeckia and Alchemila. and Geraniums

It’s also an Ideal time or cutting back Buddleias to encourage flowering. Some plants that have got out of hand may need to have quite a bit taken off. Cut back the colourful stemmed dogwoods such as the red Cornus Alba. If you cut the stems back almost to the ground (15cm) it will ensure a new lot of colourful stems for next winter.

We always give our ornamental grasses a haircut this time of year, ready for the new verdant growth to push through. Don’t cut too low only down to about 15cm. Good time for trimming back pampas grasses; we take a hedge trimmer to it or if you are in an appropriate location set light to it to take it to take off the dead bits and encourage new growth.

In the vegetable garden you can start some early lettuce and radish outside and start chitting your potatoes inside. ‘Chitting’ just means encouraging sprouting and it helps to get your potatoes growing away better. To do this place in a tray or egg box and keep somewhere bright and cool for a couple of weeks. Put them ‘rose-end’ up (The end with the dormant eyes upwards). Earlies you can think about planting out at the end of the month.

 This time of year always promises lots of possibilities, and with the soil warming up and drying out and the sun pushing through the clouds, another great gardening year is on the way. With any luck the cold weather is finally on its way out.