Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

Early spring jobs in the garden

The next few weeks will see the beginning of the busy season, the job list lengthening with the daylight. It can be a month of contrasts, too, with wind and frost set to challenge the first of spring growth. So it may still be a time for planning, but there’s winter work to do to make way for the tasks that are targeted at the growing season.

Prune spring flowering clematis

It is time to prune those clematis that flower in May and June (known as group 2) and those that flower in late summer (group 3). In other words spring blooming clematis flower on last year’s growth. Prune them back as soon as they finish blooming in the spring and they will have the whole season to put on new growth and set buds for next year.

Growing clematis is fairly easy. But pruning tends to instill fear in the stoutest of gardeners. This fear is unwarranted since pruning clematis simply breaks down to a question of when your clematis blooms.

We prune clematis vines to encourage new growth, which results in more flowers. 

No matter which pruning category your clematis plants fall into, flowering will diminish on all clematis vines without pruning. Left unpruned the new growth is confined to the tops or ends of the vines and that is where your flowers will be.

Group 2 flower on short new growths arising from older wood, so shorten last year’s growth back to a pair of healthy buds. This will stimulate side shoots.  They can be cut back almost to the ground.

pear treesStill time to plant pears 

There is still time to plant pears. Plan to plant at least two varieties of trees, as they will need to be cross-pollinated to produce fruit. Make sure the varieties are compatible with each other. The ideal planting time for container-grown trees is either autumn or spring. Bare-root trees can be planted in February and March whenever the weather is clement.

Plant in any fertile, well-drained soil in full sun in a place with good air circulation in the winter or early spring. The tip with pears is to water them in dry spells from the moment the flower buds burst until six weeks after blossoming.

Gently tip one bucket of water on each pear tree every day if needed. If your soil is thin, cordons and espaliers are your best option. 

Always thin your fruit and restrict each tree to ten pounds of top quality fruit.

Mulch your border

Now is the perfect time to mulch your borders, as long as the soil is wet. Mulch acts as a barrier against weeds, can provide nutrients, keeps the soil moist and insulates roots from the cold. Before you start, make sure you have thoroughly weeded the bed and that you have sufficient mulching material – this could be leaf mould, compost, well-rotted manure or bark chippings. Always leave a gap around the stem of plants.

The most effective way of improving the soil in established borders is to mulch the surface with a three cm-layer of organic matter, such as garden compost. It will also help to suppress weeds and trap moisture in the soil. If your heap doesn’t produce enough compost to mulch the whole garden, it’s worth contacting your local council to see if it’s possible to buy the compost that’s made from the green-waste collections.

Mushroom compost (though not for acid-loving plants, as it contains chalk) and composted bark make good alternatives.

controlling snailsEarly control of slugs and snails 

Now that spring is not too far off, the temperature should be starting to creep upwards. But the lush new growth that this encourages is irresistible to slugs and snails, so be sure to take some controls now. Organic slug pellets based on ferric phosphate are just as effective as ones based on meth aldehyde. Biological controls use microscopic nematodes which are natural predators of slugs. You can either buy empty packets with a voucher inside at the garden centre or buy them from specialist companies via mail order. They need a minimum soil temperature of 5C so the company will only send them out when conditions are suitable.

Make my dahlia!

If you have overwintered dahlias inside, check that the tubers are hydrated and manure the ground that will take them next month. If the tubers are tired, pot up and start off in a glasshouse or frame with the aim of propagating from the first new growth. Cuttings are incredibly easy if taken when the shoots are just a few inches long, and with warmth they will be rooted and ready to plant out when the ground is frost-free. Re-pot pelargoniums and fuchsias that were overwintered and gently up the watering to promote new shoots. Pot up begonias and lilies, and summer-flowering bulbs such as gladiolus.

sowing seedsWhen can you start to sow seeds?

As soon as the soil reaches 6C you can start to sow directly outside. Sweet peas and broad beans can be sown first, and though the first of the salad can go in now you get better results if you warm the ground first with plastic or cloches. Early sowings of mustard, rocket and cut-and-come-again salad are some of the most delicious mouthfuls of the year, so seize the moment if it looks like the weather is with us and the month is kind.

Plant early potatoes 

While most varieties of potato are planted in April, earlies, such as ‘Rocket’, ‘Abbot’, 'Arran Pilot' and ‘Swift’ should be put in during March. 

They should be ready to harvest in about ten weeks from the planting date. It is a good idea to ’chit’ before planting. If you’re planning to grow them in pots, use one that’s at least 25cm in diameter and half fill it with composts for containers. Bury the potato just below the compost surface. As shoots grow, cover with more compost until the pot is full. Cover the young plants with garden fleece if frosts are forecast. Make sure you water the pot regularly so the compost is moist but not wet. If the leaves start to turn yellow in June, feed regularly with a tomato feed. By late June or early July, your potatoes should be OK to harvest. Check they're ready by putting your hand into the pot and gently feeling for the tubers. If they feel big enough, tip out the contents of the pot; otherwise leave them to continue growing. 

potato kitsTry potato growing kits on your patio

Towards the end of the month plant your chitted early potatoes outside in the ground. If you don't have enough space for growing potatoes on your plot, why not try potato growing kits for your patio.

Top ten jobs for the next few week

1. Protect new spring shoots from slugs
2. Lift and divide perennials
3. Plant shallots, onion sets and early potatoes
4. Plant summer flowering bulbs
5. Top dress containers and pots with fresh compost
6. Prunce bush and climbing roses
7. Hoe and mulch weeds to keep them under control early in the season
8. Cut back dogwood and willow for colourful winter stems later this year
9. Give a first high cut to lawns on dry days
10. Start to sow first vegetable seeds in greenhouse borders or under cloches

In the vegetable garden

If you've grown green manures over the winter, now is the time to dig them in whilst their stems are still soft.

Sow early Broad beans ‘The Sutton’,’ De Monica’ and early peas ‘Twinkle’, Avola’ in seed trays of compost, just pushing the seeds into the compost, to transplant later

If the soil is workable, dig in a 5cm (or more) layer of compost, well-rotted manure or green waste into your beds to prepare for the growing season ahead.

Prepare vegetable seed beds by removing all weeds and forking in plenty of compost. Cover prepared soil with sheets of black plastic to keep it drier and warmer in preparation for planting.

asparagus

Don't let another season go past without growing asparagus beds.

Plant onion, shallot and garlic sets provided the soil isn't frozen or waterlogged. Alternatively pot up sets into individual pots for transplanting outdoors later on.

Start to direct sow vegetable seeds such as carrots, radishes and lettuce in greenhouse borders or under cloches.

Things to do in the greenhouse

  • Start beogonia and gloxinia tubers by planting them close to one another in shallow pots or boxes
  • Sow cucumber seeds in three  inch pots, exclude any light until seeds have germinated.
  • Sow bedding plant seeds such as lobelia's in the second half of the month, at a temperature of 16°C

PLUS...

  • Hold off from using your topiary skills to clip back or trim hedges and bushes for as long as possible – this means that birds can continue to nest safely and in peace. 
  • compost binUse the grass clippings and prunings from your other March garden activities to boost the contents of your compost bins. Ideally, have at least two bins on the go so that you can be using the contents of one to mulch and fertilise your soil, while the other, newer one breaks down into compost. 
  • Material suitable for composting should be dry in the main – vegetable and kitchen waste, weeds, small prunings, grass cuttings, some shredded paper and cardboard – with no meat, fish or cooked food to attract vermin. Put it into the bin in layers, and turn it all regularly. 
  • The compost is ready to use when the mixture turns brown and crumbles well. If your bin has a tap at the bottom, you can drain off the liquid that will accumulate over time, and use it as a liquid feed.
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