As the weather warms up and Spring moves through its various phases, gardening will once again keep many of us busy and provide the stimulus and relaxation that will keep us happy and fulfilled during lockdown. The therapeutic benefits of gardening have had a good press during the pandemic and it may even be that I have acquired some new readers. If so; welcome and I hope you are finding that gardening is bringing you a lot of pleasure and satisfaction.
The first thing for this month is that the unusual combination of extreme cold and a lot of wet weather will mean that many things will be happening later than usual. In particular, the soil will be cold and wet and it should be trodden on or worked as little as possible until it has warmed up and dried out a bit. Seed sowing directly into the soil should be left until it is friable – able to be raked level and a shallow seed row easily scraped out. You can make up for lost time by starting many things off in a greenhouse (which doesn’t have to be heated ) or in a conservatory or on a windowsill. Follow the instructions on the seed packet with regard to the temperature needed. In some cases a normal house temperature will be adequate but often you will need extra heat. This is best provided in a temperature -controlled propagator but a warm airing cupboard is a good alternative. Seeds are normally sown in a small seed tray in multi-purpose or sowing compost but smaller seeds can be started on a damp layer of kitchen towel, blotting paper or other soft fabric. After three days or so check every day for signs of germination and bring out of the propagator or airing cupboard immediately to stop plants getting leggy. Grow them on in light and warm conditions. On a windowsill or anywhere where the light comes from one side it helps to stand a reflective backing behind the seed tray. Kitchen foil fixed over cardboard will do this. Mustard and cress and some other shoots can be grown on a windowsill. Salad crops and brassicas, leeks and spring onions and annual flower seeds can be sown under cover now while beans, cucumber, courgette and sweet corn should be left until April. Root crops like carrots, parsnip and beetroot are best sown directly into soil outdoors. Onion sets also need to be planted outdoors where they will grow.
A vegetable plot can be prepared when the soil is sufficiently dry by digging over lightly before raking or just hoeing the surface to remove weeds and create a tilth. Add manure, compost chicken pellets or a fertiliser like Growmore. Finish tidying flower beds by weeding and gently forking over the surface on patches of bare soil. Cut back dead grass on ornamental grasses and finish cutting down any dead stems of perennial flowers. Evergreen shrub foliage can be pruned now but flowering shrubs should not be trimmed until they have flowered. Shrub roses should be pruned now.
If you have been overwintering plants like dahlias, begonia or fuchsias under cover, now is the time to start them into life by watering them. Keep under cover, though, until the risk of frost has passed; probably in mid-May. Dahlias are likely to throw up a number of shoots and these are best cut back eventually to no more than two or three. Shoots cut off can be used as cuttings to create new plants. Put several cuttings round the edge of a compost filled small flower pot. Water them and cover with a plastic bag and keep in the light in a fairly warm place. Turn the plastic bag inside -out every day to prevent condensation causing the cuttings to rot. You are likely to lose some cuttings but those that survive will flower this year. You can dip the moistened ends of the cuttings into rooting powder before putting in the compost but this is not essential.
This is the best time to buy new perennial flowers. Nurseries and garden centres may still be closed but you may be able to get local delivery or buy on- line. Delivery charges may be fairly high so you need to be buying several plants to make it worthwhile. Alternatively you can increase plant numbers by dividing your own plants. With old and large clumps discard the centre of the clump and use the outer edges. Any new plantings of trees ,shrubs or perennials need to be kept well-watered.
A few other jobs in summary. Start lawn cutting on a high setting and trim edges. Mulch soft fruit and feed. Dead-head daffodils and fertilise. Tidy a rock garden and add new plants as necessary. Tidy up pond plants and add oxygenating plants to combat green water. Remove blanket weed as it starts to grow. Dig a runner bean trench two feet wide and work in manure, compost or newspaper.