Moving into early spring on the gardening calendar and who knows what it will bring? By now I will have spent ££s on daffodils, which are my favourite flower. I try and get hold of them until Easter, although if Easter is late, I am pushing it a bit to find them. Unpretentious, cheerful, native and unlikely to have used lots of carbon miles getting to the shops. What’s your favourite flower? In asking this question, I am reminded of a comment made by the late Christopher Lloyd, who developed a wonderful garden at Great Dixter, near Northiam in East Sussex. When asked by someone, what was his favourite flower, he replied, ‘my dear boy – whichever one I am looking at’.
Hum… could be thought of as a bit boring I guess but it gives a nice area to a garden in which to loll around on and it is a nice colour. But it has to be said, that unless you are a groundsman, looking after it can be a little bit dull and so the temptation can be to ignore it completely. It is though, quite hard working and undemanding, so a little bit of help for it (just a concentrated effort once a year) will go a long way.
If it is warm enough and the grass is clearly growing, then it’s probably time to start regular cutting. Adjust the blades on the mower so they are at the highest setting and keep them there for the first couple of cuts. If you are keen on having a good lawn, then probably best to buy one of the very good D G Hessayon books; there is one on lawn care. He is a bit of an anorak but it is very good advice and very simply communicated.
I have two small lawns and what I do in the spring after the first cut, is rake the surface quite hard. It will take more than tickling so really go for it. The amount of stuff that will come out, will be a revelation. This helps the grass that is left to grow better, rather than being choked with moss and old dead bits. Following that, I may spike the lawns using a garden fork, driving it in about 6 inches or I may just do this on areas where it has got quite wet, compacted, bare of grass or where moss grows (if moss is growing, it means the drainage is compromised).
Some people use sand in the spring as a top dressing for lawns, thinking that its lightness and ability to hold water will dry out any areas and ‘lift’ the grass, but in reality it can cause more problems than good (eg. if you have a clay soil, the sand won’t mix in, it will just sit on top). If you want to top dress a lawn – and it is a good idea every year to give the grass a bit of oomph and lift, some good quality compost over the top to a depth of around ¼” to ½” would be better. You can include some grass seed with the compost if you want to plump up bare areas. The seed would appreciate being damp until it has germinated. Best to slightly press the seed into the compost with your foot so it will stay put if you need to water it until it germinates.
If your grass has many weeds and moss in it, then applying a killer before you bother to set about raking, will make sure that when you do get round to it, the dead stuff will come up as well. In the past I have used something called lawn sand, which I found very effective to control moss but you have to be careful as it is quite potent, so a little goes a long way (I am still using the bag I bought 25 years ago). The grass needs to be damp otherwise it will burn the grass. It is best to be sparing at first, rather than use too much so you learn how much is ok. But you know, grass is very forgiving and if you accidentally nobble it, it will come back. A couple of years ago, we had a chap in doing some work in the late autumn and he went up the top of the garden to mix some mortar. A short while after that, half of the top lawn looked quite ill and bare, so I think some of the dry mortar mix had blown over the grass as it was poured out of the bag into the bucket for mixing. The grass sulked for a bit but came back fine early the following year.
Trigger bottle or not to trigger bottle …
I don’t tend to buy killers of very much at all as my lawn is alright really and I don’t want a bowling green lawn anyway. I do look out for weeds though and do get dandelions. Dandelions are a bit of a pain because they are hard to get up with their long tapering root, and if you leave any semblance of root behind, it will simply grow again. I have been doing this for so long, I can no longer remember where I got the idea from but salt is a great killer. Rather than spend £££s on trigger bottles of weedkiller, I put a pinch of salt in the middle of each dandelion. Before long it is dead. Salt will kill anything. BUT, DISCLAIMER: be careful and limit how many are treated in an area at once and do it over a period of time; you don’t want the earth to become over salted or for the salt to leach extensively into surrounding areas. Be careful as you roam around the garden with your container or bag of salt that it isn’t silently pouring out unnoticed, like I did once and got a foot wide patch of dead grass later ….. The cheapest table salt is fine. It saves a lot of effort but it will kill anything so you must be careful where you put it.
If you do this work in the spring, the chances are that your lawn will have a good year and be alright until the next spring, so it’s not much to do really. The odd feed throughout the summer will go down well and cut regularly of course. If we have a hot spell and no rain, grass will not grow so there is no point cutting it. If anything it just stresses it, as each cut will mean the grass surrenders moisture it could do with keeping. So if it is hot weather, pour a gin and tonic and look at it, don’t cut it. And, if it is hot, I don’t bother watering it. It is a bit of waste of good water and once the rain begins, the grass will revive again anyway.
Well that’s a LOT on grass.
Tidy up …
I work round my garden at the start of the year from one end to the other doing this. It helps me remember what is in the garden, after spending some months indoors, and also to see what is going on, what is struggling, what has survived the winter, what is being eaten by some bug (more on those blighters next month).
Ideal time to spread that compost you have been making. It will take around a year, if kept properly, for compost to form. There is a lot of patience involved in gardening but for me, there is nothing better than putting a pile of sh** into the top of a compost bin, and then a year later, getting even better good quality sh** out the bottom. Your garden will LOVE it. I spread it around and the worms take it in. It is incredibly environmentally friendly to make your own compost. Bark is also a good mulch for the top of the garden and I would assume it is shredded from trees and branches that were going to be felled anyway (at least I hope so). Spread mulches after it has rained and the soil is damp. It will help keep the moisture in the soil, suppress weeds, keep the earth warm and will eventually break down and improve the soil content.
Scatter round some general purpose fertiliser like fish, blood and bone or pelleted chicken manure. These are the only two things I generally use. I apply chicken manure once in March and then again in June. I will however, feed my climbing rose a bit more often before it flowers in July and some plants like sweet peas need heavy feeding and watering. The few pots of plants I have I feed regularly in the growing season with a water soluble plant food.
Any bulbs that have flowered, this helps them to avoid expending energy creating seed. Don’t however cut the leaves back as bulb plants use their leaves to create energy for next year’s flowers. Let the leaves die off naturally (even if untidy), or leave for at least six weeks after flowering until you give them the chop. Also deadhead hydrangeas. Hydrangeas can be a bit delicate in that if they are deadheaded too early or before the winter, some of the stems can be badly affected and will die back so it’s best to leave til early March-ish. Keep dead heading those so-called winter flowering pansies.
General pruning advice …
Some of you may remember Geoff Hamilton, TV gardener, who unfortunately passed away at a relatively young age. He has a twin brother and quite often, apparently, his twin would be mistaken for Geoff so people would ask him gardening questions. His twin however, knows nothing about plants so his stock reply to any question was, ‘prune it off at ground level’….
Pruning is not as difficult as some think. Basic guidelines are:
- First, remove all dead or diseased wood or cut dead or diseased areas back to where the wood is looking good. You can’t really miss what is not well, it may be browny/black, might be mouldy, wet, claggy, sticky, soft etc.
- Generally speaking plants flower in two ways, which affects the pruning time. They either produce a flower on wood that grew in the previous growing season (called ‘old wood’ – lilac or Philadelphus are examples), or will produce a flower on wood that has emerged in the new season (‘new wood’ – those mop head flowered hydrangeas are an example). You can therefore work out when to prune but you can’t go much wrong if uncertain, if you prune any shrub just after it has flowered. Pruning too late, e.g., pruning a lilac in September means that you will remove the wood that would have produced a flower the following spring.
- Always try and remove some of the oldest stems, i.e. down at ground level, so that your shrub will have a longer life by regularly producing new growth. I read somewhere that removing a third of the old growth is recommended but this may be impractical. Older growth will look older, will be thicker, less flexible, less ‘green’.
Roses: Bush roses can be pruned now. I however, prune my rose in late autumn (it is a climbing rose). This is only because I have been caught on the hop in previous years and found that by the time I have got outside to do this work, the rose is actively growing. I think some people do prune roses in the autumn as opposed to spring so I expect the jury is out on that one.
To prune anything, you want to look for a bud on the stem, these are little knobs on the stem and will be a greeny, reddy colour. Prune just above it. Roses can be fed with a rose fertiliser. TBH I am not sure if a specific rose fertiliser absolutely needs to be used; I think tomato food will be alright as it is for clematis.
I saw an experiment on the television once regarding rose pruning. There were 3 lots of exactly the same rose but they were pruned in different ways. One lot were left without pruning, another were done text book style, another were taken right across the top at the same level with a hedge trimmer. They all did more or less the same when it came to flowering the following year. Pah.
However to retain a good shape and for the rose bush to do well in future, a few cuts in the right places will help.
And anyway, if you make a mistake, no matter. The plant may not flower one year but will come back the following year.
Other plants …
Clematis are a complex group of plants with different pruning timings so best to look up optimal pruning time on the internet for that particular type.
This is also your last chance to plant bare-root trees, shrubs and roses until November. Keep watered if dry weather until you are certain they have taken and are actively growing.
So – are you asleep yet? Apologies for the length of this post. I have by necessity had to leave some things out otherwise it would have gone on forever ….. but it really does all take off in spring.
Til next time……
Yvonne Cook lives in south Birmingham. She is the owner of the Pathway Acupuncture Clinic where she works as a Traditional Acupuncturist and she also teaches students of acupuncture at The Acupuncture Academy in Royal Leamington Spa. In her spare time she indulges in much gardening, rambling, singing and crafting. You can also find Yvonne on Facebook.