Spring forward to spring

The clocks have gone back fueling Spring’s leap forward, and the vivid fresh green tones of emergent foliage looks so delicious it almost makes the mouth water. Birds are twittering and tweeting away and butterflies and bees are rousing from winter hibernation in search of a nectar boost.

Seasonal superstars

Flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum

Flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, Kurt Stüber, CC BY-SA

The punchy early season first players such as daffodils and hyacinths are beginning to fade and the headline acts for April are too many to mention. Early flowering shrubs might include the unapologetically gutsy yellow flowered Forsythia, the dainty rich red toned saucer blooms of the Flowering quince, Chaenomeles speciosa, and the elegant, drooping, pink clusters on the flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum. Herbaceous plants are very much on the rise with the tartly citrus coloured blooms of spurges such as the Wood spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides var ‘Robbiae’, the upright and alert looking orange and yellow racemes of Barrenwort sp, Epimedium, and the enthusiastic drifts of Red campion, Silene dioica.

Special mention for the month must surely go to the blossom, blossom everywhere; on streets, in parks and open spaces and in the garden too for those lucky enough to have their own flowering tree. There is little more cheering on a cool and grey April morning than a blossoming tree or, better yet, an avenue of them engulfed in their own cloud of pink or white. There are smaller varieties that would fit in most gardens such as Star magnolia, Magnolia stellata or June berry, Amelanchier lamarckii, which are both compact and have gorgeous blooms.

A slightly larger blossoming tree to plant, but still no brute, could be the Crab apple, Malus sylvestris, which comes with the added bonus of fruit for jelly later in the season. Several fruit tree cultivars will grow in a smaller space too – just be sure to check the label for anticipated growth. All of these could be planted into a large container – they may not reach full height but they will grow happily enough and provide lovely sources of spring nectar for insects. Attach some casters on the base of the pot and wheel it around to prevent it becoming an obstruction if the space is awkward and access an issue.

European robin, Erithacus rubecula

European robin, Erithacus rubecula, Francis C. Franklin, CC BY-SA

It is likely that there will be birds criss-crossing the garden and neighbouring gardens on a search for worms and other grubs to feed their chicks. These may well be familiar friends who come back to nest at the same spot year on year and many gardeners will be looking out eagerly for the return of their feathered family this month. Cheekier species, such as the robin, will keep close to any spade or trowel work happening in the beds to search out newly exposed grubs in the freshly disturbed soil. A garden will ideally have a range of natural food sources for birds such as insects, grubs and berries but there is no harm in keeping the bird feeders and water troughs nicely topped up all year around and not just during the colder months to take the edge off the constant hunt for food. Keep feeding stations clean and topped up with fresh treats such as nuts, fat or mealworms and the birds will reward this with regular garden visits and pretty song.

Pests to watch out for

Pests are waking up to the warmer weather too. Keep an eye out for unwelcome critter activity during garden inspection such as chewed, distorted or disfigured foliage, or indeed catch the pests out in the act during cautionary plant inspections.

However, try to exercise some tolerance for an acceptable level of pests as they play their part in the food chain of a healthy garden ecology. I rubbed a few green fly off the underside of a Corsican hellebore, Hellebore argutifolius, with my fingers the other day, a few probably survived but these will hopefully be a snack to a ladybird or other predator in due course. If the idea of squishing bugs turns the stomach they can be washed off under pressure from a hose or sprayed with a washing up liquid solution (taking care not to spray other insects). Avoid using chemicals but if there really is no alternative be sure to follow the manufacturers’ instructions to the letter, and do not apply in windy weather or during the day when many insects are on the wing.

Snail

Common garden snail, Cornu aspersum, Zachi Evenor, CC BY-SA

Slug and snail watch commences its new season in earnest this month and the little rascals can seem to implement a scorched earth policy against our juicy plants if not kept in check. It is totally understandable to want to obliterate the plant murdering slimey hordes with chemical warfare but slug pellets can be toxic to soil and friendly wildlife as well as to pets and children. A better plan is to have a variety of plants in the garden to encourage beneficial wildlife such as toads and birds to eat the invaders. Failing that, biological control with nematodes watered into the soil is very effective against slugs, but it can be an expensive option.

A budget option is a beer trap – simply sink a container filled with beer flush into the ground to encourage the ol’ soaks to fall into and drown. The container needs to be deep enough that there is no escape and possibly more than one to cover different areas of the garden. Failing that? I am quite famous in my neighbourhood for nightly trips out with a head torch to eliminate the excess one by one often muttering in amazement at their tenacity against all my best efforts.

Planting for the year ahead

Marauding slugs and snails aside, it is a great time of year to plant out new herbaceous plants and there is always room for one or two more to squeeze in. Always! And there is no shortage of plants available in plant nurseries now.

If budget is an issue, buy the reduced – often massively so - plants in the bargain area of suppliers and nurse them back to health, it is jolly satisfying to save a plants life often just with a little water and some loving words. Clumping plants can be divided up and spread around, or swapped with neighbours, while inexpensive annual seed can be sown directly in situ or in pots to transplant later to fill any gaps.

Honeywort, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’

Honeywort, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, peganum, CC BY-SA

Cosmos is long flowering and will provide seeds for year on year cropping, and the nodding purple heads and bluey foliage of Honeywort, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, are simply delightful, tough and self-seeding. The tobacco plant, Nicotiana, has dainty tubular flowers that are night scented and attractive to moths – which may also bring out the bats for a feast, which is a treat and a privilege to witness. Be sure to water any newly planted plants well and regularly to protect them from the drying spring winds and help them to establish.

Those fans of an immaculate lawn would insist on a weekly mow from now on, and there certainly are some benefits to doing that in keeping a symmetrical green patch firmly in check. However, left to grow a little longer a lawn provides shelter for wildlife and reduces the boredom factor of such a frequent mowing chore somewhat. If one less job a week is not motivation enough then consider how grass that is allowed to grow a little more than 2cms arguably has a softened, more natural appeal too. If you really fancy the flattened lawn square, at the very least, try to leave areas of sheltering long grass for wildlife to move across.

Get outside to enjoy the Spring sun

There’s much more to be getting on with, see the list below, but try not to see these tasks as tiresome chores and more as a garden partnership, which reaps multiple and mutual rewards. I lost an hour or so late yesterday afternoon just fiddling about in the garden, pulling out a few weeds before they become invasive, forking over areas of compact soil to help it to absorb the April showers, pulling off old or broken stems of emergent plants and moving a few spare self-sown seedlings into available gaps. I was tidying up for sure, and that sounds like it could be a chore, but I was doing it outdoors, on a crisp spring afternoon, keeping myself limber and getting a nature fix. Mostly, I was just hanging out with my garden, saying hello to the new arrivals and old friends, and looking forward to the year to come.

Tasks for April

  • Prune shrubs that are grown for their winter stems and those that flower on the previous seasons’ wood to give them a chance to put on the new growth. Feed and water well after pruning.
  • Tie in climbing and rambling roses in a horizontal direction to encourage more sideshoots and flowers.
  • Deadhead daffodils – but leave the foliage to die back for a few weeks to feed the bulb for next year’s flowers. The old foliage can be hidden amongst emergent plants.
  • Plant perennials now to establish while the soil is cool and moist. Keep them reliably moist as spring winds can be drying.
  • Plant summer bulbs in succession over a few weeks such as gladioli and dahlias for a long sequence of flowering later in the season.
  • Divide clumping perennials and replant, swap or give away the spares.
  • Commence your preferred lawn mowing regime.
  • Plant or relocate evergreens as the colder winter winds subside.
  • Plant a container grown tree. A blossoming variety would be coming into glorious bloom about now and for years to come, and many varieties will grow perfectly well in a large container so long as they are kept well-watered.
  • If the soil around your plants is compact, loosen it with a small fork. This makes the garden looks nicer, can dislodge a few unwanted weeds and aid rain water filtration into the soil. Careful not to dislodge welcome emergent seedlings.
  • Keep an eye out for pests and disease. Obvious excess of the pests, or discoloured, distorted or wilting foliage are signs that there may be a problem.
  • Consider nematodes or beer traps to combat snails and slugs.

And finally, please share your own images and stories about your favourite Spring plants, wildlife sightings, or plans for the coming gardening year on our Facebook page, or Tweet us @imbybio – we would love to hear from you!

Elaine Hughes

ELAINE HUGHES

Elaine is an RHS Gold Medal award winning landscape designer with a special interest in creating beautiful and functional spaces that are also as biodiverse and sustainable as possible. She has designed a wide range of projects including private gardens, community gardens, public areas, schools and community sites.