Heralding Spring

Common frog

Common frog, Martin Pettitt, British Wildlife Centre, CC BY

March heralds the beginning of spring, days can be warm and balmy but the weather can also turn wintery, confusing and threatening plants and wildlife. A flurry of shoots, swelling buds and early blossom are the sure signs of new growth. Weeds become apparent and lawns may need their first cut. Drifts of narcissi, both wild and cultivated, dance in the winds, their sunny colour brightening gardens, parks and grassy banks. March brings out frogs and toads from hibernation to frantic mating activity. Breeding takes place in ponds and their deep croaks ring out on warm nights as they seek a mate. Birds too are looking for mates and nesting sites, and fox cubs are born in their hidden earths.

February has thrown everything at us. The wet ground of January turned to snow with icy temperatures and frozen ponds, followed by a sudden thaw as the weather turned again. Plants with succulent stems such as acanthus and hellebores, drooped dramatically in the cold, only to regain their stature once the weather warmed. Invertebrates have begun to appear, bird song has become more apparent and the shoots of new growth are showing everywhere.

In the garden

Wild Daffodil

Wild Daffodil, Charlie Jackson, CC BY

Narcissi are the stars of early spring. A ring of petals, some reflexed or bent backwards, surround a central trumpet. They spread in drifts, covering lawns, borders and open countryside, dancing on slender stalks in the spring breezes. Many are delicately scented; the small white flowers of Narcissi Thalia, Narcissi Silver Chimes, with its short, pale yellow trumpet and white petals, Narcissi Minnow, which has pale yellow petals and deeper yellow trumpets and Narcissi Geranium with large cream petals and a short orange trumpet are but a few of the scented varieties.

Magnolia 'Leonard Messel' at RHS Garden Hyde Hall, Essex, England

Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ at RHS Garden Hyde Hall, Essex, England, Acabashi, CC BY-SA

Early blossoms are beginning to appear against a backdrop of skeletal, leafless deciduous trees. Some cherries flower early, their blossoms appearing before the leaves emerge. Prunus Kursar has deep pink single flowers, Prunus Beni-yutaka with clusters of fragrant pale pink flowers, Prunus cerasifera Nigra, is covered in small, pale pink flowers with a darker eye and Prunus The Bride, with its single white flowers are a selection which flower in March. Magnolia stellata, star magnolia, is lightly scented. Its large silky buds open to reveal star shaped, multi petalled white flowers. Amelanchier lamarkii or serviceberry, a woodland shrub, has clusters of delicate, star shaped flowers opening just before the bronzed new leaves. Winter hazel, Corylopsis paucifolia has scented, bell like, pale yellow flower on a twiggy frame. These flowering trees and shrubs lift us from winter’s greys with their bright colours and subtle scents.

Dog Violets by the coastal path near Welcombe, Devon

Dog Violets by the coastal path near Welcombe, Devon, Roger Kidd, CC BY-SA

Many woodland flowers, with their origins in deciduous woodland, take the opportunity to flower early before the leaves of the trees emerge, reducing the levels of light and restricting the growth of understory plants. Leucojum aestivum Gravetye Giant, looking like clumps of tall snowdrop with nodding bell flowers on the tips of the stems. Pulmonarias, which flourish in the shade, often have spotted leaves and flowers from intense blue to murky pinks and even whites. Viola odorata, the native sweet violet, with small purple flowers grows from clumps of bright green, heart shaped leaves. Wood anemones, Anemone nemorosa, and its cultivars, grow from small rhizomes that spread slowly through the rich leaf mould under trees. The white flowers with pale yellow stamens and an underside flushed with violet pink, grow out from filigree leaves with dark, wiry stems.

Sowing hardy seeds

Once weed seedlings start to appear outside, it shows the ground is warm enough for sowing hardy seeds, but you can always start seeds off early in seed trays on windowsills or in a protected environment such as a greenhouse or polytunnel. Many annuals, perennials and herbs can be grown easily from seed and it’s the cheapest way to fill your garden, pots or balcony with plants. Seeds need moisture, warmth and oxygen to germinate; they don’t need fertilizer at this stage of their development. Fill a seed tray, small pot or any recycled container such as a tin or yoghurt pot with drainage holes, with seed or multipurpose compost. For plants that enjoy dryer conditions add some horticultural grit to the mix. Tamp or press the compost down to form a firm surface for the seeds to sit on. Scatter seeds thinly onto the compost, most seeds will need a thin covering, so cover to about the same depth as the seed either with compost or grit. For smaller seeds this is just below the surface, larger seeds may need to be planted more deeply with a wider spacing. Once covered, water the surface well and cover the container with a purpose made lid or a transparent plastic bag. This will retain the moisture and the compost should not need watering again until the seedlings have appeared. Check the seed tray each day and once the seedlings appear, take off the cover. If the cover is left on the seedlings may rot. From now on the seeds will need regular watering, if sunny this may mean more than once a day to prevent the compost drying out. Once the seedlings have two sets of leaves they can be ‘pricked out’, the soil is loosened and they need to be gently lifted, holding onto a leaf not the stem, and potted singly in small pots. They will be vulnerable and may wilt at this stage but careful monitoring for a few days should mean they grow into healthy plants than can be transplanted into larger pots, window boxes or the garden.

Sustainable propagation

It is possible to make seed trays and small pots from recycled materials rather than buying or using plastic containers. Use newspaper and a paper potter (available in garden centres and online) to make your own pots. Use recycled toilet rolls as root trainers for seeds such as sweet peas and edible peas and beans. Both paper and card pots can be buried without removing the plant from the pot as they will gradually rot in the soil. Make wooden seed trays from recycled pallets or fruit boxes, you can also sometimes find old wooden seed trays in car boot sales and country auctions. Once the plants get going use coppiced hazel or birch branches as plant supports.

Weeding

Great bindweed by Parkhurst Road, Torquay

Great bindweed by Parkhurst Road, Torquay, Derek Harper, CC BY-SA

Moist soil and warmth are perfect conditions for weeds to start growing. Many other plants will still be below the soil so there is little competition; the weeds like to get a head start. There are many garden weeds but they fall mainly into two sorts. Annual weeds, which grow, sow seed and die all within one year and perennial weeds, which are more persistent and come up year after year. These have broad, deep taproots such as dandelion or dock or long string like roots like ground elder or bindweed. They are harder to remove as a new plant can grow from even a small piece of root left in the soil.

Weeding can be done carefully with a hand fork, loosening the soil around annual weeds to pull them out and digging more deeply around perennial weeds, perhaps with a ‘daisy grubber’ to try to get rid of the entire root. Weeds can also be removed with a hoe by pushing the blade against the plant and cutting it off just above the soil. Perennial weeds will not be killed in this way, as the plant will regrow from the remaining root, but over time it will prevent the plant photosynthesizing and it will weaken and eventually die off. If the ground is still very wet try to work from boards to prevent damaging the soil structure. Start weeding now and catch them while they are young, it will help later in the spring when the warmer weather encourages faster growth.

Slug control

Black slug

Black slug, Woodlouse, CC BY-SA

At this time of year slugs can have a field day on fresh young leaves, particularly when the weather is warm and humid. As perennials begin to grow, they are particularly vulnerable, slugs may make a meal of them before you have a chance to notice they are there. Hostas, salvias, delphiniums, gerberas, sweet peas, dahlias and many others are at risk. Slugs are soft bodied creatures, they mostly feed at night but their tell tale slime trails indicate their presence.

It is impossible to fully control slugs as so many live in our gardens, however there are many forms of control. Simply going out at night with a torch and picking them off your vulnerable plants works well. Nemaslug, a biological control, which specifically attacks molluscs and does no harm to other creatures, is available to water onto soil. Traps and barriers can help too; an empty half grapefruit skin or a jam jar full of cheap beer and sunk into the soil will attract slugs, these then need to be emptied regularly. Copper tape around pots, crushed eggshell or prickly stems from plants such as brambles form barriers that slugs, with their soft bodies, dislike crossing. Newer eco friendly pellets made from sheep wool are now available and surrounding plants with bits of fleece can also form a protective barrier. Encouraging wildlife of the kind that likes to eat slugs by providing suitable habitat will help control populations. Some birds, frogs and toads, hedgehogs, ground beetles and slow worms all enjoy feeding on slugs.

Planting perennials

Perennial Cornflower

Perennial Cornflower, Lairich Rig, CC BY-SA

Early spring is a good time to plant perennials, the staples of the border. There is moisture from winter rains and the soil is beginning to warm up, good conditions for establishing new root growth. Perennials grow quickly, bulking up within a season so buying plants in small pots is economic, 9cm - 2 litre pots are ideal and even plants with only a small amount of top growth showing will soon fill out.

When choosing plants make sure you check the soil and aspect of the site. Is your soil sandy or clayey, is the position sunny or shady? Balconies can be inhospitable with both cold winds and strong sun so make sure you choose robust plants for these. Different plants are adapted to grow well in particular situations and will do less well if put in the wrong place, plant labels and nurseries will give you the information you need to select the right plants for the right place. When choosing to group plants together think about ‘seasons of interest’, choose plants with different flowering times so you have variety throughout the year. Select plants for pollinators, particularly flowers that provide nectar at times of the year when other flowering plants are scarce. Think about a colour scheme, leaf texture and scent.

To plant up an area with perennials first check their mature spread size and then calculate how many plants will be needed to fill each square meter. Some perennials are tall and narrow, some short but spreading, so understanding a plants growth habit is important in determining the gaps to leave between new plants. When you have your plants place them on the soil in their growing position so you can check the spacing and arrangement. Lift pots individually and dig a hole under each, slightly wider than the pot and water into the hole before sprinkling the base with a small amount of a balanced fertilizer. Place the pot in a bucket of water briefly, to ensure the soil is thoroughly moistened, remove the plant from the pot, tease out the roots gently, place in the hole, ensuring the soil in the pot is level with the surrounding soil and firm in all round. When you have finished planting all your plants, water the entire area thoroughly from the top.

The plants will be most vulnerable in their first few months so make sure they are watered if there is no rain and check regularly for pests and diseases. Soon they will be blooming, encouraging wildlife in and giving pleasure.

Feeding, mulching and protecting fruit

Apple tree in blossom

Apple tree in blossom, David Luther Thomas, CC BY-SA

Blossoms are beginning to appear, heralding spring and a fruitful autumn. All plants benefit from feeding and mulching and fruiting plants in particular need nutrients to promote flowering and fruit production. To encourage, leaf growth, root growth, flowering and fruiting top dress the soil around fruit trees and bushes with a mixed fertilizer such as Blood, Fish and Bone in early spring. A few weeks later spread 10 cms of well rotted manure around the root area of the plant or tree, being careful not to let it touch the trunk or stem. This will help reduce weeds and competition and reduce evaporation, keeping the soil moist.

Blossoms can be vulnerable both to predation by insects and birds and by late frosts. Cover currant bushes with netting to protect them from hungry bullfinches and use fleece to protect blossoms particularly cherries, apricots and peaches.

Planting climbing plants to modify temperatures

 Ivy-clad wall

Ivy-clad wall, Jonathan Kington, CC BY-SA

Buildings with bare walls quickly warm in the heat of summer, holding this heat throughout the night and increasing the temperatures inside as well as out by as much as 2-4 degrees C. Badly insulated buildings also lose heat through their walls during cold periods in the winter. Planting climbers on an exterior building wall can significantly moderate temperatures, making a building cooler in summer and warmer in winter. This will also benefit wildlife providing safe nesting opportunities for birds and shelter for invertebrates.

Ivy, Hedera helix, has been found to be the best at cooling the air in summer, reducing temperatures by around 5.7 degrees C. As an evergreen plant it provides winter insulation and can reduce energy costs. Climbers can also moderate moisture in the air, regulating humidity around buildings in summer and reducing humidity in buildings in winter. Other benefical climbers are climbing hydrangeas Pilostegia viburnoides and Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, and Boston ivy, Parthenosisus tricuspidata.

Aerials roots from climbers cannot damage well maintained exterior walls though regular maintenance to keep the plants away from gutters and other areas where damage may be caused should be taken into account before planting.

Container plant maintenance

Skimmia japonica and tulips in pots

Skimmia japonica and tulips in pots, Richard Hoare, CC BY-SA

You can grow plants in containers even with a very small outdoor space; windowsills, balconies, back yards and patios can all be brightened up with container grown plants. Early spring is a good time to plant containers, warmth and moisture encourage good root growth and plants establish quickly. Add a little slow release fertilizer when planting to feed your plants throughout the growing season.

Early spring is also the right time to repot plants that have outgrown their current container. Carefully extract the plant from its container, remove some of the old compost and tease out the roots, replant in a larger pot with fresh compost in the base and all around the root area.

Maintenance of containers is important throughout the year but particularly from spring and throughout the growing season. Irrigation is an issue in warm weather and pots will begin to need to be checked daily for their water needs. The nutrients in compost are soon used up so pot grown plants rely on regular feeding. Feeding should start in spring when the weather warms up roughly once every two weeks, increasing to once a week if plants are growing vigorously or if the weather is particularly warm. Liquid feeds are easier to use on containers, without over or under feeding. Always check the supplier’s instructions and then watch your plants bloom.

Creating a rainwater garden

Increasingly, urban green spaces such as front gardens and courtyards are being paved over. Run off from hard surfaces, buildings and roofs has traditionally been directed into sewers, and in heavy rain can overwhelm the drainage system and cause pollution and flooding.

Creating a rain garden can slow the flow from your downpipes and help to mitigate flooding during periods of high rainfall. Rain gardens are shallow basins, set over soil and planted with plants that benefit wildlife and can withstand short periods of flooding. Water is diverted from a downpipe through a gravel channel into the rain garden where it can soak into the ground and be absorbed by plant roots. The water is held in the garden by a raised edge or berm, an excavated, shallow basin is filled with soil mixed with sand and compost that will speed drainage, then planted out. Plants that will survive in a rain garden include Actea simplex, Anemanthele lessoniana, Anemone x hybrida, Bergenia cordifolia, Carex elata, Cornus alba, Cornus sericea, Cornus sanguinea, Dryopteris felix-mas, Iris ensata, Ligularia dentate, Lobelia cardinalis, Lythrum salicaria, Matteuccia struthiopteris, Persicaria bistorta, Polystichum setiferum and Valarian officinalis.

Rainwater gardens need to be at least 3m away from buildings, in direct or partial sunlight, have good drainage and be situated on a gentle slope to allow for run off. Alternatively a downpipe can be diverted into a raised bed filled with free draining soil with a gravel base and exit route for slowly draining rainwater either back into the drain or towards beds or grass areas.

Gardening tasks in March

Woody Plants

  • Coppice or cut back the stems of cornus and salix to encourage the growth of new, colourful stems for the following winter
  • Feed trees and shrubs with a balanced fertilizer such as Blood, Fish and Bone
  • Prune hardy evergreen shrubs and topiary
  • Plant mixed, native hedging
  • Prune bush and climbing roses
  • Tie in wall shrubs and climbers as the new growth emerges
  • Prune deciduous hedging before birds start nesting

Ornamentals

  • Lift and divide overgrown perennial clumps
  • Plant new herbaceous perennials
  • Lift and divide large clumps of snowdrops and aconites after the flowers have died but while still ‘in the green’, before the leaves die back. If buying “in the green” ensure the bulbs are cultivated, not foraged from the wild.
  • Plant summer flowering bulbs such as gladioli, agapanthus, crocosmias and oriental lilies.
  • Sow hardy annuals
  • Start off Dahlia tubers undercover in pots before planting out in June
  • Start feeding roses

Fruit

  • Last chance to plant bare root fruit trees and bushes
  • Check soft fruit bushes for aphids
  • Check blackcurrants for big bud mite
  • Net gooseberries from bullfinches
  • Finish any winter pruning of fruit bushes and autumn raspberries
  • Feed and mulch fruit trees and bushes
  • Protect the blossoms of cherries, apricots and peaches from frost damage with fleece
  • Sow alpine strawberries
  • Plant melon seeds under cover in the warmth
  • Force rhubarb

Wildlife

  • Hang bird and bee nesting boxes
  • Create rock and log piles for garden wildlife

Sustainable Practices

  • Protect new shoots from slugs with organic pellets, crushed eggshells, prickly twigs such as brambles, fleece, coffee grounds or beer traps
  • Put in stakes of cut hazel, birch or willow to support plants before growth becomes too leggy and floppy
  • Hoe and mulch borders to control weeds
  • Check pots for watering, if the weather is warm they may begin to dry out
  • Top dress pots and containers
  • Start mowing lawns, using a high setting to leave space for invertebrates
  • Check compost heap now weather is warming , turn and add activator to promote decomposition

Relaxing reading

The Garden of Vegan

Cleve West

How a vegan garden designer came to realize that plants and a plant based diet can help mitigate many of the human induced problems we currently face.

Buy >

Edgelands

2021-03-01-heralding-spring_e.jpeg

Exploring the wilderness that exists on our doorsteps. Wasteland, unmanaged land, left to go wild and exploring the rich wildlife that exploits these neglected places.

Buy >

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Things to see, places to go

Growing Herbs

Online workshop on growing your own herb garden.

date

6th March, 2.00-4.00

location

Hackney Herbal. Studio 16, Celia Fiennes House, 8-20, Well Street, London E9 7PX

Learn more >

Urban bat ecology and conservation

An online talk about urban bats by Jo Ferguson.

date

9th March, 19.00-20.30

location

Brockwell Community Greenhouses, Brockwell Park, London SE24 0PA

Learn more >

Catriona Andrews

CATRIONA ANDREWS

Catriona is a landscape designer and environmental educator. Her work combines naturalistic planting and sustainable practices to create spaces that are sensitive to the environment and welcoming to wildlife. She designs private gardens, community gardens and public spaces and leads courses and workshops on garden and planting design and the environment.