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Gardening at Longmeadow

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Monty Don made a triumphant return to our screens as presenter of Gardeners' World. A firm favourite with viewers, Monty's infectious enthusiasm for plants, attention to the finer details of gardening technique and easy charm have seen the ratings soar. Here Monty invites us into the garden at Longmeadow, to show us how he created this beautiful garden, and how we can do the same in our own. Following the cycle of the seasons, Gardening at Longmeadow will introduce readers to the garden from the earliest snowdrops of January through the first splashes of colour in the Spring Garden, the electric summer displays of the Jewel Garden, the autumn harvest in the orchard, and on to a Christmas feast sourced from the vegetable gardens. Describing the magic of each area at different times of the year, Monty will explain the basics of what to do when and how to get the most from each plant. He'll talk through the essential techniques and more complex processes, accompanied by easy-to-follow, step-by-step photography. Longmeadow is a gardeners' garden, but this will be a book for gardening enthusiasts of all skill levels who have been inspired by what they've seen, and who would like to achieve something similar for themselves.
Publisher:
Ebury Publishing
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9781448140503
File:
EPUB, 73.88 MB
Download (epub, 73.88 MB)

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Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Introduction

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Map of Longmeadow

Index

Acknowledgements

Copyright





About the Book

From the earliest snowdrops peeping through the snow in the Orchard in January to the luminous green of the spring meadow, vibrant red hues of the summer borders in the Jewel Garden and the abundance of the vegetable gardens in the autumn, Longmeadow is a truly seasonal garden.

For Monty, the key to success is working with this cycle of nature to get the most from the soil and the plants. Month-by-month, Monty describes the individual plants coming into their own in the floral and vegetable gardens and talks through the key tasks, from composting and lawn maintenance to topiary clipping and fruit pruning.

This indispensable guide to gardening will inspire you to achieve a balanced, healthy garden that’s spilling with produce and full of colour all year round.





About the Author

Monty Don is the lead presenter of Gardener’s World and has been making television programmes for over twenty years on a range of topics, spanning travel, craft, outdoor living and gardening. He is a horticultural writer and a Sunday Times bestselling author whose books include Around the World in 80 Gardens and Italian Gardens, as well as The Complete Gardener and The Ivington Diaries. Monty was The Observer’s gardening columnist from 1994 to 2006 and has been the Daily Mail’s gardening columnist since 2004. Monty is also the President of the Soil Association and a passionate gardener.





I FIRST SAW THIS GARDEN on a particularly dank autumnal day in 1991. The front was covered with piles of building rubble. At the back was a little yard filled with knee-high weeds happily seeding themselves, and beyond that was a paddock where a grumpy horse tried to find sustenance amongst the brambles. There was nothing here that could possibly be described as a garden. But beneath the years o; f neglect was a blank canvas that I could fill with the garden of my dreams.

For the first six months all my time and energy was directed towards the house – which was an uninhabitable ruin – and it was not until the following spring that I began clearing the field at the back. Three times that summer I cut the grass, and three times I raked it up along with buried and tangled tree trunks and discarded farm machinery. To get to know the land through hard graft was better than through a drawing board. In fact, this slow gestation was the best thing that could have happened and I recommend it to anyone making a garden from scratch. Take your time. Make and unmake it in your mind until you are ready to begin. You will know in your bones when that time comes.

Then I persuaded a neighbouring farmer to plough the cleared land for me. The turf unfurled to reveal rich, dark soil. Everything grows lustily in it. Even the weeds – especially the weeds – are astonishing in size, vigour and range. That vigour is a huge advantage for any gardener. Mind you, this was just about the only apparent advantage. Otherwise the odds were stacked against me. The site was wind-blasted and needed shelter. To all horticultural intents and purposes, it was empty: there was just one large hazel outside the back door and a hawthorn at the edge of a ditch that bisected the field.

Then I had my big break. On the famously chaotic day of the Grand National in 1993 – April 3rd – I went to a local tree sale with a proposed budget of £200 intending to buy some good-sized yew plants for a hedge. I came back five hours later having spent £1,300 on 1,400 trees and hedging plants. It poured with rain all day and by lunchtime the allure of the pub and the Grand National was enough for most people to leave the sale. A tiny handful of us stuck in, soaked and buying increasingly large lots at increasingly minuscule prices. The last batch of 15ft-tall Tilia platyphyllos I bought – and which now make up the Lime Walk – were 50 pence each. However, only a frantic phone call to the bank – in the days when managers were real people – increased our overdraft to cover the cheque. But this was the critical moment that made this garden.

I also bought a batch of very cheap box plants that I had learnt about through the local paper. When I went to collect them, they turned out to be an established and neatly clipped hedge. I dug it up and replanted it as two parallel hedges in the Ornamental Vegetable Garden, where it has remained for the past 18 years and provided thousands of cuttings. (The Ornamental Vegetable Garden has also provided us with thousands of meals from its rich Herefordshire loam.)

Although I had played it all out in my head before we began planting, there has been quite a lot of trial and error at Longmeadow. I never think of it as finished – just where it happens to be now. We have moved trees and even entire hedges and we are constantly replanting borders. I am a great believer in moving plants until they are absolutely at home, and I do it all the time. We made mistakes too, and I wish that most of the paths were wider. We planted the main hornbeam hedges in 1995 and although I knew how high I wanted them, I had underestimated how wide they would grow. We are constantly reducing their width.

Longmeadow is a garden centred in its geographical place, which is the Herefordshire Marches, just eight miles (as the crow flies) from the Welsh border. It is dead flat and hard by a river, and about a third of the garden regularly floods. The soil is clay loam over gravel, which is wonderful when dry but intractable mud when wet and rather heavy and slow to warm up. It is a very cold site, exposed to the wind and the rainfall is very high. But the western wind quickly blows away the bad weather and the rain means that we rarely suffer from drought.

The garden is essentially a rectangle with the house in one corner. This made the design awkward so I made a path across the width of the site coming from the main door that leads from the house with three longer paths leading off at right angles through the length of the garden. Other paths cut across these three main highways to create an irregular grid that the garden and all its 19 different parts have come to fill.

These different sections (that have gradually acquired names – and separate identities – over the past 20 years) include a small Spring Garden just outside the back door, an Ornamental Vegetable Garden which is a formal grid of box-hedged beds filled with colour, exuberance and good food within a tight structure. Come to think of it, that probably describes my garden at its best. There is also a more straightforwardly practical vegetable plot that we call the Top Veg Garden – not because it is necessarily the better of the two but because it is at the top of the garden – an Orchard and a Soft Fruit Garden.

The Jewel Garden is the largest area and right at the centre of the plot. It is filled with only jewel- or metallic-coloured plants for maximum impact from spring to autumn. The Walled Garden is in front of the house and surrounded by a stone wall on two sides, and that yew hedge I went to buy plants for on the fateful Grand National day in 1993. We have a Coppice filled with flowers in spring; a Damp Garden that is the first to flood; and a Dry Garden in the front made on almost solid stone.

Some parts feel like rooms at the end of a corridor that you have to make a special journey to visit while others are communal spaces or even the corridors themselves. But I think it all hangs together and, most importantly, has become irreducibly itself and is more than the sum of its horticultural parts.

It is where I garden – and although I have written millions of words about gardening and made television programmes about it for a quarter of a century – I never think of gardening as an objective process. It is what I do in real life in my real garden. It is a record of failure, bewilderment and surprise, as well as endless pleasure and some success. It is about life in all its complexity, sadness and joy as much as the intricacies of horticultural technique.

I do believe that most good gardens are personal, private, domestic and above all, intimate. The measure of their goodness can be reckoned to some degree in absolute terms of design, planting or horticulture but not to any meaningful extent. The truth is that our response to gardens is invariably subjective and if they are our own, completely so. To an astonishing and powerful degree they are loved, and love cannot be reasoned or measured.

Which puts me in rather an odd position. Over the years I have often written about this garden but have never been answerable to anyone or anything other than private whims and fancies. It was made as a wholly domestic place where, over the past 20 years, my family has grown up. The other critical point is that it is not mine alone and nor would I want it to be. Every tiny detail is shared and it has always been a joint venture with my wife Sarah. Nothing in it has happened or been planted without discussion and both of us have an absolute power of veto over the other. In every sense it is as much her creation as my own and that fact enriches my own enjoyment of it.

Yet now it is shared with more than two million people every week via the medium of Gardeners’ World. The very private has spilled into the very public. Although I have made gardening television continuously since 1988 (including a five-year stint with Gardeners’ World at Berryfields from 2003–2008) the combination of professional and private in one’s own back yard is very different. But that potentially awkward balance is exactly the reason I agreed to do it. The challenge was irresistible.

I can not completely separate my passion for gardening from my passion for this garden. This is probably a flaw – but although other gardens can be visited, admired and analysed, they could never replace the depth of involvement that I get daily from my own plot. So when the opportunity came up – completely out of the blue – I took a deep breath and realised that I had to do it.

So, although much of the horticulture in this book is based upon received wisdom or knowledge and techniques shared by many generations of gardeners, it is personal. Everything in it is based upon our experiences of gardening here and how we go about making and tending it across the days.

Although I share a lifetime of experience and knowledge I make no apologies for idiosyncrasies and particularities. Technique and skills are important and useful but only as a means to an end, and the only end that matters a jot in gardening is to make a beautiful garden that will give you sustenance and pleasure and to be able to share them with those you love. Everything else is secondary.





EVERY YEAR I HAVE AN ALMOST TANGIBLE sense of renewal in January. Part of it is sheer relief. November and December are my two least favourite months and I am glad to see the back of them.

This is mainly to do with light. I hate the darkness of a British winter. For me it is less of a cosy time to hole up in front of a fire than a dark, dank tunnel that I have to crawl through in order to reach the light at the other end. And now, at the end of the year, I can just see a tiny pinprick of hope at the end of that tunnel. Every day is stretching out, just little by little and that is enough motivation to keep me moving towards the light.

Now I am sure that this is a gardening thing. Many people I know get most down in January and February, finding that after the New Year the winter stretches out ahead of them. But if you are a gardener then these next few months are an exciting, increasingly busy time. The garden starts to peek its head up from below the ground. Snowdrops, aconites, hellebores, winter honeysuckle, mahonia and viburnum are all pushing into flower.

The structure of Longmeadow comes into its own and on a crisp frosty day the garden is etched in clean, strong lines. It is stark but strong and the balance and proportions are very pleasing.

Then there are all the things I ought to do and have left undone. Leaves to gather, ground to prepare, garlic to get in the ground as soon as possible, onion seeds to sow and sets to buy – in fact all my vegetable seeds to order – the greenhouse to wash, tools to mend and go through, and the potting shed to give a thorough tidy out. These are jobs that should be done at the end of the year but if I am honest I never do them then. Thinking about it just makes me feel tired. Now it feels like tidying the kitchen in order to make a lovely meal whereas at the back end of the year these jobs feel like clearing up after someone else’s mess.

In January, minute-by-minute, the days lengthen and hope creeps back into my world. I cannot tell you the relief. There is a hawthorn in the boundary hedge of Longmeadow. It is a scrubby affair, not much more than a bush really, but every mid-January the sun lingers just over the top of it before dipping down over the horizon across the fields. This is an important day because that light shines right down the garden and catches the panes of my greenhouses. The garden is literally lit up for the first time since October.


Aconites

The buttercup yellow flowers of winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are usually the first to open in January and are the brilliant midwinter counterpoint to snowdrops’ modest charm. Their flowers, fringed with a green ruff, open in the winter sunshine, reflecting light, then close again at dusk.

They are bulbs – or more accurately rhizomatous tubers – but spread by seed very easily once established. When the plants flower they are without a stalk but this develops to carry the seedhead, raising it above the surrounding fallen leaves and grass so that the seeds can scatter better. One way to promote a good spread of the plants is to strim the ripe seedheads, flinging them further than their natural distribution. ‘Guinea Gold’ flowers a little later than the common aconite with bright orange flowers and a bronzed fringe, or involucre, creating a dramatic contrast. It prefers more shade than the common version.

It is best to plant them ‘in the green’ which means as plants just after flowering. They like damp shade and the base of deciduous trees is ideal, but because the flowers only open up in sunshine they do need some sun during the short winter daylight hours. Mind you, the sunshine can be accompanied by frost and icy snow and still the flowers will open, which seems to me to be as good a reason as any for getting out of bed on a winter’s morning.

It is important to plant the rhizomes at the right depth, which is generally rather deeper than one might think, with the top of the roots about 8–10cm (3–4in) below the soil. They prefer an alkaline soil and good drainage and plenty of organic matter in the ground – which, of course, they would get from leaf mould in their natural habitat.


Snowdrops

I planted the snowdrops in the Spring Garden 15 years ago now. The first batch were a present lifted from a friend’s garden and delivered wrapped in damp newspaper, and they have gradually been spreading by seed – at about the rate of 2.5cm (1in) a year – although every few years I do lift and divide a clump or two. Left to their own devices they will gradually carpet the entire area they occupy, with the rich, rather damp soil that they love, and some shade that also suits them. The pollination of snowdrop seed depends upon two things, some sunny, mild weather and the insects to spread the pollen. In the case of snowdrops the outer petals open to be horizontal when the temperature rises to about 10°C (50°F) and this attracts insects. The green markings on the inner petals (that every snowdrop has to a greater or lesser extent) are said to glow in ultraviolet light, which is another enticement for pollinators like the queen bumblebees that one sees bumbling around in the winter sun.



Snowdrops in January sun. All our snowdrops are planted in the Spring Garden in a growing ribbon either side of the path and have spread from one small original clump.





In fact, the best way to make a clump of snowdrops spread is to lift them immediately after flowering, divide up the mass of bulbs and replant them in smaller groups a few feet apart. Seed dispersal will mean that these clumps gradually meet, and repeated division every few years will further speed the process greatly.

Unless they are growing in grass then you are almost certain to disturb them when and if you plant anything else near to them – which you are almost certain to do as they disappear to nothing by midsummer and do not amount to much after mid-spring, as their foliage gradually withers. (As with all bulbs, resist any temptation to tidy or cut off that foliage because every last scrap of green is essential for the formation of a healthy bulb for next year’s flowers.) In my experience, snowdrops are pretty good at dealing with the trauma of the occasional excavation and as long as they are popped back into the ground quickly they do not seem to suffer. However, a way round this risk is to plant them around the base and roots of deciduous trees and shrubs where they are less likely to be disturbed and will not mind the summer shade. The only thing to watch for is the ground getting too dry – especially in autumn when they start to grow again, albeit underground and out of sight for another few months.

Snowdrops are good as a cutflower if you pick them with a longish stalk. The first tiny bunch of modestly inclined flowers in a vase on the kitchen table is a wonderfully hopeful moment and they have a surprisingly strong honeyed fragrance drawn out by the heat of a room. They also grow well in pots and are ideal for small terracotta pots that you can sometimes find in large quantities at car boot sales. Use a general-purpose potting compost to plant a small clump in each pot and keep them outside in a cool corner, bringing them into the sun in the New Year. You can bring the pots indoors to make a lovely houseplant although the flowers will last longer outside in the cool.

They will not need repotting or feeding every year, but keep them watered from October through to June and every three or four years take them out of the pot, divide them into three, repot into fresh compost and let them get on with it.

No one seems to know if snowdrops are native or not, although because of their longevity and ‘naturalness’ they feel as though they ought to be. There is no reference to snowdrops growing wild before 1770, and indeed, the first garden reference is not until less than 200 years before that, in 1597. And although they seem carelessly natural they have been bred as intensively as almost any garden flower. There are over 350 different species and cultivars, although the differences are really very particular. The common Galanthus nivalis will do me fine although I do love the double G. n. f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’. This is sterile, so will not spread from seed, but increases perfectly well from divisions and because it does not produce seed it has the bonus that the flowers last an extra long time.


Cavalo nero

Cavalo nero or black Tuscan kale is the most useful brassica growing in my garden and although it is at its best in winter when the leaves have had some frost on them, I grow it all the year round. It can be eaten raw in salads when the plants are young, or left standing from summer through to the following spring for use as cooked leaves. Unlike most cabbage the leaves can be cooked for a long time so are great in stews, soups and sauces. As a pasta sauce with garlic and hot cream it is fabulous.

You pick the leaves individually and the plant replaces them with more and more fresh ones until it starts to flower almost a year after planting.

I sow the first seeds of the year in a seed tray or plugs in January with a couple of extra sowings at monthly intervals. If germinated in seed trays the seedlings must be pricked out into pots before planting out into their final positions in ground that has previously grown a leguminous crop such as peas or beans. The plants grow fairly large so need 60cm (2ft) in each direction and may need staking. If grown as a salad crop they can be sown directly into the soil in rows and thinned to just 10cm (4in). They are a brassica so will need protection from cabbage white butterflies between June and September.

Cavolo nero growing in the Top Veg Garden. It is extremely hardy but delicious. Although good all year round, it is at its best after a frost.




Leeks

Leeks are one of the few vegetables to stand happily through all kinds of winter weather. I have dug them in pouring rain and mud and when the soil has been frozen so hard as to be almost impenetrable. Yes, they freeze solid, so you bring them indoors as a mad, mud-encrusted, Heston Blumenthal-inspired lolly, but once thawed they can be eaten in all their glory.

When I was a child, leek in white sauce was my idea of a treat. That comforting, slightly slimy, bland but distinctive texture and flavour was my perfect comfort food. Still is, although my range of tastes has expanded a little from a Britain in the psychological – if not practical – grip of rationing.

I start sowing my first leeks in February, the wispy green hairs of the new seedlings sharing garden space with last year’s crop for a couple of months. I will make at least three sowings to keep a year-round supply. I used to sow in seed trays and then prick out into 8cm (3in) pots but nowadays I sow direct into the pots, a pinch of seed in each. I also used to plant the seedlings out (in May – as the residues of last year’s crop are making wonderful minaret flowerheads) individually into holes made with a dibber, made in turn, from the handle of an old spade. It was how I was taught to do it as a child. But I now plant in small clumps of 4–8 plants and use a trowel. Less ritual, less rhythm and perhaps less magic, but just as good leeks – and the clumps of small- to medium-sized stems are ideal for each meal. Big leeks, let alone giant ones, are absurd. Keep them small and sweet for the kitchen.

Leek rust (Puccinia allii) has been a problem over the last few years, thanks to the warm, wet climatically changed weather, and I guess will continue to be so. Wider spacing, less compost and even tougher hardening-off regimes will encourage less soft growth which will help, but not stop, the problem.

I am fickle with my loyalty to varieties, although I try to grow at least one heritage variety each year. ‘Musselburgh’ is the oldest British variety, ‘Pandora’ has a blue tinge to the leaves and is fairly rust-resistant, and ‘Varna’ is one of the best for mini leeks, which, my biodynamic, market-gardener friend tells me, is the best-selling vegetable they grow.


Onions and shallots

I sow a batch of onions in the New Year to give them the longest possible growing season, although they will need the protection of a greenhouse or coldframe for another few months, and then a period of hardening off before they can be planted out. I take huge encouragement from this first creative act in the garden of the year, starting new life with the promise of a summer harvest created from this point in the depth of winter.

Planting onion sets

I fill a tray of plugs with seed compost and carefully insert one onion or shallot set into each one, dibbing a hole so the root plate is not damaged.



After watering thoroughly I place the trays on a bench in the greenhouse. They are very hardy so do not need any extra heat or protection.



After about a week green shoots will appear from the tip of each set and this indicates that roots are growing into the compost.



When each set has a couple of inches of healthy growth, I gradually harden them off outside and transplant them to their growing position as soon as the soil is workable.



The onion is one of the oldest vegetables cultivated by man and references to onions are found dating from 3200BC in Egypt. One of the reasons why people have always grown them is that they are obligingly easy to get right.

There are two ways of growing them, either from sets or seed. Sets take about 20 weeks to mature from planting. Seed takes perhaps another four weeks on top of that. There are many more varieties of onion available from seed but sets (which are just small onions) are easy to grow and so I always grow some as well as seed. You buy a bag of the small bulbs of a variety that appeals, prepare the soil so that it is fine and soft enough to stick a finger in to the knuckle without any soil sticking to it and then bury the sets so that the tops are sticking out of the ground.

I use a scaffolding board as both a straight edge for the rows and for me to kneel on to avoid compacting the soil. It is a good idea to make sure the sets are in a true grid because then you can hoe in both directions without clipping a bulb in passing. It is important to hoe – and occasionally hand-weed – onions as they respond badly to competition for water and nutrients.

Onions do best in good but lightish soil. If the ground holds too much manure or compost you will have lots of lush leaves but the onions themselves will be on the small side and more prone to fungal problems. Size does not matter so much – in fact a good batch of medium and small onions is more use than ones the size of croquet balls.

I think shallots are as important as onions and they are easier to grow. They tolerate poorer soil, hotter and colder weather and less water than onions. They also have a distinct sweetness of taste and they store much better than onions.

The real difference between onions and shallots is that each individual set or seed will multiply and produce a clump of around half a dozen small bulbs. These are harvested in exactly the same way as onions and when dry I store ours in a wire basket in the potting shed. When we need some for the kitchen I just go and scoop up a handful. If they are kept cool and dark they should reliably store well into spring.

The one essential is that they are as dry as possible before they are stored and the more sun that they have before harvesting the better they will last. As with all bulbs, it is important not to cut off any of the leaves but let them die back completely and dry out before removing the residue for storage. Onions should be lifted carefully with a fork rather than yanked from the soil to avoid damaging the root collar and thus reduce the risk of rot entering the bulb when stored. I always harvest mine on the morning of a hot dry day and leave them to dry on the ground for the rest of the day. I then put them in the greenhouse or on a wooden rack for a few weeks. When they seem to be bone dry I either plait them and hang them up or store them in baskets.


Snow!

As I write this, high up in the hop kiln overlooking the box balls and Ornamental Vegetable Garden, the snow is swirling around the windows and fragmenting the garden below into a thousand soft white shards and spangles.

Snow is lovely but can cause great damage. It can break branches – especially of evergreens – and even topple large trees on a slope as well as crumple seemingly robust structures. Some years ago I put up a fruit cage, bought at great expense, and left the very light netting on after the last of the fruit had been cleared in autumn. An inch of snow that then froze onto the nylon mesh was enough to buckle and bend half the aluminium frame irreparably.

But snow does very little harm to most garden plants and in fact acts as an insulating blanket against icy winds. As it thaws it provides moisture, which makes a muddy mess for a few days but is an important source of water for the spring growth of many plants. In fact, many bulbs rely almost entirely on melting snow for their water supply when growing in their natural habitat. Although it is a myth that it is never too cold to snow, it is true that by and large it only snows in this country at around or just below freezing which is not a disastrously cold temperature for hardy plants. If the snow is more than a few inches thick it will then insulate the ground – and all the plants sheltering beneath its blanket – from any further drop in temperature.

Hardy plants can manage cold, often down to extreme temperatures such as -15°C (5°F), and can sustain cold for weeks or months of about -5°C (23°F). Half-hardy plants such as penstemons, many camellias, or salvias do not, as a rule, tolerate any temperatures below -5°C (23°F) but can withstand the odd touch of frost, and tender plants such as basil or zinnias will not survive below 5°C (41°F).

Looking down over the Herb Garden and Ornamental Vegetable Garden on 25 December 2010. The temperature outside was -18°C (-0.4°F).



This temperature, 5°C (41°F), when averaged out across a full 24 hours, is the point at which most plants start to grow. They will grow with increasing vigour and speed as the temperature rises – providing they have sufficient water – until around 25°C (77°F), at which point growth starts to decline at about the same rate that it rose. Of course as the temperature rises and the rate of growth increases along with the size of the plant, the demand for water increases greatly – even though, away from the Tropics, heat is usually associated with lack of water. This is where the effect of snow stretches into summer as plants draw upon the reserves of melt water in the soil.

Winter cold is healthy only because plants prepare for it. Our long autumn and spring wean plants into dormancy and then growth. This is why sudden frost in spring or autumn can have such disastrous effects – especially in spring. A plant that might withstand a month of bitter sub-zero temperatures can have half its growth killed by a few degrees of sudden frost in May. The new growth is not expecting it and although the plant might be conditioned to withstand cold, the new shoots have not had time to put this conditioning into practice. Timing is everything. Late summer growth will not have time to harden before early winter frosts. Grow too early and the same thing happens again – but more so in the spring frosts of April and even May.

Most temperate garden plants have adapted effective means to counter cold. Deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves and stop all but minimal root growth. Herbaceous plants will survive frozen ground perfectly happily because they have shut down all growth and gone into a state of hibernation. Annuals die as plants but leave a mass of seed that will survive the cold and grow in spring.

But the greatest damage done by cold to a garden is from the wind. Plants suffer from the wind chill factor just as much as humans, and wind will also dry plants in cold weather as effectively as a hair dryer. If this is combined with frozen soil it will quickly kill the plant. Thus, a still night with a frost of -5°C (23°F) will do little or no harm to any hardy plant. But add a wind of just 15mph to this – scarcely more than a breeze – and the air temperature drops to -12°C (10°F) and quite a few plants will be damaged if not killed. Unless your garden is stocked only by plants adapted to life on the prairie or the steppes, every garden should have hedges and windbreaks that will baffle the wind and break it up, protecting plants growing in their shelter.


Winter pruning fruit trees

This is the perfect time of year for pruning. Short of torrential rain, which is misery beyond the call of duty, you can prune equally well in frost, snow or balmy winter sunshine. In fact, it is a job that I try and do on frosty days when it is impossible to work with the frozen soil.

The purpose of winter pruning is to clear damaged or overcrowded growth, letting more light and air into the plant and to stimulate renewed and more vigorous growth as a result. Every tree and branch will develop a ‘leader’ which grows longer and more vigorously than the rest of the plant. It does this partly by hormones that stimulate more vigorous growth but also by suppressing the growth of the side shoots below them. If you remove that leader the lower shoots cease to be suppressed and will grow more vigorously – until one of them becomes a leader and the cycle is continued. The more you remove the leader, the more the plant will bush out and thicken up.

This means that if you wish to curtail growth, leave the pruning to midsummer when the foliage is fully grown and before the roots start to store food for winter. So, all trained fruit such as espaliers, cordons and fans are pruned now to encourage new growth and replace any weak shoots and then again in July to restrain and reduce excess growth.

All this applies to any deciduous shrub or tree, whether fruiting or not, but do not prune plums, apricots, peaches or cherries in winter. These should be pruned in late spring or early summer and only if absolutely necessary.

Apples and pears follow identical pruning regimes. Most apples and pears produce their fruit on spurs. These spurs take two to three years to produce fruit. So if you prune them off every year you will have lots of whippy stems and no fruit at all! The idea is to establish a framework of branches with plenty of spurs. However, you need light and air to get to them so remove all crowded or crossing branches and if it is a small tree, cut out the leader so it is open like a goblet. It is usually better to cut a few branches right back than to snip away at all of them.

If you are growing standard trees – that is large apples or pears with a clear trunk of at least 2m (6ft) – be brave and remove the lower branches flush with the trunk as the tree grows. This can sometimes involve removing half the growing structure but will speed up the eventual formation of a handsome, balanced, standard fruit tree.

If you are training your fruit trees as cordons, fans or espaliers the majority of your pruning will be in the summer. Only prune in winter to encourage growth. Obviously in the early stages of training fruit there will be quite a lot of winter pruning but as plants get more established this will become less and less. When pruning to train growth there are two things to remember:

Resist the temptation to train a healthy stem that is in the ‘wrong’ place. Prune it away and encourage a bud in the ‘right’ place – ie right by a horizontal wire if you growing espaliers – to replace it.

Winter pruning stimulates growth so prune the weakest growth hardest. This is completely counter-intuitive, but always works.





All the previous year’s shoots on the limes are cut hard back every year in late winter to maintain the structure and encourage fresh new growth.





UNTIL THE END OF JANUARY I always wake to an absolute, dark silence but as we go into February there is the faint but distinct chattering of birds just before dawn which itself marches in earlier and earlier. I know that the majority of British people find February the hardest month to bear but I love it. Regardless of the weather or the state of the garden, spring is coming and the days that hang so heavy in the weeks up to Christmas are getting lighter in weight and duration.

The snowdrops are at their very best around the middle of the month – although this can vary by as much as a fortnight according to the weather, and the primroses in the Coppice respond enthusiastically to any glimmers of sun.

Hellebores are the grandest plants of February and you cannot fail to be charmed by them, especially Helleborus × hybridus in all its forms, modestly holding their astonishing faces to the ground. My hellebores have bred indiscriminately which does result in rather a lot of muddy, pinky-brown flowers, but I encourage this. Too much good taste is bad for you.

As well as relishing the flowers that are increasing by the day, February is a busy month. The days may be lengthening but they are all too short and there is much to do. The garden has to be prepared like a ship setting out for a long voyage. Turn the compost heap. Lay that path. Check the mower and the garden furniture.

In the vegetable garden I dig and, if the soil is dry enough, sow broad beans and plant onion sets. However I do not worry about this – the readiness of the soil is much more significant than the date on the calendar.

The potting shed and greenhouse become the centre of activity, sowing seeds, taking dahlias out of hibernation, chitting potatoes. There is a temptation to sow too much, and almost everything that will eventually be planted outside is better left until March, but I have an irresistible impulse to sow as much as I can.

I try to finish pruning the pleached limes, espaliered pears and any top fruit in the Orchard, as well as the roses, late-flowering clematis and buddlejas. But none of this can be forced. Ice and snow are likely and flooding not uncommon. But some years it is so mild that we give the grass its first trim before the month is out and the intoxicating smell of cut grass as the sun sets after 6pm on a late February afternoon is one of the most exciting moments in the entire gardening year.


Crocus tommasinianus

It is a reasonable rule of thumb to say that wherever grass grows well crocuses will also be happy. But Crocus tommasinianus originates from European woodland and is an exception to this kind of meadow planting. This makes it ideal for planting in a mixed border or in the shade of deciduous shrubs and trees. One of the problems of having bulbs in a border is that they get dug up whenever you plant around them. But if a handful of corms get dug up as and when you plant something else it is of no consequence. Just bung them back in the ground. Like the Lenten rose, C. tommasinianus does have a tendency to hybridise and make muddy or weak colours but at this time of year I would rather have a gorgeous sea of inferior flowers than a handful of exact and superior blooms.

About 10 years ago, in September, we planted thousands of the tiny corms in the grass under a group of field maples that make the extension of the Coppice. This is an oddly complete space yet has never found a name or label to identify it. I guess every largish garden has bits like this that escape classification – probably because they do not need it. Although names can be a bit pretentious and solemn they do serve a real purpose. A distinct part of a garden without a name is curiously incomplete and impersonal. To know something fully you need to know its name. Yet occasionally places escape categorisation and naming. They just are and a label is redundant.

So in this nameless square patch – a good, peaceful patch of garden – we planted 1,000 C. tommasinianus and another 1,000 ‘Barr’s Purple’ which is a tommasinianus cultivar. If these quantities seem enormous bear in mind that a crocus corm is marble-sized and you need tens of thousands to make a really dramatic effect. Planting this number is a bit of a slog, but I go for the turflifting method, lifting a square of turf with a spade, spreading a score of corms at random on the surface of the exposed soil, and putting the turf back over the top of them.


Hellebores

About 20 years ago I went into the local health food store in Leominster for some brown rice and came out with a carload of oriental hybrid hellebores, which became the nucleus of the Spring Garden. Since then I have gathered a few more species hellebores but the heart lies in the Lenten roses, Helleborus × hybridus (formerly known as H. orientalis), and I have grown to love their appearance that spans the icy clutch of winter right through to the end of March.

Hellebores are usually expensive to buy, especially named hybrids, but they are good value because they last for a very long time, will grow in almost any conditions and need very little care – and have some of the most spectacular flowers that any garden can grow at a time of year when flowers are thin on the ground. They also spread themselves very prolifically from seed, so that now my Spring Garden has hundreds of the oriental hybrids. The only downside to this is their tendency to hybridise, making muddy colours and rather more quantity than quality, but none are bad and every now and then a real beauty crops up.



Oriental hellebores are the stars of the February garden. They hybridise indiscriminately and although the results can be a rather muddy pink they are always charming and sometimes stunning.





Lenten roses have flowers that vary from the palest creams to the darkest purples, via bright green. When you buy an unnamed species Helleborus × hybridus there is no saying what the colour will be and there are people who have devoted lifetimes to breeding hybrids whose flowers are predictable. H. × hybridus will cross not only with itself in all its various hybridisations but also with a number of other species, so garden seedlings will always be uncontrollable, which is good if you like surprises. Dark flowers are trendy and certainly beautiful and as a rule seedlings showing dark staining on the stem will produce the darkest flowers. However I like the full range that the Lenten rose can produce from a rich plum purple to a delicate greenish ivory shade, speckled with pink smudges and dots.

The best way to enjoy the details of these flower variations is not on the plant itself because the flowers hang down (to make it easier for pollinating bumblebees to get at their pollen) but to carefully cut a selection on short stems and then float them in a bowl filled with water – like tabletop waterlilies. They last a surprisingly long time like this and make the most beautiful centrepiece for any table.

One of the features of the oriental hybrids is that although their colorations and patterns – as pretty as a speckled bird’s egg – are seemingly random, in fact the plants retain them throughout their long lives, so it is quite possible to try and combine two and start a breeding programme. These colours are not carried on the petals but on sepals that form a protective casing for the bud and the flower. The flower buds are formed in summer, some six months before they appear, although it is common to see some flowers in late summer, the buds jumping the gun at the expense of a display when wanted. This is especially likely to happen with young or recently divided plants.

Many of the oriental hybrids are clones, which means that they do not produce fertile seed and can only be propagated by division. But they do not like being disturbed and if you are not careful they never recover. Set against this risk is that, unlike propagation from seed, each section of the plant will grow into an exact replica of its parent.

Given that hellebores do not like being moved, it pays to get the planting right first time and choose a spot where they will thrive. Hellebores are broadly woodland plants and the essence of all woodland flowers is that they flourish in a situation that has some degree of shade, shelter, rich soil (from all those years of fallen leaves) and often flower early before the canopy of leaves fills out above them blocking all light. Many will tolerate quite dry conditions, especially in summer, after flowering. That might sound a complicated, demanding mix, but in fact most gardens are a type of mini woodland by default and are ideal for woodland flowers like hellebores. The one thing that all hellebores hate is bad drainage, but soil that is rich enough will drain enough and the addition of grit to even really heavy clay, as well as lots of organic material, will do the trick.

When I plant a good-sized hellebore I will dig a deep hole (they have long roots) and add a generous amount of garden compost or mushroom compost. This extra material gives them a healthy start and they respond well. Remember that they live a long time, so it is worth taking some trouble when you plant them.

Hellebore leaves, of whatever variety, are leathery and evergreen and stay on the plant until replaced by new ones in spring as the flowers fade and set seed. However, as they grow older they can be prone to a fungal infection called Coniothyrium hellebori, which creates a chocolate blotching on the leaves, which then turn yellow and die. They also tend to form a tangle above emerging flowers so it is best to remove all the older leaves as the new growth appears – which is a job I do as soon as convenient in the New Year. This will reduce a confidently bulky plant to a fragile, naked thing, but do not worry – the flowers will be all the better for it and the extra light and air will reduce the risk of black spot. Hellebore leaves are very slow to break down on the compost heap but it is better not to compost any infected leaves, burning them instead.


Winter honeysuckle

We have a woody, sprawling and somewhat scrawny bush at the end of the Spring Garden, near the back door, which I treasure at this time of year. It is the winter-flowering honeysuckle and it has the best of all fragrances of any winter plant. A single sprig will fill a room with its delicate but haunting scent.

Lonicera fragrantissima is the best-known and most common of the winter honeysuckles and has tiny ivory flowers on its bare, woody stems (although in mild areas it will be almost evergreen) that would scarcely be noticed in the glory of a May garden but which earn pride of place in stark midwinter. It will grow perfectly happily in dry shade and does not need feeding or rich soil as this will only encourage a mass of foliage at the expense of flowers. L. standishii comes from China and is very similar but more compact and completely deciduous. L. × purpusii is the offspring of a crossing of these two parents and is generally reckoned to have a hybrid robustness that combines both their qualities, being very free-flowering and vigorous.

Lonicera fragrantissima, the winter-flowering honeysuckle, is an ungainly, scrubby shrub but has beautiful, delicate flowers with a deliciously subtle fragrance.




Rhubarb

I have a bed devoted to rhubarb in the Ornamental Vegetable Garden and the fresh rosy shoots are growing strongly now as the days start to lengthen. These were all planted in 1993 after I brought back a bag of discarded roots from a visit to a rhubarb farm near Wakefield in Yorkshire and are a variety called ‘Timperley Early’. At this stage of the season I force a few plants under terracotta rhubarb forcers – which is a fancy way of describing anything that will exclude light whilst allowing room for the young shoots to grow, which, when grown in darkness, are sweeter and have much smaller leaves.

The shoots can be harvested from February to midsummer, when they should then be left to develop good foliage that will feed the roots to ensure a vigorous crop next year. And a vigorous crop is needed because it is glorious stuff however you serve it, be it as fool, crumble, pie, jam, wine or just plain stewed, preferably for breakfast.

All rhubarb is good but early rhubarb is best. Hence the proliferation of forcers in Victorian times, drawing forward the sweet, light-deprived first shoots by as much as a month. Rhubarb is generally not sweet at all and shares spinach and chard’s metallic tang, which comes from a high level of oxalic acid. In fact, the acidic content is so high that it will kill dogs and leave humans with a dramatically active tummy if eaten in sufficient quantity, although only the leaves have levels high enough to be properly dangerous.

It is dead easy to grow. Being a member of the Rheum family it prefers rich, deep soil so enrich the soil with whatever goodness you have and let the young plants grow for a couple of seasons before harvest, so that the roots have a chance to develop. Pull sparingly for the first few years and always stop by midsummer. No amount of cold weather will harm them and a period of cold is necessary to trigger new growth – but damp can rot the crowns so mulch them thickly with manure or compost at the end of autumn but be careful not to cover them. They will be good for 10 years or so when it is a good idea to dig them up, divide the roots with a spade and replant the segments to stimulate more vigorous growth.



My ‘Timperley Early’ rhubarb has grown and produced delicious stems in the same corner of the Ornamental Vegetable Garden for 20 years.





Broccoli

We are now entering the season of one of my favourite vegetables. I love the way that it becomes top-heavily laden with leaf with so much plant for such a delicate harvest. I even like its slowness, steadily managing all that growth from sowing in March to its first tentative picking – in my unforced garden at any rate – in February. To invest a year of growth and weeding, staking, protection from slugs, cabbage white butterflies and pigeons has an unfashionable layer of trust built into the relationship between gardener and plant. Growing broccoli takes some imagination and trust to surrender a slab of garden for a harvest tucked three seasons ahead.

But it is worth it. Let me get one thing straight. The great bulbous green affairs that you buy in supermarkets or are ubiquitously served along with stolidly unchanging ‘seasonal veg’ are not purple sprouting broccoli but calabrese. Calabrese (simply meaning ‘from Calabria’) is a mini green cauliflower really, not bad to eat and matures quicker over a longer season. However, it is synonymous with healthy but dull eating, whereas broccoli is subtle, delicate and restricted to a season that starts in the New Year and ends at the beginning of May – although in my own garden I am lucky to make a picking in February and by the end of April it is bolting faster than I can pick it.

‘Romanesco’ has a lime-green colour to the florets and is very delicious and ‘Broccoletto’ is a fast-maturing variety with a single edible floret. But I am happy with common or garden purple sprouting. I want a big, glaucous plant on a stalk as thick as my forearm (and best staked early otherwise they sprawl and lean and crowd each other like a drunken choir) producing a mass of delicate little branching buds, rich purple, each no bigger than a marble (and some much smaller than that) but each packed with a sweet – almost tender – cabbagey tang that demands ritual celebration.

It certainly demands lots of space but I always underplant it with lettuce for the first three months or so of its growing year. To this end it is best to plant the seedlings out in a grid with each plant at least a metre apart in any direction. There is always a temptation to sneak them closer than this but resist it. You gain no extra broccoli spears for your parsimony with space and you lose the chance to grow a good crop of lettuce, radish, rocket or even spinach before it gets crowded out with those lovely crinkled blue-green leaves.

Purple sprouting broccoli is one of the true luxuries of the vegetable garden. Its season is short and growing time long, but worth all the time and space it demands.



I sow mine just when the harvest of last year’s sowing is hitting its stride, in mid-March. It is easiest to sow them in plugs, thinning to one seed per plug, and then potting them on into generous pots – at least 8cm (3in) – so they can develop a decent root system before planting them out in early June. I always add a good inch or two of compost to a brassica bed, working it in lightly, so the plants grow strong and lusty. Firm the young seedlings into the ground fiercely well – again, treat them like trees rather than cabbages. But a year later, treat their harvest like a luxurious treat rather than worthy but dull health food.


Digging

If you grow vegetables, the chances are that your soil has remained uncultivated all winter. By digging it now you will let air into it and, where appropriate, add organic material ready for breaking down and sowing and planting in a month or two’s time. The important thing is to break up the compaction and let in plenty of air. Use a spade, not a fork, as this will take out larger clods and let in more air. A fork can be used to break up the soil nearer to the final cultivation before sowing. Do not worry about digging in annual weeds – they will break down in the soil and enrich it – but remove any perennial weed roots such as bindweed, ground elder and couch grass as you go.

How to dig

Dig a trench one spade deep (a spit) and a spade wide, cleaning out the ‘crumbs’ or loose soil, but trying not to mix topsoil and subsoil. Put the excavated soil into a barrow. Move back the width of a spade and dig the next line of the bed, throwing the soil from it to fill the first trench. It will fall into it at an angle, sloping away from you at 45 degrees.

If you have any manure or compost, spread a layer over the soil in front of you that you have just turned over. Do not bury it in the bottom of the trench as it should remain in the topsoil where the feeding roots can benefit most from it.

When you reach the end of the area or bed, use the soil in the barrow to backfill the last trench.





Inevitably, the soil level will have been raised above the surrounding area, but do not be alarmed by this, as it will gently subside whilst retaining its new light structure. The weather over the coming month or two will help break it down further and the extra air will promote more bacterial activity whilst the lack of compaction will greatly improve future root development and growth.



The Spring Garden at the brief point in late winter when both snowdrops and hellebores are in flower together beneath bare trees and shrubs.





Spring pruning

A number of plants are best pruned between the middle of February and the middle of March. These tend to be those that flower on new growth for which pruning hard will stimulate lots of healthy new growth and hence lots of flowers. But inevitably there are exceptions. Here are the most common plants for spring pruning and how to deal with them.

Clematis

When pruning clematis there is one really important consideration: when does it flower? The old rhyme, ‘if it flowers before June do not prune’ will get you out of most trouble, but clematis can be subdivided into three flowering groups.

Group one is early-flowering clematis (which means up to late May) and includes Clematis montana, C. alpina, C. armandii and C. macropetala. These tend to have many small flowers that are produced on growth made the previous summer. So if you prune in early spring you will not harm the plant but will radically reduce the quantity of flowers. Ideally trim as necessary (to shape and size) in June.

Group two is mid-season clematis (from late May to early July) and these tend to have much less vigorous growth and much larger flowers. They include ‘Niobe’, ‘Barbara Jackman’, ‘Nelly Moser’, ‘The President’ and ‘H.F. Young’. These often flower twice, first on growth produced the previous year and again on new growth. The second flush is always of smaller flowers. If you prune hard at this time of year you will not have any early, large flowers but plenty in late summer. The best bet is to remove all weak or straggly stems now as well as all growth above the top pair of healthy buds.

Group three is late-flowering clematis (after mid-June) and includes C. ‘Jackmanii’ and C. viticella. All are multi-stemmed and flower on growth made in spring, so the previous year’s growth should be cleared away in late winter. I always cut down to about 60cm (2ft) from the ground, leaving at least two healthy pairs of buds.

Always prune all clematis very hard – to about 15cm (6in) – when you first plant them. This will encourage healthy growth from the base of the plant.

Roses

There is a lot of mystique about rose pruning, but the reality is that they are all tough shrubs that can take a mauling by anything from secateurs to a flail cutter and bounce back. However there are three considerations to bear in mind when pruning roses.

1. Hybrid teas, floribundas and hybrid perpetuals: these flower on the current season’s wood so they should be pruned hard each spring, removing all weak, damaged or crossing stems first and then pruning the remaining stems to form an open bowl of stubby branches. Don’t worry too much about making outward-sloping cuts, but do always cut just above a bud. Remember to cut the weakest growth hardest.

2. Shrub roses: these need little pruning, just a once-over with a hedge trimmer has proven effective. I prune mine in early spring by removing exceptionally long growth, damaged or crossing branches and then leave alone. There is a strong case for doing this in late summer or early autumn.

3. Climbing roses: these can be subdivided into two groups, climbers and ramblers: a) Climbers tend to have single, large flowers covering the period from early summer right into autumn, and include ‘New Dawn’, ‘Albertine’ and ‘Dorothy Perkins’. These are best pruned in autumn (although it can be done at any time till March), trying to maintain a framework of long stems trained laterally, with side branches cut back to 2.5–5cm (1–2in) breaking from them. These short side branches will carry the flowers on new growth produced in spring. Ideally a third of the plant is removed each year – the oldest, woodiest stems – so that it is constantly renewing itself. b) Ramblers have clusters of smaller flowers that flower just once in midsummer. These include ‘Bobbie James’, ‘Rambling Rector’ and ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’. These need little pruning but should be trained and trimmed immediately after flowering as the flowers are carried mostly on stems grown in late summer.

Buddleja

Buddleja davidii is by far the most common butterfly bush and can be pruned right back in late winter to a couple of healthy buds. This will mean removing 90 per cent of all growth to a knuckly framework that will support the new shoots.

B. alternifolia and B. globosa both flower on wood made the previous year, so – like early-flowering clematis – should be pruned back by a third immediately after flowering. Older stems can also be removed at this point right to the ground to encourage replacement growth.

Always use really sharp tools for pruning. Not only does it make life much easier but it also makes for cleaner cuts and therefore causes less damage to the plant. Sharp tools are also much safer. But treat secateurs with respect – I have seen some very nasty injuries as a result of careless use (including cutting the top of one of my own fingers off!). In practice, this means sharpening your secateurs as often as you would sharpen a kitchen knife. It also means buying secateurs that will hold an edge. Invariably you get what you pay for. Personally I hate anvil types of secateurs and use the by-pass type, which seem to me to make a much cleaner cut.

Loppers are also important. Go for a good quality pair but never strain them – if it cannot be cut easily it should not be cut at all. Use a saw instead. Nowadays there are superb Japanese pruning saws on the market ranging from small folding ones to really large ones and some on extendable poles. They all work with a pulling action and are very easy to control precisely. I find them invaluable.

A great deal of research has been done on the business of painting wounds left by pruning. The current authoritative view is that nothing you might paint on a wound does any good at all. By far the best course is to leave a clean cut and let it heal itself.

Until new foliage grows, pruning removes the plant of potential food so mulch all climbers and shrubs with a generous layer of compost when you have finished pruning. Clematis and roses, in particular, respond well to a really heavy annual mulch of compost.

Clear all prunings, and if you own or can hire a shredder, shred them before adding to the compost heap. Failing that, stack them in a hidden corner to provide perfect cover for beneficial insects and mammals.

The Lime Walk as new growth is emerging but before its annual hard prune.





AS I GET OLDER, I LOVE MARCH MORE AND MORE. There is a real sense of a long and arduous journey nearing its end and the garden comes home to the gardener. No other month trembles with such promise and although the month can bite back with some of the coldest weather of the year, there is a real chance of some sunshine and a few precious hours outside working in shirtsleeves.

The strange thing is that it always takes me by surprise. Spring arrives. It is odd, alarming even, thrilling and utterly predictable. The really strange thing is that there is no actual marker for this. For weeks, even months in the sun-soaked south, we have had the more traditional signs of spring with daffodils, primroses, birds singing and nesting and even the odd blossom blooming, but this is not necessarily enough. These are outrunners for the arrival, sounds coming from over the horizon rather than the song itself. And then you go outside, sniff the air and you recognise it for what it is. Spring is here, and will not go away for months.

It feels like a prize for enduring the long winter months. For the first few days I bask in the springness, letting that little bit of extra light, the flowers peeking their heads above winter’s parapet, the extra volume of birdsong and the smell – yes the actual, measurable scent – of plants growing, all filter into my system.

But then there is a sense of urgency. I need to get on. There is much to do and now is the time to get my act together and start doing it.

This is slightly disingenuous of course. I garden all year round when I can but there is a sense of housekeeping in this. Jobs are done because they need doing not because there is that irresistible, visceral urge to be outside and part of the growing emerging world, which is how I feel in spring.

An aspect of March that is undervalued is the tremendous evening chorus of the birds. As the sun starts to sink the songbirds whip themselves to a frenzy of territorial abandon and the March garden resonates to their lovely song.

What the gardener really wants in March is drought. A month of dry days, every one with a little more daylight, would be a horticultural treat. This is because the first focus of attention must be the soil and if the weather is dry then you can get at the soil to dig, plant, weed, prune – all the things that are impossible when it is wet. Dry soil also warms up much quicker than wet.

If your soil is ready then March is a good time to plant and move things around. But ready means, above all, warm enough. The only way to know this is by touch. Pick up a handful of earth. If it feels cold and clammy to the skin then seeds will not germinate and roots will not grow. If it feels warm, holds together when squeezed and yet can easily be crumbled, then it is ideal.


Annuals from seed

I like bedding. It is cheerful and lifts our spirits after a long winter. It can be used in containers, hanging baskets, mixed borders or as a display on its own. Bedding is beautiful and fun.

Wherever you buy your plants, do not be seduced by a fine show of flowers, especially early in the growing season. More flowers in the garden centre means less in your garden. Look for strong, bushy plants and when you get home pinch off any flowers to rest the plant, allowing it to put energy into developing strong roots and foliage which in turn will encourage a better show in a few weeks that will last a good long time.

But growing your own from seed is much more economic, much more fun and will give you ten times the number of plants. For the cost of a tray of bedding you can buy up to half a dozen packets of seed, each one of which will give you half a dozen trays of plants. The range of seeds that you can buy is also far greater than the available plants.

Every year here at Longmeadow I grow tobacco plants (Nicotiana sylvestris), tithonia, leonotis, sunflowers, nasturtiums, marigolds, salvias, cleome, rudbeckia, cerinthe, poppies (Shirley, field, opium and the Californian poppy, eschscholzia), and zinnias. I also grow the biennials: wallflowers, foxgloves and antirrhinums and use them as bedding. Other gardeners will have an equally long list composed of entirely different plants.

When you buy bedding you are invariably presented with trays of mixed colours bred for their ease of production and ability to flower for a long time and resist disease. None of these qualities could ever be considered a bad thing, but it is geared first for the producer rather than the consumer. If you choose your own seed you can carefully select the colours, heights and fragrances that please you and work best in your particular garden. You are actively taking control rather than being on the receiving end of a marketing plan.


Growing annuals

There are three kinds of annuals: hardy, half-hardy and tender. These can be divided into those that will tolerate frost and those that will not. So for example busy Lizzies, petunias and nicotiana grow in response to heat rather than light and will not cope with frost, which means that at Longmeadow they cannot be planted outside until well into May (although in a city frost is much less likely after mid-April).

Hardy annuals like cornflowers, poppies and nigella can cope with cold – although none enjoy it. As a result it is often best to sow hardy annuals directly where they are to grow, knowing that the seedlings will survive a late, cold snap.

You can simply scatter seed into a border and let them germinate and grow where they fall. That is, after all, what nature does. But there is a risk that weeds will swamp them, that they will not grow precisely where you intended them to and also of being weeded out by you by mistake. It is easily done.

The time-honoured – and very effective – way of incorporating seed into a mixed border without it looking unnatural is to sow them in zigzags, crosses or circles – so you can see where they are growing and not weed them out, and then thin the seedlings so that the artificiality of these shapes is lost. It works every time. The only hard bit is to sow much more thinly than seems sensible and then thin the seedlings ruthlessly so that each plant has room to enrich itself – as much as 15cm (6in) for most plants. If the seeds are very small try mixing them with sharp sand or vermiculite to thin their spread.

Half-hardy or tender annuals must be sown under cover. Ideally the temperature will be fairly constant and stay above 6°C (43°F). In practice, this merely needs to be frost-free, and the harder they are grown – or the sooner they are exposed to the outdoor climate and weather – the healthier they will be. If you have a greenhouse then you have your own plant factory. But a porch or windowsill will do and a coldframe is a brilliant investment.

If you are growing seeds on a windowsill remember that the seedlings invariably crane towards the light, so turn them daily. Also avoid a southern window as this can easily become too hot at midday.

I sow small seeds like tobacco plants in seed trays and use plugs for larger ones like sunflowers, but small pots sprinkled with seed are effective in a limited space.

Whatever containers you choose use a general-purpose peat-free compost and I recommend adding some vermiculite or horticultural grit to lighten it and improve drainage and root-run. Fill the container and gently level it off 1cm (½in) from the top. Scatter the seeds thinly over the surface. Lightly sprinkle a thin layer of sieved compost or vermiculite over the top. Then soak the container in a sink for a few minutes or water gently, which works just as well.

Most seedlings will emerge within two weeks. The growth of two true leaves is an indication that they have roots and can be pricked out into individual pots or plugs. Always do this holding them by a leaf – which is replaceable and tough – not the stem, which bruises very easily. Grow them on, being careful that they do not dry out but are not waterlogged. When they are between 8–15cm (3–6in) tall, start to harden them off in a sheltered spot outside, protecting them from cold nights, wind and very heavy rain. It is always worth leaving any bought plant – even from a nearby garden centre – for at least a week to get used to your garden’s micro-conditions before planting it out.

Plant your seedlings out at the beginning of June making sure that they have plenty of light. Water them in well. Then leave them to get gloriously on with it.

Dividing agapanthus

Agapanthus do best with very good drainage and poor soil so I am preparing a mixture of potting compost with an equal volume of grit.



Agapanthus has fleshy roots that should be divided when – but not before – they completely fill the container they are in.



I have cut this plant in two with a sharp knife to make two healthy plants that will grow with renewed vigour.



After repotting – and in the case of agapanthus the container should be quite constricted even when freshly repotted – give them a good soak.




Dividing herbaceous perennials

Herbaceous perennials will grow much better if you divide them every three or four years, and at the same time you will produce a supply of free new plants. The best time to do it is just as they are starting into growth in spring.

If the plant has strong fleshy roots, like a hosta, the best method is to cut or chop them with a sharp knife or spade. Herbaceous plants have the strongest roots on the edge so cut them like a cake, ensuring each new slice is mostly outside roots. Make sure that there is a healthy bud visible in each slice. Discard the leftover central section as this will be exhausted.

If the roots are fibrous, like with helianthus or hemerocallis, then the time-honoured method is to prise the plant apart with two garden forks, back to back, levering one against the other – although I find it is often easier to tease the roots apart by hand. Again, discard the old central section and replant the more vigorous outside roots. Replant in groups of three to create clumps that will quickly grow together as one impressive display.


Dividing snowdrops

The best way to speed up the spread of a clump of snowdrops and to encourage them to flower with renewed vigour is to lift them straight after flowering, divide up the mass of bulbs and replant them in smaller groups a few feet apart. Seed dispersal will mean that these clumps gradually meet, and repeated division every three or four years will quicken this process.

Carefully lift a clump with a fork, trying not to damage the roots too much, and tease out the bulbs individually or in small groups before replanting them. If planting in turf, leave an area of bare soil around each clump to help them establish.

I have planted snowdrops as ‘dry’ bulbs in autumn but without great success. It is much, much better to either buy them as plants or persuade someone you know to let you have a clump as they divide them. As long as they do not dry out too much until the foliage has died down they are almost certain to survive and flower and gradually spread.


Fritillaries

Most spring bulbs do best in well-drained soil, which can be a problem for those of us who garden on heavy clay. However, one of my favourite spring bulbs positively relishes damp soil in winter and early spring. This is the common snake’s head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris. Its flowers have pointed bonnets hanging down – hence their folk name of sulky ladies – chequered with a patchwork of mauves, pinks, purples, greens and sometimes whites in various permutations, with some almost pure white and others richly purple.

I first planted a batch of 100 plants (more expensive than planting the bulbs but more likely to succeed) down the far end of the Spring Garden that is bounded on one side by water meadows. These meadows flood often and the water inevitably spills into my garden, sometimes dramatically, and the first place to get a soaking is that far spit of Spring Garden. It does not seem to bother the fritillaries at all.

I have also planted another batch up on the Cricket Pitch that will grow in the grass with crocus and narcissi. Although this does not flood and they had to endure an exceptionally dry first spring and summer, the ground is heavy enough to hold moisture and make them feel at home.

It is a native wildflower found naturally in wet meadows – the most famous of which is behind Magdalen College Oxford where thousands of them flower each spring. My section of flooded Spring Garden, therefore, is a home from home. The bulb goes dormant from June until August when it grows new shoots that stop just below the surface when the nights begin to cool. As soon as the weather warms up in spring they start to grow fast from this poised position so that they can flower and set seed before the grass gets growing. In this way they could – and very occasionally still do – co-exist with grazing cattle and haymaking on the same ground as long as they were not poisoned by fertiliser.

Snake’s head fritillaries are the easiest of this wide-ranging member of the lily family, but there are more than 100 others to grow. All share one unlikely pollinator, which is the queen wasp, active as a solitary operator in spring. I have the crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, growing in the Spring Garden, Jewel Garden and Dry Garden and it performs heroically in each of these different spots.

Crown imperial fritillaries are from Kashmir and stand about 90cm (3ft) tall on curiously flattened, thick chocolate stems, the bright flowers hanging beneath a dreadlocked topknot of leaf. They start to fill the Spring Garden with their distinctive aroma of fox and tomcat when the leaves first appear, halfway through March. As the flowers first open the air is rancid with fritillary fragrance, but then it seems to diminish. Rather like snake’s head fritillaries, the words to describe them are touched with distaste but I adore them, smell and all, and think of them as one of the joys of my spring.

We have three types: the common one, which is the orange or brick-coloured version; the yellow F. i. ‘Maxima Lutea’; and the deep orange F. i. ‘Rubra’.

It is an ancient garden plant, appearing in Renaissance paintings and featuring in the very oldest British books on gardening. It was introduced in the late sixteenth century and is called the imperial fritillary because it was first grown in Europe in the imperial gardens of Vienna. Inside the petals are nectaries that were thought to be teardrops. A legend grew up in the Christian religion because it was believed that the imperial fritillary was the only flower that refused to bow its head on Good Friday and now hangs its flowers in shame. In Persia the tears were thought to be those of a queen whose fidelity was questioned by her jealous husband whereupon she was changed by an angel into the flower, the glistening teardrops forever expressing her regret and remorse.

One of its many oddities – and therefore attractions – is that you plant the bulbs (which are enormous) on their side. This is because they have a hollow central core through which the main shoot develops and if they are on their side then water cannot sit in the bulb and rot it. It is a good idea to lift the mature bulbs every few years and to replant them to induce renewed vigour.

The bulbs are good at making offsets and a few bulbs will gradually spread into a stand of tousle-haired imperial splendour.



The imperial fritillary is a majestic clown and the star of the Spring Garden in April. It needs good drainage and I always add plenty of grit to its planting hole.





A pure white snake’s head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris. Most are a chequerboard of violets and purple. All are happiest in a a damp meadow or a damp, partly shaded border.





Primroses and cowslips

I am often asked what my favourite flower is. The truth is that the answer depends on the season, the situation, on what I am doing – and even who I am doing it with. There are lots of favourites. But whenever I am forced to stump up one floral treasure above all others, I always go for the common, humble primrose. No other plant so perfectly celebrates the coming of spring or does it with such gentle charm and beauty.

Primroses are woodland flowers, loving cool, damp banks and glades and thriving in the lee of a hedgerow or in coppiced woodland, in particular hazel. The native primrose is Primula vulgaris and although the name describes a very distinctive pale yellow, they occur quite naturally in every shade from almost pure white to a distinct orange. Primroses like wet soil best, with summer shade. The drier the local climate, the more they need shade and heavy soil that will hold moisture. So add plenty of organic material to help conserve moisture for the roots. Summer drought is not really a problem as long as they get plenty of moisture in autumn and the first part of the year. They will spread steadily, especially if exposed to light every few years, so if they are in a border make sure that they are underplanting shrubs that can be pruned hard every now and then.

Primroses are perennials that will last for a number of years but will spread quite fast by seed. I underplanted the hazels in the Coppice with a few dozen primroses (bought very cheaply as small plants) and these quickly spread to form great pools and clumps of yellow flowers nestling in their bouquet of lime-green leaves.

The date of this flowering is very variable, influenced both by weather and the gradual changing of our seasons. Some years they are at their very best at the end of February but after a cold winter I expect them to be perfect for the last couple of weeks of March.

Cowslips, Primula veris, are primulas whose coronets of small flowers are borne on single long stems. They are superficially similar to the primrose but very different in their preferred habitat. Cowslips are plants of open downland and meadow. However they can easily be grown in a garden if you have a sunny patch of well-drained grass that can be left uncut long enough for the flowers to set seed – which effectively means the beginning of July. I planted some on the sunny side of the Coppice and they have flourished, even though my soil is rather heavy. I bought mine as a tray of plugs, which is a very good way of buying wildflowers cheaply.

They have cross-pollinated with the primroses, which produces sterile hybrids known as false oxlips that have the tall stem of the cowslip with the larger flowers of the primrose.

All these primulas can be divided and moved and the best time to do that is immediately after flowering so they can be ready to regrow for as long as possible before flowering.



Although cowslips are native to chalky, open downland, which is as unlike the conditions at Longmeadow as could be imagined, they grow well in a dry strip along the sunny edge of the Coppice.





Violets and pansies

The sweet violet, Viola odorata, is one of the most quietly modest and yet beautiful of all flowers. Although perfectly suited to any garden and wonderful in pots on a windowsill or balcony, they are a woodland plant and by bringing them into the garden – or even to a pot outside the back door – you capture the essence of British woodland. We have them growing here in the Coppice and running under the hawthorn hedges.

Their innocent beauty is a by-product of a remorseless quest for pollination. In theory violets are self-fertilising, so any insect activity is a bonus. In practice, they depend heavily on insect pollination, especially by bees, and the early flowers rarely set seed although a later flush of autumn flowers set seed easily.

Pick a little bunch of violets and a room will be infused with their gentle and yet persuasive fragrance – a floral cologne. People have imitated this in toilet water, sweets and soaps but nothing can compare to picking a few flowers on their spindly stalks. The flowers rise on stalks as fine as those of cress seedlings from heart-shaped, fragrant green leaves that remain in a modest form all winter but are now creating new growth of a lovely freshness.

The leaves in turn sprout from a surprisingly knobbly stem, which throws out runners, just like strawberry plants, and new plants root along their length. This means that in the right conditions violets will spread quickly. They can be moved around easily, too. The best time to do it is immediately after flowering and a well-established clump should be broken up every few years to encourage it to spread further faster. You will also find that any group that is apparently healthy but not flowering can be spurred into blooming by lifting and moving.

Although wild and tough and needing almost no cultivation, violets are prone to attack by red spider mite, which will indicate itself by yellowing leaves. Poor drainage and heavy soil will exasperate this situation, as will too close planting.

I like to grow pansies in terracotta pots although they can be planted in any moist, rich soil. They hate dry conditions but should not be in a bog so, as ever, plenty of compost or leaf mould in the ground is ideal. It is best to plant pansies in autumn although I often leave it until February or March. Whenever they are planted you should pinch out all flower heads. This might seem harsh but it will give the plant a chance to establish roots before putting its energy into the flowers – and as a result you will have many more flowers for much longer. Regular dead-heading will do much to increase the length of display.

As spring progresses the plants will grow increasingly leggy and as the supply of flowers diminishes the entire plant should be cut back to one joint above soil level. However many of us treat pansies as annuals and consign them to the compost heap at this stage.

Pansies and violas can be raised from seed sown in June or July with the young plants placed in position in autumn, or from cuttings taken in late summer. The advantage of cuttings is that they preserve the exact particulars of the parent plant whereas seed will always be an unknown combination of both parents.


Getting started

At this time of year there is a temptation to rush out into the garden on the first sunny day and sow masses of seeds in the full expectation of a marvellous harvest by mid-spring. Stop.

Feel the soil. If it is cold to your touch then few seeds will germinate. Whilst there is no point in delaying things if the conditions are right, there is little to be gained by trying to cheat the seasons or the weather. One of the real skills of growing good vegetables at home is in paying attention to and working with the particular conditions on your plot.

As soon as your soil is dry enough to rake without the soil sticking to the tines and does not feel cold to touch, you can sow carrots, parsnips, broad beans, rocket and spinach. You can also plant onion and shallot sets, burying them so that the tops are clear of the ground. The only crop that needs getting into the ground as soon as possible is garlic – ideally it should be in the ground by Christmas – but it is worth a go, particularly if you live in a cold area.

As March progresses the propagating greenhouse starts to fill with seedlings.



A good rule of thumb is that if the weeds are not growing then it is too cold for your vegetable seeds. Prepare the soil and leave it. When a flush of weeds starts to grow, hoe them off and sow your seeds – in this way your seeds will avoid competition in their first vital weeks of growth. When you sow outside you can make drills and sow the seed in rows, which means you can see them as soon as they emerge and avoid treading on them or confusing them with weeds. Alternatively you can broadcast the seed. I use this latter technique for carrots and also when I use a seed mixture such as ‘Saladesi’, or ‘Saladini’, which I broadcast and do not thin except to eat. Otherwise I stick to rows.

However you sow, always be careful to sow as thinly as possible. In an ideal world you would have the seeds twice as close together as the final desired spacing. This would provide for failed germination and the thinning out of any ailing seedlings, along with normal thinning. In practice, when sowing direct, just keep it thin!

Thin them carefully as soon as they are large enough to handle, thin again a few weeks later (eating the meltingly tender thinnings, roots and all) so that you are left with a row of maturing plants about 8–23cm (3–9in) apart. The advantages of this are that the roots of the plants are not disturbed more than they have to be and it requires no potting compost, seed trays, plugs, greenhouses or paraphernalia of any kind. As long as the growing medium is well drained and quite rich – I always add and lightly rake in 2.5cm (1in) of fresh garden compost before sowing or planting out salad crops – they should grow well.

Although they are watched over carefully, I resist overwatering or feeding as all must grow hardy enough to cope with life on the outside.



The disadvantage is that they depend on the right soil conditions and are very susceptible to snails and slugs, especially at the young seedling stage and especially at this time of year when growth can be slowed almost to a standstill by a bout of cold weather.

It is just as easy and much more controllable to sow the seed in plugs or seed trays, grow them into good-sized seedlings and then plant out at 23cm (9in) spacing when the conditions are right and they are big enough to withstand any kind of slug or snail attack. A proprietary peat-free general-purpose compost will be fine for this.

March is the perfect time to sow seeds under cover for planting outside about a month or so later, when the soil has warmed up a little and – crucially – there is more daylight. A greenhouse is best but coldframes are very good and a porch or spare windowsill or two perfectly workable. Even if you have a small yard and intend just to grow a few pots of salad leaves at any one time a small coldframe is a really good idea. You can make this yourself with a wooden frame lined with polystyrene insulation board and using polythene or Perspex for the cover. This will provide just enough extra protection to raise almost anything from seed.

There is a range of salad plants adapted to grow well in cool spring weather but which does not thrive so well in the heat of summer. This is what I concentrate on in early spring.

Salad crops for early spring sowing:

rocket

mizuna

mibuna

corn salad

land cress

lettuces ‘All the Year Round’, ‘Tom Thumb’, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Rouge d’Hiver’.





Chard

No other vegetable gleams like chard. A healthy leaf is as lacquered and glossy as holly, and the stem buffed to the point it looks molten. Rhubarb chard has green leaves and red stalks; ruby chard has both red leaves and stalks – with the crimson intensity of cut beetroot; and rainbow chard has stems of yellow, orange, pink and red. Once cooked, all taste remarkably similar, so for reliability and taste I would opt for the green leaves and white stems of Swiss chard.

I sow the first batch about now and then a subsequent one in early August that will provide plants to overwinter for the following spring. The seeds can be sown direct but I sow them in plugs or blocks restricting one seed per unit, growing them on and hardening off before planting out at 23cm (9in) spacing. They like a really rich, moisture-retentive soil.

Being biennials they will only go to seed in the first growing season if they are distressed, so the consistency of water supply is as important as the quantity. If some do start to bolt then I cut the central stem down to the ground and give them a soak.

We shred the green leaves from the stalks and cook and use them exactly like spinach – although the leaves do not have such a strong after-taste – and the stems are very good cooked separately in water or stock and served either with oil and lemon or a béchamel sauce. The leaves and stalks chopped up together make a very good filling for a pie or flan.


Crop rotation

Rotating the crops around your plot, whatever its size, will help avoid the build up of pests and diseases, increase fertility and enable you to keep your soil in excellent condition.

Vegetables are usually divided into three groups that share the same cultivation needs. Within the demands of space and the desire to keep the garden looking attractive at all times, it is worth trying not to mix the elements from each group and to sequence them in the following order.

Group one: legumes

Legumes include all peas and beans – and the fruit vegetables are usefully added to this group which includes tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, aubergines, squashes, pumpkins, sweetcorn, courgettes, okra and celery. I also grow lettuces alongside these crops as space is made available. Peas and beans have the capability of ‘fixing’ nitrogen from the air and leaving a residue of it in the soil. This means that plants succeeding legumes can tap into extra nitrogen, which will encourage green, leafy growth.

Group two: brassicas

Brassicas include all cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kales – all of which benefit from being grown in soil that has just been cleared of legumes. I add a thin layer of compost before planting, which I work lightly into the topsoil, to encourage extra growth. Swedes, turnips, radishes, kohl rabi, land cress and mizuna are also brassicas and should share the same rotation. Brassicas are subject to clubroot which thrives in soil with a low pH, so lime is often added before planting to soil that is inclined to be acidic.

Group three: roots

Nitrogen will encourage leafy growth at the expense of good roots so root crops usually follow on from brassicas, which will have taken up all the nitrogen left by legumes, and no extra compost is added to the soil. Although compost is not added, the soil should be worked deeply to ensure a free root run. This group includes carrots, parsnips, beetroots, onions, leeks, garlic, salsify and scorzonera, but not turnips and swedes, which are group two. In practice, this is the most diverse and confusing group. Carrots and parsnips, for example, grow best in soil that has had no added manure or compost incorporated whereas it is important to top up the soil with compost for celery, celeriac and potatoes.

If in doubt over when and where to enrich a plot as part of the rotation, a thin layer of good garden compost worked lightly into the topsoil will always do a lot of good to the soil and no harm to any crop.


Legumes

Whatever your soil is like, growing legumes of any kind will improve it for future crops. The leguminous vegetables that are easy to grow in British gardens are peas, broad beans, French beans – both dwarf and climbing – and runner beans. Leguminous green manures include lupins, clover, vetches and trefoil.

All legumes host bacteria – rhizobium – that can convert the nitrogen that makes up around 80 per cent of our atmosphere into a form that can be easily absorbed by plants. In return, the plants feed the bacteria sugars.

Nitrogen is essential for green, new growth in plants but too much creates an excess of soft, sappy growth, which in turn attracts aphids and fungal problems. Hence a legume crop every two years (three growing seasons) maintains the right balance if they are followed by brassicas over the subsequent autumn, and winter and by root crops after that.


Pruning currants and gooseberries

Now is the time to prune red and white currants as well as gooseberries (but not black currants, which should be pruned in August after harvesting the fruit). White currants are effectively albino versions of red currants and are grown under identical conditions, while gooseberries can be treated the same way. All three produce their fruit on knobbly spurs rather like apples. These spurs need a permanent, open framework of branches.

You can grow them in two ways, either as a bush, raised up on a short stem like a wine glass, or as a cordon. If growing bushes, begin by taking out all inward-growing branches and any that are damaged or crossing. The aim is to reduce the bush to an open bowl made out of four or five uncrowded ribs standing on a clean, straight or concave stem. Then prune these remaining branches by about a quarter to a third so you have a strong, stumpy framework with plenty of spurs. The idea is to create maximum ventilation and light, both to ripen the fruit and to deter sawfly that hate exposed, windy conditions.

Gooseberries can also be grown as cordons. A cordon is a single stem grown vertically either supported by wires or against a fence. It enables you to grow many varieties in a limited space. Each March you should cut off all lateral growth right back to the woody spurs that will carry the fruit, and thin these so that they grow as a series of knobbly protrusions with at least 2.5cm (1in) between them. It looks dramatic but will encourage heavy fruiting.

Gooseberries are tough plants and almost relish harsh treatment. But they are a subtly fragrant and delicious fruit.




Lawns

Although admittedly male, middle-aged and obsessed with gardening I cannot say that I share the need for a perfect lawn. If it is green, crisp and even then it will do for me. I really do not object to the presence of a few daisies, dandelions or some moss. If an area of grass is pleasant to sit or lie on then it is doing its job. But even I like to see grass neatly mown, whereas my wife claims that she would only mow paths wide enough to walk down and let the rest of the grass grow meadow-long. I suspect that this is a gender thing. Lawns bring out the martinet in men and meadows the romantic in women.

But most of us would agree that an expanse of green harmoniously links any of the colours that border it. Lawns and grass paths make the perfect balance between the business of borders, trees and hedges.

To get a ‘good’ lawn you have to think positively. Put your efforts into healthy grass rather than fighting perceived problems such as daisies, moss, ants, worm casts, moles, plantains, dandelions and fairy rings. Nine times out of ten if the grass is healthy then everything else will look after itself.

The best grass likes well-drained soil. Moss, for example, is always a symptom of poor drainage, made worse by shade. Unfortunately even the best-prepared soil becomes compacted by matted roots, rain and, especially, normal family use. The answer is to work on it at least once a year by sticking a fork in the ground and wiggling it about and repeating the process every 15cm (6in) or so.

Then mix up equal portions of sieved topsoil, sharp sand and sieved leaf mould or compost. (If you do not have these things to hand then just sharp or silver sand will do the job.) Spread it across the area you have pricked and brush it in with a stiff broom, filling the holes with the mixture. This will help drainage and feed the grass.

It is also worth giving the lawn a good scratch with a wire rake. This will get at all the overwintering thatch and moss, and let light and water get to the soil and to the roots of the grass. Put the debris on the compost and then mow.

Level any dips and hollows by lifting with a fork (to get rid of compaction) and then filling to level with a 50:50 mixture of sharp sand and sieved compost. Sow some seed over this and try to keep animal and human feet off it: within a month or so it will be fully integrated.

When it comes to mowing the lawn the most harm that you can do is to cut it too short. The grass will be a lot healthier if allowed to grow to at least 1cm (½in) and preferably a bit longer. Do not take too much off in one go. A light trim that evens the grasses to the same length will make a dramatic difference – and be much quicker than a less frequent scalping. It is also important to collect the clippings except in very dry weather. They will do more good as part of the compost heap than left on the lawn – even when finely chopped.



The first light trim of the year. The mown grass at Longmeadow is not pampered and serves only to provide a smooth green surface. Any weeds that fit that bill are welcome.





Mulching

Mulching mixed borders is probably the single most useful job to be done in early spring. Not only will it feed the plants and improve the soil but also nothing is so useful in combating drought or suppressing weeds.

Before you mulch, cut back the last of winter growth, do any pruning that has not been done and move anything you want to reposition as well as removing every scrap of perennial weeds. A day spent preparing the border like this is never wasted and by the time you get around to actually spreading the mulch you are thoroughly reacquainted with the spring-cleaned face of your borders.

Mulch controls weeds by denying them light. Many annual weeds are triggered into germination by a combination of light and disturbance – which is why it is a good idea to leave a cleared piece of ground for a week or two before planting, to let the weed seeds germinate and then be hoed off. With annual weeds, like goosegrass, chickweed, and groundsel (which can grow and set seed within an amazing five weeks), emerging seedlings will not develop and the seeds will not germinate. Perennial weeds will grow through mulch but are much easier to pull up.

Whatever you use to mulch (other, of course, than an artificial mulch) must be at least 5cm (2in) thick to control weeds. Less than that is not worth doing. It is better to do half an area properly than the whole thing too thinly. Mulching to a thickness of 10cm (4in) is ideal. That is quite a lot but the more densely a bed is planted the less mulch you will use, and do not skimp on the thickness simply to make it go round.

It is astonishing how effectively mulch works into the soil, transforming its texture. If the soil is light it will give it body, helping it to hold water, and if it is heavy it lightens it, helping it to drain and the roots to grow more easily. It does not, of course, mix in all by itself. Earthworms in particular, but the teeming underworld of subterranean life in general, take it down, digest it and incorporate it into the humus.

The business of feeding plants is hugely over-estimated and is the least important aspect of any mulch. A fertiliser is only necessary when the soil is deficient in one of the three main nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium. A balance of the three, regardless of the actual levels, will create healthy growth, albeit at different rates.

Obviously green growth, especially in spring, will lead to good photosynthesis and a healthy plant, so the low levels of nitrogen in compost or manure (about 2 per cent in poultry manure and 0.5 per cent in cow manure – with all other manures somewhere in between) will do some good. But the effect of garden compost opening out the soil and getting the water retention just right will do more for the plant – so that it can better tap into the soil’s rich and complex sources of nutrition – than the direct effect of the fertiliser. Other than spraying any sick plant with a liquid seaweed solution I do not fertilise my outdoor plants at all.

Plants grown in a container will, however, outgrow the nutrients in the compost after a while and may need very weak supplements later in the year – but I find that liquid seaweed or comfrey is all I need for this.

I have experimented with different mulches over the years and any well-rotted organic material, from wood chips to cocoa shells, will do a good job, but I now just use homemade garden compost or bought-in mushroom compost. Garden compost is definitely the best mulch to use if possible because it is free, already on site, specific to your garden and is coarse enough to last for a year without degrading into the soil. It also goes some way to recycling nutrients that last year’s plants have taken from the soil. But it is almost impossible to make enough compost for a year’s supply of mulch in the flower borders, soil improver in the vegetable beds and for home-made potting compost, so I keep it primarily for edible plants and potting compost and buy in mushroom compost to mulch the flower borders. This is particularly good for lightening heavy clay soil but is alkaline so if you have ericaceous beds or an already very alkaline soil you should not use it in successive years. Mushroom compost is a by-product of growing mushrooms so find a mushroom farm near you (preferably organic) and they should be more than willing to supply you with what is for them just waste.

Mulching with any organic material such as garden compost is the best way of suppressing weeds, retaining moisture and improving the soil’s structure by adding organic material.




Slugs and snails

I guess that there is not a gardener in the country who does not suffer from the predations of slugs or snails at some stage in the year. They certainly dominate all queries that I receive about garden pests. If there is an easy solution to this then I do not have the answer. But by managing the situation intelligently you can definitely reduce the extent of the problem.

There is an armoury of weapons to use against slugs and snails although none is entirely effective. Slug pellets are probably the worst. Do not use them. They are a poison and undeniably harmful to the garden’s eco-balance and if you wish to garden organically they are not an option. Traps and barriers like beer, grit and eggshells help but only to a limited degree although I have used old copper piping as a barrier around seedlings outside and that certainly seemed to help.

The parasitic nematode Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita is a minute worm that infects the slug or snail with a fatal disease and, rather gratifyingly, eats it up from the inside. You buy them live, mixed with a clay-based age