Kathy's Garden Diary
Hello to you all – I’m writing towards the end of March and have to say that these coming months are some of my favourite, with winter behind us and everything springing into life. Foliage is fresh and green, with the promise of flowers, fruit and vegetables to come. Narcissus are already in flower and primroses are putting on a particularly fine show this year.
Tulips are beginning to bud up and, in some cases are in flower already. The small species tulips tend to be early and are perennial, whereas many of the later tulips do not come up in following years; indeed, many gardeners treat them as annuals, so it’s well worth growing some of the species tulips – try Tulipa sprengeri with its bright red flowers – the photo shows it with Euphorbia myrsinites - or perhaps T. sylvestris which has yellow flowers. There are, of course, many more to choose from.
Hellebores are looking good as well – I have a couple of yellow flowered ones, along with some with really dark purple flowers and a pretty pink double one. However, because they tend to be grown in woodland or partly shaded places, they can be prone to fungal disease i.e hellebore leaf spot. It infects leaves and stems with spores giving rise to roundish, dead brown spots. It won’t kill the plant but obviously doesn’t improve the appearance. Good practice is the best way to keep this disease at bay. Make sure that the plants are well spaced to increase air circulation; overcrowding can give fungal disease the dark, damp conditions it loves. Keep weeds under control and clear up garden waste. Also, if you have to water your plants, do so at the base so that the spores are not spread; the rain does that without us adding to the problem. Some people cut all the leaves off in the autumn to prevent the disease from overwintering, although it’s not something that I tend to do. You can, of course, use a fungicide but perhaps make that the last resort.
I also have Cyclamen coum out in flower – they just increase year on year and really seem to like the partly shaded border where I have them planted where they grow from tubers. C.coum are the plants with rounded leaves that flower at this time of year and C. hederifolium, the ivy leaved cyclamen, have pointed leaves and flower in the autumn. Both are well worth growing, hardy and so easy. Make sure, though, that you do not buy what are known as florist’s cyclamen – C. persicum - as they are not hardy and are really meant to grow as houseplants. The photo shows C. coum - I think it is fascinating the way the spent flower stem curls down to the ground. Ants then carry and spread the seeds. So clever!
Alliums are showing their leaves – I have Allium christophii and Allium ’Purple Sensation’ – both reliable and both have the RHS Award of Garden Merit, which means it has been extensively trialled and proved itself to be a good plant. I did try Allium ‘Summer Drummer’ that reaches a height of 5-6 feet. and is later flowering, but found that they didn’t hold up that well. Sometimes, the tried and tested varieties and cultivars are best – they have stood the test of time.
Herbaceous plants are now beginning to grow strongly – I marvel every year that they survive underground, ready to show themselves for another year. It’s not too late in April to divide clumps that are too big, are flowering poorly or have lost shape. Lift the clump and divide using two forks back to back, then replant the portion you want.
Many of you know that I love Peonies and at this time of year I search the soil for signs of those red shoots that show the herbaceous peonies are alive and on their way up. There are, of course, many named herbaceous cultivars and I’m sure many of you grow some. However, I also like the smaller species Peonies. One that is doing well for me is Peony veitchii var. Woodwardii. It has pink flowers and attractive foliage. I purchased mine from West Acre Nursery where John and Sue Tuite, who run the nursery, usually have a good selection of Peonies. I also love the Tree Peonies which are, of course, woody subjects and unlike their herbaceous cousins, retain their woody framework throughout winter. Lastly, there are Intersectional Peonies, also known as Itoh Peonies. These are hybrid plants created by crossing a tree peony with a herbaceous peony. They tend to have leaves that show their tree peony heritage and beautiful flowers. They do not need staking and, if happy, can produce many, many flowers. Like their herbaceous relatives, they die down in the winter.
It’s also time, as the month progresses, to think about staking/supporting taller plants. If you leave it too late, you end up trying to tie the plants up and it never looks good. Before the soil dries out, do try to mulch the beds and borders if you have not already done so to keep moisture in and supress weeds. This is a task that just gets harder the more growth there is so now is definitely the time to think about it. In addition, think about feeding your plants – certainly shrubs benefit from a feed. I have found that Vitax Q4* is very good for this. For roses I have discovered Uncle Tom's Rose Tonic. It’s expensive but goes a long way and gives good results. Chicken manure is also good and easy to apply although I know it’s a bit smelly for a while! Most important now everything is growing away is the need to weed. If you let them get a hold, life will be much more difficult! April is also the time to pay attention to the lawn. Cut it when necessary and weed and feed with a high nitrogen spring lawn fertilizer. In addition repair lawn edges and any bald or worn patches. If you like growing annuals, sow hardy varieties in pots or, on light soil, direct into the ground a bit later in the month. Also sow half hardy annuals but keep them under cover with some heat. And, I know I’ve said this before, but do discard or give away any plants that are not earning their keep in your garden. I was told recently by an inspirational gardener that you should edit your garden; assess and evaluate! I have been doing that with gusto!!
Photo: Gary Barnes
Anyway, I thought in this garden diary I would look a little at the pruning of shrubs in particular. It seems to be something that worries a lot of people so hopefully this might help. Basically, shrubs that flower between January and mid-July should be pruned and/or thinned immediately after they finish flowering so they can make new growth that will flower in the first half of the following year. Shrubs that flower after July do so on the tips of shoots they make in that current spring/summer, so can be cut back in early spring. Evergreens grown just for their leaves should ideally be pruned as spring warms up. Those grown for their flowers as well should be pruned after their main flush is over. Of course, there is more to it than that but it is, at least, a basic guide. For more information on individual shrubs, try looking at the reference section of this web site for a handy calendar.
Having suggested various tasks to be getting on with, I thought I would also showcase some tools to help you with the jobs. These are tools that I would not be without and use extensively. Two tools by the Japanese company Niwaki are their secateurs – Niwaki GR Pro Secateurs - expensive but the best I have ever used. Then there is the Hori Hori knife. Looks lethal – well, it could be in the wrong hands, but invaluable for prising out weeds with tap roots etc. Also, do look at the Jakoti Hand Shears. They are absolutely wonderful for cutting down grasses and large clumps of perennials. Finally, a small hand held rake – a Shrub Rake. I purchased mine from Burgon and Ball but they are sold by several manufacturers. The rake is invaluable for combing through grasses and for getting leaves out from under shrubs and the back of borders where they always seem to congregate!
Niwaki GR Pro Secateurs
Photos: © Tony Gray
Finally – a couple of thoughts for you. The first by that great plantswoman – Vita Sackville West:-
The more one gardens
The more one learns
And the more one learns
The more one realises
How little one knows.
And from H.E Bates:-
The garden that is finished is dead!
Kathy, one of the Upper Nar Gardeners founders, has been writing about gardening for many years. We are pleased that, after a couple of years hiatus, she has been persuaded to start publishing a gardening diary again on this website.