March. In like a lion. Out like a lamb. We hope. In the last few days we’ve enjoyed hail, stormy winds, showers, downpours, drizzle, mizzle and fizzle, sunshine and bright spells. And, as for temperatures, don’t get me started.
Loveliness to enjoy now.
The true Common Primrose. But very far from vulgar. Emblematic of spring, hope, new growth – we’re virtually talking the Easter Bunny here. Refined and elegant in its simplicity, and quite different from those rather blowsy, overblown Polyanthus one sees everywhere. Likes moist conditions and somewhere which won’t dry out completely during its dormant period.
Bergenias (‘Elephants’ Ears’) can often be underestimated as plants. Evergreen, rhizomatous perennials with large leathery leaves and erect clusters of flowers, they make quite a statement in the border. Effective when used to ‘punctuate’ planting schemes. Good in shade, good as ground cover, good for producing early flowers. From magentas, through to bright bubble gum pinks, pale pinks and whites, there are many cultivars to choose from. ‘Bressingham White’, from Diss in Norfolk, is a good form, as is ‘Harzkristall’. This has pink-flushed white flowers on dark, upright stems. The glossy, dark green foliage takes on a reddish hue in cold winter weather. Propagate by taking sections of rhizomes in early spring and replanting them to form new plantlets.
The RHS says Bergenias are susceptible to vine weevil, leaf eelworm, bud eelworm, slugs, snails and some caterpillars. Nice. This is where one needs to be less ‘gardener’ and more ‘en garde’.
Vinca minor ‘Atropurpurea’
Such useful plants for groundcover. Valuable, in that they will grow in the challenging circumstances of dry shade once established. Now is the time to give them a light clip with shears, which will encourage more side shoots, and therefore flowers.
Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’
Related to the weed ‘Speedwell’. This cultivated form has good bronze foliage and bright blue flowers. Loves hot, dry areas and is good placed towards the front of borders, where it softens edges. Good too in pots,troughs or alpine planters. Can cope with partial shade in well-drained soil. Evergreen (everpurple?). Easy to propagate from tip cuttings.
Blackthorn. It’s the gorgeous, white frothy stuff currently decorating hedgerows and roadsides. Simple white flowers in quantity appear on dark, bare tree stems, presaging spring. The fruit, which follows later, is the sloe berry – that stalwart required for gin making. Nature, eh? The gift that keeps on giving. You might almost say it puts the gin in giving.
You might not.
Topic for the week
A science and art form in its own right, and worthy of several dozen tomes for research purposes and several decades of hands-on work for practical experience.
First and foremost, you need the right tools for the right job. Snips are good for deadheading and for intricate work on plants with slim stems. Bypass secateurs seem to be more popular than anvil ones – for pruning jobs dealing with stems up to the thickness of the secateurs’ handle.
A pruning saw is a good investment for tackling larger branches; they can usually be folded up, which is a good safety measure.
Loppers are useful for reaching up to higher stems and branches – there are extendable versions too. Great for pruning back trees and shrubs; those with a ratchet action are preferable, unless you are working towards ab fab abs.
Shears are essential for hand cutting hedges and topiary.
A bow saw may also be something to consider for larger jobs. And then there are chain saws… alternatively, it may be time to put the kettle on and visit checkatrade.com.
All tools should be kept clean, sharp and ideally disinfected between each job. This is to prevent the possibility of carrying disease from one plant to another.
There are a huge choice of manufacturers to choose from – Wolf Garten, Spear and Jackson, Bulldog, Felco and Niwaki are just a few. Try to invest in the best you can afford. It will pay dividends.
Reasons for pruning
To shape or topiarise; to encourage growth; for the health of a plant (removing diseased, dead and damaged wood); to prevent congestion and allow light and air to penetrate; to maintain vigour; to prevent fisticuffs at dawn where trees overhang a neighbouring property; to reduce shade; take a breath here; to cut back plants susceptible to wind rock (e.g. Roses); to encourage better coloured new stems (Cornus, Salix); to remove reversions in variegated shrubs (e.g. Ligustrum and Euonymous).
Types of pruning
Formative pruning: as implied, this is where a plant is pruned when young to achieve a good form/shape. This is a practice frequently followed in Holland, with good results, particularly on things like Lavenders, Hebes, Pittosporums etc. Perhaps we should go Dutch too.
Japan is also well-known for achieving superb shapes through disciplined pruning techniques
Routine pruning: pruning done on a regular basis in order to promote fruiting and flowering. This entails removing all dead, diseased and damaged wood and often deploying the 1 in 3 method, whereby 1 in every 3 stems or branches are removed each year.
Renovation/remedial pruning: carried out when a shrub has lost its shape and/or become overgrown. Think ‘us as we come out of lockdown’. Will look a bit skeletal and scary for a year or two, and flowers will be forfeited, but worth doing to rescue rather than lose a mature plant.
Here, for example, a wisteria seems to have got a little out of hand. There’s a house there somewhere.
Know your shrub. Look at it carefully. Are the buds opposite or alternate? If opposite, make a clean cut just above a pair of buds; if alternate, cut at an angle sloping away from an outward pointing bud. Cutting too high above a bud will result in dieback; too low and the bud may be damaged. It’s got to be a Goldilocks cut – just right.
Once it’s all done, don’t even think of going indoors. Now you have to spend twice as long again getting the whole lot tidied up, forced into brown-topped bins and taking the rest of the bally stuff to the recycling centre in trugs.
When to prune
An R.H.S. course in itself – that royal institution lists a total of 13 pruning groups! Broadly speaking, if a shrub flowers before midsummer’s day, it should be pruned immediately after flowering (Forsythia, Kerria, Deutzia). If it flowers after midsummer’s day, then it can be pruned in the early spring of the following year (Hardy Fuchsia, Hydrangea paniculata, Buddleia davidii). Worth checking those aforementioned research tomes.
Winter flowering and evergreen shrubs generally only need minimal pruning. Some shrubs respond best to being cut right back to the ground (Cornus and some Eucalyptus), whilst others only need a light clipping (Ericas). Knowing your plant material means you can ensure your pruning is carefully planned and meticulous, not just blindly hopeful and potentially disastrous.
Techniques such as coppicing and pollarding require a little experience. The former is when young tree or shrub stems are regularly cut right down to ground level, forming a ‘stool’. New shoots grow from the stool; these multiple-stemmed trees provide a sustainable supply of wood. Hazel is a typical example of a small tree which can be coppiced; it is typically used for pea-sticks and poles.
Pollarding, on the other hand, occurs when standard trees are cut close to their head (knuckle), on top of a clear stem.
It is often seen in France, where the practice creates an easily identifiable shape resulting eventually in a ball-like canopy. Hornbeam, Willow, Lime, Chestnut and Beech are trees which are frequently pollarded.
Jobs for the week
Basil, Chervil, Coriander and Parsley can be started off now.
Try using gutter pipes. It’s a convenient method to adopt, and you won’t be without a Radish. Good for those who relish Radishes.
Sow Spring Onions
Sow seeds in small amounts in modules; this makes it easier to plant them out in small clumps later.
Pinch out Sweet Peas
Once they have produced at least 3 pairs of leaves. Encourages bushy, sturdy plants.
Give shrubs and plants a general purpose feed in early spring. Pelleted chicken manure is a good slow-release fertiliser. A handful every square metre distributed around the garden just before rain would be terribly efficient. And do remember to feed with chicken manure, not manure with chicken feed. That way disaster lies.
Prune silver-leaved plants
As part of your routine pruning schedule, to keep them shaped and bushy. Prune back to where the new growth is visible – but not into old wood, or your plant will soon become an ex-plant. Fondly remembered, but no more. Artemisia, Santolina, Perovskia, Helichrysum italicum and Hyssop are good candidates.
Feed and re-pot Auriculas
Why not go all theatrical and display them in the old Victorian way?
Cut back Pelargoniums
Cut back all leggy growth and dead leaves. Feed and water. Keep under glass or in a warm, bright place indoors.
Check the weather
Then stay indoors in a warm bright place. Feed and water regularly.