Whoa! It’s been a chilly week! We got back to pulling on the woolly long-johns even here in the balmy south, and Caroline has been sending us daily videos of snow and ice in the Scottish Highlands. Still, spring WILL arrive for all of us soon, and meantime there is much to be done – starting off some summer bulbs and sowing some herbs, among other things………
Bulbs for summer beauty
I was in a garden center yesterday and was bowled over by the display of summer bulb packs. What sirens they are! Luring us in with their gaudy pictures and minimal instructions! On the other hand, it might be a bit rude not to try out a few, don’t you think?
There are plenty to choose from – Agapanthustuberous begonias, canna, dahlias, gladioli, lilies and zantedeschias, just to name a few of the more popular ones. The thing is that even if you intend to plant them out in the garden later on, it’s a good idea to get them potted up now, and started into growth inside – greenhouse, cold frame, cool windowsill, etc. Protect them from the cold and gradually accustom them to outdoor conditions; plant them out when there is not a chance of a late frost in your area.
With dahlias, have a look at your tubers first and trim away any wispy dead rooty bits from the fat ‘fingers’. Fill a good-sized pot with peat-free compost to 4-6″ (10-15 cm) from the top, and tuck your tuber into it with the remains of the old shoots uppermost. Fill with more compost over the top, water the pot and leave it in your frost-free place. Once the shoots start showing, make sure the pot is in good light.
Another wonderful summer bulb is eucomis – the pineapple lily – and this, like a dahlia, can be very grumpy in cold soil. Pineapple lilies can be grown outside in most of the UK, but only if they are planted deeply – 6″ (15 cm) at the very least – to protect the bulb from the worst of the frost. However, I think they are best in pots, where they can put on a fabulous show in a sunny spot. You can start them easily just as you do for the dahlias, with some protection, and I would say three for a large pot of gritty compost would be right.
I have a guilty pleasure – I love gladioli! I can sense Laura giving a little shudder as I write this, and I know all the arguments against them, including that they sit uncomfortably with other border plants, can be difficult to support, and look frankly dreadful after flowering, but I adore their dramatic shape, saturated color and sheer drama.
Now’s the time to get the corms going inside, and a handy trick is to plant them, hairy-side lowest, about 6” down in a plastic basket (the sort you use for aquatic plants) filled with multi-purpose compost. Water and leave in a bright, frost-free place. When there’s no more risk of frost, you can plant them out in the garden, basket and all, to look gorgeous. Just lift it out again when flowering is over, to let the horrible yellowing leaves die down behind the shed out of sight!
Making more clematis
I MIGHT have mentioned once or twice that I adore most clematis! But these days, they are never cheap to buy (is anything?), and this could be a good time to try and propagate a beloved clematis (yours or an obliging friend’s) by layering it.
The way to do this is to pull a loose stem down to the soil, and wound it with a sharp knife, a few buds from the tip of the stem and just behind a bud. Don’t cut it right the way through, just lift the ‘bark’ off to expose the inside of the shoot.
Pin this exposed section of stem down to the soil with a bit of bent wire, keeping the stem-tip sticking out. Then cover the pinned bit with compost or soil and keep it well-watered. By early summer, with good luck and a following wind, it should have rooted and be starting to produce new shoots from the incision.
Great! But don’t be in too much of a hurry to detach it from the parent plant; let the roots of the new plant get properly established first, and leave the cutting of the apron strings until autumn.
Surely that’s worth a few minutes of your time, even if you’ve never attempted anything like this before!
Hurray for herbs!
We have some delightful new herb pots in our online shop, and March is the perfect time to start sowing herb seeds. Or what about growing them for hanging baskets or window-boxes? Most are very easy and will cost you a fraction of those supermarket bags of leaves.
Sow basil, chives and parsley indoors, sprinkling them thinly over containers of moist compost, covering them with a fine layer of vermiculite or grit, and leaving them to germinate on a sunny windowsill. Coriander, dill and chervil can be sown outdoors in March and April.
Write yourself a note to sow more every fortnight, for the next 2-3 months, to keep a succession of fresh herbs available for cooking all summer long. There is much more detail on this subject in a chapter of our book ‘Beginner’s Veg’.
- As the winter aconites and snowdrops finish flowering, divide up congested clumps by just getting a trowel beneath them and pull the bulbs apart into little groups, ready to replant elsewhere or give away. I made a short video about how to do this a short while ago (assisted by Lulu the cat) – link is at the end.
- March is a good time to give many plants a feed of fertilizer that’s high in potassium. Tomato fertilizer is a good example of this. This is the element that helps with strong flower and fruit development, and Sulphate of Potash can really strengthen a plant’s resistance to pests and diseases. Sprinkle this feed around the root area and water it in. A good general fertilizer applied to the soil now will benefit all your plants throughout the summer months.
This is the little video on how to divide aconites or snowdrops to make lots more of these delightful harbingers of spring.
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