Flowers, Gardening, Gardening Year, Grow Your Own, Guest Posts, Mice & Rats, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell, Pest Control, Slugs & Snails

They say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, and it is this change from winter to spring that sets the human heart on a course for growing. Indeed, any warmish day (should one appear) gets us all talking about spring and itching to get out there in the garden. But don’t be fooled into starting too soon – It is always true that what you can sow in early March will be just as good started out in late March.

Snowdrops coming up in the garden
The snowdrops look lovely this year in the garden, growing everywhere they shouldn’t. It’s a joy to see these little beauties popping up all over the place.

March for me is a “just about” month. You can just about still prune your roses, you can just about plant bare rooted trees, you can just about get away with sowing salads, carrots, and parsnips, so long as the ground is warm. But really, March is a month for preparation.
First crocus blooms of spring
I don’t mind admitting it – the first crocus of the year move me to tears – just don’t tell anyone!

A fine tilth

The biggest preparation for me is that of the seed bed. Now this year I am building raised beds and what with everything else, all the piled-up work and myriad tasks I have to sort around the house, it looks as though I am going to be a little late. But no matter, it’s best to get things right than to try to rush them.

Seed beds need to provide the young plants with all they need for growth. These are:

  • Moisture
  • Warmth
  • Oxygen
  • Protection from cold – which is different from warmth (I’ll explain later)
  • Protection from hungry animals
  • Ventilation
  • Nutrients
  • An easy passage for roots to grow

Moisture

All living things need water to grow and this is provided by the moisture between the particles of soil. It is increased by the addition of rotted plant material which acts as a sponge, holding moisture until it is forcibly taken in by growing roots.

I always make sure that my beds are enriched with compost for this reason – water retention. However, too much water can be a bad thing. You can check how much water your soil has quite easily by the way it responds to squeezing.

Take a handful of soil and squeeze it in your hands. If it forms a tight ball, there is too much water in it. If it just starts to fall apart when released, it is just right. If there is too much water in your seedbed, add some sand – this will open the structure.
If your ball simply refuses to stick, even a little, your soil is too dry and you need to add more organic material – compost.

Warmth

In the first week of March I cover the soil with black plastic where possible. This is to warm the soil, the black plastic acting as a blanket to keep the day’s warmth in. By the end of the month the soil is ready for sowing direct. Even a couple of degrees is all you need for a growing seedling to get established.

For this reason also, I tend to put a plastic cloche on my tender plants, to keep the heat in. But you don’t want it so hot that the seedlings grow too quickly. I have found over the years that seedlings that grow too fast don’t store well when picked. Take onions for example: if you grow them too quickly they will produce onions that rot more easily than the ones that were a little cooler and slower growing. I am not sure, but I believe this is because of fungal infections that might get in the seedling and lie dormant.

Another thing to look out for is the amount of water in it that causes it to be cold. Clay soils are cold, and seeds don’t germinate too well in them. Adding compost, sand, and lime to clay soils, over a number of years, can improve it tremendously.

Oxygen

Almost all living things need oxygen for growth. This comes dissolved in the water between the soil particles. If your soil is too wet, if there is a lot of clay, it is likely that the oxygen in the soil will be largely used up.

The way to improve this is to add sand and organic matter. A fluffy soil is an airy soil.

Protection from Cold

This is different from keeping them warm. There is a phenomenon called ‘cold air drainage’ that basically says as wind blows over the land, it gets cooler. This is pronounced if you live on a hill. Cold air is heavy, and it rolls down the hill, getting colder all the time. This is responsible for frost pockets, which you almost always see at the bottom of a hill, or on your lawn if you live in the valley.

This is the reason for lining beds with box plants to keep the plants out of the chilling breeze. An old allotment trick is to plant in pyramids of soil, which bring them higher than they would have been sown flat.

Sedum plants in the garden
Sedum is as tough as old boots. Simply cut away the old stems when they die and you will get a crowd of new ones as a replacement

Protection from hungry animals

There is nothing more annoying than getting your cabbages ready and growing only to see them become breakfast for a flock of pigeons, or your peas to be pulled out of the ground by hungry mice, or worse still (I say worse – I love to watch them invent ways of getting to your plants), slugs and snails hang off branches to get to your lettuces.

There are clearly millions of chemicals you can use against nature, but in the end I prefer simple netting. My garden looks like a bedroom, by the end of March, with all the plants tucked under horticultural fleece. They get all the light they need, you can water through it and you can buy it so even the smallest insects can’t gain access.

Ventilation

One of the problems with keeping plants warm is this: warm and wet makes fungi grow. If you are using a cloche, keep at least one side open to get a bit of ventilation to shift the fungal infections. I’m not talking cold wind – just a good waft of air.

Nutrients

Not all plants need the same amount of nutrients. I work it like this: Potatoes need a lot, root crops next, then brassicas, then beans, then salads. But for now, seedlings don’t really need any nutrients at all, just enough water to make them explode into life, so if you are using a seed bed you don’t need to manure it too much.

Delphinium growing in garden
The tender growth of delphinium heralds Spring around the corner. I am going to fleece these to give them a little extra protection until April.

An easy passage for roots to grow

This comes by working the soil. It used to be a joke in our family. Granddad never really got on with grandma, so he was always to be found hoeing the carrot bed. It was said that his prize carrots were a barometer for how often they had argued that spring. The hoe is the best tool you have in the garden.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

Composting, Gardening Year, How To, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

The exciting part of New Year is the expectation – how is the year going to turn out and, especially in the garden, will it be the same as last year?

Hope not! Certainly the weather was the overriding factor affecting the garden last year, and if you are in to veggies, like me, then it was a complete wash out – literally! I actually chased my potatoes in a six inch torrent of water that was travelling faster than I could run. And to think that we moved here thinking that because we were on a hill we would have no flooding troubles.

But it never is the same and, over the years, we have found the garden has a life of its own. Yes, we can plan and change stuff, but the garden has its own character that always shines through, and we do our best to foster that character.

The Christmas tree in January..

Last year we had a real Christmas tree and one of the first jobs of January was to recycle the remains. We normally have an artificial tree, but that year, the real one came out of a disaster – a car had come off the road and crashed into a copse of young firs, so we took advantage of the situation, and as no one was hurt, it seemed the right thing to do.

Christmas trees, like most pines, are full of resin, and do not rot so easily. Therefore we simply chopped up the branches and use them as mulch. The main stem was sawn for the fire and the ashes poured into the compost heap.

Snowdrops!

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Snowdrops in the cracks of the paving

Snowdrops are a favourite for January, such a delicate plant to look at, but this little beauty is as tough as old boots. I am naturalizing them about the garden, but they seem to do that all on their own too, setting seed everywhere, even in the cracks of the paving.

Snowdrops are dug up in August and then simply pushed into the ground in their new location- and quite forgotten until they pop up with a shout in late December – early January. They do well in the barest of soils, the only real care they need is to be left alone, and not walked on. Once they have flowered, let them grow leaves for several months, so they can manufacture more of the corms that we distribute around the garden in high summer.

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Another job for January is the lawn. Work off all those extra dinners of the festive season by aerating the lawn, if not too wet, and also trim up the edges, a job which always improves the lawn’s appearance. When I had one to play with, January was the ideal time for working on the gutters of bowling greens, getting them just right – we tend to forget the lawn is at its weakest, and likely it’s most vulnerable at the edges.

Think Spring!

You may remember one of my earlier blogs was about putting dahlias to bed for the winter, in a frost free place, having dug up the tubers, divided and dusted with sulphur powder, and set them in a cool but frost free place. Now is time to give them a check for rot of any kind. Open them up and have a good inspection for any signs of rotting, bad odours, blackness, weeping or anything else untoward. Remove any offenders and repack for a couple of months to continue their sleep. We need to inspect them because they would infect the whole set if left, which would be a disaster.

If you haven’t already done so, dig over your plots, making sure you are careful not to damage roots of trees and shrubs, and if you can, give them a good mulch of well-rotted compost. Take special care of young fruit trees at this time of the year, as well as the compost mulch, make sure they are secure in the ground, so they will not be blown about by the wind and weather of January, and if they are in their second year, you can prune them. All you need to think about is making them into a goblet shape – so the drying summer wind can reduce the humidity around the plant, reducing fungal infections.

Cut away small branches that turn inward or cross and touch another, and that’s all you need to do to give the plant a successful start to the year.

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Sow onions in large numbers in a box of compost

You can sow onions seeds now. Don’t mess about fiddling with a few seeds in small modules. Get a wooden box or seed tray and fill it full of seeds. Water and keep warm. You will end up with a Mohican hair-cut of onions growing, which you can tease apart and then transplant in April. And while we’re on the subject of sowing, start hoeing your parsnip bed – these seeds are in the ground for a long time – hoe and give a dressing of general purpose organic fertilizer and then cover with plastic sheeting to warm the soil in preparation.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

Celebrations And Holidays, Grow Your Own, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

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When I was a small child I always thought the plants, the birds and wildlife in the garden were all celebrating Christmas just like the rest of us. The sprouts were just waiting to be picked, knowing they were special; the new potatoes in the bucket were honoured by being pampered in the greenhouse just for this special day. As if they were all a little like the Magi, journeying through the months ready to worship the New Born King on our Christmas dinner plates.

If you have sprouts in the garden, take a bowl out with some ice in it, and cut the buds off into this. They will remain tight and unblown. Sometimes we forget, pick enough for a few days of feasting, and by Christmas morning, their leaflets have loosened.

1 sprouts

Parsnips, our longest growing vegetable in the garden, are at their best following a frost, and this year we have had a week or so of cold – they should be really fine. Collect them on Christmas morning, top and tail them and give them a jolly good wash. Microwave and then add butter – I could eat just them alone!

I always try to grow some baby carrots in sandy tubs for Christmas, and, if you have some, just run them under the tap to get rid of the grit – it is amazing how grit gets everywhere, and you don’t want it in your gravy! I always add the carrot water to the gravy – especially since I give them an extra knob of butter to boil in – you get an ever so rich gravy that way.

2 carrots

Traditionally, Christmas is a time for sowing onions, so if you want a couple of hours away from the madness of Boxing Day, pop off to the shed and sow your next year’s stock. I always sow them in a large wooden box of compost, (far too many according to the books, but they tease apart really easily) and transplant in the late Spring.

I do hope you get something ‘gardening’ for Christmas. Last year someone bought me a kneeler – and boy, is it useful. I can now get down to basics on my hands and knees without messing my trousers and I don’t get so tired.

3 snips

One last thing for the kids is to grow your pineapple tops. If you have a fresh pineapple this Christmas, tease back the leaves to find some buds. Carefully pull them out and plant them in small pots of compost and keep them warm. Of the ten buds you find, five will grow, and then next year you will have some pineapple plants to give to a favourite aunt for Christmas. They are handsome and unusual little house plants.

Do have a wonderful holiday and don’t forget, when you are eating your Christmas Dinner – are the birds topped up with wild bird food? After all, it’s their Christmas too.

Merry Christmas from me and all of the team at Primrose!

Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

December is an important month in the garden, and it is great working next to Robins and various wildlife skittering in and out of the garden in search of food. Lately there have been a lot of Long Tailed Tits stopping by for a chat.

Soil

It’s been hard work in the rain and cold, but ridging the vegetable bed is an important way of helping the soil. Essentially it allows a greater area of soil to be exposed to the elements and therefore to break down naturally. Also, the action of the rain brings nitrates back into the soil – did you know that by ridging you can increase the amount of nitrates in the soil? It is one of the reasons why farmers leave the land ploughed, it improves the fertility of the soil!

Buddleia

Now I have a bit of a problem. I have a Buddleia which needs cutting, but it is in constant use. On the wall of the cottage there is a bird feeder and the birds come and sit in the bush before taking their turn on the feeder! But the problem is this: in order to maintain a really good bush it has to be cut back. If I do it will come back next year with no trouble. But if I don’t it will just become a straggling mess. Out come the pruning shears I’m afraid. I just hope that the birds won’t mind and will still come to the feeder!

Once cut back, I will mulch the base, after clearing away any weeds there may be. You can give it a serious haircut, cutting it back to around 30 cm (1 ft) from the ground. The buds will burst into life in the Spring and the bush will be just as tall as it was last year, but the flowers will be better.

Bare rooted trees

I like to prepare the ground a few weeks prior to planting because this gives the soil a chance to rest. Dig a large hole and half fill it with 50% well-rotted manure and 50% compost and then refill in with your dug out soil. In a couple of weeks you can plant in this mixture.

Don’t forget to support your new trees with a stake and make sure it is really firm. After a week or so you can revisit the newly planted trees and heel them in. This is important because rocking trees do not do well, it troubles new root growth.

Potatoes

Start potatoes! Yes! Start potatoes – not many, just a few. Pop them in a box of compost and keep frost free. In the New Year they can be planted into a frost free greenhouse or polytunnel and ignored, so you have, by Easter, something of a crop – assuming Easter falls in May! Use First Early varieties; these are the only ones that will work in this way. Give them a little water, not too much, and they will surprise you.

Dahlias

Early dahlias are fun to try. If you wrapped your tubers in newspaper and popped them under the stairs – it always was under the stairs for us, but any frost free place is good, then you can try planting some of them in the warm, in large pots of good compost. If you have a conservatory, this is the ideal place. Give them a little water and they will flower in May or early June.

This is the first ever gardening I did as a boy, both my father and grandfather were wild about dahlias, perhaps it was the ten guineas they almost invariably won at the flower show that was the interest. Back then it was almost a month’s wages!

General

Make sure that, every morning, you air the greenhouse – especially if you are actively growing in it. This way the chances of damping off and other fungal infections are reduced.

If you have a rockery, with fairly delicate plants, take some time to remove excess water so they are not broken up by the constant freezing and refreezing. Most alpines are fairly hardy, after all it is fairly cold living up in the mountains where many of them come from, but they do not like to be cold and wet.

Bring strawberries into the greenhouse for forcing. If you want brilliant fruits for Wimbledon, then cloche your strawberries and keep them warm. But to provide fruit even earlier – get them indoors in large pots.

It is also a good time to force rhubarb. We used to dig up the roots and leave them to overwinter on the surface but if you bring a couple indoors, pop them in a large box of compost (I use an old brood box from a beehive) and let them grow in the warm, you will get early rhubarb.

Work if you haven’t already done it includes:

  • Cleaning everything – disinfect tools, pots, work surfaces, greenhouse glass, water butts.
  • Turn the compost heap and insulate the thing so it doesn’t lose too much heat in the winter.
  • Dig out the borders for new bedding, and give onion and carrot beds for next year a really fine loamy soil by plenty of hoeing.
  • Manure potato beds.
  • Go round the garden firming in so the wind doesn’t rock the life from them.
  • Spend 15 minutes of each day, peeping out of the door of the shed or greenhouse, feeling good to be alive.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.

He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.

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