So pleased to see more and more green shoots pushing up through the soil now! I realise that it’s probably not the case in all parts of the UK, but could we all at least admit to a touch of excitement now that spring is on our doorstep?
Our jobs this week include forcing some plants to bloom inside earlier for our impatient enjoyment, pruning late-flowering clematis and helping the pollinators who have woken up early…………….
(As usual, there is a short podcast of this episode – just click on the link at the end of the blog)
I have an absolute passion for those small- and medium-flowered Group 3 clematis – they will enchant for weeks and weeks from mid-summer onwards, if you have a good hack at them now. The feature pic this week is the fabulous Clematis viticella Venosa Violacea – what a name, and it’s a cracker of a clematis!The late-flowering Group 3 clematis like this are the easiest of all to look after, I think. All that mass of tangled brown top-growth can be cut off entirely now, right down to about 1ft off the ground. I know it’s scary but if you leave all those stems on, you will end up with a sad-looking thing with a few flowers poking out at the top, and very untidy legs – never a good look.
If you can cut above a leaf-bud, so much the better, but I don’t bother about that much (my sisters are ALWAYS teasing me about how tough the plants have to be in my garden!). Sprinkle some plant food around the base and put your usual slug and snail deterrent around the remaining stalks. Watch it shoot away like leafy fireworks as the spring wears on.
One tiny caveat – make sure you’re not cutting down the spring-flowering clematis by mistake – C. montana, alpina, macropetala etc. or you won’t get any flowers at all this year!
May the force be with you
The Victorians were very ‘into’ their Forced Flowers. Lords of the manor insisted on having pineapples at Christmas, rhubarb in February, roses for most the year and bucketloads of out-of-season flowers filling the manor-house at any given time. All of that required insane amounts of labour and time maintaining hot-beds, frames and cloches and seems pretty mad to most of us now, as well as extremely wasteful of energy (in all senses of the word).
But just by siting a slightly tender plant in a protected area of the garden, say, by a warm wall, we are, in a way, ‘forcing’ the plant to perform better. When you really think about it, all our conservatories, greenhouses and cold frames are a way of ‘faking’ things a bit, aren’t they. Perhaps we ought to call it ‘boosting’ rather than ‘forcing’ which sounds a bit brutal! But by bringing certain outdoor plants inside into a cool room at this time of year, we can enjoy their flowers or blossom several weeks earlier than if they were left outside. And you’ll still have the ones left outdoors to enjoy later! Here are a few ideas for suitable plants:
Pussy willows (Salix) – a few branches brought inside will open their buds into delicate catkins. I have worked the same trick with Forsythia or Cornus mas in the past too. A bit later on, try it with flowering quince (Chaenomeles)and cherry trees, to encourage their flower buds to burst into bloom inside. Even lilac (Syringa) and Magnolia branches can be brought inside to flower earlier once their buds have formed.
Hyacinths are well-known for being brought inside to flower earlier, but these are generally what is known as ‘prepared’ bulbs – they have been chilled below zero for a number of weeks to trigger them into precociously early flowers. I have read that you can fake that treatment by keeping the bulbs in the crisper of your fridge for about 6 weeks in early autumn, but I have never tried it myself. But I have certainly brought hyacinths in from the garden in pots in February to enjoy early colour and scent. You can do the same with lily of the valley (Convallaria), pansies and violets. Remember to keep them cool, deadhead them regularly and put them back in the garden when they have finished flowering.
Caring for critters
I mentioned in last week’s blog that spring aconites are particularly useful for helping to feed early bees and there are other food-sources that we can grow to help these early-stirrers. It sounds odd, but bees are apparently more likely to starve in a mild winter than a bitter one, because they are using their stored honey at a faster rate than if they were in deep hibernation. Certain plants will give insects (and thus, wild birds) valuable sources of nectar and pollen at this early stage of the year.
Snowdrops are first on this list, with their nodding flower-heads often full of golden pollen. As well as aconites, heather is also extremely valuable to insects, and witch hazels can delight both the bees and you with their showy and scented flowers. Don’t forget the often-overlooked winter jasmine (J. nudiflorum), and if you can bear to have a properly wild corner, please do let some dandelions bloom – the little critters will love you for it! Try to make room for pussy willows too, which are also fabulous food-sources for our precious wildlife.
- Go round the pots of perennial plants and shrubs you have in your garden and refresh them at this time of year. I explain how to do this in a short video on our YouTube channel – link at the end – and watch out for our six-month old kitten-cat Lulu, intent on photo-bombing my demonstration! The link is at the end.
- You can sow some early cauliflower seeds now at about 10-15 degrees, to get an earlier crop in summer.
- If you’re growing perennial crops such as asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes or rhubarb, give them a 2-3″ layer of well-rotted farmyard manure or compost now.
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