Bristol-based Sue Oakey says that if we put in hard work now we'll reap rewards in the growing season ahead
MARCH in the garden is a time of hope, of new beginnings and a joyful release from the dark, cold days of winter. As the garden starts, albeit tentatively, to come back to life after the winter chill, look out for buds appearing on shrubs, spring bulbs poking their heads out of the soil and trees starting to green up.
Winter flowers, such as hellebores, wintersweet, shrub honeysuckle and winter aconite are still much in evidence.
The scented shrubs, such as mahonia and daphne start to perfume the early spring garden.
And the yellow scented flowers of scorpion vetch add a touch of colour. Splashes of light from bright white snowdrops and heathers lighten up the darkest corner and the fat buds of camellias swell visibly day by day.
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The scent of viburnum starts to permeate the air and the spider-like flowers of witch hazel appear. Some winter flowering clematis are at their best now; spring blossom appears on snowy mespilus, laburnum and cherry trees and early bulbs are flowering in abundance.
The furry swelling buds of magnolia stellata promise a profusion of star-like flowers and the corkscrew hazel becomes festooned with dangling catkins. Low-growing plants and bulbs thriving under trees, such as scilla, grape hyacinth and daffodils can be enjoyed now, before the tree canopy greens up and shades them.
A few days of sunshine provide the impetus to get out in the garden and start work. Before the busy spring season for planting and sowing arrives, now is the ideal time to prepare the garden for the coming year. Among the skeleton of plants, it is easy to see the dead and dying foliage which needs cutting out, and to lift and divide clump-forming herbaceous perennials to encourage more flowers. You can exchange divided plants with friends and family to increase the variety of plants in your (and their) garden at a very low cost.
Now is the time to tidy and weed borders and give them a good thick dressing of mulch using garden compost or manure to conserve moisture and encourage worms to do their work on the soil.
However, do not be tempted to remove foliage on spring flowering bulbs which have faded, as they need to retain leaves in order to store food for the bulb to flower next year.
Dried seed heads and faded flowers on shrubs such as hydrangea and buddleja can now be removed to allow new green shoots to develop and dead foliage of perennials such as sedum and geranium can be cut back hard to reveal green whorls at the base ready to burst into new life.
In a mild spell, the lawn will benefit from a light cut, but keep mower blades high. Lawn dressing, a useful mix of weed and feed can be applied to get rid of moss and thatch and thicken the sward. If the lawn is past redemption, now is the time to lay new turf.
In the fruit garden, plant new strawberries, or propagate existing plants by pinning young runners to the ground where they will readily form new roots. Gooseberry and currant bushes can be planted now. And to encourage a good fruit harvest, apply sulphate of potash around the base of fruit trees to encourage flowering and fruiting.
In the vegetable garden, you can plant broad beans, carrots, spinach and shallots, and buy seed potatoes which need a few weeks to "chit" before the traditional Easter planting.
If you want to get ahead, you can start sowing seeds under cover of a greenhouse now. Vegetables such as chillies, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes will benefit from an early start, as will sweet peas and snapdragons for the cut flower garden later.
Herbs such as chives, parsley, sorrel and coriander can be started now, and sowing early lettuce in the greenhouse will buy you a few weeks' growing space before setting out plants in early spring.
Frogs will soon be coming out of hibernation, and they are inclined to return to the site where they originally spawned. There may be a large amount of frogspawn in your pond, but desist from removing it, as only a small percentage of spawn matures to fully grown frogs. And don't forget to continue feeding birds, especially in cold and snowy spells.
Remember that some birds prefer to feed from the ground, so as well as re-filling hanging bird feeders, make some food available at ground level, preferably away from hidden corners where preying cats may lurk.
This is a time of new beginnings, and on a calm and sunny day in March, the garden will provide a welcome antidote to those dark days of winter.
Contact garden designer Sue Oakey on 0117 944 2432, or email firstname.lastname@example.org