At long last spring finally arrives this month and we have equinox to look forward to. The clocks go forward late in the month and the days become longer than the nights. From hereon in its all go in the garden.
Winter in the Poitou-Charentes can be quite wet and so not only have lawns recovered well from their usual summer scorching, I expect the moisture laden soil to explode lawns into growth this spring. You may well have seen signs of this already.
Weeds do tend to reassert themselves over autumn and winter in the gaps of drought blistered summer lawns. Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of chemical use in the garden, but if the perfect sward is your bag, tackle lawn weeds now by applying a selective herbicide. If the weeds are not too widespread, to minimise herbicide use, concentrate on the affected areas only.
Grass has continued to grow throughout the autumn and winter due to the mild temperatures. The lawn will probably be looking a bit unkempt and ragged by now. If so, give it a light mow only by mowing on your highest setting. To avoid smothering the lawn with too many large clippings and creating gaps for weeds to populate, for now collect and remove the clippings. Add them to the compost heap. You can switch to a mulching setting on your mower a bit later in the spring when you are at your desired cutting height and are mowing frequently.
Grass is very much the enemy to other flowering plants in meadow areas, so these will almost certainly need another cut too. Rake meadow areas to punish the grasses further still and incorporate any meadow flower seeds that may still be on the surface. Remove all cuttings from meadow areas to reduce fertility and keep grass at bay. If grass species are taking over consider sowing yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). This flowering plant is hemi-parasitic and will help restrain their otherwise rampant grass growth giving your desirable wildflowers a chance.
Make a meadow
If you don’t already have a meadow area in the garden, consider planting one. It does wonders for wildlife and your wellbeing. Leaving areas of your lawn to naturalise reduces your emissions from constant mowing and saves you time and energy in the process. Autumn is the optimal time for meadow making, but if you are prepared to put in the work and select drought tolerant varieties, now is not too late to get started.
Prune last year’s flowers from Hydrangeas
The harshest of winter’s frosts ought to have passed us by now so prune last year’s flowers from your Hydrangeas (still marketed in France as Hortensia). Cut back to a point below the old flower and just above the buds that you can see by now are swelling and beginning to break into leaf. Also take this opportunity to remove any dead wood from the shrub and remove any other any unproductive or unsightly shaped stems to the base to produce fresh new stems.
Mulch your herbaceous borders
Hopefully you have by now undertaken your annual end-of-winter cut back of your herbaceous perennials. If not, see my February garden todo list here. Mulch the surface of the borders. To minimise your carbon footprint, and save your back, you can do this by leaving in situ the cut material from your end of winter cut back, or with compost from your heap or both. Mulch to a depth of between 7 and 10 cms. You will be surprised how quickly this breaks down. Avoid covering emerging perennials.
Sow indoors seed you ordered in January. Don’t buy new plastic trays or pots to get them started. If you already have plastic trays and pots, fine, clean them thoroughly and reuse them, as it is better to use them until they reach the end of their usable life before recycling them. If not, don’t buy new ones and instead sow your seed in toilet roll tubes.
Using cardboard toilet roll tubes not only avoids the need for using plastic, they can be planted directly into the ground and the inert cardboard will decompose in the soil.
Use a low nutrient seed compost, and/or leafmould and garden compost mix.
Sow two or three seeds in each toilet roll to improve your germination rate.
Place the seeds by an available window. Keep the compost moist and germination should occur quite rapidly this time of year. Several weeks after germination remove the weaker seedlings leaving the strongest in each roll to go on to mature.
Make more of your Snowdrops
Planting snowdrops as dried bulbs in autumn has mixed results and everyone loves to make more of their favourite plants for free! A simple way to make more of your favourite snowdrops is to lift the clump after flowering, but whilst still in leaf (‘in the green’), divide it into smaller clumps and replant as desired around the garden. These new, smaller, clumps will quickly bulk up and increase your quota.
Regularly inspect your box hedges from between now and October for box tree moth caterpillars from now until October. If you identify its caterpillars are present the preferred option is to remove them by hand and dispose of them. For small topiaries etc this is practical. For large hedges treat with Bacillus thuringiensis (a natural soil-borne bacteria) to kill caterpillars. Use only when box tree moth caterpillars are present to target this species only and ensure minimal destruction of other insects. Use in conjunction with a pheramone trap to really interrupt the lifecycle of the box tree moth and maximise efficacy.
Remove any dead material from the hedge. Prune back to where you can see new growth appearing to maximise light penetration into the hedge for regrowth and to increase efficacy of your bacillus treatments.
In severe cases if the hedge is completely dead with no signs of regrowth from the main stem, or if like me you consider box’s days numbered and don’t particularly like the thought of spraying pesticide in the garden, consider replacing the hedge in the Autumn with another species unaffected by this pest, such as Taxus bacatta (Yew).
Plant of the month
For me Euphorbia characias is invaluable in the garden. It is evergreen, has a warm spicy scent and best of all it flowers early in the year when little else is. Its flowers also go a lovely rusty copper colour later in the season, which I think compliments ornamental grasses and left over Allium seed heads perfectly.
Like all Euphorbia it does have a toxic sap, so if you are concerned about children rubbing up against it it is best to plant it away from the front edge of a border. It is native to the rocky garrigue and coastlines of southern France, so is best planted without enriching the planting hole with compost or fertliser. Growing it ‘hard’ will prevent it from growing excessively large and flop all over the place under the weight of its large flower heads.
‘Wulfenii’ is the larger of the cultivars typically seen in gardens. ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is shorter at about 60 to 70 cms in height and less likely to flop under the weight of the large flowers. As the name implies ‘Shorty’ is shorter still at just 50 cms or so high and wide and suitable for small gardens.
In the potager
Ensure beds are clear and weed free in preparation for sowing next month.
Make any necessary repairs to damaged or deteriorated raised bed edges, supports or trellis.
Cherry hanami and other tree and shrub blossoms are now in full swing. Enjoy the moment, it comes but once a year, and share your pictures. I certainly will be via my instagram account.