Come o’er the eastern hills, and let our winds
Kiss thy perfumed garments; let us taste
Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls
Upon our love-sick land that mourns for thee.
There’s so much to do in early spring, but where to start? Essential maintenance tasks now will ensure the summer garden has the best foundations for a successful season.
If you haven’t done so already, add plenty of well-rotted manure after removing all weeds to give your plants the food they need to produce wonderful summer displays and vegetables. These jobs will pay dividends and shouldn’t be skimped. Watch out for slugs on the tender leaves emerging from herbaceous perennials, but preferably use the wildlife friendly formulations.
When planning your displays, try to create an orderly succession. As soon as the early flowers begin to fade, something else should be taking over. Some gardens look fantastic in May and June, but by mid-July they look jaded and worn out. Use shrubs to provide the main structure, with perennials, bulbs and annuals to maintain visual interest.
Bedding plants dotted through the borders will flower right the way through, as long as they are regularly dead headed. But what to choose? Why not grow some varieties for the benefits they offer. Marigolds, for instance, attract beneficial insects like hoverflies; the flowers of nasturtiums make an imaginative addition to salads, with their vivid colours and sweet, peppery flavour; others provide cut flowers, such as statice and cornflowers; and then there are the fragrant varieties such as stocks, sweet peas and nicotianas. Night stocks will fill the evening air with a rich, enticing honey-sweet scent. Now is the time to start sowing in a warm place.
One little trick worth its weight in gold are self-seeders. Once introduced, these invaluable plants scatter their seed around and will return in subsequent years. Among the early arrivals are the aquilegias, with their bonnet-shaped flowers, priceless in May and early June when there is little colour. Early flowering Nigellas are delightful, with their delicate foliage and blue flowers, followed by ornamental seed pods. Later in the summer, poppies (papaver), alliums and Lychnis coronaria, with grey foliage and magenta flowers are just as amazing. And who could do without Verbena bonariensis, tall and airy with purple flowers? There are dozens to choose from, but if you want them to appear each year and to apply a thick mulch, as I recommend, you will need to ‘tickle’ the manure into the surface to expose the dormant seeds.
Everyone should be growing a few dahlias, not least because they provide essential colour towards the end of the summer and into autumn. They are invaluable for the multitude of shapes and colour combinations. Being tender, it was always recommended that their tubers be dug up after the first frost has blackened the leaves and kept in dry storage. However, here in the south, they can be left in – as long as the soil is well-drained and a protective mulch is applied.
In the vegetable garden, first early potatoes can be planted from mid-March, as can broad beans, onion sets and shallots. Start sowing lettuce, parsnip, turnip, beetroot and peas once the soil has warmed to 13°C (55°F); warm the soil first by covering with polythene. In a heated propagator, sow aubergines, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and chillies at 20°C (68°F). When choosing your tomato varieties, try something different or unusual!
Finally, in the last issue, Joy McAdam of Henfield asked where can she find plants or flowers indigenous to Sussex which she could grow on a ‘local patch’ in her garden. First rule is to only use varieties which thrive in your area as you know they will succeed. It would be worth contacting the Sussex Wildlife Trust firstname.lastname@example.org who can advise you about obtaining native wildflower seeds and how to sow them. You should thoroughly clear the patch of all weeds, especially perennial grasses; firm and rake to a seedbed; avoid manure or fertiliser as vigorous grasses will outcompete the wild flowers; scatter the seed in drifts, and keep watered to encourage germination.