Spring Your Garden to Life with this Gardening Guide
The garden is emerging from its winter hibernation and the first spring flowers have appeared. At this time of year, gardeners’ thoughts turn to new beds and new planting. After months of hiding indoors studying seed catalogues, it is finally time to venture out and get our hands dirty.
Spring sunshine beckons gardeners outside
Selecting a New Planting Site
Spring is often the time we think about creating a new bed or border. It might be that the planting area is fixed. In that case, the planting will need to be tweaked to suit the situation – shady plants for a shady border, woodland plants under a deciduous tree. If you have the luxury of choosing where your new plot will be, it is worth stopping to consider its position before picking up a spade.
If you have any flexibility in where to place the new bed, think about what you want to grow before you start. Do you have a yearning for hot colours and masses of lush tropical foliage? You’ll need to seek out a sunny position which is sheltered from the wind. Do you have a site which receives six hours or more of direct sunlight every day? It could be the ideal position for growing sun-loving flowers, lots of vegetables and sweet ripe fruit.
Planting at the base of a wall might need to cope with dry conditions
A planting bed at the base of a south-facing brick or stone wall will be warm but could also be very dry. Walls and fences create a rain shadow, so you might need to be handy with the watering can. If there’s a spot for a water butt nearby, it’ll save lugging heavy cans of water back and forth from an outside tap all summer.
If a veg plot is what you’re looking for, or you want to grow hungry plants such as dahlias, then seek out a level plot. Although a hillside carpeted in foliage can look spectacular, it can be difficult to get planting established on a slope. The rain will often wash seeds away before they germinate. The soil on a sloping site can be dry as moisture runs off rather than soaking into the ground.
Unless you’re hoping to create a bog garden, look for an area with good drainage. Lots of popular garden plants hate sitting in water. They can often take surprisingly cold winter temperatures if they’re kept dry, but will sulk in cold winter wet. Drainage can be improved by digging in plenty of horticultural grit. This can be an expensive undertaking though, not to mention lots of hard work. A site which is naturally suited to the plants you want to grow will save you an endless fight against nature.
Soil pH testing kits are cheap and simple to use. They’ll tell you whether you have neutral, acid or alkaline soil in a few minutes. Once you know if you have very acid or very alkaline soil, you can design your planting scheme with plants which will suit your conditions. If you have slightly acidic, neutral or slightly alkaline soil, the world is your oyster. You’ll be able to choose from the widest range of plants.
Early spring is a great opportunity to do those maintenance jobs that make the year’s gardening so much easier. Before seed sowing starts in earnest, clean out and disinfect plant pots. This helps keep your seedlings free of diseases from last year’s compost.
Ideally, give the greenhouse a good spring clean before it is full to the brim with seedlings, divisions and tender plants. Cleaning the greenhouse glass is one of the most important jobs to do at this time of year. The winter wind and rain will have taken its toll on the greenhouse. Replace any cracked panes, and try to clean off any moss or algal growth to let as much light through as possible. Your new spring sowings should reward you with much stronger, healthier growth.
Cleaning and sharpening all the blades in the potting shed and greenhouse is definitely worth doing. Loppers, secateurs, knives, scissors and snips can all be sharpened on a sharpening stone, or take them to the professionals for a great finish. Lawnmower blades also need to be kept sharp. They can be sharpened at home with a file, or a lawnmower repair and service specialist can do this for you. If you decide to try sharpening lawnmower blades at home, a vice will help keep the blades in place while you work. Sharp lawnmower blades will help to cut cleanly through the sward, rather than ripping at the grass and weakening it.
Moss looks pretty but can be slippery
Green algae and moss tends to grow on patios and paths, fed by wet winter weather. They don’t damage the surface, and can look very attractive on statues and decorative features. However, they can make walkways extremely slippery. Algae and moss can easily be removed with a pressure washer or a stiff brush. Make sure the water has somewhere to drain to so the problem isn’t made worse. Raking over gravel regularly will help to stop moss taking hold. The joints in block paving grow moss at a rate of knots. If you only have a small area to clear, an old table knife is just the right size to scrape the moss out. A larger area calls for a specialist block paving tool. The long-handled versions make this job far less backbreaking – your knees will thank you too.
It is extremely satisfying to clear away any debris remaining from last year. The old seedheads, which looked so beautiful with their frosty overcoats, need to be removed. This makes way for the new shoots of spring to break through. Now is the time to rake up any remaining fallen leaves and cut back last year’s grasses and herbaceous stems. Leave this job any later and you’ll risk damaging the new growth while trying to cut out the old. Once done, the garden looks like it has had a spring clean, and is ready for the new season to come.
Pruning spring-flowering shrubs should usually be left until just after flowering. If you cut them back in early spring, it is likely you’ll cut off all the flower buds and spoil this year’s display. Shrubs which flower on the current year’s growth can be cut back during their winter dormancy. If the new leaves haven’t opened yet, there is probably still time to get in with the pruning saw. Take out any dead, damaged or diseased stems. After that, take out any that are crossing and likely to rub against one another and cause damage. Always cut just above a healthy bud, so as not to leave a stub. It could rot and possibly introduce infection into the plant. Ideally, the bud should face in the direction you want the next shoot to grow. Aim for a balanced, open framework which lets light in and air pass through.
How to Prepare Soil for Spring Planting
New planting needs thorough soil preparation to thrive. You’re aiming for a loose, friable loam to allow roots to grow. This holy grail of perfect soil contains air pores which allow oxygen to reach plants’ roots. It hangs on to water long enough for plants to take it up but drains quickly enough to avoid becoming saturated.
Soil that has been left bare over the winter can develop a dense top layer. This crust can be too tough for emerging seedlings to punch through, even if the ground was dug over thoroughly in the autumn. Once the ground has dried out enough that it doesn’t stick to your boots, you can fork it over. This will break up any dense clods that the winter frosts haven’t shattered and remove the soil cap. Finally, rake the soil thoroughly to remove any large stones and leave a fine tilth. Your precious new seedlings will then have a much better chance of reaching daylight.
Digging in lots of organic matter improves the soil
Clay soils are so dense and sticky that plants can find it difficult to penetrate. Spring is a great opportunity to incorporate some bulky organic matter. Horse manure or garden compost are great at lightening heavy clay soils, allowing air in and letting moisture drain out.
Manure and compost are equally good at adding structure and nutrients to light sandy soils. Both can also be used to great effect as a mulch at this time of year. They’ll help to lock in the moisture before it evaporates as the weather warms up. Adding bulk to light soils is a great way to stop the rain washing nutrients straight out of the topsoil.
Spent mushroom compost can be used a mulch or dug in as a soil conditioner in the vegetable garden. It is alkaline in nature. It is particularly helpful if your soil tends to be slightly acidic and you want to grow alkaline loving plants. Cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts all thrive in an alkaline soil. They are less likely to be affected by clubroot disease if they are grown in the right soil conditions.
March and April are the absolute peak of the seed sowing calendar. Once the ground starts to warm up, hardy annuals can be sown directly into the ground. Tender and half-hardy plants will need protection until after the last frosts, so will usually be sown inside. That could be in a greenhouse, a porch or on a bright windowsill. As well as the more tender varieties, some gardeners will choose to sow even hardy plants under cover. Outdoor sowings have to cope with the vagaries of our spring weather. They must shrug off pests, diseases, nibbling mice, pigeons and rabbits. It is no surprise that indoor sowings have a much higher survival rate.
Seeds can be sown anywhere from a greenhouse to a kitchen windowsill
Lots of seeds can be sown successfully anywhere from a yoghurt pot full of compost on a kitchen windowsill to an expensive mist propagator on a greenhouse bench. For fussier plants, a propagator which allows you to set the temperature accurately will probably give better germination rates. A windowsill propagator can be a real boon if you’re looking to grow tender or half-hardy plants from seed but don’t have a heated greenhouse. Ensure your seedlings have sufficient drainage so they don’t rot. Try to avoid extreme changes in temperature. A sunny windowsill can be scorching by day and freezing by night.
A seed sowing calendar is invaluable if you’re looking to grow lots of plants from seed, whether indoors or outdoors. Starting tender plants off too early inevitably means having lots of large plants and not enough space to keep them all indoors. Conversely, sowing the seeds of slow-growing plants too late means you might not get a crop before autumn takes hold. A handy reference calendar means you can pick just the right time to sow.
Sowing seeds directly into their final growing position outside creates a trade-off. Fewer seeds will germinate. Of those that do germinate, fewer will grow successfully. On the plus side, the survivors can often be tough cookies. They haven’t had any root disturbance from being pricked out and transplanted. They aren’t suddenly moved from a warm greenhouse into a cold damp garden. Instead, they can start to acclimatise to their conditions immediately. You can give them a little step up in life by protecting new seedlings with cloches. This will keep the birds off, protect the young growth from damage by pounding rain, and keep the ground a little warmer.
It is easy to lose track of where seeds have been sown outside. One trick is always to sow in lines. The lines don’t have to be straight regimented rows, although this does make sense in the vegetable garden. In a flower bed, try sowing seeds in a circle or cross shape. When the seedlings emerge, it is easy to tell which ones are weed seeds and which will become your carefully sown border plants. You won’t notice the shape once the plants have grown up but it certainly makes hoeing easier in the first few weeks.
Create a Relaxing Environment in your Garden
As early spring gives way to the sometimes balmy days of late spring, we naturally want to spend more time outdoors. We put a great deal of hard work into winter maintenance, then we carefully nurture our spring sowings. Late spring and summer is the time to enjoy the fruits of our labours. The days get longer, sunset is no longer 10 minutes after lunchtime. Tulips take over from snowdrops and daffodils and we see the first strong splashes of colour in the garden.
Creating a space to sit and enjoy the garden we’ve worked hard to create should be high up on any gardener’s to do list. Think about what time of day you generally like to be out in the garden. If you’re more of a lark than an owl, a private nook to soak up some morning rays would be ideal. A little bistro table to sit at with a breakfast cup of tea perhaps? Or chairs just for two, to share a morning coffee. The Windsor Jack and Jill Couples Garden Bench would be an ideal spot to share a morning cuppa. With its built-in central table and two shelves, there is plenty of space for your toast and the morning papers. Placed in an east facing corner of the garden, you’ll be breakfasting like a king.
A night owl might seek out a west facing spot where the sunset can be appreciated with a glass of wine in hand. Comfy chairs to relax in with friends around a fire pit would be ideal. Add plenty of cushions and maybe a blanket or two for a chillier evening. Our handcrafted Lutyens Teak Garden Chair is an elegant chair which blends seamlessly into a modern or traditional setting. With a choice of Oka Cream, Forest Green or Electric Blue cushions, you can personalise your space. Garden lighting marking out path edges, and perhaps highlighting a few favourite plants can really add to the atmosphere.
A vine-covered pergola gives privacy and shade
Creating a space just for you, where you can relax, means you’re much more likely to spend time outdoors. An inviting space needs to be private, so consider screening it off from neighbours. Trellis covered with climbing plants gives a sense of seclusion without making a space feel too enclosed. If your retreat is overlooked from above, perhaps a pergola with scented roses and jasmine could distract the neighbours’ eyes. A grapevine trained over an archway or pergola looks fabulous and evokes sunny afternoons in the south of France. You could even be picking your own grapes a couple of years from now. A seating area under your scented pergola, such as the Banana Teak Garden Bench Set, would make a wonderful retreat. The half-moon style bench and chair are complemented by the curved lines of the coffee table. This set creates a stylish garden feature that you will enjoy for years to come.
The avid veg-grower will certainly want somewhere to perch to have rest from weeding. A handy bench, close to the veg plot, will be a welcome balm for sore knees. The simple clean lines of the Salisbury Backless Teak Bench would suit any style of garden. The two-seater version will slot neatly into a small corner, while the three- and four-seater versions give you plenty of space to catch up with friends and family. The hard-wearing grade ‘A’ teak means it can stand up to winter weather. You’ll have somewhere to sit no matter how early in the year you’re out in the garden. A pretty planter nearby, stocked with alpine strawberries or Mediterranean herbs that you can pick and sniff, will make it somewhere you want to linger. Our Small Teak Wooden Garden Planter makes an attractive feature, whether it is planted with a small tree or a riot of summer colour.
However and whenever we use our gardens, spring is the time we can really start to enjoy our time outside. As the sun rises a little higher in the sky each day, and the new shoots of spring emerge, let’s make the most of our outside space this year.