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The Garden In Spring
by Carmel Duignan
April 6, 2003

Spring is my favourite season in the garden. The colour and exuberance of summer and the “mellow fruitfulness” of autumn have their own special charms but spring is the season of hope and new growth. It is a season of bright colours and fresh greens – of daffodils and grape hyacinths, of night-scented Daphne pontica, of bright primulas and the dazzlingly white flowers of Clematis paniculata. It is a time of burgeoning growth, longer days and the re-emergence from their winter sleep of pests like slugs and snails. The more time spent in the garden in spring the easier it will be for the rest of the year.

Weeds will be growing apace and getting rid of them now will make control easier for the rest of the year. I love weeding. On my hands and knees (using a good kneeler!), I am in close contact with my plants and, as well as removing the offending weeds, I can spot seedlings of more desirable plants; do some judicious pruning/thinning of plants that I rarely see from this angle; check for reversion on variegated plants and generally survey and assess the condition of the soil. At this time of year the ground is moist and it is easy to dislodge the weeds. I always wear gloves in the garden. I don’t listen to the gardeners who tell us they don’t wear gloves because they “have to feel contact with the soil”. The soil can be dangerous; it is certainly dirty and damaging to hands and fingernails and at this time of year it is also very cold.

With the advent of milder weather slugs and snails re-emerge to wreak devastation on many treasured plants. I know that, in the proper order of things, they have their right to exist but (and this goes too for magpies !) I wish they would exercise their rights away from my garden. The shoots of young clematis and delphiniums, in particular, are very attractive to them. A small saucer of beer placed close to the endangered plant will trap the smaller slugs. Because I love the birds in my garden, I use slug pellets very judiciously and only near to special plants. I put the pellets under pot saucers raised a little from the soil and each morning I gather up the fallen heroes and dispose of them.

Early in the season fuchsias and geraniums in pots should be pruned back and re-potted. This annual task is necessary not just to keep the plants healthy but, very often, to keep them alive. Vine weevils prey on these plants. The white C-shaped grubs will be chomping away at the roots before pupating into the grey-black beetle so beloved of all gardeners! I wash the soil off the remaining roots of infested plants, cut the stems back hard, re-pot and hope for the best!

In the milder parts of the country pruning of roses and clematis can be done in January or February. In the colder areas this should be completed by the end of March. Late flowering clematis – all clematis that flower after the end of June - should be cut back to about 30/60 cms. If this is not done the plant will become very leggy and the flowers will be so high as to be of no benefit. After pruning I feed and mulch the plants being careful not to let the mulch touch the stems.

Snowdrops should be lifted and divided when the flowers have finished. It is the most efficient way to bulk up these beautiful harbingers of spring. They are best moved “in the green” which means when they still have their leaves. Snowdrop bulbs dry out quickly and very often will not regenerate when planted.

The leaves of daffodils should be allowed to die off naturally once the flowers fade. These leaves feed the bulb and prepare the flower for next year. And they should not be tied into those silly little knots we see in some gardens! Much better to plant the daffodils close to herbaceous plants or under deciduous shrubs where the emerging growth will cover the dying leaves of the daffodils.

The only annuals I grow are sweet peas. A bunch of these sweetly-scented flowers on the kitchen window is one of the joys of summer. And the more flowers you pick the more you get! I usually sow the seeds in October; over-winter them; harden them off and plant them out in early March. They can, however, still be planted out in mid to late spring. Garden centres will have supplies available and while these plants will not produce the big blooms or the long stems of the autumn-grown ones they will still produce many lovely flowers. Sweet peas are greedy plants and need an enriched soil to do well.

I have a great love for tender plants – many of which are not generally available. Seed is usually the only way to acquire these treasures and spring is when they should be sown under glass. As with most seeds, if they are sown too early they germinate in the short days of winter when there is little light; they will be weak and elongated in their struggle to find the light and they will take up valuable space in the greenhouse. I find that these seeds sown and germinated in March or April will make better growth and be stronger plants that those same seeds sown in January.

When the soil has warmed a little and the grass starts growing I pay some attention to my lawn. I use a weed and feed granular mixture that gets rid of most of the weeds, kills some of the moss (the rest of the moss I have learned to live with) and gives a boost to the grass. For about five mowings thereafter I don’t add the grass clippings to my compost heaps.

It is easy to be enticed into a garden centre on one of the beautiful days we always get in spring. However, if help or advice is needed, I would recommend visiting on a wet day. Staff will not be as busy and will have more time to devote to questions and queries.

It is always a good idea to take photographs of the garden in each of the seasons. Come autumn when the shops are full of spring bulbs of all kinds it is very helpful to be aware of the areas in the garden that would benefit from more colour in the early months. I think digital cameras were invented for this purpose!

Some of the good gardens open their gates for visitors around this time. These gardens inspire with their beauty and skilful design. Such excellence may be beyond the reach of most of us most of us but we can translate some of it to our own gardens. I have my own maxim and it applies to all those of us who love our gardens. I say that my garden has many faults. It will never win the overall prize in a gardening competition. But it is my creation – my little work of art. And it pleases me.

Checklist:

  • Weed, weed, weed

  • Deal with slugs and pests

  • Keep watch for vine weevil

  • Complete pruning of roses and clematis, feed and mulch

  • Mulch borders

  • Lift, divide & replant snowdrops when flowers finish

  • Leave daffodil leaves to die naturally

  • Grow Sweet Peas

  • Sow seeds of tender plants

  • Feed and weed lawn

  • Visit garden centres on wet days if help/advice required

  • Sow seeds of tender plants

  • Sow hardy annuals in situ

  • Visit other gardens

Carmel lives and gardens in Ireland and is one of the gardens we will be visiting on the 2003 Ireland tour.

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row