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Gardening for March 2019 - Vernal beginnings

Gardening club author, Anne Swithinbank, talks us through how to care for daffodils, potatoes and camellias. Photographs kindly provided by John Swithinbank. To subscribe to the Gardening Club, please click here

Spring begins in March but we have the option of celebrating meteorological Spring on the 1st or astronomical spring a bit later on March 20th, the date of the Vernal equinox. Old Latin ‘vernalis’ means ‘of the spring’ and crops up in plant names, perhaps inspiring a vernal border. Up the sunny end and in well-drained soil could spread a carpet of alpine spring pheasant’s eye (Adonis vernalis), a clumping alpine from the hillsides of central and southern Europe, whose yellow flowers open against filigree foliage. The spring gentian (Gentiana verna), reaching only 4cm (1.5in) high, would suit a tufa rock or alpine trough and is closely associated with Easter Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris – pictured), known as the ‘anemone of Passiontide’. The splendid spring pea (Lathyrus vernus) is smothered with purple or pale pink flowers at 30cm (12in) and the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) resembles a giant snowdrop and prefers moist soil. For the shadier, woodland end of the border, Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is native to the USA and makes a small tree reaching up to 5m (15ft). Although the flowers are small compared to Chinese witch hazels, its autumn leaf tints are splendid. Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) is a must for meadows and used to be a ‘chewing grass’ as stem bases taste of vanilla. This gives hay a sweet aroma and is the food plant for brown and skipper butterflies.

Early spring is often still wintry, with new leaves yet to unfurl and all but the earliest blossoms held tightly in dark buds. Spirits are lifted by carpets of spring bulbs, the reward of forward planning, as they’ll have been planted the previous autumn. In established gardens, constant additions and naturalisation enables bulbs to bulk up and bloom year after year.

March is the month for daffodils, of which there are thought to be around 18,000 cultivars in existence, though more likely only 500 in commercial production. They all belong to the genus narcissus but this is also the popular name for those with fragrant, short-cupped flowers. When choosing cultivars, allow yourself to fall in love with their looks, but for the landscape of the garden, select by height and habit. The showy larger-flowered hybrids tend to grow in clumps around the house in my garden. Medium-sized easy going kinds like ‘February Gold’ and ‘Jack Snipe’ are great for lawns, while perky ‘Tete a Tete’ and ‘Jetfire’ make good ground cover in woodland-style borders and larger containers. The slightly bashful-looking native Narcissus pseudonarcissus (Lobularis) is at home in rough grass and ‘old pheasant’s eye’, (N.poeticus var.recurvus), multi-headed lemon, and white ‘Pipit’ both look great under apple trees. For alpine meadows with shorter grass the dainty hoop-petticoat N.bulbocodium or N.cyclamineus are lovely. Treasure long-established clumps of daffodils in mature gardens because some of the older varieties are now hard to track down.

Spring daffodil care

  • A failure to bloom (known as ‘coming up blind’) is often the result of shallow planting. Make sure bulbs are set at least one and a half times their own depth in the soil, so roots are better able to access water during dry springs.
  • Bulbs in congested clumps sometimes struggle to reach flowering size. Lift, divide, and replant in late spring when bulbs are dying back.
  • Allow all daffodils to die back naturally and never knot their foliage. In grass, leave at least six weeks after flowering before cutting.
  • Treat poorly performing clumps to a high potash liquid feed (a half strength tomato feed perhaps) after flowering.

Growing your own potatoes brings the chance to try unusual cultivars and experience the pleasure of lifting tubers from June and July onwards. This useful crop is also well-known for keeping newly cultivated soil open and weed free. The biggest obstacle to success is potato blight, caused by a fungus-like organism whose spores are carried in the air over long distances, waiting for a suitable wet, humid period to germinate and infect foliage, stems and eventually tubers. In wetter areas of the country, blight is a certainty in most years but there are tactics to avoid it. My favourite is to grow only early and second early varieties, planted promptly in March and April. Earlies have usually been harvested by the time blight strikes later in the summer. If second earlies are still in the ground, cut the haulms (top growth) right down when symptoms of rotting appear on the leaves and the tubers will be saved.

The other option is to plant blight-resistant varieties, remembering that this clever disease is constantly evolving and has overcome the resistance once shown by some potato varieties. We used to feel safe planting ‘Cara’ and ‘Valor’ but now look to the Sarpo range bred by the Sarvari Research Trust in North Wales. Of the six varieties, my favourite is early main crop ‘Sarpo Kifli’, yielding large, oval-shaped waxy salad-type potatoes with white skins. The texture of cooked potatoes varies as to whether they have low dry matter (hence waxy-fleshed) or high dry matter (drier, fluffier-textured flesh). Interestingly, texture is also influenced by latitude. I tend to favour waxy potatoes and my favourite is the second early show potato ‘Nadine’. Apparently, this was bred for warmer climates and while delicious when grown in the south, I’ve been told it develops a nasty slimy texture when grown in Scotland. Conversely, I’ve never had much time for dry, floury-fleshed ‘Golden Wonder’ but apparently it is a good potato grown further north.

Hardly subtle, the large, pink double flowers of Camellias such as ‘Donations’ may not suit every garden or taste but these showy evergreens bring colour to spring gardens and make gorgeous cut flowers. In the mountains of Korea and Japan, Camellia japonica grows to 9m (30ft) amongst forest trees, decorated modestly by small single red blooms. Whether growing these shrubs in soil or pots, this natural setting is worth bearing in mind. Between the trees there would be light shade, coolness and shelter from high winds and late frosts. Roots would prosper in well-drained, neutral to acidic soil enriched with leaf mould and these conditions are easy to replicate successfully in a garden. Should growth need curbing, you can use thin back long stems immediately after flowering, avoiding a ‘clipped’ appearance. Of the many cultivars, I enjoy those with striped pink and white flowers and lust after aptly named ‘Desire’, a double japonica hybrid whose pale pink blooms are edged with deeper pink.

In pots

Camellias grow well in containers of ericaceous compost (I use 50:50 soilless and loam-based ericaceous with 20% added grit and composted bark or leaf mould mix) as long as they are kept out of the baking hot sun. I move ours under unheated glass for winter, enjoy early blooms and then stand them outdoors for summer and autumn. Camelia roots should never dry out. They prefer rain water and respond well to a dose of slow release ericaceous plant fertilizer in spring or monthly liquid feeding.

Gardening expert and author of the Quilter Cheviot Gardening Club, Anne Swithinbank.

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