If you’re wondering what happened to ‘March in the Flower Field’, I’m afraid this is the nearest you’re going to get. March was, to be frank, a complete write-off. What with the snow, and then the flooding that followed when it melted and ran downhill to us, the only thing that went on in the field was a lot of squelching.
Still, looking on the bright side, in-between staring dolefully out the window and torturing myself with pictures of the bucketfuls of flowers we were picking this time last year, I’ve been rattling through the admin. Silver linings, huh?
Last time, I promised you a guide to growing sweet peas, which - hoorah - tolerate the cold well so have been something to be getting on with even in the dreadful weather. And now the weather has finally warmed up, they will quickly shoot ahead.
If you sowed your sweet peas in February or early March, they should be growing away nicely. (If not, don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to get some in.) In the cold weather, they might not have put on much stem growth, but their roots will have been bulking up, which makes for good, strong plants. We do three crops in all: the first are sown in October and go into the ground in the polytunnel. The second crop was sown in March and will get planted outside as soon as they’re ready. As I plant them out, I’ll sow a third crop outside, putting a plastic-bottle cloche over each seed to stymie the mice and slugs.
Sweet peas like a deep root run and a lot of goodness. If you can get hold of any well-rotted manure, a layer in the bottom of your planting trench will pay dividends. I try to feed ours every time I water - if you have a wormery, the glorious, stinking gunk that comes out the bottom of it (and always surprises you with just how bad it smells) is ideal, diluted to the colour of weak tea. If not, soak some chicken manure pellets in water and use that as a liquid feed. And once they’re growing well, spray the plants every so often with seaweed solution - you can almost see the leaves relaxing their shoulders and taking a deep breath!
If it’s abundance and prettiness you’re after, let your sweet peas scramble up a wall or over an obelisk. But if it’s long stems and huge blooms you’d prefer, then try growing them as cordons. The idea with cordons is that you select one stem on each plant and remove all the others to make sure the plant puts all its resources into that main stem. That means pinching out all the shoots that develop off the central stem. As the plant gets taller, make sure to tie it to your stake or string regularly so it keeps reaching skywards. When the plants reach the top of their stakes, untie them all gently, run them along the ground and start them up another stake, a few feet along the row. This is a lot of work, but it does pay dividends. If you want to see how the experts do it, nip down to your local allotments where there’s bound to be an old guy who’s been growing them this way for 30 years and produces stems like you’ve never imagined. He’ll probably give you a handful to take home.
We start off growing our sweet peas as cordons, but by midsummer we’re too busy to keep up with the work, so - having picked a lot of lovely long stems by then - we let them just do their thing. To make up for the shorter stems, we pick whole shoots with a flower attached and get the bonus of the lovely, twiddly tendrils.
So, having nailed the sweet peas, a few other things to be getting on with in April:
- If you haven’t sown your annuals yet, it’s time to get a wiggle on. I usually start at the end of February but this year waited until the third week in March - and then stuck to hardy annuals. Even though we have a heated propagator, it’s not huge, so as soon as seeds germinate they’re taken off the heat to make space for the next shift. Now it’s warmer, I’ve started sowing the half-hardies and I’ll also start sowing direct this week.
- A cold spring is where you really come to appreciate your autumn-sown hardy annuals. Those we planted in the tunnels are looking healthy, if still a few weeks behind where they usually are. Any you have lingering in pots inside should be hardened off before being planted out as soon as possible. Did you know that plants that are hardened off properly are more resistant to slug damage? I build a kind of temporary cold frame from plumbing pipe, polythene and a couple of old bed frames from Butlin’s. (Some people nick the towels, I go for a bed frame…*)
- The ranunculus are flowering - yay! Ours are in a tunnel but I’ll be starting a few more corms off this week, potting them up in very gritty soil for a later, outside crop. Keep on top of any powdery mildew by picking off affected leaves. And, of course, pick the flowers! Picking them right down at ground level will encourage more to grow.
- I’ve been potting up the dahlia tubers we divided in the autumn. I’ve been cramming them into the polytunnel while it’s been so cold but this week, I’ll start moving them outside - if only to put an end to my constant tripping over them.
- The tulips are now coming out as fast as I can pick them. If you want really long stems, hold the bottom of the stem and pull gently - the stem will pull straight out of the bulb, meaning you get the extra bit that was underground. Mind you, because tulip leaves grow up the stem, rather than at ground level, you’ll take all the leaves with you so the bulb will have no way to build up reserves for next year and won’t flower again. If you want your tulips to reflower next year, best to cut the stems, leaving a couple of leaves to absorb the energy from the sun the bulb will need to produce a flower next year.
- The roses are pruned, fed, top-dressed and shooting away! I usually do it by the end of February, but this year it was nearly April before they were finished. It will be interesting to see if that makes a difference to how they bloom. All the clippings went on the bonfire to prevent the risk of spreading blackspot. If you’re scared of pruning, don’t be. Of course, there is a correct way - but I have also read that going over them with a hedge-trimmer has very good results! Start by cutting out any dead bits, crossing or diseased stems and aim for an airy goblet shape. By now, they’re probably shooting so you’ll be able to see where the new stems will grow. I think of it like I do the sweet peas: the fewer stems the plant has to spread its resources between, the more each stem will get. So if you want long, strong stems with big, healthy blooms, cut them down so each of last year’s stems only has a few shoots coming off it. If you want the plant covered with flowers but aren’t so worried about the quality of each individual stem, you can leave more on. Either way, if you keep the bushes fed, watered and free of pests, they will do their best for you.
- As a No-Dig gardener, the most important job for me is top dressing the beds with compost. Usually it’s pretty much done by now but this weather means it’s now become a spring job. If you’re not familiar with No-Dig, the idea is that there are beneficial fungi in the soil called mycorrhrizai, which form a network with the roots of plants, beneficial to both parties. It’s the stuff you can now buy in garden centres if you’re rich. When I have to, I will dig a hole to plant something, and I lightly fork over the top of the beds when I’m weeding but, other than that, I try to disturb the soil as little as possible so as not to break up those networks. I don’t fully understand the specifics of it (if you’re interested in more of the science bit, Charles Dowding’s your man) but I know that on our field, which is basically a layer of thick clay over enough stones to lay a road on, it works and lets me grow in a way which would otherwise be very, very difficult. I recommend it.
- Finally, now the weather is warming up, take any chance you can to get out to clear, tidy and cut back perennials. It will instantly make you feel better and on a sunny spring day, with the summer abundance still ahead of you, there’s absolutely nowhere better to be.
Got questions? Leave them in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them.
Next time: planting out; summer bulbs and direct sowing.
*That’s a joke. I bought them from a reclamation yard. The Redcoat’s blazer, on the other hand...