Nature is poised to spring into action any day

Gardeners must be clever in their efforts this time of year, so says Olive Ryan in her weekly column
Nature is poised to spring into action any day

Stepping stones in grass. These can be a great way to protect lawns in the winter months

IT has been a mixed bag weather wise over the last few weeks, and will continue like this for the next few weeks if previous spring weather is anything to go by.

We gardeners must be clever in our efforts at this time of year, to ensure that we are beavering away and ticking things off of the list while not doing any damage to the soil structure when it is so saturated or frozen.

On sunny days when the air warms up, you can see the spring bulbs visibly sitting up taller and prouder. 

Early flying pollinators begin to make an appearance, bird song becomes more prominent, and hopes of the growing season ahead begin to be closer to reality.

Seed sowing in earnest can begin soon, but it is a little early yet to be sowing too many. They will be slow to germinate if you do not have a heated bench, and if you do have one, plenty of indoor space to provide for hardening off and pricking out will be needed.

If you do have lots of half empty packets of seeds lying around collected over the last number of years, now is a good time to do germination tests on them and this can be done simply and without too much mess or fuss in the comfort of your home over the next week or two.

Kitchen paper used to test seed viability
Kitchen paper used to test seed viability

Using kitchen paper soaked in water and placed into a tupperware container, place lines or groups of seeds that you are unsure of along the kitchen paper, label and date. Use maybe 8-10 seeds of each type and seal the container and place in the hot press.

Check for germination after a few days and keep the kitchen paper moist, checking every day thereafter, and after a few weeks you will know what seeds can safely be thrown away and what ones are still viable for the coming year.

Dahlias and canna lilies that are being stored indoors for protection from frost over the winter months can be tidied up and potted in preparation now for the spring burst of growth.

If you would like to propagate from your dahlias this spring, taking cuttings from the fresh new growth (basal cuttings), then it is a good idea to pot them early so that they get a head start and there will be new growth a little earlier than unusual.

These plants will have to be protected from late frosts and so glasshouse or polytunnel space will need to be available until the end of May to ensure success.

Cuttings taken in the springtime grow so easily and will develop into large plants quite quickly, bulking up and flowering beautifully in their first year.

Canna lilies can be divided as they are being potted, this will create new plants and ensure that plants do not become too bulky and overcrowded.

Removal of old leaves to make way for new young growth will benefit the plants, and a liquid feed a little later in March or April will ensure that they are at their best before going back out into the ground.

There is plenty of manure and compost to be spread on fruit and vegetable growing areas and there is no time lost just yet, so wait until the ground conditions are more favourable if access is an issue.

Snowdrops attracting honeybees venturing out early in the year
Snowdrops attracting honeybees venturing out early in the year

Having a good network of paths and hard surfacing is a great advantage throughout the winter months as it means that work can be continued even during inclement weather.

Always consider the need for maneuvering a wheelbarrow into space when planning paths and access in new areas of the garden. Providing gravel or paved paths is useful for winter when the grass may become badly damaged if it is an area heavily trafficked.

As an alternative, perhaps stepping stones could be used along heavily used grass paths to alleviate damage and it can also create an attractive pattern and feature in the garden.

Different shaped paving slabs can be used and curves or straight lines can be created, depending on the style of your garden. Pathways draw the eye so they can be used to create interest and intrigue in the garden!

We are in right in the middle of bare root planting season and if you are considering planting a hedge or trees in your garden, well, now is the time to do it, and there is no time to be lost as there are only a few weeks left to get the work done.

Planting bare rooted plants is a much more economical way of purchasing plants and can only be completed during the dormant season when the plants are not in growth. Future Forests, Fermoy Woodland Nursery, Nangle and Nieson and Hillside Nurseries all sell a range of bare rooted hedging and trees at this time of the year so do not miss out!

Plant of the week

Chysosplenium macrophylla, above, is a ground cover plant, native to China from the saxifrage family, which does well on wet soil and in shade — two difficult growing conditions — and so for that alone it is of value in the garden.

In addition, it flowers now (inset below), early in the springtime, producing pale pinky/creamy flowers and rosettes of bronze new foliage. The leaves, once mature, are reminiscent of Bergenia (elephant’s ears) with their large oval shape.

It spreads by runners and can form a good mat of ground cover when it is happy with it’s growing situation. It is shallow rooting and can die off during a dry summer so choose your wettest spot.

This plant is low growing, getting to no more than 20cm tall when flowering so is ideal as a ground cover plant in an area where it will have some scope to spread out.

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