A DROP in temperature during the last week has reminded us we have some time left before spring is official, but there still seem to be signs of life in the garden alarmingly early this year, writes Olive Ryan in her weekly gardening column.
There are plenty of spring flowering bulbs around, with crocus appearing along with aconites, iris and snowdrops. Daffodils are peeping above the surface of the soil and the dry weather here in the south almost since the new year had made the completing of garden tasks more feasible than usual for January and February so far.
The garden has bare branches of deciduous trees and shrubs, but it still looks quite green. The grass is still in growth when temperatures remain above 6C at night, and this accounts for the early start to the cutting of lawns this year.
As the clean-up continues to make way for spring bulbs and early herbaceous growth, it is time to consider dividing some overcrowded or poorly performing herbaceous perennials.
Extra stock can be potted and gifted or planted elsewhere in the garden. Most herbaceous perennials really do benefit from division every three to five years with some of the original clump replanted and fed with chicken manure pellets, or mulched with garden compost.
There is plenty of seasonal pruning to be undertaken over the next few weeks to ensure plants are kept in check and flowering to their best potential this summer. Removing of dead material is the first step, then any crossing branches, which will help open up the centre of any plant and allow for better air and light circulation.
Regular pruning is important for many garden plants to ensure constant rejuvenation of the plant, which will encourage vigorous new growth so a plant does not become tired and lacking sparkle.
When a garden is planted initially, for the first few years pruning is not a major concern as the plants are establishing. It is as they grow and mature that they will need attention to keep them looking at their best.
Some pruning will be to restrict the size, some will be to promote better flowering or fruiting, some will be to make more space, and some plants require very little pruning as they may be slow growing.
As a garden matures, different types of pruning may need to be employed to achieve the desired effect. If a garden was initially planted with lots of trees, and now after many years views outward have been lost, maybe it is time to consider opening up the garden again by undertaking some selective pruning.
Crown raising trees can have a dramatic effect on a garden by opening up a space and all of a sudden a tree begins to look more like a tree as the trunk is revealed and now it is possible to walk in under the tree!
During the winter months, while deciduous trees are dormant, is the ideal time to undertake work like this, one exception being ornamental cherries, which must not be pruned in winter as it would put them at risk of becoming infected with the fungal disease silver leaf, which will result in the slow decline of a cherry tree.
There is a great online pruning lecture next week by Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter. Check out www.greatdixter.co.uk/Event/pruning for more details.
Regular feeding will also help a plant grow and perform to its full potential and spring, which is just around the corner, is a great time to do this, as it is the start of the growing season and when a plant needs fuel to grow the most.
The choice of what to feed plants is many and varied. Bonemeal and fish blood and bone are both considered good slow release fertilisers that aid in improving the overall health of plants. Chicken manure pellets are a convenient way of applying a high concentration of nitrogen for leafy growth. They are sold in buckets so are easy to apply and organic, however they do not add any decomposed organic material to the soil, which is good for feeding all life in the soil.
Farmyard manure, seaweed, garden compost, horse manure, straw, mushroom compost and leaf mould all add fibrous material back into the soil, some of which is broken down and some may need to decay further before it is usable by plant roots.
All of this type of feeding the soil is great for soil microbes, fungi, mychorrizae and bacteria, many of which are beneficial to plant growth.
Liquid feeds produce fast results that are short-lived and so are a short term solution useful for seasonal displays rather that plants well established in garden soil.