Back cutting the grass? Hold onto the clippings...

Olive Ryan looks at the jobs we need to do in our garden at this time of year.
Back cutting the grass? Hold onto the clippings...

If you have started to mow your lawn again, keep the clippings as it can be a good way of giving your beds a good boost of nitrogen at this time of year. Picture: Stock

AS buds swell in anticipation of the leaves appearing, the drop in temperature last week has delayed the arrival of foliage and hopefully it has not damaged unopened buds wherever your garden is situated. Never do we become more aware of frost pockets than at this crucial time of the year when frosty nights can do serious damage to plants as they emerge full of vim and vigor from their slumber.

Frost pockets can occur where there is a dip in the ground level and cold air settles resulting in a fog remaining longer into the daytime and frost lingering. 

Identifying such areas and planting plants that will tolerate these not ideal growing conditions is advisable to avoid disappointment. Native plants like white thorn, blackthorn, holly and hazel are a good choice for such a location.

The grass has become active again and the lawnmower is back in action after the yearly service. Do not cut the grass too short as this will give moss the advantage at the expense of the grass. 

Using fresh grass clippings as a mulch in garden beds and borders is a convenient way of giving a boost of nitrogen at this time of the year. 

It is best to just add a thin layer of about half an inch so that it can break down into the soil more easily rather than develop a slimy consistency. It will feed plants and soil microbes and invertebrates as well as suppressing weeds and conserving moisture in the soil. Alternatively the clippings can be added to the compost heap where it will break down over a number of months when layered with carbon high ingredients like cardboard or dead leaves. An invaluable resource within the garden which is undervalued and often discarded which can be recycled easily to nourish the soil resulting in nutrient recycling and water conservation.

A blossoming magnolia tree.
A blossoming magnolia tree.

Magnolias are looking glorious in the spring sunshine at the moment with their plump flower buds opening into various sized and coloured flowers. 

One of the earliest flowering here is Magnolia campbellii and it is often plagued by frosts during March which can damage emerging flower buds. For the most part they enjoy acid soil but there are some that will tolerate alkaline soil like Magnolia stellata, a compact shrub getting to about 1.5m in height and 2.5m spread. It produces masses of star shaped white flowers in spring and it is a great choice for smaller gardens. Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ is another one that will tolerate some alkalinity and would be considered a small tree getting to about 8m high and 6m wide. It produces delicate lilac pink star shaped flowers in April/May which like M. stellata are less susceptible to frost damage. These plants really do herald the arrival of spring like no other in the garden with their bright and cheery flower buds opening to reveal goblets or star shaped flowers.

With a lot of spring flowering bulbs, particularly daffodils, at peak flowering now, it is a really good time to identify some clumps that are not flowering well, with particularly good/ attractive flower forms and label them for division in another few weeks.

Also a good time to identify spots in the garden that would benefit from the addition of some spring bulb interest and note where the bulbs to be divided could be transplanted to. 

Every year the emergence of spring bulbs is a gratifying experience and we congratulate our enterprising autumn planting selves for undertaking the task.

It is good to experiment with different cultivars, colours and bulb types as every garden growing condition is different and different plants do better in different locations. Also great to experiment with colour and different combinations, some will work and we will use again and some will not and will be chalked down to experience.

A selection of dogwoods and rubus grown for winter colour.
A selection of dogwoods and rubus grown for winter colour.

All of the dogwoods grown for their stem colour need to be coppiced now before they come into leaf. It is worthwhile trying a few cuttings of the different stem colours to bulk up stock as they do produce a more dramatic winter colour effect when planted in groups.

Some cultivars are good for layering also which will produce new plants rooted into the ground which can be dug up and potted. The new growth produced during this growing year will produce more vividly coloured stems going into next winter. These are great plants for providing winter interest in the garden, a time when we need some inspiration and interest to take us out into the garden. The most commonly grown dogwood for stem colour is probably the red Cornus alba Sibirica and then the lime green stem is Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’.

Probably one of the most dramatic is Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ as the orange and yellow stems appear to glow from a distance. Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’ produces great winter stem colour going from a paler coral red to a deep red over the winter months. These plants come into their own during autumn and into winter and some pruning now will ensure a spectacle of colour for next winter.

Plant of the week

Cornus ‘Annys Winter Orange’ is another fiery dogwood with new stems having a more red than orange hue. It can get to 2m in height and benefits from yearly coppicing.

This plant will grow in full sun or partial shade and also has good autumn leaf colour.

For the most dramatic effect plant in large drifts and admire the stems blaze through the winter months.

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