AFTER a seemingly long, drawn-out winter, we are ever so eager to see signs of it coming to an end, and I might just have noticed one or two events that offer some hope. They relate to bird and plant movement in this garden and beyond.
All winter long, large groups of lapwing and curlew have inhabited the river estuary and fields nearby. As they have taken to the air when disturbed, we’ve estimated approximately 70-plus in each flight, but in mid-February, the desert (a collective noun) of peewit vanished.
No prizes for guessing where they’d gone because when the spring mating season arrives, they pair up and head inland.
Confirmation that this was so came with our monthly walk over moorland to the west. One of the bigger fenced areas we stumbled upon was inhabited by four birds that went into their spectacular acrobatic display routine as we approached.
Meanwhile, the herd (collective noun) of curlew continues to hang around down by the coast and in surrounding fields. They are obviously not yet convinced that spring has arrived.
Not so the lone skylark that warbled and fluttered way above our heads one sunny day last week, as we rode along a local bridleway.
Then there’s the pair of tree sparrows that have taken over the blue tits’ nesting box. They’re moving furniture in at present and little do they know it but we’re watching every move on television via an internal camera.
Green shoots of recovery might be lacking in the world of business but they’re abundant in the garden. Have you noticed how suddenly the surge of plant growth and colour has emerged of late?
Muscari, dwarf daffs and anemone are shining at ground level, tall red-stemmed willows absolutely covered in catkins, are waving in the breeze way above our heads, and the yellow forsythia is showing one or two blooms.
The fragrance of ribes (flowering currant) might not be very popular but the flowers are a delight when caught in the afternoon sun.
We value each of these shrubs and always rely on them to cheer us up over the final two weeks of March. But the display can be brought forward if you snip a few stems just as the flowering buds begin to swell, and arrange them in a vase indoors.
This is the time for early herbaceous perennials, planted in the mixed border, to show what they can do.
Several cultivars of Lungwort (pulmonaria ) are flowering in reds, pinks and blues. Yellow doronicums in single and double form have also joined in the display. Most encouraging sign of all is the breaking of growth buds on deciduous shrubs. The dogwoods (cornus) are beginning to develop shoots and there is a suggestion of green haze from a distance that confirms new leaves are emerging.
These signs are telling me that spring is fast approaching yet several winter jobs remain outstanding.
We still have a couple of mature blackcurrant bushes to dig up and relocate in a different part of the garden, and that must be done over the next two weeks or we’ll run out of time. It’s the same for any bare-rooted deciduous trees and shrubs temporarily heeled in, a case of either do it now or wait until the autumn.
Once they are transferred remember to water them in well initially, and monitor the situation for several weeks afterwards until new roots have formed.
This planting deadline does not apply to container-grown perennials for they will have a good root-ball that facilitates introducing them to the garden at any time of year. But this said, do exercise a little care when selecting a particular plant for they don’t always come up to standard.
For example, you might find a small shrub whose leaves are yellowing when they should be a deep green colour. Pick it up and hold the main stem in one hand, then remove the pot by tapping the side with the palm of the other. If the roots are compacted and growing in a tight circle it suggests a pot-bound plant and that is not good.
If you’re determined to buy such a specimen, the roots must be teased apart before planting in order to stimulate new growth. The ideal choice would be a containerised plant whose roots are a healthy cream colour and just beginning to circle at the pot base.
Conversely, there are occasionally plants offered for sale in pots and they have just recently been introduced to them. When you try to remove them for planting, the soil falls away and bare roots remain.
There were some potted pear, peach, apple and cherry trees on sale locally last week, each about five feet tall and priced at around £12 – well below half the normal cost. But small print on the label revealed they had not been grown in the containers, simply potted-up into them for sale. They were bare-rooted. I hope they’re bought and planted out before top growth starts, to give them a fighting chance of survival.
Out on the vegetable beds, leeks, Brussels sprouts and sprouting broccoli are still being harvested but the plants will soon have to go, making way for early salad crops. The spring cabbages are performing well and there is new growth on the long-standing spinach. Add to this the bright green chives shoots, and the treat of succulent rhubarb sticks, the result of forcing, and it really feels as if a new growing season is beginning to emerge.
This means we must start germinating garden peas and broad beans so they can be off to a flying start when planted out in April. Both lots of seeds are emptied into bowls which are then half-filled with hot water from the tap and left to stand overnight. By next morning they have swelled to the point of germinating and are ready for the compost and container. Peas go three to a small pot, the beans one, then they’re put under a plastic-domed propagator until shoots appear. After which, a cooler environment and good daylight keeps growth ticking over steadily.
All winter long we’ve been entertained by plants in the conservatory, and as you might suspect, the two key factors relating to their survival are a modest amount of warmth to keep frost out, and a modicum of water. Overwatering plus intense cold leads to disaster.
Although I do try to avoid having favourites, it must be said that the coffee and citrus plants are rather special and would be greatly missed should disaster strike.
For this reason alone we never let the temperature fall below their tolerance level of 5 Celsius – it actually levels out at 10 degrees. The result is a swelling of new fruits on both and a splendid fragrance from the host of white flowers – another feature they have in common.
There are in fact three coffee trees in residence because the beans can be sown once they turn black (instead of roasted) and give rise to new plants.
It’s at times such as this that you realise what a boon the geraniums have been over the dark days of winter. We have several varieties dotted around in pots and they are continually in bloom.
However, now they are starting to put on new growth which is shouting out to be turned into stem cuttings and rooted
The hippeastrum lily has a promising flower stem, and we’ve also noticed that the tide has turned in terms of warmth in the conservatory. A short while ago everything was done to retain heat during the day – now it is difficult to stop it turning into a hothouse.
Spring is in the air.