It is always good to know that someone is reading the column one writes. You always hope that is the case but unless anybody mentions it then one does not really know. Thankfully people do comment on it and lively debate often ensues. But I have to make it clear, following two comments last month, that I am not the oracle, I seek only to pass on the benefit of my personal experiences in the hope that the more information we share the better we all may be! So Mr X, when I suggest (note the use of the word ’suggest’) in February’s column, that you might like to prune your hydrangeas it does not mean that you have to rush out on the coldest day of the year and follow my suggestion as an edict. It means that sometime during February, if the weather and its forecast are conducive, you may consider pruning them or indeed applying the grey matter and leaving it until March.
Equally Mr Y, when I say I have good strong broad bean plants I am indeed telling the truth. The fact that I had told you, in confidence, that a mouse entered my tunnel and ate 36 newly planted beans and that I felt rather stupid to allow it to happen yet again, doesn’t mean that I hadn’t been planting by succession and, in fact, the first lot of beans had matured nicely and had not been ravaged by a field mouse.
I hope that clears up any misunderstandings for my readership. I can only give general advice because we all have slightly different climatic conditions. And I can tell you that when the man at Trewithen prunes his hydrangea hedge I know it time to do mine! I always say February can be the worst month of the year and indeed she has done some damage to those early camellia blooms and to the new shoots of so many plants that thought spring was here. Thankfully we have only had two frosts up here on windy hill and neither was too bad but I know it has been different for many of you. Much damage has been done to ferns that started growth too early. But we live with what we are given and must be grateful that we have seen some sunshine and slightly drier weather. There are some essential jobs this month if the weather is appropriate. All plants need varying degrees of heat and light and whilst I cannot guarantee the warmth, the daylight will be lengthening and the plants will respond accordingly.
• Fuchsias can be started into growth. If you have overwintered tender ones it is worth plunging the pots into water up to their necks for a good soaking and then cutting out spindly shoots and shortening all others to about 5 cm. I don’t re-pot until I can see new growth, then I tease out the old compost and re-pot into new. That way they get all the goodness of new compost and you can check there are no nasties lurking. Vine weevils love fuchsias and I always put a preventative compound in all my potting compost now. When the new shoots are 8-10 cm long pinch out the shoots, encourage bushy growth and use the shoot tips for cuttings.
• Take cuttings of greenhouse plants and any tender bedding plants. Marguerites and pelargoniums can be multiplied this way without the need to buy new ones.
• Sweet peas that were planted in autumn can go outside now. They are hardy but I like to put them out in their pots for a couple of days and nights and plant once they have acclimatised. Is it necessary to say that if we are under a foot of snow or skating on ice , this job and all the others can wait a little longer! If you are planting sweet peas up canes or netting it is always helpful to tie the plant in gently to its support until it gets going. If, like me, you have only just planted the seed then there is no rush, you will have a later display when others are all over.
• Now, last year at Veryan show, one of the exhibitors walked away with a lot of points for his chrysanthemums. Rightly so, I had a vase of Gilbert’s bright yellow chrysanths in my lounge for over three weeks. If you want to challenge him this year but do not have any, then you can send away now for rooted cuttings. On arrival, pot them up in 9cm pots and put them in a cold frame unless it’s really cold. You don’t want them too warm or they will become leggy. They make big plants so put in a cane for support. They are easy plants to grow and you will see when to plant them out. Well -rotted manure is their favourite food and their only dislike is bad drainage so don’t let them get too wet.
• In all the excitement of a new season we must not forget the plants that have already done their bit. One job I have been promising myself I would do for the last two years is to divide polyanthus. All varieties and the primroses are best divided now, once they have finished flowering. Plant the divisions in a shady place; they do not like hot sunshine.
• Early camellias that have finished must be pruned before they start making their buds for next year, dog woods can be cut down and the cut stems just plunged into the ground for a third of their length as cuttings. Winter heathers and hebes can be cut down to stop them looking straggly. It was always suggested that hebes should have only a third taken out of the bush but we chop ours down with the hedge trimmer and cross our fingers, it seems to work but may make them vulnerable if your garden is really cold.
• Repair your lawn, start planting veg seed, start mowing weekly, plant early potatoes and plant asparagus! This time of year the list is absolutely endless as long as the weather is with us and most jobs you miss can be done next month and no doubt you will walk around your garden and see all the jobs I haven’t mentioned. Put in your tomato seed? Planted your peppers? Pruned your hydrangeas?! Oh yes, thank heavens, we are back to the seasons for gardening but take the time to look at all the wonderful plants that choose to flower now. Many of the television gardening programmes encourage us to instant gratification. I cannot tell you how much pleasure I am taking from a small border which I cleared last autumn and have stacked full of bulbs. Daffodils, alliums, aconites, anemones, so many different types that are emerging and that I had planted around evergreen agapanthus and oriental poppies that will cover the summer season. It is so exciting to see them. I planted fritillaria meleagris too and although they are very pretty they can only really be appreciated if put up high so you can see inside, otherwise lie on the ground horizontally and look up inside, they are fabulous.
Last word this month must go to a variegated aspidistra. My sister gave it to me as she was unable or possibly unwilling to care for it and I already had stacks of mature plants and cuttings. So I accepted hers but put it in the border next to the patio thinking it would be good there for the summer. Despite the nights of frost, this intrepid lady is still standing, putting on new growth and looking better than ever. Who would have thought an aspidistra would survive outside. Plants continue to surprise us.
Finally mention has to be made of the deluges of rain we saw last year and this. We have all struggled be it with flooded houses and gardens or fields that were impassable for animals or farmers but just look at the trees, shrubs and hedges. They have all loved it. After three dry years (relatively speaking) this vast amount of rain has made a huge difference to established shrubs and my herbaceous border must be a month ahead of last year. Silver linings?