Spring Gardening Advice
Spring Gardening Advice
Sweet Songs of Spring
by Barney Bardsley
What a proper winter it was. Fit to freeze the extremities the minute you left the house. All the way through from November to February. And didn’t it snow? Thick and deep and even. My back garden was covered completely for three weeks. It was quite a novelty to see grass and borders emerge tentatively from their winter white. I feared for the health of all those buried plants, some of them quite tender and delicate.
But nature loves a cold snap. And though there has definitely been a delay in the onset of spring – everything in the earth is intact and bonny as ever. Drifts of snowdrops succeeded by tiny narcissus, and little whorls and points of new growth everywhere, just waiting for their moment. Most miraculous of all has been the winter-defying witch hazel (hammamelis mollis). I keep mine in a pot by the back door. Its spidery yellow blooms, with their delicate fragrance, prevailing through the thickest frosts. And the graceful pink of the autumn flowering cherry (prunus subhirtella). It has boasted blossom along its naked branches, not only throughout autumn, but for most of winter and spring too.
“A mountain of muck spreading and seed sowing”
My patch of the city – North East Leeds – really comes alive at this time of year. Little Gipton Wood at the bottom of the street is carpeted with bluebells come May. They are more profuse and dazzling each year. And nearby Roundhay Park starts its season early. February sees the first vigour of its mass plantings pushing through the soil. By April it is in full shout. I love the spring drive along Princes Avenue. Through the broad open land of Soldiers Fields, where masses of crocuses, like tiny multi-coloured squaddies, stand to attention in their thousands under the avenue trees. And further up the banks, fat clumps of daffodils swell and open. The truest signal of all that a new growing season has begun. Time to get planting.
Weather, health and other preoccupations have kept me away from my little allotment for weeks. I must reluctantly admit that I am not one of those foul weather hardies. Winter is more likely to see me indoors with soup and red wine than muffled up and digging the borders. This means that by the time I get to March and April, there is still a mountain of muck spreading and seed sowing to do. But this year, I am even more mutinous.
After years of messing about with mini greenhouses, which blow over in the slightest breeze – and do not work on my shady drive anyway – I have made a radical resolution. This year I am Keeping It Simple. Far fewer seeds will be sown. Much less fuss will be made. More sitting and enjoying. Less fretting about weeds and mowing and strimming. I advise the same if you have a garden or allotment. Gardeners do too much!
“Graceful outdoor spaces”
So this is the plan. For the allotment, some potatoes (early ones to avoid the risk of blight). Broad beans – dwarf varieties stand up better. Onions and tomatoes – cherries taste sweeter and the plants get less enormous. Plus a scattering of lettuce for summer in my tiny raised beds. That’s it. As for carrots, peas and most of the brassicas – I admit defeat. There are plenty of generous allotmenteers who are better at growing those than me, and who usually have a glut.
I shall receive their gifts with gratitude – and maybe the occasional beer to keep them happy. It has taken me five years, on my heavy clay plot, to realise my limitations. I make graceful outdoor spaces. I have a visual eye and a feel for sculptural planting. But I am not so prolific with the vegetables. Not a farmer. A gardener. As for my own back garden – there will be more poppies and ferns and hardy geraniums. Plus a little apple tree to complement the flowering cherry, and to provide my greedy blackbirds with some scrumptious sour red fruit, come the autumn.
“Start them off in pots”
Here is my advice this spring. If you are new to the garden. Simplicity. Architectural plants (like phormium and the non-invasive bamboos) for shape. Shrubs and perennials for no-fuss colour and performance (roses, honeysuckle, purple cotinus and fragrant jasmine). A few cherry tomatoes in hanging baskets. Start them off in pots on the window ledge any time throughout the spring months – and maybe some lettuce leaves in window boxes or grow bags. But beware the slugs – get the organic pellets and blitz the buggers.
One thing I would never be without, in garden, on the allotment, or just on the window ledge, is pots and pots of herbs. A big planter with rosemary and sage, parsley and chive, by the back door – it looks good and tastes better. You can grow basil from seed reasonably easily, but it is best kept indoors. It’s Mediterranean and temperamental. It thrives in the sun, shrivels in the wind and rain.
I know the feeling. Let’s look forward to a warm, balmy summer – and take in the best of spring, along the way.
“A Handful of Earth” by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray