Breaking new ground
With the last weeks of winter merging into the first days of spring, Sue Bradley is raring to go in the garden
ising temperatures and ever-lengthening days make March a key month to get out into the garden.
Whether the month comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb or makes more subtle progress through the weeks, the warming soil means it won’t be long before shrubs and perennials will be putting on plenty of new growth and the rich colours of spring bulbs will adorn garden beds and borders.
Yet while the lowest temperatures in central and northern France will be around 2 or 3°C, there’s still a risk of frost to stop any seedlings in their tracks, so be selective as to what you sow in the potager and hold off if the weather is harsh.
Peas and broad beans are good early starters, although soak them in water overnight first if hungry mice are a problem. Early carrots, such as the classic French variety ‘Early Nantes’, can be sown directly into the ground when the soil has warmed a little, along with leeks, parsnips, spinach, Swiss chard and turnips. Don’t forget, however, that the rising temperatures will encourage snails and slugs out of their winter shelters, so put down pellets, beer traps, egg shells or whatever else you prefer to use to keep them off your tender seedlings.
Early potatoes, onion sets and shallots can be planted once the soil is no longer freezing to the touch – usually by the middle of the month.
Meanwhile, get a head start on salad crops by sowing lettuce and radish under protective cloches or in cold frames.
March is a good month to get wild flowers and annuals, such as love-in-a-mist and Nasturtium, on their way, plant summerflowering bulbs, corms and tubers such as lilies and gladioli, and to bring on sweet peas in the spot where they are to bloom.
It’s also the time to start off summer bedding plants such as busy lizzies, petunias and geraniums in a heated propagator.
Before any outside sowing or planting gets underway, however, it’s well worth taking a bit of time to prepare the ground for the year ahead. Dig in liberal amounts of compost and well-rotted manure to assist in the retention of moisture, improve soil structure and replenish lost nutrients.
However, don’t add either to beds in which you’re planning to grow root crops, which are prone to forking if the soil is too rich, or wild flowers, which by and large need a poor soil to flourish.
Pounce on any weeds as they emerge and pay special attention to perennial nuisances such as ground elder, couch grass or dandelion, unless, of course, you plan to follow the French example and harvest the leaves of dent de lion for an early and nutritious salad crop.
Mulching is an especially worthwhile job to carry out this month and will pay dividends in the way it helps to lock in moisture as temperatures rise, especially in the south of France.
March marks the turning point from the end of winter to the beginning of spring and after weeks of cold weather, the temptation to get out onto the garden is great. Be sure to resist going out onto beds and borders immediately after spells of wet weather though, as at this time of the year it’s all too easy to cause sodden soil to become compacted and less able to support plants in the months ahead. Trim lavender bushes before they start putting on spring growth.
Before any outside sowing or planting gets underway, however, it’s well worth taking a bit of time to prepare the ground for the year ahead
Cut back plants grown for their colourful stems in the winter, such as willows and dogwoods.