Bitter, cold, dry weather conditions have made this spring of 2013 the hardest I can remember. The countryside is barren; the buds on my Horse Chestnut tree have yet to burst into that wonderful wave of green which in my garden marks the arrival of springtime. My seedlings in the polytunnel have to be nurtured like premature babies in an incubator. I have to cover them with fleece each night. Alas the few that escaped cover suffered severe frost bite recently. Most things will recover if allowed defrost gradually in early morning: keep them out of direct sunlight until later in the day so their cells don’t collapse.
I have moved out a lot of the hardier herbs and salad vegetables including Lettuce, Mizuna, Rocket and Parsley. Regardless of this intense cold, young plants will require watering. Aim to do this before late evening to avoid chilling! Once the temperature rises by about 5 degrees and the rain softens the atmosphere, we can commence planting in earnest. Any of my herb plants on sale inside – such as the local supermarket – will already have been hardened off so just leave them outside in their pots before planting.
I just planted the first batch of early potatoes last week but still have plenty more to plant. Everything is very late this year. My three tomato varieties have failed to emerge; the first time this has ever happened so I will have to make repeat sowings. Luckily I never sow all seeds at once so losses will be minimal.
I had the unsavory task of checking for any vine weevil larvae (Otiorhyndus sulcatus) which may have over-wintered in potted plants from last season. These small white grubs with bronze heads adore munching on roots of certain plants such as Primulas and some have even formed a taste for my Mint plants. They completely devour the plant’s root system and if not manually extracted cause awful damage. I avoided physically squashing them this year and choose instead to feed them to my goldfish in the pond. Lots of protein after a difficult winter will enhance their health! If the vine weevil larvae escape detection, they mature into nasty adult beetles which attack the foliage of many shrubs in summer, creating semi circular bites along the leaf edge. One way of identifying this brownish vandal is to knock it over and watch it play dead: it is a deceptive creature. One can invest in the organic, biological control by nematodes. These are microscopic pest parasites which are mixed with water and then applied to the soil. There are well over 100 species used to control a variety of insects and pests including slugs. It is an expensive but highly effective method however the weather condition, e.g. temperature must be correct to ensure success. I have never used them, possibly preferring to indulge in my own sweet revenge of elimination or better still biodiversity!
Spring has sprinted forth with crisp, dry days however low temperatures demand caution when sowing seed. In my polytunnel the first seedlings of lettuce, rocket, broccoli and various Asian salad leaves have emerged. I have been covering them with fleece by night to give some protection. Once temperatures rise by a few degrees, I will prick them off into pots and trays. As I have often mentioned, sowing little and often is the key to a continual harvest. I use the glass and newspaper method; however adhere to whichever technique proves successful. Outside, an endless list of chores awaits me. I recently massacred a pussy willow shelter-belt, reducing its height by half. It had missed its annual clip last year and required serious pruning. I’ve had to forfeit the pretty catkins which were just developing, so delay until later if one wishes to retain these.
Pruning back fennel to ground level along with any other untidy comrades is essential. Also top-dress all plants with an organic soil enricher such as garden compost or choose a commercially produced brand of processed manure or seaweed. I like to mix a handful of granular fertilizer through this to give the plants that extra boost they need right now: this annual application works wonders! I have had to relinquish my all time favourite potato variety Home Guard for more blight resistant new-comers, such as Orla and Coleen. They are chitting (sprouting) indoors. Choose a cool, light location and position them upright in trays or egg boxes. This will give their growth a head start. I am also trying a new main-crop variety called Sarpo Mira, which I am told is fantastically blight resistant. However seeing is believing; my potatoes are always plagued, especially in recent wet summers!
The first flowers to break the bleakness in my garden are miniature daffodils, Ribes sanguingea (red flowering currant) and yellow Cytisus scorparius (common broom). The addition of a pond last year excites me with the prospect of frogs gobbling up those luring slugs. My three goldfish have survived the cold and the heron. They are slowly beginning to exercise again after their winter rest. Pond plants are still dormant except for Mentha aquatica (water mint) which modestly displays one shoot! Like all herb plants it hides a multitude of secrets, the leaves evidently make a pungent peppermint tea which will no doubt accentuate a pleasant end to a hard working day!