Get out and do some pruning, says Sue Whigham – but don’t be tricked into thinking the only way is up.
‘It’s the first day of March so beware with a hint of sweet spring in the air you might be tempted into thinking winter has ended only to be caught by Jack Frost, unaware’.
Last year the first week of March brought a cold snap with snow and freezing conditions. Most of us know the folkloric saying about the month: ‘In like a lion, out like a lamb – in like a lamb, out like a lion.’
It’s an unpredictable time with cold and often violent winds and despite spring officially arriving on the twentieth day of the month, the Vernal Equinox, anything can happen weather wise.
That reminds me that every year for the last twenty or so, I have watched the buds developing on the magnolia in the memorial garden of our parish church and anxiously wondered if they’ll be battered by a sharp wind or frosted or whether they’ll have a chance to flower in all their pristine beauty. I must get out more.
“It’s an unpredictable time with cold and often violent winds and anything can happen weather wise”
March can be quite a dry month too and as a result is an ideal time to finish off tidying up borders, continuing to add well-rotted compost or something similar as well as a few handfuls of Growmore to get everything growing away in April.
Native primroses are in flower this month and look wonderful growing amongst clouds of our native wood anemones, A. nemorosa. Wood anemones grow from slim little rhizomes which spread just under the leaf litter in shady places and they really confirm that spring is here. Well, almost anyway. They flower, pollinate and set seed in no time at all and then disappear into their summer dormancy as the leaf canopy above them unfurls.
The RHS Plant Finder lists about forty varieties; some of them with almost imperceptible differences from one to the other. However, a couple to look out for are A. nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’, pure white A. nemorosa ‘Vestal’ and a strange little anemone called ‘Green Fingers’ which has green petals inside its white flowers.
I always thought that A. nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’ must have been named after William Robinson but it seems not. He commends it in his seminal work The English Flower Garden, published in the late nineteenth century, but doesn’t lay claim to it. This little plant is an absolute treasure. The relatively large buds are a soft grey and open out into lilac flowers adorned with particularly showy yellow stamens.
Early March is a good time to cut back your buddleias. Traditionally this was usually done in February but if you want to cut back the old wood to a couple of buds to encourage new growth and to ensure flowering at the same time of the year that the majority of butterflies are flying, try leaving it a bit later.
The nectar of buddleias attracts about twenty species of butterfly and not for nothing is the plant known as a ‘butterfly bush’. I particularly like Buddleja davidii ‘Dartmoor’ as its dark purple flowers are so sweetly scented. There is a mature specimen in the Rose Garden at Sissinghurst which deserves a special pilgrimage as it is right by the path, is at sniffing height and every insect around is attracted to it.
It’s also a good time to cut back your golden philadelphus if you have one, not just to tidy it up or rejuvenate it, but doing this now prevents it being scorched in sunlight and especially as it is a good bright shrub to fill a shady spot. I have one tucked to the side of an ash and I tend to leave it alone – not this year though; it’s going to get the treatment. I have to say that the ash does take a lot of goodness from the soil in that area and I think that the only thing for it is to add an annual mulch in the area.
Another rather lovely garden shrub which appreciates attention in March is cotinus. With ‘Royal Purple’ or ‘Grace’ you’ll find that a hard prune will result in much larger leaves with better colour.
There’s one called C. coggygria ‘Old Fashioned’ which has actually only been on the market for a few years, its rather unique colouring with pink new growth turning to blue green foliage. Gorgeous yellow/green flowers in the spring add to the drama. What a lovely backdrop for a border. I have a vision of growing a group of the hardy fuchsia, ‘Hawkshead’, with it.
Fuchsias are not everybody’s choice but they have got a lot going for them as a late flowering addition to the border. In this variety, masses of delicate tear drop shaped, white flowers have tips delicately dipped in green. You can buy these as plugs these days and get them into the border in the spring once they’ve bulked up a bit and all threat of frost is past.
Willows will be flowering now. Cut them back once flowering is over. A very interesting and ornamental shrubby willow is Salix udensis ‘Sekka’ which is a male clone. The young stems seem deformed as they are twisted and flattened but they are much loved by flower arrangers. It is native to parts of northern China and Japan where it is known as the Dragon Willow. If you prune this particular willow too hard you may just kill it, so go easy.
Willows with coloured stems react well to pruning – their new stems being richer in colour as a result. I would only pollard these every other year. Unfortunately honey fungus has got to my beautiful group of three, destroying two so far and has only been stopped from marching on by the pond thwarting its efforts to spread even further. But willows strike easily and another couple of plants are establishing themselves well away from danger, I hope.
We spotted a yellow-leaved willow at Malverleys, the garden run by Mat Reese (who used to work at Great Dixter) on a visit last year. What a show it made at the back of a huge yellow border. I see that last year Great Dixter were experimenting with it or something very like it, as a fill-in plant in the Long Border. I’m still to find out its name but will let you know when I do – or when somebody tells me.
If we ever get a piece for this garden, it will have to be well out of the way of the honey fungus. Short of spending a fortune on industrial amounts of Armillatox outdoor cleaner I think we have to live with it and grow plants that have immunity. I’m so glad to hear that smoke trees, hornbeams, box and quince are among those that can resist having their roots attacked by this species of fungi as they are all next in the line of fire.
Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and help in the sourcing and supply of interesting garden plants.
Snowdrops are always a welcome sight
Primroses and wood anemones
Pulmonaria in flower Above: A riot of early spring flowers
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