1 March 2024

Head Gardeners’ tips
March 2024

Matthew Lee - Head Gardener, Northern Ireland

Can you feel it? That buzz and excitement in the air, that urge to stay outside a little bit longer, to explore the forgotten garden of winter and start dusting off those seed trays.

To become once again inspired, nurtured and motivated by the great outdoors in a way that only the first signs of spring growth can induce.

I for one have been in hibernation mode and at most a caretaker of the garden over the past few months. Gardening jobs have involved pruning, mulching, tidying, cleaning and most importantly planning, but now it is time, time to go from zero to one hundred and start replacing every completed job with another three to be done. March is one of the busiest months in the gardening calendar and for me the only one that gives me genuine goosebumps.

I crave the sun more now than any other time of the year. Its warmth feels more comforting, rejuvenating and grounding.  I want it not just for myself, but for every living thing in the garden to start waking it up and spurring it on to tackle and relish another year. I sit in my garden office and I notice as patients are no longer darting from the ward to the garden room with clenched teeth and hunched shoulders. They have started taking a little bit longer, even stopping along the way as they notice a new flower appearing, or hear an early bee buzzing about the foliage, or even just stopping and turning their head up towards the sun. They visibly relax and the sun reminds their muscles to release their tension, and they take longer, deeper breaths. Then a cold wind cuts down the garden and they remember it is still only March, it’s still only 3 degrees outside, and they move on to the comfort and consistent warmth of the garden room. I too am then reminded not to get too carried away and start to move some tasks back down the list as I remember the snow we had last March.

Although March is a time to be cautious of the weather, there is more than enough to keep you busy.

  • Start with a spring clean – if you haven’t done so already, start with a bit of a tidy up. Clean the greenhouse inside and out, start pressure washing paths, clean pots and seed trays and sort out those old seed packets. You will need to clear space for the one hundred tomato seedlings you will no doubt have and be reluctant to discard, even though you will most likely only see two or three through to fruiting. This doesn’t have to be in a green house, as every bright windowsill, conservatory and garage gets transformed into a temporary nursery for the next few months.
  • Sow, sow, sow – Now that you have got yourself organised and cleared some space it’s time to sow some seeds. You may have seen an abundance of Instagram gardeners showing you their lush, root filled pots of seedlings sown in February. Don’t be put off! Yes there are seeds you can sow in February, but things grow much faster in March and what you sow now will not be too far behind. There are many ways of sowing seeds, and many receptacles for sowing them in, but regardless of what you choose just remember these handy tips: light, water and airflow. Check whether your seed needs light or dark to germinate (if it doesn’t tell you on the packet, give it a Google). If it needs light, keep the seed at the top on the soil and cover with a fine layer of vermiculite. If it needs dark, cover with a layer of compost and then cover with some of the plastic from the compost bag, checking every day until you see signs of germination. Next up is water. I tend to water all my seedlings from below, soaking them in a tray of water or in the sink, allowing them to soak up just enough water to dampen the soil fully before leaving them to drain. I will then ensure the seeds don’t dry out by spritzing them with water if I see the top of the compost start to dry out. Overhead watering can either push the seeds too deep into the compost or wash all the seeds into one corner of the tray. The last tip, but almost the most important, is airflow. This is important to prevent a fungal disease called damping off, which is recognisable as your seedlings start to drop or collapse as if eaten at the base. Pay particular attention to any seedlings started in mini propagators, lifting the lid off every day and wiping down the inside with a dry cloth.
  • Plant some spuds – I only ever plant second early potatoes, as I’m either too disorganised to get first earlies in on time, or too impatient to wait for maincrop potatoes. Also, I always plant and harvest on exactly the same dates every year. Some gardeners may argue with this method, but for me, it works every time. Start chitting some second early seed potatoes at the start of March by placing them somewhere warm and light. They should then produce shoots around 1-2cm long. Then plant the potatoes on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, either straight into the ground or, as I do, into as big a container as you can find (this can be an old sack, planter or even a bin). Plant in just over a foot of compost, making sure you have plenty of room to earth them up as they grow. This involves covering the new shoots completely every time they get about 2cm high until you reach the top of the container, or there’s about a foot and a half of soil covering the potatoes. Then just keep them watered and leave them be before harvesting on the 12th of July. It’s as simple as that.
  • Other jobs for March include starting to cut the grass, potting on dahlia tubers and other summer bulbs, planting snowdrops ‘in the green’, continuing to feed the birds, starting weeding, and availing your last chance to buy and plant bare root roses.

So now I leave you with a list of jobs, and the knowledge that things are on the up. We have all made it through another winter, and like our gardens we have built more resilience, gathered more knowledge and matured beautifully.

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