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Gardeners can be seduced by mild weather at this time of the year, as the temptation is to sow seeds in open ground, even though the soil is still cold and wet. Those who succumb to the lure of a warmer day or two will lose most seeds.
Main-crop carrots, parsnips, peas, beet and potatoes can all wait until the end of next month to be sown. The gardener’s patience pays off later with strong, healthy plants the reward for delaying sowing. However, small quantities of spinach, stump-rooted carrots, hardier lettuce, (Merveille des Quatre Saisons or Rouge d’Hiver) mustard, cress and turnips can be sown now.
Peas and leeks can be sown under cover, for planting out later. If dwarf, quick-maturing peas (Earlicrop Massey or Novella) are sown at the same time as main-crop varieties, such as Greenfeast, a natural succession of crops will occur.
Although they are more resistant to rust if sown in autumn, broad beans can be sown now, as the seed will germinate at very low temperatures. Onions can still be sown, if soil conditions allow.
Hoe around spring cabbages in the garden to stir soil hardened by winter rains. When harvesting, take every second plant at the half-grown stage so those remaining have more space to mature. Autumn-planted lettuce responds well to the same treatment.
Spinach likes plenty of organic matter in the soil. When preparing the ground for this crop, work in compost at the rate of a 10-litre bucketful per sqm. Summer spinach can be sown from now on, but choose a warm spot this early in the season.
New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa), which is not a true spinach, grows best in the hottest, driest months of the year. Frost-tender, its seed should not be sown until October. The plants spread quickly, and trailing growths eventually form a clump of succulent shoots. Allow plenty of space, as each plant will grow 60cm or more in diameter. It remains ready for use until next winter’s frosts. It is recommended that New Zealand spinach always be cooked before eating.
Chrysanthemums can be grown from cuttings taken now or by splitting the plants next month and growing the rooted pieces in the open garden. For cuttings, slice stems immediately below a leaf joint with a sharp knife. Plant in sandy soil and keep sheltered for a few weeks. Propagation can be encouraged by dipping the stems in rooting hormone before putting in the soil.
Rock gardens deserve attention before spring flowering starts. Remove any dead foliage and stems, then work gritty soil into any gaps, pressing down any plants lifted by frost.
Early camellias and rhododendrons will be starting to flower, a welcome successor to small bulbs, such as snowdrops (Galanthus) and Iris reticulata.
Slugs can be a menace in spring, so check for these pests under spreading plants. Drop any found in a bucket of boiling water, the fastest and most environmentally friendly way to kill them. Add them to the compost bin.
Ground prepared in autumn for fruit-tree planting should be in perfect order for putting in young trees. They are best planted by the end of this month but if the soil is very wet, it is better to wait a week or two.
Do not let grass grow up to the stem of a fruit tree but keep an area of clear soil around the base. To prevent codlin moth (Cydua pomonella), which attacks walnuts and pears, as well as apples, a codlin moth pheromone trap that lures the male moths to its sticky pad can be used. Comfrey is sometimes grown under fruit trees and is said to reduce codlin moth. The herb is cut two or three times a year and left on the ground to rot and act as a mulch.
Apple and pear trees’ root action will suffer if drainage is poor, so check how it is by digging a circular trench, just clear of a trees’ root area. If water collects in it, dig another trench leading off it from the lowest point. Fill the entire trench with drainage material, such as broken bricks or stones, then cover the top with a thin layer of soil.
Hard pruning will encourage fresh growth in fruit trees. Cut back the main leaders to two-year or older wood. Rub off any fruit buds. Reduce the spurs, especially if stunted, by half. A few can be cut back flush with the parent branch.
Cover every cut, no matter how small, with pruning paste. This is vital to prevent disease.