The soil is awake so get going in the garden

From salads to sweet pea: here are five gardening projects for spring

 

Spring, they say, is the time for new beginnings, and nowhere more so than in the garden. So if you’re in need of some inspiration, here are some ideas to get you going.

Let’s start with the recent consternation over lettuce shortages (some would say ridiculous brouhaha), and make 2017 the year that you grow a range of delicious, seasonal salad leaves. Not just lettuce, but lots of other tasty salad leaves and oriental greens such as pak choi, mizuna, bekana, komatsuna, choy sum and mispoona (a hybrid of tatsoi and mizuna).

Seed of all of these can be sourced online from brilliant UK-based specialist suppliers The Real Seed Catalogue, for sowing between February and late spring.

The same supplier also supplies seed of many fabulous and unusual lettuce varieties, including one of my favourites, Mortons Secret Mix, a smorgasbord of tasty and unusually colourful cultivars from the celebrated Oregon-based plant breeders, Frank and Karen Morton.

You could also try the hardy Asolo Lettuce Mix or the Super Hardy Winter Salad Mix, both from Sarah Raven (sarahraven.com). Succession-sow under cover (no bottom heat) to transplant into the garden or a window-box or tub, or to grow on under cover in a glasshouse or polytunnel. Never again will you need to worry about weather conditions in the south of Spain.

DIY project

How about a little DIY garden project to get your teeth into? West Cork-based gardener Joyce Russell, already a well-known name to many Irish gardeners because of her book on polytunnel growing, has just brought out an excellent new book called Build A Better Vegetable Garden.

Very generously illustrated with photographs by her husband Ben Russell, it features a series of step-by-step practical guides to building a host of useful garden structures from mini-greenhouses, covered hotbeds and slug-proof salad trays to raised beds, decorative obelisks and boot scrapers. (Frances Lincoln, £16.99).

Next, let’s sort out that smelly excuse for a compost heap. Are you one of the many gardeners who dreads the backbreaking chore of turning it, or simply hates having to wait for vegetable waste to rot down?

In that case, the answer to your problem is the Hotbin, the ingeniously designed, award-winning compost bin that can turn household waste into compost in as little as 30 days with no need for turning and which is effective even during the winter months (see hotbincomposting.com). So no more worrying about nasty smells, rodents or sore backs – just a year-round supply of wonderfully soil-enriching, homemade garden compost.

Compost bins

Up until recently, it was impossible to buy this product in Ireland, but Sligo-based suppliers Quickcrop have just acquired distribution rights. This innovative piece of equipment doesn’t come cheap, (€245 plus delivery), but then we are talking about the Rolls-Royce of compost bins. Quickcrop also sell the Joraform range of compost tumbler bins, which are also excellent.

With all that ready supply of garden compost to hand, you can now easily grow brilliant sweet pea – the deliciously perfumed climbing annual that is a mainstay of the summer flower garden.

Now is a great time to sow seed, which is available from all good Irish garden centres as well as specialist online suppliers such as UK-based Owl Acres (owlacresseed.co.uk). To speed up germination, put the seed in a small, sealed plastic box lined with wet tissue paper and place in a warm room. Once you see signs of germination (emerging roots/shoots), gently transplant the individual seeds (about 1-2cm deep) into small pots or root liners filled with a good quality seed compost and place these somewhere bright but cool, ideally in an unheated glasshouse or cold frame. Remember that mice love to eat sweet pea seed, so cover the pots with a fine-grade netting until the shoots properly emerge above ground.

To encourage strong, bushy plants, nip out the growing tip once the seedlings have produced three sets of leaves. Your young sweet pea plants can then be transplanted outdoors in April (they’re surprisingly frost-resistant) to bloom in July. Sweet pea plants need full sun, a fertile soil and tall, sturdy support so this is where those obelisks I mentioned earlier would also come in handy.

Lovely as they are, sweet pea plants are short-lived annuals that complete their growing cycle within a year and die with the first harsh frost. So, if you are looking for a more permanent planting solution for that decorative garden obelisk, or a way to cloak a pergola or screen an ugly wall or garden shed, then early spring is also an excellent time to plant clematis and climbing roses.

Of the former, I heartily recommend the hardy, long-flowering, undemanding and ultra-versatile viticella-group of clematis, including classic varieties such as ‘Etoile Violette’ and ‘Purpurea Plena Elegans’, which will give you weeks of late summer colour.

To extend the display, pair your clematis with a climbing rose such as the yellow-flowering ‘Graham Thomas’ (climbing form), the white-flowering ‘Clare Austin’ or the pink-flowering ‘Aloha’. Clematis and roses enjoy similar growing conditions, as in full sun and a deep fertile soil, enriched (of course) with some of that lovely garden compost that you are soon going to have on tap.

This week in the garden …

If you haven’t already done so, then it is time to dig out that heated propagator, and give seed trays and pots a good scrub down in preparation for the busy sowing season ahead.

If you own a glasshouse or polytunnel, then now is also the time to gently wash down surfaces (use an organically approved cleaner and disinfectant such as Citrox), not only to clear them of dust and algae residues that would otherwise reduce the intensity of sunlight warming the structure and reaching any plants, but also to minimise the risk of pests and diseases that might be overwintering in any decayed plant material or in small crevices or folds in plastic.

February may be known as snowdrop month, but there are several other late winter and early spring flowering bulbous plants equally worthy of a spot in the garden.

One of them is the dainty, shade-loving Cyclamen coum, a diminutive but hardy little plant whose deep pink or white flowers appear above its marbled leaves at this time of year. Another is the tiny, golden-flowered winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis).

Both plants grow well in light shade, so will happily naturalise in fertile, humus-rich soils under the canopy of deciduous shrubs and trees. To see these and snowdrops flowering en-masse, pay a visit to Burtown Gardens in Co Kildare. See burtown.ie

Dates for your diary

Saturday and Sunday, February 25th-26th (10am-4pm): Hellebore Days at Mount Venus Nursery, Mutton Lane, Dublin16, celebrating the beauty of these hardy perennials which are in peak bloom at this time of year. A wide range of selections and new cultivars will also be on display andfor sale. See mountvenusnursery.com. Sunday, February 26th: Well-known Irish gardener Jimi Blake’s plantsperson courses, which he has been running at his garden, Hunting Brook, in west Wicklow since 2009, are so highly regarded that availability is often limited. His next 12-class course (€888) kicks off on Sunday, February 26th, with each subsequent class taking place on the first Sunday of every month. See huntingbrook.com for details.

Saturday, March 4th (10.30am-4.30pm): RHSI Annual Seminar with guest speakers Martin Walsh (garden designer and planthunter), Paul Smyth of Crug Garden Plants, and Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens. Standard tickets €60/student price €40. See rhsi.ie 

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