Are you ready for spring?

It's time to get moving in the garden. Anna Pavord suggests a swift catch-up service
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The Independent Online
I wouldn't go so far as to say that spring has arrived, or anything soppy like that, but it sure as hell doesn't feel like winter any more. After trial by frost and a terrifying sequence of gales, the garden has suddenly changed tack. Instead of presenting me with a series of corpses, it tosses up new flowers practically every day. When last I trudged up the path over the bank - it seems like a lifetime ago - death knells were ringing all round. Now there are big clumps of Crocus tommasinianus 'Barr's Purple' poking up between the stones of the path, and tiny jabs of magenta from the snub-nosed flowers of Cyclamen coum.

These sights wind up a gardener. After a slothful winter, when even a trip to the compost heap with the potato peelings seems like a major horticultural endeavour, it is time to get moving again, to pick up the pieces from whenever it was before Christmas that being outside lost its allure.

The ground outside is still too cold and wet to encourage thoughts of planting seed. Instead I have been leafing through catalogues looking at quick-fix alternatives: young plants, mostly annuals, that you can order through the post and grow on to put out in May. Last year, I sent off for plants of the brilliant blue pimpernel Anagallis monelli, which grows wild round the Mediterranean. It's not a showy plant if you judge by the size of the flowers, but the blue is so searingly clear, it draws your eye as unerringly as the biggest sunflower.

I grew it in a pot. It is generous, with new stems springing from the base of the plant and flowers over a long period. But the best display of it I saw last summer was at Christopher Lloyd's garden, Great Dixter in Sussex. He had mixed it with bright green, curly-leaved parsley in a big pool at the front of his long border. Thompson & Morgan is offering eight young plants for pounds 10.49; last orders by 15 April, delivery from late April.

Dobies sends out plants in five sizes: seedlings, miniplants, easiplants, supaplants and pot-ready plants - the biggest (and most expensive) of all. They offer snapdragons, asters, busy lizzies, lobelias, petunias and other, more unusual, flowers such as brilliant brown and yellow gazanias, which I have just ordered. These are available as either easiplants (40 for pounds 8.25) or pot-ready plants (10 for pounds 12.35). The last order date is 12 March, for delivery early May.

So, that's the easy bit. Jobs outside require a little more effort. First of all - hellebores. If you haven't yet cut away last year's tattered leaves from around this season's new flowers, do it now. The flowers will look very much better without a ruff of aged memento mori foliage around them. You will also cut down the risk of last year's leaf spot disease being transferred to this year's growth.

And a couple of hours spent spring-cleaning among borders will do wonders for the garden's morale. At this time of the year you can pull the dead, bleached leaves of iris, such as I ochroleuca, cleanly away from clumps, where fresh leaves are already beginning to sprout.

This particular iris has tall, handsome leaves, often to 3ft, with white, beardless flowers blotched with yellow. But all irises will appreciate a little attention now. Clear away dead leaves and other debris from the tops of the rhizomes and cut withered, weathered tips from existing foliage. They will also appreciate food. They do not need anything heavily nitrogenous, but a handful of bone meal or hoof and horn will cheer them up no end.

My column, Weekend Work, will return at the beginning of April to hound you with jobs to do in the garden each week. You have a few blissful, nag-free weekends ahead. If you get behind, and start muttering rebelliously, "I bet she hasn't done that", take heart in the fact that you will probably be right. Especially if the instructions have anything to do with lawns. Or weedkiller.

For a swift catch-up service that will enable you to stand at the starting line in April unencumbered by jobs that should have been done in March, read on. Sow seeds of sweet peas, seven to a 5in pot. They germinate fast. When you are choosing seeds, remember that deep pink and salmon-coloured flowers are likely to have less scent than blue or mauve ones. If you have already sown seed, remember to pinch out the tops of young plants to encourage new side-shoots.

If you think that sending off for ready-grown annuals is cheating, and want to grow your own from seed, get going fast. Begonia, campanula, busy lizzy, lobelia and salvia all germinate best in the light, with the seed not covered with compost. Constant damp is important for busy lizzies. Cover the pots with cling film and you won't have to water them.

Growth is galloping away on herbaceous perennials such as day lilies, but clumps of polygonum, campanula, rudbeckia and helenium that you meant to split and move last autumn can still be tackled. Water the hole that each is going into, before you put in the plant. You'll lose less water by surface evaporation if you work this way round. Despite the storms that went with the recent gales, this has generally been a very dry winter and water is likely to be scarce in the coming months.

Split up large clumps of snowdrops and aconites when they have finished flowering. Replant them in small groups, in ground refreshed with bone meal or home-made compost. This is a good way of kicking "blind" snowdrops back into action.

Snip dead blooms from camellias. They will not fall on their own. This is a grave fault on the camellias' part, making them at this stage in their lives look like last week's funeral offering. Camellias flourish spectacularly in cool conservatories, where their flowers, especially the white ones, do not get spoiled by rain. When flowering has finished for the season, repot potted camellias in fresh ericaceous compost to build up plants for next year's display.

Take steps to minimise the amount of expensively filtered water you spray on to the garden this year. Fit a water butt to catch rain. Put wads of water-retaining newspaper at the bottom of the trenches where you grow sweet peas or runner beans. Newspaper will be almost as good as blotting paper at hanging on to any rain that falls over the next few months. Stick a plant pot or a length of plastic drainpipe into the ground beside any newly planted shrub or tree. Pour water into this, so that it gets straight to the roots, rather than evaporating wastefully on the surface. And mulch, mulch, mulch.

Nurse overwintered fuchsia plants back into growth by increasing the amount of water you give them. Trim them over lightly if they look scraggy. Don't keep them too warm; a temperature around 50F is plenty. At some stage check - by knocking the plant out of its pot and looking at its roots - whether you need to pot it on into a bigger container. That's it. For now ...

Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (01473 688821), Samuel Dobie & Son Ltd, Broomhill Way, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QW (01803 616888).

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