THE RELUCTANT GARDENER'S GUIDE

April is the cruellest month. It's not quite warm outside, but there's a niggling feeling that somethingii; ought to be done in the garden. Beginning a new series, Mary Keen offers practical advice for spring
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The Independent Online
EASTER is the time of year when reluctant gardeners begin to have that uneasy feeling that they ought to be doing something in the garden. But what? Here we offer a few simple guidelines on what to do as the spring rush approaches, and how to go about it. Gardens are much easier to manage in advance of the spring surge of growth than they are when things get fecund and out of hand; the following notes should help gardeners stay on top of events and minimise problems later. Our next seasonal gardening guide will appear at the end of May, when work starts to slow down. The last guide, at the end of the summer, should leave the garden well bedded- down for the winter.

LAWN MAINTENANCE

From now until October, all lawns will grow. Your neighbour's grass may be greener, because he or she spends money on weedkillers and fertilisers, but like them you will have to cut the stuff at least 25 times this year - in a rainy summer, more. The more you cut it, the more it grows. To keep it close mown (less than 12mm) might demand a twice-weekly cut. Reluctant gardeners should aim to leave it double that length (24mm). In places where you never sit or lie and only infrequently walk, you could get away with 7cm of growth; this should not need cutting more than once a month, depending on the season. For the first cut of the year the blades of the mower should always be set high.

The longer the grass is, the better it will cope with a drought. If you opt for the shorter length it also helps, after the first flush of spring growth, to leave the clippings on the lawn. These will help keep the moisture level up and will also nourish the ground. For this, the new American mowers that chop the grass very finely and return it as a mulch are desirable, but not really essential.

Tending a perfect lawn is among the most time-consuming of garden chores. Reluctant gardeners should forget weed and moss killers. Enjoy the daisies, digging out thistles or docks from a prone position while you watch the children or have a drink. Fertilisers are expensive and hard to apply; you can have an adequate patch of grass just by mowing and letting clippings lie.

Those making new lawns should avoid any seed with rye grass, unless it is destined for a 10-year-old's football pitch. Rye grass is hard-wearing but fast-growing and hard to cut. In places where the grass is very scuffed or threadbare, stab the ground hard and deeply with a large fork to let the air into the roots. If you can avoid walking on the bald patch for six weeks, it will be worth oversowing it with grass seed. Replacing the worn area with a square of turf is an efficient but expensive option. If you do, watering and rolling (or treading) will be vital. If you can see the gaps opening up between the squares, it is a sign that water is needed.

TIPS ON PRUNING

Pruning is the gardener's way of encouraging a plant to produce extra flowers. This means removing old wood and shortening new shoots to make them stronger. There is no need to do it if you have the space for a venerable old shrub like lilac or forsythia, and don't mind if it only produces a few blooms. The sort of all-over pudding-basin haircut that shrubs are given in public places is worse than doing nothing at all; the dead wood continues to clutter the centre of the bush and the new flowering shoots have no room to develop.

Many shrubs that flower before midsummer need to have the wood which has carried the flowers cut back. The best flowers of these next year will appear on the shoots that develop this summer. This rule applies to old favourites like lilac, philadelphus, winter jasmine, forsythia and ceanothus.

Some plants - like hydrangeas, hardy fuchsias and buddleia, as well as large- flowered late clematis - will put on enough growth in one year to flower at the end of the summer. It is worth buying a pruning guide like the RHS Wisley Handbook if you plan to grow anything not on this list, as there are exceptions. For example, viburnum and choisya, which do flower early, need minimal pruning. Lilac needs a light touch.

Shrubby herbs - among them salvia, rue, santolina and lavender - need a trim in April to encourage new growth. Rosemary will have to be pruned after flowering. Be cautious, as apart from the rue they will not break into leaf from bare wood; so only cut back to just above where the leaves are growing.

WHAT TO PLANT

Wait until all danger of frost in your area is past to settle any plants which are tender into their summer quarters. If you have managed to get the ground clean, sowing seeds is not as hard as people make out. When the soil warms up, so it does not feel cold to the touch (perhaps around St George's Day, 23 April), rake the earth backwards and forwards, tread it, then rake it again until it looks like sandy brown sugar with no lumps. Sow the seeds in patches if you like to keep the colours separate, or mix them all together for a "hundreds and thousands look".

Shirley poppies, nasturtiums, Love in a Mist, red flax, unimproved marigolds and cornflowers would be my choice. Be sparing with seed. You are aiming for a final spacing of 4in apart and you will have to thin the plants out if they come up like cress. Water with a fine hose if it does not rain for three days. If you have to thin the sowing, do it when the ground is wet.

The cheapest, most sensible but least colourful option is to choose perennials or shrubs. If you buy one plant of a kind that increases quickly, you should have ten by next summer. Hardy geraniums, campanulas, valerian and alchemilla are examples of fast spreaders. Peonies and delphiniums will barely double in size. Shrubs like buddleia and lavatera will grow as much as 1m in a summer. Roses will only grow and flower a little, but next year they should be terrific.

ALL ABOUT MULCHING

Mulching with compost now, around established plants, will almost reduce the need to weed and water throughout the summer. A layer of grass mowings (if they are not being left on the lawn) is cheaper than buying soil conditioner, but looks less agreeable. Cocoa shells or finely chopped bark are useful, but for large areas prohibitively expensive. Whatever you choose, make it 10cm deep. If it starts to look thin as the season progresses, top it up with more.

Hoeing, which means stirring the soil just below the surface, provides a dust mulch and costs nothing but effort. It has to be done every ten days to keep the soil clean. If you want plants to thrive, they have to be kept weed-free, otherwise they suffer from the competition. Even the worst weeds will give up after a summer of repeated hoeing, but if they have established themselves in the roots of existing plants, they will never be completely routed, as they can always regroup from their safe retreat.

If this is the problem, a heavy mulch around shrubs can help draw some of their roots to the surface, but with persistent creepers like ground elder or bindweed, poisoning or complete digging out is usually the only answer.

FEEDING AND WATERING

New plants, especially large ones, will need some encouragement if they are to grow well. Anything you buy in a pot and transfer to the garden will perform better if you give it a good start. This means digging a hole twice the size of the pot, or more, if you can face it.

When the hole is made and the soil piled to one side, fork some Blood Fish and Bone fertiliser into the earth at the bottom. If you have invested in compost, put some of that in too. Then put a little of the earth back, so the plant will not be buried too deep. Put the plant in and tuck the rest of the soil and some more compost or mulch around it.

Watering with Maxicrop (the seaweed fertiliser) in the evening, about once a week, would be doing it proud. Plants love to be fed through their leaves. But a sprinkling of Vitax Q4 around the plant is almost as good, and you only need do this every six weeks until August. In a dry summer, new shrubs and trees will need watering. It is better to give them three cans each, once a fortnight, than one can a week.

All watering should be done when the sun goes down. If you have decided to mulch, push this back to water, then pull it over the damp soil again. This helps to keep the ground moist. !

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