Get ready for spring: A step-by-step guide to horticultural happiness

The last days of winter are hard on your garden, but now's the time to prepare for warmer months ahead.
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The Independent Online

With any luck by the time of reading this the sun will have poked through the clouds. The rain will have stopped, for a few moments. And thoughts will have turned, if not to spring, then at the very least to the possibility of its arrival. Some of you will have looked out of the window at the garden – rather than actually going out there – and realised that it is a little more than a soggy, overgrown mess with a few green shoots struggling to poke through. It's time to get the gloves on and sort it out. But where to start?

Tidying away

Jenny Bowden, a horticultural advisor with the RHS, says: "The first thing you need to do is to get out there and see what is going on. Start by clearing away all the dead leaves. But by all means leave some undisturbed in corners as that is good for wildlife and you can move some of the leaves you have cleared to the flower beds where they will rot down and improve the soil – at the back of the borders for example where they are not in the way."

So don't panic, it's not necessarily a bad thing if you didn't clear up last autumn. But Bowden says that at the very least make sure you clear them off the plants or they might rot.

Gather all your dead leaves into black bin liners and they will eventually rot down into compost. Simply punch a couple of holes in the bag and make sure it's a bit damp and then stick it in a quiet spot and forget about it.

Bowden says: "Don't be in a hurry – oak leaves for example can take a year to rot so it's a slow process. If you really can't wait you can buy a compost accelerator to speed it up."

Once you have done that, and assuming you haven't got a bin bag of last year's dead leaves, she advises a trip to your local farm. "The garden borders would appreciate a mulch of well rotted farmyard manure. Spread a layer on the surface of the soil about 7-10cm deep around all the plants which the worms will take down into the earth and it will improve the soil structure."

A word about compost

The stuff that you put in your flower pots and window baskets will be very expensive for a large area, says Bowden. You need soil conditioner and some more manure. Blended stable manure and composted bark is perfect but do not buy multi-purpose compost as it's so expensive. Look out for bagged topsoil which will be much cheaper and see that it has ten per cent manure.

Grow your own

The ever-present fear of a double dip recession. coupled with rising food prices, have seen many of us turn to the veg patch in a bid to save money. Sales of seeds are increasing year on year and the industry is now worth some £60m annually. Suttons sell seeds for both flowers and vegetables and say that the latter now make up 70 per cent of sales, compared with 40 per cent five years ago. The company's home page is now full of food seeds with flowers coming in half way down. But if, like many people, the wait for an allotment is around 20 years in your area, it's time to look to your own garden for inspiration.

First of all, you can grow plenty of things on a balcony or window box if you plan it carefully. Take advice from the method below and adapt it to the space you have.

Square foot gardening

The idea came from the US about 20 years ago and has been hugely successful. There's even room for flowers. Basically you divide your area into square feet with a different crop in each part. Make sure they are all close together and as soon as one is finished plant a new one. It sounds obvious but for more information visit ww.gardenorganic.org.uk.

Preparing your vegetable patch

It doesn't matter if it's a full-size allotment or a pocket handkerchief of land, nothing will grow if you don't prepare it properly and that means weeding. "Bindweed will keep coming back so if you are taking the organic route then you will just need to keep digging it out," warns Bowden. "If you are using weedkiller then make sure it's systematic – meaning it will go through the roots.

"Raised beds are a good idea. They are less backbreaking, you can buy a kit to build them and you can put in a semi -permanent membrane and some pebbles to stop the weeds coming up through the bottom.

What to grow

Among the easiest vegetables to grow, that you can sow directly outside in mid-March, are broad beans, peas, radishes, rocket, dill, chervil, lettuce, spinach and chard. Try Chard Bright Lights which have yellow, orange, purple or white stems and will brighten up the garden as well as the plate.

Avoid feast or famine situations by sowing little and often; as one batch germinates simply sow the next.

To get started have a look at the RHS Grow Your Own web pages: www.rhs.org.uk.

What about the flowers?

If you want to fill the deck or patio with tubs you will need to put some broken plates in the bottom to help with drainage. If you haven't been to a Greek restaurant lately, then broken polystyrene packing or pebbles will do fine. This is where the multi-purpose compost comes in. Then choose from the annual bedding plants which include primulas, primroses and cyclamen. You can buy a whole tray from the garden centre (often in a polystyrene tray) and dot them about the garden.

Mix violas in with your shrubs and grasses. And remember that evergreens will add some instant interest and when they get too big for the pots, you can transplant them to the borders.

Clematis grow very fast but do need pruning. Visit the RHS website for tips on how to do this but remember that Bowden says there are very few things that die from being pruned. "If you prune after the plant has flowered you are unlikely to kill it and afterwards you are giving it time to grow."

Use the walls

If you haven't got much horizontal space then why not go up? Living walls have been seen in urban environments for a while now – the US store Anthropologie created one in its London store in Regent Street, there is one at the Atocha station in Madrid and let's not forget the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Many gardening companies are cottoning on to this idea and you can buy the pouches to fix on to walls fairly easily. Burgon and Ball (www.burgonandball.com) sell Verti-Plants, a two-pack set of planters that will take 16 plants in two pockets, the top of which has drainage holes for the plants belowwith the bottom sealed to stop leaks. Just screw to the wall and plant. They cost £9.95.

Angus Cunningham of Scotscape, says: "They are perfect for the basement flat which looks out at an expanse of wall. But they do take some maintaining and are probably best suited to the keen gardener. Having said that they do provide a real wow factor."

Scotscape will install a fully irrigated living wall from around £500 per square metre and visit twice a year for maintenance.

Don't forget the furniture

There's no point planting all that food and flowers if there's nowhere to sit and admire your handiwork. It's early to be buying furniture, but a look that has been gathering momentum quietly is the idea of the outdoor sitting room.

We've all heard about bringing the outdoors in with big glass doors to blur the boundaries but this is about reversing that look and taking the sitting room into the garden. At a trade show in Germany last September, the jury loved Modena by Garden Impressions and Cloud by Gloster – a waterproof sofa and table set. It was a recurring theme on their list: "the lounge outside". Ikea has adopted this idea with its solar-powered outdoor table and pendant lamps for around £25. Or visit keslighting.co.uk for a selection of outdoor lamps from the Eglo Cuba range, for around £40.

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