It’s 6am and a definite hint of frost hangs in the air, the weight of it causing fresh green plants to hunch over in seeking protection. It might be the middle of May, but the risk of frost lingers until the end of the month……so be warned! Gardeners (in general) are well tuned to the seasonal variety of the British weather in a ‘suncream on Friday, waterproofs the following Monday’ sort of way. Our friend and foe, with infinite changes and challenges. Sunlit early mornings and crashing winds of damage, oh, and rain. Usually lots of Rossendale rain. This week; how to make your garden work whatever the weather.
Check the daily weather forecast for frost, particularly if you have planted out peas, beans, tomatoes, summer bedding plants and annuals; they will all need a little protection from a cloche or horticultural fleece. Happily most of the garden will be unfazed by the impertinent drop in temperature this week, although some blossoms or very young leaves may sustain a touch of brown scorch damage around their edges. If you prune back to the next unaffected leaf or branch node, removing the damaged section, then the plant will recover over the summer months. Damaged fruit tree blossoms however mean that subsequent fruits will be affected for this year.
Avoid planting Camellias or Magnolias with their flowers facing the early morning sun as they will thaw too rapidly following a frost, which results in extensive damage. Leaving some of last year’s growth on plants like penstemon or hydrangea will help protect this year’s new leaves from frost. Mulch and feed any plants you have pruned following damage to give them a boost.
If your plants are in containers and are sheltered during the hard frosts and snow of Winter (freezing and thawing of their root systems can inflict a lot of damage) you may think about unwrapping their hessian or fleece coverings and moving them into position in the garden by the end of the month.
The Wet and the Dry
There hasn’t been much rain since the storms and subsequent floods in February, but careful what you wish for, so no complaints.
In terms of planting, there are enough hardy shrubs and perennials to keep Northern gardeners happy no matter how much it rains. Roses, Ribes, Pulmonaria, Bergenia and Azaleas thrive in our heavy clay soil, but the Mediteranean lavender and thyme will turn up their roots and die if sat in cold wet clay all winter long.
You can work with your soil in Spring and Autumn to improve drainage by adding organic matter plus grit into planting holes, but essentially the local clay retains moisture in the cold, then dries and cracks into powdery lumps come Summertime. The answer really is compost, manure, mulch and dig (repeat and repeat). Interestingly, learning to follow my own advice took a good ten years before I finally accepted that a Beth Chatto style gravel garden was never going to work in Rawtenstall. The lavender thus moved into large, well drained containers, and I turned my attention back to aquilegia, foxgloves and nigella in the borders.
During dry spells like the past few weeks, we know to water in the early morning, or later in the day when the sun is going down, thereby making the best use of water resources away from the heat of the day. Containers and hanging baskets require a huge amount of hydration, and it’s well worth saving washing up water to reuse. Water butts collect rain from greenhouse guttering, and are easy to install. At this time of year, apart from baskets and planters, only newly planted specimens in the ground should require extra water.
Well established trees, shrubs and flowers are extremely self-sufficient in sourcing ground moisture and will only require extra during prolonged drought. If you are not quite sure, dig a spade depth and feel the soil before you water. Remember that a light sprinkle only encourages shallow root growth rather than the deeper root system needed for stability and health, so it’s better to spend time heavily soaking specimens at the base of the plant, rather than wafting the hosepipe in the general direction of the flowers.
Finally, the dreaded breeze that mischievously flattens your delphiniums and whips down the blossom before you’re ready to stop appreciating it.
It scorches young plants if they aren’t sufficiently hardened off, and ruins many a favorite fruit tree. Such is gardening….there is always something to repair or replant. Make certain climbing plants are tied in, stake your taller specimens and consider planting a windbreak hedge! Whatever the weather brings this week, enjoy your garden.