Gardening tips for spring

Gardening tips from horticulturalist Martin Howe at Wykeham Mature Plants

You don’t have to play it safe with your garden, but do your homework first

Never let conventional ‘wisdom’ suppress your freedom to be unconventional. Just because a practice or tradition may be referred to as ‘tried and tested’ it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to do things, or even that it’s necessarily the best way but rather just what people are used to. Personal experience and hands-on confidence will always win out against second hand information and, if you’re prepared to take a risk, the potential benefits can be well worth it.

An obvious example where gardening traditions can be challenged would be that of always planting potato tubers on Good Friday. Although the timing of this is in approximately the right time of year, the timing of Good Friday can vary from late March to late April so common sense should be used based on where you are and the conditions at the time; remember that we’re statistically more likely to get snow at Easter than at Christmas. This is of course a very specific example, but a more questioning and experimental approach to gardening in the wider sense can not only give surprising results but, with a sense of exploration and discovery, may also make it more fun.

When it really comes down to it, if you want to enjoy gardening on your own plot then why do everything the way that other people tell you? It’s your garden, so do it your way. If you want to grow onions the way your granddad showed you because it works and doing so reminds you of him then that’s great. But just because a book or someone on a television programme says that you should do something a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the only way to do it; in fact, they may be wrong. I know from personal experience that there are plenty of errors that slip through in gardening books, magazines and not to mention what’s floating around on the internet, and that some of these errors can circulate almost unchallenged for years, even when published by respected sources. No-one can be an ‘expert’ in everything, and gardening is such a huge subject that we, as gardeners, should seek to find our own answers as much as we can.

Young kids love to help tidy the garden, just not their bedrooms!

Of course we all need guidance from time to time, which is the reason that blogs and magazine columns such as this exist but, despite my best efforts to give advice as often as I can based on my own experience, I am just as guilty as anyone of falling into certain habits and giving advice based on my opinion. Not that this is a bad thing as it can lead to variety when more than one person’s opinion is involved – a perfect example of this would be programmes such as BBC Gardeners’ Question Time where four different horticulturalists will generally offer four different possible solutions to a question or problem. But voicing opinions can lead to a difference of opinion, which can rub people up the wrong way! For example, in the past, when writing about certain lawncare tasks, I may have briefly mentioned how much work is involved in creating and maintaining a really top quality lawn. When my wife read the article she accused me of phrasing it as if I were ‘anti lawns’. I’m not. In fact I love a well-tended lawn and hold the highest admiration for those people who achieve it. But I don’t currently put in the work needed to emulate a high class lawn, largely because I don’t really enjoy mowing very much and am much happier when digging, pruning or weeding. Therefore I mow less frequently than I should, I let clover, daisies, speedwell and other flowers colonise the lawn up to a point and reassure myself that this is ok because it is good for bees and other insects. I’ve chosen to deal with my lawn a different way. Granted, it may be a less tidy way, but it suits me and how I like to allocate what time I have available to spend in my garden, making my lawn more low maintenance.

Many years ago, when I was a horticulture student, I wrote my final dissertation about low maintenance gardening but from a more modest domestic point of view rather than simply in terms of the commercial cost of man-hours. As a part of this I carried out a survey of people’s attitudes to different gardening jobs, both in terms of the perceived amount of work involved and possible difficulty, but also in comparing these results with whether or not people enjoyed those tasks and if they had any other factors which might limit their ability to perform them. Unsurprisingly the results showed that if people didn’t enjoy the job they perceived it to be more work. If you combine this trend with any limiting factors, such as mobility or balance issues, arthritis, limited vision, limitations to access and so on, it is clear that placing a purely commercial time and costs based attitude to what might constitute ‘low maintenance’ gardening is not appropriate for most people’s experience of gardening at home. A retired person may be happy to spend many hours in the garden but may be physically unable to tackle a job of hard pruning, whereas a working mother may be content to carry out the occasional once-per-year maintenance tasks but not have the time for regular weeding or dead-heading. Therefore people should, and do, pick and choose what to do in their gardens and how to achieve it to suit themselves, but certain specific tasks are still treated with reverence. One such job often viewed as having a specific ‘right way to do it’ is pruning roses, but I could speak at length about this and how hard-pruning roses rarely makes a lot of sense scientifically as it just removes the energy reserves that the plant has built up and, if done every year, gradually weakens the plant. Trials have proven that most roses, especially shrub and floribunda varieties, perform better if cut with hedge trimmers than if meticulously pruned by secateurs the traditional way. I myself have railed against the sale of exotic plants by northern retailers in the knowledge that, without the proper information and sufficient warnings to buyers, these may well not survive a ‘proper’ northern winter, but if that information is given so that gardeners can make an informed choice for themselves who am I to stand in the way? Our nursery is in a severe frost pocket and we guarantee our stock to be fully hardy for our customers’ gardens, so it is not in our interests to sell cycads and olive trees which wouldn’t over-winter outside on our own nursery, but if a gardener can make an informed decision about different plants, based on their knowledge of the microclimate of their own garden, then they should feel free to make that gamble for themselves (and I know of at least one ‘exotic’ garden in the Leeds area for which that gamble has paid off and it is absolutely thriving!).

If something works for you in your garden, regardless of what ‘conventional wisdom’ states, stick with it – unless you choose not to. If you have a plant thriving in shade that the books say needs full sun, so what? Plants can’t read! Feel free to experiment, challenge perceptions, and most of all have fun. Don’t automatically believe what you read, whether in print or on the internet, or what you hear. Try it for yourself. Don’t do it their way, don’t do it my way, it’s your garden, so do it your way!

Things to do in the garden in April

Now that temperatures are starting to rise, if you’ve got children (or grandchildren), get them out in the garden and away from their screens. Young children love to dig, so pass some of the heavy work to them and they’ll make a game of it.

Rather than making regular applications of liquid or soluble feeds throughout the growing season, shrubs, hedges and borders can benefit from a spring feed with a balanced fertiliser such as Fish, Blood & Bonemeal or a good rose fertiliser. A second application in mid-summer should be enough for the rest of the season. After feeding, add a mulch (or top up an existing mulch) with good garden compost, composted bark or some well-rotted manure.

If concerned about Blackspot and Rust on roses, ensure that last year’s fallen leaves have been cleared away and removed before the leaf buds start to open. Preventative spraying of fungicide is always far more effective than waiting until the disease has become established and symptoms are visible, so if you’re happy to spray do so early on before the leaves emerge and again soon after – this will reduce the number of sprays necessary later on in the summer.

As growth really starts to get going don’t forget, if you haven’t started already, that trees shrubs and hedging planted less than a year ago will need regular watering until established.

Place supports in borders for herbaceous plants ready for them to grow through; this tends to be easier and look more natural (or hidden) than having to tie them in later.

Loosen tree ties to allow space for the stems to swell, but not so much as to risk the stems rubbing on the tree stake or support.

This is a good time of year to drain and clean ponds if they are in need of it before the vegetation of pond plants develops too far, but take care not to harm any wildlife in the process, such as this year’s tadpoles.

Frosts allowing, you should be able to start sowing some salad crops now, peas and runner beans, carrots, beetroot, and lots of other crops too, but keep a cloche or some fleece handy if any really hard frosts are forecast. If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to sow seeds of less hardy food crops, such as tomatoes or peppers, in pots, modules or seed trays indoors for potting up and growing on later. If you have a small garden you won’t need many plants of tomato, courgette, peppers and the like so you can save money by sharing packets of seed with friends or neighbours.

If your fence keeps blowing down in gales, consider replacing it with a hedge. Not only will it be a far more ecologically sound option, once properly established it won’t blow down and should outlive us all!

April is the month when weeds really start to get going. Keep on top of them now to save extra work later, especially the fast growing annual and ephemeral weeds, dealing with them before they get a chance to set seed.

Sow hardy annuals for extra colour later in the summer.

If necessary, you can start to prune evergreens towards the end of the month once they have begun active growth.

Continue to dead-head spring bulbs as they go over but let the leaves die back naturally. Give them a sprinkling of general fertiliser after they’ve finished flowering to help them bulk up for next year’s flowers.

Be vigilant for early population surges of aphids, slugs and snails, and other pests and act appropriately.

If you don’t already have them, start a compost bin or heap and install water butts.

Martin Howe is a professional Horticulturalist, currently working at Wykeham Mature Plants near Scarborough (, Twitter @MaturePlants), a 150 acre nursery specialising in “instant” hedging, large trees and shrubs in sizes larger than are normally available at Garden Centres.

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