By Patricia Jordan
I feel that my garden has had enough rain for now and I hope for more sunny days when I can work out there amongst my favourite plants. March can be a very windy month with cold nights still and I wouldn’t dream of planting any delicate plants just yet. All the rhymes and sayings about this month refer to it as a windy month – ‘March comes in like a lion….’ and March Winds and April Showers… but it is the start of spring when we can look forward to better weather, warmer temperatures and lengthening days. It is always exciting to watch new plants put on growth and wait for old favourites to pop up through the earth! All the hard work of pruning and dividing up plants will pay dividends now. As the sap rises, leaf buds swell and flowers burst out of their sepals.
Any drop of sunshine will have encouraged weeds to pop up everywhere given half a chance, even if you have been digging them out often, so dispose of them as soon as you spot them. With all the winter rain we had slugs and snails will re-awaken. Plants that have lots of foliage like canna lilies and acanthus have enjoyed all the rain and their luscious foliage is ripe for any passing snail to light upon!
Iris albicans, one of the first of the irises to flower each season, is grown from rhizomes and not bulbs. The delicate white flowers with golden throats were first discovered in Arabia around Moslem graves. Following them come the tall, slender blue irises, Iris germanica, which just love our growing conditions here. They are best planted in full sun at the back of a border or in the centre of an all-round bed giving height and interest there.
The earliest of the spring bulbs are over now and need to have their dead flowers and seed heads removed, so that they can form the flower bud for next season, but there are plenty more to take their place in the flower beds and pots.
WHAT TO DO IN YOUR GARDEN IN MARCH
There are lots of jobs to be getting on with this month, including regular feeding of roses and other flowers. There are various rose foods on the market and roses need a fertiliser along the lines of 12.11.18, which you can also use for irises. Fertilisers are available in a soluble form which can be watered on, or in granules that you fork in around the roots. For potted plants, Phostrogen is a good all-round feed, and a capful in 10 litres of water will feed several pots.
Annual plants, those that last only one season, like poppies, nigella, cerinthe and cosmos are usually grown in drifts and do not like to be moved once they are above ground, so by thinning them out as they appear you will give the remainder space to develop. Take care when sowing annual seeds as they may rot off in the very damp conditions we have endured this winter and you would have to begin again. Big seeds like sunflowers can be sown in pots and then transferred to the garden later. They are much loved by bees, which will swarm all over the huge flower heads. If you want really large-headed sun flowers then try Russian Giants, which will surprise you.
South African plants come to the fore now and you will find that lots of osteospermums, in some places known as Cape Marigolds, will be sharing their gorgeous colours all around the garden, as they are such prolific seeders! The plants can become woody after a while and may need to be removed, but there are always new seedlings to take their place. Clumps of chasmanthe, usually found in older gardens and also from South Africa, have been sending up tall leaves since early winter and may need some staking against the March winds. The delicate orange bells will be dangling from the tall stems before too long. These plants grow easily from ripe seeds, but you may have to wait a while for the new plants to flower. Or you can dig up the corms after the leaves have died down and you may find that you have several new corms to share with friends. You may mistake this plant as monbretia or crocosmia and indeed it is a distant relative, but the difference is that the flowers appear in early spring instead of late summer. Other ‘incomers’ from there like Aloes ferox and vera will be sending up tall stems topped by orange, red or in the case of Aloe vera, bright lemon flowers. These are very worthwhile plants to have around, as the juice from insides their stems is ideal for soothing burns and scalds. Some Aloe ferox have branching flower stems and are known as ‘candelabra’ aloes.
The bright orange flowers of Pyrostegia are mingling amongst the blue potato vine in my driveway, making quite a statement. This vine originally from Brazil can be very vigorous so take care where you plant it. As the last of the winter jasmine flowers droop and fall, then this is the time to tidy it up. This most attractive shrub can spread very fast and take up a lot of room so by regularly trimming at this time you can curtail its growth somewhat.
Echium webbi, one of my favourite shrubs can look quite dead by the end of the summer and indeed some stems do die back during the winter, but don’t be hasty to cut them off, as they often sprout new leaves right on the stem tips and their brilliant blue flowers attract bees and Red Admiral butterflies in their hordes. Unfortunately, these shrubs are short-lived, demising after about 5 or 6 years, but cuttings are very easy to take. Just cut a piece of ‘green’ stem and push it into the earth beneath the bush and it should make roots before too long.
You should be able to pot on any cuttings that you have over-wintered from now on, but keep them in a sheltered spot until they have settled into their new pots as nights can still be cool this month! The garden centres are full of plugs of salads and other veggies now and there is no shame in not growing them from seed yourself, when the growers have done all the hard work for you. The season between sowing the seeds and them growing large enough to be able to prick them out is so short here, that I have found that buying plugs is a better way of ensuring that they come to harvest. Although wait a little while longer before you plant out sweet corn as they do not like cold night temperatures and remember to grow them in squares, as they are wind pollinated. Some veggies though have to be sown like beetroot, celery, peas and beans, the last two prefer to have deep soil in which to thrive. Broad beans should have been sown earlier, but it is not too late and you will just have their flavoursome beans a little later.
Your fruit trees do not need feeding this month, May is the next time, but pecans and figs may need a dose of zinc chelate now. The dosage is 2 dessertspoons in 10 litres of water, watered into the ground about 30cm away from the trunk. Keep watching out for greenflies, black flies and brown flies on any new foliage. Spray with a soapy solution or run your fingers up and down the stems to get rid of them. Roses, as you know, also suffer from greenfly and the same remedy can be used for them but watch out for the thorns!
PLANT OF THE MONTH – Iris xiphium
This pretty iris is commonly known in other parts as the ‘Spanish Iris’, as that is where it was originally found growing, as well as in Portugal. In Cyprus it is usually referred to as the ‘Dutch’ iris, probably because the bulbs are imported from Holland.
Iris xiphium, whose foliage has been above ground for quite some time, has tall slender leaves (around 80cm) which appear well ahead of the flower stems usually during our late winter here. The flower stems growing to around 60cs, will shortly be topped with white, light blue, mauve or yellow flowers with petals of around 8cm.
This iris is grown from a bulb unlike albicans and germanica, both of which grow from rhizomes. This perennial will form a clump over time, preferring to be planted in a well-drained flower bed in light soil and away from windy spots, which may blow the tender stems over.
‘Dutch’ irises are often for sale as cut flowers in florist shops, but be sure to buy them with the flowers unopened or they will not last as long as those in the garden.