Importance of preparing your soil
This is the time of year when a lot of people start to think about tidying and titivating their gardens, the sun comes out, the evenings are longer and it's all hands on deck.
I would suggest that a lot of this work would be better carried out as part of a winter clean up before December. There are a couple of reasons for this, one is that a tidy winter garden has a charm of its own and sets the tone for the time of year but also that old leaves and garden waste are a perfect habitat for fungus spores, weevils, slug eggs and other garden pests to over-winter amongst.
There is a need to do a secondary tidy around now but this should require little effort if the winter work is done and at this time of year there's enough to keep you busy out there without having to do a major tidy up.
There are not many days in the year that I don't do a circuit of the garden making mental notes of things I see that need to be done. Most of this winter involved squelching around in muddy rubber boots, but I'm glad to say that after the improvement in the weather the work boots are back on and the wellies are relegated to the store room, hopefully there to stay. Doing the circuit now reveals that there is no shortage of work or interest at the moment.
Borders can be lightly forked to relieve winter compaction. Fertilizers, I use a slow release fertiliser, and mulches, I use a fine grade bark mulch at least 60mm deep, can now be applied.
If the soil is workable, vegetable areas can be dug over incorporating manure and fertilizers, I like to do the vegetable plot digging incorporating manure in early winter if possible this allows any frost to break up the soil a little. Then I lightly dig in some fertiliser now.
You can check over existing plants, particularly Agapanthus [African lily], Phormiums [New Zeland Flax] Libertias [New Zeland Iris] and other evergreen perennials as most will have some leaf dieback having over wintered.
Don't be tempted to start cutting back shrubs, in particular the spring and early summer flowerers, like Philadelphia [Mock Orange], Cistus [Rock Rose] and Weigelas as you will be removing this year's flowering wood and be left with foliage only for this year or maybe a few flowers in late summer if it's a good one. As a rule of thumb most shrubs should be pruned after flowering, but only if necessary.
The deciduous perennials and grasses are erupting from the ground, Stipa tenuissima, a feathery soft grass, is looking like a sailors crew cut while Irises and Hemerocallis [Daylily] bear a more spiky resemblance to the Punk era. These plants are now showing off an often overlooked beauty with a verdant lushness that screams spring.
Two flowering plants that also fit into that category at the moment are Helleborus foetidus [stinking hellebore- don't be put off] 40cms high, grows in sun or shade in moist but well drained soil and Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea' [Wood Spurge] 40cms high, grows almost anywhere even dry shade once established. Both have vivid green bracts and attractive evergreen foliage.
Another lovely little common plant that is in flower at present is Iberis sempervirens [Candytuft] that for me seems happy in all aspects and soils. It forms a low sprawling mass of white flowers that are long lasting.
Now is also a popular time for planting. Be sure to spend some time getting your soil well prepared. When I was at college some years ago the soil science class was not at the top of most students' favourites list, we all wanted to design, build and work with plants. Our aptly named lecturer, Mr Clay to his eternal credit after 20 years teaching still had the good nature to humour us in our adolescent sniggering, had his work cut out to hold our attention.
It was only later in a working environment it dawned on me how important the conditioning of soil was. I would recommend that you try to create a growing space that will allow the new plant two good years of root growth. This means making a planting hole 20cms deeper than the pot size and 20cms wider on each side. With the excavated soil, mix a bucket of well rotted organic matter or compost and a hand full of a slow release fertiliser and back fill to plant.
This is important for all planting but particularly in difficult situations like dry shade or irredeemable clay. By allowing a plant these two good growing years in which to establish you will have a much better chance of producing a strong healthy plant for years to come.