GARDENING NOTES FOR MARCH – ORGANIC METHODS
with Gill Williams
Am I an organic gardener? An honest answer is “partly”. I believe in trying to do without chemical aids in the garden and have turned to using natural fertilisers and compost and to employing organic gardening techniques for controlling pests where possible. However, I also use chemical methods where necessary.
Organic methods of disposing of weeds are to use various mulches (from old carpet and black bags to garden compost, bark or dead leaves) to prevent growth. Plants need air and light to develop properly and blocking them out stunts their growth. Grass clippings are very useful too, provided there are not too many seed heads included. The ground should be inspected regularly and any flowering plants removed before they set seed.
One particular enemy here in the Pyrenées Orientales which we do not encounter in the British Isles is oxalis (known locally as trèfles or trefoils). Glyphosate helps but the only manual method which I have found to succeed is to wait till they flower, then use a trowel to remove flower, leaves, bulbils and tap root. At this point the bulbils are still well attached to the root and all will come out together. So I am combining organic and chemical methods of control.
Again, dealing organically with pests is worthwhile. Slugs should be picked up and dropped in a jar of beer. Colorado beetle needs a specific product for doryphores, although the grubs can receive the beer treatment. Aphids respond well to soapy water, but to be organic use real soap.
Some pests and fungi must be controlled chemically and the use of Bordeaux mixture (bouillie bordelaise) and sulphur sprays is mandatory for fruit trees and vines.
Companion planting is most useful and nowadays seeds such as potatoes are often sold with a small packet of the appropriate companion plant to protect the plant, such as marigolds for tomatoes, or to discourage the pest such as onions or chives for carrots.
Another aspect of companion planting is that some plants do better together. For example, onions do better planted with salad vegetable and strawberries, but not with beans and peas.
Before you plant you must prepare the soil, and feed it to keep it healthy. Mr C H Middleton in his useful book “Digging for Victory” (Autum 2008) says that “to use nothing but fertilisers in the garden year after year is rather like trying to live on tonics and tablets.”
Farmyard manure is the best for preparing and feeding the soil provided you let it mature in a heap, which gives you a good place to grow marrows. I confess I prefer to buy my animal manure in pellet form and to provide vegetable matter by using well-rotted compost.
Garden compost is easy to prepare – a bucket, black plastic bags full of weeds with slits in the side, or a proper compost heap made by driving four stakes in the ground and wrapping chicken wire around them will all produce compost.
To compost we can add the other nutrients which plants need. Less is often more. The quickest way to spoil a garden is to over feed it. Too much fertiliser produces leggy mushy plants. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth and can be obtained from dried blood, fish and bone meal, pellets or animal manures.. Potassium/potash is most readily produced from wood ash and promotes disease resistance, colour and flavour. Spread it around fruit trees. Phosphorus/phosphate comes from old bones but is best bought in a bottle and added to watering cans. It develops the skeleton of the plants and leads to stronger woody growth. Calcium (lime or chalk) is good for adding to the compost heap and is necessary for brassicas and other vegetables, but must be kept well away from ericas and azaleas, which are lime haters.
Having got our soil clean and in good order, the next task is planting and sowing. In March you come back to the beds which, if empty, were dug over roughly before the frost to fine dig them and rake them into the fine tilth required for sowing. If the clods are too large the roots of the baby plants cannot break them up to extract nourishment.
The main tasks for March are
♠ Lift and divide herbaceous plants as long as the ground is not frozen
♠ Prune established bush and standard roses and tender shrub.
♠ Plant container shrubs
♠ Dead head daffodils but leave foliage to die down naturally
♠ Sow hardy annuals in pots. Apply fertiliser.
♠ Plant shallots, onion sets and early potatoes
♠ On high ground, protect blossoms of droupes (apricots, peaches and nectarines) from frost with fleece. Spray them with Bordeaux mixture for the second time.
♠ Prune gooseberries
♠ Check ties and supports
♠ Prepare seed beds covering with fleece or polythene
♠ Feed fruit with potash (wood ash is good)
♠ Sow in trays cucumbers, melons, peppers and tomatoes for planting out later
Provided the ground feels warm, you can start to plant. Seed packets often indicate the required temperature for germination. If you need to get ahead of the season, sowing can start indoors of salad crops and half-hardy annuals, in a glass house or in a propagator but at this time the only things which you need to get into the ground are your outdoor vines and your early potatoes, with onion and shallot sets, which traditionally should be in by March 17th (St Patrick’s Day).
Succession crops such as peas and beans can be planted. Leave French beans till later. Any perennials which still need attention can be divided now and hardy annuals can be tried if the ground is warm.
Pruning continues – removing dead and decaying wood. Plumbago, jasmine and passion flowers should have last year’s growth cut back to 2-3 buds from the main plant.
Cuttings time starts now, take cuttings of “geraniums” (pelargoniums) and fuchsias.
Take time to enjoy your garden between sowing and weeding, to admire the flowers and to look at nearby gardens to see what looks good and photograph it. If you make up a garden notebook, you can see what you would like to include in your garden for next year and photos help to identify plants you do not know.