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The diary of a cottage gardener - March

By Hilary Stevenson

Hello! Well, February certainly threw some challenging weather at us. I hope you and your gardens all survived unscathed.

The storms certainly stopped progress with some of the tasks on my list for February and the new polytunnel is still waiting to go up. Patience was never a virtue of mine but if I have learned anything in recent years it has been to go with the flow with the weather and to adapt with it as you certainly cannot fight it.

March brings us the promise of increased light levels and the Spring bulbs are all emerging in the garden. It is a terribly exciting month and I thought you might find it interesting if I focused this blog on how the garden beds and borders are set up using no-dig methods in case you are thinking of using no-dig yourself.

I remember my father spending hours digging his vegetable plot to rid it of weeds and to let air into the soil. Years on, we have been made aware of how harmful this can be to the soil and biodiversity from authorities such as Charles Dowding.

Digging exposes the soil to air and sunlight which can damage the delicate soil structure and kill the living organisms within. It also leads to the soil compacting which means that there is less water absorption. No-dig gardening keeps the soil intact with increased water retention while preventing weed growth to give a higher yield. Most importantly, the biodiversity of the soil is protected and enhanced.

I was initially a bit overawed when I first looked in to establishing the beds and borders in the garden on no dig principles, but it really is quite straight forward.

I set up my beds by:

  • Gathering cardboard to lay out in the area where I want the bed to be positioned. The cardboard acts to suppress the grass and weeds without disturbing the biodiversity beneath. This gets watered and left for a few days to start to decompose.

  • Applying a layer of sheep wool on top of the cardboard. I am lucky to be able to get a ready supply from my local farmer, but you can still set up a no dig bed without it. Sheep wool helps to retain moisture so less time spent watering and use of this resource. It keeps roots warm in winter and cool in the summer. The wool adds nitrogen as it decomposes and helps prevent weed growth. I also use it to line pots for summer planting as it cuts down on the need to water. Do try it if you can. You will be amazed if you put a moisture meter into the compost and see the moisture reading in your beds and pots.

  • Adding compost to the beds. This is usually about six inches deep, depending on what I intend to plant. One of the advantages of no-dig is fewer weeds but of course, it does not stop the spread of weed seeds. The existing beds have all been weeded and had a layer of compost and mulch added to them. This will help to reduce the weeds for the coming season.

  • People often ask, ‘Can I plant straight into the compost?' The answer is, ‘You most certainly can'! The root systems will grow down through the cardboard as it decomposes - especially so with perennials.

Once your beds are formed, you can add compost and mulch as necessary for the following year and continue to repeat. I really encourage you to have a go!

Other jobs for March:

Seed sowing: March is the month for some serious sowing. The light levels and temperatures are increasing and its time to get those little seeds sowed. My seeds are sown in peat free seed compost and are left to germinate without lights or heat in the polytunnel.

In my first season, I sowed far too many seeds and have learned to temper my enthusiasm and sow smaller quantities. If you are growing cut flowers, then you will need to think about succession to ensure you have lovely flowers all season.

I work from my last frost date (usually the middle of May) and then look at the time it takes for the seeds to reach maturity before they can be planted out before sowing. From then on, I diarise the next round of sowing going forward.

Perennials: March is when I divide many of the perennials. Make sure you dig the plant up and slice it so you can discard the centre. Mad as this may seem, you will get stronger plants as a result. Make sure the ground is warm enough and not too wet otherwise the roots will not start to establish when you plant.

Looking ahead to flowers: Preparation is underway for Mother’s Day. It will be so lovely to have flowers to make into bouquets. At last, some colour and flowery loveliness!

I hope you all have a great March in your gardens.



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