A new look at the March garden…

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: March 18th, 2018 In: Garden design, Gardening know how, Wildlife & eco

What do you imagine to be the essence of a  ‘March garden’?

January and February stand for frosts, snowdrops, the brilliant colours of cornus stems and even the last remaining seedheads. By April, there are enough bulbs for us to talk about ‘a carpet’.

Frost in the winter garden

December and January mean frost and seed-heads – seen here at Doddington Place Gardens.

In March, the lawn is a muddy puddle. The snowdrops look moth-eaten or have gone over. There is the odd early daffodil poking its head out of a recently cleared bed. We’ve cut down the cornus stems and the grasses – or are about to. The birds have eaten the last lingering seed heads, rose hips and remaining autumn fruit. There are tiny buds on shrubs and trees, but you have to go up close to spot them.

April bulbs

By April there are enough bulbs for a show – if not always a ‘carpet’.

This may be rather slow of me, but until this year, I hadn’t realised that the March garden was actually the bleakest (if you live in the Northern hemisphere). In March, the gardening magazines coming through the letterbox are a blaze of colour, often from tulips. Tulips? March? I think not.

What is a March garden?

I needed a ‘March garden’ to feature in my ‘Middlesized Garden of the Month‘ video on The Middlesized Garden YouTube channel.

I asked around my garden-loving friends. None of us could decide what a good March garden would look like. We all agreed that no garden looks its best in March.  It’s almost as if March is an embarrassing secret which the gardening world doesn’t talk about. And certainly doesn’t photograph…

Crab apples in February

These crab apples were still giving me winter colour in February. All gone by March though.

Many ‘professional’ gardens only open from April to September or October. There are just a handful of gardens open in March for the NGS, but all of them would look even better in another month of the year. Even Great Dixter, which I revere as the ultimate year-round garden, doesn’t open until March 30th.

But there is one brilliant thing about March…

I realised that March was probably the best time to see the bare bones of a garden. For the rest of the year, flowers, greenery, veg, fruit, grasses and seed-heads distract you from the question ‘how does this garden work?’ So I went along to the wonderful environmentally-aware, wildlife-friendly Abbey Physic Community Garden in Faversham to see it  ‘undressed’.

The Abbey Physic Garden is historic. Before Henry 8th abolished the monasteries, it was part of Faversham Abbey which was established by King Stephen in 1148. It’s in the grounds of the Elizabethan Grammar School and backs onto one of Britain’s most ancient medieval streets. It’s a charity which aims to help vulnerable people through horticulture and outdoor activities. There’s also a Good Grub club where people can learn to grow and cook healthy meals on a budget.

Abbey Physic Garden Faversham

The former Grammar School, dating back to Elizabethan times.

The garden has recently had a partial redesign, and this new curving path through the middle of it, with benches at its heart is a new addition. It’s a clever solution for a square garden, as it breaks up the space and gives the garden a heart, without subdividing too much.

When the beds are filled the seats will be private, but you won’t lose the sense of openness. I was delighted to be able to see this new design now in March, without any planting around it.

Curving path at the Abbey Physic

The path curves through the centre of the square garden, creating a heart.

The area around the benches is an exciting new project. The Abbey Physic garden want to grow a grass-free lawn, using plants such as red-flowered daisies, wild thyme, cowslips, birds foot trefoil, chamomile, red and white clover, self-heal, bronze leafed bugle and more. It’ll need less care than an ordinary lawn, will be more hard-wearing than a chamomile lawn and will be loved by wildlife. They’re asking the community to donate any plants they have grown or propagated so if you can help them in this project in any way, please do get in touch with them.

How to dispose of your March clippings…

Taking clippings to the tip uses time and fuel. This garden uses up clippings as supports for plants, in a ‘dead hedge’ and composts them by using a shredder. They even throw sticks across the newly planted beds to deter birds from eating the seed.

Dead hedge at the Abbey Physic Garden

In summer, this dead hedge is often concealed by nasturtiums or other climbing greenery. Here you can see how to layer clippings to create a hedge which offers shelter to wildlife, and will eventually slowly rot down, enriching the soil. So you can keep adding more clippings…

Bug hotel at the Abbey Physic Garden

Branches and stumps are also used to make a ‘bug hotel’, layers in a hugelkultur bed and shredded into compost.

And you can also use clippings to make natural plant supports.

March is a good time to start the fight against weeds…

At the Abbey Physic Garden, you can now see some shrubs with a layer of cardboard around their base, weighted down with bricks. This will smother weeds and when the shrub is out, you won’t see the cardboard. Or you could cover it with a layer of bark chippings. The cardboard will eventually rot down, improving the soil.

Organic weed deterrent

Anti-weed layer of cardboard. It will hardly be visible when the plant is in leaf.

And sort out the water…

If the garden had been full of flowers, I’d never have thought about the water butts standing on their own, well away from any guttering.

Water butts in the middle of the garden

Abbey Physic water butts

The water itself runs off from the roofs of buildings and sheds, so they siphon the water from those butts out to the butts in the middle of the garden. It’s a brilliant way of dealing with my main grouch over water butts which is that they get too full when it rains and empty after about 10 days of no rain – this is a way of having lots of water round the garden.

And there are some March garden flowers

Early flowering fruit trees

Early flowering fruit trees are essential to feed pollinators who are just waking up from the winter.

The Abbey Physic Garden also has some essential early flowerers for pollinating insects. Mahonia has rather fallen out of favour, but it is one of the few flowers that seems to be a reliable March flowerer, so it’s a good choice for a wildlife-friendly garden.

Mahonia

This mahonia has attractively coloured leaves and it’s one of the relatively few flowers out in March.

More tips in the video…

See the Middlesized Garden of the Month video here:

The Abbey Physic Garden is dazzling in the summer, and is always a place to pick up ideas, especially for wildlife-friendly or eco gardening.  So if you are ever in Kent, do visit it (and Faversham is a delightful historic town, too.) And if there is any way you can donate, volunteer or help, it’s a very worthwhile cause.

The Abbey Physic Garden will also be open on Sunday June 24th as one of the 30+ gardens in Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day, so do put that date in your diary. The Middlesized Garden will be open as well, so do come and say hello.

And do you agree with me about March gardens?

Pin for reference:

Useful tips from the March garden

 


8 comments on "A new look at the March garden…"

  1. Sand a marshall says:

    Another great article. Acid soils have good plants in March. In my sons garden there are some wonderful azaleas out, and Heathers can look great with the right associates. , it’s geneally the time to get going again, and I quite like the impact of sweeping up and clearing away dead things and pruning, then tidying the borders with a good layer of garden compost as mulch, from neglected and old to young and bursting with possibility. Also primroses, pansies and muscari and lots and lots of daffodils. Have to say though, that right now, mine looks rubbish! And it’s heartening to know that it’s not just mine.

    1. Thank you. I agree that the emptiness and neatness has an impact of its own, but it’s a relief to know that greenery is on its way.

  2. That is so true about seeing the “bones” of the garden. I’m a bit of a novice at the planning and planting w/ flowers (have primarily grown food) so seeing what the base structure helps. I too have looked at shredder/chippers. Both $ and space are deterrents. I don’t really want another piece of machinery to store and take care of. What a lovely example you used.

    1. Thank you! Maybe one day there’ll be an inexpensive compact shredder…

  3. Sue Sutherland says:

    March is often a gloomy month because spring doesn’t arrive when you think it should. For me it’s a time of rejoicing because the days are much longer but also peering at plants and panicking in case they’ve died. That said I have some pretty primroses in pots and in the ground, a Japanese apricot, two early rhododendrons , a viburnum and an edgeworthia out in the snow. I am also cheered up by variegated holly and hebe and a cordyline which has survived so far.

    1. That sounds like a pretty good March garden!

  4. A lovely way of looking at and thinking about our gardens in March. It’s not winter and yet not Spring – a pause in between. I love the idea of a dead hedge but with no room for one I make do with just piling dead stuff up in corners. I feel it makes an instant creature hotel. Am now thinking about a silent shredder. As they are very heavy I would have to keep it in the shed and use it in there – would there be room I wonder?? Thanks for a lovely blog and I really look forward to seeing that garden later in the year in your next visit.

    1. I’m thinking about a shredder too, but not sure where it would live…

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