There are all sorts of special occasions – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, May Day and a fair sprinkling of saints’ days, too. There is even – imported from the US – Secretary’s Day. But the most pivotal day in the gardening calendar passes by unnamed every year. So I’ve taken the liberty of christening it myself. I like to think of it as Frost-Free Day.
This is the day after which you can be as certain as you’ll ever be that we’ve seen the last of the cold stuff – the day you can safely start on your summer bedding outside.
It’s a busy time. There are flower beds to plant, tubs and hanging baskets to fill and on the veg patch all the cold-sensitive crops such as French beans, runners, courgettes, sweetcorn and outdoor tomatoes want putting in.
The day doesn’t fall on the same date each year. Every year is slightly different, depending on weather conditions and according to where you are in the country.
In a mild season and with a sheltered southwestern location, the last frost may be over as early as late April or early May. In the Home Counties it’s usually about the middle of May, while exposed parts of Scotland can still experience overnight frosts until early June.
All over the country there are “frost pockets” where cold lingers, so it pays to familiarise yourself with local conditions. Watch the weather forecasts and keep an eye on other gardeners to see when they start planting. If in any doubt at all, play safe and wait a few days.
A lot of people are so anxious to get their half-hardies out they skimp on a very important detail – soil preparation. Frost-tender plants only have a shortish season to do their stuff so it’s essential they grow fast and furious from day one and they’ll only do that if the ground is good.
So, before you start planting, fork the ground over, remove any weeds, stones and roots and if you haven’t already worked in some organic matter, do so now. Use well-rotted material or invest in a bag or two of potting compost. And sprinkle some general-purpose fertiliser evenly over the soil – blood, fish and bone will do nicely – and rake it in.
When you are ready to start planting, try to do it with as little root disturbance as possible.
Pot-grown plants just need tipping out of their containers. Have a pot-sized hole ready, sit the root ball into it, scuff a little soil back in, firm it gently down and water – about half a pint for each plant should do it. If you are planting from one of those multi-pot systems, the plants can be difficult to remove.
The knack is to push them up from below. Use your finger or a pencil. It does far less damage than trying to yank them out by their tops.
If they have been grown in trays so the roots grow into each other, knock the tray on the ground to loosen the root ball. Lift the whole block of plants out and carefully break each off with its own section of compost and roots. Pop each plant into a hole, firm it in and water as before.