Its time-consuming to protect fruit against frost or pests, but we enjoy the rewards more than anything else in the kitchen garden. This is the peak of the flowering season, so drape fleece over fruit trees and bushes if a frosty night is expected. Take off the fleece during the day, to allow the bees to pollinate the flowers. Strawberries are particularly vulnerablefrost damage can be seen later in the distorted summer fruits. Fleece laid over the beds is very effective. Consider putting nests of the mason bee near your fruit trees; as they fly at lower temperatures than honey bees, they help to pollinate early flowering fruit.
Its worth getting an early start with runner beans, even though theyre prone to frost. Push two seeds into a 3in Jiffy pot filled with good compost, and leave it in the greenhouse. Make sure the eye (the scar) is facing downwards. Once they germinate, start to harden them off as soon as possible, so that they can be planted out when still small. If needed, its worth protecting them with fleece, which can be incorporated into the supports. This alternative to direct sowing will help you avoid any late frost, as well as the wet ground and mice that can stop germination.
If the size of runner beans and their vulnerability to wind damage causes you problems, the French beans large variety is a good alternative. The soil temperature has to be warm for direct sowing, so try the same method for runner beans. This way, you can sow at intervals during the spring to extend their summer season.
Take care to position your French and runner beans to avoid damage by high winds. Spring-flowering shrubs Forsythia, Ribes (flowering currant) and Viburnum x bodnantense are shrubs not renowned for having elegant shapes, although theyre prized for their flowers; by pruning now, as flowering is finishing, you can improve their shape and encourage new growth for next years flowering. When pruning, try to follow the natural shape of the shrub, while keeping it in proportion to the size of your garden. Shred the clippings and use them as a mulch, or in your compost heap as a woody layer between grass cuttings.
We now shut down our open compost heap to start afresh. Most of the winter rubbish has been cleared away, shredded and put on the heap; as grass cutting is already well under way, we use the cuttings to seal the heap. Because we dont turn our heap, a thick layer of grass on the top will heat it up and kill any weed seeds on the surface.
Grass comes thick and fast at this time of year; try to avoid putting too much on the compost at any one time. Think about using it as an inch-thick mulch at the back of your borders, where its tricky to get in and weed.
Philip Maddison is head gardener at Harrington Hall, Lincolnshire (www.harringtonhallgardens.co.uk)