Give them tlc, or they’ll sulk and stop flowering

THE FIRST of the irises have stuck their little heads above the soil. Winter may have a few more unpleasant things in store, but the sight of these tiny flowers is enough to fill a gardener’s heart with optimism.

Iris reticulata is one of the highlights of early spring.

And they have been worth waiting for, the early spring-blooming irises, members of a family of flowers renowned for their beauty and colour.

Most people seem to like irises. In fact, many people love them with a passion. There is something alluring about their shapely flowers. They are almost too good to be true – they could have been carved by a sculptor.

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They are also a very diverse family.

Sometimes, when there is still snow on the ground, a few spots of colour reveal the whereabouts of the small but perfectly formed Iris danfordiae, as pretty a little flower as ever graced a garden.

Their yellow scented blooms follow fast on the heels of the earliest snowdrops, and within a few days, their equally attractive and small cousins, I reticulata, will also push their way to the surface.The iris family is like that – filled with colourful plants which appear at regular intervals throughout the year, and while the earliest are happy to bloom just a few inches above the soil, the summer show-offs stand stately and proud.

The bearded varieties are some of the most sweetly-scented flowers which appear to bask in the sun. They vary from 18ins in height to five feet or more, but they are all inescapably beautiful.

The bog irises are another breed entirely – they like their roots to be damp, so it pays to put them on the margin of a pool or even in the water itself.

There are many more members of this floriferous family – from the enchanting early-blooming I buchrica to I ensatao, the Japanese clematis-flowered Iris, which loves to have its roots in muddy, damp soil, and which has to be seen to be believed.

But the tiny I danfordiae, particularly the vibrant yellow, and the blue I reticulata will always hold a special place in the hearts of many gardeners. They may be small fry in the world of flowers, but they are winners in winter and a promise of better days to come.

JANUARY IS supposed to be the two-faced month, but March can give it a good run for its money.

Somewhere there must be a little switch that triggers an alarm which tells many gardeners: “It’s March so you have to get out into the garden and do any and every job it’s possible to do in one weekend”.

Which is fine when there’s no longer a threat of further wintry weather, but with frost and snow still a potential threat, patience is the key.

There are certainly one or two jobs which are best done before the end of March, such as planting bare-rooted trees and shrubs, and lifting, dividing and re-planting snowdrops while they still have green foliage attached.

You can also mulch bare soil in beds and borders, prune bush and shrub roses and devote a bit more care and attention to houseplants which have given their all over winter. But Britain’s weather has a bad habit of lulling impatient gardeners into a sense of false security. Just as that much-clichéd one swallow doesn’t make a spring, so one sunny weekend doesn’t mean the garden is open for business for the rest of the year. Yes, it’s possible to take cuttings from stored dahlia tubers, perhaps even to propagate certain shrubs by layering them but don’t try re-seeding bare patches in the lawn until you can guarantee several days of settled weather where the temperature will encourage it to germinate.

But if, just if, March promises to be a benign time of year and the soil is warm, plant early potatoes, clean ponds and pond equipment, plant summer-flowering bulbs, mow the lawn and trim the edges, hard-prune the likes of buddleia, sow sweet peas outdoors and lift and divide big clumps of perennials.

There’s enough there to be getting on with for quite a while, and if you have a greenhouse, you’ll barely have a minute to rest for the rest of the season.

It’s always tempting to make the most of the first decent bit of weather, doing things in haste can give you a lot of time to repent at leisure.

FEW PEOPLE would dispute that cineraria is a very striking house plant. It’s a popular gift that can flower for weeks, if not months.

But Senecio cruentus can also be a big disappointment because if it isn’t given the right treatment, it will sulk and stop flowering after only a few days.

So, to keep those lovely daisy-like blooms, keep the plant in a spot where the temperature is between 45-55deg F, out of direct sun but still with bright light, and well watered but never saturated. Misting the air around the plant is also appreciated.