March Madness

It’s a good job March is nearly over, because it’s a strange month for gardening. According to the Met Office, spring began on 1st March and will give way to summer on 31st May. With the official announcement of spring, bulbs sending up flowers and exhortations that you MUST SOW your tomato and pepper seeds this month or miss out all year – it’s no wonder gardeners get themselves into a frenzy of seed sowing.

But the truth is that March is not a kind month. Although we may get some lovely, sunny days, the wind can be biting. And once the sun goes down there’s a serious risk of frost, which will be with us for some weeks yet.

The result is greenhouses, cold frames and windowsills bursting with seedlings that need constant care. We have to shuffle them around, balancing their needs for warmth and light, starting to harden them off so they’ll be ready for life outside once the weather is nicer. And we already have to contend with pests such as slugs and snails, aphids and mice. It’s a worrying time.

With seedlings aplenty indoors, my personal bugbears are fungus gnats – tiny black flies that inhabit compost. The adults are an irritation; they can’t fly very well and, attracted by warmth, humidity and carbon dioxide, they have a tendency to fly into your face. Or drown in a your tea before you’ve had a chance to take a sip. But their larvae can do real damage, chomping away invisibly at seedling’s roots until they keel over.

The official advice is to use less water, and to let the surface of the compost dry out – a hard thing to do when you’re caring for seedlings. It does help if you can water from below, or add something inert like vermiculite to the compost surface, so the adults can’t find themselves a home.

Yellow sticky traps, positioned strategically close to the infestation, can reduce the population to manageable levels, and once pots can be moved outside then fungus gnats become a non-issue.

However, in the meantime, if you’d like to drink a cup of tea in peace then you can also consider using Gnat Off, a biological control that is watered on. It’s not cheap, but a bottle does last for ages (and there are no pesticides for fungus gnat control that can be safely used on edible plants).

I’m already at the stage where I’m impatient for my plants to be outside, taking care of themselves for days at a time, and making the garden a nice place to be. I’m berating myself for trying to overwinter too many tender plants, and trying to juggle my desire to sow seeds and have plants later in the season with the hopeless task of finding space for them right now. I know that, even with the benefit of hindsight, I will be doing exactly the same things next year.

Still, with Easter on the way it’s almost time to plant the potatoes, and then space they’re taking up on the windowsill will be free. Sounds like the perfect time to sow those squash seeds!