19th July 2018
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In the garden

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What perfect gardening weather we’ve enjoyed of late, but – dare I say it – we could do with a few nice showers, just enough to water in the newly planted seedlings and to give all the things grown in pots a good soaking.

During the spring drought the soil here either turns to dust in no time, or sets like concrete. Mulching is the only way to prevent this from hap­pening, but there is never quite enough suitable material to go around. Shredded prunings are composted with grass clippings and used to keep the weeds at bay in most of our beds and borders, which leaves the vegetable patch as well as the herb and salad garden bare. Simple cloches are great to protect vulnerable seedlings from drying winds, but they raise the temperature, and thus also have a drying effect.

Watering has become a daily chore, much sooner than in other years. Watering, believe it or not, is also an art. In the days of loam based compost and clay pots, all the gardener had to do was tap the individual containers with a stick, and listen for the sound they made, those drying out having a hollow ring to them.

You won’t get a single note out of a plastic pot, but weight is an impor­tant indicator, especially for plants potted in peat, or a mixture of peat and perlite. The drier they get, the lighter they’ll be. It gets more comp­licated when sand or grit are part of the mix, as pots can still feel quite heavy, even when completely dry.

“I watered it every day, and it still died,” is a lament I hear from time to time, and is always related to peat-based compost. A surface sprinkling from a can will evaporate almost as soon as it has been applied during sunny or windy spells and peat, once dried out, is extremely difficult to saturate.

Watering cans fitted with roses, hoses fitted with shower heads and, above all, automatic sprinklers, are indiscriminate tools and waste a lot of water into the bargain when it comes to container grown plants. I prefer a slow-running hose, so I can fill each pot to the brim without the compost splashing out of it. The process is a slow one, as some pots have to be filled repeatedly until all is evenly damp, but the effect is long lasting.

Effective watering also calls for a sharp eye. Potted plants develop at different speeds, and the indiscriminate overhead sprinkling will render some too wet, while leaving others high and dry. A mistake often made by beginners is to give extra water to plants that are slow to come into leaf, often with fatal consequences. A plant without leaves can’t take up much, if any water and its roots will start to rot as a result. There’s a simple rule you can follow to get it right: the more leaves a plant has the more water it will need.

After you’ve done your watering round, check some individuals by poking a finger deep into the compost. If it’s still dry, you’ll have to plunge your subject. Place it into a basin or bucket, so the water comes up over the rim of the pot. If it bobs like a cork, weigh it down with a few small stones, and leave it to soak until air bubbles have ceased to rise. Never leave a plant soaking for more than 12 hours.

One of the things I can’t abide is seeing bare-rooted trees sitting in plastic sacks, either with their roots left dry, or submerged in water, often for weeks on end. If I were you, I’d give such trees a very wide berth. It’s difficult enough getting bare-rooted trees and shrubs established during dry spring weather, without them being severely compromised already. Kept wet or dry, in either case they’ll have suffered root damage, and the odds will be stacked against them.

It’s for that very reason I don’t like the term bare-rooted, as roots should never be left bare for longer than absolutely necessary, i.e. during transport. Trees should be kept heeled in, which means loosely planted at an angle, so they can be easily lifted for sale, but their roots are in contact with the soil at all times.

Where this is not feasible, a good alternative is to keep them in large containers, plastic bags with drain­age holes will do, and the spaces between the roots filled with soil or compost. Stored this way, they’re able to start growing new feeding roots and can be transplanted without suffering any trauma.

We’ve been selling a lot of large, bare-rooted willows this spring, and every sale is accompanied by a plea to the new owner to cut them back hard immediately. If this is not done, the rapid top growth is ill supported by the root system, and the trees might eventually rock loose.

There is however, as I’ve learned from a customer last weekend, an alternative for those with a dislike of saws and secateurs. When urged by me to prune hard, the resourceful lady told me she’d done no such thing with the willows she’d bought from me before. She’d simply planted them at twice the usual depth and ended up with beautiful, tall, and totally wind-firm trees in no time.

What a great idea, and one that also preserves all the catkins for the bees. It is however, an exception to the rule, and only works with willows, elders, and poplars, trees that root readily from their stems.

Plastic carrier bags are being phased out, and rightly so. That leaves the gardener and propagator with a problem. Those white, opaque carriers are perfect for preserving moisture. When we plant small bare-rooted subjects we water them in, then pop a bag over their heads with the handles tied securely round the base, making sure that all growth is contained in the plastic. They stay in place until the next rain, and have saved many a shrub from drying out and dying. I’m not sure what the alternatives are, which is slightly anxiety provoking. If you have any to spare, I’d be glad to receive them.

Getting our vegetables in the ground always comes last, but this year we took our cue from our neighbour Jimmy. Hearing him start up his grey Fergi means his voar is well underway. It took two of us half a day to get our big field cleared of weeds and the remnants of last year’s crop. There’s horse muck to be spread over two thirds of it, then it’s ready for rotavating. The remaining third had been heavily manured two years running and is earmarked for carrots and parsnips; they don’t like fresh muck, it causes them to fork and grow into weird shapes.

Most of our brassicas are now fully hardened off; the leeks, in large seed trays, are growing fatter every day, and some of our herbs and salads, rather than being pricked out from their seed trays into larger containers, have been planted into a sheltered, south-facing part of the garden, protected by cloches, as there is still the danger of ground frost.

We sowed some broad beans ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ far too early. They don’t like being in a greenhouse and had grown rather spindly. Hardened off in a cold frame, they’re still a little weak in the stem, but on the point of flowering. Twigs cut from an old flowering currant keep them upright, and did the shrub some good – two birds with one stone.

I remember supporting some peas with the prunings from a black currant one year. The peas, strangely, ran out of steam far sooner than expected, and as I cleared them away in the autumn, I realised why. Every pea stick had rooted, and grown into a little black currant bush.

During this busy time of year it is important not to forget to enjoy one’s garden, and more often than not, it’s our visitors who help me do so. Showing somebody around, pointing out some rare plants, or leading them to the bits I’m particularly happy with, has a wonderfully stress-reducing effect.

One of the best bits of the garden – rarely shown to visitors – is the current view from the bath tub – with a most charming rhododendron in the foreground. It’s either R. Praecox or R. Dauricum, I’m not sure which, but it has flowered later than usual this year, only opening its buds from late March onwards. It makes a slim, open branched, semi-evergreen bush, and its reddish purple buds open into light amethyst flowers.

Rosa Steppanova