It's not time to go back gardening just yet

Fiann Ó Nualláin seeks the redemptive qualities of hard work— but can’t get stuck into the garden quite yet. 

IT’S the third weekend of January and like most gardeners I generally start to feel the cabin-fever mounting around about now.

I’m not as bad as Jack Nicholson in The Shining – well, I tell myself I’m not. For me it’s not so much all work, no play that drives me crazy— it’s the champing at the bit to get stuck into a project.

I have been wall-planning the next few months’ articles and my notice board looks like a CSI investigation with post-its, spiral note pages and picture printouts reminding me who I want to interview, what plants I want to talk about, green skills I want to explore, who has to ring me back, and so on. But I am missing the garden. Writing about it is not scratching the itch.

Honestly, I have been dying to get some digging done since new years’ but have been patient, letting the garden have a natural cycle of rest. 

Ploughing ahead at this time of the year can disrupt rather than improve the garden. I don’t want to expose my soil to the cold air and in the process oxidise the beneficial bacteria in it, nor do I want to wake it early or worse, rake away any beneficial insects. 

Least of all, do I want to break the dormancy of any weed seeds that will germinate and survive even in a nuclear winter. I just get a bit antsy when I’m forced indoors.

So I have just been enjoying the garden as a place to have a morning coffee, or shiver my way through a book I’m reading about trekking the Andes — don’t mind HD TV, deep reading and numb fingers, that’s immersion.

Mind you it’s warming up lately and my local park has daffs showing already — almost taunting me to plant something. Maybe I am as badly off as Jack but I’m not the only one. 

I visited a friend this week who was using a nail brush to scrub up the white bark on her Himalayan birches – because “It was too damn wet to do anything else!”. That’s the cabin fever — and the gardener’s imperative to be gardening no matter what.

Weather is the prime shaper of actions taken and actions needed. And recent weather has me using the phrase climate chaos rather than climate change. 

It’s heart-breaking to see floods destroying homes and hopes, wrecking crops and tillage and disrupting ecosystems. The state may need to think of diversion channels, but please not to the sea — instead to new reservoirs or even manmade turloughs .

Depending where you are, you may be in wellies or waders, but even if there is no water submerging your garden there is plenty of forbidding saturation going on beneath. Hold off as long as you can. No point doing more harm than good by working out in conditions that are not conducive to growth or work.

Planning is as important as action — so take the perennially boring advice of sending off for seed and mail-order catalogues, this year, it will be all you can do to avoid scrubbing the birches. One way to limit flooding is to help halt or at least check the run-off of rain water — a few extra water butts, a green roof, a garden tree, a permeable drive are all changes you can instigate at home. We need to green up our urban areas and put more emphasis on the jungle rather than the concrete.

Dry-cold or frozen Januarys were once the norm, but climate chaos has made seasons more fluid and now it is hard to tell what month you are in. The thing to consider with future Januarys and the current one, is that milder, wetter winters may be provoking some early showings in the garden from spring bulbs, or consequently have prolonged late season blossoms and berries — but don’t let that trick you into full steam ahead planting — especially if you want to have edible crops; it could be harsh frosts in a day or two.

And even if not, the soaked ground is not good for seed, crown, corm or rooted plant. If you have the new year’s resolution eagerness upon you, then the most important thing is get the site right. 

Chose a place to grow your veg that gets good light and is not too breezy (wind makes plants need more water as well as damaging foliage). If your garden gets gusty, then perhaps you should think about a sheltering fence or hedge.

There are prep tasks to be achieved: setting out the site, making raised beds, positioning a trellis or support system for beans or raspberry canes. No amount of enthusiasm can reverse the fact that seed in soggy ground or solid ground, will not germinate. 

Be it January or November, digging over wet ground will just help make slop when the next rainfall comes, digging over solid ground to make fine tilth for sowing is not the best expenditure of your energy.

Think instead of covering the ground with compost and manure which will add nutrients and bacteria that will both increase the fertility of your soil and via the action of earthworms and other beneficial insects and garden organisms will physically improve the structure of your soil.

Add a layer of membrane over that and this will help you heat your soil up in the coming weeks, enough sometimes for seeds sown in February to even think it is actually March.

If you have a polytunnel or greenhouse you can start many edibles off under protection. Even a windowsill will suffice; you can sow and grow on via module trays until planting out time in Februry/March. I say February/March as if February is sunny enough and dry enough — but you can sow direct or plant out seedlings with a cover of fleece to protect from night cold and early frosts. However, there is no harm sowing a few weeks later.

If you have been GIYing in the previous year, then you may have crops to harvest in January and February: sprouts, cabbage, leeks, turnips, parsnips, spinach, etc, especially the leeks and root crops which seem to sweeten up after a little touch of frost.


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