VIRUS:GET GARDENING IN A SPRING LIKE NO OTHER

Carry on gardening: eight tips to you help you garden through the crisis

It’s a spring like no other but there are still seeds to be sown and plants to be tended

This is a spring like no other but still the gentle rhythms of the gardening year continue, with seeds to be sown, plants to be tended and crops to be harvested. With the current restrictions in mind, here’s a useful list of ways to stay gardening in the weeks ahead. 

Dahlias. Photograph: Getty
Dahlias.

We need flowers in our lives more than ever and one solution is to grow your own from seed. Late April/early May is a great time to sow quick-growing, floriferous, long-flowering half-hardy annuals such as cosmos, tagetes, Callistephus chinensis and amaranthus under cover and with gentle heat (a bright windowsill is perfect) for transplanting out into the garden from late May. All of these can be grown on in large pots, will bloom throughout the summer and also make excellent cut-flowers. So do dahlias, which can be grown from tubers planted into pots under cover for transplanting outdoors once all risk of frost has passed. Online seed and tuber suppliers include mrmiddleton.com.

Alternatively, reach out (metaphorically) to gardening friends and swap seeds and tubers.

Rachael Hamilton MSP raised the subject of garden centres being re-opened in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.

She said: “The mental health and well-being benefits of gardening and tending allotments and window boxes are well known. Garden centres have faced the perfect storm of seasonality and perishability, with many growers having to destroy stock.

“With their outdoor spaces, garden centres should be well able to adapt to social distancing policies, just as supermarkets and do-it-yourself stores have done. The Horticultural Trades Association devised a robust set of protocols for the industry to sign up to prior to any reopening.

“I note that France, Austria and Germany have allowed a partial reopening of garden centres, as they consider them essential.

“What discussions has the cabinet secretary had with the horticultural industry? Has he considered the measures that the industry has come up with to pave the way for the public to safely and responsibly use garden centres once again?”

Mairi Gougheon raised the hopes of gardeners. The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, said: I am happy to take that question. We have regular engagement with the Horticultural Trades Association and the fruit and vegetable sector—in fact, we have a weekly call with them—so we are continuing to engage with industry about this issue.

“I completely understand that people have concerns. That is why we wanted to engage with the sector to ensure that we understand all the concerns, and we are working productively with the sector to see what potential solutions to the issue there might be.

“I sent a letter to garden centres outlining the measures that set out what they are currently allowed to do. I actively encourage people to have goods delivered by garden centres through mail order, and we are encouraging garden centres to consider that option.

“Right now, the measures that are in place are about public safety and keeping safe the people who work in the sector, as well as members of the general public. That is why we are actively encouraging those other methods by which garden centres can continue to trade.

“We realise that, at this time of year—especially with the current good weather—people want to be out in their gardens and that workers want to keep on working. That is what we why we are encouraging the kind of activity that can still take place within the regulations.”

[Advice from a couple of my Facebook friends: Bill Greig: Just a wee warning. If ordering plants avoid Thompson&Morgan. Their greed in taking boom orders has resulted in chaos with lots of people either getting sub-standard plants, no plants, or just no communication. Helen Rodger: Go to QVC and you get all providers and guarantees. Rhona Brankin: Spent a while today trying to track down my orders. You’re right it’s total chaos. Can’t even track orders online. 😱“]

Plant vegetables

Minimise trips to the supermarket and plan ahead for possible future interruptions to the food supply-chain by direct-sowing seed outdoors of long-lasting vegetables suitable for storing or overwintering such as parsnips, beetroot, turnips, swedes, carrots, onions and potatoes. This is also a good time to sow seed of heat-loving crops such as courgettes, cucumbers, French beans, pumpkins, squash and sweetcorn (sow undercover and in gentle heat for transplanting outdoors next month). You can order online from Kings Seeds (kingsseeds.com).

In partnership with ChangeX and Web Summit, GIY is offering a seed bundle of popular, easy-to-grow vegetables on a first-come-first-served basis that can be ordered from its website with the aim of the resulting seedlings/baby plants/ produce being shared out among small networks of people, yet another useful way to help cultivate resilience during these challenging times. Its online shop also offers a selection of vegetable and herbs seeds for kitchen gardeners. See giy.ie for details.

Gardener’s gold from a well-managed compost heap
Gardener’s gold from a well-managed compost heap

Compost care

Get those compost heaps going so that you have a ready supply of homemade, crumbly “gardener’s gold” and compost “tea” at hand to help boost plant growth and nurture soil health. A healthy, fast-rotting heap needs sufficient fresh air (so turn it regularly), moisture and the right ratio of carbon-rich material or “browns” (examples include shredded cardboard, shredded newspaper, paper towels, straw, fallen/brown leaves) to nitrogen-rich material or “greens” (examples include fruit and vegetable peelings, grass cuttings, weeds and soft green prunings). Too much of the first and you’ll end up with a heap that’s very slow to rot down; too much of the latter and you’ll get one that’s soggy and smelly.  Opinions differ as to the ideal carbon/nitrogen ratio, but somewhere between 1:2 and 1:3 is considered best. Where space is very tight, excellent alternatives include wormeries and Bokashi bins. Stockists include originalorganics.ie, quickcrop.ie and fruithillfarm.com. For further advice on composting and how to prevent food waste, see stopfoodwaste.ie

Get water-wise

The prolonged dry weather of recent weeks is a timely reminder of why it’s such a good idea to install water-butts to harvest rainwater from house gutters. Recommended suppliers include all good garden centres as well as online suppliers such as originalorganics.ie

Up your guard

Don’t forget to protect food crops against hungry birds, which will happily nibble on the tender flower buds of fruiting plants (no flowers means no fruit) and pull up recently-sown onion and shallot setts as well as seedlings. Use netting on fruit bushes and fruit trees so that pollinating insects can continue to access the flowers while garden fleece is a great way to protect young vegetable seedlings and transplants while simultaneously boosting growth levels (just make sure to secure it against wind).

Likewise, take careful precautions against slugs, which can quickly cause huge damage to seedlings and the soft, young growth of emerging plants. Practise good garden hygiene – check plants regularly for early signs of damage, use beer traps, organically acceptable types of slug pellets (very sparingly) and/or hand-collect and kill slugs in the evening when they emerge to feed.

Make liquid feed from young nettles. Photograph: Getty
Make liquid feed from young nettles. Photograph: Getty

Go natural

At this time of year the soft young foliage of nettles can be used to make a fantastic, nutrient-rich, natural liquid foliar feed for plants, boosting their ability to fight off pests and diseases and encouraging healthy, productive growth. Harvest the tender young green shoots wearing gloves and then place them into a large container, chop them up and then cover with a generous amount of clean water, topped with a lid. Leave them to stew for several weeks with just the occasional vigorous stir, by which point this soupy mix will have transformed itself into an oh-so-stinky but impressively effective, nutrient-rich, liquid plant feed that should be used diluted at a ratio of roughly one part feed to 10 parts water.

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