Rainy day jobs

Us gardeners have a love–hate relationship with the rain. We moan when there is too little of it, we moan when there is too much of it. We want it to rain for the benefit of our plants, but only when it’s convenient for us. Right now, we don’t have a lot of say in the matter. It’s raining (a lot), so we have to make the best of it.

Wet-garden
The frustration of yet another rainy day.

Not that I’m complaining. In the South, we’ve come through Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis relatively unscathed. A few puddles here and there is nothing compared to the devastation some people are dealing with, and my heart goes out to all those affected by the floods.

So, although the lawn is too squelchy (love that word!) to walk on and the heavy clay soil in some of my borders has become unworkable, there is still plenty I can do. Here are my top 5 rainy day activities.

1. Feed the birds

Birds require high-energy foods right now; not only do they need it to keep warm, but they are also building up reserves ready for nesting and breeding.

We put out a scoop of no-mess bird seed on each of our 3 bird tables every morning, and top up in the afternoon when we can. And we keep the bird feeders filled with nuts and fat balls. (Note I say ‘we’. As his and her gardening tasks go, this one’s a shared one.)

Blue tits - Big Garden Birdwatch
Birds welcome a helping hand at this time of year, so don a cagoule and fill up those feeders.

2. Start sowing

If you’ve got a shed, garage or greenhouse to shelter in, now is the time to start sowing vegetables and slow-germinating annuals. The young plants can then be planted outside when the soil starts to warm up.

Waiting for germination - seed trays
Tomatoes, chillis, aubergines, kale, salvia and sweet peas can all be started indoors now.

3. Weeding and pruning

I wouldn’t advise working in the garden if gale force winds are hurling things around, but if you’re feeling game, put on your woolies and waterproofs and get out there. You can do everything you do in a T-shirt and trainers in a cagoule and wellies instead, particularly if you’re only out there for 15 minutes at a time. Just avoid walking on waterlogged lawns and borders – it won’t do them any good.

the right clothing for wet weather gardening
With the right clothing, you can still get out there.

There’s plenty of pre-Spring pruning to do and if your soil isn’t too much of a sticky mess then you may be able to tackle some weeding from a solid footing on paths or patios.

I’m fortunate to have a large patio to work from, and my raised vegetable beds are surrounded by bark chippings, so no excuses there. The borders next to the lawn will have to wait though.

4. Get organised

Rainy days are a great opportunity to get organised.

  • Tidy the shed
  • Sort seeds and plan sowings
  • Order seeds and plug plants
  • Take an inventory of supplies
  • Plan your 2020 garden
42 perennial plug plants by post
Order plug plants now – there are a lot of bargains online.

5. Clean and maintain tools and pots

It’s a dull job, but if you’re at a loose end on a rainy day, then you could spend 15 minutes cleaning pots and tools. Also check that your hand tools are in tip top condition for the gardening season ahead. Oil and sharpen secateurs and loppers, and check you’ve got cord for your strimmer. Don’t forget to service your lawn mower too.

Clean-pots
Cleaning pots: a dull job on a dull day, but essential to prevent the spread of diseases.

And after all that, nothing beats settling down with some good reading material and a cuppa and picking up some tips from the experts.

Reading-material-gardening
Ah, so that’s the way to do it!!

Rampaging bittercress

It has been an incredibly mild wet winter so far; ideal conditions for the spread of weeds. In my garden, the diminutive but exasperating hairy bittercress has been spreading unchecked.

Rampaging_bittercress
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) has made its presence known in my garden this winter

What does bittercress look like?

Hairy bittercress is a compact annual weed that grows in individual clumps, 3-5 cm tall. It grows out in a basal rosette with pinnate leaves (i.e. the leaves are arranged in pairs on either side of the stems). It has tiny insignificant white flowers that shoot up on stems above the rosette.

Bittercress-appearance
Bittercress grows in a basal rosette with pinnate leaves

How does it spread?

Hairy bittercress has a very short life cycle of 4-6 weeks. Given the right conditions, it will germinate at any time of year, although usually in Spring or Autumn. In this case, it has taken hold during a mild winter and is frost hardy enough to survive the few frosts we have had in the South in December and January.

After germination, it quickly produces clusters of tiny white cross-shaped flowers, and sets seed. Seed dispersal is explosive, sending the tiny seeds up to 1 metre away (or further in windy conditions), which then germinate. And so it continues. Before you know it, a few discrete clumps will have become an expansive mat across the soil surface, making it difficult to see what else is trying emerge this Spring.

Bittercress-spreads-quickly
Hairy Bittercress spreads quickly, forming expansive mats across the soil surface

How can you control it?

Pull it out when you see it, so that it doesn’t get the opportunity to set seed and take a hold. Obviously, I failed in this respect!

The good news is that hairy bittercress has shallow fibrous roots, making it very easy to remove with a hoe or hand trowel or fork. Dig gently and shallowly so that you don’t disturb the roots of other plants.

Bittercress-easy-to-remove
Hairy bittercress is easy to remove from the soil

So I’ve been removing it (15 minutes at a time) by hand trowel, and can now start to see what’s coming through in the borders.

Remove it from pots too

The seeds of hairy bittercress are very indiscriminate in their choice of landing place, so it has a nasty habit of popping up in pots too. In fact, that is often how it is introduced to gardens, in pots of plants purchased from the garden centre. If you see it, pull or lift it out quickly, before it has a chance to set seed.

Does it have any uses?

Hairy bittercress is a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) and as such is edible. Not that I’ve tried it, as all mine have been going in the garden refuse bag. Apparently it is not bitter at all, but mild and peppery.

The leaves are rich in vitamin C, calcium and magnesium, so once I’ve got on top of it in the garden, I may well give it a go on a sandwich!

February gardening tasks

You never know what weather you’re going to get in February: in 2018 we had snow blizzards and gale force winds, courtesy of the Beast from the East, while last year saw the warmest February day since records began.

Snowfall, courtesy of the Beast from the East, in February 2018

I don’t know what February 2020 has in store for us, but one thing is for sure, if the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged there is plenty to do in the garden.

As we are currently experiencing double-digit temperatures, there’s no excuse to stay cocooned inside with the central heating cranked up. So shrug off those January blues and get a jump start on the tasks that will prepare your garden for Spring.

February Checklist

To help you focus on the key tasks this month, I’ve produced a checklist of February’s gardening jobs, most of which can be tackled 15 minutes at a time. Don’t be daunted by the length of the list. If you get out there for 15 minutes every day this month, you’ll be amazed how many of the jobs you’ll be able to tick off.

February-#15greenmins-checklist
February #15greenmins checklist: you can do anything for 15 minutes, even gardening!

Fuller details of February’s gardening tasks can be found here. Or why not produce your own checklist that suits your garden?

Tweet me

Join me on Twitter this month to let me know how you get on: #15greenmins at a time!

Deadheading dahlias

It may be feeling distinctly autumnal right now, but if you’ve planted dahlias the good news is they will keep on flowering right through to the first frosts.

Dahlia bloom

Dahlias will flower from mid-summer to first frost, bringing welcome colour to the garden

There’s just one catch: to prolong flowering you will need to keep deadheading them, thereby encouraging the plant to produce new buds.

The only problem is it’s not always easy to distinguish a spent dahlia head from a new dahlia bud. And you don’t want to be snipping new buds off!

Spent dahlia head or new bud?

Spent dahlia head or new bud?

Identifying spent dahlia heads

If you spot an ageing flower early when there are still a few wilted petals visible, then there’s no problem. Snip it off. The difficulty arises when the old dahlia flower has lost all of its petals. The hard bulbous part at the base of the flower (the calyx) then closes over to form what looks remarkably like a bud.

However, you can tell the difference between a spent dahlia head and a new dahlia bud by the shape. A spent dahlia head is slightly conical, almost pointed (as in the example above), whereas a new bud is a more compact rounded shape (as in the example below).

A new dahlia bud is rounded and compact

A new dahlia bud is rounded and compact

If you give a new dahlia bud a squeeze it will feel firm and you may be able to see the compressed petals within waiting to explode out into a fully formed flower. If you squeeze a spent dahlia head, it will feel squishy.

Where to cut

Once you’ve identified the right heads to remove, make sure you trace down the old flower stem and cut it off where the stem intersects with a leaf.

Where to cut off spent dahlia heads

Cut spent dahlia heads off with sharp secateurs or garden scissors just above the point where the flower stem intersects with a leaf

If you cut it off directly under the dead flower head you will be left with an unsightly flowerless stem. Multiply this by several flowerless stems and your plant will start to look quite ugly. Keep it trimmed down and you will have a neat bushy plant.

Keep deadheading

It’s amazing how quickly new buds form, flower and die, so deadhead your plant as often as you can. Your dahlia will reward you with a stunning supply of colourful blooms late into autumn or even into early winter. And if you have chosen a bee-friendly variety it will be a source of much-needed nectar late into the year.

Dahlias can provide much-needed late-season nectar for bees

Dahlias can provide much-needed late-season nectar for bees

Happy snipping!

15 minutes and counting

It was grey, dull and chilly, and I was having one of those days when I didn’t feel like 5 minutes of green, let alone 15. But as I still hadn’t finished all the jobs on my March checklist, let alone started on April’s, I had to find a way to get myself motivated and out there. So I set myself a 15-minute challenge.

Chop raspberry canes to the ground early Spring

Tackling the garden 15 minutes at a time

Could I chop my raspberry canes down to the ground in 15 minutes?

Chopped raspberry canes

Use sharp secateurs to cut autumn-fruit raspberries down to ground level

It turns out I could. In fact, I’d finished chopping in 7 minutes, and had time to spare to weed.

Raspberry canes chopped and weeded in 15 minutes

Chopped and weeded in 15 minutes

Leaving me feeling just a little bit pleased with myself.

#15greenmins of chopping and weeding

#15greenmins of chopping and weeding

With a few natural raspberry cane stakes for use elsewhere in the garden, just for good measure.

Old raspberry canes make great natural stakes in the borders

Old raspberry canes make great natural stakes in the borders

Job done!

  • Share your #15greenmins