Hello to those of you I didn’t send off to sleep in the last blog! For this blog and the next, I’m going to cover the basics of how to keep your garden ticking over and growing well as we head into Summer. This means watering, feeding and the eternal battle against weeds, pests and diseases.
Gardening is hard enough work when you’re at full health, so for those of us who struggle, even when we have good days and bad, it can seem like a total nightmare. Watering cans and bags of compost weigh a tonne, then you’re fighting with the hosepipe and you’ve no idea if you’ve got the right feed for your plants. With a bit of careful planning, though you can take the sting out of it. I’m going to go more into planning your garden to suit you and your current needs in my Winter blog, but please do get in touch if you need any help in the meantime.
The condition of your soil is the key to good strong plants, and how healthy your soil is depends on the amount of organic matter it contains. Compost, leaf mould and well rotted manure all act to retain moisture, provide key nutrients, and attract beneficial microflora and fauna. Even if you can’t dig the ground over, adding a mulch of organic matter in Spring (and Autumn if you can manage it) will help to condition your soil over time, and will help to solve any problems you may be having.
Sandy soil is the driest and most nutritionally poor. Adding organic matter will act like a sponge, retaining water and preventing vital nutrients washing away. More nutrients are released as all those fantastic microplants and beasties break it down.
Clay soil sets like a brick in Summer and is a bog in winter. It is also, however nutritionally rich. Again by adding a compost mulch, you will improve the soil structure thanks to the tunneling actions of earthworms and other burrowing creatures that feed on it. This improves your drainage and stops the clay from being one solid mass in the Summer.
Organic matter will get to work quicker if dug in, but again, even a surface mulch will bring benefits to any soil over time.
I’m moving my veggie patch from the shady back garden into the baking sunshine of the front. Watering is going to be a big issue – the front is hot and the soil is drier and gravelly; there are no outdoor taps anywhere near, and it’s too big an area to heave my watering can up & down enough to water it properly. I also try to keep my time in the front to a minimum when I feel anti-social, or I just don’t get the time.
My idea, therefore is to run a seeper hose from the back garden right down into the front. I can water everywhere at once by connecting up my hose in the back, leave it on for half an hour, maybe an hour or so, and hey presto, happy veggies, happy Lisa!
As you can see here, I’ve dug down about 2 feet and enriched the top soil with compost before returning it. The seeper hose is just laid on the surface, and I’ll just cover it in a thin layer of soil. I made my seeper hose, but you can buy professional ones if you want to, and want less hassle. I’ve blocked the end off an old hose offcut, added a connector at the end by the tap, and poked quite large holes along the length. Getting an even flow was a matter of trial and error, but it’s been tested & seems to be working great.
If you are growing in containers, you can buy irrigation kits, or buy multi-connectors and run old hose offcuts into the pots to achieve the same easy watering system.
Where you can, I’d recommend having a water butt installed to run your seeper hose or to water from. It’s great for the environment, and, depending on where you live, the pH balance of tap water can be wrong for plants such as rhododendron, azalea and pieris, which need a higher pH level. You can also add nutrients to the butt, such as comfrey or nettles, so you’re giving your garden an extra boost every time you water. I couldn’t have a water butt in the front because the drainpipe is right next to the path.
If you grow in pots, you can poke holes in plastic drinks bottles and sink them in next to your plants, just topping them up as you need to, and you can also try soil additives when you are planting up.
Especially for containers and baskets, which dry out pretty quickly, soil additives can hold a large volume of water and slowly release it back into the soil. You can buy special water-retaining compost or a bag of pellets that you add into your own compost. You can also try using old soaked cardboard, newspaper or even a fully drenched (unused!) nappy at the bottom of the pot. Remember a layer of gravel or broken crocks at the very bottom though, to aid drainage and stop the drainage hole getting clogged.
To help keep in more of that precious moisture, a mulch is a must on the ground and in pots. You can add a layer of compost, bark, coir, gravel, ornamental glass chips etc that act as a blanket. It slows down how fast the soil dries, retains warmth in cold spells, hampers weeds from forming, discourages slug and snail activity.
If your ground is always damp, there isn’t much else you can do outside of looking at land drainage. You could always try a reasonably high raised bed (making sure the base is treated against rot) or large terracotta pots (terracotta holds a lot of moisture). There are many, many beautiful plants that will thrive in this environment, however, so you could roll with the punches and try to suit your space instead of forcing it to suit you.
Composting and Feeding
I’ve gone on at great lengths about compost, but haven’t talked about sourcing it. The best way, if you have room, is to make your own. It costs nothing, it’s recycling at it’s best, it will feed your plants a panacea of nutrients (we’ll get to specifics later) and it will boost your quota of beetles, worms, spiders and all those other lovely little creepy crawlies that work their magic keeping your soil in good condition and preying on pests.
For composting, you’ll need a bin (I have an old wheelie bin with the bottom cut off so the worms can get in). Just throw hedge clippings, leaves, grass cuttings (add shredded newspaper with this) vegetable peelings (not onion), teabags, eggshells, banana skins in there. Once it’s full, it will need a year or two to fully rot down before you add it to your garden. It will also need turning a few times (emptying, mixing up & putting back), which is a heavy job. You can buy worm bins on a frame that you can spin by turning a wheel if that suits you better. It’s ready when it looks and feels like soil and carries a sweet smell. This is a long process, so if you have room, you can have more than one bin on the go for a more consistent supply.
If you have pesky cats like mine, it may be a good idea to leave out the larger vegetable matter as you’ll get small furry mouse presents delivered.
Leaf mould is another fantastic soil conditioner. Sweep up all those Autumn leaves, put them in a bin bag and forget about them until they’ve crumbled down. Then just use them like you would compost.
If you’re buying in compost, please buy peat-free. Peat is a carbon sink, and removing and drying it releases CO2 back into the atmosphere. There are many great alternatives available.
Bought compost has the advantage of a pretty universal nutritional level, whereas your own will depend on what it’s made from. Some plants need an extra boost with some fertilizer.
The three main nutrients plants need are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). I’ve included their elemental symbol because fertilisers have an N:P:K rating on them, to help you decide what you need to get the most out of your plants.
Nitrogen contributes to healthy growth of leaves, phosphorus contributes to root growth, and potassium encourages flowers and fruits. All fertilisers carry a number such as 5:5:8 – this is the NPK rating, and in this example, tells us that the K (Potassium) level is higher, so this will help boost flowering.
Compost carries a pretty level N:P:K rating, but you can tailor it with additives. I very often use Fish, Blood and Bone, just sprinkled around my plants, this is high in phosphates and helps boost their root growth. Tomato feed will be high in potassium to boost flower and fruit set, and this works for any flowering plant. Banana skins in the compost can give an extra potassium boost for free.
If you garden in containers, you must feed regularly, as the potting mix will have run low on nutrients after about 6 months. Ideally, you need to re-pot in fresh compost, but liquid feeds and slow release pellets are easier to use.
There is also an ancient technique called ‘Hugelkulture’ where you bury logs under your plants. They gently rot down and feed your plants. This could be handy if you have recently had any tree work and no way to dispose of the cuttings. I have some reservations about this encouraging fungal growth, but it’s been around a lot longer than I have!
Well watered, well fed plants will grow strong, and will be better able to fight off weeds, pests and diseases, but I’ll go into how best to deal with these next time.
I hope this has helped and been informative, as always, let me know if you need any advice, or have any feedback. Blessings and happy gardening!