Due to a relatively dry end to last week I had thought the worst of the weather was over. I said as much on Facebook (and nearly caused an International incident) but today, it seems, the rain is back. It is hard to get enthusiastic about the garden in this weather but it is also important not to miss indoor sowing deadlines or we'll regret it when the weather improves. Most vegetables with the exception of root crops like carrot and parsnip are better started indoors anyway so the weather shouldn't be a problem. If you are growing leeks you can start sowing them in trays now, next week I'll be sowing cauliflower, calabrese, summer cabbage and celeriac. Dealing with wet soil It is very important not to work wet soil as you will compact it and damage the structure. To test your soil, pick up a handful and squeeze it, if it easily compacts into a solid ball it is probably too wet to work. If you need to plant something outside (I have broad bean seedlings that need to come out of their trays) you can cover the soil to let it dry out. You can cover the ground in black plastic or tarpaulin but a cloche (e.g. above) works better as you will get air flow and some warmth when (if) the sun comes out. Raised beds I know this isn't much help right now if you don't have them but raised beds will vastly improve drainage and will make soil workable sooner after a period of wet weather. The confines of a raised bed are also handier if you need to use a cloche as diverted water can drain out of the bed rather than into the surrounding soil. Adding organic matter The more organic matter (compost, manure etc..) your soil contains the better the structure and the more moisture it can hold without becoming waterlogged. Increasing organic matter allows soil to absorb more water in a manageable way, without compacting and becoming anaerobic. Again, that's not much use right now but it is worth bearing in mind for the future as periods of heavy rain seem set to increase. If your soil is unprotected right now it will also be beneficial to add a layer of mulch to feed and protect. Pruning fruit trees and bushes Now is the best time to prune fruit trees or bushes before they come out off their dormant period in the next couple of weeks. Established gooseberries and currants are pretty easy to prune although it does take some guts to remove whole sections of the bush as required. Both of the above produce the best fruit on wood that is 2-3 years old; the pruning method is to take out any branches four years or older which may require removing up to a third of the bush. I have written a couple of articles on various methods of pruning which you may find helpful, the gooseberry one includes a video, I include links below.
Fruit trees are more tricky but should require minimal work unless they have been recently planted (or were never pruned in the first place) or are older trees that have got out of hand. Freshly planted trees will need formative pruning to shape the tree while older trees may need opening out if they have become congested.
The big thing to avoid is 'topping' (which most people do) and cut branches half way up to tidy the tree. Topping results in wild, uncontrolled growth which with block out light and make the tree less productive than it was before you pruned it. I cover this and more in the following articles. I use a basic pruning kit of 3 good quality tools to get a clean cut with minimal damage. I find the traditional Felco No.4 suits me best but also use the No.200 Lopper which gives a slick cut on thicker branches (the base of thick stems on a currant or gooseberry bush). Yes, Felco tools are expensive but they are lifetime quality gear. For any tree surgery a pruning saw will do most jobs and is surprisingly fast and effective. A hand held pruning saw has a curved blade and only cuts on the pull stroke so is very easy and comfortable to use, this thing was a revelation to me, it's a brilliant tool.
In the polytunnel or greenhouse A polytunnel is a great place to be in early spring, I had a great day for myself on Sunday (which did have some sunny spells) potting on chillis and sweet peas. It was so warm at one stage that I lay down on the bench for a spot of sunbathing, I am now thinking of installing a hammock. I know I covered transplanting tomatoes last week but there were a couple of things that came to mind on Sunday which I might as well mention. The first is a new organic fertiliser I have been using which I really like, I don't have it on the site yet but will likely have stock next week. The product is 'Hexafrasse' made in Ireland by 'Hexafly' and is made from ground and dried soldier fly larvae. I liked it because it is a good slow release feed ideal for a potting mix, it also has a bran like texture (light brown stuff in photo) which mixed nicely with the compost. The N.P.K. is 3:1:1 but the nitrogen (3) is divided into 0.73% readily available and 2.34% slow release so a perfect home for my pepper, tomato and sweet pea plants. Organic 'Hexafrasse' is eco friendly as the larvae are fed on waste from the distilling and fresh food processing industry using spent grain or vegetable peelings. Trials have also shown it helps control aphids and fungal growth, again making it a good choice for a potting mix. Anyway, expect to see it on our site very soon, it might sound a bit grisly but you genuinely wouldn't know what it's made from and is a environmentally sound, sustainable product. I might have mentioned this a couple of weeks back but if you are transplanting seedlings from a propagator it is best to wet the compost and water the seedling with warm water; the plants are coming from pretty cosy conditions and won't thank you for a cold shower. Above I am using an old plastic water bottle (S.Pellegrino don't you know) modified into a watering can with our 'bottle top waterer', a very handy little product. New Wildflower Plant Trays We have been very busy already this season sending out wildlife friendly perennial plants, it is brilliant to see the efforts you guys are making in your gardens. I will have a whole new section to show your next week when we nearly double our range of perennials but for this week I wanted to introduce two new wildflower seedling trays. We are now supplying 84 cell seedling trays featuring our cottage garden mix and our butterfly and bee mix. The mixes are broadcast sown so a random selection; they can be used to create a wildflower bed or planted in a lawn or grassy area to create a mini wildlife meadow. The mix contains a very wide range of over 100 plants, I have included the plant list on the product pages which you can view by clicking the links below. New 'Bee Friends' pollinator friendly shaker packs We are also stocking a new range of wildflower seeds in 8 different colour mixes that are chosen to support a broad range of wildlife. The varieties have been selected to provide nectar, pollen and shelter for birds, bees, butterflies, bats and beneficial insects. The mix will provide interest throughout the season as different varieties flower at different times; simply sow, rake and water for flowers all summer long.
That's about it for this week, I'll see you next Tuesday! Andrew