09:12 Friday 04 January 2013

Armchair Gardening

At this time of year there seem to be an awful lot of days when the garden just can’t tempt you outdoors. 

Time to retreat indoors?
Time to retreat indoors?

Wind, rain, cold and shorter days all conspire to keep you wrapped up inside, preferably in a comfy chair and, if you’re really lucky, by the fire. I can’t provide you with enough excuses to stay indoors until the first bright days of spring, but there are definitely a few jobs that are best done from the comfort of a chair or in the dry conditions of your shed or garage.

My favourite activity at this time of year is looking through catalogues and planning my purchases. Good ones to start off with include Hayloft Plants and Secret Seeds, who are bound to have something you’ve never even heard of but absolutely have to have. With all those glossy pages, tempting photographs and enthusiastic descriptions this can easily get out of control, and if not done properly you may find yourself with more plants than you know what to do with.

To rein things in a bit it’s best to make a list of what you need before ripping off the plastic cover or turning over the first page. This doesn’t need to be as specific as ‘3 x Salvia nemerosa’; think about what worked well this year, and what could do with some rethinking. If your garden was worthy of a Chelsea Gold in May but by August was a sorry mess perhaps you could think about some later-flowering perennials, or maybe your garden needs a bit more evergreen structure to carry it through the year.

If money’s tight then seeds are a great way to get masses of plants for very little cash – in fact, you almost always end up with more than you need. It’s hard to fault the sweet pea on value-for-money: fragrance, colour, height and structure, particularly if you send them climbing up an arch or obelisk. If you keep picking them (and how could you not?) they’ll flower forever. They even make excellent gifts when visiting friends – who could resist a sweet-smelling posy straight from the garden? And all this for under a fiver.

If you’re lucky enough to have a potting shed this is the time of year to make the most of it. Protected from the elements you can give all your pots a good brush out and get things in order for next year. Pot-cleaning might seem like a colossal waste of time, but grubby pots can easily spread pests and diseases from season to season and ruin a new crop. You can buy special pot brushes, but a stiff dustpan brush or bottle brush does the same job.

Take the opportunity to give your tools a good once-over. This may seem a bit like Queen Elizabeth I’s baths – once a month whether she needed it or not, reportedly - but looking after your tools will not only make them last longer, it will make them much easier to use. A sharp blade on your spade or half-moon edger will cut through turf and soil with much less effort than a blunt one, and these aren’t jobs that need to be any more taxing than they already are.

Wooden handles will benefit from having the mud wiped off them and an application of oil to keep them in top notch condition, and it goes without saying that they need to be kept dry when not in use. I speak from experience when I say that a fork handle snapping mid-heave is not a happy occurrence. If you’re very neat and tidy you can have fun painting round the shapes of your tools as they hang on the wall, so you know exactly where to hang them when not in use. Tools left on the floor are a recipe for disaster, so at the very least find a safe corner to stash them in.

If you’ve harvested seeds from your own plants or have left-overs in packets now is the time to sort them out. Make sure any you’ve collected yourself have the date written on them or you’ll be planting duds for years. Seeds past their sell-by date may still be good, but if you’ve got dozens then be cut-throat and bin them. If you have packets and envelopes all over the house then collect them together in a shoe box or treat yourself to one of the lovely seed tins in the shops. To get the best from seeds they need to be kept somewhere cool, dark, and dry, so a shed or garage is ideal.

Of course, just because you don’t want to be outside doesn’t mean you can’t pay someone else to do it for you. If you’re thinking about a redesign then autumn/winter can be a great time to do it. Builders and landscapers are generally less busy at this time of year and so should give you a good price for the job, and provided the ground isn’t frozen solid there’s no reason not to keep working. It also works well for you because it will disrupt your garden at the time of year when you’re least likely to be out enjoying it, and it means you and your garden will be ready for new plants come spring when the earth is warming up again. Until then though, snuggle up in that armchair and get out the catalogues.

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