How to Potter in the Garden

The garden bed last Spring. That kale and red chard is doomed to bolt and die as soon as the warm weather arrives.

Recently I have wanted to fix up a garden bed in our front yard. Last year I attempted to plant vegies in it, kale and red chard, but it is full of tree roots from all the trees I planted in our tiny garden, and the poor vegies didn’t stand a chance. So I have decided to fill it with perennial food and flowers instead. I wondered if I could do it without spending any money on plants.

So far I have dug out an underperforming rose bush with Rosy’s help (you wouldn’t believe how deep and tough rose roots are. No wonder they survive bush fires), and moved a poor little gooseberry bush into its space. The gooseberry bush was being menaced by a bunch of plant bullies elsewhere in the garden. Hopefully it will recover and fruit splendidly. I love gooseberries. This effort took about a week.

Then I divided the artichoke plant which in turn was given to me as a division a few years ago by a friend. I ripped up bits of lambs’ ears (the plant, that is, not actual lambs. I am not a monster) from another bed, and planted them with some trepidation. They are so pretty and sweet and innocent, and try to take over everything the minute you back is turned (somewhat similar to nine year olds in that respect). Still, I am prepared to be alert and vigilant and keep them in check. I also planted out a seaside daisy (erigeron) with the same caveat. These self-seed prolifically, and are so tough they grow happily in the asphalt of the driveway, so yes, I will be alert but not alarmed with this other plant terrorist. I found a clump of pinks which had been taken over by a wave of terrorist seaside daisy, saved it, pulled off a couple of bits of that had roots attached, and planted that too. All of this pottering, weeding, feeding and moving took another week.

Last night while waiting for Rosy at ballet I also pulled off a couple of carnation tips from the church garden next door to her ballet school, which I will see if I can strike. And last of all I found a self-seeded feverfew plant and some violas and forget-me-nots which pop up all over the garden, and planted them in little groups so it looks intentional. Looking at the bed now, it is a mass of pea straw mulch with a couple of sticks and tiny leaves poking out. It does NOT look like the Backyard Blitz team spent the weekend in my garden. It requires eyes of faith, but I think it will look very nice in a couple of months.


My ‘rescue remedy’ for garden beds requiring attention:

Whenever I am replanting a bed, a pot, or a bit of vegie garden, I give it the same treatment – first, weeding. Then feeding. The most useful tool in my garden is a couple of big, black plastic (ughh - but in this case, so wonderfully useful) trugs. I use these for everything. So, into the trug goes:

Pelletised chicken manure (a couple of double handfuls per square metre – that is 3 feet, you inexplicably non-metric ‘others’J)

Blood and bone (ditto)

A handful of agricultural lime (looks like icing sugar). Most plants and vegies in the garden benefit from a bit of lime, which makes the soil slightly more alkaline, which is what most flowers and vegies love, and it helps to make other nutrients in the soil more available for their use. Fruit trees, peas, beans, brassicas, potatoes, garlic and onions love it, and you can spread it around with abandon. A teeny, tiny bit in the mix for tomatoes. Any plant that likes to grow in more acid soil will NOT be happy about lime, so do not spread it around strawberries, blueberries or citrus, native plants, rhododendrons, azaleas, heathers or camellias.

Gypsum. My garden is built on heavy, sticky clay. Over the years I have improved the soil with lots of organic matter and compost, but every year or so I also add a few double handfuls per square metre of gypsum (also sold as ‘clay breaker’) which looks like sand, and does indeed break up clay clumps by some magical alchemical process (I can only assume). If you have sandy soil, add LOTS of organic matter instead, and an organic soil wetting agent to prevent water from just sitting on the surface of your soil.

Compost from the bottom of my compost bins. As much as available.

Reading all this for editing purposes makes gardening sound exhausting, and as if I labour out there for hours. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to stay relatively sane in the garden, and not have huge areas of half-finished projects (something I am distressingly prone to), this is my modus operandi:

Choose a small area or bed not more than a few metres square. (See bed above. Two metres by two metres. Six feet by six feet). Weed. Put weeds straight into the bin or compost. There is Nothing Worse than being interrupted and having a pile of weeds sitting on the garden path for a week. Yes, I am often interrupted for a week at a time. Aren't you?

Feed. I keep all of my bags of plant food in a galvanised bin under my potting bench (which clearly needs work in order to clear it enough to actually pot anything at it). I throw all the plant food on to the freshly weeded space, and dig it in a bit, not deeply, just turning it in at the surface a bit. With a trowel, not a spade. Water it in.

Mulch. I use pea straw, because that is what is mostly grown locally. If I am planting the vegie garden, I don’t do this bit, because I will need to plant seeds later.

This will only take an hour or so. PUT EVERYTHING AWAY. See that wicker basket up above? It holds all my gardening hand tools. If I don't carefully place them there after each gardening session I lose them under the weeds until next Spring. Now sweep the path. Go and have a cup of tea. It is best to leave this bed for at least a week before planting to avoid having the fresh fertiliser burning delicate plant roots.

If I don’t have an hour, sometimes I just do one of these jobs at a time. It might take three days, (or in the case of the bed above, a week) but hey, then it’s done. As opposed to having palpitations for three months about the state of the garden, and how it will never all get done.. OK, so now that is all finished, I can start all over again the next day on the next little patch, and eventually the whole garden will be weeded and fed and replanted.

The planting bit is then ridiculously easy. So it’s a week after you renovated your first couple of square metres of garden bed. If it’s a vegie garden, you choose your seeds or seedlings, pop outside with a cup of tea and plant that little space before your tea is even cool enough to drink. If it is a garden bed, you part the mulch, dig a hole, add a little bit of compost to the bottom of the hole, and add the new plant. Water. I always water in new plants with a watering can of combined seaweed solution (good for roots) and fish emulsion solution (good for leaves, fruit, flowers). I buy both of these as bottles of concentrated solution and add three capfuls of each to the watering can, and fill with water. These plant teas are brilliant. Smelly, but good. 

There is no rule to say you have to plant out a whole garden bed at a time. Standing and thinking is also a very valid form of gardening. Slowly but surely you will realise that there is only one possible position for the feverfew plant. And that purple violas will look quite nice next to it. And that planting two different silver leaved plants together won't work, so you will have to find something green to put in between..

Now I would love to say that my whole garden is marvellously organised and weed-free with this method, but that would be patently untrue.  When I get out into the garden, this is how I go about it, and after at least a year of more-or-less continuous neglect, I am nibbling away at little bits of it at a time. If you pop back in another year though, I am almost certain that I will be able to show you the evidence of very many cups of tea drunk in celebration of many very short spurts of garden pottering, interspersed with moments of standing idly watching birds and amusing bugs, talking to the cat, eating apples, strawberries, plums and peas, admiring violets, roses and daffodils, and trying very hard to avoid hearing anyone yelling for ‘Muuuummm!’


CJ said…
A lovely post, I really enjoyed reading your method for getting it all done. It does seem more manageable when it's broken down into smaller time slots. And I love your idea of mixing all of the fertilisers and compost before applying it, I shall definitely give this a go. CJ xx
Jo said…
Hi CJ, I don't know about you, but when I try to get some hours in the garden, it is always doomed to failure. A half hour is generally the most I can manage. And mixing all the fertilisers together really does save time. Less traipsing back and forth.
Bek said…
I think pottering about is the only way to garden. My problem is I start one job, then in doing it I see something else (a plant that needs pruning, weeds that need pulling etc...) and I start that without finishing the first task. I can end up with a few things half finished. But eventually you get through it all.
I do agree with your method of doing a little at a time. Also the cup of tea in hand - essential gardening equipment.
Unknown said…
No time for pottering around here. I get maybe a few hours on a weekend (if its not raining) and its all go go go. Manic gardening on steroids. You use your potting bench? I thought it was just for looks (or at least mine is) LOL. Im planning a not so pretty one on the other side of the garden for real work. I long for the day of wandering out in the early morn with a cup of tea, rollers in my hair (don't no why)and tugging a few weeds here and there - sounds like a great retirement. Not that i think that's what you've done, oh poo, im trying to be funny here and im making it sound like you didn't work hard. Time to get out of here.
Jo said…
Bek, I am absolutely that person. Distraction is my middle name. Sometimes I have to be very stern with myself. Sometimes I just go with the flow.
Lynda, I really don't work hard. Working hard is not me at all. Hence the pottering:)
i love "sweep the path and have a cup of tea" - sometimes my favourite gardening chores!
i must investigate the ag lime. it sounds like what my vegies and flowers need.
ps love your gardening tool area, looks like something straight out of 'country style magazine".
Anonymous said…
I am inclined to take on a big project, finish it, and then do no more gardening for a month or two - until the weeds take over, and then my next project is a Grand Weeding!

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