Gardening Leave - Green away the lockdown blues
Looking for upsides can feel a bit tricky at the moment, yet being stuck at home with time on your hands can give you the space to nurture existing hobbies, or cultivate new ones.
Gardening is continually proven to support the soul and whether you have acres and acres, a small balcony or even just a windowsill, lockdown could be your opportunity to create the greenest, most pollinator-friendly and most fragrant bit of garden – massive or micro – you've ever had.
Perhaps because gardening is about today and tomorrow (planting is, after all, expressing faith in the future), the pastime is one of the most stress-busting activities out there. Peer-reviewed papers have shown that gardening reduces symptoms for people suffering PTSD, so for those of us living with lockdown it might be just the ticket!
With most online nurseries still operating and delivering everything you need – from pots to plants to soil and seed – it's perfectly possible to get some greenery started (even if you've never really done much gardening before). Whether its flowers for bees and butterflies, growing food for yourself or simply planting for pleasure, gardening gives a strong sense and awareness of life and the continuation of the cycles. And if you're new to gardening, the benefits of this healthy, ecological and fauna-friendly activity could last long after we've dealt with Covid 19, from helping local wildlife and upping your kerb appeal, to handling the ups and downs of the day.
POTS, BOXES AND BASKETS
You can garden in the tiniest of spaces – a windowsill; a small balcony; even the spot by your front door – and you’ll instantly add cheer to the places you pick. And it's not just flowers that can brighten up a small spot; you can add vegetables and herbs to your balconies and windowsills for utility and biodiversity.
The cabbage Cavolo Nero is easy to grow from seed and is a very attractive plume-like plant that, when left to flower, produces multiple pale yellow blooms that are loved by bees. It’s also a cut-and-come-again plant, so it will continue to grow no matter how many times you liberate some leaves for dinner. Most of all, you’ll find yourself with many adorable caterpillars, followed by butterflies – though they will eat a lot of your plant! – but what could be more life-affirming in these times than watching the hungry caterpillars transform before your eyes?
Garlic, chives, and even onions can all be grown in pots. Chive flowers in particular are not only tasty for both humans and pollinators, but also very pretty. Meanwhile, coriander, parsley and dill are three annual herbs that can brighten up a dull spot (not to mention a dull dinner!) Try to use new compost to grow them in but, if you're using old, top it up with slow-release fertiliser pellets and make sure to watch the watering: too much water kills more plants than too little because it rots the roots. A rule of thumb (quite literally) is to stick a finger into the soil up to your knuckle: if it feels dry, it’s safe to water.
SPRING BULBS FOR SUMMER FLOWERS
Many of us think of bulbs as being planted in winter for the spring, but there's a huge variety of bulbs and tubers that can be planted now – yes, right now! – some of which will give you scented and beautiful blossoms in eight weeks’ time. Tuberoses, late-flowering alliums, lilies (although not if you have cats as they are poisonous to felines) and countless others can be found online for delivery and are great for instant gratification because they shoot up fast.
Bulbs are one of the easiest and sure-fire things to grow because you buy them when they’re already at a size that will reliably flower. (Just don’t plant them in clay, wet or boggy soil as it will rot them: so add grit to the planting hole if you’re using a container.) Dahlias, while a tuber and not a bulb, are another group of plants that – with some sun and care to remove snails and slugs – flower prolifically and reliably.
Out of fashion for years, dahlias have been making a comeback as people have learnt to mix them with more naturalistic borders, rather than have them as stiff show plants. The less fancy – but no less beautiful – ones are great to feed bees and butterflies, while the more glamorous cacti types are stunning and extravagant. Although dahlias can be grown on windowsills and balconies, it’s classical garden borders where they really come into their own (many people grow them in pots and transfer to the garden as they come into flower). As a bonus, all dahlias last well as cut flowers indoors.
WEED, FEED & SEED
With a bit of extra time on your hands and/or some child-sized helpers, what could be more productive than weeding neglected borders and lawns? Now is the perfect moment to remove your uninvited guests before they start to compete with the plants you want to flourish. You could transfer some weeds (teasels, evening primrose, etc) to a wilder spot – or further back in the bed – where they can grow this year to provide beauty for you, and food for pollinators.
Once you've dug out anything naughty, it's feeding time. A layer of well-rotted manure, compost or a commercial fertiliser to the suggested dose will help your soil to help your plants. Roses, peonies and dahlias are all hungry and flower better when fed well, and it’s just about now when they start to put on leaf.
Finally, if there are gaps in your lawn or flower beds, seed them. There are plenty of flower mixes that benefit our be-winged and buzzy garden buddies and, if planted before the end of April, they should be blooming in 8-12 weeks. Then you can sit back and enjoy the results of your labour in a post-lockdown world.
PLUG AND PLAY
Plug plants are baby plants and they come in different sizes: some may need to grow for a year before producing flowers, while others – especially annuals (plants that have a whole life cycle in one year) – will flower profusely this year. They’re called plug plants because they come in little plastic pots and you simply pop them out and plug them in.
It's worth knowing which ones will have the likelihood of flowers over the next few months and you’ll find that information in the description of the plant on the websites of online suppliers. XXL plug plants should flower this summer, even if they're perennials, but you’ll find they will flower better next year. Nonetheless they are definitely worth planting now while you have the opportunity to really pamper your garden and create the kinds of flower borders you’ve always wanted (and that look great in property photos!)
There’s something very special about the presence of water, and even a roof terrace or balcony can have a micro or container pond. Making one is a great project for kids to help with, but remember to take their safety into account depending on the size of your project.
There are some good internet guides on how to make various kinds of ponds that will nurture wildlife, from barrels to old sinks to using a liner for an in-ground pond. Oxygenating plants are recommended to keep the water good, while water lilies and other plants with elegant leaves can lend a pond a meditative and beautiful air, no matter how big or small. Toads and frogs will love you for a few stepping stones.
A pond can become a major help in protecting local wildlife by providing drinking spots for birds as well as breeding areas for amphibians (many of whom also will eat your snails and slugs). They’re also a useful water supply for bees and – gasp! – wasps, who, despite their terrible public relations, are also important pollinators and not just the 'bad guys' of the garden.
Whether you’re green-fingered or totally green, living alone or part of a larger household, there’s room for gardening in everyone’s life and in every home. Even if you’ve never picked up a watering can before, treat yourself to a few pots and supplies and watch your planting and prowess bloom.