Gardening: Winter therapy

03 January 2020

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SUBSTANTIAL scientific research now backs up anecdotal evidence that gardening is good for our physical and mental well-being. The new Royal Horticultural Society Bridgewater garden is ahead of the game in hosting a GP-led social pre­scribing project and employs a therapeutic gardener to work with patients across the site. When the gar­den opens this autumn, the pro­fessional team will not be the only ones feeling a sense of achievement.

Most of us would benefit from some fresh air and exercise at this time of year; so allow me to pre­scribe some gentle pottering. As many plants are below ground or dor­mant, our gardens’ beckoning is weak, and, although we know the days have begun to lengthen, the pace is almost imperceptibly slow. The damp and cold feed our apathy; but, as with so much of life’s work, it is getting started that is the hardest bit. Mulch­ing that flower border can wait. It risks disturbing wildlife in your compost heap. Rather than tackle a big job, form a mental list of easily achieved tasks and choose one. Here are some suggestions:

  • Clear out nest boxes. It is the last opportunity to do this, as birds will begin to scout for new sites next month, and unhatched eggs can legally be removed only between Septem­ber and January (August-January in Scotland). Remove old nests and sterilise with boiling water.
  • Feed the birds. Pigeons can often dominate other species that prefer feeding at ground level rather than perching; so invest in a ground feeder with a protective wire cage over it. Provide a wide selection of grains, seeds, and fruit at different heights to attract a diverse range of birds. Fat balls are good sources of energy at this time of year, but should be held in wire cages rather than plastic nets, which have been known to trap birds’ feet or even tongues.
  • Force rhubarb by covering well-established crowns with an upturned bucket, dustbin, or clay forcer. Left-over bubble wrap or any other in­­sulating material lining the inside of the container will further encourage tender new shoots to emerge for an early harvest.
  • Sow some poppy seeds on a bare patch of raked soil in a spot that gets sun in summer. It seems too early, but all poppies, Welsh, opium and the common field variety, germinate better after exposure to cold. The seed is tiny, so will fall down tiny cracks in the soil surface. Don’t rake, as that is deep enough. They will ger­­­­mi­­nate during mild spells in spring.
  • Plant some garlic, before it is too late. Insert cloves 15cm apart and 2cm deep in well-drained soil. If the ground is sodden or frozen, you can start them off in individual small pots and then plant out the cloves as in­tact rootballs when conditions im­­prove.

One job often leads to spotting another, and, before you know it, the light is failing, and the warmth of in­­doors is calling.

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No. 2 | 3 April 2020

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