Traditional raised beds.
GARDENING THE weather! There would be an awful lot more silence about if we didn’t have it to discuss, wouldn’t there?
For the gardener, at this time of year, when preparation is key, I don’t need to tell you the land is too wet to tread, let alone work, but there are some jobs that can be done this very weekend — weather permitting.
It is time to get the secateurs busy as there are plenty of pruning jobs to get on with.
Established, free-standing apple and pear trees can be given some attention but not cordons, espaliers, pyramids or fans, which should be left until summer.
Pruning of all stone fruit must be left until spring or summer.
Make sure you have a plan of attack and do not just prune for the sake of it. You should be thinking about removing the following:
• The four Ds — any growth that is dead, dying, damaged or diseased (such as infected by canker).
• Growth that is crossing from one side of the tree to the other, as this can reduce airflow and increase disease problems.
• Any branches that are rubbing, as this can cause damage.
• Any branches that are growing too low and any that are growing too tall.
Currants and gooseberries can be pruned now. Start by thinning out very old, thin and diseased growth.
Prune red and white currants and gooseberries by cutting back main branches by half to three-quarters and sideshoots on these branches to one to three buds from their base.
For blackcurrants, cut back up to one third to a half of all the older branches to their base to give plenty of room for young, vigorous growth.
Grape vines can be pruned now; major pruning at other times can lead to severe bleeding, which will weaken the vine and may even kill it if it is not well established. This year’s sideshoots should be hard pruned to one or two buds.
• Tip: Carefully rubbing off the old, loose bark of indoor grape vines can help deter overwintering pests.
Raised beds can also be built — not perhaps the traditional type because of the underfoot conditions but those of a special kind I saw on a summer trail of gardens great and small at Binstead.
In one tiny back yard, space was at a premium and the knees of the householders were perhaps not what they once were. So a novel, raised-box solution emerged.
Along the back wall of their home was a line of what at first look could appear to be rabbit hutches but these contained all manner of produce for the kitchen.
These mini kitchen gardens were highly productive and the ideal solution for those who are perhaps not so able to bend as they were and householders who do not have the available space for traditional beds.
Knocked up from bits and pieces of timber, they should last for several seasons and could be the ideal construction job in the shed or workshop if the heavens decide to open on us again.
These were especially good because they had hinged windbreak mesh roofs, which would be closed to provide protection to the plants when young and vulnerable but still letting in light and air.
These, and the more usual raised beds, give the sort of controlled environments gardeners crave.
Traditional raised beds give the advantage of fertile, rich soil over what may well be an impoverished topsoil that would require a lot of work to get shipshape.
Raised beds also give the advantage of a hard edge, un-scalable by perennial weeds, such as couch grass.
I personally prefer the boarded-edge raised bed for that reason but they can be merely piles of soil, compost and manure several inches higher than the existing soil level. They obviously require a good deal more maintenance.
Aside from avoiding the issue of gardening in poor soil, raised beds offer other key advantages.
They warm more quickly in spring and they drain much better, which is vital to produce plants such as asparagus whose crowns rot out with wet 'feet’.
Vegetable and herb gardens flourish in them, as well as flowers, strawberries and cane fruit. It is very easy to make the mistake of making a raised bed too wide.
One of the great advantages is that, aside from being attractive islands of productivity among a sea of grass, they do not need to be trodden if they are 4ft, or so, wide, thus avoiding compaction.
If the soil beneath is reasonable — and it should be dug before the material above is imported — additional depth need be no more than six inches but double that should be the aim if you are constructing on clay.
They can also be placed on a hard surface but will need a layer of broken hardcore or gravel as a base, to stop the soil and compost mix being washed out.
One of the great joys of raised beds is they are of manageable size and are not daunting at digging time and can be merely top dressed with fresh compost and manure a few weeks before sowing or planting.