Gardening Guide

February is planting season

(All photos: Shutterstock)

I am still pondering the Lazy Person’s Garden. I have started to nurture the few cactus and succulents that I have and I intend to buy some more, but I still hanker after colour and, in that mood, ordered seeds. Now I have quite a lot of seeds to plant. This is not a task for really lazy gardeners, but the result is fun. I tend to go out every morning to see what has come up and it gives me a great wonder and happiness when they do. I haven’t actually planted many because it is still early and it could get very cold at night, which might damage them; so I only plant as many as I can carry inside to protect them from the really inclement weather.

In case you also get tempted, I thought I would revise some of the little tricks that you might have forgotten. To begin with, save all of the bubble-wrap you have; it makes a perfect protection tucked around seed pots or plants. It allows the light to get through and holds some warmth, accumulated during the day, to comfort the growing things at night. Also it’s free!

I soak big seeds like peas or sweet peas, or seeds with very hard shells, in a tepid, weak solution of fungicide for an hour or two before I sow them. Really tiny seeds I sow with a (well washed) salt shaker with a steady hand while trying to make sure that I have even coverage. I also make sure that the surface of the soil is level and slightly tamped down. Then I have an old sugar shaker – with bigger holes – which I fill with fine soil, or even clean sand, to cover the seeds – if it is so recommended (some seeds need light to germinate).

I leave it to settle down a while then water with a weak solution of manzanilla tea which prevents drying off. I use the manzanilla spray after the seeds have produced their first real leaves, especially if the weather is warm and damp. Remember that plantlets are affected by climatic effects other than hot and cold. Downpours can wash them out of the soil: their roots are not very strong. Wind is a killer. It robs the plants – of any size – of their own mini-climate of humidity, and they will dry out and die trying to re-establish it.

If you’ve sown the seeds too thickly, don’t thin them by pulling the extras out; that will disturb the roots of the wanted ones. I use nail scissors to snip them off at the soil surface: the points on the blades make it easier to select. Remember that young roots are very tender, hold off on the fertilizer until the plants are well established.

Now we come to the next step: transplanting, if needed. This also applies to pretty plants in little pots with a few extra steps. First step: water the plant well, dig it out with as much soil around the roots as you can. Second step: dig the hole and water it well. Hold the plant gently by the stem in one hand and lower it equally gently into the hole keeping the level of soil surface the same. Use your other hand to scoop soil into the hole, firming it gently. I find it easier to do this with clean dry soil. When that is done you can firm the surface around the plant – again gently! Later you can once again water.

The extra steps for pretty little plants in little pots starts when you are buying them. Try pulling each out of its pot, if it won’t come or has roots hanging out of the bottom, put it back. Not for the lazy gardener! When you get the little plant back home and are ready to transplant it, water it well so that the soil adheres to the roots. If it is a solid ball of roots, soak it in a bowl of water and try to tease the roots out a bit (it probably has more roots than it immediately needs). If you don’t do this the roots take ages to venture out into your lovely garden soil. I have pulled out plants at the end of the season which have been growing (not well) and the roots have stayed within the confines of their original pot size.

The hole that you dig should be wider so that you can spread the teased-out roots, and your addition of soil to the hole should be more firmly tamped down, or watered gently after each scoop. Remember that the little plant is weakened – a patient (think of the care that a human patient gets after an organ transplant). Coddle it, shade it, cover it until it gets acclimatized; its damaged roots need time to settle in and supply all that the plant needs to flourish. After a while it will probably appreciate a little weak fertilizer in a ring around the plant to encourage those roots to reach for it. This is of enormous importance since we are gardening in a Mediterranean climate. The plants that survive our climate do so by pushing their roots deep into the soil which is cooler and may still retain some moisture. Thyme and rosemary have very fine roots up to five metres long. A tomato plant had roots that were measured at thirty metres before the investigators gave up. That in a place where tomatoes are perennials, of course.

I hope that thousand words or so of instruction will not discourage you: this is not an exaggeration but it is an advocacy of care for a living thing, and almost always a guarantee of success.

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