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Look after your soil – Gardening with Daphne Ledward

February fill-dyke – either black or white, so the saying goes, and it’s true that this month can be a very wet one.   But with winter rains already well above average, and last summer being one of the wettest on record, any more rain will only contribute to the already saturated condition of soils in most areas so it’s a good idea to start taking steps now to improve drainage if we are to get good results later on in 2013.

There may be some parts of your garden that are nearly always soggy.   Rather than installing land drains to take the surplus water away, which is usually a costly operation and not always successful, it’s best to go along with the conditions and plant a bog garden – there are many beautiful plants that thrive in wet soil.

It is generally possible to improve drainage through good gardening practice, though.  With really heavy clay soils, you may need to dig in grit to open up the texture.   Horticultural gypsum will encourage the soil particles to bond together into  larger ones, and liming can open up and sweeten a heavy, sour soil.   However, the best way of improving drainage for all soils is to increase the amount of organic material; this will improve its performance in every season.   From autumn until spring it will help surplus moisture to run through, while retaining it during the summer when, hopefully, there will be some let-up in the almost constant rain we’ve experienced for the last nine months.

Good, home-made garden compost is just the material for improving your soil; not only will it help drainage and texture, but it will also add nutrients in small amounts.   Don’t use badly-made, wet, slimy stuff, though, as this will only make matters worse.   Invest in some bags of soil conditioner or processed farmyard manure instead, or check with your local recycling depot to see if they sell compost produced from recycled garden waste – some areas even give it away when you recycle your garden rubbish.   If you are lucky enough to know someone who has horses, they might be glad to give you their stable manure, which does much the same job if dug in thoroughly -  opening up heavy soils to help them to drain, while holding moisture and nutrients in light, sandy ones.  Also, any extra organic matter will provide home for millions more beneficial micro-organisms and help increase the availability of nutrients.

Bulky organic materials such as these alone won’t usually provide enough nutrients to keep all plants happy throughout the year unless you have a lot of it, and it will be necessary to provide additional nutrients at appropriate times.   February is a good month to give your roses their first application of rose fertiliser, followed by a further one as the first flush of flowers fades; this is also a good feed for clematis.   A late winter application of a compound organic fertiliser such as fish, blood and bone about a month before starting to sow or plan this season’s vegetable crops will get them off to a flourishing start.   Slow-release compound feeds can be used on the flower garden at this time of year; one top-dressing should be adequate to keep them healthy for the next twelve months.

Leave quick release fertilisers such as sulphate of ammonia, pelleted chicken manure and dried blood until the end of the month, when the plants that will benefit from them, such as overwintering brassicas and onions and ornamental grasses, will be starting into growth.

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