Let gardening ease some self-isolation anxiety
If someone were to say I must self-isolate in the garden for the next few weeks, I would shake him or her by the hand. If I could. Here’s a thumbs-up from a distance of 2m or more. The neighbourhood pavements and footpaths are thronged with the cabin-fevered, so what better place to be outdoors and yet away from others than in your garden?
The mark of a true gardener is a person who does not see a finished landscape but a series of tasks that need to be tackled. This isn’t as onerous as it sounds, because it gets to the essential elements of gardening: creativity, honest toil and the satisfaction of a job well done.
Aches and pains come along for the ride, but that’s what baths are for. Just as many of us have been able to compartmentalise ourselves from the coronavirus, we should divide our gardening into a series of discrete tasks or projects. Without that focus, it can become overwhelming. A little every day will accrue to a garden transformation by May.
Apart from attending to the practical aspects of spring gardening, you are also cultivating your mental health. Weeding can have a Zen quality about it – something to do with clearing the soil while emptying the mind.
This is the perfect time to get lettuces and other greens started by direct sowing in the garden. But first I must deal with lingering winter weeds, which are in the way of my sowing beds. Those weeds that are out of the way also need to go, as they are ready to flower and seed. In preparing seedbeds that are weedy, I turn the soil and remove dislodged weeds as I go. I prefer to use a garden fork instead of a spade or shovel, and I work backwards so that I’m not stepping on newly turned soil.
Some people sow seeds in blocks; I like the order of rows. After the bed is raked smooth, I mark each line with string staked at each end and pulled taut. I follow the line of the string with a knife, scoring a thin, deep furrow for the little seedlings to send down their roots. For most spring veggies, I separate the rows by the width of my hand span.
You can sow many cool-season vegetables now, including lettuce, mesclun mixes (assorted leafy greens), rocket, carrots, chard, beets, radishes and mustard greens. The leafy stuff will sit around in April and then grow rapidly in May. Remember to thin them as they grow. If you just have a small balcony, you can sow the same things in pots; make sure they drain and have a sunny location, and water them daily. You can also grow sprouts; they grow so quickly that it’s hard to go wrong.
You will need some supplies for gardening – fertilisers, tools, seeds, plants – but if you are uncomfortable venturing out, there’s always online ordering and delivery.
Other projects? Where the lawn meets a growing bed, get a spade and redefine the edge; a string line will keep things straight. Those sunken patio paving slabs can be lifted and reset on a replenished bed of sand or stone dust.
I once installed a simple drain in an area that was staying waterlogged. I dug a 20ft trench about 18in deep and across and set a perforated pipe in it, surrounded by gravel. The pipe and gravel were wrapped in filter fabric to prevent siltation, and the pipe was laid at a gentle slope within the trench so that it emptied near an existing drain at the lower end. A few inches of soil and mulch hid the whole thing.
This is also a good time to attack overgrown thickets of shrubbery that have outlived their purpose. I won’t downplay the toil of such a job, but if you go to the trouble of grubbing out the roots and preparing the bed, you will have fresh real estate to plant with ground covers, perennials and shrubs that will revive a corner of the garden and lift your spirits.
Be careful when you work, and make sure you have sturdy clothing, footwear and gloves. Don’t step on a protruding nail or put a wire through your ear; the last thing health workers need at the moment is to deal with a perforated gardener. The key to these projects is pacing. If you are weary, stop, and if you are worried about missing the spring planting window because a project is taking too long, just attend to the planting later. (Tender plants don’t go outside until May, and the best season for cool-season veggies is late summer into autumn.)
Do set aside a cosy place to sit; all you need is a flat area, a couple of garden chairs and a table, and perhaps an umbrella against the sun. I have been known to brew up some tea on a camp stove after working a few hours in the garden.
I got the idea from my brother, who would spend much of the day working in his large community garden and finish up by building a campfire of foraged sticks around his outdoor hearth of bricks. Once the coals were right, we would cook sausages in a pan, and enjoy them hot-dog style. This was followed by a pastry sufficiently armed with whipped cream and jam. This was in a rural place. Open fires are a thornier proposition in the city, but there’s always the barbecue.