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The Wheelbarrow Gardener - Spring in the garden

The Wheelbarrow Gardener - Spring in the garden

Are you feeling the effects of winter? Our gardening expert Trevor Bridge shows you how to get your garden, and you, ready for summer…

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Spring is here! After a long winter the birds are bursting into song, welcoming in the longer days and the warmer weather. Our gardens are wakening up and there is a fresh beginning with the first flush of green. All around us leaves are unfurling, bulbs are flowering and trees and shrubs are coming into blossom. These are all signs that fill gardeners with a sense of well-being. There is excitement and a feeling of joyful anticipation as we return to our gardens and vegetable plots.

Gardening is of course very good for our health in so many ways. A great deal of research shows that gardening rates as highly as other forms of exercise such as walking and cycling. At the end of a long session of digging or forking we definitely feel like we’ve done a hard day’s work, strengthening our muscles and burning calories. Gardening involves stretching to reach for weeds or tall branches and bending to sow seeds. Pushing wheelbarrows, mowing the lawn, lifting sacks of mulch, turning compost, raking, digging and shovelling use many different muscles, leading to healthier bones and joints. Gardening is a calmer form of exercise with minimal jarring and stress on the body, unlike jogging or aerobics. However, after the relative hibernation of winter, remember to protect your body - ease yourself in by starting with gentler activities just as you would with any other form of exercise.

As well as good exercise, gardening is good for the psyche. Spending time in the fresh air growing plants affords a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It is calming, lots of fun and creative. Creating a garden gives us direct contact with the beauty of nature, and seeing the results of our labours - our flowers, fruit and vegetables - provides us with a warm feeling of achievement. Not forgetting of course that growing our own fresh produce promotes nutritional health, providing food that is free from artificial pesticides and herbicides and high in vitamins and minerals.

Being out in the garden fulfils our natural desire to feel the warm rays of the sun on our faces. This provides us with essential vitamin D, which is created by the action of sunlight on the skin. Our levels are at their lowest at this time of year after the long winter. We make 90% of our vitamin D naturally from sunlight exposure to our skin.

 

 

WHAT TO DO IN YOUR GARDEN NOW

It seems a long time since we’ve done any serious gardening with not much happening over the winter months. Don’t be concerned, the period of inactivity is over as April is a busy time in the gardening year with the soil temperature rising, enabling us to get back outside sowing seeds directly into the ground. The soil is even warmer in May when plants put on growth, seeds germinate rapidly, seedlings grow faster and we can sow tender crops such as French beans and courgettes. This is when we become eager for our plants to mature, anticipating the joys of eating newly harvested produce, which of course tastes better than that bought in shops, and being fresher, has more nutritional value.

There are many things to sow now. Crops like radish, French beans, lettuce and salad greens such as rocket can have an initial sowing, then a few weeks later re-sow to provide a succession of fresh vegetables at the peak of perfection. If May is dry, soak your seed drills before sowing then water with a fine rose afterwards. However, be patient. If the soil temperature has not reached 10°C for French beans and sweetcorn and 13°C for courgettes, squash, marrows, pumpkins, cucumbers and tomatoes, wait until June to sow these temperature sensitive crops. Otherwise germination will be poor, and any seedlings that appear will not crop as well as those started in warmer soils.

April and May bring warmer wet weather which encourages weeds. Hoe regularly to stop them becoming a problem - it is much easier to hoe off seedlings when they are still small. Perennials such as dandelion, dock and horsetail will need their roots removing. You will need to be persistent, but you will eventually eradicate them. Sorry - there’s not much time to relax at the moment, but at least you will benefit from the exercise!

Above all, enjoy returning to your garden; relish being out of doors in the fresh air getting fitter. Look forward to summer, nurturing your plants, tending your flowers and harvesting your vegetables, and to the unsurpassed pleasure of eating them fresh from your plot.

 

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WEATHER

The improving weather here in Poitou-Charentes has a positive effect on our outlook on life as well as prompting the reawakening of our gardens. There a large increase in average temperatures from 11.7˚C in March to 18.2˚C in April, then there is a slight fall to 16.4˚C in May. April showers bring quite low rainfall, averaging 53 mm, but May is a very wet month, with 73 mm. If we get a late spring though, May can be a stabilising month when plants respond more quickly to the milder and wetter conditions.

 

 

TREVORS TIPS

Common sense tells us that flowers make us happy but scientific research also shows that they have strong positive effects on our emotional well-being. Flowers bring about contented feelings and a general sense of well-being. There are many different ways to cultivate flowers:

 

HANGING BASLETS

When the last of the frost has passed plant up hanging baskets with summer annuals and place them where they are most visible. Don’t forget to keep them watered.

 

BEDDING PLANTS

Spring bedding plants provide rare early colour in the garden. Remove them in May when they stop flowering and prepare the ground for a colourful display of summer bedding.

 

RAMBLING ROSES

Rambling and climbing roses are very floriferous and easy to grow on a wall or trellis. Once established tie them in so that their stems are horizontal to encourage side-shoots to grow upwards and produce more flowers.

 

POTS OF PELARGONIUMS

Pelargoniums make a lovely bright and colourful summer display in pots and containers. Often known as geraniums (in France they are called géraniums), they are easily obtained from garden centres and nurseries as seeds or plants, or they can be propagated by taking softwood cuttings. This is also a method of over-wintering them. When all frost danger has passed move stored pelargoniums back outdoors. If necessary trim them back, feed and
re-pot. Water well.

 

COMPANION PLANTING

Some flowers can help others when planted together. Marigolds deter carrot fly and aphids. Nasturtiums attract caterpillars – grow them close to brassicas and lettuce as they will attract the pests away from the crop. If you grow chrysanthemums or sunflowers plant chives next to them as their scent wards off aphids.

 

WATER LILIES

If you have a pond you could plant a water lily. To increase them and keep them healthy they should be divided every few years. Choose pieces of rhizome with vigorous growing tips, cut off with a sharp knife and pot up individually.

 

VEGETABLE TO SOW: GLOBE ARTICHOKES ARTICHAUT

Globe artichokes have a delicate flavour and are great as part of a healthy lifestyle. One large artichoke contains only 25 calories, no fat, 170 mgs of potassium, and is a good source of vitamin C, folate, magnesium and dietary fibre. They contain one of the highest anti-oxidant levels of all vegetables and provide cynarin and silymarin which have strong positive effects on the liver.

They are large architectural plants, seen in most potagers of the region, but also make good structural plants in the flower garden. Plants can be bought, but if you know anyone who grows artichokes, beg an offset in April. Dividing them is easy – cut off an offset with a spade so that you have a few leaves and some root, then plant it in an open, sunny, well-drained site. Water well and mulch with organic compost. Prevent flowers forming in the first summer by pinching out all buds - they need all their energy for growth. In year two, restrict the number of main buds (king heads) to five or six then allow the edible heads to develop. Pick the top bud first, when it’s large and swollen, but before the scales have started to open - leave a few centimetres of stem attached. Pick the side buds when they are ready.

Cut back stems in autumn and protect the crown over winter with a thick mulch of bark chippings, straw or other organic material.

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VEGETABLE TO HARVEST: ASPARAGUS ASPERGE 

Asparagus is one of the healthiest foods on the planet, beating most fruit and vegetables with the huge range of nutrients it supplies. One medium spear contains only 4 calories and no fat, yet provides a wide variety of minerals such as selenium, zinc, calcium, copper, and manganese. Plus, it is very rich in folate and provides a wide variety of antioxidant nutrients, including beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E.

Harvest spears from established plants for 6 to 8 weeks from May to early summer. Don’t harvest from crowns less than 2 years old.

 

FLOWERS TO GROW: SUNFLOWER TOURNESOL 

Just looking at the cheery nodding face of a sunflower heightens the senses and brings a smile to ones face. These large plants with massive blooms are easy to grow and in winter wild birds benefit from eating their nutritional seeds when there is less natural food available. We also benefit from watching these colourful creatures tucking in. Choose a sunny spot and sow seeds in rows with the tallest varieties at the back. They germinate quickly and by mid-summer you will have masses of flowers.

 

 

HEALTHY SEEDS

If you use seeds left over from previous years test them a while before sowing to ensure they are healthy. Make an envelope for each variety by folding a paper towel in four. Moisten the paper, place 10 seeds of each variety in each envelope, then place in a plastic bag and close. Note down the varieties, the quantities and the date. Count the number of seeds that germinate. 80% plus is good, below 50% poor.

 

 

DAY OUT:

Jardin des Plantes Médicinales et Verger Conservatoire

A herb garden and an orchard form part of an historic site containing a 16th century collegiate and a 17th century commandery or hospice where Antonine monks cared for the needy. Extensive restoration was carried out to the buildings and gardens during the 1980s. The well-tended medicinal herb garden contains ancient local healing plants including fourteen used by the monks to cure the medieval illness ‘St Antoine’s Fire’ and others used as poison. The formal orchard features 107 types of apple, many of which are now rare, 58 pear varieties, 18 types of grape
and 17 varieties of roses

79310 Saint Marc La Lande
free admission, open all year, guided tours by appointment
www.maison-patrimoine.fr

 

 

Trevor is a landscape architect who ran a busy practice in the UK for 20 years. He and his wife Jocelyn moved to an ancient fermette in Poitou-Charentes in 2004 where they garden organically and keep bees and hens.