10 top gardening tips while self-isolated or social distancing

PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 April 2020

Get creative with the possibilities

Get creative with the possibilities

Leigh Clapp

If you’re fortunate to have a garden, self-isolation is the perfect opportunity to get out into it and have it looking better than ever.

Mother Nature isn’t affected; in fact it’s probably doing better with less pollution around, so here are some positive ideas to enjoy amongst the gloom of the coronavirus pandemic.

If you’re fortunate to have a garden, self-isolation is the perfect opportunity to get out into it and have it looking better than ever. The physical exercise and mental health benefits of spending time in the garden are well documented, being around plants even lowers stress levels, fear and anger – all feelings we are dealing with at this time. Here’s the chance to really tidy up, get creative, try some ‘make-do-and-mend’, divide plants as they come into growth and propagate your own stock, it’s easy and economical, and all while having a satisfying green-gym workout. Let us know how you get on and do share any of your own creative ideas. Remember though to use the same strict hygiene practices as inside, such as keeping your distance from other members of the family, ideally two metres, and thoroughly washing hands. If you haven’t a garden you may be able to plant up some pots for the windowsill, or at least open your windows, get some fresh air and look out at nature.

Take a stroll

Aim to get in your garden at least once a day, wander and slowly breathe, really notice the sights and sounds all around you. Time outside in the fresh air is a positive and soothing pursuit. With less traffic the bird song will be clearer, bees will be humming and you’ll have time to admire the beauty of the plants and observe insects as they go about their daily lives. You will save money on replacing plants, fertilising and watering if you use the mantra, ‘right plant, right place’. Instead of fighting the situation, go with the flow. Here’s the chance to closely observe your conditions at different times of the day, the sun, shade, wind, assess the soil and amount of natural moisture.

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Weed, plant and sow

With spring comes the weeds, so you’ll actually have time to get on top of them this year. A little weeding or deadheading each day is quite therapeutic. Regrow some plants from scraps. Onions are the easiest to try; just cut off the root end, leaving about ½in of onion on the roots, and then cover with soil in a sunny spot. To regrow spring onions and leeks put the root end in a jar of water for a few days, replacing with fresh water as needed. Garlic will grow from a single clove, planted with the root end down. A piece of leftover ginger root can be planted in soil with the newest buds facing up, in a moist, warm spot with non-direct sun, and it will regrow roots and shoots. With potatoes, cut into pieces with at least one or two eyes on each, let them dry out a bit for a day or two at room temperature, then plant about 8in deep with the eyes facing up, but only top with 4in of soil, then add more soil as the plant grows. Romaine lettuce, celery, cabbage and bok choi can all be regrown by cutting off the plant’s base and putting in water, then transplant into soil once the roots show.

You’ll probably have some seeds ready to sow, hopefully some edibles as well such as herbs or salad greens. Raise the seeds in punnets, seedling trays, or directly in the garden depending on what it advises on the pack. Keep them moist, as seeds need to absorb 40-60 per cent of their weight in water to start germination, and plant out when their leaves develop into prepared soil. The seeds also need air through the pore spaces in the soil so don’t do well in clay or silty soils. Seedlings can be raised under glass or inside on windowsills and then hardened off before planting out.

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Divide and multiply

Add to your garden for free. Clump forming plants, including herbaceous perennials, spreading shrubs, underground rhizomes, bulbs and tubers, can be divided every two or three years to increase your stock. You may need a sharp spade for large clumps such as agapanthus or kniphofias. Divide iris rhizomes after flowering by trimming back foliage, lifting, removing any dead pieces from the rhizome and replanting. Succulents are particularly easy to propagate as clump-forming varieties produce offsets and you can use take leaf cuttings from fleshy leaves species and stem cuttings from branching types.

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Cut and propagate

Propagating plants from cuttings is also economical and satisfying to see the young plants you’ve created and nurtured grow. Softwood cuttings are generally taken in spring or early summer, collected in the morning when the plant is turgid, full of water. Cut softwood cuttings diagonally at a leaf node or leaf stem junction, making cuttings about 15cm long, remove the lower leaves so there are only two or three at the top. Make a small hole in the free-draining compost potting mix with a stick before inserting the cutting. Each cutting needs to have at least one node underground and one above. Dip the end of the cutting into honey or hormone rooting powder to encourage root development. Put a few cuttings in each pot, as success is not always guaranteed, firm down and keep moist. Place the pot in a propagator case or cover with a plastic bag ventilated twice a week. Cuttings need good light but not direct sun and ensure the compost is moist until well-rooted. As leaves appear, harden off and transplant into larger pots and then into the garden when at the required size.

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Make do and mend

Look at your tools and equipment, are there things you have at hand to clean and repair them? Use a stiff scrubbing brush to remove dirt on hand tools, wash them down with a disinfectant and dry well. Fix any loose nails on furniture or sheds. Gather discarded items, such as old timber and make them into something, from bug hotels to raised beds. Use fallen or cut branches to edge beds or paths, smaller pieces can be re-imagined as plant labels. Repurpose items, from wellies as planters, to making a scarecrow from old clothes and fabric.

It’s good sense financially and environmentally to make your own compost to improve the soil and replenish nutrients. Create a compost bay with recycled timbers where water can drain away and worms can get in and do their work. Put in some leaves, twigs and branches, as they’ll help aerate the heap. Good things to compost include fruit and veg peelings, prunings, grass cutting and tea bags which will quickly break down as well as cardboard egg containers, egg shells, leaves and scrunched-up paper. Don’t put in meat or dairy products or diseased plants and perennial weeds. Add a layer of soil on top. It’s essential to regularly turn or aerate your pile, don’t let it dry out and get the balance right of wet ‘greens’ and dry ‘browns’. Your compost is ready when there is a dark soil-like, spongy layer at the bottom.

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Plan and design

You have time to browse your gardening books and magazines, come up with ideas to implement at another date, draw out designs, or research and list new plants you’d like to try. Dream big or small and let your ideas free.

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Get creative

Make some plant supports and teepees from stems and twigs. The simplest support for climbers is a wigwam of three or four canes or sticks, placed at corners and secured at the top. Sticks can catch you in the eye so top your supports with upturned pots or bottles to avoid injury. Willow, hazel and birch are great choices, you just need to cut small, sturdy and flexible branches and have a stock ready to use. Place supports twisted and woven together as a cage to let plants grow through. You can also make teepees out of bamboo canes or sticks for containers, pushed into the potting mix to secure, then bind the top. Reuse your supports to create an insect hotel or leave in log piles for wildlife.

If you have any left-over outdoor paint, brighten up your garden. You can even have some fun with stripes or other patterns using up the paints or sample pots to give a new lease of life to old furniture, pots and sheds or create your own sculptural focal points. Look for pieces you can upcycle and make unique additions to your garden with a lick of paint. Clean and sand to remove existing finish and use a multi-surface exterior paint. Turn old tins, as you could have plenty of those by now, into plant pots, left silver or painted, even a vertical wall of them is possible. Broken china could become mosaic stepping-stones – there are endless possibilities.

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Be thoughtful

Now is the time to show some humanity and think of your neighbours. If you have surplus produce on your home veg plot pop some on a neighbours’ doorstep. Do phone or drop a note through the letterbox to let them know it’s there. A bunch of freshly picked flowers would also be most welcome.

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Store cupboard ecological controls

Homemade garlic, nettle, soap, tomato and basil sprays are effective against aphids, mites and thrips. For a garlic spray insect repellent, puree two bulbs with one tablespoon of vegetable oil, let it sit overnight, strain, add one teaspoon of mild liquid soap and one litre of water to fill the spray container. A chilli spray can be made by mixing one tablespoon of chilli powder with one litre of water and some drops of liquid soap. Keep in mind that you don’t want to kill off all the insects in your garden, rather aim for a healthy ecosystem. Sprinkling coffee grounds around vegetables and roses will encourage earthworms, repel insects and provide nutrients. Tea leaves offer nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, lower the pH, can be used in the compost and also a brew of weak tea can be used to water plants to deter pests and fungal diseases. To deter white cabbage butterflies try golf balls or white eggshells, washed so they don’t attract cats. Placing physical barriers for protection, from tree guards to mini cloches is an age-old technique.

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Physical and mental fitness

Being outside in the beauty of nature is good for your mental and physical health. Why not take it a step further and turn your garden into a green gym or meditation studio? Take a mat, rug or towel, spread it out and just relax, watch the clouds chase across the sky and empty your mind. If you have a meadow patch, lying on the ground gives a completely different perspective of the daisies and other flowers. Do some of your favourite exercises, invent new ones, dance to some music or sit quietly and meditate, the choice is yours. You could even create a journey path through the garden, your own modified meditative labyrinth, where you can walk slowly quieting your mind.

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