Gardening: Working in the rain


After a cold snap recently we had three days of cold rain. By the second day, with no relief in sight, I went out to my garden and dug up the last of my root crops — carrots, watermelon radishes and purple daikon radishes. I figured that I'd better get them out of the ground while the getting was good. I came back wet and muddy, but feeling much more cheerful than before I went to the garden.

By day three, I was positively squirrely. I needed to do something outdoors. So I got dressed for an extended time in the garden: I layered on some Ibex brand wool long johns, two layers on top, and one on the bottom. Ibex makes its products from Merino wool, so they are not scratchy and seem to last forever. Then I put on rain pants and an LL Bean Gortex raincoat that keeps me dry and helps keep me warm. Rubber-palmed stretchy garden gloves protected my hands. Finally, I put on wool socks and my insulated Muck brand boots. I was ready.

I often warn gardeners not to walk on the garden soil when it is wet for fear of compacting it and ruining its structure. But I had some raised beds in the vegetable garden where I had harvested root crops –— but not the late-season weeds that were there. I figured that so long as I worked carefully and never stepped off the walkways that I'd be fine.

I used a garden fork to loosen the soil near tap-rooted dandelions, then carefully tugged them out. How had so many escaped my notice? Well, I guess it was the "late-season weed blindness" that many of us suffer from. It is often spring before I notice certain weeds — because they're blooming.

I did know, however, that I had a fair amount of chickweed (Stellaria media) in my garden, as that weed grows whenever the ground is not frozen — including early and late in the growing year. I once interviewed author David Mas Masumoto (author of "Epitaph for a Peach") who told me that chickweed is a "good weed." It's good because it blooms early and beneficial insects like ladybugs depend on its nectar for food before the aphids turn up as lunch.

Chickweed is a low-growing annual that has very small pointed leaves, each only a quarter to half an inch in length. The flowers –— and mine are present now — are small and white; on cold rainy days, the flowers are just like me — buttoned up tightly. With a hand lens or field scope you can see that it has fine hairs on only one side of the stem in a single band. It pulls easily, and best of all, it is edible in salads! I think it tastes like mache or miner's lettuce — okay to mix in, but not as a prime salad ingredient.

After about 15 minutes my hands were cold, so I went in and found my Ibex glove liners, which solved the problem. Wool is warm, even if wet. And I put on another layer of socks, and that kept my feet warm, too.

I buy composted cow manure by the truckload, and still have a supply left from last spring's delivery. So after weeding out two small beds I brought down a couple of wheelbarrows of compost, spread it on top of the beds and gently stirred it into the top few inches with a long-handled potato fork.

I grow my vegetables in beds that are mounded up, or occasionally boxed in with planks. In either case, plants take out soil ingredients, and every time you pull a weed (or carrot) some soil goes with the roots, no matter how careful you are. So beds need new soil or compost added each year to keep their size.

Once the beds were all prepared for spring, I found some lawn that had been covered with late-falling leaves — oaks. Oaks are among the last to shed their leaves, and so had escaped earlier raking. I gathered them up and used them to cover the beds.

During this period of cold, cloudy, dark, damp, dismal miserable weather I collected some greenery to use in vases this winter. Pachysandra is a common shade groundcover that will look good all winter in a vase of water. In fact, it will even set out roots into the water. Just keep the leaves out of the water, and change the water from time to time. It doesn't need to be on a sunny window, and can complement any flower arrangement you buy at the store. So I picked some and brought it in.

What else did I do during the week of wet weather? I did a little pruning — nothing major, no ladders, I just tuned up a few shrubs and a small tree. I have a common ninebark, one called Diablo, which looks as neat as an unmade bed right now. But I resisted the urge to prune it as I know it blooms early in the summer, and pruning it now would remove the flower buds. Lilacs, forsythia, and rhododendrons: all these and more have their buds ready for spring. Some flowers I can sacrifice, others not.

So if you get tired of being indoors, go ahead, dress up warmly and get out there — even if it's raining. It's very restorative.

Henry can be reached at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or by email at Please include a SASE if you wish a reply to questions by regular mail.


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