Priority action! But which first?

In many things timing is everything. “What is the difference between a good gardener and a bad gardener? About a month!” Or “There’s a right time for doing every gardening task; and for most it was a fortnight ago!”

When you first start gardening there is an overwhelming number of basically simple tasks and routines to get used to. The seasoned gardener has years of practice; not only of performing those tasks but also of arranging the timing of them. The old hand knows just how long he can leave the weeds to grow before they need hoeing, of when to prune or trim this and that, or sow, or water. He is conscious of each seasonal task before they come round and does each in order without reminder. The novice has to learn all of this and often with little guidance. In other words- Exactly what should you do NOW, which task is a priority, and which can wait a day or a week or is too late already.

It is so easy to spend vast amounts of time, money and labour and not make much of an impression on a garden, when with better timing a simple task works wonders. I once enjoyed watching new neighbors hack their way into a long overgrown garden in late summer. They had a hard time with thistles, nettles, docks and so on six feet deep. Still they persisted and cleared it all despite the pits, bricks, wire and junk troubling them all the way. Then they started digging the bone dry ground as they wanted to grow vegetables and had not yet realized there was little they could sow till the next spring. If they had just waited till winter when the top growth withered they could have cleared the area in one tenth the time with much less bother and dug the moister soil so much more easily.

For years I maintained my own garden and for my living maintained dozens of others. Gardening friends were amazed as they rarely kept on top of their own gardens by devoting every evening and weekend to them whereas I looked after so many in so little time, often less than an hour or two a week, how could I do it all?

A few things made all the difference. I was only maintaining gardens; not changing them, or pottering about enjoying them, and they were already up and running in good order. I was professional; in other words the job was done for money, it had to be done as profitably in time as possible thus I had good sharp tools -and knew where they were. I was not responsible for certain tasks such as picking or processing any produce, maintaining the fabric of the buildings etc and these can take a lot of time. Most importantly; I had an ordered routine applied to each and every garden that got each job done so none were overlooked -and the most urgent were done first in case the weather broke!

Once a routine is established it’s easier to keep on top of the many different tasks involved in running a garden. But as everyone soon finds out; although a veg. plot, orchard or fruit cage can get by with only weekly attentions as soon as you have a greenhouse or even a cold frame you are into daily, indeed twice daily ministrations. The number of tasks gets much bigger again if you raise and pot up your own seedlings and plants.

Even if you establish a routine there soon comes a day when everything is screaming to be done immediately and there simply is not enough time to do all the tasks. It’s then you need to do the most important jobs and delay others. But again the novice is given little help as to the relative urgency of each task in terms of potential crop lost. Often much worry and time is spent on pest and disease control whereas a more serious loss of crop is occurring elsewhere for other reasons.

‘The daily round’. So here are the most frightfully urgent tasks which having been completed enable you to move on to the less pressing tasks. Remember a twice daily visit is essential as soon as you have any form of greenhouse, coldframe, plants in pots and especially seedlings. As you go note other tasks needing attention -but do not digress to them.

  1. Ventilate. Most crucial of all if you do not install automatic vents is opening, and closing, greenhouses and frames. It is amazing how quickly temperatures soar and plants suffer and die. Worse still are glass covered trays and small propagators which in full sun can cook whole batches of seeds and seedlings quickly. Likewise closing is often left too late and should be by mid-afternoon not later.

  2. Watering. As crucial as ventilation and forget old ideas about morning or evening etc. during the growing season water everything well and often and remember to drain off pots etc well afterwards.

  3. Harvest. Collect what you have as letting it go over is foolish. And for many crops picking extends their season whilst with many such as tomatoes leaving the crop on to over ripen suppresses more forming.

  4. Inspect. Examine everything looking for tasks that need doing urgently and otherwise, and noting them.

  5. Decide which of the next set of tasks are most pressing-

‘Weekly round of things slightly less urgent’. Only when those tasks of the daily round are completed should you move on to these the most crucial of which also in terms of loss of crop are-

  1. Sow. If you don’t sow it then it can’t grow! Sowing windows are critical; for example Japanese onions must be sown in mid –August or they will fail for sure.

  2. Prick out. Leaving seedlings to choke each other is extremely counter-productive as only an extra few days will seriously stunt them. The more crowded they are the worse and ideally most seeds should be sown singly in pots or cells, and station sown in the ground. Trials showed tomato seedlings pricked out after a three to four days made plants twice as big as those left over the week before pricking out.

  3. Pollinate. This must be done when flowers open and before they are too old, transferring pollen from male to female with a brush. Although not needed by many crops if you fail to do this for such as early melons you are unlikely to get fruits.

  4. Pot on. Like with pricking out any delay and cramping is detrimental to yields. I once left some seedlings in a multi-celled tray to get bigger before I planted them out. They never got bigger they just bolted. Give your plants space and pot on as soon as the roots start to cover the inside of the pot. Likewise plant out as soon as possible, not later and harden plants off wisely, with planning, over several days at least.

  5. Protect. Be it heating in the greenhouse or cloches against the wind or cold, nets against the birds, fleece vs fly or wire baskets against the cats. It is worse than foolish to grow crops without then giving them physical protection against obvious known frequent hazards. Likewise treat actual pest & disease attacks as soon as they’re spotted and before they spread.

  6. Cull. For all sorts of reasons we keep far too many plants going which compete for air, light, water and attention worse than weeds. Immediately cull the sick, the poor, the leggy, the pale, spotty and the odd looking. Thin all sowings and plantings. Likewise thin fruits, as soon as possible and on several occasions to improve those left.

  7. Weed. Weeds compete viciously with our crops and need control promptly or they only get worse, hoeing every week is quicker than once monthly! However once a crop is three quarters grown weeds become irrelevant and weeding can be deferred.

  8. Feed. You can’t feed them twice next week to make up for missing it! In the open ground organic gardeners should need no feeds but if you do have plants in containers then they almost always need some extra nutrition and this is best given a little and often rather than in heavy doses every few weeks. I tend to like alliteration and Feed on Friday as a pnemonic.

Once all these most urgent tasks of the weekly round have been done should you move on to the next rank of slightly less urgent and in many ways more seasonal tasks that come round. Of course there are too many of these to make a complete list. Ranked by urgency in effect on loss of crop some of the most important are-

Inspecting crops in stores. Once the crop is won it is often neglected, so remove the rots before they infect more.

Propagation. Similar to sowing but with less urgency however you need to remember to take cuttings and divide crowns at the right time or they are likely to fail.

Checking supports and ties. Prompt action is needed with annual crops, some delay may be safer with trees etc. however bad support or choking ties are often the cause of a total loss.

Summer pruning. A dramatic way of improving crop yields and quality but the timing is crucial and varies from crop to crop.

Winter pruning. Done with no such urgency as summer pruning but still the sooner done the better.

Compost turning. Although I rate collecting and making compost very important there is little urgency to when the heap is turned or sieved so such a task can be left till a day when a friend is available to help!

Passive pest & disease control. Making and setting bird boxes, bumble bee nests and so on are important but again should be done when all the other more pressing tasks are completed.

Last of all should be such tasks as fettling tools, sorting seeds, making plans on paper, washing pots and so on which can all be done by artificial rather than precious day light.

Of course it is easy to add or omit many other tasks and to rearrange priorities but perhaps this list of suggestions will act as a guide. A notebook will be found handy as our memories can stumble and an old diary is even better. Write in it future tasks that will need doing in any week as soon as you think of them. And the default- write the task in the week you should have done it to remind you next year.