The squirrels won’t be the only ones hibernating this winter

The chill is setting in and all ideas of al fresco dinning have long past. With the sun setting by 5pm in the evening it’s a wonder how everyone can even manage 10 minutes in the garden. With all that in mind it seems unnecessary to have your patio furniture and garden bench sitting out on the patio.  And with the extreme weather conditions that come with winter it makes great scene to protect your garden furniture from these conditions in winter. If you don’t have a large enough shed and your garden storage box is full of other items sheltering from the winter cold then maybe you should consider using a bench cover to protect your bench from the winter elements.

Bad weather such as wind, rain, snow and frost will slowing but constantly wear away at and break down your garden furniture over the course of years. To keep your garden furniture looking great and working its best for many years you will need to maintain it and look after it. Using a bench cover or other furniture cover is just one of a number of things that can be done to keep your furniture at its best.

With wooden benches and furniture it is recommended that you gently sand down all wooden surfaces and then paint with a wood oil such as a linseed oil. This is soak into the wood and prevent it from drying out and cracking. Linseed oil also coats and protects wood from the external elements. Fabrics on furniture are best brought indoors as damp conditions outside can seep into these materials leading to mould. Any metals or steel  furniture should be cleaned and rubbed down with WD40. This again will coat the surface and reduce the chances of rust and general wear and tear. Once done you can cover over the bench with your bench cover and store until the warm weather returns in March (and then put them away again for the wet summer months!)

Garden tools should also be given a once over before putting away for the winter. Over the course of the gardening season, garden tools are put though a lot of hardship. Clean, oil and sharpen all blades before storing. Garden storage boxes are great for storing a range of tools, keeping them dry and free frost the winter elements.

If you don’t have a furniture cover or bench cover you can use a tarpaulin instead. Tarpaulins, like bench covers, are water and wind proof and provide the necessary shelter for a range of different furniture shapes and sizes. So, as you can see not only squirrels want to hibernate over the winter, and sometimes we all feel like we could do with falling asleep in winter and not waking up until some-time in spring, for that I wouldn’t recommend using a bench cover though.

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If your soil test shows unfavourable results, invest in some poultry manure

Poultry manure is the holy trinity when it comes to garden soil. It is so because it offers soil the three most important components. They are; nutrients, drainage and micro organisms. These three components are what good soils are all about and if your soil test kit tells you that your soil is lacking in nitrogen then I would recommend you getting your hands on some poultry manure.

Poultry manure is highest in Nitrogen, you can test your soil for Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium using a standard soil test kit. When getting poultry manure make sure that you get well rotted manure. This manure should be composting for at least 6 months, but in Ireland generally 9 to 12 months is required to breakdown the manure enough. If you choose fresh manure you run the risk of burning your plant’s root and also reducing your soils nitrogen levels, which happens as fresh manure decomposes. Well rotted poultry manure should be clean, should not have a strong smell and you should not be able to distinguish the individual parts.

When planting a new hedgerow or trees it is a good idea to do a soil test determine whether manure is necessary. Personally, i would always add some poultry manure to soils when planting because poultry manure can do a lot more than just add nutrients. Poultry manure, comprising of a mess of organic material contains a lot of pore spaces and canals which improves soil drainage in heavy clay soils.

To use poultry manure; prepare your planting hole as normal, if your manure is still fresh you can dig the planting hole a bit deeper than normal. Using a garden fork place 4 inches of manure into the bottom of the hole and mix it through your existing soil. The manure will contain to improve drainage, increase soil micro organisms such as worms and important bacteria and replace essential nutrients that your soil test kit has revealed your soil is lacking.

Poultry manure, especially when fresh can make your soil more acidic, so when you add manure to your soil it would be recommended that you compete another soil test to determine whether the soil has become overly acidic.

The best way to get poultry manure is to get in contact with a local farmer who may be able to supply large quantities. Garden centres and hard ware store also sell it but often in smaller amounts which are not cost effective. You can also use chicken or poultry manure pellets which are neat and easy to use but only provide a nutrient boost. Poultry manure does not improve soil drainage or increase soil bio diversity like poultry manure can.

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Choosing the Correct Garden Tools Prevents Back Strain

If you find yourself out amongst the trees and shrubs on a regular basis, then you are, like me, are likely to be an avid gardener. In a general sense gardening is a healthy past time; fresh air, good exercise, great for body and soul all round. But as with everything; too much of anything is a bad thing. With any repetitive work, stresses and strains can put excessive pressure on your muscles leading to back aches and pains. To avoid stress on your back it important to use your garden spades correctly and work your legs and knees to take the weight off your back.

Of course using tools properly is obvious but in practice it is never that simple. Generally when we’re out in the garden we find ourselves rushing to get a particular job done. Working without taking a rest can strain you back muscles and lead to short term back pain. Prolonged working in this way will lead to long term back problems. When working in a hurry you can also run to risk of pulling a muscle as you pull and yank at shrubs, roots and your garden spade.

When choosing or buying garden tools such as garden spades, hoes and pruners such as shears and loppers, it is important to select the right size tool. Your spade should be long enough so that you can dig planting holes, clear surface weeds and edge lawns and borders with having to bend your back excessively. Also remember that there is a different tool for every job; and when you’re rushing in the garden don’t try and use a spade to do a shovels job.

When buying tools make sure the tool is the right weight for you as well. There are so many tools out there and surely one to suit every gardener’s size and strength. When buying pruners you should hold the tool out in front of you and determine whether you feel you can use this tool over a number of hours without putting excessive strain on your back.

Gardening often involves lifting and moving heavy objects, when doing  this make sure to life with your legs and not your back. Assess the weight before lifting and get help when needed. This is the most important way to keep your back well.

You can also prevent back pains when you are not in the garden; going to the gym and doing exercises to strengthen your back muscles is much recommended. If however your back pains persist it would be advisable to visit your GP.

In the mean time take it easy on your back and don’t try to do too much at once. All gardening should be enjoyed and never rushed. Let your legs and your spade do the work, and try to vary the work you do. There is no reason why you can’t enjoy your garden and having it looking in tip up shape while keeping fit, healthy and back straight and pain free.

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A Neat & Tidy Garden Starts with an Edging Shears

Garden maintenance is big business but at the best of times it is also a boring business; hours spent on hands and knees pulling weeds is not a when to pass ones time. But luckily for those in the trade there is some relief and that is in the edging of lawns. No other core in the garden can make so much impact and in so little time. Luckily, with all the tools now dedicated to this essential task the work load has gotten even easier. The garden edging shears is a great tool and should be in everyone’s tool box.

The range of edging shears means that there is one to suit every sized gardener and when used properly can make edging lawns a pleasant task. The key to using this tools is to use it regularly; not letting the grass build up to a point while the roots and soil are now hanging out over the lawn edge. If you have left it too long and you find that the edging shears  is struggling to cut then you might want to invest in a garden edger.

A garden edger is similar to the edging shears in that it will cut grass along an edge and give a nice neat finish to a lawn and garden. The garden edger looks and works more like a spade but is completely flat and straight meaning that neater and straighter lines are possible.

If you invest in an edging shears or any garden tool, it is important that you treat them with great care. All garden tools are put through very testing time and tough weather conditions. This can lead to the tools becoming damaged and rust quickly. With any sharp tools like shears, secateurs and loppers it is important that the blades and hinges are cleaned and dried after use and that the tool is properly stored.

I would recommend using the edging shears with every second grass cutting. That would generally mean using the tool once a month, or in the height of the grass growth; once every 3 weeks. This way you will have less edging to do, less grass cuttings to collect, the work will be quick and easy and you will have tidy borders and edges are summer long.

For those who have large gardens or a lot of borders then maybe the edging shears is not the most suitable tool as it can be time consuming. In this case an electric strimmer or petrol strimmer would work better and faster. The finish from a strimmer is not as neat as the finish from an edger but it will get the job done faster and your garden will still look great afterwards.

There are a range of petrol strimmer on the market and if you are just intending on using it to edge your lawns then you should only buy the cheaper ones as the more expensive models are built for heavier and prolonged work.

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New lawn Seed & Old Leaves – Hard Work for my Fertilizer Spreader

If you are like me and you happen to leave everything to the last minute then it is likely that you are facing the same lawn related problem that I am; your lovely new lawn seedlings are getting smothered by the many autumn leaves that are falling to the ground this time of year. When i got my fertilizer spreader out at the end of September I already had a bad feeling in my gut, but alas i continued in my quest to sow a new lawn in earnest.

The problems of sowing a lawn this late in the growing season were many; firstly the growing season was coming to an end and this worried me whether the seeds would have enough time to germinate before the onset of the winters frost. That brings up was second worry; would the newly sprouting seeds perish in the early October frosts, and thirdly would I get all this work done in one day before the evening drew to a close as it does earlier and earlier each day. At least one tool I had on my side that day was the fertilizer spreader which can be used to sow lawn seed fast and evenly. That really speeded things along and meant I could do the entire 250M2 in one day.

So, the question remains; How did my lawn do? Well as scheduled the grass seed sprouted 2 weeks from the day i spread them using the fertiliser spreader. That was the second week of October, so dangerously late by any standards. At the point however the first of the frosts had not come yet and everything was looking good. I was not out of the woods yet however as a hard frost over the following two weeks could have easily wiped out the majority of my seedlings meaning I would have to start from scratch. Again, luck has been on my side this autumn and the strong frosts still are yet to make a showing meaning my grass seedlings should be sufficiently robust to withstand the freezing conditions, seeing them through to spring.

Of course nothing is plain sailing in the garden, and a new problem was about to emerge in the shape of a rusty red autumn leaf, but not one leaf, more like one hundred thousand of them falling on my new lawn each day. Nothing that the fertiliser spreader can do about that.

The problem with all these leaves on the lawn is that they can block light and simply impede seedling growth and grass tillering leading to patchy lawns. The solution to this problem would be to gently rake away the leaves from atop your lawn. The best tool for this would be the lawn rake such as the lawn rake with expanding head. When raking take care not to damage, tear or lift any seedlings. An alternative to the lawn rake would be to use a leaf blower or leaf vacuum to remove the leaves

If you fail to do this at least 3 times over the course of the autumn then your lawn will be patchy and bare the following spring. This will mean that you will need to re sow the lawn where it is patchy. The fertiliser spreader would not be appropriate, instead re-seed the lawn

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Tomato Feed – Great for More than Tomatoes

If you grow a range of vegetables and shrubs in your garden you will be glad to know that you don’t need a specialised plant feed for each of your different plants. There a number of different fertilizers and plants feed available in hardware stores and garden centres including fish blood and bone, grow more and a range of tomato feed. All these different fertilizers have three things in common; Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. What makes one fertilizer different from another is the amount of these three essential plant nutrients each contains.

The plant nutrient most important to tomatoes is potassium as this element is important in the development of plant flowers and plant fruits such as tomatoes themselves. All tomato feeds, be it a liquid or granular feed, will contain the highest amount of potassium. Sometimes other important elements can be found in these fertilisers; such as magnesium (Mg), iron (Fe), Sulphur (S) and Calcium (Ca) as these elements are important in maintaining a healthy plant and a healthy fruit. Luckily these elements are important in all flowering plants and vegetables as well, so using these feeds on all plants is worthwhile.

Plants that respond particularly well to tomato feed are plants from the side family as tomatoes. This family is called The Solanaceae Family and contains a huge range of important commercial plants including The Potato, Tobacco, Petunias and others. Others plants that respond well to this type of feed include all flowering plants like Lupins, Penstemon, Echinacea and even Roses. Some vegetables that like tomato feed include cucumbers, aubergines, chillies, peppers, courgettes and many fruits.

If you are unsure whether your plants will respond well to the plant feed you have available, than read the labels and determine what amount of each of the three important elements are in your feed. The three elements are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium and are represented on the labels of plant feed by a sequence of 3 numbers such as 10-10-10 or in the case of most tomato feeds; 4-4-8.

So there is no reason to limit the use of these feeds to your tomato plants only. Get the most out of your fertilizers and plants and encourage healthy foliage and more flowering with a regular feed. Only feed plants during the growing season, starting in spring and finishing in Late Summer. With tomatoes, begin feeding with Tomato feed once they start flowering, this will encourage more flowering and therefore more fruiting.

Of course you don’t need to use tomato feed to feed your tomatoes; other feed such as fish blood and bone is also higher in potassium and will work very well with others. Fish blood and bone is also an organic feed so might be a better option. If you have a lot of different plants then maybe choose a general plant feed such as grow more, chicken manure pellets or, surely the best of all; farm yard manure. Really the options are endless.

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Winter Ideas for Hanging Baskets

Container gardening is something that can be continued right through the year and into the winter months. While the rest of your garden is sleeping you can still brighten the place up with a selection of hardy winter flowering perennials and evergreen shrubs. The great thing about Hanging baskets is that you can introduce colour and different planting schemes for each season of the year.

Spring, summer and autumn are probably the easier seasons to divise a planting scheme for, but winter is the one that some people need help with. If you are struggling to come up with a planting scheme for your hanging basket then just take a trip to your local Lidl or Aldi as they also stock up on all the familiar and tried and tested winter flowering plants.

But I’m sure we can try a little harder than that! Plants such as cyclamens, winter heathers, winter pansies and winter primrose are all great for adding colour but they seem to lack that bit of creativity and adventure that hanging baskets are meant to be all about. I would however always recommend using some of these plants as they are great for added colour that is lacking in this time of year.

To think outside the box and offer a unique hanging basket that embraces the winter season it is important to plant with the winter in mind and not try to recreate a planting scheme that would look more suitable in a summer garden. The winter garden has many great qualities and what we need to do is to select just a few of these qualities and rearrange them into a hanging basket.

Some plants that I believe represents the winter season and really can look great include ivies; which are great for containers, Skimmia; with its glossy leaves and red berries, Hellebore; with their subtle flowers and bold leaves, carex grasses; which look spooky when frosted over, pines, firs and junipers which are built for the winter months, and of course snowdrops.

When arranging your hanging baskets, like any planting arrangement is it best to put the largest in the back or centre and smaller plants to the edge. When choosing your plants choose colours that complement each other. Green is a neutral colour and works with everything, while a winter planting scheme could include greenish blues and whites or reds and whites.

Other plants that add an element to winter hanging baskets include Heuchera, ferns, dogwood and poinsettias. The only concern over these winter containers is the harsh weather that they must encounter. To help your baskets through the winter months it would be best to bring them indoors in cases of harsh frosts. As always it is important to provide good compost and a small amount of plant food such as a general plant feed like growmore.

Your hanging basket should continue to offer colour and interest over the winter months and once spring comes the scheme can be reinvented with the addition of spring colours such as yellow primrose, buttercups and cowslips.

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Encouraging Kids to get Gardening Green Fingers

Looking for gift ideas for the kids this Christmas? Shopping for kids is supposed to be what Christmas is all about, it was supposed to be easy and fun! But it never is, because really when your shopping for kids your really shopping for their parents and making sure that the gift you buy wont upset, annoy or disappoint the parents on such a stressful and testing time. There are of course millions of gift ideas out there for kids but the one that could have a lasting and meaningful effect is a gift for the garden. A kid’s garden hand tools set is a great gift that gets children into a meaningful hobby that could last a life time.

These days all the talk is about living a healthy lifestyle or in the case of the children of today the lack of a healthy life style. Gardening is the one area where children can really apply themselves, learn about food and growing food, keep fit and healthy and become more in tune with nature. Active, outdoor exercise is also great psychologically just as much as running, playing football or going for walks. The kid’s tool set can be a stepping stone for children to get away from computer games a learn how to entertain themselves.

The kid’s garden tool set comes with kids size hand trowel and hand fork in a carry bag. These essential tools are enough to get children started at growing their own vegetable and flowers seeds.  A great way to get them started is to start growing sunflower seeds indoors in February and them once the plants are large enough transplanting them outdoors to where they will grow and flower. Another idea would be to grow spring or summer bulbs and watch them grow.

When a child grows any plant from seed and takes care and maintains it over a year it can help the child to connect and learn more about gardening. Other gift ideas for the garden include wildflower seeds, seed trays, watering cans, children’s wheel barrows and bird feed and feeders.

Before you know it you could have the very next Monty Don or Jerry Daly on your hands, potting up, propagating and pruning everything and anything they can. This would no doubt be a lot more healthy and productive than hours spent playing Grand Theft Auto or Pokemon.

So this Christmas why not put a kid’s tool set on your shopping list and I am sure that in time you will be paid back with an abundance of vegetables and fruit and a beautiful garden in years to come.

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Where are are the wild flowers gone?

Wildflowers are certainly a thing of beauty but are unfortunately a thing of the past for many parts of Ireland. Long gone are the sights of fields of cowslips and long gone are the days of picking buttercups for around the cow pats. The reason for this is the increase in intensive farming and the increased use of fertilizers on your land.

The increased use of these fertilizers have been to increase the levels of mainly Nitrogen in the soil and therefore increase the rate of grass growth to feed your hungry and tasty cows. The result of all this increased slurry and increased grass growth is the loss of the humble wildflowers and grassland meadows. Common flowers such as yellow rattle, red poppy, buttercup, daisy, and cowslips are being outcompeted by this vigorous grass plants.

To create a wildflower meadow there is a few less than natural things that should be done before you can sow your seed. Because  these seeds prefer not to compete with grass and therefore prefer to be grown in poorer soils with less topsoil and a lower fertility.

To achieve this in extreme cases the topsoil can be removed and stored. I suggest storing the topsoil because it is an invaluable resource and should not be wasted.  The seeds can then be sown directly in a prepared subsoil.

Alternatively, to prepare an area for wildflower seeds  you should first use a weedkiller  to kill off the existing vegetation. If you have a lot of grass and scutch grass then you may need to make three or four applications of weed killer before all the roots have been killed and before you can being sowing your seed.

If done properly the meadow and plants in it should thrive and provide a range and variety of colour throughout the summer and into autumn. The meadow will also help to, in the long run increase the amount of bees and insects in your garden and the surrounding landscape.

Biodiversity is an important feature of our landscape and with intensive farming and increased urbanisation and destruction of grasslands, hedgerows, bog-land and forests biodiversity has been on the decrease. A healthy environment and a healthy planet requires increased bio diversity and increased plant and animal species and wildflowers species to all co-exist in a balances eco system. 

Everyone can do their bit to help find that balance. Planting native species, using less chemicals, using a controlled amount of fertilizer and weed killer, planting wildflowers and traditional fruit trees and composting, reuses and recycling garden and household waste all helps to protect and nurture the plants and animals that we live amongst.

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Testing Your Soil Can Provide Interesting Results

In the Midlands and over much of Ireland the soil type is alkaline, this means that these areas and the gardens found within these areas can grow the majority of garden trees, shrubs and vegetables that are available in garden centres. There are however a select few areas around the country that can grow acid loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, forest flames and summer flowering heathers. These areas are areas with soils of a lower pH or acidic soils. So how do you know which soil type you have and which is the best plants for your garden? One way to find that out is to use a simple soil pH test kit. These kits are available in a number of garden centres and online shops and are an easy on fun way to test your soil.

The Soil test kits act just as a litmus paper would work in that they indicate the pH of a certain solution by turning a particular colour. To use them and to test your garden’s soil it is best to take a number of soil samples from different areas around your garden. When taking a soil sample use a hand trowel or garden scoop to collect your samples. Take a sample of soil from approx 1 or 2 inches below the soil surface. Take samples from areas where you intend on growing plants such as your vegetable plots, herbaceous border or around existing trees and shrubs. When you take a sample make a note or exactly where in the garden you took it from.

Once you have your sample you can begin you soil test; this is done by adding a sample amount of soil and water to the test chamber, next, following the instructions provided add the indicator capsule to the soil and water solution and shake well. Allow the sample to sit and after 5 minute compare the solution colour to the colour chart provided.

Continue to do this test of each of the soils samples taken. Record all the results so take you can determine the pH or acidity of each area in your garden. Once the soil test kit has given you your answers you can begin to plan out what plants would be best for your garden.

Acid loving plants are plants that prefer a lower pH, soils with a lower pH have different bacteria and different available nutrients than soils with a higher pH. Acid loving plants are generally plants with really vibrant colour and often large flowers such as rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias and forest flames. This is why many gardeners who don’t have acidic soil often create raised beds, hanging baskets and containers that are dedicated to acid loving plants.

Your soil test kits often come with a list of plants that are best suited to certain soil types and will give you advice on how to improve the acidity or alkalinity of your soils.

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