Gardening in the Rain

So there I am, sitting at the kitchen table, looking glumly out at the rain. “What am I supposed to write about this week?” I ask my husband. “It’s raining. There’s nothing to do outside.”

“Write about the rain,” he says.

That sounds rather Zen, but there’s something to it. If you live in Humboldt County, you’ve got to have some strategies for gardening in the rain. Here’s what I’m working on during the rainy season:

Look for low spots. If water is pooling in the garden, that’s a problem. A soggy garden means rotten plants. Try to address the short-term cause—a leaky drainpipe, erosion on a slope—and make plans to fix it for good when the rain stops. You can bring in some fresh soil to fill in low areas and plant directly into it to stabilize the spot, or you can embrace your inner swamp thing and plant a bog garden. A number of surprisingly beautiful plants grow in swampy areas—think iris, rudbeckia, lobelia—and you’ll make the frogs and dragonflies happy, too.

Mulch. It’s always a good time to mulch, but the middle of the winter is an especially good time. You’ll smother weeds, improve drainage, and add some good organic matter to the soil at a time when roots are growing. Use well-aged compost or manure, grass clippings, dried leaves, or a good bagged soil-building compost.


Feed. With the possibility of frosts still ahead of us, don’t give the garden too much nitrogen. Nitrogen encourages leafy green growth and is more appropriate for spring, after the danger of frost has passed. But acid-loving plants that are getting ready to bloom, like rhododendron, camellia, and azalea, could use an organic fertilizer designed for acid-lovers, and the rest of the garden could use a light application of a low-nitrogen organic fertilizer, especially if it contains beneficial microbes that help support healthy roots.

Prune. Got wind damage? Cut off broken limbs. Frost damage? You might want to wait. Many perennials and shrubs recover more easily from frost damage if you leave them alone and let them start producing new growth. Then, after the last frost, go ahead and cut away the ugly, frost-bitten branches and leave the healthy new growth.

If you’ve left flowers and seed heads on your perennials through winter as a food source for birds (or simply because you couldn’t bear to cut the garden down to little stumps), now is the time to start cutting those back. Look for plants with healthy new green growth; once they start producing next year’s leaves, it’s time to cut off the old stuff.

Propagate. It is astonishingly easy to make new plants this time of year. Pull up a catmint, rip it violently into several pieces, and stick those pieces in the ground. No problem. When the soil’s this wet, they’ll root quickly and start growing.

Salvias and other perennials are also easy to propagate—just snip off a bit of a branch with some healthy growth coming out of it and shove it in the dirt. While this technique doesn’t always work (a more scientific method would involve rooting hormone, sterile potting soil in pots, and so on), it works often enough to make it worthwhile. I usually start several at once knowing that more than half will grow roots and take off.

Grow indoors. Start some seeds! If you can’t get outside to garden, do it inside. It’s a little early for heat-loving summer crops like tomatoes and peppers, but you could start some spring flowers, like Icelandic poppy, marigold, or bachelor button. Most garden centers sell heat mats that can go under your tray of seedlings, and any hardware store sells inexpensive shop lights that will provide an extra light source. A sterile seed-starting medium like Light Warrior is also a good investment—it will help seeds germinate quickly—but remember to feed young seedlings a weak organic fertilizer solution once they start growing. A little early nutrition will pay off later.

Don’t dig.  You heard me: don’t dig. Don’t pull weeds, either. Wet clay soils can be further compacted if you dig, and any weeds you pull will come out of the ground with half the soil in your garden still attached to the roots. Forget about digging. Let it go. It can wait.

Ignore the garden. My final advice? Blow it off. It’s raining, for crying out loud. The garden will still be there in the spring. Pour yourself a hot toddy, gather up your stack of seed catalogs, and decide not to set foot outside until the weather cooperates. That’s my strategy. Cheers!


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