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Robert Smaus

A Gardener Who Sings When It Rains

February 27, 1988|Robert Smaus

What does a gardener do when his weekend ends up wet? I, for one, put on my rubber boots and head outside. Rain is forecast for this weekend and we certainly need it. Even if it doesn't materialize, we hopefully will have a few more rainy days before spring becomes full blown.

The rubber boots are no joke. I have a huge pair of black rubber boots that I use for gardening on wet days, or on those muddy days that follow. They sit right outside the back door so, like a fireman, I can jump into them at a moments notice and head out into the garden.

Because we don't get that much rain, I confess they aren't used all that much, but they are kind of fun to wear and help put one in a wintery frame of mind. I found mine at a tackle shop where they were being sold for surf fishing, but some even fancier French boots are available from the White Flower Farm Garden Book, in men's sizes 7-11.

Browsing Magazine

(This catalogue of perennials (in the spring issue) and bulbs (in the fall) and other garden goodies, such as boots, is cleverly written and nicely illustrated. Browsing through it is a good rainy-day activity in itself. Because it is so much like a magazine, it is available only by subscription, by writing to Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050. Just remember when perusing it that most of the information is tailored for the East Coast and must be interpreted for California conditions.)

Loaded into my big boots, I first bring out the indoor plants if it is actually raining and not too blustery. A good soaking helps leach out the salts that accumulate in the soil. Tap water tends to be full of salts in Southern California, and if the salts build up from repeated watering, they can stunt the plant or turn the leaf tips brown. Rain washes them out the drainage hole and cleanses dust from the foliage.

I next fill up all of the watering cans with rainwater from the downspout, but first I let the rain wash all the dirt and pollutants off the roof. Stockpiling the salt-free rainwater is almost as satisfying as stacking up firewood.

A wet stroll through the garden (staying out of the flower beds) can be informative. Wherever there are puddles, there is a drainage problem, and I make a mental note to do something about it in fairer weather, by either improving the soil so the water can sink in faster, or by making it possible for the rainwater to move along in the direction of the street.

Last year, for instance, I discovered that the entire center of one garden bed became a puddle and realized that was why I had trouble growing things there. In drier weather, I added organic matter to the soil and mounded it up a little so it was no longer low ground; things have been growing happily ever since.

I also check to make sure the raindrops are not weighting down any flower spikes, like those of stock or tall snapdragons. If they are threatening to fall flat on their faces, I quickly tie them to stakes.

Stay Out of Flower Beds

A rainy-day rule is to stay out of the flower beds until they have had a little time to dry--a few days usually. If you go tramping through the beds, even in boots, you compact the soil, squeezing all of the soil particles together, which will exclude air and water once it dries. In other words, you'll undo whatever effort you have put into improving the porosity of the soil.

If you must step into a garden bed, say to tie up a snapdragon, use a board to stand on to help disperse the weight. For this purpose I keep a 12x12-inch square of wood handy, right next to the boots.

On rainy days, I also spend a lot of time soaking up the wet, dark vision of my garden. Although I may be doing so from under the eaves, snug and dry in my rubber boots, it gives me pleasure to see the plants enjoying the rain as much as I am.

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