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Friday, 16 August 2019

Gardening with wet knickers

"What?!!" I hear you scream, "this blog is going downhill!"

No, this is a serious article, honest: the question is, "When it is officially too wet to work in the garden".

Now, whenever I raise this subject, on my "How to be a Self-Employed Gardener" training courses, I get the same responses: one set of people will react in horror to the idea of working in the rain at all; one set will say "Huh, no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing", and the sensible ones will say "Well, it depends on the situation: how bad is the rain, how big is the garden, how important is it to get the task done, and what tasks exactly are you doing?"

This split equates almost exactly depending on occupation: the ones who faint at the thought are not yet gardeners: the smug ones are what I call Estate gardeners: they work on those big estates, usually as part of a team. The rest are what I call Independent gardeners, like me: self-employed, working in what I think of as "domestic" or "real" gardens, ie the sort of place that you and I might live in, rather than in Something Manor or Something House.

If you've never worked outdoors, you tend to think that it's not possible to work in the rain: at home, in your own garden, you normally only go outside when it's nice, so the thought of having to work in the rain is not a very attractive one. I have to say that personally, I hate working in the rain: blobs of rain on the glasses makes it hard to see what you are looking at, your gloves get soaked, no matter how waterproof they are supposed to be (and I grew up with my grandmother saying *warning tone of voice* "If you sit around with wet gloves/socks/clothes you'll get arthritis...." and it's hard to shake off that sort of conditioning), and I don't enjoy the constant showers down the back of my neck, from soaking wet foliage.

If you are an estate gardener, you do indeed have to work all day every day, all year round, regardless of the weather.

If you are self-employed though, oh joy of joys, you are allowed to make your own decisions as to when it's too wet to work, and when it isn't: and of course the down-side is that you also have to accept the consequences, ie no work = no money, and if you are away too often, you risk losing the job.

But there are a few points to bear in mind, before wallowing in self-castigation or forcing yourself to work in the rain.

Firstly, estate workers are usually provided with full waterproof kit. Secondly, they have heated (usually!) rest rooms for their tea breaks and lunch breaks, so they come in and get warmed up every couple of hours. Thirdly, employers have to provide a drying room, so they have the chance to hang up their wet clothes to dry, and to swap them for a dry set.

Fourthly, on an estate, there are many indoor jobs which can be done on wet days:  my estate-gardener friends tell me that when it's wet, they work in the greenhouse, or tidy up the potting shed, sharpen tools, maintain machinery, and other jobs which keep them indoors. Obviously, none of these apply when you are self-employed!

And fifthly (still not sure if there is such a word) there's another aspect of working in the rain, which needs to be mentioned: it creates a muddy mess wherever you work. On a large estate, workers can be sent to a distant part of the garden, so it doesn't matter if there are muddy footmarks all over that area: by the time the owners venture that far, the rain will have washed the grass clean again.  But in a domestic garden, the owner can usually see all or most of the garden from their house, and they do not appreciate having to look at a sea of mud for a fortnight, so there are many times when I am not able to work on wet days, due to the risk of spoiling the lawn, spoiling the outlook, annoying the Client and so on.

Also (sixthly, probably, but actually part of fifthly), trampling on wet soil ruins the structure of it, so I would always try to stay off the beds when they are sodden.

Not to mention ("seventhly"?) that gardens usually contain wooden decking, stone patios, steps etc which can be lethally slippery in the rain, and the over-riding mantra for all us self-employed gardeners is to avoid injury, as no work = no pay.

So, what CAN we do when it rains?

There are certain jobs that can still be done: clipping lawn edges, for example. You stay on the grass (nice clean boots) and don't need to ruin the soil. Some topiary can be done in light rain: not my favourite time to do it, as the clippings stick to the shears, to my boots, to my gloves, to the collecting sheet, to everything. But it is possible.

Likewise maintenance of plants in pots, which are placed on patios or pathways (nice alliteration there, don't you think? Completely accidental, I assure you); you can weed, dead-head and prune them from a standing position.

Basically, any job where you don't have to go on the beds or borders, and where you are more or less upright. So with a coat to keep your top dry, and a hat to keep your head dry, you should be able to get at least a couple of hours of work done, on a wet day.

But once you start bending over, that's where the problems begin. Unless you are wearing waterproof trousers, you will quickly find that the rain will drip down onto your backside, and then will soak through, leading to - yes, we've finally arrived at Wet Knickers!!

My personal rule is, once the rain has soaked through to the knickerage department, it's time to pack up and go.

As with all garden rules, there are times when it can be broken: if the Client has a really urgent job that needs to be done - for example, if they are having a party at the weekend, or expecting visitors - then I have been known to drag out my gore-tex trousers and get on with it. And by installing stepping-stones in the beds and borders, you can sometimes make it possible to weed and dead-head without ruining the soil.

One gardening pal of mine ("Hi, Rob!") wears gore-tex waterproof trousers with shorts underneath, pretty much all through the winter. He says it gives him the freedom, coolness and comfort of wearing shorts, but keeps the legs dry. After a while, though, the rain running off the trousers gets the boots soaked, and once the socks get wet - "you'll get arthritis..." says the voice of my grandmother, in my ear.

So there you have it, in a nutshell: my personal work ethic is to stop work once the rain soaks through to the underwear. Or preferably, shortly before!

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