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Don't get bogged down by soggy ground

A major challenge after another horrifically wet winter is the sea of soggy earth masquerading as the soil in the garden.

The weather itself is heartbreaking for gardeners and lethal to many plants, waterlogged soil being much more harmful than drought conditions. When it's dry you can often nurse plants back to life using a watering can; but plants generally take oxygen through their roots and, without a regular supply of air, will die, as farmers on the Somerset Levels know to their cost.

How quickly this happens depends on how long they can "hold their breath" under water. A few will die in minutes, others in hours, days or weeks. Legumes - peas, sweet peas, beans - and members of the rosaceae genus - roses, apples, raspberries - are very susceptible to damage. But grasses can all handle a fair dunking.

Bare ground is especially at risk. Battering, heavy rain compacts the soil, making it dense and airless.

Many beneficial soil organisms get damaged and the mycorrhizal fungi that capture vital phosphorus for roots cannot thrive without air. Describing all this damage could easily turn into a chemistry lesson, and I'm no chemist. But, intriguingly, the microbes that fix nitrogen need ample supplies of oxygen, while many anaerobic microbes undo this essential work by unfixing the nitrogen, and no nitrogen means no growth.

Bare soil in the border is exposed to this damage. As ever, prevention is better than cure, so cover the ground with an organic mulch - rough compost, leafmould or woodchip - in autumn. This will reduce the impact of the rain and lets the worms work beneath their protective umbrella.

If you haven't mulched like this, the soil will be badly compacted. Heavy winter rain destroys structure and causes nutrient run-off. The first golden rule is to keep off the ground until it starts drying up. You can then help restore structure and nutrient levels by spreading compost over the soil and lightly forking it in.

Winter rain can do horrible things to a lawn. But I challenge any of you to match the appearance of a sodden lawn worked over by an army of eagerly questing duck beaks.

My fine, firm piece of grass has been transformed into a muddy marsh. Lawns absorb a lot of water, but can't cope with endless inundations. So, as with bare soil, try to avoid walking on it until it dries out a little. Feet inevitably compact the lawn, so once it's dried up, aerate it by spiking the ground with a fork and giving it a light dressing of compost or leafmould. The grass won't be damaged by the rain and should readily grow away.

Bare beds in the veg garden are also in a sorry state now, but they will recover. As ever, walking on the soil exacerbates the problem, as does digging it over when it becomes workable. Most of us do this, and I confess to finding a Rotavator invaluable. But digging damages structure and destroys many beneficial soil organisms and mycorrhizal fungi.

The best way to prevent waterlogging is to build up good, free-draining soil structure by top dressing with compost and keeping it well mulched. But, as with everything, this good practice has its own problems, like sheltering slugs, and I will start wielding the spade once the ground has dried out.

Finally, there are the irredeemably soggy spots - collecting places for drain-off from the rest of the garden or where water can't escape because of a solid wall or building. The only solution is to surrender to the inevitable and plant specimens that can cope. There are lots of trees and herbaceous perennials that need a permanently damp or soggy site in a sunny position. Go with the flow and plant some of them.

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