GARDEN GNOME: WINTER

Our wise gnome is here to share his gardening tasks for the coming season.

Winter! We watch the wild, windy, wet world wend its weary way to the end of another year. Not much to do this season, we say to ourselves. Don’t you believe it! The more we do now, the easier our life will be when Spring arrives with its sudden change of gear into burgeoning growth.

We can make New Year resolutions, like keeping a more comprehensive notebook or diary, so that we can check back and plan forward. Making better compost is high on my resolution list and I am improving, but it’s still not as good as I’d like. So some other good ideas to have accomplished by the end of February:

Prune all hedges and shrubs except conifers and those that will flower in spring; in fact do this by the end of January as birds start building nests in February.  Apple and pear trees; blackcurrants: (cut back about a third of the bush, removing the oldest stems to the ground and cutting out dead, diseased and crossing branches); other currant and gooseberry bushes; autumn fruiting raspberries can be cut to the ground and grape vines cut to two buds beyond the main stems. We can also apply organic fertilisers (high potash) and mulches around all fruit trees and bushes. If possible shred non-diseased prunings to use as mulch.

Plant trees, hedges, shrubs and bushes can be planted or moved in winter; late winter is best on heavy soil and early winter on well drained land. Make sure that there are no perennial weed roots around; dig a generous hole, adding plenty of organic matter and a handful of bone-meal, make sure the plant is at the same depth as it was previously, water in and firm soil, staking if necessary. Bushes that have been invaded by perennial weeds can be lifted, the weeds cleared, the soil enriched, and the bush replanted.

All tender plants need to be protected by putting into a greenhouse or cold-frame, first checking for pests and diseases. They may need to be watered sparingly from time to time.

We need to think about what we are going to grow, making lists of the crops, ordering the seeds, and working out where to put them on the plot; now is a good time to plan. This involves a little understanding of crop rotation: not growing the same crop in the same place year after year. There are two main reasons for this; firstly to prevent the build-up of soil-borne pests and diseases like potato eel-worm, club-root on cabbages or onion white-rot; and secondly to provide the differing soil conditions needed by the veg. Some crops, like spuds do best in a recently manured soil and at harvest time need to be dug up, so these activities can be done on a different part of the plot each year. They can be followed without doing anything else by leeks (after earlies) or garlic and Japanese onions (after main-crop). Or, to further improve the soil, a crop of green manure. Sorry, this is getting a bit complex isn’t it! Back to the main principles: Spuds followed by legumes (peas and beans), followed by brassicas: cabbage tribe, followed by root veg which don’t need extra compost adding. I know this doesn’t include things like sweet-corn and courgettes/ squash, these can be put in anywhere with rich soil. This is the traditional cycle of rotation and is quite sensible, but often needs modifying as we often do more mixed planting schemes than this allows for (like Three Sisters: sweetcorn with climbing beans and squash) all liking the same soil conditions: moist and rich and providing shelter and support for each other.

And another thing: some crops stay for ages in the ground, like parsnips and leeks,

only needing routine care; others need to be easily reached for frequent picking like beans and peas, broccoli, spinach, courgettes and salads.

All beds need to be cleared, other than those containing hardy winter veg. Leave them bare for a while to let the birds clear the grubs, then spread compost and manure if you can then cover it with well weighted cardboard or plastic sheeting. If you do need to dig, now is the time, but not if the soil is wet. In late winter dig in over-wintered green-manures. Gather seaweed and spread on beds. Keep on top of weeding and clear those neglected corners, digging out bramble roots and cutting back ivy, (again before the end of January to avoid disturbing nesting birds). Gather all fallen leaves either into a wire mesh container or into black bin liners, moistening the contents and pricking the bags with the garden fork; pop them into an unobtrusive corner as they take at least a year to rot down; once rotted they make a fabulous soil conditioner. Make sure all gutters are cleared of debris, tidy and clean sheds, greenhouses (and insulate if needed), cold-frames, compost-bins, fences and paths. Sharpen, repair and oil tools; wash seed-trays and pots in hot soapy water. Get rid of all rubbish. Clean out bird boxes, feed the birds and keep some unfrozen water available.

Then the most exciting bit is sitting back (preferably in front of roaring fire), ordering seeds, hopefully going to seedy Sunday for seed swapping, and stocking up on supplies to get us going for the next year. Let’s hope we’re all on Santa’s ‘nice’ list this year….

Got a question for Garden Gnome? Send it in to: bhogg.org@gmail.com

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