Winter is truly here as we enter the festive months of December and January. Growth may be temporarily stalled, but you could still be enjoying lots of fresh vegetables
Weeds may still be growing though, so keep an eye on salad crops so they don’t get overwhelmed.
Take the time to record what you grew where in 2013, and use this as a basis for your 2014 plans.
A traditional rhubarb or
seakale forcing pot
Things to do in the vegetable garden
- Watch out for chickweed, which can grow, flower and ripen seed all year round. It is not a weed to be ignored and can soon overwhelm winter salads and other plants, particularly on rich soils. Hoe off seedlings, but pull up anything larger as the plants can root again in wet weather.
- You can start forcing rhubarb, seakale and chicory in January.
Rhubarb is forced by placing an up-turned bucket/pot over the plant to exclude light. The warmer the environment the quicker it will grow; you can place manure or straw over the top to encourage growth of the pale, sweet shoots. Seakale is forced the same way, only there is no need for extra warmth.
- Chicory is treated differently. Dig up well-grown chicory roots from the ground, pot up, and then cover with an upturned pot. Keep in a dark, warm place (10-14°C / 50-57°F). The sweet chicons (forced pale shoots) will be ready for late winter salads in about 4-6 weeks. Witloof is the traditional forcing chicory to produce white chicons, but other varieties can also be used, producing smaller and less regular chicons. If the compost is kept moist the roots may produce several more chicons after the first one has been snapped off to eat.
- Sow onions in January, as onions from seed need a long growing season. Raise in modules on a warm windowsill for planting out in March.
- Lift celery as required in December. Any plants left in the ground can be covered with a thick layer of straw to protect them from winter frost.
- Stake and earth up Brussels sprout plants that are at risk of blowing over in harsh weather. Loose soil around the roots leads to Brussels sprouts not hearting up properly.
- Order your seed potatoes from The Organic Gardening Catalogue and when they arrive , set them out in trays in a light, cool, frost-free spot and leave them to sprout. This is known as chitting. Egg boxes make good chitting trays so start saving them now. Make sure you put the tubers with the 'eye' end - where the sprouts will grow from - upwards.
Members can view Garden Organic’s potato growing factsheets online:
If you are not a member, find out more about the benefits of Garden Organic membership and how to join.
- Dig a compost trench to deal with Brussels sprouts, kale and other tough brassica stems once cropping has finished. The trench should be about a spade’s depth, preferably where runner beans, or other peas and beans will grow next year. Lay brassica stems along the bottom of the trench, and then roughly chop them up with a sharp spade. Other kitchen veg scraps can also be added. Replace soil dug out of the trench. Buried in a trench, any pests such as whitefly and aphids that are over wintering on the plants are out of harms way.
If you need more space for growing vegetables, or are new to gardening, now is a good time to find an allotment. Lists of allotment sites should be available from a local library or the council – and an increasing number now have a web site.
- Start planning your veg plot for next season using a crop rotation. Make a list of all the vegetables you would like to grow, organise them into family groups and plan where to grow each group allowing enough space for the plants to grow. View ourfactsheet on crop rotation for more information.
- Before buying new seed, check through seed packets left over from last year to see what you can use to sow next season. Apart from parsnips, most seed will keep for at least a year; it will last a lot longer if the seed has been kept in a cool, dry spot. If you are unsure about a batch of seed, sprinkle a few on a piece of damp kitchen paper and see how well they germinate.
- Mulch bare soil in beds with last year’s leaf mould. If you’ve only got leaves from this season they can be used as a mulch. Rake them back before sowing next year.
- Plant garlic if the weather is mild enough.
- Check stored crops regularly. Remove immediately anything showing signs of decay, to prevent rots from spreading. Some varieties of potato will begin to sprout sooner than others – so if one variety shows signs of sprouting, eat it up quickly.
Why not start a 'Hot Bed'?
Manure based hot beds were very popular in Victorian times. A hot bed provides bottom heat, using manure rather than electricity as the heat source, thus speeding up plant growth of seedlings and tender plants. Once set up, they can be used to grow salad crops on in winter, as a natural heat source to give a head-start on seed sowing in the spring (by up to a month), and for growing melons and any of the Cucurbitaceae family in the summer. A hot bed consists of two main layers:
- The heat source: Fresh strawy manure, in a layer 60-90cm deep (after compaction). As the manure breaks down, it generates heat. Tread it down well to compact it, ensuring a more even release of heat.
- The growing medium: A mixture of topsoil and garden compost (ratio of 1:1). This is placed on top of the manure in a layer 20cm-30cm thick.
The modern equivalent uses electric soil warming cables. Our activity sheet Building a Heated Propagator gives step-by-step instructions on constructing a heated bed.