Yes, it’s wet. Yes, it’s windy. And yes, it’s bloomin’ cold! But d’you know what? The days are starting to get longer and I’m positively luxuriating in the full ten minutes of extra light we already have here since the darkest day of the year – I’ll take what I can get!
Make the most of gradually increasing daylight as you go about my top jobs for this month, with clever tips to put yourself in pole position for the new growing season…
Let’s jump straight in by coaxing along an extra-early harvest of wonderfully warming rhubarb! You can persuade the pleasingly plump buds into early growth by simply covering them over to exclude light - a process called ‘forcing’ rhubarb.
Clear away any old leaves and weeds, then mulch the rhubarb crown with a blanket of well-rotted garden compost to help feed the plant as it stirs into life. You can buy special rhubarb forcers, which look really rather stunning, but any large container that excludes light will work. To help trap warmth and speed things along, you can wrap the outside of the pot with bubble plastic or secure in place a thick layer of straw.
Then it’s just a question of waiting for lovely pale, elongated stems to push up. Depending on the progress of winter, these should be ready to harvest within about two months. I find they taste much sweeter and are far more tender than those harvested more traditionally. Just the job for a lovely crumble!
Only force well-established rhubarb crowns which have the energy to cope with this treatment. I’d suggest only forcing the plant once every few years to give it plenty of time to recover. That’s a good reason to grow more than one rhubarb plant I reckon!
Is there a more versatile vegetable than potatoes? Whether you rave about roasties, go mad for mash, or fancy your fries, there’s a spud for that! Order them right now, while there’s still plenty of choice.
I like to grow a mix of both early season and maincrop potatoes, which gives me the best of both worlds: lovely new potatoes for summer salads, then chunky spuds for storing well into winter. When choosing what to grow it’s well worth reading variety descriptions with a beady eye. As well as checking that varieties match up to what you want to use them for, seek out attributes such as scab resistance and resistance to blight.
Once you get your seed potatoes, pop them somewhere cool but bright to chit, which just means producing shoots ahead of planting. Short, stocky shoots will give an earlier harvest and get spring-planted spuds off to a flying start. Lay them out into trays or egg boxes, so that the ends with the most eyes (the little dimples from where shoots will sprout) face upwards.
Make Garden Plans
Planning makes perfect! Careful garden planning is every bit as important as, say, menu planning or financial planning. By doing so you increase your chances of an embarrassment of riches!
Do you know what you’ll be growing where this coming growing season? There are lots of things to consider when planning your plot. For example: crop rotation, so that the same families of vegetables aren’t growing in the same area as last season; sunshine requirements, prioritizing the sunniest spots for warm-season favorites; and, of course, making the most of the space you have, by mapping out when crops will be in the ground and when and where new planting opportunities will appear as the season moves on.
Prepare New Garden Beds
It’s amazing how fast time can fly, so ditch the dawdling and finish prepping growing areas before it’s too late!
Now’s a great time to set up new growing areas, assuming your garden isn’t under lots of snow of course – otherwise, delay until conditions improve. Just mow lawn or weeds then lay cardboard on top of both the beds and surrounding paths with cardboard to suppress and eventually kill off the lawn and weeds beneath. You can use raised beds or just lay organic matter such as compost, well-rotted manure, potting compost (or a mixture) on the surface where you want the beds to be. Woodchips make a good path surface between the beds. By doing all this now, you’re giving everything time to settle down ahead of planting in spring.
Lime Soil for Brassicas
The acidity or alkalinity of a soil – or it’s pH – plays a big part in the success of what we grow in it. Most vegetables thrive in neutral to slightly acidic soil, but there’s one crop family that really can’t abide more acid soils.
Brassicas (that’s crops like cabbages, broccoli, and kale) thrive in mildly acidic to neutral soils with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0 And while they might just about grow in more acidic soils, they’ll be far more open to diseases like clubroot. It's worth testing soil pH well ahead of planting pH picky plants so you can adjust it to suit.
If your soil is very acidic the pH can be increased (made more alkaline) by sprinkling on garden lime or ground limestone, which is basically just calcium carbonate – kind of like taking an indigestion tablet to settle acid-burned stomach!
Check the packet instructions for exactly how much to add. Broadcast it evenly over the area now to give it a few months to work its way into the soil ready for planting time. Weigh out what you need for the area and apply on a still day, so it doesn’t blow away, then rake it in.
If you have wood ash from non-treated wood this can help to gradually increase the soil pH too.
Knock Off Heavy Snow
Will it snow, or won’t it? I hope so – I love tobogganing and a good covering of snow always brings out the child in me!
While snow might keep up away from our gardens, it’s not all bad. It helps insulate plants from the worst of the cold and, I guess, gives us gardeners a chance to rest up before the growing season kicks off – our plans are, quite literally, put on ice!
One job you can do outdoors is to shake off heavy snow from snap-prone trees and shrubs, or to stop it pushing down and splaying apart bushes. Greenhouses, cold frames and sometimes even tunnels can collapse under all that extra weight, so carefully brush or knock off the snow. If you live in a snowy area, then avoid piling up snow on top of vulnerable plants so you’re not burying them for weeks on end.
This is a great time to clean and sharpen your tools, including those always-at-your-side hand pruners. Where would we be without them?
Bring them back into shape by loosening then cleaning off any dried-on sap and other gunk. You can loosen it with a light spray of oil, then work off the grime with a scouring pad or some wire wool. And once you’re done, wipe clean and leave it with its blade open to dry. If the tool has replaceable parts it can be completely dismantled to give it a really good clean and oil. Use this as an opportunity to check for any worn-out components that need replacing.
Next, sharpen the angled side of the blade only using a whetstone. Pass the whetstone across the blade at the same angle as the cutting edge, each stroke moving away from you to get that nice sharp edge back. And then to finish, run the whetstone along the flat side of the blade to remove any burrs. Finally, tighten up any loose parts and oil the central pivot point to help everything move smoothly once again. Job done!
Prune Fruit Bushes
What better way to ease in your good-as-new pruners than a spot of fruit pruning? Currants and gooseberries benefit from a winter prune.
The first step with is to cut out the three Ds: branches that are obviously dead, badly diseased or damaged, plus any that are crossing other branches or causing congestion by just getting in the way – you need good airflow in the branchwork of your fruits to reduce the risk of disease and help fruits ripen.
With blackcurrants, a great way to encourage fresh, vigorous and – crucially – productive growth is to prune out up to a third of the oldest branches by cutting them right down to the ground, which will encourage new stems to push up from the base. You can tell which are the oldest by the darker stem color.
To prune gooseberries, cut off the lowest-hanging branches, which tend to sag right down to onto the soil when overloaded with fruit. This will keep everything up off the ground and nice and clean. Next, cut away a few of the oldest branches to open out the center of the bush.
Make Repairs to Garden Structures
Do you have a gaping hole in your greenhouse? Or is your cold frame looking worse for wear? Or maybe you have damaged walls, broken fences, or poorly fitting gates. If so, get on and fix things now while things are still quiet in the garden. Tighten up screws, replace damaged windows and get everything shipshape and beautifully functional once more.
Repairs made in winter will stand you in good stead when spring comes so you can make the very most of these invaluable gardening assets.
Sow Beans and Peas
If you didn’t get a chance to sow hardy peas and fava beans back in the autumn, then you’re in luck because towards the end of this month is another opportunity to do so.
Sowing these vegetable garden favorites is always a bit of a guessing game – if you sow too early or there’s an unusually mild spell the seedlings can get away a little too quickly and become gangly and prone to damage. A second sowing is very worthwhile if this happens.
Pop bean seeds into large-sized plugs of potting mix. Peas can be sown into plugs, or into lengths of guttering – just pop the seeds an inch or two apart randomly across potting mix, then cover them over. Grow them on and carefully slide them out of the gutter into waiting trenches come spring. Nice and easy!