What better way to inject a little optimism into our lives at this gloomy time of year than by enjoying a spot of gardening? Here are ten jobs to crack on with to keep your garden healthy and get you out into that fresh air...
Winter winds can create havoc in the garden. Check that crop covers are thoroughly secured at the edges – I find that heavier weights like bricks keep everything snug during the gales. Tall, gangly vegetables like Brussels sprouts and sprouting broccoli may benefit from being tied in to supports, and pick off any badly damaged, yellow, or dead leaves to reduce wind load.
Tidy away anything that might become airborne in a storm – everything from loose pots to garden furniture. Stow them away now so they don’t get scattered about and end up causing damage.
2. Clean Plant Pots
Now – or indeed at any point over the winter – is a great time for cleaning plant pots while they’re empty so they’re gleaming for spring. Wash or blast off with a hose the worst of the grime, give them a quick scrub in water with a squirt of dishwashing liquid added, then leave them to drip-dry.
Once you’re done, stack everything away neatly, ordered by size, so you have exactly what you need to hand, when you need it.
Also wipe down and put away bamboo canes and other supports so they’re ready for next spring.
3. Check for Pests
One benefit of proper, hard winters is that you don’t have to worry about pests til spring. It’s all about the small wins! But if you’re in a relatively mild climate like mine, it pays to check for pests every now and then. Mild spells can invite pests like spider mites and aphids to raise their ugly and unwanted heads again, especially on plants growing under cover. They’re sneaky so-and-sos! If you spot any pests, act promptly. In most cases squishing the odd aphid should do the job while pest predators like ladybirds are sleeping on the job.
It pays to thoroughly clean greenhouses, tunnels, and cold frames to remove any overwintering pests, giving you a clean slate for the upcoming growing season.
4. Harvest Jerusalem Artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, are a very worthwhile crop to include in the garden. Jerusalem artichokes are related to sunflowers, and you can clearly see the resemblance in the pretty flowers. The roots are full of vitamins and minerals, while the tall, lofty nature of the plants makes them a superb windbreak for more exposed gardens. Artichokes are well known for breaking wind, at least in my household – they don’t call them ‘fartichokes’ for nothing…
The knobbly tubers will happily sit out the winter to lift as needed. They’re really rather superb roasted or, my favourite, turned into a deeply savoury and warming soup.
When harvesting Jerusalem artichokes, leave some tubers in the ground to grow for next year’s crop, or lift any stragglers up by the end of winter to replant about 18in (45cm) apart. And don’t forget, our Garden Planner can help you work out how many you have room for by automatically spacing them for you.
You may have other winter veggies coming thick and fast now including kale and other brassicas, parsnips, and a whole host of winter salads. Make the most of them!
5. Take a Seed Inventory
There’s nothing quite as thrilling as flicking through the seed catalogues on a cold and miserable day, cup of tea in hand to warm the cockles as you dream of next season’s garden!
Make a list of what you’d like to grow, then check your existing stock of seeds in case you already have some of them on your list. It’s all too easy to get carried away, duplicating packets of seeds and wasting money!
You might also want to check if the seed you have is still viable. The sow-by date will give a good indication, but it’s worth carrying out a seed germination test on any you’re unsure about. Pop some of the seeds onto damp kitchen paper, put them somewhere warm to germinate, and keep them moist. Once they have, divide the number of germinated seeds by the total number of seeds to get your germination rate – I’d say anything over 50% is okay.
6. Mulch Perennials
If you haven’t done so already, now’s a good time to mulch around perennial vegetables such as asparagus, globe artichokes and rhubarb. I use regular garden compost, which is one of the most nutritious amendments you can add to your soil. Spread it around cut-back plants to slowly nourish them over the coming months and on into the next growing season.
I tend to leave mulching of fruit bushes and canes until later in the winter, so that the frost and birds can work their magic in cleansing the soil of overwintering pests.
7. Apply Grease Bands
And on the subject of fruit pests, if your trees have been badly affected by winter moth this year, now’s a great time to apply grease bands. Grease bands are sticky bands that wrap around the trunk of a fruit tree to catch any of the wingless females of winter moths that may be trying to climb up into the canopy to lay their eggs. Their caterpillars can chew holes in the leaves and buds of fruit trees, potentially causing serious damage and affecting crop yield. Grease bands can trap other insects too however, so they shouldn't be used unless you've had a major problem with winter moth before.
8. Feed the Birds
Provide garden birds with food regularly, especially during colder weather. Birds need high-energy, fat-rich foods to fuel them over the chillier spells and to help keep them warm. Fat balls are good, but avoid those with netting that might trap their delicate feet. Offer fat balls in purpose-sold feeders, or on a bird table. Alternatively, a suet-filled coconut half-shell, hung up in a tree, would work well.
Don’t forget the importance of fresh, clean, ice-free water too. This is important for both drinking and bathing – and bathing is essential to ensure that birds have clean, fluffed up feathers that will help them to keep warm.
9. Water with Care
One of the questions I’m often asked is how much should I water container or indoor plants during the winter? The answer is: it depends! Watering in winter is a series of judgement calls. You don’t want the soil or potting mix to be too wet for too long as this could cause problems with rot or disease, but equally, plants still need a drink.
For plants growing under cover, for instance in greenhouse borders, I just stick a finger into the soil to judge whether it’s wet, moist, or dry and in need of a water. I tend to check how moist plants in pots are by lifting up containers to gauge how heavy they are. If they’re light, I know they need watering.
When it’s cold, plants use much less water and so the soil can stay moist for longer. In a typical winter here, with temperatures rarely rising above, say, 50ºF (10ºC), I might water as little as once every three to four weeks. Whenever it’s not freezing cold I keep the windows and doors open to encourage good airflow and keep everything fresh. I also aim to avoid wetting the leaves too much when I water to reduce the risk of moulds and diseases.
10. Grow Bean Sprouts
I love fast-growing sprouts like mung beans (a.k.a. bean sprouts). Even if your winters are positively polar, you can always get sprouting indoors! Growing mung bean sprouts is easy and quick to do, giving something tasty to tuck into within a matter of days.
To get your bean sprouts started, soak the seeds overnight then drain them off. Pop them into a jar, then secure a square of muslin over the mouth of the jar with a rubber band.
Fill the jar with water then drain it off twice a day, once in the morning and then again in the evening. Keep them somewhere warm and dark to get them going. And that’s it!
Your bean sprouts should be ready to harvest in as little as five days. Rinse them and dry them, either in a salad spinner or by patting them dry with a dish cloth or paper towel. Bagged up, they’ll store in the refrigerator for a few days.