We’ve now passed the shortest day of the year. While conditions will remain wintery for some time to come yet at least the days are growing longer. This increasing sunlight and especially the subtle changing intensity of the ultraviolet light will then be sensed by plants a long time before we feel and see the difference.
This will trigger signs of growth in the garden in fruit and ornamental shrub and tree blossom and bud development. Winter flowers, seedlings and vegetables will start making renewed progress and flowering as will early flowering bulbs and germinating seed.
In mild climates this would be a good time for truly dedicated Gardeners to get out in the garden. In particular, progress can be made in the vegetable garden. Now is a good time to make Winter plantings of food crops that will be ready for the table as the weather truly warms up in the Spring and for months onward. Even in these cold wet days quite a few vegetables can still be planted.
This includes many fast-growing leafy crops like: Celery; Chinese Cabbages and leafy vegetables; Cress; Lettuce, both globe-heading and leafy varieties; Mustard; Silverbeet; and Spinach. Provide extra drainage and a well-enriched soil in a very sunny and warm spot. These crops do very well in cold frames; raised beds or when protected with cloches or frost cloth. They thrive on Nitrogen-enriched soils. So dig in generous quantities of aged manure, mature compost, blood and bone, any Nitrate fertiliser (even Lawn Fertiliser) and Lime if the soil is at all acid with a lower pH. Full sunshine is necessary for the sweetest harvests. These crops will survive in a variety of soils from fairly heavy to loamy or even somewhat sandy. Make sure they stay continually moist but well draining. Provide plenty of space between each plant as they are heavy feeders. Cress, Mustard and Leaf Lettuce will survive closer planting when harvesting small and tender leaves but best quality deserves extra space.
Broad beans are an excellent seed crop to plant now for a Spring harvest. Broad Beans need good sun and excellent air circulation to avoid fungal problems. They are lovers of Lime of which they almost cannot get enough. Many problems with Broad Beans are due to an overly acid soil which this liming will correct. They will probably need staking and pinch out the central leading stem at first flowering or earlier to induce branching. Broad Beans prefer a heavy loamy soil and are one crop that will often thrive on clay but it must drain well and not remain sodden.
Peas will sprout quickly when planted now. Give them a freely draining soil, full sun, compost, Lime, and a General Garden Fertiliser high in Phosphate, Potash and Trace Minerals but low in Nitrogen. Peas make their own nitrogen and adding more can toxify them. Provide a trellis with thin brushy or twiggy support for the tendrils to cling.
These two crops demand full sun and excellent drainage, especially Peas when planted during these colder months when seed rot can be a problem. Wherever severe frosts are still expected, these crops are often started in trenches that have been suitably enriched with at least a good quality General Garden Fertiliser and also generous Lime, Dolomite or Dolomag. Dig this in deeply and thoroughly into the base of the trench and water this in well. Let the soil stand for at least a week before sowing the seed in the bottom of the trench. To speed germination and growth, the trench can then be covered with a sheet of clear plastic or frost cloth or even evergreen boughs to ward off frost damage. As the seedlings emerge guard them carefully against attack by Birds, Slug and Snails. Once the seedlings begin to grow, slowly back fill the enriched soil around them until the trench is nearly filled. By then the danger of frost should be past and the trench can be used to irrigate the deeply rooted crop. Deeply rooted Broad Beans and Peas will maintain a cooler and moister root run which will significantly improve their health in climates that warm quickly once the Sun’s warmth returns.
Asparagus crowns can be planted now. Place them in a deeply worked bed rich in Lime, Phosphate, manure/compost, general plant food and a little table salt. Plant the crowns or roots just a few inches below the surface and allow plenty of space between each plant. Asparagus needs a sunny open site for best results. They also need excellent drainage but a soil that stays deeply moist. Loamy, rich soils also suit them. They can often be successful raised on the raised banks of ditches or on long raised rows above wetter land. New growth will commence in a few months once the crown roots become established. Refrain from harvesting the new Asparagus tips for the first couple of years until the plants have become well established. First year shoots are often spindly but will thicken as the crowns mature. Let the shoots mature into attractive feather foliage which is cut down at frost. After that the crowns should continue to deliver tender asparagus tips for a lifetime!
Globe Artichoke is often planted now from small plant sets started earlier or from seed which can be started where the plants are meant to grow. These plants are somewhat frost tender so will need protection in cooler climates with a cloche. Soil must be enriched in a freely draining position in full sunshine. In mild climates, fruiting buds may appear in the Autumn but more likely in the following Spring and Early Summer onward. Artichoke is easily grown by the coast or on sloping land that drains perfectly. Avoid heavy soils that remain boggy or wet as this will invite root rot. Plants are attractive, bold and large so give them plenty of space but can be a little slow to produce blooms so be patient!
Jerusalem Artichoke can also be started now. This is an ‘old fashioned’ garden vegetable that was a favourite crop of many indigenous Indian tribes of the Americans. It is a member of the Sunflower family grown for its edible tubers. The plants are quite tall; 10ft/3m is not uncommon, and adorned with attractive sprays of golden yellow daisy flowers in Late Summer and Autumn. Consequently, they make a bold and dramatic background planting in the perennial or shrub border or at the back of the vegetable garden amongst where Annual Sunflowers might also grow. They thrive in a variety of soils but prefer those that are enriched, loose and freely draining. They will flower and grow in partial sun but often prove weaker and tubers are less satisfactory than when grown in full sunshine. Tubers are planted just a few centimetres below the soil but in colder climates can be planted deeper to avoid freezing. Allow at least 15cm/6inches or more between tubers; 30cm/1ft would not be excessive. Once established plants need little care and can be left alone to multiply for years. Harvest after flowering has finished and foliage matures.
Strawberry plants can also be started now in mild climates where severe freezing has past. Light frosts will not affect them. Strawberries demand very well enriched land that drains well in full sunshine. They will grow in less sun, even dappled shade and poorer land but will become more vegetative with fewer and smaller fruit of lesser quality. The best and sweetest Strawberries must have full sunlight, perfect ventilation and plenty of room between plants.
As their name suggests, they are best when mulched with straw, spoilt hay, carpet, boards, cardboard; black plastic or weed mat is a favourite as it eliminates weeds, holds in valuable soil moisture and keeps the soil significantly warmer. Mulches keep the fruit cushioned off the ground so that they do not rot. Strawberries do best when planted on small mounds or in long raised beds or on gently sloping land facing into the Sun. This insures maximum sunlight and warmth plus free air flow which insures the highest quality fruits. They also do very well in large barrels, planters and tubs. Always plant Strawberries with their roots sitting a little high in the soil. This way, as the plant settles into place, there will be no depression around the crown which could collect excessive water and invite crown rot. Continue planting Strawberry crowns onward through the Spring. By selecting early, ever-bearing and late fruiting varieties a near continuous succession of fruits can be harvested starting in Late Spring right into Early Autumn.
Rhubarb also is planted now from crown roots in a similar manner and position to asparagus. Rhubarb prefers a damper, almost boggy site deeply rich in animal manures. The soil should be deeply worked with these manures into which the new roots are planted. Allow the crowns to develop for at least one year before beginning to harvest the outer leaf stems for cooking. Like asparagus, rhubarb is famous for outliving the gardener making it one of the most productive crops to grow in the home garden.
Garlic, Onions, and Shallots, are all classically planted now from seed or bulbils. Give them plenty of air and sunlight plus plenty of space between plants; the exception being Green/Bunching Onions. These bulbs seldom produce good quality, large bulbs that keep well when overcrowded by excessive planting or weed competition. While the soil should be light, fluffy and freely draining, it does not need to be overly rich. Better to add Lime, Phosphorous (Phosphate Rock or Superphosphate) and Potash (Sulphate of Potash or untreated wood ashes) to the soil rather than Nitrogen which will induce leaf growth at the expense of the bulbs.
Other root crops to plant now include: Beets, Carrot, Parsnip, Potato, Salsify, Swede and Turnip. These are always best sown from seed where the crop is meant to grow as they usually suffer if transplanted or is there is any damage to their tap root through excessive thinning, cultivation or weeding. Sow seed in the days leading up to the Full Moon so that they germinate immediately after then when the Moon is waning. This will ensure rapid development of deeper roots. This will also help to reduce the young developing seedlings from bolting (rapidly going to seed) as the brighter and warmer spring days return.
These crops all demand full sunshine, excellent ventilation and good drainage. Soil needs to be well-enriched as root crops are heavy feeders. Always add well-aged compost and manures as anything fresh will invited root deformities and diseases. This is especially important with Carrots, Parsnip and Salsify. These crops also produce much longer and straighter roots of a high quality when grown in deep trenches of highly enriched screened compost, peat and sand. Exhibition growers often raised then in deep barrels, especially enriched especially with Potash and trace Minerals.
Brassica Family vegetables can also be started now. This includes: Broccoli, Cabbages, Cauliflower, Kohlrabi and Mustard. Guard these against predation by Ants, Birds, Slugs and Snails. Provide a sheltered and sunny spot with excellent ventilation. Soil must be enriched with a good General Garden Fertiliser, Lime, well-aged Compost and/or manure. All this should be well-dug-in and allowed to cure for at least a week prior to planting. It is essential to keep these crops growing strongly from start to finish to get the best results. Never let plants dry out or severely freeze. Feed regularly with a high Nitrogen fertiliser to keep new grow expanding rapidly.
Looking on the bright side now and making the most of every sunny moment will insure great results in the near future. Mid Winter is an excellent time to make great strides that will show true rewards in the brighter days ahead. Happy Gardening!
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