Calendar of Fruit and veg Jobs
Help is at hand month by month so you can see what you should be doing on your plot. The weather and where you live make a huge difference to what grows, or not, but doing anything is better than nothing.
A year's worth of work in the Veg Plot...
The plot in June is inspiring and full of hope; everything is growing, and you are harvesting as well, so it all seems worthwhile. Every evening I clip some chives, lettuce leaves, rocket, and maybe pull a radish to have an instant zero-food mile salad, and it’s lovely. Later on there’ll be some tomatoes, and hopefully a cucumber to join it, and maybe a baby carrot. The asparagus treat comes to an end this month, but the beautiful ferns that develop promise more for next year. And hopefully I’ll be enjoying a pea and broad bean risotto, if the pigeons have left my patch alone this year. Tender Loving Care is needed for plants in June, and they will grow healthy and strong.
You can still have plants under cloches and bottles, and covers in June, but remove them during the day. In the bright sun the plants could actually wilt and leaves get burned. Remember to pop them on again overnight if the plants they are protecting are still new to the outside world. Cloches also protect plants that may get flattened by heavy rain.
Plants may look weak and pathetic if they have had a bit of a shock being put outside, but don’t worry, they will pick up. Tomato plants should be well attached to supports, and pick out the shoots that appear between the branches, so that you have one main stem going up, with leaves branching off. If you don’t you’ll have lots of main stems and it’s impossible to stake them, and there will not be enough light getting to the fruit. Next month you can trim off some of the leaves to let light through to the fruit.
Water can be a big issue in June. Ideally of course it will rain at night, and be sunny during the day, and your well-prepared soil will hold the moisture. But you can help by putting small amounts of grass mowings around plants, and over potatoes once it has rained. If you are using a watering can filled from water butts, give the plants a good soaking at night, every few days.
If it is dry some plants will bolt. So, either water to prevent this, or be prepared to lose some, which should be lifted once they have bolted (producing a flower). The exception is any plant whose flower you like to keep, like onions, or rocket – they make the plot look pretty.
Check fruit blossom for any maggots, or moths and remove by hand if you can. If the plants are new, make sure they get plenty of water if there’s been little rain.
Weeds go mad in June, either from the rain, or your watering! So keep hoeing them off. Perennial weeds need to be dug out if possible, or at least cut off under the soil if you do not want to disturb nearby crops. They’ll come back, but if you don’t pull them up at least you’ll keep the soil intact. You can put a square of permealay over a weed, and put a rock on top, which will weaken it.
Keep staking plants like beans, peas and tomatoes as they grow so that a sudden strong wind does not snap them off. Any plant will welcome being shielded from wind in June. You can put up a makeshift wind shelter by tying fleece between canes, or a sheet of Perspex trapped between canes. It need only be temporary, but it must be secure.
Earth up, and firm down brassica plants so they stand rock solid. If they rock about then they tend not to form a heart (cabbage) or the broccoli head, or the cauliflower floret. A full grown brassica plant can be huge, with a thick stalk, so they need a firm solid ground to support them. Potatoes should be earthed up, or at least covered in a thick mulch to prevent any light getting to the tubers.
Check rows of seeds like carrots, parsnips, beetroot, spinach, beet, radish, salad onion, rocket that you have sown, and thin them out so that the seedlings can get a bit of air and water. Some of the seedlings you can transplant, others just wash and use in a salad. If you’ve got sporadic patches of seedlings, sow some more seed in the spaces; you’ll have a successional crop, just not in an orderly line!
Watch out when thinning carrots and do it at night. The carrot root fly is attracted by the smell, so doing it at night may help, or try and confuse it by rubbing chives nearby as that smell they do not like! If you can, use a mesh cover over your carrots and this will keep the fly away. Interestingly there is no insecticide licensed for domestic control of carrot root fly, so everyone has to be organic when it comes to carrots.
To get a good fruit crop you do have to thin. It’s hard, but worth it if you want to go for quality. Fruits that grow next to each other rub, get diseased, go brown and are useless. So for pears, apples, gooseberries, it is worth picking off weaker fruits, leaving two per ‘bunch’ to get all the nutrients, sun, air needed to produce the perfect fruit. In a dry summer the plant will naturally drop a lot of fruit anyway. Cherry and plum trees can be pruned, but be careful of the fruit.
Tomatoes like lots of water and an organic feed s they set their flowers (make your own from comfrey or nettles, or buy from HDRA).
Bedding plants can safely go out now, but keep checking for slugs until the plants get established. Dead heading of flowers will keep the plants flowering for longer.
Container veg tends to be thought of as for those without a garden, or plot. But anyone can use containers, and they have many uses in the veg plot: I put flowers in troughs and move them near veg that need beneficial insects; Hungry plants like courgettes and pumpkins can go in a container, and it makes watering easier; You can get a good crop of potatoes from just a couple of tubers planted in a big pot (yep, sprouted, unused supermarket ones are fine for a container); If slugs get everything in your plot, put some come-again lettuce in a pot and snip as required; Herbs like Basil and Parsley do better in a large pot than open ground in wet areas; Carrots can be grown in a pot if they fail in your open ground.
Strawberries and raspberries look after themselves, but do like plenty of water when the fruit is swelling. You are not supposed to harvest from new plants, you are supposed to pick off the flowers so no fruit is formed, to make a stronger plant for future years! Fruit that lies on the ground (strawberry, cucumber, courgette) can get nibbled by slugs, so put some straw or material under the fruit to keep it off the soil.
You need to make sure you are sowing some brassicas for next winter, and spring. They do hog the ground for a long time, but you will welcome their presence next year when everything else is empty. Ideally you’ll have a ‘holding bed for the seedlings, so that you can then move to their permanent home later in the summer. If not, keep the seedlings in pots.
Pests! It’s hard to know whether to be bothered by pests, or not. On the whole in a ‘healthy’ garden, you will have pests and predators doing their thing. Pests will appear before predators, so just rubbing them off will keep them at bay. Similarly rub off greenfly and black fly, and the ladybirds and hoverflies will move in soon. Mind you, blackfly is so horrible to look at it’s best to snip off really infected areas. With broad beans snip off the growing tip if it’s covered in blackfly and remove from your garden. Young brassica plants get little holes in the leaves made by flea beetle, but it’ll pass. I pick off slugs and snails when I see them, there will be plenty more for frogs and thrushes that I can’t see.
Check for infected potatoes, and other pests. You’ll know an infected potato as the foliage will be withered and yellow compared to the others, so dig it out and remove it from your garden.. If you see caterpillars anywhere (brassica, gooseberry) pick them off, and give them to the birds.
And it’s the end of rhubarb harvesting once June is over. Just mulch heavily and leave them alone.
Also, take cuttings of herbs and pot them up to replace lost plants, or give to friends!
Plant this month: (and then water and weed!)
Yes you’ll have too many courgettes, but keep picking them so more will develop to keep the season going (you’ll miss them when they are gone). You can put unwanted courgettes on the compost heap., or take them round to friends and family whenever you visit. Similarly with cucumbers, and peas, keep the flowers coming by cutting off the fruit.
In July there is so much coming from your plot that it is easy to forget to plan ahead, like you did in March. But, to paraphrase, as you reap, so shall ye sow. That means, sow veg now that can overwinter and provide you with crops until April next year. If you have done this you will of course find you have plants ready to go in the plot, but it’s hogged by other plants. If you have a big plot then you can have holding beds, such a luxury, but in a small plot you’ll just have to keep potting on until space becomes available. Be ruthless with plants that are finished, like peas. Cut them off and plant out your brassica.
You can probably treat yourself to some beetroot, carrot, turnip, French beans, Broad beans, Kohlrabi, lettuce by making a late sowing now. Check the seed packet, but if you keep the seedlings shaded from hot sun, you’ll hopefully be able to crop until the frosts arrive (or not!).
Some onions, shallots and garlic should be ready now – you’ll know because the foliage goes yellow and droops, and the onions appear to almost sit themselves on the soil. On a dry day, carefully pull up the onions, using a fork if necessary, and lay them on the dry soil, or a wall, or a conservatory floor; anywhere dry and warm. After a couple of days, store them somewhere cool and dark. If you store them damp they will start to grow again, using the bulb as fuel! If you find that your onions have pretty flower heads, cut them off now, and the plant should yellow and wither ready for harvesting in about three weeks’ time.
Potatoes that you harvest in July should really be used straight away, or within the week. So only lift what you need as early and second earlies are not suitable for storing. Wash off any dirt outside before using in the kitchen.
Stop most of your strawberry plants producing runners by snipping them off, but let a few produce runners, and pot up the new plant that is developing at the end of the runner. In September you can cut off the new plant from the parent and plant it out. Once you’ve picked all your fruit, trim off the leaves and clear away weeds and rubbish, like straw. Keep the plants well watered and happy so that they produce lots of new leaves ready for next year.
If a row of broad beans or peas have finished, cut the plant off at soil level and put on the compost heap, but leave the root ball in the soil. It will have fixed nitrogen in nodules that the next crop (usually brassica) need. Your runner beans will be producing lots, so keep them watered, picked and feed them some comfrey or nettle solution.
Bolting becomes a problem in July, it’s when the plant starts to set seed and the bit you want to eat goes bitter and unpalatable. Plants mainly do it when they have matured and the weather is dry, so the answer is to water well, or remove and replace with younger plants. Lettuce, spinach, rocket, radish seem to bolt overnight. It’s a natural progression as the plant has matured and is producing seed; all very well for its life cycle but not what you want, unless you plan to collect the seed.
Tomatoes really shoot up now, and if you do not control them they will branch and flower in all directions, and then collapse. Apart from tumbling varieties, (which you can leave alone, and are therefore worth growing!) grow the plant up a cane, tying it in as it grows. Make one shoot the main one, and pinch out the little shoots that try to grow out from where the leaf joins the stem. This happens all the way down the plant. Keep pinching them out otherwise the plant becomes too weighted and unmanageable. The plant will produce flower stems, with pretty yellow flowers that become the fruit, so don’t pick them off. If there are no bees around you’ll have to pollinate them yourself. Later on, once the fruit has set, you start to remove the leaves so that sun can get to the fruit. You can buy an organic feed for your plants, or make your own stinky concoction from nettles or comfrey left in a bucket of water. Traditionally you try to stop the plant growing in height once there are four or five flower/fruit ‘trusses’ by pinching out the top growing point (and the side ones). This gives the plant the strength to grow big fruit, rather than increasing in size. If your plants do not get a good, even water supply they may develop ‘blossom end rot’ when the base of the fruit goes black.
Any plants that like a regular water supply, like tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes can have their own private supply. Cut the end off a large plastic bottle and put it top first in the soil (no lid!) near the base of the plant. Then fill the bottle with water. The water will be deep in the soil where the roots need it, and not evaporating off the surface. It’s efficient, effective and makes manual watering quick and easy. Keep checking these plants, picking fruit when ready, tying to a support if necessary, feeding once a week. Look after them and they will ripen properly and crop for ages.
Potato blight is a phrase that scares any gardener, as we’ve all read about the famine that struck Ireland after potato blight. You can visit www.blightwatch.co.uk to see if it is in your area. Check your potato plants and any that have brown patches on the leaves (or stem), or a fluffy mould are probably infected. Tubers infected will have a depression on the surface, and marbled flesh underneath; the whole potato goes mushy and rotten and smells foul. Blight can also affect tomatoes, and the fruit goes brown. That’s why you try and grow pots and toms together, and move them round the rotation together. Don’t use the same ground for both. In the early stages of blight, remove the infected plant and burn or take away from your garden. Tubers may be OK, but check them. You can spray your plants with compost tea and seaweed extract to keep the plant healthy to fight the disease. Next year, plant resistant varieties, and early ones are less susceptible than later ones. You must try to dig up all the pots, so that none are left in the ground to grow next year, and pass on the infection.
Make sure your brasssica plants are covered with some sort of mesh or net. Otherwise the cabbage white butterfly will lay her eggs on your plants, and the resulting caterpillars will strip your leaves bare. If you opt not to cover, you can pick them off manually, but do it every day, or even every hour. From about end September no more eggs are laid, so you can take the cover off. You can plant out the young seedlings, but keep them watered. And keep sowing so that you have some spares if some die off. If you are away and cannot water for instance.
Weeds will still be everywhere, especially when you clear out a crop like peas. They’ll have grown under the canopy hidden from view. So hoe them off on a dry day, or lift and remove.
Keep your plot tidy by picking up leaves that fall. They’ll hide slugs and may harbour pests.
After rain, or a good watering, keep mulching plants with grass mowings, or compost. It keeps the soil moist, and keeps down weeds.
Flowers should be popping up all over your plot, either self-seeded or sown by you. Poppies, Calendula, herbs, anything with a flower that bees and hoverflies like should be left to grow. If you have space in the plot you could sow some flowers for spring – like forget-me-nots, polyanthus, sweet William, wallflowers. You can leave them in the plot to look pretty next year, or to move elsewhere in your garden.
You can prune your plum, damson and cherry trees, but mind the fruit. Prune out old dead and diseased wood, and trim back any over vigorous shoots to keep the shape. Trim any shoots that are crossing or congesting the centre of the tree. Apples and pears should be thinned so that there are just two fruits per spur. It’ll help them to swell and ripen without rubbing and causing damage to the skin.
Plant this month:
Storage of crops you have grown and want to harvest becomes an issue this month. Freezing is an option with fruit, but only if you have a big freezer! Not many of us are lucky enough to have cellars, or barrels full of sand as people used to. The key to successful storage is the condition of the crop you harvest. Make sure it is clean and dry and can be kept somewhere cool and dark. Dig up one , or two to make sure they are ready.
If you look in gardening catalogues there are beautiful wooden storage options available (that will burn a huge hole in your pocket), but you can make do with large fruit boxes from supermarkets (the long flat ones for melons are great) and see if your garden centre has any of the wooden boxes that bulbs are shipped in going cheap or free. Get some in now for when you need them later in the year.
With all stored crops, you should check them regularly and remove any that are rotting. The smell is often a giveaway, and if you’ve smelt rotting potatoes, you’ll know it forever! The phrase ‘one bad apple can spoil the whole lot’ applies to all stored crops. As they rot they give off a hormone that ripens the rest of the fruit.
If you have grown runner beans you will have too many! You can blanch and freeze them, or eat them. But pick them you must, every other day, and you’ll have beans for maybe eight weeks. If you stop picking they will stop production, so even if you can’t eat them, or freeze them, you could give them away or put them on the compost. French beans seem less prolific, but they crop for a short time, so you need some plants sown in succession to keep yourself in a good supply.
Tomatoes will be starting to ripen and get heavy, so make sure the plant is well tied to a stake. Snap off any ‘laterals’ (little leaves that try to grow between a big leaf and a stem, and if left start to flower and exhaust the plant). Keep watering and bi-weekly feeding the plants. If you have big old leaves that are shading the fruit, cut them off now so that sun can get to the tomato and ripen it. If the plant is at the top of your stake, trim it off.
Cucumbers and courgettes should be harvested as they get to the size you want. This will make the plant produce more flowers and more fruits. Large courgettes are marrows, and good for a laugh, but not to eat. Cucumbers that are too ripe aren’t nice to eat, the pips are huge and the flesh watery. If you’ve got three or four pumpkins on a plant, be happy with your lot and keep cutting off the growing tip so the fruits swell rather than producing anymore. If you are hoping to have huge pumpkins or squashes then you will have to water them well now. Put an upturned plastic bottle near the plant, (with the base cut out) and water through this everyday. All these cucurbits will love some seaweed extract in the water, as they are hungry plants. If there is plenty of sun, great, if not, remove big leaves that shade the pumpkin or squash so that they get the maximum of the suns ripening rays.
When you harvest a cabbage, you can cut it off at ground level, and put unwanted leaves on the compost heap. Pull out the root and remove it from your garden in case it carries disease. Clean up any yellow or mottled leaves. Similarly, any potato plants that don’t look well should be dug up and removed from your garden. Brassicas that are still growing should be covered, but if not (or anyway) keep checking for caterpillars and pick them off. If you’ve got a writhing mess of caterpillars it’s because you did not cover the plants, so plan this for next year! Just keep picking them off for now, hourly if necessary.
Your onions must be ready now! If the stalks have flopped, or the foliage yellowed, then they are ready to be lifted. On a dry day, carefully pull up the onions, using a fork if necessary, and lay them on the dry soil, or a wall, or a conservatory floor; anywhere dry and warm. If you can create a sort of raised bed for them on chicken wire this will help they dry on top and underneath as well. After a couple of days, store them somewhere cool and dark. If you store them damp they will start to grow again, using the bulb as fuel! Onions will store better if their outer skins have been toughened by drying out in the hot sun.
Potato blight has been reported in lots of areas this year, it’s a fungal infection that can ruin your crop. Check your plants and remove any that have brown patches on the leaves. It tends to affect later varieties, more than early. You can still eat the tubers if they are not infected, but check them first. Spraying with compost tea or seaweed extract helps to keep the plants healthy. Blight is caused by spores that are in the air and settle in the ground.
Your fruit bushes need to have the fruit harvested and to be kept well watered or mulched. Make sure you’ve thinned your apples and pears so they can get lots of sun and ripen. Always remove diseased fruit, and try to have just two fruit per branch/spur waiting to ripen. Plum branches may be hanging down laden with fruit. You should prune them now, and you can do that to branches which are so heavy with fruit they look like they will snap (can you really eat all those plums?). If you have not got much plum fruit, prune back unfruiting branches to create new wood and fruiting spurs for next year.
If your summer raspberries are now finished, cut the fruited can down to the ground (the foliage will probably be mottled and yellow). New unfruited shoots that look strong and green should be tied to a support to survive the winter. Don’t touch autumn fruiting raspberries, as they’ve yet to produce! You can also trim any fruited gooseberry or redcurrant bushes. Removed damaged wood and branches going into the centre, and then trim back outside shoots to remain with four buds.
Pot up the runners of strawberries to give you new plants. You can weigh down the runner with a stone.
Keep your plot tidy this month, clearing away dead leaves and spent crops. Weeding is often difficult if the ground is hard, but you can still hoe off at the surface.
Watering should be carefully done in August, as the ground can be so hot and dry that it will evaporate before doing any good. Water early in the day or late at night, and mulch with grass mowings, newspaper, compost after watering.
If it’s too hot (or wet!) to be in the garden, sit down and plan what you could be sowing for autumn. And then do it! And make a list of what you would do differently/the same for next year.
And also, order some green manure seeds, and plan where to sow them. Ideally they can go where you will have bare soil over the winter. There are many green manures available from the Organic Catalogue, and Suffolk Herbs. They grow easily, keep the soil healthy over the winter, and can be dug in or composted come spring. If you do not get round to doing this, empty out your compost bin in September and tip the lot onto the ground to protect it!
Make sure you are sowing some winter and spring greens now, so that you don’t have to rely only on your stored food over the winter months. You can also try sowing some chard, spinach, lettuce and they should be fine if the weather stays good for the next few months. If August is very hot and dry, the spinach, rocket, lettuce may bolt, but, nothing ventured, nothing gained! Keep the seedlings partially shaded and you could be lucky. Don’t sow seedlings and then go away for two weeks leaving them to fend for themselves. Wait until you are back from your hols so you can water them as they germinate.
Plant this month:
This is a lovely relaxing month in the veg plot. If you look at any ‘sow/harvest’ style calendar you’ll see that September is the month when you can just about harvest any and everything, and sow virtually nothing – a real glutton’s paradise! Of course, if you’ve done everything right and planted in succession you‘ll have crops for a few months yet, and then some more, but often this is the month when everything stops flowering and packs up shop. So, enjoy it.
Everyone talks excitedly of an Indian summer as if it is unusual in September, but this month is often warm and sunny, and ripens the tree fruit. September 2007 was warm, dry and sunny for the first three weeks, sadly September 2008 rained for the first two weeks, and was warmer and drier towards the end. 2009 was wet at the start, then warm, dry and sunny and 2010 was everything, sunny, wet, windy!
Apples can be picked when ready (twist the apple and if it comes off it’s ready!) Generally speaking, the earlier the apple is ripe, the shorter time it will store. So, eat them now, and then as the season progresses, start to store the later varieties. Pick up diseased fruit and leaves as they fall to remove any pests from your plot. Paint sticky grease bands onto tree trunks to stop winter moths. Store fruit ideally in airy containers, and place the fruit on straw or wrap individually in newspaper. Your local greengrocer/garden centre may have wooden boxes going cheap or free. If you notice new shoots on your tree, cut them back to about 5 leaves, but otherwise you can leave the pruning of apple trees until the winter.
Autumn raspberries are there to be enjoyed, as are plums, damsons, pears. Make sure to secure any new summer fruiting raspberry canes, so that they don’t flap and flop around all winter. You should have cut to the ground any old summer fruited raspberry canes (the leaves are yellow as well) but leave the new shoots to flower next year.
Blackcurrant bushes can be pruned now by cutting out one in three fruited shoots. With Blackberries, cut out fruited canes, and secure new shoots so they grow where you want them to. You can prune most of the fruited bushes now, or over the winter. Don’t prune apples or pears until winter.
If you are lucky enough to have tomatoes and cucumbers growing, cut off the big leaves now to allow maximum sunlight to reach and ripen the fruit.
Your asparagus foliage is probably going yellow and leaning over. Cut it off now near the base and give the area a good rich manure mulch.
Plant out new strawberry plants produced from runners, or pot up some runners to make new plants. If your strawberry patch is a mass of plants, you could lift them now, fork in some manure and fresh compost, trim off runners and old leaves and then replant them in neat rows. It will make your life easier if you plan to use cloches or netting next summer, to plant them in rows that fit under the cloche. It’s best to leave plants uncovered over winter, as they need a cold spell in their life cycle before they will flower. But cover from March if you want to try to force an early crop. Either way, trim off all the old leaves and clear away any rubbish like straw, that’s probably going mouldy now (but I found a frog under mine!)
As you harvest the last of the beans and peas, cut them off at the stalk leaving the roots in the ground, and plant any remaining winter and spring brassica plants that you have left over into this space.
If you have lots of potatoes it is worth investing in some sacks, but make sure the pots are dry first. Use your hands to lightly rub off the excess soil. Or, if the soil was really dry when you harvested, leave them to dry as picked, in the sun. You can leave maincrops in the ground, but be wary of slugs, but lift all your crop by mid October. If you lift them on a sunny day, let them bake in the sun to toughen up the skin so they are less likely to be damaged in storing. If you had blight around hopefully the virus has not got into the tubers, but if it has they will rot. So make sure you only store clean pots with no holes or blemishes. You can eat blighted potatoes, but do so now before they rot, don’t store them. In 2007 we had lots of blighted plants and removed the foliage at the first sign. The tubers we lifted were fine and we did not get blight in 2008 until mid September when it wiped out all the toms, and rotted much of the main crop potatoes as they lay in the ground.
If you haven’t got room for a compost bin, dig a compost trench. This is when you dig out a trench in your plot, say a spade’s width wide and deep and just fill it with shredded newspaper and your kitchen scraps. When full, pull the soil over and start again. These trenches are great to grow peas, beans, potatoes and courgettes into, but there’s really nothing that won’t like it except brassicas that like firm soil.
Sow some green manures. These are plants that protect the soil over the winter, and help fix nutrients in it. A green manure that stays in the ground all winter is very beneficial. You just dig it into the soil in the spring, or put it on the compost heap. You can sow these into a compost covered area of soil, or bare soil, and they germinate quickly now when the soil is still warm. Just make sure the green manure fits in your crop rotation, as some, like mustard, is a member of the brassica family so it should not be grown out of turn (grow it after brassicas so if club root shows up, it ruins the green manure crop, not your brassica). Phacelia can be grown at any time in the cycle, as can field beans.
Catalogues will be arriving tempting you to buy bulbs – and you may as well. But plan where they will be going first. Bulbs in the plot look pretty, or in a pot. Plant them very deep if you want to keep them in your veg plot, and then plant veg on top once they have flowered.
Many garden centres and on-line garden sites have sales now, so look through for items you would have liked this year, and maybe order. A cloche tunnel for instance, or an obelisk or trellis, or a trough for salads maybe. A small greenhouse, or even just a mini-greenhouse will mean you can get salads all winter, and start off bedding plants early, and peas and beans.
Plant this month:
If it’s been a sunny September most fruit will be ripe, and you’ve hopefully been picking lots of the lovely things for ages. 2009 saw plentiful blackberries and apples and 2010 was similar, with blackberries in October! 2011 had the last of the lovely raspberries, and 2013 sees lots of blackberries and apples ready for picking. October 2013 was a very warm month, but with lots of rain as well, and now 2014 is the driest on record, and nearly the warmest, extending the fruiting season so bountifully.
Once all your fruit has been picked, and stored or eaten, a big tidy up is needed. Sweep up all the fallen leaves and remove them if they are diseased. Make sure any nasty looking fruit that is still on the bush/tree is removed. Anything nasty on leaves or fruit that is left about is harbouring the disease/pest for next year. Then apply tree grease to the main trunk of trees to trap winter moths and reapply in spring. You can leave fallen fruit that is just bruised, not diseased, for birds and other wildlife. Blackbirds love apples!
Now, or over the next few months is when you should prune out any spent canes on blackberries, raspberries and other cane or bush fruit you may have grown. Tie in the new canes so you can manage their growth.
Rhubarb is at home in Yorkshire, and it’s a huge plant. This is traditionally the month for planting rhubarb, so have a go if you have the space. Rhubarb likes ground that’s had loads of manure, and then some cold, so don’t cover the crown of the plant but leave it exposed to the frost. However, cold, wet ground just rots the plant! Each plant needs about 1m square. In January 2009 I planted one rhubarb plant at the plot, a Timperley Early. From a plastic bag it had a tiny pink shoot and one leaf. The next day it snowed! On re-reading the packet instructions it said plant in autumn/spring. However it survived, and in February 2010 I covered it and was rewarded with soft sweet pink stems in March.
If you have some Alpine strawberry plants in your garden, you’ll notice they will have self seeded and you’ve got lots more. Remove those you do not want, or pot some up to give to friends – that’s where my first one came from. The small sweet strawberries are lovely to snack on, and children are happy to try them.
You may find the towering foliage of Jerusalem Artichokes starts to brown and topple now. Cut the stalks off near ground level so that you know where they are when you want to dig them up to eat over the winter.
Frost will pretty much kill off any plants when it hits. This is OK as it signals the end of the season, but it does mean that any tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers, squashes, sweetcorn etc that are on the plant need to be harvested BEFORE the frost. Usually the first frost to hit is light, and acts as a warning to ‘pick everything now’. But, predicting that frost will affect you is tricky, so keep an eye on the weather forecast; southerners may get frost in certain pockets; northerners know they will get it everywhere. (I scraped ice off my car windscreen at 7.30am on 18 September 2007, and the day went on to be a warm and sunny 13 degrees!)
Wind can also come whipping through your plants. Stake any tall ones like Brussels, and big cabbages, or at least earth up the soil around them to give them some support.
You really should not have any potatoes left in the ground by the end of October. Carrots, parsnips, beetroot can be left. But if it’s very wet, check they are not being eaten underground. It’s best to lift and store if you can (see last month). If you don’t have sand to store in, try newspaper, and keep everything cool and dark.
If you like chives, you can lift up some older existing clumps and separate them now to keep producing healthy plants. The foliage will die back, but pop through before you know it when spring arrives. Chives are good value as you can snip them for 6 months of the year, they have a lovely purple flower that attracts beneficial insects, and they are free if you divide them each year.
October is when you (start to) tidy up the beds that have had most of the crop harvested, and prepare them for the next crop. The beds need to be weeded (by hoe or digging) and the weeds removed, and maybe dig out the big perennial weeds. However, it’s unlikely that all your beds will be ready to clear, as you’ll always have some brassicas, kale, beets and leeks around. The bed that’s going to have roots next year does not need manuring, but do dig over the soil as the brassica leave, to make it nice and open. Dig in plenty of compost to make the soil moisture retentive. The bed that will have the brassica next year can be dug now and lots of manure and compost put in, and then firmed down. Try growing a leguminous green manure to feed the soil ready for summer planting. The bed that will have potatoes can have lots of manure dug in, as can the ‘other bed’ as the space becomes free.
Peas and beans (and strawberries) would love it if you could dig out a trench for them (see last month’s notes).
Once you have done your digging, or if you know you won’t do it, you can sow a late green manure, or sprinkle compost. Winter frost is good at breaking down soil and killing pests, but you never know how harsh the winter will be. Some people think that digging messes up the soil’s structure and you should do as little as possible. They just cover the soil with manure or compost and let the worms and weather do the rest, just lightly digging to put in plants. Believe me, it’s a back-friendly option, and better than doing nothing at all.
If you have got covers on your soil you could take them off for the winter, as most annual weeds have stopped spreading their seed now. Dig out any perennial weeds you can see. If you keep doing this over the years you will have a relatively weed free plot.
If you didn’t sort out your compost bins last month, have a go this month.
Make regular checks on the harvest that you have in store. Anything with any mould, or black bits needs to be removed, and used straight away. If you can’t use it, put it on the compost pile, or remove if you think it’s diseased. If a lot seems to be going off, make sure that the crop has plenty of air to circulate, and is kept cool and dark.
To keep your garden wildlife friendly means you can leave plenty of ‘rubbish’ around. Anything diseased should go, but flower heads with seeds can stay, and fallen fruit. Try to create twig and branch piles in hidden corners where animals can take refuge from cats, and maybe hibernate. We all love hedgehogs, but their lifestyles have been wrecked by recent climate changes, so feed them if you see one in your garden, or see signs that they have trundled through.
Plant this month:
We’ve had regular snow in November here in Yorkshire – sometimes it only lasts a few hours, but everything tender gets killed off and the plot and garden start to look neglected and run down. But in this photo, the sun's shining, and that pile of manure is waiting to be moved!
Plant a few pansies or polyanthus to brighten things up, and if you’ve got room for a winter scented shrub plant one to cheer you up in the winter, or keep it in a pot near the plot so you get a lovely waft everytime you pass. (Try Sarcococca, Hammamelis, Daphne, Viburnum, Honeysuckle.)
If you have the space, now is the time to plant raspberry canes. I have four summer fruiting canes acting as a screen to a raised bed. Raspberries grow well in Scotland, so remember this when you decide where to site them in your plot. They like moisture, shelter and have shallow roots so need a weed free/well mulched area. They like a good deep soil, but actually grow very close to the surface, so do not plant them deeply.
Plant bare rooted trees now. Hopefully the tree will come with planting instructions, but remember, it’s going to be there for a while, so prepare the hole and soil properly. Staking is also a good idea for the first few years.
If you have not planted any garlic, do so now. It’s very little effort, and apart from a bit of weeding you can leave the area alone until July when you lift the bulbs.
Similarly plant some of your onion sets now, but check the variety as some onion sets do not like to be planted until spring. Ones called Japanese overwintering onions can be planted now.
Most green manures will not germinate now, so if you’ve got bare soil for the winter, tip any home made compost on the soil to rot down over the winter. Anywhere in the plot will benefit from compost trenches. This is when you dig out a trench, say a spade’s width wide and just fill it with shredded newspaper and your kitchen scraps. When full, pull the soil over and start again. These trenches are great to grow peas, beans, potatoes and courgettes into, but there’s really nothing that won’t like it.
Leaves will be everywhere in your plot and garden. If you can, buy the biggest, widest plastic leaf rake you can find and afford and store. Like many jobs, the right tool makes things a lot easier. The leaves can be put in a chicken wire store to rot down if you have the space, or put them into black bin bags. Make sure there are some air holes, and let the leaves get wet, and then just hide them around the place, behind the shed, under a tree. Go back in a year or so and you’ll have a leaf mould to put around shrubs, on the plot, or over mulching fabric to keep weeds at bay. Putting dry leaves into the compost bin slows things down, and you can go back after a year and nothing’s changed! So wet is best.
Clear any dead leaves, rotting stalks and other debris from your veg plot and near your favourite plants. This will get rid of pests and diseases, but you can leave fallen leaves elsewhere for wildlife to hide under and use.
What other jobs need doing then?
And then, sit down, read the catalogues and make lots of lovely lists and plans for your Christmas wish list and for next year.
Plant this month:
Plant some colourful bulbs in pots to go round your veg patch and flower next year. You don’t need many, but the yellow of daffodils and the red of tulips signals the start of the veg growing season as you look out from the kitchen window.
Depending on where you are, some crops can be started off now. If you have a greenhouse for instance, off you go, but even a windowsill, or a cold frame or mini-greenhouse facing south will get warm enough for some seeds to germinate. Once they are peeping through, keep them frost free and they’ll have a head start growth wise in early spring. Or, start some broad beans or peas off in pots somewhere warmish, and keep them contented until spring when you can plant them out under a cover.
Remember all that compost you dug out of your bins? If you bagged it up, or stored it on a sheet you can bring it out now onto the veg patch and put on needy soil around the garden. It’s best not to empty compost bins now as you may disturb a hibernating animal, or frog.
You know those neat little onion sets you planted last month? Are they all out and higgly-piggly on your soil? Blame the birds, who have dug them up and thrown them around. Replant them, trying to lightly cover with soil, and put some netting, or chicken wire down until the plants have rooted and are strong enough to withstand attack.
Tradition has it that it’s best to plant garlic (and shallots) on the shortest day of the year – which is about 22 December. Give it a go! It’s so easy to plant garlic cloves, or shallot sets, and then you don’t have to do anything bar a little weeding until harvesting in the summer.
If you’ve time on your hands, start pruning your apple and pear trees. Or stand and look at them anyway, planning what you are going to do, and then check in a pruning guide that you are right. But make sure you prune before the tree springs into life using sharp tools.
If you have plenty of winter greens out in the plot, trim off any yellowing leaves and put them on the compost. It means slugs and even caterpillars have nowhere to hide! Even in mid November 2007 I found caterpillars on Kale.
Any willow that you have growing can be used to create more. Cut off some whips (a whip is a cutting made by selecting a healthy shoot and cutting diagonally across under a bud (= base of whip) and then about 25cm up cut straight across above a bud). Soak the base for 24 hours in water before planting, which should be done by making a hole with a screwdriver or stick about 10-15cm deep and pushing the base of the whip into the hole (leaving 10cm and at least three buds pointing up, above the soil). Fill with soil if needed, and keep well watered and weed free if possible and don’t plant near a building or drain.
Leaves, leaves, leaves. They look lovely on the tree but seem to go on filling up the garden and paths long after the trees are bare. Try to create leafmould if you have the space (see last month’s job list), but clear them off the lawn, and if they are smothering low plants. Leave (!) lots to gather under trees and behind hedges so that wildlife can overwinter in them.
Relatives may ask what you’d like for Christmas – a gardeners dream. Think of items you would have liked during the year, and suggest these. A cloche tunnel for instance, or an obelisk or trellis, or a trough or a small greenhouse, or even just a mini-greenhouse. Then there are always useful items like secateurs, gloves, labels, trugs, a really big pot, or garden centre vouchers! They could give you all sorts of trays, propagators, root trainers, wellies the list goes on. Books are always useful every year there seem to be so many ‘new’ books on how to grow veg and flowers! And a magazine subscription to Organic Gardening magazine would be useful all year.
Come Christmas Day, see how much you can pick from your plot to put on the table. If you were busy back in April/May you could have home grown parsnips, red cabbage, Brussels sprouts. And from your store hopefully there will be carrots, potatoes and apples for a crumble to follow. But if that didn’t quite come off this year, there is always next Christmas!
Plant this month:
The weather may be cold, the light poor, the ground soggy, but there is plenty to do, inside and out. If you’d rather be in, check through seed and plant catalogues and plan, and even order, what you think you will need.
When you can get out make sure you’ve at least put a top dressing of manure or compost onto your soil. If the area of soil you are planning to use is new, you can cover it with some mulching fabric (keeps light out, but lets water in, and keeps the soil warm). Try not to walk on the soil, but if it’s new (or covered in brambles and nettles and goodness knows what else) and you want to dig it over, then do so. Digging is satisfying and keeps you warm, but do too much and you’ll be bent double for a week. Some people think that digging messes up the soil’s structure and you should do as little as possible. Cover the soil with manure or compost and let the worms and weather do the rest, you just lightly dig to put in plants. Believe me, it’s a back-friendly option.
Have you got a compost bin or area ready? If not, get it started, it’s essential and a long term commitment, so you may as well do it now. Reckon on two years before you get some useable compost. If you can’t have one, dig compost trenches in your soil. It’s best not to empty compost bins now as you may disturb a hibernating animal, or frog.
Also, plan for some water butts. Sure you don’t need them now, but you will later on, but the rains come now. Find a down pipe, or put guttering on a shed, or some buckets you can tip into a water butt, so that you can start storing your water now. Plan your plot or garden so that you will not use a hosepipe, and only water from butts by watering can. This means planning good soil, mulches and not to many water-hungry pots.
Inside, you can be planning what you’d like to grow, looking at seed catalogues and going online to browse, and getting items ready to sow seeds. You can buy all sorts of trays, propagators, root trainers or you can make your own by recycling the plastic trays and pots that are usually thrown away as part of your everyday household rubbish. Keep yoghurt pots, plastic ready meal trays, plastic fruit trays, toilet roll inards, in fact anything that might be useful. Make your own pots from newspaper, and let friends and family know you’d love their unwanted seed trays, and plant shop bedding trays. Conventional wisdom says you should thoroughly clean all your old pots and trays, ready for planting. Also think ahead as to whether you need a cloche or two to protect young plants, and some sort of anti-slug control. Plant labels are essential, so look out for bulk-buy bargains, as you’ll waste a lot of time if you don’t keep track of what you’ve planted, and where.
Buying seeds is a very personal choice. There are loads of companies who deliver by mail order, or you can visit your garden centre, or even your local supermarket and hardware store. And if you can’t be bothered with seeds, many companies will deliver small vegetable plants to you at the right time, ready for you to plant out into your garden. Have a look at Home Grown Garden’s Useful websites to help you here.
By the end of the month you should have some seed packets ready to hand, or on the way to you, some compost in which to grow them, and an idea of where you will be putting the young plants in the garden. If it’s your first year then look at a crop rotation plan that shows you which crops to grow together, and which should follow on the next year. How you do this depends a lot on the amount of space you have, and the range of crops you want to grow, but it is important that you don’t grow crops in the same soil each year. Pests get established and nutrients are used up if you do. As a minimum, rotate every three years, so keep a record of what you plant each year, just three or four big squares on a lined pad is enough. And write down what you plant, so they go in the correct place this year and you can move them on to the right place next year. Mind you, if you do the ‘square foot garden’ everything’s such a muddle that plants rarely stay in the same place.
Make sure you have ordered any early potatoes that will need chitting as this can take six weeks or more. If you have prepared the ground, order any fruit bushes, trees and permanent veg plants you want to put in this spring. If you haven’t do it now, and if you can’t, don’t order. Permanent fruit needs a good site, so it’s better to wait until you can do that preparation rather than rushing in now.
Pruning, trimming, tying up and generally tidying up around fruit trees and plants can be done (but not plums, trim them in summer). And if you are planning to plant some new fruit bushes and trees, make sure the ground has been dug over and manure dug in to give them a healthy home in March/April time. Keep any useful looking prunings and twigs to act as plant supports later in the year.
Assuming you want to garden organically, it’s time to clear out any cupboards, the garage or hut of your chemicals. Take them to the local tip to be safely disposed of, and you won’t be tempted to use them again. The space left can be used for all sorts of things like safe pest controls. “How many black pots do you need?” I have been asked. It’s like shoes, there are never enough.
Plant this month:
Check through January’s list and make sure you’ve done all the preparation work that you can.
Fruit trees and bushes need to be pruned before the end of the month, while they are dormant and before they kick into action. This is an art/science in its own right, so I won’t cover it here, but a short piece is mentioned by each specific fruit in the Dictionary. Do a little, rather than nothing! If the fruit has a stone, eg. Cherry, or plum, don’t prune now, prune in Summer. Prune your winter fruiting raspberry canes by cutting back to the ground – but don’t touch your summer canes. And don’t touch cherry or plum now, leave them till the summer.
Hopefully your seed packets have arrived, so read the instructions and start sowing some early varieties. Broad Bean and Parsnip are usually one of the first, certainly for outside. Do some Broad Beans in pots, and some outside. Don’t overdo it, as you’ll need to leave space for more sowings in March and onwards. It is very hard to throw away seedlings so don’t sow a lot and you won’t have to do this. The weather is still cold, the light poor and so unless you are using a heated greenhouse/indoor windowsill, nothing is likely to get going, but you’ll be less frustrated knowing you’ve done something. Opening a seed packet and sowing is like saying “We’re off”.
Make sure you have ordered certified virus-free seed potatoes and then put them to be chitted. Late varieties may not need chitting, but earlies do. I have read that you should plant out chitted tubers on Good Friday. Well that’s 21 March in 2008, 12 April in 2009, 24 April in 2011. But, Easter follows the lunar cycle, and as we are told, that’s worth following to get great veg.
You are leaving it late, but prepare fruit and asparagus beds now if you have not yet done so. If not, leave until the autumn, so that’s one less job to do now. If you’ve planted some summer fruiting Raspberries, they need supports, so get them in now; and work out what you are going to use to support beans and peas. Autumn fruiting raspberries tend to be self supporting, or you can tie them into wires if you have put them in.
If you’ve had your soil covered, but you know it’s got loads of nettles and brambles, peel some material back and have a go at digging them out, then recover. Do a little at a time, often is much easier than killing yourself with a big job, and you tend to be more thorough. You can keep doing this until planting out which could be months away. Doing something is better than nothing, however small.
If you have perfect soil, then rake it to remove debris that arrives from nowhere, and all the bits and pieces from your compost that rise to the surface over the winter. If you haven’t yet done so, put some garden compost/manure on the beds, and maybe cover with permealay to start warming the soil up.
If you live in a warm, sheltered area you may even be thinking of planting out, but being a northern gardener I won’t do anything till the end of March, early April. Look for weeds in the veg patch, once they start showing you know the soil’s warming up. It’s frustrating to wait, but plants only do well when the conditions are right (either naturally or by artificially protecting them) so be patient. It is better to plant varieties that like the conditions you put them in (ie. early carrots, late cabbages) than trying to force nature into behaving as you want. You know, or will get to know, the weather conditions for your veg patch, so work with them. The south may be warmer, but the north doesn’t have hosepipe bans! Cloches make a huge difference where your patch may be shaded, or you get lots of frost; they stop the frost, warm up the soil and keep heavy rain off the soil.
The size of your plot, and what you want to grow will dictate how much you want to sow, and what type of veg, but below is what you could be doing (not what you have to). With one exception, if you want some, plant your Jerusalem Artichokes and Parsnips this month unless the ground is waterlogged or frozen.
There are boring jobs to be on with as well, like cleaning the mower, washing out old plant pots; but this is a nice job to do on a sunny frosty day, when the soil should be left alone. Also, don’t forget your compost bin. Have a look, is it dry, is it cold? If it’s in a sunny spot winter sun can keep it very warm, and any early grass mowings will be an effective activator to get things going. If you think wildlife may be hibernating in it, wait till March, otherwise, open it up and turn it now, using what you can on the plot.
The weather in February can be a complete mixture. In 2007, early February saw warm sunny days, with temperatures of 10C in the sun, crocuses were out, buds were forming; but at night temperatures dropped to -3C with frozen ground, and snow fell on 8 Feb 2007 after a week of lovely sunny days. In 2008 early February saw the birds out and the smell of spring in the air, and then temperatures plummeted to -5C during the day and -10C was recorded on 16/2/08 in Birmingham. February 2009 started with lots of snow and freezing temperatures all over the country. From 2 Feb – the snow lay thick and solid here. So, enjoy the sun and scenery, but don’t plant out can be the moral of the story for February.
Plant this month:
Check through January and February’s notes to make sure you’ve done those jobs, but now is the start of the serious seed sowing season. Mind you, it can still snow, as it did in 2006, in mid-March, and at the end of March in 2008 for an early white Easter. 2 March 2010 had about 2cm of snow, but the sun melted it soon where it could, leaving horrid frozen pockets where it couldn’t. This is when you can identify troublesome frost pockets in your garden, and plan accordingly, ie. No fruit trees to be planted in these spots!
If your seeds have arrived, read the packets to see when they should be sown, and start off a few in a greenhouse, growhouse or windowsill. I store my seeds in boxes marked with the month they can be first planted, then at the end of the month I move them to the next month. March, April and May's boxes are big!
You may have had your onion sets waiting patiently, and you could start to plant them out now. Ideally the soil will be warm and friable, not hard, wet and sticky. The further apart the onions are the bigger they could get - the choice is yours! But check the instructions as some onions planted out too early will bolt. Make a hole and drop the onion set in, and then just lightly push down the soil around. Cover with netting or chicken wire to stop birds pulling them out. Keep checking that they are still in the ground until they have green shoots and look settled
Anything nasty on leaves or fruit that is left about is harbouring the disease/pest for next season so check your trees and bushes and remove diseased material. Also apply tree grease/sticky tape to the main trunk of trees to trap moths and other pests that will start to appear in spring. Mulch your fruit bushes and trees with manure, or good compost. Do it for young and old alike, but don’t cover the base of the bush/tree, do it around the base to nourish and protect the soil. Prune your winter fruiting raspberry canes by cutting back to the ground – but don’t touch your summer canes!
In the veg patch, cover the soil with some mulching fabric, or cardboard, or clear plastic sheeting, to warm it up, and kill off the first weed seedlings as they kick into life. Remove the material a couple of weeks before planting and hoe off the weed seedlings that will appear. You can do this (takeoff/put back lark) a couple of times in the next few months, particularly if you are planting that area late. This should give your veg seeds a bit of breathing space to germinate and get going, before yet more weeds get going. How often you need to do this will vary depending on whether you are using new land, how much you let weeds take hold last year, and what time you have available. But mulching fabric, (or cardboard, or newspapers) is well worth the effort as when weeds take over your plot it is soul destroying. If you know the plot will not have crops for a few months, sow a green manure; but why is it going to be empty? You could put in some lettuce, radish, or rocket.
Seed beds should have that perfect soil you see in established allotments, and RHS gardens, and the secret I am told is raking. But if you can’t have a seed bed, make your plot bed as good as possible. Without standing on the soil, rake it, and rake again to prepare the perfect tilth. The reason you do not want to stand on the soil is it compacts it, or squishes it. Out goes the air that the roots need to breath, and trap water, so the plant won’t grow. Plants want loose nutritious soil to provide air, trap water and create a lovely growing environment. If you can’t stick your finger into the soil easily, it’s going to be hard going for a seedling.
Sow more seeds indoors/under cover and pot up seedlings which have come through. The fewer seeds you sow in trays the easier this is to do, and you won’t be annoyed at having to throw away seedlings that you don’t have the pots or space for. And label everything, I once planted a row of chives to be ornamental only to find they were leeks. Needless to say the leek crop flowered beautifully!
It is hard to know how much to sow, but if you read the packet’s instructions, you can calculate how many plants will fit in the area you have set aside. For an average garden or allotment plot it is not really going to matter if you sow too little, you can sow some more later (known as successional sowing) or try something else. It is far better to sow a little often, than all at once.
Outside you can sow some early varieties of vegetables (check your packet, and the weather forecast), and some early potatoes that you’ve successfully chitted. But be careful, the weather is very changeable, so be patient and keep plants covered rather than lose what you’ve just planted. If you put out potatoes and the shoots are through, make sure you cover them at night when it seems cold, frost is a killer of new shoots. I saw a TV program that tested ‘to chit, or not’ and it concluded that earlies and second earlies must be chitted, but for maincrop it’s not so important.
Tomatoes are the most popular ‘vegetable’ that we grow, and according to Organic Gardening Magazine (Winter 2008) calculating your sowing date is the route to success. You need to make sure the plant produces pollen as otherwise you’ll have no fruit. The way to calculate this is by temperature, easy in a greenhouse, less so outside. Ideally you need around 20C to ensure pollen will be produced, so when do you think this will be? Work this out and then sow your seedlings 6-8 weeks before this date (the earlier your calculated pollen date the longer the growing time). So, for an expected early July 20C temperature, sow your tomatoes mid to late May keeping them nice and warm and watered. And then of course you need to check the varieties that you want to grow... but, even in Yorkshire tomatoes grow just fine outside, with a bit of protection, a nice sunny wall and plenty of mulching and feeding. Sadly blight completely wiped out our whole tomato crop in summer 2008, 2009 and 2010. At the start of August the trusses were set and going red and it looked wonderful. By September they’d turned to a sad black, rotten mess.
Supports that plants such as peas and beans will need can be put up now. It will make you feel you are doing something even though it could be a couple of months before they are needed. Things like pea sticks (birch or beech twigs) can be gathered on walks, but you can do this bit by bit, so long as you remember. All the catalogues sell pea and bean supports, but you can be creative and make your own; try growing some willow, or hazel to coppice to make supports.
If you have lots of slugs and snails, put in some pest barriers now, and check them to remove the pests so they are not lying in wait for your plants. Try using plastic plant pots with the bottom cut out as a barrier for young plants, beer jars and upturned grapefruits as traps. I think slugs and snails are creatures of habit, so learn these habits and launch your ‘seek and destroy’ mission before planting out your precious, and vulnerable seedlings. You can buy nematodes (microscopic worms) that kill off slugs and snails. You just water them into your soil, and if the instructions are followed they are successful. I haven’t used them, for no reason other than I don’t like the thought.
Plant this month:
OK, you’ve had enough of waiting, Easter’s here, so out you go. Tell your family and friends you are in the garden, and will be until October. Shame about any late snow, but there's work to be done!
If you have a greenhouse you can shuffle between it and the plot to avoid the showers, making the best use of your time. If not, use windowsills in the house, or create your own cold frame outside. A sheet of glass/clear plastic on some bricks is a start, as the glass keeps the rain off the seed trays/pots, and warms up the soil. Another way is to put trays and pots in a clear polythene bag, and put it in a sunny spot or under a cloche. This keeps them warm and protected, and is cheap and easy to do.
Although you can sow seed direct into the ground now, plants will come on more quickly if you sow them in trays/pots this month, and then transplant them into open soil. Towards the end of April, you can sow direct outdoors. The exception, as always, are the root veg which like to be sown direct, but you can try fooling them by planting them in biodegradable pots (or loo roll cardboard inners) under cover. Then when the shoots appear, plant the whole pot in the soil, and protect, and the plant will never know!
When outside you can busy yourself by raking the soil where seeds and seedlings are going. If you want a good even seed germination then a fine tilth is needed. If you are putting in plants or seedlings then it’s not so important. Either way you need to make sure you have put in something to protect the young plants from slugs, snails, birds, mice, cats, rabbits, deer, pheasants or whatever your particular pests are. A row of newly germinated seedlings can disappear overnight if not protected. Try anything from beer traps, copper wire, plastic protectors, netting, cloches of all descriptions.
Seedlings that have been grown in trays or pots, or under a cloche, need to have time to get used to the real world, (called hardening off). This is easy with a cold frame, you just open the lid; or with a cloche, you can lift it off during the day, and return it at night. Seedlings grown inside should spend the day outside and then return inside, or be covered at night.
If you’ve got green manures in the soil, dig them up about three weeks before you want to put new crops in. Either dig them back into the soil, or put on the compost heap.
At this time of year, mulching is not something you need to usually worry about. You’ll already have put some manure around your roses and fruit bushes and trees, so the only crops that might like a bit are potatoes and asparagus. Potatoes need to have a layer of organic matter added on the surface all the time to keep the soil moist and hide the tubers. You can use garden compost or (untreated) grass mowings for this. Your asparagus crowns would like a bit of mulching, but look out for slugs which like it too. The idea of mulching is to keep the soil warm and moist, so if the soil is cold and dry and you put a layer of mulch on now, it will stay that way! It’s best to mulch when the soil’s warmed up, and it’s been raining.
If you are itching to do things, but the weather’s not so good, clear out your compost bins. Bag up the good stuff and then toss the other back in the bin, and mix well with the first grass mowings. You can dig in the good stuff when you sow potatoes, or plant out beans, peas, courgettes, sweetcorn, anything which likes a moisture retentive soil.
Your veg patch will benefit from a selection of wildlife and insect attracting plants. Limnanthes (poached egg flower) flower early and self-seed, Calendula (pot marigold) are always around, and self seed, so just remove ones from a row of veg and leave others to flower. Phacelia, a green manure will grow anywhere and insects love the flowers. You know Lavender is always full of bees so have at least one plant nearby. French Marigolds are supposed to confuse various insects, and lure slugs, so plant rows of these where you can. I always grow sunflowers because I love them, and their height means they don’t bother anything else in the patch. In winter heathers flower and are full of insects so it’s worth having them near your veg plot.
Take a look at your plot if you can, at night if it’s warm, and has been raining. You’ll be able to pick off loads of slugs before they do their damage.
Check over any perennial herbs, like chives, lavender, marjoram, oregano. You can lift and divide chives now, and prune the woody herbs.
Now it’s just down to you to sort your seed packets out and start sowing. It is better to sow a little and often so that you can crop over a longer period. It also means you should not be swamped with seedlings. For some crops, like courgette, it is possible to have too many in the summer, and it’s frustrating not being able to use the produce. So limit how many of these you grow, as they’ll stop producing when you stop picking. For other crops like rocket, lettuce, radish, salad onion, you want a small amount over a long time, so keep sowing all summer.
If you are new to veg growing, try to limit what you sow this year, so that you don’t get too much work on your hands. And make a list of what’s worked, and what you’d like to try next year. Some people say ‘grow what you can’t buy’ others say ‘grow what you like to eat’. I’m for the latter, but it’s your choice!
Finally, be aware of anyone else you know who works on their veg patch or allotment, so you can plant swap. It’s fun and you get a range of varieties, and find homes for your spare plants.
Sow this month:
In May you could probably spend all your time in the veg patch, and there’d still be more to do. This is the month when you can sow most seeds outside, and start to put out plants you’ve had in the greenhouse, and hopefully plant out any bedding plants. Of course you should keep a check on weather forecasts for any last minute frosts, and if frost is likely, cover your plot with fleece, or newspaper (but it does fly away), or straw, or anything to just keep the killer frost off your new plants. To harden off veg that you’ve potted up, put them out in the sun during the day, but make sure that you take them back in at night, or protect them somehow. Night winds and low temperatures will check the growth of plants that have been used to nice warm indoor conditions.
April 2008 was cold and grey (but dry), April 2009, 2010 and 2011 have been warm, sunny and this year too dry. So, as a result you may find you've got greenhouses, growhouses and coldframes chock full, but you don't feel comfortable planting out as it’s cold at night. But if you try planting a few out using cloches, or fleece or plastic to protect the plants they should be OK.
Veg that you want to plant out straight away, like sweetcorn, courgettes, brassicas will do well if covered with a plastic bottle, or cloche for a few weeks. It should stop slug damage, and the plants will get big and strong so when you remove the bottle they can survive on their own. But don’t get carried away and sow too many courgettes, unless you have space you want to fill. Just two plants can give you 50 courgettes in a summer, and believe me, that’s enough!
If your time available in the plot is limited, you’ll have to manage it effectively! Getting rid of weeds now will save you time later. If you’ve put down permealay or some form of soil cover you’ll be thanking yourself for doing so, as that area will be weed free and you can get on with other things. But in areas where this is not an option, just a few minutes hand weeding or hoeing now will stop things getting much worse later on, and give your young plants a chance to establish so that weeds do not bother them.
Annual flowers, and maybe a small wildflower area can be sown now. There’s no reason why the veg patch can’t look colourful and well as bountiful. Nasturtium, Calendula and other marigolds look good, and poppies. Any type of herb nearby will attract all sorts of insects.
Check fruit blossom for any maggots, or moths and remove by hand if you can. If the plants are new, make sure they get plenty of water if there’s been little rain.
Grass mowings should go on the potatoes, around the courgettes, and raspberries, and anywhere that likes the soil to stay moist. And put the rest in the compost bin, which you’ll need to keep turning to speed things up. However, if you treat your grass you’ll have to compost it elsewhere before it’s safe to go on the garden.
If the parsnip you sowed earlier has not come up, try another sowing now. It may still work, but the roots you harvest will be smaller.
Christmas may seem a long way off, but start sowing now for the veg you’d like to be eating on the big day. Cabbages and other brassica that you’d like to eat over Christmas and the winter should be sown now. Red cabbage on Christmas Day, picked from your own garden would be lovely to eat. And of course you’ll have loads left to last till spring. And everyone has the odd Brussels sprout at Christmas don’t they?
Established asparagus plants will produce spears this month, ready to be harvested and eaten. Cut off the spears just below the surface. Plants less than two years old should be left alone so that the spears can grow and produce a strong plant for future years. (Oh, go on, one spear won’t matter!)
When you sow seed outside and they all come up, you need to thin them out. First just take a few out so that every seedling has a bit of space, and then in time, take more out so that the crop has the correct spacings (usually given on the packet). This way you should not have any gaps in your rows, and should have strong healthy plants. Some young leaves can be used in your salad, some can be replanted elsewhere, maybe in a new row, or to fill a gap, and the rest can go on the compost heap.
If you can grow some crops in pots, it gives you flexibility. It means you’ve got some plants that can go out early if the weather allows, or you can keep them under cover a little longer if it’s cold. These plants will withstand slug attack, and be ready to crop earlier that seed sown crops which you can do next to them.
And make sure you do a last minute slug hunt with a torch before you go to bed. You’ll get to know where to look for them! But, little pots filled with beer around the place, and some coffee granules, and some copper tape will all help to keep slugs and snails away until the plant can fend for itself. Do not give up!
Plant this month:
|Proverb: Life is just a bowl of cherries|