When I was a small child I always thought the plants, the birds and wildlife in the garden were all celebrating Christmas just like the rest of us. The sprouts were just waiting to be picked, knowing they were special; the new potatoes in the bucket were honoured by being pampered in the greenhouse just for this special day. As if they were all a little like the Magi, journeying through the months ready to worship the New Born King on our Christmas dinner plates.
If you have sprouts in the garden, take a bowl out with some ice in it, and cut the buds off into this. They will remain tight and unblown. Sometimes we forget, pick enough for a few days of feasting, and by Christmas morning, their leaflets have loosened.
Parsnips, our longest growing vegetable in the garden, are at their best following a frost, and this year we have had a week or so of cold – they should be really fine. Collect them on Christmas morning, top and tail them and give them a jolly good wash. Microwave and then add butter – I could eat just them alone!
I always try to grow some baby carrots in sandy tubs for Christmas, and, if you have some, just run them under the tap to get rid of the grit – it is amazing how grit gets everywhere, and you don’t want it in your gravy! I always add the carrot water to the gravy – especially since I give them an extra knob of butter to boil in – you get an ever so rich gravy that way.
Traditionally, Christmas is a time for sowing onions, so if you want a couple of hours away from the madness of Boxing Day, pop off to the shed and sow your next year’s stock. I always sow them in a large wooden box of compost, (far too many according to the books, but they tease apart really easily) and transplant in the late Spring.
I do hope you get something ‘gardening’ for Christmas. Last year someone bought me a kneeler – and boy, is it useful. I can now get down to basics on my hands and knees without messing my trousers and I don’t get so tired.
One last thing for the kids is to grow your pineapple tops. If you have a fresh pineapple this Christmas, tease back the leaves to find some buds. Carefully pull them out and plant them in small pots of compost and keep them warm. Of the ten buds you find, five will grow, and then next year you will have some pineapple plants to give to a favourite aunt for Christmas. They are handsome and unusual little house plants.
Do have a wonderful holiday and don’t forget, when you are eating your Christmas Dinner – are the birds topped up with wild bird food? After all, it’s their Christmas too.
Merry Christmas from me and all of the team at Primrose!
I’m getting tired of writing about the weather – and I dare say you are getting tired of reading about it. Besides, there are so many jobs to get on with we won’t have time to pause for breath, and it all starts with my favourite plants – Dahlias!
Likely as not, frost will hit us sometime in October, and this marks the end of the dahlia season. It is time to lift, divide and store them for the winter.
You will need some sulphur powder for this job, and a sharp knife.
Cut down the plants and carefully dig up the tubers with a garden fork. Wash them clean and dry them with an old towel.
You will have a stem with lots of tubers that look rather like fat fingers. With a sharp knife, cut the fingers away at the base.
Dust the cut surfaces with sulphur powder and then wrap the lot in newspaper – lots of layers, and store them in a frost-free place until spring.
For perfect runner beans next year, now is the time to start a trench. Dig a trench that is around 18 inches deep. Mark it so you don’t fall down it and pile the soil along the side of the trench. Over the coming weeks, fill 3/4 full with vegetable matter – kitchen waste, potato peelings etc, but no gravy or meat, and when there is about 6 inches free space, top up with the soil leaving a little mound.
The vegetable material in the trench will rot and create heat, and it is amazing how long this heat lasts. It will give your plants a good start when you get to sowing, or transplanting in the spring. Actually, I sow in late February, covering the area with a cloche, protecting the seedlings from cold and rain and giving them a head start in their warm soil.
Roses have had a torrid summer and some of this can be alleviated now. Take cuttings of new growth and place them in compost – say 5 per six inch pot. Remove the lower leaves and cover with a plastic bag and around 60% at least will root, giving new plants for next year. Keep them in a frost free place, I use the polytunnel, and this is heated a little when the weather gets really bad.
Transplant them in April into a larger pot – 8 inches per plant will do, and give them generous water and feed every month. Plant them out next October.
This method is ideal for climbers and bush types where the root stock is not important – and don’t be too careful, I have had great results simply chopping at climbers with shears to control them, and using the most likely ones for cuttings.
The real promise of a summer of colour and fragrance is sown now: Sweet Peas! The best are sown in October, and I sow mine in pots and keep them in a cool greenhouse until spring, when they are transplanted as small plants. They get such a good start this way, rather than sowing them in spring. If you are in a sheltered area, spend some time preparing the soil, so they can grow rapidly in a nutrient rich soil – give them plenty of rotted manure. Plants that have to make lots of colour or aroma need a lot of nutrients, and this rule holds true for any plant.
Furry plants need protecting from frost – if you have furry leaves in the rock garden (sempervivums and so on), they need to be covered. If you can get a cloche in place, all well and good, but sometimes you need a sheet of plastic held down as firmly as you can, or a covering of straw held down with plastic.
Making a good hedge is an October job because these shrubs take well if planted now. I recently made a hedge of blackthorn, berberis, mahonia – each planted about a foot apart, in a slight zigzag. As they grow, I train them into each other and, having made a backing fence of stout garden wire attached to stakes, I will tie them into their supports. Once they are in place, they need little looking after and are particularly good at living together. Mahonia especially is very colourful and makes for a super autumnal display.
In the vegetable garden it is time to take down the asparagus fronds. Don’t let the fronds settle on the ground, but cut them off and bring them away to the compost heap. This will keep the asparagus beetle at bay next year. I give them a mulch of compost and well rotted manure mixed at 50-50 proportions, and they seem to come on a treat using this regime. Here’s to next June!!!
Plant out cabbage ‘All Year Round’ and cover with a cloche. This way you will get cabbages right through the winter that look good. It’s one thing being able to actually get this variety to grow in Winter, it’s quite another to get great specimens. The wet wind plays havoc with them, and they soon look messy. A cloche will do the trick!
Don’t forget to earth up your leeks against the winter storms and go round heeling in the shrubs and young trees to make sure they are really firm in their beds before they get rocked about by the Winter weather, like a dentist pulling a tooth!
Paul Peacock studied botany at Leeds University, has been the editor of Home Farmer magazine, and now hosts the City Cottage online magazine. An experienced gardener himself, his expertise lies in the world of the edible garden. If it clucks, quacks or buzzes, Paul is keenly interested.
He is perhaps best known as Mr Digwell, the cartoon gardener featured in The Daily Mirror since the 1950s. As Mr Digwell he has just published his book, A Year in The Garden. You can also see more about him on our Mr Digwell information page.
There’s a thief at the bottom of my garden, and who it is I haven’t a clue. Something has eaten all my onions from one of my willow planters and the lettuce. The other planter hasn’t fared any better with the culprit starting to eat those onions too and the radishes! It isn’t only my veg that’s going missing but the foliage on some of my bulbs has been nibbled at.
Two months ago something ate all the heads off my bearded irises and I thought perhaps it was a one off but these recent thefts have the same tell-tale signs although I haven’t got any idea what the thief could be. I can dismiss the birds because my veg has been protected by netting and it doesn’t look like bird damage. I’m considering the possibility of slugs/snails but again the damage doesn’t match what they’ve done to my hostas.
This leaves me thinking that I have a mystery on my hands because I’m certain that the neighbourhood cats do not eat veg and I’d surely notice them at it. The onions have been eaten from the top down, along with the foliage on the bulbs and the radishes have been nibbled at around the edges inward. I have no idea about the lettuces because they have vanished! No sign of them can be found anywhere much to my disappointment.
Do you have any idea what it could be? Any help identifying this pest would be much appreciated.
On a brighter note I’m happy to say that my French beans are doing surprisingly well when I had almost given up hope they are actually developing some pods, not enough to feed my family of 4 but still it’s better than nothing. The runner beans are now developing too and so far none have been pinched by the wee blackbird that checks up on them daily. I’ve still to harvest the carrots after deciding the miniscule one I pulled up meant they needed to be left a little longer and they are completely pest free so the coldframe idea has worked quite well.
I just have to discover who this mysterious garden thief is before any more of my plants go AWOL!
As the season of summer finally starts to show what she can really do (yes, summer would definitely be a lady), we begin to watch in wonder as the flowers and fruits begin to bloom. The previous owners of our allotment took pride in creating a small patch that they dedicated to growing wildflowers on. We have opted to keep this.
I think that some folk see allotments as those bastions of old men, surrounded by soggy crops, homing pigeons, the loud crowing of cockerels and hours of sweat and toil in return for mammoth-sized onions and cabbage. Don’t get me wrong – those types of allotments exist; I have seen them, but the freedom of a large (or small) plot can be so much more.
We kept the flower patch. Amidst all the crops at the top of the allotment is the small country cottage style garden resplendent with wild and naturally occurring plants. My Nan would call them “angel comers” as they were planted by seemingly God’s own hand – in truth usually naturally propagated or seeds dropped from the mouth of a passing bird. I love the poetic idea that we are at the whim of something greater and despite our best intentions things will just grow where they wish. In fairness anyone who has tangled with returning weeds will certainly share that feeling!
Take a look – see what you think. In amongst the flowers grows two or three varieties of mint, every hue and shade resplendent in colour. Some of the purists would argue that they serve no purpose – but equally the same critics would care little for making their own garden burst with blooms.
We did get the ultimate taste of summer this year – a bumper crop of wild strawberries. Our boy spent hours picking (and eating!) the best of them. Despite being told he had to save some for the rest of us he was un-thwarted and did his best to consume as many of them as he could! And whilst I would disapprove of such gluttony on French fries or burgers, the produce of our allotment is a very different matter.
As you can also see, we are looking forward to a bumper harvest of tomatoes and courgettes – we seem to have been over-run in both of our greenhouses. We have already had several of the young vegetables, simply skewered, drizzled with olive oil and grilled – they were amazing! It is fair to say we will be looking for plenty of recipes that use tomatoes and courgettes. Have you got any ideas? I would love to hear them, cook them and then let you know just how we get on.