Composting, Gardening Year, How To, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

The exciting part of New Year is the expectation – how is the year going to turn out and, especially in the garden, will it be the same as last year?

Hope not! Certainly the weather was the overriding factor affecting the garden last year, and if you are in to veggies, like me, then it was a complete wash out – literally! I actually chased my potatoes in a six inch torrent of water that was travelling faster than I could run. And to think that we moved here thinking that because we were on a hill we would have no flooding troubles.

But it never is the same and, over the years, we have found the garden has a life of its own. Yes, we can plan and change stuff, but the garden has its own character that always shines through, and we do our best to foster that character.

The Christmas tree in January..

Last year we had a real Christmas tree and one of the first jobs of January was to recycle the remains. We normally have an artificial tree, but that year, the real one came out of a disaster – a car had come off the road and crashed into a copse of young firs, so we took advantage of the situation, and as no one was hurt, it seemed the right thing to do.

Christmas trees, like most pines, are full of resin, and do not rot so easily. Therefore we simply chopped up the branches and use them as mulch. The main stem was sawn for the fire and the ashes poured into the compost heap.

Snowdrops!

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Snowdrops in the cracks of the paving

Snowdrops are a favourite for January, such a delicate plant to look at, but this little beauty is as tough as old boots. I am naturalizing them about the garden, but they seem to do that all on their own too, setting seed everywhere, even in the cracks of the paving.

Snowdrops are dug up in August and then simply pushed into the ground in their new location- and quite forgotten until they pop up with a shout in late December – early January. They do well in the barest of soils, the only real care they need is to be left alone, and not walked on. Once they have flowered, let them grow leaves for several months, so they can manufacture more of the corms that we distribute around the garden in high summer.

Another job for January is the lawn. Work off all those extra dinners of the festive season by aerating the lawn, if not too wet, and also trim up the edges, a job which always improves the lawn’s appearance. When I had one to play with, January was the ideal time for working on the gutters of bowling greens, getting them just right – we tend to forget the lawn is at its weakest, and likely it’s most vulnerable at the edges.

Think Spring!

You may remember one of my earlier blogs was about putting dahlias to bed for the winter, in a frost free place, having dug up the tubers, divided and dusted with sulphur powder, and set them in a cool but frost free place. Now is time to give them a check for rot of any kind. Open them up and have a good inspection for any signs of rotting, bad odours, blackness, weeping or anything else untoward. Remove any offenders and repack for a couple of months to continue their sleep. We need to inspect them because they would infect the whole set if left, which would be a disaster.

If you haven’t already done so, dig over your plots, making sure you are careful not to damage roots of trees and shrubs, and if you can, give them a good mulch of well-rotted compost. Take special care of young fruit trees at this time of the year, as well as the compost mulch, make sure they are secure in the ground, so they will not be blown about by the wind and weather of January, and if they are in their second year, you can prune them. All you need to think about is making them into a goblet shape – so the drying summer wind can reduce the humidity around the plant, reducing fungal infections.

Cut away small branches that turn inward or cross and touch another, and that’s all you need to do to give the plant a successful start to the year.

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Sow onions in large numbers in a box of compost

You can sow onions seeds now. Don’t mess about fiddling with a few seeds in small modules. Get a wooden box or seed tray and fill it full of seeds. Water and keep warm. You will end up with a Mohican hair-cut of onions growing, which you can tease apart and then transplant in April. And while we’re on the subject of sowing, start hoeing your parsnip bed – these seeds are in the ground for a long time – hoe and give a dressing of general purpose organic fertilizer and then cover with plastic sheeting to warm the soil in preparation.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

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.

Celebrations And Holidays, Grow Your Own, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

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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.

1 sprouts

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.

2 carrots

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.

3 snips

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!

Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

December is an important month in the garden, and it is great working next to Robins and various wildlife skittering in and out of the garden in search of food. Lately there have been a lot of Long Tailed Tits stopping by for a chat.

Soil

It’s been hard work in the rain and cold, but ridging the vegetable bed is an important way of helping the soil. Essentially it allows a greater area of soil to be exposed to the elements and therefore to break down naturally. Also, the action of the rain brings nitrates back into the soil – did you know that by ridging you can increase the amount of nitrates in the soil? It is one of the reasons why farmers leave the land ploughed, it improves the fertility of the soil!

Buddleia

Now I have a bit of a problem. I have a Buddleia which needs cutting, but it is in constant use. On the wall of the cottage there is a bird feeder and the birds come and sit in the bush before taking their turn on the feeder! But the problem is this: in order to maintain a really good bush it has to be cut back. If I do it will come back next year with no trouble. But if I don’t it will just become a straggling mess. Out come the pruning shears I’m afraid. I just hope that the birds won’t mind and will still come to the feeder!

Once cut back, I will mulch the base, after clearing away any weeds there may be. You can give it a serious haircut, cutting it back to around 30 cm (1 ft) from the ground. The buds will burst into life in the Spring and the bush will be just as tall as it was last year, but the flowers will be better.

Bare rooted trees

I like to prepare the ground a few weeks prior to planting because this gives the soil a chance to rest. Dig a large hole and half fill it with 50% well-rotted manure and 50% compost and then refill in with your dug out soil. In a couple of weeks you can plant in this mixture.

Don’t forget to support your new trees with a stake and make sure it is really firm. After a week or so you can revisit the newly planted trees and heel them in. This is important because rocking trees do not do well, it troubles new root growth.

Potatoes

Start potatoes! Yes! Start potatoes – not many, just a few. Pop them in a box of compost and keep frost free. In the New Year they can be planted into a frost free greenhouse or polytunnel and ignored, so you have, by Easter, something of a crop – assuming Easter falls in May! Use First Early varieties; these are the only ones that will work in this way. Give them a little water, not too much, and they will surprise you.

Dahlias

Early dahlias are fun to try. If you wrapped your tubers in newspaper and popped them under the stairs – it always was under the stairs for us, but any frost free place is good, then you can try planting some of them in the warm, in large pots of good compost. If you have a conservatory, this is the ideal place. Give them a little water and they will flower in May or early June.

This is the first ever gardening I did as a boy, both my father and grandfather were wild about dahlias, perhaps it was the ten guineas they almost invariably won at the flower show that was the interest. Back then it was almost a month’s wages!

General

Make sure that, every morning, you air the greenhouse – especially if you are actively growing in it. This way the chances of damping off and other fungal infections are reduced.

If you have a rockery, with fairly delicate plants, take some time to remove excess water so they are not broken up by the constant freezing and refreezing. Most alpines are fairly hardy, after all it is fairly cold living up in the mountains where many of them come from, but they do not like to be cold and wet.

Bring strawberries into the greenhouse for forcing. If you want brilliant fruits for Wimbledon, then cloche your strawberries and keep them warm. But to provide fruit even earlier – get them indoors in large pots.

It is also a good time to force rhubarb. We used to dig up the roots and leave them to overwinter on the surface but if you bring a couple indoors, pop them in a large box of compost (I use an old brood box from a beehive) and let them grow in the warm, you will get early rhubarb.

Work if you haven’t already done it includes:

  • Cleaning everything – disinfect tools, pots, work surfaces, greenhouse glass, water butts.
  • Turn the compost heap and insulate the thing so it doesn’t lose too much heat in the winter.
  • Dig out the borders for new bedding, and give onion and carrot beds for next year a really fine loamy soil by plenty of hoeing.
  • Manure potato beds.
  • Go round the garden firming in so the wind doesn’t rock the life from them.
  • Spend 15 minutes of each day, peeping out of the door of the shed or greenhouse, feeling good to be alive.

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

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.

Flowers, Gardening, Gardening Year, Grow Your Own, Guest Posts, Paul Peacock - Mr Digwell

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!

Dividing 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.

Dividing Dahlias - dig up tubers
Remove the stalks and dig up the tubers, giving them a good wash to remove the soil / compost.

Cut down the plants and carefully dig up the tubers with a garden fork. Wash them clean and dry them with an old towel.
Dividing Dahlias - cut the tubers
With a knife or scissors, cut out the tuber as close to where it joins the plant as you can.

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.
Dip the Dahlia ends in sulphur
Dip the cut end in sulphur powder to fight off any infections. Repeat with all the decent sized tubers you have.

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.
Insulate dahlia tubers
Either wrap in several layers of newspaper or in a saved bubble wrap envelope for insulation. Place in a cool, dark place until Spring.

Label divided Dahlias
Don’t forget to label your dahlias with their name and the date they were stored.

Runner Beans

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

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.

Sweet Peas

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.

Frost

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.

Hedges

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.

Vegetables

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!

Mr Digwell gardening cartoon logo

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.