A gardening column written for BS35 Local magazine
February in the Kitchen Garden
This is the month that the new growing season really gets under way, and on a sunny day down at the plot it can feel as if spring might be just around the corner. If it’s not too wet, I’ll be digging over the beds and spreading some manure or compost.
If you didn’t sow broad beans in the autumn, they can be sown inside now. Although they’re tough when it comes to cold conditions, they will appreciate a warmer temperature to germinate. Once they have a couple of pairs of leaves, they can go outside to a greenhouse or cold frame to acclimatise before being planted out.
It’s a good month to sow annuals that need a long season, such as tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. I plant mine in multipurpose compost in 3” pots, with two seeds to each pot. They go on a warm windowsill and will germinate in a week or two. If both seeds come up I remove the weaker one to leave just one plant per pot. They will need to stay somewhere warm and as light as possible for two or three months. If they go outside too soon their growth will be checked.
If you have plenty of space, a really good vegetable to sow now is the globe artichoke. They are perennial and last for several years, growing to around five feet tall and producing beautiful big buds which are much prized in Italian cooking. I have a row of Gros Vert de Laon at the allotment, an old French variety with a huge fat heart to its globes. They will take a couple of years to produce a good crop, but they are a real delicacy and well worth waiting for.
Every year I leave a few of the globes to flower at the end of the season as they are adored by bees. Each enormous bloom will have three or four bees all working furiously away collecting pollen. Artichokes really do have it all, they’re low maintenance, simply cut them down in autumn and mulch, their crop is delicious and far superior to anything found in supermarkets, and they’re beneficial to wildlife. Really worth fitting in somewhere if you can. Their grand architectural structure means that they even look good at the back of a flower bed.
Lastly this month I’ll be sowing a few lettuces inside for an early crop of salad leaves. Choose an all year variety that won’t mind cooler temperatures and look for a loose leaf one where you won’t need to wait for it to form a heart. A couple of my favourites are Red Salad Bowl and Green Salad Bowl, but I often grow a mixture of whatever I have to hand to make an attractive salad.
My seed order has arrived from the allotment society, and this is the month when it all begins again. I’m looking forward to a good year in the kitchen garden.
January in the Kitchen Garden
It’s a new year in the kitchen garden, and time to start thinking about some of the first crops of the coming season. I like to cover some of my rhubarb crowns in January to force an early flush of extra sweet, tender shoots.
I only cover strong crowns that have been growing for at least a couple of seasons. They need to be topped with 3” of straw to keep them a little warmer, then the light should be excluded with a forcing jar or old chimney pot. When the shoots reach the top of the jar, they can be harvested.
When harvesting is finished, the jar needs to be removed and the plant allowed to recover for the rest of the season without any further picking of the stems, as forcing depletes the plant’s energy reserves. The same crown should not be forced in the following year, but allowed to grow naturally.
January is also the month to start chitting early potatoes. I lay the seed potatoes out in boxes or egg cartons on a light, frost free windowsill where short, dark, healthy shoots will form.
They can be planted out in a couple of months’ time, for those delicious little new potatoes in early summer. If there’s no space in the ground, they can be grown very successfully in large pots. I usually put a few in a south-facing spot, and they are always the first potatoes ready to be harvested. As they grow, they need to be earthed up, or covered by soil to exclude the light. They will be ready when the plant starts to flower and then fade.
A final job I always do in this first month of the year is to sow a few chilli seeds. They take a while to get going and are not fast growing plants, so I like to start them early. Choose a variety to suit you. There are milder types, such as Apricot, Anaheim, Poblano and Ancho, medium ones such as Hungarian Wax and Serrano, or for chilli lovers, the fiery hot Bird’s Eye, Scotch Bonnet or Habanero.
The seeds can be planted two or three to a pot and lightly covered with soil. They need to be kept warm, and as soon as they appear they should be moved to a sunny windowsill. The weaker seedlings can be removed to leave one per pot. Keep them warm and damp, and re-pot them in a couple of months when the roots have filled the pot.
In early summer they can go into a greenhouse or outside.
Other than this, January is a good month to take a bit of a rest from the kitchen garden, before the real work of spring begins in a few weeks’ time.
December in the Kitchen Garden
The plot is really stripped back to its bare bones now, and it’s a great time to assess whether any of the infrastructure needs to be moved or repaired. I’ve just added two big wooden slatted compost boxes behind my shed, and I’m making a path that will make them easily accessible both in the mud of winter and when the lush growth of summer is taking over.
Compost really is the engine of the productive vegetable garden, and it’s well worth making sure you have sufficient capacity for all of your green waste. If you have two big spaces for it, one heap can be breaking down into compost while the other side is being filled. Once it’s nicely broken down and brown and crumbly it can be spread over the soil and lightly worked in. An inch across the surface is fine for soil that’s regularly fertilised in this way, but for poor or neglected soil 2 or 3 inches would be better. I spread mine in autumn when the beds are cleared or in spring, a couple of weeks before planting.
Another job for December is the planting of fruit. Whilst trees and soft fruit canes are dormant they are often sold with bare roots, making them easier to handle and transport. If you’re choosing a new fruit tree it’s worth taking some time to pick the right one. I bought a couple of new apple trees last year, and I went for Christmas Pippin and Sunset, varieties that store well, are reliable croppers and most importantly of all have excellent flavour.
I also made sure that the rootstock was the correct size for the space available. Fruit trees are grafted onto rootstocks of varying vigour, ranging from those suitable for small spaces such as M9 and M26, up to those which will produce really sizeable trees such as M111 and M25. The most popular rootstock is MM106, which gives small to medium sized trees.
Bare root fruit, whether it is a tree or soft fruit canes, should be planted as soon as possible to prevent it drying out. Before planting, soak the rootball for an hour or so. Then dig a hole big enough to spread out the roots in. Plant at the same depth as it was before (look for the soil mark on the stem), backfill with soil, firm it down, then mulch with 2-3 inches of manure or compost.
Fruit really is one of the easiest and most rewarding things to grow in the garden, and a well chosen tree will give pleasure for years to come.
November in the Kitchen Garden
This is the month when the plot really takes on a different look after all the lush growth of summer has been cleared away and the soil is exposed once more. I’ve been digging over the empty areas and putting down manure and compost from the bin. A robin has been following me round, picking up worms and clearing the ground of slugs’ eggs.
It’s the best month to collect leaves for leaf mould, which is useful as a mulch. They need to be composted separately from other green waste and allowed to break down for a couple of years before being used.
November is the time to plant garlic and shallots, some of my favourite vegetables to grow. They’re very easy to cultivate and aren’t troubled by too many pests. It’s best to start with garlic bulbs and shallots from the garden centre, as they will be disease free and of a variety suited to our cool climate.
Garlic should be planted about 3in deep and 6in apart. Elephant garlic, which forms a huge bulb, needs to be a little deeper and about twice as far apart, while shallots should be popped in with their tops just showing above the soil. This does mean that you’ll have to go round putting them back in after the birds pull them out. It’s quite a game for a couple of weeks until they start to root.
They’ll start to shoot before too long, then sit dormant over winter, and grow away quickly in spring. The thing I love about growing garlic is the way that the planting seems to start a whole new season of growing. Along with onions, which I put in last month, it’s the first crop to be sown.
One other favourite that needs some attention this month is rhubarb. If you have large plants they can be lifted and split into smaller ones. And if you don’t have any, it’s really worth considering. It’s one of the easiest things to grow, and is one of the first delicious tastes of spring.
Allow it around 3ft of space, and dig in plenty of compost or well-rotted manure. Plant with the bud just below the surface. For an early variety try Timperley Early or Prince Albert, or for great flavour plant The Sutton. Rhubarb is a plant that no allotment or kitchen garden should be without.
Other fruit jobs this month include tidying up the strawberries by removing old foliage and runners, and pruning apples and pears, but not plums – leave the plums until early spring or midsummer to avoid silver leaf disease.
I’ll also be cutting down the asparagus foliage and mulching the bed with compost. And then, then I’ll be sitting down with a cup of tea and next year’s seed catalogue and trying to work out how I can fit in everything I want to grow.
October in the Kitchen Garden
This is one of my favourite months down at the allotment. Along with the hard work of clearing old plants away, there are still plenty of crops to be picked. The autumn classics of squashes and pumpkins, the last of the tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, and a selection of herbs and salad leaves. It’s always very satisfying when there’s a good variety of produce to take home at the end of a visit to the plot.
October is the perfect time for planting onions and broad beans for early harvests next summer. The soil is still warm enough for them to put down roots and start to shoot, and while they won’t grow much over the winter, as soon as spring rolls around they’ll be away.
I like to rotate where I grow vegetables each year to ensure that pests and diseases can’t take hold in one area of the garden or plot, and the onion sets are always planted where the potatoes were. I fork in a little compost if I have some and also add nutrients in the form of organic pelleted chicken manure.
Onion sets are small immature onions that have been heat treated to prevent them flowering next summer, which keeps the bulb plump and juicy. They are far easier to raise than onions grown from seed, and are less prone to disease and quicker to mature.
Plant them so that the tips are just showing and the bulbs are around 4” apart. Keep an eye on them until they are properly rooted, as birds like to pull the odd one out of the ground, mistaking it for a worm. The sets will start to shoot within a couple of weeks, and will properly grow away in spring, being ready to harvest in early summer.
Like onions, broad beans can be planted where potatoes and other root vegetables went last year. Choose a winter hardy variety such as Aquadulce, and sow them directly into soil that has been forked over with some well rotted manure or leaf mould added. Sow them 2” deep and 9” apart in double rows. When they grow tall in spring, put four stakes at the corners of the rectangle of planting, and run string around the outside. This will hold them up and prevent the weight of beans pulling them down.
I’m hoping that last month’s glorious weather continues a little longer so that I can get the plot cleared and ready for winter. After that I’ll be making plans for a new season of wonderful home and allotment grown produce.