Winter gardening is a time of taking stock and planning for the year ahead, but also for growing. If you take a drive into the country, you will often see people pottering around their gardens or allotments.
It may seem like the season of rest, but with some planning ahead your garden can be a productive and even colourful place during the winter months.
Putting down a thin layer of old and well composted organic matter in the autumn will enrich the soil for the spring. This old matter (approximately six months) has many nutrients that will gradually leach into the soil over time. Heavy fertilizers and manure can also be used but are not as good because their nutrients have not had time to lock in, and any heavy rain will just wash them away. If you don't have any old compost, one idea is to use fertilizer but cover with a sileage sheet and leave until the spring. Underneath that sheet the worms will gather and aerate the earth.
For cabbages, sprouts, parsnips, lambs lettuce, spinach and even new potatoes, if you plant the early or second early varieties such as Carlingford, Charlotte and Maris Peer, plant them in the latter part of summer. For spring produce, sew spring onions, spring cabbage, wild rocket and lettuce. Start kale, purple sprouting leeks and parsnips earlier if winter gardening, because these species are hardy when the frost comes, and spring, not being a traditional time of harvest, can result in a 'produce gap' when you may normally consider buying from the supermarket.
There are some flowers that will add a touch of colour and life to your garden in this dark season, such as flowering heather, variegated ivy, pansies, jasmine and aconite. These should be planted from September through November.
A holly bush is always a nice addition to a garden, looking like something straight from a Christmas card when its red berries are rimed with white frost.
Other plants to consider for winter gardening are the Christmas Rose, whose green petals come out by January, the Wintersweet, with its pale pink flowers, which won't bloom for the first couple of years but is worth planting, the evergreen Sweet Box that produces wonderfully scented white blooms from December to March, Dogwood, with purple autumn leaves, scarlet stems, and tiny white spring flowers. If you have a larger garden, you might want to plant Viburnum which flaunts its pink, scented blooms in the darkest time of the year, between November and February, while its leaves flush to purple red in the autumn.
We have been seeing some cold winters for the past few years, and I have been keeping an eye on the long range forecast, which has been predicting cooler than average temperatures at least until Christmas. This will of course mean frost, and the most vulnerable plants in your garden are always the potted ones. The earth acts as a good insulator against freezing temperatures, and potted plants, being above ground, can suffer.
Watch the weather forecasts and as soon as frost threatens, take steps to protect your most vulnerable plants. Taking them into a greenhouse is ideal, but a smaller garden may not have room for a greenhouse or shed, and not every-one has the space to move them into a porch or utility room. You can still help to protect your potted plants by grouping them close together and near the house, (most houses these days throw off enough heat to make the space directly around them a few degrees warmer than the open garden, and this can make all the difference) or even burying the pots in the soil.
You may want to use cloches (glass or plastic) or fleeces over your plots at this stage. Hardier varieties of vegetable such as leeks, kale and parsnips generally weather the worse winter conditions, but other plants may need some added protection.
You can buy plastic cloches made from recycled material and they can easily be moved around, or some people may want to make their own. By cutting the bottom off a plastic water bottle, gently placing it over the plant and pressing the bottle into the ground, you can also protect individual plants. If you put down organic mulch under the cloche, both will trap the heat and preserve your plants against a succession of black frosts and below zero temperatures. Snow of course is, paradoxically, a wonderful insulator, so we don't have to worry about a blanket of snow on the garden.
Even those bitter frosts have their uses, by breaking up the soil and making it easier to till in the spring.
Although the rate of plant growth is greatly reduced in the winter months, vegetables and flowers do still grow. Your garden does not have to be dead in the winter; with some preparation and planning you can enjoy fresh produce and the colour and scent of flowering plants, making winter gardening a productive pleasure.
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