Jobs for the month: December 2011
By: Web Editor
Here come the first really hard frosts in these parts (North East Somerset) and that means it’s the perfect time for some real comfort food like bangers and mash. The perfect accompaniment is the humble cabbage or a handful of Brussels sprouts which should be ready by now. Winter cabbages such as the classic ‘January King’ types and the tough but tasty ‘Tundra’ will cope with all the winter can throw at them and are brilliant for cutting just when you fancy a spot of heart-warming colcannon with your sausages.
Winter and Savoy cabbages can be cut as required from now onwards.
Don’t forget to give all your stored vegetables a thorough once-over this month as this is when the rot will set in. Go through everything you have in store – all those lovely spuds and apples for instance – and remove anything that has started to rot before it spreads. Potatoes especially need to be checked and keep an eye open for any that look soft and ‘blighty’ and watch out for slugs that have emerged from a potato to go and damage another one. Pull out any potatoes that look remotely dodgy and eat them first.
Leeks are a personal favourite of mine and they’re perfect for winter harvesting as you can just take what you need and leave the rest to stand until later. There’s no doubt in my mind that leeks harvested from the garden taste much better than ones dug up a few days before. But, if it’s really freezing weather, they’re tricky to get out, so I lift a few when conditions allow and heel them in on a recently dug bed. Freshly dug soil rarely freezes solid so the leeks are easy to lift exactly when you want.
Sow onion seeds
If you are hoping to produce some show-beating onions this year, now is the time to start sowing them. However, even bulbs intended for the kitchen need a long season to produce the biggest bulbs so they are traditionally sown on Boxing Day or very shortly afterwards.
The top exhibitors will go to great lengths to give their plants the very best growing conditions including extra heating and supplementary lighting, but you can get very good results by simply starting your seeds off in a heated propagator set to 15C (60F) on a greenhouse bench or warm, light windowsill indoors.
For the largest bulbs you need to select a good variety and strain of seeds and specialists such as Medwyn Williams (tel: 01248 714851), W Robinson & Son (tel: 01524 791210) and Keith Foster Exhibition Seeds (tel: 01947 840666) are all good sources. Alternatively for good, uniform bulbs varieties such as ‘Ailsa craig’ and ‘Bedfordshire Champion’ are still popular and widely available.
Sow the seeds 6mm (1⁄4in) deep in a traditional half sized seed tray or sow one seed per cell in a cell tray and cover with sieved compost or vermiculite. Water the trays from the base by placing in a shallow saucer or tray of water until the compost is soaked to the top.
Once germinated maintain the plants at 10C (50F) and provide as much light as possible by ensuring that the greenhouse glass is clean.
Maintain watering ensuring that the compost does not become wet, but does not dry out too much either and prick out (pot on) the seedlings once the seed leaf, which at first loops over as it emerges from the soil, has straightened out. If you sowed into cell trays, the plants can be left in situ until the roots have started to wind around the outside of the rootball in the cells at which time they can be moved on into larger pots ready for planting out in March. Show bulbs may be grown permanently in pots in an unheated greenhouse or polytunnel or sheltered spot outside – a cane used to support the foliage.
Order seeds for 2012
On page 66 this month we have the first of two roundups of new seed varieties from the main seed catalogues for 2012 to give you a taste of something new and there will also be the best range of bare-rooted fruit trees available at this time of year so now is the time to order.
Try and get a balance between the crops that you and your family like the best and add just a few more unusual types to give your growing skills and taste buds a challenge.
Winter wash fruit trees
Fruit trees such as apples and pears can suffer from a build up of pests over the seasons and if yours have suffered from a particular pest such as woolly aphids or red spider mites in recent years you could consider applying a winter wash now.
The old tar oil-based products have long gone, but you can use a plant oil based product called Growing Success Winter Tree Wash and this should be applied on a warm, dry day between October and December and again in late March. This product is widely available from garden centres but can also be purchased from Harrod Horticultural (tel: 0845 402 5300) or from Just Green (tel: 01621 785088).
Lift carrots and parsnips
These hardy root crops can be left in the ground until needed although carrots are best lifted and stored if your soil is heavy or tends to lie wet in the winter to prevent rotting and attack by slugs and other pests. Parsnips are best lifted as required as they quickly become soft and deteriorate once out of the ground. However, if the soil becomes frozen in the depths of winter they can become locked in and it is impossible to get them out sometimes for weeks on end and no self respecting parsnip grower wants to have Christmas dinner without them.
Lift a few roots now and heel them into a sheltered spot where they are less likely to become frozen in. Carrots can be stored in well ventilated trays or nets, preferably in a dark, cool, but frost free place.
Lift parsnips before the ground freezes and heel in to a sheltered spot.
December at a glance
Sowing now… Salad leaves, exhibition onions, sprouting seeds, microgreens
Planting now… Bare-rooted fruit trees and bushes, bare-rooted hedging, rhubarb
Harvesting now... Carrots, leeks, winter cabbages, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, chicory, celery/celeriac, spinach, Jerusalem artichokes, endive, kohl rabi, winter lettuce, salsify and scorzonera, Swedes, turnips, parsnips
From store... Apples, pears, potatoes (from store), beetroot (from store), onions, pumpkins/squashes
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