We’re starting a new growing year and there’s nothing more rewarding than harvesting some winter produce and planning our space for the year ahead. The winter so far hasn’t been too cold and frosty, but we’ve had a lot of rain and many days spent indoors. Let’s use this time to reflect on what has gone well and what has not been so successful in the garden. Have a look at the Brighton Allotment Federation for tips on crop rotation, or check the RHS for ideas on three and four year crop rotation. What’s often overlooked are our fruit growing areas, and January and February are the best months to plan, plant and look after fruit trees, bushes and canes. Last but not least enjoy the garden and the beauty it brings into our lives.
Sow, plant, propagate
- Unless you planted onion sets in the autumn, sow onion, leek and lettuce seeds now. Do so in modules or small pots and keep them indoors or where the temperature doesn’t drop below 10 degrees. They’ll be ready to be planted out around Mar or Apr depending on the weather.
- Plant fruit trees - Pears, apples, cherries and plums – provided the weather is not too harsh, January is a fantastic month to plant pretty much every fruit, from trees to bushes and cane fruit.
- Plant summer and autumn fruiting raspberries and blueberries. Make sure you prepare the ground and dig in plenty or well rotted compost or manure.
- Start sprouting or ‘chitting’ potatoes (see below for more info).
- Towards the end of the month sow calabrese and cauliflowers in cold-frames or in a greenhouse to be planted out when the weather gets milder.
- If you have a heated greenhouse, start sowing tomatoes this month for transplanting into the greenhouse in early March.
- Continue harvesting winter vegetables - kale, leeks, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, swede, winter radishes, Brussels sprouts and hardy salad leaves.
- Purple sprouting broccoli will be starting to form heads now and be ready to harvest this month.
- Winter prune gooseberries, white and red currants. Have a look at these RHS tips on how to deal with your fruit bushes.
- Winter prune pears and apples.
- This is the last month to prune your grape vines.
- Trim blueberries.
- Prune autumn fruiting raspberries – cut the canes down to about 20cm. Autumn fruiting raspberries fruit on new canes and pruning them now will give them time to grow all year and start fruiting towards the end of the summer and throughout the autumn.
- Take cuttings – all the cuttings you take from pruning your fruit bushes are the perfect plant material to increase your plant stock. Use the healthier cuttings - cut them above and below a healthy bud and insert them in well prepared ground. This year they’ll use all their energy to grow strong roots and next year they’ll reward you with copious amounts of fruit.
Jobs to do
- Check all poles, stakes, wires, ties and anything you’re using to support fruit trees and bushes. In no time your plants will come out of dormancy and will need strong support to cope with their growth.
- Buy or source enough seed compost to germinate your seeds as the time to start sowing is around the corner.
- Clean and wash pots, trays and anything you’re planning to use this year to grow your plants to prevent viruses and diseases from being passed on to new seedlings.
- If you haven’t already done so, draw up the plans for this year and order your seeds before it’s too late.
- Force rhubarb to grow early shoots by covering the crowns with a forcing jar or anything that might keep the light away such as upside-down pots, containers or even straw. Alternatively you’re not too late to lift old or unproductive crowns, divide them and replant them in well manured soil.
- Dig! Do this whenever there’s a good day as most of us would have not kept to our plans before Christmas. Turn over the soil and add manure as you free your soil from parsnips, celery and leeks. Remember not to cultivate your soil if the ground is wet and soggy as you will damage the soil structure. Lay wooden boards where you need to walk and harvest– this will reduce the damage by spreading your weight.
- Test your soil and check its pH – the ideal pH for growing food is neutral (around 7). A slightly alkaline pH of just over 7 is best for Brassicas as it helps prevent club root, their main disease, whereas fruit prefer slightly acidic soil. The National Allotment Society had a good section on soil. Many of us have to work on chalky soils - here’s some good advice on how to start dealing with it.
- Keep on top of stored crops - check food stores regularly and remove anything rotting to save other crops from being infected. If potatoes start to sprout, rub off the sprout and parboil before freezing for later use.
- In case of strong winds, check your fruit tress, particularly if they are young. Firm the soil around the roots and check whether there are any loose stakes or broken ties.
- Think of wildlife – now it’s getting hard for birds and invertebrates trying to survive the winter. Don’t be too eager to tidy up your garden and get rid of leaves, twigs and flower heads as many creatures such as overwintering lacewings and ladybirds might have found the perfect spot to hibernate. See here for more tips on what you could do to help our garden friends this month. The RSPB also have interesting monthly advice on wildlife gardening.
- Feed the birds - Provide a source of water and food for birds. Fat balls mixed with seeds are cheap and readily available in shops but if they are encased in wire mesh it's best to remove this as it can trap birds or injure them. Fat balls are also easy to make. Mix one third uncooked suet or lard with a mixture of sunflower seeds, cooked rice, dried fruit, uncooked oatmeal and cheese. Hang in a wire bird feeder or smear onto pine cones and hang.
The mighty potato
Start sprouting or ‘chitting’ potatoes four to six weeks before planting them – use old egg boxes as containers to chit your tubers. Find the ‘rose end’ where you’ll see most of the ‘eyes’ and place your potatoes with this end uppermost. Place them in bright light in a cool room. Make sure you buy disease free potatoes from a reputable source and not from a supermarket as they might carry diseases. Potatoes are planted at different times depending on the variety. There are three main groups called ‘early’, ‘second early’ and ‘maincrop’. Early potatoes are the first group of potatoes planted in the season and are planted mid-March. These are ready to harvest in June and July. Second Earlies are planted early to mid-April and are ready in July and August. Maincrop potatoes are planted mid to late April and are harvested in September and early October. Charlotte are early potatoes particularly good for our local soil. If you want to give your potatoes a kick-start, cover the area where you’re going to plant them with black plastic and leave it for a good few weeks. You can then plant your potatoes through holes you’ve made through the plastic.