Winter is usually considered a quiet time for gardeners but even in places where the soil is frozen and there is snow on the ground there are plenty of essential jobs to keep you busy. Good preparation now will pay off many times over when the weather warms up which is why I have compiled my best advice on winter preparation below, linking to many of our other articles for further advice…
Good Planning for Vegetable Gardens
The value of planning ahead for the growing season should never be underestimated and our GrowGuides and Garden Planner can be a great help here. Consider what went well in the garden last year and what didn’t – which vegetables were so popular you never had enough, and which did you have a glut of and couldn’t even give away? Deciding what not to grow is every bit as important as what should be grown. For instance, last year I ended up digging up my enormously successful rhubarb plant and donating it to the local college’s horticulture department after I discovered that all of my friends and family either already had their own rhubarb, or hated the taste!
Check through old seed packets to see if there are any left over to sow this year, but bear in mind that over time the germination rate is likely to decrease – see our article on seed storage for details. Then, when you have assessed the seed you already have, browse through some seed companies’ catalogues for fresh seed. It’s always good fun to try out new varieties to grow alongside old favourites that you know perform well. Why not experiment with purple carrots, lemon coriander, or spiky-headed Romanesco cauliflower? Who knows, you might even discover your new favourite vegetable!
Most sheds and outbuildings will benefit from some maintenance and repair over the winter. It might be too cold to paint but it is still worth checking for and fixing any loose or rotten boards, and making sure that door hinges are in good order to help eliminate draughts. Sharpen and oil the blades of gardening tools – I’ve found that vegetable oil works just as well as more expensive (and less environmentally-friendly) oils, and it also can be used on the wooden handles of tools.
If you have a greenhouse or cold frame then the glazing and surfaces will need a good clean and scrub out pots and seed trays too. Our article on Spring Cleaning a Greenhouse has all the essential details. You could also create a ‘hot bed’ system – these have been used since Victorian times to provide bottom heat for winter salad crops and early-sown seedlings. A hot bed consists of a deep layer of fresh, strawy manure covered with a mixture of equal parts topsoil and garden compost. As the manure rots it will generate heat, which will warm the soil above it – leave it for a week or so to heat up before planting to ensure it is ready for seedlings.
Preparing the Ground
Winter digging can be done now if the ground is workable and not frozen but first consider whether you need to. Digging disturbs soil structure and beneficial soil-dwelling organisms, so only do it if your soil really requires it – for instance when starting a new plot, or if you have had serious problems with insects in the last season and you want to expose any grubs or overwintering pests for birds to eat. However, if your soil is very heavy clay you may find you need to dig it annually to improve its structure and drainage, adding plenty of well-rotted compost.
While you are doing this you can also check for ‘volunteer’ potatoes – the ones which are inevitably missed when digging up the previous crop – and remove them to avoid passing on diseases such as blight. Lighter soils can be improved with a mulch of last year’s leafmould, which the worms will work in for you.
Perennials and Over-wintering Crops
Many fruit trees and bushes can be pruned now – see our article Winter Pruning of Gooseberries and Currant Bushes for tips - and make sure that stakes and ties on existing fruit trees are in good condition.
Depending on the weather you may be able to continue to harvest some vegetables such as swedes, cabbages, chicory and kale. After harvesting brassicas with tough stems, dig a trench about as deep as a spade’s blade where you’re going to plant peas or beans this year, then lay the brassica stems in the bottom of the trench and chop them up with a sharp spade. You can add other veg scraps, too – this compost trench will provide wonderful, organic (and free!) slow-release fertiliser for your legumes.
Weeds, Mulches and Plastic Bottles
What else can you do? Well, it depends on your climate and how mild or severe your winter is this year, but there might be weeds to deal with, straw or fleece mulches to be applied to overwintering crops, or accumulations of snow to be knocked off plants, and you will need to check on any stored fruit and vegetables regularly, and remove any which have gone bad.
One of my essential items for the garden is the humble plastic bottle, so I usually start collecting them now to use as cheap and cheerful cloches for seedlings. Filled with water, they’re also useful for placing inside cold frames where they will absorb heat from the sun during the day and then release it at night, helping to keep the frost at bay to protect early seedlings at the start of the growing season.
By Ann Marie Hendry.