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How to…make your garden grow in winter

Ruth Styles and Robert Phillips

16th August, 2011

The harvest might be in full swing but, say Ruth Styles and Robert Phillips, if you want the bounty to continue into December, now is the time to start planning your winter vegetable garden

When winter rolls around, it’s natural to feel a pang of concern at the thought of losing your precious flora to the unforgiving weather and bitter cold, but you don’t have to sit just back and watch the destruction unfold while hoping that at least one of your plants will make it through. Vegetable patch or flowery ornamentals: there are plenty of ways to protect your garden from damage. Better still, you can make winter just as fruitful as summer by doing a bit of savvy planting now. Whether it's cabbages or parsnips, December doesn't mean having to trade in your home grown fare for supermarket stock. The flower garden too can produce a surprising number of blooms during the winter months, with everything from jasmine to aconites around to provide a splash of colour during the colder months.
 
‘Sadly, we are just running out of time for sowing many types of vegetables for growth over winter,’ says Charles Dowding, author of How to Grow Winter Vegetables (£14.95, Green Books), ‘but some salad species such as spinach, mustards and oriental leaves such as Pak Choi can be sown in the first week of September.' Other vegetables that can be planted in autumn for a spring harvest include spring onions, spring cabbage, mizuna, wild rocket and Valdor winter lettuce. ‘These winter-growing species can help to fill the ‘hungry gap’ in spring where crop yields can be minimal,’ adds Charles. ‘Earlier sowings of leeks, kale, purple sprouting and parsnips are also frost-hardy species that will bolster your spring-time harvest.’ In addition to vegetables, some flower species can survive the harsher conditions. ‘Winter flowering heather, pansies and variegated ivies can be planted between September and November to bring some much needed colour to your garden in the winter months,’ comments Pippa Greenwood, a BBC gardening writer and botanist.
 
Whether your plants are hardy or not, the long winter nights can be a dangerously cold time for plants. ‘Potted plants are priority number one for protection because the root systems are more vulnerable to the cold when they are out of the ground,’ says Pippa. While moving plants indoors or into a greenhouse is your best bet, not everyone has one, but according to Pippa, even without an indoor space for plants, there are still ways to keep them warm. ‘Moving your pots closer to the house, grouping them together or burying them into the ground are all effective ways of maximising protection from the cold’, she says. Plants braving it in the soil will be subjected to frosts, heavier rainfall, stronger winds and hungry wildlife in the winter. The hardiest species, such as kale, leeks and parsnips generally don’t need protection but during a particularly harsh winter or if the plant is in a particularly vulnerable life stage, then a bit of extra protection may be needed.

Glass bell cloches or cheaper recycled version made from plastic bottle halves are particularly useful during the winter months. ‘They are versatile, as they come in a range of sizes and can be easily moved around as necessary,’ says author Emma Cooper in The Allotment Pocket Bible (£9.99, Pocket Bibles). ‘I use cloches made from recycled materials and mulches [layer of organic litter on soil] on crops such as rhubarb for a slightly earlier crop,’ says Dave Hamilton, author of Grow Your Food for Free (£14.95, Green Books). These techniques trap latent heat and keep the night and early morning temperatures around the plants above freezing, which helps avoid damage and boosts growth.

Gardeners with land exposed to strong winds should also think about ways to protect plants from winter gales, which could leave plants stunted. Charles suggests polytunnels. ‘Polytunnels are not that great against frost,’ he says, ‘but are very effective against strong winds and excessive rain.’ ‘As long as tender crops are covered with a fleece or cloche, frost shouldn’t pose too much of a problem,’ says Dave. ‘These can also prevent hungry pigeons from destroying your brassica crops; they are hungrier in winter and love the stuff,’ adds Charles. Don’t forget to watch out for overwatering, especially if your garden has heavy clay soul. ‘If you use a mulch or material mounded or draped around the crowns of your plants, the material used must be free-draining, and allow good air circulation,’ advises Pippa. Frost and heavy rain aren’t all bad though and you don’t have spend all your time tackling them. ‘Freeze-thaw action will break up the surface layer of compost, helping to create a fine enough tilth for sowing in spring,’ says Charles.

Protecting plants from winter weather might seem a long way off, but says Pippa, preparation needs to start now. ‘While there is much to be grown and done in winter, it is still the spring and summer time when the average gardener is most active,’ she says. Putting  down lots of fertiliser - including manure - in autumn isn’t recommended as increased rainfall will wash away the nutrients. ‘Old, well-composted organic matter, however, has its nutrients locked in, and [putting down] a thin layer in autumn can enrich your soil for spring, while feeding worms which help to aerate and drain your soil,’ says Charles. Even if you don’t have six-month-old compost, there are some alternatives. ‘I cover my unused beds in manure, cover it with an old silage sheet then let the worms do the work for me,’ says Dave.

‘Things are still living and growing during winter, just very slowly’, he adds, so don’t underestimate the value of winter growing to brighten up the garden or to yield rich harvests in winter and early spring. Cloches, fleeces, polytunnels and mulching can help to reduce frost and wind damage to those plants that need added protection, and for unused beds, winter is a great time for soil preparation. Harnessing frost and providing organic matter for worm activity are great ways to break up the soil and help keep it nutrient rich for the warmer, more dynamic months ahead.

Ten wonderful winter plants

Vegetables
Leeks, sprouts, kale and parsnips should already be settled in but there’s still plenty to plant now for an early spring treat. Many will also add a splash of colour to your garden in the winter months.

Beetroot: Once you’ve finished storing the summer maincrop for winter, plant next year’s beets in a seed tray and leave to propagate before planting outside in October. Do it gradually so they have a chance to acclimatise, and protect them with cloches. The first few should be ready by March.

New potatoes: Plant this traditional spring treat early enough, and you’ll have potatoes straight from your garden on the table for Christmas dinner. Choose early or second early varieties such as Carlingford, Charlotte and Maris Peer.

Spinach: Sowing in autumn reduces the chances of bolting and there are plenty of varieties that will tolerate cooler conditions. The Riccio d'Asti and Merlo Nero types are both good choices.

Lamb’s Lettuce: Easy to grow, whatever your soil type, Lamb’s Lettuce is a tasty salad that can be sown anytime between now and December. Better still, its speedy growth rate means you’ll be harvesting anything sown now by Christmas and it will keep going all the way through the winter.

Spring cabbage: Local garden centres should have plenty of baby plants around at the moment, so plant them now and bed them down with fleeces or cloches when things start getting chilly. You’ll be able to harvest them come March.

Colour
Summer brights might be off the agenda but winter doesn’t mean having to go without a pretty patch. Most of your winter colour will come from foliage and berries such as holly, but there are plenty of winter blooms available, including snowdrops and heather.

Christmas Rose: While we can't guarantee the evergreen Helleborus niger or Christmas Rose will be in flower by Christmas, its pretty pale green petals are usually on display by January.

Sweet Box: Another evergreen variety, the Sweet Box or Sarcococca confusa produces gorgeous, sweetly scented white flowers from December to March.

Wintersweet: A stalwart of winter bouquets, the Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) produces delicate pale pink blooms with a chalky brown centre. It won’t flower for the first couple of years but is well worth waiting for.

Dogwood: The Midwinter Fire (Cornus sanguinea) variety has crimson stems topped with bright green leaves that turn purple in autumn. The shrub also produces clusters of tiny white flowers in spring.

Viburnum: One for bigger gardens, Viburnum shrubs (Viburnum farreri) produce scented pale pink blooms between November and February. Leaves are dark green most of the time, apart from in autumn when they turn a spectacular shade of reddish-purple.

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