Get ahead for early rhubarb

Forcing them now will give you a sweet crop in spring.

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This is a nice, traditional task to be doing now – in gardens of old, huge terracotta rhubarb forcers were used to trick the plant into growing fruity stems earlier, and many people still use them today. You can easily buy forcers new from online garden outlets, or search for a lovely antique one. You can, of course, just use an old bucket or dustbin, too! 

By depriving your rhubarb of light it encourages early growth in search of light, so you can be picking tender stalks of this prolific, tasty fruity veg from around early March. The rhubarb you grow in summer – though wonderful – is always tougher and more tart than delicious early rhubarb, which is slimmer, sweeter and more tender, so well worth doing. You must pick mature plants to use though, as they’ll have enough energy to both grow early stems and then continue on as a robust plant afterwards.

If you enjoy growing forced rhubarb, ensure you always have more than one crown growing, so you can use each plant in alternate years to prevent weakening them.

Move deciduous plants

Most young plants will be happy if you need to relocate them.

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As soon as your deciduous plants have dropped all their leaves and are dormant, that’s when you can move them. It may be that they’re growing in the wrong place or they’ve grown too big for their boots, so now’s the time to help the thrive somewhere else.

Large, mature specimens over five years old may not survive the transplant, and renovation or removal may be the solution. Some plants don’t like root disturbance, such as magnolias or roses, but young plants of most things will be happy to move.

Give the soil around the plant a good long soaking before you start digging, and after planting, water really well in dry spells, but not in frost. Mulch with compost and feed with a general fertiliser in spring. Evergreens should be left till March or April before moving.

Start pruning apple trees

A light chop every year keeps them happy and fruiting.

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You don’t have to prune apple trees, but in order to keep them to a manageable size, healthy and producing fruit, it’s advisable to carry out some pruning. By pruning lightly every year you can easily keep the tree to size and you’ll get fruit every year. As well as winter pruning, which is done in the dormant season, you can also lightly prune in late summer to reduce new growth and encourage fruit buds to develop.

However, at this time of the year when the tree is totally dormant, we can do structural pruning to maintain the shape and size of the tree and to keep a good balance of older branches that form the main framework, and new fruiting wood. The aim is to produce a tree that has an open centre to increase air circulation and reduce fungal diseases, with a framework of evenly spaced branches that will produce blossom and fruit this year and every year.

Don’t be tempted to prune off too much as that will result in vigorous growth and fewer or no fruits. Carefully prune to thin out crowded branches and any thin twiggy branches in the centre of the tree. Prune a little, stand back to look at the shape and balance before pruning out any more – and don’t rush!

 

Take evergreen cuttings

Provide them with a little base heat and you’ll soon have more free plants.

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If you have a heated propagator that provides gentle base heat, now is a good time to take cuttings from several types of evergreens such as holly, euonymus, senecio, hebe and Viburnum tinus. These are all good, reliable garden shrubs that have attractive foliage and flowers at various times of the year, and they are great for adding structure to the garden. Cuttings can be taken from now until around the end of February and with all of them you take them as nodal cuttings. The length of the cuttings will vary depending on the size and vigour of the stems, but ideally aim to produce cuttings around 7.5cm (3in) long.

Select last season’s growth using the tips of healthy shoots and insert them into a rooting mix of multipurpose compost and perlite or vermiculite. This mix will retain moisture around the cuttings, but also allow drainage and air movement. To root, the cuttings will need base heat from a propagator, but it doesn’t matter if the tops of the cuttings are cold. If stood on a sand bed with soil warming cables or in a propagator in a greenhouse the base of the cuttings will get enough heat. The foliage can be misted regularly or covered with thin polythene to retain humidity. In the correct conditions roots develop in around eight weeks.

Start winter digging

Get your ground in perfect condition for spring sowings.

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To dig or not to dig, that is the question? Traditionally vegetable gardens and allotments are dug over in the winter to prepare the ground for the coming season. The alternative is the no-dig system where the ground isn’t cultivated at all and in spring a layer of organic matter is added to the surface into which you sow and plant new crops.  

For those that do dig, now’s the time to get started to make sure the ground is in good condition for spring. Digging over your plot has many advantages. Turning over the top spit (a spade’s depth) buries any annual weed growth, allows you to mix in organic matter and it breaks up any compacted soil. This allows air down into the soil and improves surface drainage. Gardeners of old would say that digging the soil means you start the new growing season with a clean plot. Digging is also good exercise as long as you do it steadily, and it’s a great way to burn off calories after Christmas! 

Heavy clay soils need digging over as soon as possible to give the winter rains and frosts a couple of months to break down the lumps of clay. Lighter sandy or loamy soils can be left until February as they break down much faster.

Pot strawberries to grow under cover

And look forward to delicious crops earlier than usual.

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The first strawberries of the summer are always very welcome and the taste of a freshly picked ripe fruit is absolutely delicious. If you want an early crop of strawberries, they are well worth growing in containers undercover. Even in a cold greenhouse or polytunnel the fruits will be a couple of weeks earlier than outside, but with just a little gentle heat you can be picking your first fruits of the season even sooner.

Strawberries produce fruit in their first season, meaning young plants potted now or in early spring will crop in early summer onwards. If you already have plants growing in the garden that are healthy, you can lift some of the young plants or last year’s runners and pot them. Alternatively, you can buy young potted plants in garden centres or you can buy them as bare-root runners in early spring from mail order companies. From March onwards you can also get cold-stored runners which are grown a great deal by commercial growers.

Once potted or planted, these young plants that have been kept just above freezing since autumn will start into growth and produce a crop in around 60 days. With all strawberry plants, the crop in their first season is not large, but in their second and third season they will produce heavy crops. 

Prune your pelargoniums

A chop now will keep your plants bushy and compact.

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If you can provide light, frost-free conditions, it’s easy to over-winter pelargoniums where they often flower through autumn and well into winter. Ideally, zonal and fancy-leaved pelargoniums (often called geraniums) need a minimum winter temperature of around 5C (40F), although they’ll survive cooler conditions if the atmosphere is dry. Through the winter months water sparingly to keep the compost just moist as, when too wet, root rots can set in.

Plants can be grown for several years to produce large specimens for use in outdoor containers over the summer, but after a couple of years they can start to get tall and leggy.

To help keep the plants bushy and compact it’s a good idea to prune the older, taller shoots down around this time of the year. From now on the days start to get longer and this, with a little gentle heat, will encourage new shoots to develop from dormant buds low down on the stems. Pruning tall plants hard back does look a little drastic, but it you don’t the base of the plants will soon become bare and woody. After pruning, to encourage new growth you can top dress with some fresh compost and gradually start to increase the amount of water as new shoots start to grow over the coming weeks.

Plan your crop rotation

Prepare your schedule now for happy and healthy plants.

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The aim of crop rotation is to add a bit of order to your plot, segmenting similar, related crops together according to their cultivation needs. Plus, it’s good plant husbandry to change around crops yearly so specific soil pests and diseases don’t build up on the same plants, year in year out. Also, some plant families, such as legumes, leave behind nutrients for the following crop – nitrogen in the case of ensuing brassicas, which are leafy and so need this vital element. For organic gardeners, crops rotation means using fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilisers as a result.

There are a few crops that don’t fit into the strict schedule, and can be dotted around as convenient – perennials such as strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus need their own permanent sections, courgettes and squash are hungry and thirsty plants so may like being in the manure afforded the potato section, or slot them in their own moist, rich section elsewhere. Lettuce can be tucked in anywhere, or into pots, while sweetcorn does well in a few areas.

Prune ornamental vines

Encourage strong new growth with a chop now.

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Ornamental vines such as Vitis ‘Purpurea’ and Vitis cognetiae make good climbing plants in the garden. They are related to vines grown for their fruits, but with ornamental varieties, it’s the foliage we want. They look good all though the summer but come autumn the leaf colours intensify and put on a wonderful show.

Despite they exotic appearance, vines are totally hardy and are not harmed by heavy frosts. They are also very tolerant of different soil types and will grow on well drained and clay soils alike. To establish any vine the soil need improving by working in plenty of organic matter at planting time, but once they get their roots down into the soil, they are very easy to grow.

They make excellent climbing plants on walls, fences, up and over a pergola or even scrambling up trees. Some types can be vigorous, but they are easily contained by pruning and the main prune is done in winter when the vines are dormant.  If pruned in spring as the buds are swelling, the cuts bleed sap, so ideally prune after leaf fall up until late January. The annual winter prune keeps the vine under control and will encourage strong new growth next year with good leaf colour. It also allows you to train it as you want.

Sow onions for exhibition

Or just enjoy large, tasty crops early next summer.

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If you fancy growing some excellent onions for show next year, perhaps at your local show or even somewhere like Malvern, now’s the time to start sowing seed. Usually you might wait until February, but for earlier bulbs, which have the time to grow large for the show bench, you can sow this month.

Of course, it’s not just perfect show onions you can get going, if you just fancy an earlier crop of large, tasty bulbs, ready for harvest around June, give it a go. You’ll need heating equipment and other paraphernalia for serious show bench competitors, but not for village show level or everyday use.

Sow seed evenly on to good seed compost, under glass or on the windowsill, and cover with a light layer of around half a centimetre of further compost. Keep the tray or module tray at around 15-20C, and water only very lightly. Don’t overwater or there’s the risk of rotting. Transplant when seedlings are large enough to handle into individual pots, grow on and plant out in spring.

Collect seed from berries

It’s a fun and easy experiment to try and grow your favourite bushes and trees.

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The abundant berries of autumn often remain all through winter, with rowans, cotoneasters, hawthorns and pyracanthas looking beautiful and bountiful for many months. If the birds get there first, however, you may have missed the boat! They usually don’t like some colours and varieties of certain things – it may be completely random – so hopefully you have some left.

It’s a real experiment to try and grow some bushes and trees from seed, but a fun one, and easy to do. Be aware that varietal shrubs may not grow true from seed though, and can revert to parent forms. Collect a few bunches of your favourites, such as callicarpa, rowan, cotoneaster, pyracantha or hawthorn, but wear gloves when handling yew, just to be safe from toxic branches.

Some plants are easier to germinate than others – rowan is easier than pyracantha, for example, as the latter needs a long period of cold to even think about germinating. Plus the outer flesh of many berries can act as a germination inhibitor, containing chemicals to stop the plant growing until it reaches optimum conditions.

Hence it’s common to try and remove most of the flesh from the berries before you sow, to give it a fighting chance. Many simply leave the flesh on and let it decide when it wants to germinate, however. Leave your sown trays or pots outside in the garden or in a cold frame, and protect from birds.

Give your mower an MOT

A little easy maintenance now keeps it tiptop for spring.

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This year, as a result of the mild autumn, lawns continued to grow and needed cutting regularly. This keeps the lawn looking good and regular light trimming helps it to thicken out from the base to provide a good covering of healthy grass. Once you’ve given your lawn its final trim of the year to tidy it up and to collect the last of the autumn leaves, the mower can finally be put away until it’s needed again in early spring when growth starts again.

To prolong the life of your mower and keep it in good condition, make sure you clean the mower down before storing it away. Wet grass is corrosive and if left on the mower over winter it will turn mouldy and the metal parts of the mower will rust very quickly. Removing all the old grass and drying the mower down will help prevent rust forming. If the mower runs on petrol, don’t leave fuel in the tank over winter. Ideally, run the mower until the tank is dry, or drain it off. With electric mowers, check the cable and wind it in neatly. Spending just a little time cleaning down your mower before it’s stored away means that when you get it out next spring it should start and run without too many problems.

Harvest Christmas vegetables

Many of them store well in advance of the big day.

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There’s nothing nicer than home-grown vegetables fresh from the garden or allotment and through the winter there’s a good selection to choose from. Not only do they taste good, you can pick what you want, when you want. With Christmas not far away, it’s worth having a look around your plot to see what will be ready to harvest and enjoy over the Christmas period.

The good thing about most winter vegetables is they will stay fresh for several days without losing their flavour, if kept cool. This means you can harvest your veg a few days before it’s needed, with the knowledge that you’ve got it all gathered in ready for Christmas lunch.

A cold shed or outbuilding is perfect to store your harvested produce. Alternatively, keep the veg in the fridge where it will last even longer. Brussels sprouts can be picked as buttons, or you can cut the whole stalk and remove the leaves. Remember also that leafy top of the plant can also be eaten. With cabbages, remove the tough, outer leaves to prevent wilting and if picking kale several days in advance, stand it in a pot of water to keep it fresh. Leeks store well, but trim off the green tops to keep them firm and with root crops, wash off the loose soil.

Perk up patios and doorsteps

Inject some colour to brighten up winter.

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If your garden looks drab and dull now, it can be easy to forget about it and feel very unexcited about everything in it. To up the interest, make you want to continue pottering about out there and plan for a bright garden future, cram in the colour in pots as much as you can. Visitors to your door will be impressed, and the view outside the window as you’re washing up on Christmas day will be a real treat!

Get in the garden centre now, where you’ll find an array of bargains as they pack up old stock for Christmas, plus some tried and tested ‘bare bones’ plants as border fillers. Find some evergreens like grasses, box bushes, phormiums and ferns, alongside plenty of the best bedding to see you through winter.

You can even buy some bargain basement bulbs and get those going too – it’s not too late to plant up many of them, especially those you’ll be planting in their own pots. You may be a month or two late and the open ground may be too hard but you’ll likely see a usual timely spring showing from most planted in containers.

Give borders a boost now

A bit of winter tidying up will help you get ahead for spring.

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Before winter really sets in, it’s a good idea to get out in the garden and start working in the borders. This not only makes the garden look better, some plants will benefit from a little attention now and it also helps you get ahead for next spring when there are a thousand and one jobs to do in the garden.

It’s good to start tidying the borders while the ground conditions are still good, rather than when soggy or frozen. Now that the autumn leaf drop is over for another year it’s a good opportunity to go through the border and clear away thick layers of leaves that could smother small or low growing perennials. If the leaves are left on these plants over winter they will rot, causing harm to the plants below.

You can also start cutting back some old perennial flower stems. Any that have decorative seed heads can be left for winter interest, but where stems are already starting to collapse, they can be cut back to ground level. Dead foliage on evergreen perennials such as bergenia can be picked off to freshen up the plants and generally work through the border tidying, trimming and removing weeds.

Keep the plot ticking over

Enjoy a rest but there are still a few jobs to give you your gardening fix!

The year is on the wane, and things start slowing down now. You’re probably looking forward to a bit of a break from too much hefty work now it’s winter on the plot, and you deserve it – we know how hard GN readers work and it’s good to get some Christmas down time!

However, it’s a good time to potter about and keep an eye on everything, while carrying out a few odd jobs to tick things over.

If you’ve not already done so, and you tend to dig over your plot in winter, get the fork out now, loosening clods which will then be broken down by impending frosts. This will improve structure. Clear old plant debris, check over your tools and check for any crop damage, too.

Any areas you’re not using can be covered, saving you time and effort weeding until you need the space. Organic mulches will help feed your plot as well as obstruct many weeds. A plastic mulch or weed membrane over the top, however, will keep all weeds out, and keep soil relatively warm so you can use it earlier in spring.

Spruce up hanging baskets

Bring winter colour and cheer to your garden.

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There’s no excuse not to have lots of instant colour and form in winter – get those hanging baskets into action for a new season, and you’ll add winter cheer aplenty.

Remove all the old plant debris and consider what you want to show in them. An important thing to consider is where they’ll be placed – in exposed rainy spots dainty bedding such as violas or pansies may simply get battered, and you may wish to try more robust plants such as mini shrubs, ferns, grasses or ornamental cabbages for colour.

Use bright whites, yellows and pinks if you’re using bedding for optimum impact, varying up the planting with heathers, trailing ivy and some small bulbs such as crocus and iris, which will pop up in early spring to surprise you.

The beauty of winter baskets is they’re much less work than summer baskets, generally needing less food and water or deadheading. Plus they’ll last for longer, with more robust plants for four months or more into March, when you can give them another makeover.

Houseplant care in winter

Keep them lush with the right light, heat and nutrition.

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It’s great to see the recent surge in the popularity for growing house plants. Not only do they have a decorative effect and bring colour and interest into a room, house plants, especially foliage plants, help to improve air quality. Most plants will grow happily indoors all year round, but during the winter months when the days are much shorter, growth will be slower. Indoor temperatures tend to be warmer these days with central heating and efficient double glazing. In one way this is good for the plants and keeps them actively growing, but poor light conditions can sometimes mean that leaves and growth become drawn and leggy.

To keep your houseplants healthy and growing through the winter months, always try and position them in as light a position as possible, but at the same time avoid cold windowsills and draughts. Plants still need watering, but not as much as during the summer months. Aim to keep the compost just moist at all times but not wet. More plants are killed by over-watering than under-watering! In a warm room where the air is dry plants can suffer and develop brown tips to the leaves, so if possible, mist the foliage occasionally or stand the pots on a tray of pebbles to create humid conditions.

Plant some unusual berried bushes

Try something new and you and the birds can enjoy a feast!

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There are some beautiful ornamental berried bushes that you can get in the garden now, which will benefit your plot’s birdlife, but why not plant some more berries just for you? You may have blueberries and currants already, so it’s time to try something different.

Your best bet is searching all the very best online fruit nurseries such as Chris Bowers and Sons, Blackmoor Nurseries, Ken Muir, Thompson and Morgan and of course, Lubera, which specialises in unusual fruit plants. At this time of year they have fruit tree and bush offers, bundled together as a deal for you to save money. Being planted here is an aronia, a beautiful bush with spring and summer flowers, tasty berries in autumn along with brilliant red leaves before they fall. It’s a good pot specimen or it makes an excellent deciduous hedge plant. It copes with most soils, even a little acidic.

Ensure you go for a loam-based compost if growing in pots, and add a handful of bonemeal as a slow-release fertiliser to encourage good rooting in pots or the ground. Ensure your new berried shrubs are never wanting water, and when spring comes, use a liquid fertiliser such as a tomato feed to boost flower and fruit growth.

Feed the birds

You’ll soon attract lots of feathered friends to your plot.

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During autumn there is usually plenty of natural food around for birds the garden in the form of seeds, insects and berries on trees. As the weather gradually gets cooler and natural food is used up, it’s a good idea to start feeding the birds to make sure they have a regular supply of nutritious food. It is during the cold winter months when the days are short and the nights long that birds really benefit from being fed, especially as they use a great deal of energy just keeping warm. Different species of birds eat different types of foods, so it’s important to put out a selection of bird food to cater for their needs. Sparrows and finches eat mainly seeds, the tit family like a high fat diet such as peanuts and fat balls, and robins, thrushes and blackbirds like fruit and worms.  Many birds such as the tiny wren also eat insects, but when these are in short supply they will feed on mealworms, chopped suet and sunflower hearts.

During the winter it’s important to feed on a regular basis. Feeders should be topped up as needed and if you use a bird table, feed daily, or better still morning or late afternoon. Once word gets around, you’ll soon have all sorts of birds visiting your garden!