The Kitchen Garden in Early Winter

Early Winter

The shortest day occurs near the end of early winter, when there may only be six or seven hours of daylight, and not very bright daylight at that. All through this period the days get shorter and shorter, and the temperature may drop steadily until it is at or below freezing at night and not much higher during the day. There will be little time for garden work; even if the ground is not frozen, or even snow-covered, it may be very wet and there may be incessant rain.

Even more than in late autumn it is important to finish jobs whenever an hour or two can be snatched. After this season winter will set in with a vengeance and you may not be able to get out into the garden again until early spring. The routine digging and improving the soil will be the main preoccupations; your planting should be finished as soon as possible, so any further preparation of the soil out-doors for planting will not be necessary. It is frequently said that planting can be done at any time in the winter, in mild and dryish periods. However, with the prospect of prolonged waterlogging, or prolonged frost and snow, losses of fruit bushes and canes are quite possible, if there has not been time for their roots to get a firm grip on the soil in autumn or early winter.

The pruning of soft fruit should also be finished off, and then a winter spray can be applied while the plants are completely dormant, to control various troubles.

Amongst the vegetables, the brassicas should be well covered against birds and well staked against winter gales. Leaf crops under cloches may need tidying and weeding once the last cutting for the winter has been made. Continue to keep an eye open for weeds on the unprotected vegetables, too.

Jobs to do


If this job has not already been started in late autumn, you will do yourself a good turn by starting as soon as possible. Turning out to dig later on in winter can be very unpleasant and if it gets missed altogether, there is a chance of failure with various crops in the following season. If you are a regular ‘no-digger’, that is a different matter, but if you have decided that your system of cultivation involves digging, it will need to be done regularly for consistently good results.

Improving the soil

It is while digging that you can take the opportunity to alter the condition of the soil and improve it if necessary. You may own a garden the soil of which contains a good deal of sand, shale, or stones; all these help to ensure that water drains through it quickly and that it is short of plant food. Since the mineral nutrients that plants require can only be absorbed by them if they are dissolved in moisture, in such soils there will be a shortage of plant foods, hence you need to treat such soil so that it retains water.

However, you may have to deal with the other extreme, which is the heavy soil that sticks to the spade in lumps when it is wet, and cracks into 2.5cm (1in) wide crevices if allowed to be dry for any length of time. It easily becomes waterlogged and unfit for plant growth and if it becomes compacted from weight of machinery or your own feet, it may take a whole growing season before the structure is restored to anything like normal. So the time of cultivating it has to be chosen carefully, unlike the sandy soil, which can be worked at more or less any time. Against this disadvantage, however, must be weighed the fact that these heavy clay soils are highly nutritious to plants and the quantity of moisture they contain ensures that they remain moist many weeks longer than free-draining soils, especially as the subsoil is often almost pure clay.

You may have a chalky soil only a few centimetres (in) deep, on top of a subsoil of pure chalk or you may have to deal with a soil largely consisting of peat, if you live near moorland. The former will be excessively alkaline and prone to become dry, the latter will have a very acid reaction and retain so much moisture that you can squeeze a handful out like a sponge. Of course, you may be lucky enough to have a good soil which does not possess any of the extreme characteristics described or which only needs a little titivating to keep it in good order.

All these different types of soil can be considerably improved over the years by mixing with them some rotted organic matter. This is often quoted as being the answer to the gardener’s prayer that one tends to lose sight of what it is and why it is so important.

Rotted organic matter consists of the decaying or decayed remains of animals or plants and it provides humus, a substance the physical properties of which ensure that the drainage of water and the supply of air (and hence oxygen) are adequate for health of roots and that mineral nutrients are present in a form that roots can absorb. Organic matter in the soil ensures that there is a variety of small and even microscopic animals present, such as worms, nematodes, bacteria and insects, all of whose various activities on and in the organic matter result in its gradual change and decomposition into humus.

Woodland soils into which leaves have rotted over years and years are some of the best there are. When trees are cleared and the site used for cropping, its initial fertility is considerable but, unless it is maintained by the return to the soil of most of what js taken out of it, the fertility gradually decreases and the end product is desert.

It is not necessary to add vast quantities of organic matter, except when first dealing with very poorly structured soils; a little goes a long way and will keep all the processes necessary to maintain a good structure ticking over steadily. Standard types of organic matter are: garden compost, leafmould, farm manure of various kinds, poultry deep litter, spent mushroom compost, spent hops, straw, peat and seaweed. Some other less conventional ones are: bark, shoddy (wool or cotton waste), wood shavings and sawdust, hair, feathers, sewage sludge, fishmeal, leather, coffee waste and green manure.

Farm manure, sewage sludge, fishmeal and poultry deep litter are often available as products with proprietary names; these have been heated and dried to remove possibly harmful bacteria, and in some cases deodorized, so that the end product is inoffensive and easy to handle. Garden compost is available from your own garden in the form of plant waste materials which have been, in effect, re-cycled. The garden soil should become richer in nutrients over the years if you are also adding compound fertilizers. You may also be able to make leafmould; it is less nutritious than compost, but a very useful humus supplier.

Spent mushroom compost is excellent; the original compost is very rich and the mushroom crops do not take much fertility from it, so that although it is called ‘spent’, it is by no means finished as far as green plants are concerned. It may be very alkaline, however; your supplier will be able to tell you. If it is, use it sparingly or mix it with other manures. Spent hops consist of the haulm of the hop plant and the hops themselves after use in brewing; their value is mainly in the humus they contribute, as there is little nutrient present. Peat contains even less plant food, but is an excellent sponge and supplier of humus; Straw is similarly low in nutrients and not such a good sponge. Shoddy, wood shavings, sawdust, hair, feathers, leather waste, coffee waste and bark are all very slow to rot. They will supply humus, but only very gradually during a period of several years and only a little plant food.

The time to add any of these types of organic matter, if they are to be dug in, is autumn and winter, the earlier the better, so that as large a part as possible has been integrated into the soil by bacteria and worms by the time of planting or sowing in spring. A standard rate of application for the average crop, to an average soil, of rotted farm manure (pig, cow or horse) or garden compost is about 4.5kg per sq m (10lb per sq yd). For soils which are already in good heart, 2.2kg per sq m (51b per sq yd) is sufficient, especially if you intend mulching in spring or summer. For those which are poorly structured and/or lacking in plant food, 6.7kg per sq m (151b per sq yd) is not too much. The variations on these rates can be considerable, but if you use them as a basis, you can alter them in the light of your own experience, as you come to know your soil, the needs of the varying crops and local weather conditions.

Preparing the soil for planting indoors

You can start to prepare the soil now in the greenhouse for planting tomatoes in the spring. Growing tomatoes regularly every year in the same place runs a considerable risk of fungus disease building up in the soil, or root-infesting eelworms, and these troubles will mean that infected plants will be slow to grow, with wilting and yellowing leaves and stunted shoots.

Provided you have not previously had trouble, you can dig the soil roughly to produce a broken up surface and then flood it, preferably with a sprinkler attachment to the hose. Both these practices ensure that the soil is moistened evenly, which would not be the case if a stream of water were spouted out onto a smooth, compacted soil surface. The soil needs to be really wet to a depth of 50cm (20in) and you can water it in two or three stages.

If the soil is markedly acid, you should put on a dressing of lime to make the pH value 6.0-7.0, though tomatoes will grow well in a fairly wide range of pH values, up to about 7.5. This lime dressing can go on before the last watering, applied evenly in powder form. You can flood and lime at any time in early winter, or early in mid-winter; the remaining preparation will be done in late winter.

If some of your plants grew badly last year and you have been growing them in the same soil for some years, it will need replacing or sterilizing. Sterilizing should be done as soon as the old plants have been pulled out, using formaldehyde ; then you can follow with flooding and liming and the rest of the preparation.


Continue to force chicory and rhubarb in succession as it is wanted.


pruning outdoor grapevines -  cut off the fruited rods, tie down new shoots and cut the central rod down to leave three dormant buds

Finish the pruning of cane and bush fruits as soon as possible, and if you did not get the vines pruned in late autumn you can still do it during the next few weeks. As the sap of the vine becomes active much earlier than with other fruits, it is necessary to finish the pruning before mid-winter, otherwise the cut surfaces ‘bleed’.

If you are following the double Guyot method of pruning, the two main rods which carried the fruiting sideshoots should be cut right back to stubs. Two of the three new shoots which have been trained vertically are now tied down horizontally, one on each side of the main stem, and cut back to leave five or six buds. The remaining shoot which is to produce the replacement fruiting shoots next year is cut down to leave three good buds, or four if you want one as an insurance.


Early winter is a good time to do any winter spraying that may be necessary. As far as soft fruit is concerned it is not usually a big job; the pests and diseases that can occur in gardens on these fruits are nothing like as troublesome or varied as on the tree fruits. Often all that is needed is one thorough spraying with tar oil winter wash to destroy the overwintering eggs of aphids, leaf suckers and leaf hoppers. It will also burn off any moss or lichen on the shoots and so help to cut down fungus disease by destroying protection for the overwintering spores.

Since the eggs and spores are tiny, the spray should be applied until it drips off the ends of the shoots. It will burn grass and kill herbaceous plant and vegetables, so be careful if any of these are growing close to or in between the rows. It will not be necessary to spray vines.


winter cauliflowers provide a welcome variation - the curd can be protected from frost by bending the outer leaves over it

Brassicas should be safely guarded against birds, and securely staked against winter storms. The outer leaves of the winter cauliflower should be half broken and bent over the florets to protect them against frost.


Winter spinaches, lettuce, endive and brassicas may need the occasional tidying and hoeing round. Yellowing leaves should be taken off the brassicas and the endive ground cleared when the crop is finished.

Stored crops

Some time in early winter, it would be advisable to have a good look at the roots, potatoes and other crops in store. However careful one is to keep only sound, healthy specimens, there are always one or two which start to rot, and the quicker they are removed the better, before they contaminate the remainder. You may also find, in spite of taking precautions, that mice and rats have found a way into the containers or clamps and have had a hearty feed.


Since the worst winter weather will probably start in midwinter, early winter is a good time to get up some, if not all, of the roots remaining in the ground, in case it becomes frozen hard or covered in snow, and put them into store. This will include Jerusalem artichoke, parsnip, radish and swede. If the weather becomes very bad, it is possible to dig up cauliflower, and also cabbage with roots attached, and store them for two or three weeks in a dark cool shed, hanging upside down. If the roots are enclosed in polythene bags containing a little moisture, they will last even longer.

29. August 2011 by admin
Categories: Kitchen Garden, Organics, Vegetable Gardening | Tags: , | Comments Off on The Kitchen Garden in Early Winter


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