The Kitchen Garden in Late Winter

Late Winter

The main change in the climatic conditions during this season is the appreciable lengthening of the days. The temperature may still be low; there may be snow and frost throughout late winter or there may be constant rain and flooding. Even so, the increase in the quality of light and in its strength will be affecting temperate climate plants so that they become ready to grow later, if not during the next few weeks. When they do grow, it will be very quickly.

In spite of chilly conditions, some crops will grow if planted outdoors; others will germinate from seed if sown indoors in warmth. Soil and compost can be prepared for these and, in fact, much of your work this season will consist of preparations, though there will still only be a little to do. The state of the soil outdoors will prevent much cultivation, but indoors you can finish the preparation of the greenhouse border soil for tomatoes, and you can prepare the composts for sowing seed and for those composts that will be needed later for mature plants.

When the weather permits, fertilizers can be given to a variety of fruit and vegetables. An occasional stroll round the plants will show you what damage has been caused by the winter weather and where tying-in is needed, whether of trained fruit or protective netting. It will show the need to get out a patch of weeds missed in the autumn and a general tidying up and clearing off of rotting leaves, twigs, and crops which are finishing.

The management of the greenhouse will need extra care now that you are starting off some crops in it. The light transmission should be as good as possible and the heat provided by the propagator should be steady. Fresh air, not draughts, should come in through the ventilators, and newly germinated seedlings should not be allowed to run short of water.

Jobs to do

Preparing the soil for outdoor sowing

There is only one crop which can really stand being sown outdoors in late winter: broad beans. As with sowing them in late autumn, there is no need to produce the fine, crumb-like soil advised in early spring. The soil is unlikely to be in a fit state for such cultivation but, provided it is reasonably level, and free from lumps, stones and rubbish, it should provide a satisfactory seed-bed for broad beans.

Preparing the soil for outdoor planting

This should be done as early in late winter as possible, to give the soil time to settle and absorb any fertilizer applied, so that the crops to be planted, Jerusalem artichokes and shallots, can be put in well on time. You will have done the initial digging and clearing during the autumn or early winter; all that remains to be done now is to fork over the top few centimetres (inches), remove any weeds and apply fertilizers if required.

Preparing the soil for sowing indoors

When sowing seeds in artificial warmth under glass, it is usual to sow them in containers, and for good results it is best to use a special soil mixture, or compost. One of the most commonly used standard composts is called the John Innes seed compost, and it consists of : 2 parts medium loam, 1 part granulated peat and 1 part coarse silver sand (parts by volume). With 36l (1 bushel) of this is mixed 44g (1-1/2oz) superphosphate and 21g (3/4oz) ground limestone. All these ingredients should be put through a 0.6cm (1/4in) mesh sieve. For best results, the loam should be sterilized before mixing.

at this time of year it is a good idea to assemble and inspect all containers to ensure that they are ready for the new season

This mixture will be free from pests, fungus diseases and weed seeds; it will be of a consistency which provides the best drainage and aeration for most seedlings and will provide the right kind of plant foods, There are other proprietary seed composts available, usually consisting of a mixture of mainly peat and coarse sand, and instructions for their use are provided with the container.

The containers, which can be plastic or wooden seed-trays, pots or pans, should be filled evenly with compost, firmed down so that 1.2cm (4in) of space is left at the top for watering after germination of the seeds, and the compost then watered from the bottom.

Preparing the soil for planting indoors

Towards the end of late winter is not too early to get the soil in the greenhouse borders ready for planting the slightly tender crops that you wish to harvest earlier than is possible outdoors. The preparation of the soil for tomato growing will have been started in early or midwinter and you can complete this now by digging to a depth of one or two spits, at the same time mixing in rotted manure, garden compost or similar material. You can also add a slow-acting organic fertilizer now, or wait until early spring. A suitable fertilizer is the John Innes Base, which consists of: 2 parts super-phosphate, 2 parts hoof and horn and 1 part sulphate of potash (parts by weight). After thorough mixing, 120g (4oz) is added to each square metre (sq yd).

If you live in a mild and sheltered area you should be able to plant the other tender crops out in the greenhouse at the end of early spring, so you can prepare the soil for these also – aubergine, melon and pepper. All are heavy feeders and need a rich soil.

Sowing seed outdoors

The real rush with sowing vegetable seeds does not come until mid-spring and in late winter the only one that can be attempted is broad bean and that only in warm gardens.

Sowing seed under glass (in heat)

You can start off some of the tender vegetables towards the end of the late winter, provided you can give them some warmth. To avoid warming the entire greenhouse, a propagator is very useful and is a kind of miniature heated greenhouse in itself, usually heated by electricity. In various sizes, can be heated to a variety of maximum temperatures, and may or may not have thermostats fitted.

strawberry plants, put into a heated greenhouse in late winter, may bear ripe fruit by mid-spring

When you are deciding which vegetables to grow in this way, and how many, remember that they will quickly get too big for the propagator and will need to be moved out into a much lower temperature, unless you are proposing to heat the greenhouse temporarily for a few weeks with a paraffin heater. If you are not going to heat the greenhouse, you can get over the problem to some extent by hardening them off gradually and thus slowing down their growth, or you can buy a much larger propagator than is needed for the seedlings and spread the young plants out in it, until either the temperature outside rises sufficiently, or they have been suitably hardened.

Late winter is a tricky time to start off seeds, even if you can supply the temperature they need. The light is not as good as it would be at their normal germination times and problems come once they have developed into young plants. However, with care and a good deal of attention, it is possible to get them going successfully. Seeds to sow are: aubergine, pepper and tomato; temperature should be maintained both day and night at I6-18°C (60-65°F). Germination times will be: aubergine, 14-21 days; pepper, 7-14 days, and tomato, 8-14 days.

All can be sown in prepared seed-trays, spacing the seed evenly on the surface of the compost and then covering with about 3mm (1/8in) of finely sieved, moist compost.

You can also sow them in individual, 5cm (2in) pots of clay, plastic or peat, sowing two or three in each, and later removing the weakest, to leave one seedling in each pot. Firm the compost and give a light sprinkle with water if it is at all on the dry side, then cover with brown or white paper and top with glass or plastic sheet. The glass or plastic keeps in the moisture, and the paper traps any condensation and prevents drops falling on to the compost and possibly disturbing the seeds.

Planting outdoors

Late winter is supposed to be the traditional time for planting shallots, though often the soil is too wet or cold. Mild conditions will get best results and you may find that you have to wait until early spring for the soil to dry or the temperature to rise. Shallots are grown from sets; plant each 15-20cm (6-8in) apart, in rows about 38cm (15in) apart. Before planting, cut off the withered brown remains of the leaves, otherwise the birds tweak them out of the ground. Sit the sets just below the surface of the soil. Do not press them into the ground, but make a shallow depression to put them in, and pull a little soil round them to halfway up the bulb.

Jerusalem artichokes can be planted any time in late winter or early spring. Choose tubers about the size of a hen’s egg, and plant in holes 15cm (6in) deep and 45-60cm (18-24in) apart; rows should be about 90cm (36in) apart. You can expect to start seeing shoots in two to four weeks’ time, depending on the weather.

More on vegetable gardening in late winter …

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

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