Your organic vegetable garden in December 2013/January 2014
Winter is truly here as we enter the festive months of December and January. Growth may be temporarily stalled, but you could still be enjoying lots of fresh vegetables
Weeds may still be growing though, so keep an eye on salad crops so they don’t get overwhelmed.Take the time to record what you grew where in 2013, and use this as a basis for your 2014 plans.
Vegetable garden in winter
A traditional rhubarb or
seakale forcing pot
Things to do in the vegetable garden
- Watch out for chickweed, which can grow, flower and ripen seed all year round. It is not a weed to be ignored and can soon overwhelm winter salads and other plants, particularly on rich soils. Hoe off seedlings, but pull up anything larger as the plants can root again in wet weather.
- You can start forcing rhubarb, seakale and chicory in January.
Rhubarb is forced by placing an up-turned bucket/pot over the plant to exclude light. The warmer the environment the quicker it will grow; you can place manure or straw over the top to encourage growth of the pale, sweet shoots. Seakale is forced the same way, only there is no need for extra warmth.
- Chicory is treated differently. Dig up well-grown chicory roots from the ground, pot up, and then cover with an upturned pot. Keep in a dark, warm place (10-14°C / 50-57°F). The sweet chicons (forced pale shoots) will be ready for late winter salads in about 4-6 weeks. Witloof is the traditional forcing chicory to produce white chicons, but other varieties can also be used, producing smaller and less regular chicons. If the compost is kept moist the roots may produce several more chicons after the first one has been snapped off to eat.
- Sow onions in January, as onions from seed need a long growing season. Raise in modules on a warm windowsill for planting out in March.
- Lift celery as required in December. Any plants left in the ground can be covered with a thick layer of straw to protect them from winter frost.
- Stake and earth up Brussels sprout plants that are at risk of blowing over in harsh weather. Loose soil around the roots leads to Brussels sprouts not hearting up properly.
- Order your seed potatoes from The Organic Gardening Catalogue and when they arrive , set them out in trays in a light, cool, frost-free spot and leave them to sprout. This is known as chitting. Egg boxes make good chitting trays so start saving them now. Make sure you put the tubers with the 'eye' end - where the sprouts will grow from - upwards.
Members can view Garden Organic’s potato growing factsheets online:
If you are not a member, find out more about the benefits of Garden Organic membership and how to join.
- Get organised for the spring and start collecting plastic bottles for cloches. The sawn-off plastic bottles will protect individual young plants from slug damage. Be sure not to trap a slug inside.
Start collecting plastic bottles
for cloches in the spring
- An extra compost box never goes amiss, particularly on an allotment or large garden. Dot them around so there is always one close by. If you don’t already have one or need more, now is a good time to build a new one. Use wood from old pallets to cut costs.
- Dig a compost trench to deal with Brussels sprouts, kale and other tough brassica stems once cropping has finished. The trench should be about a spade’s depth, preferably where runner beans, or other peas and beans will grow next year. Lay brassica stems along the bottom of the trench, and then roughly chop them up with a sharp spade. Other kitchen veg scraps can also be added. Replace soil dug out of the trench. Buried in a trench, any pests such as whitefly and aphids that are over wintering on the plants are out of harms way.
If you need more space for growing vegetables, or are new to gardening, now is a good time to find an allotment. Lists of allotment sites should be available from a local library or the council – and an increasing number now have a web site.
- Start planning your veg plot for next season using a crop rotation. Make a list of all the vegetables you would like to grow, organise them into family groups and plan where to grow each group allowing enough space for the plants to grow. View our factsheet on crop rotation for more information.
- Before buying new seed, check through seed packets left over from last year to see what you can use to sow next season. Apart from parsnips, most seed will keep for at least a year; it will last a lot longer if the seed has been kept in a cool, dry spot. If you are unsure about a batch of seed, sprinkle a few on a piece of damp kitchen paper and see how well they germinate.
- Mulch bare soil in beds with last year’s leaf mould. If you’ve only got leaves from this season they can be used as a mulch. Rake them back before sowing next year.
- Plant garlic if the weather is mild enough.
- Check stored crops regularly. Remove immediately anything showing signs of decay, to prevent rots from spreading. Some varieties of potato will begin to sprout sooner than others – so if one variety shows signs of sprouting, eat it up quickly.
Why not start a 'Hot Bed'?
Manure based hot beds were very popular in Victorian times. A hot bed provides bottom heat, using manure rather than electricity as the heat source, thus speeding up plant growth of seedlings and tender plants. Once set up, they can be used to grow salad crops on in winter, as a natural heat source to give a head-start on seed sowing in the spring (by up to a month), and for growing melons and any of the Cucurbitaceae family in the summer. A hot bed consists of two main layers:
- The heat source: Fresh strawy manure, in a layer 60-90cm deep (after compaction). As the manure breaks down, it generates heat. Tread it down well to compact it, ensuring a more even release of heat.
- The growing medium: A mixture of topsoil and garden compost (ratio of 1:1). This is placed on top of the manure in a layer 20cm-30cm thick.
The modern equivalent uses electric soil warming cables. Our activity sheet Building a Heated Propagator gives step-by-step instructions on constructing a heated bed.
Sowing and Planting
The information given below on sowing and planting is for everyone from the south of England to the north of Scotland. Growing conditions can vary dramatically across the country, and also even within a locality. If you are new to growing and are unsure about exactly what to do when, try asking other vegetable growers nearby. And be guided by the weather and soil conditions.
Keep on sowing
The variety ‘Flavour’ can be planted from now until March. It is available from The Organic Gardening Catalogue
- If you have suitable space, make some early sowings in trays in January. Try lettuce, summer cabbage and cauliflowers, plus round varieties of carrots, spinach, salad onions and turnips. Germination temperatures of around 13°C are adequate so a windowsill is fine to get these seeds going. You will need a bright, cool location to keep them safe until they can be planted out under cloches or in cold frames in February.
- Sow greenhouse tomatoes, for growing on in a heated greenhouse, as early as January. Tomato cultivars are available specifically for growing under cover, for example, Shirley F1 (medium size) and F1 Aromata (large).
- If you are wondering what to buy a keen gardener for Christmas, or need ideas for spending your Christmas money, then a heated propagator could be just the answer. A little ‘bottom’ heat is just what is needed to give seeds a start, and help avoid damping off and other seedling diseases. A range of lidded propagators is available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue. An alternative is a horticultural electric blanket, which you can roll out when required. Or make your own heated bed with soil warming cables.
Fresh from the ground or from 'natural' storage
Cabbage - winter
Claytonia/ Winter purslane
Corn salad/ Lambs lettuce
Oriental greens, such as Mizuna
Turnip - main crop
Pest and disease watch
- The best treatment for any remaining bare soil at this time of year is a mulch of autumn leaves or straw. However, if your leeks, onions or other alliums were attacked by leek moth or allium leaf miner it is advisable to dig over those plots so the birds can feed on any over wintering pests in the soil.
- Do not add any plant material infected with soil borne diseases such as club root or onion white rot to your compost heap when doing the final clean up. This will put a stop to the spread of disease through your compost the following year. If you are not sure which diseases are soil borne, Garden Organic members can contact the advisory service via the Members' Area.
- Keep an eye on vegetables in store. Regularly inspect and remove any diseased or damaged individuals before problems can spread. Use mouse controls if these creatures are a problem. Humane traps are available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue
- Keep an eye out for whitefly and aphids on Brussels sprouts and other winter brassicas.
- Ensure brassicas and any other vulnerable crops are protected from pigeons by using fleece. Build a frame over the crop and line it with fleece or netting to keep them off.
Whitefly on brassica