Gardening Diary DECEMBER: week 3
IN THE VEGETABLE GARDEN
Now is the time to visit your local builders merchant, as many of the items sold there can be put to good use in the garden. For example, concrete drainpipe sections are excellent collars for blanching celery. The collars should have an internal diameter of about 11.5 cm (4-1/2”) and should be about 17 or 20 cm (7 or 8”) long. Make sure you buy enough collars so you can stand a second collar on top of the first, to assure tall, well-grown celery plants.
This is an example of a useful job the gardener can find to do on a cold or wet day in mid-winter. Another task is to inspect your stores of vegetables and sort out any that are not keeping well. In particular, look at theand pumpkins, which are now near the end of the period for which they may reasonably be expected to keep. Look for soft spots on the undersides if the vegetables are standing on a bench or shelf. And it is not too soon to set out seed for the early crops to sprout, selecting, of course, a frost-free place to do so.
Outdoors you probably still have plenty of digging and trenching to do. As you get busy with spade and fork, decide whether there is anything you need to do to improve the, for now is the time to do it. If you have a good, crumbly loam, consider yourself lucky. The usual light dressing of farmyard manure or , a sprinkling of lime and whatever chemical fertilizers are recommended for special crops will be entirely adequate. But most garden soils are not of perfect loam; they tend towards one of two extremes. On the one hand, some soils are too light and need building up with quantities of humus-making material. Examples are chalky soils, sandy soils and soils well sprinkled with stones. On the other hand, you have the acid soils such as peat and sand.
The problem with chalky and sandy soil is that, being porous, they lose moisture and plant foods very quickly. Digging in a heavy dressing of rotted farmyard manure in winter is the best treatment. But do not dig too deeply. The ideal is to have a layer of well-rotted humus not too far beneath the surface, for the roots of your crops to exploit in the coming summer. Incidentally, even chalky soils may need liming from time to time; the presence of chalk 13 or 15 cm (5 or 6”) below the surface is no guarantee that lime is available in the upper layers of soil.
Clay and peat can be good soils but they each have a handicap. Peat soils are acid, needing corrective treatment with lime, while clay soils tend to become waterlogged. The remedy for water-logging is draining, a matter which you can now attend to.
Whether or not drainage is necessary should be obvious but if you are not sure you should dig a hole 30-60 cm (1-2’) deep and note how long water remains in it. If there is still water in the bottom after two days or so the plot certainly needs draining. If most of it has drained away, double-digging may be all that is necessary. Otherwise you will need to embark on a proper drainage operation which can involve digging trenches, and either filling them with clinker and brushwood, or laying clay tile drains.
While cultivating the soil and improving it, consider how well supplied with nutrients it is, in the light of your experience induring the spring and summer. You may have seen obvious signs of deficiencies of nitrates or phosphates, or even of minor trace elements; some vegetables may have done badly as a whole, plants never really growing well, or being very prone to attack by pest or disease. You can test the soil at this time with one of the proprietary soil testing kits available, or you can have tests carried out by professional laboratories and advisers, who will suggest which nutrients need to be increased, whether lime is necessary, and how the soil structure can be improved.
The addition ofwill improve the soil structure and increase the nutrient content, supplying those nutrients which are slow-acting and long-lasting. If there is a need to supplement these, however, then the concentrated, quick-acting fertilizers, often known as artificials, can be mixed in, but not until shortly before sowing or planting. They are quick acting because they are instantly soluble, and so are easily washed through the soil. If put on in winter, the rain and snow may well have leached them all out by the time you come to the new growing season, so wait until the appropriate time in spring before using them.
IN THE FRUIT GARDEN
Fruit-growing operations at this time of year are much restricted by the very limited hours of daylight. As gardening is often limited to weekends only, you must use the available time wisely.
When the weather is fine but not frosty, pruning, digging and planting can be carried out. Even if the ground is frozen hard, you can still burn rubbish, if you do not live in a smokeless zone, as well as harrowing compost or manure onto the ground.
Indoors there are several jobs to be done. Fruit in store needs to be looked over, perhaps selecting some choice Cox’s Orange Pippin apples or Winter Nelis pears for the festive season.
While on the subject of festivities, if you are lucky enough to have mistletoe, a parasitic plant which grows on apple trees, in your garden, it can be cut now and used for decoration, or even sold if you have enough of it. If you would like to have a shot at growing more mistletoe, leave some shoots with berries on them until late spring, when the berries will be ripe. Take off the berries andthem onto the lower side of branches on apple, thorn, pear or oak trees. The pulp hardens, and the seed then germinates to penetrate the branch.
Fruit in pots or other containers that are plunged outside should be looked over, for possible drought, battering by wind, or collar rot, where the base of the main stem is rocked by the wind, so that a hollow forms in the compost round it. Water can collect in this, so that the stem base rots, leading to eventual death.
IN THE GREENHOUSE
Where a heated greenhouse is available for fruit growing, the choice of plants is great. Possibilities include oranges, lemons, limes, melons and the luscious Chinese gooseberries, in addition to the more usual range of grapes, peaches, apricots and figs.
Greenhouses need to be well maintained and clean, heating systems in good order, and the staging, pots, boxes and soil clean and disinfected or sterilized.
This is the time of the year when the days are at their shortest and the intensity of the light is likely to be at its lowest. The material with which the greenhouse is glazed, whether glass or plastic, cuts down the transmission of light in any case, so that it is essential to ensure that the glazing is as clean as possible. Lack of sufficient light will produce spindly, etiolated plants such as lettuces without hearts,which do not flower or mature their fruits and which do not form roots. If you were unable to get round to cleaning the glass or plastic in autumn, do it now without delay, especially if there was shading over it. Even so, you may have to supply artificial light, if the weather is particularly gloomy, in the form of mercury vapour lamps or strip lighting. If the greenhouse is a lean-to with a back wall, whitewashing this is one way of improving light conditions, as the lime wash will act as a reflector to some extent.
Even if conditions outside the green-house are cold, a little ventilation should always be given, night and day. Stuffy conditions, combined with cold, are the quickest way of ensuring the spread of disease in the greenhouse in winter; chilly but well-ventilated plants will remain healthy.