Gardening Diary JANUARY: week 3
IN THE VEGETABLEGARDEN
Thinking ahead to the busy season only a few months away, look around for jobs to do now, and so ease the pressure on your time then. One of the most obvious and important is to prepare some seed. It is rather unfortunate that the same word, compost, is used for two very different products, namely, the organic manure formed by the decomposition of , and also, to describe a mixture of and other ingredients prepared for seeds and pot plants. The latter, which is what we are dealing with now, can be obtained made up to different formulae, but the most well known and universally available is known as ‘John Innes’ compost. It gets its name from the horticultural institute where soil scientists developed the foimula.
There are, in fact, several formulae, the one for seed compost being different from the ones for potting compost. These John Innes composts can be bought from most garden shops, but they tend to be expensive, and if you need a large quantity, making your own compost is a good idea. It is not difficult, but takes up time, and time is of the essence when dealing with living plants. Their growth goes on continuously, and if you neglect caring for them at a crucial stage in their development, say, pricking out or potting on, you can never do it later, and the harmful effect on the plant will last throughout its life. Many a plant has died as a result of neglect at a crucial moment, so get chores such as mixing seed compost over now. Store the mixtures in a cool, dry place and make sure the compost is covered. It will keep in good condition for about two months after mixing. If it is kept longer without being used, it deteriorates for a number of reasons, one being that it becomes too acid in reaction, and another that it loses its ‘biological fertility’. Remember to sterilize the loam before mixing the compost; otherwise, although you may be following the correct formula, it will not be, strictly speaking, ‘John Innes compost’.
All this mixing is good weekend exercise, especially when the weather makes outdoor work unpleasant. While you are at it, you may as well complete your preparations for the coming season by examining all the seed boxes, pots, and other containers, and giving them a good scrub, using a sterilizing solution.
Provided the soil is in reasonable condition and is free from, you can start to prepare sections for earliest outdoor crops by putting cloches or polythene tunnels over the ground to warm it up. If the weather is wet, this will also help to dry it out to some extent; in about a fortnight it should be possible to cultivate the soil to produce a suitable seed-sowing tilth. With good weather and a sheltered garden, , round-seeded , and summer can all be successfully sown now, and will get your cropping season off to a good start. Be prepared to protect the cloches on frosty nights, once the seeds are sown.
Frames with brick or wooden sides will provide even more, and you could sow directly into these, particularly if you have been able to make up a hot-bed, or can supply electric soil-warming cables. In this case, , carrots and are also possible, but sacking, or other protection, must be provided on cold nights. If you have sown in the autumn under cloches, these can be very carefully transplanted into a cold-frame. Raising autumn-sown lettuces successfully requires a fair amount of skill to avoid trouble with botrytis, slugs and various root rots, though an undersoil-heated frame will make growing easier.
Apart from digging when the weather is favourable—and any frost, snow or heavy rain will effectively stop that—and cloching the ground and sowing the earliest crops, there is little to be done outdoors now. You can, however, set out your seedon trays to sprout, in a frost-free shed. Papier-mache egg boxes are ideal for the purpose, but remember to place the ‘eyes’ of the potatoes uppermost. If you are using a flat tray, place the potatoes on a layer of dry peat; put the trays in good light, but never in direct sunlight.
IN THE FRUIT GARDEN
As spring draws nearer, some attention can be given to making cordon apples and pears perform more as you would wish, and not as they would.
This might sound like shades of 1984 but, within certain limits, the behaviour of trained forms of fruits can be manipulated, although it does require time and patience. Existing cordon apples and pears that have reached the top supporting wire, and are trained as single cordons (have one main stem only) can be lowered. Care must be taken to ensure that there are no bends in the middle or near the top, or future growth will be uneven. The effect of lowering the tree along its full length is twofold. The lower buds get more of their share of the sap as it rises, which ensures more even growth and increased fruitfulness, and, secondly, it is not then necessary to prune the leading shoot so severely and thus discourage unduly strong growth at the tips. Oblique cordons, ie. those planted at an angle of 45 to the ground, should be carefully and securely tied in, so they receive the full benefit of the training wires and bamboo poles. Now that they are leafless, you should be able to see at once any ties which have been loosened or have come away completely from the tree, and retie the young cordons as necessary. Older cordons will need crowded spurs cut out, so set aside an afternoon for this chore.
IN THE GREENHOUSE
Although it is tempting at this time of year to keep the greenhouse clamped firmly shut, without any ventilation, it is a dangerous practice. Always keep a vent or pane of glass slightly open, unless the weather is bitterly cold. Sometimes in winter, you get the odd spell of mild, sunny weather; as soon as this happens, take the opportunity to open up the vents a good deal more to allow plenty of fresh air to circulate around theand young plants. In winter, when the quantity and quality of light is poor, too much warmth will cause lush, weak growth, which is likely to collapse completely at the first hint of disease. It does not matter if opening the ventilator lowers the temperature and the plants temporarily stop growing as a result. As long as they do not get frosted, they will resume growing when the temperature warms up, without any ill effects.
If you have not yet brought in your potted-up strawberry plants for forcing, do so now. If you leave it much longer, they will be no earlier than those grown under cloches. Those already brought in should be showing signs of life by now, and may need watering.
Established peach trees grown in greenhouse borders can be top-dressed now. To do this, carefully scrape away the top 2 or 3 cm (inch or so) of border soil, and replace it with a fresh mixture of loam, bonemeal and sulphate of potash. A fairly heavy watering can be given, as the new season’s growth will be starting any time now, and the border soil may be quite dry. Give the glass a thorough cleaning at the same time, so the maximum amount of sunlight can reach the dormant tree.
Indoor grapes can have their rods untied from the supporting wires, and lowered more towards a horizontal position, making sure that the rods are not damaged in the process. Lowering the rod encourages the dormant buds to start developing, giving an early start to the cropping season. Over-exuberant lowering, on the other hand, will snap the rod or, more likely, seriously damage the roots. Once the rods are covered with new young growths, they can be returned to their former position and tied in.