A fresh start

It was a beautiful, clear-skied frozen day today. I went to Plot 35a to take some photos and assess any frost damage, and that was about all I could do because the soil is too solid to work. January is a great time to stop and assess the allotment: you know you don’t have too much work to do and can take a moment to step back and think about all the possibilities for veg and fruit growing in the months to come.

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What a difference a year makes: the top picture is rhubarb in mid-January last winter; below, the same plant today after weeks of frost and cold temperatures

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In the middle of winter it can be hard to get going on anything – at the very moment we are supposed to be thinking about exercise we are easily put off by the cold and dark. And although now is a good opportunity to plan the growing season, it can be hard to get inspired when everything on the plot is so bare and lifeless.

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Even in the depths of winter there are inspiring signs of life: here is a garlic shoot from a bulb I planted in October

Here are 11 ideas to kickstart your plot in mid-winter:

  1. Most of the allotment beds are empty, in my case apart from those filled with towering purple sprouting broccoli plants and some frosted leeks. But these blank spaces offer so much potential. It will be a while before anything is growing in these beds, so take pictures or draw a sketch of them and then make a plan.

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    Barely reaching the l0w-slung sunlight, frosted leeks at the plot today
  2. Make a list of vegetables to grow from seed. The first things will be the tender fruiting veg like tomatoes, chillies, aubergines and so on, which are started in a heated propagator or a warm windowsill in late winter to early spring. I often start my tomatoes in January, but last year we had such a late spring, with cold weather continuing through to March, that most of my tender seedlings became too leggy indoors because I couldn’t transfer them to a cooler spot in the shed. Think about this, particularly if you are in an area prone to frost. Start chillies in February and tomatoes in March. Tomatoes are fantastic growers – there will always be enough time.
  3. Order seed potatoes now to chit in the next few weeks and plant out on St Patrick’s Day, 18th March. Chit them indoors by putting them in egg boxes, with the tiny “rose” or circle of embryonic buds facing upwards, to let them grow shoots. If you have more than one variety, write the initials on each seed potato in case they get mixed up.

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    Some new potatoes from my plot last summer – you can start chitting seed potatoes now
  4. Before you order more seeds, do a quick audit of what you already have. I am one of the worst people for ordering new varieties when my seed stash is already overflowing, but this year I am going to be more restrained. I promise!
  5. Connected to this, think about whether you really need to grow 40 varieties of tomatoes (again, I put my hands up to this habit), and have you got the room? Did the cucamelons you grew last year really get eaten? What else worked well and what else failed?

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    There are so many tomato varieties to choose from, it is tempting to grow dozens
  6. Make a plan for your soil. We’ve just had a huge pile of fresh horse manure delivered to our site, and when I got there this morning there was steam rising into the cold air. It was a wonderful, earthy sight. If you want fresh manure, don’t put it on anything growing as it will kill it off. Keep it in a pile or compost bin to rot down and use next autumn or winter, or dig it into a bed that won’t have anything growing there for more than six months. Order some composted manure – the stuff that can be dug into beds for growing this spring or mulched around fruit trees and rhubarb.

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    A great sight to greet me when I got to the allotments this morning: steaming horse manure
  7. Prune fruit trees – but only currants, berries, apples, quinces and pears. All fruit from the Prunus genus – cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, greengages – must be left alone until late spring because of the risk of silver leaf disease. Cut the canes of autumn fruiting raspberries down to ground level. If you haven’t already done so, tie in summer fruiting canes. On apples, pears, quinces and currants, cut back last year’s growth by a third and leave new growth unchecked. Cut out any diseased or damaged branches.

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    This nectarine is on a south-facing wall of the playhouse, the sunniest spot in the allotment. There are buds now but you must never prune nectarines or other Prunus species in winter
  8. Check water butts, pipes, buckets and any other structures for frost and ice damage. I have many espalier fruit trees that are tied to structures made out of bamboo canes – and they aren’t the most robust things in a storm. The tips of these canes are covered in empty plastic bottles to keep birds away and stop eye injuries, and I noticed today that several of them had collected water, which had in turn frozen solid, and the branches were being dragged down by the weight. Similarly, cold frames made out of plastic can collect water, which freezes and can break the cover.

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    An old plastic water bottle filled with rainwater and froze solid, dragging this bamboo cane down
  9. Renovate your compost heap. Not much will be happening now as it is so cold, unless you have a self-heating bin. If it’s made of pallets or other wood, check for damage. Turn the semi-rotted matter and, if you have some, add some liquid comfrey feed to the heap to get things going.
  10. Think about injecting some wildlife into your plot for spring. We have an over-abundance of squirrels on our site, and they are a pest for stealing everything from soft fruit to broad beans and peas – meaning most things need to be netted. But allotments shouldn’t be wildlife-free zones. I am planning a pond on a bed which gets very little sun, even at the height of summer, to attract frogs and toads which will help me get rid of slugs. Refresh bird-feeders and build a wildlife area for insects out of logs and twigs. In the spring, leave some saucers from plastic pots filled with water for bees to take a drink.
  11. Check your tools for rust and decay. Make sure all metal is clean and dry and not covered in soil. Add oil to keep rust at bay. My favourite tool is a Japanese razor hoe, a hand-held scythe which effortlessly cuts through weeds and is strong enough to remove deep-rooted ones. On so many occasions I have left it in the soil and been unable to find it the following week. The other tool I use the most are my secateurs, the bypass version, which I always need on me when I’m at the plot at whatever time of year for occasional light pruning. To keep both of these tools in good shape I keep them clean, dry and well-oiled.

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    I have several plants of purple sprouting broccoli which have grown quite tall – they will produce veg in spring
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