Finding life in the winter garden

You can still enjoy gardening in the cold months, with tasks virtual and real, writes Dr Jonathan Holliday

If the soil is not too frozen or wet, it can still be a good time for turning the soil and burying the weeds, so-called green composting. Doing this ahead of the worst of the frosts will also help to break up the earth and better prepare it for next year’s planting. 

Before supermarkets flew in fresh vegetables from around the world, gardeners used ‘cold frames’ and ‘hot beds’ in winter. Cold frames can be grand affairs displayed prominently and looking beautiful, such as the Alitex range. Or they can be knocked together with spare timbers. If you do make it yourself, be careful with the glazing – their low lying position make them accidents waiting to happen for children. It is better to use plastics (double thickness cavity sheets can be bought at most DIY stores) and these will at least stand up to a step or two of the wayward child.  

To create a hot bed, use manure — if you have local stables, try these — that generates heat as it rots down, as well as providing plenty of nutrients. Top this with a loam-based soil or potting compost and into this you can sow lettuce, mustard, cresses and radish. My Gardener’s Calender of 1813 goes to great lengths to describe when the ‘glasses’ should be on, off or just raised and certainly fogging and mould can be a problem. To be really successful you do need to be attentive, but success is possible even to those who are less so. And having grown your early crop, these covered beds can be used later for cucumbers or peppers.  

This is also a time for virtual gardening. December is a good month for choosing and ordering next season’s seeds. An interesting source of seeds is the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) seed distribution scheme. Each year the RHS produces a list of surplus seeds for distribution and access to the list is a benefit offered to members. You can order by post or online with a flat fee of £10 to cover the cost of postage, packing and plant-health inspection. The seed, all 250,000 packets of it, is collected from the four RHS gardens, gathered from more than 700 taxa. Plenty to chose from including lots of difficult-to-find plants. Another reason for joining.  

Every gardener will have a favourite seed supplier for the vegetable garden and for me it is Marshalls of Cambridgeshire. Seeing the mouth-watering fruits and vegetables always fills me with hope for the new year. A quick recommendation from their 2007 catalogue is the Chilli Pepper Collection. For £6.95 you get three plants of four varieties including Jalapeno and the very hot Scotch Bonnet. I have had good success growing these little plants under glass and love cooking with them.  

Another virtual gardening task can be combined with planning that summer holiday — why not include a garden visit or two? Italian gardens have always been a true delight for me with fabulous views down their terraces to some gorgeous lake. The Great Italian Gardens Guide includes 64 splendid gardens across Italy.  

Dr Holliday is a GP in Windsor

Further information 

Royal Horticultural Society Membership starts at £44 www.rhs.org.uk  

S E Marshalls & Co www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk  

Great Italian Gardens Guide  www.grandigiardini.it  

Alitex Cold Frames www.alitex.co.uk 

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