Gardening in Winter
DECEMBER IN THE GARDEN
My garden is all looking a bit sad! After the prolonged warm weather we had over Autumn and everything green and continuing to grow, the frost and snow that arrived suddenly at the end of November plunged the garden into a soggy mess. But it’s the natural flow of the seasons so we have to give the garden a chance to rest over winter. But that doesnt mean there is nothing to do, infact there is always something to be done in the garden....so let's look at just a few of the many jobs you can take on during the cold dark months.
WHAT TO DO WITH DAHLIAS IN WINTER
Last year I had masses of Dahlias, this year less so. I’ve put this down to a few things.
Last year during the first lock down we all had lots of time on our hands, not being able to go anywhere meant the garden got our undivided attention - and that really does make a difference . And last year I did what I have always done - I planted all my dahlias in the same bed. Just dahlias. They were a happy bunch!
This year I decided to try a different approach and see how the results compared with my previous years success. So, I planted the dahlias here and there, all over the garden and with annuals dotted about around them. Things like Cosmos, Ammi, Daucus, Verbena. Plants that get very bushy and very tall quite quickly. Unlike Dahlias that take their time to get going and aren’t always very tall. Anyway, to cut a very sad story short, the dahlias were unhappy, some became leggy and they generally didn’t do as well. Some got completely drowned and then eaten by slugs!
So, another lesson learned. Don’t fix what ain’t broken!!
The other big dahlia question is, do we dig them up or leave them in the ground? As with most gardening questions there is possibly no single correct answer!
I have always dug some up and left some in, and to be honest both methods have worked for me. Having said that I have left most of them in the ground this year. But I store the ones I have taken out of pots (where they don’t get enough protection and anyway I need the pots for tulips!) . And finally, any that I put in the wrong place last spring, or those that have become really big and will need splitting in the spring get dug up and stored too. Both of the tubers in the photos below are big enough to be split in the spring to make multiple plants.
Here are a few tips I have gleaned over the years, and you may find different advice elsewhere, but I think the following should help decide what you should do with yours (if you haven’t already!).
- If you have clay soil or problems with soil getting waterlogged over winter, I would advise to dig them up. You run the risk of them rotting if left in wet ground which might also freeze. If you get hard winters its probably a good idea to lift them too.
- Take them out of the ground, give them a wash and allow to dry completely. Always label them as you take them out of the ground as all the tubers look the same… I learnt that the hard way when coming to plant the next year and having no idea which plant was which! Some people split large tubers at this point, but I leave that until the spring.
- I store mine in big cardboard boxes or fruit crates ( see photo above) . You can put them in dry sawdust or sand if you have it, but I just scrunch up some newspaper and put it over them. They need a bit of air circulation, and then put them in a dark, DRY, cold shed or garage.
- It’s a good idea to check on them now and then, making sure they aren’t going mouldy. Get rid of any that do, you don’t want them affecting the others.
As I just said, I am leaving quite a lot in the ground this year, I have only ever lost one or two over the years doing this, so it makes sense to leave them and not give myself the extra work that lifting them requires! I live just south on Manchester, so our winters are never really very cold and my soil drains nicely so there is no risk of them sitting in water.
If you are leaving them in the ground simply cut down all the stems and leaves once they have finished flowering; waiting until the first frost or cold snap has made them collapse saves you a lot of work and is the traditional time to start this process. Add a name label to the remaining stem poking out of the ground and give them a good thick mulch to protect them from the cold. In late spring they will begin to push up through the soil and you can look forward to those gorgeous blooms at the end of the summer.
If you'd like a step by step guide to growing Dahlias, Zoe at Swan Cottage Flowers does a "grow along" on her Instagram account @swancottageflowers. She also sells dahlia tubers and historically I have bought from Sarah Raven and Farmer Gracy. New exciting young suppliers to try would be Dahlia Beach and The Rose Press Garden .
PLANNING YOUR VEGETABLE PATCH.
Although I’m not a great veg grower over the summer I do have a steady flow of tomatoes, chilli’s and cucumbers in the greenhouse. And my garden patch supplies courgettes, peas, beans and some squash. My favourite squash was the Uchiki Kuri which is so delicious. I only got two in the end this year, but I will be doing them again next year and probably grow them again over the arch I used. It kept them off the ground which meant I didn’t use up a lot of growing space. Whereas Vanessa has an allotment and has plenty of space to let them roam about and grow like triffids and as you can see below she got a few more than I did. They do like lots of water and plenty of organic manure when planting so they need a bit of investment, but the rewards last well into the winter if you can harvest enough to store in a cool dry place…Hopefully I’ll get more than two next year!
Next year I am planning to try corn on the cob! Vanessa grew it this year with great success, although her plants looked pretty scratty she still got some delicious cobs. I have a smallish, raised bed that I could get a good patch of corn in. I will probably try growing french beans up the corn stems and so saving more space. Have you ever done this? I have a friend who does it and it seems to work for her. I shall get some tips from her in due course! Vanessa uses a great book for veg growing advice, RHS Allotment Planner, and I follow lots of people on Instagram who are always so generous with their tips for getting the best out of your plot. Here are just a few.... @sow_much_more @rekha.garden.kitchen and @damsonandlavender
One thing I have managed to get in to the veg plot for overwintering is garlic and onions. The old traditional advice was to plant them on the shortest day and harvest on the longest. This is still a good rule of thumb although many folk start their garlic and onions off earlier in pots in the greenhouse until they get going, only planting them out when they have sprouted and have produced strong shoots. This helps to stop the cloves/sets from rotting before they have even started and prevents squirrels from having a good old feast too!
I have put mine straight into the ground (no room in the greenhouse) and they are coming along nicely, I covered them with a bit of chicken wire until they got going but the local squirrels didn’t seem to be interested (finding the bird feeders a more interesting option!), and my plot is on a bit of a slope so water doesn’t collect and can drain away easily. And as you can see they dont worry about a bit of cold weather and snow!
So, I shall see how they go and hope that they are ready to harvest before I need the space next summer.
I think its good to know your strengths and mine is flower growing, and I also have neighbours and friends with allotments who always offer produce when they get overloaded! We usually do a swap, flowers for veg!
GROWING TULIPS AND OTHER BULBS.
Talking of bulbs…Bulb planting is another job for the early winter garden. I have been slowly buying bulbs for a few months now and from various suppliers. For tulips I’ve used Farmer Gracy Peter Nyssen, and I also got quite a few from Harts Nursery at the Malvern Autumn Show. I also have muscari, various alliums and some narcissus which are already either in the ground or in pots. The Narcissus went in first and are a sweet variety called Rip Van Winkle which have lots of ribbon like petals which make them look almost fluffy. I’ve put them in a patch of the lawn and I’m very much looking forward to their golden faces bobbing above the green grass.
Tulips can be done much later, and in fact, mine didn’t go in until the second week of December. Its best to do them when it’s gone cold to prevent diseases like Tulip Fire. Tulips do like to get growing so don’t do them too early when it’s still mild, or they will start to push up through the soil which you don’t want to happen. Tulip bulbs can be planted as late as January or February, as long as the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged, and they will all appear at the same time, nature is clever like that!
So, if you have a load of tulips waiting to go in, don’t panic you have plenty of time! All mine went into pots and its really easy to get a gorgeous display in spring. If you have limited space and maybe only have a few pots a good idea is to make a bulb 'lasagne'! You literally layer the tulip bulbs on top of each other with a layer of compost in between. Here is a link to Sara Raven where she explains the tulip lasagne method and lots of other ways to plant tulips.
OTHER JOBS IN THE WINTER GARDEN .
Applying a layer of mulch over all your beds is a good idea in the winter. If you have space get a big bulk bag of organic, natural fertiliser and mulch, I use PlantGrow. I spread it on top of the beds and just leave it. There is no need to dig it in, it helps to supress weeds and digging just disturbs the soil organisms below which are needed to give you healthy plants. When it’s time, your plants can go straight in with no fuss. If you’d like to find out more about the No Dig Method of gardening, Charles Dowding is the master of this beneficial way of protecting your soil, you can find lots of helpful information on his website.
Gathering fallen leaves to make leaf mould (a leaf compost) is a great job too. Any leaves that fall on to beds or under trees and bushes can just be left to decompose, adding nutrients to the ground (think of a forest floor and you get the idea!), those on paths etc can be collected and put either in sacks with holes in or make a leaf bin made with chicken wire. Whatever you use the leaves need to be wet when they go in and they need some air too. It’s a good idea to use different types of leaves, instead of just beech for instance, as it breaks down much quicker and gives a more balanced leaf mould. And its free of course!!
Another good job is bare root planting and December is a great month to start a new rose or a tree if you have space. As long as the soil is not frozen then it’s good to get planting in the early stages of winter before the soil gets really cold and when the plants have time to establish a root system. That means that when spring arrives those new plants or trees will just race ahead and start to put on new growth. And on the plus side, its always quite a bit cheaper to buy bare root plants for winter planting instead of plants in pots. Some of Vanessa’s favourites for ordering online and getting winter deliveries are David Austin for roses and Ken Muir for fruit such as raspberries and currants.
And don’t forget to check on autumn sown seeds or corms in the greenhouse. Make sure they are watered now and then, but sparingly, and add a bit of extra protection if it’s going to be super cold. I usually use a bit of bubble wrap just gently placed over the trays of seedlings/plants. I spoke about this in a previous blog which you can find here. It explains how I start my Ranunculus and how to look after them.
So as you see, there is always something we can be doing in the garden, even in the winter. And now we have passed the winter solstice and that very short day, we are heading towards the sun again and our days will start to get longer and longer.
Keep looking forward, keep gardening, and before you know it, you will be surrounded by colour once again!