Fiann Ó Nualláin says the garden waits for no man and now is the time to get your beds ready to set.
We are a bit away from the TV commercials for barbecues and sun loungers and those glossy magazines prompting garden makeovers; raised beds groaning with edible abundance and glorious summer evening tapas with wine on the patio.
It’s bleedin’ freeeezen out — as we say in my part of town. But if that is some of the good life you want, come the season, then some of the work starts now.
And if you think it is too freezing out for you, then job number one is to get some cover over the areas you want to plant, and let the soil heat up in the coming weeks.
Okay you may be presented with a weedy patch to cover and if you have long tap- root weeds — docks and dandelions — the dilemma is whether or not to dig out.
If you leave a shard of root behind it will regenerate. If you apply weed killer, you are left with the doubt of potential harmful effects to the food chain of the soil and to your own health.
I hoe off the tops then use boiling water direct on the stump to parboil the upper portion of the root.
This can cause that portion to rot and if the rot spreads deeper, to kill off the rest of the root — great — and if not, at least it has depleted a ton of energy to slow its regeneration and I will get it again in a few weeks.
If you have annual weeds just hoe the tops. If you have green manure simply dig it in. Now you are set to cover.
This soil-warming practice is traditionally done in autumn — according to the many ‘experts’ who for some reason put the garden to bed in September/October and open it again when the temp gets above 10C.
Fair play if you can do that, but I and many of us prefer to overwinter some veg and improve fertility with green manure.
So we Giyers may take a break over Christmas, or if it snows, but the garden remains productive.
I have the luxury to cover some beds at Halloween after they are completely harvested, cleaned and manured or top dressed, but some are only emptying now. So this is my perfect time to cover. And that’s perfectly okay.
Once I have tidied them up, I top dress with some organic material — home compost, farmyard manure, straw — whatever I have.
Then I water it lightly and cover with a horticultural liner or tarp, weight it down with some rocks and planks and leave it for a few weeks.
I like to do the majority of planting in March. The breakdown of this organic material will heat the top layer or two of your soil and the cover will keep the heat in and sodden rain off.
So when I eventually uncover, I am set to plant into some warmer soil than the rest of the garden and roots can get a head start.
If you have manured with less than well-rotted (three to four years) it may be too fecken’ hot — as they say in my part of town. However, you will have kick-started breakdown and a spray of the hose and a few exposed days will take the kick out of it.
If you used straw, it may not have broken down at all, but it will have insulated. It can be raked up and go to the compost heap and then you can plant directly.
Naturally, if this was done back in autumn there was more time for breakdown and heat build-up, and earthworm action, but even a few weeks of added heat helps.
Remember, after you plant you can use cloches and mini tunnels to protect the plant and raise the ambient temperature around that plant and its immediate root zone.
February is billed as the start of the gardener’s calendar, seeds are on the go, weeds are sticking their heads above the parapet, slugs and snails and other emerging pests may be on manoeuvres and lots of vegetables are ready to be planted out.
Some years, February is the coldest month and again the dilemma is ‘do I plant and get those extra early harvests or do I risk the frost damage and maybe even early failure?’
Well just because the seed packet or book says sow direct in February, or plant out in early spring doesn’t mean you have to — a close approximation is good — so a few weeks late is no harm.
We cultivate edible crops and that involves not just will, but ingenuity and effort — so a bit of soil or temperature manipulation is par for the course.
For many, the start in February is undercover — in a greenhouse or polytunnel, windowsills too — but there are also vegetables that are recommended to go into the garden now.
Timing is everything and so if it’s not right in your garden now, then wait a week or so. It won’t diminish your harvest potential and may improve it.
Yet I know many are anxious to get stuck back into the garden or begin the self-sufficient project.
I could have written this piece for the first week in February but I’ve kept it for now as whatever about the temperature of your soil and the frosty morning air, the day length is that bit longer and that’s more fuel to whatever you do plant, to let it survive and thrive.
So if you want to fire the starter pistol, then here is what’s traditionally started in February (and all the bit safer for the third week of it).
* Broad beans and peas are traditionally sown direct outside, but also begun indoors in pots to plant out in a few weeks. Water bottle or fizzy drinks bottles make great root trainers for indoor sown plants, and great cloches for outdoor.
* Potatoes can be chitted now to plant after Patrick’s weekend.
* Garlic and shallots can go direct into shallow drills — they both like a cold start.
* Early crop cabbages
and spinach can be sown indoors to plant out in March to harvest come April/May.
* Sprouting broccoli and Brussels sprouts can be sown into deep modules now to extend good roots over March and be planted out in April.
* Likewise, turnips and kohl rabi, but they can also go direct into the garden if provided with cloches or fleece.
* Jerusalem artichokes and oca can be started now in a cold frame or direct in the garden with a cover.
* Hold off on deep rooters and long root veg for direct sowing in warmer weather.
* Don’t forget calendulas, nasturtiums and other edible and medicinal petals can also be sown in a cold frame or on your windowsill.
* It’s a bit early for herbs, but every day now the day length is lengthening and the temperatures are rising.
Whether or not it feels like spring it is the springboard to a full garden and that summer evening al-fresco fantasy.
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