What to do now - DECEMBER

It's that time of year...

December is a good time to dig and clear the plot and, because even weeds grow slowly at this time of year, they are likely to stay clear. If it’s not too wet or freezing now is the time to prune and plant hard fruit trees - apples, pears and quinces (soft fruits such as cherries and the plum family should be pruned in the spring). Also trim currants, gooseberries and autumn raspberries.


Compost heaps are less active in the colder weather but keep adding vegetable trimmings/peelings material - don’t turn/aerate through the winter months. If you have gathered leaves during autumn to make leaf mould then some of these can be added to the compost heap to provide those ‘browns’. You can give the microbes a bit of a boost by adding coffee grounds, manure or (if you are feeling extravagant) diluted molasses. All of which should help the composting process so that it provides a useful addition to the soil in the spring.


With so little growing, there’s also time to do those little construction jobs: re-stake fruit trees and renew ties, fixing raised beds, clearing out greenhouses, waterproofing and making repairs to sheds, constructing compost heaps, etc.

Growing with children

  

Allotment plots are an ideal learning environment for children and there are many ways of involving them in the process from planning through planting and harvesting, and then to prepare produce.


The National Allotment Society has come up with the idea of engaging children at this time of year to grow an allotment rainbow. If you need help in thinking of the kinds of plants to provide all of the colours they have the following suggestions:


  • Red – red lettuce, rainbow chard, red carrots, tomatoes, red pepper, poppies
  • Orange – carrots, orange tomatoes, orange peppers, butternut squash, pumpkins marigolds, Californian poppies
  • Yellow – yellow pepper, yellow tomatoes, sweetcorn, yellow carrots, marigolds, poached egg plants
  • Green – spinach, kale, chard, peas, beans, broccoli, cucumber, courgettes, basil
  • Blue/Indigo/Violet – aubergine, purple cabbage, purple carrots, purple potatoes, purple basil, sweet peas, borage, cerinthe

Garlic

For those of us who planted garlic during the autumn, there is a certain reassurance (or even smugness) in knowing that they are growing during those cold, wet winter days when our allotment plants aren’t quite as inviting as other times of year.


Garlic is one of the oldest vegetables, there is evidence that it pre-dates the Romans, and it continues to grow in popularity. It is very easy to grow, have a variety of uses in the kitchen, easy to store, and long-lasting.


There are two basic types – the soft neck and hard neck varieties. Hard neck garlic has a hard spiked stem which produces a flowering spike – this spike should be removed as soon as possible (and can be fried with other ingredients or ground raw to make pesto). Soft neck garlic has no such flower and can be identified by a papery stem above the bulb – it generally produces larger bulbs, and is longer lasting.


Garlic is grown by planting the cloves, each of which develops into a full bulb in the summer. If they are planted in rich soil with plenty of organic matter they will not need watering (and some claim that garlic that has not been watered has a better flavour). Winter varieties can be planted from October until early winter, spring garlic can be planted from around February. They are ready to harvest when approximately half of each stem has turned from green to straw/yellow. 

Dig in for winter

  

Winter is the traditional time to dig over vegetable plots for planting in spring. Work methodically in trenches across your plot so that you only tread on undug ground.


During the autumn/winter period, significant benefits can be obtained through a programme of autumn/winter digging as this is the best time to get the plot ready for spring and early crops. This is particularly beneficial for heavy soil before the frosts, when the soil is neither too wet nor too dry (and the frosts further break down the soil). Even covering the soil with mulch or black membrane really helps improve soil quality and means the plot can quickly return to productive form in the spring.


The other big advantage is that when the growing season starts the ground is immediately ready and waiting for sowing and planting.


Adding some organic matter in the form of compost, leaf mould or well-rotted manure will improve the soil by releasing nutrients, allowing oxygen to penetrate the soil, allowing excess moisture to be released, and by encouraging worms, centipedes and other beneficial life forms. Raking in some general purpose fertiliser will also help prepare the soil for next year’s crops.


Compost trenches (sometimes called bean trenches) are a more direct way of getting kitchen waste into the soil than via compost heaps. Simply dig a whole or trench at least 30cm (1 foot) below the surface and add the kitchen waste in layers. Cover with cardboard or soil to keep vermin out and replace the soil to form a slight mound – this will settle as the compost rots. If started over winter it will be ready for direct planting in the spring, and the subterranean compost will provide a moist and nutritious base for thirsty plants such as pulses and courgettes.


Some people like to keep the ground planted over winter using green manures while others prefer to leave it unplanted and cover to suppress weed growth. Whatever approach you adopt, try and provide a habitat for helpful wildlife such as hedgehogs, frogs and insects – piles of logs, branches and leaves are ideal.


Crop rotation

  

It’s a good time to  think about what to plant and where in the year ahead. A good crop rotation plan will help to limit pests and diseases. 


Here are some common cycles (in order of planting):


  • Three year: legumes and fruiting vegetables, brassicas, roots and onions and leaves
  • Four year: roots, potatoes, legumes, brassicas
  • Five year: brassicas, peas and beans, potatoes and fruiting vegetables, onion family, root and stem vegetables


It’s OK to switch from one system to another, and vegetables that don’t match any of the categories (sweetcorn, squash, spinach, etc.) can be fitted in wherever convenient.

FERTILISERS

  

The purpose of fertilisers is to re-introduce chemicals to the soil that are absorbed by plants as they grow. 


Chemical Fertilisers 


The main elements, all of which are available from The Shed, are:


  • Nitrogen, which promotes the growth of leaves and stems (ideal for brassica, leeks, onions and leaf salads.
  • Phosphates, for root growth, flowers and seeds (carrots, parsnips, swedes and turnips).
  • Potassium/Potash, which helps plants to develop resistance to disease and build up sugar/starc (potatoes, beetroot, sweetcorn and soft fruits).
  • Trace elements are taken up in minute quantities by plants and include magnesium, zinc, iron and copper.

Crop rotation is important because different types of plant draw different nutrients from the soil. 


Organic Fertilisers

  

  • Manure – an excellent source of nitrogen, but use well-rotted manure or pellets as fresh manure can damage plant roots
  • Bonemeal – high in phosphates, ideal preparation for planting perennials
  • Fish, blood and bone – a general fertiliser to stimulate growth during spring/early summer
  • Hoof and horn – a slow release fertiliser that is high in nitrogen
  • Liquid feeds – soak comfrey or stinging nettles in a water butt to make a ‘tea’ (some people use old pillow cases for tea bags!) and add (5-10%) when watering plants 
  • Gypsum – ground calcium based rocks which ‘lighten’ clay soils
  • Wood ash (bonfire residue) – a source of potassium for applying directly to soil or adding to the compost heap 
  • Seaweed – increases pH of soil (reduces acidity) and contains calcium and magnesium