In a few short weeks we’ll be chasing our tails trying to keep up with the explosion of growth! Enjoy this month of relative calm, but not before you’ve powered ahead with my top ten late winter gardening tasks – including a deceptively simple way to stop weeds in their tracks before they’ve even had a chance to get started…
1. Force Strawberries
Just like rhubarb, it’s possible to coax along strawberries for an early crop. However, rather than exclude light, all we have to do is move the plants somewhere a bit warmer, such as into a cold frame or a greenhouse. It’s important not to move them indoors before cold weather starts, because strawberries need a period of winter chilling to help them to produce flowers and fruits.
If your plants are currently growing in the ground, dig some up and pot them up into a soil-based potting mix. Flowering should happen up to a month earlier than outside, sometime in mid to late to spring. There are unlikely to be enough pollinating insects about, so help things along by gently tickling an artist’s paintbrush into the middle of the flowers to pollinate them. Once they start flowering, begin feeding with a high-potassium liquid tomato feed to encourage those flowers and fruits along.
Kept warm, you should get a super-early harvest, with the first berries picked before the end of spring if you’re lucky! Be sure to force an early variety of strawberry to maximise your chances of getting your fruits as soon as possible.
2. Ventilate Covered Areas
By the middle of the month, both temperatures and light levels are beginning to pick up – at last! – and on sunny days, temperatures inside protected spaces such as greenhouses or tunnels of any size can really soar. This sudden arrival of warmer growing conditions can lead to a sudden thrust of soft, leafy growth, which could then be vulnerable to a return to colder weather.
Try to keep conditions a little more consistent on sunny days by opening up doors, vents and windows, or by peeling back covers. A maximum-minimum thermometer can help you to keep track of temperatures and watch out for those extremes.
3. Harvest Winter Veggies
Don’t forget to keep on harvesting your winter vegetables like kale, parsnips, leeks, and chard. Hardy heroes like these help to keep the kitchen topped up with delicious fresh, nutritious food – just the ticket to keep that pep in your step at what is a quiet time of year for harvests. Those leeks and parsnips are essential in warming winter soups – perfect to warm the cockles after gardening out in the cold!
4. Prick Out Seedlings
There’s one gardening job I enjoy more than any other: transferring groups of seedlings from recent sowings into their own individual pots or plugs. The gardening term for this is ‘pricking out’, and for some reason it’s just so satisfying! If you’re new to gardening and have never done this before, please don’t worry, it’s very easy.
Carefully ease the seedlings out of their pot, then tease them apart using a thin stick or teaspoon, trying not to break the roots. With the seedlings separated you can then pick them up by the leaves (never the stem, as it could snap or be crushed) and then move the seedling over to its waiting plug or pot. Dib a hole, then guide the seedling in using a stick (a chopstick works well) to feed the roots down if necessary. Firm the seedling in, water to settle, and you’re done.
I find it much easier to prick out seedlings when they’re still very young, because smaller roots are less likely to break as you guide them into their new home.
5. Mulch Fruit Bushes
Birds have had plenty of time to peck around and cleanse the soil of overwintering grubs, so now it’s time to go in and mulch around fruit trees, bushes and canes. Mulching with organic matter will help nourish the soil – and by extension the fruit growing in it – ready for the coming growing season. You can used partly decomposed leaves, garden compost, woodchips – anything that will eventually rot down into the soil.
If the soil isn’t frozen hard where you are, now is also a good time to plant fruit, whether bare-root or container-grown. This will give plants enough time to start putting down roots and settling in before the growing season begins. Most fruits need plenty of sunshine and a rich but well-drained soil.
6. Dig Compost Pits
Normally I add kitchen waste to the compost heap, but you can also dig it directly into the soil where you’ll be growing heavy feeders such as beans and squash family plants.
Digging out a compost pit is as easy as digging a hole and dropping in your organic waste. Make your hole around a foot (30cm) deep where you’ll be planting your crop, then fill it with kitchen scraps. You can add your kitchen waste all at once or in batches, but however you add it, just be sure to cover the scraps back over to reduce the interest of local wildlife.
Of course, you’ll need to plan where plants are going in advance to ensure that the pit you’re making will sit directly beneath the plant that goes on top. If you’re running a bit behind on your garden planning – don’t worry, no one’s perfect! – why not get your house in order with a free trial of our Garden Planner.
Once the pit’s full, cap it off with a good few inches of soil and leave it all to settle before for planting in a few months. If you’ve got a bit of a bird brain like mine, stick something into the soil to mark where your pits are, lest you forget!
7. Check On Ponds
Any standing water will offer a welcome home to wildlife. In my garden I’m lucky enough to have frogs and toads which enjoy the longer grass in many parts of the garden, and no doubt approve of my pond, though on a hot summer’s day I often find them in other tubs of rainwater dotted about!
Winter is a good time to tidy up ponds. Remove weeds from around the edges, and scoop out any leaves that have fallen in and sunk to the bottom. Don’t remove them completely – lay them at the edge of the pond so any pondlife caught up in them can escape back into the water. Top the pond up with rainwater if necessary.
8. Prepare Seedbeds
Weeds have a habit of popping up all of a sudden right at the start of the season – they’re a good indicator that spring’s arrived, and a signal to start sowing many cool-season crops.
I sometimes find that garden-made compost contains more weed seeds than I’d ideally like, which when spread onto beds can give an initial flush of weeds. I don’t want those germinating at the same time as my vegetable seedlings, so a good way to avoid this is to front-end weed seed germination by creating a stale planting bed.
Create a simple boxed cold frame or, easier still, just pop sheets of glass or clear plastic directly onto the soil surface. This should be enough to trap a little extra warmth, shunting forward the season by a week or two so the weeds sprout. You can then hoe them off and sow into nicely pre-warmed, weed-free soil.
9. Sow Radishes
Radishes are among the very first of the new season vegetables to be harvested. They are really cold tolerant, popping up in temperatures as low as 41ºF (5ºC).
Mark out your rows into well-drained soil that’s been raked to a fine tilth. I’m sowing two rows, spaced about eight inches (20cm) apart. Aim to sow your seeds about an inch (2cm) apart. Careful spacing now will save time later, because there won’t be any excess seedlings to remove. Cover them over with soil, and you’re done.
If it’s still cold where you are, cover the seeds with a simple low tunnel cloche or cold frame to help raise the temperatures a touch. Once the weather warms up a little, remove the cover. Your radishes will be ready to harvest once they reach, well, radish size – which at this time of year I reckon will be in about six to seven weeks’ time.
10. Start Cucumbers
There is nothing, simply nothing, as cool as a cucumber! Sowing cucumbers towards the end of the month is fine if you’re going to grow them on in a greenhouse or if you live in a warmer climate. Otherwise, wait until next month to start them off.
Fill pots with sieved multi-purpose potting mix, then sow one seed per pot. Sow the flat seed on its edge. Cover your seeds, water them, then sprout them indoors in warmth. The seedlings will need to be kept warm – well above freezing – but with a little juggling between windowsills and grow lights, this should give you fruits that much earlier.
Keep busy, get your hands dirty, and keep smiling, because gardening makes your soul sing!