Important to keep on top of the gardening tasks​​​​​​​ at this time of year

We're entering the second week of a new year and the foremost resolution on this fellow's list is as in the past – keep one step ahead in everything relating to gardening activities.

Friday, 10th January 2020, 6:00 pm
Creating some island vegetable beds in the garden will help to support crop rotation for your annual harvest.
Creating some island vegetable beds in the garden will help to support crop rotation for your annual harvest.

Achieving this would obviate the disappointment associated with missing critical sowing, planting and pruning times, failing to mow the lawns before rain arrives, allowing weeds, pests and diseases to gain a foothold.

Having the determination to succeed in this goal is one thing but where fruit and vegetable crops combine with diverse ornamental features, so much depends on imponderables such as the weather.

My current priority is to complete the definitive pruning of apple, pear, peach and grapevine, before casting an eye over the soft fruit bushes. That will be followed by a light dressing of slow-release, potsh-based fertilizer and a generous organic mulch. This also applies to the raspberry and strawberry beds.

The roses receive similar treatment as do certain summer blooming shrubs awaiting their annual trim. For example, Spiraea billiardii begs the removal of spent flowering stems, and the green stems of Leycesteria formsa will be cut to ground level once bullfinch and blackbird have polished-off the remaining fruits.

Any vacant vegetable beds need attention now to set them up for spring. We operate a three-year crop rotation to avoid a build-up of plant-specific pests or diseases, and to provide the soil conditions different plant groups prefer.

No crop grows on the same spot two years in succession. Winter brassicas, leeks and perpetual spinach currently in production, will be removed before spring arrives to accommodate different crops.

If you have a rhubarb patch in your garden it's not too early to start the forcing process. Surface crowns have experienced their first frost and will be ready to break into growth given a little encouragement.

Surround the plant area with a layer of seasoned organic matter, loosely fill a large pot with straw, invert it over the spot then wait. The lack of light and relative warmth is enough to encourage succulent stems weeks ahead of season.

An alternative approach I've frequently used amounts to removing an outer section from a rhubarb clump, planting it in a large container or empty fertiliser bag topped up with compost, and standing it under the greenhouse bench.

Once the main fruit and vegetable preparations are up to speed our efforts are concentrated on the mixed borders where plants scheduled for movement or division await action. This may take a few weeks, but dormancy does extend into March. Long before then the aim is to set everything up for the growing season by applying a slow-release general fertiliser, forking it lightly in and covering with mulch.

Will the plants you introduce this year be raised from seed, do you prefer buying them in plug form, or is your approach a combination of both?

The former is much less expensive initially, and very rewarding when everything germinates and proceeds to maturity. However, it is time-consuming and a combination of moderately warm environment plus full daylight is necessary for sturdy growth in the early stages.

Buying young plug plants in April and May saves the time and effort spent in growing from seed, the soil is beginning to warm-up by then, and the choice of vegetable and ornamental plants has increased each year to meet the growing market demand.

I look to buy not only seeds but also young plants. Packets of vegetable seeds are reasonably priced, good value for money and germinate readily when sown from mid-March onward.

Peas, beans, et al are started in pots (cold greenhouse) and April sees the main sowings of carrot, parsnip, beetroot etc, directly into drills outdoors. What brilliant value the picking lettuce 'Lollo Rossa' (red) and 'Lollo Bionda' (pale green) represent. 500 seeds in each packet, total cost £5, and months of picking fresh, frilly leaves.

Most annual flowers, including rudbeckia and cosmos, germinate from outdoor sowings in April, by which time plug plants start to appear at the garden centre offering additional choice.

The cost of growing a crop be it edible or ornamental, can be a deciding factor when choice arises between seed or plug purchase. Comparisons can be found in the main catalogues. For example, Suttons list a half hardy annual Gazania

'Super Hybrid Mix' at £2.79 for 44 seeds. They also offer 45 extra value plugs of Gazania 'Daybreak Mix' for £8.25 which reduces to £6.50 if any three packs of their 'best-selling bedding' are bought.

The cheaper option might be preferable if you've a propagation and growing-on facility, but it's also very convenient to buy a limited number of plants well on the road to maturity. Now's the time to start making these decisions!