Spud update

Last time I mentioned the potatoes, they were merrily chitting on a bedroom window sill.

Chitted potatoes, ready to plant

Chitted and ready to plant

A lot has happened since then. First, I had to decide where to put them. If, like me, you are pretty limited on space, the perfect solution is to plant in sacks or containers. I’ve just about managed to squeeze mine in behind the raised vegetable beds.

A chorus line of potato sacks

A chorus line of potato sacks

I filled my sacks about a third full of compost, along with some ‘potato fertilizer’, and placed the chitted potatoes on the top (about 5 per sack), then covered them with more compost and watered them well.

Five seed potatoes per sack

Five seed potatoes per sack

Since then, I’ve pretty much left them to their own devices, and they have done their thing extremely quietly and quickly. Before I knew it (and partly because I’d been away) the leaves were poking out of the tops of the sacks.

Potato sacks in leaf

Sackfuls of … leaves

Not what I had intended! The plan had been to gradually earth up soil around the stems as they grew. Instead, I have now had to shovel a load more compost into the bags and hope I haven’t got a potato disaster on my hands.

So now it’s just a waiting game. I shall keep them damp (not wet!) and await the flowers; then we’ll see if there’s anything to harvest.

The Great Garden Sowing Marathon

Move over the Great Chelsea Garden Challenge (as seen on TV), it’s time to make room for the great garden sowing marathon (as seen in my garden recently). Having gone a bit nuts on the seed buying earlier this year, I now realize that I may have bitten off a little more than I can chew.

My post on ‘Seedy decisions’ earlier this year gives a full list of the vegetables I’m aiming to grow, and as foolhardy as it may be, I’ve stuck to the plan. In addition to all those vegetables, I’ve sown a fair few seed trays with complementary flowers such as marigolds and nasturtiums, plus salvia, cosmos, rudbeckia and gaillardia to fill in any gaps. GAPS? I could do with another garden to fit it all in!

I don’t have room for a large greenhouse, and my little put-me-up is full.

No room in the greenhouse

No room in the greenhouse

So, the question of where to put all the seed trays and pots has been a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, I have a very understanding husband, who doesn’t mind a kitchen floor full of seed trays (for a short while at least)!

Seed trays on the kitchen floor

Seed trays on the kitchen floor by the door …

Cucumbers by the radiator

… and by the radiator

I never quite believe that anything is going to happen when I sow seeds, and I’m always delighted when the pots and trays start to show signs of life. I collected the marigold seeds myself last year, so I was particularly delighted when they started to germinate after just 3 days.

Germination success

Germination success

And these are just the seeds I’ve started indoors. I’ve sown beetroot, leeks and spinach outside, with more to follow. Safe to say, I’m going to be ‘blooming’ busy for the next few weeks!

April wonderland

Oh what a difference a month makes. Back in the UK, after inspiring green travels far afield, a walkabout in the garden reveals it has been blooming busy in my absence.

On first inspection, yellow predominates. The last of the daffodils are waving their nearly spent trumpets, clumps of wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) are holding their  faces aloft with gentle but confident beauty, and the Forsythia is full to bursting with sunny floral joy.

Forsythia brings sunshine into the garden whatever the weather with dramatic flair

Forsythia brings sunshine into the garden whatever the weather

Alice may be celebrating 150 years since her extraordinary adventures, but I wouldn’t swap her wonderland for mine …

 The herb garden is springing back into life

The herb garden is springing back into life, with chives, oregano and lemon balm already ready for use in the kitchen

The early unfoldings of tulips splash the garden with vibrant colour

The early unfoldings of tulips splash the garden with vibrant colour

The heavy-blossomed pear tree shouts the promise of a fruitful autumn harvest

The heavy-blossomed pear tree shouts the promise of a fruitful autumn harvest

Blooming aubretia softens and brightens stone walls and shady corners

Blooming aubretia softens and brightens stone walls and shady corners

The vibrant red-tipped growth of the Pieris Forest Flame reminds me to be alert for frosts

The vibrant red-tipped growth of the Pieris (Forest Flame) reminds me to remain alert for frosts

The flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is flowering in spectacular fashion

The flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is most definitely flowering

Then there is the ever-consistent hellebore. It is the plant that keeps on giving: from the first splash of colour in an otherwise grey canvas in February to the heavily nodding blooms that continue to vie for attention in the crowded borders around my pond today.

Helleborus blooms in April

A Christmas rose is not just for Christmas!

And it’s not just the flora making me smile. Before we went away, we knew that a pair of robins were making a home in a nest box nestled in the ivy opposite our kitchen window (see Watch the birdie). On our return, it was clear from the non-stop industry of the adults that incubation was over as they were already feeding their offspring.

A busy robin taking food back to the nest

A busy robin taking food back to the nest

So we’ve been keeping our eyes out for signs of the youngsters, and they have obliged in spectacular fashion, with 3 faces regularly peeping out of their increasingly cramped abode. Most broods tend to have a dominant sibling, and ours is no exception.

So what better name than ‘Alice’ as she becomes ‘curiouser and curiouser!’ about the wonderland that awaits her. In fact, her curiosity has almost resulted in fledging a little ahead of schedule.

Robin fledgling

First, she decided to get a better perspective on the world outside her nest

Robin fledging

Then she tried out her undeveloped flight feathers … and nearly fell out!

It doesn’t look like it will be long before Alice and her slightly less inquisitive siblings fledge, and as they will be unable to fly for a couple of days I shall have to go on cat alert.

So, now that I’ve got all the holiday washing out the way and we’re getting back into a regular routine, the hard work really starts. There’s lots of sowing and sorting to be done, but I can think of worse chores!

Gardening forever, housework whenever

Forget me not!

 

Lupin experiment

Last autumn I collected a few lupin seeds from the desiccated pods of the plants in my perennial border. I stored the seeds in envelopes (protected from mice in a tin) in the shed, where they stayed cool and dry over winter.

Come sowing time, I googled what to do with the lupin seeds, but came up with conflicting advice. Some sites simply said sow them (helpful!), some recommended scarifying the seeds with sandpaper first, others suggested soaking the seeds for 24 hours, while others advised sticking them in the freezer to break dormancy.

To soak or not to soak …

So I decided on a little experiment, soaking some overnight and sowing the rest dry, to see if there was any difference in germination success. (Next year I might try the scarifying and the freezing too.)

Pre-soaking lupin seeds

To soak or not to soak … that is the question

I’ve labelled the seeds 1, 2, 3 and 4, depending on what plant I originally collected them from (by the time I collected the seeds I couldn’t remember the colours of the lupins!), and ‘D’ or ‘W’ depending on whether I sowed them ‘dry’ or ‘wet’ (pre-soaked). Then I’ve sown them all in the same way, two to each small pot with just a few millimetres of potting compost on top, starting them off inside and keeping them moist.

Lupin seed experiment

Randomized controlled trial (sort of)

I’ll report on the findings. In theory, the pre-soaking should improve the germination success rate, but as Sod’s law would have it, the first seed to germinate was a ‘dry’ one.

Lupin seed germination

And the winner is … first to emerge is a ‘dry’ seed

Overwinter success

In the meantime, I’m delighted to report that the three lupins I lifted from the garden at the start of winter have thrived in my tiny makeshift greenhouse. I don’t usually have much success overwintering lupins in the garden – they usually rot in the ground and rarely get going again in spring, so I thought I’d see if I could keep them going over winter under cover instead. When I lifted them in November last year they already looked pretty dismal, so I wasn’t  expecting much. But it worked!

Overwinter success with lifted lupins

Overwinter success with lifted lupins

Having said that, the one lupin I left in the border (as it already looked pretty dead at the time) has also started to grow. We’ve had a pretty mild winter, so it had a fighting chance.

New lupin growth

Lupin winter survivor – a first in my garden!

All in all, the garden should be lupintastic later this year!

Watch the birdie

Nest box update

Monday mornings are always a struggle for me, but as I brewed the first of several mugs of tea this morning I spotted movement in the ivy opposite the kitchen window. What a joy to know that robins have returned to our recently cleared nest box!

Female robin, starting the nest building process

Female robin, starting the nest building process

At present, the female is busy toing and froing with leaves and moss; she will do all the nest building, but the male is close at hand, and will be supplying her with food while she toils (‘courtship feeding’).

Sparrow entertainment

Meanwhile, we also have a wonderfully entertaining flock of 50+ house sparrows (Passer domesticus) in our garden. It’s hard to put an exact figure on their numbers, as they are constantly on the move between the bird feeders and hawthorn tree, the flowerbeds and hedges, the shed roof and pond, exploring every inch of their domain.

Small groups of house sparrows congregate at different feeding stations around the garden

Small groups of house sparrows congregate at different feeding stations around the garden

These gregarious little birds start chattering at dawn under the eaves of the house, and their noisy squabbling rarely abates before dusk. It is fascinating to watch the different ‘characters’ in action, such as the bolshy males who assert their authority over the feeders (until a starling or woodpecker arrives on the scene!), or the younger, more curious, members of the flock, who are fascinated by pretty much everything, especially the glass roof of our conservatory.

Male house sparrow in breeding plumage

Male house sparrow in breeding plumage

Strangers in our midst

A few weeks ago some unusual behaviour caught my eye: a stand off between a robin and a male house sparrow over a ground feeder (or so I thought). The robin was getting stroppy and, unusually, the house sparrow wasn’t backing down. I’ve seen male house sparrows throw their weight around within their ‘family’ groups, but rarely with other species, so I picked up the binoculars to see what was going on. Imagine my surprise to find out we had a male reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) in our midst: very similar to a male house sparrow from a distance, but that characteristic white drooping ‘moustache’ meant it could be nothing other than a reed bunting.

Male reed bunting

Male reed bunting

He’s been a regular visitor for a few weeks now, never coming too near the house and too wary to join the larger groups of house sparrows on the bird tables. Instead he has been feeding alone on a caged ground feeder on the lawn or in the company of a  few select sparrows on a log at the bottom of the garden. And this week, a female joined him. I could easily have mistaken her for another female house sparrow, but there was that tell-tale moustache again!

Female reed bunting, feeding in isolation away from the house

Female reed bunting, feeding in isolation away from the house

Traditionally birds of reed beds and wetlands, it’s a real treat to have them in the garden for a little while. No doubt they’ll be moving on to a suitable nest site soon.

And it just goes to show, you might think you know which birds are frequenting your garden, but it’s worth picking up the binoculars from time to time just to make sure, especially if you notice any ‘out-of-character’ behaviour.

Final winter tasks

It’s the last day of February and the final day of winter (well, meteorologically at least). So, I’ve been busy in the garden completing all those final winter tasks. And the good news is, none of them took more than 15 minutes!

February snowdrops

February snowdrops, announcing the end of winter and the start of spring

Winter fruit tree care

First, I completed my winter fruit tree care plan. Having applied a fruit tree ‘wash’ to my apple and pear trees earlier this month, I completed their winter care by pruning and feeding them.

Pruning should be carried out while the trees are dormant (generally, November to March between leaf fall and bud break). Make sure you use sharp secateurs or saws to shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch, and to cut out any weak or crossing branches or congested growth. The RHS has lots of good advice on winter pruning of apple and pear trees. Mine are only young trees, so they didn’t need a lot of pruning.

Fruit tree prunings

The results of my pruning – not a lot! Make sure your secateurs are sharp.

Feeding. I simply applied some growmore fertilizer around the base of the trees. Again, the RHS has good advice on feeding fruit trees (and mulching in late spring/autumn).

Raspberry cane cutting

Next I tackled my autumn-fruiting raspberries, which still bore the evidence of last year’s bumper crop.

Raspberry canes ready for cutting down

The remaining winter evidence of last year’s bumper crop

February is the perfect month for cutting the canes down to ground level, ready to start the growth cycle all over again. I will, of course, also feed these with growmore fertilizer.

Cut autumn-fruiting raspberries to the ground in February

Just 15 minutes of green and my raspberry canes were cut to ground level

Chopped raspberry canes

Remember to use sharp secateurs to cut autumn-fruiting raspberries down to ground level

Some of the canes that I cut were extremely sturdy, and it struck me that they would make ideal stakes elsewhere in the garden. So I trimmed down the strongest pieces and have kept those to prop up any straggling perennials later in the year.

Raspberry canes make good supports for perennials

Sturdy raspberry canes make good stakes for propping up perennials

Potting dahlia tubers

Finally, I potted my dahlia tubers. Dahlias are not frost hardy, but if you have a light, frost-free place where you can keep them, now is the time to get those tubers activated.

Dahlias are incredibly low maintenance. All you need to do is plant each ‘bunch’ of tubers (roots down) in a large pot (approx. 3-litre volume) of general potting compost, such that the stump at the top of the ‘bunch’ is at soil level. They shouldn’t be planted too deeply.  Then all they need is light, warmth and moisture to kickstart growth. Mine have joined my chitting potatoes in the back bedroom.

Potting dahlias

Plant each ‘bunch’ of dahlia tubers in a 3-litre pot, so that the stump at the top of the bunch is at soil level. Water and keep frost free.

I’ve potted 8 Topmix dahlias for some patio colour this year, plus a few straggly tubers leftover from last year, which I’m hoping might take.

It’s Spring – isn’t it?

And so to March when, according to the Met Office, Winter is officially over and Spring has arrived (yay!). Or has it?!

I’m not 100% convinced. Given the current temperatures, and forecasts of sleet and snow, I’m inclined to ignore the Met Office’s calendar definition of Spring in favour of ‘astronomical’ Spring, which starts slightly later. This year the Spring Equinox falls on 20th March, so I think we’ve got a few weeks to go yet before we can definitely proclaim SPRING IS HERE! Still time to complete those 15-minute winter tasks.

What do you think? Join me on Twitter @15greenmins and vote #SignsofSpring YES or #SignsofSpring NO – and attach your photo proof.

#spring NO - frozen pond

#SignsofSpring NO – frozen pond

OR

#spring YES - crocus blooms

#SignsofSpring YES – crocus blooms

Empty nest boxes

If you haven’t done so already, you need to get a shift on and clear out your nest boxes. Early autumn is actually the best time, but it’s one of those jobs that can get forgotten. If you leave it too late you’ll miss out on the simple pleasure of watching birds coming and going as they build their nests and rear their young in the wildlife haven that you’ve provided.

We emptied the box on our shed a while ago, after another successful blue tit fledging. This prime piece of bird real estate has been home to multiple blue tit broods over the past 5 years, and despite its weather-worn appearance it has already attracted plenty of ‘viewings’ so far this year.

Well-worn blue tit nest box

Blue tit ‘des res’ – a bit shabby on the outside, but a protective start in life for numerous generations of blue tits

We also have an open-fronted nest box nestled in the ivy on the side of our garage. It had sat empty for a couple of years, until last year, when robins took up residence to raise not one but two broods. As we weren’t in the habit of clearing that one out, we only got around to it this week. (Note the royal ‘we’. If it involves getting on a ladder then it’s definitely a job for my husband!)

Interestingly, when we came to clear out the box we found that they had built a second nest on top of the first, so it was pretty packed full of nesting material. How they managed to fit the second brood in, in such a confined space, I don’t know.

Robin nest box nestled in ivy

Robins nest in open-fronted boxes, preferably amongst thick vegetation; despite being close to the house, the ivy here provides ideal cover

Within a few hours of clearing out the box we spotted a robin scoping it out, so we have high hopes that we’ll be watching more robin comings and goings from our kitchen window this spring.

The RSPB recommends using boiling water to clear nest boxes of any remaining parasites, and letting the box dry out before replacing the lid. To be honest, we’ve only ever removed the old materials, so that’s a tip for me to remember next year. Too late now, as we’ve already got an ‘interested buyer’ who we don’t want to put off.

Nest boxes – the what, when and where

If you haven’t got a nest box up yet, then now is the time to do it – and I mean now! – as many species are already starting to pair up and check out the best sites. The type of nest box will depend on the species of bird you want to attract. The BTO has advice on the types of boxes that different species go for. In general though, a nest box should be placed 2–4 metres off the ground on a tree or building, in a position that will get some shade during the day.

Somewhere between north and east will avoid the brightest sunlight and the wettest winds. Ours are actually facing west but they are both in shade for a large part of the day because of surrounding hedges and buildings, and we’ve had no complaints.

Ideal site for blue tit nest box

Our sturdy blue tit box is about 2 metres off the ground, with a 25 mm hole and clear flight path in and out

So get out NOW, and make sure those nest boxes are empty. Then sit back and enjoy watching this year’s residents in action.

What birds do you have nesting in your garden? Have they found any unusual places to build a nest? Please leave a comment below.

Chit chat

Do you chit your seed potatoes before planting? Most amateur gardeners and allotment holders do – mine have currently taken over a window sill in an unheated bedroom – but most commercial potato growers don’t bother.

Potatoes chitting on a window sill

Potatoes chitting on a window sill (not sure it beats chestnuts roasting on an open fire)

So why chit?

Seed potatoes with no visible shoots will start to chit from the ‘eyes’ when exposed to light and warmth. Any frost-free space should be fine (greenhouse, porch, conservatory, garage), although I had to rethink putting mine in the garage this year, as last year the mice found them and undid a lot of good chitting!

Light is the key to success. If potatoes start to chit in the dark they produce long, brittle, translucent shoots, which won’t give very good results. Unfortunately, my second earlies (Maris Peer variety) had already started this process in the bag, so it will be interesting to see if they produce a noticeably lower yield than the other crops.

The wrong kind of chit: long, brittle, translucent shoots

The wrong kind of chit: long, brittle, translucent shoots

How to chit

Place your seed potatoes in a single layer with a large amount of eyes facing up. Egg boxes are the ideal container for chitting, but I always forget to save them (most of mine end up in the compost as part of my ‘brown material’ quota). So until I buy more eggs I’m making do with some plastic fruit punnets and kitchen towel (very Blue Peter). Seed trays with scrunched up newspaper in the bottom to hold the potatoes upright will do just as well.

Once the potato has produced 2-4  sturdy green sprouts of 2-3 cm in length, it’s ready for planting. The more chits you leave on, the more potatoes you’ll get, but they’ll be smaller. As a general rule, leave 3 or 4 chits, and rub off the rest. With fewer sprouts sharing the nutrients in the soil, you’ll get bigger but fewer potatoes. More small potatoes, or fewer large potatoes – one of the great dilemmas in life(!) – it’s entirely up to you.

The right kind of chit: short, knobbly, green sprouts

The right kind of chit: short, knobbly, green sprouts

Watching a potato chit is a lot less interesting than watching a kettle boil (especially as I’ve got a lovely new glass kettle with a shiney blue light … but I digress). Chitting can take 4-6 weeks, so leave your potatoes to chit in peace and start planning the rest of your vegetable patch.

I’ll be growing my potatoes in sacks, so watch this space for an exciting blog post on, you’ve guessed it, ‘Growing potatoes in sacks’, or the somewhat abbreviated ‘Spud update‘.

Fruit tree winter wash

Winter is the time I give my fruit trees some TLC, although like most jobs in my garden I’m a bit late in implementing my ‘fruit tree care plan’. This comprises:

  1. A winter wash
  2. A winter prune
  3. A winter feed
Apple tree in winter bud

Winter apple tree – lots of buds already!

This week I implemented Step 1, a fruit tree wash designed to control overwintering pests, in particular the eggs, larvae and nymphs of aphid sap suckers (namely, greenfly, blackfly and whitefly).

This used to be achieved with a winter tar oil wash, but these types of wash are no longer available in the UK because of the carcinogenic danger to amateur gardeners. Now, all available winter washes are based on either fish or plant oils, or both.

Fruit tree wash and sprayer (other brands are available)

Fruit tree wash and sprayer (other brands are available)

Winter washes are best applied … in the winter! That is, in the dormant season, after leaf fall and before bud break in spring. So, I picked a dry calm day and applied the wash as directed, as a fine mist spray. I was careful to get the spray into any cracks in the bark and in the nooks between branches, as those are the places where any eggs will have been laid.

As my apple and pear trees are only 3 years old, it didn’t take too long (a perfect ’15 minutes of green’ job), and the branches were soon dripping with liquid.

Pear tree sprayed with winter fruit tree wash

One pear tree … sprayed.

I also sprayed my ‘plum tree’, which to be honest is more of a stick in a pot at the moment – I bought it last year but it’s not thriving, so perhaps the wash will help. In theory, killing the pests or eggs should also help to reduce any fungal diseases, which attack fruit trees via the damage the pests inflict on the bark.

Winter washes are suitable for most fruit trees and bushes, including apple, pear, plum, cherry, gooseberry, blackberry, raspberry, blackcurrant and redcurrant, as well as vines under glass. I shall make sure I give my raspberry canes a squirt when I cut them down later this month.

Happy spraying!

The Big Garden Birdwatch

Did you take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend? If you did, and you’ve submitted your results, then you can proudly claim to have taken part in the biggest annual ‘citizen science’ event in the UK and the world’s largest wildlife survey. Around half a million people now take part every year, and last year over 7 million birds were counted.

According to Steve Ormerod, Chair of the RSPB Council, 115,000 sets of results were entered by midnight last night –  12% higher than the previous best.

House sparrows - Big Garden Birdwatch

“Do you come here often?” House sparrows (Passer domesticus)

Unfortunately, my hour of twitching didn’t reveal any major surprises; in fact, totalling only 13 species, a few of my regulars were rather noticeable by their absence. In particular, ‘the black plague’ (as I affectionately call them) were nowhere to be seen. Usually, within minutes of loading up the tables and feeders, my  garden turns into a scene from ‘The Birds’, as rooks and jackdaws descend from all directions. But this weekend, they must have been busy shovelling up someone else’s hi-energy no-mess seed instead. Just 3 jackdaws made an appearance, and not a rook in sight.

Blue tits - Big Garden Birdwatch

Heaven is a  nut holder filled with nuts … for blue tits (Parus caeruleus)

Our house sparrows  and blue tits were, as always,  the stars of the show, manically flitting between nut holders and bird tables, and squabbling over the tastiest grains. We have a flock of 40-50 house sparrows, which breed every year under the eaves and in the ivy on the front of the house, and we’ve had blue tits fledging from the nest box on the shed for the past 4 or 5 years, so  numbers have been building steadily.

That’s the good news. On the downside, we’ve noticed a dramatic decline in the number of starlings over the past 20 years (I was happy to see 3 yesterday!), and this year the goldfinches seem to have disappeared altogether. Last year I could barely keep up with the nyjer seed refills, but so far this winter the nyjer feeder hasn’t needed a single top up.

According to last year’s survey, the top 10 birds occupying our gardens were:

  1. House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  2. Blue tit (Parus caeruleus)
  3. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  4. Blackbird (Turdus merula)
  5. Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus)
  6. Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
  7. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
  8. Great tit (Parus major)
  9. Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
  10. Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Apart from those awol goldfinches, I was able to tick off all of these, plus those jackdaws (Corvus monedula), a dunnock (Prunella modularis) a magpie (Pica pica) and, at the very last minute, a great spotted woodpecker – a species that, having started to appreciate the benefits of garden nut holders, made it into the top 20 for the first time last year. We now have a regular pair visit us, and they bring the ‘kids’ in later in the year to show them how the amazing food-bearing metal contraptions work.

Great spotted woodpecker - Big Garden Bird Watch

Just in time for the count

It will be interesting to see if the top 10 has changed at all this year. Don’t forget to send in your results – you have until 16th February to submit them. And keep an eye out for the overall findings in March. In the meantime, please leave a comment below and let me know what you get in your garden.

Seedy decisions

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to choose and buy your vegetable seeds for the year ahead (flowers too, of course, but I’m focusing on the veggies today). For me, that means dusting down the old biscuit tin in the shed containing the seed packets from last year and checking the sow-by dates, taking stock of what I’ve got left and then making the tricky decision of what to grow this year. I say ‘tricky’ because I tend to want to grow pretty much everything, but I don’t have the room. Having said that, nearly all vegetables can be grown in pots (sweetcorn and Jerusalem artichokes excepted) … and I can always buy another pot!

Vegetable seed packets

My ‘leftover’ vegetable seeds, still within their sow-by dates for 2015

What to grow

(1) Grow what you like to eat! It might sound daft, but you’ll be surprised how many people grow things they don’t really like. I made this mistake with a crop of Swiss Chard a couple of years ago. It grew well (so I ended up with stacks of it), and it looked pretty, but I didn’t really like the taste of it that much and most of the leaves ended up in the compost.

(2) Consider the economics. If you don’t have a massive plot, be money-wise. Some vegetables are simply cheaper to buy and no amount of gardening savvy will produce a cost-saving benefit. So grow high-value vegetables and buy the cheap ones. I’m always amazed at how much a bag of mixed salad leaves costs in the supermarket. It’s such a good feeling to see them growing rampant in pots on my patio for a fraction of the price. French beans are another money saver in our house.

(3) Make some ‘easy-grow’ choices, particularly if you are new to vegetable growing (my ‘sure things’ are baby carrots and beetroot). That way, if your parsnips don’t germinate or the caterpillars eat all your cabbages you’ll still be pulling up some fresh veg with a smug smile and won’t be completely despondent at the end of the season.

(4) Check the growing times. If you don’t want to wait until Christmas to harvest your brussel sprouts, or next year for your purple sprouting broccoli, then choose vegetables that will provide ‘instant’ gratification. Lettuce, radishes, baby carrots and courgettes are all good options.

(5) Match your veg to your garden. Think about where you will be growing the vegetables. For example, if you have heavy clay soil (like me), long-rooted carrots or parsnips will struggle, so choose the stumpier varieties or grow them in pots in lighter compost. If your garden is shady, avoid growing sun lovers like tomatoes and beetroot; grow leafy veg instead. If you don’t have a lot of room, try dwarf varieties (I was over the moon with my dwarf runner beans last year) or ‘mini veg’ that you can grow in closer proximity to each other.

(6) Try something different. It’s quite exciting to grow something that you haven’t eaten before, or that you’re unlikely to find in the shops. Last year I grew some baby squash – and they were delicious!

Get organized

It’s a good idea to make a list of what you’ve got, what you need to buy, and where you’re going to grow it.

Vegetable seed planner

My vegetable seed plan for 2015

Buying seed

There are lots of seed suppliers out there. To avoid getting overwhelmed by it all, my advice is to check out the information from 2 or 3 reputable ones (you don’t want dud seeds!) before making your selection. One of winter’s great pleasures is kicking back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, perusing your seed catalogues or information online, sending your order off and then fantasizing about how your garden will look in the summer, bursting with your very own supply of fresh healthy veg.

I’d love to hear what you’re planning to grow this year. And all tips welcome! Please leave a comment below.

The value of leaves

Over the past couple of days, blustery winds (reaching speeds of over 100 mph in some places) have wreaked havoc, bringing down roof tiles, power lines and trees. Those same winds have also made a lot more leaves available to gardeners around the country. Even the beech hedge in my front garden, which always hangs on to its crispy curled russet glory well into the Spring, has begun to loosen its grip a little.

Beech hedge in winter

Beech tends to hang on to its dead leaves through the winter – ‘macrescence’

So why do gardeners get so excited about fallen leaves? The answer: free soil conditioner! Beech leaves (as well as oak, alder and hornbeam) break down pretty easily and produce a good quality leaf mould; sycamore and horse chestnut, for example, take a little longer. Leaf mould greatly improves the structure and water-holding capacity of the soil, and provides the perfect conditions for all the beneficial organisms that dwell there.

Given the dearth of other jobs in the garden at the moment, I actually welcomed 15 minutes of raking. It got me out in the (very) fresh air, away from my desk, and provided me with a surprisingly decent mini workout. After 15 minutes I had produced a neat pile of soggy leaves ready to be be bagged and stored until the autumn.

winter pile of beech leaves

15 minutes of raking … et voila!

How to make leaf mould

Simply put the leaves in a bin bag, moisten them if dry and stab a couple of holes in the bottom for drainage. Then loosely tie up the top of the bags and store out of sight in a shady spot for the rest of the year. Alternatively, if you’ve got plenty of room – and a lot of leaves – then you could build a leaf bin, a simple cage-like structure, with walls comprised of chicken wire, stapled onto stakes hammered into the ground at four corners. Position it somewhere sheltered, so the leaves don’t blow away, and keep it moist.

Leaf mould in bin bags

Leaf mould factory, hidden in a shady corner of the garden

After 1 year you’ll have a decent leaf mulch to use as a top dressing for the garden in winter. If you’ve got the patience to wait 2 years (unlikely in my case!), then you’ll end up with an even crumblier product that you can use as a soil conditioner, or even as seed-sowing compost.

The downside is that you need the room to hide a load of unsightly bin bags, or to put a bin. I happen to have a shady corner at the bottom of the garden next to one of my compost bins that is hidden by a trellis. If you haven’t got that kind of room, don’t waste your leaves. Add them to your compost instead; they are an excellent source of ‘brown’ material. For more information on ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ see Compost composition.

Happy raking!