Rainy day jobs

Us gardeners have a love–hate relationship with the rain. We moan when there is too little of it, we moan when there is too much of it. We want it to rain for the benefit of our plants, but only when it’s convenient for us. Right now, we don’t have a lot of say in the matter. It’s raining (a lot), so we have to make the best of it.

Wet-garden
The frustration of yet another rainy day.

Not that I’m complaining. In the South, we’ve come through Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis relatively unscathed. A few puddles here and there is nothing compared to the devastation some people are dealing with, and my heart goes out to all those affected by the floods.

So, although the lawn is too squelchy (love that word!) to walk on and the heavy clay soil in some of my borders has become unworkable, there is still plenty I can do. Here are my top 5 rainy day activities.

1. Feed the birds

Birds require high-energy foods right now; not only do they need it to keep warm, but they are also building up reserves ready for nesting and breeding.

We put out a scoop of no-mess bird seed on each of our 3 bird tables every morning, and top up in the afternoon when we can. And we keep the bird feeders filled with nuts and fat balls. (Note I say ‘we’. As his and her gardening tasks go, this one’s a shared one.)

Blue tits - Big Garden Birdwatch
Birds welcome a helping hand at this time of year, so don a cagoule and fill up those feeders.

2. Start sowing

If you’ve got a shed, garage or greenhouse to shelter in, now is the time to start sowing vegetables and slow-germinating annuals. The young plants can then be planted outside when the soil starts to warm up.

Waiting for germination - seed trays
Tomatoes, chillis, aubergines, kale, salvia and sweet peas can all be started indoors now.

3. Weeding and pruning

I wouldn’t advise working in the garden if gale force winds are hurling things around, but if you’re feeling game, put on your woolies and waterproofs and get out there. You can do everything you do in a T-shirt and trainers in a cagoule and wellies instead, particularly if you’re only out there for 15 minutes at a time. Just avoid walking on waterlogged lawns and borders – it won’t do them any good.

the right clothing for wet weather gardening
With the right clothing, you can still get out there.

There’s plenty of pre-Spring pruning to do and if your soil isn’t too much of a sticky mess then you may be able to tackle some weeding from a solid footing on paths or patios.

I’m fortunate to have a large patio to work from, and my raised vegetable beds are surrounded by bark chippings, so no excuses there. The borders next to the lawn will have to wait though.

4. Get organised

Rainy days are a great opportunity to get organised.

  • Tidy the shed
  • Sort seeds and plan sowings
  • Order seeds and plug plants
  • Take an inventory of supplies
  • Plan your 2020 garden
42 perennial plug plants by post
Order plug plants now – there are a lot of bargains online.

5. Clean and maintain tools and pots

It’s a dull job, but if you’re at a loose end on a rainy day, then you could spend 15 minutes cleaning pots and tools. Also check that your hand tools are in tip top condition for the gardening season ahead. Oil and sharpen secateurs and loppers, and check you’ve got cord for your strimmer. Don’t forget to service your lawn mower too.

Clean-pots
Cleaning pots: a dull job on a dull day, but essential to prevent the spread of diseases.

And after all that, nothing beats settling down with some good reading material and a cuppa and picking up some tips from the experts.

Reading-material-gardening
Ah, so that’s the way to do it!!

Early bloomers

Something fabulous is happening in the garden this month. Small but exquisite blooms are bursting from the ground, providing much-needed pollen and nectar for early emerging pollinators. A walk around the garden reveals the wonders that have inspired great poets. I’ll let them do the talking …

Winter aconite

February-aconite
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), the very first of the Spring bloomers.

‘Tis the first blossom that the year hath seen,
This little globe of yellow’s brightest shade,
As though upon a nest of scanty green
A fairy bird its magic egg has laid.
Almost the smallest flower the garden grows,
And yet a flower when not another blows.

– ‘Winter Aconit’, Robert Henry Forster, 1867–1923

Snowdrop

February-snowdrops
Snowdrops (Galanthus species) are a clear sign that winter is waning.

LONE Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
– To a snowdrop, William Wordsworth, 1770–1850

Iris

February-iris
Irises are the showiest of blooms at this time of year. Aptly, ‘Iris’ is the Greek word for rainbow.

A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went
(To keep the pots of gold from being found),
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-colored ends
And gathered them together in a ring.

– Iris by Night, Robert Frost, 1874–1963

Crocus

February-crocus
The gentle lavender blooms and exotic saffron stigmas of crocuses are a cheery sight on a cold winter’s day. They look fragile, but are remarkably resilient.

Dear child, within each sere dead form
There sleeps a living flower,
And angel-like it shall arise
In spring’s returning hour.

… In blue and yellow from its grave
Springs up the crocus fair,
And God shall raise those bright blue eyes,
Those sunny waves of hair.

– The Crocus, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811–1896

What inspiration awaits in your garden this month?

Rampaging bittercress

It has been an incredibly mild wet winter so far; ideal conditions for the spread of weeds. In my garden, the diminutive but exasperating hairy bittercress has been spreading unchecked.

Rampaging_bittercress
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) has made its presence known in my garden this winter

What does bittercress look like?

Hairy bittercress is a compact annual weed that grows in individual clumps, 3-5 cm tall. It grows out in a basal rosette with pinnate leaves (i.e. the leaves are arranged in pairs on either side of the stems). It has tiny insignificant white flowers that shoot up on stems above the rosette.

Bittercress-appearance
Bittercress grows in a basal rosette with pinnate leaves

How does it spread?

Hairy bittercress has a very short life cycle of 4-6 weeks. Given the right conditions, it will germinate at any time of year, although usually in Spring or Autumn. In this case, it has taken hold during a mild winter and is frost hardy enough to survive the few frosts we have had in the South in December and January.

After germination, it quickly produces clusters of tiny white cross-shaped flowers, and sets seed. Seed dispersal is explosive, sending the tiny seeds up to 1 metre away (or further in windy conditions), which then germinate. And so it continues. Before you know it, a few discrete clumps will have become an expansive mat across the soil surface, making it difficult to see what else is trying emerge this Spring.

Bittercress-spreads-quickly
Hairy Bittercress spreads quickly, forming expansive mats across the soil surface

How can you control it?

Pull it out when you see it, so that it doesn’t get the opportunity to set seed and take a hold. Obviously, I failed in this respect!

The good news is that hairy bittercress has shallow fibrous roots, making it very easy to remove with a hoe or hand trowel or fork. Dig gently and shallowly so that you don’t disturb the roots of other plants.

Bittercress-easy-to-remove
Hairy bittercress is easy to remove from the soil

So I’ve been removing it (15 minutes at a time) by hand trowel, and can now start to see what’s coming through in the borders.

Remove it from pots too

The seeds of hairy bittercress are very indiscriminate in their choice of landing place, so it has a nasty habit of popping up in pots too. In fact, that is often how it is introduced to gardens, in pots of plants purchased from the garden centre. If you see it, pull or lift it out quickly, before it has a chance to set seed.

Does it have any uses?

Hairy bittercress is a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) and as such is edible. Not that I’ve tried it, as all mine have been going in the garden refuse bag. Apparently it is not bitter at all, but mild and peppery.

The leaves are rich in vitamin C, calcium and magnesium, so once I’ve got on top of it in the garden, I may well give it a go on a sandwich!

February gardening tasks

You never know what weather you’re going to get in February: in 2018 we had snow blizzards and gale force winds, courtesy of the Beast from the East, while last year saw the warmest February day since records began.

Snowfall, courtesy of the Beast from the East, in February 2018

I don’t know what February 2020 has in store for us, but one thing is for sure, if the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged there is plenty to do in the garden.

As we are currently experiencing double-digit temperatures, there’s no excuse to stay cocooned inside with the central heating cranked up. So shrug off those January blues and get a jump start on the tasks that will prepare your garden for Spring.

February Checklist

To help you focus on the key tasks this month, I’ve produced a checklist of February’s gardening jobs, most of which can be tackled 15 minutes at a time. Don’t be daunted by the length of the list. If you get out there for 15 minutes every day this month, you’ll be amazed how many of the jobs you’ll be able to tick off.

February-#15greenmins-checklist
February #15greenmins checklist: you can do anything for 15 minutes, even gardening!

Fuller details of February’s gardening tasks can be found here. Or why not produce your own checklist that suits your garden?

Tweet me

Join me on Twitter this month to let me know how you get on: #15greenmins at a time!

Planting tulips in January

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m late doing everything, and getting bulbs in at the right time is no exception. While daffodils (narcissi) are generally better planted in late autumn, I know from experience that tulip bulbs will still produce a decent display if planted in January. So, if you’ve got some tulip bulbs lurking in a paper bag at the back of the shed, get them in – now!

Venetian tulip collection - a very classy combination of colours
Tulips planted in January can still produce a vibrant display in April/May.

WANTED: cold conditions

Tulip bulbs need a period of chilling to break their dormancy, so now is a pretty good time to get them in. Indeed, it is best to plant tulip bulbs when the temperature has dropped as it reduces the risk of tulip fire – a fungal disease that thrives in warm damp conditions.

Given how wet and mild November and December have been this year, now might even be the optimal time to plant your tulip bulbs, as a cold snap will help to wipe out any fungal disease lurking in the soil.

Healthy bulbs

Tulips grow best in fertile well-drained soil in full sun. Only plant bulbs that are in good condition. If they are soft or going a bit mouldy, bin them.

Good drainage

If, like me, you are planting the tulips in pots, start by covering the bottom of the pot with some broken crockery, gravel or other material to aid drainage.

pot-drainage
Add a layer of drainage material to the bottom of your pot.

Soil preparation is important. If planting in the ground, add sharp sand or grit to break up heavy soils and lots of organic matter to improve the structure. I filled my pots to about two-thirds full with a general compost mixed with vermiculite and Growmore.

soil-drainage
Add horticultural grit or vermiculite to potting compost for good drainage.

Bulb spacing

Plant your bulbs pointy end up. They can be planted quite close together in pots as long as the bulbs don’t touch each other. In the ground, you are best planting to at least twice the bulb’s width apart. The depth should be two or three times the height of the bulb.

potted-tulip-bulbs
Arrange your bulbs in your pot close together but not touching.

Finally, cover with compost to just below the rim of the pot and water. Keep pots well watered but not too wet or the bulbs will rot.

Spring display

All being well you will be rewarded with a vibrant display of colour in April or May.

Tulip-display
Plant bulbs now and be rewarded in April/May with pots of colour.

15 minutes of white

When the Beast from the East met Storm Emma it was no fairytale. With huge swathes of the UK under red weather warnings (risk to life) and the Met Office urging us to keep ourselves safe from the onslaught of icy Siberian winds and heavy snow, the weather us Brits so like to talk about was suddenly worth talking about.

And down came the snow and covered all the garden

With my garden cocooned under a thick blanket of white stuff, my daily 15 minutes of green was a no go. Or was it? Actually, I still found plenty of things I could do in the garden for 15 minutes, even in the snow.

15-minute gardening in the snow

  • Feed the birds – in these conditions they need your help more than ever
  • Break the ice – if you have a pond (and fish), make sure it doesn’t freeze over completely
  • Brush heavy snow from evergreen trees and shrubs so they don’t break under the weight – stake up anything that’s already got damaged
  • Harvest the last of your winter veggies (I still had some Brussel sprouts to pick)
  • Tidy the shed
  • Take a walk around your garden and make plans for the year ahead

The good news is that temperatures are rising again and Spring is finally on its way.

If you’ve got any tips for gardening when it snows, let me know. They might come in useful next year if the Pest from the West arrives.

Snowdrops

You don’t have to be a galanthophile to admire the simple beauty of a compact bunch of nodding snowdrops. Although these delicate drooping gems don’t quite herald the start of spring, they definitely raise a smile on dreary winter days and exude the promise of better things to come in another glorious year of gardening. Enough sofa slothing, they say. It’s time to get back out here.

Snowdrops (Galantha species), the first sign that winter is waning

Snowdrops (Galanthus species), the first sign that winter is waning

I confess to being a little disappointed though, as most of the snowdrops I planted ‘in the green’ last year haven’t emerged this year. So, I’ve being doing some research to find out where I went wrong.

Planting ‘in the green’

I definitely did the right thing by planting ‘in the green’. Basically, this means planting them while they still have leaves (the same goes for aconites and native bluebells). The best time to do this is as the foliage starts to die back (in late April/May), so that most of the goodness has already been returned to the bulb.

You can buy them freshly dug up …

Plant snowdrops 'in the green', sold in dug up bundles

Plant snowdrops ‘in the green’, sold in dug-up bundles

or potted …

Snowdrops in pot

Or buy them in pots

If the former, plant them as soon as you can; once lifted, the bulbs are prone to drying out. Plant them at the level they were previously growing, i.e. to the level of the white area on the neck of the bulb, which was previously under the soil. And don’t forget to give the plants a good water.

Planting from bulbs

You can also plant dry bulbs in the autumn, but they are generally less successful. If you go for this option, buy them as soon as you seen them on display and soak them overnight in a bowl of cold water before planting the following day. When it comes to snowdrops, a dry bulb is a dead bulb.

Other methods of propagation

Snowdrops can also be propagated by ‘twin scaling’ or ‘chipping’. Both of these methods are described on the RHS website.

Keep them moist

Now this is probably where I went wrong, as we had quite a dry summer last year. I planted my snowdrop bundles in a shady corner spot on clay-based soil. They do best in partial shade (they’re woodland plants after all), so that was fine, but they do prefer a well-drained soil with lots of organic material.

There’s a good chance that in my heavy clay soil, they dried out at some point last year, and when they dry out … they die. Unlike daffodils and tulips, snowdrop bulbs do not have a water-retaining skin, so they dehydrate very quickly.

Where to see snowdrops

Snowdrop carpet at Bank Hall, Bretherton

Snowdrop carpet at Bank Hall, Bretherton, Lancashire, UK (Bankhallbretherton at en.wikipedia CC BY 3.0 – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If, like me, you have a limited number of snowdrops to enjoy in your own garden this year, then why not take a snowdrop walk this weekend? Check out this Country Life article for the best places to see snowdrops right now. Stroll through a woodland carpeted in drifts of snowdrops and see exactly why they so inspired William Wordsworth.

LONE Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing 10
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!
– To a Snowdrop, William Wordsworth, 1819.

William Wordsworth, To a Snowdrop

Lone Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend …

But hurry! Although the snowdrops will be around for a few more weeks, my tête-à-têtes are already making a showy bid for supremacy. Enjoy the snowdrops while you can, then say goodbye to winter, because spring is most definitely on its way.

Narcissus 'Tête-à-Tête'

Narcissus ‘Tête-à-Tête’ – a sure sign Spring is on its way to my garden

A touch of frost

It’s been a chilly new year so far, with frequent frosts and even a sprinkling of snow. All in all, a bit of a shock to the system for this southern softie.

Frost-capped sedum

Frost-capped sedum

What is frost?

When temperatures outside start to plummet, water vapour in the atmosphere turns to liquid. This is called the ‘dew point’. When outside surfaces (car, shed roof, lawn, plants!) cool past the dew point, the liquid freezes and ice crystals form. That’s frost, and we’ve had plenty of it!

Past the dew point to form ice crystals

A sprinkling of ice crystals

15 minutes of icy green

Although it’s been a great excuse to hunker down inside and switch to couch potato mode, I have still ventured out most days, using my 15 minutes of green to survey the dormant jumble outside and plan how much better I can make the garden this year compared to last.

Of course, I’ve also been making sure the birds are well supplied with food and clean drinking water, keeping part of the pond free from ice, opening up my greenhouse and cold frames on drier sunnier days to keep the air flowing, and harvesting the last of my leeks.

Keep the birds well supplied with nuts and other goodies in cold weather

Keep the birds well supplied with nuts and other goodies in cold weather

Stay off the grass!

The problem is that I have to walk across the lawn to reach the bird tables, feeders and pond, and as we all know, walking on frosty lawns is BAD. Normally, individual blades of grass will bend underfoot and soon bounce back without damage, but when grass freezes it loses its elasticity and breaks, leaving unsightly footprints across the lawn until it gets growing again in the Spring.

Footprints in the snow – not good for the lawn!

Footprints in the snow – not good for the lawn!

So try to minimise your impact on your lawn on frosty mornings. Unfortunately, my lawn will just have to cope, as short of putting in paths across to the bird tables there is no way to avoid the damage. The good news is that it will grow back eventually, with no long-term damage.

The benefits of frost

I know we all curse the damage that late frosts can do to tender plants, but it does have its benefits too. A cold snap will improve the flavour of crops such as parsnips by turning starches into sugars, it will kill off pests and diseases, or at least stop them in their tracks for a while, and it will break down soil, improving the structure (particularly welcome for those of us with clay soil!).

And let’s face it, although it’s tempting to retreat indoors at this time of year, with the right number of layers in place there is nothing more invigorating than a walk outside in clear crystal air under a pale winter sky. So get out and enjoy the frost while it’s here.

Iced rosemary

Iced rosemary

Are you enjoying the frosty start to the year? Let me know!

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!