‘Potato Day’ was on 5th January in Bridport this year; too early for me to even start thinking about planting potatoes—I’m still lifting the remains of the crop I grew in containers last year! Fortunately, there are many more potato selling events coming up this month (see www.potato-days.net) and February somehow seems more appropriate to start acquiring potatoes, to chit, prior to planting once the soil has warmed up a bit.
With all the stuff in the news at the moment, about reducing your meat consumption and eating more veg instead, I’ve been thinking about ways to grow vegetables within my ornamental garden. I have a small vegetable area, it’s too small to be called a ‘garden’ in its own right, but that’s a luxury for a lot of people and there is no practical reason why vegetables cannot be grown in the ‘flower’ garden.
Having said that, there is the practical consideration that you have to be able to tell that what you are harvesting, to eat, is not going to poison you! I reckon that if you have sown the edible crop, amongst your own ornamental plants, then you will know which is which. I was spurred on with this idea when reminded, by a radio programme, that, for at least a century after their original introduction, runner beans were grown for their scarlet flowers, rather than for their edible pods.
Herbs have often been incorporated into flower gardens due, I guess, to the fact that many of them are perennial and are ‘grazed’, rather than dug up completely, so their consumption does not leave gaps in the planting scheme. I am thinking here of plants such as thyme, marjoram, rosemary, lavender and the like. In fact, I have for many years used chives as an edging plant, at the front of a herbaceous border, where their purple, drumstick, flowers are a cheerful addition to their grassy leaves. There are enough of them to ensure that, when I snip off a handful of leaves to cook with, the harvested leaves are not noticeable.
As mentioned previously, growing vegetable in large containers is an easy way to incorporate them into a more formal garden where being somewhat ‘elevated’ excuses any lack of refinement. Succession planting of spinach in a huge, old, galvanised, water tank works well for me. Sowing the spinach in modules, rather then direct sowing in situ, reduces the amount of time that the container is leafless and provides a useful ‘reservoir’ of burgeoning spinach plants waiting to replace the harvested ones.
Spinach, along with any crops which are grown for their leaves, can be gathered by simply removing a few mature leaves from each plant so that, until the plants are completely exhausted, there are no gaps in your planting scheme. I particularly like doing this with lettuces, which make a fine formal edging, or under-planting in rose beds, where the sequential removal of the lower leaves, as they mature, eventually results in ‘standard’ lettuces where the lower stalk is exposed and each mini lettuce ‘tree’ is crowned with a rosette of the newest leaves.
I find the feathery foliage of carrot crops particularly attractive, although they are more tricky to incorporate into the flower garden because they need to be sown where they are going to grow. They require a deeply cultivated soil, preferably stone free, if they are going to produce the best roots to eat. Tall containers are one option, they also lift the carrot crop out of the flight path of their mortal enemy—the ‘carrot root fly’. Another way to foil the root fly is to ‘hide’ the carrots within another crop, preferably one with a strong scent. I’ve not tried it myself, maybe I will this year, but I guess that if carrots were sown amongst an ornamental annual, like English marigolds, then by the time the carrots are ready to be harvested the ‘cover crop’ will be so well established that harvesting the carrots, as required by the kitchen, will barely leave a hole.
Now, as far as February is concerned, some tasks are firmly fixed in the schedule, like doing the second shortening of wisteria shoots (to a few buds), while others are more random and reliant totally upon the state of the season. Even before the onset of global warming, the vagaries of the British climate have always ensured that no two years are the same. The comparative ‘earliness’ or ‘lateness’ of the season will determine much of what can, or cannot, be undertaken now.
With bulbs emerging ‘left, right and centre’, this may be your last chance to add a good layer of humus rich mulch, well rotted horse manure or whatever, to your beds. I always find it hard to get the timing right for this particular task. I don’t like to add a thick layer of organic matter right at the onset of winter where it will then sit, in a saturated mess, on the crowns of slumbering herbaceous perennials. I may be worrying needlessly but I fear that, in the wetness of West Dorset, this soggy carpet of decaying matter could do more harm than good.
Adding your mulch later, just as plants begin to break out of dormancy, means that it will still trap winter rainfall in the soil yet the plants will be active enough to fight off any potential rotting under a blanket of organic matter. Sprinkling a generous quantity of your chosen fertiliser, I still use ‘fish, blood and bone’, as you lightly fork the soil, ensures that the fertiliser is held in the soil as the mulch is applied on top.
Other tasks will become apparent, as you go along mulching, and that’s why it’s a pleasing job to be doing at this time of year. I tend to prune the roses as I go along and also remove old foliage from anything else that is holding onto it from last year—but which doesn’t need it!
Getting a head start with a few propagating tasks, under cover, is always a good idea. Slow growing annuals can be sown, towards the end of the month, if you can provide them with supplementary heat and a light position. Otherwise a timely tidy-up and stock take, in readiness for the main seed sowing, makes sense.
Remember to open up the greenhouse, on sunny days, in order to give your overwintering plants a good airing. If you are of the forgetful persuasion, or just very hectic, then set an alarm or leave yourself a note, stuck to the fridge / TV / bathroom mirror etc., so that it does not get left open on what could well be a frosty night; there’s still a fair few weeks of winter to endure.