December, January and February are the quietest times for the vegetable gardener, when plants are dormant and the allotment can be a desolate place to visit. But do things right now and you’ll have the best possible start next season.
The council’s allotment rules permit bonfires between October and March only, between noon and dusk, on Tuesdays and the first Saturday of each month. Burn any diseased plant material and other non-compostable organic waste during these imes and never leave fires unattended. Please don’t burn non-organic materials, such as plastics, carpet or flammable liquids.
If you haven’t already, tidy away old foliage, cut down asparagus ferns, and clear up any debris. Protect vulnerable plants with netting, fleece or stakes.
Harvest root crops to store, clamp or heel in at home, or cover them with cloches or a thick straw mulch so you can still access them when the ground is frozen.
Collect leaves for leaf mould. Cover compost bins, to insulate them.
Dig or weed soil as required on good days, as long as it's not frozen or too wet; digging in poor conditions can damage the structure of the soil.
Consider forcing some early chicory and seakale in January and rhubarb in February, by covering with straw and an upturned bucket. This will give you tender, sweet shoots for picking in March and April.
Split rhubarb crowns in February.
Early sowings can begin in January; sow early varieties of cabbage, peas, spinach, salads, spring onions, radishes and carrots under cloches or in a greenhouse, and start leek and onion seeds. Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines can also be sown as early as January, if you have a good warm greenhouse to grow them on in. Sow outdoor broad beans and plant garlic and shallots from February, if you didn't do it in autumn.
The colder months, when the plants are dormant, are the best time to plant berry bushes, strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus. Be ready to plant these out when the ground is thawed and dry but before the growing season begins – March at the latest.
Berry bushes and fruit trees should be pruned in early spring to remove old wood, tidy the plant up and encourage fresh growth. Cut autumn raspberries to the ground in February.
Order your seeds, plants, bulbs and potatoes ready for the new growing season! Chit potatoes by spreading them out, with an eye facing upwards, in a cool, bright place (but out of direct sunlight) to start sprouting.
You can use these months to have a good tidy and do any running repairs neeeded on your plot
March is a great time to start a new plot; the soil is now workable after winter and it’s time for early plantings outdoors and sowing tender plants like tomatoes, peppers and squashes indoors, ready for planting out in May or June. Get a head start with some fast-growing and cold-tolerant salads, spring onions and radishes for the feel-good factor, and plant your spring crops.
Meanwhile, clear soil for summer crops and cover with polythene to warm it, and get a compost bin started and any construction work you need done.
March is your last chance to plant asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and fruit bushes, so make these a priority if you plan to grow them. Chat to some of your allotment neighbours for tips and advice.
Divide chives, mints, thymes and other spreading herbs. Finish any weeding, spread compost or manure, and cover bare soil to warm it up and keep weeds down.
Dig a bean trench, one spade wide and one spade deep, line it with wet newspaper, fill it with uncomposted organic matter, and cover with soil. This rotting material will give extra warmth and moisture to your beans when you plant them here later.
Feed overwintered plants, and perk them up with a seaweed, comfrey or nettle liquid spray.
Early potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, garlic and shallots can be planted from March. Earth up potatoes when the haulms are a couple of inches high, and whenever there’s a risk of frost.
March and April are the ideal months for sowing most vegetables. Check seed packets for individual instructions, but here are some general guidelines:
March: Indoors, sow tomatoes, peppers, chillies and aubergines if you haven’t already, tender herbs, celery, celeriac and annual flowers. Outdoors, sow broad beans if you haven’t already, leeks, peas, mangetout, early brassicas (cabbage family), hardy
herbs, beetroots, carrots, lettuce, spinach, radishes, spring onions and salad leaves.
April: Indoors, start beans, sweetcorn, and cucurbits (squash and cucumber family). Most annual flowers can be sown outdoors, as can leaf beet, chard, parsnips, late brassicas and all the other hardy outdoor veg mentioned under March above.
May: Last chance to plant maincrop potatoes and onions, and sow leaves such as spinach and lettuce which tend to bolt in warm weather. It’s getting a little late for cold-weather or slow-growing veg, but you can still sow many flowers, warm-weather salad varieties, maincrop root veg, long-season brassicas, beans, squash and sweetcorn. Most seeds can now be sown directly outside.
Seedlings and tender plants need protecting from frosts, which usually continue until May. If you don’t have a greenhouse, keep tender seedlings indoors by night and outside getting some sunlight during the day. (Inadequate light will make seedlings weak and
leggy.) Keep some fleece on hand to protect potato haulms, fruit blossom and any other frost-tender plants you have outdoors, and keep an eye out for frosty nights in the weather forecast.
Repot seedlings when they outgrow their pots, to prevent them from being rootbound or running out of nutrients.
Plant out brassicas and other hardy veg when they’re big enough. Put collars round the stems of brassicas to stop cabbage root fly laying their eggs in the soil around your plants.
In May or June, when all risk of frost has passed, tender plants can go to their final positions outside. Harden them off first by putting them outside, without protection, during the days, and bringing them in at night, or opening wide their cloche, greenhouse or coldframe during the days. Water them well before and after planting, and for their first few weeks.
Tuck straw or some other ground covering under your strawberry plants to protect them against soil-splash, which can cause disease. Net developing fruits – and fruit bushes – against birds.
Keep an eye out for weed and pest problems, especially with vulnerable young plants. Set traps for
slugs and snails, or collect them at night by hand! Hoe weeds off while they’re still young and weak.
Summer is the most fruitful time in the vegetable garden, and with everything flourishing around you it’s tempting to sit back and have a well-deserved rest towards the end of the season. But take your eye off the ball and you could lose crops to bad weather, pests and disease, or simply to time! Keep on top of weeds and pest problems – it pays to catch them early. Hoe or pull weeds before they go to
seed, and don’t add seedheads to your compost –instead, take them home and throw them away, or save them for an autumn bonfire. It’s nearly caterpillar season – keep checking brassicas and squish them while they’re still tiny, or cover your brassicas with insect-proof mesh.
Feed tomatoes, peppers and other fruiting veg regularly with a high potash feed to get the best from them.
Harvest, harvest, harvest! Some fruiting plants will think they’ve done their job and stop producing if their seeds overripen on the plant, so keep picking everything they have to offer. As summer goes on, give your squashes the best chance to ripen by removing any leaves that shade
them from the sun, and placing boards underneath them to prevent rotting.
Lift onions when the leaves fall over, and harvest maincrop potatoes after the foliage has died down.
Let them dry in an airy place away from bright light for a few days (or a few weeks for onions) before storing them in hessian/paper sacks or ventilated boxes.
July is a good time to sow kale and turnips for autumn/winter, and there’s still time to plant out leeks, sprouts, broccoli and cabbages.
There’s still time to sow carrots, radishes, beetroots, chard, purslane, oriental greens, kohlrabi, spring cabbage, peas and spring onions, and it’s the perfect time to start fennel.
Net developing berries to protect them from birds.
In August, sow a few early potatoes in sacks or containers in the greenhouse – or in a sheltered spot which you can fleece well in frosty weather – and you’ll have salad potatoes at Christmas!
Peas and broad beans can be sown for shoots all through the growing season. Sow thickly, cut the tender top few inches from each plant and add to salads or steam lightly. They’ll keep on shooting –keep on cutting!
Coriander, parsley, chervil, dill, basil and lovage can all be sown now. It’s also a good time of year to take cuttings from herbs like mint, thyme, rosemary, sage, lemon verbena and tarragon.
Think about saving seed for next year. Tomato, pea and bean seed are all really easy to save.
Don’t pick apples and pears too early – when ready they will twist off easily with the stalk intact. Pears will still be hard at this stage, but will ripen at home.
As the growing season comes to an end, clear dead plant debris and fallen leaves. Dig over any empty ground and cover with plastic or sow green manures to get a headstart on next year. Green manures can protect your soil over the winter and add extra nutrition in the spring. Mustard is a good choice for the potato patch, as it inhibits eelworm. Be sure to lift any last onions and potatoes before the weather gets too cold, and harvest all tender crops such as squashes, tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines and peppers before the first frosts (usually in November). Stake and fleece winter crops in preparation for bad weather.
Don't forget to get your order in for manure, compost and seeds - check the newsletter for the details (deadline usually in September)
The communal orchard at Cottonmill is available for everyone on all of our sites. Your key will give you access so help yourself to what you need, being mindful that the fruit is for everyone.
September is your last chance to sow salad leaves (corn salad, spinach, winter purslane, pak choi and other oriental leaves all thrive in colder weather), as well as carrots, peas, turnips, kale, spring onions, radishes and parsley for autumn eating. Most of these will last through winter with a little protection! You can also plant overwinter onions, shallots and garlic.
It's not too late! There's still plenty of time to put in some crops for the winter and early spring. If you don't have room for them just yet, sow them in pots now and plant out when gaps appear after your summer crops are finished!
Spring cabbage – sow 15cm apart, thin for spring greens in March and let every other plant grow to full size.
Chard and perpetual spinach – hardy stalwarts which will provide even more fresh leaves in spring.
Fennel – sow now! These fast-growers won't stand hard frosts but can be protected with fleece in early winter.
Oriental veg (pak choi, mustard, mizuna, rocket, komatsuna, tatsoi) – all these are best sown in August to beat the flea beetle and avoid bolting!
Spinach – Giant Winter is a great variety to sow now.
Turnips – quick-growing turnips sown now will give you a crop in early winter.
Radishes – look out for winter varieties that will stand the cold.
Lettuce – try Winter Gem, Winter Density, Marvel of Four Seasons or All The Year Round
Spring onions – most varieties are winter hardy.
Parsley, chervil, coriander, sorrel, wild rocket, land cress, lambs lettuce, endives and winter purslane!