January is always a fresh start. This year feels like we need one more than ever. I feel motivated to grow things when New Year’s Day begins and this is often where the frustration creeps in. It’s a slow progression into the new year and as gardeners, it can feel painfully slow. I’ve learned to fight the urge to sow anything in January. The low level of light and cold temperatures mean sowing anything this month requires heat and artificial light. It requires more of our attention and anything you grow now will always be caught up by later sowings. Personally, I don’t see the benefit of this additional resource. It is much better to do the jobs that will provide a real benefit to you when spring arrives and everything jumps into life and the jobs quickly pile up.
This is the second year I have embraced the full potential of growing food over the winter. As well as the hardy brassicas such as kale and cabbages and the roots of parsnips and celeriac, thriving outside in the allotment beds, I have used the polytunnel to grow a range of lettuces and Asian greens to provide tasty, crisp, fresh and nutritious leaves for the kitchen. If this is new to you, the range of greens that can be grown in the UK over winter is incredible. The polytunnel is quite a luxury, but you can grow many types of salads leaves outside without protection or can use a small, clear plastic sheet over a bed to provide the necessary shield against the winter winds. These crops are cold hardy and need protection from the wind more than Jack Frost. I will write more about growing salad leaves over winter in the autumn when I sow the seeds. However, some of my favourite winter leaves include, Grenoble Red, Lollo Rosso, Arctic King, Tatsoi, Claytonia and Pak Choi.
January, like most of the winter, is an opportunity to prepare for the growing season ahead. I’m always amazed by the number of allotment holders on site who decide to stop gardening in autumn and show up again in the spring. As well as the harvests available, the opportunity to engage with a quieter, cooler season on the allotment to repair, plan and prepare for the New Year is a worthwhile experience. It’s a powerful way to improve your wellbeing too, maintaining contact with nature, being outside and the nurturing effect of the soil.
If I haven’t done so, I use the time this month to lay compost on the beds. A few years ago I changed my approach and became a strong advocate of No Dig gardening and it’s quite simply the best thing I’ve done. When I first learned about no dig gardening, I saw it simply as an easy way to prepare the allotment beds each year. Living in Wales, the wettest part of the UK, means winter is often a miserable and soggy affair, and the traditional approach of digging an entire plot can feel impossible because the days are so short and finding the time to dig on the days that are dry or when the ground has dried out enough is near impossible. Not digging and simply mulching the beds was hugely attractive
Since that initial transition, I have learned so much more about soil and why not digging it is so much more than saving time and energy. Undisturbed soil is more productive, it increases the diversity of organisms in the soil and it is these that feed the plants in a natural process without the need for fertilisers. It leads to fewer weeds because most annual weed seeds are already in the soil, digging brings them to the surface and they germinate in the light and the warmer spring temperature. It can actually lead to less slugs as digging and soil cultivation can cause compaction which leads to anaerobic conditions which leads to fermentation. This means alcohol is produced in the soil and that attracts slugs.
If you are new to the idea of no dig then the number one place to begin is with Charles Dowding. Charles has been a pioneer in organic gardening since 1983 and is considered a leading authority on the no dig approach. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Charles a few times and attended a course at his home acres garden a few years ago. The experience was incredible.
Order your compost:
I try to make as much compost as I possibly can. Compost is not difficult to make, nature does is perfectly well on its own, without our intervention, but you do need to ensure you balance the amount of green and brown waste you incorporate to maintain a healthy heap.
However, it is difficult to create enough compost to meet all the needs of an allotment or large vegetable garden and ultimately, you will want to source some quality compost or manure to help meet the need.
When I buy compost, it has to be peat free. Peat is such a vital natural resource it needs to be left in the ground and not dug up and used in composts for our gardens or allotments. I stopped using peat based composts a year ago and wrote in more detail why it’s so important to stop buying peat based products in my New Year Resolutions post.
There is not a huge amount of peat free compost on the market, this really needs to change and will only happen if we buy more of it and demand peat free compost from suppliers. I highly recommend Dalefoot composts which I have used to mulch my beds and also, mixed with coir, to create a wonderful sowing and potting mix.
Choose and order seeds:
The short days and cold dark nights offer the opportunity to enjoy some armchair gardening, where books, seed catalogues and the world online can drive your imagination, creating garden plans in your head. This is the time to pick the crops and flowers to grow this year.
I have become a conscious consumer. I’m incredibly frustrated by our consumerist ways and the negative effect it has on people and our environment. Conscious consumption is for everyday life and in the garden. In practice it means I use what I already have and buy only when I genuinely need something. When I decide I need to buy something it will, where possible, come from an ethically sourced local company.
There is the same consideration when it comes to seeds. It’s quite frightening to know that a handful of multinational corporations control the entire global seed industry. That’s a lot of power over farmers and growers. As gardeners, we can change the balance of power by choosing seeds from local, agro-ecological producers. We need to see seeds as resources or tools rather than a commodity. Also, the open-pollinated varieties being produced by businesses such a Vital Seeds and Real Seeds allow you to save seed from crops you really enjoy and work well for you in your specific location.
While you’re out enjoying winter on the allotment, it’s a great opportunity to see the space you have while it’s relatively empty and clear. I like to make a note of what I want to grow and where I want to grow it. I find making a monthly plan much more effective than trying to plan the year in one go. Monthly plans allow you to see where things are being sown, planted or harvested and cleared from month to month. You can adapt the plans if things are taking a little longer than planned or if a certain crop fails.
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