What kinds of things can you do in the garden at this time of year. It’s not quite Spring after all? Well, no, we’ve still a long way to go before we get to Spring. This time of year is really all about preparing the garden for when Spring finally does come. February, though you wouldn’t think it looking out the window, is the calm before the storm. It is the time to get all the construction work done, the cleaning and arranging, ordering of seeds and supplies. It the time to get organised for the coming year. The simple fact is that the soil is still too cold for seeds to germinate and for plants to grow. The soil temperature needs to reach 6-8 degrees before you will get any growth. A good rule of thumb is to keep an eye on the weeds in your garden which haven’t been doing much all winter, once they start to grow you will know the soil has warmed sufficiently. Give us examples of the kind of preparatory work you can do in February? Our business is all about growing in a natural and organic way so we don’t use or sell any chemical pest control or plant feed. I figure if you are going to the trouble of producing your own fresh food you don’t want to spray it with pesticides which you will end up eating. If you are going to grow organically (which is actually much easier) you are really talking about looking after your soil and about trying to avoid pests and disease rather than treating them when they do come. For example I use mini tunnels a lot which are easy to make and keep out pests like carrot and cabbage root fly and cabbage white caterpillars. Mini tunnels look like a mini polytunnel but you can put polythene or insect protection mesh on them depending on what you want to use it for. I will also be building supports for my peas and beans and washing down the inside of the polytunnel. My garden is quite exposed so I’ll be putting up windbreak mesh which makes a massive difference. The beauty of doing all this now is there is nothing else happening, there are no weeds growing or no seeds germinating which you need to look after. Gardening should never become a chore and preparation done now will make it all plain sailing later on. What about Soil preparation? Yes, your soil is the single most important thing in your whole garden and it the one that needs the most care. If you get your soil right everything else is easy, you will grow healthy plants which are much less susceptible to pests and disease and will only need minimal extra plant feeds. I would definitely avoid digging the soil at this time of year as cultivating wet or waterlogged soil damages the soil structure by compacting and excluding oxygen. There is a whole universe of life in every handful of soil including worms, protozoa and good bacteria who actually feed your plants so we need to respect their habitat. When we talk about feeding the soil it is these little beasties we are looking after as they process the manure and other additions we add to the garden and convert it into nutrients directly available to your plants. Yes, you want to improve your soil by adding organic matter like garden compost and well rotted manure but you are far better spreading it on the surface rather than digging it in. The life in the soil will start processing it and incorporating it into the soil in a far more efficient way than you ever could. If you think about it before we came along and made a bags of things soil would never have been dug. In a forest leaves fall, begin to rot on the forest floor are eaten and digested by earthworms and other soil life who then incorporate the nutrients into the soil. All soils on earth were originally formed in this way which I think worked pretty well, it makes sense then to emulate this system in our gardens and let nature take care of the rest. The other advantage of spreading a mulch in the surface of the soil is you protect the ground from heavy rain which can wash nutrients through the soil. I live on the West coast so I have covered my garden in seaweed to protect it, this will eventually rot down and become a wonderful addition to my soil. Seed sowing in February. Examples of fruit and vegetable you can sow right now indoors, and how to go about it. We are still a little early at this stage but towards the end of the month we can start sowing warm climate crops like tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and courgettes but you will need heat to do this. It might sound odd starting warm climate crops off when it is so cold, the reason is that in Northern Europe we don’t have a long enough summer to ripen the fruits if we waited until temperatures were warm enough to sow. These guys will need a temperature of approx 22 degrees to germinate so you will need a propagator or heat mat to artificially warm the compost, essentially we are trying to fool the seed into thinking it is in South America or where ever it originally came from. Of course if you expected to pop up in Brazil and found yourself in Mullingar in February you would need a little looking after so we need to take a care of these guys when the emerge above the soil. They need to be kept warm but not too warm as too much heat and not enough light will cause them to grow tall, spindly and weak, It is a bit of balancing act but not difficult once you get the hang of it. You need to turn the heat down on your propagator and can use fleece to protect plants at night if they are in a greenhouse or tunnel. If you germinate on your windowsill at home you need to make sure they get as much light as possible by building a tinfoil reflector or using an inexpensive growlight. Sowing broad beans and early peas. Broad beans are cold hardy crops which can be sown outside towards the end of February or early March but they can also be started off in pots now if you are itching to start doing something. Broad beans will germinate at temperatures of only 5 degrees so you won’t need extra heat to get them going. Just remember if you are growing them in the house they will need plenty of light, place them on a bright South facing windowsill in a cool room. The seedlings can be planted out at the end of the month if the weather permits. You can also sow early peas indoors at the end of February for planting out at the end of March. A handy trick for doing this is to use a length of plastic gutter as a long plant pot. Cut the gutter in 4ft lengths and fill with a good multipurpose compost. Sow 2 rows of peas approx 5cm apart in the gutter. Peas, like broad beans, will germinate at a low temperature so won’t need a heat mat or propagator. It is probably best to germinate both on a windowsill and move out to a greenhouse, tunnel or bright porch once they have come up. When it is time to plant out you simple dig a trench the same length and depth as the gutter and slide the sausage of peas and compost out of the gutter and into the trench. Oriental Greens Oriental greens are a very useful crop at this time of year as they will also germinate at low temperatures but are also very cold tolerant when growing. Orientals include well known salad leaves like rocket and Pak Choi but there are a while range of leaves including Osaka Mustard green and red frills and mizuna. Flavour tends to be slightly spicy in the case of rocket and mustard greens to milder flavours of mizuna and tatsoi. Even if you don’t have a greenhouse or tunnel these salad plants can be grown outdoors using a small cloche or mini tunnel but like the peas and beans you are better off starting them off indoors. You can also sow leeks on heat in the middle of the month but only if you have a greenhouse or tunnel to keep them in until its warm enough to plant out 8-10 weeks later. Depending on the weather at the end of Feb you can sow broad beans directly outside. Always keep some horticultural fleece handy to protect seedlings on cold nights in the tunnel and to cover after planting out. Fleece is a very light material that lets light in but will protect plants from temperatures of -2 or 3 degrees depending on the weight of the fleece. The fleece is so light that it can be simply draped over the tops of plants without damaging them, if using it outside weight the sides down with mounds of soil or old bricks. Is there anything to sow or plant outside now? Yes, garlic cloves are planted from October until the end of February so they can go in now, just get them in as soon as you can. Garlic needs at least 4 weeks of soil temperatures below 10 degrees for the single clove that you plant to form a bulb containing numerous cloves so we need to get them in before things warm up. The other big win at this time of year is planting dormant or ‘bare root’ fruit varieties like currants, raspberries, gooseberries, loganberries etc.. It is much cheaper to buy them now in their dormant state than buying them in pots later on. Bare root plants basically look like sticks with roots on the end, you will find it hard to picture them providing fruit for pots of jam when you see them but they will be one of the best investments you will ever make in your garden. You need to get fruit in before they start to grow again before the end of March. Fruit is great value and apart from simple pruning and an application of manure every Spring there is very little to do. Unlike vegetables which need to be planted every season they will provide delicious harvests for years before they need to be replaced. Good harvests of fruit also have fun spin offs like jam making if you end up with too much which can easily happen with high yielding fruits like blackcurrants. The same applies to fruit trees which can also be bought as bare root or potted varieties now. Again they are easy to plant with a little care. Just remember any fruit bush or tree will remain in the same spot so take the time to amend the soil as well as you can. Dig a large planting hole and add plenty of well rotted manure or garden compost. Rhubarb is usually planted in early to mid Winter but can also be planted in early Spring so now is still a good time to plant. Rhubarb can be grown from seed but plants grown in this way can be of variable quality so you are better off buying sections of rhubarb root or rhubarb ‘crowns’. Just like your other fruit, rhubarb will be in the same place for over 10 years so prepare the ground well with plenty of well rotted manure. Don’t underestimate how much space rhubarb needs, plants should be placed a meter (3 foot apart so make sure you have enough room!). Plant with buds just above the ground. Jerusalem artichokes are planted now. The best variety is Fuseau which is the least knobbly, select the smoothest ones when planting. These plants are quite invasive so plant in a permanent bed as they are difficult to clear as even the tiniest part of root left in the ground will produce a new plant, I learned this the hard way. Also bear in mind they are very tall plants so cast a lot of shade, they are best planted on the north end of the garden and are also handy as a screen or windbreak. Is it a good time to do some pruning in the garden? Pruning is generally done when plants are in a dormant state so it is often advised to prune now but I am not a big fan. I prefer to wait a bit later until the plants are closer to the time when new growth begins so the wound is exposed to the elements for as little time as possible. When the plant is in its dormant state it can’t heal itself so cuts can provide an entry point for disease. I would delay pruning until the beginning of March. Is it too early to plant early potatoes out of doors? Yes, the earliest you can put potatoes in is mid March, traditionally St.Patricks Day weekend depending what the weather is like. What you can start doing is sprouting or ‘chitting’ potatoes which involves leaving the seed potatoes in a cool, bright place to produce sprouts from the eyes of the potato. Light is important as what you want are short and stubby green sprouts rather than the long white shoots you see coming from the potatoes you left in the cupboard under the sink. Long and weak sprouts tend to break off when planting while the more compact ones won’t. Old egg boxes are handy receptacles for chitting as it holds the seed potatoes in position, you should place them with the end with the most eyes facing upwards. Chitting will speed up the how quickly shoots appear above the ground and so bring forward the harvest date. It is only really necessary with new potatoes both to get an early treat and to try to get your potatoes out of the ground before the worst of the blight hits in July and August. Maincrop potatoes are planted from late March until mid May. If you don’t want to spray to control blight you should grow blight resistant varieties like the famous ‘Sarpo Mira’ or the excellent Irish bred variety ‘Setanta’. When should you be able to sow out of doors, and what vegetables can you start with? The soil doesn’t get warm enough until mid April - early May so I would wait until then to sow outdoors. What you can do is start most crops off indoors at the beginning of April so they are 4 weeks old when planted outdoors in May, this way you will give yourself a month head start. In April you should sow indoors leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, calabrese, kohl rabi, swede, turnip, lettuce and spring onions. The best way to start plants early is by using modular trays which are trays on individual planting cells. When it is time to plant out each seedling is removed with its own little plug of compost which means very little root disturbance, this gives the plants a good start. In March you can plant onion sets outside around the middle of the month. Onion sets are immature onions produced the previous year, they are easily available and pretty much trouble free to grow. If you can’t grow onions from sets you might want to take up another hobby! You can start sowing outside in mid April for some hardy crops like early peas, turnip, radish or chard. For everything else you are better waiting until May when you can sow beetroot, carrots, parsnips, spinach, chard, radish, peas and runner beans outdoors.