You may remember some of the vibrant looking photos from my vegetable garden in the Summer with its neat (ish) rows of healthy crops and tidy weeded paths? Well, it looks nothing like that now. I am afraid the garden tends to get neglected at this time of year as I mourn the end of the season and have yet to get started preparing for the next. I must admit to finding the change a bit depressing when the rich colours of Summer and Autumn give way to the more muted tones of Winter. The bright yellow green shoots of Spring seems impossibly far away until I begin to scribble my plan for the New Year but that is when the garden transforms again before my eyes. I can't recommend drawing a garden plan in Winter highly enough as not only does it get you excited about the possibilities for the New Year it also allows you to get your preparation right for the different crops you wish to grow. I find when the garden wakes up in the Spring things can happen very fast and I can often end up planting or sowing later that I would have liked because I have to attend to other jobs first. Building supports of feeding and preparing soil all take time and can turn what should be a 30 minute job like sowing peas into a project that takes a couple of hours. I like to prepare the soil at this time of year too and a plan allows me make sure the different crops will have their needs met for next year. I know my cabbage family (brassica) crops will like plenty of nitrogen rich manure while my carrots won't so I can prepare each bed accordingly and cover to protect from heavy rain. By the way, if you were to do nothing else at this time of year I would highly recommend covering any bare soil to protect it. A feeding mulch of compost, leafmould or seaweed is best but even of you only place a layer of mypex weed control fabric over your beds it will be of benefit. Mypex will protect the soil but also keep light out which will weaken and most likely kill off any weeds underneath. There are also a number of advantages to working in the garden in Winter namely that once jobs are done (like weeding) they stay done until the Spring and you can move on to the next one on the list. Building crop supports or pest control tunnels are pleasant pursuits on crisp Winter days and will leave you feeling very smug and satisfied by late afternoon when the night draws in and you put your tools away. I had a small bonfire burning last weekend which provided some warmth and company while I worked but also gave me potash for the garlic I was planting. As you know garlic is planted at this time of year (provided it's not too frosty and your beds are well drained) and it will thank you for the potassium in the wood ash when it gets growing properly next Spring. Moving Pea Frames This year we designed and built moveable pea and bean frames to avoid the problem of not being ready to sow in Spring and I have to say they worked very well. I'm a bit embarrassed showing you the photo opposite as the place looks such a mess but you can see one of the frames in the foreground with a big pile of the old pea foliage I pulled off it lying behind. The beds in the photo will be used next year for brassica family crops as the pea roots which I have left in the ground contain nitrogen which the cabbages will need for all that leafy growth. I had also filled inside and around the pea frames with seaweed last Summer (photo below) which has helped keep weeds down and has now rotted to nutrient rich mulch. It is a bit difficult to see in the top picture but the frame is covered with a plastic pea and bean mesh which remained intact after I removed the old pea vines. All I have to do is lift the whole structure and plonk it down in its new location and I'm read to sow again. We sell the kits on the site (there's a nice little project for you), they can be assembled in 20 minutes and can be either put in storage or placed ready to be populated by peas next year. You can see the kits above doing their job above in happier times last June. Digging Potatoes - More Seaweed Magic! I have been a bit lazy this year and had not dug and stored all my potatoes but as we had a week of hard frost I thought I had better get on with it. Potatoes near the surface will freeze and will go mushy when they thaw so need to be lifted and stored. It is not a good idea to dig frozen ground as apart from being difficult it damages soil structure so when temperatures rose on Sunday I got out the fork. I has been dreading digging the last bed of potatoes as I have a problem with soil slugs eating holes in them so was expecting to have to discard half of the crop. I don't spray against blight and grow blight resistant maincrop varieties like Sarpo Mira, Sarpo Axona, and Orla instead. Blight resistant potatoes will eventually get blight but they will hold our for much longer; this is important as once the disease takes hold I cut off all the foliage and remove it to prevent spores infecting the tubers below the ground. Cutting the foliage will stop the potatoes getting any bigger but as you can see from the Sarpo Mira in the picture they tend to get large enough before I cut them down! When you remove the blight infected foliage it is best to leave the potatoes in the ground as digging them immediately may infect them with blight spores. As some of your crop will be very close to the soil surface you need to cover the bed to prevent sunlight turning any protruding bits green (and poisonous) and this is where I finally get to the point. This year it was stormy when I cut down my potato crop so instead of covering with plastic I layered the beds in seaweed as there was so much washed up on the shore. The interesting thing was when I finally dug the potatoes on Sunday there wasn't a single slug hole in any of them! I can't say for certain whether it was my seaweed mulch that protected them but this is the first year I have lifted an undamaged crop. I doubt it was salt that got rid of the slugs as the soil is full of earthworms and they won't have liked it either so not quite sure how it worked. I'll keep you posted if they come back next year but for now if anyone needs any potatoes I have masses of them! New Fruit Garden One of the aspects of the garden I most enjoy are the fruit bushes dotted around the place but the part I definitely don't enjoy is that most of the harvest ends up inside the birds. To remedy this problem I have decided to build a netted area and will be clearing a bit of no man's land at the end of the garden (pictured). I'm only telling you this now as I'll be keeping you updated on progress including clearing the site, planting and supporting new fruit bushes and building a fruit cage. I built a support for raspberries and boysenberries in the Summer so fancy myself as a bit of an expert, you can see two videos on the process by clicking the images below. Beautiful vegetables from a scruffy garden Thankfully although the above ground world looks a bit unloved the stuff below the ground still looks pretty good. I know I'm a bit spoiled because we have all this stuff in the warehouse but as I like to try the products we sell I built a carrot root fly protection net using our 'mainframe' system. As you can see from the photo below it has done its job with with no tell tale brown tunnels spoiling my lovely carrots. The mainframe consists of aluminium tubes joined by plastic connectors; you attach the cover of your choice (mesh, fleece, polythene etc...) using removable plastic clips. I can report it has lasted this season anyway and will be back in service again next year, as always I'll keep you updated on performance. The whopper carrot the size of the trowel was grown in an experimental raised bed where I removed 15cm of soil and re-filled with garden compost. For anyone struggling to grow carrots (my uncle sent me three sickly little specimens in the post the other day for a post mortem) take note, it's all about unrestricted soil or compost. My soil is quite a sticky clay which is not ideal for root crops and meant I was beginning to give up on growing carrots, this is a shame because the flavour of homegrown varieties is just so good. You really need a very light soil with very few stones in it to grow a nice straight root so if you don't have it you need to make it. I have added large amounts of compost to a few of my beds which I now rotate carrots around in but even now I still grow shorter root varieties like Chantenay Red Cored, Early Nantes and Namur. Longer root carrots are likely to fork when they encounter the dense clay underneath the compost. You want about a foot of well dug soil with any large stones removed and a fine and crumbly consistency. I know 'no diggers' won't agree here (I am one myself) but in the case of carrots you really have to get the soil right or you are wasting your time. Once you have the soil sorted perfect carrots are easy. You can also grow baby carrots in containers of compost but again use short rooted varieties and harvest young. Carrots have a long tap root that wants to grow much deeper than the main body of the carrot which is why full size varieties need plenty of depth and won't be suitable for pots or shallow beds. Flower Sprouts I usually try a few new things every year just to keep myself in the loop (cucamelons this Summer which didn't work but not giving up) and most of the time I think they are OK but rarely include them in my permanent planting plan, until now. I grew a couple of flower sprouts in 2015 and thought they were great so planted more seedlings this Spring/Summer which we are munching our way through now. Flower sprouts are a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale and produce loads of tender little flower heads along a tall stem in the same manner as one of their parents. Flavour is excellent, they are highly nutritious and they cook in about a minute. The plants also have the same hardiness and vigour as kale so are very easy to grow with few pest or disease problems to worry about. This really is a fantastic crop and highly recommended, we will be including them in our online seedling selection for 2017. That's it for now I hope you found some of the information useful. I have a lot of projects planned in the garden this Winter (some of which will never happen) but I look forward to posting more information and photos. The fact is there are still loads of important things you can be doing in outside at this time of year even if there are very few things you can grow. Please let me know if there is anything in particular you'd like me to include which is more relevant to your garden, I will always be happy to help.