This is the time of year when vegetables can be at their most expensive, with many varieties shipped-in from abroad. If you have grown your own and stored them over the winter, it is over the next few months that the greatest benefits of home grown crops will be reaped. Vegetables such as brussels sprouts, cabbages and parsnips can still be harvested if the ground is not hard from frost. A prudent covering of fleece or a thin layer of straw, laid over the ground at this time of year, can help to prevent the soil around root vegetables from freezing, enabling the crops to be lifted at any time.
Empty beds can be dug over now to break up the soil and allow the frost in to do the rest. Digging over the soil also uncovers pests to hungry birds and wildlife, which will help to keep pest populations under control.
The following vegetables can be picked in January: brussels sprouts, spinach beet, cabbages and savoys. Also if frost permits you can lift celery, leeks, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes as required. Note that celery may need extra protection if the weather is severe.
Take time to check through any vegetables that were stored in the autumn, such as carrots, onions, shallots, Swedes, turnips and potatoes, because they can easily become infested with pests or become rotten or harbour mould that can spread to the rest of the stored crop. Full details of how to store vegetables over the winter are provided in our October section.
Start by writing down a list of the vegetables you wish to grow, what date they should be sown and/or planted, and when they will be ready for harvesting. An ideal place to start is to look through seed catalogues (available free from most suppliers) or visit suppliers' internet sites.
The greatest success can be achieved by choosing vegetable types and varieties that are best suited for your garden's location in the UK (how far north or south you are), its aspect (sunny or shady), soil type/structure (sand, clay, loam, PH level), drainage and exposure (e.g. susceptibility to frosts or prevailing winds).
Once you know what vegetables you will be growing, make a plan or map of the vegetable plot, identifying where each item will be grown. Don't forget to allow enough space between rows or blocks of plantings to ensure you can access the crop for maintenance, weeding and watering. If you have grown vegetables in the same area of land in previous years then you should adopt a method of 'crop rotation'. This is to ensure you don't grow the same type of vegetable on the same area of ground for more than two years running, which will prevent the build-up of pests and diseases in the soil that can attack a particular group of vegetables.
Once you have created the plan of your vegetable plot, order and purchase the seeds as early as possible, with the exception of plug plants and tubers, which should be purchased when needed. However, order or buy seed potatoes in plenty of time as they need to be 'chitted' (laid out in a cool but frost-free, light place to sprout) around six weeks before planting time.
Seed orders that arrive early should be placed in a dry airtight container, such as a tin or plastic sandwich box, and stored in a cool, dry place.
Digging over the vegetable plot is important if you have heavy soil, therefore finish any remaining digging as soon as you can this month. This will give the soil time to be broken up by the weather so that it can be cultivated easily in the spring, saving time and effort at sowing time. If you are using a 'no digging' system on raised beds, then simply clear away any weeds that have formed.
If the ground has not been limed for some years (or if the soil is naturally acidic) ground limestone or chalk can be applied after digging. This will be washed in by the rain and will penetrate deeply into the soil. Lime helps plants to make the best use of the available nutrients in the ground. It also reduces acidity and helps to break up clay. However, if manure has recently been applied, leave the liming for a month or two as the lime will react with the manure, resulting in loss of nitrogen.
Cloches can be put in position several weeks before sowing, to warm the soil ready for early February sowings. The soil can also be warmed using sheets of dark or black plastic, weighted down with stones at the edges.
If you have a sunny, sheltered site, with light soil, you can sow broad beans now to provide an early crop. Space the beans 15 cm (6 in) apart in rows 5cm (2 in) deep, and make the rows 37 cm (15 in) apart. 'Aquadulce' is a particularly hardy cultivar, and very good for early sowing. If space is limited 'The Sutton' is also a good choice.
If your garden is sheltered, you can also sow an early pea variety in January. Ideal varieties to use now are 'Meteor', 'Little Marvel' or 'Feltham First'. To sow peas make a shallow, spade width trench, about 4 cm (l.5 in)deep, and place the peas, in two parallel rows, 5cm (2 in) apart, in a zig-zag fashion. Replace the soil over the trench and firm gently. If you are sowing more than one row of pea seeds, space them at least 45 cm (18 in) apart.
Block-sowing peas in small squared blocks is also an option. Be prepared to protect the young pea seedlings with a cloche or a fleece covering if the weather turns frosty.
A number of early vegetables can be started off indoors in January, such as French beans for forcing, early maturing cauliflowers and onions. Lettuce sown now can also provide a late spring crop.
As a general rule chitting should be started around late January in warmer areas of the country or in February in cooler parts, further north. January is the time to get early potatoes under way, by 'chitting' (sprouting) them in a cool but frost free place. The developed shoots will then be well advanced when you plant them outdoors in spring. Choose potatoes the size of a hen's egg, though larger potatoes can be cut in half and both halves sprouted (however, make sure each piece has an 'eye', as the sprouts develop from the 'eyes').
Place the seed potatoes in the hollows of empty egg boxes, 'eye' upwards or simply place the potatoes upright in a single layer in a shallow box, in a cool (but frost-free), light place.
Rhubarb can be forced outdoors in January. Cover the crowns with straw, bracken or leaves and place a large clay forcing pot over the top. If you don't have a clay forcing pot then an upturned box, dustbin or tall bucket will do. Remember that Rhubarb needs a rich soil if it is to give you a regular crop and forcing can reduce the vigour of the plant. Therefore you should give the plant a good feed in the spring and only force a small section of the crop.
Chicory can also be forced undercover, with a minimum temperature of 10 deg C (50 deg F). Plant the roots vertically in moist light compost in a large pot or box. Cover the roots with 2.5cm (1 in) of compost and cover the pot with a thick black polythene bag to exclude all light. After about 4 weeks you will be rewarded with delicious, fat and creamy white chicons.
To enjoy out-of-season herbs, dig up a small piece of mint, thyme or a marjoram root, bring it indoors and pot it up in a warm place. Fresh shoots will soon appear once the plants get established.
Vegetables that need protecting from severe weather should be attended to right away before they are damaged. Cover any root crops still in the ground, such as parsnips, with straw, bracken or even leaves (held down with netting) so that they can still be lifted when the surrounding soil is frozen solid. Cauliflowers can be improved as they start to mature by snapping an outside leaf and laying it across the curd to protect it from the cold. Lettuce and other vegetables being over wintered in the open should be covered with cloches to help them through the worst weather. Also support tall vegetables with canes or sticks to prevent wind damage.
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Jerusalem artichokes (tubers)