The Christmas week was never a time to be thinking about jobs around the garden. The mind is occupied with getting those last Christmas presents, stocking up with plenty of food and some quality liquid cheer. Selecting a nice wee dram is now a lot easier with excellent advice from Brian of Amber Lights on the previous page. Then of course there is the social side to organize as family and friends get together.
This year winter arrived very early, so there is a good chance for a white Christmas if it is still on any ones wish list.
My allotment activities have been about capturing snow scenes with the camera for winter landscape paintings. I was instructed to bring back some leeks now that they have been sweetened up with a bit of cold weather, but I just could not find them under a drift of snow two feet deep. Hopefully by the time you read this there will have been a wee thaw and my leeks will appear.
However this year I tried Brussels sprouts variety, Wellington. They have been terrific with large hard buttons and very sweet to taste. Just a pity they are so tall as they were still visible above the drifting snow and an easy target for our ever present resident flock of hungry pigeons.
The severe winter weather was well predicted so it gave us ample opportunity to gather a couple of large savoy cabbage Traviata, some Swedes and beetroot.
I am hoping my beetroot will be quite happy with a couple of feet of snow protecting it from the frosts. After a few hours of continually clearing snow from the drive it is very welcoming to see a plate of hot home made beetroot soup on the dinner table. Our best recipe uses fresh beetroot roughly grated with some onion, garlic, carrot and a potato. It is cooked with chicken stock, olive oil and some sugar, then served with a swirl of yoghurt or sour cream, and some lightly toasted garlic bread. It soon warms you up.
The deep snow has buried my coloured stemmed border, but the yellow winter Jasmine continues to flower through frost and snow. Christmas rose, Hellebores are wanting to flower, but are buried under deep snow.
The golden berried rowan Sorbus Joseph Rock has been spectacular with large bunches of bright yellow berries topped with snow standing out against the clear blue winter sky. At first the black birds were not too fussy about eating them until a flock of twenty waxwings found them and within three days the berries were gone. These are winter migrants from Scandinavia who swarm here in huge numbers when their own supply of berries is finished. They love rowans, pyracantha, hawthorns and cotoneasters and will quickly strip them in a short burst of frenzied eating.
Feed the birds
Birds and wildlife are just as much part of the garden’s attraction as plants and they are particularly welcome in winter when most of the garden is at rest. Every garden will have their own resident robin and blackie, but it is nice to see the range extended with a wren, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, chaffy and occasionally a greenfinch and bullfinch. The latter may be a very attractive bird, but he can be a proper vandal when he picks off flowers and buds in spring with no intention of eating them.
My bird feeders go out when I think their own natural food supply is getting hard to find. This year frost and snow have come a bit early so birds go looking for some human help on bird tables. Fortunately there is a wide range of bird food available. I supplement this with some bread, old bramley apples from store that are not keeping too well, bacon fat and keep the bird bath replenished with fresh water.
It has become a festive tradition to have a good colourful pot plant to decorate the living room during the Christmas period.
Poinsettias are very popular, easy to grow and will be quite long lasting as long as you don’t over water them. Give them plenty light, keep them warm but not near radiators. In its natural environment it will grow into a small tree, but for the house plant trade they are kept young and treated with growth retardants so you receive a compact plant full of coloured bracts. Thus once they are finished it is not worth keeping them for another year unless you are happy with a taller plant and are prepared to give them special growing conditions.
Once the coloured bracts are finished, adopt a drier water regime to encourage dormancy to give the plant a rest. Restart growth in late spring, repot if necessary with good free draining compost, and cut back the plant to a few inches. Once growth starts give a fortnightly feed and in summer grow the plant outdoors in a sunny spot. Keep growths pinched back to allow up to five shoots per plant and cut back any shoot that gets too big. Poinsettias require short day treatment to bring them into flower.
Thus from early October for the next ten weeks they will need to be kept in the dark for at least fourteen hours every day. Black them out from 5pm to 8am. Once the bracts begin to show colour bring them gradually into the light and continue to water and feed.
Christmas cactus is also a favourite that I find very reliable and quite easy, but again it has its needs. They come in a range of colours from red, pink, mauve and white. Mine have now finished their flowering so they will be allowed to go quite dry but not shriveled and kept in a light cool but frost free spot. They can be cut back at this time and the cuttings used to grow more plants. Once growth starts in summer restart watering and feeding to encourage growth. However this growth needs to ripen to encourage flower buds so I start to dry them off again in September. This helps to initiate flower buds which will appear in early winter. As soon as the flowers show, usually in November, restart watering and bring them into the warmth.
The plants should last for very many years, and often they will provide two shows per year.
Last of the grapes
Although 2010 will go down in my diary as yet again another very wet year, there was enough sunshine to ripen up most of my grape vines. I have three varieties in the greenhouse and a very large outdoor vine, Vitis vinifera Brant covering a west and a south facing walls.
My earliest variety, Flame is in the cold greenhouse. It is a red seedless grape which has some fruit ready at the end of August and continues till the end of October. It is very sweet and juicy but as with all seedless varieties some of the grapes can be small. It is the grape seeds that produce the growth hormones needed to swell up the fruit. Commercially, growers solve this problem by applying several sprays of gibberellic acid growth hormone. The first spray in spring causes the bunches to grow bigger thus spacing out the trusses with less overcrowding. The next spray at flowering causes some of the flowers to fall off reducing the need for thinning. Further sprays later on encourage berry growth so the end product is large seedless grapes well spaced out so they will not be troubled by diseases.
My organically grown, gibberellic acid free grapes, may be smaller, but they are still delicious.
I planted a white seedless variety called Perlette last winter so hopefully it will fruit in 2011.
My Black Hamburg greenhouse grape starts to fruit in mid September and I have now just finished off the last of then in early December. These have seeds so each grape is quite large and sweet and very juicy. It is easy to grow and is very reliable.
The outdoor Brant fruits from September to mid October, but our local Blackie is quite fond of them so as soon as I see a bit of damage they get harvested and made into juice. This will keep for two weeks in the fridge but can also be frozen in plastic bottles. The grapes are quite sweet so the juice does not need sugar.