We seem to be going through a hard spell for any keen gardener. Last autumn came late and before I had a chance to gather up all the leaves the winter arrived and dumped at least two feet of snow everywhere. Many weeks later the snow melted very reluctantly, but there has been no warm sunny days to dry up the soil surface to allow digging, or other outdoor activities to proceed.
Any outdoor gardening tasks have to be planned in advance with an eye on the weather to take every opportunity to get outside if there is a few hours of dry weather.
The severe cold has taken its toll on a few plants, with my Fuchsia Mrs Popple really looking lifeless right down to ground level. She did that last year, but grew back up again from the crown. However, my palm tree, Cordyline australis has been dropping a lot of leaves and my Date palm, Phoenix canariensis, which just survived last winter looks deathly.
A garden is full of extremes as the hardier plants show their ability to survive. Aconites have started to germinate from natural scattered seeds and my Saskatoon seeds which I had to put in the cold greenhouse to keep them away from mice have also started to germinate.
The first flowers
My first snowdrops have appeared just as soon as the snow melted. It is very welcome to see the beginning of life in the garden. Aconites, Hellebores and the crocus species are all showing a bit of colour with the promise that they will open up their blooms as soon as we get a few warmer days.
The allotment has continued to provide a good supply of winter vegetables including Swedes, savoy cabbage, brussels sprouts, my last parsnip and leeks. The cold put paid to my Swiss chard and kale which I will miss in my stir fries, but I have just learnt that chopped up brussels sprouts are a very useful addition to the stir fry wok. I just have enough beetroot left for one more pot of soup, but I am amazed that they have survived unharmed underneath their blanket of snow for so long.
Onions in store are still quite firm, but all our eating apples are finished. Bramley apples stored in apple boxes in a cold garage are still very plentiful and used frequently for crumbles, sauces and pies. Any second rate apples are chopped up and simmered slowly to soften then strained in a jelly bag to make pectin. This is used to help set strawberry, saskatoon, and apricot jams. Any other apples beginning to look not at their best are chopped up for the blackbirds.
Our last stored pumpkin will be kept a few more weeks before the soup pot comes out. I will also retain the seeds for this years pumpkin plants.
The idea of a freezer is that you can have a wide range fresh fruit and vegetables all year round and to supplement any meagre winter supplies from outdoors. We have had such good outdoor crops that we are not making any serious impact to the stored crops other than to give meals some variety.
French beans, sweet corn, kale, pumpkin puree and every soft fruit grown are still ready in abundance. Jams and compote are used daily and Saskatoon pies for special occasions.
Aronias are used for jam and smoothies.
There is an awful lot to be said for growing your own fruit and vegetables. They are harvested when ripe and often eaten within minutes of picking. The flavour is intense, they have been grown without any harmful pesticides and there has been precious little air miles used up bringing them to the kitchen table.
The freezer allows us a fair bit of our fresh crops to be tasted out of season. This is a very healthy option. We get the exercise from cultivating and growing them, fresh air, sunshine, (as well as wind, rain and snow) and allotment life is a very sociable pastime.
We may not get a lot of crops out of season, but do we really want them?
I was enjoying my Scottish grapes from August to December when the last of the Black Hamburgs finally disappeared. Naturally grapes from the supermarket replaced my own crop. I then realized just how good my own grapes were compared to those imported grapes which were rather tasteless and neither juicy nor as sweet as my Scottish ripened grapes.
It is the same with tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, brambles and raspberries from every corner of the globe. They may look perfect, but try eating these hard, tasteless and not very sweet berries with no guarantee about which pesticides were used in their production.
Getting an allotment is the healthiest option.
Sweet peas sown two weeks ago are now through but I will grow them hardy in the cold greenhouse. Now is the time to sow onions and tomatoes. I grow my tomatoes on a windowsill for a few weeks hoping to transfer them to the greenhouse during a mild spell, but getting ready with some supplementary heating on any cold nights.
Continue with spreading manure and compost and getting it dug in as long as the ground is dry enough to work.
Pruning and shredding
Pruning has continued with the peach tree, roses, fuchsias, apples and pears. To make room for my new dwarf Cherry Cherokee and outdoor grape Solaris on a south facing fence, I am removing a mature Pyracantha and some shrub roses.
Many other garden shrubs are getting a prune to keep them in shape, remove old wood, overcrowded or weak shoots and encourage younger wood and flowers.
All of my prunings will get shredded and added to the compost heap. These get mixed with autumn leaves, grass cuttings, kitchen vegetable waste, old bedding plants and compost from hanging baskets, and growbags.
The compost heap will get turned at least once, or twice if I can find the energy. It is very hard work, but very helpful in producing brilliant compost. This will be ready in about nine months.