It’s a slog, isn’t it, that January? December is dark, February is cold. January is dark and cold. On the plus side, this means there is nothing you absolutely have to do in your kitchen garden. If you are so inclined you can take the month off, stay inside, eat chocolate and waste all your time on Twitter and Instagram.
However, if you are feeling industrious or simply depressed and desperate to feel like there is light at the end of the winter tunnel, there are a few things you can do. And, for two of them, you don’t even need to go outside.
- Buy a grow light. Winter sun is weak and low in the sky and if you sow plants on a windowsill at this time of year – even a very sunny one – they’ll soon struggle through lack of light. They’ll start off OK, but within a few days of germinating will become stretched and thin (etiolated, if you want to sound horticultural) and lean towards the light. Even if you turn the container they’re in every day, you won’t end up with the stocky seedlings you need to grow into a decent plant. This is OK if you’re going to harvest them as baby salad leaves, but that’s about it.
The solution is to get hold of an artificial light to grow the plants under. I have this grow light system. I sowed lettuce, chard, beetroot and peas thickly in plastic pots and plan to harvest them as baby salad leaves (and pea shoots) as soon as that light can tempt them to a decent size. Since it’s on the floor rather than on a windowsill I’ve added some kitchen foil taped to the walls around it to maximise the light the seedlings are getting since I noticed they were getting a bit lanky even with the artificial light.
2. Grow microgreens. Even without a grow light (although it has to be said, they’ll be quicker and crunchier with one) you can get a decent windowsill crop of these little shoots and leaves. Any salad or herb works well (fennel and radish are particularly tasty), as does broccoli, peas, carrots. Sow thickly and cut when a couple of inches high then scatter on salads. In their seedling form, the flavours of microgreens are surprisingly intense.
If growing in compost seems a bit 20th century for you, why not go hydroponic? I bought a hydroponic windowsill kit last year from Achiltibuie Garden and had a lot of fun with it, growing lettuce, basil, chives and dill. Since there’s no compost involved – you grow in a sterile, white granular medium a bit like Perlite – it’s clean and light. All feed and instructions are provided and it’s really easy to grow a good microgreen crop. The best thing? You can reuse the growing medium afterwards by blasting it in the microwave so you don’t have to keep replacing it.
3. If you’re lucky enough to have an apple, pear or quince tree, now’s the time to prune it. There’s a lot of fear and confusion about pruning fruit trees, but it’s actually fairly simple – just get your secateurs or pruning saw and follow these 3 steps. (Stone fruit trees – such as plums, cherries and peaches – can’t be pruned now so hold fire if you have one of those.) Oh, and if you have one of those really old, overcrowded, gnarly fruit trees that haven’t been pruned for donkey’s years, you’ll need more drastic pruning in which case I refer you to the excellent RHS guide. Otherwise, this should do it…
- Cut out any dead, diseased or damaged wood (the famous ‘3 Ds’).
- Remove any main branches that are crossing over other ones or growing into the centre of the tree, cutting them back to the trunk.
- Cut about a third off the previous season’s growth of the tree’s main branches, cutting back to an outward facing bud. You can see how much they grew last year by tracing back to the evidence of last year’s pruning cut. Any branches coming off these main ones should be left unpruned unless they are too close together (10cm or less) or crossing other branches, in which case cut them back to the main branch.