What with two books published in the past month, things have been a bit hectic here, and the blog has been suffering - so it is time to start all over!
There is a strange period in the vegetable garden around the New Year, as the first crop of vegetables and fruit, so carefully tended and carried through to provide special treats (new peas, new potatoes, strawberries and raspberries) for the Christmas table, has been harvested and there is a little lull. It is time, though to start thinking and planning for the cooler winter months ahead, as well as continuing the succession of summer plantings.
I know it seems decidedly odd to be thinking of the dreary months that stretch out after May, but if you do not get under way with winter crops, there will not be a long enough season left for the plants to come to maturity. In fact, it is probably a little late for some of these crops already, but we will push on and get these under way anyway.
The basic tenet we are working on is that most vegetable plants will stop growing over the winter. If you have planted later in the season the crops will not have had long enough to mature into full size, and they will go into a holding pattern. Once spring comes and the growing conditions improve, they will think it is time to flower and they will “bolt”, rendering them useless.
Planting now (and keeping the newly planted seedlings moist) gives the plants the opportunity to take advantage of the extended growing season, when temperatures are at the most conducive for good growth. It also means most will be approaching maturity when the temperatures start to fall in late autumn/early winter, and the colder conditions will hold them in a good state for months, enabling a protracted harvest.
One crop that needs to go in soon is a good supply of that winter staple, leeks. I was thinking about these valuable vegetables the other day, out at ‘Brancepeth’ when we launched a book I co-authored with Alex Hedley about the Beetham family and their remarkable collection of buildings at ‘Brancepeth’. There used to be very extensive kitchen gardens in years gone by, and I fondly recall the late Hugh Beetham coming in every year and buying multiple bundles of leeks for planting.
Nowadays it is not so easy to find field-grown leek seedlings – most of us have to be content with punnet-grown supplies – but if you can find plants that have been sown in the open ground it is far better to plant these. They will be much thicker and more robust than punnet grown types which are usually drawn up and thin. You could consider twice-planting these punnet-grown leeks if you have the space and time. Just plant them out in small clumps in a nursery bed until they have grown on and made a bit of thickness, then plant them into their final spot.
Leeks like lots of humus in the spoil, so work some well-rotted animal manure (chicken pooh is great!) or humus-rich compost into the soil, working it in well. If your plants are robust enough to be planted out now, trim the top of the leaves off, keeping about 50mm. Plant by using a dibbler to make a hole into the well-prepared soil, and then drop one leek into each of the holes, which should be about 125 mm apart. The best way to plant is to keep all of the bottom part of the leek in the hole, with just the 50mm of foliage showing, then just squeeze the top of the hole to keep the leek upright position – do not fill the hole – and water in very well. Obviously you should keep the plants well-watered until the autumn rains arrive.