By Brian Kaller
AS the days get very short indeed and we are now in what seems like the 547th week of quarantine, most of us are not getting enough light, cheer, fresh air, exercise or company. Thankfully, one thing can help fix all of those – getting outside to the garden. You can talk over the fence with neighbours – hopefully at quite a distance – as well as keep active when both the virus and the season are conspiring to keep everyone inside. You can also enjoy the few hours of light and recharge your Vitamin D – which helps your immune system. Most of all, you can use your time productively, and prepare the garden for next year.
When you plan your garden, try to think in three dimensions, using not just fields or garden beds, but hedgerows and woods. Native Americans planted beans around their maize, to climb up the fast-growing plant, with squashes underneath. You can have beans, peas or other climbers planted under maize or sunflowers. You can plant hazel saplings to produce nuts, wrap raspberry vines around them, and plant shade-loving blueberry bushes and sorrel underneath, to get multiple levels of crops going upwards.
If you don’t already have animals like chickens, rabbits or bees, this is a good time to think about getting some, and find whether you could keep them on your property. Many people find spring the best time to get new animals, so best to start planning their new environment now.
Even in the depth of winter, you should still be able to harvest some things regularly – kale and cabbages remain intact under most winter conditions here, as do beetroots and celeriac. If you are concerned about frost harming the plants, though, I just put my beetroots in boxes of sand and they kept all winter with no damage. If you didn’t plant any of those, though, you can still grow bean sprouts or other plants inside, giving you constant fresh food cheaply.
This is also a good time to plant in a poly-tunnel, greenhouse or cold-frame – the last being a box with a transparent roof, like a mini-greenhouse. If you don’t have any of these try making cloches, clear containers to protect your plants from frost and give them a head start.
To make a cloche you can take a scissors and cut across the middle of a plastic fizzy-drink bottle, leaving a bell-shaped dome for your seedling. The resulting plastic will be quite floppy, so you might want to support it with a criss-cross of sticks poked through the plastic and taped together where they cross. You can place the bottle over seedlings in the garden – preferably with the bottle-top screwed on at night to keep out frost, and left open during the day to allow the plant to breathe.
This is the right time to cut willow, either to build a hedge, weave a basket or just spread the willow around. If you want to take a row of willows and make them into a hedge, cut the willow partway through the stem at whatever height you need. Cut only partway so that you leave some of the xylum, the inner bark that transports water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves, and energy from the leaves to the roots. Then fold the stem above the cut, and weave it around the trees and branches around it so it stays in place. If this is done properly, the tree will remain alive and continue to grow above the cut, and will create a living fence.
To spread willow over your property, cut stems off the tree and plant them in a bucket of water. Wait a few weeks until they grow a shock of white roots in the water, and then dig a hole where you want them to grow. Cut off the roots around the stem, plant them in the hole and refill it.
Finally, if you haven’t picked any sloes yet, there are lots of sloe – or blackthorn – trees all around, and I see most of their small blue fruits going to waste. Pick them now and make sloe gin for next Christmas – it will be fun, cost you almost nothing and give you home-made gifts to give to everyone next year.