Kitchen garden in January


It’s not even a month since the Winter Solstice and already I’m noticing that we’re already starting to gain a little more light in the evenings. It’s not much, but it’s definitely a positive!

Last Sunday – despite dreary grey skies and wet ground underfoot, I took the baby and the buggy into the garden at 4pm. Whilst E slept after a being wheeled a few short circuits around the garden, I raked and collected up the last of the leaves for the leaf bin. I worked until just before 5pm, when the light was diminishing rapidly by the minute. Just three weeks ago it would have been impossible to work past 4:30pm… so I can’t complain.

Collecting up the last of the autumn leaves and clearing away last year’s homegrown cosmos flowers were two small but significant jobs that have been lingering on an ever-growing list of Things To Do This January. My Smallest Smallholding may well take a pause in January, but for me it gives me a little breathing space to catch up on a whole host of jobs, before everything kickstarts once again in the spring.

Frosty raspberry leaf backlit by sunshine

Realistically, with a 4 1/2 month in tow, I can only grab snatches of time here and there. To pretend I have hours on hand to potter and preen will do me no favours. So I need to keep the momentum going to keep on top of everything that needs doing.

One thing I’ve learned about parenthood is that I have to work around my new routine. So my To Do List needs to be simple and straightforward. That way, I can tick, tick, tick off the boxes and feel like I’m getting somewhere.

Here’s a few jobs that I’ve lined up for January and February at The Smallest Smallholding:

– Cut down autumn fruiting (primocane) raspberry canes
– Weed & mulch veg plots
– Continue cutting back brambles and pulling up nettles in the overgrown patch
– Plant garlic and winter onions (it’s still relatively warm and February – the coldest month – is still to come)
– Tidy long border
– Plant the last tulip bulbs (eek)
– Prune buddleias, roses and clematis
– Chit potatoes

What does chitting potatoes mean?

Chitting potatoes
It’s that time of year, when my kitchen windowsill fills with egg boxes full of chitting potatoes.

When I began growing my own fruit and veg back in 2006, there were a whole host of horticultural terms and phrases that I had never come across before. Throughout the last decade, I’ve picked up a fair amount of knowledge (I don’t think you ever stop learning and adapting when you’re growing your own), and a bit of a gardening vocabulary as well.

One of the first definitions I picked up was ‘chitting potatoes’.

In short, chitting potatoes means leaving them out in a cool, light space so that the potatoes can start to grow a few sprouts from the speck-like ‘eyes’. Chitting can usually start with earlies and main crop potato types from January or February, and usually a cooler windowsill with a sunny aspect will do. Always opt for seed potatoes (available online or from your local garden centre),  as these will be carefully bred and selected without diseases, and chit ‘blunt’ side up where you’ll likely find the most eyes for sprouting.

Whether you chose to chit your potatoes or not before planting them out when the soil is warm is entirely your choice. There is still an ongoing debate as to whether chitting actually helps the potatoes grow any stronger, faster or more prolifically. Me? I’m of the opinion that if you can give them a head start, then why not.

Making leaf mould

How to Make Leaf Mould

We have two rather large, overgrown and overbearing Sycamore trees that loom over The Smallest Smallholding. Together with the cherry, ash, damsons, crab apple and apple trees, we are subject to a rather large dump of leaf litter each Autumn.

But this year, instead of cramming the leaves into old compost bags and leaving the ugly bags strewn asunder, I decided to be a bit proactive and try to convert one of the old compost bins into a proper leaf mould bin.

Keep it Simple

Of course, old compost bags turned inside out with a few punctured holes for air and drainage work really, really well. But I’m trying to streamline everything and live life a little less haphazardly. I’m aiming to declutter – hence reclaiming the old wooden compost bin and using that instead.

The old compost bin was made by Rich –well aerated, with slats of wood spaced evenly around all sides. For leaf mould bins, some people opt for wooden poles, wrapped with chicken wire or fine mesh wire – probably the better option – but with us, it was a case of ‘make do and mend’ and this particular bin was ready and waiting!

autumn_garden

Compost Bin/Leaf Bin

But it had disappeared over the summer under a canopy of tangled brambles, nettles and bindweed, utterly neglected and forgotten whilst I waddled around with an ever-expanding baby bump, tried desperately to keep up with the veg plots despite a ballooning middle section. It’s only in the quiet, darker days of December that I’ve managed to turn my attention to composting, and start to tidy up the detritus of autumn and another growing season gone over.

To get going, I did a quick and cheerful chop around the bin, clearing away inch-thick brambles and tearing up whole networks of nettle roots. The bin was mostly empty, save for a few inches of gorgeously rich, dark and crumbly compost from our days of ex-battery hen keeping. Chicken poop and straw is just brilliant.

I then set about carting over wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of leaves, already soggy from the rain and mist, so no need to moisten with a sprinkle from the watering can.

There’s still plenty of leaf mould to collect from under the damsons and cherry, but there’s no particular rush. It’ll stay in situ for a year or two, before eventually decomposing down to a light and fluffy soil conditioner.

Here’s some quick tips for making the best leaf mould:

  • If it’s dry day, try mowing the dry fallen leaves into clippings; they’ll mulch  down and compost much faster, and you can add a little extra nourishment from the grass clippings too
  • Whether you opt for old compost bags or a purpose-built leaf bin, make sure it’s in a sheltered, preferably shady spot
  • Make sure the leaves are moist (but not soaked) when collected and readied for storage
  • Pine needles can be used for mulching, but may take 2-3 years to break down sufficiently
  • The bigger the leaf bin/bag, the quicker the leaves will break down