December is the time coming up to the solstice which is a time most folk celebrate. At last after each day getting darker and darker, the sun turns about and the days begin to get longer again in the temperate latitudes. Part of the celebrations usually include a feast … and that means vegetables as well as your meat (if you eat it), so we need to care for and harvest the veg we’re going to eat.
This year, in Britain, we have heavy snow and extreme cold, like minus 12, 15 or 20 in the countryside, even the towns are rarely rising above freezing during the day. This makes life very difficult for harvesting. Winter vegetables are often very good at “standing”, i.e. remaining in the ground until you want to eat them, but getting them out when the ground is frozen is a whole other matter. Things like leeks, which are stems or rather leaves which have changed their form quite a lot so they all bind together into the familiar shape we know, are mostly water, and water freezes. Tugging at a frozen leek in the frozen ground means you break off a green icicle more often than not.
Here, we don’t have too much of a problem because we have cultivated and pampered the soil with tons (literally) of organic matter over the past ten years. In consequence the ground doesn’t freeze so solid, or rather it takes longer and lower temperatures to make it do so, so we can dig our leeks still, and our beetroots, swedes, turnips, parsnips, the root veg that make such delicacies at midwinter feasts. You can’t actually do much about improving your soil in this kind of weather – although mulches will help to some extent, but you can think about how you’ll change things in the coming year.
And you can look after the veg you have.
Brussels sprouts are famous for this time of year. If you like them, then picking them correctly will help the plants do well. Start by picking the sprouts at the bottom first and working up the stem. And don’t forget to firm them in regularly, each time you pick firm in the roots with your heel. The plants must have their roots in good contact with the soil all the time, particularly in the freezing weather. If they are not then not only with the roots freeze but, if they survive that they won’t be able to get water and nutrients unless the roots touch the earth. The contact enables the transference of food and water.
The same goes for the winter cabbages and sproutings. Make sure they are securely “seated” in the ground.
As you firm you can also make sure you take out any weeds that have survived too. You do this when you pull leeks, swedes, turnips, beets – any root veg that you’re going to pull out of the ground. The pulling naturally disturbs the soil so the weeds will come too. Don’t leave them lying about but put them into the compost straight away.
In the bad weather the birds will need food too and won’t be able to get it easily as they can when it’s milder. Your crops are there, available, they will want to eat them.
I always share with the creatures who live on the land with me. It’s something we all need to re-learn to do. But I also want the veg to eat for myself, it’s part of my livelihood. Like planting a couple of spare cabbages for the butterflies to lay their eggs on, I always have some spare crops in winter for the birds. And I also feed them seeds and nuts and scraps, make fat balls and fatty crumbs from the last of the bread and the fat from my bacon and sausages. But I also want to eat those veg so I protect them from devastation from the hungry birds. Netting the cabbage family from the pigeons is a good idea. It’s simple enough to do, canes driven into the ground with old plastic bottles on their tops will hold up some simple netting. Tie the netting to the canes with the ties from freezer bags and such – recycling really works.
The polytunnel is another good place and may be enough to keep the frosts off the plants – it’s too cold for that here without heating which we don’t have so our stuff has to come into the scullery, where it doesn’t go below freezing – at least inside. Fleece is good too and can help to make a micro-climate for the plants.
If you got overwintering peas and beans in before the snows came I hope you also covered them with fleece or they won’t have made it. If you didn’t then don’t try until after the snows have gone and the soil warmed a bit.
A good mulching of manure and/or compost covered with black membrane, once you can see the soil again from under the snow, will help to warm the soil earlier than leaving it alone. You’ll be able to sow a month earlier than if you didn’t make the effort so plan for it now. Make sure you have the compost ready, and the manure, and the covering. And plan your sowings so you know which beds need to be got going first. It’s a great way to spend some of the time over the midwinter celebrations, doing some planning for the year to come.