Coping with wild winter weather
Winter weather can be a challenge to any gardener. Rain can be a major problem, but so can wind, snow and ice. It might be tempting to stay indoors and let the garden look after itself. But what about all the vegetables that are growing out there? If you took the time to sow leeks, sprouts, broccoli, kale and cabbage - if you planted them out, fed them and kept them free of pests - then there is no point abandoning them once the weather turns bad. Get out of the armchair and take a look around. A bit of attention now might keep the garden cropping well through the wintry weeks ahead.
If it's wet, wet, wet!
• Raise up the beds. Some parts of my garden are wetter
than others. Some are bone dry at times when other parts squelch. If you know that your garden is poorly drained and soil tends to water-log, it's best to think about this before planting winter crops. You can still plant in wet areas, but it is worth raising the soil up into mounds, or elevated beds. This will ensure that plant roots are above the level of the ground water table and so shouldn't rot - even if there is a moat round the base of the bed. It might be
too late now to do anything about raising up beds for this year, but make a note to do so next year if winter rain is a constant problem on your patch of ground.
• Sort out the drainage. Every farmer knows about draining land, but gardeners seem to forget that this is an option. For a thorough job, it isn't difficult to bury a length of perforated drainage pipe. This will shed water from its highest point to its lowest. There has to be some slope to the drain and there has to be somewhere for the water to run off to.
For a simpler solution, dig out a trench to allow water to run away from a waterlogged bed. The trench doesn't have to be very wide or very deep; as long as it allows water to run, it will do the job. If there's nowhere else for it to go, you can run water off to a corner of the garden that isn't planted. This is effectively shifting the water-logging problem to a different spot, but it will provide temporary relief for growing plants.
• Reconsider the layout of the plot. Some winters are wetter than others so drainage isn't always an issue. One-off periods of flooding can be coped with, but if a part of the garden is always wet, maybe you should consider making a pond and use drier parts in future for growing winter crops.
The wind doth blow
Tall plants need staking if they are to survive winter gales. This is a simple thing to do -push a strong stick down into the ground next to the plant and tie the stem in. However, there are a couple of tips that will make a simple thing work well.
1. Always use a strong stick that is long enough. Try snapping it in your hands - if it breaks, choose another one! Push the stick deep enough into the ground - at least 30cm (12in). Firm the ground back around the stick by treading it down. The stick shouldn't move around when you give it a shake. A support stick that breaks in the first strong wind is no use at all and it may even put more pressure on the stem of the plant that it was meant to support.
2. Always use thick string, or wind thin string round the stem a few times. Tie the stem in more than one place - a stem can break across a single tie. The stem will also break if a long length is left to wave around at the top of the plant.
3. Use more than one stick if necessary. Some gardens are sheltered, but some catch wind from all directions. To give tall plants the best chance of staying upright, use more than one support for each plant.
Snow and ice
Last winter was exceptionally cold for a long period and there was no shortage of snow and ice. Over-wintered plants have enough to contend with in an average winter, without being buried in snow or frozen solid. There isn't much you can do about the weather, but there are some things that can be done to help the plants.
1. Covering plants with horticultural fleece will give some extra protection. This works well in cold weather for small plants like over-wintered onions and garlic. However, a heavy fall of snow will collect on the fleece and vulnerable young stems can be snapped with the weight. It's worth shaking snow off any crop coverings. This reduces the risk of damage to brittle stems. It also allows light through to the crops underneath-light can become an issue if snow covers everything for several days, or weeks.
2. In a hard winter, birds are desperate for food; A snowfall can leave winter greens poking up from the ground like an inviting target. Pigeons will strip broccoli leaves and pheasants will peck their way up stems of Brussels sprouts. A few branches thrown over the bed will go some way towards protecting smaller plants. Fencing round the plot gives the best protection, but it will only work if the top is covered in - otherwise the birds simply fly in to eat and fly out again. Any netting will do, from a piece of trawler net washed up on the shore to the stuff for peas and beans to climb up, but you may need to raise it a little to stop pigeons pecking through to the crop.