Garden tasks: December

Harvesting is one of the major tasks this month. In fact, it’s as important an activity as sowing, thinning, pruning or any other essential garden job. That’s because plants have just one thing in mind: to grow, flower, set fruit and then produce seed to grow again. That may be fair enough for a rose or a marigold, but you want your zucchini to keep on producing fruit. For that reason it pays to harvest these cucurbits, and other fruiting vegetables such as peas, beans and rhubarb, as soon as the edibles are large enough to warrant carting off to the kitchen. Harvesting in this way encourages plants to keep producing.

Fruit production takes energy, and plants producing over summer will need a top-up with nutrients if they’re to keep on keeping on. Liquid manure is the answer – liberal weekly feeds of water in which seaweed, comfrey leaves and animal manure have been soaking for several days. In the interests of hygiene, take care when watering this onto the garden. Keep the liquid off the fruit to be harvested and always wash produce thoroughly before using.

Intercropping is another mid summer activity. This is the practice of planting fast-growing plants underneath and in-between other, slower growing vegetables. Lettuce plants, for instance (especially fast-maturing loose-leaf varieties) can be planted between well-spaced broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower. They will be ready to harvest before the brassicas, and while they are in the garden, will mulch the soil to prevent weed growth. Vegetables such as peas and radish, which prefer cooler weather, can be intercropped with plants such as broad beans which will provide them with a little dappled light. Close to plants that are about to be harvested in the coming week or two, sow the seed of vegetables such as carrots and beetroot that need a fast-sunny start in life.

‘Succession planting’ is a gardening term which describes the ‘little and often’ practice of sowing seed to replace the vegetables maturing in the garden. It is a task that comes to the fore in summer when it can be tempting to just grow what you already have and to forget about coming needs. However, to have a ready supply of edibles, you need to plan. As brassicas are putting on growth, you should be sowing the seed of replacement plants. As early and main crop potatoes are flowering and producing the first edible-sized tubers, it is time to sow some late-cropping potatoes. When you are finishing one bed of lettuce, you will need young seedling lettuces to take their place.

As you transplant and re-sow succession vegetables, remember that your soil has already given of its best to the first batch of vegetables. Replenish the ground with compost and animal manure before you plant or sow again. If there is little room to move in a bed, replenish the goodness with lashings of liquid manure while the plants are becoming established. Where space is at a premium, it will pay to sow succession vegetables into seed trays and to move the seedlings into the main garden when a spot becomes available.

As summer moves on, December also becomes a time for thinning out young fruit on grapevines and fruit trees. This allows remaining fruit more space to mature. Living in a tough climate zone, I do my thinning in stages, at first leaving more fruit than I actually think the plant can manage and, later, once I can see there have been no storms to further decrease the potential harvest, thinning again.

Summer is certainly a satisfying time to be out in the garden but the warmth and more settled weather of the mid-season is not a signal to slacken off.

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