There's a quiet excitement about trhe start of a new growing season. Caro Shrives is making a willow basket to earth up potatoes, and sorting seeds

Life on the Veg Patch - a new series starts in Garden Answers January 2022 issue

by Liz Potter |

January falls bang in the middle of what I like to call The Winterlude. As tempting as it is to snuggle down indoors with a mug of tea and stack of gardening books, it’s a good time to take stock of the garden outdoors, as well as in. Obviously I don’t spend ages outdoors in all weath-ers (although it has been known) but the still air of the garden in winter tempts me out daily for a quick stroll around, wrapped up warmly, to check on my fruit trees and winter crops.

Chitting potatoes on a windowsill
Chitting potatoes on a windowsill ©CARO SHRIVES

I can’t help feeling a bit smug at being able to collect fresh vegetables from the patch in the middle of winter. It’s definitely worth allocating space for a few handsome brassicas; they take almost an entire year to be ready, but it’s so worth it. Last year, I had several purple-sprouting broccoli cultivars producing stems from early January onwards. Edible heaven!

In the winter months I grow leeks, a few Brussels sprouts, several different kale and purple-sprouting broccoli cultivars, winter carrots and oca (those little lemony-tasting South American tubers). Oca need a period of cold weather to bulk up, so are a good potato substitute in win-ter. Unlike potatoes, their shallow-rooted tubers are easy to find, being brightly coloured in shades of pink, orange or yellow. Very cheerful!

Any time this month or next is good for pruning and I’m rarely without my secateurs. January is the perfect time to get them freshly sharpened and oiled because who knows when a wayward stem might need snipping? I have apple, pear and quince to tidy up (plums and cherries are done in late summer) and raspberry canes are chopped down in January, saving the stems for future peas to climb.

Open-bottom willow baskets make an attractive way to earth up potatoes
Open-bottom willow baskets make an attractive way to earth up potatoes ©CARO SHRIVES

Nothing gets wasted, whether it’s for the garden or for crafting. I like to bring the garden in-doors, making wreaths with dogwood (cornus) or Virginia creeper stems, tucking ivy, herbs and seedheads into the gaps. A few years ago I saw bottomless baskets made from willow stems woven around sturdy poles, which I reckoned would be a beautiful way to grow potatoes, by earthing up the spuds as they grew inside the baskets. Luckily Virginia creeper stems grow wild where I live and are just as good as willow for weaving into basket structures and plant sup-ports in the herb garden. This month I’m going to have a go at making baskets, especially as it’s a project that can just as well be done indoors as out.

On bitterly cold days it’s nice to be indoors, settled into a cosy spot with a hot drink, a few gar-dening books, a notebook and pencil. Even after years of food growing, I still find inspiration in gardening books, being reminded of different plants to grow – and when – and honing my very extensive list into a slightly more realistic plan.

But first, the seed box. I have zilch discipline when it comes to buying seeds, and am always tempted to grow all kinds of crazy plants – loofah gourds, red mountain spinach (Atriplex ru-bra), beads (yes, I have a home-grown bracelet!) and exploding cucumbers (achocha)... the list goes on.

So this year the plan is to sow the sensible seeds first, which in January is leeks, onions, peas, spinach and maybe Jerusalem artichokes. I’m growing them in modules on the windowsill next to my chitting potatoes; outside I’m sowing broad beans.

I planted garlic cloves in late autumn but now’s also a good time to get them started (p72) – perhaps with some horti fleece over the top.

As for the rest of my seeds, they’ll be subjected to the annual seed box detox. I use the ‘Spark Joy’ method of decluttering, popularised by doyenne of decluttering, Marie Kondo. Any seeds that haven’t been used in the past year are unlikely to be used this year (fresh is best), so out they go, leaving space for new ones from the seed catalogues. And that, in theory at least, leaves me with a streamlined seed box filled with the potential to grow a beautiful, productive, edible garden.

One last thing. I get bothered every year with compost gnats buzz-bombing me from the com-post my seeds are growing in. Last year, I discovered butterwort, a bog-dwelling carnivorous plant that thrives on these pesky gnats. Mine is named Pingu after her botanical family, Pin-guicularia.

She’s easy to care for, provided I keep her soil moist, and she rewards me with beautiful purple flowers when she’s happy and well fed. I may even have to acquire another!

To read Caro's blog see or follow her on Instagram @urbanvegpatch

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