14 Dec 2018
The Lazy Gardener – December
Let the soil enjoy some peace and quiet
The coming winter wraps the garden in a very special kind of magic; it’s a world composed of the bizarre skeletons of shrubs and trees. The snow forms small hats on the broad umbels of the fennel plant. And the withered, cotton wool-like seed heads of the asters are given a completely new, individual life on frosty days. It’s also beautiful now to watch the birds as they pick the seeds from the umbels. Many plants can be left all winter, unless a lot of very heavy snow is coming.
When heavy frost sets in, the garden looks like a winter’s fairy tale. Conifers wrapped in snow and the complex shapes of the branches of the trees exude an almost solemn stillness. If the sun comes out on cold winter days, everything glitters in the “enchanted” garden. And when the moon shines onto the rigid sculptures in the garden on a cold, cloudless night that has a unique beauty. However, such a fantastic winter garden world is only experienced by those gardeners who keep their pruners in check in the autumn. That is why we plead again and again that as many plants as possible should be left alone right through the winter.
Enjoy the winter garden
It does you good and calms you to be able to trudge through the snow in the morning with a warming cup of tea, admire the bizarre ice flowers on the plants and shrubs, and watch the birds as they search for food. Now and then, we even surprise a deer looking for green vegetables among the snow-covered beds. The raised beds steam on sunny days and, if temperatures allow, we eat fondue or raclette outside with friends and family.
Let the soil enjoy some peace and quiet
The soil does not need to be dug over in winter, because this just needlessly compacts the wet and hard soil. There are also other opinions and views on this topic: Some people advise digging over the soil in autumn, others to leave it fallow, while yet others (and that includes us) advise doing nothing, that is: leave it as it is. Various tiny creatures only live in very specific layers. If we change these soil layers and structures by digging over the soil or working it mechanically, we force these creatures into living in an environment that is very unfavorable to them, which of course impedes their work and thus the benefit that they provide us. And that’s why we prefer permanent planting, green manure, and “soil cosmetics” with extracts of stinging nettles and comfrey. This simple method of soil management has proven itself effective for us.
The winter months are not at all as lean as you might think. With a bit of luck with the weather and no frost, various brassica varieties are ready to harvest now: Brussels sprouts, red and white cabbage, cauliflower, and the indestructible and vitamin-rich curly kale. There are also root vegetables like rutabagas, parsnips, celeriac, and turnips fresh from the garden, as well as endive, winter purslane, corn salad, and, depending on the weather, even some remaining lettuce and arugula. We have to decide whether to leave the vegetables on the beds or harvest and store them. Since we work a relatively large garden, we give ourselves the luxury of leaving some on the beds, despite the risk that they might freeze. We believe that vegetables fresh from the soil are better in quality and taste than stored.
Winter-harvested horseradish is one of the root vegetables that strengthens the whole organism. It is used with meat dishes, sausages, stews, and fish due to its hot flavor. Horseradish is harvested starting in September, when the plant sap is drawn back into the root, and the harvest can continue all winter. Alongside its use in the kitchen, the root is also used as a health remedy, mainly for digestive trouble, stubborn bronchial coughs, and lung complaints. Not without reason is the plant also called “the farmer’s antibiotic.” The effective ingredients in horseradish are mustard oil glycosides, vitamin C, vitamin B1, flavonoids, and potassium salts. It activates the gastric juices due to the hot taste, thereby stimulating the appetite. It has also been demonstrated to have an antispasmodic effect on the musculature of the internal organs. The plant has proven its worth against viruses and inflammation as well.
This plant is of very great importance to us, which is why we have described it here. Alongside the red coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), we consider horseradish to be one of the most important plants in getting through the winter healthily and free from flu.
Here’s the recipe: Horseradish cream (for all those who like hot flavors) We dig up the horseradish roots, and wash and peel them. They are then finely grated and mixed with whipped cream, lemon juice, and sea salt. Horseradish cream is ideal with meat, fish, sausages, and “Gschwellti” (jacket potatoes). The amount of grated horseradish root depends on the degree of heat you want. If you don’t like it so hot, add a bit of sweet, grated apple.
Gardener’s reflections and future outlook
The transition between the years is for us a time for reflection, and at the same time for looking forward full of anticipation to the coming spring. Every garden year we experience makes us more mature and experienced as gardeners and people. Frances and I discuss what we have learned in the evening next to the fire in our warm living room. We think about what has been good and what we can do better. We try to record our thoughts and experiences so that we can carry out our resolutions in the new year. We appreciate the winter, the fallow time, and take time for ourselves to replenish our strength and also to achieve a little tranquility.
Reflections on low-maintenance gardens
Gardeners can avoid becoming overwhelmed by work in the garden. A “low-maintenance” garden needs to be well planned. And it takes patience. You have to find the right balance between controlled and wild nature. That begins with dividing up the plots and ends with the choice of plants. The other important question is how much time you have available. The rule of thumb is: The larger the proportion of the kitchen garden, the more work there is. That’s because vegetables and herbs are more labor-intensive than lawns and perennial beds.
The next thing we must be aware of as gardeners is what kind of garden we want. Are fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit important, or can we do without those? Do we love flowering plants and their beautiful blooms most of all? Should fruit trees and berry bushes play the main role? A little of everything? Or a lot of everything? Many gardeners make the mistake of wanting too much at the start and trying to be self-sufficient from the very beginning! And so every square yard is planted, with the result that day in and day out grapes, blueberries, raspberries, zucchini, lettuces, cucumbers, beans, and much more besides have to be harvested, trees have to be pruned, bushes cleared, proliferating ground cover ripped out, that you have to weed and water for all you’re worth, and so the garden becomes a cause of stress.
Winter jobs in brief
- Even if the garden has been prepared for winter, we do not clear everything out. Perennials that contain seeds and seed heads, like burning bush (dittany or Dictamnus albus), hollyhocks, sweet fennel, and coneflowers, are left alone. They decorate the garden, especially when they are covered with hoar frost.
- At this time of the year, there are lots of useful insects nesting among the stems, stalks, and insect hotels. They are preparing themselves for the coming year when they will attack the harmful pests. That’s why it is important not to clear the garden entirely, but to leave the grass, foliage, branches, and heaps of stones lying in various places around the plot so that hedgehogs, slow-worms, salamanders, toads, and frogs can find hiding places among them.
- Protect cleared beds from frost by applying compost and mulch to them. Grass cuttings and garden waste prevent the loss of nutrients. This cover is applied to the cleared beds in a layer about half to one inch thick, because the micro-organisms in the soil require a sufficient air supply to convert the vegetable matter into nutrient-rich humus. Layers that are too thick suffocate the soil and lead to decay.
- Clear the beds of weeds once more. Distribute easily compostable leaves over the beds.
- We leave fallen autumn leaves under the trees and shrubs.
- Leaves that do not decompose easily are shredded before we compost them. These include walnut, oak, chestnut, and poplar leaves, for example. They should be mixed with other organic materials, such as lawn cuttings, small twigs, or kitchen waste. But the proportion of leaves should not be more than a fifth.
- Plant bare-rooted trees and bushes on frost-free days.
- Prune apples, pear trees and berry bushes before the soil gets too cold and wet.
- Possibly cover the beds with sheets to protect plants from heavy rain and frost.
- It’s time to harvest the Chinese cabbage. This crisp vegetable tolerates light frosts without problems. Chinese cabbage is easy to digest and contains a lot of vitamin C, fiber, and trace elements.
- The main harvest time for Brussels sprouts is from November to mid-January. They are not harmed by light frost. Frost even ensures that the sprouts get the right flavor because the sugar content of vegetables is increased by freezing temperatures. In very harsh areas, you should protect the plants with fleece or brushwood.
- Leeks, endive, corn salad, radicchio, fennel, parsnips, black radish, beets, salsify, Jerusalem artichokes, cauliflower, broccoli, curly kale, and white cabbage are ready to harvest.
- Container plants need protection from frost. Clay pots should not be placed directly on the ground because this will prevent proper drainage. There is a risk that the accumulated water will expand when it freezes and shatter the pots.
- Place house plants such as orchids next to the window so that they get sufficient daylight, but not in full sun.
- Plant amaryllis bulbs.
- Plant the last bulbs for spring flowers in the garden and in balcony containers.
- Drain frost-sensitive water pipes and tanks in the kitchen garden and ornamental garden.
- In many places, the first snow falls in December, though the heaviest snowfall is expected from January onwards. To prevent snow damage, the snow must be shaken from trees, bushes, and hedges, and from the roofs of greenhouses and cold frames.
To follow in January:
- Garden planning
- A new year begins
- Preparing for the new garden season
- Relaxed gardening
- Observing nature
- Patience brings roses
- Biological balance
- How big a garden is sensible
A brief biography of Remo Vetter “The Lazy Gardener”
Born in Basel in 1956, Remo ran an international company selling natural products for over 35 years. He’s now in demand as a garden designer, consultant and author and has created many successful garden projects in Switzerland, England and Ireland.
- Self-employed since 2018.
- Lectures in Switzerland and abroad exploring sustainability, our interconnected natural world, and finding meaning in life.
- Numerous appearances in radio, TV and print media in Switzerland and abroad.
- Monthly columns in various magazines.
His book “The Lazy Gardener und seine Gartengeheimnisse” Achieving Better Results in Your Organic Garden with Little Effort is available from atVerlag ISBN 978-3-03800-941-2
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