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16 October 2014
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Autumn 2001
  Kitchen Garden
  February: Compost heaps, seakale, rhubarb plants and asparagus seeds

by Barbara Pilcher February 2003

Even in the coldest days of winter, the compost heaps are snug under their blankets of old carpet. Attending to their needs continues as time, weather and energy permit. Sometimes it is necessary to clear one bin out so that a partially rotted heap may be turned into it, thus keeping the process moving along. This physically demanding task gives the heap renewed energy, and off it goes steaming away in the cold air, and decomposition is well under way. It is tempting at this time to dig the finished compost straight into the garden, but this may not be the best course of action. When it is still too soon to be planting crops, it is necessary to cover any beds treated with compost with polythene sheeting so that the valuable nutrients are not leached away by the copious amounts of rain we are sure to have before planting time. Better I think is to mound spare compost in a heap or, (easier to cover and to dig in when the time comes) a long mound alongside the bed. Covered with black polythene, weighted with planks or stones, it will sit until required in a month or so when the growing season gets under way.

The terracotta covers are already in place over seakale and rhubarb plants so that there will be beautiful blanched leaf-stalks soon. There is still time to start forcing: simply choose a few healthy parts to cover, making sure they are not ones that were forced the previous year. These need a resting year to recuperate! There is also still time to make root cuttings of seakale. I find it convenient to do this while organising forcing pots as I would propagate from those plants that I am not forcing. Using a fork, and proceeding with care so as not to damage them, a few good roots are located and cut about 10 cm from the plant. This thick end is the proximal end and is the upper end when you make each cutting; that surface should be cut straight across, so it is clear which way is "up". The roots are brought into the greenhouse or potting shed where some pots of rooting mix are made up. I use peat-free organic compost mixed with a half quantity of vermiculite. The roots are cut into segments about 6 cms long with the proximal end cut straight and the distal end, that towards the tip of the root, cut obliquely. Now there is no chance that the cuttings will be put in upside down, which would greatly hinder or even prevent rooting! Using a spatula or dibber, insert the cuttings (flat end uppermost!) into the moist compost, several to a pot, and with the top surface just proud of the compost. The pots are placed in a light but not too sunny position, somewhere frost free. Keep just moist and watch for little green buds to appear around the outer part of the root. These can be thinned out to 3 or 4 per root, by carefully "rubbing out" surplus buds with the thumb. Later they will unfold into young leaves, roots will grow and the cuttings may be potted up individually in the late spring and grown on into young plants. It is as simple as that.
Seakale seeds can also be sown at this time; it is a slightly slower method of producing plants than taking root cuttings. The latter technique has the added advantage, of course, that it maintains genetic identity, so it is the ideal way to perpetuate a favoured variety.

Willow Gentian There is still just time to propagate some rhubarb as this is best done between October and March. After selecting a vigorous healthy plant, pieces of the crown, with at least one good bud, are severed using a sharp spade. These "sets" are planted in a fresh piece of ground that has had some manure or compost incorporated. The buds should be just above the surface and sets 21/2 to 3 ft (75 - 90 cms) apart. The soil around the new plantlets must be kept free of weeds and moist throughout the next season. Cropping should be deferred for at least one year, and any flowering stalks cut off. With very little effort you have new plants. However, if your existing plants are losing vigour, don't propagate from them, but bring in some fresh virus-free stock and plant it in a new position.

AsparagusIt's timely too to hand weed the asparagus bed, yet another source of a gourmet treat. It is important not to cultivate deeply around the asparagus crowns as the developing spears are easily damaged. Stakes or canes may be usefully renewed now. This year I am making "quadripods" of my canes by gathering each group of four into a point, fastening with a length of wire and binding with some young pliable willow stems. By using a variety of willows ( or Cornus) with coloured bark, these give both a decorative finial and a protection against eye-damage when weeding or harvesting. Asparagus seed may be sown now, ensuring there is a supply of replacement plants for any gaps in the row.

So we are well on the way to the production of some of the most traditional and delicious of kitchen garden produce, forced seakale and rhubarb and asparagus. Surely a satisfying harvest to look forward to in the early days of spring.

Compost heaps, seakale and rhubarb | Harvesting, drying and storage | Extending the season for fresh herbs | Autumn Kitchen Garden | Winter herbs | February sowing | Soil Preparation | April Kitchen Garden


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