species crocus, with visiting honeybees
species crocus, with visiting honeybees

Here in the north Cotswolds it has been remarkably warm this last week; so much so, we were able to eat lunch outside one day in our sheltered ‘Courtyard Potager’. Could we be fooled into thinking that spring has sprung early? Crocuses opened their delicate floral goblets wide in the sunshine and were a mass of honey bees. Remarkable, that; we usually see bumbles long before hive bees. But bumbles actually prefer wild flowers (weeds). If you have none in your garden, it pays to cultivate some! For without bees – of any sort – you will lessen the chance of a damson crop, or other early-flowering tree fruits. If the thoughts of weeds (wildlings) in your garden is anathema to you, plant up a few pots, and keep down self-setters such as annual red-deadnettle, and creepers like the perennial white variety, and the violet-scented but insidious winter heliotrope. All three are in flower now, and serve their purpose at this time of year in attracting bees.

Overwintering self-set corn salad
Overwintering self-set corn salad – a taste to come, and earlier than if they had been sown now.

As I was weeding the potager, I was delighted to see that my corn salad (lambs’ lettuce) of last summer had seeded itself; the young plants look healthy, so I will protect them against hard frost which no doubt we will still experience, before the winter’s out. Be prepared! If the ground is fit and you are tempted to sow early, ensure you have an adequate supply of fleece or cloches. In my case, I am usually late, and every year, weeds have overtaken me; some weeks I have no spare time at all. But yesterday (25th Feb), I forked over two of the raised beds, throwing weeds to the hens rather than compost them. A handy tip to anyone using the excellent link-a-bord beds for the first time: avoid inserting the fork so that it is forced against the sides as you dig. Instead, work parallel to the sides, throwing the weed and earth into the middle; then extract the weed and rake the cleaned soil back into place.

Over-wintering greens fared well, despite very hard frosts
Over-wintering greens have fared well, despite some very hard frosts

There is still weed in the cabbage beds, but these are left until later for fear of disturbing the roots, causing potential wind-rock of my purple sprouting, broccoli. By this time of year, these lush plants sometimes need staking – hazel prunings are fine, or a short bamboo cane. I then turned my attention to the courtyard potager perimeter. Not walls, but shrubs. Again, some had got out of hand and were pruned back to allow you growth (pruned to below the height you eventually want to achieve).


Woody prunings protect newly forked beds
Woody prunings protect newly forked beds from unwanted feline visitiors.

And here’s another tip: the prunings were placed over the newly forked raised beds; this prevents the attentions of marauding cats and dogs, and dust-bathing sparrows. There’s a danger in pruning and clearing debris too early: you destroy the winter hiding places of hibernating ladybirds. Once the forked earth has settled, the beds will be topped up with fresh compost, and once early salads are sown, the prunings will be replaced, providing much-needed protection for the emerging seedlings. As ever, still much to do, but I’ll stop for a mug of coffee and write up my ‘Potager Progress’ diary.

diary potager progress
Keeping a garden diary is useful – looking back to exactly a year ago, before the ‘courtyard potager’ came into being, the weather was so very different, as was the area of ground from which this mini-garden was created.

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