Coping with Winter
9th Jan 2003
We have had the odd very cold night over here in Anglesey and one can only expect some hard frosts between now and the end of next month if we get a Winter like we should be having I certainly know that the frost brings it's own problems, it can particularly put a great deal of load on your electric greenhouse heater. Do make sure that you check everything electrical every evening when there is severe frost about, always remmeber, it"s better to be sure than sorry.
In order to give your heater a fair chance to cope, particularly if it's wattage is just enough to heat up the cubic capacity of the greenhouse that you have. Drop the thermostat slightly to stop the heater working constantly, not too much mind as the plants may well suffer. If for example you always have your heater working at 60°F, then over any hard frosty evenings, drop the temperature to 55°F. It won't harm the plants at all, they will still tick over, but you will have saved your heater from working overtime, saved a few pennies in your pocket as well as helping towards conserving our planet. Of course when the really hard evenings are past us, then the thermostat can be re set to it's normal temperature.
Keep your eye on hose pipes as well, I was well and truly caught out a couple of years ago when the whole pipe and the aluminium lance froze solid. After the thaw the hose pipe was fine but the lance had cracked right along it length rendering it useless. Of course it could have been saved had I taken the correct precautions of switching off the water at a valve close to the house and then draining the whole hose pipes and leaving the lance in the on position.
One source of worry for me are the polytunnels, these are really marvellous inventions, but as I have said before, they can be ovens in the Summer and freezers in the Winter. Most people of course will probably have their tunnels empty, but in my case I have a range of vegetables planted down for seed production. In the main they are long and short carrots, leeks and long beetroot. In the past I used to cover them over completely with straw which usually prevented any frost damage. These days, should the weather really turns abysmal, I can usually cope through using Winter grade fleece to cover all the specimens. I do mean covering them too, even tucking in the edges into the soil when applicable to prevent any keen draught killing exposed specimens. I have in the past, on very hard frosts, covered them over with two layers of fleece which has worked well.
Some Advantages to the Cold
Of course there are marvellous benefits to be had from the frost as well, that is why I welcome it to some extent as it always seems to clean things up as well as killing the eggs of a bug or two. I'm talking in particular about the soil and the benefits of the frost breaking up the clods. Of course to gain the maximum benefit, particularly on a new plot or a plot that has heavy soil, it really does pay to have the ground roughly dug over before Christmas. There's no need to spend valuable time trying to break up the lumps into smaller parts, leave the frost do the work for you.
You should by now have had a PH test on your soil as well, this is how acidity / alkalinity is measured. The PH is determine by the amount of Lime or Calcium present in your soil as well as the type of soil that you have. Soils in Britain tend to range from PH4 to PH8. However more importantly, always remember that as well as having an affect on PH, lime is the fourth most important plant food and depending on what you grow, you must keep it within the correct bands. For most vegetable growing a PH of 6.5 is sufficient but for onions and leeks I would aim for 6.75 if at all possible.
After a hard frosty night, the following morning is perfect to apply lime to your vegetable plot, simply because you can walk on top of the soil to your hearts content without causing any damage. Very often the use of lime together with fertilisers is not advocated and can be a disadvantage, even with lime compatible type of fertilisers. It is a wise precaution to leave at least 4 if not 6 weeks between the use of lime and fertilisers. It is therefore to wise to start early so that you have time to apply any fertilisers later on. If the 6 weeks delay causes timing problems then it is much better to get the level of lime right first and then use the fertiliser as a top dressing 4 to 6 weeks later.
What lime to use, well the one you buy at your local garden centre will probably have a label on it 'Garden Lime' and that is the one you need to use. This is a natural limestone that has been ground to powder with its speed of effect and persistence in the soil depending on how finely it has been ground. Generally it is not as strong as Hydrated, needing about 30% more to raise the PH by the same amount. Hydrated lime is fast acting but does not last well in free draining soils. It can however be very effective in producing a fast change in PH level and probably suitable for all the heavier types of soil. That is why I sometimes recommend carrying out your own PH test during mid Summer and then using hydrated lime to bring it up to 6.75.