In The Garden: Mild winter may reap less fruit

Winter apple tree
Winter apple tree

TIPS on how to protect crops such as figs during winter — plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.

This year’s mild winter may lead to reduced fruit crops this autumn with a subsequent rise in prices, according to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

Most hardy fruit plants need a period of chilling during winter to encourage flowering. Without this cold effect, evidence shows that crops, including blackcurrants, cherries and some apple types which have a particularly high chilling requirement, may be reduced.

The other potential problem is that if there is not a prolonged cold period plants will start growing earlier than normal and may flower early too, putting them at a greater risk of damage if there is frost in April and early May.

Early flowering could mean less fruit being set as there may be fewer pollinating insects around. The current cold spell may help but RHS fruit experts suggest that a colder and longer spell of weeks is needed to ensure that growth and flowering development is held back.

“We have already seen buds on the trees beginning to swell,” says Jim Arbury, RHS fruit and trials specialist.

“I have noticed that two of our autumn-fruiting raspberries were flowering. This shouldn’t be a problem as the canes will be cut to ground level in February. More worrying is that our blackberry cultivar ‘Silvan’ is also flowering and is therefore likely to have a reduced crop.”

There’s only a limited amount gardeners can do to reduce the damage.

Arbury advises: “If gardeners have only one or two fruit bushes that have started filling their buds, these can be covered with some horticultural fleece or an old curtain if it looks like there is going to be frost overnight.”

However, what you may lose in apples, you may gain in figs, says Guy Barter, RHS chief horticultural adviser.

“Figs don’t need cold over winter to flower. The fig flowers inside the fruit and a milder winter like this is perfect for them, leading to earlier crops and bigger harvests.”

However, the tips of branches that carry fruit are vulnerable to frost and a potential crop can be ruined during cold weather.

Protect figs in winter by covering the bare branches with a few layers of horticultural fleece or by packing the fan-trained branches with straw. Remove the fleece or packing by the end of May.

Greenhouse fruits such as nectarines and peaches should flower earlier, although they will still be in their dormant state until March, when flowers begin to form.

If you’re new to greenhouse gardening, invest in a thermometer and avoid overheating the glasshouse, but also make sure you take the greatest care to avoid the flowers becoming frosted if there’s a late cold spell.

On warm summer afternoons, open up the greenhouse to let pollinating insects do their work.

If the warm winter followed by late frost hinders your apple harvest, try other types for more success.

Barter advises: “Amateur growers can buy late-flowering cultivars, including ‘Court Pendu Plat’, an ancient French dessert variety which flowers at the beginning of May, or the cooking varieties ‘Crawley Beauty’, the latest flowering apple, or ‘Edward VII’.

Best of the bunch - Black lily grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’)

Commonly known as lilyturf, this striking black grass-like perennial which originates from Japan looks brilliant framing the front of a border with its curved, strap-shaped purplish-black leaves, which grow to around 35cm (14in) long.

It can also look effective in clumps in rockeries, alongside yellow or acid foliage. The purplish white summer flowers are followed by fleshy blue-black berries. Grow it in full sun to maintain its colour.

It contrasts well with vivid green shrubs or acts as an effective ground cover combination set against gold variegated Hakonechloa macra.

In contemporary gardens, put two or three plants in a metal or granite pot for a more modern effect. Older leaves may go brown in winter, but these can be removed individually. Plants can be divided in late winter and early spring.

Good enough to eat - Broad beans

Tender young broad beans may not be as popular as French or runner, but they are packed with protein and highly versatile, ideal for eating hot or cold and they also freeze well.

Sow the seeds in November in small pots or cell trays in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame and stand them in a protected spot outdoors in late January or February, bringing them in at night if frost is forecast.

Plant them out when the soil starts to warm up in early March in well drained, not too acidic soil, which has been enriched with compost or manure a month before planting.

Alternatively, sow any variety in a greenhouse in early spring and plant out when the seedlings are around 10cm high, spacing plants around 20cm apart in double rows.

Early sowings will produce a good crop of beans in early summer. They should be harvested when they are just showing through the pods. Good varieties include ‘Meteor’, which produces an early crop from an early spring sowing, while ‘Red Epicure’ has reddish-brown beans with a superb flavour.

Three ways to... Make a winter wonderland

1. Use plants with decorative seedheads such as teasel, Eryngium giganteum and Lunaria annua (Honesty), all of which provide eye-catching architecture to your border.

2. Cut the old foliage off hellebores to make way for the new season’s pretty flowers underneath.

3. Include golden plants in your garden to provide some winter sunshine, including Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’, Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ and Hedera helix ‘Goldheart’, an evergreen climber with yellow variegated leaves.

What to do this week

Complete the pruning of greenhouse vines while they are still dormant and remove loose bark which may harbour pests.

Continue to bring in pots of forced bulbs for indoor flowering when ready.

Protect winter-flowering bulbous irises in the garden from severe cold or damp.

Start forcing pots of lily bulbs for Easter and early summer flowering.

Feed perennial veg such as asparagus, artichoke and rhubarb with a dressing of general fertiliser.

Where privet hedges have got out of hand, cut them back to encourage new strong basal growth.

Continue to buy seed potatoes for ‘chitting’, so they are ready for planting in late March and April.

Sow lupins now for flower in summer.

Sow early varieties of salad onions in a glasshouse border.

Take basal cuttings from perennials including campanula, kniphofia, lupins, delphiniums and phlox.

Have your lawnmower serviced before the grass starts growing in spring.

Rake out dead leaves and other debris that has fallen into the pond to stop it going stagnant.

Plant garlic.

Warm the soil with cloches or clear plastic sheeting to prepare it for early sowings.