Plant bare-rooted trees
To give the best start to bare-rooted trees, plant them early. Make sure the leader hasn’t been cut back, so the height of the standard is your choice and not your supplier’s. We prefer the traditional method of staking new trees with a vertical stake; put it in on the side of the prevailing wind and use a tree-tie to hold the two together (if the stake is on the other side, the tree can rub against it and be damaged). Keep checking the ties regularly in case they need to be adjusted.
Cut back raspberries
Autumn-fruiting raspberries should now be cut back to a couple of inches from ground level, as the berries will grow from this year’s stems. Try to keep the row no wider than 18in by removing any suckers that creep beyond; these suckers can then be used to start another row. Raspberries benefit from a top-dressing of a fertiliser high in potash now, followed by a general fertiliser towards the end of March, and, finally, a mulch of well-rotted manure or compost to help retain moisture during the summer. The effort will be worth it when the berries come.
This old-fashioned vegetable, with its distinctive taste, is a treat for connoisseurs, but it must be forced in order to blanch the leaf stems. If you put a bucket or forcing pot over the crowns now, it will blanch the new growth ready for eating in early spring. And if you place straw or manure around the pot, the extra insulation will encourage an earlier crop. You can propagate seakale by taking root-cuttings known as thongs which are available from Marshalls Seeds (01480 443390; www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk), among other specialists.
Prepare an asparagus bed
Begin to prepare for a new asparagus bed by digging the area over and incorporating well rotted manure. Although soil type isn’t important for asparagus, drainage and position are vital. Don’t try to grow it on waterlogged sites; choose a sunny, sheltered position. Order one-year-old crowns now, for planting in late March or early April.
Prune deciduous shrubs
As deciduous shrubs start to come out of their dormancy, the sap starts to rise. So pruning during this month will boost their energy to make new buds on the pruned wood; shrubs that have been pruned hard after their growth has started will take a lot longer to shoot out again.
Managed hazel bushes or hedges can be pruned as long as the catkins have already shed their pollen, so, on a still day, give the catkins a little knock to see if they’ve finished releasing it. Prune the thicker laterals and leave some of the more twiggy growths, as these are more likely to produce the nuts.
Early potatoes should be moved to a light, warm area to allow them to develop chits (new shoots) ready for planting. Try to place the potatoes with most of the eyes uppermost.
The cost of heating a greenhouse has to be weighed against the benefits of producing earlier crops. Sowing some varieties now will free up the heated bench for the bulk of the seed sowing in March.
Tomatoes, one of the most popular greenhouse crops, can be sown any time this month, together with aubergines towards the latter end. Sow in plug trays to minimise root disturbance when you pot them on, and only sow enough seed for the amount you think you’ll need. Any seed left over can be used later if any of the seedlings fail to germinate.
Put forcing pots over your rhubarb crowns to produce an early and tender crop of bright pink rhubarb sticks. Ideally, a bed should contain at least three crowns so you can rotate the forcing pot on a different one each successive year.
Onions from seed
Onion seed is best sown now to produce seedlings large enough to transplant in March and April. Sow thinly in full-sized seed trays and cover the seed with a thin layer of the seed compost. An alternative to seed is onion sets, which are easier to plant and handle. They won’t need such a finely worked soil, but they’ll cost more to buy. If your ground conditions are unfavourable for any reason, they can be put into small pots and planted out later.
Shallots are much the same, as they can also be planted now again, these are best started off in pots and planted out later when ground conditions permit.
Sow leeks now
Sow a few seeds of an early maturing leek in pots and grow them on until big enough to plant out. You could consider starting all main crop leeks in pots instead of drilling them direct, as their germination is more reliable on a heated bench.
Plant out celeriac
Celeriac should also be sown now and pricked out into small pots. Take care that the frosts have gone before you plant them out so that they have a better chance of producing large roots.
It’s always worth sowing a few lettuce seeds in plug trays. The young plants may have to be protected by cloches, but early salads are a culinary delight. Cucumbers can be sown this month, too, if you keep them under heated glass.