Gardening: Time to dig deep

Not so long ago, growing your own vegetables could earn you similar status to that of a computer nerd.

TOP GROWTH: Pampas grass can face just about anything the British climate can throw at it.

But it’s surprising what a difference a few years make. Now we’re once again becoming a nation of diggers – we are growing our own and enjoying the results.

So, if you haven’t yet taken up the spade, and you have a bit of land which would accommodate a row of potatoes or a bit of beet, perhaps it’s time.

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Get out there, dig over the area, adding plenty of organic matter to any parts that are not going to grow root crops next year.

Continuously improving the structure of the soil will pay long-term dividends in better plant growth and improved drainage. It also encourages a larger, stronger root system which is able to use the extra water and nutrients held in the soil.

Parsnips taste much better after they have been subjected to a decent frost as the carbohydrates in the plants turn to sugar. Lifting some roots and leaving them on the soil surface is a good way to get them ready for the table.

Most people grow onions from sets planted out in March, but if you want a huge crop, sow seeds now. One packet can provide hundreds of new plants; when sown this early they will have enough time to grow into decent-sized vegetables by the end of summer.

Sowing more types of seeds indoors – or at least under cover – may also be the only successful way to garden if early spring weather continues to be wet and windy.

You can improve the success rate by using cloches or protective fleece over rows. Last year, many gardeners had to sow seeds several times before achieving adequate germination.

The soggy soil encouraged seeds to rot and allowed slugs to attack any seedlings that did pop through.

So for 2016, sow more seeds in pots of compost and germinate them either indoors or in an unheated mini-greenhouse.

For the seeds of root crops traditionally sown directly in the soil (such as carrots and parsnips) use cloches to increase the chances of success from the first sowing. Fit the cloches into place a few weeks before sowing time, so that the soil has time to warm up.

After sowing at the right depth and covering with fine soil, it should be plain sailing until it’s time to weed to reduce competition for wanted plants.

Pluming chic that shrugs off our winters

Everyone should be able to put a name to pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana, just in case you want the Latin name) – the tall perennial ornamental grass with long, graceful blades and fluffy white plumes that remain through most of the winter.

It is an excellent back-of-the-border plant or can be used as a living fence since it grows up to 10 feet tall and spreads quickly. But it can also be a menace.

Pampas grass is native to South America and is a pretty hardy plant, so it can face just about anything the British climate can throw at it. It likes full sun and a well-drained soil in order to thrive and produce those spectacular plumes from late summer and well into winter.

But the grass also grows quickly and can soon become a problem in a smaller garden – but there is a miniature variety called C selloana Pumila.

Pampas grass (the genus name Cortaderia comes from the Argentinean and Spanish word ‘cortar’, to cut, because of the sharp leaf margins that can cause lacerations) grows well on a range of soils but thrives in a fertile, well-drained plot in full sun. Pampas grass hates to have its roots in soggy soil. While you’re at it, add some well-rotted manure or compost.

Once established there is little left to do other than to leave it to get on with growing. It’s drought-resistant, so it only needs watering after long dry spells and high-nitrogen fertiliser in early spring.

Pruning is best done in very early spring to make room for new growth.