Gardens: Using the winter break to plot next year's planting programme

As city gardener George Sutherland prepares to tuck into a successful crop of home-grown sprouts this Christmas, he reflects on the last month at his allotment plot and looks ahead to preparing it for spring.

No more evening visits to the plot now. Daytime visits are also cut short by poor light. But there has still been time to prepare the ground so that no digging is needed at the busy seed time in the spring.

I've also been browsing the catalogues for next year's seeds - I like to try something new every year. This year it'll be the popular Rooster potatoes, plus, I'm hoping to buy some Sweet Candle carrot seed.

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Different varieties suit different soils and climate. Over the years my range has narrowed to those that perform well on the plot.

The choices are: beetroot Boltardy, Brussels sprouts Maximus F1, summer cabbage Minicole F1, winter cabbage Celtic F1, calabrese Chevalier F1, carrots Autumn King, Chantenay and Flakkee, cauliflower Candid Charm F1, courgettes Defender F1, leeks Musselburgh, parsnips Countess F1, peas Green Shaft and Onward, and finally swedes Angela.

The F1 varieties are more expensive, but I find them worth the extra cost. Single seeds are sown in thimble sized cells, then the plants are moved to larger modules. The ones I use have vertically corrugated sides. The roots grow down the corrugations and the plants and root balls are easy to remove. Sowing singly reduces the seed used and offsets the extra cost.

Only carrots, leeks and parsnips are sown in the open. Seed packets advise sowing a whole row then thinning to the final spacing. What a waste of seed. Apart from leeks, I sow a small pinch at the final spacing.

The mushroom compost has now arrived. Apart from this, I use some leaf mould, plus my own compost. My free-draining sandy silt is easy to dig, but nutrients and lime are soon leached out. The generous application of high humus material aids moisture retention. Apart from transplants and newly sown seeds, the plot doesn't get watered.

Sources of good organic fertilisers in the city have become scarce. In the past I've used three different cattle markets. They closed one by one so I now buy from a farm.

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Several plot holders have often asked me, "What's wrong with my potatoes?" as the growing tips were in-curved like a monkey's fist. This was probably caused by a recently introduced agricultural selective herbicide. As riding stables like clean hay, hayfields are sprayed to kill broad-leaved weeds. The horses eat the weed-free hay and plot holders buy and use the resulting contaminated manure.

Throughout December, the winter routine will continue. There are still plenty of fresh vegetables, but I'm hoping to start the biggest task of the year - preparing the potato section. Quite heavy work but I'll spread it out.

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George Sutherland is a past president of The Federation of Edinburgh and District Allotments and Gardens Association. He has an organic allotment in the Capital and is a five times holder of the Robin Harper Green Trophy for organic vegetables.