Brains Trust 20

WINTER WONDERINGS

Should I be doing anything different in winter to keep my chickens happy?

Hens can be fed more in winter, around 1.5 times what you normally feed them. They need the extra food to keep warm, recover from high egg-laying times and to grow new feathers after a moult. Extra protein can be added to their food in the form of meat, fish and egg leftovers, as well as pumpkin seeds and mealworms.

Hens love a warm mash during the coldest months; they will be warmer, healthier and may even reward you with extra eggs. Try soaking whatever grains you are eating (rolled oats, bran, cracked grains) overnight in warm water with a dash of yoghurt. In the morning add some warm water before feeding to your hens.

Why are my brassicas and root vegetables sweeter after a frost?

When Jack Frost appears in your garden, plants such as broccoli, cabbage, kale and leek will producing more sugars as a type of anti-freeze mechanism to stop the water within the leaves freezing and destroying the plant.

That’s why these foods thrive in winter weather and taste sweeter if you pick them after the first frost. The same goes for root vegetables such as carrots, beetroot and turnips which are also turning their stored-up starches into sugars. This is not what we want happening to potatoes, however, which we want to be starchy – the sweetening process can cause the skin to turn dark brown when cooked.

The most effective way to achieve the best-tasting vegetables all year round is performing a soil test and adding minerals to your garden soil accordingly. Getting the chemical balance right can most definitely sweeten your vegetables, and give you flavours that will delight any broccoli-allergic child, and you will see results within weeks. For more info, refer to Pip Issue 14’s article on growing nutrient-dense food.

Should I feed my bees during winter?

It’s best if bees have enough of their own honey to last through the winter. This will happen with proper management and the ability to assess how much to harvest when you take the honey in summer. If you are just starting out in beekeeping and you find that winter has arrived, temperatures are dropping and your bees do not have enough honey to survive, rather than let them starve you can provide them with food.

It’s always best to feed them their own honey you have stored (preferably in the form of honeycomb) or, as a last resort, you can supply sugar water. It is recommended to use white sugar and water in a ratio of 2:1 and to feed the whole amount (up to 10 kg) all at once early in winter, before removing what hasn’t been eaten in three days.

Do I need to mulch in winter?

Mulch is a great way to keep the soil covered, and whether it’s summer or winter it’s a good idea to always have your soil covered for a number of reasons. It keeps in moisture, which means more water for your plants and soil microorganisms, but it will also keep your soil at a more even temperature, which plants prefer. Be aware there are some plants that don’t like to be mulched – garlic, for example, will rot if it’s heavily mulched – but more often than not, mulching is the way to go.

Mulch can be straw, hay, leaves, grass clippings or you might chop-and-drop your summer vegetable plants to form a winter mulch if the bed is to lie fallow. The debris can be raked away in spring to plant summer vegetables into the bed. A way to keep your soil covered through winter without mulching is to grow a green-manure crop.

When is the best time to prune my fruit trees?

The reason we prune deciduous fruit trees such as apples, pears and plums in winter is that the trees are in a state of dormancy. Normally a tree would react to being cut with new growth, but in winter the tree is resting and waiting for the warmth of spring to stimulate new growth. Another reason is the insects and pathogens that may cause disease in the tree wounds are not so active during the cooler months. The best time in winter to prune is early on, or at least a few weeks before the spring weather arrives and stimulates buds to appear on your tree. This will be less stressful for your trees and will give them time for their wounds to heal.

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