This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
We have repeatedly urged the necessity of thoroughly turning up ground in which seeds are to be sown early; and those who have allowed vacant ground to remain untouched should after this season lose no opportunity in turning up the soil as deep as possible to the pulverising influence of frost. Where we turned up empty space early in November, bringing up a little of the stiff subsoil, it is now breaking down like powder, and on these quarters were wheeled large quantities of old Vine-border soil, rich and free - which, mixed with the heavier fresh soil, will make an excellent preparation for almost any crop - Parsnips, Carrots, and Beet especially; and, if the surface is turned when frozen with a steel fork, and finely broken over when dry for seed sowing, we need fear no difficulty in getting the seeds to germinate freely. We never found that extra trenching and working the soil was labour thrown away; but, when advising deep tilth, we would object to bringing up the bottom if it was poor, and the main body of the land kept on short supplies of manure. After heavy rains and snow-storms, defective drainage will show itself. A wet badly-drained garden gives poor supplies of vegetables in winter. Celery rots quickly, and Brocolis are destroyed by an ordinary frost.
Much of the ordinary operations will be influenced by the prevailing weather. Snow and rain will put a stop to ground work, but in most gardens there is much which can be done under cover at this season - such as preparing stakes, pegs, and shreds, where they are used; looking over roots in store - such as Dahlias, Gladioli, and Ranunculuses, the latter picked over and prepared for planting, keeping the best roots for show-beds, and the smaller ones to be planted for keeping up stock. Old soil from under potting benches or other places might be cleaned by sifting out the rubbish and placing it in a heap for ordinary purposes - such as covering over seeds in heavy wet soil, covering Peas and Beans to protect them if they are coming through the ground when weather is severe. We have seen in nurseries, where good soil was not easily secured, large quantities of common plants grown in the waste soil, which, when all prepared and mixed, was very good for many things, the mixture being generally composed of loam, peat, and sand: a little charcoal added was of great service. We have known many amateurs about towns have no other potting-soil than they took from their gardens, and the greatest difficulty in dealing with such material is its being liable to become waterlogged and full of worms.
When such make-shifts have to be depended on, the best and cleanest of the soil should be taken and spread out thinly on a hard surface, there exposed to frost, taking it under cover in frozen cakes, to be afterwards kept dry. The parings of walk-edgings, when partially rotten, or any old turf from road-sides, should be added to, and well mixed with, the heap. Charred prunings are also very useful in such cases. Early Peas should be sown on an early spot towards the end of the month. This sowing often comes in as early as, and produces finer crops than, the seed sown in November. Mazagan or Dwarf-fan Beans should be sown in rows from 2 to 3 feet apart. If Potatoes are wanted early, a bed may be made for them with leaves and a little manure, making it thoroughly firm. Very little heat is necessary, but the sides of the frame or pit may be well packed round with straw or litter to keep out frost; and while the bed is settling down, the Potatoes may be placed in a little warmth to sprout, covering them over with a little light soil of any kind, but not leaving them till the roots get matted together. 8 inches to 1 foot of soil in the frame is abundance, and over the surface Radish seed may be sprinkled, and lightly covered. Early Frame and Short-top Radish answer well for this early sowing.
Few Potatoes are better for early work than the true old Ash-leaf Kidney. Potatoes for seed should be kept as cool as possible, of course excluding frost. Being allowed to shoot far, and then suddenly planted out in the cold ground, is one of the principal causes why they come up patching, and many of the tubers perish in the soil. Early Carrots, if required, may be sown in light soil where they can be protected. Fennel, Mint, and Tarragon roots may be lifted, potted, and placed in a hot-bed or any other heat, and brought on for use. All beds of herbs should be trimmed and surface-dressed, or divided and replanted any time before growth commences. Chicory and Endive may be taken under cover, and kept from light and air to blanch. Rhubarb and Sea-Kale, to keep up supplies, require timely attention, as formerly advised. The latter is easily managed when placed in large pots, and covered with others of same size, and taken into warmth to spring; and it can be retarded by taking it to a cooler place till used up, always keeping it from light and air.
Our earliest was taken in this way to the flue of a Mushroom-house, and several good dishes cut off before the main supplies were ready at the end of November. Mitchell's Early Rhubarb has done good service since the beginning of December, and is now succeeded by Prince Albert and Linnaeus. Roots of Victoria are dug up and under protection, to be taken into heat as required to keep up the supply during the remainder of the season. Cauliflower in frames or under hand-lights should never be without air, except in frosty weather. A little dry litter placed among their stems would be of advantage. Some sprinkle coal-ashes among the plants, which makes unkindly quarters for slugs. All Brocolis, Kale, Savoys, and similar plants, may be benefited by having earth drawn round their stems, which will help to save them from frost. Brocolis which may be hearting should be looked over frequently to secure them before frost destroys the heads. Hotbeds for Early Cucumbers, etc, may be made at once, but where material is scarce, it would be better to leave hot-bed making alone for the present.