PREPARE THE GROUND FOR WINTER
We have to learn the lesson from last year. Most of us got caught out by the unexpected early winter that seemed to last a very long time, and getting onto the land to do some winter digging had to wait till about March. It is quite noticeable that a lot of plot holders have made a good start this autumn to crack on with the digging. The winter to come may not be as severe as last winter, but you just cannot take the risk.
As soon as crops have been harvested get some compost, leaf mould or manure spread and start the digging, but leave the soil surface as rough as possible to expose a large surface area to the weather. In spring the soil will crumble easily to a fine tilth for sowing and planting.
My early crops of onions, sweet corn, salads, French and broad beans, turnips, beetroot and a bed of strawberries now three years old have all been cleared at the end of summer, dug over, then raked level and sowed with a green manure of mustard.
As soon as I see a few flowers appearing on the mustard I will trample it down and dig it in so it has all winter to rot down to provide humus to improve the soil structure for my spring plantings.
However mustard belongs to the brassica family so can get infected by club root. This does not help crop rotation when you try to plant your cabbages, sprouts, cauliflowers and turnips on clean land not previously had brassicas for a few years. There are other green manures just as good for a quick crop such as tares, clovers and rye grass. Tares and clovers belong to the pea and bean family, so have the advantage of having nitrogen fixing bacteria on their roots which collect nitrogen while growing and then release it back to the soil to be used by next crop after they rot down.
Every garden and allotment holder should have a compost heap. If you are really serious about growing good crops it is vital that you feed the soil to increase its fertility. Poor soil will produce poor crops, and adding fertiliser, even if it is organic, is no substitute for bulky organic manures. In past times farmyard manure was more plentiful, cheap and available, but today it is a much rarer commodity, so it is necessary to look out other products. However if you find a good source it is as good as you can get, but horse manure is also excellent. Chicken manure is good, but is very concentrated so needs bulking up with compost, old straw, bark chips, shreddings, grass cuttings or whatever you can find. Don’t throw out old used growbags, or compost from tubs and hanging baskets as these can all be reused on the compost heap. However always check them for the presence of vine weevil larvae. Sometimes you can find about fifty in a plant tub. These multiply very quickly, so if you find them remove them and either offer them to your friendly robin always fluttering close by, or squeeze them to kill them. Its a bit messy but it works.
All plant material can be composted, but to help the breakdown process, chop it up as much as possible before you add it to the heap. If it is woody and you have access to a chipper or shredder then you will have an excellent material to mix into your compost heap. Similarly, newspapers, utility bills often quite scary, bank statements showing interest at a very low rate, junk mail, unfriendly letters from creditors demanding payment for unpaid bills can all be very useful to bulk up your compost heap once they have been shredded.
Do not add any diseased plant material to your compost heap as most fungus spores can last for many years.
The compost heap will rot down faster if you keep the material chopped as small as possible and the heap is kept moist. Cover the heap with an old carpet to keep in the moisture and heat, but take it off during wet weather to allow rain to soak in.
Composting worms are different from the normal garden worm. They are present everywhere, and they will seek out your heap so no need to buy them in, but help them out by turning over the compost heap at least once every four or six months.
I use all my compost heap during my winter digging period, theoretically completed before Christmas in a normal year. That was my plan last year, but nature had its own plan and dumped a couple of feet of snow on my allotment without my permission and was in no hurry to remove it, so it took till March to get the soil turned over. Every year is different, so take every dryish day you can find to get the compost or manure dug in as you do not know what lies around the corner.
If you are digging in compost or manure it is better to take out a trench the depth of the spade so you can work backwards and have room to get the organic material incorporated into the soil as the digging proceeds. You will certainly need a trench if you are digging in a green manure otherwise it is very difficult to get it turned over cleanly with everything buried in the soil. At this time of year leave the soil rough to weather down over winter unless you are preparing a planting area for fruit bushes or plants. Any patch destined to be permanently planted with fruit trees, raspberries, blackcurrants, saskatoons or other fruit bushes is better being double dug up to two feet deep.
You will need to take out a trench at least 18 inches wide, but still only one spade depth. Fork up the bottom of the trench, adding some compost. This greatly assists drainage, aeration and gives the new plants an excellent root run to get them off to a good start. If you dig up any clay, keep it in the subsoil layer and do not bring it into the upper fertile zone.
As usual I set my target to complete winter digging by Christmas, but available spare time and the unpredictable weather may tell a different story.