Wednesday, 23 October 2013

AUTUMN SOIL CULTIVATIONS



AUTUMN SOIL CULTIVATIONS

As crops get harvested and the ground is cleared, there is no need to leave it bare. It may now be too late for some quick maturing salads, unless you have brought them on earlier in a cold greenhouse, but there is time to sow a green manure crop. Later on as autumn cabbage and late crops are finished, if it is too late for a green manure sowing then the winter digging can start. I try to complete this task before the end of the year, but the weather can hold up work if it is too wet or frosty. Then there is always a fair bit of land still holding winter vegetables such as leeks, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Swedes, kale, chard and beetroot. Spring cabbage and cauliflower will also over winter cutting down on the need for digging.
To get the best out of allotment grown fruit and vegetables, the ground needs to be very fertile. To achieve this incorporate well rotted manure, leafmold or compost into the soil when digging.
Some heavy feeders such as peas, beans, onions, leeks, courgettes and pumpkins get the lions share, then brassicas and potatoes should also get a good feeding, but avoid the root crop area as long as that land got a good composting the previous year.

Green manures

Mustard has always been a favourite as it is very reliable, grows readily and has an excellent root system. However it can grow up to four feet tall before flowering so can be difficult to crush down and dig in. It is also in the same family as the brassicas so will get infected with club root and carry this over to the next crop. I prefer red clover which has even better roots, does not grow so tall and has nitrogen fixing nodules on its
roots which help to add nutrients to the soil on decomposition. Tares, or field vetches are similar, but are very hardy so can be left to grow over winter before digging in before spring.
Ryegrass winter field beans, phacelia, lupins, buckwheat and fenugreek are all used for this purpose. If the top growth grows too tall for digging in it can always be chopped off and added to the compost heap then the ground with the roots can be easily dug over. Soil that has had a green manure crop has a greatly improved crumb structure and following crops are always very healthy and strong.

Compost heap

A compost heap is an essential on any allotment as there is so much vegetable waste to utilise to the benefit of soil fertility. Almost all plant material can be used, except diseased plants especially those with clubroot, onion white rot or rose blackspot or rust. Paper, cardboard and wooden prunings can all be shredded and added. Most vegetable kitchen waste can be added. Grass cuttings and rhubarb leaves are all excellent material. All annual weeds should be composted and most perennial weeds can be added after digging out and leaving them on a dry surface to dry out and shrivel up. Compost created from spring to summer is usually fine to use the following winter provided the heap gets turned at least once or twice if you can find the energy.

Digging or no-digging

I spread compost on the ground before digging commences, then if the weather turns frosty the compost protects the surface and I can carry on digging. I leave the surface as rough as possible to expose a large surface area for weathering over winter.

Areas of ground about to be permanently planted with fruit bushes, as well as my sweet peas all get double dug. As I get older and my energy for digging diminishes and I don’t need so much exercise I will look into the gardening by the no-dig method. It is becoming the latest fashion and as yet I have only heard good things about it. However perennial weeds need to be eliminated before you begin, and it does need ample compost used for mulching and encouraging worm activity which opens up the soil over time. A bed system is often advised to retain the mulch and plenty of paths to prevent soil compaction.

Plant of the week

Autumn Raspberries help to extend the summer fruit season as they will continue to fruit till the frost comes in late October. However they are always at their best and sweetest during warm sunny spells. They are very easy to grow and need very little feeding otherwise you will get huge canes well over six foot tall. Prune the old fruited canes to ground level in winter and new canes will grow up again from below the old stumps. I grow Autumn Bliss which is very reliable, but breeders are always bringing out new varieties so look out for autumn rasps with even bigger fruit and now spine free canes to make picking more pleasant. Check out Autumn Treasure, Joan J and Polka all of which get great reviews, though I have not as yet tried any of them.

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