Although there are some very hardy, dedicated plotholders out there, many of us become less frequent visitors to our plots during the colder months. Here are some quick but essential autumn and winter jobs to ensure your plots are in a fit state for your spring planting. Choose a dry day, wrap up warm, wear suitable boots with good non-slip grip (it’s really muddy up there at the moment!) and off you go…..
1 Keep on top of weeds: These opportunists will carry on growing where the soil is warm enough. At the very least, cut off any seedheads and dispose of them. Ideally, though, work over your plot now and uproot as many perennials as you can, digging deep to remove as much of the root system as possible. Annual weeds can be hoed off or throw a 8cm deep mulch over annuals to smother them out.
2 Tend to your compost heap: Many of us load up our heaps during summer/autumn, and then just leave it at that, in the hope that perfectly brown, crumbly compost will develop come spring – it won’t. Turn full heaps over once every month to ensure all parts spend at least some time in the middle of the pile, where it gets hottest. This will ensure full and even decomposition.
3 Start digging – or don’t: If you’re a no-dig gardener, gloss over this tip; if not, read on. Digging the soil in autumn, before it freezes solid, reduces compaction, exposes soil pests to foraging birds, and disturbs weed growth. Blitz small areas at a time and use a small spade that only allows you to lift a certain volume of soil, both suggestions so that you don’t hurt your back.
4 Tidy your edges: Grassy paths will encroach onto bare beds, leaving you to scrabble about with a garden line and spade, slicing off the invading turf all summer. Put this unnecessary battle to an end now, rather than in summer when you’re busy with other jobs on the plot, by either sinking a board between the earth and grass, or by excavating a small 10cm deep trench between the two.
5 Cover bare patches: Either grab yourself an old tarpaulin or heavy duty black plastic sheeting, some flat-packed cardboard boxes or weed control fabric and lay over recently dug or uncultivated areas. This will stop weeds in their tracks and help prevent nutrients washing out of the soil. It also encourages the worms to get busy in the dark underneath the cover, producing lots of valuable wormcasts. Consider sowing a hardy green manure – there’s just enough time to sow field beans or grazing rye now for a winter covering.
6 Net brassicas: Essential for those of us who love winter greens. Pigeons flock together during the leaner months and if they discover unprotected cabbages, cauliflowers, kale, broccoletti or the like, they’ll strip them bare in next to no time. Make sure netting is taut and loose ends tucked away and pegged down securely to avoid trapping any birds inside.
7 Straw up root crops: During severe winters prolonged ground freezes follow suit. Maincrop carrots, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes are difficult to lift from frozen soil, so mulch them to insulate. The simplest way is to pop a tunnel cloche over your row and fill it with straw or lay heavy duty horticultural fleece directly over your crops to protect them from heavy snowfalls as well.
8 Rake up deciduous leaves: Not to be tidy, but to make leafmould. Pack damp/wet leaves in a wire mesh cage, cover and leave to break down for about a year. Or pop the damp leaves in binbags pierced a few times with a fork and put them somewhere out of the way. Open in a year or two’s time to discover crumbly leafmould, which is great for potting composts and for use as a low-nutrient mulch or soil conditioner.