The all-new resilient gardener, with Kim Stoddart
It’s that time of year when we really start to notice the leaves falling from the trees and the daylight hours reducing. Our thoughts slowly but surely turn to the winter months ahead. In the natural world, for many beneficial creatures such as birds, this means eating enough to see them through the harsher weather and scarcer pickings, food-wise. Whilst for others, such as a new queen bumblebee, this will mean finding a nice compost pile or bank in which to hibernate until spring. Ladybirds (the queen of the aphid eaters) meanwhile favour old nettles or a nice pile of leaves to see them through. So a meticulously cleaned-up veg patch hardly encourages these hugely helpful critters to hang about.
It’s just one example of why it really is best to let your plot grow more than a little wild over winter. If you rigorously cut back and clear away seed heads and old spent crops then you are removing a potential source of food and shelter for many of these gardening helpers. In addition to this, bare ground is terribly vulnerable to erosion over winter and can exacerbate the leaching away of beneficial nutrients and minerals, which will in turn diminish the quality and productivity of your soil. Heavy rain is the worst offender and, without ground cover to help bind the soil together, much of the goodness can be washed away all too easily.
Build greater resilience in your plot over winter
Keep your soil well-composted as it will enable it to absorb more water.
Avoid bare soil. Where winter crops aren’t growing, use green manure or even weeds (of a non-evasive-variety) to provide some protection. Also, leave some of your spent crops such as corn, peas and beans in the ground as it helps the soil better deal with a winter battering. Growing many
It really is best to let your plot grow more than a little wild over winter
edible perennials is also useful for the same reason, so crops such as Jerusalem artichoke, rhubarb, asparagus and so forth really come into their own.
Avoid treading on wet ground as doing so causes damage.
Create wildlife havens where you can to provide a winter home for many beneficial creatures. A pile of twigs, a natural fence, compost bin, a leaf mould pile and such like will make all the difference.
If you have a field that is prone to minor flooding, one measure you can take, alongside the usual drainage work, is to plant fruit trees and bushes at the top as these will help absorb water increasingly over time as they grow. Also it’s a great excuse for your own home-grown supply of fruity loveliness.
Last but by no means, least, please dig less. As Charles Dowding will testify after his many years of work promoting the no-dig message, breaking the capillary structure of topsoil is damaging. Soil left intact is much better able to absorb water. Your back will also thank you for putting that spade away!
Wildlife watch: feed the birds
Our feathered friends really do provide a beneficial service on the veg patch. As well as pecking off pests such as aphids and slugs, they are also a delight to behold. Of course some, such as pigeons and blackbirds, can also peck at crops, but if you’ve ever sat and listened to a blackbirds’ nightly song, then I think you’d be hard pushed to hold that against them for long. They’ll be preparing for winter about now, so why not also help them out with some bird feeders and a nice water bath.
Using fallen leaves
If you want leafmould to use as a seed compost or soil improver, then it helps to think about copying what happens naturally in a wood. So, rather than setting up a designated leaf mould bin, why not look at using this fantastic, free material in a much more low-maintenance but sensible way.
Check to see if you have a leaf mould collection already. If you have a lot of trees on your land, it’s most likely that you do. I found several spots where leaves had been falling and cleverly rotting down for years. Look for shaded (relatively weed-free spots) under trees and then simply add more leaves to the piles here for use as early as the following spring because thinner layers rot down a lot quicker.
Leaves can also be added straight to your compost pile as a brown layer. As well as helping to create your own supply of gardening gold, you’ll also be creating a nice wildlife pile to help with overwintering. What’s not to like?
A plastic or glass house enables you extend the growing season that bit further. On even the worst weather days, it makes gardening much more bearable, or provides a nice place in which to sit and admire the fruits of your labour as you listen to the rain outside.
It is important to look after your structure in order to have the best results, especially in the case of an older polytunnel. It will help you keep it going that bit longer before it needs recovering.
First off, a clean at this time of year is advisable as it helps ensure you make the most of the reduced levels of daylight. You don’t need to buy a special cleaning solution either, just a sponge (or brush for the ceiling) and a pressure washer or hose, and scrub away. Do avoid getting too close with the pressure washer, however; if you’re not careful, it can damage the plastic. It’s not the most fun of jobs, so I’d recommend roping in a helper or two to aid you on your way.
Once done, it’s important to examine the plastic to see if there are any tears that need patching. This needs to be done sooner rather than later as a strong winter gale can at best stretch a hole even bigge or, at worst (in a weakened cover), pull it off entirely.
If you keep this up and look after your polytunnel, it can in turn keep going for many, many years.
A veg growing area with a wildlife ‘wall’
Leave seeds heads in the ground
Provide winter shelter for bumblebees and other pollinators
Kim cleans her polytunnel
Hellebores with a leafmould stash in between
Baby carrots from the polytunnel