Forget leaving your veg patch exposed to the elements this winter. Bed it down in a different way, says Kim Stoddart
With Kim Stoddart
According to much traditional advice, October is a great time to pull out your spent plants and dig over the veg patch, breaking up the soil as you go because exposing it to elements is apparently the right thing to do. Yet, in reality, this is the absolute worst thing you can do for your soil, your veg patch and your future growing efforts right now. Truth be told, it has never been a sensible option, just a case of work generation based on the practices designed to keep country estate gardeners busy at this quieter time of year and therefore out of mischief. Much mainstream advice to this day is still based around this gardening calendar of yore, and it is frankly superfluous to day-to-day requirements at best.
In the case of digging, we also know from my fellow columnist, Charles Dowding, the benefits of putting the spade away. In the case of protecting your precious soil against the excess of winter rain (which we have experienced in abundance these past few years), and which some climate change commentators are saying could be the new norm, it is now more vital than ever. Nutrients leaching away as a result of rainwater is a real and pressing issue. As much as possible, it is instead essential to provide winter protection for your loam, which is at the heart of your growing efforts moving forward.
So don’t pull out your plants, or turn over the soil and leave it bare and at its most vulnerable exposed to the elements. This is truly a terrible thing to do. As well as resulting in diminished fertility (and therefore more work for you the following season), it is also an awful lot of backbreaking effort. Instead, here is how to kick back and, at the same time, sensibly bed down your veg patch with resilience and future plant productivity in mind.
Leaving plants in the ground
Allowing spent crops to decompose naturally enables their foliage to provide a degree of protection (and cover) for the soil above ground, as well as structure below as the roots continue to hold the loam together, enabling it to deal with a greater volume of water than purely bare ground, which is much less hardy.
Also, some plants can actually grow on much longer than you might have imagined anyway. Loose leaf winter brassicas, such as kale and chard, can be left in the ground until next year for an abundant availability of leaves come the hungry gap in spring. Likewise, beetroot will also provide a lovely supply of spinachlike leaves the following season.
Leaving peas and beans in the ground helps to make the most of their nitrogenfixing properties to boot.
Let the weeds grow
If you have an unavoidable bare area of ground, then letting some non-invasive
weeds grow is better than nothing. Although they will need to be removed swiftly come spring, their very presence will provide a degree of valuable protection.
These weather hardy plants are an increasingly sensible option and they work well weaved into your veg patch planting where possible (rhubarb, asparagus, Oca, Jerusalem artichoke et al). Soft fruit bushes can also be successfully grown among produce, or at the top of a patch to provide an additional layer of protection in the battle against the pressing threat of fertility leach away.
Growing under cover
If the long range weather forecasts were correct earlier in the year, we could be experiencing above average temperatures well into October. When you have a polytunnel or greenhouse, this means that some of the summer produce can keep growing that bit longer. Tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, peppers and cucumbers could therefore still happily carry on producing until early December if the conditions are mild enough. Do remember, however, to ensure sufficient air flow during the day where possible as closed doors and windows will result in a build-up of mould and disease that could finish off the plants as quickly as a sudden cold snap. You want at least a little air flowing through the tunnel as much as possible, especially on fair weather days.
This approach also helps to keep lettuces crisp and healthy for longer so that you can leave them in the ground and keep harvesting. The pick and come again varieties are easier to overwinter. Again airflow is a big factor in this. You can just pick off any lower leaves if they appear to be affected by mould to avoid it spreading.
Chilli plants don’t need to be left to die off; they can overwinter successfully as houseplants in a heated home, so now is a good time to pot or move them on.
Make sure to leave ground cover now for the winter
Leave bean and pea plants in the ground when they have finished producing
Picking brassica leaves for tea in spring
Keeping a little air flowing into your polytunnel will keep lettuces crisp and healthy for longer
Chilli plants don’t need to be left to die off
Tomatoes can carry on producing until December