Or­ganic Grow­ing

As Charles Dowding read­ies him­self for the au­tumn har­vest, he ex­plains that now is also the time to make the best com­post from a va­ri­ety of sources

Country Smallholding - - Contents -

With Charles Dowding

This mel­low sea­son of mists and har­vests also of­fers many in­gre­di­ents for mak­ing com­post. After a dry sum­mer that was frus­trat­ing for its lack of green ma­te­rial, now we can get busy with fill­ing com­post heaps right up un­til Christ­mas.

Above ground har­vests

Many leaf har­vests con­tinue into win­ter if the weather is mild, es­pe­cially kale, spinach, co­rian­der, land cress and chicory/ en­dive. Frost does not kill these plants, but it slows the growth of new leaves, which also be­come smaller be­cause of poor light lev­els. The dark­ness of days in a UK win­ter is at least mit­i­gated by the gulf stream, which usu­ally main­tains tem­per­a­tures at a level where some growth oc­curs, in­clud­ing weeds.

Some veg­etable leaves are not frost hardy and need har­vest­ing be­fore it turns cold: cel­ery, Florence fen­nel, dill and hearts of bras­si­cas Chi­nese cab­bage are ex­am­ples. You can store hearts for a few weeks in cool, damp con­di­tions.

Be­low ground har­vests

Apart from pota­toes, root veg­eta­bles sur­vive slight and even mod­er­ate frosts, say to -3°C, de­pend­ing on how long the frost lasts. Beet­root need watch­ing be­cause they are partly above ground and there­fore more ex­posed to cold. I usu­ally har­vest them all in Novem­ber. Root har­vests also pro­vide a de­cent amount of leaves for the com­post heap.

Win­ter salad leaves

Grow­ing plants in a poly­tun­nel, green­house or un­der the cov­ers of mesh and fleece en­ables ex­tra growth of pre­cious win­ter leaves. There is even time, if only just, to sow the fastest grow­ers: salad rocket, mus­tards and mizuna. A bet­ter op­tion is that you re­mem­bered to sow them in Septem­ber and have plants ready now, in­clud­ing let­tuce, en­dive, spinach and land cress. Or you could buy some plants. Check out www.or­gan­ic­plants.co.uk.

Salad leaves in win­ter are ex­tra pre­cious, so make the most of any un­used spa­ces un­der­cover. I use green­house stag­ing that is not needed over the win­ter for plant rais­ing, grow­ing salad leaves in mush­room boxes, as in the pic­tures ( right). Fill to the brim with mul­ti­pur­pose com­post, packed well down

to en­sure the max­i­mum amount of fer­til­ity and mois­ture for growth all win­ter, then plant six of any win­ter sal­ads in each tray.

Be care­ful not to over­wa­ter. When growth is slow and air is hu­mid from De­cem­ber to mid Fe­bru­ary, I find that wa­ter­ing as lit­tle as once a fort­night is suf­fi­cient. Check the weight of each box be­fore giv­ing wa­ter and, if it is heavy, wait an­other week.

Six plants per box may look too few at first, but they have the whole win­ter to grow and for their roots to ex­plore all the com­post. You can take har­vests ev­ery two weeks or so and it is im­por­tant to pick larger outer leaves rather than cut­ting across the top. This means that you keep the smaller heart leaves in­tact. These are the en­gines of new growth: they do more pho­to­syn­the­sis­ing than the older, larger leaves which you twist or cut off to eat.

The prin­ci­ple is the same with de-leaf­ing the lower leaves of tomato plants in the sum­mer months. They con­trib­ute lit­tle to plant growth, com­pared to the top leaves that are work­ing hard.

Com­post for long-term fer­til­ity

Com­post is any de­com­posed ma­te­rial, from crop wastes, weeds, tree leaves and straw to an­i­mal ma­nure with or with­out bed­ding. On a small­hold­ing you may have enough ma­nure to run an abun­dant veg­etable plot, but it is rare for the wastes of a veg­etable gar­den alone to gen­er­ate suf­fi­cient com­post to grow great veg.

I source wastes from other busi­nesses, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of lo­cal cafes, and I’m im­pressed with how much cof­fee they supply for my heap. It amounts to around 80kg/month, which adds up to a tonne each year. Cof­fee grounds are 3% ni­tro­gen and pH 6.8, and are bet­ter com­posted to break them down rather than spread on the ground where the cof­fee will go mouldy dur­ing its break­down process. I also find that it doesn’t dis­cour­age slugs.

Other waste ma­te­ri­als I look out for are sweep­ings from a lo­cal sta­ble yard, card­board, egg boxes from a res­tau­rant, crum­pled pa­per and veg­etable wastes from a lo­cal green­gro­cer.

From waste to com­post

Last au­tumn I filled a heap 1.5m square from late Oc­to­ber un­til Christ­mas. I reg­u­larly added enough new ma­te­rial to main­tain a tem­per­a­ture in the heap of 50-60°C, a heat which kills weed seeds and speeds break­down.

The roof over my heaps helps the process by keep­ing out cold rain, which oth­er­wise makes com­post soggy and re­duces the oxy­gen con­tent. If you squeeze a hand­ful of com­post or ma­nure and more than two drops of wa­ter fall out, it is too wet. There­fore, it is worth pro­vid­ing cover for heaps and black poly­thene is use­ful if you don’t have a roof.

For me, come De­cem­ber the lo­cal rats had moved in and were mak­ing a mess out­side the heap as they moved ma­te­rial out to make their runs and nests. I am not com­fort­able with rats, but ac­cept they need a win­ter home and I ap­pre­ci­ate their dis­cre­tion as they are pri­vate crea­tures and I rarely see one. In a com­post heap they ac­tu­ally do good aer­a­tion and mix­ing. This be­came ap­par­ent in March when I was for­tu­nate to have a will­ing vis­i­tor who of­fered to turn the heap. Turn­ing means mix­ing and shak­ing out the lumps dur­ing the process of mov­ing the whole heap onto an ad­ja­cent area after re­mov­ing the least de­com­posed top layer to the cur­rent com­post heap. Turn­ing also en­cour­aged the rats to de­part for sum­mer quar­ters in nearby fields.

We were so im­pressed with the lovely com­post. And then it got even bet­ter after I cov­ered the heap with black poly­thene from a farmer’s silage clamp. Worms love the dark­ness and mois­ture un­der poly­thene and they mul­ti­plied fast, turn­ing the heap into a giant wormery. The only down­side is that with ev­ery pass­ing month, the heap shrinks in volume, although it’s good­ness is be­com­ing highly con­cen­trated.

Why add com­post?

Peo­ple some­times say: “I couldn’t prac­tice no dig as I don’t have enough com­post.” How­ever, I no­tice on the dig/no dig trial here that with the same amount of com­post, har­vests are con­sis­tently higher from the no dig bed. Both beds give a lot of har­vests, av­er­ag­ing 100kg from 7.5m2, and that’s after adding 5cm of com­post ev­ery au­tumn. Now is the time, repli­cat­ing leaf fall in na­ture.

The com­post heap re­cently fin­ished and with the front re­moved

Four-month-old com­post be­ing turned in March

Charles dib­bing holes for win­ter sal­ads which will be cov­ered with mesh

Let­tuce and mus­tards just planted into boxes filled with mul­ti­pur­pose com­post in mid- Oc­to­ber

The same salad boxes as left in mid-March. They have given 2.1kg of mus­tard and let­tuce leaves

Be­fore har­vest­ing beet­root for win­ter you can pinch out the heart leaves for salad

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