Winter time on the allotment is well spent

(C) Tom Marshall

The race is on to clear the allotment of perennial weeds before winter sets in. Every hour spent on the soil now is worth two in the spring, and when the sun is shining, the allotment is a lovely place to be, especially now that the nights are longer and weather colder.

I even take a walk up there when the skies are looking a little bit threatening as just a few minutes of being outside on a dark November day is good for mind and body.

First on my list are the tricky spots that I didn’t get around to digging over last year, many of which are harbouring couch grass and bindweed with their exasperating roots that spread quickly underground.

I’m not keen on using weedkiller, so earlier this year I tried to thwart their progress by covering the ground with cardboard and a thick layer of horse manure and leaves to block the light and stop the weeds from photosynthesising and developing even thicker mats of roots.

This barrier lasted for several months but grass is now breaking through, signalling that the time has come to sort it out. It’s reasonably hard work but the soil is much softer and easy to handle than it was before it was covered, thanks in no small part to the activities of worms, and I’m adding plenty of leaf mould and compost from my many heaps to ensure it’s in good shape after the winter rains.

In praise of green manure

The only downside of autumnal digging is the patches of bare earth it leaves behind. Nature isn’t keen on soil being left uncovered, so I’m putting this right by sowing ‘green manures’ – plants that are grown so that they can be dug back in, a bit like cover crops used by farmers. Already the seeds of winter tares, or vetches, which I scattered two or three weeks ago are poking through the soil. This overwintering plant is good for extracting nitrogen from the air and fixing it into the ground, as well as for suppressing weeds and sucking up some of the moisture that turns my clay soil into a claggy mess. Come spring I’ll dig the tares into the soil, into which the plants will release nutrients as they break down.

While clearing my patch of broad beans I noticed there were several pods had been missed. They’ve been exposed to the elements for a while and possibly not great for storing, so I’ve sown them to grow as a green manure. I doubt they’ll survive the winter, but if they do they’ll provide me with a few early helpings of beans.

If I had to choose one green manure, however, it would have to be phacelia, which has fern-like leaves and pretty purple flowers, of which I’m seeing a late flush produced by self-seeded plants, much to the delight of any bees still venturing out.

Back to the soil, another part of the allotment prone to the attentions of couch and bindweed are the strawberry beds, which I’ve been trying to clean up over the past few weeks. They don’t seem to mind being moved around at this time of the year and come early summer they will be producing plenty of insect-friendly flowers, followed by delicious fruit. I’m keeping all the runners for new beds to replace three-year-old strawberry plants that have declined in vigour.

Taking a break from digging and weeding

When I need a change from digging and weeding, there’s the blackcurrants and blackberries to prune and pounds of delicious autumn-fruiting raspberries to pick.

While clearing is taking a lot of time, there are also a few things to plant before the wintry weather really sets in. Garlic is already in the ground and sending up its long green leaves: ideally this member of the onion family needs to be planted before it gets frosty so that the bulb splits into cloves later on. I’ve also put in some onions and shallots, which I hope will have a chance to put down their roots in the warm-ish soil before it gets really cold.

Taking care of hedgehogs

While working on the allotment I’m looking out for hedgehogs, particularly as dusk falls, as I’ve heard that the hot summer led to a number of second litters, with several juvenile hogs not quite reaching the right weight for hibernation.

According to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, hedgehogs should normally be rescued if they weigh less than 450grams from October to February. If you find a hedgehog in your garden which looks underweight, contact your nearest hedgehog rescue centre who will give you advice. If a hedgehog is walking around in the day time looking for food it is likely that they are having trouble. Also contact your local rescue centre should you find a hedgehog that appears to be ill or injured, whatever weight they appear to be.

Sadly, after a couple of ground frosts and a brief snow shower over the Cotswolds’ hillier parts towards the end of October, winter appears to be on the march and the time for rest and reflection is nigh.

It’s also a time to look forward, however, and I’m looking forward to a colourful spring with several pots of vibrant bulbs planted up to brighten up my garden at home. I’ve used tulips, tête á tête and crocus to keep the colour coming over several weeks and provide an early supply of nectar.