It's time to get your garden ready for the winter months, and the first place to start is at the bottom, writes Justin Newcombe.
The garden has provided some thrilling success this summer. Potatoes, peas, beans, avocados, apples, plums, chilli peppers, strawberries, garlic and onions, as well as an assortment of salad greens and fresh herbs have made for some great gardening crops. There have also been abysmal failures, and leading from the front was the tomato crop. Even with my wife out diligently spraying at 6.30am in her pyjamas (organic sprays only, darling) our crop was cursed with the ugly hand of black spot which reduced the tomatoes to a harvest of disappear and ruin.
However, as the last vestiges of summer trickle into autumn, it's time to look ahead and do some planning for winter. A few things need to be addressed and number one is soil. At this time of the year you may be wanting to get some of those quick crops in such as rocket, late basil or coriander and don't forget winter lettuce.
A quick dressing of compost (homemade if possible) on most soils will suffice but for crops which are in the ground for extended amounts of time, a bit more is required. Root crops which are direct sown such as parsnip or carrots require well aerated soils, as compacted, well-used soils will inhibit growth. I use a garden fork to loosen things up before I spread a seed raising mix across the top to sow the seed into. Mostly I sow in broad patches but rows are way easier to manage especially when it comes to thinning the seedlings.
Brassicas are everyone's favourite winter crop, though I personally am a cauliflower hater. I can report however, that since I've grown and eaten caulis from a winter garden at home all that has changed, especially when you see some of the groovy varieties you can grow. As far as soil prep goes, a deep friable soil is preferable but we need to keep the nitrogen to a minimum otherwise it'll be all leaf and no head. I wouldn't recommend feeding with compost, instead trench some seaweed into the bed and mulch the young plants with well-rotted leaf-mould. If you haven't got leaf-mould try pea straw and wood ash (untreated only). This will keep the weeds down around the young plants and starve them of nitrogen which ultimately will encourage firm tight cabbage, broccoli and cauli heads.
For everything else I sheet mulch or no dig garden. Lay brown cardboard directly over the bed (you don't even need to weed it), place a manure crop on top like cow poo or seaweed then sprinkle with gypsum.
If that's too much work, just use compost then cover with soil and mulch with straw. You can plant straight into your no dig garden bed or you can save it for next spring. Either way you've tackled one of gardening's basic misconceptions which is gardening is all about plants. I maintain it's not. Plants are only reflections of what's happening beneath the surface of the ground.
Gardening is all about soil.