Winter at the veg patch

Veg patchA few weeks ago, I finally moved the last of our raised beds from the back garden to the front. I’d left it there through summer and into autumn because we were waiting for the sweetcorn that was growing in it to ripen. The cobs swelled up promisingly in September but sadly the kernels didn’t make it to the juicy yellow stage before the weather turned colder last month. Next year, I’ll try to get the seeds in the ground sooner so they have sufficient time to ripen.

Moving and setting up new raised beds is fairly simple. I put a layer of cardboard down and then put the frames on top of the cardboard. The cardboard stops light getting through to the grass underneath, killing it and encouraging it to break down, which will in turn feed your soil. The next step involves much shoveling of soil to fill the bed, and finally a top dressing of well rotted manure or garden compost. I don’t bother digging it in because it’s easier to let the worms do the work of pulling it down into the earth.

You’ll see in the photo above that I’ve let the nasturtiums go berserk in the strawberry bed. They looked so exuberantly pretty that I couldn’t bear to clear them out, but I expect the cold will do for them shortly. In spring, I’ll put down weed-suppressing membrane and bark chips to create paths around the beds. This will mean much less tiresome mowing and strimming next year.

It’s nearly winter but there was some work to do on the veg patch this month. I cleared out all the old bean and pea plants, and the courgettes and pattypans. They are now in the compost bin and will feed next year’s crops. It’s a very pleasing, self-contained cycle: we grow food and compost the waste, which then feeds the soil, and the soil feeds the crops, which feed us, and so on!

I’ve sowed two crops that will be harvested next spring or early summer. One bed was planted up with garlic, using two and half of the largest of last season’s garlic bulbs (photo below). I’m hoping that using large bulbs will mean I get more large bulbs this year. Sowing garlic is easy. Use a dibber to poke holes in the soil, about three inches deep and ten inches apart, in a grid pattern. Then break up the bulbs into individual cloves, and put them in the ground with the pointy end up. I haven’t bothered watering them in because there’s plenty of rain at the moment. Then all you have to do is keep the bed weed free, and harvest the bulbs when they’ve swelled up in early June-ish.

I also sowed broad beans (see this summer’s beans and self-seeded opium poppies pictured below). I’m growing a variety called Aquadulce Claudia, which is supposed to be good for autumn-sowing. It’s the first time I’ve started my broad beans in autumn, and I’m hoping we’ll have a delicious early crop. I’ve read that it can also help you avoid the dreaded blackfly as they crop before this pesky pest arrives later in spring. I’ve done a whole bed’s worth as we love broad beans and they’re so expensive to buy in the supermarket. You can start them in seed modules (or toilet roll tubes!) and then plant them out but I prefer direct sowing as it’s easier.

It’s better not to grow the same crop in the same bed every year as it can lead to a build up of soil-borne pests and diseases. Crop rotation is the best way to prevent this. It also avoids exhausting the soil of any one particular nutrient as different crop groups require different nutrients. For example, root crops like carrots and parsnips need lots of phosphorous (P), while fruiting crops like beans or courgettes need more potassium (K), and leafy crops like cabbages need plenty of nitrogen (N). I don’t follow a strict rotation system but I do avoid growing the same veg in the same beds every year, and I usually add some organic matter (compost or manure) when I’m clearing the beds after harvesting.

I’ve missed the chance to grow purple sprouting broccoli this winter because I left it too late to buy the plug plants. This has left me with an empty bed and it’s best not to leave cultivated soil bare over winter. Winter rains and wind can wash and blow away your nutrient-rich topsoil. To prevent this you can cover the soil with a layer of horticultural fleece or, better, sow a green manure.

“Green manures are fast-growing plants sown to cover bare soil. Often used in the vegetable garden, their foliage smothers weeds and their roots prevent soil erosion. When dug into the ground while still green, they return valuable nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure.”

RHS

They are called green manures because they are living plants rather than decayed matter like brown manure (poo). Some green manures are good for breaking up heavy soil. Others will improve poor soil by adding organic matter and improving water retention. The plants should be dug back into the soil before they flower, and then left to break down for about two weeks before sowing or planting out a new crop. There are also different green manures for different seasons. I scattered some phacelia seeds over the empty raised bed. Phacelia is actually meant to be sown from April to September. Note to self: read the back of the packet next time before buying! It’s the first time I’ve done this, so I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

I doubt that I’ll do much more with the veg patch this year. I’m going to enjoy thinking about my garlic and broad beans growing away underground in the cold and dark, waiting to shoot upwards when the first glimmers of spring appear next year.

Nasturtium leaf

Sweetcorn bed

Moving a raised bed

Garlic plaits

Broad beans and poppies

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