Updates from November 2012.
November here has been a nicer month than October, with a few fine days! especially around and after 11th, a time of classic Indian Summer, nicely explained by Michel le Gros in his moon calendar 2013, a book I have just reviewed, see the Moon banner on this site.
As this mild weather gradually cedes to wintry conditions, make haste to complete those last sowings of broad beans and garlic. I still have a few to put in as I have still not found time to create any beds at my new garden! being so busy harvesting at Lower Farm, clearing up there and taking down the polytunnels, with amazing help from Robin Baxter who is ‘rocket science’ on the forum. If anybody near Ilkeston/Nottingham needs a great gardener, he is your man, and he turned up here with a incredible hedging machine which has been invaluable for clearing overgrown shrubs and brambles, so there is now even a good chance of reaching Homeacres’ front door without being scratched! Also he cleared a huge overgrown area which turns out to have been covering the site of a redundant cesspit (the house is now on mains sewage) which must be why the blackberries were so large and juicy.
I moved house on 3rd November and most of my time here has been cleaning, decorating and sorting out its new contents, with lots of help from Steph, so now there is more time to do some gardening. I have bought 30 tons of cow manure from Robert Oram, who beds his cows on straw and turns the heap (!) to offer a lovely dark and not too lumpy manure, which is really compost. The words are confusing because when discussing animal manure, I feel that people sometimes think one means fresh excrement, whereas composted manure is compost! I just call it manure to differentiate its original ingredients from garden compost, which after a year can look quite similar.
Whatever organic matter you have access to, this is a great time to spread it on top of clean soil. Just an inch or so if you have been composting every year for a while, in fact Robin commented how the compost he spreads on his allotment soil (see Allotment banner) is being taken in less fast than when the soil was poor, so he is spreading barely an inch a year. Watch your soil surface closely over the year, it can tell you whether more or less is needed.
For me at Homeacres I have no idea yet but do know that soil under grass and weeds is usually in good health so I mainly need a light excluding mulch with perhaps a couple of inches of organic matter to boost soil life and be sure of growing wonderful plants. Any day now I need to decide where those first beds are going to be, am still unsure, partly in relation to other decisions I need to make such as where a greenhouse and polytunnel will be, and whether I keep the fence around the half acre paddock.
UPDATE 20th, we took one of the fences down on Sunday and it has really opened up the space here which now feels more like a large garden. I have some biodynamic preparation 500 arriving and am about to stir it and then spread it on the soil, to help it have a nice winter.
Robert is booked to come and fell the tall conifers on my garden’s western edge. Although this will let in more wind, they have become too big and as well as shading a larger area, they pull out a lot of moisture in summer. Bear this in mind if you have nearby hedges and prune them as small as possible if vegetables are nearby.
Things can be straightforward in November but the weather may intervene, as it has so much this year.
Your last carrots should be harvested, unless you are on sandy soil which offers less habitat to slugs. Celeriac, parsnip and beetroot are more resistant to weather and pests so are often fine to stay in the ground, although beetroot is better pulled if temperatures are heading below -4C or so. Any roots you harvest to store want a little soil left on and can then simply be put in a paper sack or cardboard box, and kept as cool as possible without freezing. There is no need for clamps or boxes of sand.
Winter squash are best kept dry and even warm, to lessen the risk of fungal infections, usually around their necks if damp at harvest time. Immature squash are good to eat immediately and this is the start of a long season for enjoying these high carotene (B vitamin) vegetables, and so many others. You can make vegetable feasts of a wonderful range of flavours and colours, mixes of root vegetables, onions, leeks, garlic, squash and kale. My leeks are coming through a heavy attack of leek moth maggots and growing strongly again, although looking shabby on the outside, then revealing a lovely blanched stem of a fair size, with only a few holes. Kale has had a great autumn here, especially Red Russian.
Another bountiful leaf at this time is hearts of chicory and chinese cabbage; my chicories were sown on July 6th and planted July 30th, while I sowed the chinese cabbage on July 31st and planted them out on August 14th. These dates are important and cannot be varied much if you want hearts to store into early winter. Usually I cut most of them in November, but took fright at the forecast heavy frost on October 26th and gathered more than half that afternoon. Slugs are starting to eat most of the outer leaves, which is a sign of maturity, and you can see this most dramatically on the chinese cabbage, a sluggy favourite! Fortunately the slugs are less interested in hearts of healthy plants, but caterpillars of cabbage moth just bore straight in to cabbage hearts and one or two found their way under my mesh cover.
Preparing for next year, on soil cropping already
From now until year’s end, all emptied beds, and paths of open sided beds, want weeding before you apply an inch or two of reasonably decomposed organic matter. This gives it time to weather from when you spread it until you sow or plant next year, so this is also a chance to spread any imperfect, lumpy compost and manure, because exposure to air and weather will help it break up to a more finished state.
Then in late winter you can rake through it lightly to knock larger lumps apart – much easier at that stage than now – and any remaining large and unrotted morsels can be flicked onto paths or picked off to put in the current compost heap, leaving a surface to sow and plant into. Even if it is rather uneven, that is fine, and works better for germinating seeds and young plants than perfectly smooth soil which often caps over in rain, which is one of the reasons for sowing green manures and is why they are less necessary in a no dig plot.
Summing it up, the compost on top is an excellent combination of at least five good things:
- Mulch to lessen weed growth
- Organic matter to protect soil from extremes of rain and temperature
- A larder of food for soil life below
- The first stage of preparing a seedbed
- A source of nutrients throughout the coming year.
You can see this slow but balanced flow of nutrients in the picture above of two sweet basil plants, both six months old. where the right hand one is growing in homemade compost and the left hand one in multipurpose compost. Both have had small amounts of comfrey and nettle feed, and looked quite similar until August, when the own-compost plant suddenly became noticeably greener and lusher. Garden compost is amazing stuff! I think it is much better value than charcoal, after seeing a year of comparing growth between plants with and without charcoal finings added to the soil. Growth is no stronger and currently there is more slug damage to leaves of leaf radish in the beds with charcoal, which surprises me when observing how sharp its edges are, yet not enough to discourage slugs.
Preparing for next year, on soil full of weeds
The above needs modifying if you are reclaiming a weedy plot. Light exclusion is key, achieved through a combination of thicker dressings of organic matter, up to six inches – which is often enough to clean soil which has no major infestation of perennial weeds such as couch grass and marestail – and a sheet on top of black plastic, membrane or cardboard. See “no dig growing” for tips on this, and be clear about the two different phases:
- Initial cleaning of soil and boosting of soil fertility at the same time
- Ongoing maintenance of clean, healthy soil which needs less input of time and materials.
Stage 1 CAN take just a few hours if, before you start, the soil is growing mostly annual grasses and weeds. Or it may take a year for roots of vigorous perennials to run out of reserves, sometimes using a trowel to remove regrowing weeds before the leaves can feed dying roots and allow them to regenerate.