December 2010

Updates from December 2010.

December 2010 in the vegetable garden

Frozen head of calabrese after an overnight frost of -6C

Frozen head of calabrese after an overnight frost of -6C

The cold weather appears well entrenched, but there is still lots of gardening we can do. This morning (Nov 29th) was -5C here with a covering of snow on the ground; we harvested some frozen leeks (their roots had not yet frozen) and kale, cleared some endive plants by cutting through their stems at soil level with a trowel, spread some manure and compost and, unusually for me, I dug a bed – one of the experimental ones.

After the final harvest of kale and leaf radish, I have posted the figures for all this year’s harvests under the ‘dig/no dig experiment’ banner. Throughout the year’s first half there was a clear difference between the results, with harvests from the undug beds being consistently ahead. Since July, growth has been more even but the dug beds never caught up this year, as they have done previously.

November 2010 harvest of parsnips, dug bed on left and undug bed on right

November 2010 harvest of parsnips, dug bed on left and undug bed on right

I do not know why this should be. I think that one should not read too much into one year’s results because variable combinations of weather are making subtle differences all the time. Yet over four years, the no dig beds are now a little ahead of the dug beds in terms of overall yield.
If soil stays mostly frozen from now on, is it alright to spread compost and manure on top? I would say yes, although it is a pity that earthworms are hibernating at lower levels and won’t be enjoying the arrival of new food until spring. However the frosts are helping to break up lumps on top, and surface composted soil does seem to stay softer in freezing conditions. For instance today the surface of my dug beds was hard and solid, compared to the crumblier surface of the undug ones.

Frost in the greenhouse, salads growing in cow manure

Frost in the greenhouse, salads growing in cow manure

There are brandling worms in the compost and manure I am spreading, they unfortunately mostly perish in frozen weather – although it must be said that they often do in summer too, when birds feed on them. Their role is mostly in decomposing heaps of organic matter, rather than in soil-work.

I am now busy editing a new book on winter vegetables and this season is a reminder of winter’s harsher aspects. At the moment there are still many vegetables in the gardens here but they all look miserable with frozen leaves, even the salads in polytunnels which are barely thawing out by day. But their leaves can still be picked, individually and gently, to thaw out indoors.

For my salad bags we then mix them with leaves of chicory hearts and some chinese cabbage that are in crates in the shed.
Also we harvested some chicories and endives with roots and soil on, in flat trays on a sheet of polythene, and I put them in another shed for later use, thinking they would keep better in there than in the frozen garden outside. Unfortunately it has been cold enough to freeze them indoors, even though they were covered with a sheet of plastic, and I am not yet sure of the final quality of their leaves.

Resisting frost

Stalwarts of the season are parsnips, brussels sprouts and swedes, whose flavour is sweetening as their starches turn to sugars. Apparently this is an anti-freeze mechanism because sugars freeze less readily. Maybe the teenagers will really enjoy their sprouts at Christmas!

Out of the garden I have been giving some talks and one was a fascinating afternoon at my old college of Emmanuel in Cambridge. Four of us were debating whether it is more effective for individuals or government to take the lead in reducing pollution and helping the environment to recover from human assault.

I suggested no dig gardening as something that anyone with outdoor space can do, to improve their health with exercise and good food, at the same time as reducing food miles and carbon emissions (because digging soil releases soil carbon). Dave Hampton recommended personal carbon coaching to encourage each individual and family towards a lower energy lifestyle, Ivar Rush suggested a need for more wind farms, and Moira Wallace, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Energy and Climate Change outlined all the government’s strategies for dealing with looming shortages of energy. There was too much nuclear for my taste but the final voting came down firmly in favour of government taking the lead. Can they?

I feel that committed individuals can achieve a lot, not only by what they do but through inspiring others. Yet undoubtedly we all need help from the state and I did suggest to Moira Wallace (also Tim Yeo MP who chaired the debate) that government permission for use of aminopyralid herbicides has made a significantly bad impact on lots of gardens and allotments, as well as on the gardeners – all through one piece of slack governance. There is a lot of corporate power which pushes towards environmental harm and governments urgently need to resist it.