Putting the garden to bed (Bridport Times, November 2018)

We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.

I often get asked by people what on earth I grow over the winter. There is a pretty strong misconception that not much can manage over winter, and although it’s true that there is less variety of things that grow, and that what is in the ground really slows down, there is still a lot that’s harvestable and a lot to do in the garden regardless!

How one goes about preparing for Winter is quite different depending on how the land is used. Two of us market garden at Tamarisk Farm; on my garden I follow no-dig principles whereas Rebecca, growing on a bigger scale, uses no-dig on some of the land but is also working on a field scale and using larger areas of green manure to build up humus. On the farm arable ground, cereal seed has been sown so that the new plants protect the soil. I want to write about what it entails in my particular garden.

No-dig has got a lot of press in recent years for a number of reasons; it’s the easiest system for small scale gardeners to work with and quite a bit of research has shown that it might actually be really beneficial for the soil structure and organisms in the soil. Put simply, no-dig means not ploughing, rotavating, digging or turning over the soil in any way. Instead, one ‘builds’ the soil, adding compost and mulch to permanent beds year on year. This adding of compost and mulch is an ongoing process, but it’s the Autumn and Winter months when I do most of the wheel-barrowing around the garden.

No-dig is particularly suited to my little patch of market garden and what I grow. It’s a small space that’s next to impossible to get a tractor onto and I focus on growing quick maturing crops like salad greens and herbs, which I plant densely into these permanent bed, and there is loads of great composting material and mulch to be found or scavenged from around the farm due to the diverse nature of what Tamarisk does.

Through the year I am constantly making compost, using everything I can get my hands on; from my spent crops, weeds (though avoiding seed heads and perennial weeds), straw and sheep dung that is left over from the sheep living in the polytunnels, daggings (the dirty wool scraps from shearing) and manure from the cow barn, to name the predominant ones. If everything has gone to plan I should have plenty of ready home made compost to start adding to beds when I clear the Summer crops.

We always joke that West Bexington, sloping south towards the sea, has it’s own special micro climate: the sea being so close has a buffering effect on the temperature so we get less frosts, the cold air tends to roll away down the slope into the sea, and the light reflecting off the sea means we get an early start on the Spring. In general that benefits us growers immensely though.it did mean that the intense summer seemed even more so down here. These upcoming Winter months are when I really feel the special joys of what it means to grow at Tamarisk Farm. The colder darker slower days give me a chance to take stock and really appreciate whats around me. Whether it’s  working into the fading light of a cold still evening watching another stunning sunset, getting useful jobs done in the polytunnel whilst hiding from dramatic winter storms, harvesting surprisingly sturdy winter salad in the quiet of the early morning with just the sounds of geese flying over or feeding a treat of freshly weeded greenery to a cow with her new calf in the barn adjacent to the market garden. By now the smaller polytunnels have been cleared of their summer glory and are composted and planted up with winter salad leaves that will thrive through until Spring and the larger ones are nearly ready for the sheep to come in. The main market garden is filled with plenty of winter lettuce and mustard greens, kale, chard, leeks and herbs. Some of these have gone in the ground in Spring, some in Summer and some in Autumn, taking their place as the previous crops have come to fruition. And as things get harvested or naturally finish I’m covering the beds with the home made compost or purchased local municipal waste that also makes a good mulch and returns to us a share of what we provide to the community.

This system means that there is always something happening in the ground, which is one of my main aims. When plants are in the ground they can serve many functions. Their root systems intricately growing down can give nutrients back, break up dense or compacted soil, exude sugars for soil organisms to feed on and improve the soil structure, which enables the ground to hold more water in the wet months with less waterlogging or run-off and so less loss of nutrients. Even if there aren’t plants in the ground, the compost or mulch that has been added to the top of the beds begins to be brought in to the soil by all kinds of amazing organisms, including bacteria, fungi and worms.

I aim to have given each bed in the garden a good layer of compost or other mulch by the end of Winter, when I always try to take a little break. Knowing that the garden, although it might be beginning to look empty and dull, is busy in its own ways while still producing vegetables at a tick-over level I can walk away for a few weeks before the madness of the growing season begins again. I can turn my back content in the knowledge that nature never really stops; it’s always doing something miraculous however slow and quiet it may seem.

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