This winter, many of us will start digging to prepare a vegetable plot or flower border for planting next spring. But the question may arise – why bother?
Firstly, digging breaks up the soil, relieving compaction and helping to aerate it, making drainage better and allowing roots to penetrate so that plants grow better.
The main reason for digging, however, is to add plenty of organic matter such as well rotted manure or compost to improve soil structure and nutrients before planting. Fork out perennial weeds and other debris before you start.
Generally soil needs to be dug only to one spade’s depth when you are creating a new bed. Years ago double-digging (digging to the depth of two spades) was often recommended but, quite honestly, it’s really not necessary unless you want to grow award-winning carrots or giant parsnips.
Be warned, though, that when an area has been neglected, digging it over will lead to the emergence of weeds, as dormant seeds will start to germinate once exposed to daylight.
When single digging, dig the first trench to one spade’s width and one spade’s depth and place the soil from this in a wheelbarrow, taking it to the far-end of the plot, to be used later to fill in the final trench.
Dig a second trench next to the first and throw the soil from the second trench into the first, mixing plenty of organic matter in with it as you go. It will bury annual weeds, but make sure you remove any perennial weed roots first and split up any large earth clods.
Don’t just put the compost at the bottom of the hole. It should be distributed through all layers of the topsoil.
Continue to dig trenches across the whole plot, using the soil from the wheelbarrow to fill the last trench.
If you are preparing the bed to plant trees, shrubs or perennials you can just leave it when you’ve dug it over. If you’re preparing it for sowing seeds, or growing small plants, it’s best to dig it over then rake the ground to a fine tilth resembling cake crumbs.
To save your back, do the digging in stages if you’ve a large area to cover. Divide the area in several bits and do it over time, not all at once. If you are autumn or winter digging, pick days when the ground isn’t too hard or wet and leave it rough dug, letting the winter frosts break up the soil more and allowing birds to pick off soil pests.
If you are working on an existing bed with established plants, just add a thin layer of organic matter to the surface, turning it in as you go, but don’t dig down very much.
Many organic vegetable gardeners use a no-dig approach, spreading large amounts of organic matter over the top of the soil each year, then waiting for the worms to pull the nutrients down into the soil, building up the quality and fertility of the soil, suppressing weeds and conserving water.
However, the beds are likely to have been dug deeply when they were first created. Alternatively the same result can be achieved without digging, by creating a raised bed, filling it with compost laid on existing soil. Don’t tread on the soil, though, or it will become too compacted and defeat the object.
GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT – Celeriac
This delicious knobbly veg is delicious as a mash, mixed with potato and garlic, or grated in salads, and is much easier to grow than celery. Sow seeds in early spring in pots of seed compost mixed with fine vermiculite. Cover the seed with vermiculite and germinate in a propagator at around 15C (59F).
Once the true leaves have formed, transplant the seedlings into larger pots of multipurpose compost, with one plant per pot. Slowly harden off and plant out at the end of spring or early summer into well-prepared ground enriched with plenty of organic matter, in full sun or partial shade.
Seedlings should be placed 30cm (12in) apart in rows 45cm (18in) apart and watered in. If you don’t have rain, water every five to 10 days and in mid-summer cut off the lower leaves to make the crown more visible. In autumn, draw soil around the stem bases and harvest from mid-autumn to early spring, when the celeriac is the size of a small coconut.
Celeriac can remain the the ground until you need it if you have light soil, but lift and store if you have heavier ground, twisting off the leafy tops and putting the vegetables in boxes of coir in a cool shed. Good varieties include ’Brilliant’ and ’Monarch’.
THREE WAYS TO … maintain winter interest
1. Experiment with combining bulbs and other plants such as snowdrops with early miniature iris and hellebore, or using the foliage of Cyclamen hederifolium as a background.
2. Prune coloured stems regularly in late March, as the best colour comes from the current year’s growth.
3. Use strong contrasting leaf colour and shape of evergreens to attract attention.
WHAT TO DO THIS WEEK
Examine bowls and pots of bulbs you are forcing for early flowering. When the growth has reached around 2.5cm (1in) in height move them to a cool greenhouse or frame for a few weeks, or place them on the windowsill of a cool room.
Complete autumn planting of climbers and wall shrubs if the ground is not too wet or frozen.
Take hardwood cuttings from hardy climbers such as jasmine and honeysuckle.
Complete all picking of apples and pears.
Start planting bare-root trees and fruit bushes, while the soil is still warm and not too wet.
Tidy up existing strawberry beds for the winter, removing any ground covering such as straw or mats, and cloches or tunnels.
Put cloches over September-sown parsley and chervil to encourage winter shoots and keep them clean.
Keep heather beds clear, removing any overhanging vegetation that may have grown over them in summer.
Begin pruning vines once the leaves have fallen.
Reduce watering on houseplants so the compost is allowed to dry on the surface between waterings and only feed plants that are in flower or growing strongly.