Grow veg

The allotment in winter – so much to do, so little time to do it.

The allotment in December is typically a mixed bag of a few tidy areas and lots of work that needs to be done.

Much as I love gardening and growing vegetables, finding time to get down to the allotment isn’t always easy. When I worked full time I often used to go down for an hour or two on my way home from work. That was fine when there was daylight after 5pm but impossible after the clocks went back in October until they went forward again at the end of March. Weekends were often spent doing other things, or could easily be ruled out by bad weather, so that in autumn and winter several weeks, even a month, could easily go by without a visit.

In December 2019 I was washing the Christmas parsnips in puddles on my sodden plot while watching autumn onion sets floating.

Now I’m a freelance writer my time is much more flexible and I can fit in visits more easily, but I still need to work, there are still other things to be done, family commitments that can’t always take second place to the vegetables and other factors (including bad weather and occasional bouts of laziness) which scupper the best laid plans. I’m aware that I sound like I’m just making my list of excuses for the state of my plot, and of course to some extent I am.

So you might be wondering why I’m confessing all of this instead of just keeping quiet and pretending I’m on top of everything? There are two reasons. The main one is that, looking around the 140 or so plots on my allotment site, I can see that I’m not the only one who has this problem. Yes, there are plots, quite a few of them, that are immaculate and well organised all year round, not a weed in site and all the veg grown in neat rows. I always admire them, but I’d say the majority are not like that. The reality for many plot holders is an annual see-saw of enthusiastic weed clearance and bed preparation in spring, getting lots of different vegetables sown and planted …. and then visits tailing off, weeds creeping in, grass encroaching on bed edges. Sometimes this happens even before the vegetables reach harvesting stage but if not then, things have often taken a turn for the worst by the time winter sets in.

If there’s one thing I’ve learn over the years it is that letting things slip too much in autumn and winter makes the spring a lot more difficult than it needs to be.

Which leads me to the other reason for confessing to my struggles over the years to keep control of a frequently weedy and untidy plot. I want to share the strategies that I’ve settled on for coping with the problem.

Strategy one – worry less

This can be the most difficult strategy and I’ve put it first because I’ve come to see it as the most important. Although I’ve never been a fanatically tidy gardener I do want the plot to be reasonably well maintained and orderly. I want to be on top of things and when I’m not it can feel frustrating and irritating. It is the one thing that most often makes me feel like giving it all up. But I realised some time ago that as much as we’ve come to rely on the veg I grow for a lot of what we eat, the allotment is still a hobby and I should enjoy it. So now I don’t worry as much.

If the grass is still growing in December and I haven’t been able to get a mower on it since late September, I’ll just leave it until we’ve had a few dry days and use the strimmer to tidy it up. If I’ve been meaning to clear the weeds and grass from my strawberry bed for weeks but keep running out of time when I’m down there, I will make it a priority once more pressing jobs are done. I’m generally very lucky with my health but if my back/neck/wrist or anything else is playing up and I can’t manage some of the heavy stuff, I will either try to find another way to tackle it or leave it until the problem clears up and do it then.

Allowing a certain amount of untidiness is in any case much better for wildlife. In the summer months I usually mow around the clumps of red and white clover that appear in the grass and leave some of the self sown borage in the beds because the flowers are so good for bees. I leave a couple of clumps of nettles for the butterflies that lay their eggs on it. In the winter, the pile of twigs and branches I’ve pruned during the year from the plum, apple and pear tree will create shelter and habitat for insects and maybe the odd hedgehog or mouse, so I’ll leave it there until the spring. I don’t want to create problems for neighbouring plot holders (in summer, uncut grass or huge thistles left to flower and go to seed will not make me popular) and I don’t want to create too many hiding places for slugs and snails, but leaving some things as they are can actually do some good.

Just do something – that is now my motto when I am down at the plot. Don’t get overwhelmed and try to tackle everything, just pick one thing and get that finished properly. The odd thing is that relaxing and taking the pressure off not only makes working on the plot more enjoyable but doesn’t necessarily mean you get any less done than you did before. If you focus on tackling one job at a time it might not take as long as you expected so perhaps you can fit in an extra job before you go home, but if it takes too long and you can’t do anything else, so be it.

Strategy two – grow things in it

You don’t have to clear all your beds for winter of course, there are a lot of things you can have growing. I decided not to plant autumn onion sets after they upped anchor and were bobbing about in the puddles last year, but I’ve put in some butterhead lettuces called ‘All The Year Round’ and I tried a new broad bean which was meant to crop in autumn. Unfortunately the plants arrived nearly two months later than expected and they haven’t coped well with the frosts (which started quite early in November) so I don’t think I’ll get any beans.

Some veg planted in spring and summer is still growing, too, including brassicas – sprouting brocolli, collard greens and brussel sprouts. Normally I’d have lots of kale, but I couldn’t get seeds of my favourite varieties when I needed them in spring, and the one I grew bolted (flowered) in late summer so had to come out. I also have leeks, some parsnips (not many – this was something else I couldn’t get fresh seeds of in spring and old seeds tend not to germinate well) and I leave chard in. The leaves might die down in really cold and frosty weather, but they soon grow back in mild spells.

Winter is also the ideal time to plant fruit trees, bare root raspberry, gooseberry and currant plants, and you can order strawberry runners – although I’d leave it until early spring to plant those because they don’t establish well in cold, wet soil.

Strategy three – if you’re not using it, cover it

This could be a controversial strategy. In the past I’ve covered most of the beds with a permeable woven plastic material which I’ve written about in a previous blog post. It has its pros and cons, but it is a quick and easy way to keep weeds down.

We used to get deliveries of green waste manure from the council several times a year and were allowed 10 wheelbarrows of it for each plot (though I often ran out of steam after shifting about 7 or 8!). It would be steaming hot when it was delivered so depending on the time of year I would either pile it up and store it for a while, or use it straight away to spread on empty beds. Unfortunately the council stopped delivering a few years ago, so I’ve been working on increasing the amount of compost I make, both at home and on the allotment. I put up two new compost bins on my plot and started making better use of the black plastic bin that I got free from the council. I also bagged up a lot of compost from both the Hotbin in my garden and from pots I’d grown tomatoes, aubergines and peppers in at home in my greenhouse, and brought that down to the allotment as well.

To help keep some of the real problem weeds like bindweed and thistles down, I collected some cardboard, laid that on the most troublesome beds and covered that in the compost. I’m hoping that by the time I need those areas in spring, the cardboard will have started to break down and rot, and if it hasn’t I’ll just plant through it. Where I didn’t use cardboard I’ve just spread compost on as many beds as I could (I have run out at the moment), and, as I’ve said, in places that is now covered with the woven plastic as well.

Strategy four – get down there when you can and do some work

This is, of course, the most obvious strategy of all. Even if the allotment can’t always be your top priority it’s a good idea to get down there at least occasionally if you possibly can, rather than just assume that you don’t need to do any gardening in winter. An hour spent down there at this time of year will usually be an hour you save when the pace picks up again in spring. Keep an eye on the forecast because there will usually be a few precious days of light winds, mild temperatures, blue skies and sun – days when, if you can take advantage of the conditions, it’s a real pleasure to be outside working.

The things I want to do this year include clearing the brambles under the apple tree at the back of my plot; pruning the apple tree, pear tree and currant bushes; straightening bed edges so I can cut them more easily with the strimmer in summer. Oh, and finally clearing the weeds and grass out of the strawberry bed so they can get off to a good start in spring.

And finally ….

Blackcurrant buds that seem to have big bud mite

I noticed that some of the buds on my blackcurrant bush look abnormally fat and round. They should be small and more pointed, as some of them still are. This could be caused by something called Big Bud mite, or gall mite. The minute mites live in the buds sucking sap and causing them to swell in the winter. Leaves and flowers of infested buds either won’t grow or will be stunted. The mites also spread reversion virus which weakens plants even more and reduces the amount of fruit produced. The bush had quite a lot of fruit on it this year and most buds look fine so I’m hoping the problem is in the early stages. I’ll take off the fat buds and get rid of them to try to stop the mites spreading to other buds in spring, but if the infestation gets worse I’ll probably have to take it out.

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