Even in the grim, cold darkness, your soil needs you!
The Ecologist, December 2006
Winter. Nothing grows, nothing moves. All is cold
and dark. Frost – and snow, if you still live
in a part of the country lucky enough to experience
it – descends on anything still foolish enough
to be growing, and tries its best to squeeze the life
out of it. Anyone with any sense is indoors, in front
of the fire, with a glass of something warming.
For all but the most organised allotmenteers, though,
things are not that simple. True, nothing much grows
at this time of year. I have some leeks and broccoli
still toughing it out – they’re happy to
sit through all but the coldest winter. There are a
few sad-looking winter salads limping along too. But
that’s about it. Just about only other thing you
can usefully grow at this time of year is Brussels sprouts,
and I’d rather eat dung.
There are still things to be done though. Not as much
as in the spring and summer, it’s true. The good
thing about a season in which few food crops grow is
that few weeds grow either, so you don’t have
to spend your time battling it out with couch grass
or horsetail. There’s nothing to plant, and little
to tend. But that doesn’t mean we’re off
Because on an allotment there are always things to do.
Not that they’ll necessarily get done, of course
– that depends how hardy, and possibly masochistic,
you are. But a plot can’t just be abandoned to
the bleak midwinter. Like us, it needs a bit of loving
care and attention.
And so I will be pulling on my woolly hat and my thick
coat and trudging out there to tend the soil. For a
veg grower, your soil is priceless. It may look like
a load of crumbly, or gooey, brown stuff that sticks
to your boots and attracts worms by the million, but
this is the stuff of life. The difference between happy,
healthy soil and morose, weak soil is the difference
between fifteen vibrant, yellow corn cobs and three
wrinkly little embarrassments.
At this time of year, soil likes two things: nourishment
and protection. Nourishment because a lot of its essential
nutrients have been sucked out by the year’s crop,
and protection because it’s so damn cold. The
little micro-organisms that make up your soil don’t
like frost any more than you do. If you were well-organised
you would, by now, have filled your soil with replacement
nutrients, in the form of home-made compost, perhaps,
or horse manure from a local farm. You would have dug
lots of this into your beds, and then covered them up
with something protective, like a layer of old leaves,
or some plastic sheets or old carpet, to keep it warm
over the winter while it absorbs its nourishing meal.
If you are like me, though, you won’t yet have
quite got round to doing any of this. Hence you will
be doing it now, in the freezing winter weather. As
you do so you will be telling yourself that next year
you are going to be more organised and better prepared
– just like you did last year. You will, if you
have any sense, have a very large flask of tea with
you. Or perhaps a small flask of whisky. Or both. While
you’re at it, you may take pleasure in removing
any old bits of brick or wood that you find lying around,
under which slugs will be desperately sheltering, so
that they freeze to death before the spring comes. January
can be a cruel month.
But after the pain comes the gain. In my case, I will
go home to a house full of very large, very orange pumpkins
and butternut squash, the result of a surprisingly successful
year. If I’m lucky, there might be a whole winter’s-worth
of soups, lasagnes, risottos, pies and mashes here.
I’ll decide which one I fancy today, then curl
up in front of the telly with it and a glass of whisky.
I might even feel mildly guilty about the slugs. That’s
the thing about allotments: sometimes they can be a
real pain; yet it’s always worth it in the end.
Inspiring stories for the winter months
Are your local allotments run-down, vandalised or under-used?
If so, help could be at hand in the form of the Allotments
Regeneration Initiative. The ARI, as the name suggests,
aims to help regenerate rundown allotments and to prevent
them being sold or ‘developed’.
And it’s working. Take the Dal Muir allotments
in Clydebank: five years ago, the allotment association
was told that plans to ‘regenerate’ the
river Clyde meant that their allotments were to be built
on by 2007. The plotholders hit back with a ‘regeneration’
plan of their own, which included an education centre,
community composting facility, ‘sensory garden’
and renewable energy schemes. As a result, the plans
to destroy the plots have been put on hold.
Five years ago, Walsall Road Allotments in Birmingham
were similarly run down, with over a quarter of plots
empty and many others in disrepair. Rather than giving
up, plotholders got together to promote the allotments,
with posters in local shops, a website, regular press
releases to the local paper and a mass tidy-up. The
result was a waiting list and a visit from Gardeners’
There are plenty more examples: the community in Derbyshire
who persuaded their council to create the first new
allotments for forty years; the Cheshire allotment society
which has helped create a haven for local people to
engage with wildlife; the Cleethorpes growers who have
twinned their allotment with one in Germany. The possibilities
are endless. Find out more at www.farmgarden.org.uk/ari/