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Ground War

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 the hook.

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’ Question Time.

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/