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Here we go again

Posted by Guy Barter on 25 Nov 2007 at 09:45 AM

Here we go again. The last of the autumn planting is done with garlic and shallots joining broad beans, onions and peas in a broad expanse of crops that will grow over winter for early summer harvest. These will be quickly followed by a second crop thereby fulfilling my aspiration to grow three crops every two years. The cropping plan for 2008 is under way.

Most of the debris, stakes and other artefacts from last summer’s crops are gathered up and that that remains is only there because it is more convenient to pick these up and carry them to the compost bins and service area under the trees as part of round trip that returns with compost and manure taken out to the cropping area.

Another reason is biodiversity – clear dug, weed free plots look good in autumn and for clay soils are essential as the soil gets too sticky later. But they are also deserts for birds and other wildlife. True, weeds and debris will harbour slugs but the wet and cold of winter drive slugs underground and in fact they have more harbourage in open cloddy dug ground than in smooth compacted undug soil. It is too cold and dark now for weeds to form seeds.

I try and dig a small patch, barrow out some compost or some manure and generally disturb a bit of soil on every visit to let my resident robin and other birds feed.

Debris lies in compact heaps and with tall sunflowers and cosmos left standing, remain as shelter and feed for birds. It is a measure of background soil fertility that cosmos grown for cut flowers, and with no fertiliser at all, attained 2m compared to the 90cm suggested on the packet as their maximum height!

Nevertheless soil fertility cannot be taken for granted and neither can the possibility of drought in 2008 be neglected. On my sandy soil a dry summer is very damaging and the best way to reduce this risk is to add organic matter. As I have been gently reproved for helping myself to an unfair share of the communal leafmould heap last year, I put my hand deep in my pocket this year and have bought an unfeasible amount of farmyard manure. Although the manure was not cheap the nutrient content will reduce my fertiliser bill next year. Fertiliser prices have risen substantially as oil and gas are essential fertiliser feedstocks so the rising costs of these fuels has pushed up fertiliser prices.

My big plastic sheets won't be needed for weed control and keeping the soil dry until spring so they were used to cover my outsize muck heap to avoid rain washing out nutrients and polluting the groundwater. Just as well because we have had a week of torrential rain that has filled local rivers.

This was followed by nasty sharp little frosts – a few more of these and the soil will set solid and I will begin barrowing out my manure to the plot. Once this is done the whole plot will have been manured in the last two years and I can regard dry periods with equanimity.