Soil savers: organic matter ready for composting. Photograph: Alamy
The ground here is wet again – wet enough to stop any action in the garden and to confine me to jobs that keep me off the beds. I look down into the wind-battered stems of last year’s perennials and at a healthy crop of weeds which have been growing away in the mild weather. Bulbs are pushing through the seeding grass and speedwell, and I wonder how long it will be before I have to wade in from a network of planks to start the clear-up.
There is digging to do, too, but I’ve made some big changes in the garden that will make an impact on how I use my plot this year. I am three years into the rotation in the vegetable garden and the soil is already benefiting. Potatoes are helping to clear ground, legumes to inject a healthy dose of nitrogen into it, and plenty of farmyard manure is improving its consistency. I have been lucky in being able to call on the local farmer for a delivery of his finest – “black gold”, as it is called by some – and the soil is more friable, holds the moisture and drains better through its inclusion.
The changes to my makeshift plot involve moving the vegetables and fruit to a new piece of ground, which I have levelled so that I am able to garden on the flat (gardening on the slopes here is hard on your back). The new flat ground is laid out in a neat series of parallel beds wide enough to work from both sides in the wet.
We will be starting from scratch in terms of the topsoil, which has been stripped from the banks behind the house. The beds will have to be “rested” for a while to clean the soil of perennial weeds and to start the process of getting it in good condition. I will sow it with red clover to inject nitrogen and a good dose of organic matter when this green manure crop is turned in. The resting time will also give the soil organisms the chance to settle in and to find their place again after the disturbance.
So much of good gardening is about looking after your soil and I have made myself a pair of spectacular compost heaps. My bays stand side by side so I can turn one into the other during the course of a year to keep the compost from stagnating. Air and moisture are key to keeping alive the bacteria responsible for breaking green waste into compost. I have left earth floors, too, so worms can come and go. I like compost that is rich with worms and this is a good way of introducing them into the garden.
The heaps are big enough to take all that the garden has to throw at them. Raw kitchen waste – nothing cooked, to discourage the rats – and wastepaper will find its way into the mix. At various points in the year there will be bulky excess from the garden: the June cut-back of the early-flowering perennials, potato tops if they do not have the blight, meadow cuttings, and the product of deadheading and weeding.
Once they are dried in the sun and burned, grass cuttings, layered evenly so that they do not suffocate the heap, and annual weeds (never perennials) will help retain the heat at the core. At the end of winter there will also be the plant skeletons of last year, once they have run their course and finally make their way back into the system.
Use home-made compost as a soil conditioner rather than as a mulch to prevent weed seed finding its way back into the garden.
Email Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org