During the COVID-19 crisis when most normal WWOOFing is in abeyance Mr Fluttergrub, our regular newsletter contributor, will be keeping us updated on what’s happening on and about the plot.
Digging It (Wed. 9th Dec.)
The Winter digging got underway today. Between early December and the end of February I aim to dig most areas not occupied by winter crops. All this is carried out by hand using no tool other than a spade (I don’t own and have never used a rotovator). It’s a protracted process, different areas being tackled as crops are cleared or ground conditions (some patches are wetter than others) permit. Most areas, especially those arranged into beds with permanent paths, are just given a light ‘turn over’. It’s only where the ground will be used for crops needing fine soil, such as carrots, or where bulky manure needs to be worked in for hungry crops, such as brassicas, that the more traditional ‘trenching’ method of digging is used.
In many quarters digging of any type is now frowned upon. Permaculturalists will not approve, nor will the growing band of no-diggers inspired by the guru of low till gardeners, Charles Dowding. For me though, digging is the only practical way to manage the 1,200 square metres of ground across the plots used for open ground vegetable production. Otherwise I’d probably have to use machinery and/or import prodigious quantities of compost. So, while I’m well aware that digging can have drawbacks (damage to soil structure and fauna; panning and leaching of nutrients by rain; carbon loss into the atmosphere; to name a few) I feel the positives balance the potential negatives.
What are some of the positives of digging? This will vary according to local conditions and objectives. For me there are probably five main advantages. Number one is that where I don’t have permanent beds (the plot has a mix of beds and open ground growing areas) digging helps break up soil that’s become compacted through treading and crops harvest over the growing season. Number two is that on my mainly heavy clay and silt soil digging improves aeration, assists drainage and helps provide, through the action of winter frost on the clods of dug earth, soil that’s more crumbly and workable for sowing and planting in spring. The third advantage is that digging helps control weeds, especially perennials such as a couch grass that otherwise tend to creep into growing areas from the edges. Fourthly, digging makes incorporation of manure and compost easier. Although both could be applied as mulch, manure tends not to rot down well if left on top of soil while homemade compost, if applied as a surface layer, can lead to a weed flush unless it’s been produced to a standard I don’t have the time or inclination to attain.
Finally, on top of all these advantages there are some further reasons why I like to dig. It’s good exercise. It can be contemplative. A swathe of freshly turned earth brings a sense of satisfaction. And it’s an enjoyable way of spending time outside on a winter’s day. All in all, in the dated counter culture lingo of the sixties, ‘I dig it’.
Protecting the Peckers (Fri. 11th Dec.)
A few days ago the Chief Veterinary Officers announced that after several outbreaks of Avian Influenza (bird flu) all owners of poultry and game birds were to be legally required to house or otherwise contain flocks to prevent contact with wild birds. I’ve two small flocks of hens, known as ‘the peckers’, both kept in largish runs surrounded by two metre high perimeter fencing but otherwise open to the sky. Each run has a small coop, fine for roosting but totally inadequate to contain the hens during the day. Today therefore, we had no option: we had to use the dreaded netting.
If you’ve done much growing where nets have been needed, perhaps to fend off pigeons or protect berries, you’ll know that getting them in place is just about the most nightmarish horticulture experience possible. First we had to find the nets (the last bird flu outbreak was four years ago). Fortunately, this wasn’t as traumatic as expected, especially as we realised several nets used for protecting fruit bushes in summer could be redeployed. Nonetheless getting the nets in position was a morning of struggle. Unravelling and stretching was just the start of the ordeal. It was avoiding snagging on the wire fences or tangling in overhanging trees and hedges that was the real torment.
Eventually the netting was up and the hens ‘protected’ (well, sort of – a robin got in one of the runs within a few minutes). How long the netting will have to remain in place we don’t know. Probably until late spring as the main risk seems to be from migratory birds, particularly geese and swans. Geese do pass overhead in their characteristic ‘V’ formations fairly regularly but never land in the plot or nearby. Anyway, I suspect these are largely local Greylags and Canadas, rather than Siberian migrants. Gaggles congregate on the ornamental lakes of the city’s parks during the day before commuting en-masse to the safe haven of a water treatment works lagoon at night. Smaller, presumably resident, birds do hangout with the hens. The miscreant robin demonstrated that netting a large area to make it proof against small birds is almost impossible. Please don’t tell DEFRA.
Some of the netted peckers
Another Feathered Friend (Thu. 17th Dec.)
It’s not unusual to get close to birds when working on the plot. Any activity that involves disturbing the soil, especially in winter, is likely to attract avian attention. Having blackbirds pecking worms from newly dug ground or robins perching on a spade handle is one of the plot’s pleasures – birdwatching close up, more intimate and rewarding than sitting in a hide peering through a pair of binoculars.
Generally it’s songbirds that hang around humans. Bigger birds tend to be more wary. That’s usually the case with corvids (members of the crow family) that are resident in and around the plot but rarely get close, at least on the ground. In the last few weeks though there’s been an exception. I’ve a new friend, ‘Jackie’ the jackdaw.
S/He (female and male jackdaws are identical in appearance) first flew in late one morning and immediately began strutting about under my feet. Within a few minutes it was tugging at my bootlaces. It then sat in the wheelbarrow even staying on it when I pushed it aside. After this it just stared up at me from the soil through beady eyes. Thinking it might be peckish (sorry about the pun) I offered it a few worms but these were dismissively poked at rather than swallowed. Instead, seemingly bored, it wandered off to the rows of newly sprouted overwintered onions where it pulled one from the ground before nonchalantly tossing it aside.
Keen to discourage this activity I stretched out an arm in a shooing motion only for the jackdaw to take off and alight on its falconry style. After prodding my gloved hand with a sharp beak it hopped onto my shoulder and began pulling my hair.
Over the next couple of weeks we had several similar encounters. Interestingly, these tended to occur around the same time each day. It seemed Jackie, as the jackdaw had now been unimaginatively named, had a routine, visiting the plot only in the late morning. After 20 minutes or so of hanging about and demanding attention s/he’d take off, presumably seeking more interesting activity elsewhere.
Today it’s a week since Jackie last called. Hopefully no misfortune has befallen her/him. I do wonder though. Trust may not be the best survival tactic if you’re a bird. I also wonder what caused s/he to become so willing to approach people. Perhaps s/he had been hand reared and become habituated to human company. Or perhaps this was just a particularly curious bird that had learnt plotting gardeners posed no threat and enjoyed spending part of the day in their company.
Haircuts (Fri. 18th Dec.)
Today is a trimming day. After a visit to the hairdresser this morning I set about giving some of the fruit bushes a winter trim. I grow a lot of soft fruit with several areas of fruit bushes on the plot, including a large fruit cage. With the bushes in the cage already given their winter haircut it was to a smaller area that I turned my attention containing blueberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries.
December isn’t the time for pruning blueberries. In my experience they’re better to pruned in early spring. During winter there’s often some dieback on older wood. Waiting until March allows this, and the swelling fruiting buds, to be more easily seen.
It was the gooseberries and blackcurrants that I wanted to deal with. Both of these I only prune in winter. On the latter, ‘trimming’ isn’t really a useful analogy. Blackcurrants, unlike redcurrants and gooseberries, fruit best on younger wood. Therefore, if you go round a bush giving it an overall trim you’re likely to remove a lot of newer growth, especially at the ends of branches. The aim of pruning should be to promote new growth and reduce the amount of older, less fruitful wood. This is best done by removing some older wood completely, cutting it off at the base of the plant. Generally I take out about a third of each bush annually, focussing on the older wood but also aiming to keep an open, balanced set of branches.
With gooseberries trimming is a somewhat more useful comparison. As gooseberries fruit on both old and new wood the main aim is to maintain a bush that crops well and is easy and not too painful to pick. This is best achieved by keeping the centre open, trying to maintain a goblet or wine glass shape branch framework. Cutting back any new growth going into the centre of the bush or crossing and entangling the main branches is where to start. Reduce this growth to a few buds or ‘spurs’. These should produce fruit next season. The other main aim is to trim new wood at the end of branches to maintain the shape of the bush. Where there is space for branch extension prune new growth back by about half to buds that point upwards and outwards. This should stimulate strong growth in the summer to increase the overall size of the bush. When doing this it’s worth pruning out any branches that are low to the ground. These tend to droop when laden with berries and can be gradually dispensed with as newer, higher branches are developed..
All this is simpler to write about than practice. While I try to follow this regime, some of my gooseberry bushes, as you may notice from the accompanying picture, aren’t paragons of good practice. This is partly because the bushes when supplied didn’t have what every gooseberry should have: a ‘good leg’, a clean stem or trunk of at least 30 centimetres before any branching to keep berries above the ground and facilitate easy picking. It’s also partly because I’ve planted the bushes more closely than usually recommended, aiming to pack as many plants into the space available.
Because I close plant, to keep the bushes well fed, the final stage of winter maintenance is to mulch. In the case of the gooseberries and blueberries this is with garden compost. Later, when their March pruning is done, the blueberries will also be top dressed with leaf mould and conifer needles. This is to try and keep conditions as acid as possible on my otherwise PH neutral soil. The blackcurrants, in contrast, are mulched with manure. With these I’ve always heeded the adage that there are three things blackcurrants need to crop well: high nitrogen, hence the manure; plenty of water, not normally a problem; and winter chill.
With cold weather now forecast for Christmas and New Year the latter may not be an issue either, at least for the coming season. However, warmer Winters caused by global heating pose a serious risk to blackcurrant cropping. If you want to digress to explore this further and see how global heating has Ribena worried and is precipitating the development of new varieties this article is a good place to start. Longer term more climate resilient varieties of blackcurrants may be needed on the plot. For now though, all are pruned and nicely set up for the winter along with the gooseberries. Just the blueberries still to prune and, least I forget, the autumn fruiting raspberries. More on these haircuts another time.
Newly Pruned Gooseberries (foreground) and Blackcurrants (background)
End of an Era (Thu. 31st Dec.)
At 11pm this evening the UK will be finally cast adrift from the EU as the Transition Period ends. Over 25 years as a WWOOF host I’ve benefited from the help of, and learnt from, 250+ WWOOFers, more than half of whom have come from EU countries. With free movement from the EU now ended, coming to and getting into the UK from Europe will surely be a less attractive and trouble free option. Sadly, today closes an era of unhindered exchange with Europe, not just for the UK as a country but, in all probability, for WWOOFing. I want to say a lot more but this isn’t the place. So, and please excuse the sexist seventeenth century language, I’ll let John Donne sum it up for me: “No man is an islands, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less”.