Gardening: Time to put in some patch work

If you want the the lushest greens, act now, and spring should prove plentiful
"THIS IS the busiest time of year if you want anything to eat next summer." It was my first experience of vegetable gardening, and that was the depressing advice I received from an elderly neighbour as I surveyed the large but badly neglected patch I had just acquired.

In nearby gardens, owners were picking their crops from neat rows in well-weeded beds; my patch was full of weeds and looked as if no one had taken a spade to it for years. So, in the hope that by the following autumn I would be living the good life, I set to work.

The first thing to do is to make sure that if there is something to harvest, it has been brought in and properly stored. Traditionally, potatoes were kept in clamps, elaborate structures in which they were stacked between thick layers of straw, shaped like a mound and surrounded by a trench.

It is more realistic, unless you have a large estate, to store your crops in boxes in a place that is cool, frostproof and, above all, dark. Carrots and beetroot can be layered in sand, preferably covered with netting to prevent mice getting in. Carefully stored, they should last for months.

Any plants still left in the soil should be checked for disease. Brassicas (which include cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts) are susceptible to clubroot, identifiable by yellowing leaves and a rotting smell. Any plant that looks as if it has been attacked should be pulled out and burned. It can usually be kept in check by regular weeding, improving drainage and using chemical root dips at the point when the young plants are put in. Fallen leaves with any signs of infection should also be burned; if they get put on to the compost heap, the disease will spread. Any leaves in good condition can be used to protect the crowns of globe artichokes from frost. These should be left in the ground, with their own leaves removed.

Very little can be sown outside at this time of year, particularly in the harsher parts of the country, although there is some scope if you are able to start things off indoors. Broad beans can go in at any time during the autumn or winter - in fact, many gardeners think the earlier they are started off, the less susceptible they are to blackfly when the weather warms up.

One of the best varieties is Aquadulce, which can be planted at any time during autumn or winter. There are also some peas that will withstand light frosts, or can be started indoors: Winfrida will be well ahead by the spring if it is planted now.

When these are ready to be planted out, they should fit into your overall cropping plan, which is important if everything is to grow in the best possible conditions. The basic principle is to ensure certain crops get moved around regularly so that diseases don't build up and soil doesn't get stripped of nutrients. Broadly, this means that brassicas should be grown together, as should root crops, and they shouldn't be grown in the same piece of land each year.

Once all this has been done, it is time to think about preparing the empty ground for next year's crops. Ideally, this will involve digging in some well-rotted manure, possibly from a compost heap which has been built up over several months. Pulverised bark can also be used, or rotted leaf mould made from fallen leaves which have been left to break down naturally since last autumn. Unrotted farmyard manure, if you are able to get hold of it, can be spread across the ground and dug in the spring.

There is always something in the garden that has to have special treatment: carrots are not helped by lashings of manure as too much nutrition makes them fork, instead of growing into nice long, straight vegetables, so a manure-free patch needs to be set aside for them.

But otherwise, anywhere which is to be used for vegetables should be well-fed, as the quality of the soil has a direct effect on the crops. If you skimp on this part of the preparation, you are likely to have a very poor crop next season.

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