Garden News article – November

Actually this is definitely too late! But one for next year. This one appeared at the start of november – which is pushing it a bit for planting over wintering manures – unless you live in very warm parts of the country. Ideally you should be planting September/October. But anyway – the resources are useful for next year.


It’s November, it’s cold – it’s your last chance to plant a winter compost crop! If you’ve got a clear, weed free patch of ground and you’re not planning to plant it up with anything until Spring the best thing you can do now is cover it up with a green manure. Nature hates bare soil. More nutrients are lost from soil through leaching (ie loss through wind and rain) when the soil is bare than from the growing of crops.


New research from Garden Organic – a four year field trial funded by the government – has found that growing grazing rye over the winter reduces loss of nitrogen from the soil by up to 97% compared to leaving the soil bare. This means that come spring your soil will be raring to go – plants will get a head start and you wont have to use so much nitrogen feed. As the cost of nitrogen fertilizers has risen by 15% in three years (the price being linked to the cost of oil) there’s also a financial incentive.


You may think it better to grow nitrogen fixing legume crops but legumes don’t fix nitrogen in the winter. Cereal Rye’s are much better because they grow quickly, getting a good start before winter really kicks in. Even if they die during the winter, the carbon they have stored during growth goes back into the soil, breaking down and feeding soil micro-organisms, whose numbers might other wise be greatly reduced without this supply of fresh organic matter. Because soil fertility is dependent on the activity of micro-organisms it really pays to have a spring soil filled with life.


Rye leaves and roots also produce chemicals that work as a natural herbicide, so this is the best compost crop to grow in soil overrun with weeds like fat hen and ragwort. Its vigorous growth helps to choke out these weeds. You must be careful though that the crop does not become a weed itself.


Cultivation is fairly simple. Prepare the bed you want to plant up as you would a seed bed. Sow the seed evenly and carefully according to the recommendation on the packet. Be aware that gaps left between rye plants will be filled by rogue weeds so make sure you cover as much ground as possible. Rake the seed gently into the soil. Pat it down with a roller, your feet or the end of the rake.


Unless you are saving seed for the following year you should cut the rye down before it sets seed in the spring. It has a strong root system and is hard to kill. The best way to organise its demise – which you must do to stop it taking over and to make room for your crops – is to cut very close to the ground in early April (when you can feel the seed head at the base of the stem) and then again two weeks later if it shows signs of re-growth. After this second cut the plant generally gives up and the roots decompose in the soil. So long as the seeds haven’t set you can incorporate all the organic matter back into the soil – either by digging it in – or just leaving it to decompose on the surface.



Growing Green: Organic Techniques for a Sustainable Future, Jenny Hall and Iain Tolhurst – quite technical but comprehensive guide for gardeners and farmers wanting to make the most of natural growing techniques.

The Complete Compost Gardening Guide – probably my favourite gardening book this year. Born in the U.S.A but suitable for British gardeners, this is easy on the eye and very informative. 0845 130 1304 – various sized seed packets, including one that will cover 7 square metres, enough for a small garden like mine. Booklet: Step by Step Green Manures.

Garden News article 22 – Mid October article

This is obviously also a bit late but hope some of the information contained within it is useful still now. Actually it is because the leaves are still falling. Not too wintery yet! 


At this time of year trees and shrubs start to reclaim some of the nutrients they have been storing up in their leaves. They take them back into their dormant buds before allowing the leaves to fall. These concentrated sugars act as a kind of natural antifreeze, helping to preserve the buds through the winter. The colour of the leaves change and we embrace our time of mellow fruitfulness.


I’m lucky to live in an area of mixed deciduous woodland so when the leaves change colour and drop they give me almost two months of viewing pleasure. The hillside opposite blushes bronze and burns with copper hues. The trees are not stupid – when they finally let their leaves drop most of the nutrients have been removed from them. What falls on the ground is little more than a carbon shell.


Not necessarily a bad thing for gardeners: sometimes a carbon rich material is exactly what we need to make good compost. Compost lovers can learn at a glance which materials are going to be good for the composting process by studying the carbon:nitrogen ratio of each. The trick is then to balance out materials that are rich in carbon (cardboard, old bedding plants, old straw, tough vegetable stems) with those that are rich in nitrogen (grass, manure, vegetable peelings, cut flowers).


For example, our old friend comfrey has a carbon:nitrogen ratio of 10:1. This means that for every one part of nitrogen you find in a comfrey leaf you will also find ten parts of carbon. Although this makes comfrey a great material for composting, if you composted the leaves by themselves you would not end up with compost but a messy slop with a very nutritious liquid run-off. This can be used as a nitrogen rich liquid feed but it is not compost.


To make compost you have to mix nitrogen rich material with something rich in carbon. Fallen leaves have a carbon:nitrogen ratio around about 50:1 so the two of them work well together – the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of compost materials. Sorry, too much Strictly…


Most gardeners know that you can pile up leaves in a wire cage in the corner of your garden and let them rot into leaf mould. Nothing wrong with that – leaf mould gets plenty of organic matter back into your soil and can absorb five times its weight in water so great for supporting plants in dry soils. But you can also combine carbon rich leaves or the finished leaf mould with nitrogen rich materials like comfrey to make proper compost.


Garden Organic has developed the following recipe to do just that. You can use it if you already have some leaf mould and comfrey leaves available. If not then now’s the time to start collecting leaves for future use. In a couple of years’ time you’ll be able to make your own peat free potting and seed compost.


• Use an old dustbin or black polythene sack and fill it with alternate 7.5-10cm (3-4in) layers of 2-3 year old leaf mould and wilted, chopped comfrey leaves.
• Firm down gently and add moisture if the leaves are dry. If the leaf mould is very wet, get it out of the cage and allow to dry for a few days before making up the mixture.

• Do nothing. Leave for between two and five months or until the comfrey leaves have virtually disappeared.

• Scoop the compost out of the bin and use as a general potting compost. Alternatively add 25% horticultural sharp sand to make a seed compost.

• The pH of comfrey leaf mould is usually between 5.8 and 6.2. If a more alkaline compost is required, lime may be added.


Step by Step: Comfrey for Gardeners, Garden Organic – available from; 0845 130 1304; £1.35 plus postage.

Garden News article from October – sorry its late!

This article’s a bit out of date now as it was a direct response to Toby Buckland’s first interview on becoming the new Gardeners World presenter. It was published in Garden News back in October but I think its worth having up here for the record and to remind people of the organic gardening research Geoff Hamilton did over twenty years ago. Its annoying that we keep on having the same debate but there it is. There’s a lot of vested interest in the gardening industry to keep people buying chemicals. Garden centres need the regular income, magazines need advertising revenue – and so on and so forth. So here it is:


It’s not my want to give anything other than practical advice about organics in this column but the headlines and comments surrounding Toby Buckland’s recent interviews about chemicals has led me this time to break from the norm and write a response.


Over twenty years ago Geoff Hamilton carried out a series of experiments on four plots in his garden. The first he gardened organically, the second with pesticides, the third with a mixture of the two and the fourth he didn’t use any special treatment at all. This was what he called his control bed – a benchmark to test the other beds against. He wanted to find out whether gardening organically was a practical scientific and to borrow Toby Buckland’s recent words ‘common sense’ approach.


His experiments led to a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion that developed into a life long interest in organic principles. As his wife Lynda Hamilton wrote in her introduction to Geoff’s posthumous collection of Daily Express articles Year in Your Garden “He was trained as a commercial grower where rule number one was: ‘If it moves spray it’”. Seeing the same sort of arguments about chemicals raging in the press then (as now) his trial set out to prove that organic gardening didn’t work. In the end he proved the opposite: that chemicals hindered rather than helped gardeners.


He carried out his experiment over five years and recorded the yield in each bed. Sure enough in the first year the chemical plot produced far and away the best results. By the end of the second year there were signs that the organic plot was catching up. In the fifth year the organic plot was vastly out yielding the other three.


This experiment in common science – as opposed to common sense – changed his life, led him to a different style of gardening and paved the way for Gardeners World to go chemical free. It also led to the creation of his landmark TV series The Ornamental Kitchen Garden and Paradise Gardens (still available on DVD by the way). I think the gardening nation was better off as a result. Let us not forget that before Geoff came along Percy Thrower was thrown off Gardeners World for taking payments to advertise pesticides!


Geoff found in his own experiments what those who gardened organically already knew: chemicals create dependence. Once you start using them you have to carry on using them. This is because they kill beneficial predators and disturb the balance of life in the garden. In a balanced eco system it is very rare to find swathes of pests taking over and laying waste to plant life because nature creates conditions favourable to predators. Mostly organic gardening is about doing the same. It’s really quite simple.


We need to remember that chemicals are primarily prepared for agriculture, to be used in situations where single crops are grown in endless uniformity in conditions that prove very attractive to pests and where there are not enough predators to prevent crop damage. They are not prepared for gardens filled with a wide variety of plants, pests and predators.


Of course if you look beyond those headlines that screamed “It’s common sense to use pesticides”, and a little closer at his actual interviews, Toby Buckland didn’t give the ringing endorsement of chemicals some might have hoped for. He actually does little more than suggest glyphosate isn’t so bad to get your patch cleared, which may or may not be true depending on which environmental and health reports you read. Whatever the case, using chemicals is not and never will be ‘common sense’! It might be convenient in the short term but it is also taking credit from a bank of natural resources that can never be paid back. This approach is not for me – better to be an organic success than a chemical failure. 

%d bloggers like this: