If you want to grow your own food on a new plot next year then now is an excellent time to start thinking about getting it ready. Having a space fit for planting will save you a lot of angst in spring, when there’s so much to do already with sowing seeds and planting out seedlings.
The traditional answer to ground preparation is digging. The vegetable plot would have been thoroughly dug over during the winter, leaving frosts and winter weather to break down any big clods to leave you with a ‘fine tilth’ by the spring time that’s perfect for sowing seeds. It’s slow and demanding work, as if you have a weedy plot you must remove all traces of perennial weed roots while you’re digging. The short cut of using a rotovator (or rototiller, a mechanical digger essentially) may well just chop weed roots into tiny pieces and give you an even bigger weed problem next year.
Digging does allow you to incorporate well-rotted manure (or compost) into the soil, and many people find it very rewarding. But although the winter dig may be of benefit to heavy clay soils, it’s not so good for lighter, sandy soils – their structure is more likely to be damaged by winter weather and light soils benefit greatly from being covered over.
In fact, digging does disturb the structure of all soils – if you’d like to take the natural, No Dig, approach then you can encourage the soil organisms to do the hard work for you. Even if you just want to avoid the hard work of digging, No Dig is a viable option for the preparation of new and existing plots.
Sheet mulching is a method of soil preparation that involves no digging (it’s also called Lasagne gardening, for reasons that will become apparent). It’s great for community plots where you can count on a great influx of man power at the beginning when people are enthusiastic; later on when people have drifted away you have lovely low-maintenance soil 😀
With sheet mulching you cover the ground with a thick layer of cardboard or newspaper to block out light and discourage weed growth. This bottom layer is then covered with compost or manure or anything that will eventually rot down. You can have as many layers as you like – you’re building up the soil rather than digging down. The pile is then usually left to settle and start to rot over the winter. In spring you can plant right into the layers; you may need to start your seeds elsewhere in the first year, but you’ll have suitable soil for seed sowing soon.
Of course, you can build raised beds and fill them with compost and soil ready for planting – that’s a useful option if you have to garden on a hard surface, and if you’re not sure whether the ground might be contaminated. Raised beds can be simple affairs an inch or two above soil level, with heaped sides, or you can build walls with whatever materials you have to hand. Try and avoid treated railway sleepers that might ooze nasties into your compost.
If you’re digging through the winter then you’ve got your work cut out; sheet mulching your site (or sowing a green manure such as Hungarian grazing rye, although it’s getting a bit late for that this year) will leave you plenty of time to peruse the new seed catalogues. Either way, there is one more essential task for a new gardener – start a compost heap. Gradually fill it with kitchen and garden waste through the winter and you’ll have home-grown compost to feed your veggies next year.