We’re heading for the darkest months of the year and yet it is a hopeful time.
In the winter you can plan for a better growing year to come and rectify all the mistakes you made over the last three seasons. There’s always a feeling, no matter how competent you are, of failing in gardening.
I sowed kale three times before they weren’t all eaten by slugs – and then the caterpillars got them. My beans were lacklustre and peas pointless.
Winter is when you can turn your back on those failures and plan for everything to be better.
It’s a time of renewal rather than the end of something – and once Christmas is out of the way the days start getting longer. My friend’s dad used to say that a garden is made in winter. All the things you do in the dormant season can make for a successful garden future.
That means pruning to increase flowers and fruit, bulb-planting, mulching and sorting out your storage and rainwater-collecting system.
Although winter is often the least enticing period to go outside, it is exactly the time that gives most benefit. All you have to do is wear many layers, fiddle around for an hour or so in the gloom, perhaps getting a bit cold and wet and then you’ve earned the rest of the afternoon after dark to watch Columbo and eat cake.
Leave Leaves Be
We often get the urge to tidy up fallen leaves. The leaf-blowers are out making everything nice and neat – and it is often necessary to get them off public pavements and grass. Yet they are valuable to the garden – and wildlife.
Dead leaves don’t have much nutritional value for plants (as the leaves die the nutrients return to the tree) but they play a vital role in soil structure.
If you leave them on the the ground, the worms will take them into the soil where they make air pockets which improve moisture retention and allow space for small roots to move and take up nutrients.
If you are keen to tidy up, though, leafmould (broken down leaves) makes a great mulch to stop soil erosion from bare soil over the winter and so keep nutrients and moisture in, as well as suppressing weeds. It also makes a good seed compost for starting off your plants. Just sieve it and sow.
To make leafmould, collect your damp leaves (not evergreen like holly or laurel) in plastic bags or a wire container. Parks might give you some – just ask.
Never collect leaves from woodland (it needs them!) or busy roads, where the will contain pollutants. Make sure they don’t dry out (make holes in the bags) and water if they get dry. Leaves are slow to break down so forget about them for about a year and use them next winter.
As ever, though, doing nothing for nature is best. If you leave the leaves undisturbed where they fall or in piles they make habitats for animals and insects to overwinter and something will get rid of them for you.
I’m constantly moving pots off and onto saucers to collect water in the summer but in the winter I remove them. I don’t want roots getting cold and sodden. Watering is seldom necessary for deciduous or other dormant plants in autumn and winter.
Do not feed plants in the winter. Once they have stopped growing for the year, they just need to rest. You can mulch them with leafmould.
Sow and plant
At this time of year you can plan for a floriferous spring by sticking bulbs (organic of course) in everywhere and sowing peas, broad beans, garlic and onions. They will start growing and then halt when it gets colder putting a spurt on as soon as it warms up.
Don’t forget to mark where you’ve put your bulbs or you might dig them up again in the spring.
Food poverty and trees
A quarter of Londoners are food insecure, according to the Mayor of London. This means they eat less because of lack of money and resources for getting food.
Hackney is the third highest borough for child poverty in the country. It is in the process of producing a Food Poverty Action Plan – a strategy to ensure that hunger won’t happen here in the future.
There are many reasons for food poverty and ways to solve it.
One way to guarantee that people have access to fresh, nutritious food is to make more land available for food growing and perhaps making access to food growing spaces a right – or even a duty, as it was during the Second World War – for everyone. This won’t happen of course but it’s worth having the ambition.
In Havana they squeeze organic food plots into any available space.
Gardener Monty Don made a TV programme about how the need to feed its population has created these growing sites all over the city. Perhaps we could do something similar here?
We need to grow more plants – for our health, for food and for the climate and nature emergency. And yet green space is shrinking.
Hackney is densely populated and has to build new housing, which means a lot of infilling on estates. Frampton and De Beauvoir estates, for example, are both having massive building programmes which reduce the capacity for residents to grow their own food.
Yet another thriving community garden is threatened with development on De Beauvoir. They might not be building on the garden itself but the shade the building produces will make food growing limited.
If developers don’t make provision for proper green space (not a token green roof or a few isolated birch trees) the population will become ill – mentally and physically – which will cost the council somewhere down the line.
We also need trees to reduce flooding and to keep the temperature down as it gets hotter. So the council’s announcement that it is to plant 5,000 new trees to mitigate climate change is great news. I’d love to see avenues of trees all the way down Homerton High Street, Kingsland Road, Well Street and Mare Street, which are all way over the EU limit for pollutants – the borough as a whole is over the limit. All the time.
Planting trees is brilliant – and perhaps the only way we can slow down rising global temperatures and mitigate air pollution – but young trees can’t replace mature ones for carbon and pollution control, for example, so we need to look after what we’ve got and keep an eye on how our existing mature trees and spaces are treated.
I’m particularly interested in this quote from the Town Hall’s environment chief Cllr Jon Burke: “There’s an even more exciting announcement to make on less formal planting which will involve not thousands but potentially tens of thousands more specimens in the borough in the life of this mayoral term.”
It would be great if we were allowed to depave and replace hard landscaping with edible hedging and nature-enhancing plants – on street corners, in car parks, between buildings, the edges of pavements, private gardens and on estates.
What if every other new tree was edible? On Clapton Park Estate every tree or bush that the maintenance company (grassroofcompany.co.uk) puts in is edible – nuts, berries, apples, grapes, soft fruit, and more. All these fruits are free for anyone to pick. It won’t solve food poverty but we need to at least use the available land better for people and nature to be healthy.
Kate Poland is an award-winning community gardener. She was chosen to be the UK’s first ever postcode gardener in E5 as part of Friends of the Earth’s 10xGreener project. For more information, head to cordwainersgrow.org.uk and friendsoftheearth.uk