For many of us this is the time of year for some ‘armchair gardening’ in terms of studying seed catalogues and trying to decide what to grow and where to grow it. It is also time to consider the things we got right last year and the mistakes made (you can always blame the weather!).

Although crop rotation is advocated by virtually all the gardening magazines and TV and Radio programmes many of us do not have sufficient room to practice this to any great extent (and some of us have difficulty in remembering where we grew what last year or the year before). In this respect I take great comfort from the words of Laurie Manser – a regular speaker at Horticultural Society and W.I. Meetings and a successful professional gardener of many years practical experience – who does not practice crop rotation to any great extent except to ensure that he does not plant carrots in freshly manured soil (the roots fork) and does not plant brassicas (cabbage family) or potatoes in the same place two years running. His runner beans and onions have been planted in the same place for many years – he just ensures that he tops up with compost/manure every year.

If the weather relents enough for us to venture outside this is a good time to think about “winter digging”. In areas with heavy clay soils it is better to dig early in the winter to maximise the exposure of the soil to frost which breaks down the lumps. In areas of light / medium soil it is better to dig later in the winter to minimise the effect of heavy rain/snow which ‘pancakes’ the soil to leave a hard surface layer.

Now is the time to dig out the compost heap and place it in heaps ready for digging in. A hard frozen surface makes it easier to ‘barrow’ the loads to the deposit area. The birds will sort out the heaps and partially spread them in their quest for food.

If you have a layer of only partially rotted compost on the top of your heap why not remove the topsoil from your runner bean area (or perhaps dig a new trench) and place this in the bottom – adding shredded paper will improve moisture retention. This will then ease access to the fully rotted material.

Much advice can be gleaned from the gardening press on methods of digging but it is wise to select one that not only suits your soil but also your own strength and stamina. Double digging which involves trenching to double spade depth requires most effort and is not suitable for shallow soils. Single trenching is the most popular and generally the most suitable and involves the taking out of a trench of one ‘spit’ depth only. The soil from this can be taken to the far end of the area to be dug ready to fill in the final trench. However I find it easier to simply divide the area to be dug into two lengthwise strips and simply place the soil from the start trench onto the finishing end of the second strip which is adjacent to your start trench. The effort required to sort out the resulting heap when you reach the end of the second strip is much less than that required to transport the soil to the far end of the plot. Once you have taken out the start trench it is a simple matter of turning the next row over into the trench. Inverting the soil will ensure that the compost on its surface will be buried in the bottom of the trench for the vegetable roots to feed on.

To avoid muscle fatigue it is recommended that activity is varied. For this reason I only spread the heaps of compost in the immediate digging area and when this has been dug in the next heaps can be spread out. There is nothing like the satisfaction of looking back on a freshly dug plot but there is also nothing more daunting than the sight of a large area waiting to be dug. The latter can be mitigated by applying some psychology. When you first start digging place your ‘weed bucket’ halfway between the start and finish points of the strip to be dug. When you reach the bucket again place it halfway to the finish point and repeat the process. This not only varies the type of activity in terms of the walk to the bucket but also makes it appear that your work rate is increasing – much the same effect as the yellow lines on slip roads off motorways that make you slow down because your speed appears to be increasing.

The ‘composted’ area of ground is eminently suited to the growing of potatoes but can of course be used for other crops (except of course carrots, parsnips and other deep rooted vegetables).

There are other ways of improving and the easiest of these is what are known as “green manures’ which are sown as the ground becomes vacant in August and September. These contribute by not only adding ‘humus’ which is suitable for all crops, but some have roots that contain nitrogen thus making the soil suitable for leaf crops such as cabbage, lettuce, chard etc.

Some of the most popular and readily available ‘green manures’ are;

Mustard – sown late summer/autumn and can be left until frost kills the top growth before being dug in.

Winter Tares – a rapidly growing plant of the ‘vetch’ family and a nitrogen fixer. Sow March to September and dig in February/April.

Grazing Rye – good for improving soil structure – needs a few months to rot down after digging in. Sow up to November and dig in December to March.

Field Beans – extremely hardy nitrogen fixer particularly suitable for heavy soil – sow September to November and dig in March to May.

Phacelia – a summer sown type (May to September and dig in November/December) and is a rapid grower and a good weed suppressor. It has the advantage of attractive flowers to encourage bees and hoverflies.

It is too late for green manures this year but look for them in your seed catalogue or local garden centre.