Grow Your Own: Preparing the kitchen garden for winter

Grow Your Own: Preparing the kitchen garden for winter

Preparing the Kitchen Garden at Chewton Glen for winter with Head Gardener Darren Venables.

The Kitchen Garden is now three years old and the beds have been harvested non-stop from the very first day.

Between crops we fork over the soil and add fertiliser and our own compost. However I have decided that what is really required this winter is to give the soil a complete break to give it time to recover and enable us to take a massive step forwards with the soil quality and therefore improve the quality of the produce.

Leaving the beds empty is not an option, the nutrient that is in the soil will simply leach away and the beds will become full of weed.
Because our initial trials of green manure have been so successful I have decided that the beds will all be sown with green manure crops until January. The green manure crop chosen is a winter mix that consists of white Tinley mustard, crimson clover and broad leaf red clover. The beds have been emptied, any old leaf debris removed, and they have been dug over with our tiller to break up the soil and allow air and water in.

To improve the soil structure the beds have been topped up with a three-inch thick layer of our compost. Chewton Glen compost is produced in-house with old plant debris from the gardens and kitchen garden. It takes a couple of years to produce but is certainly worth the wait because it helps improve the soil dramatically. It contains high numbers of earth worms which will drag the compost into the broken-up soil, and will also help to improve the worm numbers within the soil. As any good gardener will tell you, the more worms you have in the soil the better to help you keep the soil open and well turned over.

The green manure was sown directly on top of the compost layer and raked in immediately. This will germinate very quickly and be allowed to grow until January. Fortunately the day we sowed the seed it rained afterwards for eight hours so it has had the best start it could get.

The different plants that make up the green manure do very different jobs to help improve the soil. The Tilney mustard provides green plant bulk and is very good at absorbing nutrient from the ground and storing it in the plant leaves. When you dig the mustard crop into the soil the stored nutrient is then returned to the ground rather than it leaching out.  The clover crops help to fix nitrogen from the air in their roots where it is stored in special sacks or nodules. Clover is one of a handful of plants able to do this. When the clover is dug in these nodules are damaged and the nitrogen is released into the soil ready for the next plant crop to use. As nitrogen is one of the most important plant nutrients you can see why this is important.

In January we will begin to work the green manure crops into the soil. However, this needs to be done in stages. Firstly the green plant growth is cut down and left to rot on the soil surface for a week or so. Doing this reduces the amount of bacteria needed to break it down. If we were to dig it straight in all the bacteria in the soil would be needed to break down the green material and this would effectively leach all available nutrient from the ground, which is counter-productive. So we will wait until the green material has rotted down slightly and we will then rotorvate it into the ground. I will probably do this several times to make sure that the green plant material is completely chopped up.

The best part of all this is by mid-February we will be able to start spring planting in the kitchen garden with improved quality soil that should enable us to further improve the quality of the produce for the hotel.