I went to the allotment for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon. First time this year. First time since just before the snows started, actually, so that makes it seven or eight weeks since I last went. That's okay though. It's down time for allotmenting just now. The soil is too cold and wet to work without damaging it, especially if you use raised beds like me. I know that traditional allotmenteers dig over their patches in early winter and allow the wind and rain to break down the clods but that can also be viewed as damaging the soil structure (unnecessary digging and weathering) and the rain leaches out soil nutrients.
I prefer to prepare the beds as they come clear at the autumn harvest. I let then stand empty for a couple of weeks for the birds to pick out any bugs they may want, then I weed the bed, especially for perennial weeds, add a layer of mulch or compost plus fertilizer and lime as required then cover with black plastic or tough weed membrane with a layer of newspaper underneath. or even old carpet if that's all I've got. This keeps the soil structure of the bed protected and the covering means that rain won't leach out the nutrients. The soil under the beds keeps warmer too and the worms and micro-organisms work away at the mulch and drag everything down into the soil. In spring all I have to do is remove the cover and plant into the bed. No hard digging work required! The warming effect of the cover means the beds are ready to go earlier than bare soil too. All in all it's a system that works very well for me.
Anyway, the allotment looked okay for the start of January, all things considered. A bit of wind and snow weight damage to the nets and supports but most of it is tucked tight and snug under the layers of plastic and mulch. The paths and pond were frozen solid but the earth under the coverings was still soft enough to poke a finger into.
The cloches over the winter spinach etc were covered in snow so not much growth in there due to low light levels. But everything is still alive, despite the -15'C temperatures we had last December. The garlic has survived, all the Savoy cabbages and kale and sprouting broccoli plants and swedes and parsnips are fine under their nets. Any brassica that wasn't netted had been pecked to death by the pigeons of course. The only crops that survive winter without the protection of at least a net are the leeks, garlic and the Jerusalem artichokes. The Jerusalem artichokes would survive the next Ice Age though, I suspect. Tough little buggers.
The other tough bugger on the allotment is the willow. Despite me trying to kill my willow stand a couple of seasons ago three stumps have survived and thrown up a really quite promising crop of basket weight willow shoots. I may take an afternoon and try to revive my rusty basket weaving skills. I love the few baskets I've woven myself. They are special, and much cherished. I've also found a couple of old battered picnic hampers in charity shops last year that need some repairs done. So the unexpected willow is not unwelcome.
There's wildlife too. The fabric gardening gloves I left in the shed have been daintily nibbled round the cuffs so I expect there's a family of babies somewhere in the shed with a cosy nest made of gardening fleece and red floral glove fabric. There are fox tracks everywhere, up and down the paths and over the beds. We used to have a vixen that lived on the allotment and every year she had a family of cubs in a den under the old railway guard van that served as the communal shed back then. It was a treat to see the baby foxes and as they kept the vermin down most effectively it was worth suffering the odd squashed lettuce. The vixen vanished a couple of years ago..dead or moved on, not sure...so it would be nice to see another fox family this year. It's a good safe place for cubs. There are certainly enough tracks at the moment.
The pond is frozen solid, despite the old ball in it to keep a hole free. And the tanks. I must take some water up for the birds on my next trip. There were lots of bird tracks in the snow but I don't know enough about them to identify tracks. Pigeons for definite, given the condition of some of the neighbours' brassicas! And I saw a robin fly into a space between the wooden pallets that surround the compost heap. Nesting? There are always lots of robins on the allotment.
Did I do any work? Yes of course. There's always something to do on the allotment, in any season. I pruned the gooseberry and other soft fruit bushes. It's a good time to do it as you can easily see the branches and what to take out. My gooseberries are feral and get out of control very easily so need a good hard prune every year. I still get more goosegogs and berries than I know what to do with. The other thing I did was to put an old dustbin over one of the rhubarb crowns. I was shocked to see forced rhubarb in the shops at £5 per kilo at the moment. £5!!! For rhubarb!
So a pleasant start to the gardening year. I hope it's the sign of a good season for us all. :)