Just back from New Zealand and it's time to press on with the vital winter tasks – pruning the soft fruits and espaliered trees and getting to grips with spreading the compost.
Pruning fruit bushes and trees is something of an art form – each gardener will have his/her own preferences. Generally, there is little to do with the espaliered trees as these are kept under control bit by bit during the growing season. Pruning orchard trees is a bigger task: broken and dead branches must be removed as well as shoots which are “going in the wrong direction” (crossing towards the centre rather than wineglass shape). Plum trees are particularly prone to excess growth, but this is best kept in check by pinching out the growing shoot during the summer season.
Pruning the black currant bushes is all about keeping a balance between saving a good proportion of last year's growth (which will produce next season's fruit) and cutting out long and leggy older rods so promote more new shoots in the new growing season. Without pruning, the bushes will simply get taller and leggier, producing shorter new growth and (eventually) very little fruit.
The annual spreading of our compost is THE fundamental foundation of our productive garden. By building up the quality and depth of our soil each year we increase the resilience of our plants, improve ease of cultivation and promote healthy disease-free growth. We also ensure that the carbon our land has collected over the year will be incorporated into the soil where it belongs. This is the process we humans should be engaged in all over the planet if we want a happy productive future – instead we are doing the opposite, effectively mining our soils and destroying them with industrial petro-chemical agriculture.
Let's be clear about this. Our compost bins have a volume of 2.6 cubic metres, and we know that 1 cubic metre of good soil weighs about 1.5 tons. This means that our mature compost heap (ready now for spreading) holds at least 4 tons of compost! A high proportion of this “soil” is carbon which has been collected by photosynthesis in the garden, orchard and woodland over the last year. We collected this with our scythe in multiple wheelbarrow loads during the growing season and the quantity tallies well with the commonly quoted figure that 1 acre of grassland collects about 4 tons of carbon each year (rather more than the 3 tons collected by a forest).
So here are the compost bins before spreading begins. The bin on the right has been waiting for 12 months. The bin on the left is what we are currently filling (it will be ready to empty next Christmas).
Next to the pair of compost bins we have the composting area for leaves. We put about 10 wheelbarrow loads of leaves in each year (they break down much more slowly than green compost). This has been done every year for the past 8 years and the bin has never been emptied – fermentation and decay reduce the volume constantly.
To access the fresh compost, we have to remove material from the top and front of the bin (this is still too fibrous to spread on the garden). We simply dump this onto the other bin which is currently in use. Using a strong manure fork, this is a simple process – perhaps taking 30 minutes. Here you see the right-hand bin is now ready to spread on the garden.
Before we begin to spread the fresh compost we dig our big trench which will provide the base for next year's crop of runner beans.
The trench is about 2 feet deep (in a new place each year) and provides a place to dump the first layers of compost which may still be too fibrous for easy spreading elsewhere.
Once this has been done, we are ready to begin the big job of filling (about 25) wheelbarrows and dumping piles of fresh compost on our chosen area of the garden (we rotate the area each year).