I'm not sure why I've reluctant to venture into the garden this week but I'm blaming the sudden arrival of cooler temperatures and the ever-beckoning warmth of the fire. Thank goodness for the gentle nudge into action which nature has given me on more than one occasion lately. The first came while I was leisurely gathering pinecones. Strong winds the week before had brought down heavy falls of needles that were lying about in drifts, covering the cones in a soft, deep, carpet – the perfect medium, once they rot down, to nourish germinating conifer seeds and seedlings. A similar nudge arrived when I noticed my garden paths fast becoming covered in the leaves of deciduous fruit trees and berry bushes. Most of the leaves had, of course, fallen around the very plants that were shedding them, adding a rich supply of nutrients and humus to the ground beneath.
We vegetable gardeners need to take our queue from nature and use autumn as a time for applying our own layers of goodness to the soil. Just as naturally falling leaves add humus (decaying plant matter which absorbs and releases moisture as required) and nutrients to the soil, so we can supply the same through compost, rotting lawn clippings, straw, and chopped vegetation such as dried bean stalks, and the vines of runner beans and peas. While fallen leaves may be all that is required of large deciduous trees, if we want to nourish our plants come springtime, we'll also want to pile on as much animal manure as we can lay hands on – the more mature the better. Seaweed also brings rich supplies of nutrients and, if you put it on your garden now, it will be well rotted into the soil come spring.
If cooler temperatures have you glued to the warmth of the fireplace, you're probably asking yourself why you need venture outside to find all these garden ingredients when, much more easily, you could simply throw on a few handles of garden fertiliser before you sow or plant in spring. Indeed you could, but from my thirty-odd years of garden experience, you won't be as well rewarded as if you added organic material earlier in the season. Artificial fertilizer may appear to have immediately noticeable results but, in the long term, its nutrients are more quickly used up than those supplied the natural way. Organic ingredients release their goodness slowly and evenly. Plants grown in artificial fertilizer have a way of growing too quickly, producing weak heads (in the case of broccoli and cauliflower, for example), bolting to seed, and suddenly running out of energy so that they become stunted before reaching maturity. Even, ample growth is more assured when you apply natural ingredients.
Organic material also acts as a protective soil covering when laid down as a mulch. A thick layer of pineneedles or straws on top of bare soil slows down the run-off of winter precipitation so that valuable garden nutrients are not whipped away and lost down the nearest storm-water drain. This is something that chemical fertilizer can never do. This year, regardless of outside temperatures, I'll be donning a warm coat and gumboots and following nature's suit – piling onto my vegetable beds natural garden goodies in autumn, and reaping the rewards in spring.