Preparing for the winter without digging

After an extremely mild start to the winter this year, the past few weeks have really begun to feel like we are finally moving into colder weather and preparations for winter have begun in Sissinghurst’s Vegetable Garden.  Many of the beds which were abundantly full in the summer have now had their crops harvested and sit empty, waiting for the spring when the frosts thaw and we can begin to plant them again with another year’s supply of vegetables.  We will not let these beds just ‘sit’ for the winter however; we need to prepare them during the winter months so that at the beginning of next year we have the most productive and healthy soil that we can muster.


The prepared ‘no-dig’ beds

We have now completed a full year of ‘no-dig’ gardening on the veg plot.  Being no-dig means not turning the soil, or digging in compost (as we would habitually do in a traditional system), but looking after the soil in the most natural way that we can by letting worms and other beneficial organisms living in the soil do the work for us!  The first task in preparing the soil for the winter is to give the surface a thorough weed, either by hoeing or hand weeding to remove even the smallest of weeds.  Applying the ‘no-dig’ methods of gardening should reduce the amount of weed seedlings over the years as, by not turning the soil, dormant seeds are not being brought to the surface and therefore they have no chance of germinating.

The next step in the preparation of the beds for the winter months is to lay sheets of damp cardboard over the soil.  The cardboard cuts out any light that may penetrate the compost which is laid on top and thus prevents any weed seeds from germinating.  It is advisable to damp the cardboard before laying it as it needs to decompose by the time you want to plant the following year, and damping it down speeds up this process.

The final step is spreading a thick (approximately 3”) layer of manure or compost on top of the cardboard.  The worms and other beneficial soil organisms will work all winter to draw the compost down through the cardboard and incorporate it into the soil.  Through this process they will also be aerating the soil and providing drainage, something which is really important in our heavy clay soils.


A close-up of the cardboard and manure

Our empty beds will then ready for the winter and, although it looks like there’s not much going on in them, think of all the worms and other soil organisms hard at work while we can be getting on with other important jobs around the garden.

Not all of the beds in Sissinghurst’s Vegetable Garden are empty at this time of year; we are still harvesting leeks, chard, cabbages and sprouts to name a few and these, together with the salad crops in the polytunnels, will keep us bobbing along until the days become warmer and longer again.


Winter leeks

Helen (Assistant Vegetable Gardener)


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