Cold and wet is often the overwhelming sensation in December, but those days of frosty, crisp magic are the ones we hold out for. Park Farm is still buzzing with activity however, as we continue to run a host of courses and events throughout the winter. The Christmas decorations are going up and our large Christmas tree takes centre stage in the courtyard giving the farm a thoroughly festive feel.
We have miles of hedge on our small 100-acre holding, and it is at this time of year that we continue the perennial task of hedgerow management. When River Cottage as a business first arrived at Park Farm in 2006, we established new banks and hedges in line with the countryside stewardship scheme, a government incentive for amongst other things, the regeneration of hedgerows across the United Kingdom.
Hedges are synonymous with the West Country. They famously provide the breath-taking patchwork quilt effect across most of Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Cornwall. But of course, they’re so much more than that, and for the smallholder good hedges mean secure sheep, a source of firewood and habitat for beneficial wildlife. They offer protection from the elements to livestock as well, with our Red Devon herd frequently tucking themselves up in the hedgerow in inclement weather. So looking after these sometimes ancient boundary dividers is vitally important to the progression and protection of the countryside.
Modern machinery has changed the way hedgerows are managed. Flail hedge cutters are used to trim hedges in the winter to keep them under control and this is done quickly and efficiently with a machine. The more traditional management method is called hedgelaying, and as time allows, we try to manage our hedges in this way. Hedges for livestock are traditionally planted with thorn, because the gnarly nature of its growth provides the best stock proof barrier, but in an ornamental/edible hedge you can find more hazel, maple and beech, to name a few. Needless to say, the latter is far easier to lay, as it has no sharp spikes!
Once you have decided to lay your hedge, typically 5 to 10 years from planting, or when the material in the hedge has become overgrown and in need of thickening up, you will need to clear unwanted vegetation form the sides of the bank and from the hedge itself. By removing bramble, dead wood and congested growth you should leave strong stems to make the pleachers. These should be no less than one inch in diameter, anything less is supple enough to be woven in. Making an angled cut three-quarters of the way through the stem, leaving intact the remaining quarter of overall thickness, known as the tongue. Laying the pleacher uphill and horizontally along the bank will create the comb of the laid hedge. Weaving laid stems all along the top of the bank will then stimulate vertical growth in the following year, thereby thickening up the hedge.
Becoming an expert hedgelayer takes years of practice; the method is simple, however plenty of further reading is required, as this method applies to the Devon/Dorset style only, leaving other regional variations. We run practical hedgelaying courses at River Cottage HQ which will de mystify the art of hedgelaying.
As mentioned earlier, December can be wet… very wet. So wet in fact that it is sometimes impossible to do any work on the soil at all. Good drainage is essential for productive growing. Improving the soil with organic matter will help with drainage and will condition the soil by increasing air filled porosity therefore allowing more water to drain away. Some people recommend adding silver sand to soil, with the same idea in mind. Improving soil takes time so understanding what is more tolerant of wet conditions is worth it. Alliums will really suffer in wet ground, so if you want to over-winter garlic it will need to be in the drier spots of your soil, but growing things like mint in the wetter areas will have good results. It’s all about planning and adapting to the soil you have.
Leaving bare soil open to weathering over winter can be detrimental. Aside from the areas where we are over-wintering vegetables, the bare soil is covered with different mulches. We use community green waste compost to cover some areas as a protective and soil-conditioning mulch over winter. We usually spread a two-inch layer on the surface of pre-dug soil, protecting it from weathering and reducing weed growth. For larger areas we sometimes use artificial mulches. Woven nylon or black plastic mulches will prevent weed growth over winter, giving you a nice clean start in the spring. Mulching with manure or straw can also work but weed seed can often be a problem later in the year. Often with a smallholding, you use what is available. Whatever you choose, make sure soil is well covered and protected from the elements.
Even at this time of year, we are still harvesting plenty of vegetables from the garden. Leeks, parsnips, sprouts, kale and Jerusalem artichokes are in plentiful supply, and make up the foundation of our winter dishes. Parsnips, for me are the king of winter vegetables and surprisingly underrated. We sow our parsnips back in the summer and it is now that we start digging them up. It is important to use new seed every year for ‘snips, because old seed loses viability after one year. Spacing the seed in your drill two-inches apart will give them enough room to fill out. Parsnips make up a big part of our outside larder and they store really well, just be aware of the tops becoming cankerous in very wet ground.