Winter is a quiet time in my garden, the weather is usually grey and it gets dark very early. I love going out to harvest the winter vegetables, including leeks, brussels sprouts, winter cabbage, and Shetland kale. I’m always very grateful to myself for thinking ahead and planting for these dark days, it makes all the difference eating fresh vegetables at a time when the ferry can be delayed and the shelves emptied by desperate folk at the local supermarket!
This is the time of year to appreciate the year’s harvests and look ahead to the next growing season. I keep my mind off the weather by planning my spring garden, buying seeds online, and growing a few easy crops like pea shoots inside. I try and still get outside as much as possible, tidying up the garden, planting trees, and soaking up as much of the winter light as possible.
I find this is the perfect time to get the garden beds ready for the next growing season. We need to make sure to feed the soil well with organic materials as it’s the life that is in the soil that processes the organic matter and releases the nutrients to feed the plants. I find the best way to do this is to build no dig beds in the winter in preparation for the spring. Living near the coast in Shetland, I have access to plentiful amounts of seaweed which thickly layers the beach after every storm. This makes a very good protective mulch over winter and improves the soil without damaging the environment with artificial fertilizers. I also asked around and found some very willing horse owners who happily wanted rid of their vast amounts of horse manure, which rots down and becomes the most beautiful compost.
No dig has many soil benefits and one of the big ones is the lack of weeds. When soil has been dug, it recovers from the disruptions by re-covering itself with weeds but when soil is left undisturbed, there are far fewer weeds. The soil is full of organisms and microbes which help the plants grow well and find moisture. I build easy no dig beds every winter by layering organic materials which then cook down to become absolutely wonderful soil. I built my raised beds up the same way and they are still relatively weed free all summer and the soil is so much better than the few beds we dug by hand. What I do is layer cardboard first – which I soak very well – then fill the bed with compost, a nice layer of seaweed on top, and a layer of black plastic on top and it’s ready to go.
Last year I experimented with a heritage type of no dig growing, making lazy beds or ‘Feannagan’ in Gaelic. Lazy beds were commonly used in the Western Isles and in Ireland as they were easy to build and created fertile, rich soil used to grow potatoes. You can still see the remains of the crofters Feannagan beds in the Western Isles, which I think are an important part of the cultural heritage of the land. They take up a lot of ground but help greatly with drainage on peaty soil and raise the crops up high off the sodden ground, as well as warming up the soil for use in the spring.
How to Make a Lazy Bed
Essentially you’re trying to make a seaweed sandwich with turf. We first marked out the bed and folded in the turf so it’s turned on its head, then layered the middle of the bed high with seaweed. The grass provides nitrogen which will be broken down by the soil bacteria and the seaweed piled together rots down, working as magic for the potatoes which absolutely love seaweed!
To plant potatoes in the spring, we make small holes in the top of the mound and plant in seed potatoes. We planted roosters in the lazy beds and had great results. Big tatties!
Cairi Balmain grows lots of vegetables in her garden in the Shetland Islands where the weather is extremely challenging. She also makes traditional, cold process, botanical soaps and botanical balms from home grown herbs and flowers. You can follow Cairi’s vegetable growing and botanical soap making adventures on her Instagram account.