Robins, compost and weeds

In the UK no bird is more associated with wintertime and Christmas than the robin. I have the good fortune to enjoy the company of two of these charming little birds: one in my front garden and one at the allotment.
Here is the allotment robin, who accompanied me yesterday as I gardened on my plot. He sings beautifully, watching my gardening from his vantage point in the hedge behind my allotment, swooping down occasionally to snaffle a grub.

My poor allotment has been a bit neglected recently so I made the most of some sunny hours to work there. I was so eager to set out, having spent much of the previous week working indoors every day, I forgot my hoe!

First of all I “tidied” one of the brassica beds – the most important one for me because it has the Brussels sprouts in, one of my favourite winter veggies. Throwing back the netting (to protect against deer and pigeons), I cleared old leaves and any weeds. This reduces habitat for slugs and other pests, and ensures a good airflow which makes for healthier plants. The netting is pulled back until I go home, to allow the robin and other birds to pop in there and forage for dinner.

Next I tackled the bamboo bean poles, which really should have been cleared weeks ago. I cut the beans at ground level, leaving the roots in the soil to feed the soil life. There may be a little nitrogen too, but as the beans have matured they will have used up most of their nitrogen to produce the beans. It’s rather satisfying sliding the dried out bean coils from the poles and taking them to the compost heap, a tangle of spirals. The poles are neatly stacked next to the compost heaps, ready to be tied up and taken home one day when I have driven to the plot (they are too heavy for me to carry home), and I’ll store them in the shed to dry out before moving.

I’d also not got round to clearing the sweetcorn plants yet (please tell me I am not the only one? I certainly am at my allotment site!) Using a folding saw (this one is an Opinel) to cut the stems at ground level, I then chop them up into pieces about 15cm (6″) before adding to the compost heap. This helps them break down faster.

Weeding at the same time, I’ve started working through the sweetcorn bed. It’s surprising how quickly weeds can sprout in the wintertime, if the weather is fairly mild. I got about half way through before it was time to go home.

couch grass

The strawberry patch in the rear of the photo belongs to my allotment neighbour John – they are superb strawberries and I am going to take some runners with me to my new house. In the foreground you can see some couch grass sneaking in from the path. There isn’t much and it is really easy to remove with a trowel, even though the soil is heavy clay beneath that mulch.

The sweetcorn bed had squash growing through it, which is how that couch could creep in unobserved during the summer. I put the couch in the compost bin. If you’re concerned that your heap might get over run with couch, then soak in a bucket of water for a couple of weeks first to kill it off.

The morning had been cold with a crisp, sparkling frost so before heading home I checked the green manure, which is a mustard and can be knocked back by frost, but it is looking perky still. This should die back completely by the spring after months of wintry weather, but if not one hoes it off and rakes it up for the compost heap, leaving the roots in the soil. I don’t expect to still be in Bruton then, so I may well hoe it off before leaving my plot in case the new people think they are weeds!

I’m leaving larger borage plants, which can surprisingly overwinter (if it is not too harsh) providing flowers for bees in the late winter and spring. The worst that can happen is they are killed off by very cold weather, and then they obligingly disintegrate into a sludge.

I’m still gardening at my plot even though I am moving because I want to leave the allotment looking nice. I could of course just concentrate on the beds that I am still cropping, but it would make me sad to look at a weedy plot, as well as not being kind to the next owners – and would cause weedy problems for my fellow allotmenteers. This also means that I’ll be getting plenty of fresh air and exercise 🙂

Some of the other plot holders have been busy covering their beds with plastic for the winter. This isn’t something I do (unless in the first year if I am using polythene to kill weeds) because the soil and soil life benefits from the wintry weather, and wild things can use the plot as a larder. But there can be good reasons for choosing to do so, such as not being able to get to the allotment during the winter months, when the polythene will ensure that weeds do not spread.


My favourite of the two robins is the front garden one, because he is so much a part of our lives these days, singing perched on the fig tree beside our front door. Today I was busy in the front garden – clearing even more sweetcorn stalks! And also weeding, strimming, mulching the flower beds with compost made in “daleks” and clearing any sunflower plants which no longer have seeds on. The rest I’ll leave for the birds to enjoy.

I was surprised to find this tiny sunflower growing out of the top of a cut stem, the head having been harvested some time ago to save for seed. You have to admire the determination of this little flower to bloom!

polytunnel strawberry in December

Another surprise this week is the flavour of the strawberries in my polytunnel, which taste lovely. Not as delicious as summer fruits but still sweet and tasty. I had two strawberries to enjoy after finishing my tax returns! The actual deadline is not until the end of January, but I needed it all done so that I can get the mortgage I need to buy my next house. It’s a good feeling to have it all sorted, too!

As part of the clearing and sorting for moving, more of my polytunnel will have to become storage space, so I’m making the most of the salad plants there before they have to go (I have more salad under fleece at the allotment, and plenty of other things to eat so it isn’t too bad). These lovely leaves were sown in September and planted in October. I like to add radicchio leaves from the allotment for colour and a scrumptious bitterness. Yum!

20 thoughts on “Robins, compost and weeds”

  1. Do you add couch to normal dalek compost bins? I have always use a separate bin to rot down couch as they have obviosly got a lot of goodness in them as go so deep.

  2. A robin was scrabbling around where I parked today, had to keep an eye out for it when I drove off. I must have disturbed the leaves, so it could get at the grubs. As for that strawberry, wasn’t it cold and tart in taste?

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      Robins are certainly very cute.

      Re:the strawberry, not at all. As I mention in the blog, it wasn’t as delicious as a summer fruit but still sweet and flavourful.

  3. Your Welsh adventure is getting closer. How exciting! May I ask what your silver netting supports are and what they are made of please? They look as though they should be metal. and yet I’m not sure as they are raised on what might be bamboo posts. They look much smarter than the blue alkethene piping that I have.

    Thanks for the llustration of the folding saw. I could certainly do with one of those for my sweetcorn. I struggled to cut that down to keep the roots in the soil.

    Loved those robins. My friend reckons that his robin is the spirit of his mother visiting him when he gardens. Lovely idea.

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      These ones were free – they are some kind of steel and were being thrown away at one of the gardens I used to manage, so I asked if I could take them home. I have aluminium ones elsewhere from Gardening Naturally.

      Isn’t that a lovely idea about his robin?!

      1. Robins are wonderful little birds- so bold and inquisitive. It must feel strange preparing to leave a much loved plot and garden ( I left my allotment plot of 30 + years prior to our move 18 months ago, and cried)but your move to Wales will be a good one, I’m sure. We’re certainly very happy here. Hope everything goes to plan. x

      2. Stephanie Hafferty

        Thank you . It is very strange – I am writing a list of all of the plants that need splitting, potting on etc before I move so I don’t miss anything.

  4. I forgot to ask what size of folding saw do you recommend? It seems to be sold in both 12 and 18cms. Thanks Steph.

  5. Thank s for so generously answering all my questions. It was so nice to meet at the August Intensive Weekend. Myself and my friend Fiona who also attended wish you all the best of luck in the world for your new adventure.

  6. Thanks for the explanation about green manure, what a shame the Instagram algorithm does not follow links!

    My Father, a rational human, thought Robins brought bad luck, I think something ingrained during his Norfolk childhood.

    I think they are quite charming and cheeky, plus of course their aggressive manner protecting their territory from interlopers.

    Is your Welsh location milder than Bruton?

  7. hello Steph … I bought a hot bin in April and now have lots of worms heading for the top when I have opened it up the temp has also dropped ,have you the same thing happening ? And what do you do about it ?I am feeling so sorry for the worms in there as they can’t escape unless I take them out which I have been doing with some of them .

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      That has happened in the past and I just leave them to it. They seem to come up and go down, so I hope that they are having a nice time!

  8. I’m already impatient for spring to grow more salads, your salad leaves photo looks good enough to eat. You mentioned earlier your new house will have more garden space, will you have an allotment too? How fun to plan a whole new garden.

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      I’ll just be growing in the new garden, it’s bigger than my current garden and allotment combined (but not too much more) so I’ll have plenty of room

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