I know, I know, the fun of gardening is the doing … but for the next few months, aiming to achieve very little is the kindest, wisest thing you can do.
Soil that is actively growing plants, be that weeds or a crop, is much more resilient than soil that is left bare. Clearing the surface and digging the bed over damages the soil. Leave old pumpkin stems, spent bean plants and seedheads; allow leaves to blow across and rest where they find shelter; let the final flurry of annual autumn weeds, such as bittercress, sow thistle and chickweed, spring up – and walk away.
The spent stems will rot, offering homes to myriad insects. The weeds (think of them as free green manure) will keep the soil food web active and feed any winter-foraging bees, and the leaves will be slowly incorporated into the soil by worms working hard below. Most importantly, all of this will protect the soil from the worst of the winter weather, stopping it from eroding. Come early spring you can hoe off the weeds, gather up the last of the spent foliage and find a lovely friable bed underneath, full of worm casts.
However, if you are new to this game, some intervention might be worthwhile, particularly if your ground is covered in brambles, docks, bindweed, thickets of thistles, creeping buttercup or couch grass. Leaving these weeds alone will mean there is little space in spring, as their lattice of roots will have tightened further. Fork them out – try to pull them free without disturbing the soil too much. With each patch you finish weeding, cover the soil, don’t just leave it bare. This could be something living: it’s the optimum time for planting garlic and onion sets and autumn-sown broad beans, and for sowing wildflower patches. There is still time to sow green manures such as field beans and grazing rye, too.
If you can’t choose something living, go for mulches. Homemade compost is best, but if you don’t have enough of that, lay down a thick layer of autumn leaves – mown first, if possible, so that they are shredded, as this makes it easier for the worms. Alternatively, council green waste, bark or wood chippings (ask a friendly local tree surgeon for free wood chippings) or cardboard work well, too.
Over winter the worms will get to work on your mulches and, by spring, you might find that quite a bit has disappeared and the soil is now visible. All this organic matter will naturally increase your worm population. The more worms you have, the healthier your soil will become. And when your worm population is abundant, you don’t want to wreck their world of carefully made tunnels – so you really can put your feet up.