Get into your garden and get creative!
So it is midwinter, what to do in the veg patch? Actually a lot. I suggest making or improving raised beds now to save you a lot of time later. These will give a reliable harvest, even in difficult weather such as we had in 2012. Using the methods I describe below, my undug beds on clay soil drained well, were easy to weed and grew abundantly (only 10% less than in the lovely weather of 2011).
To make a raised bed for vegetables, you absolutely do not need to dig around in your existing soil - be it clay, chalk or whatever.. even rubble from building work. Choose your plot and just work up instead of down!
If you like individual beds to be enclosed, you can create wooden sides extremely simply, just by nailing or screwing four planks together at the corners. I suggest six or eight inch planks of one to two inch thickness, either treated softwood or old hardwood. It is often simplest to carry the planks out and make this frame in situ, on top of the grass, weeds etc.
Four foot width is ideal and any length is fine. Making one large bed can be easier than two small ones as it uses less wood, and one less path, but design depends on the shape of your space. Most vegetables can be grown together in larger beds but you need to check spacings so that large ones like courgette plants do not shade out smaller salads and carrots.
FILLING YOUR BED(S)
Use organic matter rather than soil. There is no need for membranes, plastic or cardboard under new beds because the organic matter you fill them with is enough to kill all weeds, and makes a rich and abundant medium for growth. You need about half a ton for an 8x4 foot bed and if you doubt your ability to move half a ton of compost, it is actually easier than it sounds. If each wheelbarrow load you move is a hundredweight, then just ten loads will do the trick, and you will have saved a trip to the gym!
Animal manure is an excellent ingredient, when reasonably decomposed i.e. dark and about a year old. If wood shavings were the bedding, put that manure at the bottom and spread more friable manure, garden compost etc as top layers, keeping the finest compost for the surface. This could be multipurpose compost from a sack, or mushroom compost is good too.
Before the final layer goes on, fork or rake the ingredients level and then put a plank on the bed and walk on it, moving the plank around until all the contents are reasonably firm. ‘Firm’ is GOOD and is not the same as ‘compact’, in fact it is almost impossible to compact organic matter. Making it firm gives roots something to anchor in and if, by contrast, the ingredients are left too fluffy, you risk finding the new bed only half full by next summer, as the compost settles down, and dries out too. You can keep beds full by adding to their surface another two inches of compost, composted manure etc, every Autumn or Winter, with no other preparation.
For larger areas where there is room for several beds, you can create them without sides, to save time, money and also keep slugs in check, because molluscs like to live in any damp gaps between wood and soil or compost. The edges of unsided beds will be more sloping down towards the path on either side, making a wavy profile to the garden.