February 2013


Updates from February 2013.

Update Mid Month

After the incessant rain and mud, it is joyful to write of something drier now and (I think) for some weeks to come. Drier if not always warmer, so go steady on the early sowings, although indoor sowings of peas, calabrese, cauliflower, onions, shallots, spring onions, lettuce, spinach, parsley and dill are all good now. Broad beans can be sown outdoors if you haven’t already, they are such hardy seeds and plants. Radish is also in season for sowing but does better for being cloched or fleeced when sown in February, or is a good catch crop undercover. If you have some warmth for seedlings, tomatoes can be sown now, but there is no rush and you need to have space for keeping plants protected as they grow larger, until planting time in late April to mid May undercover, and early June outdoors, if you dare risk the blight.

Early potatoes are good to buy now and I suggest planting by mid March. Also aim to have some extra compost to spread on top for tubers to swell in, which you can either put on at planting time or in April and May. I am growing first and second earlies only, aiming for harvests by the middle of July, in case of and to be ahead of any blight which may arrive then.

I had some bad luck with my new greenhouse arriving the morning after a deluge, four big men trampling on the saturated soil and creating quagmires in places, also using a stepladder inside where I had made some beds, to reduce the workload after it was completed. The manure was well squashed in places but will still be good for growing and worms will eventually aerate it again.

The greenhouse looks lovely but its quoted size of twelve by twenty five feet is misleading, because of the double skin brick wall it sits on, most of it inside the greenhouse, and some concrete which comes out from the wall base, making the soil growing width only ten feet! It has helped me appreciate what good value polytunnels are and how nicely they sit on and in the soil, with no building work needed! If only they might be more beautiful.

Next step is to make ready for sowing seeds in the greenhouse and I have decided to create a hotbed with wooden slatting on top for helping early sowings. This feels better than the alternative of electricity, which I have not installed in the greenhouse, and my decision is helped by a friendly neighbour having endless supplies of fresh horse manure. The plant raising hotbed is four feet square and well trampled, should be finished soon. In summer I can perhaps grow melons or aubergines on it.

My outdoor hotbed is looking promising with many seeds germinated and now growing away, including peas, spinach, carrots, beetroot and lettuce. Also onion, shallot and Greyhound cabbage for transplanting. They were all sown into soaking wet compost on a freezing day with snow falling, so I am impressed. I keep the two polythene-covered frames on all the time, they are called ‘lights’ as in Dutch lights for cold frames.

So far the bed has taken a huge amount of time and also needed more wood than I imagined. I hope the photos give a fair idea of what is involved, see January’s This Month for how it was made.

The hotbed’s growing bed contains entirely compost which I made last summer at Lower Farm, and it is growing very few weed seeds, showing how it is possible to make clean compost once your garden is clear of seeding weeds. Then this week I had the opposite experience here of emptying an old compost heap which looked two or more years old at the bottom, and was full of stinging nettle roots, some fat bindweed and lots of annoying plastic food bags which had “biodegradable” written on. I gather that although this may be a correct description, there is uncertainty about how long the degrading process takes, many years I suspect; and some biodegradable polythene even needs sunlight to break it down. I would not add any to compost heaps.

On 13th February I took delivery of a load of green waste compost which is the final ingredient of some experimental mulching of different beds. We have already spread some of it (see pics above) on an area of grass and buttercup where I had previously spread just enough manure to cover the green leaves, then planted rhubarb, artichoke and some fruit bushes in the manure. Buttercups were growing through and so they are now covered with another three inches of this municipal compost, but it is wet and lumpy after all the rain and less even than I would like. Some frost will be good if there are cold nights to come. I am noticing that Homeacres buttercups are more tenacious than Lower Farm ones and Gurt the neighbour commented on this.

To see the difference, compared with a compost mulch, we covered another bed with plant fabric instead of extra compost. It is where I planted the aparagus in December and, again, the buttercups are pushing through, or some of them are.

Early February 2013

I hope you are surviving the endless rain, and also some snow and high winds. I looked nervously at my new tunnel on one or two mornings after gales, and instead saw that one of the new polythene lights from my hotbed had blown a surprising distance away, but thankfully was still in one piece and mostly undamaged.

We still have February to get through before spring arrives but at least daylight is increasing at an accelerating rate and you will notice a marked difference in the growth of indoor plants after about mid month, when their leaves become glossier and larger with every passing week, off the same plants.

Sowing

If you have a covered propagating space, you can be sowing (best after mid month) peas, onions and spring onions, early brassicas, beetroot Boltardy, spinach and parsley.

Outdoors the main sowing I recommend (whatever seed packets may say!) is broad beans, and I have found they grow better than from my indoor sowings, due to that vigorous tap root. However I know people who swear by root-trainers with their longer root run and if you want to start your broad beans undercover, they are worth a try. Parsnips can be sown now but March is more reliable and I have noticed, in the recent wet summers, that there is more canker on roots sown in late winter. If you are on heavy soil and canker is a problem, try sowing in May or June, for smaller but cleaner roots, although if it is dry (!) at that time you will need to water the row of seeds every few days.

Onion sets are on offer now and it is worth buying them to have ready for planting in late March, but do not plant them in February as this leads to bolting in early summer. Likewise it is worth buying seed potatoes now and putting them in a box with some daylight, even though this advance growth by only a little. You can plant your own tubers from last year, if they survived blight and plants were generally healthy.

February is mostly a quiet month and a good time to make more beds, or to clean existing ones, and there has been some good debate about that on the forum. I liked Ladbroke’s comment in the “Advice on how to start” thread, where he said about clearing couch grass, because an initial mulch is such a good aspect of no dig, that weeds CAN be cleared in a permanent, less back-breaking way. I shall be doing some serious mulching in parts of Homeacres where there is a lot of couch grass to clean up! Also I liked Ladbroke’s conclusion, that no dig is a great way to enjoy growing vegetables, and I hope you arrive at that same point where, after a year or less of diligent mulching and feeding soil life, you have clean and fertile soil to be creative with.

I was also interested in Big D’s idea in the same thread of using a tarpaulin, for instance you can buy a 5x4m sheet for £12. They are uv protected and should last a long time, but are woven (so don’t cut holes) and they don’t let water through so the edges may become wet.

Experiments

At Homeacres I sowed the two week old hotbed on January 21st, as snow was falling, with a good range of vegetable seeds in seven inch rows. Then I made two large lights to sit above the bed, and already see many things I could have done better! I must say that making a proper hotbed is quite an investment of time, but am hoping for early harvests to make it worthwhile.

Undercover

My polytunnel is now all mulched with various combinations of manure, cardboard and some topsoil from the greenhouse footings, avoiding the turves as they were full of couch grass roots. I have already planted and sown in the tunnel, a different experience for me, time wise, because for the last decade my tunnel space has been entirely devoted to winter salad between October and May.

This year in late January, I sowed spinach, spring onion, radish and carrot seeds on top of eighteen month old cow manure, then spread an inch of West Riding compost on top of each row. Also I have planted some of Steph’s peas , broad beans and a few winter salad plants, although the latter will make only small harvests in march and April before flowering. Meanwhile I have sown some lettuce and they are ready for pricking out in Steph’s greenhouse. My own greenhouse here is arriving on 11th and the builder has a low, brick wall to finish.