A look at Homeacres in February 2014.
Winter this year has been including hints of spring, with regard to temperature rather than wind and rain. We had nearly 200m of rain in January, the wettest January ever but less wet than Novembers 2002 and 2009. Fortunately my garden is not in the Somerset Levels and I don’t know how the flooded land there will recover, although from seeing flooded paddy fields on a holiday in Thailand, soil life can tolerate being underwater for some time.
I have been delighted to see so much growth of salads in the unheated polytunnel and greenhouse, where plants are happy to be out of the wind and rain, and have scarcely been set back by any notable frost: the lowest temperature in January was -3.5C on 14th and 20th, with just eight frosts altogether.
By contrast, outdoor lambs lettuce, rocket and mustards are barely growing and the continual buffeting by wind and splattering with rain and hail means their leaf quality is poor. If I had no tunnel, a cloche or fleece would be worthwhile.
Most vegetables are looking healthy as long as one grows those that are adapted to the Atlantic weather, such as leeks (mine are Bandit, a super-hardy variety), kale (in my case the perennial Daubenton), Brussels sprouts, garlic and even the first shoots of rhubarb.
Sowing is now possible, undercover only.
In the list that follows I place seeds in ascending order of the heat needed for best germination and growth:
- Lettuce, spinach, broad bean, peas, brassicas, shallot, onion, beetroot, parsley, coriander, dill, tomato, pepper, chilli, aubergine.
Onions can be for bulb and salad, brassicas are early varieties of cabbage such as Greyhound and Derby Day, as well as calabrese, cauliflower and radish, while beetroot must be the variety Boltardy only, as other varieties will flower from sowing in the cool of March.
For tomatoes I recommend Sungold for its early fruiting and fine flavour, even though the fruits are prone to splitting, which you can lessen by watering less when plants are fruiting. The only variety I know to have been preferred to Sungold is Sweet Aperitif, a red cherry, and I am sowing a few of that one.
Sowings of tomato, pepper, chilli and aubergine are good in small trays covered with a polythene bag in the warmest place you can find, up to 30C/86F for about five days, then move seedlings to a light windowsill for up to a fortnight, and prick them out when you see their first true leaves. I am sowing mine in a tray to sit on the hotbed, and after pricking out into modules I shall keep them there until early April, unless it is mild after mid March.
I made a start to main spring sowing in late January, as soon as the hotbed was assembled, to make the most of its heat. We made it higher than last year’s hotbed, to pack in more manure and have more warmth, with the temperature around 10C higher so far, up to 51C on Febriary 1st . But there is a problem with the extra height, reaching the back of the pallet!
Outdoor sowings in February are only worth it if you live in a very mild area and are on ight soil. Broad beans are the main outdoor sowing to consider as they germinate when soil is so cool; I don’t need to as my November and December sown beans are all looking healthy. I am really please with how well the beds are draining, throughout this exceptionally wet spell. Last January when Homeacres was pasture, I noticed how soggy it felt to walk on after rain and was concerned to keep vegetable roots above any saturated soil. Since November I have mulched most paths with 5-7cm (2-3in) of wood shavings or fresh horse manure which is mostly shavings. There are still one or two boggy parts of paths but mostly the mulched paths feel soft to walk on, while vegetables in the beds look healthy.
Update: February 15th
It Has been the main theme of this winter’s weather, starting on December 12th, since when there have been only eight days without precipitation. The total rainfall in this period of nine weeks and two days, up to and including February 14th, is a staggering 419mm, highly unusual, and no wonder there has been flooding. It equates to 6.5 litres of water per square metre of ground, every day for 65 days.
The other anomaly has been wind intensity with repeated gales and severe gales at times; gusts here have been over 65mph on a few occasions lately as the incredibly deep depressions track nearby. Air pressure has been below 980mb on some days.
Fortunately the better news is that full moon early on 15th February looks like shifting the pattern to something more normal, with occasional but lesser rain and less wind, damp rather than wet.
Watering in a polytunnel and greenhouse
A helpful measure is that 1mm rain equates to one litre of water on a square metre. I used this to calculate how much “rainfall” I am putting on my salad beds in the tunnel which measures 5.5×9.1m, so 50 square metres. Each time I water, I empty two water butts with my cans, so that is 2×200 litres. Hence I am applying 400 litres divided by 50 sq. metres = 8mm rain. Not a large amount compared with the rain outside. Yet this has been enough for ample salad growth when applied every three weeks or so in midwinter, and now I am increasing to weekly, especially if the sun shines.
Contrast this 4mm/week with the 45mm/week which has fallen since early December.
As for seedlings in trays undercover, there is no precise rule because the amount of watering you need to do depends on so many variables:
- The weather, if it is cloudy you should water less, and recently the air has been so damp that plants’ leaves have transpired less water than usual.
- Ventilation, because when air is moving around leaves and soil/compost, some moisture is removed and I have noticed the tunnel drying out more than usual in some of the recent gales – I have some air holes above the doors for continual air flow.
- Situation, for example on hotbeds the manure is steaming and giving moisture to plant leaves, whereas electric propagators dry out the compost from below, so watch for that and water more if you are using electricity, or have plants on a windowsill in a heated room.
- Size of plants – small seedlings need almost no watering so take care not to overwater: wait until you see the compost looking a little dry on top, except with electric heat from below.
With the mild weather, potatoes are starting to sprout and it is worth spreading tubers on a tray in as full light as possible, to encourage stubby, green shoots rather than the long, white ones that grow in darkness. Although chitting is not vital, it can bring harvests of early tubers forward by a few days. Don’t plant first earlies until late March, unless you live in an area of no spring frosts.
There is still no rush to sow, until mid March is good. Sowing now will give slightly earlier fruit but you need to have frost-free propagating space throughout April, by which time plants take up more room and need full light, to keep them sturdy. For early picking of delicious fruit, I recommend Sungold F1.
Because of the higher temperatures all winter, there are more weeds than usual and it is worth pulling any bittercress, groundsel, meadow grasses, dead nettles, rose bay willowherb, chickweed, goosegrass (these last two are good in salad, in small amounts) and any others you see. Before they grow too large! and above all before they shed seed, which happens even in winter, especially for bittercress.
Spreading compost and mulching
As it dries out a little, you can finish this process to feed the soil and reduce weed growth. On weedy paths, a layer of cardboard is worthwhile, perhaps with some woodshavings on top or a few stones to weight down the corners. Once my paths are clean I spread some compost or less rotted manure on them, a light covering, as this helps in two ways:
- Removing weeds is easier from the soft surface
- Worms are busy underneath and the soil structure is better for it: I have noticed in the wet weather that my paths are not soggy and I can access the ground on most days, even with wheelbarrows of compost.