January 2013

Updates from January 2013.

January 2013, and reflections on 2012


What a year has just finished and it has been revealing to see how soil and plants have coped with the continual rain and dullness. December was the second wettest in 30 or more years, after 1999. In the year I have recorded 1145mm of rain (14% above average) which means it has actually been less wet than the years 2000 and 2008. But most of the rain fell at bad times for growing, in April, June, July and August, as well as causing the recent flooding, so it has felt worse than the figures suggest.

Depressed sunshine amounts have not helped, although again it was not the dullest ever and the recent years 2009 and 1998 were less sunny than 2012.

Average temperature in 2012 of 9.8C was below normal but 2001 and 2010 were colder. It was all in the timing though: as with rainfall there was an almost chronic lack of warmth at key times, especially from April to July, and the “temperature feeling” was lower than the figures suggest, probably because of the dullness and damp.

Being Prepared

The main lessons I take from all this are:

  • That surface composted, undug soil drains well and retains good structure in adverse conditions, because my harvests have been only 10% less than in the bountiful year of 2011
  • That undug soil is easier to keep weed free than dug soil, because although there were so few opportunities to run a hoe through dry soil, I could keep the acre clean by hand weeding, with almost no extra help
  • That an undug soil clean of weeds also has less slugs, because I have suffered little more damage in 2012 than in the much drier year of 2011
  • That careful raising of strong plants, then covering them with fleece for a month after setting out, really helps vegetables to cope with adverse weather
  • That a wet summer is good for keeping carrot root fly and cabbage butterflies away, but that one should never underestimate the potential for slug damage
  • That I should have planted some of my winter brassicas a little earlier than 10th July, a late date which has worked in hot summers but not this year, so I have small Brussels and cabbage hearts. I think sowing of those two in mid May for planting by mid June is best.

You also will be seeing things you have done well or can improve and that is the best way to look at a difficult year. We simply do not know what is ahead of us in 2013 and we must be as prepared as possible. Six years ago all the talk was of saving water and mulching, for now that looks silly!

In a garden, the simple essence is good soil structure, a clean surface to keep slug numbers down, clear edges for the same reason, and sowing everything at the right date, which is different for almost every vegetable, although some can be grouped together.

Sowing dates also vary according to whether you have a propagating facility. If not, harvests are later and you may suffer more slug, bird or woodlouse damage to direct sown seeds. If at all possible I would resolve to sort out some kind of protected area for raising seedlings.

One other investment I would make, if you have not already, is a roll of fleece to lay over new plantings, for both warmth and protection from insects and animals. It is cheap, durable, reusable and easy to handle. For example in 2012 it was key to my successful squash harvest which was actually the biggest ever, thanks to rain at good moments (!) allowing squash fruits to swell nicely. The fleece meant they had grown sufficiently in June to be in a position to make lots of fruit in July, to swell them in August and to mature them by October. I still have plenty of Uchiki Kuri now after keeping them dry indoors.

Continuing progress here

Here is the new dig/no dig experiment, in beds edged with oak from a dying tree I cut in 2003, and had the trunk turned into planks.

At Homeacres, squelching around, I have made the new dig/no dig experiment, as well as two beds to compare growth of plants in cow manure or in home made compost, both beds created by simply placing four to six inches of the well decomposed organic matter on top of grass and whatever else is in there. A little couch grass but I think no bindweed in the main area. More comparisons are in the pipeline, including one with ‘Natural Agriculture’ which uses no compost or manure.

Asparagus plants have gone in and I planted a nice row of apple trees where the conifers are gone, which has made the garden much lighter, and windier! I planted the asparagus simply on top of manure which is on top of soil and wonder if I should not have raised them higher because it is a wet area. They are all F1 hybrids: Mondeo for early cropping, Guelph Millennium and Pacific 2000.

Finally I have found some healthy bindweed roots in an ornamental -bed-to-be in front of the house. Also there is ivy, celandine and goodness knows what else, so some manure and then the landscape fabric will be on all year. I managed to cut a small hole in the fabric and thread it over the top of new apple trees along the fence.

Update on January 16th – Lots of pics here

Well it was dry for a few days and lots has happened at Homeacres, including the erection and cladding of the ten year old, eighteen by thirty foot tunnel which I brought in the trailer from Lower Farm. Where I put it has uneven ground and I hammered the foundation tubes level, lower in the middle and higher at both ends, meaning the doors are now really high. I am not sure that was a good idea (unlike a greenhouse, polytunnels can follow land contours) but fortunately there was enough polythene and we had a rare sunny day for putting it on.

Erecting, cladding an 18×30′ Polytunnel

I have made four beds in the tunnel, the two side ones of 42 inches having just manure and cardboard, then the two middle beds of 47 inches have topsoil from the greenhouse footings placed on the grass, with mature manure and compost on top of that and no cardboard. I could plant spinach and lettuce in those beds but have no plants at the moment. Pathways have some strawy manure and cardboard either underneath or on top; card on top is actually not very practical for a pathway as it breaks when walked on!

Mulching tunnel beds

Using the greenhouse topsoil on the middle two beds meant I do not need any cardboard on or under them, because the soil AND manure gives extra depth to smother grass and weeds, and I can sow directly into the compost and composted manure. However I am watching for any couch grass growing through! Peas for shoots and spinach are top of the list for first sowing, then carrots in February, and I am sowing some lettuce in Steph’s greenhouse.

Making a hotbed

Also I have made a hotbed, inspired by Jack First’s book, see www.greenbooks.co.uk. Worth a try if you have access to fresh manure and like moving it around! There is quite a lot to making a hotbed if you want a proper job, I am sure it will repay the effort, in four stages, of “three beds and a top”:

Fourth of making a polythene “light” to rest on top and hold in some extra warmth – no pics as I have not made the  light yet, that should be good for next week if my back allows… and then I shall sow lettuce, carrot, spinach, beetroot Boltardy, spring onion and peas.

Meanwhile, Mark the builder arrived and has been making lots of mud in my garden, emptying clay from footings for a new conservatory on the bank where conifers once grew. He also dug footings for the greenhouse, which is to sit on a low brick wall, and that soil is mostly good to use in the garden, except the top turves which are FULL of couch grass roots, oh dear, just where the greenhouse is going to be. An interesting challenge.

As well as in the tunnel, I used some of the soil to make more beds, just spreading it on top after it was put in small piles by the dumper truck. Then I am spreading some well rotted manure on top of that, and am now wondering how many weeds will germinate in all that disturbed soil!

George also came back for a couple of hours to cut the last conifer, which needed careful sawing as one of its branches had grown AROUND the neighbour’s phone wire. George did really well, up a ladder, to cut the top off this branch and then cut it from below, leaving a bit of wood on the phone line, hopefully good for internet speed!

Finally, for something different here are some nice pics from Denmark where Astrid, who worked here last May and is keen to become a market gardener, built her own polythene structure from wood her father had left over when he did some building on their small farm.