March 2009

Updates from March 2009.

March in the Food Garden (written Feb 23rd).

I think it best to avoid any weather forecast this month after predicting such a cold February! I had not expected the dramatic change on full moon around mid month, although it was quite similar to January’s shift.

Anyway, the garden now thinks spring has arrived because the first few weeds are germinating – speedwell, grasses, rose bay willow herb, cleavers and such like, mostly around the edges and in some herbaceous borders. Each garden and soil has its favoured weeds and their pattern of germination tells a lot about soil temperature and quality. It is best to wait for a just-visible flush of quite a few annual weeds before sowing and planting i.e. not quite yet.

When comparing my weeds to neighbouring gardens’ chickweed, shepherds purse, groundsel and bittercress, I feel happy to be not digging or cultivating. Soil definitely stays cleaner when left alone, as long as you can avoid walking on it too much in wet weather. My sloping pathways have suffered some erosion in the recent incessant rainfall but all the beds are fine.

Perennial weeds are also revealing themselves and want removing carefully with a trowel or fork.
Lately I have been running a manure fork or rake through some of the surface lumps to break up any clods of compost or manure. A good tilth is achievable after all the frost, and badgers are helping with all their rummaging for slugs and worms. As long as they stop doing that before planting time.

Broad beans can go in now, and garlic (just) if you missed planting it before. Peas and carrots are best sown early April while lettuce, spinach, radish and parsnips can be sown after mid March, preferably in clean soil with a fine tilth. Parsnips and radish can be sown in the same drill, radish seeds about an inch apart. They mark the line of slower germinating parsnips and are harvested before much parsnip growth happens.

Onion sets are best planted around the equinox but onion seed is hopefully already growing indoors as it takes longer for sown onions to mature than when they are planted as sets. Salad onions can be sown at any time and can fill odd gaps.

Most of the overwintered vegetable plants in this garden have survived frosts and snow in good shape. I am especially pleased with Sutherland kale from Real Seeds, sown early June, larger leaves picked off in January for cooked greens and new leaves now being picked for salad. They are flat and tender, less pretty but higher yielding than Red Russian, another flat kale.

Corn salad (lambs lettuce) was yellow for a while after the snow melted but is looking verdant now, late February. Other good salad survivors outdoors are October planted mizuna, land cress, spinach and green frills mustard, but growth is still slow.

Indoor salad, in contrast, is now offering some vibrant new leaves of thicker texture, deeper lustre and larger size. Yet a few plants are already flowering, mainly the tatsoi and chinese cabbage. Everything about oriental leaves is rapid, their ascent to flower included, whereas the Medania spinach and ruby chard keep producing leaves until early May and Grenoble Red lettuce until June.

I have made a new bed on grass without digging and attach some photos to give you ideas. The wood is two inches (5cm) thick, untreated and painted with two coats of OSMO wood preserver. The grass has been smothered with a combination of mushroom compost and home made compost, with cardboard on top of the grass on just half of the bed, to see if it makes any difference. It is on a slope and I wondered about making it level then decided that would involve too much wood on the bottom side.

A larger, flat area that was covered with cardboard and some mushroom compost in late December has started to green up a little with some leaves of buttercup and deeper rooting grasses. I am thinking to put another layer of cardboard on top with a little more compost or manure, as I still have a good pile of cardboard from the Montague Inn’s new restaurant chairs. They do excellent food if you are ever in Shepton Montague.

There is still time to lay light excluding mulches but planting needs to wait at least a month for annual weeds and nearer two months when covering perennials. Or a year for thick bindweed and couch grass.
Finally, March has many important dates for indoor sowing, not least tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and chillies, preferably with some background heat or in a propagator. Moon-wise the first ten days are good in general, as it is waxing, and there are an unusual number of fruit days within that on 1st, 2nd, 8th, 9th and 10th.

On 3rd and 4th (root days) you could be sowing beetroot, four seeds per module or pot, preferably the variety Boltardy – others risk flowering if sown this early. Celeriac may also be sown then but only in heat, otherwise at month’s end, when first and second early potatoes can be planted outside.

Calabrese and early cabbage can be sown at any time in March, so the greenhouse or whatever you use for propagating will fill up nicely. Many herbs can also be sown now, both annual and perennial, such as dill, parsley, coriander, sage, thyme, summer savory and so on. Basil is the exception as it needs more heat and is best sown in April, strictly indoors. I find that all home sown herbs make more hardy plants than bought ones, thanks to growing more slowly in less then perfect conditions, making them used to putting up with a few hardships – but not too many!

Charles Dowding.