As the weather goes from cold to mild to cold again, one thing is constant, soil. Undisturbed, compost-mulched ground helps plants to maintain health and grow whenever conditions allow.
Soon it will be all-go and we shall reap the benefit of how it’s easy and quick to plant into the surface compost, even when slightly lumpy. I sow carrots in a tilth with more lumps than perhaps diggers are used to, see this video about sowing into surface compost.
This happens when light is short, nothing else. Seedlings are rushing upwards to find more light, as when growing on windowsills (which are brilliant for germination, less for growing on).
For example I had this question “We already have every available kitchen surface covered with sprouting seedtrays. Our seedlings usually look much leggier than your own stocky specimens”.
After germinating seeds in warmth, I grow seedlings cooler, and in full light. Seeds we sow in February grow as cold- and frost-resistant: peas, lettuce, spinach, onions, coriander do not die in cold, and survive freezing. To grow into sturdy plants, they need full light.
If long-stemmed now and growing in seed trays or small cells, you can prick or pot them deep and bury as much of the stem as is possible. Again when planting out, set them deeper so the stem is not waving around.
I prick out veg that grow best as singles, or are slow to germinate, or whose seeds are so tiny that sowing into modules is difficult.
When to plant out? save time with no hardening off!!
There are many possible answers, depending on size of module, compost used and how firm it is, the outdoor temperature, light available and stockiness of seedlings, and having fleece/row cover available. Do buy 30gsm not 17gsm and you can plant small seedlings, as long as you have kept beds slug free, with a compost mulch only and no rotting wood nearby.
Planting into surface compost, no dig, sees small seedlings establish rapidly. Laying fleece over avoids any need to harden off: we save so much time in this way.
Size of plantings – they can be small
Frost resistant salads
Mustards, claytonia, corn salad, land cress and spinach are amazing in cold weather.
The salads in these photos were sown in modules September, then planted 24th October after we cleared climbing beans. We have kept mesh over them (on hoops) against rabbits, and to protect from cold winds.
Mesh is less warm than fleece, and less likely to tear in winter gales and snow. Four times we have rolled back this mesh cover in order to pick leaves, with so far 5.6kg saleable leaves from this area of 7.5m2/80ft2.
Fleece on tunnel salads
Before the cold weather of late February-early March, we laid fleece over most salad plants in tunnel and greenhouse. This does not necessarily increase survival chances, but gives bigger harvests in cold yet bright weather.
Look at the colour and size difference of Grenoble Red lettuce. I rolled up the fleece on 4th March and am using it again outside, on new plantings – see peas below.
Photo check of tunnel salads
The difference of ten days. We missed a week of picking when leavess were all frozen (even under the covers) but it’s back to normal now, with weekly harvests.
They are hardy plants which resist a lot of cold. However if more than 10-15cm/4-6in tall when frost is severe, their stems may be damaged and leaves may blacken at the edges. Smaller plants are more hardy.
I sow in most winter months, in modules so that mice and birds cannot eat the seeds. Best harvests come from sowing before the end of April, and now is ideal. Fleece or mesh covers are good for young plants against pests and wind.
Spring onions and stored onions
Bulb onions from last summer come into their own now, if well stored. Some of mine have kept in a cold frame, others are still good in bunches in the conservatory.
They will be usable until over-wintered spring onion plants grow big, by late April or early May. I sow White Lisbon spring onions in late August, for planting mid September. Main reason for the mesh is in case of rabbits: onions are hardy to frost, so you can plant modules of multi-sown onions now.
However sets are part-grown onions and risk bolting/flowering if sown too early, I would wait until late March, before planting sets, even mid April for sets of red onion.
I was in Surrey on 14th March to give a talk to the NVS: it was their largest audience to date with a lot of interest in no dig. The bonus for my journey was proximity to RHS Wisley where Sheila Das, the gardens manager, has been working to develop new approaches in the food gardens.
One change has been the adoption and trialling of no dig, such that the Edibles garden looks completely different to when I was there two years ago, all the beds mulched with composted stable manure. There is a dig/no dig trial too.
Up on the large area of student plots is another experiment: each student has half of their plot mulched with Wisley compost, the other half dug with the compost incorporated. A great learning experience for them, and huge interest for visitors.
This red cabbage is Granat, sown last May and planted 21st June after clearing broad beans. I cut this one in late November and kept it simply in a crate in the brick lean-to (annexe) to my house, where it’s cool and damp. 14 weeks later I peeled off five outer leaves going mouldy, to reveal this lovely head of 4.3kg/9lb.
Steph used it to make great dishes for the latest day courses.
Myths and misunderstandings
For asparagus, lay a 4-6in/10-15cm mulch of compost and plant crowns in that.
Be sure to buy an F1/all male variety, they cost more and are worth it.
“Kent asparagus” is worth checking for crowns.
Plant soon, by mid April.
I would avoid polythene, hoeing/raking small weeds can do it.
Potato planting, when and how
I received this question:
“As I live in Devon where the climate ( normally!) is a bit warmer than further North; I wondered when I can plant potatoes using the no dig method with straw?”
The question wrongly implies that no dig and straw are synonymous. They are not, and in Devon’s damp climate, this man will be encouraging slugs!
When to plant potatoes depends on last-frost date, not warmth: you may be in a warm valley which also traps cold air at night, as in much of the Somerset Levels, around Exeter and Benson near the river Thames in Oxfordshire, to name a few places. If unsure, ask locals for their opinion on last frost date. Here it is mid May, on average: I plant first early potatoes in late March, or early April this year, and second earlies mid April. There is no rush, leave your seed potatoes in light so their shoots/chits are stocky.
In three weeks we went from 70C at 30cm/1ft in to 55C, plus the heap had sunk by a third, so I decided to add some fresh stable manure.
We took out a barrow of the three week old manure first, then added the fresh, then the older back on top. This is an attempt to filter and reduce the ammonia gases which can singe leaves. They happen mostly if the straw is well wetted with urine, less otherwise. Brassica leaves are especially susceptible and we lost some salad picking in the greenhouse, even though I ventilated.
Hanford School, near Blandford Forum, is advertising for a 3/4 time post of gardener to work mainly in the walled garden growing fruit, flowers and veg. for the school kitchen in, potentially, 2 acres.
There’s an opportunity to run a gardening enterprise alongside as there’s plenty of space, 3 large greenhouses with heating, well water and a heap of stable manure.
They want a forward thinking gardener who is passionate about sustainability as well as interested in education. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your details: they say “The gardens have not been organically managed but it’s time for change!”