The value of fleece, with Charles Dowd­ing

By fleec­ing over early har­vests you can keep both weather and pests at bay, says Charles Dowd­ing

Country Smallholding - - Contents -

Quick and easy use of fleece cov­ers can bring for­ward the date of early har­vests by an im­pres­sive amount. For sure, suc­cess also re­lies on sow­ing the right seeds at the right time, and good ground prepa­ra­tion with few weeds, slugs and other pests. Then use hor­ti­cul­tural fleece to keep warmth in and pests out: when al­lied to soil in best con­di­tion, you en­joy fan­tas­tic veg­eta­bles in May and June.

Ground­work be­fore plant­ing and cov­er­ing

In our damp cli­mate, it’s best to avoid un­de­com­posed mulches be­cause they of­fer habi­tat for slugs, and al­low less of the sun’s warmth to reach the soil. They also make it dif­fi­cult to sow seeds.

Early sow­ing and plant­ing works best when you have spread the com­post be­fore Christ­mas, onto clean soil, so that win­ter weather soft­ens it. Then a light rak­ing in Fe­bru­ary or March eas­ily breaks up any larger lumps, and dis­turbs/kills any early weed seedlings as they ger­mi­nate.

Or if you have some top qual­ity com­post, you can spread that and sow straight­away.

Sur­face com­post

Com­post is dark and warms nicely in any sun­shine. It looks like a black blan­ket over the soil and some vis­i­tors to Homeacres ask ‘why do you not mulch?’, un­til I ex­plain that there is a mulch, of com­post! You can sow and plant into it, the same as if it were soil.

How­ever, if the com­post is full of weed seeds, cover with fleece for two to three weeks, then re­move the cover and hoe be­fore sow­ing. Or, for eas­ier gar­den­ing, set out plants - it’s eas­ier in weedy soil to suc­ceed with plants than di­rect sow­ings.

Peren­nial weeds

If your soil has couch grass, creep­ing but­ter­cup and/or a mat of an­nual weeds, early crop­ping is more dif­fi­cult and it’s best to use such ar­eas for later plant­ings, af­ter ear­lier mulching with poly­thene. Spread some com­post or old ma­nure be­fore cov­er­ing with poly­thene, to feed the soil or­gan­isms while weeds are dy­ing. If the weeds are thick and per­sis­tent, it may be best to leave the poly­thene on un­til au­tumn. You can grow crops such as cour­gettes, squash and pota­toes, planted through holes in the poly­thene.

Very early weed strikes, an­nual weeds

Most com­post con­tains plenty of weed seeds, and many can be elim­i­nated be­fore sow­ing and plant­ing, to save time later. Some­time in March, as soon as you see a shim­mer of tiny green weed shoots, run a hoe shal­lowly through the com­post to dis­turb the ger­mi­nat­ing seedlings.

An­other op­tion is to lightly pass a rake across the top, in a hor­i­zon­tal, sweep­ing mo­tion through the com­post mulch. As well as killing weed seedlings, this gives you a finer tilth on top.

Early weeds in­clude fa­then, chick­weed, bit­ter­cress, ground­sel, shep­herds purse and an­nual meadow grasses. For larger weeds and any grass that is more than tiny, hand weed­ing is some­times nec­es­sary. Aim for there to be no weeds vis­i­ble when you sow and plant.

Gain time by rais­ing plants

Noth­ing needs sow­ing be­fore mid Fe­bru­ary, when light lev­els are in­creas­ing fast and some warmth is pos­si­ble. So, be­tween Valen­tine’s Day and first plant­ings around the equinox, a lot of growth can hap­pen un­der­cover. Use th­ese tim­ings be­low for south­ern UK, two to three weeks later for the north:

Mid Fe­bru­ary: let­tuce, peas for shoots, spinach, onion, spring onion, cab­bage, calabrese, kohlrabi, cau­li­flower, broad bean, co­rian­der, dill, pars­ley.

Late Fe­bru­ary: beet­root - Boltardy only as other va­ri­eties bolt when sown this early.

Mid March: toma­toes, cele­riac, cel­ery, peas for pods and ev­ery­thing above.

Wait un­til mid April be­fore sow­ing warmth-lov­ing cu­cur­bits and basil.

Speed up ger­mi­na­tion; plant small and deep

It’s ex­pen­sive to heat air, com­pared to warmth be­low seed and mod­ule trays. The best re­turn is from keep­ing warmth for ger­mi­nat­ing seeds rather than larger seedlings. Use a sunny win­dowsill, elec­tric heat mat or a hot­bed of fresh horse ma­nure, say 4ft (1.2m) square.

Once seedlings are es­tab­lished, grow them in a non-heated green­house or poly­tun­nel un­til ready to plant.

Plant­ing and sow­ing out­side

Plants can go out small, just five weeks from sow­ing: they look ten­der and vul­ner­a­ble, but small trans­plants set­tle more quickly. They suc­ceed bet­ter when set quite deep as well. When I show this to course par­tic­i­pants they are often amazed to see my seedlings al­most dis­ap­pear into the com­post. Plants pre­fer this to hav­ing their ten­der stems above sur­face level.

First out­door sow­ings

Some­times you need to wait for frost to clear, as in March 2013 when my first sow­ings were on April 6. Nor­mally I sow broad beans first, then car­rots and parsnips in mid March. Lay fleece over th­ese early sow­ings, as de­scribed be­low. Also, in mid March out­side, sow any of spinach, let­tuce, peas, onions, early bras­si­cas, co­rian­der, dill and pars­ley, as long as your ground is slug free. Also in late March you can sow first early pota­toes, fol­lowed by sec­ond ear­lies in mid April.

Cover over

Buy 25 or 30gsm and you should be able to use the fleece again, many times: it’s no prob­lem if there are some small holes. Fleece of 2m is wide enough for most vegetable beds, al­low­ing room for plants to grow and push it up. It’s pleas­ing when you see cov­ers ris­ing like bub­bles over your plant­ings.

Times of lay­ing and re­mov­ing

There is no ad­van­tage to lay­ing a fleece cover be­fore sow­ing and plant­ing, ex­cept if you need to ger­mi­nate some weeds for a hoe­ing. Soil’s warmth re­ten­tion is slight and tem­po­rary in early spring, so the main ben­e­fit of fleece is when seeds and plants are grow­ing.

To­wards the end of April, it’s a ques­tion of when to re­move cov­ers. In 2016 we took them off later than usual in the first week of May, af­ter most frosts and cold winds had fin­ished. Veg­eta­bles such as cour­gettes ben­e­fit from fleece even in late May and June, be­cause they dis­like cold winds.

Plant out, fleece over

Save time by tak­ing plants from your prop­a­gat­ing area, with­out hard­en­ing off, and plant straight­away, even in cold weather. A fleece over the top helps plants ad­just to their new en­vi­ron­ment, by pro­tect­ing them from cold wind, hold­ing warmth close to seedlings in any sun, as well as al­low­ing some air and rain to pass through.

This way of us­ing fleece saves time and ma­te­ri­als - no hoops, and all you need is stones or stakes along the sides. Af­ter two to three weeks it’s a quick job to roll back the weights and flip back the cover, tem­po­rar­ily, for any weed­ing needed.

Early har­vests

The first har­vest of any vegetable is a time to savour, and th­ese joy­ful mo­ments be­come more fre­quent through spring. Pick­ing meth­ods such as reg­u­lar re­moval of let­tuces’ outer leaves also make har­vests ear­lier.

Other ways to ear­lier har­vests in­clude plant­ing peas for their tasty shoots, at 6in (15cm) apart: pinch off their lead­ing shoots in early May, fol­lowed by many more har­vests off the same plants, through May

Charles checks growth of pea shoots un­der fleece

First har­vests in late April. The plant­ings were cov­ered in March

April 28 last year – spinach was ready to pick that day

Fleece pro­tect­ing veg­eta­bles from an April hail­storm

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