With Charles Dowd­ing

There are sim­ple ways to achieve this, says Charles

Country Smallholding - - Inside this Month -

What a dif­fer­ence it makes when your har­vests are early, es­pe­cially in spring when fresh veg­eta­bles are scarce. Even at this late stage, there are sim­ple meth­ods for achiev­ing this, in par­tic­u­lar to do with sow­ing un­der­cover, and cov­er­ing new plant­ings and sow­ings with fleece.

Soil treat­ment is im­por­tant and a no dig ap­proach helps, be­cause the cap­il­lary link to soil warmth in Earth’s deeper lay­ers re­mains in­tact. Stud­ies by the Scot­tish Fruit­grow­ers’ Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion in the 1940s showed 1.5C higher soil tem­per­a­tures in no dig soil, on frosty nights.

This was high­lighted by F.C. King, head gar­dener at Levens Hall, Cum­bria, in his 1951 book The Weed Prob­lem. In a sim­i­lar vein he no­ticed ear­lier blos­som ev­ery year on a plum tree whose soil was undis­turbed, com­pared to a neigh­bour­ing tree of the same va­ri­ety whose soil was dug ev­ery win­ter.

Soil prepa­ra­tion for early crop­ping

In the damp Bri­tish cli­mate, a mulch of well de­com­posed com­post is bet­ter than any un­rot­ted mulches, and not only be­cause of re­duc­ing slug habi­tat. Com­post (which in­cludes old an­i­mal ma­nure) is dark and warms nicely in any sun­shine, when spread on the sur­face and not in­cor­po­rated. It looks like a black blan­ket over the soil, even like dark soil, caus­ing a few vis­i­tors to Homeacres to ask why I do not mulch!

When spread­ing com­post in spring as op­posed to au­tumn, it’s im­por­tant to break any larger lumps while load­ing the wheel­bar­row. Old an­i­mal ma­nures of­ten have lumps of less de­com­posed ma­te­rial, straw still yel­low even, and put th­ese on one side to de­com­pose fur­ther. On your beds, have no pieces larger than a golf ball, to make sow­ing and plant­ing eas­ier.

Peren­nial weeds

If your soil has couch grass, creep­ing but­ter­cup etc in any quan­tity, early crop­ping is more dif­fi­cult and I sug­gest us­ing such ar­eas for later plant­ings, af­ter mulching with poly­thene. When weeds are thick and per­sis­tent, grow crops such as cour­gettes and pota­toes which you can plant through holes in the poly­thene.

Weed strikes now for an­nual weeds

The aim is a 100% clean sur­face when sow­ing and plant­ing, yet most com­post con­tains plenty of weed seeds. It works best to elim­i­nate them be­fore sow­ing and plant­ing, to save time later. Any day now, and as soon as you see a faint shim­mer of tiny green weed shoots, run a hoe shal­lowly and hor­i­zon­tally, through the com­post to dis­turb the ger­mi­nat­ing seedlings.

Another op­tion is to pass a rake across the top, lightly and in a side­ways, 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. Hoe or rake them be­fore you see the first true leaves. Grasses are an ex­cep­tion be­cause of their tena­cious roots, which may not die af­ter

hoe­ing un­less it’s very dry. If the grass is more than tiny, you need to hand weed be­fore their roots be­come tena­cious.

Mean­while, sow un­der­cover

While ground is com­ing ready and you are re­duc­ing weed num­bers, sow many veg­eta­bles un­der­cover, at ap­pro­pri­ate times. In late March and early April there is still just time to sow onions, cele­riac, to­ma­toes, let­tuce, early bras­si­cas and beet­root. By mid April it’s good to sow leeks, chard, cour­gettes, squash, basil and sweet­corn.

First sow­ings out­side

Spring has wild fluc­tu­a­tions of tem­per­a­ture and some­times you need to wait for frosts to clear, as in March 2013 when I sowed noth­ing out­side un­til the first out­door sow­ings that year on April 6. Use a fleece cover over early sow­ings, di­rectly on the ground to trap warmth in the soil, when­ever the sun ap­pears.

Late March to early April is best time for out­door sow­ings of spinach, let­tuce, peas, onions, spring onions, early bras­si­cas and turnips, radish, co­rian­der, dill and pars­ley. Sow first early pota­toes in late March, then sec­ond ear­lies in mid April. There is no rush to get pota­toes in the ground, un­less you are for­tu­nate to suf­fer no frosts in May. Fleece is worth­while if late frost hap­pens in your area.

Plant­ing out­side and fleec­ing over

You can save time by tak­ing plants straight from the prop­a­gat­ing area, with­out hard­en­ing off, to plant into sur­face-com­posted soil, even in cold, windy weather. Af­ter plant­ing and sow­ing, sim­ply lay the fleece on top of plants.

A fleece cover over the top helps plants ad­just to their new en­vi­ron­ment, by pro­tect­ing them from cold wind, at the same time as al­low­ing air to ven­ti­late, and most rain to pass through. Any spells of sun­shine are quickly con­verted to warmth and held close to plants, when fleece is sit­ting right on top of their ger­mi­nat­ing seeds or seedling leaves.

Lay­ing fleece at ground level saves time and ma­te­ri­als - no hoops, and all you need is stones, sand bags or stakes along the sides. It’s quick to roll or lift off th­ese weights to pull back the cover, tem­po­rar­ily, for any weed­ing needed.

More about fleece

Buy 25 or 30gsm and then the cov­ers should be re­us­able, many times. For weather pro­tec­tion, it’s no prob­lem if there are a few small holes. Fleece of 2m width is good for veg­etable beds of most di­men­sions, and its light enough that leaves are happy to push it up as they grow. It’s pleas­ing when you see cov­ers ris­ing like bub­bles over your plant­ings.

There is no ad­van­tage to lay­ing a fleece cover be­fore sow­ing and plant­ing, as the soil’s warmth re­ten­tion is so tem­po­rary. I had this com­ment from a teacher, on my web­site fo­rum: “I did an ex­per­i­ment with some chil­dren with clear plastic, black plastic and with card­board, and we found no no­table dif­fer­ence com­pared to un­cov­ered ground, just 1C.”

Re­mov­ing fleece cov­ers

This de­pends more on weather than on plant size. In 2016 and 2017 we took cov­ers off in the first week of May, af­ter most frosts and cold winds had fin­ished. In other years it has been sooner, and in cold ar­eas it may be later, also de­pend­ing on which veg­etable is grow­ing.

For cour­gettes and sweet­corn, I plant mid May and keep fleece over for just one or two weeks, un­less it’s un­usu­ally warm and they don’t need it. For beds of mixed spring veg­eta­bles, I re­move fleece early May once plants are grow­ing strongly, of­ten with some spinach and let­tuce leaves ready to har­vest.

Early har­vests

Joy­ful first har­vests (they al­ways taste spe­cial) come ev­ery week through spring. Bring them for­ward with pick­ing meth­ods such as reg­u­lar re­moval of let­tuces’ outer leaves, pinch­ing off pea shoots and thin­ning car­rots and beet­root.

I am usu­ally pick­ing hearts of Grey­hound cab­bage by late May, from sow­ings on Valen­tines Day. Then beet­root Boltardy by early June, cal­abrese and early pota­toes soon af­ter, all to look for­ward to. MORE: www.charles­dowd­ing.co.uk

Af­ter re­mov­ing fleece cov­ers in early May, veg­eta­bles are grow­ing strongly

Charles mak­ing lines to plant let­tuce in the dark com­post

Fleece rolled back to pull weeds in the spinach bed

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