Monday, 25 March 2013


Well they say that March comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb but this particular lion has dug its claws in and is most definitely refusing to go, but how we wish we could get going and do some sowing. The trouble is that just at the moment the soil temperature is too low to get anything to germinate. We know this because commonsense says so, but it is said that in the past farmers would drop their breeches and sit on the soil to test just how warm it was, or is that one of those factoids you here about? Probably. Anyway now days we have fancy digital probes that can tell to a tenth degree so there is no excuse, but we still try out of pure optimism. It is worth remembering though that seeds will only germinate at their minimum soil temperature, so where a radish will germinate at 4C, broccoli will need 10C, and tomato 18C. All is not lost, as we sit looking out the window at another snow flurry, and the possibility of a white Easter, because it is possible to get ahead of the weather by sowing under cover.

I have become a great believer in modules and except for carrots and parsnips start everything off in them. I also have a greenhouse, which I have to say is an essential for large scale sowing, but many find a window sill works just as well. I am also thrifty, tell me a gardener who is not!, so my modules can be simple in the extreme. The basic module is nothing more than a paper tube formed around the off cut from a kitchen waste pipe and held together with a single staple. I've found that twelve of these tubes will fit comfortably in a 2ltr ice cream tub, a good reason for putting ice cream on the shopping list. Bigger modules can be recycled pots, the sort you find in bins outside of garden centres, and soft spread tubs for sowing small amounts for transplanting when big enough for their own module. Remember to drill holes for drainage.

Next thing to consider is compost. Bought compost is fine, after all if you calculate that most seeds take 7-10 days to germinate and may be growing for four weeks until big enough to plant out, the six weeks of nourishment commercial compost state on the bag will do nicely. Myself, I like to use my own compost. It has been maturing for the last 12 months in those plastic darleks, they sell through the council cheap, and is now lovely crumbly and brown. To this is added leaf mould which  has been open to the elements for the last twelve months, and sieved to get best out. The rest goes back for another year. Lastly, sharp sand is added for drainage. It is mixed in a ratio of two parts compost, one part leaf mould and one part sharp sand.

With the paper tubes, first put a small amount of the mix in and ram tight with a suitable tool, mine is a piece of dowel that by luck is just the right size. This forms the base of  my module so the compost will not flow out the bottom when lifted. Next fill to the top and lightly tamp down leaving 1cm for the seed. Place two seeds on top and then loosely cover to the top and water well. That should be all the water it needs but if it does get dry in the greenhouse, even in March the temperature will reach 28-30C when the sun shines, water from the bottom. Two ice cream tubs will sit in a seed tray and if you line with plastic will make a nice little reservoir for the water. Label your tub and cover with value range cling film and wait for the magic to happen. If both seeds germinate, well you can pull out the weakest, but waste not want not I'm just as likely to transplant it to a spare tube.

This year I'm trying out soil blocks. I came across them in a book by Eliot Coleman called 'The New Organic Grower' (chapter 13) and was intrigued to find that the moulds he used were made in England by a company called Ladbrooke and sold here through the website Basically they are cubes of compressed soil/compost mix that have a depression in the top for the seed. They suggest leaving the seed open to the air as oxygen aids its development and water using a spray mist. The principle is the same as my paper tubes in that the seedling can be planted out without disturbing the roots but the blocking mix is different requiring peat to hold it together. The recipe can be found in the book (1st & 2nd editions) or on the website, but as they are all different in some way Ive done my own thing. I have also made my own blocker out of scrap that end up in shed 'because they may come in useful sometime' and guidance from Youtube. Isn't the web wonderful.

My last tip come from Monty Don and Daphne Ledward and cover garlic and onion/shallot sets. I know these can be planted in the Autumn but last time I did that it was so wet they rotted so now the garlic is started in pots and planted in March, thank you Monty, and the sets are placed in trays of damp compost until they have a good root system. When the time comes to plant out the compost just falls away and they can be planted into shallow drills with the earth being pulled back over the roots. There is less likely hood of birds pulling them out or roots pushing them out and they will mature just a quickly as autumn sets, so thank you Daphne.



Saturday, 16 March 2013

To Dig or not To Dig

Whether to dig or not can be a subject of much heated debate, and that's not just the spade work! Whatever the opinion it does start with digging of some sort and there are good reasons why preperation is everything.
On Ranmore I have found just about everything you can expect from a site used for fly tipping for seven years. Asbestos, glass of all sorts (auto, plate, bottle), plastic and metal (car parts, electrical fittings, tin cans). You name it and I have found it, and this was after the site was cleared and ploughed. No dougt as time goes by more will come to the surface, but by digging I think I've got the worst  of it out and will be more confident about sticking my hands in without worrying if my tetanus jab is up to date.
The next hurdle are those perennial weeds with the ridculously long roots that insist on colonising waste ground, such as nettle, thistle, and that horror, creeping cinquefoil that snaps in two to grow again. If they were a crop my five rods would prductive indeed. Dig them out! and even if they do'nt stay out at least they know they are not welcome.
The two tools for digging are the spade and fork (the latter suprisingly only coming into use in the 1860's). They both have offset handles and are pushed into the soil with the blade/tines vertical, leaving the handle leaning away from you. This gives tremendous leverage as you pull back, and with minimum effort, turn and throw the sod forward. Or if it's wet - a lot of effort! One tip old time gardeners used when the soil stuck to the spade was a wooden scrapper they called a 'minute killer' as it gave them a chance for a breather. I use an old paint scapper.
Double Digging  This is pretty heavy stuff and done a bit at a time on part of the plot each year won't be too painful - on the back! Dig a trench one spit (length of blade) deep and two feet wide, moving the soil to end of the area to be dug. Now use the digging fork to loosen the subsoil (again to a spit) but do not bring it up or mix it with the topsoil. This will break up the pan that tends to form in compacted soil and allow the to get in and water to drain more easily. Throw into the trench a layer of organic matter and then start another trench two feet wide throwing the soil into the first. You continue like this - slowly - until the last trench is filled with the soil moved from the first trench. Once done you should never have to do it again, hurray.

Single Digging  With this you dig one spit down but only one foot wide and as before place the soil at the end of the digging area. Leave the subsoil as it is but again add organic material to the trench turning the next trench over it. If you have enough material throw some on top and continue in this fashion till the task is done. I feel it is important to stress that you should not over do any digging to the point of exhaustion. A steady rhythm with plenty of stops for a chats, or just to stand and stare, can  be quite satisfying. 'What a gardener needs is an iron back with a hinge in it'
No Digging  Now of course, if you do not want to dig then don't. It is a perfectly valid method of cultivation, and popular if you are going organic. You can let the worms do the work for you providing they have enough material to work with. Five centimeters, or two inches, will do the trick, spred evenly over the plot. On five rods that equates to seven cubic meters! Plant through it and sit back, easy.
Raised Beds  This could well be the happy medium that we are looking for. I use them at home for the crops the kitchen needs most, and I have to say I'm rather fond of them.They have been around for a very long time, the Romans brought them to Britain, and as long as you never walk on the bed it needs no digging other to plant or lift your crops. For this reason the bed is never wider than 1.2m and no longer than is convenient to walk round with sides, usually timber, about 20cm high. The growing area therefore is compact so compost goes where it's needed, as does the water. Beds can be covered for protection from pests or warmed in spring to get an early start. before you start it is usual to double dig it (those pesky perennials) and add lots of compost. Even then it seems to take a lot to fill, so why not rob the paths os topsoil, after all you'r not going to grow anything on them, and replace with woodchips. Simple.
Deep Beds  Rather like raised this one only without sides but dug deep. Again the idea is never to walk on them so the dimensions are the same as the raised beds but when you double dig the compost is mixed right down to the bottom. It should give you a good 50-60cm growing depth and perfect for those parsnips, but it's a kind of obscure method now days and hardly worth it. Before I leave I'd just like to mention something that was practiced in the kitchen gardens of old, trench digging. It was a three man job where they dug a trench three feet wide and three spits deep, and they did this every seven years! Was labour cheap then or what.
Lazy Beds  Another ancient method of cultivation anywhere the topsoil is thin and impoverished. In our green and pleasant land this usually ment the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. There it was typical for the crofter to collect seaweed from the shore and pile it in ribbons in his rocky field. Then using a Cas Chrom (or foot plough in English) turn what soil he had over the top grass side down. Into this was planted whatever crop was going to feed the family through the long winter. This simple and clever adaptation to harsh local conditions has spontaiously happened throughout the world and across the millenia. Clever little devils arn.t we! On a more serious note this technique could work quite well with a plot that is overgrown with little effort. Forget the seaweed and go down the stables!
Stale Beds  So you've done the digging bit, raked it to a fine tilth, sown the seeds, and now you can't see the cabbages for the weeds. That's because most weeds are annuals and survive by producing truly vast amounts of seed each year. They will out compete our veggies every time, so prepare the beds a couple of weeks before and cover with clear plastic or fleece. A nice cosy bed is just what the weeds are waiting for, and off they grow. When you are ready to sow the cabbages remove the plastic and hoe the weeds off. Not too deep mind or your likely to bring up there friends.
And Finally  I came across a lovely description in a book by Harry Dodson about the way old country men planted thier spuds in years gone by. In those days of sixty hour weeks and working under the parish lantern, the traditional planting day was Good Friday as it was the only day off they had at the right time of year. They would dig a trench and put in manure then go back pulling soil down from the dug side to form a ledge where each potato was to grow. Next was to mark a point two feet back and dig to it covering the potatoes and repeat the process again. Of course the spacings varied according to the varieties, early or main crop, but you can see how quicly they could cultivate and plant in one go.