Wednesday, 16 January 2013

What to sow in January

The garden and polytunnel are in lock down - by that I mean that they are under the hard grip of frost, and as temperatures remain around zero there is no likelihood of the frost lifting for a few days.

For avid gardeners it is a frustrating time, only a few days ago the soil was easy to work, now a fork would bounce off it. Even pruning shouldn't be undertaken on frost bound stems, damage could be easily caused to the plant.

Leave the garden and head for the greenhouse. This is where the greenhouse, particularly if it has a modicum of heating comes into it's own.

I always insulate the inside of the greenhouse in late autumn with bubble wrap. It provides insulation and, because I sling some bubble wrap over training wire below the roof space, it reduces the internal area needing heating. I employ simple heating by using tubular heaters slung below the metal benches. They provide gentle heat to the plants and limited space heating. On cold nights I fleece seedlings or plants which are further away from the heaters. It works and doesn't cost a fortune. You could use timers to limit the hours which the heaters are left on but I prefer to adjust timing depending on the conditions. Today the heaters will be left on, there is hardly any sunlight, yesterday I could turn them off because it was a lovely sunny day.

As I start most of my nursery perennial sowings now it makes sense to use some of that available heat to kick start the vegetable garden.

Broad beans are a traditional cold weather vegetable and sown in 3cm pots with a little heat they will be up within a couple of weeks. After gentle hardening off they will be ready for planting out from mid February (depending on the weather). This way I don't have to worry about mice or voles.

Sugar snap peas are another crop to start early. Sown on the same day as the beans they are already sprouting. I sow them 5 - 6 seeds to a 9cm pot and they will be planted as a group. The first seedlings will be planted in the polytunnel and I will expect to crop them from late April/early May. Once the first seedlings are growing strongly I will sow the next pots and these will be planted out in the vegetable patch.

I start podding peas a little later because you need more for a good harvest. They can be sown in guttering and I usually do this in the polytunnel around early March.

Lettuces can also be sown now. I sow in seed trays and prick out to modules. Early sowings will do better planted out in the polytunnel, but if conditions are mild cloches or micro-fleece may be sufficient protection. Lettuces don't require deep soil and early crops can be easily and cheaply raised in grow bags or even shallow cardboard boxes lined with old compost bags. Don't overwater early lettuces and always water on warm days trying to avoid the foliage.

Consider sowing other salad crops now, mizuna, mustard, rocket etc. These are best direct sown into polytunnels or greenhouse grow bags. Early sowings may go to seed quickly but frequent sowings can be made, and they are worth the work giving tasty fresh salad pickings from early spring.

I have been growing a wide variety of onions, spring onions, leeks and shallots for years and have always had good results from early sowings. Started now in 9cm pots with gentle heat they will need pricking out into modules when they start to produce their second leaf. They may be fiddly but I rarely have any bolting and they grow to a better size than those I have grown from sets. Obviously modules take up a lot of space but they are cold hardy and can be moved into the polytunnel and covered with fleece on cold nights.

I also sow some early broccoli/calabrese now. Usually a small headed variety which can be planted out in the polytunnel. Homegrown broccoli yields a main head but will go on to produce useful side shoots.

If you are interested in early potatoes and have a polytunnel consider raising some tubers in small pots in a heated greenhouse first. Then plant out in the polytunnel (I use crystalyx sheep lick boxes) as they grow. Usually by early spring fleece will protect them in the polytunnel on cold nights and you will get a good crop by May. Last year my polytunnel earlies gave me a better return than my outdoor varieties.

As January advances it is time to start the tender tomatoes, peppers and chillies. I use propagators to give a more even temperature for them and by the time they require more light and pricking out the weather should be more benign. Longer day length and better light levels make a huge difference to the temperature in greenhouses. Then we need to keep a check on rising temperatures. Ventilate carefully (avoid putting plants and particularly seedlings in draughts) but try to avoid too high a temperature too early. Dramatic temperature changes can cause plants to bolt or check, managing temperatures in polytunnels and greenhouses is an art requiring vigilance.

If you have the time, facilities and itchy fingers, then get growing, it is well worth the effort and what can be more pleasurable on a frosty morning than the sight of seedlings bursting into life?

Monday, 14 January 2013

Different manures and their effects on earthworms.

Yesterday was a mild day, perfect for clearing the ground and preparing for planting. Whilst forking over the various plots I couldn't help but notice the differences in the soil structure and earthworm densities and sizes.

My vegetable plot is divided into four equal areas which correspond to a simple rotation system. The beds all lie next to each other with just a narrow earth path between.
The rotation system is potatoes, followed by legumes, then brassicas and lastly alliums which also includes carrots. This works for me because I grow enough of all the four main groups and the manuring is simple and suits the various crops. Over the years the ground has now had each of the crops at least once and is on its second cycle. In the past the ground has been ploughed for oats but has been pasture for many years before I started working it. I am lucky that it is a good loam soil but am still surprised by the number of stones and even large rocks I keep digging up.

Potatoes start the cycle because they were used to first break up the ground. They are given a general fertiliser, usually chicken pellets, on planting and then a top dressing of homemade compost when they start to grow and need earthing up.

The legumes follow potatoes because they fix their own nitrogen and enjoy the remains of the compost left by the potatoes. I put seaweed on their bed during the winter to cover the soil. It also seems to deter slugs come the spring.

After the legumes are lifted the bed is forked over and fresh manure from the chicken and goose shed is laid thinly over the surface. This is covered by black plastic. Over the winter this starts to break down and is incorporated slowly into the soil by the worms. In the spring I add some lime when planting pot raised brassicas and have had fabulous crops as they enjoy the nitrogen from the manure. I do not raise any salads on this bed during the year because of the fresh nature of the manure, although by summer it will be 6 months old.

Finally alliums and carrots follow the brassicas and no new compost is added. They mop up any remaining nutrients in the soil and leave it ready for the potatoes again. Seaweed makes a good cover for the bare winter soil prior to the potatoes going in during the late spring.

Digging the potato patch this winter after a poor harvest, thanks to last years cold summer, I noticed how grey and barren the soil looked. Then I remembered that the bed had had no compost added to it during the year because there had been hardly any potatoes to earth up, (had I tried I probably would have buried them!)

Going onto the legume bed, still sporting some dried seaweed and barely any weeds, I was astonished at the difference. This bed had had a previous dressing of compost (when under potatoes) and a winter dressing of seaweed, through which the peas and beans had grown. The soil was darker, held together better and the quantity and size of the earthworms was tremendous. Each forkful brought up large dark mature worms and small bright pink young worms. The distance between the beds was barely 60cm.

The brassica bed also yielded good quantities of worms still working in some of the straw from the winter dressing of poultry manure. Again there was a better holding quality to the soil and it was darker than unworked soil. Already parts of this bed held bulbs of garlic and I have good hopes of as good a harvest as last years.

The situation in the potato patch needed remedying and luckily I have plenty of homemade compost. A thin top dressing should ensure the worms migrate back and I covered the bed with black plastic to keep it warm whilst they work it in. A trip to the beach should yield plenty of seaweed for a good covering and then the legumes and worms should be happy. Not long now until planting starts again.