How to prick out seedlings (and other February gardening)

It feels strange to be writing about heat loving plants like aubergines as Britain is gripped by unseasonally cold weather. Kitchen gardening is about always thinking ahead, anticipating and planning for what is to come, so I have been happy thinking about warm summer days as I wrap myself up in layers of thermals and woollens!

Sow now! for winter and spring harvests

This is the second part of my series of blog posts, explaining how to grow vegetables and herbs which can be sown now to see you through the winter and spring – no hungry gap in 2018! 
I have added the category No Hungry Gap, so you can find them easily using the search facility.

Growing for winter harvests: what to sow and when!

Now is the time to start planning and sowing for late autumn, winter and spring harvests, no hungry gap in 2018! Over the next few weeks I will be sharing my sowing, planting, soil preparation and other seasonal plans for growing under cover and outside.

Clearing and planting

I’ve mostly been concentrating on my at home garden, so it was a real pleasure to be able to spend some time at my allotment, getting ready for everything that will be planted there over the next week or so.

I’d let the brassicas go to flower for the wildlife, but now needed most of the space for new plantings.

At the back, you can see the untidy part of my plot – cloche hoops and sticks waiting in a heap on top of the plastic mulch* to be put to use.

(*the plastic mulch is there to kill off invasive horseradish, which was trying to take over. It will be there all year.)

Bees and other beneficial insects are loving the brassica flowers. Small birds are feeding on the many insects flying about there. Some of the stems are covered in aphids, useful food for all kinds of beneficial predators – fine on these as they are going to be composted soon but I wouldn’t be quite as happy if they were on my food crops.

Most of the plants needed removing; I left just some flowering kale (seen above in the photo with the blue sky).

Even though it has been so dry for weeks, these mulched beds have retained moisture so I was able to simply pull out the large plants. Using my very sharp copper spade*, I chopped them into 6 inch pieces, then added them to the compost heap. Allowing the plants to flower has another advantage – it helps to create more material for compost making. To the heap I also added ripped up cardboard and chopped comfrey leaves; there’s a lot of comfrey in the hedgerows at this site.

(* the spade has an alloy so it is really bronze)


After clearing, I walked over the bed to level it off and break down any lumps of composted manure that remained, then using my dibber made holes for the module sown peas. The moisture conserving properties of the mulch made the job easy, even though we have had the driest April here for 30 odd years. It was more difficult where the brassicas had been, as one would expect.

I had meant to add a picture of the module peas but forgot to put it in my media files before going away – I am in Sussex, at Sarah Raven’s where Charles is giving a day course. This is a photo of my view as I type!

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Back on the allotment, here are the peas after planting. I also planted module sown beetroot and spring onions down the sides of the beds – you can just about see the small leaves.

The self sown borage is huge now and full of bees.

The allotment after clearing – the garlic in the foreground is looking a little yellow due to lack of rain. I am hoping there’ll be some on Monday; if not, I will water them.  It’s looking quite bare but will be full within 2-3 weeks! Most of the plants are ready to go out next week, I was holding them back a bit because of the cooler temperatures last week.

At home, I’ve been clearing much of the polytunnel too. It was looking quite jungly, rather lovely really with all of those flowers, but I need the space for the tomatoes.

After clearing I watered using a hose with the sprinkler attached, for a long time, avoiding the back of the tunnel where I have a store of compost and the apricot.  I avoid drenching that, preferring to water the soil.

You can see how some of the garlic has suffered from dryness and growing amongst large brassica plants, something to remember for next year. I’m hoping it will perk up after a few days.

I’ve left some kale, chard, dill and turnip greens for a final pick. I harvest the green seeds of the coriander before clearing, delicious sprinkled on hummus.

Harvests included calabrese, carrots, spring onions and cabbages.

Then the tomatoes went in, with the string placed at the bottom of the hole. This helps to secure the string, which is fastened to the crop bars. I’m using baler twine as I have a huge quantity of it. Each piece is reused for years, not biodegradable unfortunately but as I have some, it seems sensible to use it up.

These tomatoes are mostly much smaller than I would usually plant, late sowing (due to the Italian trip) and so planted from module to tunnel without being potted on. An interesting experiment!

I also harvested the scrapes from the elephant garlic. These have gone into the fridge, I’ll cook them on Monday.

Next week, the aubergines will be planted and soon, cucumbers and melons – also, the edible flower companions and basil soon, too. An exciting transformation from spring to summer.

May – I need more hours in the day!

The temperature has fallen (again!) and the wind can be so cold, but things are hotting up in my no dig greenhouse and polytunnel. Germination is so rapid it feels as though seeds are popping almost as soon as I plant them, thanks to the heat mats and heated propagating bench.

melons and cucumbers

Less temperature vulnerable larger plants, including the tomatoes, peppers, sweetcorn and aubergines,  have been moved to unheated areas in the greenhouse and polytunnel – they are still being protected from the cool wind and cold, and I am ready to cover them with fleece if there is a risk of frost – tonight has been flagged up as a potential problem, so I’m going to check all of my outdoor potatoes and protect with earthing up, cardboard and fleece.

On the heat now are young  courgettes, cucumbers, melons, basil, squash, blue butterfly pea and beans, in various stages of growth – some ready to pot on, others just emerging from the compost.   The wind last week was so cold I appreciated being able to sow, prick out and pot on in the shelter of my polytunnel.

This year I’ve sown 13 different varieties of basil, including Thai, Indian, Cinnamon, Lemon, Lime and Holy, as well as three different kinds of sweet basil. I use basil widely in cooking, from salads to Thai dishes (for which I also grow lemon grass, special Thai aubergines and Thai chillies). The vibrant spicy flavours available are far more exciting than anything you can buy in a regular grocers, making basil a really worthwhile herb to grow.

There’s still plenty of time to sow basil!

Basil needs warmth and daylight to germinate and thrive. A windowsill propagator is ideal for smaller spaces. Sow the basil in rows in a seed tray to maximise space – you can easily fit 7 or 8 full rows of basil, more if you sow half rows. Remember to label them all! Once they have germinated, prick out into modules for single sturdy plants, to grow on somewhere light and frost free. Alternatively, sow a pinch into modules, or more into pots, for clumps of fragrant leaves for the kitchen windowsill. Most of my basil goes into the polytunnel as individual plants.

 

After pricking out, I leave the rest of the basil in the seedtray to grow on as microleaves. This provides two or three harvests of extra-early basil for salads, pesto and sauces.

There are seed trays, modules and plants everywhere! On tables in the garden, temporary staging made from upturned crates, anywhere I can find until they are ready to plant out. Growing in modules makes it very easy to put plants in crates and then into the car, to go to work or up to my allotment – they can be stacked in the boot too, an important space and time saving consideration as my car is very small. I bought more herbs and four step over apple trees from Pennard Plants last week and somehow managed to fit them all in my boot!

A spider used one of the crates to make her nest – here are her beautiful babies. I always try to keep spiders safe, they are such great predators in the garden.

 

I am very much enjoying this wildish area next to the perennial bed (there are potatoes on the other side of the dalek composters). The florence fennel has overwintered somehow and is producing small fennel bulbs from the base where I cut the bulb last autumn – I expect it will bolt quite soon. As well as the annual flowers, here are two euphorbia varieties, a red rose and a wild white rose. This polyculture adds to the biodiversity of my garden, providing a wide range of forage for insects and birds throughout the year. It is a bit of a pain to keep weed free though – both roses are very thorny!

This is one of the two Florence fennel that I sowed in September and overwintered in the polytunnel (on display at Hauser and Wirth with some of my stored squash and garlic; the potatoes were harvested by Charles in July and stored in a sack in his shed all winter). Most of the young fennel plants were killed by the cold temperatures.

Every day there are more flowers! These are all in my back garden, except for the bean flowers which are at work.

It looks as though the greengage blossom was undamaged by frost as the small tree is full of potential baby fruit. At work, I am enjoying the amazing vibrant pink of this chard.

On Bank Holiday Monday, Charles and I had a stall selling our new book, and many of Charles’ other titles. It was a fun day, so many people came, great music, fantastic food and the Morris Men.

And on Sunday 8th, Charles and I celebrated the book with Maddy and Tim Harland and the rest of the team at Permaculture Magazine, at the South Downs Fair, Sustainability Centre, Hampshire.

It is doing so well, we’re having great feedback and it is still a best seller on Amazon! (If you’d like a copy, please buy from us or the publishers, if you can).

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Amazon ranking 09/05/17

 

Polytunnel polyculture & spring flowers

A quick photo blog – I just wanted to share some spring pictures from my back garden!

Most of the plants in the no dig polytunnel were planted last October into beds which were mulched in May, just as the tomatoes and other summer plants were going in here: no other fertilisers were added, one annual spring mulch feeds the crops year round. The polytunnel has 1/3 mesh and 2/3 polythene doors, which ensures good ventilation and gaps above the doors are large enough for small birds and insects to enter. During the winter I recorded temperatures lower than -4°C in here so everything freezes, however the cover keeps the weather – wind, hail, driving rain – off the plants which makes a huge difference for extending the growing season and feeding my family.

Bruton where I live is in south west England, zone 8/9.

A week ago I planted Swift potatoes into one of the beds and sowed some catch-crop radish in gaps where we have harvested vegetables. I mostly grow annual plants here but there are some perennials; recently I planted an apricot tree, on pixie root stock so that it won’t get very big. Other trees – a peach, nectarine and a mystery fruit – are on unknown rootstocks, so they are growing in large tree pots. A 3 year old grapevine is established at the back of the polytunnel. The lemongrass planted in the ground may have survived the winter, it looks hopeful and other overwintered perennials are snug in their pots in side beds.

This is the flowering mystery tree. Unlike my other potted fruit trees, last year this one didn’t produce any fruit so I do not know what it is. An apricot, peach, almond?

mystery tree

The polytunnel is 12ft x 40ft. During the summer the beds are completely full but at this time of year I make the most of the dry covered space and set up a potting bench. There’s also my saw horse, a stack of card for mulching, bags of compost and lots of young plants waiting to go outside.

The lettuce on the left has just been picked. The larger lettuce is the chosen Grenoble Red plant for saving seed. I chose this one because, unlike the other lettuces, this one self seeded from the lettuce I was growing for seed last year – it chose where to grow (ok, that is a bit of a romantic notion, but I like it…) Grenoble Red is the best lettuce for overwintering here, very prolific and tasty.

Signs of spring – some of the first flowers in my garden, all outside except the apricot.

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How to eat more than 10 a day, in March

Growing your own really helps to make meals more delicious and exciting, offering an ever changing repertoire of amazing fresh veggies, fruit, herbs and other edibles to eat. For our no dig gardening courses at Homeacres I make lunches using, as much as we possibly can, only food that has been grown by Charles or myself. There is such variety! Even when there are several courses in a month, the choice of available plants to harvest is never the same from one course to the next.

We love sharing fresh homegrown food and hopefully inspiring people to grow as much as possible and experiment with their harvests.

Shredded Chioggia beetroot, a beautiful pink and white striped variety

To make the most use of what we grow, all of my dishes are entirely plant based, showcasing the incredible range of colours, flavours, textures and possibilities of the food we grow. People are always commenting on the colourfulness of the food and even the most enthusiastic omnivore leaves the table feeling full and happy.

In addition to freshly harvested vegetables, herbs, etc I use home stored ingredients including squashes, onions, garlic, chillies, beetroot, dehydrated tomatoes, some home dried herbs and spices and dried beans, especially Czar (a white runner bean) and Borlotti. From the larder, I use olive and sunflower oil, vinegars, spices we can’t grow (ginger, cinnamon), oranges and lemons. We have some homemade cider vinegar and our own homemade infused oils and vinegars too.

Every meal in the winter and spring includes a seasonal soup, Charles’ homemade sourdough rye bread (made with freshly ground organic rye grain, bought locally) and Homeacres salad leaves.

Charles’ No Knead Sourdough Bread

This month, the range of plants we can harvest include parsnips, leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, different kinds of kale, herbs (including parsley, mint, chervil, coriander, French tarragon, chives, sage, thyme), spinach and sprouts. Charles’ garden is much bigger than mine, but I also grow all of this – and more – in my own polytunnel, home garden and allotment. It is possible to grow a wide range of plants through the winter to eat in gardens and allotment – with good planning and crop protection! We can also forage for new nettle tops and the wild garlic is just about ready to harvest.

Although I usually have a few ideas for what I will make, the menu isn’t created until I see what we have in the kitchen.

I make raw and cooked dishes, often experimenting with different ways of using the same vegetable.

 

And also bake cakes or muffins to go with afternoon tea. The experimental vegan beetroot and spinach muffins were extremely yummy – richly flavoured, just the right gooeyness – but I made them in a rush without weighing all of the ingredients, so can’t share the recipe until I have made them again 🙂

The roasted squash hummus is always really popular; I’ll be blogging the recipe here very soon, so look out for it! Many of these recipes will be in our new book, out very soon!