Mid February, season change

Its been so mild this winter, so far, and now when the sowing green light appears, so do frosts! However the light levels are improving fast and under glass or polythene this means warmth by day. All the sowings I recommend here can tolerate freezing, even if they don’t profit from it, so while its worthwhile to warm the seeds I recommend sowing now, its not vital. Unless you sow tomatoes, but I recommend early March for that.

Seed sowing undercover

Germinating seeds need more heat than young seedlings, although this becomes more important in March and April. For now, sowings are of seeds that still germinate in cool conditions.

Onions are a bit different because they germinate poorly if its too warm, say over 20C. But gentle warmth still helps them underway and I am excited to sow my first ever home-saved onion seed, 6-8 per module for planting in clumps. I don’t recommend planting onion sets yet because frosty nights can make them go to seed by June.

At Homeacres we are filling a hotbed tomorrow 15th Feb, to provide bottom heat for module and seed trays above it, which sit on a wooden frame.

Possible sowings now undercover: lettuce, spinach, onion, spring onion, early varieties of cabbage-calabrese-cauliflower, broad beans, peas, dill, coriander, parsley, orach, mizuna.

Its good to wait too

In cooler climates than here, sowing the above in early March will lose little time and give stronger plants. Remember the golden maxim Spring sowings catch up, because days until summer solstice are always growing longer, and often warmer. Sowing when conditions are more suitable for seedlings ensures they survive and indeed thrive. And you waste less seed.

In my experience its too early hereabouts for beetroot (late Feb undercover and Boltardy only), celery, celeriac, leeks (all mid March undercover), carrot (from mid March direct). Parsnips are possible but mid March is easier, after a thorough hand weeding, if there are some.

No dig is great because you have beds ready at any time. Just do occasional weeding to keep them clean until needed.

Homeacres 12/02.2016, very few weeds have grown on these beds through the exceptionally mild winter. Undisturbed soil sees less weed seeds germinating, compost mulch helps.
Homeacres 12/02.2016, very few weeds have grown on these beds through the exceptionally mild winter. Undisturbed soil sees less weed seeds germinating, compost mulch helps.

Propagate or sow direct?

in a forum topic, Hawfinch offers this advice: “I cannot sow anything directly as the slugs demolish anything small and new. Therefore, I start carrots and parsnips in guttering, if one takes care to slide them into their final growing spot before they get too big they do absolutely fine.”  You need to get these tap-root seedlings in place while still young, to avoid forking.

There is also a helpful discussion about whether its worth covering beds before sowing, to warm them, and generally its not, another job saved https://charlesdowding.co.uk/forums/topic/fleece-covering-to-warm-up-beds/. I like the experiment with children to check temperature differences, good science!

Transient warmth from fleece is beneficial to growing plants, so its best to lay a fleece cover immediately after sowing and planting, and directly on top of them.

Raising beds

How high? With or without sides?

It depends how high you want them for working, issues of drainage and drying out, and your budget, because sides cost a fair amount when doing say a whole allotment. Also wooden sides, especially when old and decaying, harbour slugs and woodlice.

Last November I was given some topsoil and have used it to raise some beds where they are currently almost  level with paths. First, with a sharp spade I scraped off the top 2-3in of compost, into one barrow, then used my other barrow to fetch and spread a 2in layer of soil, then put the first barrow of compost back on top. So the bed is now higher, and the weed-seedy soil is underneath a layer of weed-seed-free compost.

To raise beds, another option is to scrape the top layer of 3in compost and soil (as long as not weedy) from paths, onto beds, then mulch paths with an inch or so of wood shavings, rough compost or whatever. Paths go down and beds go up.

Any advice along these lines is different for protected cropping, because undercover space is so precious. In my polytunnel and greenhouse, especially in winter, paths reduce to 12in if we are lucky, its a ballet dance to pick the salad! Beds are scarcely raised, plants root into the composted paths, drainage is not an issue (no rain) and weeds do not grow.

Rats, pigeons, rabbits

At this time of year these are hungry pests. Parsnips have been discovered by rats around here, for example Steph lost a lot, for the first time, on her allotment. Rat damage prompted me to harvest and then I was shocked by the amount of canker (shoulder rot). Fortunately you can trim it off but its not pretty; its a result of roots being in wet soil, mild temperatures too. I could avoid it by harvesting in December but roots would be less sweet from experiencing even less frost.

Pigeons have been flocking to all my brassicas except for savoy cabbage. They started while I was away for my week in Tenerife in mid January (how do they know?!!), the damage is bad. I saw about ten fat pigeons on the broccoli plants, the first morning after returning.

Tenerife by the way is very dry and it helped me appreciate our rain!

Soil type, its not everything

When writers describe how to grow particular vegetables, they often slip in something about what type of soil is best for which vegetable. Mostly (not always) I feel this makes growing sound more complicated than it needs to be.

In a recent post from GIY, Shona Dubois says two things I have not found to be the case “Beetroot likes a deep, sandy soil, manured the previous winter. Apply organic fertiliser about a week before sowing.”

I have grown lovely beetroot over 30+ years in different locations, on shallow stony soil, on yellow clay and on white clay. Undug and with a compost mulch means you don’t need “organic fertiliser”, because that is what compost is and does, its a slow release fertiliser as well as food for soil organisms.

Worms on top

If your garden is visited by blackbirds, they make a mess of compost-mulched beds. Most affected are beds mulched with homemade compost and composted animal manures, as they have more brandling worms, compared to mushroom compost and green waste compost which hold few.

Messy as the blackbirds are, their presence is a sign of good soil life. Also I don’t mind some compost ending up on paths (some of it I kick back onto the beds) as it helps to feed the path soil and keep them weed free – I still need to weed paths, but its easier and there are few weeds.

Winter salads and greens

In a polytunnel in this climate (zone 8/9), almost any salads are possible overwinter except for most varieties of lettuce except Grenoble Red: its the only lettuce you see in the photo at top. Also pak choi was devoured by slugs, when nearby spinach and lettuce were fine! A notable success this winter has been broad leaved sorrel, less holed than usual, from an August sowing.

Currently I water about every two weeks, so the surface stays drier, to discourage slugs.

Outdoors the Taunton kale continues to impress, as long as I can keep pigeons off – its height makes that tricky. Salads to thrive outside this winter have been land cress, Claytonia, spinach, lambs lettuce and salad rocket. Wild rocket is starting to grow now, very slowly, and I shall fleece it for first harvests in April.

Mulching to kill weeds – buttercup example

You can choose from the many possible combinations of cardboard and other organic matter, soil too if you have some (its not worth buying in). In the pics we spread 3in soil and 2in year-old cow manure on top of grass, dandelion and creeping buttercup, in October last year. Then I planted raspberry canes.

Now the buttercup are growing through in places. Perhaps if I had put cardboard before the mulch, it would not be growing, though from autumn mulching, which gives time for card to soften before the buttercups regrow in late winter, it might have made less difference.

Whatever, I am now laying cardboard on top as soon as I can find some!

LOGO hot off the press

After some correspondence, Eileen Wood who fashioned this version has fine tuned the design to this, and its looking like the final throw. I hope you like it, we went for some details but not too much, and the carrots as a neat pictorial emblem of success with no dig.

Thanks to everyone for feedback and especially to  Sarah Davenport, Tina Hart, Sol Chadwick, Edward Dowding and especially Steph who have all contributed to and helped to refine its qualities.

Logo for no dig gardening, February 2016
Logo for no dig gardening, February 2016



The collection for £15 comprises one plant each of Carolina Reaper, officially the world’s hottest chilli at 2,200,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU),Trinidad moruga Scorpion Yellow, which has been recorded at 2,000,000+ SHU, Ghost Chilli or Bhut Jolokia (1,041,000 SHU)  and Naga Morich (1,000,000 SHU). All four have at one time been regarded as the world’s hottest chilli. Compare these to the relatively ‘mild’ Scotch Bonnet at 325,000 SHU. The World’s Hottest Chilli Plant Collection is offered at D. T. Brown’s website www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk

10 thoughts on “Mid February, season change

  1. Thanks so much for all the information you provide. As many have already said, I wish I had known last year!
    We took over a garden last autumn with no experience. As I had I had read a lot about raised beds (I mean 80-100cm or so), this was the first thing I tried and I have now planted out my first 12 “Mairübchen” (I wish I knew the English name, something like early brassica??). With more that I’m going to sow in the next few days I would try multi-sowing, after watching your videos.

    I’m wondering what you have to say about these very high beds. Probably much too much work?
    But what about voles? In my bed I have put some special grid at the bottom. Would you do that in a bed on the ground or would they climb in? Do you have voles at all???

    I really want to try making some no-dig beds! I spent lots of time digging out “couch-weed” (hope that is what I mean). I can’t really believe, that the amount we have will really die just by covering it. But I’m gonna try!! The only problem is that we are living in a mountainous region, so most of the space is sloping so I will have to work out how to mulch there… And also where to get the compost, as now everything is closed up.

    Sorry, so many questions, maybe you could just answer one or two. Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Judith and well done.
      !00cm is so high! but perhaps an answer for voles… not many here
      Thick cardboard on couch grass weakens if not kills it, better than trying to dig it out. But keep pulling new shoots until they stop appearing.

  2. Charles

    One thing I’ve found re ‘making raised beds’ is that if you follow your advice to grow no-dig second early potatoes, where you cover the tubers with compost and then obviously hill up with further compost/comfrey leaves/whatever, you find the next spring that the bed is significantly higher than the ones next door which grew beans, leeks, swedes etc. It’s also a beautifully fine tilth, I have to say….I could sow things now if the soil were warm enough, which it isn’t…..

    Things I have successfully germinated in February include:
    1. Tomatoes – as long as they have heat for 3 days ( I place them on top of the external gas boiler and bring them in as soon as they have appeared) – from then on, they live happily on windowsills indoors (although every year varies depending on temperature, sunshine hours etc).
    2. Chilli peppers and bell peppers – same germination regimen as the tomatoes although they grow quite slowly at this time of year.

    Because I don’t have a greenhouse or polytunnel and am therefore growing tomatoes in pots, I’m looking for ways to advance plants as much as possible before they live outside come mid-to end of May. I do also routinely sow tomatoes in March, although this year with the moon cycles being later in the respective months, I’m sowing my beefsteaks in February (today), as opposed to their normal slot of early-to-mid March.

    We usually get enough warm and sunny days in April to start the hardening off process long before they live outside permanently. It does make the lounge french window become the effective edge of a mini-greenhouse in late March to mid May, but that’s life for you I guess.

  3. Charles

    I was down the local garden centre spending some of my prize vouchers from last autumn and they were in the middle of stocking up for spring, emptying large numbers of cardboard boxes full of stock.

    You may find a visit to your local centre provides a good source of cardboard…..

  4. ha! Omg… I have sowed exactly the way you did in the seed tray! The labels on opposite sides of each other! 12 varieites of lettuces!

  5. Heya Charles, just wanna thank you for your updates! The commitment and time and effort taken. Absolute kudos to you. 🙂

    Sowed my leaf plant plants on the 12th too… I didn’t cover my salad/lettuce varieties as recommended by you. I noticed you didn’t cover the herbs too…e.g. dill, coriander,etc… I covered mine (e.g coriander, dill, parsley) as I am always afraid that it will be too dry in the polytunnel. I gather that they like your lettuces are not in direct sunlight? I have a whole module tray designated for parsley as they can take forever to germinate. As a precaution, think I sowed like 7 different varieties… just in case some don’t germinate, just to diverse the germination rates. As we need loads of parsley. I think I do tend to err on the side of too much watering. Gonna hold back this year with some restraint.

    1. Hi Karen, thanks and just to clear a misunderstanding here that I sometimes leave lettuce uncovered, sometimes cover lightly, there is no right or wrong. And I did cover the coriander, dill after taking the photo! So easy to confuse things.
      Gosh you use a lot of parsley. It is my favourite herb and I am disappointed when I see it left on plates as ‘garnish’ not food.
      So we found a good way to sow many varieties!

      1. Thanks Charles for clarifying that…much appreciated.
        Unfortunately, the Germans love to have chopped parsley over their potatoes… hence we need heaps of that. Or else, the potatoes would kinda look “naked”. We use the chopped leaves over the potatoes, while the stems are used in stocks. So none is wasted. Thankfully! I truly believe that generally speaking, the world doesn’t appreciate how long it takes for plants to grow and produce are sold way tooooooo cheaply compared to other items.

  6. Interesting update Charles, thanks. Just wondered what your reasoning for resowing broad leaved sorrel is each year, with it being a perennial? Leaf quality, management?

    The Carolina Reaper makes the Infinity chilli seem rather tame…..saw that chilli in use on TV; a curry house in Grantham that makes a curry called The Widow Maker! It can bring on hallucinations….and the rest.

    1. I have not tried these chillies Tris, yes they do sound a bit grim!
      I recommend sowing sorrel for anyone who wants to grow it from seed, this is a good time, or autumn too. Yes my own is growing well now, and should continue into next year, but since I need a fair amount for salad I always sow a few extra plants of broad leaved.

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