Variable quality of radish seed

April update of seasonal no dig tips and for new gardeners, seed quality and saving

For those starting now, I wish you well. It’s never too late to make a bed or two, and new plantings continue until autumn, so take heart. My latest video has many tips for transplanting, after a quick rake and level. No dig saves a lot of time, once you are set up – see advice here on how to start, please read carefully.

Good to sow now are leeks, chard and almost any cold-hardy vegetable outside.

Best not to sow brassicas outside, because of damage from flea beetles.

With warmth you can sow basil, courgette, squash, sweetcorn and cucumber.

No dig

The world wants to know more, finally. I am happy to have enough experience to know what works, and advise accordingly. Also about how much food you can expect to grow at home – it won’t feed you through winter from a small garden, as James Wong commented. 

However he claims that parsnips are difficult, and I wonder if he has tried them no dig. I receive so much feedback about successful no dig parsnips, see photo from Kevin Lane’s allotment below, clay soil. No dig increases success rates generally.

It’s lovely to reach so many of you on You Tube, and thanks for the feedback. See below for my answers to common questions – theses may become a video soon. Keep the comments coming.

Seed sowing

The photos below are to show a simple method, with seeds flat and with just a little compost on top. For American readers, what we call compost is your potting soil. Our soil is your dirt!

Failure can come from sowing too deep. Seeds like celery and celeriac need light to germinate, and lettuce barely wants covering. Then keep compost moist but not saturated: for windowsills, a mist sprayer can help at germination stage.

In a different class

Warmth loving vegetables include tomatoes, basil, courgette, squash, sweetcorn, and especially cucumber plus melon. You can sow these now but not outside, use a windowsill or greenhouse.

Also in this category are French and runner beans. They need constant warmth to grow healthily and I don’t sow them until 10th May, even in the greenhouse.

Seed saving

I have found an interesting variation from spinach seed we saved last July. It’s of Medania, which is not a tightly bred variety, more a “type”, as you can see in photo 1.

Everything we saved grows the dark green, slower growing variant. Which looks great, but harvests are smaller. Also it’s less sweet!

See below for my measurement of Brix in spinach leaves. They were from the bought seed, and leaves going a little yellow, at which point the sweetness is strongest. When we are picking them, often before breakfast, it’s feast time!

The result of 6 was probably lower than true reading, because I had had to add a little water. 6 would be the level of a decent medium tomato, while cherry tomatoes are 8 to 10.

Lettuce for seed

Lettuce is much easier than spinach. Quicker to pick as well, and we are taking huge picks from home saved Grenoble Red, sown last September.

I am leaving two lettuce unpicked in the polytunnel, so they make a heart and then a flower stem and seed. One plant would suffice. You can save lettuce seed outside if summers are not too wet.

Seed breeding

Part of saving seed is selecting good plants to save from. It’s why I like Bingenheim Saatgut from Germany – their farmers clearly do great work. They are organic farmers too, even biodynamic.

The aspect of variety maintenance is strongly illustrated by the superiority of Bingenheim radish. Compared, oddly enough, with an “organic F1” from Johnsons Seeds, so so disappointing – high proportion of leaf to root (many rejects), very variable shape with tough pointy ends, hairy roots difficult to clean. Many seeds let down our best efforts at growing.

Bingenheim Rudi is excellent too, I am eating some while writing this – it stays crisp without going soft as it matures. Slugs appreciate them too, but not too much.

Multi or single sowing

Multi sowing has really caught on, see details here. It’s great for a lot of vegetables, but not all.

I get asked about multi-sowing say shallot bulbs – not much point as they make many bulbs, from one. And say swedes – not really as a large swede is easier to cook with. While broad beans grow many stems from one seed. And other plants are easier to manage for repeat harvests from one plant – parsley, wild rocket, lettuce.

Using covers

Fleece is very light, called row cover in the US.

I am always amazed how it can protect frail seedlings, yet also be pushed up by their growth. The photos say it so eloquently.

In high winds such as this morning, these covers stay in place when on the ground, rather than supported by hoops. The only time a hoop helps is to keep the cover above leaves in a frost.

Potato seed and storing

Charlotte always impresses me at this time, still great to eat a full eight months since harvest. See how they look when I emptied a sack to rub off the chits.

I selected some medium size ones with nice chits, and we planted them in the beds made last December, see video. Under their compost is decomposing wool and jute, with some couch grass growing though it. We keep pulling the new shoots.

Selling vegetables

My experience of selling has a lot of rueful reflection on the low price per effort expended. This hit hard last week with beautiful broccoli selling wholesale for £3.20/kg, actually an ok price compared to elsewhere. However this meant that the lovely head you see below fetched me £2.30 from a lot of growing time and space. Seeds sown June, transplanted July, and a lot of pest protection along the way.

Grow and eat your own gives full value, and freshness.

Large head of purple broccoli
This broccoli head weighed 680g = £2.30 wholesale price

Small garden

Growth is great so Steph and I made a video using the phone, but forgot about filming in landscape. And are getting a microphone. My aim was to show how it looks now, from sowings in February mostly, transplanted March, and some overwintered vegetables.

We made a video about the trial beds too but there was a lot of wind roar, so that one is not going on You Tube!

Fruit trees

Apples and pears are about to blossom, and blossoming respectively, all pruned.

For plums, gages and other stone fruit, best wait a month before pruning, This allow for the sap to flow and heal pruning cuts before silver leaf fungus can enter.

Climate zones

By frost dates and winter mildness we are zone 8 but are more like 5-6 in summer!

Temperate oceanic is best description.

Paths and couch grass

Rosemary asks, I have an allotment with the beds lower than the grass paths. If I lay out cardboard and the compost etc do I have to leave a cardboard path all the way around the edge to stop encroaching couch grass? This will make the plot so small?

Charles says, Sounds like a small plot already, thanks to wide grass paths.

Beds sunken from non-application of organic matter over decades I imagine.

Yes you need to card the paths, thoroughly even two layers, year one is not too pretty.

Be thorough and run card well over the edges + keep pulling any new blades of couch.

Add enough compost/old manure etc for beds to be a little higher than paths.

Aim for narrower paths once couch dies by autumn.

My sowing timeline, for Finland

After a question from Edward:

Thanks for writing and I would sow 4-6 weeks later until end March, then 1-2 weeks later until mid April, then same times until July, when sow earlier by 1-2 weeks, and 3-4 weeks earlier from mid August approx.

Hay and straw – I love this story:

Alden asks, I live in Nova Scotia, Canada in a Zone 6A area. I want to garden with hay. When I called around to find some though I got confusing information. I explained what I wanted the hay for, one farmer said “Hay is full of seeds and isn’t good to grow with. You should use straw.” I thought ok great now I know better. I talked to someone else I consider  knowledgeable and he said “On no don’t use straw either, it is too high in nitrogen.”

Charles replies, I understand your confusion, don’t believe all you hear!

Straw is not full of nitrogen, rather the opposite – in compost heaps it counts as brown rather than green. Hay contains more nitrogen, and it does not harm plant roots. Hay does usually contain many weed seeds, which may or may not be a problem.

What could be more important for your high latitude, with weak sunshine except high summer, is that both of them are light in colour and keep soil cooler. Also moist, so slugs may increase.

Which is why I suggest compost for temperate climates.

Planting boxes – depth

Stephen asks, I am planning to grow some veggies such as sweet potato/ spring onions/carrots/salad leafs, for the first time. I will have to grow them in a box/planter which are approx 6ft long and 2 feet deep. My question is, is 2ft deep enough?

Charles answers, Yes 2ft is good and I suggest mostly compost as filler, not too much soil. It could even be all compost – pack it in as well by walking on it. Lumpier compost such as manure towards the bottom, finer materials on top.

If any soil, just as bottom layer..

Watch out for sweet potatoes taking over, they use a lot of space but could trail over the sides.

No dig, weeds growing after cardboard in the first months

Paul asks,  Inspiring ideas.  But only for the first year of cardboard and no dig.  Weeds will certainly be back next season – so what then?   Perhaps you have already dealt with this in another video that I have just missed.  But how about one called sustainable no dig? Weeds also come on the wind and in bird droppings.

Charles says, Year one is about mulching the persistent perennials, and thick masses of annual weeds.

By winter and in subsequent years  you still need to weed, but it’s quick and easy because the few that grow are easy to pull from the soft surface compost. Or are easy and quick to hoe off when very small, such as weed seedlings from compost.

I don’t specifically cover this in videos because subsequent weeds are so fast and easy to deal with, that it’s not a full subject.

Soil test for nutrients

Detief wrote, I am converting elevated garden containers into no dig, from 500 to 1000L capacity. Do you do soil testing or monitoring for mineral deficiency/overloads in plants or soil? How do you guard against this?

Charles says, I do not soil test, so cannot advise on that. My plants tell me things are good,

Using say 50% compost as top layer of filling should ensure a balance of nutrients because it’s about biology too, nutrients being available to roots, not the same as test tube measurement.

Lack of compost

To Neil, I reckon pond sludge is a brilliant alternative, except for needing more weeding!

You could try card then some sludge on top.

Felt/membrane under new garden

Melanie wrote, I have a ménage covered in wood chip on top of felt. Do I need to dig up the felt underneath the wood chips, or could I just start a vegetable garden straight on top of the wood chips with felt still underneath?

Charles says, The felt needs to come up, so that soil life is free to move, and then also your plants can root more deeply, for food and moisture.

Whether the chips stay under the compost depends on their age and composition – only if quite like compost, dark and soft, say two years old.

If not make a big pile to decompose, and use some for paths between beds of compost.

No need for cardboard at least.

And the compost can be old horse manure etc

44 thoughts on “April update of seasonal no dig tips and for new gardeners, seed quality and saving

  1. Oregano is a very stress-free herb to grow as a perennial and it harvests right now in the Hungry Gap here in London. Tomato-based sauces enjoy some fresh chopped oregano leaves sweated with the onion base. I put in a little patch outside our front door about 6 years ago and it is as strong as ever.

    Shallots in clumps: I have grown Zeebrune banana shallots in clumps of three very successfully, but they are not a traditional shallot as you only get one allium bulb per plant. They do well sowing in tubs early March and planting the clumps out mid to late April. They probably do fine in module trays too….

    1. Do you have any suggestions for which U.S. company will sell the sturdy seed cells with a LG. Hole in the bottom ,like you use ? I can’t seem to find sturdy ones like that in our country .

      1. You could take some sturdy plastic or thin wood and a tray for storing vegs in the market, line the tray with thin mesh and push the planting compost down firm. Then with you plastic or wood stripe make squares of the size you want. Like that you can get the depth you want in the cells

  2. I have just inherited an allotment which at first sight looked to be in good condition- however further insection showed the previous tennant had lined all their ( now rotten wood framed ) raised beds with heavy duty weed membrane. It ws an absolute so -and -so to remove- couch grass roots entangled in it and the soil underneath compacted to almost concrete like state. I have cleaned the soil as much as possible and covered with layers of compost and manure and intending to grow on it this year. I presume the solid layer of soil about one foot underneath will soften and allow roots to penetrate ? I don’t want to grow potatoes on it to break up the soil as they have been grown there for several years previously.

    1. Hi Margaret
      Yes that membrane stuff is just ghastly.
      However the soil will loosen, no worries.
      It’s a myth about potatoes loosening soil, that is by man working the soil to grow potatoes. Loose soil is not good anyway!
      Good luck 😀

  3. Hi there from southwestern Germany,
    I am just starting out to convert an abandoned 2000 square meter garden to no dig. Lots of bramble, tall birch and pine trees on either sides of the garden and lots of weeds in the middle bit (it used to be a lawn). I’ve already found out that brambles are one of the few weeds that need digging out before mulching, my plan is also to cut some of the birch trees down as I think they would compete for water with my veggies. Question is what do I do about the birch tree roots? (Some seem to be quite close to the surface). Second question, how do I transform the lumpy weed-filled used to be lawn back into a nice level lawn? Can it be done without digging? And my last question: I plan to cultivate blueberries, strawberries and so on as my kids really love them, how do I go about planning them according to the no dig philosophy? I know (from “conventional” gardening) that strawberries need a dry mulch like straw to prevent the fruit from becoming moldy, I also wonder about soil acidity with the blueberries. Is normal green waste compost really going to be sufficient? So many questions, I hope I haven’t bothered you too much.

    Best regards,
    Alysha

    1. Alysha I would leave the birch roots to decompose in the soil, not worth removing them.
      For the lawn, you need to dig a little to level the soil.
      A mulch of compost keeps strawberries clean enough, with fewer slugs than under straw.
      Yes blueberries need acidity, best buy special ericaceous compost, quite expensive.

  4. Hi Charles.
    When composting pure horse manure, do you think it is better to add straw or cardboard to it or is ok without.?

  5. Thank you so much, Charles, for all the work you do to so creatively and helpfully show us how to grow our own organic food for our families and others. I am putting into practice your methods of gardening and shoveled lovely compost this morning (four wheelbarrows-full, in the rain) and have much more for the rest of the gardens (I’m extending some of our garden areas with more cardboard and compost). We have pet rabbits and their bedding and fruit and vegetable scraps and wood chips and newspaper and torn cardboard are my main ingredients for the compost. I’ve started seedlings in the kitchen, under the cabinets, in clear bins with clear lids. Our cabinets are lit, underneath, and I have been using this method to start my tender seedlings for the last two years. Other seedlings by the window and all over one kitchen table, by the window. On sunny days, these clear bins can go outside so that the growing seedlings can enjoy some real sun (with careful watching that they don’t get too much), with the lids removed and compost adequately moistened. I have purchased two long fleeces and they are covering the beginnings of some flowers and onions outside, for now. I’ve got some of your books, now, and everything you have taught, I am implementing, even on our spot on Prince Edward Island. God bless you. Thanks to you and to Edward and to Steph.

    1. Ah thanks Susan, lovely to read, and to imagine your fine garden. Lucky plants too, well cared for.
      Warm wishes from Charles

    2. Hi Susan, I’ve just started using our rabbit bedding for compost. We use wood pellets + straw. What kind of ratios of this with food scraps etc do you find gives a good balance of carbon/nitrogen? Also would like to echo your remarks, Charles you’ve been an absolute inspiration.

  6. Hi Charles
    Not a question. I just want to confirm that Grenoble Red is a fantastic lettuce (you taught me that) and for two years I’ve been using my own saved seed (you also taught me that). What I love is its very quick germination and I assume this is because it’s so fresh.
    Stay safe.
    Jane

  7. Charles, I have a mound of dry perennial roots from brambles and alexanders. The bramble roots are hefty and the alexander tap roots are large; would it be better to put them in old compost bags for a year and then into the compost bin? Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm to clear a neglected plot I attacked it with a brush cutter without knowing anything about alexander and missed some which are now surfacing among my potatoes. Know your weeds and where they are!!
    Thank goodness we can still go to our allotments.

    Best wishes,

    Michael.

    1. Yes Michael, if you can’t chop those roots then leave in a sack. But I reckon the Alexanders would disappear in a busy heap!
      You have the chance to check compost next winter when spreading, and it stays on the surface, so perennial roots are not dug in.

  8. Hi Charles

    Echoing the comment on Grenoble Red, terrific, and I too save lettuce seed after experiencing germination difficulties with bought seed. Fantastic germination time from some saved seed of Freckles too, another favourite of mine. Just sown some leek seed in modules (a first for me!) so will let you know how that goes. Have put four or five seeds in each module so hope not too many. Will fleece later when I plant out but if seedlings are left outside in modules can leek moth still get to them?

    1. Sounds good Eliza and yes leek moth can lay eggs on module plants outside, if they are flying, usually from mid summer

  9. Great advice, as usual, thank you very much Charles! because of the current uncertainty, I have decided to grow a few things in my yard this year, in case I can no longer go to the allotment.
    The yard is covered in concrete so I have made some planters out of pallets.
    So far, I have planted lettuce, spring onions and rocket. Also some carrots in deep pots.
    Can I grow French beans in planters, how deep do they have to be? What other plants would you recommend for pots ?
    Thank you,
    Sarah

  10. Hi Charles,

    I have access to a lot of horse manure with straw bedding. I was advised to forget about straw due to its high pesticide content. Most animal bedding and manure contains straw. It is hard to find hay bedding pr other things because they are mostly used for feeding animals. Green waste compost was said to have high Cadmium and Lead levels because we live in s big town.

    We got dome mushroom compost last year and nothing grows in it. Almost all the plants with a heavy mushroom compost mulch died. I guess the straw had herbicides.

    Clean compost seems hard to find. What is it possible to do while waiting for the compost heaps to fill up – I have hens and use hay as bedding.

    1. Hi Alex

      Sounds worse for you than here. Mushroom compost is fine, and I am surprised the mushroom growers allow so much poison, because mushrooms are sensitive.
      So I can’t advise on your conditions except to suggest wood chip ramial, green wood (2020 wood) which composts fast and ask around, someone may have a lot (tree surgeon).

  11. Hi Charles,

    What size modules do you start your curbits and sweetcorn in?

    I’m sure I have read it somewhere here but I can’t find it now…

    Thanks

  12. Thanks, that will save a lot of space in my Propagator as I usually use 7cm pots – how soon after Germination do you have to pot Up?

  13. Hello
    I have some mares tail coming into my small veg garden.
    I dig it up but can never get it all of course.
    Will it inhibit the growth of any of the veg please?
    Thanks
    Jan

    1. It’s less competitive than bindweed but still worth reducing by repeat pulling.
      Made easier by no dig and the surface mulches.
      It reduces in time (2-4 years) when you keep pulling, and when soil drainage is improved by not digging!

  14. Charles ,thank you so much for continuing to share your garden helps and beautiful videos with us ! I live in Oregon , where we can have extreme temp. Swings even during the Summer. Our la st frost date is May 31 ,yet we can get a sneak frost any time during the Summer . Daytime temps can be in the 80s during summer ,and drop down to the 40s at night. I still persevere in my garden attempts . What weight of fleece do you like best? Could you please do a video on gardening in a cold frame? My husband built me two ,using old Windows, and a wooden frame .

    1. Nice to hear this except for those cold nights!
      I don’t use a cold frame I’m afraid.
      For fleece, 30gsm = thick enough not to rip easily, should last several years.

      1. I guess what I’m wondering about with cold frames ,is , how to use them in the early Spring once my tiny seedlings have germinated ,inside the house . Do I treat it like you do with your greenhouse ,and just set them out in it ,even during cold nights , so they get the bright sun during the day ? Cool crops of course .

  15. Hello Charles,
    I am considering using biological control on some brassicas like cabbage, mainly spraying bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis). Last year crop was all thrown away because of damage from caterpillars/moths. This is also the first time for me going all-in on your method, so would you advise trying without biological control?

    Thanks a lot for your work Charles, and congrats on reaching out to many more people.
    Rasmus, Sweden

    1. Nice to hear Rasmus, and it’s your choice whether to use BT, only on brassicas and in high summer.
      Some people manage without it, but cabbage hearts are the hardest, need a mesh cover otherwise.

  16. Hi, I want to ask if it is possible to use baled silage (the stuff in plastic wrap) as a mulch? Or even as the base for no dig beds?

    1. Yes Jenny you can use it as mulch, but it might build a slug population if they are a pest in your area.
      It offers plenty of fertility and food to soil life.

  17. Charles

    Just wondering when I plant my module grown leeks in the summer do I just plant them as I would any other module gown plant, that is, put the soil back around them snugly? And, I have some strulch – can I use this to earth them up in August to keep stems whiter or would this not work? Wondered about the mulch rotting stems although I know strulch helps keep slugs at bay. Always a worry with your first attempt at something!

    Thanks, Eliza

    1. Usually I leave holes to fill in but you can do that.
      I do not recommend Strulch, so expensive and slow to decay so little food value, why not buy compost and “earth up” with that.
      Compost does not encourage slugs.

  18. Hi Charles, your calendar and diary have arrived here in County Antrim, Northern Ireland and make for productive seasons ahead, thank you.
    I arrived at my new home at the start of summer last year and have had much to do around the house, decorating and what-not, so the ‘garden’ has been on hold. I did, however, manage to find some time to arrange building blocks to create bays for composting and erect a 2 foot high, 5 foot wide and 10 foot long contraption from corrugated tin that was going to be a raised bed. After watching your you tube videos and discovering no-dig, the contraption was subsequently filled with green waste compost from the local council recycling centre with every trip made. This is now being used on top of cardboard over our stony ground into which I have carrots, radishes, onions, lettuce and beetroot (multi-sown of course).
    Unfortunately we also have bamboo covering a third of our growing space so I have no choice but to dig my no dig garden to remove the bamboo rhizomes (and brambles while I’m at it). I look forward to having the dig complete and start nurturing the soil.
    No questions, I just wanted to thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with the world and inspiring so many.
    As a side note, my in-laws hail from your area and we visit mostly every year so we will have to pop in and say hi sometime.

    1. Hello Graham, how nice to read this.
      Yes that initial dig of bamboo and bramble roots is worthwhile, esp the bamboo, so invasive.
      Hope to see you here when things open up.

    1. Yes Jane for sure, on Home page scroll down until you see the Newsletter box, enter your details there.
      Next one in a week or so.

  19. Hello Charles, like so many people I discovered your Channel thanks to the lockdown!! I live in the south west of France, 20kms inland from Biarritz. I have made 3 small no dig beds 2,4mx1,2, just the way you show it. Can I put lawn waste on the cardboard around the bed, or will it favour slugs, as it Is my worst ennemies!!?We have quite a mild climate but at the moment we can have 23c and more during the day and the next day 10. Can I transplant under fleece at nigt and remove it during the day because it’s too hot? And will it be useful against slugs? Thanks a million for what you do, I already have quite a nice ornemental garden I hope it works the same with my veg garden. Norbert

    1. Hi Norbert, nice climate there.
      We have had 24C days here already and unusually, and plants under fleece are fine. Partly it’s pest protection but also simpler to leave on for another 10 days as we have cooler weather forecast.
      I would not use grass on card at the edges, yes slugs, just weight the card with a few stones for now.

  20. Hi, Just watched your composting YouTube videos again, what I am wondering is how fast you would recommend filling a box? With the lock down continuing plot holders on our site cant get rid of there waste so I have available a lot more then normal of weeds, raw veg (last years carrots and so on that never got harvested) and 2 year old spent compost with some 8 month old tree branch chipping that have been thru a wood chipper plus grass cuttings. My boxes are 1m³ and I have 3 of them there is enough material to fill 2, All the material will be going thru a garden shredder before been added.
    Question regarding cucumbers we do as you do and plant fairly deep most of our plants / modules do you do the same with cucumbers ? They are all outdoor verities (still indoors at the moment) all I seem to reed is don’t plant past the level that the soil is on the stem in the pots.

    thank you

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