Winter broccoli and parsley

February 2020, not spring yet, no dig compost, Q & A vegetable growing

February, hold your horses. No sowing just yet.

Make the first undercover sowings after mid month and even then no rush.

Meanwhile here is a cheerful thought –

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?  (last line of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’).

In our temperate climate – and I hear for many others – this winter has been mild so far. The lowest temperature has been -4C 25F.

First sowings… wait!!!!!!

PHOTOS ARE not 2020 but FEBRUARY LAST YEAR (as demo)

Four decades ago, the first seeds I ever sowed were in January outside. It was carrots, and I believed the seed packet’s advice on timing.

As you may imagine, I had no harvest from that sowing. I did learn to be wary of advice from people who want us to use up their seeds!

There is no rush to sow in spring because later sowings often catch up as days warm and lengthen. For example I shall sow tomatoes in mid March, for planting under cover in early May.

From Valentines Day and undercover only (windowsills, greenhouse etc) you can sow broad beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbages of early hearting varieties (read the small print!), calabrese, onions and spring onions, radish, coriander, dill, parsley and peas for shoots, also peas for pods of first early types. All of these grow in cool conditions and are not killed by frost.

Then sow Boltardy beetroot towards the end of the month, and any pea varieties for pods.

All of these vegetables can also be sown in March, stay on track with my Calendar + Diary double offer.

Winter salad successes, watering

I am so impressed by our harvests this winter, mostly but not all under cover. Mild weather has been key to this. Plus one other thing:

  • The last watering we did on the polytunnel and greenhouse beds and paths was 19th December, after a pick for Christmas. Not watering means dry leaves, less mildew, fewer slugs. Five weeks so far with no water given.

Lack of sunshine is a factor in this:

  • In our climate at 51 latitude, winter light levels are low and humidity is super high, winds from the ocean. In drier US climates for example where you are drier-continental and at lower latitude, maybe water undercover beds every two weeks in winter. As little as you dare until about mid February.
  • For comparison, Portland in Maine has average 165hrs sunshine in the one month of January, Here we average 181hrs in three months combined, December to February,

Few weeds, no dig success

It has been mild enough this winter for some weeds to germinate. The beauty of no dig is how little this happens and how easy it is to pull them from surface compost. Use any fine weather to keep your ground clean, and ready for spring.

No dig is gaining ground commercially, always with questions about how much compost to use. Most of us use a lot to start, say 100T per acre especially on poor soil, then much less in every subsequent year.

This winter I have spread 10T on a quarter acre, which any vegetable grower (not cereal farmer!) should use. Especially if digging, rotovating and ploughing.

  • Soil cultivation releases carbon

  • No dig/no till uses less compost for the same yields.

Sowing question, no dig

This one keeps cropping up, “can you sow seeds in a compost mulch?”

Amazingly the answers to this on Google are mostly that you can’t, “because it burns the roots of seedlings”.

This is such nonsense, as any gardener with experience knows, but it shows the low level of common information which confuses so many people. Don’t believe everything you read or are told, even by so called experts. Trust your common sense.

Seeds love germinating and growing in compost.

New online course

My Course 2 ‘Growing Success’ is explained here. It’s a big resource with 30 unique videos, which are not available elsewhere.

It has been a winter of intense work to complete it, more work even than writing a book. The video making required a whole growing year, since April. Many of the videos have story elements, starting in one season, returning in another to check results. See my explanatory video.

There is no official accreditation for this course, not yet anyway. Nor are there downloadable spreadsheets. It’s pure information.

New public videos

Both of these concentrate on winter, winter garden and small garden. I have always grown winter vegetables and been in the garden frequently through winter, then was surprised to discover the phrase “putting the garden/allotment to bed for the winter”!

It’s my least favourite phrase. You would then be starting with a mountain of catch-up jobs in spring.

Keep weeding, clearing finished harvests, and mulching if not already done. For example we spread compost under and between this kale.

Sharing Q&A

Some questions I have recently answered

I can’t answer all questions, but these were worth it for sharing the answers which may help you.

Q 1 from Chad, Stoke

1, My plot has major infestation of horse tail, what would you recommend to manage this? 

2, I have been thinking about using raised bed measurements 4 meters long by 4 ft wide and around 2ft high. Would you recommend raised beds or just one big bed? 

3, My plot is on a slant how would you manage this and its beds? 

4 ,Would you cover the whole area with (in my case) old manure and then walk on planks or would you make several smaller bed e.g 4ft wide for easy access.

A from Charles

1 Mulch horsetail as for other weeds, and keep pulling! no easy answer but no dig helps

2 Best avoid wooden sides and high beds, just mulch whole area with ‘mounds’ for your beds

3 Slope is fine, easiest is to run beds up and down (no erosion with no dig!) but access is important too.

4 When spreading old manure, it’s sticky to walk on at first.

After a week or two especially after dry winds, the surface is not sticky any more,

Only if it’s sopping wet now, would I consider using planks. Compost does not compact, unlike soil.

So yes, the whole area!

Beds say 4ft and paths no more than 16in in the end. Plant roots use all the goodness in paths.

Q 2  from Ben, Belgium

I wanted to know what‘s the problem with wood shavings in the compost, because I use it for my chicken shed.

I tried to find out what‘s the problem with that, but couldn‘t find an answer.

A from Charles

No ‘problem’ as they are good.

However they take a long time to decompose, say 3 years for kiln dried and 1.5 for natural wood.

Too many in a heap can take a lot of nitrogen while decomposing.

The resulting compost then releases it later, so it’s a temporary loss of nitrogen, and is less problematic for no dig when woody mulches are on the surface, therefore not too involved or competing with roots for nitrogen.

A Rust on garlic.

Advice from Robert in Kent, based on 50 years growing.

“Keep them dry somehow, as rust is worst during and after a cold wet spring.”

(Hence the success of garlic at Homeacres in greenhouse and polytunnel)

Q 3 from Mary in US

I’m vegan and have been told that organic food is just as bio-bad as regular food. Today I stumbled upon Dan Kittredge. Since you’re doing all these comparisons, perhaps this may be a good one to do next. I’d be interested to see how nutrient rich no dig gardens are.

A from Charles

Some people measure sugars with Brix, using a refractometer. I have tried this and am not convinced by measuring only the sugar, because it’s one of many variables.

  • Chemical analysis is rarely linked to biological analysis and I think microbes from no dig soil must be stronger! See the comparative analysis here of my dig/no dig beds.

It would be great to know more about just nutrient content, I have in fact ordered a light spectroscope from Bionutrient Food Association (Dan Kittredge).

Q 4 from Milo

I am tired of digging and very happy to find your site.  I moved away from my old farm last year and deserted my 4 year old asparagus bed.

I ordered 3 year old asparagus roots to plant this spring at Wolf Haven Farm, my new farm. The roots will be 12 to 15 inches. How can I plant them No Dig? I dont think it is possible.

A from Charles

I would plant one year not three year crowns, cheaper and probably almost as fast, and easier to plant.

One option is to dig shallow holes for the crowns (roots), into the soil. Then say 5cm/2in compost on top.

Or place crowns on the ground, even in weeds, then 15cm/6in compost on top, which could be old manure etc.

If weeds are very thick, pace cardboard then crowns then compost over.

If doing that in a dry spring (not otherwise), wet the cardboard first. See my asparagus video for details.

Q 5 from Christopher

In our mid seventies, we have our own homemade leafmould and compost and a source of matured horse manure. We had also discovered Strulch (mineralised straw) and used it effectively in the garden as mulch and weed suppressant. Can Strulch also be used  as the  ‘compost’ to plant into in the veg no dig beds?

A from Charles

I have a low opinion of stretch as plant food. It is treated so as not to decompose, therefore does not feed soil life.

Yes great as a cover, like polythene.

Stick with your other lovely goodies.

Q 6 from Neil

I was hoping to get your opinion on earning a living gardening. I believe it can be done. I have heard quite a bit of negative talk from other fellows on the internet lately. I found this odd since these same guys have taught courses on making a living from gardening. I realize everyone has a different perspective on what a good living is!

A from Charles

Yes it’s possible, with qualifications:

  • best you own the property rather than rent
  • you must be near to people who are prepared to pay a realistic price

– Plus for growers in the UK, vegetables here are undervalued.

I meet growers in Germany who sell their CSA shares much more easily, and for realistic prices say €1050 for a year’s share.

– Plus it depends what is a ‘living’!

I recommend always a second string to the bow, especially for winter.

17 thoughts on “February 2020, not spring yet, no dig compost, Q & A vegetable growing

  1. I’m a very happy Course 1 No dig apprentice, looking forward to course 2 …
    However, still working in the garden & with my compost heap.
    In preparation for a first attempt at propagation, please would you explain the use of sharp sand with compost when sowing lettuce – Is this essential?
    I can’t find this in Switzerland!
    Thanks, Clare

    1. Thanks Clare nice to hear.
      Sharp sand is not vital, it can improve drainage that’s all, as does vermiculite.
      Some composts like Dalefoot wool compost have plenty of fibre already.

      1. Charles, thank you so much for your enquiring mind and generosity. I re-read the last few pages of your diary and decided to get my head around the mystery of biodynamics. So my question is – does the phase of the moon or the day of the sidereal calendar take precedence? So far as I can see there is no convergence in the coming month suitable for sowing leafy veg. How do you reconcile these two aspects?

        1. Susan it is indeed confusing about the moon.
          I find it simplest to concentrate on waxing/waning (synodic). I don’t factor in the rising and declining moon arc (sidereal).
          Also there is the astrological aspect earth air fire water!
          None of this is specifically “biodynamic” – getting into deep water here 🙂
          I use moon influences when possible but mainly I sow when I have time, when the season is right and weather favourable, and on a waxing moon if possible, which often is not the case 😏

  2. Hi Charles, I am wondering whether you plant anything in between your rows of garlic? Looking to maximise space and wondering if I can plant in between the rows of garlic without impacting on the growth of the garlic bulbs

  3. For those who save their own tomato seeds, February is not a bad time to test whether your seeds are good or not.

    I have just tested five sets of tomato seeds, sowing on 02/02 (mainly to provide ‘three tomato plants in 8cm pots’ for the local spring show).

    Happily my Red Alert seeds saved in 2019 germinated in 3 days, meaning I can honourably retire my 2014 vintage which provided 5 years of excellent service.

    As an aside , I can heartily recommend Chiltern Seeds as a supplier of hardy perennial/pollinator flower seeds. I tried a variety of seeds in late January and every single thing I expected to germinate quickly has done so: Lupins, lavender, catnip, Penstemon, Scabiosa, Ligularia, Orange Hyssop and Sweet Peas. All now ready to pick out into modules to keep as cool as possible during February.

    Very, very happy with my decision to use them after a few false starts with other suppliers.

  4. Hi Charles,
    I just watched your video on ‘peas for shoots’ I think I will try this year at my allotment. I notice you used the variety Alderman. Are there any other varieties you recommend for this purpose. I am growing Czar and borlotti this year too for beans, could I use either of these varieties? Many thanks

    1. Hi Gareth
      At our Market Garden, we actually grow microgreens and one of the crops are Pea Shoots, we have always found the most delicious and easy one is SNOW PEA, They are fast and taste amazing, and if it’s just for shoots, then you can do them any time of year, soak your peas overnight, then just sow a level layer of peas in a seed tray with 1-inch compost, water in well then place an empty tray on top and add some weight (a few heavy books would be fine), keep the temp around 18-21, so best in house or somewhere the temperature doesn’t change too much, or too much humidity or they will mold! the peas will germinate and begin pushing the tray up, they are like ‘super’ peas! this will make them very strong and not too leggy. After 4 days, remove the top tray, give them water from below, they will look very pale, do not worry, as soon as they have light, they will quickly turn green, water when dry from under not over, again, as this can cause mold. You can harvest them after 13-14 days, when they are around 6-10 inches tall, just cut with scissors about an inch above the root, and there you have it! delicious pea shoots year-round! and obviously, if they are garden then, as they grow just pick the shoots off as and when needed. Hope this helps, Charles will probably know better about outdoor Pea’s.

  5. Although I am not sowing any vegetables right now, I have sown some ‘hardy perennial’ flowers/plants, many to ‘stratify’ outdoors in the elements but some starting indoors as sellers recommend warmth prior to stratification for some seeds.

    One very interesting outcome from a 27th January sowing was the germination/otherwise of Lupinus Perennis, aka wild lupin.

    I sowed one set in module trays using standard MPC, and also a row in a tray with MPC covered with a layer of three-year-old home-made leaf mould, then seeds, then leaf mould on top.

    Nearly a dozen of the seeds in leaf mould have come through from 2 days after sowing, whereas none of the module-sown seeds have yet germinated (day 3 as of today).

    An interesting outcome which suggests there is something in leaf mould which really stimulates seed germination.

    I have also in the past had great success germinating carrot, onion and leek seeds in leaf mould (carrots grown in bags for shows, onions and leeks sown initially in polystyrene tubs prior to transplantation into soil in due course).

    Making it is very easy and it seems to get better with age (the leaves I collected in autumn 2017 were first used as leaf mould in spring 2019 and I am still using the same supply for spring 2020).

    As for not needing to water in winter, we have had over 500mm of rain in NW London since September 21st, so the heavens have done more than enough watering for us!

  6. I have been growing Apachi chilli from seeds since the end of August last year is this too early,they seem to be doing ok but is it a slower process for growing..they are indoors over a south facing windowsill and over a radiator..?

    1. How interesting, I have not heard of sowing chilli seeds in August.
      The plants don’t like our dark winters and go almost dormant, then should spring back to life in March.
      Fine for now and keep the compost more dry than wet.

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