February update 2017, first sowings, propagation & composts, no dig winter veg

Hooray let’s go. Undercover to start with, because outside it’s still vegetable winter, see the amazing differences between spring, summer and winter. I make no outdoor sowings before mid March, except for broad (fava) beans.

New sowing and propagation zone 8

It’s time to begin, or for colder parts of the UK, in about ten days time. Extra warmth for seed germination is highly worthwhile, including windowsills in the house, at least for the week or so until seedlings show legs.

  • Undercover, sow broad beans, spinach, lettuce, peas for shoots, onion, salad onion, early brassicas (cabbage, calabrese, kohlrabi, cauliflower), radish, parsley, coriander, dill. Giving some warmth helps germination, such as heating mats: this is the most worthwhile time of plants’ lives to invest in heat, to germinate their seeds.

At Homeacres we assemble a heap (hotbed) of fresh horse manure, to provide heat for new sowings. See March 2016 for details of that. This year two of us fetched the manure and built it in three hours today 14th. 18 hours later the heap temperature is 30C, soon it should be 60C and warming seed trays to 20-25C.

  • In 25C warmth sow aubergine, pepper, chilli – they must have warmth or it’s a waste of time.
  • Outside, the only sowings now are broad beans, and garlic if you have not already. You can sow parsnips but seedlings may be stronger from March sowings, even April.

See my Diary and timeline for more on what you can sow now, and what not to sow now . Stagger your sowings throughout spring, according to the best time for each vegetable. Then through summer and into autumn, for succession, to keep the plot full, with harvests potentially all year round.

  • You can sow in seed trays to prick out, or direct into modules for larger seeds. Seed trays economise on space because you have a lot of seedlings close together for the first week or two.

Sowing/potting composts

Composts change every year, and vary from batch to batch. Yet over the last 20 years I have had consistent, good results from West Riding Organic compost, at around £6 for a pallet of 60 x 40l sacks, or £12 retail for one sack. Their compost is half recycled peat, half green waste, see next section.

This page on Quickcrop has some good composts, and I think that the Klaasman seed compost is based on green waste. I have used it and had good results, but would be happy to try worm compost as that has always grown good plants. Those prices are high though (good discussion on that in this topic) and the best budget deal, not organic, is probably Melcourt peat free, and B&Q.

Do you need one compost for seed, another for potting? I suspect this is a myth: an experienced gardening friend reinforced this by sowing a large number of seeds into Levington’s No.3 at Christmas, just to see. No. 3 is the compost with the most nutrients, recommended only for potting. Yet all seedlings came up nearly 100% and have grown strongly, under the LED grow lights that Allan was also trialling (they work!).

  • For sowing, the main thing is good drainage. If your compost feels light-textured, good! If it feels dense and soggy, add up to 50% vermiculite or permit or sharp sand, for sowing seeds.

In the two photos here, I used some of my own compost. It’s a little lumpy, which helps maintain air for the roots.

Clopyralid/aminopyralid residues

These persistent, horrible poisons are sometimes in grass from lawns (clopyralid) and sometimes from horse manure if the hay was weed-killed with aminopyralid. There was a discussion about this on the excellent Facebook group Undug. See the ghastly effects below – curling of new leaves, lack of chlorophyll, stunted growth.

Occasionally green waste compost is tainted, even potting composts. I asked West Riding, who use half green waste as well as the peat sieved out of reservoirs, this was their reply:

“We source our green waste from a small independent firm who only compost the tree cuttings/chips that they produce. As there are no grass cuttings composted, as well as testing for clopyralid, means they are as sure as they can be that nothing is present in the green waste.” Melcourt’s compost is also based on their own composts of wood.

  • A test you can do is to sow peas, beans or plant potatoes, tomatoes in the compost or even half decomposed manure. If after 3-4 weeks the new leaves are healthy, with no curling, the compost should be ok.

Storing vegetables

On a brighter note,

Edward filmed here in early February, mostly in my brick lean-to where the root vegetables and cabbage are stored for winter. We also went in the conservatory and filmed some vegetables that keep well in the house. See the  video here.


Outdoor vegetables in February

This subject also has a new video, filmed in late December after some hard frosts. The salad plants and spinach are all still surviving and starting to grow again, slowly.

On a different bed of spinach, we took the net off and covered plants with fleece, to speed new growth in the lighter days. See the result of doing this in March 2016.

I put up the photo of last summer to show how we planted the savoy cabbage, between lettuce which we were still harvesting in July. Interplanting is easy with no dig.

Undercover vegetables in February

Growth is starting to be more vigorous as leaves use the increasing light to grow thicker, larger and glossier. We love harvesting in late winter and spring, each week is a mini revelation. See Steph’s blog for examples.

No dig with compost mulch means that growth is generally healthy, and there are almost no weeds. We tweak any weed seedlings while picking, it’s a pleasure when there are so few.

I have been watering every three weeks through winter, soon it will be every week. I wait until the surface looks dry: this reduces slug and mildew damage.

Preparing ground no dig

With no dig it’s easy. Time needed depends on your weed situation: if you have a mass of weeds, more than can be cleared by hand, check this video for ideas.

Otherwise, some hand weeding to remove every small weed is important, then spread 1-2in (3-5cm) compost on the surface. Or less if you cannot source much, though vegetables do love rich soil.

Many of us have spread compost already and any frosts have helped to soften it. Best wait until March for initial weed strikes with rake and hoe.

The last compost of a heap from June, turned in September

Propagating parsnips

I have always sown parsnips direct into surface compost, finding they come up so quickly. Best time to sow outside is mid to late March, and a fleece cover helps germination.

Lisa Camps, who attended a day course here, gave this feedback on sowing parsnips:

“Having saved many loo roll tubes, I filled a seed tray with them and sowed 4-6 parsnip seeds into each, a day or two after full moon, germinated them indoors to get as uniform a germination time as possible (it was quick too), then transferred to the greenhouse and monitored carefully for the very first signs of any little white roots out of the bottom.  The moment I saw any roots, the whole lot went out into the heavily mulched bed over clay and I fleeced them over, must have been late March I think.  The photo shows one clump of them just pulled – only one forked at approx. the length of the loo roll and they didn’t wind themselves around each other.”

Parsnips grown from seeding into cardboard loo rolls, planted small

Diary review Kitchen Garden magazine, Feb. 2017

Charles Dowding is renowned for his no-dig approach to growing and the benefits it brings in saving money, less weeding, plant health and harvests for all seasons. Although this spiral bound book is a ‘diary’ of sorts, this only tells half the story as it is also packed with tips, guidance and nuggets of gardening wisdom on various aspects of growing fruit and veg. From care of the soil to making compost to how to manage individual plants, this book is structured chronologically month by month, as you would expect. However, it starts with March – one of the busiest months in the gardening year – and ends in February. Each month has a page for notes in diary format, so you can add your own notes as an aide memoire perhaps to look back on in subsequent years. The diary pages are interspersed with well-illustrated pages of practical advice. Definitely one to have by your side as the growing year unfolds.

WHO IS IT FOR? All gardeners looking to get the best out of their crops.


Feedback from Ewa in northern Poland

  • “Your diary is a source of great pleasure and inspiration. Our winters are a bit longer and a more severe than yours but we catch up quite quickly once spring arrives and this year, your diary is going to help me keep on track with things to do, even if a week or two later – though I am determined to start some sowing on February 14th!”

Farming politics suggest GYO

February 2017, Guy Watson (Riverford) writes:

“it seems likely that farming, food safety and animal welfare will be sacrificed in a rush to the unregulated bottom that is World Trade Organization rules. Perhaps we could compete on world markets if farmers were free to bulldoze hedges, fell trees, pollute waterways and abuse their livestock.

However our island is too small and there are too many other stakeholders who want a say in how our food is produced and countryside managed. Welcome to an uncertain world in which we need to keep our eyes firmly on ensuring a decent food supply for all.”

Conclusion: grow as much as you can!

However, I received this from Lynn Formison

“My husbands favourite saying: if it was easy to grow vegetables everybody would do it!”

Now there is a challenge.

13 thoughts on “February update 2017, first sowings, propagation & composts, no dig winter veg

  1. Hi Charles,
    Thanks for bringing my attention to clopyralid. I suspect that had my purchased multi purpose compost or green waste compost contained it last season and plants had failed I would simply pit it down to my inexperience. I must have got lucky!

    Wanting to improve my front lawns this autumn I used some Vitax Lawn Clear Feed and Weed liquid. Before cutting my lawn after the suggested timeframe I contacted Vitax to ask about clopyralid. They emailed the following:
    ‘Thank you for your enquiry. Our Lawn Clear Feed and Weed product does contain clopyralid, and the instructions for use give directions to thoroughly compost the initial grass cuttings (the first cuttings should ideally be left to fall onto the lawn and the next three mowings should be composted for at least 9 months) before considering utilising them as a compost mulch.’

    Thankfully I had not cut my grass or put the clippings into my garden compost! I am now not sure whether I should even put it into my garden waste bin that is collected for re-cycling as this will surely go into the ‘green waste’ for future use by someone or other. Unfortunately I struggle to make enough of my own garden compost and I am probably going to look to purchase again this year. I may well use those you recommend even though they are more expensive than I would like. What a mess we make when we fail to work with nature!

  2. Hi Charles. What is the recommended spacing for multi sown onions ?

    Kind regards Sebastian from Denmark

  3. Just back from Australia! I wish we had their warmth. Ihaven’t started yet as the weather here has been horrible since we got back but hope to soon, although the lettuce’s in the tunnel though look good. With all the best to all for the growing season

  4. Cheers guys….I must say I got a little excited and premature to say the least and I wasn’t far into learning about Charles and his ways. The rains are on other than the early beets and mustard lol . I made a list of what he recommends and will be getting them over the weekend. I’m just going to risk what I planted way to early (celeriac, half tall early sprouts, leeks and a few cabbages) all of which did say you can sow under cover in Jan which I did. They are in the unheated greenhouse looking fine and growing strong so I’ll leave them as long as I can before planting out

    Keep up the good work

  5. Your newsletter is always such an inspiration and great help, as I am often unsure about when to sow what. Last autumn I spread all the compost I had, as I didn’t have enough for a decent layer on all of my beds I decided to concentrate it on a few ones, and the difference between the two kinds of beds now is amazing. I am so looking forward to planting into the composted ones, I cannot sow anything directly because of slugs. Yesterday somebody in a video on youtube showed how he sows in cells filled with leaf mould and then covers the seeds with worm compost, so I’ve decided to try this out, fifty-fifty, if nothing else it will be fun to see how it works, or not!
    Good comment by Rhys.

  6. One lesson I can share from learning the violin as a boy and gardening as a middle aged man: Doing something well is much easier if you have a teacher/mentor with whom you have rapport.

    I spent ten years struggling to learn a musical instrument I was ill-suited to in England, where practical technique was ‘easy’ but interpretation was difficult. I went to Austria on a gap year and thrived learning technical proficiency from a man who knew enough to let my innate musical talent emanate from the technical base he provided me with.

    Gardening started struggling to grow a few tomatoes in pots, in grobags. It changed by disregarding pat instructions and standing potted plants in water-laden trays from mid June to mid August. My 2013 crop was excellent, I discovered Charles’ website and have progressed steadily ever since, feeling confident now growing potatoes, tomatoes, beans, onions, parsnips, carrots, lettuce, rocket, chard, asparagus, rhubarb, peas, cabbages and chilli.

    Provide the student with techniques which work and their industry will do the rest….

    A bit like feeding the soil and nature will grow you food, I guess…

    1. Ok so it’s time to go but is this just a small planting? Or are you planting lots of the best varieties you recommend for sowing early? It’s a bit different for you but scaled down it’s the same.

      I have sown lots of bolt hardy and some mustard and more to come but should I be planting just a dozen clumps of each them more later as it warms?

      Great read by the way it’s so inspiring!!!

      1. Shaun it’s up to you, though in general one sows all the onions now as they have one main season of growth.
        Whereas beetroot are a half season vegetable so I do one sowing now, another say April, another in June. My books have these details.
        Incidentally I do not recommend sowing mustard now, but you can!

    2. Thanks Rhys that is great to hear.
      A similar comment I just received by mail is from Kat in Bristol
      “I tried for so many years to grow veg, read loads of books and just made a lot of slugs very happy. In 2016 I decided to give it one last try before packing it in. I religiously followed your book sticking to exactly the varieties recommended. I followed your sowing times exactly on the monthly Newsletter and the difference in what I can grow has been phenomenal! Having regular pickings of salads in midwinter used to be a far off dream!

  7. Hello Charles, I was looking at your year sowing timeline and wonder if you would clarify the April entry, as it say sow leek undercover and outside – is it that both will work, or are you advising to sow indoors early in April and plant out by late April?

    Sow undercover as for March (except its getting late for celeriac, sow asap), leeks, leaf
    beet, beetroot (all varieties), chard at month’s end, tomatoes for outdoor growing. With warmth and around mid month, cucumber, courgette, squash, sweetcorn

    Sow outside all potatoes, broad beans, lettuce, spinach, peas, salad onion, early and autumn brassicas, parsley, leeks, leaf beet, carrots

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