Some old seed is germinating badly, if at all.

March 2020 propagating, myth busting, weeding, mulch new beds, store vegetables

Early spring: March comes in like a lion, a little warmth of strong sunshine tempered by a lot of cold winds and nights. Then March goes out like a lamb, well let’s see! Stick to your known best times for sowing, and don’t be tempted to sow earlier.

Homeacres is a windy site and transplants need covers for wind protection. All the vegetables we are sowing and planting now are frost hardy, but still benefit from weather protection.

Now is still good for winter jobs like tree and soft fruit pruning, and mulching/covering new and old no dig beds.

Propagation – giving warmth for germination

  • Germinate in the house, then grow seedlings in as much light as possible.
  • Germination can happen in darkness, the limiting factor is warmth. You can keep newly sown trays anywhere in the house which has reasonable warmth. I give a lot of information about this in Course 2 Growing Success.
  • In the greenhouse we have created a hotbed of fresh horse manure. I know most of you cannot do that but it’s the same principle of giving warmth to germinating seeds and later to tender plants.

The hotbed heat reached 60C within three days.

Grow seedlings on – some tips

Once germinated, in mild weather an under cover space (unheated) is warm enough for slow but steady growth. Temperatures can be slightly freezing at night, and up to 20C/68F if sunny by day. Seedlings include multisown onions, radish, beetroot and spinach. Also lettuce after we prick them out.

Finding good module trays is another matter!

Module trays you don’t want – and their appearance is misleading, they look solid in the image. A reader sent me this review of thin plastic “inserts”:

I read previous reviews and thought that the inserts couldn’t be THAT bad…….well they are!!!! Extremely thin and can’t imagine how they will be “Perfect for more than one season if used carefully” as the description states – and I make everything last!!! Even when they are supported in a solid seed tray you still have to find a way to remove the seedlings and that is where they will fail. The size of the cells is good but such a shame that they couldn’t be made more substantial. Overall very poor value for money.

In contrast, these are good. Module trays you do want, by Gardman via Primrose. 60 cells in each, made of firm plastic, £3.50 a pack of 3. For up to 10 uses.

Compost for propagation, and seed quality

If you find a good multipurpose compost, you don’t need a special seed compost.

Qualities to look for include some fibres for drainage, and sufficient nutrients to grow plants in small cells. The fibre quality is good in Dalefoot compost thanks to its pieces of bracken.

Seed quality is misleading in terms of information on the packet. See the variation in lettuce from different seed companies. All were well within the ‘sow by’ date. Often they must put old seed in new packets.

Soil life!!

Soil biology is key to the success of no dig, more than chemistry. You can see how it works with the photo ‘snapshot’ of Homeacres soil last autumn. I am impressed to see how good the “aggregation” is with no dig, meaning more air in the soil and better drainage, plus reduced erosion. (See the results of microscope analysis of my two beds.)

After some heavy rainfall recently, Homeacres paths stay wonderfully soft and springy.

Learning, myth busting

My new video shows how you can grow a lot in a small space, partly thanks to interplants. Of fennel for example, which most people have been told is not a good companion for other plants.

Likewise, burying stems is good!

Q I have horrible luck with brassicas and lettuce. They get leggy so quickly and I’ve read you can’t transplant them any deeper than what they already are because the stem will rot

A Yes that is a myth about the stems.

Burying stems is a wonderful way to change leggy plants to sturdy ones. I do it every time I prick out and transplant, for all seedlings and plants.

Weeds and weeding

I often say how no dig means fewer weeds, however an exception is if your surface compost has many weed seeds. In wet weather, hand pull the seedlings when small – it’s easier than pulling them when big.

The compost on Homeacres beds is mostly homemade, and it gets hot enough to kill most seeds, not all. I also spread some mushroom and green waste compost, which are weed free.

Mulching for new beds

Question I got my allotment early winter, have dug out some woody plants, then am sorting into beds and covering with cardboard and a 2 – 3 inch layer of compost.

Lots of places seem to recommend leaving it for a year for it all to break down, but could I start planting in it this year do you think?

Charles’ answer Well done and there is no need whatsoever to leave ground with nothing growing for a long time.

Plant into the compost or well rotted manure, all good. You can crop this year as normal, starting soon, and your soil will be healthier for having roots in. Ignore all that nonsense about leaving compost to “break down”. You want soil to “build up”! Growing roots help with that.

Cardboard

Question I am looking to start my first no dig bed but I was confused about something while reading the info on your site. We have centipede grass growing primarily on the site we plan to prep for our garden. Do I lay down thick cardboard over my beds first, follow with my manure and mushroom compost on top of that 4″ and that’s it? I was confused about if I needed to leave the cardboard there and kill off grass first then remove it at some point after killing off the grass and put my compost on after? Or does the cardboard remain and compost goes over it and I plant on top of it all?

Charles’ answer You are right, and yes you leave it there. Cardboard decomposes and our plants root down through it, after about two months.

Before that, vegetables and flowers root in the compost above. You never need to remove cardboard.

Storing vegetables

Storing vegetables and fruits is easier than you may often read.

These potatoes were harvested over seven months ago. We just had some to eat and they taste like new potatoes. More on growing no dig and storing, in online courses 1 & 2.

55 thoughts on “March 2020 propagating, myth busting, weeding, mulch new beds, store vegetables

  1. Another great post eagerly awaited and full of information! thank you
    I have chillis that have germinated and am running out of space in my sitting room! Although they are against a south facing patio door they are leaning towards the light. Is it better to put them in the polytunnel with full light even though its colder? Or should I keep them in the warmth despite my family complaining?!
    I am experimenting with a home made cloche inside the polytunnel and the few I put there seem to be OK.
    Slugs are also enjoying the tunnel but have been out with the head torch morning and night which is helping. do you find beer traps etc any use?

    1. Hi Chris, thanks, and the thing to beware is frost even in your tunnel. The cloche may suffice to prevent that plua to provide the extra warmth they need.
      A better solution than long thin stems in your house!
      For those without full light outdoor options, LED grow lights may be worthwhile.

      1. I have invested in a modest 2 tube grow light, however my toms and peppers were still leggier last season than I would have liked. What is the best height from top of plants to prevent this do you find?

        1. Hello Anne, you will want your grow lights to be pretty close, I keep mine between 2-4 inches away from the top of the plants. What you need to be careful of it the temperature (depending what kind of light you have) so there is a balance to be struck.

  2. I grow January King winter cabbage each year. This year for some reason, most of the plants are going to seed instead of heading up. Any idea what I did wrong?

    1. That is odd and I suspect the seed quality more than what you did.
      If sowing date for example was broadly similar, that should not happen.
      Which seed company was it?

  3. You said above that the plants eg lettuce can be put into the ground a lot lower if they are spindly are there any exceptions to this and also is this the case with most flower seedlings

  4. Thanks for the link to the Gardman Plug trays – alas they are discontinued and sold out, or so it says on the Primrose site, and I can’t find them anywhere else on the net. Such a shame as firm plastic trays are hard to come by – I’d love to get some of the 40 cell trays you link to, but as you say, it’s not a retail option. I might end up with some of the 84 cell trays from Quickcrop, though the cells seem to be a bit on the small side.

    I bought a soil blocking kit last year, and I’m already regretting it, as the mesh-bottom trays that would seem to allow watering via capillary matting, although much used in the states, are not available over here. Plus as I think you’ve mentioned, the smaller blocks are very small!

    Anyway, thanks again for another informative post.

    1. Hello Mike and I am sorry to hear that, it’s a crazy world.
      Same with the trays to put blocks in. Mad that it’s hard to buy something suitable for them. I thought they might catch on more, but modules are a lot easier on a smaller scale.

      1. I am a convert to soil blocking and simply place a layer of capillary matting in the bottom of an ordinary seed tray with drainage holes and have no problem with that. I hate using the plastic modules as I find it difficult to get the seedlings out without breaking the cells or damaging adjacent seedlings. The soil blocks are so easy to move using a flat pair of tongs (as used for cooking).
        One thing I have found is that the soil blocks are designed to make one large hole for the seed, so in order to sow several seeds in one module I have replaced the seed pin with a rubber blanking grommet to give a flat surface.
        I bought a set of the tiny soil blocks but they are much too small to be of any use.

        1. Thanks Louise – great to hear that you’ve had success with Soil Blocking, and interesting that you don’t bother with the small blocker at all, just sow straight into the larger blocks, though I can definitely see why. So for multisowing, you tend to sow more on the surface without any covering?

          As to the capillary matting, I had thought I might try that, but don’t you find that the roots run into each other making them hard to separate? Or perhaps you plant them before that’s an issue.

          Thanks again for your tips!

    2. Hi Mike,
      Try containerwise website that Charles has mentioned before. I spoke to them last week really lovely family business that usually deals with nurseries but decided to help out smaller growers due to “moral obligation”. I’m sure it was a pain in the neck to send my small order out to Ireland but they did and the postage was reasonable too. They do deep and normal tray depths all different cell numbers and the quality is great. Big drainage hole so you can poke out plants with fingers.

        1. Thanks Chris, I will do that – can’t say I’ll need many, as I’m only filling a few raised beds in my back garden. They do look perfect though, especially with the large holes in the base. If you don’t mind me asking, how many did you order?

        2. Hi All,
          I would recommend Quickpot’s propagation trays. These are really solid plastic and will last for years. They also have large drainage holes (average finger size) to make removing seedlings very easy. They are a little expensive but when you factor in how long they will last they are well worth it. I got mine from fruithillfarm.com.
          Don.

    3. Hi,
      I contacted ContainerWise this week to ask about smaller orders of the 40L and 28L trays. It appears that small quantities can be ordered as per their reply to me (below). If anyone living in or near Uxbridge would like to do a joint order with me, we may be able to save on delivery costs (which I am enquiring about). Sorry – I’m not able to upload the price list.

      Thank you for your enquiry. Please find the price list for our stock items attached. Please note all prices are plus carriage and VAT. If you’d like a delivered price please tell us how many of each tray type you are interested in and provide a delivery postcode and we will issue a quotation. We have a minimum order quantity of 5 trays (which can be a combination of different tray types). We are extremely busy at present but aim to respond to all requests within 3 working days.

  5. Many thanks for the early March advice. I have made a good start with chillis and peppers and a few brassicas already and the peas are just poking their heads through. I haven’t tried chervil but have some seed. It’s only my second year of no dig but am following all the advice in the journal and have ticked all the boxes for February. Wish me luck!

    1. Nice to hear Lorraine, well done. Only exception to that is that chervil sown now will flower by May, and best sowing date is late July, for autumn through winter harvests.

  6. Charles,
    Re your notes on wood chips. Can I recommend a research paper from Laval University in Quebec, Canada entitled “Regenerating soils with Ramial Chipped Wood” on their website Forestgeomat.for.ulaval.ca/brf. It is well worth reading. Also a book entitled “Will Bonsall’s essential guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening£” published by Chelsea Green. It is well worth reading.
    John Negus

  7. Hi Charles!

    Having sown seeds for spring planting, my germinations have been a bit patchy. Radish and cabbage fine, lettuce so -so (I suspect the compost, see later), pea shoots OK, but one tray that I split between spinach and onions has given me nothing. All seeds bought in the last 4 months.

    Are these two susceptible to rotting in the soil, or not liking wet soil? I suspect my compost is too wet and sticky (it’s home made, pretty old, and feels a bit claggy due to lack of browns – I suppose). That might explain the fact that the whole tray is kaput, perhaps I over-watered it to begin with. It might also explain the less than enthusiastic germination of lettuce and peas. Odd that the brassicas in a separate tray seem OK though.

    Do you have a suggestion as to how to bring the compost back into something more useful? I might have some sand in the shed somewhere, for instance?

    Would flower seed have the same issues too?

    Sorry for all the questions!

    1. I would spread that compost in the garden Paul, and buy some for potting, multipurpose.
      Look at the time already lost, and seeds.
      Yes overwatering is common and made worse by compost with poor drainage. 30-50% sand or vermiculite would help, but it sounds rather poor to start.

  8. A few comments on sowing early and keeping plants healthy/happy:

    1. I find a big difference in keeping germinated seedlings at 16C vs 25C: our front room is kept mostly unheated, remains at around 16C by keeping its door shut, and afternoon sun and the pollinators I germinated in late January have grown slowly and healthily in the lower temperatures, not getting leggy at all. In fact, many plants took about three to four weeks after pricking out to form their first true leaves, despite germinating quickly and always looking totally healthy. Other warmer rooms in the house tend to cause plants to grow too fast and spindly early on.
    2. Onions and leeks find it difficult to stand up properly even in deep tubs and at 16C: I think they really need as much light as possible for early sowings (even those in early February). They are forming true leaves however, so I will leave the slouching teenagers lolling around and hope that April sunshine makes them get up off their proverbial backsides………

    As for seed composts, I use MPC for things like peas, onions, leeks, beans, basically anything which either grows big or will stay in a tub for a couple of months. Seed compost I tend to use for small seeds like celery, celeriac, lettuce, tomatoes, other things that will be pricked out or transplanted to larger pots fairly quickly. If in doubt I use seed compost, but the ones listed above I use MPC for actually do better with the MPC than seed compost often times.

    I also find that when sowing lots of rows of seeds in a small tray that a thin layer of leaf mould below and above seeds gives really great germination. This keeps the valuable leaf mould usage to a minimum: I will have got two full seasons use out of what started out as 350 litres of leaves in November 2017 (mostly collected from the streets around where I live). By January after collection, 350 litres has become 180 litres and by May it has become 90 litres. I usually end up with around 70-80 litres of mature gold dust from 350 litres of starting material and if anything it is even more potent in year 3 than in year 2.

    1. Hello, I am starting the journey with my three young boys! We have a large area in the garden, where we are making 5 beds which are 1m x 2.4m and 3 beds which are 1.2mx10m.

      We have put cardboard down, and covered in 3 inches of rotten horse manure where we want the beds. Now trying to find where I can buy a compost from to put ontop…? Getting anxious i am running out of time to grow this year, but will be ok to start planting straightaway? Finally, is there do’s and don’ts with the make of seeds we buy? Most supermarkets seem to have them very competitively priced. Thanks for your help on our journey!

      1. Dan, you have plenty of time! People make new beds even in May, for immediate cropping, plant on the same day you create it.
        Check out CPA Horticulture for starters, say mushroom compost.

      2. Dan
        I built three beds in April last year, and still managed to shoe horn two crops in most of them! So, fear not!

  9. The module trays you promoted in your post are sold out. I guess you should have pre-warned them, that about a 1000 people will buy them, once you write about them in your post! 😅
    It’s so difficult to find good ones…. But with your tip, I can now compare my local sellers, I think I found one (based in Switzerland).
    Thank you for all your precious knowledge and tips.
    P.S: the link to the module trays is an « outgoing » link that doesn’t open a new window but leads me away from your page. 😉

      1. Hi Sonia,

        Can you give some more Information on the swiss-made module Trays you wrote About – size and where you got them from. Here in Switzerland I find decent ones difficult to get hold of….

        Many thanks

  10. Charles,
    thanks a lot for the tip concerning spindly brassicas!
    Thought they would transform into beanstalks on my windowsill 🙂

    Concerning cardboard: made a comparison with cardboard under compost and on another bed on top of compost.
    Don´t know about the underground solution but slugs like the on-compost solution very much (sent you the picture two weeks ago). I collected nearly 200 tiny ones since mid january (no frost). Hopefully will make a dent in slug population for season 2020.

  11. Hi Charles, thanks for your valuable and expert advice. So much, so freely given.
    I, too, am starting my hot bed, inspired by you. Third time. I think in the first year, some of my seedlings were scorched by the ammonia given off. Is this something to worry about and how do you work around it? Also, do you turn or re-wet your hot bed at all?

    1. Geoff, cheers, and yes this can happen, in the first week, when it’s best for germinating seeds. I ventilate a little more in week 1, then it’s ok.
      Yes water occasionally and add some new fresh manure on top, is easier than turning.

      1. Thanks, that makes sense, I delayed putting seedlings on top for a week or two last year. Also used a pallet, as you do, to provide an air gap under the trays and that was OK.

  12. I’ve gotten a late start on my seedlings, but I’m guessing we’ll still get a snowstorm or two here in Colorado before all is said and done. Have 144 plants just getting started. My question is how are you staggering your radish planting? Is it every two weeks, or do you wait longer than that? I’m only planting for two people, but we do love radishes. I’m also trying multisown method for the first time. I have a grow chamber in my house that was discarded from a home marijuana growing operation that I now use for my veg. It’s pretty awesome 🙂

  13. Thank you and Steph so much for the beautifully written and highly informative No Dig Home and Garden recently purchased. We had a few late meals last week due to not being able to put the book down!!
    Thought you might be interested to know that the Lilia onion which had formed small bulbs from a July sowing, left in ground over winter, mostly due to laziness, also thinking the new green growth might be useful in salads, The outside of the bulb has now turned to mush, which peels off to expose two perfect spring onions. The Lilia sown in September have slowly grown over winter to make normal spring onions. Other bonus crop currently being harvested is florence fennel, bolted but left in ground, flowers very lovely and picked for arrangements and edible flowers. Each bulb has now made offsets, although not large are making a welcome addition to salads.
    Last year’s multi sown Isobel Rose, a very pretty pink fleshed onion grown for storing, but could also be used as spring onions, No bolters, good sized onions and remarkable storage. Throughly recommend.

  14. Thank you for another informative post and for all the knowledge you share here and on your channel!

    This year, I decided to make a hotbed similar to yours but outside, as I do not have a greenhouse. We built it from palettes (I think we put them together the wrong way, but live and learn, I guess… ), lined it with cardboard and filled it with horse manure. It’s been raining a lot here (Northern Poland) and so I did not water while “dancing” on top of it. We probably didn’t use as much straw as I see now on your pictures above, and I wonder if this is part of the problem… It’s been three days and the temperature has not risen above 10 ºC (still slightly above ambient temperature but not by much). I realise yours is indoors and still took 3 days to heat up, but I wonder if it will heat up all being outside. I was counting on it to move my first seedlings outside (was going to cover them with plastic sheet, to create a kind of hothouse effect…) but now I am wondering if it will work at all… What do you think?

    1. Ah Sara sorry to read this.
      I wonder if the poo was all fresh, and yes there may not be enough straw. Otherwise good method. Can you find some fresher manure and straw perhaps to put on top?

      1. Yes, I think the manure we used may have already been quite mature… I will try to find some fresher one + straw but I think I will just use the not-so-hotbed for the seedlings that don’t mind the cold so much and keep doing all the germinating indoors :). Then, I suppose I can use it for growing squash, maybe, in early Summer?

  15. A huge thank you to Charles, you give so freely of your wealth of knowledge, it is very humbling.

    Getting started with my first allotment and was worried about how plants will ever make it through the cardboard under the compost (made the beds recently.), feel like I’m adding tons of compost to the top, but your comment about rooting into the top layer and 2 months to break down has reassured me.

    About module trays- what about the awesome ones done by plastic free gardening .com, on which site you’re featured. maybe they’re not your favourite but surely worth a mention due to their fair-trade plastic-free awesomeness? (i’m in love with the luxuriousness of mine. like silicon ice cube trays, will be easy to pop things out I think.)

    1. Thanks Claudia, glad you are feeling ok, and yes those rubber module trays are good.
      They sold out after I last mentioned them, was holding off 😀
      I wish you a happy allotment

  16. Hello Charles and community,

    As a brand new ‘grow-your-owner’ I have a question about seedlings.

    I sowed my ‘with warmth’ seeds from Charles’ sowing timeline (aubergine, chilli, pepper, tomatoes) along with boltardy beetroot and peas on Sunday 8th. I have had them in next to the hot water tank and many of them have germinated. When do I need to move them on to a window sill for light and should I tuck them in at night in my warm cupboard?

    Many thanks for any assistance and advice anyone can offer.

    Brian
    Lanarkshire, Scotland

    1. Hi Brian
      A good start and now they need light as much as warmth so yes windowsill all day, even in the window by night is fine as you don’t want them to grow too fast yet, risk of stems getting long and weak. Remedy for that is full light in a greenhouse which can work on sunny days..

      1. Thanks for your reply, Charles. I’ll get them moved to the windowsill and get my greenhouse built the next available STORM FREE weekend we get!

  17. Hi Charles,
    Thanks for the great post, and thanks to all the other contributors for their comments.

    I bought a rubber module tray this week and am planning to use it to sow some spinach this Weekend. I notice the Drainage holes are VERY small – did you find this was a Problem?

    1. Yes they made a mistake!
      However the plants are fine with it, perhaps to do with it being rubber not plastic. We were planting some lovely spinach this afternoon.

  18. I have lots off egg trays (blue). Could I use these as seedling modules and simply break them off and plant directly in the soil?
    Thanks for all the wonderful knowledge that you share.

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