Mid March 2016, sowing and planting in no dig

Sowing and planting into undug soil with a compost mulch feels different to sowing and planting into dug or rotovated soil. Your plants and seeds meet compost on the surface – and they love it. This update looks at this and other aspects of starting seeds, whether direct in beds or undercover.

In most of Britain, the weather looks like staying dry until Easter, though cool overnight. Top sowings now include peas, lettuce, spinach, onion and spring onion, radish, beetroot Boltardy, early varieties of cabbage, calabrese and cauliflower, coriander, dill – and even first early potatoes, if your plot is not prone to late frosts.

If you need just a few plants of any vegetable, check this link for organic plants as it may be cheaper to buy a few plug plants, than to buy a packet of seed.

March 14th 2016, I am dibbing holes to plant spinach into the compost surface of the undug bed of an experiment at Homeacres, the dug bed is behind me
March 14th 2016, I am dibbing holes to plant spinach into the compost surface of the undug bed of an experiment at Homeacres, the dug bed is behind me

Sowing into “manure”

The manure word is used very loosely in garden literature and conversation, often without mention of its age and state of decomposition. Older (say 12-24 month old) manure, dark in colour and breakable into smaller pieces, is compost, into which you can sow seeds. As you can into a surface mulch of any compost – whether it was originally manure, or is from your garden heap.

Its easier when you have spread the compost a while ago, any time since last autumn, so that weather has loosened the lumps, such that simply running a rake across the top makes a soft tilth for sowing and planting.

If spreading compost now or making new beds, its still possible to sow small seeds such as carrot, as long as the surface compost is fine. In the photos below from 2012, I made a bed in early April from old manure (compost) and homemade compost, then sowed carrots straightaway, just to see how they grew. They were shorter than normal Nantes because the pasture weed roots were still occupying the soil below. There was a tasty harvest from June to August. If I had sown the carrots into this bed in June, they would have grown longer, as the soil below the bed’s ingredients became open to plant roots from above, thanks to the weed roots dying.

Early sowings and weeds

With early sowings, whether into dug soil or undug with a compost mulch, there are often more weeds to deal with than from later sowings, because the early spring flush of weed seedlings coincides with germinating vegetable seeds.

If you suspect that your soil or compost has many weed seeds, there are two remedies. 

One is to sow a little later, after waiting for the first flush of tiny, tiny weed seedlings. As soon as you see them, run a rake or hoe across the surface on a dry day, as shallowly as possible, so they all shrivel.

Another is to sow fast germinating seeds such as radish in the same drill as say, carrot and parsnip. About one radish seed every inch, then after 2-3 weeks you can pass a hoe between the easily visible rows, marked by radish seedlings. The radish are ready to eat in May, when the main sowing is beginning to grow strongly.

Seed germination

I have had problems with onion seeds from Kings (mainly) and I sent them the photo below. There was a clear and dramatic germination shortfall, because I sowed their Santero at the same time as some Canto onion from Plants of Distinction, which emerged strongly.

Andrew Tokeley of Kings explained it all from their point of view: at time of my purchase in January, the latest germination test (he did not specify when) had given 84% germination. Then a test in February showed only 72%, “falling fast” as he put it but legal, as the minimum is 70%. Unfortunately for me (and I imagine others) I had sown before then.

So they sent me a free packet of seed. I said that is not a recompense for wasted compost, time and greenhouse space. He replied “that is gardening”, which is true to a point, but I think there is another issue. The 72% figure does not correspond to the 25% of my onions that germinated, of which about half are weak, so I have very few to plant, say 10%. However the temperature and compost were good enough to grow 90%+ of the Canto onion seeds.

I have heard that many germination tests are done in laboratory conditions that do not replicate a garden.  I think the legal minimum, for laboratory conditions, should be higher.

Its frustrating, I hope your seeds are coming through, and of course it is hard to know if problems are from seed, compost, temperature, watering etc. All four photos in this gallery were taken 10th-12th March in or outside my greenhouse.

Planting out

Its good to plant frost hardy vegetables now. And its especially good to lay fleece over new plantings, after (in dry weather) watering them in to help soil and compost settle around the roots.

We are setting out plants of broad bean, peas (mostly for shoots), radish, spinach and perennial kale. First early potatoes can go in now, whether chitted or not, but there is no rush, unless you are frost free quite early, say by the end of April.

It will be early April before lettuce and beetroot are ready to go out here.

Broad beans

These amazing plants are so hardy: most mornings in early March they are lying on the ground frozen, then look perky by the afternoon. Its misleading that they share the same name as runner and French beans which are not hardy at all, wait until May before sowing them undercover, and early June outside.

Peas and sweet peas are frost hardy too, sow them as soon as possible if you have not already.

Sowing ideas for food next winter

Ifs good to have a plan of sowing, based on what you want to eat, and when. For example the red cabbage pictured below was sown last May, planted June, harvested late October and has been in the shed since then.

The bean salad is Czar and borlotti beans sown mid May undercover, planted by early June and picked as dry beans from mid September until first frost. Then stored in jars.

Steph has been using the stored vegetables to make great salads and soups for Homeacres courses. On a recent course, one man said it was the first time he enjoyed beetroot, and her salad of grated celeriac/parsnip is a flavour revelation.

From now is good for sowing parsnips and planting onion sets.

Plotgate new garden

We visited Dan and Amy’s plot of a few acres nearby at Barton St David, where they are expanding to create a CSA to sell vegetables to local people, from an acre of undug ground.

Over the past two years they have spread green waste compost, and feel now that the heavy soil is growing good crops without any more. This means some extra weeding and Dan has developed a hoe-scarifier, set up on two bicycle wheels, which run at five foot centres in the paths.

Also they have quite a collection of animals including these fine piglets, a New Zealand breed called Kune Kune. Their short snouts are less powerful for digging than other pig breeds, and they graze more.

15 thoughts on “Mid March 2016, sowing and planting in no dig

  1. Hi Charles
    Been busily growing salad leaves since you inspired me to grow bagged salad on your course last year. Having big problems with shrews and voles which eat of baby lettuces off at the base the minute I bed them out in my tunnels and glasshouse. They are too small and light to set of a mouse trap (even if my conscience can live with murder!) and can get through the timiest of gaps. Anybody else have this problem? Hopefully it will improve as more food becomes available for them but at the moment the losses are too great. Happily they don’t like rocket or mustard.

  2. I live in Utah U.S. Our summers are hot here. Last year I tried a small experiment with two 8 x 4 beds, I grew Cabbage, peas onions and potatoes.
    The experiment worked well, so now I have expanded the Vegetable Garden, to 7, 8 x 4 beds, since watching your videos, I am now converted to no dig gardening.
    Last Autumn I swept the leaves off the lawn, covered a couple of vegetable beds with them, they are rotting down well, lots of worms working under them, so here,s hoping for some success.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Peter and I am happy your beds are growing well. No dig will help regulate moisture levels in your hot summers.
      We had a warm day today, 14C, but its looking like rain ahead.

  3. I just read your news about your logo which looks fab. How about having bumper stickers with your logo on them, then we can all stick them on our cars or bicycles if one, like me, does not have a car?

  4. I live in California and have grown vegetables for years in my small garden. I have since expanded into my daughter’s garden and even started growing on a strip of county property across the street from my house. I have gardened much the same way as you describe in your wonderful YouTube videos. I accidentally watched three of them yesterday and found them to contain such valuable information for new gardeners and old gardeners alike. Your love af the land, soil and seed shows in all you do. Thank you so much. I look forward to receiving your
    updates. I am glad you discussed seed failure. I too am experiencing this problem and I get seed from reputable organic seed companies.

    1. Thanks for posting this and its good to hear. I hope that your no till gardens are coping with the Californian drought. Interesting about your seed experiences too.

  5. Are you only planting frost hardy veg? We’ve had warmer weather for a few days near Brighton but today is decidedly cold and leafy veg looks better off in the cold frame for now?

    1. Yes Mateo for sure, plant out only frost hardy veg at this time of year, which includes peas, broad beans, spinach, lettuce, onion and salad onion, cabbage and coriander.

  6. Everything I’ve germinated so far in Levington’s John Innes Seed Compost has been fantastic:

    1. Modules of radish (4 seeds per module in 15-module trays): using free seeds from Wilkinson’s supermarket. Really delighted with this approach after reading about it in your last monthly column…..
    2. Last year’s spinach seeds from Suttons (> 90% germination frequency).
    3. Two lettuce strains from Seeds of Italy and a Cos variety from Mr Fothergills (>90% frequency of all). Germinated on the soil surface with a lid on.
    4. Kelsae onion seeds from Medwyn’s, once heat was applied to module tray: > 80% germination frequency and 16 plants transferred to 8cm pots with Levington’s John Innes No 1 compost all now have well growing first true leaves.
    5. My own tomato seeds (6 strains of old favourites so far). 100% germination of 2014 seeds. Transplants in 8cm pots now have several true leaves almost 4 weeks after sowing.
    6. My own chilli seeds.

    Germinating onion seed in a local garden centre’s MPC has been more variable and I’m not sure whether it’s the compost, the seeds or simply sowing too early in the calendar year that’s at issue. Leek modules have done OK in the same compost…..

    1. Nice results here Rhys. For your onion seed, last para, that sounds like the seed, if leeks germinated alright.

      1. Yes: I got enough Sturons to transplant out three rows of 10 and two rows of clumps, now under fleece with early carrots and parsnip. Big question is whether to sow a back up set in early April in case the early ones prove weak…

        Add celery seeds from Real Seeds now to the list above of Levington’s JIS germinating well. Not sure of percentage yet but I sowed 40 modules with 3 or 4 seeds and 30 have germinated one or more seeds within 10 days with more appearing daily.

        First lettuces transplanted out 21st, currently living under bell cloches at night and doing very well. Second set should go out by the end of the month. The third lot will be the first PACA, hopefully for picking from early June to mid August with a final lot from mid August until the first frosts. Amazing how 1sqm of actively harvested ground should provide daily salads for 6 months, albeit 2sqm with lettuces growing for a few months….

  7. What a breath of fresh air! Thanks for this direct and detailed guide Charles! I’ve just taken on an allotment and confess I am confused and overwhelmed by what to do and when. This is perfect. Thanks.

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