Overwintered spinach and Broad bean plants

Mid March 2020, catch weeds tiny, set seedlings deep, sowing no dig, weather now live

It’s mild weather here and growth is way ahead of normal. We have not yet finished pruning apple and pear trees, roses and penstemons. Plus new weeds are germinating. It’s time for that first light hoeing or raking, on a breezy dry day.

Now is good for sowing tomatoes, celery and celeriac under cover. And carrots, parsnips, early potatoes, onion sets outside.

For timing of sowings, Homeacres ‘official’ zone is 8, but in reality it’s closer to 6. Similar sowing dates say to Kentucky US. The main weather difference to continental climates is we have more constancy of temperatures, thanks to the sea being 35 miles away, both sides. So far in March, the low is -2C/28F and the high is 15C/59F. See link to the weather feed below.

Weed strike

This term means disturbing weed seedlings, when they are so small you don’t even see some of them. New weeds will die in place when they are at two-leaf stage or younger, so before they have a root system strong enough to help them survive being moved or damaged.

Use a hoe or rake to move just the top cm or half inch. The photos show how there are so many more new weeds on dug, disturbed soil.

Propagation and pricking out

Someone wrote to me, after seeing my propagation 3 video and he had then “dared” to prick out lettuce:  For years, I been told that this is a no no for lettuce. Thanks for sharing the info, my lettuce are doing fine.

All seedlings can be pricked out. The only issue is a small damage to tap roots, but seedlings quickly recover. So it’s best not to prick out carrot and parsnip – they will grow but then you have short roots at harvest.


Go deep! I make holes deep enough for the modules’ root system to nestle below soil level, with stems thus supported and effectively shortened. Leggy plants become sturdy.

We don’t fill the holes: that happens with time as it rains and thanks to weather and birds.

Small garden

Through winter the workload is very small, just the lovely harvests of lambs lettuce, swedes, carrots, chervil, leeks, spinach and kale. Now is suddenly time to set out new transplants of peas and radish – see the video filmed 4th March. Then within 2-3 weeks we shall transplant onions, beetroot and lettuce, and sow carrot.

Lat year this small garden was photographed by Jason Ingram for a monthly feature in Which? Gardening, so that’s in every magazine until December.

Sowing direct

These photos are from 2019, since I have not sown any carrots yet. It will be next week I hope. See my online course 2 for more about sowing and transplanting no dig.

No dig sowing is pretty quick – rake the surface level to knock out not any larger lumps. Now draw drills with a hoe or the end of a rake, say 1.5cm/half inch deep. I take carrot seed in the palm of my hand, then use fingers to dribble it across the rows. You can also sow a few radish seed say every 5cm/2in, to mark the lines and have an extra harvest.

The value of overwintering vegetable plants

Growth of new seedlings is slow in early spring, but overwintered plants have strong roots and are growing relatively fast now. Use my now-reduced Calendar as a reminder to sow spinach 10th August, salads for undercover in September,  and broad beans early November. Among many sowings all year.

Minimise slug habitat

Slugs can be a problem for new seedlings. My two main preventative measures are:

1 No dig, ensures no harm to predators and less soil alcohol attracting slugs.

2 Minimum hiding places, no wooden sides to beds, tidy garden, no straw mulch, only compost

Weather and broad/fava beans

I had covers on my broad beans over winter, mainly as wind protection, and the Thermacrop did a good job. It’s stronger than fleece and did not tear in the gales. Now the beans are 30cm/1ft tall and growing rapidly, need open air.

They are earlier than usual, so far, thanks to the mild weather. I am monitoring that more closely with a new Davis weather station, and there is now a live feed to my website. Data there has been collected since 6th March 2020.

Johnson Su bioreactor

These two professors working in Texas and California have perfected a recipe for composting wood chip in a highly fungal manner. I have wanted for a while to make such a ‘bio-reactor’, and last week we did after a tree surgeon dropped off a tonne or so of fresh wood chip.

It’s now in the enclosure and fully moist, but very woody with little green leaf. The temperature was briefly 50C/120F but is now 28C/82F. It’s on the north side of Homeacres house, a damp spot. It will stay in that pile for a year, then we shall see.

Weedkiller in hay

A reminder about the small risk of aminopyralid weedkiller, sometimes found in horse manure after the horses ate poisoned hay. If unsure about using horse manure, you can test by growing broad beans in pots or modules filled with the manure.

The photos show what happens if it’s a mild dose, with new leaves curling inwards and growth then stopping.

Questions to Charles reveal prevalent misunderstandings.

My worry about laying cardboard around established fruit bushes is that bindweed etc will probably still find its way through the gaps where their main stems come through. I also wondered if the bushes would benefit at all from the compost on top of the card – I.e. would the nutrients leach through the card to their roots,

My Answer:
Compost is much more than “nutrients washing down”. That is what fertiliser does. Compost is about feeding and stimulating soil’s natural process, which empowers everything else, including plant roots’ ability to find food and moisture.

Mulches such as cardboard and compost do not stop weed growth 100%. More like 50-99%, depending how thoroughly you mulch, and the vigour of existing weed roots. With bindweed for example, you need to keep pulling the new shoots, otherwise it will recolonise your mulched area. Mulches/covers (including compost) weaken new growth of existing weeds, making it easier for you to eliminate bindweed et al.

1) Should we do raised beds or just cardboard + compost (got some conflicting opinions in our household)

2) Should we fence the veg patch in? We have a chicken wire fence on one side, wooden fence on the other and brick walls on the remainder.

3) One of our house mates thinks we should sieve the compost before sowing seeds, but we didn’t do that when we sowed at Homeacres, are we ok to sow straight into the compost you gave me?

4) What should we plant now other than onions, leeks..

My answers:
No need for raised beds unless you want the extra work and to buy materials + risk of more slugs hiding behind the wood

Fence only if animals are coming to eat!

Sieve – why sieve?! They say it in old fashioned books! I never do.

Read my sowing timeline

65 thoughts on “Mid March 2020, catch weeds tiny, set seedlings deep, sowing no dig, weather now live

  1. Hello there
    I have taken over an allotment plot which seems to be one third Spanish bluebells. Is there a recommended no dig method for eradication?

    1. Gosh.
      Best timing for mulch to exclude light is when perennial weeds are making most new leaves, so from early winter to early summer. A bit late now, they will reappear but I would somehow work that in (black polythene maybe), after some mulching and cropping this summer & autumn.

  2. Hi Charles,

    The Johnson-Su Bioreactor is terribly intriguing. Are you installing the irrigation line on top of it or relying on your abundant rainfall?

  3. Hi Charles,

    I am currently setting up an allotment for my first (proper) year of growing veg – I’ve been getting in compost as and when I can for the last several months, but still not completely covered all I want to!

    What with the current events going on, I’m unable to get hold of a decent amount of compost, and my own is not ready for use yet.

    I was wondering if you had any advice on what I might be able to do to get planting in the areas not yet covered, while also following the no-dig ethos?

    Thank you!

    (And keep up the good work!)

    1. Cheers Rhys.
      Spread any organic matter you can scrounge, then cardboard or polythene on top and plant potatoes through holes of slits.
      Weeds will die, some soil improvement and some harvest 🙂

  4. Hi Charles,

    It’s great to see you busy and working hard in these unprecedented times. I have one simple question…

    Upon looking at your videos and books you talk about only planting carrots and parsnips outside. Is the way of planting the same for both? You talk a lot about carrots due to their small seed size. Would you plant parsnips any deeper or in a different way.

    Hoping to get mine in at the weekend following the advice on your calendar.

    Thanks again for all you do.


    1. Thanks Charlie and I sow them both the same, drills about 1-1.5cm deep or half inch below soil/surface level

  5. Hey Charles,
    Thanks for the great blog post, and all the wonderful free learning resources. I can’t get enough of your youtube channel! Your passion and knowledge really shines though, I’ve got my partner and friends all hooked on No Dig, because of your great videos!

    I am making a new garden this spring, just moved this past January, and this will be my first time making a No Dig garden from the very beginning. I used to dig up all the weeds to make the beds and slightly fluff the soil, but I’m so excited to just lay down some cardboard and 6in of compost and get to planting!

    I’m wondering what you recommend for bed dimensions? I’m thinking about 3′ wide beds with 1.5′ paths or 2.5′ wide beds with 1′ paths. The length will probably be around 12′. I may have to fence the whole garden in because of deer/woodchuck (I live in Maine in the US) so I’m thinking a large 3′ path on the outside edges and down the middle for ease of access with a wheelbarrow full of compost. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thank you and I hope you and your loved ones are staying well and healthy during this crazy time!
    Kaela from Maine

    1. Hello Kaela and this all sounds excellent.
      I would go for 3’6″ to 4′ beds and 1’3″ paths.
      But it’s your garden.
      Maybe 2′ around edges and down the middle, should be enough.
      I wish you every success there.

  6. Hi Charles,
    first of all, I am sending you my deepest gratitude for having you as the great teacher that you are!

    I am a young mother, trying to grow delicious and healthy vegetables for my family. This is my second year of gardening, and I am trying to follow your method, as much as I can, to go from there. Especially since I seem to live in a similar climate as yours, I enjoy learning from you.

    One question that I now have, though (and I couldn’t find an answer to it in any of your videos that saw, or any of your books that I have here), is:

    After sowing undercover, I now planted out onions, radish and peas. My question: Should I always water plants in after planting them outside? Even at this time of year? March, here in South Sweden (at the coast), is starting to dry up, it feels like. The first centimeter or two at the surface of the compost in my beds feel really dry. Under that I feel moderate moisture. It hasn’t rained for some days….

    I hope to find some good advice on this.

    I wish you all the best, and am very much looking forward to see how this season will unfold.

    Best greetings from Sweden,

    1. Hi Caroline. how lovely to receive your message and good luck with 2020 season.
      Yes I would give a little water at planting time, unless it rains. My online course has most details on that.
      Definitely worth watering from now as it could be 3-4 weeks dry, especially for you, big anticyclone 🌷

      1. Thank you Charles,
        also about the hint to your online course.
        All of the plants received water now, and they seem happy about it.
        Oh I am so much looking forward this year in the garden.
        I wish you all the best this season, too.

  7. As ever Charles, it’s a delight to read your inspirational mid month update and other readers comments an questions.

    I was in a local garden centre buying compost yesterday. It was a calm and beautiful atmosphere with flowering spring plants and no queues. I joked to the sales assistant “ no panic buying here then”. She laughed and said the weekend had been very very busy with people buying vegetable seeds and compost.

    What a great reaction to CV, I hope these new gardeners find their way to your web site and videos as veg growing can be a bit of a challenge. My best tip is to Be organised – keep a diary of dates seeds are sown, label the pots and trays and have a realistic plan of where they will grow in the garden

    1. Lynn that is good to hear and thanks for sharing good news.
      And your tips!
      We just filmed a Start No Dig video, to encourage first-time vegetable gardeners. Releasing Sunday I hope.

  8. Hi Charles,

    My question is about dibbers. I am taking on your recommendations to plant deeply. I have the Maia dibber from Implementations. This makes a very deep tapered depression. Does this still work for your method? I am sorry to see that the dibber in your shop is not available widely.
    Many thanks

    1. A good question Beverley because I feel their dibber is too pointy, maybe designed for the firmer soil of dig world.
      I agree, why are long wooden dibbers not available!
      Shipping is our problem, difficult and expensive and Royal Mail don’t like them!

    2. For years I have used old spade or fork handles as a long handles fibber. These are ideal as the end can be shaved down to just the diameter that’s needed

    3. Beverley

      I bought one of those too and find the same as you.

      One possible solution could be simply taking the wooden handle and releasing it from the copper covering, then sawing off around 5-7cm from the tapered end. this would I think create the shape you desire.

      My copper covering actually detached itself one time I was stirring dynamised horn manure (the handle is a perfect size for doing that), so I use it without the copper on from time to time.

      I do not of course know if the copper attachment would remain on a shortened handle, but it may be worth thinking about?

      1. Thank you all for your helpful suggestions. Rhys, I will look at this. However, Charles, had you considered doing a shortened version of yours – similar length to the Maia would probably be easy to send through the post.

  9. Hi Charles ( me again!)
    Interesting to compare your autumn sown Broad beans with mine. I covered them with Fleece to Prevent cats using the beds as a toilet . Removing the Fleece I find they are are About 20cm tall and are already flowering – surely this is not Right??

    1. That is an impressive size for mid March and you will have early beans. It’s unusual until recently.
      Some of those flowers may yet get frosted, no worries because plants then make new flowers.

    2. Peter

      I have not covered mine at all and a few are already flowering. It is obviously this mild first 10 weeks of 2020 we have had.

      I am based in NW London.

  10. good day, Charles
    i am starting anew with a large garden area on the farm of my nephew(upstate mew york). he is organic dairy farming and is prepping my garden area with cow manure which is average 3-4 months aged. any issues here to be concerned about as i am about 6-7 weeks from putting seeds or plants in the ground? thanks for your expertise. Doug

    1. Cheers Doug.
      It depends how aerated the manure heap has been, how well decomposed is the manure. Is probably ok if not idea.
      Best would be to spread 2in of say spent mushroom compost on top, even if that is not old. It’s finer texture and easier for seedlings to root into.
      I wish you well.

  11. Oh yes, another thing: Your post on the hotbed for seedlings inspired me to make use of the heating, very large woodchip pile near my garden: I’ve tucked the trays of germinated plants onto the top, under fleece to make room in my coldframe at home. The temperature just below the surface read 37C. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Susan

      If you have a good grass lawn, you will find that you can create a hotbed in late March with the first grass cuttings, mixed in with a few other degradable goodies.

      I have successfully germinated things like squash outdoors sat on new compost heaps in April before now.

  12. I trialled the Johnson Su bioreactor last spring. I built two units.
    Wire compost cage sat on pallet
    Lined with cardboard
    Fence posts at 12in distance inside the cage
    Filled just like a normal compost (grass clippings and woodchip)
    I also watered in EM (effective microbes)
    Removed fence posts once settled after 2-3 days
    Watered whenever I remembered in the summer
    Worked a treat, is now my potting soil! I shall also use it as compost tea ingredient and to inseminate future composts.
    Will I do it again? Probably, if I have the green waste on hand & a day to spare. I might join the two cages into one if I can get a friend to load it with the tractor bucket. My “normal” compost sits in the chicken run, so the hens can help themselves & scratch it up for me.

    1. Ah wow you did well Susan and thanks for sharing. A wonderful result.
      We had no greens so it’s only wood chips, may take two years!

      1. Hi both of you. thanks for this post and this coment. I got a big load of woodchips and reading I’m going to try Johnson Su bioreactor with the material I have (thank Susan to tell about fence post, good idea). what’s happen if I mix the woodchips with some fresh manure? Will I acelerate the process. i’m saying this just to don’t use EM effective microbes.
        Many Thanks.

  13. Hello Charles, following spine surgery last year I am now trying no dig. I think it’s a great approach. My beds are very out of control, even after less than a year of neglect but I’m concerned about using cardboard on the veg beds as well as the flower beds as a while ago I read it has a lot of glue in it. Do you use it on veg as well and is it safe, as I am also selling externally. Thank you.

    1. Hi Sarah and yes there is glue in cardboard, and opinions vary about it’s quality, some say it biodegrades. I cannot discover more than that and since I use/recommend it for year one, weedy ground only, it’s not a huge input.
      No dig can work without using it on weeds, but you will have a few more to pull in the first spring and summer, I wish you well.

  14. Hi Charles. I’m in year 2 of gardening after reading your month by month gardening book. I’m slowly building up equipment, I’ve requested a second compost bin for mother’s day so that I can turn over the contents of the one I have. When lifting up the hatch at the bottom its dark brown but looks quite moist, is this right?

    Also, I was wondering whether I can cover seedlings with cling film until I can get hold of some propagator lids/covers? I’ve cut up plastic bottles to cover my small pots of seedlings but need something to cover my trays.

    Many Thanks


    1. That sounds organised Keeley :).
      Yes moist is fine, but not soggy. Grab a handful, squeeze it and if more than 2 drops of water come out, that is too wet. Add scrumpled paper to balance. Or spread on a bed.
      Cling film may be too hot and humid – nothing is better.

    2. Hi Keeley,

      If you have a local Wilko store they sell clear seed tray propagador tops – good quality for a reasonable price.

      All good wishes for your second year

  15. Hi Charles and thanks for a great post.
    What a good temperature range for seedlings once they have been pricked out?
    I have just bought a Propagator for my balcony complete with a heating pad and grow Lights set in the lid. The heating pad has an adjustable thermostat but yesterday afternoon I noticed that with the lid on the temperature within the Propagator was 34°C although the pad was switched off. The lid Needs to be on in the morning when I leave for work and the outside temperature on the balcony is only 4°C. My worry is that my seedlings might get cooked I get back home….

    1. Cheers Peter and 34C is ok but close to hot enough! I don’t know absolute limit.
      Maybe just prop up one end with a pencil to increase ventilation.

      1. Good idea, though eventually it dawned on me that thanks to the grow Lights the Propagator does not Need to sit in the sun (!) so I popped it in the shade under the table where the temperature inside reached a more sensible 24°.
        How Long do frost tolerant seedlings such as lettuce Need to be kept in warmth under cover? I think somewhere you recommend 2 weeks but not sure if I’ve got that right …..

  16. I’ve noticed your PV and I read the generation from mine from time to time. Bright Jan day can do 10 kw but average was 2.5kw. In Feb average 4.5kw. This is actual harvested light available to crops. Arrays vary in size so need to be adjusted to kw. sq. m but it’s a good way to compare sun energy received around the country. Could we share that data? Michael.

  17. Hi Charles
    Have just acquired a small polytunnel and plan to erect next weekend (21st Mar 2020). I’m keen to grow some tomatoes in there but any advice on what else? Maybe aubergines? Should I be sowing these now?

    1. Sounds good. Yes check the Sowing Timeline under Learn – aubergines, peppers etc.
      But wait a month before sowing cucumbers.
      Hope it goes well.

  18. I am now in two minds about what to do about beds. I was all set to build raised box beds (like the one you did on YouTube a couple of years ago) straight on top of the grass I have in my garden. Now I am wondering if I just save that money and go for the cardboard then compost straight on top of the grass instead? What depth of compost would you recommend for the latter, Charles?

    Thanks, Brian

    1. Cheers Brian and yes compost is the better investment.
      If it’s lawn, thick cardboard with 10cm/4in on top will kill the grass.
      For wilder weeds with stronger roots, same but say 6in compost.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to reply. Really appreciate your advice and information shared on here and on YouTube.


        1. Hi I’ve over enthusiastically planted cucumber! I’ve took the seeds out of the compost and popped back in the packed and now in the fridge. However they had started to sprout. Can I pause the sowing and will they re grow from where I stopped them?

          1. I never hear of that Emily and don’t know.
            Cucumbers do not like cold and are more likely to rot.
            If expensive seed, worth trying to grow on, for growing under cover not outside.
            I sow mid April.

  19. Hi Charles
    Just watched your video on the small garden. Didn’t know that I could use my cavolo nero plants as “brocolli” when they start to go to seed. Thank you – I now have an extra harvest.

  20. Thanks for a great mid March post. How damp should the compost be kept after sowing seeds in module trays?

    1. Hi Maureen, damp but not soggy.
      Say water to full moisture before sowing, then no water for 2-4 days depending where the trays are eg glass over helps if on a windowsill.

  21. I must say Charles that my home beds have already had two ‘weed strikes’ this year: once in January and once in late February! Both occurred after the transient unusually warm spells triggered germination of various things (including my Welsh Onion seeds left outdoors in modules to germinate when they felt spring was arriving!)

    I do not actually have many weeds emerging right now, unlike most years when this is precisely when they do start emerging.

    All my germinations this year seem to be doing extraordinarily well, including home saved Alderman pea seeds (two sowings for shoots and pods), which were saved in 2017 and have germinated 95%+ in 2020 (137/144 for shoots). It just shows how well home seeds keep: the original purchase only germinated at 70%. I sowed a few home-saved 2012 tomato Shirley seeds to see how they were and 6 weeks later the plants are as healthy as anything I have grown. Astonishing.

    There are as many myths in science and medicine as there are in gardening, Charles. My 10 years at the research bench taught me that. So please be healthily sceptical about what ‘Coronavirus diagnostic tests’ actually say: they are detecting viral DNA through PCR amplification, which can only be quantitative if done carefully, with absolute attention to detail and if all sample collection, processing and storage is done in areas rigorously free of any endemic viral DNA. Given the pressures and speed required, people should be cautious before assuming that ‘presence of Covid19 DNA’ actually means that much. Viral load is the only important metric for disease and in epidemics or panics, the ability to measure that accurately en masse goes by the by.

    One of the commonest myths which should be busted is that presence of viral DNA means that you are ill. All kinds of viruses can and do sit around in our bodies doing not much more than being like a snake lying in the long grass. Yes, they occasionally cause diseases, sometimes fatal, but the vast majority of folks are asymptomatic. EBV CAN cause cancer, it CAN cause glandular fever in teenagers. But most of the time it does nothing. The same can be said of papillomaviruses, adenoviruses etc etc.

    Yes be vigilant, yes be hygienic.

    But retain a sense of what the right questions are to ask about viral diseases and whether we are having a story line pushed at us that is far more apocalyptic than the reality would justify……..

    1. Hey Rhys this is really helpful and reassuring.
      I have been feeling that the problem is more fear than disease!
      Great that your seedlings are strong 😀

    2. In my area in North Carolina, USA, it’s a bit like a ghost town. We’re all staying home and places are closing left-and-right. I refuse to hoard but am actually quite happy at home.
      If I understand what you are saying, the testing is questionable, which makes sense and seems unsurprising. Still the death rate and hospitals running out of space make me think this is a very very big deal. Agreed?

  22. I recently read some comments on YouTube about concerns regarding over-composting and consequent leaching of nutrients leading to an imbalance in the soil. As I am busy setting my allotment up for no dig and laying layers of brown cardboard topped by compost and other well rotted materials, I was was a bit concerned about this. Do you have any advice?

    1. Yes I advise you to ignore such comments, unless they are clearly from studies of no dig soil.
      The higher biological activity in no dig ensures retention and balanced use of nutrients, and nutrients held in the soil in insoluble form.
      Here my compost application is not huge in terms of growing two high-yielding crops a year. And even a year after applying compost, leaves are full of colour.
      Check out Singing Frogs Farm too.

  23. Didint know we could sow carrots already! will do so this weekend. Do you cover the seed with fleece or leave it exposed? same question for parsnips and potatoes too
    thanks again for another great post

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