Hoe, hoe, hoe. It’s time for our inner gardeners to come out of hibernation! Our very own Gnome is here to help us sort out Spring.
SPRING will take us by surprise any minute now: don’t panic! We need to pace ourselves and prioritise: It’s time to clean and tidy and prepare everything; Empty the compost bins onto the veggie beds and then put some well tethered cloches in place to warm the soil before sowing later in the month. Finish planting and pruning trees and shrubs, [fruiting and ornamental,] then feed and mulch them. Maybe draw out a plot plan including best sowing and planting dates. Don’t work or walk on the soil if it’s frozen or too wet; frosts can occur as late as early May. Nothing much will grow if the temperature doesn’t get above 7C, and seeds will rot in cold wet soil.
BEDS: harvest the last of the winter crops and put all debris in newly emptied compost bins; add organic matter to soil, mulch where and when appropriate, dig in green manures 1 month before sowing crops; rake seedbeds smooth; hoe as weeds appear; apply seaweed meal or other organic fertilizer 2 weeks before sowing. Carrots and parsnips don’t want compost or manure. Complete any essential structural repairs & clear overgrown corners.
SOWING & PLANTING: early spuds and onion sets in mid-March; main-crop spuds and red onion sets in early to mid-April. Under cloches, if it is warm enough, from late March: beetroot, carrots, parsnips, turnips, radishes, leeks and peas. In modules in the greenhouse: lettuce, rainbow chard, spinach and summer cabbage. March in heat: tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers, celery, and celeriac. April in heat: French and runner beans, sweet-corn, courgettes and squash. Harden off and plant out in early May.
When you sow make a drill, very shallow for small seeds which mustn’t go more than 1cm deep, then water it, sow the seeds thinly, cover with dry soil and firm, then pop the cloches back and leave them in place until the seedlings emerge, re-water only if the weather is very warm and sunny. If they don’t come up, due to lack of warmth perhaps, they can be sown again in April or May. [Seeds will just rot in cold wet ground.] The reasons for covering with dry soil are to deter molluscs, prevent evaporation and increase warmth. If you are using fleece for protection, make sure it’s well tethered and supported as March is often very windy. Local forecasts are a useful indicator of suitable sowing times, don’t sow if it’s less than 10*C.
Mulching is a highly virtuous activity: the addition of bulky material to the surface of the warmed and soil, e.g. well-rotted manure, compost, (though not if it’s likely to be full of weed seeds), spent hops, seaweed; to suppress weeds, to preserve warmth and moisture, to provide optimum living conditions for worms and micro-organisms, ultimately providing nutrients and humus for the plants to thrive.
A word or two on fertility: seaweed meal can be scattered at a couple of handfuls per m2; entire it can be used as a mulch or dug in (wash the salt off or gather it after rain). It contains a wide range of trace elements, contains reasonable amounts of nitrogen and potassium, and also improves soil structure as its gelatinous nature encourages the formation of soil crumbs. Seaweed concentrate is diluted and watered in or used as a foliar spray. Liquid feeds made by steeping comfrey and nettles in water are also beneficial, especially to fruiting and struggling plants, so cut and steep now to use over the next couple of months. Organic chicken manure pellets can give a boost, but too much fertility can produce lush growth more vulnerable to pests and disease, [and may cause fox activity!]; slower more robust growth is hardier and healthier. If you are just starting and haven’t had a chance to add much organic matter extra organic fertilisers may be of use initially and a regular application around fruit trees and bushes at this time of year is beneficial. However the ideal to aim for is lots of organic matter to encourage good populations of worms and micro-organisms which make the nutrients available to the plants.
So just a few words for those of you new to gardening; maybe you’ve just got an allotment and are wondering how to start, what to grow, when to sow. Think about what you like to eat, and what is easiest to grow. Spuds are simple as long as there’s some organic matter added, they can cope with weeds, in fact will smother most, need earthing up a couple of times and an occasional watering, but won’t be too fussy about exactly when they are harvested and will store well; main-crops may get blight in a wet summer, discoloured leaves which have a silvery mildew beneath, if they do swiftly chop the foliage right off and wait a couple of weeks before digging them up.
Onions from sets are easy too with few pests; beetroot and its leafy cousin chard, are reliable, but seedlings may need protection from birds and molluscs; grow rainbow chard for brightly coloured stems that glow like jewels in the sun. Beans, squash and courgettes are easy and productive but need more warmth to get going so wait until late April to sow all but broad beans which can go in now, (but only if you like to eat them). All of these need some organic matter adding to the soil.
Cabbages and other leafy crops can be started in modules and planted out as robust seedlings when they have a better chance against the birds and butterflies and molluscs. [Get one of those netting tunnels if brassicas are your delight.] A word about molluscs and seedlings; slugs and snails are greedy little blighters and will happily polish off a whole row of tiny tender plants overnight; there aren’t many effective deterrents, you can use organically acceptable slug pellets: most slug killers are now based on ferric phosphate, [available from B&Q much cheaper than from catalogues]. Once seedlings have matured, they are much less vulnerable to attack from all kinds of pests, especially if you spray them with liquid seaweed every couple of weeks.