February 2017 III: early sowings indoors

Sowing in February in NW London is about as early as most things benefit from. I have tried sowing onions in January and light has not been sufficient to advance the germinated seedlings well. Tomatoes develop well from January, but without a greenhouse they are ready to live outside in early April, which is often too cool to allow successful fruit set.

However, a few years of experimentation has identified some crops which benefit from a February sowing:

  1. Early tomatoes, aimed at producing a harvest in June and July (prior to the late July to late September main crop). I sow Maskotka and Red Alert in early February – the feature image above shows a 100% germination of my own seeds within 5 days, which are actually three years old!
  2. Onions, this year Kelsae (which produce very large bulbs) and van Rijnsburger (which store well).
  3. Boltardy Beetroot, the only beetroot which does not bolt with such an early sowing (aiming for crops in June and early July).
  4. Medania Spinach and Greyhound Cabbage, for harvests in May and early June.
  5. Ishikura Salad Onions, whose seeds I source from Quickcrop.

Over the years, I have tried out a variety of composts for seed germination. I have regularly used the John Innes series for tomatoes (as they pot on you go from JI Seed to JI One to JI Two before final potting out) and last year tried out Klasmann-Deilmann’s professional seed compost. This appears very expensive, but it really does germinate seeds fast, reliably and efficiently. It can be sourced much more cheaply by the pallet (around half the price of a single bag), hence buying groups will benefit hugely if sourcing this product.

The other reliable method I have used involves using Soil Blocks. How to make them is a subject in itself, and will form a new blog article later this spring. I use them routinely for germinating radish, Ishikura salad onions and used them successfully last year for Sweetcorn.

Mostly now, however, I carry out my sowings in 40 module trays (the exceptions being Kelsae onions and tomatoes, which I germinate in trays and then pick into small pots).

This year, my spinach and cabbage seedlings became long and thin (leggy) and so were transplanted into small pots with the stems below the soil surface, to allow them to become more sturdy. On a small scale, this is mildly irritating, but no commercial operation could condone such extra use of compost, time etc. So ensuring that seeds germinate well without producing leggy plants is one of February’s key challenges.

February 2017 II: treating the soil with dynamised Horn Manure

This year, I have started to use Biodynamic Preparations on my no-dig garden. Yesterday, February 21st, I applied Horn Manure to the garden, the fruit cage and the apple trees for the first time.

A small amount of the Horn Manure preparation (which I purchase from the British Biodynamic Association) is added to a small barrel of rainwater. This is then stirred until the water reaches a vortex, before changing the direction of stirring until a vortex is created in the opposite direction. You keep on doing this for one hour, a true labour of love.

I chose to use my copper dibber from Implementations, as its length and handle size were suitable. No doubt others use other things.

To relieve the boredom during this, I decided to study the water at the change of direction and noticed three things:

  1. A lot of air bubbles are created immediately after the direction change occurs.
  2. It takes about 15 seconds for the vortex to be created in the opposite direction.
  3. Setting a timetable of 60 seconds stirring in each direction added wholesome discipline to the proceedings, as well as providing a counter to reach the hour (30 stirring pairs to complete).

I then used a small brush and a pail to flick the water over the ground and the trees. Each pail just about covered the whole area once and I repeated three times. The whole thing is a bit of an act of faith, so we shall see what happens this season as a result of my labours.

The online community suggests applying Horn Manure ‘on an overcast afternoon when the soil is damp’. I was lucky that these were exactly the conditions I found on February 21st 2017, so there are no excuses for it not doing whatever magic it is supposed to do!

February 2017 I: Building a new horse manure pile

Horse Manure is a boon to urban gardeners, provided that you can get hold of it.

There are a few caveats to this:

  1. Horse Manure mixed with straw is much superior to manure mixed with wood shavings. This is because the wood shavings take much longer to rot down and, if placed on the garden, rob the soil of useful fertility whilst breaking down.
  2. Horse Manure can cause bad problems if the horses were fed on feed contaminated with aminopyralid, which causes serious problems to growing many crops.

Having said that, I have been using manure from a local stables in Northwood for 4 years and have had few problems.

Benefits from applying horse manure, particularly to infertile ground, include:

  1. An expansion in the population of earthworms in the soil.
  2. Marked improvements in crop yields of asparagus (20lb vs 12lb on our 5m  * 1m permanent bed).
  3. Ability of rhubarb and comfrey plants to thrive on fresh manure (against most traditional lores but the test of the cake is in the eating, after all).

For me, a pile of 1m*1m*1.5-2.0m requires four trips to the stables, each trip yielding 4 full bags of London Borough of Hillingdon Green Waste receptacles. Thankfully, the stables leave a manure fork in the pile, which resides conveniently at the edge of the customers’ car park.

The ideal scenario is building a pile in August and rotting for 15 months to November, before applying to the bed in which potatoes will be grown. Last summer, however, all the manure was full of wood shavings, so this year’s pile was half constructed in November and half in February, when straw-based manure was abundant.

Three days after completing the pile, the internal temperature was 55C, less than the 70C hoped for, but still a useful temperature for composting.

To learn about how horse manure piles evolve, acquire a soil thermometer and measure the temperature daily – it is quite surprising how consistent the results are. The pile is ready for turning once the temperature drops to 30C.

February 2017: a new season of growing

2017 has been a relatively benign winter in NW London: a few weeks of cold weather, but barely any snow on the ground. A brief use of a soil thermometer over the weekend of 19/20th February showed that, at 5cm depth, soil temperature was 8-9C, depending on location.

The over-wintered garlic plants, nibbled by birds during the winter, have perked up noticeably, the first obvious growing sign of the emergence from winter.

Two other two signs that spring is on the way is the first emergence of rhubarb and the first tiny green shoots on the comfrey plants. A third is the sudden emergence of green shoots on the parsnips still in the ground.

February 2017 has seen three events take place:

  1. Building a new pile of horse manure mixed with straw.
  2. Treating the undug beds with water dynamised with Horn Manure (purchased from the Biodynamic Association’s website).
  3. Sowing and transplanting the first seeds of the year indoors, namely:
    1. Spinach, peas for shoots, salad onions and cabbage.
    2. Onions and Beetroot.
    3. Early Tomatoes.
    4. Radish and turnips.

A separate post will be written for each of these three activities.