What a wet winter! We have struggled to get much done outside in the market garden this winter, our polytunnels are looking very weed free and productive though, as we have been finding shelter as much as we can!
We are in the bottom of a valley on heavy clay soil that doesn’t drain very quickly. Through the winter we need at least two weeks of dry weather even to dry the grass out enough so that we can drive a tractor about to move compost to where it is needed. It turns out that two weeks of dry weather is pretty rare in the winter in Devon. The heavy rain takes its toll on the soil if it is not covered with growing plants or mulched in some way. The soil becomes compacted and leaches nutrients—a sight often seen in fields that have grown maize and left bare overwinter. Ideally we sow green manures—either undersowing squash and courgettes with low growing clovers and trefoil in the summer, or sowing rye and other cereals, along with phacelia in the autumn to cover the soil overwinter. However, sometimes it is even too wet to prepare the ground to sow these green manures in the autumn. We usually mulch heavily in autumn with compost on beds that we intend to plant early in the year and then cover them with black plastic to give more protection from the rain.
One thing that we have always had trouble with is our paths. We raise our beds up a little to give the plants a slightly deeper soil to root into, but often the paths are waterlogged and compacted going through the autumn and into the winter. Something that we have started doing on paths next to our no dig beds is laying down cardboard and then a couple of inches of semi composted woodchip. This initially provides a good surface to walk on, meaning that we can access beds to harvest from or mulch a lot more easily. Long term the woodchip will be broken down further and encourage more biological activity in the soil not only in the pathways but also in the beds. We are starting to think of the pathways not just as a means to access beds, but also a source of fertility for the vegetables growing in the beds. The woodchip will encourage fungal activity in the soil, and the mycchorizal associations between the plants and the fungi will give the plants greater access to nutrients and water throughout the year. The cardboard and woodchip will act as a weed suppressant and so weed control in the paths should also be easier, and hopefully the paths will become less of a burden and more part of the whole growing system.
Simple techniques like this make a huge difference in the garden—not only to the productivity of the space, but also making it a more appealing place to be. It is not great wallowing in the waterlogged paths, and always feels like we are doing more damage when we walk on them when they are wet. Walking on woodchipped paths on the other hand is great—it creates a sort of spongey effect and means that half the field isn’t stuck to your boots by the time you get to the other end of the path.
Now that March is upon us, it is time for seed sowing to begin in earnest, and everything will start to get a bit busier in the garden. As soon as the soil begins to dry out we will be preparing beds for planting the spring crops, as well as finishing off that over ambitious winter job list…
WHAT TO SOW THIS MONTH: turnips, chard, spinach, salad leaves—chervil, buckshorn plantain, lettuce, burnet, peashoots, anise hyssop, kales, mustards, agretti, sorell, summer purslane & goosefoot (end of month). Radish, fennel, courgettes (end of month), spring onions, cucumbers, dill coriander, peas and mangetout. We sow all of these into trays in the propagating tunnel to be planted out in April mostly.
WHAT TO PLANT THIS MONTH:
OUTSIDE: salads—mustards, rockets etc., lettuce, peas, broad beans, potatoes, early kale.
INSIDE: If you sowed any early salad crops for a polytunnel or glasshouse they can go in at the beginning of March. Also successions of peas and spring onions will continue to be planted.
OTHER IMPORTANT TASKS THIS MONTH: If the weather dries, continue preparing beds for the spring by mulching with compost. Keep on top of the seed sowing, but don’t sow too much of anything—think about sowing successionally rather than doing one big sowing in early Spring. Things that are perfectly suited to successions include all salad leaves, spring onions, peas, beans, beetroot, chard, kale, carrots, fennel, radish and annual herbs.