By Ashley Wheeler
Although the pressure is off as a market gardener in January, there is still a lot to be getting on with, partly inside and partly outside. Making the most of the downtime by getting things in order before the chaos of spring and summer begins means that we are prepared for changes, often caused by difficult weather. Rather than fire fighting, we can consult our well made plans and adapt if we need to. Being organised in this way is helpful in managing the stress of market gardening through the spring and summer, and although often times the work itself can bring untold benefits to our mental health and wellbeing, it is not always rosy, and the “living the good life” idea is not an achievement that we have yet met after 14 years of being growers. So, any ways that we can try to manage the stress that comes with the cyclical nature of our work are well worth putting time into implementing to be able to sustain a healthy balance.
January can be a slog at times, but it can also offer up the most beautiful days of the year – those cold, crisp days with endless blue skies are hard to beat, but the muddy, cold, damp days get deep into your bones and can take up a lot of effort. Days are short, but they are getting longer, and it is well worth making time to get outside on those good weather days to prepare the garden for the spring. Some beds we plant up around mid March, and these need preparing early to make sure that all crops and weeds are killed off before planting. On our slow draining soil we cannot rely on the ground to be dry enough to cultivate by mid March so we choose to use occultation to prepare the ground. This is the process of using black plastic to block light getting to the crops and weeds and killing them. Firstly we mow or strim any crops and weeds and then sometimes apply a little compost if we feel the need, before covering the beds with double thickness silage plastic, held down with sandbags. At this time of year it can take 6-8 weeks for plants to die off under the plastic, compared to just a week or two in summer. So, it is worth taking a bit of time to do this by the end of January to prepare some of those beds that we need early on in the year.
This technique of preparing beds means that living roots are in the soil for as long as possible through the autumn and winter, rather than clearing the beds and mulching with compost. Many of the beds were also sown with green manures through late summer and autumn, so they have been covered with a diversity of plants that benefits soil life. Although we are not strictly no-dig, this technique has allowed us to minimise the cultivations and over time has noticeably helped to improve soil health and drainage. We do have some dedicated no-dig beds which are treated in a similar way, but the paths are also mulched annually with semi composted woodchip. This also helps a huge amount with drainage and the difference when walking on these paths compared to cultivated beds is huge—no mucky boots at all! This sort of work is a pleasure on those cold, crisp days, but not so great on the wet days—so choose your moment!
Don’t worry if you don’t get much done in the veg garden in January, and don’t be too tempted to tidy it up too much—making sure you leave plenty of old crops and weeds as habitat for overwintering beneficial insects. But, do try and get out there—it’s important to get outside as much as possible on the short days of the year, and it often looks less appealing than it is when you are looking from inside a warm, dry house.
We have new dates for courses for 2024, focusing on Salad Growing year round and a more general Introduction to Market Gardening with two other growers in East Devon and Somerset—Ruth at Fresh and Green near Ottery St Mary and Rita Oldenbourg and Adi Beer of Pitney Farm Market Garden. To find out more go to trillfarmgarden.co.uk
WHAT TO SOW THIS MONTH: It is still too early to sow most veg, but we will be sowing a few sugarsnap peas, lettuce, spring onions and agretti on a heated propagation bench for early tunnel production. But, there is no rush for sowing anything until the end of February/early March.
WHAT TO PLANT THIS MONTH:
Nothing to plant this month (unless you still haven’t planted garlic, in which case it’s not too late!)
OTHER IMPORTANT TASKS THIS MONTH: Keep working through your winter job list of getting everything sorted for the season ahead. Soon enough it will be time to start sowing in earnest, so the more prepared for this the better. Do your seed ordering now if you haven’t already—and try to use some of the great smaller seed companies growing open pollinated seed in the UK such as Real Seeds and Vital Seeds. Make sure you have gone through all of your seed packets, and throw out any that don’t last more than a year. We find that parsnip seed is no good after a year, and parsley, carrots, spring onions and leek seed doesn’t last particularly long so we tend to buy seed each year for these.