Soil is warming now and the need for fleece is falling away fast. From now on the soil will, most weeks, lose more moisture than is replenished by rain, so digging and other soil disturbance is best minimised until October comes around again. Frosts can still be expected so tender crops cannot go out yet. Soft fruit is coming into flower, a very exciting but also rather anxious time. If a sharp frost is expected fleece stands ready to be draped over vulnerable currant bushes. Happily leaves are expanding fast on my plants (they were chosen for their propensity to leaf before flower) and the leaves provide good protection unless we have a real stinger of a frost. This actually happened two years ago and the gooseberry crop amounted to six berries from six plants...
• Weeds are beginning to grow and the rake, cultivator and hoe are used to stir the soil and polish these off while still vulnerable seedlings. With dry soil hoeing will once again be effective. Uncropped ground, awaiting tomatoes and sweet corn for example will be covered with black plastic to keep it most and weed free until needed in May/June.
• Perennial weeds show their ugly heads now, but lacking much root yet are readily winkled out. The plot is patrolled with bucket, fork and trowel and each and every bindweed, creeping buttercup, dandelion, dock and tuft of couch grass is eased up and consigned to the bottom of the next compost batch never to be seen again.
• All the onions are now out except some red onions and some heat-treated onions. These are very vulnerable to bolting if set out when the weather is cold, but they must go out now. Onions need plenty of leaf by May when shortening days trigger bulb formation and scanty leaf at that time means meagre bulbs. To help them along 70g per square metre of growmore will be sprinkled evenly over the allocated area and raked in before planting the sets. A little measure containing 70g is made from an old yoghurt pot to help do this accurately – we are not talking down to the last gram here but just getting it roughly right.
• The parsnips and early carrots are up and growing under fleece. The fleece is whipped off now and the parsnips top-dressed with 70g per square metre of growmore, and the early carrots are big enough to rigorously thin, but should not need fertiliser at this time. Both crops will be carefully hoed. The next sowing of carrots will now go in –Nantes and Berlicum F1 hybrids for autumn cropping. Open-pollinated carrot cultivars are OK, but the hybrids give better colour, flavour and pest/disease resistance. Winter carrots; Autumn King and Chantenay types, will be sown as soon as these are up and thinned, probably late April. To help them along 50g per square metre of growmore will be sprinkled evenly over the allocated area raked in before carrot sowing. The seed of the early carrots was sown quite thickly in case of casualties from the weather, but now I aim for one seed every finger width and if even only one in four come up that will be just right. And I sow a little deeper – when the soil was wet and cold I aimed for finger depth (12mm) deep sowing, but with dry soils approaching I go for nearly thumb depth sowing (20mm) so the seed is in moist soil.
• The fleece that has kept the carrots and parsnips warm since sowing will now go to protect the early potatoes, beginning to show their tender heads, from frost and the carrots/parsnips will be protected from carrot fly (devastating on light sandy soils) with insect-proof mesh. I have given up on 60cm tall barriers to exclude carrot fly. They just don’t work.
• The cold weather has put me off beetroot sowing, but now the weather has warmed a long row of ‘Solo’ will go in between where Brussels sprouts are due to be set out in May. The whole brassica patch has been give 200g per square metre of dried chicken manure pellets before rotovating in addition to the generous dressing of manure allocated to this crop to ensure the plants have the very fertile conditions they need.
• Crops of spinach, rocket, lettuce and turnips have also been sown between where the Sprouts are to be planted – these are up, but lacking fleece, have made little headway yet.
• Peas and beans are now growing strongly and out-growing their netting tunnels and fleece protection from birds. The next task is to erect a kind of cage of netting held on string strung between 1.8m stakes, followed by supports of wire mesh for the peas and string and stakes for the broad beans. However children have made dens in the woods nearby and canes and timber end up there! I aim to leave it until they go back to school to build my cage. The next pea and bean sowing session will wait until the lst sowing has doubled in size, again late April is the likely target date.
• There now about 200 plants in the plant-raising area; cabbages, calabrese, celery, celeriac, cauliflowers, Brussels sprouts, herbs, kohl rabi and leeks, with a dozen pots of tender crops such as aubergines, tomatoes and peppers waiting to pot up this weekend. In the propagator a generous quantity of winter cabbage is being germinated in cell-trays, and once these are up, courgettes, French beans, runner beans, pumpkins, squash and sweet corn will be sown later in the month. With higher light levels these transplants are beginning to grow fast and Miracle-Gro liquid feed is given at least once a week – I like its high nitrogen and potassium content that will make lush, leafy, yet robust, plants ready to colonise the highly fertile soil that awaits them on the plot.