Home & Shop Companion #0008
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
Between Christmas and New Year, I like to slow down, to have time to read and spend time with the family, but there are two gardening jobs that I like to do too. Pruning the fruit trees, which is easily forgotten, is one, though sometimes it is too cold at that time of year. The other is an inside job, going through packets of seeds and the new seed catalogues to work out what I need before the new year’s growing season.
This year the weather was mild, so I pruned the trees, but the seed sorting got left and forgotten as I started a new project in the workshop. Then on the 22nd of February, prompted by the shocking news of the spread of Corona virus in Italy, I put my seed order in while things were still running as normal. I’ve grown a garden every year since I was twenty-four; I like to be outside, I like the freshness of the produce and the measure of independence that growing it gives me, but this year the possibility of supplies of fresh vegetables becoming erratic sharpened my intentions. For me, growing a good garden this year is partly self-interest, but it is also true that the more any of us can grow, whether just for ourselves, or some extra for neighbours or to sell, the more is left in the shops for those who can’t. The new circumstances have also changed other people’s priorities, with many digging up parts of their gardens for the first time, so much so, that the demand is stretching the supply of seeds. So this year I have been sharing my spare half packets of seeds with friends and family.
Even though the seeds arrived a couple of days after being ordered, the vegetable garden at home was running late because of the wet winter. But being smaller than the garden patch in the field, it was easier to catch up, so by mid-March I had the broad beans in, I had forked the weeds out of the beds for peas and potatoes and covered them with fleece to warm up the soil. At the same time, I washed the greenhouse glass, inside and out, not my favourite job, but it looks much better and lets more light in, and sowed lettuce, pak choi, cabbage, spinach, mizuna and radish, and started off the tomatoes in the house.
In the field, the day after planting the potatoes, I planted onions. I only ever plant two rows for our own use, but because of the extra potato row this year, I had less space for onions, so made the rows narrower than usual, but still wide enough for a horse and cultivator to go between them. I mark out the rows for onions with a push hoe which I bought in a junk shop for £15. [about $25] It has three tines, but I use two to mark out, set as wide as they will go, then I plant in every third row. Compared with a row marker of the correct distance, I know this takes more time in walking up and down, and maybe someday I will make one.
Just like when making a row with horses, the difficult part is getting the first row straight, because with the wheel hoe you can’t quite see the wheel as you look ahead at your mark. I grow onions from sets, because it is easier than growing from seed, and you can still get a good crop if they are planted late. After making the rows with the push hoe, I plant the sets about 8” apart by hand. In the past I did this bending over, but now I go along on my hands and knees planting both rows as I go. Then to cover them and hide them from the birds, who tend to pull them out and drop them, I set two tines on the wheeled hoe a few inches apart to make 2 small furrows and in doing so, they cover the onions in between. The tines are offset to one side so that the wheel goes alongside the onions and doesn’t squash any, and for the same reason I avoid walking on the row.
With the onions and potatoes planted, I started thinking about the root vegetables. Since this was the patch last to be ploughed and worked down, it still retained some moisture, but hoping for some rain, I thought I would wait a while before sowing. But after a week, the weather forecast on Good Friday morning gave no rain for the following week, so I decided to sow anyway. For the root vegetables I use the same procedure to mark the rows as the onions, only this year I followed each row with a single tine mounted centrally on the wheel hoe to expose more moist soil. Usually I grow 3 rows of mangels, one of swede, half a row of parsnips and half of beetroot, but this year I increased the parsnip and beets to one row each. I always keep home saved mangold and parsnip seed in the freezer, the germination of the parsnip usually being 90%, compared with 5 or 10% for the shop bought seed. Another problem with parsnip is its slow germination, so the weeds between the rows can’t be tackled early. Taking a lead from gardeners who sprinkle a few quick growing radish seeds to mark the rows, I use mustard seeds to mark the row, which otherwise I use as a quick growing green manure, and weed them out later when I thin the parsnips.
Once all the seeds are sown, I go back with the wheel hoe to cover the seeds, in the same manner as the onions, except I mount the two tines equidistant from the wheel, and run the wheel on top of the seeds to push them down before the small waves of soil from the tines cover them. To keep pressure on the wheel and an even covering of soil over the seeds by keeping the hoe at the same angle, I hold the hoe handles further down than usual, resting the loop of the handle on my belly or belt, so I can push down quite hard, and just creep along the row, putting each foot just in front of the other to press down the soil.
It’s now been a little over a week since I sowed the roots, and thankfully it has rained, but we could still do with some more. Hopefully the shoots will appear soon, like they have in the neighbouring patches, a shimmer of green showing where the oats have come through, a sign that spring is well under way.
Hope you’re all keeping well and are using this strange time as best you can,
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.