Home & Shop Companion #0014
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
This last week has been hot with clear skies and bright sunshine; definitely straw-hat weather. I am a keen and consistent wearer of hats, a cloth cap in winter and a straw hat in summer. In between, there are a few weeks when I’m not sure what to wear, but I do need some head covering as I have got to that stage in life when, if the growth on the top of my head was a cover crop, you’d be thinking about ploughing it up and starting again!
With one of the cover crops in the field I have a similar situation. Usually the vegetable patch would come out of winter with a healthy stand of overwintering rye and vetch to be ploughed in before growing vegetables, but this spring, due to an injured shoulder last autumn, there were only weeds growing, so besides getting the ground ready for sowing vegetables, I needed to establish a green manure in two of the four beds.
Because I already had the seed, I sowed winter oats. Spring oats might have been better, but I need to be careful with my outgoings this year, and I remember on the farm where I learnt to work horses, they sowed winter oats even in spring, partly because the straw was stronger so it remained more upright, making for easier cutting with the binder. The first patch of oats which was sowed in the last week of March is doing well, but the second patch, sown only ten days later when the ground was already drying out fast, is less good and had a heavy infestation of weed seedlings, mostly redshank. I did try harrowing the worst part of it last week, but the oats were still too small, and the weeds, only an inch or so tall, were too well established for the light harrow to knock them out. So last week I took a cultivator through it to kill off everything. I am not sure what I will do with the oats yet, but there are several options. If they get too much weed competition early on, I can plough or cultivate them in, in which case I would probably follow with a bare fallow to reduce the weed population. Left for longer, I could plough them in when very leafy to put some nitrogen back into the soil or wait until they are stalky to increase the soil carbon. Or I could cut them for oat hay, or wait until the grain is mature and harvest them by hand. I have wanted to try feeding the horses oats in the sheaf, straw and all, so perhaps this is the year to do it. Normally I feed sugar beet [without added molasses], soaked overnight before feeding as it swells up considerably, and micronized linseed. Both are fairly high in protein, so are particularly suitable to keep some weight on my old horse, but if I can grow more of my own feed it will reduce my feed bill.
The dry weather over the last six weeks has also meant that the growth of the vegetables has been slow. The potatoes in the field are not showing yet, but a few days ago I took the horse and cultivator down the furrows to loosen the soil and to tackle the weeds, and then ridged them back up again with the ridging plough. Growing next to the potatoes, the onions started from sets are now three or four inches tall.
In the roots patch, which this year is on the sandiest part of the field, and was the last to be ploughed and sown, the swedes are up, as is the mustard marking the parsnip row. The always-slow-to-germinate parsnips are nowhere to be seen, no beetroot either, and the mangels are still few and far between. In farming, and in life, there is a balance to be found between action and patience. In general, I am better at getting on with jobs that need doing than waiting patiently for things to happen. But after four weeks, enough time has elapsed for the slow germinators to have appeared, so with no rain forecast, for the first time in ten years I have been carrying buckets of water and have been using a watering can on the rows to give them some help.
In the garden at home where there is a supply of water, things are looking better. In the greenhouse, the tomatoes planted in the soil are growing away nicely and will soon need tying to canes, while the ones to go outside are getting quite big enough for their pots, and the courgette [zucchini] which I like to get started early and get to cropping early, really need planting out. I sowed the courgettes in small pots in early April, and now they are in 12“ pots, which I have been putting outside in the day to harden off and back in the greenhouse at night. I’ve hardened off tender plants for years, but only recently found out that the hardening off process lowers the water content of the leaves and increases the thickness of the cell walls, so the plants are tougher, which makes sense. As of today, cold air is coming down from the artic with the potential for frost at night so I will have to be patient and keep the courgettes and tomatoes inside a little longer.
If you, like the tomatoes, have to stay indoors a little longer too, I wish you more patience than I can sometimes muster and the motivation to get on with those things that you can still do.
Take care and keep well,
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.