Home & Shop Companion #0025
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
Today has been one of those summer days we often get in England, and even more so in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, when the sky is grey with drizzle most of the day. So after checking the horses this morning, I spent some time in the greenhouse. We have only had the greenhouse for a few years, it feels like five years but it is probably nearer ten, but it has added another welcome dimension to the vegetable garden, making it easier to start things off in the spring and extending the season into the winter. Except for starting plants off in trays and pots in the early part of the year, everything else is in the ground, rotated through the greenhouse.
The mainstay of the greenhouse crops is tomatoes; before we had the greenhouse, I grew them outside, but half the time the crop was minimal, one year in four it came to nothing, and the last year of the four we got a good crop. Because the indoor tomatoes are so much easier, more reliable and tastier, since getting the greenhouse I have stopped growing outdoor tomatoes, except for this year.
The greenhouse is divided into three beds, one at the far end and one each side. This year the bed on the left has tomatoes, the early bed on the right had salads and other quick growing crops like pak choi, and still has some early cabbages, and the far bed has basil and cucumber. The sequence of crops sort of waltzes round the greenhouse, the early vegetable bed doing a double step as it misses out on a mid-season crop, but will be sown with Japanese onions, more salads and other tender crops in September that will last into winter, while the tomato bed will have a rest over winter before the early crops next year. The work in the greenhouse was mainly tidying up, tying the tomatoes at the top of the canes, removing the lower leaves and pulling out weeds. I usually remove the bottom foot of tomato leaves a little later to help ripening of the lower trusses, but with the present damp conditions, I need to keep the air flow to reduce the risk of fungal diseases. So, despite it being a cool day, when I finished I left the door open to allow some air movement.
Outside in the garden this week I planted out the leeks which were growing in weedy rows where I sowed them. I don’t mind a few weeds in the leeks because when I dig them to transplant them, the weeds come up too. I always like transplanting leeks; I don’t know why, but there is something satisfying about pushing in the dibber into the soft ground, [an old handle of a spade or fork, sharpened all round to a blunt point] and just dropping the leek into the hole. Then I water them in but don’t fill the hole in, that just happens gradually with the rain, but planting them at a greater depth than the seedbed gives them a longer white stem, and they are spaced further apart to grow better. The plants looked sad for themselves for a day or two, but now the leaves are standing upright again.
Outside I have four beds; the one next to the leeks is for the heavy feeders, the potatoes, the marrow family and tomatoes this year too, though I often sow some radish or lettuce in between before the plants get big. To the right is the legume bed, with broad beans at the far end which are now finished, so cut off the stalks and left the roots with their nodules to release the nitrogen back into the soil. Next to them are the peas and the climbing French beans. What you can’t see yet is the undersown green manure in this bed. Usually I sow clover about this time of the year when I have had a few goes at hoeing the weeds, clover, of course, also being a nitrogen fixer, but when I found I had no clover seed I sowed phacelia instead as an experiment. Next to the greenhouse are the brassica, all covered up with a fine net to keep out the cabbage white butterflies. In the leek bed are the odds and ends, carrots covered against the carrot fly, beetroot, chard, salads and of course the leeks, which we probably won’t start eating before January, but will continue to April or May.
In the field, I was slow in getting to the green manure patches after I cut them for oat hay, so there was enough regrowth, weeds and oat stalks to make it sensible for Lucy to eat them off, but three days ago I got out the plough and turned it over. I used the 2-horse digging plough which did a good job despite the hard soil, and running at nearly a foot width, compared with my other narrower plough, it didn’t take many turns to complete the job. This is one situation where if I had one, I would use a disc to avoid inverting the soil. A cultivator might just have done the job, but I wanted to make sure to uproot any tenacious weeds. Discs were never common here in earlier horse drawn times, there being a general antagonism amongst farmers towards ‘forcing’ a seedbed, as it was called, rather than doing the right work in the right conditions with the right tool, which was certainly not a disc! Admittedly, with our climate that is an easier view to hold than places where the ground gets baked hard. Nonetheless, the discs that did exist were very light, and are mostly worn out, so I have managed without. Anyway, the soil is now turned, the weeds have been set back, and I guess I will leave it now until there is some germination or regrowth of weeds, and then I will cultivate whenever necessary over the next six weeks before sowing an overwintering green manure.
In the back of my mind all this time is the grass I still need to cut for hay, but the weather has not been nearly settled enough to make it in the usual way, so I keep looking at the weather forecast and hoping.
Here’s hoping your hay, if you have it, smells sweetly in the barn.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.