Home & Shop Companion #0082
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
A raincoat was an absolute necessity when seeing to the horses this morning, and a change of trousers once I got back in, so I am pleased to have got the green manure seed in the ground yesterday before the rain came.
Most of the vegetable crops in the field are nearly ready to harvest, but I wanted to get the green manure sown as soon as possible so it can get well established before winter. This year the patch nearest the house was planted with potatoes, most of which were lifted and sold as freshly dug new potatoes at the roadside, leaving two rows to mature for us to keep over winter. Just before I went to my mum’s house last week I noticed signs of blight, so I cut off the tops to minimise its spread to the tubers, so they won’t get any bigger now. The next patch has been bare fallowed since March and is now looking clean, and the bed next to that is mostly onions with a row of parsnips and beetroot and a row of carrots, while the final patch has also been fallowed. The onions started well enough but took a hit in July with the continued hot weather and the tops started to go brown, the smaller ones with fewer leaves retreating into the bulbs, but the larger ones got back into growth and are still putting on weight. A couple of days ago I was tempted to pull them all up and leave them in situ to dry, but with warm weather and the rain, the larger ones might still put on half an ounce each, so I decided to leave them a while longer. The downside is that it won’t be as warm when I do harvest them, but I do have enough greenhouse space to put them on the staging for a few weeks to thoroughly dry out. Had I cleared them, it would have provided clear space for sowing a green manure, but leaving them on the ground seems like the best way to start the drying, so instead I have broadcast the green manure seed all over the top.
The onion crop is fairly weed free, with the exception of a few redshank plants which the cultivator shovels do disturb, but they don’t always cut off the whole plant once it becomes established. The other weed is meadow grass, mostly in the rows in between the onions, but I don’t mind it much as it is slow growing and will add to the variety of the green manure. And variety is what I have gone for this year.
My old standby green manure has been rye and vetch, which puts on a lot of growth and completely covers the soil if sown before mid-September and is probably worth sowing until November in this climate. It is amongst the best overwintering green manures if you want to incorporate it in the spring, and it is useful because it germinates later than most of the alternatives, but this year I want to try something different, both in the fallowed patches which will have crops next year, and in the patches where the vegetables have been growing this year. Because these crops are now free from weeds, I don’t think I need to bare fallow them for weed control next summer, so the green manure can stay in the ground until those areas are planted again in eighteen months’ time. So my choice for the winter cover crop is a mix of quick growing Westerwolds ryegrass with crimson, red and Alsike clovers, some quick growing mustard and Phacelia, because it is there in the mix and will please the bees if it does get to flower, and radishes, both the deep rooting tillage radish which may have time to puncture holes below plough depth, and some fodder radish, both of which will die if we get sharp frosts.
For the longer lasting cover crop which will hopefully carry on until the spring of 2023, I have sown a mix of perennial ryegrass, red, white and alsike clover, with some short-term tillage radish to open up the soil and some birdsfoot trefoil, another legume to fix nitrogen. Neither mix is especially complex, but I do like the idea of broadening the species, because depending on conditions over the next few weeks, some will surely do better than others, and if nature is a guide, a mix of plants will allow each one to fill its own niche and exploit the soil resources it can. With this mix, the danger may be allowing the ryegrass to go to seed, because I don’t really want it as a weed amongst vegetables, but it can always be grazed or mown. I am looking forward to seeing how it performs, and unlike the last couple of winters when the green manures were sown late, I hope to have a wall to wall covering of plants before it gets cold.
As preparation for sowing, I pulled and dug out some redshank and couch grass, and then broadcast the seed by hand. Sometimes I have borrowed a fiddle drill for this job, but being in a hurry, I used a bucket, hand seeding perhaps not being as accurate, but after a bit of practise, timing the hand casts with your footsteps, the spread is quite good enough for a cover crop. Because the soil surface has been cultivated through the summer I didn’t want to cultivate before sowing and bring up another bunch of weed seeds, but I did run a set of light harrows over afterwards. In the onion rows, however, even one harrow section is too wide, so I used the row crop cultivator, set as shallow as possible, just to move the soil a little and cover the seed.
Once the seed was covered between the row crops, I then unhitched from the cultivator and unhooked one of Lucy’s traces, hooking it up on the britchin assembly so the swingletree was dragged by just one trace. I do this almost without thinking; it was something I was taught to do early on, so the swingletree does not bash against the horse’s legs when dragging just a swingletree, whether without a chain, or with chain as when logging. Having said that, when training Lucy in the round pen I did purposely arrange for a light swingletree to hit her legs when I wanted it to until it didn’t concern her, an investment in the future, because it is something that may happen one day. I have also experienced another downside of dragging an empty swingletree with both traces attached. When I was in New York State years ago, I spent a few days with a horse logger who generously accommodated me and allowed me to use his horses and see what he did. One day, when driving back up the clear wide trail to get another log, I wasn’t paying much attention, so I didn’t see a bent-over evergreen sapling, devoid of needles and branches but still anchored in the ground and poking out into the trail. The end was high enough to project above the swingletree, and as the horse moved forward, the sapling was pulled back, the horse just pulled a little harder, then like a catapult, it swung back, whacking me across both thighs and flooring me. I had a nice pair of matching bruises to remind me of my inattention.
Since spring, the seed harrows had been leaning against one of the posts for the tree guards at the other end of the vegetable patch. Even if harrows are not put away under cover, I still like them to be visible, the sections leaning against each other or against a post, so they do not get driven over by a vehicle, horse or human. It didn’t take long to cover the seed, and once done, I wanted to hook up to the cultivator again to get it under cover in the barn. But even in the short time I had been harrowing, the shackle [D ring] to the swingletree was too tight for my fingers to undo it. Instead of going to the barn to find a spanner, I trapped the flattened end of the bolt with two adjacent links of the draught chain, which gave a tighter hold on the bolt and a little more leverage for my fingers, problem solved; another useful thing I was taught on the farm where I started out.
Other than that, little has been happening outside except for sowing seeds in the greenhouse for winter eating, but inside we have had a cautious week, self-isolating because my son caught Covid, probably at work. After a few rough, but not particularly worrying, and certainly not life-threatening days, he is now feeling better. Liz and I have continued to test negative, maybe because we have had both injections, but also because Samuel was careful, staying in his room except when he went in the garden and cleaning the bathroom after use.
So today is our last day of isolation, a relief, which will enable us to go back out in the world. In the next weeks we are doing just that, having a short holiday, and then I am doing a violin making workshop, with colleagues I have worked with before and some others I don’t know. It should be fun, but also busy, so this is my last letter for a few weeks.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.