With the beginning of March, comes real change on the farm. On a practical level, the soil starts to really warm up, the air temperature increases and the first lambs appear with nervous confidence. But more than that, we all have a new lease of life, the excitement of things to come coupled with the much awaited appearance of green instils new energy to all who work the land.
March for me is a tricky month, I am always, as most growers are, eager to crack on. But it is wise to exercise patience. I have been caught out in the past with sowing too early or trying to work wet soil, It just isn’t worth it. Frosts are still a very real risk in March and planting out too early will check your plants and you will lose the time you think you’ve gained. A simple thing I do when you think it’s time to plant out, is to wait a week!
We are fortunate at Park farm to have 3 handsome polytunnels, an odd choice of words, but like all the best things, beauty really does lie within. Covered growing spaces, whether a Victorian wooden framed glasshouse or a few bits of water pipe bent over and covered in plastic, are in my view essential to a successful smallholding. They allow us to extend the season, grow non-native crops and raise, nurture and protect plants all year round. Most smallholders choose polytunnels for ease and cost. They require little maintenance besides a good clean each year and if managed correctly can produce a staggering amount of produce. They aren’t, as I’ve mentioned, the most aesthetically pleasing structures, so it’s worth checking with neighbours and local authorities before you put one up.
Overwintering is a good skill to learn and pays dividends in the hungry gap. We plant up the poly-tunnels using the latent heat of the autumn with salads, herbs and leafy greens with the intention of growing and lightly picking through the darker months of winter. As spring returns the overwintered crops find a new lease of life and start to speed up production, finishing in time for spring/summer sowing. We often sow an early crop of carrots, radish and beetroot in late February, giving our chefs some greatly missed fresh sweetness at the end of April.
Our propagation polytunnel is the nerve centre of everything we do in the garden. In March it is beginning to fill up with a plethora of seed trays, modules and pots. I find, it doesn’t matter how much space you have, it will never be enough. So work with what you have. A sunny windowsill can work as long as there is airflow and sufficient light, just be aware that you might need to rotate the trays every other day to prevent etiolation from inconsistent sunlight.
We raise 80 percent of seedlings for planting out in the tunnel, this is probably more than most market growers but it gives us an insurance we rely on. I would advise investing in good quality pots and trays to begin with, they are reusable and will last a lot longer than the standard garden centre stuff, saving you money in the long run. We tend to use deep cell trays, measuring 4-5cm, the extra depth will give you a little more time to get them planted out before the roots overcrowd and become pot bound.
We have multiple types of surface to work with in the propagation tunnel. A heated bench is indispensable in February and March for getting seeds germinated. We sow tomatoes, chillies, aubergines and celeriac in February with bottom heat of about 20-25 degrees to get them off to an early start, and in March the same method applies (with a lower temperature) to get spring crops well on their way.
We use capillary matting on our benches to retain moisture at the base of the trays, this really helps to prevent the compost drying out.
Be vigilant of slugs and snails hiding under trays and pots during the early spring season, they can cause huge amounts of damage if they aren’t removed. We have 3 resident cats on the farm who are (mostly) effective for controlling rats and mice. Mice particularly are a problem in the spring, finding their way into the polytunnel to feast on the newly sown peas and beans. Having a suspended bench or raising trays above bench level will stop mice from indulging in a sneaky spring snack.
Towards the end of March we break ground with the first of the direct sown seeds. Successful germination of outdoor sown crops can be mixed, due to unreliable weather but early carrots, peas, radish and spring onions (to name a few) can be sown now. Preparing a seed bed has taken me years to get right. It is a thing that I take very seriously, much to the delight of my colleagues, as I [not so gracefully] dance my rake across the soil questing for perfection with varying results. Having cultivated your plot in the autumn of the previous year, and walking on boards to reduce compaction, it is wise to remove large stones from the soil surface as these simply get in the way when sowing or planting. Be sure to remove any weeds at this point as well, as they will compete for light, water and nutrients from your newly emerging seedlings. Rake the clods of soil down to the fine tilth you require; finer for smaller seed. Once you are happy, you can mark out to required spacing and begin sowing. I would advise being as accurate as you can when marking out your rows, this will prevent any unfortunate hoeing accidents further down the line and will ensure the best use of space. For some reason the traditional advice is to seed thickly and then thin out at a later date, I find this counter-intuitive. Take your time and sow seed as near as you can to the correct spacing, this will reduce wasteful thinning and unnecessary root disturbance. Make your drill (a shallow trench), and water before you sow your seeds; this way you won’t disturb your work when you water retrospectively. If your soil is fertile, then this should be all the water they will require. Broadcast sowing can be a useful technique for a more wild garden approach – simply scatter your seed onto a well prepared seed bed and rake in, for a swathe of colour and crop.
Plants you have raised undercover will need to be hardened off before planting out. This is just acclimatisation to the change in condition. Taking your plants in and out for a week or so will reduce transplanting shock, encouraging them to hit the ground running… Not a joke when you grow Japanese walking onions!
The most important thing about planting is watering in. Water liberally once planted to settle in your seedling, ensuring a good start, once you think you have watered enough, water some more! Protect with fleece in the early stages if pests are a problem. Fleecing will also protect vulnerable plants from frost and can get recently planted crops off to a flying start.