Thursday, 23 February 2012

New growth

Thursday 23rd February 2012
A fiery hole in the morning sky.
How on earth did sunrise leap forward from 8 o'clock to 7 o'clock?!
The warmest day
Today the temperature reached a balmy 18 degrees. Only a couple of weeks ago we had a day when it never got above minus eight. Spring is most definitely on its way. The swan herd is dispersing, larks and thrushes announce the morning, and the resident Little Owl is most vocal of an evening. Fieldfares are less in evidence now, and the peregrine only puts in the occasional show. In fact, I'll take a punt and say we've had our really cold spell now. What we need next is rain, and lots of it. Last year we experienced a very long, cold winter followed by three months of severe drought - a challenging start for our new project. Although we had sufficient rain for the last half of the year, the ground water has still not topped up. You don't need to go far down at all to find bone dry earth.

It's sowing time
In amongst the excitement of our first pork last week, I sowed the first seeds of the year. This is a job which brings joy and hope to my heart, when my intricate plans for this year's garden begin their journey. So last Wednesday the dining room became a potting shed - a status which it will enjoy from now till about April, when all these jobs can be done in the stables or the greenhouse and yet-to-be-built polytunnel. 
My first crop of the new year will be a box of salad leaves - the very same ones which come expensively bagged up in the supermarkets these days. This cardboard box will soon be bursting at the seems with salad leaves which can be treated as cut-and-come-again. The seeds have cost me about 2p! If I get bored with these, I can sow some from a different mix, or add in some herbs such as basil or mint. We really have been eating well since we moved here.
The first harvest on its way.

Once the polytunnel is up and running and when I have more time to focus on growing, it should be possible to produce green salad throughout the year, including such delicacies as corn salad (lamb's lettuce) and winter purslane (miner's lettuce or claytonia). How much would your supermarket charge for such traditional delicacies? 
The rest of the seeds I planted last week have started to spring into growth. It looks as though germination has been good, though a couple of very old seed packets may have lost their viability - but worth a try just in case. I sowed several types of tomato - red, yellow, purple, cherry, plum, beefsteak, many heritage, some modern. These ones will go under glass. Those destined for outside don't need to be started yet.

Looking after your seedlings
At this time of year, these seeds need to be germinated inside and kept at about 70 degrees F. It sounds difficult, but in practice I reckon that means the temperature in a room where the heating comes on to take the chill off the evening. Those which need slightly warmer go nearer the radiator. I like to use half seed trays. Some go under small plastic cloches to create a microclimate, but when I run out of these I slip the trays into sandwich bags. Very inexpensive propagators. I keep a very close eye, and as soon as the first couple of seedlings germinate, off comes the cover. Otherwise the seedlings are at risk of damping off, where too humid conditions encourage fungal infection and the baby plants just rot off at the base. It can quickly spread through a whole tray. This is also a reason not to sow the seed too thickly, as the air needs to be able to circulate around the young stems. As soon as they are big enough, the seedlings will be potted up into paper pots which I spend those long winter evenings making. These are very convenient and free! The best thing is, they can go straight into the ground or into larger pots as the plants grow. The drawbacks, which you don't often read about, are that they dry out quickly so need a diligent eye, and don't be tempted to keep them too wet either, as they can become waterlogged and a bit on the slimy side, which encourages fungal diseases.

Cosmos seedling spring forth.

I have also started my half hardy annuals, some remaining from last year's packets, some collected from last year's flowers. The annual dahlias, rudbeckias, cosmos and french marigolds will add informal splashes of colour all around the garden, as well as tempting in pollinating insects to the vegetable and fruit areas. The French marigolds (tagetes) will be planted all around the tomatoes as they ward off whitefly most effectively.
A few trays were sprinkled with the seeds of woodland strawberries. These will go in the orchard and into the developing forest garden, hopefully to be propagated and more widely planted in the future.

Girl Guinea Goes Own Way

Shutting the doors on Elvis seems to have encouraged Girl Guinea to grow up. This morning she was indulging in a thoroughly satisfying dustbath in Don's garden, in the company of Guinea Guinea. Maybe the flutter of tiny guineafowl wings is in the air. I would love to be able to look out and watch a small troupe of these fowl picking the insects from the flowers and vegetables. They were much treasured for their value in French vegetable gardens of old. When I toured West Africa a few years back, guineafowl were universally known as West African Chickens. They tasted delicious when cooked over an open fire. Maybe, eventually, we will be able to pick off the occasional bird to bring back these memories.

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