It’s the end of April and there is great excitement as the first seed crop of the year, Purslane/Claytonia, comes in. This is where the learning goes up a notch or two. Although Purslane self-seeds with ease, saving it so that it is clean and dry is a different kettle of fish entirely. Admission: I have never grown this crop for seed before but there is a first time for everything, and in fact, there are about twelve more crops that I will be saving seed from for the first time, so this year is going to be a steep learning curve!
My initial intention was to cut it just above the root and lay it out on polythene tarps in the tunnel to dry, but I quickly realised that this method was not going to be a runner. It is a very fleshy plant, almost like a succulent, and if it is not dried quickly and evenly enough, it begins to rot. I needed to figure out another way of drying it that would allow air to circulate underneath it as well. Luckily for me, one of my neighbours is a builder and he had some old wire site fences stacked against a wall down the road. The fences are big, 6.5ft by 12ft, and I had seen them being used at the Seed Coop. With the tarps underneath raised on bricks, and the Bionet on top, they make an ideal drying frame for the crop. Three of these were enough for the size of the crop I had harvested – just about! The entirety of the bottom half of my propagation tunnel was soon full of drying purslane, and it set me thinking that with thirty other crops to come in over the summer, lack of space could quickly become an issue, especially if two or three crops were to come in together.
These are the kinds of things that you don’t often learn about from books, especially considering that purslane is a fairly minority crop. You have to ‘learn by doing’, something that I have become very familiar with over the years. Around the same time and rather ironically, I saw on Twitter that the Seed Coop were harvesting their purslane and drying it in the same way, with the only exception being that they were cutting above the growing point for cleanliness and in the hopes of maybe getting a second crop from the regrowth. Not content with just growing seeds, I am trying to incorporate green manures into the system as well. This makes sense because while the seed crops are in the ground, there will be a large build-up of weeds if the ground is left bare, especially in the tunnels. I tend to use ground cover for tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers inside, but don’t use it outside anymore. In the tunnels, long rows of beans, radishes, peas and mustards have all been under-sown with white clover. Outside, because I am using a lot less land than I have done previously, I am experimenting with cover crops to exclude perennial weeds that have been building up over the last few years in the market garden rotations.
It’s now mid-May. Bog mint and woundwort have become a problem over the years, so in the hope of getting rid of them entirely I am attempting to out-compete them using Westerwold Annual Ryegrass with clovers, buckwheat and phacelia. The sections I sowed on the allium and potato rotations at the end of last year are looking very promising. New sections on last years Brassica rotation are starting to get going having been sown two months ago now, and it feels good to be both addressing the weed problem and feeding the soil after twenty three years of continuous intensive cropping.
21st of May and the tomatoes went in two weeks ago: nine varieties in total including three that I am developing myself. We had a hard frost on the 7th of May and the week leading up to it was generally frosty, so that delayed planting somewhat. This week in the tunnel I planted out peppers as well as a small amount of sweetcorn, a crop I would usually plant outside but seeing as I only had twenty plants I wanted to give them the best chance at producing a good crop. French beans that I planted out over a month ago have not moved, and some have even died – a testament to how cold it has been. The radish and beetroot crops need supporting, and the lettuces are starting to lengthen in preparation for flowering. They are from an Autumn sowing, and the first variety is Brighton, an overwintering greenhouse variety. I have four varieties in the ground but they are a very tricky crop to grow here given the dampness of our climate. I am living in hope that we will get a six week spell of amazing weather from early June to get a good crop of seed from them. This could be the year – every grower is a gambler at heart! I also planted some pumpkins in the tunnel and I am glad I chose to do so as we had some strong winds last night that would have shredded them. The variety is a naked seed type appropriately named Lady Godiva. I have never grown it before so it will be interesting to see how it does.
The end of May and everything in the tunnels has been planted up now. The last tunnel contains Black Futsu squash, Tamra cucumbers and Jersey Grex beans, a variety from Carol Deppe via Brown Envelope Seeds. The weather still hasn’t really warmed up so even in the tunnels everything is slow. Outside, the Ailsa Craig onions are starting to green up having sat there for six weeks. I planted out two rows of leeks, one an early variety called Jolant that was very popular around fifteen/twenty years ago, and the other a late variety called Bandit that I got from Vital Seeds. Again, this is a variety that I would have grown a good few years back and it is a very good and reliable one. One of these varieties will be chosen for saving seed from next year and if both are good, one will be fostered out somewhere.
I am very late sowing beetroot, usually they would have been sown in early May directly into the ground but it has been too wet and cold here for doing that so two days ago I sowed them in trays instead. I am growing a variety called Shiraz Long Top that I have never grown before, so I’m curious to see how that works out. I also have Robushka Globe from last years roots in the tunnel just going to flower for this years seed crop. Lambs lettuce is the only other crop I have harvested this month with Red Thrills mustard and rocket to come next month. The peas are starting to fill on the Hurst’s First Greenshaft and there are scapes appearing on the hard neck garlic which I have started taking off. With nearly all the planting done, I am wondering whether or not there will be a bit of a lull before the seed crops really start coming in. June could be a quiet month, with just a lot of weeding, hoeing and tying of supports to keep me busy before things really start to move.