No-Dig, by Darren Stephens

No-Dig, by Darren Stephens

January 2022

Colder and Wiser

December and January are a dismal time of year for gardeners. If any of the shards of autumn still cling at its outset, they are all discarded by the end! It has been mild, but the shortness of the days means that in truth little is asked of the gardener – and very little given back. One place I was required, however, was behind the stove - something I was once again more than happy to do as the new variant took hold and strategies to flatten the COVID-19 curve such as isolation orders significantly increased the demand on the staff left in the business during one of the busiest times of the year. The kitchen is the hub of the hotel and without it, there would most definitely be no kitchen garden so I’ll be there on the front line whenever called upon. Many in the Homewood kitchen worked tirelessly over Christmas not least our head chef, Jamie. These guys and girls have all of my respect as I still remember that there is no other job like it even at the best of times.

The focus is now fully back to the garden, and I can’t wait to get going again. It’s been a year since I laid the first bit of cardboard down for the no-dig beds at Homewood fields and we’ve both come a long way. Here are a few notes I made to myself in my diary over last year, for this year.

Frosts don’t finish till May!…your garden is not an exception
I took the warm, sunny days in mid-April as a sign that the risk of frost had passed, then was punished by countless icy nights and stunted growth. I will sow with patience this spring.

Keep up with sowing times...especially in summer
Things got hectic in summer and it was easy to continually put off sowing seeds and prioritise the watering or harvesting. But without the warmth of summers end, a lot of seedlings of chicory and brassicas weren’t ready for a winter harvest when I have plenty of time on my hands. You can only reap what you sow.

Protect everything from everything
Your crops are tasty, not just for humans; from aphids to deer, don’t turn your back on them especially when plants are young and most vulnerable. Inspect for early signs of pest damage and deal with it and continue checking and protecting them till harvest.

Don't grow things out of season
Bit of an obvious one looking back, but I didn’t fully know the seasons for everything I was growing. I just wanted to grow it and the info on seed packets can be very misleading. Wisdom comes with experience and a diary of sowing dates.

Invest in an irrigation system
This is related to the polytunnel. In summer everything needed watering every day. Micro salads would wilt and die overnight and tomatoes would spoil if not hydrated enough. This meant coming in on my days off and many hours a week walking around with the hose sweltering in the heat. An automated drip system should save time and increase yield.

We still have crops in the garden, there are spring cabbages and leeks half-grown, purple sprouting broccoli to flower in February, garlic two inches high and lots of salad plants undercover that are still growing but picking is happening less and less and I won’t sow anything new until February. All my compost bays of finished compost are now empty and most of my empty beds are now covered with about 5cm which will feed the soil in the year ahead. Now is still a good time to lay down manure as frost will soften the organic matter before Spring and then it's easy to use a rake to knock it about creating a softer tilth for sowing and planting. If you are clearing ground most vegetables roots can be left in the soil. I cut kale stems as low as possible, composting the tops and leaving the rest untouched in the ground to let nature do its work.

I was very happy to find a lovely 4-year-old pile of wood chips full of white fungal mould at the opposite end of the grounds. It’s perfect for mulching the paths as it’s old and fully composted, it won’t interfere with plant roots and their nutrient uptake that I am now also in the midst of planning. I could plan for next year’s cropping from the comfort of my desk, but I find it better to compose plans for the year to come when out there, doing something and imagining how it would look. I'm planning according to what has grown before and the state of the soil in different parts of the plot. I have some areas with lots of weed seeds which I'll keep for wider spaced plants like potatoes and cabbages, which can be hoed more easily.

Enjoy your planning and dreaming of warmer days!


Until next time…

Darren Stephens

Chef-Gardener, Homewood


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