There has been frost on the ground in the morning but we have been irrigating by midday. The recent cold, dry weather is ideal for ploughing, mucking and preparing seedbeds, especially from a heated tractor cab, but outside it’s hard on both the plants and the planters. Even with the protection of crop covers the cold, dry north-easterly winds of the last two weeks can desiccate lettuce and spinach plants before they are able to get their roots into the moist soil two inches down. But with half a million spinach, chard, lettuce, cabbage and more to plant in the next month we cannot wait; in Devon the warmer westerlies normally bring the rain that stops planting, so we have to get on the land while we can. Our plants will just have to tough it out; getting good crop establishment in a year like this is all about managing the transition from the warm, humid glasshouses where the seedlings were raised, huddled in a tray with regular computer-controlled watering, to sitting in an open field blasted by an easterly wind. Our tools are irrigation, crop covers and preparing seedlings by slowly hardening them off before planting out. Generally, it works.
Meanwhile, when time allows, we are splitting and replanting rhubarb crowns. Given plenty of muck, the huge umbrella leaves of an established rhubarb crown will outgrow most weeds, but as soon as we harvest even a small amount from each plant, we are robbing it of its competitive ability. Over the years we have lost the battle with couch grass, creeping buttercup, nettles and docks; rather than dig up the weeds it is easier to dig out the crowns and divide them into three, carefully remove the weed rhizomes, and replant the crowns in a clean, fertile field. Over 20 years we have experimented with many strategies for controlling perennial weeds in perennial crops, and settled on covering the rows with biodegradable starch-based plastic mulch in late autumn, which lasts long enough to suppress weed growth before breaking down the next year. It’s not perfect because turning plant starch into compostable plastic is an energy-intensive process, so we will keep experimenting, as we always do. The newly planted rhubarb will not yield much this year, but we have another established field which we will be picking for your boxes, starting next month.