Tag Archives: lettuce

Guy’s newsletter: clouts, saints & impatience

With the soil drying well and the occasional T-shirt moment to be had in a sheltered spot, I find myself growing impatient to see some plants going into the ground. “Ne’er cast a clout til may be out,” warns John, my ever-stalwart farm manager, reminding me of all the years when the seedlings pushed out of the greenhouse into a cold, wet seedbed in March have been out-yielded by those planted in warmer April soils. The “may” referred to is hawthorn blossom (not the month) and while we have planted some early potatoes and carrots and the first spinach plants are hardening off, the may buds are some way from bursting, so John will have his way for a couple of weeks yet. Meanwhile, I will hope that our fields are not sodden when the hedges turn white.

In France, with no intelligible temperate guidance to restrain me, we have been busy planting for two months. There are occasional raised eyebrows, despairing shakings of heads and mutterings about “Les Saints de Glace” from our neighbours, but my French is not good enough to catch the nuances of implied recklessness; actually things seem to be going rather well. We are cutting wonderful lettuces and pak choi from the big tunnels, soon to be followed by our first lettuces from crops covered with mini tunnels, and then fleece, then the first unprotected crop in mid-April. When they are finished in early May, John may have cast his clout and there should be lettuce to cut in Devon.

As soon as the tunnels are cleared later this month we will be spreading compost and replanting them with chillies, peppers and padrons. Outside the cabbage, kohl rabi, garlic, beans and swiss chard are all doing well, but we have never excelled at growing crops from small seeds; we just don’t seem to be able to get a seed bed consistent enough to ensure the machines can sow to an even depth. This year, following local practice and the advice of neighbours, we have sown the seed on the surface and covered with about 7mm of sand. Apparently it warms quickly in the sun, giving rapid and even germination and emergence; the proof will be in the turnips you’ll (hopefully) find in your boxes come May.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: hope springs eternal

In France we have already got the first of our early lettuce in the ground. The planter is immediately followed by a machine which synchronously bends and implants wire hoops, before stretching over clear plastic to create a mini tunnel that prevents the tender greenhouse-raised seedlings catching a chill and wilting. These lettuces are destined for your vegboxes in March and April, while this week we will start planting turnips, cabbage and swiss chard. On these slightly hardier vegetables we use a very light (17g/m²) translucent fleece which floats on top of the crop, protecting it from the worst of the cold winds and frost. Even now, there is enough warmth in the sun by midday for the young plants to put out roots and a few shy new leaves. I’m often surprised by how well crops grow here when it’s barely warmer in winter than Devon, but it’s all down to the light quality; the Vendée even had its own impressionists.

The farm here is pretty flat, typically with 60cm of highly porous sands lying over a heavy, impervious clay; the result is that rain soaks in quickly but then sits on the clay, moving only very slowly down the slope. To get the early crops needed to bridge the ‘hungry gap’ at home (April-early June), we need to get on the land early, even in a wet year. Following the advice of neighbours we have now deepened ditches, filled in the dips and invested in drainage pipes every ten metres. It seems to be paying off; I just wish we’d done it sooner.

Nobody said it would be this hard; after six years of farming in France the best I can say is that we are losing money more slowly. Arguably it was the height of bellicose, arrogant stupidity to think I could breeze in and bend that soil and sunshine to my will. Every year we uncover a new set of problems but bizarrely I am still relishing the challenge and almost always enjoy my visits. I leave full of ideas for new crops and ways of growing them. In addition to tomatillos, cape gooseberries, sugar loaf chicory and lots of new varieties of peppers and chillies, this year we will be growing oca (a very tasty Peruvian tuber), popcorn-destined sweetcorn, endive and a small area of sunflowers.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: seismic gulps & bonus PSB

I am writing this from our farm in the Vendée, France, where a trailer and team of pickers are edging their way across the field, harvesting the first outdoor lettuce of the season. It is a glorious morning, with the dew still heavy on the crisp heads of Batavia that will be in your boxes shortly. Ten days ago amid gloom and rain, we thought these lettuces were done for as mildew took hold.

We’ve already lost the entire 20,000 lettuces from our greenhouse to aphids, so I was wishing for a tectonic plate shift under the Vendée to swallow the whole disastrous project in one seismic gulp. Thankfully all that was needed was an opening in the clouds. After a few days of sun the farm and its crops have been transformed. Our sun-loving lettuce have grown out of the grip of the mildew allowing us to trim off the infected leaves to produce a fair crop. Meanwhile the spinach, courgette, garlic, turnips and cabbage are all racing away under their crop covers. All being well we will finish planting the last peppers, chillies, tomatillos and sweetcorn in the next ten days, just as harvest starts in earnest.

Back in Devon we are entering the depths of the hungry gap and it will be another month or two before we start harvesting spring-planted crops. My Vendéen folly was borne out of the desire to keep you in greens through this period without travelling four times as far to Spain or Italy. The problem with such rationality is the freakish weather hidden behind the climatic averages. It’s been relentlessly grey and rainy this year, but every year my neighbours tell me they have never known a year like it. I think I also underestimated the life draining, blood sucking nature of French bureaucracy and tax. This is our fifth year and we are yet to make a profit but with a fresh, dew-dripping lettuce in your hands on a lovely morning, hope springs eternal; I will not be defeated.

At home the season is finishing with an avalanche of purple sprouting broccoli. Rather than hold stock or let it go to waste, we have upped the portions in your boxes so enjoy it while it lasts. Along with leeks and cauliflower, you won’t see it again for nine months.

Guy Watson

The last of the mohicans


…. I’ve been waiting all summer to use that weak pun!

The lettuce season is drawing to a close and we are now picking the last of our Red Batavia, one variety of which is called ‘Mohican.’  A deep red colour, the Mohican has stood up surprisingly well in the grim weather. Red lettuce, having less chlorophyll in the leaves, is less vigorous than green varieties and hence more susceptible to pest and disease as it sits in the ground for longer. Next week it will all be gone along with the last of our Cos. Apart from some Radicchio in a few weeks time that will be pretty much it for the year.

Looking forward to next year’s crops, we are busy planting over-wintered onions as well as garlic cloves (to harvest as wet garlic in the spring). Along with the winter salad pack for the polytunnels, these will be the last plants to go into the ground for the year. After that it’s just a matter of crossing our fingers and hoping for more favourable growing conditions than we’ve had of late.


Ed’s farm blog – duff plums and unseasonal veg

We have just about finished picking our plums and, like so many crops this year, the news is pretty disastrous. The trees were planted as saplings in March 2008 and have yet to reach their full potential; back in the spring things looked good but the rain knocked most of the blossom off and later in the season the trees dropped most of their fruit as they got overstressed. We picked over four tonnes last year and were expecting more (perhaps 6 tonnes) this year, but the final tally has come in at a mighty 427kg! Hearty portions of plum duff look to be thin on the ground in the Field Kitchen…


View across the fields

On a lighter note the remains of the Broad Beans that we harvested in June were rotovated in and the last of this years lettuce planted in their place. The few remaining bean pods have apparently decided it is now spring and we have miniature self-seeded plants poking their heads up amongst the Cos. I picked a few sprouting tips for Rob, our resident genius in the Field Kitchen, so if anyone is heading in that direction this week they may get some of the most unseasonal veg I have seen in a long time!


Broad beans mixed in with batavia and radicchio

Salad days

After the coldest start to May I can remember, temperatures are finally on the rise. We lost a few early planted courgettes to the latest frost I have encountered in my growing career, but most crops have benefited and come through unscathed. Best of all there seems to be a remarkable lack of weed, so the farm is looking very tidy. Our crop covers work wonders in the cold bright weather; the big decision now is when to remove them. Ideally we are looking are looking for a warm, still and overcast day for a gentle exposure to the elements.

Salads, particularly lettuce, love sunshine. After three pretty awful salad summers it is gratifying to see perfectly even, weed-free rows of lettuce, rocket, mizuna, mustard, baby chard, spinach and beets stretching up the field; it almost makes me feel that we know what we are doing. Rocket is our ultimate challenge and still has a tendency to turn yellow if you look at it the wrong way. We have been cutting leaves for three weeks and the first little gem lettuce will be in the boxes this week.

It is hard to pitch it right in terms of salad in the boxes; for some (me included) the first hint of summer brings a move to salad with every meal, for others, one lettuce lasts a fortnight. From 7th June we are changing things a bit. Instead of the existing family salad mix there will be a four item salad bag at £5.45 (normally filled with a lettuce or salad leaves, tomatoes, cucumber and one other item), aimed at those wanting extra salad to accompany their veg or fruit box, and a salad box at £9.95 (typically lettuce, salad leaves, cucumber, tomatoes and three other items; perhaps new potatoes, celery, peppers or sugar snap peas) which can be ordered on its own without worrying about our minimum spend.

Guy Watson

Farm news

Even such a cold start to May could not contain the spring rush to seed of the over-wintered crops, so the purple sprouting broccoli and spring greens have gone under the plough. This will be the last week for leeks and cauliflower; for once I will be sad to see them go. I never tire of leeks but could cauliflower reclaim our affections and become the new beetroot? Perhaps it is just that the extreme cold of January and February claimed so many that there weren’t enough left to tire of. You will not see another in your box until the autumn.

As the wild garlic from the woods runs to seed and gets shaded out by the trees above coming into leaf, we have started harvesting wet garlic from our fields. Bulbs were divided into cloves and planted out last November. If left to mature, by the end of June, each would swell to form a bulb which could be dried and stored. We don’t have the best climate for drying garlic so, ever since encountering it in an Andalucian market 15 years ago and being told it would make a “bueno tortilla”, I have been a fan of wet, or immature garlic. It makes its first appearance in the boxes this week; it resembles a small leek but if you crush a leaf the smell is a giveaway. Wet garlic has a milder flavour (somewhere between a salad onion and normal dried garlic) and can be eaten raw, sliced finely into salads, sprinkled over a stir-fry just before serving or used in a marinade or dressing. Wet garlic can also replace mature, dry garlic in your cooking but is best added later on and in larger quantities. Use the whole thing: immature bulb, shank, leaves and all.

News from France

Our French lettuces grew so well that they have all been cut and eaten before the first of the home crop is ready; testimony to all that Vendéean sunshine. Unfortunately our celery has joined the carrots as the second casualty crop by responding to the hardship of a cold wet spring by prematurely running to seed. This week we will be starting to pick turnips, kohlrabi and the first of the courgettes.

Guy Watson