Tag Archives: planting

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: bucking cows, smoke-belching old timers & happy field workers


The muck is flying, the furrows are turning and every functioning tractor is hitched to something. Even the neglected and otherwise abandoned, smokebelching old timers get coaxed back to life to haul plants, seeds and crop covers to the fields.

With sun on their backs, our field workers once again consider themselves lucky; the hours are long as we struggle to catch up but everyone likes to see jobs done well. All of this is so much easier when the mud stops sticking to boots and wheels, and soil works easily into seedbeds that invite young plants to grow. Who wouldn’t be a farmer when the weather is with you.

In France we have finally planted the cabbage and kohl rabi (five weeks late), and are planting the last lettuce before moving on to courgettes, sweetcorn and turnips.Meanwhile in the polytunnels we are preparing to cut the second crop of lettuce before immediately replanting with peppers. A month ago with so little sunlight and fungal disease running rife I thought they were a write off; we lost a third but the survivors rallied remarkably as soon as the sun showed, and there will be a fair crop for your boxes over the next two weeks.

The signs are that it will be a long hungry gap after a warm, if wet, winter. Most of our leafy crops will finish early and a wet spring has delayed planting so there will be a shortage of green veg over the next two months. I can only lament the day last November when my sister’s cows broke through the fence to munch through our young spring greens. It has left a big hole in our plans, which the weather has conspired to make larger. Yesterday, after four months indoors and a diet of ten tons of silage each (broken only by the occasional grade out banana), our cows were happily bounding around the fields enjoying the taste of fresh grass. As the yard gates open even the older cows skip and buck their way up the lane. Any remaining sombre dignity is abandoned as they get to the field and cannot decide whether to eat or charge around, throwing double footed kicks high in the air. All being well you’ll be able to enjoy the spectacle too as we plan to film the turnout, and share the video on our website and Facebook page soon.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: racing pulses & changes to our box range

After a couple of sunny mornings I feel my pulse rate rising as another cropping year is about to start. Memories of floods and mud will be banished as the first seedlings are fed into the planter and delivered into the soil in orderly rows. It has been a miserable time in the fields but if there was going to be 10 weeks of relentless rain, the dormant winter months were the best time for it to fall.Soil temperatures are relatively high and the first plantings of potatoes in Cornwall and Jersey are sprouting and developing well. In France, we have been able to keep up with the lettuce planting through the rain and by the time you read this we should be sowing cabbage and spinach and preparing beds for courgettes. I can barely contain my excitement.

When we packed our first vegboxes on the floor of an old cow shed over 20 years ago, there was little planning. My fundamental assumption was that everyone cooked and ate like me and my family, and the arrival of a box would be the equivalent of a lazy walk around an allotment with just the vaguest plans for dinner. As it dawned on me that eating habits and appetites varied as much as our taste in clothes, our box range proliferated. Over the years we have added fruit, different sizes and styles and some rather nonsensical names, and ended up with a range which even I am confused by. Next month we are reorganizing things so that (I hope) you will find it easier to pick the best box for you, avoid things you don’t want and get more of the things you do. More details to follow.

Guy Watson

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guy’s newsletter: waiting for a break

Looking west at the weather charts, there is no sign of an abatement to the deluge. The Atlantic continues to be a churning morass of weather fronts, depressions and synoptic activity. In Devon we would be looking to spread some muck, plough and perhaps risk some early plantings of potatoes and cabbage this month, but fortunately there is no panic; the later plantings in March often produce better, and sometimes earlier crops anyway.

Further south, on our farm in the French Vendée, the situation is more critical. Even on our sandy, free draining soils it is too wet to do anything with a machine. The lettuce has been planted by hand into seedbeds made in the autumn, but the cabbage plants are stacking up in the yard, waiting for that elusive break in the weather. They will hold for two or three weeks in their tiny cells of compost and peat; indeed a short spell of acclimatisation is no bad thing, softening the shock of moving from a warm glasshouse to standing alone in a windswept field.

When I bought the farm, the prevailing wisdom was that the weather changed south of the Loire but, so far, our fields seem to be catching most of what we get in Devon. The light is better, giving faster and healthier growth, but only if you can get the plants in the ground. Our problem is that the sand lies over heavy, impervious clay and the topography is relatively flat, with the result that the water sits on the clay in a subterranean lake, before draining over it down the slope. We have laid a herringbone network of perforated drains at 10m intervals in a few fields, which greatly helps reactivity but it costs more per hectare than I paid for the farm. Many of our neighbours have used laser-guided earth moving machines to create gentle artificial slopes, which is surprisingly cheap, but my experience of disturbing the soil in this way in Devon is that it can take a decade or more for the soil life to readjust and natural fertility to return. Not so bad if you rely on fertility from a bag, but a disaster for an organic farmer relying on the activity of the soil’s fauna and flora to recycle nutrients.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter – planting & irrigating again

guy’s weekly newsletter: planting & irrigating again

There was a time last month when I started to wonder if we would ever experience summer again. Under the prevailing gloom and continuing deluge, accompanied by an almost eerie absence of birdsong and insects, one could easily lose faith in the perpetual return of life to our fields. Without the enlightenment of the Met Office, one might consider appeasing angry gods by the sacrifice of a virgin, a goat or at least Owen Paterson. After two weeks of glorious sunshine, the grass is finally growing, the hedges are bursting with life and we are enjoying the last flush of old season crops, while we hectically plant, and believe it or not, irrigate as fast as we can pump the water.

Hurrah! In a triumph for bees and the independence of science, our Environment Secretary and the chaps from Syngenta were defeated last week by an EU commission vote, which will now restrict the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops. To descend to the Defra position, where nature is expendable unless it can be demonstrated incontrovertibly that it is worth saving on economic grounds, would be hugely depressing. It makes me ashamed to be human and even more ashamed to be British. Thankfully there was more enlightenment elsewhere in Europe – as well as a great number of passionate Brits campaigning here.

This will be the last week for cauliflower, leeks, old season potatoes and purple sprouting broccoli. These crops have been growing or in store for almost a year; our plant breeders have done their best to delay the rush to seed, but with lengthening days and rising temperatures, nothing can restrain the desire to procreate. The new season crops are doing well under fleece and under the tunnels we have been busy planting tomatoes, cucumber, basil and beans. The first of the cucumbers and rhubarb will be picked this week.

Should any of you feel inclined, we are up for Retailer of the Year and even Campaigner of the Year in the Observer Ethical Awards 2013. You can vote for Riverford as Ethical Retailer of the year or for myself as Campaigner of the Year (closes 10th May).

Guy Watson

Digging & sowing

It’s bright, dry and frosty and we are busy digging parsnips for Christmas, lifting carrots, sowing broad beans and picking sprouts. The weather is due to break again at the weekend but I am hoping that by the time you read this, the last of the carrots will be in store; hurrah.

It is still too wet to lift the last of the potatoes; they are stuck in heavier ground and will probably be there until spring. Conventional (non-organic) growers often lose their crop to slugs but one of the benefits of organic growing is that in our more active soils, there are plenty of natural predators and parasites which keep slugs under control. In soils which have been organic for five years or more it is relatively rare to see slug holes in potatoes. We have enough spuds in store to see us through to spring. We are grading through some King Edwards ready for your Christmas boxes. They are the very best potatoes for roasting but are generally viewed as almost impossible to grow organically, so a big well done to Andy Hayllor for managing it in such a difficult year.

We ploughed for the broad beans yesterday, worked a very rough seedbed and sowed while the surface was frosted in the morning, allowing the seed drill to work without getting clogged. Not an ideal start, but broad beans are tough and we have managed before. The field is covered with a net to keep hungry rooks at bay and all being well these will be the first beans in your boxes in June. We are also gearing ourselves up for the big sprout pick. A few are grown by our co-op in Devon, but they are easier in manage in the colder, drier East where they suffer less from the fungal diseases that make them such a hard crop to grow organically. Most are handpicked; a back breaking and finger numbing job. Some will be in the boxes on stalks if the quality is good enough.

Finally, Merry Christmas from us all at Riverford and a big thank you, particularly from our growers, for supporting us through the deluge. May your feasting be sumptuous, your company agreeable and your resting restorative. Here’s to a drier 2013.

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 – Springing into inaction

wet garlicOur early season crops are usually planted in fields across the valley from us, as they are broadly southfacing and warm up quicker with well-drained soil to allow early planting. As these can’t be irrigated we rely on the usual April showers to water them for us. Last year the long dry spell actually meant that some of the lettuce got stressed, bolted, and we lost a fair amount of the crop. Not this year! Below average temperatures mean that the crops are growing more slowly than hoped, but there is certainly no lack of water.

Continual rainfall such as we are experiencing at present brings its own set of problems, however. At this time of year we would be frantically planting, fleeceing, brushweeding and hoeing our lettuce, spinach, summer greens and so on; but not now. The fields are simply too wet to cultivate and a short break in the weather is little help as they need a minimum of 2-3 days (sometimes more depending on the soil) to dry out enough to work.

Fortunately for our staff there has been plenty to do in the polytunnels: Manuring, putting up supports for tomatoes, and plenty of hand planting. But as this begins to draw to a close we can forsee a few quiet weeks ahead whilst we wait for the crops we have to come on and pray for a break in the weather.

On the up side our wet garlic is looking good; this was planted as individual cloves that we broke up from whole bulbs in late October and early November. The two varieties we grow are Germidor and Messidrome as they produce large cloves: and usually the larger the clove you plant, the larger the wet garlic you produce.

So a mixed spring so far. To quote the philosopher from Morecombe, “bring me sunshine…”

Penny’s Gardening Blog – Part 5

Gosh, its three weeks since I posted my last blog already. How time flies! Being a gardener and grower this time of year is pretty full on. I have lots of clients I work for on a weekly basis as well as preparing my field where I grow flowers and am also busy propagating plants to go in it. So life is hectic and I am slightly overwhelmed by the impending season. But it is also a very exciting time of year in the garden with the first signs of growth and plenty of plants in flower. In this blog I am going to give you all a reminder and do a final push on our boxes to grow. I will suggest some general gardening tasks and wax lyrical about spring flowering plants.

Boxes to grow

Veg, Herb and cut flower gardening kits

April is nearly here and deliveries of our vegetable and herb boxes to grow will be going out imminently, cut flower kits a bit later.  It’s not too late to order one as we have a few left. I don’t want to bang on too much about it but these kits are great value and a fabulous way to  kick start  your gardens in one fail swoop. No decisions on what to grow or where to get it all from. We have used our experts to select good tried and tested varieties to give you the best chance of success and comprehensive advice on how to plant and grow these are also included in the boxes. I will also be supporting you with my gardening blogs and here to answer your queries.

If you have already ordered one remember to do the recommended site preparation we have on our website.

gardening blogMarch in the garden

I have taken some photos of some plants I love that are flowering now. Its good practice to keep your eyes open  when out and about and observe good companion plantings around you and maybe think of incorporating these into your garden spaces to improve what you already have. In the foreground a red Camelia, clematis armandii climbing through a tree and in the background a magnolia tree.

gardening blog

A close up of Clematis armandii. You can grow this evergreen climber up a wall,trellis,fence or through a tree. It has lovely glossy foliage its quite happy planted in more shady positions.

Hellebores are an absolute favorite of mine.


Once big enough they can be split after flowering and replanted to increase your stock. I have done this in this little woodland area over the years and it really looks a picture at this time of year with the under planted periwinkle and primroses in flower too.

white double Hellebore

This white double Hellebore is particularly pretty and looks great with Euphorbia as a backdrop

Jobs in the garden


WEEDING This is the time of year to have a jolly good ‘spring clean’ in your gardens. Perennial plants are just beginning to grow again. Before things get too tall its an ideal time to really get in there and give your beds a jolly good weed. I have problems in a fair few gardens with perennial weed such as bind weed, couch grass and ground elder.  Gardening organically I would not use weed killers as they are detrimental to the wildlife in our gardens and leave nasty deposits in the soil too. Keeping these nasty weeds at bay is the answer. If you’re feeling thorough, this might mean digging up a perennial clump and teasing the roots of the said weed out and replanting the clump. Remember…DO NOT put these weeds in your compost heaps.

DIVIDING up over crowded perennial clumps can be done now. Dig out the clump and put a sharp spade blade through the centre of the clump to cut it in half or more if necessary.

COMPOST  I have a rather tired body, being rather ancient doesn’t help and nor does the kind of work I have been doing the last few weeks emptying a fair few compost heaps in various gardens in the area. It is quite satisfying though to see what you have produced from simply garden waste.

gardening blog

This is great stuff to spread on to your beds, around the plants and lightly fork in. It will improve the soil and act as a mulch helping the soil to retain moisture. As a lot of us are already being threatened with hose pipe bans this is pretty essential.

In My Next Gardening Blog

As my seedlings are not ready for transplanting yet I will leave this till next time possibly with a video clip…heres hoping!