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On a Chalk Hillside May 2018

Sowing Seeds and growing kale

(Note: Although this article does not feature hardy herbaceous perennials, it will be of interest to many of our members. The web team)

What a slow spring – and then a mini heat wave and everything started sprinting – the plum blossom out and over in eight days, and the pear blossom suddenly showing on 18 April, and then almost completely over by 28 April. In that week the garden went from flat, bare and twiggy to lush green mounds everywhere, and the trees went from branches to leaves. The grass is growing so fast its swamping the cowslips I talked about last month.

In order to fill a garden this size, and to have a vegetable patch that would feed us all year I sow a lot of seed each year. As you may imagine, the much bigger new garden sowing regime soon showed that the propagating bench from our previous tiny garden was not big enough to work on, and my husband knocked me up some removable wooden staging for the polytunnel using shelves from the airing cupboard that was removed from the bathroom. When we ordered the polytunnel we ordered these extra “legs” you can see holding up the staging, which bolt onto the arches so you can put staging on them, and we ensure they are flat by putting a brick underneath each foot. When I am not sowing or potting on this wooden staging is removed and the legs can be folded back, or even unbolted and removed completely. As you can see below, the polytunnel gets very green over the summer, and has to be washed each spring, this, is clearly the “before” shot!

I use a half and half mix of multipurpose compost and vermiculite for sowing my seeds, and a more compost-heavy version for potting on. Depending on the requirements of the seeds they are either covered with sieved multipurpose compost or vermiculite, or chick grit. If they are to be left on the surface of the pot I put them on a layer of chick grit. I use the mushroom pots you see middle-right as half and quarter seed trays, making holes in the bottom of them to ensure drainage. The pots or trays are watered from the bottom and then relocated to their germinating home. This could be the hotbed I talked about two months ago, or on the shelving in the greenhouse, or in a sheltered spot outside. As you can see below, one plus of using vermiculite to cover seed is it is easy to tell when the water has saturated it from below as it goes a darker colour.


It is a great delight to be in the polytunnel on a hazy sunny day in March, the spring flowers starting to show in the orchard outside, and the birds singing away all around. It definitely feels as if the new horticultural year is underway. If I am lucky most years whilst potting on, or sowing seed I hear the cuckoo returning and starting to sing in the valley below.

These seed trays, sown on 19 March last year, are full of my winter greens – dwarf kales, cavolo nero, purple sprouting broccoli – and two sorts of leeks.

I try and use a different colour plant label for the seeds I get sent under the HPS Seed distribution scheme. Where you have seed, but no sowing instructions you have to make a best guess of when and how to sow them. I keep old seed packets so that if I save seed of a plant I can look at the seed packet for guidance. I also have a couple of books about propagation from seed, which list plants and how their seed should be treated, (which is very helpful IF they list the plant you are looking for) and I use the internet to try and help if I don’t know how or when a seed should be sown. In general if I don’t know, I wait until later in March or early April and sow half covered with vermiculite, and half on top of chick grit, and leave it on a gravel tray under the staging in the greenhouse to see how it develops. I usually get despondent if nothing has shown after a month, but leave them for the summer and keep an eye on them.

I do not get very good results from stratification by leaving a seed pan outside over winter – I did this for example two years ago with some sloes, (Prunus spinosa) but the weather and the wildlife make the label vanish and the seed pan start to disintegrate when lifted, and nothing did come up in the end. I prefer to stratify things in the fridge for a couple of weeks instead (not something my husband is keen on as he forgets he’s not supposed to move that box full of small plastic bags on the top left shelf of the fridge or poke about in it.) Stratification speeds things up by fooling the seed into thinking it has been through winter, but sometimes seeds start germinating in the damp vermiculite in the fridge and it is very easy to snap their shoots or roots when trying to sow them. One peony seed I was given needed two stratification periods – one to break dormancy and get the seed to set roots one year, then the next year (or a minimum of 4-5 months the book helpfully said) another stratification period so that it would grow stems and leaves. Now, whilst bags of damp vermiculite sealed up the fridge is one thing, encasing a pot of compost in plastic in the fridge is quite another, so I left it in the greenhouse over the next winter. We didn’t have a “proper” winter, not enough cold to qualify as stratification so by the following summer nothing had come up. I know it would be quicker and more certain to go to the nursery and buy a plant, but where’s the challenge in that? (Having said that, this particular peony seed has still not germinated successfully for me – perhaps this year it will as we have finally had a severe cold snap at the end of February?)

To follow the kale seeds I sowed last year through to planting out I sowed three types of small kales - Brassica oleracea (Acephala Group) Borecole - ‘Dwarf Green Curled’, ‘Curly Scarlett’ and Cavolo Nero; and some purple sprouting broccoli – Brassica oleracea (Italica Group) ‘Red Arrow’. Here are some of the Cavolo Nero, curly kale ‘Dwarf Green Curled’ and ‘Curly Scarlett’ potted on at the beginning of May:-

You can see here that I have put slug pellets in these trays. We try to be as pesticide free here as possible – I wouldn’t go so far as to use the term organic, but we only use slug pellets on the greens at this stage. The only other time we use slug pellets is when we plant runner beans or sweet peas out for the first time. (I start both broad and runner beans, and sweet peas off in modules in the house to combat the mice eating them. Our neighbour puts his in the ground, direct sown, and some years he doesn’t get any broad beans germinating no matter how many times he sows as the mice just have them all.)

Here’s the Dwarf Green curly kale only ten days later:-

And here are the winter greens planted out in their net tunnel on 30 May last year.

The curly kales and cavolo nero are planted 30cm apart in rows 30cm apart, and the purple sprouting are planted 45cm apart generally in the centre of the tunnel as they grow the tallest. Those of you who grow brassicas may note we don’t put 15cm-wide collars round the stem of the plant on the ground to combat cabbage root fly. I used to make plastic collars for our plants, but because I grow the plants in modules, and pot them on as shown above they seem to be large enough plants when they go in the ground that to date we have not been troubled with the cabbage root fly.

We grow our winter greens in a net tunnel because we have a pigeon problem. Well, for many years we didn’t, and then one year, over one cold winter weekend, all our kales were decimated. So frustrating when they are something you have grown and nurtured for ten months or more, to lose one of your main winter crops that you rely on for food. Our net tunnel is a second-hand polytunnel frame 6.10m long and 3.10m wide with a hinged door at one end for entry. However when we looked at appropriate netting for growing brassicas under, we had to choose between pigeon-proof or pigeon and butterfly-proof. Butterfly-proof was very much more expensive, and for the amount we wanted, we went for pigeon-proof. This means that as soon as we see cabbage white butterflies in the garden I have to undertake regular cabbage white patrols round all the brassicas looking for eggs and caterpillars and removing by hand. The easiest to spot are the eggs and caterpillars of the Large Cabbage White as they are yellow eggs laid in clusters, and the caterpillars, also in clusters are mottled black and greeny yellow. Much more tricky to find are the eggs and caterpillars of the Small Cabbage White as the eggs are laid singly and the caterpillar is green. I was going to say grass green, but perhaps it should be cabbage green as they are really hard to spot on brassicas! The dwarf curly kales whilst much more difficult to check over are also less prone to infestation than the rest I find – perhaps the butterflies have trouble attaching their eggs to the extra crinkly leaves.

Here’s a picture of the three small kales through the mesh, growing well In October last year:-

And one from inside the tunnel to show you the net tunnel structure as well. (The foliage in the bed behind is courgette plants).

The other pest they get infested with is whitefly, which is only a problem in mild winters when you harvest them – when it gets properly cold they subside. As we all know kale are extremely hardy, and cope with our winter weather – here they are on 6 March this year after a week of being frozen solid and covered in snow (hopefully no more whitefly problem!):-

We have been harvesting them since November, and still have many more pickings to come. Our soil is so light that the purple sprouting broccoli doesn’t get very tall, as you can see here, nothing gets more than about 60-70cm tall, but it does need a sturdy stake. Here it is beginning to sprout on 21 March after 10cm more snow for several days:-

We look forward to our seasonal treat in late March and April of replacing bought cauliflower, with homegrown purple sprouting broccoli spears in cheese sauce for dinner. Final pickings are happening even in early May this year as the heatwave finally made them start to bolt.

Next time thinking about a pond.


Sheila May


Posted by Sheila May

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