Long read (10 mins) – On the Plot with Mr Fluttergrub is a seasonal column from a Yorkshire-based grower and friend of WWOOF UK.
WWOOF Changes Lives: Saturday 25th March
Our friends and WWOOFers A and B left this morning heading back to France for the next episode of their career changes, part influenced by WWOOFing. A was a regular weekly WWOOFer with us for a year while she was having a break from research work in chemistry. She’s now studying for a MA in environmental economics the next stage of which involves a placement in a regional park in Provence. Her partner B, meanwhile, also seeks to escape academic chemistry. We had intended to visit them in Paris but various complications and a bout of Covid intervened so they kindly travelled nearly 500 miles to visit and WWOOF with us for a week instead.
While WWOOFing with us may not be the reason for her career change, I’m sure A would agree that WWOOFing with us through an entire season gave her an understanding of small scale, environmentally friendly growing that’ll stay with her and inspire her and B to grow their own in future.
WWOOFing changes the lives of WWOOFers but it also changes the lives of hosts. We’ve been privileged to host nearly 300 WWOOFers over almost 30 years. While nearly all have brought something positive, it is those that stay for a time or with whom we form longer term relationships that change our lives the most. We’ll be meeting up with A and B again in France, hopefully before the year is out.
Peak Spinach: Tuesday 28th March
Although the undercover (greenhouse and polytunnel grown) spinach has been picked sporadically over the winter in the last few weeks it’s become the star in season crop. There are several batches at various stages of readiness all sown and planted at two or three week intervals in the late autumn and early winter. Staggered sowings provide for prolonged cropping. Although production from the plants started last year picking is now at its peak. With the several additional sowings made in February still to start cropping, I should be harvesting spinach well into May.
For me spinach is a late winter and spring crop. I’ve stopped growing it for harvest in summer or early autumn. There are two reasons for this. The first and main one is the tendency of late spring and summer sown spinach to rapidly ‘bolt’, that is throw up a seed head before making much in the way of leaves. The second is that grown outside leaves are vulnerable to damage by weather and pests such as slugs. Quality is better inside but in summer undercover space is too precious to be occupied by spinach, which, in any case, will likely bolt rather than grow a worthwhile crop of leaf.
This season’s spinach has been the variety Amazon. It’s the first time I’ve grown this previously using a type called Palco. Amazon has performed well, producing dark green leaves of a good size, too large almost for the bags used for gate sales. I’ll probably stick with it, but there are numerous other varieties most of which I’ve never tried.
As in earlier years all the spinach now being harvested was sown into modules (trays divided into individual cells about three centimetres square and deep), three to five seeds per module. Once germinated the seedlings were not thinned; instead the entire cluster was set out into soil beds (in my experience spinach doesn’t crop so well in pots, even sizable ones) at 15 to 20 centimetre spacing as soon as the plants were large enough to easily handle.
Cropping spinach like this through the late winter and into spring both utilises available undercover space and helps fill the ‘hungry gap’, that period from late March to early June before there’s much to harvest outside. It’s a method I’d recommend, especially if you’ve tried cultivating spinach in summer without much success.
Settling In: Wednesday 5th April
Six pullets (young hens) were installed in a refurbished run yesterday. We get a batch of new hens every couple of years. In case you’re thinking this means the older hens have been ‘disposed of’, let me reassure you: all seven continue to cluck in a separate enclosure. But, as is the way with hens more than two years old, egg output has fallen. Two or three a day in spring and summer is about all they can manage, not surprisingly as all are over three years old and several older still. Loudmouth Sussex Girl is probably six and one hen, Frosty, a Speckeldy, a breed to choose if you want longevity rather than productivity, must be nearer nine.
All our hens are allowed to live their natural lifespan. On average, with the hybrids we now keep in preference to less productive pure breeds, that’s about four years. Hens much older than three lay sparsely and very old ones not at all. Frosty seems to have given up years ago. While hens eat less when older, they still eat! Allowing them to live out their ‘retirement’ isn’t cost-effective, the reason, of course, why hens from commercial egg farms, including those that are ‘free range’ and ‘organic’, become pet food after two years or less.
The new hens are Black Stars. This is a hybrid variety bred from a Rhode Island Red or New Hampshire cock and a Plymouth Rock hen. We’ve kept these before; indeed three of the older hens are of this type. Black Stars are amongst the best layers producing up to 300 eggs a year when young. Just as importantly they’re generally docile, friendly and sociable with each other (we’ve had one exception to this, ‘Evil Hen’ whose vices I’ve written about previously).
It’ll be a few weeks yet before we see any eggs as the new hens, at about eighteen weeks old, are just shy of ‘point of lay’, the time when egg production starts. In the meantime, on their first full day in a totally new environment they seem to be settling in quickly. Food and water have been discovered and the run thoroughly explored. Best of all they aren’t ‘flighty’, keeping calm and confident when I enter the run, some even tugging at my bootlaces if I stand still.
Spring Summary: Friday 14th April
We’re just about halfway through meteorological spring (weather professionals consider spring begins on March 1st rather than the spring equinox and runs until the end of May). It therefore seemed a good time to sum up how it’s been on the plot so far.
Today may not be the best time to do this. After a bright start this morning the weather rapidly deteriorated. The afternoon has been abysmal, rainy and cold, just about nudging seven degrees Celsius. While I shouldn’t let today’s skies cloud my take on half a season, there’s one feature of the weather over the last six weeks that stands out: it’s been wet. The last few springs seem to have been much drier and, while I’ve no statistics to back this up, felt warmer. Remember those cloudless blue skies day after day during the first Covid lockdown?
Bouts of rain every few days have meant that outside sowing and planting has been interrupted and delayed. The onion sets are finally in and the final batch of the first early potatoes were planted yesterday when, miraculously, despite a forecast saying there was an 80% chance of heavy showers, no rain fell. But only two batches of peas have been got in, the early cropping podding pea Douce Provence and the mangetout Sweet Sahara. It’s been too wet to get a tilth to sow beetroot, usually in at the beginning of April, and to cloddy to get the leek seedbed (area where leeks are started for planting out later in the year after earlier crops have finished) prepared and sown. Some calabrese (broccoli) and early cabbage have been planted, as have some lettuces, but the latter have been ravaged by slugs that are always busier when it’s damp. Usually I’d be sowing the first batch of parsnips about now and starting a patch of hardy annuals for cut flowers but the soil is just too wet.
It’s not all gloom though. In the greenhouses and polytunnels crops are faring more or less as normal. The first early potatoes are close to flowering and lettuce, cabbage and calabrese are looking well. The radishes are ready and there’s an abundance of over-wintered crops including leaf salads of various types, chard and the aforementioned spinach. Despite this though, light levels have been low and seedlings such as tomatoes have tended to ‘draw up’ (become elongated) more than normal. And the heater (I heat one small greenhouse to start tender plants such as tomatoes) has been working overtime, something that’s not good for the climate or the energy bills.
While it’s not a great spring so far, it’s important to take a longer term view. Despite the wet and apparent cold, this is still a relatively early season compared to many of those experienced when I first took on the plots nearly 40 years ago. I can tell this from the flowering of the fruit trees. Plum blossom is now fading and that on pears is probably just peaking. Even a few apples are showing peeks of flower, especially the harbinger Red Gravenstein which is normally the variety that first bursts from bud to petal. Blossom must still be over a week earlier than it would have been thirty years ago, a sign, of course, that the climate is heating even if today’s weather is not.
Flittermouse: Saturday 25th April
After a much warmer and partly sunny day it wasn’t a surprise this evening to see a solitary flittermouse darting through the gloaming as I went to shut the hen coops. I’ve not seen one for months but it is about this time in spring when I’d expect to see flittermice darting about as dusk falls. A flittermouse, in case you’re puzzled, is a bat. It’s one of those expressive Sussex/Surrey dialect words from my childhood that have stuck with me.
Pipistrelle bats are regulars over the plot from late April through to October, occasionally also venturing out on mild winter evenings. Exactly where they live and hibernate, whether in a house loft or a tree, I’m unsure. The pipistrelle is the UK’s most common bat, but also the smallest weighing no more than eight grams when mature. Incredibly, it’s said a mature pipestrelle can catch up to 3,000 small insects a night. There should be enough food for them: as I returned to the house, midges were circling menacingly in the usual spots. Hopefully the bats will help make al fresco summer evenings a little less itchy.