February makes me immensely happy. At last, the first snowdrops are poking through the icy grass, and the daffodils are stirring from their hedgerow hibernations. My mind wanders back to our ancestors, who relied on the land for food. They called this time ‘Imbolc’. Seeing those tender green shoots, bathed in the gentle light of a rising February sun, must have felt euphoric knowing they had survived another winter.
Like me, you’re probably itching with excitement, desperate to start growing again. But in truth, the best advice I can offer is just be patient. Put the seed packets away! It’s still too cold. There isn’t enough light. Lanky, leggy seedlings, planted in haste, are no good to anybody.
Sure, if you’ve got a nice warm greenhouse or a grow light, maybe get the aubergines and chillies going. But here’s my little secret. My most effective gardening tool right now isn’t a fork, or a trowel. It’s my excel spreadsheet.
February is a fab time to work on my plan for the year. Fine tuning every row, before things really kick off in a month or two. Perhaps you’ll prefer a sketchbook, or a diary. I like a spreadsheet, mostly because I can’t lose it. And editing my allotment spreadsheet is quite cosy, as gardening jobs go. I can wear my slippers and put the kettle on any time I fancy.
What do I plan for? As an organic grower, the most important thing for my allotment is to encourage a diverse ecosystem. Conventional wisdom tells us bugs damage crops, right? But my plan is to ENCOURAGE insects into my vegetable garden. Am I mad? Possibly. But I do know this – putting out the welcome mat for beneficial insects is the best way of keeping the not-so-beneficial insects in check.
There are several superhero insects on my vegetable plot: lacewings, soldier beetles, hoverflies, ladybirds, ground beetles… even spiders. These unlikely allies do my work for me, preying on all the most troublesome beasties. My favourite? The parasitic wasps. They lay their eggs directly inside caterpillars. When they hatch, the young wasps devour the poor caterpillar from the inside out. Gruesome? Absolutely! Rough on the caterpillar? Sure! But anything that stops them chomping on my brassicas is fine my me…
If you’re instinctively a wee bit trigger-happy with chemicals at the first sight of anything buglike, remember – you’re wiping out the good guys too.
But how to attract the good insects? Flowers – my speciality as a permaculture gardener – are fabulous at creating an enticing environment for predatory, parasitic and pollinating insects, all of which are essential helpers.
So, during these chilly February evenings, I will also be giving thought to which flowers I’ll be planting, and when. It’s crazy to think that there was an era where flowers were frowned upon, and even banned from some plots. An allotment without flowers just doesn’t seem right to me.
A couple of bright blooms that lure friendly bugs like a neon all-you-can-eat buffet sign are tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Cloth of Gold’). Both are perennial, and both reach vibrantly into the sky with bright yellow clusters of flowers. Tansy has tight buttons, while the yarrow is more umbelliferous. They’re both rather easy-on-the-eye, and even make excellent dried cut flowers. Full disclosure, however – they can be a lil’ bit stinky!
Low-maintenance annuals guaranteed to delight insects and attract pollinators include pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) and nasturtiums (tropaeolum spp). Both, happily, are also edible and quite delicious for humans too, especially on a summer salad. I simply sow the seeds at the end of March and come the end of the year save my own seeds, so I’ll never be without them.
When I get to the end of fine-tuning my spreadsheet crop plan – possibly I pour myself a glass of wine to celebrate – my thoughts drift to the beautifully mulched beds ready and waiting for me at the plot. I mulch my plot in autumn, although truthfully there’s never a bad time to mulch. I’m a no-dig gardener and wholeheartedly recommend the benefits of not disturbing your soil. There’s a whole world of macrofauna – earthworms, ants, woodlice – and mesofauna – microscopic invertebrates like nematodes – under your feet. Not to mention micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi, which all live a complex and complimentary invisible life within and around your plot. Excessive digging does not allow them to thrive.
I remember the first time I realised my plot is so much more than a mound of dirt. Instead, it’s a complex web of myriad living things, interacting and cooperating with plants in ways we can’t even fully appreciate. It was a game changer: now I feed my soil and not my plants. I don’t fret about metrics, amendments, adjustments, liquid plant feeds or anything like that. I simply feed my soil – and the life within it – by mulching with organic matter.
Each autumn that means, without fail, there’s a bulk delivery of municipal green waste compost or spent mushroom compost to spread thickly across all my beds. It’s sterile and probably doesn’t contain any ‘goodness’, but that doesn’t matter – the worms and the other soil life love it. And as they break it down, they add the goodness to the soil. Magic, really.
Throughout the year I’ll also throw on fallen leaves, grass clippings, kitchen waste compost, seaweed, even used coffee grounds. I’ve heard us no-dig gardeners get accused of laziness, but I can assure you the effort it takes to collect organic matter, make compost and spread it thickly across our beds is not for slouches!
Okay, it’s still only February. But I can just picture in a few short months my little plot bursting with flowers and buzzing with insects. And thanks to my trusty spreadsheet, I can almost guarantee this year’s vegetable crop will Excel.
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