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During this long, grey Winter and Spring the greenhouse has been a constant source of companionship for me. Even on the darkest and wettest of days, a few moments spent pottering inside the glass house can lift the deepest of melancholic feelings. The pattering of rain on the roof and the sight of more and more green shoots of growth appearing fills my heart with joy. The warmth of the greenhouse is welcome as I step inside away from the bitter winds that have refused to abate this Spring.
With so much time spent in the greenhouse recently, I’ve been wondering, am I alone in loving the smell of a greenhouse? There is a warmth and humidity to the air that is more than just a feeling on the skin. The smell reminds me of childhood days spent with my grandparents. Time pottering in the wooden hexagonal greenhouse where my grandmother spent most of her days, when not baking, filled with pelargoniums and tomatoes. A quick google search informs me that I am indeed not alone, there are perfumes based upon this fragrance with descriptions such as “leaves, bloom and the wonderful smell of humidity”. I am here for the smell as much as for the seedlings.
Seeds that were sown in mid February as soon as light levels allowed, are now strong, healthy plants waiting their turn out in the growing space. Each morning sees the daily tour of the greenhouses, to check patiently on the progress of precious seeds sown. Each lid on the propagator lifted carefully in the hope of the surprise of a greenshoot waiting inside. And as the days very slowly warm up, there is a constant shifting around of trays and pots to ensure plants are kept well watered and healthy. In growing circles we lovingly call this “plant Tetris”, as space becomes squeezed with shelves packed to the hilts with trays and pots of plants and seedlings - something that has been made infinitely easier with soil blocking. I have shared my love of soil blocking alone with some for success with you below along with a few things that I have loved growing in my greenhouse this Winter/Spring.
Overwintering Lettuce Leaves
For the first time in my growing experience, I planted overwintering salad leaves alongside ranunculus in my greenhouse. I created two beds, one on either side of a wood chip path which I filled with compost and well rotted manure and then planted salad seedlings late December (this was a touch too late according to the “rules”). These leaves have kept our family and friends fed for over five months now. At the beginning of the season we could pick just a few precious leaves here and there to accompany a lunch or dinner and now as the season comes to an end, we have been picking by the handful and still have spare for the chickens to enjoy. What a treat to be eating fresh, green salad leaves in the depths of Winter.
Those that have grown particularly well are Winter Purslane, Red mizena, Salad Rocket and Mustard.
And whilst I have been bemoaning the chilly air this Spring, the cold weather has actually benefited these salad leaves, avoiding them bolting and giving us months and months of green goodness. Now at the end of April it’s time to pull them out and prepare the soil for the Summer plants such as cucumbers and tomatoes. The last few meals we eat with leaves to accompany will be savoured and enjoyed.
Ranunculus in the Greenhouse
I adore ranunculus. Their ruffly petals and colours combine in such beautiful ways and they dry incredibly well. They are one of the earliest flowering cut flowers alongside tulips and sweet rocket and offer a great number of flowers from each corm, being a cut and come again variety.
Ranunculus plants can be very stroppy when put out too early into the cold, wet Winter ground going on to sulk and moan for many a month. So I wanted to see if growing them in the greenhouse would be a way in which to encourage strong, early growth and flowering. I am so incredibly happy and proud of the growth of my ranunculus this year - they have absolutely thrived, even in those long cold snaps we had over winter and now throwing out stems that are nearly as long as my legs! Similarly to the overwintered leaves, I feel they have benefitted from the cooler, greyer conditions of this Spring, allowing them to really put solid growth before flowering. I will be cutting, conditioning and then drying these blooms.
Ranunculus are very easy to dry, cut them right down at the base when the flower has been fully out for a few days and then hang upside down individually. When drying, because these flowers are particularly “juicy” it’s best to hang them somewhere with an ambient temperature (your house would be ideal), out of direct sunlight and where there is no moisture in the air (not a bathroom or kitchen). Leave to dry for 3-4 weeks and then display or keep somewhere dry until you are ready to use them.
Despite being lucky enough to have two greenhouses, every year I still run out of space when growing all the plants I need for my business. I had been intrigued by soil blocking for a few years, for a number of reasons and so last year took the leap and invested in a soil blocker to trial growing seeds in this new way. The excerpt below is taken from “the new Organic Grower” book and helps to explain exactly what a soil block is:
“A soil block is pretty much what the name implies - a block made out of lightly compressed potting soil. It serves as both the container and the growing medium for a transplant seedling. The blocks are composed entirely of potting soil and have no walls as such. Because they are pressed out by a form rather than filled into a form, air spaces provide the walls. Instead of the roots circling as they do upon reaching the wall of a container, they fill the block to the edges and wait. The air spaces between the blocks and the slight wall glazing caused by the block form keep the roots from growing from one block to another. The edge roots remain poised for rapid outward growth. When transplanted into the field, the seedlings quickly become established”
Soil blocking appealed to me on a number of levels. The biggest benefit was space saving, in one small plastic food container, I can fit 80 soil blocks, equivalent roughly to a 72 cell seed tray (nearly 4 times its size). In addition, the amount of compost required to grow a seedling in a soil block is much less than that required to fill a seed tray. With the price of good quality peat free compost being where it is, the cost savings can be dramatic.
There has been a bit of trial and error when it comes to getting the compost mix right and fit for purpose here in my greenhouse. Firstly everything that you put in your mix must be sieved thoroughly, because of how small the soil blocks are any big clumps of compost (particularly in these peat free mix) can negatively impact the growth of the seedlings. The second thing is consistency - we have a heavy clay soil here in Devon and I have found mixing that with the compost can result in soil blocks that are too hard with the seedlings really struggling to grow. It’s worth having a play around with some mixes until you get the consistency that works for you, here are my ingredients:
5 Part - Peat free compost/Coir/Garden compost - well served
1 Part - Loam (from the garden, I tend to dig up any mole holes to mix with my compost)
1 Part Horticultural sand
1 Part Vermiculite (the smallest grade)
Once you have your mix ready, slowly add water, stirring to bring all the ingredients together - squeeze the mixture with your hands, you want to be able to squeeze liquid out of the mixture and for it to form clumps when bought together. Take your soil block and pressing down into the mix, fill the soil block with your mix. Carefully press the blocks into your tray or food container - I reuse plastic food containers which hold two sets of the smallest soil blocks. The soil blocks should leave a very slight indent in the top of each block into which your seeds can be individually sown.
Soil blocks need to be stored inside and under cover, this can be a greenhouse, in the house or under a carport for example. They should not be left out to the elements - rainfall will destroy the soil blocks and any seeds or seedlings growing side.
One thing to be careful of when working with soil blocks is to keep on top of the watering of them. They can dry out very quickly and will need to be watered daily, water carefully from the edge to not disturb the soil blocks or with a fine rose head over the top.
Keep the lids of the food containers on until the seeds have germinated and then remove them to allow the seedlings to develop.