Getting to this stage….
Our lovely little plot was previously just a grassy patch of unused land tucked away on a Norfolk farm. This is wonderful for the nutrient levels in the soil as it has never been intensively farmed and grass doesn’t take much from the soil if simply left alone.
After ploughing and power harrowing the whole plot we left the grass to rot under the soil while we erected our tunnel (click here for more info on the tunnel build).
However, upon ploughing through the field to turn over the soil, we saw just how prolific the roots were. Unlike your average lawn grass, the couch grass that covers our plot has long, fairly thick roots with multiple shoots, and as we quickly realized, the smallest bit of root would sprout new life!
Now the tunnel is up it’s time to tackle the grass and get the soil looking ready for sowing seeds. We’ve taken on the inside of the polytunnel first so we can get some early crops going and finally empty our little greenhouse.
First up was rotavating the two side beds because the soil got packed pretty solid with us walking around during the build. Unfortunately, our brand new rotavator broke on the first run, so we borrowed Theo’s granddad’s rotavator instead. This beauty is 30 odd years old and (with the odd tinker now and then) still going strong. They just don’t make them like they used to….Although nowadays they probably put better exhaust filters on them. So, while our antique did go like billio, it also billowed out some fumes! As I’m sure you can imagine this is not good news if you are in a polytunnel, even with the doors open. Progress was slow, as we had to stop and let the breeze clear the tunnel out before we carried on again, a great excuse for a cuppa if ever I heard one!
Once the tunnel was finally tilled over we went along removing any big rocks and then started forking. Every inch of the beds was forked over and the grass roots pulled out. By the end of it we had about 5 full wheelbarrows worth of roots and bits and bobs piled up outside the tunnel! We then went over all the beds with a rake, moving the soil back and forth to break up any bigger clumps and to find the more elusive bits of root. (That was another barrow load chucked out!)
Once we were satisfied the soil was as clear from gubbins as we could get it, we started getting the good stuff in. Manure!
Approx 1 wheelbarrow full was forked into every 2m2 patch, and double that where tomatoes would be growing. We are lucky to have access to lots of well rotted manure, and we have even started a fresh new pile as the base of our compost heap for the year.
Tip – It’s very important the manure is well rotted as otherwise it will actually take nitrogen from the soil during the rotting process, whereas well rotted horse manure will enrich you soil with nitrogen and as it is a low dose can be used yearly.
To make sure our plants get a nutritious start, we planted each seedling with a healthy dose of ‘vegetable growing compost’. We also put compost in the trenches of our seed rows and have dressed the soil with eggshells and coffee grinds as we did when we potted out the seedlings (see post here).
The final preparations were for the tomatoes. The soil in our beds has been heavily treated with manure which will provide both nutrients and moisture to our young plants, but these guys need lots of water and their roots go pretty deep. So rather than just watering the top of the soil once the seedlings are in we want to water a bit deeper and really soak the subsoil. This will give a few weeks worth of food to our hungry plants and with some additional watering along the way should keep a steady supply going (sporadic watering can really upset them).
Firstly we dug a hole (I know, more digging!) roughly 1ft3, then filled it to the top with water. Depending on the soil make up draining away could be either very fast or very slow but luckily we have some great soil on top of a bed of moisture rich clayish stuff so ours drained fairly steadily. Once fully drained, we filled up the holes again and let them drain again. It takes a bit longer the second time and you can even do it a couple more times if you really need to but as our tunnel is new, the soil is still fairly damp from winter rains so we stopped at two.
Next up we filled the holes with some good compost rich in potash and other essential nutrients and poked a hole in the middle. To plant our tomato seedlings we dampened the compost and buried our little tomato plants up to their first leaves. This is because the stem will grow roots, a feature not many plants have, which is very useful for anchoring a plant that will hopefully become laden with fruits. As we were putting each seedling in we also buried the end of its bamboo support. This way we wont damage any roots jamming the support in later, and its deep enough not to wiggle around once it’s bearing the weight of all those fruits!
Now we have the soil ready, we are moving all the seedlings from our greenhouse ready for planting out when they are big enough, and in order to avoid pests we have started looking at companion plants too. So far we have have marigolds near the tomatoes to repel aphids and attract predatory bugs, and we are also getting some peppermint to deter ants.
Below is a picture of our plan, roughly drawn by myself. Catch up with us in the next blog post to see all our plants in their new home.
Pippa and Theo