January at Cholwell

earth-bankThis is the quietest month of the year on the farm and in the garden and yet the moment we get past the shortest day on the 21st December the Winter Solstice (I give it capitals because it deserves them) somehow a switch is flicked. It seems like its time to get going again. There is a hint of birdsong in the mornings (especially this year as it has been so mild) and though it takes a while for the light to start changing we are in a New Year with all its promise. There is already a whiff of Spring.

The reality in terms of gardening is different. The salad in the poly tunnel looks the same as it did last week, although the Winter Density lettuce may be fattening up a bit. Not much is growing. I feed hay to the two old heifers in the meadow and envy them their fur coats. They frolick around the hay with excitement because there is nothing nutritious in the grass at this time of the year even though there is plenty of it.

But I am not complaining because there is so much winter veg in the ground to be enjoyed – leeks, curly kale, Cavolo Nero, Brussels sprouts, Golden Ball turnips, beetroot, spinach and lots in the store cupboard too. Pink Fir Apple potatoes seem to get tastier as the winter goes on.

If it is possible to do anything productive in the garden the questions that always get me fired up in January are when to start spreading compost and sowing seeds.

With compost the answer is the sooner the better in other words whenever you can and with seeds it is as long as you can leave it. My old Mum used to say ‘never sow seeds in the autumn except broad beans, everything else will catch up’.

I don’t always agree with this. I definitely sow sweet peas in the autumn because they flower earlier in the year if you have a greenhouse or a polytunnel. There is nothing to stop you growing them in the house a 30cm pot with three or four long canes and a few twigs for them to be tied to, as long as you have a light-filled room.

I always sow the broad bean, Aquadulce Claudia in the autumn because they beat the black fly in the late spring when they are ripening. These can be sown any time in the winter up to March (they are geared for winter growth). And I sowed some garlic, breaking up bulbs of the short day length varieties and sowing individual cloves in 9cm pots filled with my own home made compost. These have spent all winter outside in a cold frame with the lid open.

You could sow them directly in the ground but if your garden gets flooded its not the best idea. It is a bit more work but they do well if sown in pots and planted out as the days begin to lengthen in February.

The seed catalogues will tell you to sow tomatoes and aubergines in January but really they are better left until mid-February. There is no hurry

January is the month that I prune the willow houses. We have two domed houses and now is the time to cut them back to a bald head. The prunings are dried and used for crop supports, for weaving or if they don’t get used, for kindling.

I am gradually working through coppicing all the old hazel stools that were here on the farm when we came. These provide me with curly pea sticks and some stakes. It is good to do this in January because by February it is getting late and the hazel catkins and buds are beginning to swell.

I say all this but really I am only catching a day here and there when the weather is passable and it is not sodden underfoot. Winter is also the time to let the surface of the earth sleep. It may look untidy and abandoned and that is ok. The work is going on underground. Don’t worry, spring will soon be here.

The other thing we do in January is apply a very special biodynamic spray called Three Kings. I don’t have to apply this spray to comply with my biodynamic and organic certification but we do it anyway because the story behind it and the reasons for doing it really chime with what we are about on this farm.

It was thought up by a German biodynamic farmer called Hugo Erbe just after World War II. He was so horrified by the damage done to the elemental sheath of the earth by the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan that he sought a way to ameliorate this. What he came up with was an offering to the elemental beings that support the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.

He called it Three Kings because he decided to mimic the gifts of the three wise men or kings to the infant Christ on January 6th, Epiphany, Twelfth Night. So on New Year’s Eve in a pestle and mortar we grind together gold, frankincense and myrrh and this stays in a glass jar in a cool part of the house until the afternoon of the 6th when we stir it in water for an hour just like the other biodynamnic field sprays before spraying it out on to the land. We believe in supporting all realms of life here, seen and unseen.

Happy New Year!

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