April and May are busy months on the farm. It’s the time of year when we start clearing the remains of winter crops like Butterhead lettuce, and planting summer crops like coriander, flat parsley and chillies. Also, perennial crops of garlic chives, chives, thyme, sorrel and rosemary have all come back to life full of vigour.
In total last season, we produced 140,000 bags of herbs, 1,300kg of chillies and 20,000 Butterhead lettuces. All this with just a small team of workers and a handful of polytunnels. But every year I wonder if I shouldn’t just become a chickweed farmer instead; it just seems to love growing on our little farm.
In fairness, it’s not just chickweed – nettles and fat hen, given half a chance, also spring up everywhere. In years before Covid, we regularly had school visits to see all the wonderful aromatic and flavoursome herbs we grow. I would say ‘weeds aren’t bad plants, they’re just plants in the wrong place.’
Around the farm and between our polytunnels, we encourage areas of nettle and other wildflowers to attract wildlife and beneficial insects. And it works; we get plenty of ladybirds and hoverflies that help control aphid populations. The problems start when the wild plants grow among our lovely coriander or parsley, and we have to pick out every bit of chickweed, which can add hours on the day.
There are many ways to manage weeds. We use black mulches; compostable where possible, but other mulches we reuse and recycle after use. They benefit by suppressing the weeds, but also help the soil to retain moisture. The Devon farm has been using a seed carpet (layers of paper with the seed sandwiched in between) as an alternative for salad crops. As the salad seed germinates, it bursts through the paper, while the carpet suppresses any weeds beneath to give the crop a head start. We are trialling this at Norton this year with coriander.
Regardless, weeds will always sneak in. We often say to ourselves that if we tried to grow such lush chickweed as a crop, we bet it wouldn’t grow as well as it does in among the coriander.