With just a few light frosts, and the squirrels still active, it has been an absurdly mild winter so far in Devon – but a horribly wet one. Thankfully, a dry start at our farm in France allowed us to plant the first lettuces into our sandy, well-drained soils last week.
The plants are immediately covered with mini tunnels to keep out the worst weather and advance the crop, which should be ready in early April. It is no warmer than Devon, and the lettuces won’t grow much leaf for another month, but the better light seems to keep them ticking over, providing enough energy for them to root and be ready to go when temperatures rise in February.
At home the deluge continues, though the long-range forecast is more promising. We have banned wheels from our wetter fields to avoid irreparable soil damage; leeks, kale and cabbage are carried on tracked vehicles to the road for transport back to our barns.
Some 40 acres of potatoes are still trapped in the heavier, wet, low-lying land. In such a mild winter, they will keep well undisturbed – but as weeds grow over the soil, it will be hard to lift and sift the potatoes without bringing half the field into the yard along with them.
We have been cutting brambles and nettles in the woods in preparation for the emergence of the first wild garlic next month, which will be in your boxes through March and April. During high summer, the leaf canopy overhead makes it too shady for most plants to survive on the forest floor, giving the garlic a ten-week window to grow and reproduce without competition.
Sadly, the canopy above is thinning as ash – the predominant species – succumbs to the fungal disease ash dieback. It’s a depressing spectacle to see more weakened trees toppling with every gale. So far, the older trees standing alone in hedgerows seem to be faring better, but I fear crowded woodland stands will be gone within five years; it is predicted that the UK will lose around 95% of our ash.
For several years, we have been planting beech trees wherever the canopy is open enough. They seem to be doing well but, given the experience with Dutch elm disease and now ash dieback, this year we will plant a mix of beech, sweet chestnut and oak to hedge our bets.
From a commercial point of view, I worry that as the ecology changes, we may lose the garlic along with the ash. The only positive is that I will have enough firewood to see me to my grave.