There is a wonderful contented satisfaction (going on smugness) to be found lying in bed listening to long awaited and much needed rain, knowing that the seeds are sown, weeding and planting are up to date and that crops will be all the better for a drink.
Recent rain (the lovely gentle persistent stuff that growers love and Devon does so well), with more on the way, has made this a near perfect spring for growers. With no late frosts forecast we have started planting the first tender courgettes and pumpkins. Most tomatoes have been planted out in the tunnels with cucumbers, the most tender crop of all, due next week.
Weed control is always most challenging in the early crops, when there is no time to pre-germinate and kill the weeds ahead of sowing. These early crops often need hand weeding in the row in addition to mechanical hoeing between the rows. To keep the hand work to a minimum, we have used the ideal conditions to make up fine firm ‘stale’ beds for sowing through early summer.
In nature, the bare soil we create for our crops is an extremely rare phenomenon following the falling of a tree, fire, an eroded stream bank, land slip, etc. Weeds evolved to recognise that rare event with no competition and grab their place in the sun fast.
Our strategy is to kid them that their time has come by making an ideal ‘stale seed-bed’. We do everything we can to stimulate germination before we sow our crop; covering with fleece to warm and hold in moisture, sometimes light irrigation interspersed with very shallow cultivation to expose weed seeds to flashes of light and changes in temperature that stimulate germination.
We can then exploit their weakness as they rush to grab some of that light and kill them with a shallow cultivation or thermal weeder (huge gas grill) before our crop emerges. If we get it right, weeding costs can be reduced by 95 per cent or more. If we get it wrong, weeding a susceptible crop like early carrots or onions can cost over £2,000 per acre. That equates to moving on hands and knees or a lie down ‘lazy’ weeder at a painstaking 30 meters per hour or less. Mostly we get it right these days.