The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

How to prepare the best seed bed for winter salad

winter poly tunnel and extra fleeceMy mother and stepfather were both talented amateur watercolour artists.

They rented a chalet in the Swiss Engadine for a month each summer when we were growing up. They spent their days painting.

I used to refurbish Henrietta’s wardrobe. She was my rag doll. Much loved and a great model for my creations. Later I moved on to reading and dreaming.

As he set up his easel, my stepfather always announced each painting as “an exercise.” These two words insured against failure. If a painting was a success, then the announcement was forgotten. But he could never resist tweaking a painting in the evening, daubing with a small sponge and repainting. He ruined many paintings.

My mother did not trumpet. She  just jumped straight in and painted a picture. Beautiful fresh paintings that were wisely packed away at the end of the day. Fiddling always spoils the freshness of a watercolour. The secret is in the experience and quick execution. There’s no going back.

Similarly, it is well worth taking some time preparing a seed bed in the kitchen garden. It’s so easy to get carried away with the prospect of planting the seeds such that you keep soil preparation down to a minimum. Well prepared soil will help your seedlings grow. Once they are scattered there is very little that you can do to change the quality of the soil.

I’ve often taken the speedy route by roughly digging over the soil, raking and scattering my seed. Generally the seeds germinate and we enjoy the crop. But there’s always that niggling doubt. If I’d taken a bit more trouble preparing the bed before I dived in, would the harvest have been better?

So last weekend I spent a good three hours preparing a 12’x12’ (3.5 x 3.5 metre) bed for garlic and winter salad leaves. I dug it over and then used the claw tool as a mini plough. I dragged it diagonally, vertically and horizontally until I had created the sort of bed where I’d be happy to curl up and sleep all winter.

Then I applied a thick layer of compost from John Coe’s grass clippings pile plus a lot of wood ash, chicken poo and rich compost from our composter. These were raked in using the trusty claw tool. Finally I scattered some Growmore and quickly raked it in because Inca thinks this is a bar snack  for Min Pins.

I took so much trouble because I’m trying the “Gardening Which” magazine’s advice for growing salad leaves under a fleece over winter. They suggest sowing the seed in the greenhouse mid September and then putting the plantlets out mid October. Unfortunately, I’m a month down the line. So I’m planting seed directly into the earth. The results may be zero but I’m giving it a go, hoping for warmish sunny days. Gardening fleece looks very thin to me but perhaps it will do the trick.

Buoyed up by Hedgewizard’s poly tunnel experience – he has written a book on it soon to be published, I bought a fairy size tunnel a while ago. This is the long cylindrical dead body that you see languishing under the fleece. This project is not “an exercise”. I’m expecting that we’ll have some leaves to chomp in six weeks time. There are three unprotected rows that need to be frosted when the time comes. They are planted with garlic. Bought from The Garlic Farm at the Hampton Court Flower show and dried out with care.

Danny ranged out of the Rat Room to inspect the earthworks.
“Are there supposed to be holes in the fleece?”
“Not really. That’s where the mice made nests last winter.”

In an instant, I decided to try growing salad leaves in the greenhouse. Just in case.

  Leave a reply


  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hello Farmer John

    Many years ago this cottage belonged to a basket weaver and his wife. They kept chickens and a pig and grew most of their own vegetables. The garden is a third of an acre.

    When I moved into the cottage, fifteen years ago, I noticed that at the end of the garden the grass was much more lush and greener – by this stage it was basically back to a field.

    I reckon that this basket weaving couple grew their vegetables where my vegetables now grow. I also planted a long rose walk on this patch and the old roses are bountiful. Now growing like small trees over eigh feet and very bushy from a foot above the ground.

    So that’s the secret.

    We do put loads of compost (vegetable, hen droppings and well composted grass etc in every autumn and the remains of our grow bags (on average 12 -20). But we have never double dug. We just were lucky that we moved to a cottage where the vegetable patch has been tended lovingly for years.

    Meanwhile the rest of the garden is full of stones so they must have worked as hard as we are now on the rest of the garden!

    Perhaps one day someone will move in and find that our improvements have made their plants magically grow! I do hope so.

    That’s what it’s all about isn’t it.

  2. Farmer John

    I enjoyed the article, but the gardener in me was amazed at how rich the soil looked in your photo! How long has that area been worked? What amendments do you use? It looks so crumbly and rich. OK, I will quit being jealous…what are your secrets?

  3. kate (uk)

    I’m trying salad indoors on the slightly heated conservatory windowsill in small window box-type pots- I used the same boxes in the early spring in the unheated greenhouse, but I think it will be too cold out there over winter, the pots are small, but produce a huge amount of leaves for their size. I’m also trying coriander, but have a row of that fleeced outside too- heavy frost last night, so perhaps I don’t have a row of that any more!

  4. Fiona Nevile

    <span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>Hi Belinda 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>I looked at your blog on the Jamie Oliver site and really enjoyed it. Thanks for the link. 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>I am sure that in Australia you can find garden fleece – especially if you have snow in your area! Ask in your local garden centre. 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>This is the first year that I’ve used a poly tunnel so don’t know how this ‘wonder‘ will work out. 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>Hi Sam 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>£20 for a poly tunnel seems cheap to me. We don’t watch telly so sorry to have missed this gem – not mealy mouthed anti TV just no time! 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>Best of luck with your gardening projects. 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>Hi Sam 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>Good luck with your onion sets. Thanks so much for dropping by. 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>Hi Pamela 

    </font></span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”> </font>

    </span><span style=”font-size: 10pt”><font face=”Arial”>It does look rather special! Wedding fleece might be the answer for the next environmentally friendly wedding dress! 


    Hi SOL

    Just remembered that you left a comment yesterday that needed an instant answer.

    I reckon that Bathroom and kitchen paint are a marketing swizz. In my humble opinion you don’t need them.

    I haven’t been asked to use any sort of green paint throughout my short 6 year decorating career. I have to use the paint that my client wants. From experience, I would always recommend Dulux.

    Putting green paint aside the best paint that I’ve used is Dulux, the trade version (local builder’s merchants will oblige). Slightly more expensive than B&Q and Homebase but a different animal altogether. The paint that is offered to the general public has a lower opacity and is not nearly as good as the trade version.

    I’ve just painted a client’s bedroom in Farrow and Ball paint. I reckon that it needs a third coat, As we were shifting between pastel shades this says it all. And at £25.00 a 2.5 litre can, I was shocked at the price and the quality.

    Bathrooms and kitchens can be painted with ordinary matt emulsion if they are not airless dives. Silky, satin paint can look very eighties and is an unnecessary extra expense. If you are all out for the silky look go for water based Dulux eggshell (again visit your local builder’s merchants. The pro decorators that you see in Homebase are only there if it is after hours or to buy paint that is unavailable elsewhere). More environmentally friendly than traditional oil based eggshell and loads better than the traditional water based kitchen and bathroom paint sold in the DIY shops.

    If it was my bathroom I’d use matt paint. There are loads of environmentally friendly producers out there. If you do bite the bullet and use one I’d be seriously interested to hear what it was like. Just leave the window open for ten minutes after you shower if your bathroom is very cold and it’s frosty outside. Otherwise matt paint will perform better than most ‘Bathroom’ paints as most matt paint breathes nowadays.

    Paint absorbs me. Sorry to have gone on a bit.

  5. could you patch the fleece somehow?

    Also ??? I am having my bathroom completely re-done. I would like to use an environmentaly friendly paint in there… I cant find any for bathrooms. Any suggestions?

    Penny pinching = new bathroom that doesnt hurt you when you use it!! Can we all say together ‘artex on walls and ceilings, is a crime!’

  6. My little sister gave my mum some gardening fleece a couple of years ago and my mum decided to use it to protect some quite large bushes in the garden from frost. Next door neighbour Frank also thought that seemed like a good plan so the fleece was shared. My niece looked out of her bedroom window and came downstairs to enquire why Dot had draped a wedding dress over the plants in the garden!

  7. samantha winter

    Hi Fi
    I hope all the work makes them grow so much bigger. I too am digging this weekend and cleaning out the greenhouse. I’ve planted over 40 red onion sets a couple of weeks ago and they are now showing shoots, I hope to have the onions out in April so I can reuse the space.

  8. hiya.
    this is the first year we are trying winter salad too. we have just purchased a cheap plastic greenhouse and are also in the process of making some raised beds. thanks for all the valuable info (as usual!) it will certainly stand us in good stead. i don’t know if you saw gardeners world on friday night? they made a very sturdy poly tunnel for £20. it sounds a lot, but this had a wooden frame and looked like it would survive anything!

  9. I find your winter gardening so interesting. I live inland, and we have lots of hard frosts & some snow each winter. Im a novice too, this is only my 4th year gardening, and 3rd year for veg.

    I have just put in a biggish bed in my yard, the first stretch down the long road to turning this weedy patch of lawn into a place for kids & adults to play & relax.

    I have a blof on the Jamie Oliver website, my username is Frizz1974. You will see me featured at the side of the blog roll. I have posted pics of this garden project.

    I will definately have to see if I can purchase a poly tunnel, I dont know about garden fleece though. I had never heard of it before reading your blog and watching the Jamie at Home series.

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