The cottage that we are renting from Ragmans, which adjoins one of our fields, is in many ways an ideal growers’ home, and not just because of its proximity to our market garden. On the north side of the house is a large and permanently shaded utility room, which stays cool but above freezing throughout the year, and is therefore ideal for chitting potatoes and storing seeds and crops. Jutting out of the south side, with a lovely sunny aspect, is a large double-glazed conservatory, where we decided to put our heated bench.
Ben and I got to work building the bench out of plywood and reclaimed planks. It is basically a 4 metre-long drawer running along the whole front of the conservatory. Once we had built the wooden frame, we lined it with plastic sheeting to keep in water and sand, and then fitted in some old insulation panels to minimise the amount of heat escaping out of the bottom. We then filled the bench mostly with sand, before laying out a length of soil heating cable in a long wave shape about 8cm below the top. We then filled the rest of the drawer up with sand, fixing in place a thermostat with a rod thermometer buried in this top layer of sand. The thermostat cuts the power to the cable at the desired temperature, meaning the plants stay warm but aren’t at risk of overheating. The heated bench uses a lot less energy than a space heater and has allowed us to get all of our crops off to a good early start. The tomatoes in particularly have benefitted from it, with many of them having reached 30cm in height by the time we planted them out in our big polytunnel at the end of April. The peppers and chillies have been a bit less happy, and even the biggest of these still look like they have a way to go before planting out.
After many fun hours of digging out couch grass and docks with forks, we were ready to cultivate, rotavating with an old two-wheel tractor, which came with the nickname Big Al but we have rechristened Temperament Al. He was a struggle to use at first, but over time we are finding that Al is a nice guy once you get to know him. We made our first outdoor sowings, of broad beans and mange tout, in mid-March. Getting seeds in the ground, and seeing them germinate successfully, was both a joy and a relief, and felt like another big step towards the whole garden and business becoming ‘real’. After these first sowings things accelerated, and we now also have potatoes, carrots, spinach, onions, shallots, calabrese, cauliflowers, chard, beetroot and many types of salad growing in the beds outside, with lots more vegetables, herbs and flowers to go out over the next few months. Then it’s just a case of keeping the plants healthy and the pests and diseases off and weeds down, not to mention actually selling it all. Should be a piece of cake!