Hot Bed Gardening: A Return To Tradition
Hot bed gardening is one of the traditional methods of raising plants that may be little known these days, but is seeing a revival among organic and environmentally aware gardeners in cooler temperate climates.
Did you ever wonder where the phrase ‘hot bed’ comes from? You will read or hear it often in the news, when they talk about ‘a hot bed of political dissent’ or ‘a hot bed of radical views’. It has nothing to do with the bedroom! In fact it is a gardening term.
Hot beds were very popular in Victorian times when many new gardening techniques were developed. It was a way to grow crops in colder weather than they could normally stand, without the benefit of modern heated greenhouses.
These days, many people are switching off the electricity and going back to hot beds to reduce their carbon footprint and benefit the environment. Here is how it works.
A hot bed is used for forcing cucumbers, melons, strawberries, salad vegetables and any other crop that is desired out of season. Heat is created under the plants by the action of manure. Traditionally, horse manure was used and this is probably still the best. It needs to be fresh and should be well mixed with straw.
If you have the time, leave the manure in a heap for 9 days, turning top to bottom every 3 days. Shake each forkful as you move the pile. Water it after turning if the weather is dry. This process starts off the fermentation and helps it to produce an even heat in the bed.
You can create a hot bed either in an unheated greenhouse or garden potting shed or outside. If outside, you can build a frame to protect it from the worst of the weather. This will be a wooden sided, sloping frame with a glass lid – the traditional cucumber frame shape.
If you do not have a greenhouse and do not want to build a frame, you can try the pit method. Here you will dig a pit which initially needs to be about 6 feet deep. The first 3 feet will be filled with the manure straw mixture, the next foot with a mix of topsoil and ripe compost, and the final 2 feet remain empty so that the earth around forms protective walls. Again a glass lid over the top will increase effectiveness.
The 3 foot depth of manure should be well compacted, whichever method you are using. Tread it down before topping with the soil and compost mixture.
Seeds can be sown either directly into the top soil or in seed trays placed on top of the bed. Start with lettuces and radishes in January. After about 2 months the manure will lose its heating power, so you will need to dig it out after this crop and replace with fresh.
Then sow plants of the cucurbitaceae family in April or May, depending on your climate. These include zucchini (courgettes), squashes and pumpkins, cucumbers, melons and gourds, plus anything else that you want to try in hot bed gardening.