Archive for February, 2013

At last – purple sprouting broccoli!

103 rhubarb 23 feb 13There’s a delicious hint of fruit to come – the rhubarb is belting out of the ground, as it always does. Sometimes I feel like I can hear it growing, it’s so speedy! One of the nicest things about rhubarb is that you don’t have to do much with it, it grows pretty well anywhere, kills pretty well any weed that has the temerity to grow in its shadow, and can be used in pretty well any recipe (as long as the other ingredients have enough sweetness) from ice cream to wine.

I know other people listen for cuckoos and sigh after daffodils but for me it’s the first psb of the season that lifts my heart. Not just because I love it, although I do, but because by now I’m getting pretty fed up with the other things that are harvestable: kale, parsnips, cabbage and leeks being about the totality of what’s on offer if you don’t have a polytunnel. Purple sprouting broccoli adds a delicious new vegetable to our dinner table and from now on it’s going to become a regular treat until the rest of the spring vegetables start to appear.

And the two honeyberry (lonerica) bushes are both putting on a decent amount of bud. They aren’t going to be highly fruiting for several years and for the first few seasons they have a bitter or tart fruit, but apparently this will become sweeter as the years pass and even when it’s tart it’s a good addition to jams and jellies, which we eat a lot of every year. All in all, the burgeoning has begun!

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Edible dahlias, pea seedlings and new allotment challenges

103 edible dahlia 25 feb 13I was sceptical about the seedlings that appeared in the tray being edible dahlias, and I was right to be sceptical, but not for the right reasons!

1. I was confident the seedlings were too spindly to be emerging from the long, black seeds that I’d sown (I was right about that)
2. I thought they’d germinated too early, given that the seed packet said 14-21 days (and I was totally wrong on that score!)

The skinny little seedlings were something that was already in, or got into, the potting compost (a mix of half John Innes 2 and half regular multipurpose potting medium which I use for almost all my seedlings). If you pot up in a greenhouse, there’s always the chance that something will get into the soil – we sterilise one greenhouse each winter, while the others holds our overwintering plants but that means there’s always seeds, spores, open bags of compost etc around the place, not to mention beetles and bugs (although not so much in winter) which can carry seeds on their bodies and deposit them elsewhere.

Rebee Garden 2Even Rebus could be used as a seed host, as he spends half his life in the garden and could easily transmit seeds from there into the greenhouse. And really, the truth is, I’m not meticulous. I’m enthusiastic, I hope I’m pretty knowledgeable, and I’m consistent but I grow plants like I cook – I’m prone to substitution and experimentation and I’m not tidy.

What made it clear that they were interlopers was the appearance, just 12 hours after the skinny interlopers, of the big fat dahlia seedlings, on sturdy stems, with much more pronounced yellow-green cotyledons. I snipped the ‘wrong’ seedlings off at soil level and am happily watching the ‘right’ ones grow.

103 pea seedlings 24 feb 13The pea seedlings are pretty well past the point of being called seedlings now – true leaves have emerged and root systems will be pushing through the pots before the end of the week. It’s all great news, especially as we have committed to a new challenge.

We’ve decided that, if they’ll have us, we’ll open plot #103 for charity this year. There’s a regular Open Gardens event in our city every year, for a local hospice, and we’ve asked to be a part of that. There’s already at least one allotment on our site that takes part, so we would be in good company. Of course, this means somebody has to come round and assess our allotment for suitability and I’m already feeling nervous about that – I always have a sneaking doubt that this time I’ll be told that ‘it’s not good enough’.

Last year's edible landscaping

Last year’s edible landscaping

This also really increases the stakes on the edible border plantings – thank the God of horticulture for edible dahlias! I hadn’t really focused on the edible landscaping this year, but with the Open Garden, and what looks like an opportunity to give a reading at Hampton Court Flower Show (more info soon!) I feel both encouraged and almost pushed into getting this part of the plot into the best possible shape, and into developing some of the recipes that I haven’t fully road-tested yet.

Interestingly the pickled nasturtium seed got a polarised response from February’s Grow and Tell group – the men liked the flavour, agreeing that it was like capers, while the women found it too strong. It’s a Roman recipe and the Romans definitely like some strong flavours in their preserved foods. The tarragon vinegar was a universal hit, and that’s much more delicate on the palate. So it’s onward and upward with the edible landscaping, and fingers crossed on the allotment inspection for the Open Garden!

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Pea seedling update 23 Feb 2013

103 pea seedlings 23 feb 13It was too cold to spend a second more than necessary on the plot today. While OH put in the posts for the peas, I wrapped the two newly planted trees in some bubble wrap to try and protect them from the worse of the wind which is around a -3 today.

It’s difficult to do fiddly work in gloves and difficult when your hands become so cold if you take the gloves off, that you can’t feel what you’re doing!

103 bubblewrap trees 23 feb 13Anyway, the trees are nicely encircled and the peas in the heated greenhouse are still resolutely refusing to have any truck with the weather conditions and putting on growth spurts every day.

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Today’s germination!

103 red basil 19 feb 13This is red basil – it’s not in the greenhouse because even before the current cold weather, and even in a heated greenhouse, basil won’t germinate in February, and definitely not when it’s snowy and there are low light levels.

103 red basilInstead it’s on the kitchen windowsill, alongside the overwintering chillies and now, the edible dahlias, which I moved indoors as soon as the weather forecast suggested sub-zero temperatures were on their way. It’s difficult to believe these tiny seedlings will grow up to be robust annual plants like this.

Why red basil? Two reasons:

1. the flavour is slightly preferable, to my mind, to green basil, for certain purposes
2. the colour.

Red basil is slightly more warm in flavour than green – it has a more woody and less liquorice aftertaste which makes it great for Thai cuisine. The colour is great for pesto, and used about 1/3 red to 2/3 green basil you get a stunning pesto with an even more developed flavour than with green basil leaves alone.

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Allotment planting Mid February

103 greenhouse 19 feb 13What’s been planted today? Edible dahlias, from the James Wong collection and a trough of rocket.

The rocket gets started now in a heated greenhouse. Next month and every month we’ll plant another trough in the unheated greenhouse until May, when we start sowing rows outdoors rather than under cover – rocket bolts if it gets too hot, so by that time we’re looking for shady corners in which to plant it, rather than cosseting it along. But you can’t have too much rocket and the new book contains a recipe for potato soup with rocket and walnut pesto – possibly one of our favourite spring meals.

The dahlias are going to be a contribution to our edible landscaping – I was intrigued by them as soon as I saw the James Wong book and I think they’re going to make a really interesting addition to our borders. We’re going to allow half the tubers (assuming they germinate) to grow as flowers and the other half will be treated according to the instructions, having their flowering heads removed at the bud stage, to produce the best possible eating tubers, so we can do a comparison on the final tuber size that we get from the two different cultivation processes. I reckon that we’ll get a good show and a good meal, that way! That’s the plus side.

wongThe minus side is the packaging of the seeds themselves. What were Suttons Seeds thinking of? There’s a good deal of useful information about the growth of the seeds and two recipes but to access that information you have to open the seed packet because there’s an interior printing. Okay, I understand that they have to print all that detail somewhere, and I really do appreciate having good cultivation information. But (and it’s a big but!) there are around 85 seeds in the packet.

Most people will plant over several months to ensure good germination. That means the inner seed packet itself will be hanging around for a couple of months and yet it’s totally blank – not a hint about what it contains. Given that the average gardener probably buys a dozen packets of seed a year, there are few things more annoying than blank inner packets because it’s so easy to mix them up. Not a real problem if you and all your seeds are at home, but if you’re an allotment grower and you don’t carry every single seed packet around with you, there’s a good chance you’ll get to the plot one day, intending to plant dahlias and find you’ve picked up wintergreen or daisies instead. Please Suttons, put a simple indicator on the tinfoil packet so that we can easily distinguish one packet from another once we’ve carefully cut open the outer envelope and stored it away for later reference!

So the dahlias are in a tray under a layer of cling film. Wong talks about heated propagators and sheets of glass but so far (and this may be hubris) I’ve never had a problem with dahlia germination so I’ve treated them with semi-consideration. Not as much as I’d give a really tricksy plant like a Himalayan Poppy, but not the contempt with which I’ve slung that rocket into potting medium and left it to its own devices.

As you can see, the peas are going crazy on the shelf above. You can almost hear them bursting through the soil!

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Allotment fruit trees – step 2 – preparation

103 jupiter apple half planted 17 feb 131. The old saying is to dig a ten dollar hole to plant a one dollar tree. Not sure how to translate that into sterling, but definitely dig the biggest hole you can – deepest (that way you get to take out anything that’s going to impede the taproot, such as, in our case, some stonking great flints) and widest. Even if you end up filling half your hole back up with soil to get the tree to the right level to plant, you’ll have broken the pan, aerated and – hopefully – added some goodness to the soil mix with mature manure or compost or, as a last resort, granular fertiliser.

2. Make your hole square. Trees, unless bare-rooted, generally arrive in a round container – and if they have strong roots, you can bet those roots have started to spiral. If they continue that pattern and hit a circle shaped wall, they may not break through the dug soil to the undug, but just continue to circle, effectively root-pruning themselves, and then root-binding the whole tree. Square holes don’t encourage that process to continue.

3. Place your stake before you plant your tree. It should be located on the side of the prevailing wind, because you want the tree to move away from the stake, not bang into it.

4. Plant your bare rooted tree on a mound of soil, so the roots immediately have an inclination (pun intended) to head deeper, and spread those roots out really well with your hands.

5. Infill with good enriched around the roots, don’t firm down too much but ensure the tree is pretty stable. When you’ve half-infilled, place any watering systems you may wish to use, and finish infilling with soil. Stamping down the soil works for brassicas but not for fruit trees. You can always go back in a week and firm again, that’s what we do.

6. Fasten tree to stake. We use a rubber tie and an old pair of tights.

103 Jupiter apple 17 feb 137. Mulch with at least two inches of something: we use bark, others use straw or compost. We also put in an edging for the first year, which demarcates the planting area and stops us trundling barrows or walking over the tree root area – when you’re planting one year maidens it can be difficult to remember where they are and you only need to whack one tree with a shovel at dusk because you forgot it was there to learn a lesson about clearly marking new trees!

8. Water.

9. Stand back. Stretch your aching spine. Wonder why planting a tree is just as stressful and exhausting as giving birth. Plant your next tree ….

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Fruit tree update

Full post tomorrow but for today – we planted two trees in the mini orchard!103 Jupiter apple 17 feb 13

Yes, that humble twig is a fruit tree – a one year Jupiter apple maiden to be precise.

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