Archive for March, 2013

Allotment – nothing to report

103 greenhouse 30 mar 13It’s just too cold to plant anything out!

I’ve potted up 18 celeriac seedlings, six chocolate pepper seedlings, started off red cabbage, brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli and lots of flower seeds … and everything is clogging up the greenhouse because we’re still getting zero temperatures at night.

It would be depressing if all the seeds weren’t popping up as if they really thought spring was here!


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Leggy seedlings and how to deal with them

VP had an interesting post about lettuce seedlings – of which she seems to be the complete mistress, as she’s curating about a zillion varieties in a fascinating project. She commented that she’d been told she could replant leggy seedlings up to their leaves and as that’s something this long cold spring has given me an abundance of, I thought I’d produce a quick tutorial.

One thing I dislike is those gardeners who never tell you about their failures – I believe we all have seeds that don’t germinate and crops that fail or are destroyed by weather/predators/incompetence and I think it’s important to be honest about those things too.

First, what is a leggy seedling?

Well, it looks like this:

celeriac seedlings

Leggy celeriac seedlings looking very sorry for themselves! Really soak well, then lift with a kitchen fork.

replanting celeriac

Leggy seedlings can be lifted into a new pot using the first true leaves to hold the plant

celeriac seedling in pot

Fill in around the seedling with good quality compost, right up to the first true leaf

small celeriac seedling

Smaller seedlings don’t need to be buried so deeply

planting seedlings

Use a kitchen fork to dib a small hole in a pot of compost for less leggy seedlings

Already they look happier and healthier!

Already they look happier and healthier!

I’m going to follow the progress of the leggiest seedling, in the distinctive purple pot, through the next couple of weeks in the hope that it will show just how well leggy seedlings can recover. And if it doesn’t, I’ll still show you!

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Endless basil … for the price of one supermarket pot

Here’s how to do it.

Buy a packet of red basil seed and a packet of green basil seed.

Split your packets of seed with an allotment neighbour so they pay half (and get half the seeds).

Winter starters

Start around eight red basil seed in a 10 to 12 cm pot. Ensure there is some gravel in the bottom of the pot to provide drainage and you may like to mix some sand or a bit of gritty John Innes into standard potting compost as basil hates having wet feet. Red basil seems to tolerate the occasional wintry blast more comfortably than green basil, so if you’re starting in winter, start with the red.



You probably need to cover basil seeds in winter, unless you have a heated greenhouse or heated propagator. I have neither, just a windowsill near the back door (hence my experience with seedlings that don’t survive a bit of outdoor weather each time the door is opened for Rebus, the Cairn Terrierist, who goes out at least 20 times a day, just because he can!)

I either cover with an old bit of glass (the clear lids of small Pyrex dishes are brilliant for this and you can pick them up for pennies in charity shops) or lay some clingfilm over the top and poke about six holes in it with a darning needle. The covering needs to be lifted every day and wiped/shaken free of condensation. Ensure your compost is damp, but not sodden, sprinkle the seeds on, and cover with the merest layer of compost (half a centimetre is ample, I’d say aim for a quarter of a centimetre in winter) before spraying with a standard mister to dampen. Don’t firm the compost.

It can take 21 days to germinate in winter, because of low daylight levels, and is likely to be a bit spindly. As soon as the first seedling shows, remove the covering. You may have to mist the surface every other day or so but probably you won’t need to water more than every week or ten days, depending on your growing location – push your finger into the pot and if the soil is dry 2cm down, its time to water from the base. Stand the pot in a deepish container to water (we use an old bowl) give it a good drink and then remove – that ensures your basil gets to drain at the roots which hate being waterlogged.

red basil

Seedling red basil

If you’ve spaced your seeds reasonably well, you may not have to thin – the picture shows a pot that should have been thinned, but what I will do in a few days is pinch out a couple of the congested seedlings to let the others have space to grow on.

When the basil has four true leaves, start off your next pot the same way. Ours live indoors all year around as we like a lot of basil!

Summer starters

Same system, but with green basil, and about half a centimetre of compost over the seeds. Once there’s good daylight the seeds will germinate quicker, around 7-10 days and once there’s both good daylight and adequate heat (from June) you don’t have to cover the seeds with a lid and they can appear as rapidly as four days from sowing. You’ll need to water more often though.

green basil

Green basil grown on the kitchen windowsill

For summer basil, start your next pot whenever the first is in full growth, like this one. We alternate a red basil and a green one, that way we’ve always got a pot of both on the go. Pinch out any flower heads that form – once the plants start to flower the leaves become tough and bitter.

If your plants are producing more basil than you can use, simply open freeze the leaves and then pop them in a resealable bag. They are good to make pesto in the winter. As for those wintry blasts, you can see a desiccated basil stem in the middle of these healthy plants, it was the biggest strongest plant, standing proud above the others, then we opened the kitchen window to let out some steam and it was just tall enough to get caught by the cold air. End result – death!

From June, lift a couple of seedlings from your pot each time you sow – plant them outside in your warmest, most sheltered location. A big well drained container is good enough, just tuck them in with something else. Ideally, if you want to save seed from each variety, plant them far apart to avoid cross pollination. Basil doesn’t seem to cross that easily, but it does do it. We deal with this by having the red basil on the plot and the green at home, but we’re in a privileged position.

Don’t harvest the outdoor plants, just let them … run up to seed! As they do so, the flowers will begin to turn brown – get down below the flowers and see if any of the seeds inside the flowers are black – usually they start green and turn black when ripe. Basil is a bit of a pig to harvest, as you will always get some unripe seed in with the ripe which feels like a waste, but each flower head that ripens should provide around 8 viable seed. That’s your next entire pot …

To save the seed, cut the flower head off when around half the seeds appear to be black. Put the whole flower head in a brown envelope and leave it somewhere cool and dry. The seed will eventually fall out, and you can increase the speed of this process by giving the envelope a good rattle every few days. Just keep saving flower heads in old envelopes (with the week you saved the seed and which variety of basil it is written on it). We end up with about eight envelopes from July to September, each of which has between four a seven flower heads in it.

As we need new seed to sow, we just take the oldest envelope, tip out some seed, and sow it. I can’t remember the last time we bought basil seed and it does go right through the winter, although it’s a weaker, leggier and less flavoursome plant in November, December and January than in the summer months.

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March allotment crops to plant – whatever the weather!

While we’re holding back on our potatoes, the onions just had to go in this weekend. Some crops have a limited storage life, and while onion sets keep well through the winter, once the day length starts to change, they start to soften. It’s not possible to keep them once that happens, so planting out is the only option. The way to check is to gently pinch the middle of an onion set and see if it squidges. It doesn’t matter if all the outer layers of skin slough off, as long as what remains is rock hard. But if they have started to soften and you don’t get them in the ground, they will simply rot.

Quick guide to planting onions

onion sets

Onions like a light sandy soil, in which you dib holes for them to sit.

raised vegetable bed

It’s nothng like the rich soil in which you plant salads or strawberries

onion sets

Lighly raking the soil back over the onions gives them the optimum conditions to start growth

red onion sets

Red and white onions benefit from exactly the same treatment

The mistakes most people make with onion sets are:

    to push them into the ground, the way the old gardening books say – don’t do this, it just allows small stones to gash the onion slightly, which can then lead to fungal infection and rot, and
    to plant them too firmly. Onions like light soil, a light hand and light watering.

You do need to cover them to stop birds pulling them up as soon as they sprout, so either fleece or netting will keep them safe from bird vandalism!

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Less allotment, more snow – what to do in bad weather!

103 pea mass productionThere’s really not a lot that it’s sensible to do when the weather’s like this – if you have clay soil, as we do, it’s too cold to plant out anything that might not survive, no matter how much time you’ve spent hardening it off.

If you have rich loamy soil, like the Fenlanders, you might be doing okay in soil terms, but the Siberian gales that are blowing across the region are likely to deal with any top growth that’s exposed, so I reckon the east coast might get away with planting chitted potatoes but not much else.

The west coast, usually so clement, has some flooding going on! That suggests it’s not a great time to be planting over there – because even if you’re not actually in a flooded area, there’s good chance of high water table levels of icy water, which is an unlikely basis on which to get good root growth even from hardy plants like spring-sown broad beans or early peas and is a really high risk enterprise for the more tender crops such as potato tubers.

Up north there’s snow – and nothing gets planted in snow!

So what can you be doing now?

Well, if you have crops to harden off and the temperature is above zero, then you can keep putting your seedlings out in the day, but make sure you take them in if the temperature dips to the zero point.

chocolate peppers

An update on the chocolate pepper seeds

You can be sowing stuff: in the greenhouse (if it’s going to remain above freezing); on kitchen windowsills; or in whatever nooks and crannies and corners you can spare. You’ll probably have some failures if you don’t have a dedicated growing area where you can maintain temperature, light and humidity, but ‘some failures’ are better than ‘no successes’! It’s probably not worth planting any really high-maintenance crops such as aubergines, peppers or chillies unless you are confident that you can keep them warm enough, with good enough light, and without draughts, as they continue to grow past seedling size – we’ve just taken our first batch of edible dahlias to the heated greenhouse, but they had to live indoors for at least three weeks after being potted on the first time, before they were sturdy enough to cope with that move, and they are nowhere near ready to begin the hardening off process. So, what can you get started in an unheated greenhouse?

• Rocket
• Spinach
• Cauliflowers
• Brussels sprouts
• Most native flower seeds
• Northern lettuce (not Mediterranean lettuces, which may need more warmth)
• Parsley
• Broad beans, runner beans, northern bush beans etc (if you didn’t overwinter your broad beans)
• Peas

If you’ve got a good amount of seeds started, you’ll be doing a lot of potting on now, especially if crops you’d normally be planting out (peas, beans etc) are being held back from open ground by this appalling weather. Our newspaper pot pea seedling system comes into its own now, as we can fill in the gaps between all the paper pots with compost – the deep trays in which we set the pots allow root development to continue as the seeds thrust their roots through the base of the pots and into the soil we’ve sprinkled between them. This means we get at least another 14 days of good growth before we have to even consider planting out.

103 asparagus 18 mar 13And this is a high class problem to have! The asparagus crowns (Guelph Millennium) that I ordered from the Sunday Times have already started to produce spears, whilst shoved in an old washing up tub, in the heated greenhouse! They really need to be planted out but the weather conditions just aren’t right, so they’ll remain in their washtub prison for at least another week and I’ll simply admire their growth each time I go out to check on the sweet peas, stock, kale and cauliflower seedlings.

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Allotments and snow

103 mini allotment snow mar 13Once again the weather has been uncooperative. I’m really glad that we insulated the fruit trees against cold weather but I’m getting worried about whether they will survive this cold spell, or series of cold spells. The problem isn’t really the cold, but dehydration.

Even the mini-allotment has struggled with the snow!

Bare root trees planted in winter need a reasonable amount of water to establish a good strong root system. If the roots have been allowed to dry out in transit or storage, the tree’s chances of survival are not high. Once you plant they need a good deep drenching. Of course, if you are planting in winter, there’s a risk that the watering you give them may become an ice bath, which is one of the things that makes bare-root tree planting a bit of a gamble.

Even so, in my experience, bare-root trees cope better, grow stronger and establish a good fruiting regime faster than container grown trees. So the recent snow could be classed as ‘automatic watering’ and I’m hoping that the alternation we’re currently having between hot sunny days, freezing nights, strong winds and heavy rain will somehow prove bracing rather than life-threatening for my Jupiter apple and my Guinevere plum trees.

103 snow on pea support 13 mar 13The area where OH has started to set up the supports for our pea seedlings was still under snow two days after the first snowfall, despite the sunshine. The purple sprouting is holding up well but I didn’t want on anything but the paths, because compacting soil under snow is a sure fire way to destroy all the hard work you’ve done in adding soil improvers, aerating and breaking up clods.

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A mention in the Sunday Times

Sunday Times reviewOkay, the most exciting thing about this, for me, is that the mention of my book is right next to the latest book by one of my great vegetable growing heroes, Mark Diacono of River Cottage fame, now of Otter Farm. This is so exciting – makes me feel like a real horticulturalist!

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