Archive for October, 2013

October workshopping and allotment harvest

allotment haul 28 sept 13We managed to dodge the weather today! While there was torrential rain in the morning, and torrential rain in the afternoon, our two-hour workshop in the middle of the day passed completely unscathed.

Today we looked at three key topics: winterising greenhouses, curing and storing squashes for winter use, and planting overwintering onions and garlic.

There’s a lot of useful information on the web covering preparing a cold greenhouse for winter so I’m not going to go into all again here.

Harvesting squashes and pumpkins is less well covered though. A lot of people use the fingernail test – if you cannot penetrate the skin of the pumpkin with your fingernail, it’s ready to harvest. The real problem with this test, in my opinion, is that if you can make a hole in the skin with your fingernail, you probably just did, and that immature but nearly ripe pumpkin is now going to be left to face any bacteria, mould or pests that might find said little crevice and crawl inside to proliferate/multiply/feed. This sounds like a risky way of pumpkin testing to me!

103 allotment haul 20 oct 13I prefer a three-fold assessment.

1 – is the vine (the main plant) still supplying nutrients to the pumpkin? So check if it’s green, leafy and verdant (if you’ve already had an air frost it might not be any of those things) and if so, whether the stem where the plant joins the fruit is still plump and moist. As a squash ripens, this stem becomes pale, shrivelled and cracked and it’s easy to see that the fruit isn’t getting ‘fed’ by the plant.

2 – can you (carefully) insert your thumbnail into the stem and make any impression on it? Stems are often prickly so be careful. If you can’t, it’s probable your fruit is mature.

3 – does the skin sound solid when you knock on it and does it feel hard to your fingers? Experienced growers can often tell by weight too, but you need to have been growing pumpkins a few years to be able to assess this – they do actually get a bit lighter when they’re mature, but it really does take years of growing pumpkins to notice!

If you get No to 1 and 2 and Yes to 3 it’s a good time to harvest. If you say no to 1 because the leaves have died away/gone black, it might be you’ve had an air frost already – in which chase you might want to lift your squashes and get them into a frost free environment to cure. Frosts will attack the skin of a pumpkin, causing it to soften and collapse. Rain can also harm mature pumpkins, by forming puddles under the fruit or pools on top of it, which then causes rot to develop.

Curing is the process that allows a squash to be stored for weeks or months. Ripe or mature is not cured, it’s just ready to cure!

A cured squash has a dense, impermeable skin and a fully dried stem. Simply place your pumpkin in a cool, dry place with good air circulation for 7-10 days, turning it every couple of days so that each part is exposed to the air. This means any tiny cuts on the pumpkin skin can heal, the stem can desiccate fully and so no rot, mould or mildew can get in to shorten the life of the squash.

We also cut lots of herbs: thyme, lemon verbena, parsley and pulled some lemongrass for growing on. Harvest today was: a huge butternut squash, red kale, salad onions, lemongrass, Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli and golden raspberries!

I also got to share a very exciting gift with this week’s students. When I went to Hampton Court Flower Show to read from The Allotment Diaries I fell in love with Chris Beardsley’s show garden for McCarthy and Stone Retirement Lifestyles and, having raved about it on and off ever since, was delighted to be sent some packets of the wildflower seed used in the garden! There were actually too many for my needs, which I’m not going to talk about yet as it’s still at the planning stage, so I was able to pass some seeds onto the the students … it will be great to see how they use them! Thank you McCarthy and Stone, specifically Jan and Alexa, for such a lovely surprise in the post!

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Squash harvest and crop disappointments

giant butternut ripeningOur squash harvest has been pretty good this year: despite the pollination rate being very low (even with hand pollination) we’ve got some good sized Turks Turban and Crown Prince and the butternut squashes are magnificent.

We’ve had eleven butternuts, plus this monster which is still curing … never seen a butternut this size before!

giant courgetteMy former allotment neighbour, Maisie, used to have a lot of sayings, some of them garbled, but ‘never get between a man and his marrow’ was one of them that I’ve always taken to heart. There’s something about allotment men which is a bit … obsessive. OH has always been that way inclined, whether it’s the Best Kept Allotment or the biggest onion, tallest sunflower or whatever. This year it was his decision to see how big this marrow would get. Except it’s not a marrow – it’s a courgette that was missed in the harvesting and is now taking over the entire plot. The glove is there to gove some sense of scale … roll on the first frost is what I say!

I’ve been tying up the asparagus now that the weather is getting windier, pruning the tayberry, picking apples and kale and getting beds ready for the overwintering onions and garlic – general preparation for the winter, made rather unseasonable by the sudden hot weather. All my peppers have ripened and so the greenhouse is almost empty except for the lemongrass which is doing well, and a couple of Royal Black Chilli plants which will soon come home to be overwintered in a heated house. They don’t tend to survive in an unheated greenhouse.

flowering psbA couple of things have really disappointed me this year: the first is the purple sprouting broccoli, which had me running up to the plot every day in February to see if it had sprouted yet. Admittedly this is an earlier variety but it shouldn’t be flowering now! I’ve had to cut off every one of the flower-heads that had actually flowered on two of the plants and can only cross my fingers and hope that the others don’t burst into flower too. I suppose I’m going to have to run to the plot every day from now on, but for entirely the opposite reason.

powdery mildew on raspberriesAnd my gorgeous Autumn Gold raspberries have got a little powdery mildew – just one plant, and I’ve cut it all off and removed the mildewed material from the plot, but it’s the first time that I’ve seen mildew on yellow raspberries so I hope it’s a one-off rather than an indicator of things to come.

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We have video!

Okay, not video of me at the allotment, but a real book trailer! I’m so excited about it that I can hardly type!

Isn’t that amazing?

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