Archive for asparagus

Belated Christmas present

It’s hardly been going to the plot weather, hence the complete lack of posts. But I did go and check my allotment yesterday, as the gales have caused quite a lot of damage locally. Nothing was wrong there, but look at this:

allotment strawberry bed My new ‘free form’ strawberry bed! It’s been built alongside the path and to abut (but not touch) the asparagus bed, so it’s an odd shape but I love it.

Now I just need to drag OH to the plot again so we can bed it down properly, then it’s my job to fill it with manure, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow … I hope the strawberries appreciate the efforts we’re going to!

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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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Allotment rules – the law of diminishing returns

103 tayberry handfulFunnily enough, as I type this, Rebus has just learnt this law. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks but you can certainly introduce them to immutable laws.

We used to own another Cairn Terrier, whom Rebus cordially detested, by the name of Falco. Falco loved to eat … well, anything, to be honest: cardboard, vegetables, gravel, cat poo, flowers, socks, fruit … especially fruit. He used to eat any kind of fruit, but especially windfall fruit because he was a little dog and that was what it was easiest for him to scavenge. He would get terrible bellyache from eating little green windfall apples but it never stopped him. So we learned to reward him with better food – if he brought in a rock-hard windfall apple, usually brown and bruised and rotten on one side and as bitter as sour grapes, we took it from him and gave him a little dog treat.

Rebus never ate, or brought in, a single windfall. He was contemptuous of the process and scornful of Falco. However, since Falco died, several years ago, Rebus had decided it’s his job – after all, somebody needs to do it, right?

rebus camouflagueNow Falco was greedy and probably ate three or four apples for every one that he brought in. Rebus is conscientious and brings in every apple he finds. That could be a lot of treats!

So the law of diminishing returns has to apply – he gets a big treat for the first one, a small treat for the second one, half a treat for the third one and a pat on the head for the fourth. He never brings in a fifth apple.

It hasn’t rained here for weeks and weeks and weeks – there was a dribble of drizzle on Wednesday night but it was really insignificant in the face of parched earth and empty water butts! It’s going to rain tomorrow (all day apparently – hurrah!) and I am utterly sick of watering. We can use hoses at the allotment but it’s really a waste of effort for all kinds of reasons – plants need water at their roots, the soil doesn’t need water (unless you’re germinating seeds) and every time you water it you (a) encourage weeds to germinate, (b) stop the roots heading down to find water and encourage them to grow more shallowly.

103 harvest 9 sept 10So dig down and see where your soil is still damp. Usually it’s still wet four to six inches (9-12 cm) below the surface and most roots reach that far. Some plants need a lot of water like winter squashes and tomatoes – water them by all means. Others don’t need that much and watering them to the same level is a waste of time, effort, water and may even damage their productivity. So a lot of what I’ve been doing in the past three weeks is hand watering into plastic bottles sunk in the ground. It’s exhausting. It’s necessary but exhausting.

The law of diminishing returns applies here too. I don’t water courgettes or radishes in this weather – they can die for all I care! They’re low value crops and they usually recover from quite drastic ill-treatment if it doesn’t continue too long. Peas and beans lose out next because while they are great crops, the amount of effort I put into watering them doesn’t get a great return. Perennials get watered with love and care: our new fruit trees and bushes and our asparagus will still be feeding us in five to twenty years time – the return on the investment this year is four to twenty years of harvest – the opposite of diminishment.

So apologies for absence, but the watering can has been calling me …

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Planting asparagus

growing asparagusAt last we’ve been able to plant our asparagus crowns! These are Millennium Guelph, purchased from the Sunday Telegraph. I did try to buy locally but had some difficulty getting crowns – we have a good local grower but they weren’t lifting crowns when we needed them.

The way to plant asparagus is … build a bed! Seriously. Build. A. Bed. Asparagus plants, well cared for, last for 15-25 years. That’s longer than a lot of relationships. Also, there’s a solid gold feel-good factor to harvesting your own asparagus that definitely isn’t guaranteed for other relationships.

So, assuming you’ve built a bed and spent a year filling it with lovely rich soil, some well rotted manure and compost (vintage compost, not stuff straight out of a Dalek, as that could still be full of weed seeds) you’re good to plant.

Asparagus is planted in rows. When we built this bed, which is due south of our greenhouse, we planned for 16 asparagus. What we ended up with was 20. This may turn out to be a mistake.

asparagus trenchDigging out a trench for asparagus is usually an easy task, if your bed is full of the right stuff. The trench should be about 20cm deep. These days, with our longer and harsher winters, I’m inclined to go to 25 cm deep because there will be a little mound along the centre of the trench on which the crowns rest, so that the roots are lower than the crowns, and I’m starting to believe that some asparagus is failing because crowns just aren’t quite deep enough to make it through the prolonged cold and damp. The other reason we went for Guelph is that it’s one of the most winter-hardy varieties, and I’ve seen some plantings of earlier varieties (Gijnlim in particular) struggle with the later frosts we’re getting.

Make that mound. It’s a vital component and it encourages the plant to get well settled, to put down strong roots. The reason I say putting 20 crowns into a bed designed for 16 is possibly a mistake is that the roots on asparagus, after a decade or so, can extend a good metre from the plant. This means that even 16 crowns would be crowded, 20 may be starting to feel like sardines. So if, after two years, we’ve got some plants that look more feeble than their neighbours, I am prepared to take them out and try and re-establish them in a new bed elsewhere. It takes two years to judge and in the first year you don’t get to harvest any asparagus, just to leave the spears to grow to ferns which will help the plant get those great roots down. In the second year you can harvest for just the month of May, and only if the plants seem well established, but by year three it’s the six weeks starting from Mid April and by the fourth year, two months of pure asparagus heaven can be yours!

laying out asparagus crownsAsparagus look like the mutant offspring of Alien and a Daddy Long Legs. They are not pretty creatures. Overcome your repugnance and lay them out with loving care in the trench. You can usually see the crown if you get April delivery because it has little white nubs that are the beginnings of the spears. So vigorous were our Guelph that we had full sized spears springing from them by the time we got to plant them! Until then they’d been living in a washing up tub of damp compost in the greenhouse but that didn’t thwart their desire to show off. Asparagus cultivars are all male, you see, so those spears are all about masculine swagger ….

Make sure you really get those crowns where you want them – again, 25 years is a long time to regret what you’ve done. I’m pretty cold-blooded about asparagus now, having made six asparagus beds in my lifetime and only having harvested from one of them, but I fully intend this one to keep me in asparagus for decades to come.

Fill in gently. You’re going to have to hand-weed your asparagus from now until Kingdom Come, as they have shallow, sensitive roots which don’t cope with hoeing.

CIMG0370Once again, making sure you’ve done all the groundwork to establish your bed, which includes removing every weed and keeping down nearby weeds so they don’t seed into the bed, is important. As is watering. More young asparagus fails through lack of watering than through anything else, in my experience. It needs a lot of water in its first year, the chance to establish well without being over-cropped, no competition from weeds and protection from slugs and snails and asparagus beetle if it’s rife in your location.

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