Archive for perennials

Allotment currants and seedlings again

currant bushesThe first workshop of 2014 will take place next Saturday, 29 March – we’re going to be looking at propagating perennial crops and plot #103 was not looking as I would wish it to look!

To add to the problem, OH has done something to his back. It happened last night, and so he wasn’t available to help with the heavy work today. On my plan was to cover the broad beans and new strawberry plants against tonight’s predicted heavy frost, to weed and mulch the currants in advance of putting up their fruit net in the next fortnight and to repot some of the greenhouse seedlings.

What wasn’t on my plan was to dig up and move the lovage. But when I thought about it, I remembered that one of the problems we had last year was the lovage growing too tall for the fruit cage. It can easily make six feet in a single year!

LovageSo out came the fork and up it came … it sounds so easy, but it was half an hour of back aching work just to dig the whole plant out, then another twenty minutes to dig a new hole to relocate it in the medicinal garden, to divide it into three; one main plant to go back in the ground and two smaller ones (which I had to separate from the parent by wedging a trowel into the root system and hammering it with a mallet) to give away. It had huge roots and I’m really glad I got it out of the ground now, as it must have been competing with the currants for nutrients and they’ll almost certainly do better now it’s not hogging all the goodness in the soil. I’ll bet I’ll be pulling out baby lovage plants for a few years though, as I’m certain I didn’t manage to lift all the roots and although I went back and dug out the broken ones, I’m bound to have missed a few.

Lovage is not much grown now, although it’s an attractive sculptural plant, because not everybody likes the strong ‘celery with a hint of liquorice’ fragrance. Also it’s very rarely eaten these days although it is still used to make a liqueur that was once recommended as being good for the digestion. We grow it to eat with lentils and other pulses in summer as it’s said to have a flatulence reducing effect. We enjoy the flavour too though, so it’s not just medicinal (or social acceptability) in our case! It definitely counts as a crop and if you have space for it on your allotment, can be a useful way to fill an otherwise unused corner as long as you don’t mind dividing it every few years.

mulched currantOur local council turns Christmas trees into chippings and deposits them on allotment sites so once I’d hand weeded out all the goose-grass, baby thistles and brambles that had just emerged, I planned to put down a couple of barrowloads to mulch the currants.

Then the hail came down in stinging torrents so I took cover in the greenhouse and repotted the kohlrabi while I waited for it to pass. It hailed for long enough for me to do the kohlrabi, and some lettuce and both the lovage!

Two barrows of wet chippings did a good job of mulching the currants, although I might go and get a third barrow in the week. It’s important not to let mulch touch the stem of a plant, as this can soften the bark and weaken the plant, allowing bacteria and viruses to enter, so there’s a clear circle around each plant, then a layer of mulch to trap moisture, limit weed germination and provide some insulation against this March weather which is definitely a case of ‘in like a lamb, out like a lion!’

So we’re ready for next week and although the plot still doesn’t look as I would wish, it’s a lot tidier than it was ….


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Allotment currants and seedlings

pruned currant bush goblet shapeIt was a year ago today that we picked up our fruit trees. Then, this December, we drove to Brogdale again, to collect our final tree, a grafted Krasnyi Standeart, which is still waiting to be planted out – the weather really hasn’t been on our side!

I can assure you there’s nothing less interesting to look at than a fruit tree in winter, so I didn’t bother to photograph them. Instead, I have a nice picture of one of our currants which I pruned a couple of weeks ago and has a lovely goblet shape, if I say so myself!

Today was the half marathon on Brighton seafront, which apparently had to be snow-ploughed to remove all the shingle that was thrown up in the big storm the day before yesterday before the runners got down there! It was a gorgeous sunny day, and I knew lots of people who were running so I was a little torn about whether to go and spectate but it’s been such a rotten year that I felt obliged to grab any chance to get up to the plot and check things were okay. They were okay, although apparently two sheds were flattened on our site.

february rhubarbOf course the long (looooong) wet winter has had some upsides, although they are mighty few. One of them is the rhubarb! Rhubarb is doing well this year, and ours, which was well mulched with the last lawn clippings of 2013, has roared into the new year and I will be harvesting our first fresh fruit of 2014 next weekend!

broad beans and leek seedlingsAfter yesterday’s excitement of spending time in the glasshouse at RHS Wisley with the wonderful butterflies, my day seems really mundane, although it was very productive. My glasshouse is not exactly to Wisley standards although with a little bit of sun it seems just as warm, and my plants may not be nearly as exotic as theirs, although I’m happy with my broad beans which got off to a late start and are looking beautifully healthy. I hope to be getting them planted out next week too, if the windy weather abates a bit. They’ll go out under a cloche to give them some protection from the winter.

I also got on with some sowing: winter lettuce (two kinds: winter density and winter gem), the first batch of radishes and a tray that contains half kohl rabi and half leeks for later transplanting. I felt so happy to get some seeds underway at last!

I harvested leeks, red kale, thyme and a tiny amount of purple sprouting broccoli …I do wish the psb would hurry up, it would be lovely to have a bit of home-grown veg that I wasn’t already eating three times a week!

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Grow and Tell allotment workshops 2014

It’s been too wet to do anything at the plot, so I haven’t been posting. But I have been writing courses!

allotment harvest29 March – propagating cropping plants (for an extra 50 pence take home a ready-rooted lemongrass plant for your cold greenhouse or conservatory

19 April – planning a productive plot (or replanning one that doesn’t seem to be working, with a focus on avoiding weed notices and other problems

31 May – Brussels Sprouts, cabbage, cauliflowers, purple sprouting broccoli: how to plant brassicas and cover your seedlings, pest protection and summer-long maintenance tips to get the best from these long-growing winter crop

allotment squashes21 June – growing winter squash – how to have a harvest that will feed you through the winter

27 July – watering and mulching – practical ways to cut down on watering, conserve moisture and keep your crops alive through the summer

20 September – composting and green manures – this is the month to start adding nourishment back into your soil: tips on choosing green manures, building compost bins and making good compost

6 December – special class on training and pruning fruit trees in winter.

Limited to 8 participants to allow for maximum practical experience and problem solving. Meet at 11:00 at Weald Avenue Allotment Gate – indoor space available in bad weather – workshops finish at 13:00. Each session includes hands-on experience, comes with notes on the plants and techniques covered, and finishes at the WAG shop so people can buy seeds and supplies if they wish.

While the site is largely wheelchair accessible, those with limited mobility are advised to arrange a site visit first, to ensure they are comfortable with the location. £5.00 per person (please note some classes have an optional extra charge for plants to take home, there is no charge for crops harvested on the day!) All money goes to Weald Allotment Gardeners (WAG) for upkeep of Weald Site.

Prior booking is essential. Please email to reserve a place on a session or book through the WAG shop.

Also, I have some very exciting news about some fun things I’ll be doing this spring with some very nice people, maybe in a shop near you … but as nothing is finalised yet, I shall just have to be a bit of a tease!

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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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Greenhouse tasks for early March

103 pea seedlings 6 mar 13We’ve had a couple of warm days, but the cold weather is heading back to us again. As a result, the greenhouse plants that have been spending time outside, to acclimatise (like the polyanthus I divided earlier in the week) are heading back indoors for a while. In addition to those plants, we’ve got pea seedlings that are definitely more like pea plants now! The great thing about growing them in biodegradable pots is that we don’t have to rely on the weather getting good to plant them out. The roots are already through the base of these pots, but that’s okay, we just sprinkle some multi-purpose compost between the pots, the roots spread out and down, and the plants keep growing strongly.

103 rocket 6 mar 13The rocket is also doing amazingly well – this crop comes from the tail end an old packet of seeds (use by 2011) which I found in the bottom of a drawer in the shed. I simply poured the seeds out and watered them – rocket is easier to grow than to not grow, in my experience, and I reckon we’ve got 100% germination of this supposedly ‘past sell by’ date packet. We’ll start to harvest in about a week or so: as they are very crowded, I’ll begin by thinning out the growth, taking around half the baby plants to use in a salad. From I will give it a week, thin them again, and then it will be cut and come again until these plants start to bolt.

103 chocolate pepper seed sowingOur cauliflower seeds are germinating well too – we have great success with cauliflowers (almost none with celery – just to make clear that I’m not boasting here, I’m just lucky with caulis, I think) and we’ve marked out on the plot where the cloches will go to protect the seedlings from birds, cabbage whites and the remorseless attentions of our local fox which does nothing to curb the rodent population but does like to take a dump on newly planted crops! The last task today was to sow some chocolate peper seeds. These are the only peppers we grow now, as we prefer their sweet flavour to all others, and I sow them in a pot, covering half the seed and leaving about half not so much covered as ‘obscured’ by just enough potting medium to hide them from view – for some reason chocolate peppers seem to germinate better with the lightest possible covering of soil. We can only grow four plants, given our space limitations, and I expect to get seven or eight seedlings from this pot, so we will swap the other seedlings, probably for tomato plants from other growers.

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How to divide perennial plants

Sowing seeds is the classic way to create plants, especially for allotments, but there are other ways of allotment growing and dividing perennials is one of them.

This system works for perennials like sage, Babbington’s leeks and rhubarb, so while what I’m working with is a rather pretty polyanthus that I picked up off the sale table of a garden centre to add to the wildlife garden on plot #103, the principles can be applied to many allotment plants:

dividing perennials

Check purchased plants for binding – if the roots protrude there’s remedial work to be done

dividing perennials

Cut through a pot rather than trying to force the plant out, it does less damage to the plant

dividing perennials

You may need to slice a pot bound plant in two with a knife rather than teasing the roots apart

dividing perennials

From there, it’s usually straightforward to ease apart individual plantlets

dividing perennials

Check if the roots have forced themselves up above the lowest leaves as they have here on the right – if so, cut off any low leaves as they will simply rot in the soil and can carry bacteria down to the roots and kill the plant

dividing perennials

Be ruthless about removing dead or decaying leaves and any rootball that isn’t attached to a plantlet. Divided plants will grow better if you cut them back somewhat so don’t be shy

dividing perennials

Finish by potting up, removing any last leaves that look less than healthy and soak well. Rest somewhere sheltered for about a week if you intend to pot them on into the ground, as I do

I ended up with five healthy plants for the price of one and a small amount of surgery!

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