Archive for “The Allotment Diaries”

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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Root-trainers and broad beans

broad bean planting

I started by digging out holes for the broad beans

broad beans root-trainers

The beans looked sturdy enough, but what would the root development be like?

broad bean root development

Once opened the root-trainers revealed strong root development

broad bean cloches

The only problem? The first set of cloches were too small to cover all the broad beans!

broad bean seedlings being planted

Larger cloches were the answer. Of 36 bean seeds sown, only two failed to germinate

broad beans in cloche

The broad beans covered with fleece for a week to allow them to fully harden off.

This is the first year we’ve used root-trainers rather than biodegradable pots and I’m impressed with the results so far. After ten days of leaving the beans out during the day and putting them in the shed overnight to avoid potential frosts, I was ready to plant them out…

Today’s harvest was red kale for dinner and some rhubarb which I’m experimenting with – I have a new Paleo rhubarb custard recipe to cook, and if it’s any good the Grow and Tell workshop attendees will get to try it on 29 March.

If you live around Brighton and Hove you’d like to learn to grow your own food (whether you have an allotment or just containers) and particularly if you’re interested in growing your own food to eat Paleo, why not come along to this year’s workshops? On 29 March we’ll be looking at propagating perennial crops like rhubarb and growing exotics like lemongrass. £5.00 per session. Email growandtell@hotmail.com to reserve a place.

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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 growandtell@hotmail.com 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 Fruit Trees – winter maintenance

allotment fruit tree mulching

Removing the old mulch from the base of first year fruit trees

Jupiter apple tree top-dressed with manure

Top-dressed with well-rotted manure because the mini-orchard was planted in poor soil and modern thinking is not to remediate the planting hole which can lead to root binding but to top feed instead.

 

Jupiter apple tree top-dressed and re-mulched

Weeds removed, top dressing added, mulch reapplied – tree ready for spring!

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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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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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