Archive for wildlife garden

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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Allotment netting

103 fruit cage 2Yesterday we had a Grow and Tell session at the allotment. Amongst other things, we explored the way that bird predation has destroyed many of the spring crops this year. Whilst slugs and snails haven’t been massively in evidence, birds definitely have, and many of us have had crops from fruit bushes to brassicas to salads stripped by hungry birds.

As a result, plot #103 is shrouded in every possible form of net and covering. The strawberries have a net anyway, on their specially designed roundabout bed, the fruit cage around the currants is made from netting, (the photo shows it just after construction in April) canes and those balls that have loads of sockets in them to accommodate said canes, and the brassica cage is a collapsible netting affair that moves around the plot every year. On top of that, there’s a bunch of upside down dump stacks (the things shops use to pile up sale items), a plethora of cloches and even some sieves and colanders that are no longer fit for kitchen use but work to cover up seedlings!

I also have a recipe to share, but I’ll post that tomorrow.

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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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