With a solid twelve hours of traditionally Mancunian rain forecast from 14:00 hrs yesterday, I thought I’d nip out in the morning and give our still-newish main greenhouse its first ever Spring Clean.
It’s a wet and messy job and, as I usually aim to get it done in February before the germinating season kicks into high gear, usually a cold one. But it’s an essential job, too; a mucky greenhouse is an inefficient greenhouse, suffering from reduced rates of photosynthesis and an increased risk of pest and disease problems. Plus, greenhouse cleaning marks one of an essential turning-points of the gardening year, from the tail-end of still-winter to the earliest days of pre-spring, so it’s a task I welcome, and attack with gusto.
Here’s how I go about it:
Get Kitted Up
I always wear my oldest, scruffiest, scrattiest work-gear for this job, because I know I’ll end up soaked and stinking of Jeyes Fluid before I’m done. Heavy-duty rubber gloves are a good idea too if, like mine, your hands tends to be prone to chillblains.
Pick Your Poison(s)
The aim of the greenhouse spring clean is to kill things that you don’t want hanging around with all your tender young seedlings: algae, moss, fungal spores, weed seeds, over-wintering pests. Anything that’s likely to cause a problem needs to go. But at the same time, you don’t want to unnecessarily damage nearby plants that might be coming out of winter hibernation and putting up new shoots. For that reason, I use good old Jeyes Fluid inside the greenhouse and Citrox outside.
Jeyes is a traditional cocktail of germ-zapping chemicals that will apparently get rid of everything from algae to bird-flu. It’s an evil-looking dark brown colour and it stinks, so you know it means business. You really don’t want this stuff to come into contact with your dormant dahlias or chilli seedlings though, so make sure you’ve removed everything green to a safe distance before you start spraying it around.
Citrox is an organic alternative, a “soluble formulation of bioflavonoids, derived from citrus fruits, [that] has antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi and viruses” (according to one study into its possible use as a mouthwash). It won’t damage any plants it comes into contact with, so it’s generally safer to use on the outside of your structure.
Pros and Cons of both: Jeyes is probably more powerful (although I haven’t seen any documentary evidence either way), and is certainly cheaper. 500ml of Citrox cost me £6.49. At the recommended 25ml per litre dilution rate, that’s ten applications (in a 2 litre pressure sprayer) at round about 65p each. Jeyes retails for around £10.92 a litre, but with a dilution rate of only 14ml per 2 litre sprayer, that’s 71 applications per tin, at around 15p each.
On the other hand, Jeyes is most definitely not compatible with organic growing principles, whereas Citrox is. And if you have a bare soil growing bed in the greenhouse, then you’ll need to change out the soil after you’ve sprayed with Jeyes, otherwise I can imagine it doing a fair bit of damage to the soil biota. Then again, Citrox might do that as well. Best best is probably to change the soil out anyhow, just to be sure.
Dilute as Instructed and Spray
I used to use a hand-trigger spray gun to apply the Jeyes fluid. That was a monumental pain in the… well, the hand mainly. This year I invested in the aforementioned 2 litre pressure sprayer (all of £3 from Wilkos) and it made the job a whole lot easier and quicker.
Start with the outside of the greenhouse. First, disconnect any water butts that are hitched up to the greenhouse guttering. A bit of Citrox in the water is no bad thing, but you don’t want to add in the dead and dying algae / moss mix that you’re about to create.
Start at the top of the roof. Spray one panel at a time and work methodically around the structure, ensuring thorough coverage. You’ll want to spray into all the gaps and joints, because that’s where the algae tends to accumulate. Don’t be shy with the spraying. Much better to give the whole structure a thorough drenching than miss a bit and let the muck get an early foothold. I used around 8l of solution on our 8’x10′ greenhouse, so that’s 400ml of the concentrate, in case you’re keeping score.
Scrub Those Nooks and Crannies
An old toothbrush (or two, or three) is your best friend for this stage of the process. They’re great for getting into the guttering and all the fiddly corners to really scrub away at any hard-to-shift gunk and gunge.
If you don’t have an old toothbrush to hand, you might get away with using the very end of a scrubbing brush, or a washing-up brush. See what you’ve got that fits.
Don’t rinse everything off just yet though. Leave the Citrox to do its work for a while.
Move Inside, Sweep the Floor
If, like me, you’ve got a concrete slab floor in your greenhouse then now is a really good time to get down on our hands and knees with a hand-brush and sweep up as much of the loose soil and bits of dead plant matter as you can. Your flooring may vary, of course.
What you don’t want to do is leave all that the crud lying around and assume it’ll just wash away later. That just leads to blocked drainage channels, or a puddle of Jeyes-flavoured mud splashing around when you’re trying to get everything rinsed off later on.
Spray, Spray and Spray Again
This is where the pressure sprayer comes in handy again. With a manual spray gun, you have to be quite close to the glass to ensure the solution makes contact. That means you get spray in your face, your hair, your lungs, and the stuff will drip all down your arm when you’re doing the inside roof panels, too. Far better to pump up the pressure, hit the trigger and spray from a safer distance.
If you’re using Jeyes rather than Citrox, make sure you open the doors as wide as they’ll go, and if you have manual ventilation, peg the vents open as well, once you’ve sprayed them. Trust me, you’ll need all the fresh air you can get.
Again, get the old toothbrush out and scrub away at any awkward bits that you can reach. Don’t forget to run it along the underside of any support struts as well, to dislodge the over-wintering slugs.
A tea / coffee / hot beverage of choice break is mandatory at this point. You’ll need one by now (if only to wash away the taste of Jeyes) and it’s worth leaving the Jeyes / Citrox to do its thing for a while anyhow.
(Personally, I recommend a round or two of toast and jam as well. But you might be on a diet or something. Entirely up to you.)
You should start on the inside this time (for reasons that will become apparent). This year I invested in a variable nozzle-head for the hose and again, it made a big difference. The ‘jet’ setting is almost as good as a pressure washer. Applied to the narrow gaps where the vertical panes meet the eaves in particular, it’s great for blasting out any lurking mats of algae that you can’t quite reach with your trusty toothbrush.
Admittedly it’s not the most environmentally responsible use of fresh tap-water, but if you have a full water-butt that you can attach the hose to, you might be able get enough water pressure to do the job with rain-water instead.
It’s worth noting: if you’re hosing down flooring flags as well, do those first, otherwise you’ll just splash a load of muck up onto the lower panels that you’ve just hosed down.
When you move to the outside you’ll find that a lot of the gunk you blasted from the joints has been splattered out through the gaps in the structure, which is why you don’t do the outside first. And of course, you could just leave the outside to nature if you have a lot of rain forecast. But then again, getting that pressure jet into the bits you couldn’t quite reach before is a great way to ensure the job is done properly.
Don’t Forget the Staging and Shelving
We use large, plastic shelving units and metal / wooden staging in our greenhouse and that all needs a good cleaning as well. Spray, scrub, rinse as required.
And You’re Done!
That’s it. Job finished. You’ll need to wait a while before piling everything back into your greenhouse, to make sure the Jeyes fumes have dissipated (if applicable) and to give the inside a chance to drip-dry. Overnight, with the doors open, should do the trick.
Get your work gear into the washing machine, get yourself under a hot shower and then get a warming bowl of soup inside you and you can deservedly pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on a messy job well done. Your plants will thank you, too.
I just love the taste of figs. Dried (nature’s toffees) or fresh (as a snack or in a goat’s cheese salad, with honey) I could eat them every day. One of the first things I put on the Cottage Garden Project wishlist when we moved house in Summer 2015 was a fig tree. Jo didn’t mind (she’s quite fond of a fig herself) and so plans were set in motion which culminated in a Fig Tree Planting session last Wednesday afternoon.
Here’s how I went about planting up our Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’. (Having described the process of formative pruning and potting up our apple trees at some length earlier in the week, I’ll try to keep this post reasonably short and sweet…)
Preparing the Fig Pit
Last summer, whilst digging out one of the main planting beds, I prepared a fig pit in the sunniest spot in the garden, up against the wall of the new shed. It’s basically a rectangular hole in the ground, around 1.2 metres deep, lined with roof tiles on top of vertical concrete slabs, with a good 15-25cm of smooth pebbles in the bottom for drainage. The idea is to restrict the root-growth of the fig tree, preventing it from growing into a garden-dominating monster and encouraging it to produce fruit on a regular basis.
Last week, prior to planting, I back-filled most of the pit with a 3:2:1 mix of John Innes #3 loam-based compost, horticultural grit and well-weathered builders’ sand. And then, it was time to plant the tree.
Preparing the Tree for Planting
I ordered the fig last summer, along with the apple trees, from Grow at Brogdale, home of the national fruit collection. They told me at the time that they don’t grow figs themselves, but would order one in for me from another supplier.
Here’s a shot of the roots of the fig when it came out of the pot:
I have to say I wasn’t 100% happy with what I saw. Perhaps I’m just over-thinking it, but the roots seemed a little sparse and a little too dark for my liking. The growing medium itself was very damp – despite the pot being stored in the greenhouse for 2-3 days prior to planting to keep the worst of the rain off – and there was no evidence of any drainage material being included in the potting mix. Plus, there was a vine weevil grub – circled in red on the photo – very much in evidence, which was worrying, to say the least.
I tried to tease out the roots and loosen the compost as much as I could to check for more weevil larvae. I didn’t find any, thankfully, but the roots were breaking away a little too easily for comfort, so I had to stop before I’d checked the entire root ball. Which left me in something of a quandary – go ahead with planting anyway and hope for the best, or ditch the tree and try to source another?
In the end, I opted for giving it a chance and hoping it establishes, sans vine weevil infestation. If the worst comes to the worst, I can always dig it back up and re-plant another specimen. I’ll also try to take a couple of cuttings later in the year and see if I can grow them on as backup, just in case the tree isn’t strong enough to survive whatever next winter throws at it.
Planting the Tree
I applied mycorrhizal fungi powder to the root-ball, on the grounds that those roots will probably need all the help they can get, placed the fig in the fig pit, back-filled with more of the planting mix, firmed in well and then watered thoroughly. I’ll apply a final mulch of washed gravel once I can spot enough new growth to know the tree has established successfully. And then we’ll have to see what the harvests are like, most probably in a year or two.
How about you? Do you grow figs? Do you have any top tips or advice to share? If so, I’d love to hear it, via the comments below.
With the weather turning a little warmer and the immediate threat of frost receding this week, I took the opportunity to pot up our newly-delivered fruit trees. Even more importantly, I gave them a formative pruning to set them up for their future roles as small, hopefully highly productive, fruit-bearing trees.
Here’s how I went about it.
This is quite a long post, you might not have time to read it all. In summary: I carried out formative pruning on our three apple trees, training them towards a vertical cordon system. I then potted them up in Air-Pot containers, which they’ll stay in for the foreseeable future, all being well. (Please feel free to scroll on down and take a quick look at the photos, they’re quite self-explanatory.)
As I understand it: formative pruning takes place in the first 1-4 years of the tree’s life. The aim is to establish the framework shape and form that you’d like the tree to develop into, and encourage new growth in keeping with that concept. Pruning in winter, when the tree is dormant, generally removes the main, apical buds of individual branches and stems, encouraging new, branching growth from the buds further down towards the trunk. The result should be a bushier, denser canopy and more fruiting spurs.
Once the tree’s shape is well established, winter maintenance pruning removes any dead, diseased or damaged growth, thins out any congested sections and helps to keep the tree’s structure well-balanced, light and airy. Maintenance pruning can also be carried out in summer, mainly to control and manage any of that vigorous new growth that might be getting out of hand and ensure a trained tree conforms to type.
I started out by taking a close look at each apple tree in turn; assessing the existing structure, checking for damage or poor growth and deciding on where and how far to cut them back.
We’ve invested in 2-3 year old small bush trees, rather than maiden whips (single stem) or feathered maidens (single stem with a few small side-branches) to give us a head start on fruiting. As a result they each have between three and six established lateral branches, with one or two leaders. Apart from one or two evident pruning cuts, most of the growth had been left to its own devices, so a lot of the branches were long and quite whippy.
After much research and consideration, I’ve decided to develop our trees as vertical cordons, keeping them permanently potted up in Air-Pot containers. They’re all on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing root-stock, so shouldn’t grow too vigorously, but in order to keep a good balance between a relatively small root-zone and the amount of top-growth, I don’t really want them to grow much taller than two metres (six feet, six) or so.
Cordon Training – Modified Lorette System
Last summer I found a copy of the 1955 Garden Book Club edition of Fruit From Trained Trees by Stanley B. Whitehead, in a National Trust bookshop, for the princely sum of £1. On pages 23-46, Mr Whitehead discusses the establishment of a modern fruit garden that includes trained apple trees in such new-fangled (within the previous 30 years or so) shapes as “cordons”, “espaliers” and “pyramids”. Clearly Mr Whitehead’s words weren’t falling on deaf ears.
The aim of a cordon system is to maintain a single stem (unless they’re developed as ‘U’ or ‘double U’ cordons), with a strong network of healthy fruit-bearing spurs, like so:
According to the current RHS advice on cordons, oblique cordons are more productive, but that’s not really practical with the Air-Pot containers and the space we have available, so I’m sticking to vertical.
Mr Whitehead’s book also makes mention of the Modified Lorette system of formative pruning and a quick Google search suggests it’s a system that’s still very much in use today. In a nutshell (if I understand it properly) it’s a summer maintenance prune that takes all lateral shoots from the main stem or leaders back to three leaves, not including the basal cluster) and any side-stems on the laterals back to a single leaf. This should help to develop the fruiting buds that will provide next year’s blossom and fruit on fruiting spurs. So that’s what I’ll be doing in August.
In the meantime though, back to the formative pruning cuts:
This tree wasn’t too tall, but had three well-developed laterals with a distinctly downward-slant to them. I shortened those, and took about a third to a half off the twin leaders as well, cutting back to a strong, outward-facing bud in each case.
The second photo shows an example of a pruning decision: to cut at point 1 or point 2. I went for 2, on the grounds that those large, fat buds will hopefully bear blossom and even if we remove the fruit this year to help promote root establishment, it will be lovely to see the flowers in spring. And I can always shorted than lateral in summer if needs be.
This tree was a little awkward, with a double-leader (top-left corner of the pic) coming off from the main stem at quite an acute angle, and several whippy laterals lower down.
I’ve shortened the double leaders by around half, and the lowest laterals to four or five buds, depending on which was outward-facing. I’ve left one lateral, which is growing opposite the double-leaders, quite long to hopefully provide balancing weight and prevent the tree becoming too lop-sided.
This tree was, if anything, even more awkward than the Blenheim. The bamboo cane that was used to support it was distinctly curved and it looks like the tree has grown with a definite bowing of the trunk in response. So as well as a less-then-straight main stem, there are three main leaders coming from a v-joint at the top of the stem, and then a couple of quite leggy laterals and three or four skinnier side-stems further down.
I’ve done the best I can for now, reducing the leaders by around a third and pruning back the laterals to four or five buds. We’ll have to see what happens in due course.
With the formative pruning done the trees were all a bit more manageable and less likely to snag and snap on anything; time to transfer them from their training pots to their new Air-Pot homes.
Air-Pots are widely used by commercial growers. The walls of the pots are made up of small plastic cones with the ends trimmed to leave a hole. As the plant in the pot sends out roots, they eventually grow to the end of the cones and come into contact with the air. This dries and kills the root-tip, preventing further growth of that particular root and encouraging new root formation elsewhere. The result is a stronger, denser network of feeder roots, with little or no root-circling and no chance of the plant becoming pot-bound.
If you’re interested in Air-Pot growing, check out Alex Taylor’s blog at Air-PotGardener.com. Alex grows a wide range of crops in Air-Pots and provides plenty of photos of the root systems that develop and the harvests that he achieves. As far as I know he’s not directly associated with the manufacturers of the Air-Pot (although they really ought to be sponsoring him with a few freebies by now…)
Back to the potting up: first job, rolling up the plastic sheet around the base and applying a couple of screw-fasteners to construct the Air-Pots.
Next, fill the bottom and as much of the sides of the Air-Pot as practical with John Innes #3 loam-based compost, working it into all those outward-pointing cones. JI3 is quite a rich mix and should provide enough nutrients to give the trees an initial boost once they start to grow and leaf up later in the year. After a couple of months then I’ll need to provide supplemental feed on a reasonably regular basis to keep them healthy and of course, plenty of water.
Then it’s time to knock each tree out of its pot and check the root system:
Lovely. A bit of circling, but that’s easily dealt with by gently teasing the roots out from around the edges.
I then decided to apply a sprinkling of mycorrhizal fungus powder to each root-ball:
Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial fungi that grow in association with plant roots. In return for sugars taken from the roots, the fungi helps the plant to take up mineral nutrients from the soil more effectively. Perhaps it’s not strictly necessary in the case of a potted tree, but if it aids root development in the vital first year or two, then it’s worth trying.
Finally, back-fill with the John Innes #3 mix and soak with a couple of litres of clean rain water. The results can be seen in the photo at the top of the post.
The trees are currently standing in the shelter of the shed. This is a temporary position and they’ll probably be moved around a couple of times as work progresses on the garden, until they’re eventually put in their final position, when they can be properly staked, and perhaps a support structure put in place, if it seems as though they’ll need one.
I’ll be covering fig tree plating in a separate post, and I haven’t potted up the Morello cherry just yet either, so that’s another post to come.
Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions or observations on any of the above, please feel free to leave a comment, below.
Don’t you just love this time of year? Okay, the weather can be pretty atrocious – the ground tends to swing from too wet to walk on to frozen solid – and maybe there isn’t much colour around to speak of. But hey, that’s just outside. Plenty of time for outside later in the year. Now is the time when you have the perfect excuse for some inside jobs (with hot beverage of preference and biscuits of choice to-hand). And right now, one of the most exciting inside jobs you can get on with is… your annual seed audit!
Trust me on this, there’s nothing like sorting through your seed box on a cold, dark, February evening to get you excited about the horticultural year ahead. All those brightly coloured packets, so full of the promise of wonderful things to come. Here’s your favourite variety of runner bean – remember how fresh they tasted, picked and steamed within half an hour? – and those tomatoes that actually managed to stay blight-free, and a few seeds left from that squash plant that did so well, and oh, yeah, there’s that paper wrap of “special herbs” you picked up at the farmer’s market… er, maybe the least said about that the better. Look, leeks! (You’re on much safer ground with leeks). And beetroot, and courgettes, and callaloo, and calabrese, and okra, and physalis, and kale, and cabbage, and spinach, and… and…
You get the picture. So many seeds. And the best thing to do with them right now is give them a proper sort out. Otherwise, how will you know what you need to go seed shopping for..?
Here are some general, rule-of-thumb criteria that I apply during my own seed audit, offered as a starter-for-ten.
Criteria #1 – Did You Grow These Last Year and Did They Taste / Look Good?
If Yes: You’ll probably want to grow those again, then. If you have any seeds left, move to Criteria #2. If you’ve kept the empty packet to remind you to buy more, add them to the shopping list. Unless you’ve found another variety that’s likely to taste even better, or just fancy a change, of course.
If No: Let’s face it, life’s too short and space is probably too tight to grow crops you know you’re not going to eat (unless you’re growing them for someone else) or flowering plants that just aren’t as attractive as you’d hoped they’d be, or don’t fit in with your overall schemes and plans.
Put them aside and then, when you’ve been through your whole seed collection, donate the unwanted ones to someone who might be able to make good use of them. There ought to be a local school, charity garden, Incredible Edibles group, youth organisation or someone who’ll put them to good use.
With everything that’s left (probably still at least 90% of the total…) move on to:
Criteria #2 – Did You Pay Good Money For Them?
If Yes: You probably had an idea at the time that this was something you definitely wanted to grow. Or, like me, you thought that it would be interesting / challenging / too bizarrely wonderful-looking to pass up on. Whatever your reason, you should really make an effort to sow them this year, before they do go out of date and fall victim of Criteria #3.
Do your research: read the instructions on the packet, or the printed sheet that came with your order, or Google sowing methods, and then make a few notes. Plan ahead so you don’t miss the best sowing window and get those seeds in when the time is right. The results could be amazing.
If No: Magazine freebie? Donation from a well-meaning friend / neighbour / fellow allotment holder? A momentary whim that you’ve de-whimmed on second thoughts? Again, if it’s surplus to requirements, add it to the donation pile.
Criteria #3 – Are the Seeds Still in Date?
Now Then: I know a lot of you folks will swear that stored seed can and will last a lot longer than the dates on the packet and yes, this is probably true in a lot of cases. But having done a couple of RHS courses and been taught a fair bit about plant biology, I’ve learnt that there’s such a thing as ‘seed viability’, which varies according to the type of seed, its ripeness at picking and the conditions in which it has been kept.
If a seed is viable, it should germinate under the right conditions, unless it’s dormant and needs to have its dormancy broken by scarification (scratching the seed coat) or stratification (a period of cold treatment), or soaking prior to sowing. If it isn’t viable, nothing whatsoever will make it germinate, because it’s dead.
If Yes: If a packet is still in date then there’s a good chance that the seed inside should be viable.
If No: If you take best-by dates on seed packets as a general guide then yes, you might get away with sowing them a year or two (or more) beyond the suggested ‘sow by’. Or you might not. The safest way to tell, if you have enough seed, is to perform a seed germination test. Which is very easy to do, and all fine and good, but depending on how many packets of older seed we’re talking about, and how many seeds are left in the packet, germination testing might not be practical.
By way of a compromise, I’d suggest re-buying or swapping for new stock of your very favourites – why risk disappointment? – running germination tests on anything you’ve got spare seed and time for, and then anything you’d like to grow but won’t be upset if you miss out on, you can just sow anyhow, and see what happens.
Don’t Forget to Organise and Take Notes!
Checking through your seeds obviously offers the perfect opportunity to organise them into some sort of order and compile some sort of a ready-reckoner to help you remember just what’s in that overflowing seed box of yours, and when you need to sow it.
I think the easiest way to organise a seed collection is in rough sowing-date order, with monthly dividers to give you a clue as to where you’re up to. At the end of the month, simply move everything you haven’t sown yet that’s still within its sowing window into next month’s section. Leave everything you’ve sown, or honestly aren’t going to get around to sowing, in the current month’s slot, for sorting out in next year’s seed audit.
You may prefer to organise by lifespan (annual, biennial, perennial), height, colour, the section of the garden they’re destined for, or something else entirely. Whatever works for you is fine, of course.
As for the ready-reckoner, my favourite method is to set up a Google spreadsheet and record the pertinent details: veg type, variety, sowing dates, and any specific germination conditions, temperatures, stratification requirements and so on.
If you’d like to take a look at my seed list for 2017, you can visit it here. It’s locked for editing by anyone other than me (no offence, I trust you really, but accidents will happen) and if you’d like to ask questions about anything you see on there, please do feel free via the comments below.
Finally, it’s Time to go Seed Shopping
Of course, the best part of taking stock of the seeds you’ve already got is working out where the gaps are. This gives you the perfect excuse (as if one was ever needed) to start browsing through the seed catalogues, looking for replacements for that all important favourite variety you’re now missing. And while you’re there, it’s a chance to see what’s new and interesting, which new varieties look like they’re worth a try, which old heritage varieties have been rescued from obscurity and might be good to grow.
Here’s a quick link-list of some of the seed suppliers I’ve bought from in the past, or know of from Twitter or online browsing. You’ve probably heard of most of them, but there might be a few independents that you haven’t come across yet. And of course, if you’re a seed supplier that I haven’t become acquainted with yet, or your favourite online seed shop didn’t get a mention, then please do feel free to add a link in the comments, below.
(All suppliers listed are UK-based unless otherwise stated. Links provided for information only – inclusion in the list does not constitute a personal endorsement of a particular supplier.)
Last summer, on the way back from our garden-visiting holiday in Kent, Jo and I stopped off at the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale. It turned out to be the day of their annual cherry festival, which looked like a huge amount of fun, but we weren’t there to eat pie or spit pips. No indeed, we had only one thing on our mind: apple trees.
We had two apple trees at our old place – prolific ‘Discovery’ and zero-fruiting ‘Bloody Ploughman’ – and we knew that when we moved we’d really miss having fresh fruit to pick from right outside the door. They’re also an essential part of our Cottage Garden Project plan; to include a good mix of herbs and edibles amongst or alongside the mainly decorative planting beds.
After half an hour talking to Brogdale’s Sales Manager about suitable varieties for our Northern climes, pollination compatibility and dwarfing root-stock suitable for container growing, we placed an order for three apples: ‘Cornish Aromatic’, ‘Herefordshire Russet’ and ‘Blenheim Orange’, one crab apple: good old ‘John Downie’ of the stunning blossom displays and excellent jelly-making, and, yes, one cherry: Morello – I do love ’em sour, and a fig: ‘Brown Turkey’, apparently the most reliable cropper in the UK climate. Of course, they weren’t for immediate delivery. We had to wait for winter, when the trees were in a dormant state, suitable for transporting and transplanting. And wait we did…
…until, as I sat in the pub after my four RHS exams on Tuesday afternoon, a text came through from Jo to say that the end of our driveway was now occupied by a pallet of trees. Huge excitement! Couldn’t wait to get home and take a look. Couldn’t see much in the dark when I got home, of course, except that the order seemed to be all present and correct, and was well-wrapped in cellophane.
Yesterday morning, I headed outside with my trusty knife and, like a kid at Christmas, unwrapped our delivery.
First off: I was very pleased with the manner of the delivery. Although I was out, due to a minor mix-up as to the delivery date (which was entirely my fault for saying “any time after the 7th” rather than stressing “the 8th onwards”…) the delivery driver still not only dropped them off, but fork-lifted the pallet up the drive and placed it neatly behind the bins into the bargain. Fair play and thank you to them for making the extra effort. All the trees were in great condition; a couple of small twigs had snagged in the cellophane and snapped, but nothing worse than that, and certainly nothing you wouldn’t expect on a journey from Kent to North Manchester.
The unwrapped trees all looked great. We’ve invested in 2+ year old bush standards rather than maiden whips or feathered maidens – apart from the cherry – to give us that head start on fruit production, and all the trees have a decent amount of lateral growth, as you can see when they were lined up ready to move round to the back of the house:
Two of the trees – the crab apple and the fig – are quite small, but that works to our advantage. We don’t want the crab apple to grow too big, based on where we’re hoping to place it in the planting scheme, and the fig is hopefully going to be quite vigorous, so starting off with a small specimen gives us a chance to prune and train it to suit the space.
We also ordered a couple of Jostaberry bushes, which you can see in the pic below. (They’ll be heading down to the allotment in about half an hour…)
Here are the technical details of the trees we’ve bought:
Malus ‘John Downie’: M9 rootstock. An effective cross-pollinator for all three maincrop apples and a source of fruit for crab apple jelly, as well as pectin for other fruit jams.
Prunus cerasus ‘Morello’: G5 rootstock (semi-dwarfing). Self-fertile. Shade tolerant. Harvest July to August.
Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’: Figs are propagated by hardwood cuttings, so no rootstock applicable. Self-fertile. Pollinated by Chalcid wasp. Harvest when ripe, late summer onwards, hopefully.
The next stage will be to transfer the three apples and the cherry into the Air-Pot containers that we’re planning to grow them in for the first few years, at least. All the varieties are grafted onto dwarfing or semi-dwarfing root-stock, so we’re hoping they’ll develop strong root systems, courtesy of the Air-Pot’s air-pruning characteristics and not suffer from having a lack of open ground to grow into.
Formative pruning will be carried out after potting, either as columnar cordons or compact bush shapes. The idea is to fit all four potted trees along the fence outside the back door, without risking the branches becoming congested or tangling with each other. I’ll be reading up on the pros and cons of both methods before I make any cuts, and asking the gardeners down at Ordsall Hall for their advice, when I’m down there volunteering tomorrow.
The fig will be planted into the fig-pit that I prepared last summer. And the crab apple will be planted out in pride of place in the shed bed, once that has been suitably edged, back-filled and the soil considerably improved. It should be happy enough in its pot until that’s done.
What do you reckon? All sounds good, or is there anything I’ve over-looked? Are you a bit of a pruning expert, or have you grown potted fruit trees yourself? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences, down below in the comments.
The developing theme for this week seems to be “emergence”. On a personal level, I’ve emerged from my Deep Dark Revision Cave, sitting four RHS Level 2 exam papers yeesterday, and am once again able to focus on things that don’t necessarily have a Latin binomial or a key role within a cohesive garden design scheme. For the time being, anyhow.
Meanwhile, on the growing front, the first seedlings of 2017 have emerged in the Vitopod propagator. First germination is always a lovely moment, one I look forward to immensely every year.
Here are the first few chillis to emerge:
They were all sown on January 20th. Note the ones that have germinated are all seeds sown in the middle part of the small trays. I’m assuming they’ve benefited from a lower rate of moisture loss and a higher constant temperature due to the volume of compost surrounding them.
These specks of green are Goji Berry seedlings. I’ve sown far more than we’re likely to need for our own purposes so with any luck we’ll have spare plantlets to share around later in the season. They were sown on Jan 31st and emerged yesterday, so that means they germinated in just seven days.
I’m going to leave the seed trays in the Vitopod for the time being, although I’m conscious that the humidity in there is probably too high to do so for too much longer, as it could result in poor growth and maybe even damping off disease. Once the majority of the seedlings have emerged I’ll transfer them to cooler, un-heated (therefore room temperature) trays with lids and let them grow on in peace until they’re robust enough to be pricked out into a more nutrient-rich compost.
How are your seedlings coming along? Let me know in the comments, and please feel free to post links to your own blog as well.
It’s still very early in the sowing and growing season, of course, but there are one or two crops that can benefit from starting off in January. The hotter members of the Capsicum family – chilli peppers – are one example, and so, as I did last year I’ve sown four varieties and tucked them away in our Vitopod heated propagator to (hopefully) germinate.
This year’s sown varieties are:
Capsicum annuum ‘Cayenne’ (‘Hot Portugal’?) – Once again, the bog-standard magazine freebie with supermarket-style red fruits. 5,000 – 30,000 Scoville.
Capsicum baccatum ‘Aji Limon’ – A bush variety with bright yellow fruits that’s apparently good for hanging baskets. 40,000 – 60,000 Scoville.
Capsicum annuum ‘Prairie Fire’ – A bush variety that did well for us last year. It’s a prolific cropper and looks very attractive when it’s in full fruit. c. 70,000 Scoville.
Capsicum annuum ‘Padron’ – The classic tapas pepper, known for its mildness when young and green, apart from the odd one or two that develop their heat sooner than the rest. 500 – 2,500 Scoville.
I only want to grow one or two plants of each variety, so sowing six of each ought to include plenty of redundancy, but of course you can never guarantee germination rates. And I’m planning to keep a closer eye on the pepper production line this year. Last year the seedlings got a little leggy and some of them weren’t strong enough to grow on into strong plants, so I aim to move each variety into an unheated but covered propagation unit as soon as the seedlings show. Hopefully that will help them grow a little more sturdily. (And if all else fails, I’ll send away for some interesting plug plants later in the year.)
If you’re interested in the full sowing method I used, details can be found in last year’s chilli sowing post. I used the same method this year, albeit without the vermiculite top layer.
(By the by, do please excuse the recent lack of new content; a situation that may continue for the next fortnight or so. I’m sitting my second set of RHS Level 2 exams two weeks today and I’m deep in my revision cave, so not much else is going on. I’ll be back in full swing just as soon as I’ve recovered the brain power to devote to anything other than memorising Latin binomials…)
A slightly belated Happy New Year, everyone! And welcome to what’s shaping up to be a proper January. With the weather veering between heavy frost and soaking rain, it’s a far from good time to be working the ground – risking soil compaction and water-logging to follow – but with the crops mostly long-harvested and the weeds mostly dead, or at least dormant, it’s a great time to cast an eye over the plot as a whole, and think about the work that will need to be done in the year to come.
At the start of last week the air was bitingly cold and the pavements were treacherously icy, but a burst of afternoon sunshine lured me out of the house for a wander on down to Plot #59. I left the fork and spade and home, taking along my camera, notebook and pen instead. I then spent a happy hour or so pottering up and down, taking reference shots of the main ‘sections’ that the plot was unofficially divided into last year and making notes of jobs to do.
So rather than post a December 2016 update (we didn’t get much new stuff done on the plot last month, just more of the same November jobs) I thought I’d instead share the output of my pottering session: the reference shots and the thought processes that arose. The end result ought to give you (and me!) a glimpse into the extent of the Plot #59 to-do list, as well as an idea of the volume of work needed to get a full-size plot ready for the growing season.
Heads-Up: Probably TL;DR
As even my often lengthy posts go, this is a pretty epic one. If you’re intent on reading the whole thing, you might want to brew up or pour yourself another glass of something before you begin…
Our plot is a full-size one, roughly 10 poles (in old money) or around 250m2 (the actual dimensions are 9.5 x 27.5 metres or thereabouts). Based on these pics it can be divided into roughly sixteen sections, eight either side of the (to be completed this year) central path.
I’m posting the pics in front-to-back, left to right order, so feel free to imagine that you’re walking up said path (careful, it’s muddy at the moment and still a bit uneven), looking to left and right. (Having said that, I actually took the pics from back to front, because the sun was low in the sky across the back of the plot, so you might have to pretend you’re stopping and looking back over your shoulder as you go.)
We’ve always planned for the allotment to be a space to grow flowers as well as edibles, partly for their own sake but mainly to attract pollinators to the plot. As well as the welcome beds across the front of the plot, we’ll be establishing a strip either side of the main path – around 75cm or so wide – and Jo will be filling it with a mixture of perennials and annuals as the year goes on.
We do move crops around from year to year – it’s important to avoid the build-up of crop-specific pests and diseases in the soil – but don’t have a strict crop rotation system in place just yet. The reason being that after three years of working Plot #59 we’re only now getting to the stage where we’ve cleared all the problem areas – perennial weeds, rubbish middens, tree stumps etc. – and can cultivate pretty much the whole plot, but so far we’ve grown where we’ve had space to grow and rotated as best we can. If any of the follow-on crops mentioned below don’t fit the textbook rotation system, that’ll be why.
Right then, off we go:
This front-left section was where we grew in a ‘three-sisters’ system last year: squash, sweetcorn and climbing French beans. They all did reasonably well and we ended up with a decent squash harvest and some lovely sweetcorn. The key was to keep on top of cutting back the rampant squash foliage to stop it smothering everything else.
The section was heavily manured last winter, so shouldn’t need re-fertilising, and will be suitable for growing spuds this year.
Re-weed (we didn’t get covers down early enough).
Flatten last year’s growing mounds, level off the section.
Dig trenches for the spuds once they’re chitted (March), unless they’re station-planted for a change.
The front-right section started last year as the leek, onion and garlic patch. Once the onions were all lifted (early June or so) they were replaced with dahlias (which is what you’ll see in most of the pics from last year’s summer-onwards monthly updates) and it’s currently a nursery bed for a few flowering perennials that Jo’s growing on from seedlings or cuttings.
Some of the alliums suffered from white rot, which means we can’t grow onions etc. in this section for the next few years or risk a recurrence. This year we’ll be using this section and he next one for our ‘three-sisters’ patch, plus an extended winter squash section. With that in mind, the soil will need plenty of feeding as soon as it’s workable, and then mounding up once we’re ready to plant out.
Last year we had six mounds and a dozen squash plants. The sheer volume of squash foliage combined with the warm, wet weather meant we lost a lot of the fruits before they set and grew to a decent size. This year: four mounds, and only eight squash plants.
The section will be fallow until then, once the flowers have been relocated, so it will need to be covered. Or perhaps we could use it for a catch-crop of early summer salads or radish. Maybe another patch of an early, fast-growing variety of broad beans (good nitrogen fixers).
Re-weed (it’s been hoed over a few times, but the Poa annua grass persists).
Dig over and improve with well-rotted farmyard manure.
We put a lot of work into setting up our asparagus beds last winter and spring (see blog posts, parts one, two, three and four, if you’re interested). The plants all seemed to grow well, putting up a decent succession of stems and masses of frondy foliage, which I cut back in November, adding a thick leaf mulch to the mounded rows afterwards.
This is a perennial – and hopefully long-term – section of the plot, so there shouldn’t be any more work to do on it this year, aside from keeping it as weed-free as we can. But we shouldn’t harvest anything from our asparagus plants this year, either. The advice seems to be to let them grow for two full seasons before we start picking, to give the root system the best chance of establishing. Damn, that’s going to take some willpower…
Next to the asparagus, we have the raspberry section. Again, it’s low-maintenance and was heavily mulched with wood chip last year, so aside from thinning out the canes if they grow too vigorously, there’s little to do here until harvest time in late summer and early autumn. Those pots in the foreground will be heading home at some point, once Jo needs them for planting out annuals.
Keep an eye on the asparagus patch leaf mulch, make sure it doesn’t dry out and blow around.
Here’s where we grew our broad beans and peas last year. They did very well; the peas in particular romped up the pea-harp that we set up for them. We’ll definitely be using the same method for both edible and sweet peas this year.
As they’re good nitrogen fixers, the soil shouldn’t be too depleted, but it will still get a general feed of fish, blood and bone once it’s weeded.
As mentioned above, this will probably be the main ‘three-sisters’ section this year, so it will need plenty of feeding. And memo-to-self: this area liberally scattered with self-sown nasturtium seed-pods last year, so we’ll have to keep an eye out for seedlings as they come up. Either that or let them grow a while and then dig them in as green manure.
Clear away any persistent weeds from under the tarp.
Feed with well-rotted farmyard manure.
Cover over until ready to form up the mounts and plant out the crops.
Weed out nasturtium seedlings as they appear, or dig in en-masse in due course.
Another two semi-permanent crops here: strawberries and rhubarb. The latter is particularly easy: just enjoy the sight of the thick, green buds bursting open – always one of my favourite moments, heralding the return of spring – and then leave it to do it’s thing.
The strawberries need attention though. We got greedy (okay, I got greedy) when we planted them out; they’re much too densely planted and this year we paid the price in the form of a vicious botrytis grey mould that ripped right through the patch and wiped out around 80%-90% (I kid you not) of the crop.
Once the ground is defrosted, we’ll be taking out every other plant from each row, reducing the total number from 36 to 18 or 20, in an effort to improve air-flow and keep the fungi at bay. By the end of this year they’ll be over three years old. We’ll switch them out completely, move the section to another part of the plot. Most probably we’ll starting again with new-bought, named varieties.
In the foreground of that pic, you can see most of last year’s crap-pile. It will (hopefully) be going in the annual skip at Easter, although we might have to get rid before then. Because under the crap-pile is the last chunk of the massive midden of broken glass, plastic, ceramics, metal, wood and concrete that I’ve been gradually clearing for the past three years. I’m determined to dig it all out before I finish off the central path.
Thin out the strawberry plants.
Regularly trim back the foliage if they grow too vigorously again this year.
Clear out the last of the midden, level off and fill with flowering plants.
I put quite a lot of effort into the carrot and root beds last year; sieving soil into raised beds in an attempt to create the ideal growing conditions. Alas, it was largely a waste of time. I think where I went wrong was in only putting up an enviromesh barrier against carrot-fly, rather than covering the beds completely. The little bastards got it over the top and the crop was all-but wiped out; around 75%-80% of the carrots that did grow grew badly and ended up useless. Although to be fair the other root crops – mooli, scorzonera and salsify in particular – did reasonably well. I assume the carrot fly weren’t at all interested in those.
I think I’ll re-use the soil from these beds in the sections that I’m setting up for the composting trial that I’m participating in for Soilfixer.co.uk, if only because it’s of a reasonably uniform grade and I know it hasn’t had anything in it that will leave lingering diseases. Slugs might be an issue, but they’re an issue all over the plot, and I’ll install counter-measures against them.
This part of the plot will then be available for growing Jo’s sweet peas and sunflowers, so it will make for a real splash of colour in the summer and hopefully attract plenty of pollinators to the strawberries and raspberries just across the path.
Weed and relocate soil from raised beds to trial section when established.
Assess raised beds to see if they’re re-usable, repair or trash as required.
Level section and prepare for planting.
Our collection of fruit bushes – blackcurrant, gooseberry, redcurrant, whitecurrant and Japanese wineberry, so far – was pruned and reorganised back in November. I spaced out the plants and then mulched them with wood chippings, so that should hopefully be all that needs doing to them for the foreseeable.
We’ll be adding a couple of jostaberry plants at some point, and I’ve bought or ordered a few interesting-sounding fruit bush seeds to try to germinate this year, so the section might expand in future.
Keep an eye out for weeds.
Here’s where we’ve been trialling Crimson and Persian clover for the folks at Garden Organic, to evaluate their relative suitability as a green manure crop. In my last update, I noted that the Persian clover section had been all-but over-run with weeds, and of course the situation hasn’t improved since. The trial is meant to last until March, but I might call time on it sooner, just to get the section cleared.
This year it will be used for experimentation once again, with four 1m x 1m raised beds going in and being planted up for the compost additive trial that I’m taking part in for Soilfixer.co.uk. I’ll need to clear the ground – there’s a rough patch next to the path that needs particular attention – and construct the beds, ideally before April or May, when the trial crops will need to be sown and/or planted out.
Clear the clover, dig over the ground to distribute the chaff and roots.
Construct and install four raised beds for the trial.
Fill the raised beds with the soil from last year’s root section and improve as required by the trial guidelines.
Cover until ready for planting.
Our late-planted kale and cabbages did okay last year. We’ve had a few pickings of ‘Toscana di Nero’ and ‘Redbor’ kale, and we’ll take more when they start to grow strongly again in the spring. We harvested a fair few summer cabbages from September onwards but the few that are left are most likely bound for the compost heap. The red and Savoy varieties are over-wintering nicely, we’ve been picking and eating those for the past couple of months.
The first part of this section will be given over to something new this year. I’m thinking of trying a few perennial tuber crops: oca, yacon, ulloco, skirret, that sort of thing. I’m always very interested in trying out new crops and new varieties to see if I can discover something delicious that Jo and I have never tried before (although of course not everything is guaranteed to hit the spot; dahlia tubers were a slightly disappointing discovery this year, but maybe I just didn’t cook them for long enough).
The ground was well-dug and weeded before the cabbages went in last summer, so hopefully it should just need a surface-skim to get rid of the annual weeds and grasses that have crept back in. We’ll amend the soil if we need to, once we know for sure what we’ll be growing here, and what its requirements are.
The back part of this section will be added to the extended allium patch; details below.
Harvest edible cabbages as needed, clear un-usable ones to compost.
Weed and clear the section.
Research and source seed tubers for new crops.
Prepare the ground as required.
We went in for a range of big brassicas last year: cauliflower, romanesco, ‘walking stick’ kale and four varieties of Brussels sprouts. They were mostly a disappointment. The caulis and romanesco bolted, half of the sprouts came down with clubroot and only produced buttons the size of smarties. Whilst the ‘walking stick’ kale was certainly impressive – six foot tall and three foot wide for the most part – the leaves were tough and leathery and not very appetising, at least compared to the more common kale varieties that we grew on the other side of the path.
Once we’ve eaten the last of any sprouts that are actually worth the effort of harvesting – ‘Rubine’ is the one variety that performed well for us and we’ve got a couple of sticks left – this section will be cleared and prepared for this year’s role as a root bed. I won’t be going to town on sieving as much soil as I did for the carrots last year, but I will loosen the topsoil a bit and see if I can work up a nice fine tilth to sow seeds into.
The right-hand strip, alongside the path between our plot and the neighbour’s, will be used to grow beans again. The soil will need a good feed of well-rotted manure or compost plus a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone with each plant as it goes in; I don’t direct sow my beans, preferring to start them off in the greenhouse and be sure I have enough to go around.
Finish harvesting, then clear away brassica plants and collars.
Weed section, lightly dig over, rake to fine tilth.
Cover until ready to sow root veg seeds.
This section contained another couple of rows of cabbage – long-since harvested – and as you can see we’re attempting to over-winter a dozen or so broad bean ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ under those fleece tunnels, to see if they’ll survive the frosts and provide us with an early crop. A couple of folks elsewhere on the site who over-wintered them last year had six-foot tall bean plants by the end of May, so it’s worth a shot.
Depending on when the broad beans are done, we’ll most likely use the space for either a late-sown crop of oriental salads and/or late radishes. The former cabbage rows will we weeded, lightly raked and used as an allium bed for the shallots we’ve started off in modules, plus the half kilo of ‘Sturon’ onion sets that we’re expecting to take delivery of in February. They’ll be started off in modules as well, as per last year.
Clear cabbage plant stumps, weed, rake and cover until ready.
Once serious risk of frost has passed, remove fleece tunnels and tie-in broad beans to support canes.
This is where we grew our main-crop potatoes (‘Pink Fir Apple’) last year. They were hit by blight a little too early for anyone’s liking, and the ground has been left fallow since they were lifted back in July.
We’ve had an old, blue, plastic ground-sheet / tarpaulin down to block some of the light, but most likely some weeds will have taken underneath. With various pots scattered around (left over from the house move in 2015), there’s been plenty of opportunity for weeds to creep in and there’s a patch of rough grass growing alongside the path that needs to be dealt with.
It will all need a good clear-up and sort-out before we can use this section to set up a pea-harp or two and plant out this year’s crop, along with another couple of rows of broad beans if we have the room; we can’t get enough of either of those fresh, tasty legumes come spring-time.
We’ll also be continuing the bean strip along the right-hand edge, so there’s more improvement work to be done there.
Re-locate pots, lift tarp.
Weed and clear section, improve soil for bean trenches.
Set up cane-and-string pea-harp(s) once plants are ready to go in.
The final cultivated section on the left-hand side of the path contains our over-wintering leeks – which again were planted a bit late last year – and this year’s garlic crop.
We should finish lifting the leeks by March or so, and the garlic will hopefully be ready by late June or early July, which means we’ll be able to used this section for this year’s courgettes. I’ll be starting some off a bit earlier so we can stagger the planting. There’ll be some weeding to do in the meantime as well, but hopefully nothing too drastic.
Harvest leeks as needed, then clear and cover section when done.
Feed garlic in Spring, harvest in June.
Weed section and prepare for next planting.
Back across to the right-hand side of the path, we have a lovely, clear (lonesome Swiss chard excepted) section that we’ve weeded and lightly raked already – we took advantage of a few days of cold-but-dry weather back in December – and since this pic was taken it’s been covered with a ground-sheet as well.
This year we’re planning on growing kale and cabbage in this section, so once the current cold snap passes and we have a dry-ish window to work in, we’ll spread some lime and lightly rake it in, then replace the cover and leave it until the young brassicas are ready to plant out.
Again, the right-hand strip will be part of the bean trench, so that will be improved in due course.
Rake in garden lime when weather allows and re-cover.
Last year the back-left section became a bit of a dumping ground for a lot of the skip-scavenged junk that I’ve accumulated since we took on the plot. The old bath-tub that we were given by another plot-holder turned out to be less-useful than I hoped; I had grand plans to turn it into a wormery, but realised that I probably wouldn’t be able to attend to it often enough to keep the worms in good health. So that’s going in this year’s skip, unless anyone else on the site wants it.
Once this section has been nicely cleared up, it will be properly organised into a highly efficient compost-making system. Green matter will be dumped in the two open bays until it starts to break down, and then will end up in a succession of dalek-style compost bins, gradually decomposing into a rich, crumbly, highly useful soil improver. That’s the plan, anyhow. As always, we’ll see how it goes.
Sort through junk, re-locate anything genuinely usable, everything else to be skipped (or re-skipped…)
Put down weed membrane (lots of encroaching bindweed at this end of the plot).
Reorganise compost bins, cutting holes in membrane as needed.
When we moved house in July 2015 we brought our 6’x6′ greenhouse from the old place and set it up on the plot. We then filled it with a large portion of the contents of our old shed and it’s been in that state ever since.
This year – and before too long, as well – it’s going to be emptied, cleaned, sorted and set up for actual growing; tomatoes or cucumbers, I reckon. Maybe cape gooseberries. We have a mega-shed at home now, so as soon as that’s emptied of the timber we’ve bought for back-garden landscaping, we’ll be able to re-fill it with the contents of the allotment greenhouse and get on with the clear-up.
There’s also the small matter of the water collection system to finalise. The greenhouse has two slimline water butts attached, but we’ve also obtained four large plastic drums which, once they’ve been scrubbed of algae, we can daisy-chain in to provide us with a good supply of rainwater, on the off-chance we have a dry summer (or Spring, or Autumn) this year.
Clear out greenhouse.
Remove weeds, disinfect and scrub glass.
Reorganise shelving, re-stock with plot essentials.
Connect plastic drums to water butts, add taps as required.
So, there you go. All of the above, ideally to be done in stages over the next three or four months, ready for planting season to begin in earnest round about May and June.
In the meantime, I have a second set of RHS Level Two exams to prepare for in early February, then the ongoing back garden landscaping and bastard trenching to get on with so we can actually start to establish a garden out there this year. Speaking of which, a batch of fruit trees should be arriving from Brogdale before too long, so they’ll need potting up in air-pots. And of course, there’s the seed-sowing schedule to think about, and seed trays to clean, and pot-labels to scrub, and the greenhouse at home to tidy and spray down with Jeyes Fluid…
I tell you what, I’m not going to be bored, am I? 🙂
Thank you for reading all this way (or for scrolling through to look at the photos). If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please do leave them via the form below – or drop me an email if you’d prefer – and I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m able.
These shallots we’re given to us by Dad-in-law Guru Glyn beck in November. I had planned to plant them out round about December 21st (“plant on the shortest day, harvest on the longest…”) but the weather wasn’t quite right, and then we had a busy couple of weeks, and, well… I forgot. Until Jo asked me yesterday whether the shallots were in yet, and suggested that if I can’t plant them out (the ground is frozen today, and heavy rain is forecast for tomorrow) then I might as well pot them up and get them going.
So: two varieties of shallots were duly potted up in our barely-above-zero greenhouse this lunchtime; ‘Hative de Niort’ (front) and ‘Jermor’ (back). Hopefully as the temperatures start to rise a bit over the next few days they’ll sprout and root and can be put in the ground once the conditions on the plot improve a little, but will still have enough cold-exposure to split the bulbs.
Pete Brown’s new volume of entertaining investigation into the social history of a subject dear to his heart looks at apples and the orchards in which they grow. Anyone who has read any of Pete’s other books – I’ve hugely enjoyed all of his beer- and pub-themed works to-date, including Man Walks Into a Pub, Hops and Glory, and Shakespeare’s Local – will know what sort of reading experience to expect. His style is highly readable; he knows just how to keep the narrative moving along at a decent clip, dropping in historical facts, amusing asides and moments of personal insight with equal measure, but never allowing them to clutter up the prose or divert the flow for too long. The Apple Orchard is true to form: a healthy mix of well-researched social history, pithy observation, personal discovery and plenty of humour.
In The Apple Orchard, Pete turns his attention to that once essential but now, sadly, much-diminished feature of the English landscape. Following the apple tree through the cycle of the year – beginning with the blossom of Spring and ending with a dose of deep-winter wassailing at a cider farm – he examines the humble fruit from perspectives as diverse as modern orchard management, cider production, mythological tropes from the garden of Eden to the Isle of Avalon, apple genetics, historical reasons for the decline in English orchard acreage, current reasons why we see so few varieties on supermarket shelves, tree grafting, proper pruning, the vital importance of European seasonal migrant labour to the UK apple industry, the many and varied benefits of the aforementioned wassailing, the key role in the whole process played by the ancient art of morris dancing, and a whole lot more.
The finished product is a heart-warming love-letter to a way of life that seems to have disappeared from all but the most die-hard apple-producing parts of our green and pleasant land. It’s a very personal exploration, rather than a detailed historical document, or technical analysis of modern apple production methods. It wanders, it meanders, it pokes around in dusty corners, turning up odd facts of interest and uncovering lost gems of once-common knowledge – think QI or Time Team, rather than Timewatch or Panorama – and it’s all the more enjoyable for it. At times Pete seems genuinely astonished by some of the information he uncovers, as he comes to realise that a thing as simple and ubiquitous as the apple lies at the core of a hugely rich history, with a massive impact on the cultural development of humanity, and a state-of-the-art production industry that turns out all the millions upon millions of crisp, red-and-green specimens that are demanded on our behalf by the supermarket buyers.
As a reader, I couldn’t help but be similarly amazed and delighted by those same discoveries and, like the author himself, I came away from the book more than a little in love with the whole concept of the orchard. On finishing the book, I found my head spinning with mad ideas of moving to the West Country and taking up fruit tree management as a new career. Instead I’ll have to content myself with the few potted trees I have on order from the National Collection at Brogdale – a place mentioned often in the book and much-lauded for its work on preserving apple diversity and developing new strains of fruit – and look forward to gently (and quietly) Wassailing them in our small back garden in years to come.
I suspect Pete Brown may end up taking a more involved interest though; there’s a moment or two in the book when I thought I could detect the stirrings of his inner horticulturalist. I enjoyed a similar awakening a few years ago, and it came from the same root that Pete sums up so neatly when he says:
“If you spend most of your day looking at a computer screen in an office, becoming increasingly tied to people who demand responses to emails, tweets and texts within an ever-shorter time-window, you really need to attend the odd Wassail or Beltane festival as a matter of urgency, in a place that has no 4G or Wi-Fi, just to restore the equilibrium. The world of pixels can never replace the feeling of earth beneath your feet and the breeze in your face, the smell of the blossom and the attention-stopping beauty of it.”
Mr. Brown, I couldn’t agree more.
I highly recommend The Apple Orchard to anyone with an interest in apples, orchards or English social history, as well as any and all fans of a light but highly informative read that will leave you craving a Crawley Beauty (they’re a late variety, should be ready for eating around now, if you can find any) and a long walk through an apple orchard next blossom season. Definitely for every gardener’s Christmas list, birthday list and ‘dammit, I deserve a good book’ list.
The Apple Orchard: The Story of our most English Fruit is published by Particular Books (Penguin Random House) in the UK and is available from all good high street bookstores, as well as the following fine online retailing establishments: