Anatomy of an Allotment Plot: Planning Ahead for 2017

2017 Plan for Plot 59
Here’s the rough draught Plot #59 plan – subject to change as the year goes on, no doubt. Click for the full-size version.
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…

Overview

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.

Crop Rotation

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:


January 2017 Plot Planning #1
Last year’s three-sister’s patch

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #2
Last year’s onion and garlic patch, currently a nursery bed.

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).

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #3
The asparagus patch, with its covering of leaf-mulch.

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.

To-Do:

  • Keep an eye on the asparagus patch leaf mulch, make sure it doesn’t dry out and blow around.

January 2017 Plot Planning #4
Site of last year’s broad beans and peas, covered for a while now.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #5
Strawberry and rhubarb sections, with last year’s crap collection in the foreground.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #6
This year’s root beds aren’t quite done yet.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #7
The soft fruit section, newly reorganised and ready for another year.

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.

To-Do:

  • Keep an eye out for weeds.

January 2017 Plot Planning #8
The experimental clover patch, with bagged-up leaves for leaf-mould.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #9
The last of this year’s overwintering kale and cabbages, still hanging in there.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #10
The Big Brassicas section – something of a disappointment, truth be told.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #11
Overwintering broad beans under their fleece tunnels.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #12
Miscellaneous pots left over from the house move, on top of the potato patch.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #13
This year’s garlic crop alongside the leek patch.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #14
The cleared and weeded courgette section, with bean beds at the back.

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.

To-Do:

  • Rake in garden lime when weather allows and re-cover.

January 2017 Plot Planning #15
The junk corner and compost beds.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

January 2017 Plot Planning #16
In the back right corner, our 6’x6′ greenhouse / shed.

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.

To-Do:

  • 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.

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And We’re Off! First Planting of 2017

January 2017 potted shallots
A dozen lovely shallots, nestling in their modules, ready to grow.

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.

Fingers crossed.

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Book Notes: The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown

The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books
The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books (Penguin)
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, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books
The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, UK hardback
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:

Amazon* | Book Depository* | Hive | Waterstones | WHSmith | Wordery

* = affiliate link – if you buy the book from here I’ll earn a small referral fee, which will go towards my next gardening book or packet of seeds.

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SoilFixer Trial Part I: Compost Preparation

Soilfixer.co.ukA few weeks ago, I was contacted by the folks at soilfixer.co.uk who wanted to know if I’d be interested in trialling their soil improvers.

“We’d like to send you some of a new product we’ve been working on,” they said, “a compost humification agent.”

Humification, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the process by which organic matter decays into humus, a dark-coloured, sticky substance that’s an extremely important part of the organic fraction of the soil. Humus increases the soil’s water holding capacity and improves nutrient retention, whilst also helping fine, sandy soil particles to clump together into just the sort of lovely, crumb-like granules that provide really good growing conditions for a wide range of allotment crops.

I’m always up for a spot of experimentation, especially if the results are likely to involve improved soil health and/or crop yield – Soilfixer’s notes estimate a 20% – 100% improvement is achievable – so I readily agreed, with thanks.

I was expecting a 500g-ish pack, so was rather surprised when an 18 litre bucket of Soilfixer C.H.A. arrived a week or so later. “Blimey,” I said to meself, “how much compost are they expecting me to humificate..?”

As it turns out, just enough for a 1m x 1m trial plot. I’ll be setting up four such plots on the allotment next year. One will remain untreated, another will have the C.H.A.-enhanced compost incorporated, one likewise with regular (garden) compost, and the fourth with a second product that they’ll be sending me early next year. I’ll then aim to grow the same crops in all four plots – I’m thinking a selection of broad beans, kale, beetroot and turnip, to give a bit of variety – and record the results to see what, if any, noticeable improvements occur.

In the meantime though, I needed to set myself up with a trial batch of C.H.A. compost. Which I sorted out on Saturday, like so:

1) Mix up a blend of fresh green material, dry woody material, half-composted grass waste and nearly-done (one year old) compost in two trugs:

December 2016 C.H.A. trial
Two trugs/buckets of untreated compostables…

2) Open the C.H.A. tub and see what it is I’ve been sent:

Compost Humification Agent from Soilfixer.co.uk
A mix of biochar and other stuff, or so the accompanying paperwork tells me.

3) Add a measure of C.H.A. to one of the trugs at the roughly-prescribed rate and mix well:

December 2016 C.H.A. trial
The trug on the left has a mugful or two of C.H.A. added.

4) Bag up the two mixes in old compost sacks, label the appropriate one, add half a watering can of water, punch drainage holes in the bottom of the bags and then store to let the composting process do its thing:

December 2016 C.H.A. trial
The treated and untreated mixes are bagged and watered before being stored.

That’s pretty much it for now. I’ve not made up a full sack of each as I only need enough for that 1x1m plot to begin with, so I’ll keep an eye on the volume of material in each sack – which will reduce over time – and top them both up if required.

Hopefully by April or May I’ll have two lots of ready-to-use compost and a selection of seeds and/or seedlings to sow/plant out. Then we’ll see what we shall see.

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Plot #59 Update: November 2016

December 2016 Plot #59 Update
Not a lot of greenery left by now, as the clearing away continues.

November was a mixed month, weather-wise. A soggy start gave way to a dry, cold, bright last couple of weeks; perfect for all those cutting back and clearing up jobs that are so necessary at this time of year.

Here’s what we’ve been up to:

Harvesting

We’re well into our late Autumn veg now, with cabbages, kale, turnips, swede, leeks, giant black radishes, the last of the manky carrots and a few other roots about all that’s left in the ground. It’s all extremely welcome and means that, alongside our cured squashes, dried beans and stored garlic, we’re never short of veggies for the sort of stews and casseroles that we’re eating a couple of times a week.

November 2016 - Manky Carrots
Never going to win any beauty contests, are they? But tasty enough once they’re cleaned up a bit.

Next year we’ll be making sure that there are even more winter crops available, with a bit of better planning and succession-sowing. All being well.

Planting Out

It might seem odd to be putting crops in the ground at this time of year, but we took advantage of the warm gap between the rainy week and the freezing week to get a crop of greenhouse-raised (and hardened-off) Vicia faba (broad bean) ‘aquadulce’ planted out under fleece tunnels.

November 2016 broad beans planted
Two rows of nine; should make for a decent harvest in late May / early June.

I’ve not over-wintered broad beans before now, but I saw some on another plot that were around six feet tall and cropping prolifically in late Spring, so I’m hoping for similar results.

Mulching

I’ve been a man on a mulching mission the past couple of weeks. Having missed the mid-November window to get the asparagus section weeded, cleaned and covered, I went at it with a will as soon as the heaviest frosts had passed (hopefully not damaging the precious asparagus crowns too much).

All three rows have now been cut back, cleaned up – a lot of annual weed and moss had moved in, as the section became shaded out by a row of sunflowers – and liberally mulched over.

November 2016 asparagus mulching
Leaves for the crowns, woodchip for the walking-on-areas.

I did the research before I began and various methods were generally recommended. Bob Flowerdew suggests using sand, but I didn’t have anywhere near enough, so went with what was available: a thick covering of leaves for the planting rows themselves, and a good couple of inches of chipped wood on the paths in-between. Asparagus roots are said to reach around 12′ deep, so I don’t think there should be too many concerns with nitrogen depletion as the woodchips decompose. But I’ll keep an eye on the strength of the spears when they re-grow in the Spring and feed if necessary.

Once I had the bit between my teeth I was hard to rein in, and ended up spending the rest of the same afternoon carting trug-loads of leaves and woodchip around to mulch over the cur-back raspberry crowns and beneath our freshly-pruned soft fruit bushes. It all looks rather good, if I do say so myself:

November 2016 soft fruit section
Blackcurrants, gooseberries and redcurrant bushes, spaced out, freshly mulched and ready for winter.

I also took the opportunity to re-space the bushes, which had become rather over-crowded since we first planted them out a couple of years ago. A couple of gooseberries were moved and re-planted, and three blackcurrants likewise. The result will hopefully be a lot more space for the plants to grow, and for us to get in amongst them and pick their berries come harvest-time next year. The mulch will hopefully keep the surface weeds down a bit better as well.

Floral Department

A couple of Erysimum (wallflower) ‘Bowles’s Mauve continue to defiantly bloom, and probably will do all winter, but those aside there’s very little colour on the plot at the moment. Even last month’s Tagetes, Rudbeckia and Verbena bonarienses have given up the ghost and gone over. Never mind, they’ll be back next year, in a joyful riot of colour.

That’s it for this month. We’ll continue to work the plot as much as we can, weather allowing – we were down there at the weekend, and the soil was the perfect consistency for weeding out the Ranunculus repens (creeping buttercup) that had invaded the cut-back kale patch – and when it’s inclement, sit inside with a mug of something warming and make our plans for 2017.

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Autumn-Pruning our Soft-Fruit Bushes

July 2016 - berry harvest
Clockwise from bottom-left: raspberries and blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, Japanese Wineberries. Yum!

With the weather holding dry and fair last week, I took the opportunity to spend some time down at Plot #59 and make a start on of the more essential winter maintenance jobs: pruning our soft-fruit bushes.

Soft-fruit crops are among the most useful you can grow on an allotment. They’re perennial, so once they’re in they take very little to maintain, and count towards your area-under-cultivation score for purposes of satisfying the allotment committee’s quotas. The fruit itself is the sort of thing that’s generally classed as a ‘superfood’ (although it seems that pretty much anything fresh is going to be vitamin-packed and bloody good for you). And when you look at the shop-price of a small punnet of raspberries or blackcurrants in the shops, then think of the kilos of fruit you can pick from even a couple of bushes in a decent year, I think you’d be a bit daft not to.

We have a small but highly fruitful selection so far: five gooseberry, around ten blackcurrant, a Japanese Wineberry, three redcurrant and a whitecurrant. We also have a section of assorted raspberry canes relocated from elsewhere on the plot; mostly Autumn-fruiting, one or two Summer-fruiting. We have plans to grub the raspberries up and replace them with named varieties next year, but for now they’re staying put. And we’re hoping to add a few more bushes to the section as well: one or two Jostaberries, maybe a Gojiberry, that sort of thing.

Confession time: we made a bit of a noob mistake when we planted them out back at the start of our allotmenteering and the fruit bushes went in too close to each other. Now, well-established well and with conditions this year proving favourable for lots of new growth, they’re a little too closely packed for comfort. Some of them will need to be relocated, or donated to plot-neighbours. But before that stage, they all need a good winter prune.

I’ve tackled the blackcurrants and gooseberries so far, going over the plants to remove any congested, crossing or damaged stems and branches. I’ll be giving them a second pass shortly, and working on the redcurrants, too, following the generally prescribed method (Carol Klein’s book Grow Your Own Fruit is a good source for general advice).

Blackcurrants: Fruit on new growth. Up to the fourth year after planting, remove weak and wispy shoots to establish a framework of 6-10 strong, healthy branches. After year four, cut out about a third of the old wood at the base to make room for new growth. Continue to remove weak shoots and those leaning towards the ground.

We moved the blackcurrants from elsewhere on the plot, or brought them in from home, so I’ve assumed that they’re all probably more than four years old and so have pruned accordingly.

Gooseberries, Redcurrants, Whitecurrants: Fruit on old wood and at the base of new stems. Shorten leaders back by a third and sideshoots back to two buds to encourage fruiting spurs.

Here’s a before-and-after shot of the largest of the gooseberry bushes. A bit difficult to make out – especially with the different light levels between shots – but hopefully you’ll spot that the second pic is less congested, with a more open, goblet-shaped centre. This should hopefully allow for good ventilation when the plant is in full leaf next year, cutting down on the risk of grey mould infection, and allow plenty of light to reach the whole plant.

November 2016 gooseberry pruning
The aim is to cut down on congestion in the centre of the bush, improving air flow and light levels.

Raspberries (Autumn): Fruit on new canes. Cut down all old canes, right to the ground.

Which is what I’ve done with all of ours. There’s a different pruning regime for Summer-fruiters, which fruit on one-year-old canes which need to be tied in to a support framework. Check out this short GardenersWorld.com video for useful advice from Monty Don.

Japanese Wineberries Fruit on this year’s growth. Sprawling habit, will self-layer (like blackberries, they’ll form roots if stem-tips touch the ground), and can become invasive…

The Japanese Wineberry only gets a passing mention in Carol Klein’s book as a hybrid berry of interest, but I’ve read up elsewhere. Knowing about the tip-rooting habit, I made sure that the one strong stem that grew last year from the newly-planted rootstock (which I think we bought from Beningbrough Hall NT, where they grow them in the walled garden, if I remember it right) was tied to an upright bamboo cane. This year it sprouted prolific side-shoots, all of which developed multiple clusters of delicious berry-producing blossom. After fruiting, these side-stems seemed to die right back, and so I pruned them out as they failed, leaving a single strong, upright stem and three or four smaller side-stems. We’ll see what happens next year: hopefully more of the same, and I might be able to encourage a stem or two to self-layer into pots so we can increase our stock.

Blueberries: Maintain a soil pH of 5.5 or lower, using ericaceous compost or a sulphur-based amendment, and mulching with conifer clippings (a handy use for your neighbours’ chucked-out Xmas tree). For established bushes, remove 2 or 3 old stems at the base to encourage new growth and tip back vigorous new shoots to a healthy bud to encourage fruitful side-branching. These hardwood cuttings can be used for propagation purposes, too.

We have two blueberry bushes growing in large pots at home. I’ll be taking a look at those this week and checking to see what needs doing with them, but as I re-potted them at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I’ll be doing anything too drastic.

And that’s pretty much it, apart from the aforementioned reorganisation and relocation, followed by a good mulching with composted bark.

If you’ve had success – or not so much success – with the same or different pruning and care regimes, please do feel free to share your top tips in the comments below. All feedback and advice will be very welcome indeed.

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Dahlia Update: Lifting Tubers for Winter Storage

This was the first year that Jo and I have grown Dahlias and we’ve both thoroughly enjoyed the collarette varieties that we bought from J. R. G. Dahlias back in March – ‘Don Hill’, ‘Christmas Carol’, ‘Top Mix Reddy’, ‘Top Mix Mama’ and ‘Top Mix Purple’ – and the extremely lovely, deep purple-flowered ‘Esther Chamberlain’, which was a gift from Jo’s Dad, Guru Glyn.

We started them off in the greenhouse in April and planted out in May. They’ve been performing incredibly well since they first flowered in early June. We’ve had an absolute riot of colour, particularly from the two larger varieties, ‘Don Hill’ and ‘Christmas Carol’, as you can see from these pics (click a thumbnail for a larger image).

But the first hard frost of the year hit us last week and we knew that the time had come for these Mexican beauties to die back. So at the weekend, Jo and I nipped down to Plot #59 to lift the tubers and prepare them for storage.

As you can see, they were definitely feeling the cold:

November 2016 dahlias frost-bitten
Our dahlias were definitely looking sorry for themselves when we arrived.
November 2016 dahlias frost-bitten
In close-up, you can see the extent of the damage: blackened foliage, dead flowers.

After compiling notes gathered from various sources – Guru Glyn, Jack Gott’s website, Monty Don on Gardener’s World – here’s how we went about the job. If you spot anything amiss, or can think of a better method that we could employ or apply next year, please do shout out in the comments, down below.

1. Cut Back Foliage

With a nice, sharp pair of secateurs, we trimmed back all the leaves and stems, until there was just 15cm or so – maybe a little more, it’s easy enough to trim down further later on – of stalk remaining:

November 2016 - Dahlias trimmed
All the dead and dying foliage is cut back to around 15cm of stem.

2. Loosen Soil and Lift

Next, we worked a fork in around the plant, gradually loosening the soil in a circle that stayed well clear of where the main mass of tubers was likely to be:

November 2016 - lifting Dahlias
After gently loosening the soil, the entire plant is lifted out of the ground.

Once the soil was freely-moving, the entire plant was carefully raised up with the fork, taking care not to damage any of the tubers that hadn’t already snapped off. (The ‘Don Hill’ tuber clump was so massive that it neatly split itself into three sections whilst lifting; so that’s two plants for the allotment next year and one to take down to Guru Glyn as a return prezzie.)

November 2016 - Dahlias lifted
The plants have been carefully lifted and are ready to be cleaned up a bit.

3. Clean and Crate up for Transportation

We carefully brushed off as much loose soil as we could. Luckily it hadn’t rained much recently, so the soil was moist but not claggy and we were able to get a lot of it off:

November 2016 - Dahlias brushed off
We brushed off as much of the loose soil as possible – no point taking half the allotment back home with us.

Once we were happy that we we’d cleaned them as much as we could without risking damaging the tubers, we put the plants into plastic crates for the car journey home:

November 2016 - Dahlias crated
The trimmed and lifted plants are crated up and ready to transport back home.

The next job will be to wash off any remaining soil and then thoroughly dry the tubers. Standing the plants upside-down on their stems for a few days will make sure that all the moisture drains out of the stems and doesn’t soak the tubers instead.

November 2016 - Dahlias drying
Back home in the greenhouse, ready for drying out before packing and storing.

The last stage will be to pack them in used compost (or I think we could use a compost / perlite mix) for over-winter storage in a cool, dark place. We have an old bedside table or two in the shed with good, deep drawers that should be ideal for the purpose. We’ll give them a check-over every fortnight to make sure there are no signs of rot.

Assuming all goes well, in four months’ time or so they’ll be ready for potting up in the greenhouse and encouraging back to life for another stunning display next Summer and Autumn.

Of course, now Jo and I have been bitten by the Dahlia bug, the trick will be to avoid buying too many new varieties to add to our selection. But then, when does one more Dahlia tuber become a Dahlia tuber too many? We’ll leave you to ponder on that little bit of horticultural philosophy.

If you’ve grown Dahlias this year, please feel free to share your pics on Twitter @nftallotment. We’d love to see them!

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Plot #59 Update: October 2016

Plot #59 Update: October 2016
Starting the long process of clearing away and putting to bed for winter…

October was another mild month – the ongoing legacy of the El Niño phase of the ocean temperatures in the Southern Pacific earlier this year, most likely – which meant we were able to put in a fair few sessions down on Plot #59.

Here’s where we’re up to, as Summer is banished to the halls of fond memory for another year and Autumn takes a firm grip on the plot:

Harvesting

As per my latest Harvest Monday post, the Autumn fruit and veg has been in full swing. We’ve had cabbages, kale, squash, leeks, mooli, scorzonera, salsify, turnip, swede, chillis (back home in the greenhouse) and, to take the savoury edge off, lots and lots of raspberries.

Speaking of squash, I swapped one of our Cucurbita maxima ‘Turk’s Turban’ for a plot-buddy’s Cucurbita maxima ‘Crown Prince’, and baked half of each last Sunday.

October 2016 Squash ready for cooking
A tale of two squash: The Crown Prince and the Turk’s Turban.

After about 40-45 mins in a reasonably hot oven (around 200oC) they were both delicious; rich, creamy orange flesh with some lovely caramelised bits on the cut-side.

Jo and I agreed that the Turk’s Turban was ever-so slightly sweeter, but the Crown Prince had a slightly smoother texture and consistency. We’ve since eaten the other half of the ‘Crown Prince’, steamed and added to a risotto, and it was very tasty again.

I’ll be growing both again next year, all being well. I’ll need to buy some ‘Crown Prince’ seed though; I’ve saved seed from the one we ate, but as C.P. is an F1 hybrid and squash cross-breed quite readily anyhow, it’s guaranteed that any offspring won’t be true-to-cultivar. But who knows, my Cucurbita maxima ‘Crown Prince X’ might end up being even more delicious than its sire. It’s worth a shot.

Growing On

Although the summer crops – peas, beans, courgettes, in particular – are over and done for us now, there’s still plenty to look forward to harvesting in the next few weeks and (hopefully) months. Here’s a quick gallery:

October 2016 root section
We have a few tasty roots still to pull: carrots (hopefully), scorzonera, salsify and Hamburg parsley, all being well.
October 2016 Swede
We have a few decent-sized Brassica napus swedes to look forward to adding to our Autumn stews and mashes.
October 2016 cabbages
Our cabbage patch went in late but has caught up nicely and is eating very well indeed.
October 2016 kale
Kale ‘redbor’ and ‘cavollo nero’ are both growing – and eating – very well, too.
October 2016 sprouts / walking stick kale
A few of our sprouts are afflicted by club root, but we’re hoping we’ll have a decent crop for our Yuletide dinner.
October 2016 purple cauliflower
I think I’m giving up on growing caulis next year – they always seem to bolt before I can get them cut and eaten.
October 2016 black radish
Radishes the size of swedes, anyone? No? No-one? Ah well, they’ll compost down like everything else…

Not too shabby. Not as much winter veg as I’d hoped to have in the ground by now, but this year has been busier than anticipated in the back garden landscaping department, so I haven’t had as much time as I’d hoped for successional and winter seed sowing. Next year. Definitely.

Floral Department

We had the first hard frost earlier this week, so I expect that when we head down to the plot later today we’ll find the dahlias foliage blackened and the tubers in need of lifting for storage over the winter. They’ve been doing astonishingly well until now, though and even as the temperatures have started to dip, their bright reds have provided a welcome splash of colour at the front of the plot.

Elsewhere we’re still getting cheery colour from Erysimum ‘Bowles’s mauve’ (wallflower), Verbena bonariensis, Tagetes(marigold), Centaurea cyanus (cornflower), Oenothera fruticosa (evening primrose), Rudbeckia and a few others. And I know Jo is already planning ahead for next year, when the riot of colour will be a joy to behold and the bees, butterflies, hoverflies (and other members of the ever-welcome Union of Associated Pollinating Insects) will be utterly spoilt for choice.

October 2016 rudbeckia
Jo’s Rudbeckia are still brightening up the plot with splashes of gold and bronze.
October 2016 tagetes
The two small Tagetes plants we added to the courgette patch have taken over since the dead courgettes were removed.
October 2016 Verbena bonariensis
We grow Verbena bonariensis mainly as a bee lure among raspberries, but it’s very lovely indeed in its own right.

Projects

Most of the work this month, rather inevitably, has involved clearing away summer crop residues, tidying up winter crops, the inevitable ongoing weeding, and working on the central path; the long-awaited first thing we put on the to-do list when we took the plot on back in January 2014. It’s been slow going, as per my recent Hard Slog: Man vs. Midden post.

The plan is to roughly level it off and lay weed membrane down for now. Over the winter I’ll start moving the flags that we’ve currently loosely laid at the back of the plot down to the front, and then when we have our driveway at home re-done – next Summer, most likely, after the back garden hard landscaping has been finished – we’ll recycle the old flags from the current drive and extend the path right down to the back of the plot. That’s the plan, anyhow. We’ll see how it goes.

That’s it for October, then, and November is already bringing colder nights and, since the clocks went back last weekend, darker ones, too. Here’s hoping the rain isn’t too torrential and we can get down the plot to carry on digging and weeding as much as possible. Fingers crossed.

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Cottage Garden Project Update: October 2016

So here we are at the end of October and, being realistic, at the end of the season for work on the back garden.

It’s been a strange old month, hasn’t it? If, on the first of October, I’d seen an accurate weather forecast for the next four weeks, I might have been tempted to go ahead and order a load of hard landscaping materials, push ahead with getting the trellises in and the patio laid, with the balustrade railings installed to boot. But with the constant threat (if not a promise) of the weather turning wet, windy and a lot more Autumnal at any moment, it didn’t seem worth the risk of getting bogged down mid-job. Plus, laying stone and putting timber in place now would just mean a winter’s worth of lifespan-shortening weathering before we could actually start to use and appreciate any of it. Best to leave it all until Spring.

What I did get on with was digging out the base for the patio area. It’s quite a large area, 3 x 3.7m, with cut-off corners, but then we’re planning on investing in a couple of sun-loungers, so we’ll need the space eventually. Since this shot was taken, I’ve been busy with short lengths of bamboo cane, marked to 10, 12.5 and 15 cm depths, which I’m levelling in to mark out a slight gradient for the M.O.T. limestone sub-base:

October 2016 patio base dug
Dug out, subsequently re-levelled, and to be filled with three tonne of MOT limestone in due course.

You can probably just make out some of the dark-coloured muck – ground up tarmac, or some sort of clinker by the looks of things – that someone, sometime, thought would make a good garden soil, at the back of the house. I’ve been able to usefully re-distribute most of it though, by digging out the usable top-soil from where the main path is going to run (see September’s update for a more overhead plan-view) and back-filling with the useless muck.

This, then, is where we’re up to at the end of the digging year.

October 2016 back garden
It’s starting to take shape, if not actually take form…
October 2016 back garden
Work very much still in progress across the back of the house.

We’ve achieved the following check-list tick-offs to-date:

  • Install new greenhouse and shed.
  • Remove old crazy-paving style concrete patio.
  • Dig, bastard trench, back-fill large planting bed alongside shed.
  • Dig the fig-pit, line with concrete slab and tile, back-fill a third with smooth stones.
  • Dig out main path, back-fill with sand / tarmac grounds.
  • Dig post-holes for trellis panels, front (18″) and back (36″).
  • Dig out area for patio sub-base.

Not too shabby. We’ve also bought, but not yet planted, a few choice specimens: Eupatorium maculatum (for height in one of the beds), Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’ (a rather lovely variegated ivy for the low trellis), Dryopteris affinis ‘Crispa Gracilis’ (lovely, compact, thick-leaved fern) and a pair of rather handsome Miscanthus (ornamental grass, can’t remember the name off-hand).

Although the project hasn’t moved on as far as I’d hoped, that’s partly due to my focus on the RHS Level 2 exams earlier in the year, but mostly down to the soil (or lack of it) conditions. Having encountered nothing but builders’ sand in large parts of the area that I’m turning into planting beds, so having to mix that in with top-soil from elsewhere as I go, all whilst bastard trenching the old lawn – removing perennial weed root by hand in the process – and breaking through a sub-surface pan of compacted clay and silt (see my July update for more on the soil) to boot… well, the job has taken a whole lot longer than digging a similar-sized section on the allotment would have done.

So it goes. I was hoping to have the hard landscaping done and be moving on to initial planting by now, but I’ll have all that to look forward to next Spring. I’ve got a second set of RHS Level 2 exams to focus on between now and early February, then I’ll see what the weather is doing and start making plans for more progress.

Here’s one final, panorama-mode shot of the whole back garden. It’s a bit blurry in the middle (I must have swung the phone around a bit too fast) but you get the gist. When I do a panorama-shot at the end of next year it will look very different indeed, I can promise you that. As I say, I’m hugely looking forward to cracking on with it all in the Spring.

October 2016 back garden panorama
The view across the back, in panorama-mode.

And here, for the convenience of any interested readers, are the rest of this year’s Cottage Garden Project updates:
January | March | May | July | August | September

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Crimson vs Persian Clover – Green Manure Trial Update II

This year I’ve been trialling two species of clover on behalf of the folks at Garden Organic. The idea of the trial is to assess the usefulness as a green manure of a relatively new (to the UK) species, Trifolium resupinatum (Persian clover) as opposed to the more widely-known and commonly used Trifolium incarnatum (crimson clover).

Back in August I posted a few pics that showed both species growing well, albeit with a clear lead for the crimson clover over the less vigorous Persian. The other day, I took a couple more pics that show what’s happened to both in the warm Autumn we’ve had here in Manchester:

October 2016 crimson clover
The crimson clover is still growing strongly, despite the best efforts of the invading nasturtiums.

As you can see, the crimson clover is still doing well. The plants are thick and healthy and those flowers have been magnets to the local bumble and honey bee populations for a couple of months, and show no signs of slowing down or dying back.

October 2016 Persian clover
The Persian clover seems to have thinned out already and is in danger of being over-run by weeds.

By contrast, the Persian clover isn’t looking anywhere near as healthy. The plants are much thinner on the ground, and the patch that I sowed has been colonised by Poa annua (meadow grass) and Ranunculus repens (creeping buttercup) – a perennial problem throughout our plot – as well as a few spikes of crimson clover from the patch next door.

I realise that this is just one trial, on one plot, in one part of the country, so there are an awful lot of localised soil- and weather-condition variables in play. Obviously I’d need to see the results of the Garden Organic survey as a whole to draw any firm conclusions. But based on the results of my own small experiment, I’d be reluctant to choose Persian over crimson (or white) clover as a green manure crop in future.

Although having said that, green manure is meant to be dug in when it reaches maximum foliage and before it flowers and sets seed, rather than left for a full year as requested here; Garden Organic are also interested in how well the dead plant matter rots down into the soil. Then again though, those earlier pictures show that crimson clover put on a lot more growth a lot quicker, creating a lot more organic matter to be dig back into the soil, or cut down and used as a surface mulch.

I’ll continue the trial over the winter and see what happens to the two patches once the clover does die down, but I rather suspect that the Persian section will be overcome with weeds to the point where it will be difficult to tell what’s happening to the decomposing stems. We’ll see what happens in due course.

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