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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Hard Slog: Man vs. Midden

We’ve been doing a lot of general clearing and sorting down at Plot #59 this month. Jo has been hacking back her sunflower thicket and deadheading everything that’s still in flower. I’ve been clearing away spent bean plants, tidying up the brassicas and ripping out a few large weeds that have snuck in here and there. That sort of thing.

One of the bigger jobs I’ve been tackling is preparing the ground for the central path that has been on the books since day one. It’s a slow, meticulous task: for every forkful of ground turned over there’s a good two minutes’ worth of picking out of rubbish to follow, especially now I’m re-encountering the midden in the middle of the patch. Here’s a quick example of the sort of crap I’m removing, and the amounts of it:

October 2016 - the midden
On the left: a freshly-turned forkful. On the right: about a session’s worth of excavated crap.

I took the pics above a couple of weeks ago. Since then I’ve filled another three, maybe four large containers with yet more rubbish. Based on the sheer amount of crap (do excuse the technical term) that’s coming out – broken glass, smashed pottery and tiles, chunks of brick, stones, metal, plastic, wire, crisp packets, bottle tops, you name it; assorted junk of all kinds – I think it must have been used as a dumping ground by at least five of the previous tenants.

One current plot neighbour said that when one of those previous tenants was booted off the plot and left in a fit of pique: smashing up and burning a shed or two in the process (as well as cutting down some amazingly productive fruit trees). I think it must be the remains of that shed that I’m finding now, and I suspect that the shed was filled with extra random rubbish before it was demolished, just to make sure the resulting mess was extra nasty.

Still, it needs doing. The midden has been an unsightly hump in the middle of the plot since we took it on, and the sooner it’s dug and cleared, the sooner we can run our central path right up the middle of the plot, with pollinator-luring flower beds either side. It’ll be well worth it once it’s done.

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Harvest Monday for October 10th 2016

Autumn is in full swing down on Plot #59 and we’ve got the seasonal veggies to prove it.

A few weeks back we harvested our squash and were quietly impressed with a decent showing in our first year of semi-serious squash growing:

September 2016 squashes
Turk’s Turban and Tondo di Piacenza / Gem Squash curing in the greenhouse

We also called time on our single, lonely tromboncino squash. Not worth entering in the Sutton’s Cup, but definitely tasty – we oven-roasted chunks of it to accompany our Saturday sausages and it was pleasantly firm in texture with a lovely, nutty squash flavour.

Also on that plate were the first pulled roots of the year: a few trimmed-back but mostly manky carrots (not a good crop after all, by the looks of things), and some much nicer salsify, scorzonera and mooli (although at the risk of seeming indelicate, one of those last three gave me terrible wind yesterday… just a word to the wise, there).

October 2016 root veg
Carrots, salsify, scorzonera and mooli.

We’ve continued to pick bags and bags of runner and French beans for drying. We I deliberately planted a lot of beans this year and we’ve got the pods to prove it. Here’s a small selection drying in the greenhouse at home, and there’s another batch just like it at the allotment greenhouse, plus the couple of kilos of dried beans already packed away, and a whole lot more still on the plants:

September 2016 drying beans in the greenhouse
A quite small sample of the vast number of beans we’re drying this year. Anyone for cassoulet..?

We’ve started to pick out first kale leaves and cabbages. They went in late and the slugs have had a field-day on the latter, so there’s a fair bit of livestock to remove before the cabbages can be cooked, but they’re very tasty once you get them properly cleaned up.

September 2016 - freshly washed kale
This lot is destined for a date with a hot frying pan and a big knob of butter.

We’ve had a pretty decent chilli harvest from our main greenhouse at home as well. Here are a few ‘cayenne’:

September 2016 Chilli 'cayenne'
A few artistically arranged chilli fruits; many more went into a batch of chilli jam.

Most of them went into a few jars of chilli jam. One of the jars – the last to be filled from the jam pan – had re-crystalised and I was going to ditch it, until my Mum suggested it might make a good chilli glaze for pork chops. Good call, Mum.

Fruit-wise, we’re all about the Autumn rapsberries at the moment, although everything else has finished for the year. We’ve been stewing most of them up with apple and some of our frozen blackcurrants, for use as a breakfast porridge topping or custard-drenched pudding. Delicious either way.

Harvest Monday is a GYO meme hosted by Dave at Our Happy Acres.

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Tromboncino Results: Bit of a Poor Showing

Earlier this year I decided to have a go at growing tromboncino squash with a view to entering the Sutton’s Cup competition to grow the country’s longest / largest fruit.

Well, the closing date was September 30th, and I took a photo of my best effort on that day:

September 2016 tromboncino best effort
Definitely not as impressive as I was hoping it would be…

As you can see, it barely reached 32cm or so. Compared to some of the tromboncino pics that have been posted on Facebook this year, it’s a tiddler. This was already my backup fruit, promoted to front-runner after the early competition candidate went down with a dose of soft-rot, but it clearly wasn’t up to the job.

I think the cold summer checked its growth; as you can see it’s already matured into something approaching a butternut squash colour, so must have finished growing a while back. Perhaps I should have kept the plant in the greenhouse instead of sitting it outside? Frankly though, there just wasn’t room for it. Or maybe I over-fed it? Or under-fed it? It didn’t really develop the super-long neck that usually characterises the tromboncino fruit, bulking up around the middle instead, so maybe there was a touch too much K in the plant food I gave it.

Ah well, it looks like there are a couple of meals’ worth of good eating to be enjoyed there. It certainly won’t go to waste.

I won’t be growing tromboncino for the Sutton’s Cup if they hold it again next year though. When I think of all the fruitlets I picked off so this one could get all the plant’s energy… a shocking waste of food, that was. Not really my style of growing at all.

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It’s Garlic Planting Time

July 2015 - garlic harvest
Here’s the sort of thing we’re hoping for next year, same as this year and last…
One of my very favourite jobs of Autumn is planting out next year’s garlic crop. For me, it marks the first step towards growing a whole new year’s worth of tasty food, even though this year’s a re still very much in evidence and harvesting will continue for some time.

For the past few years I’ve bought my seed garlic from The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight. It’s always good quality, well dried, and ordering it gives me a chance to grab a couple of bulbs of their fantastic smoked garlic (which is properly smoked; long enough for the cloves to change to a rich golden colour and a softer texture, rather than just colouring up the outer skin as is the case for most other “smoked” garlic I’ve found).

This year’s order arrived on Friday and so on Saturday, with the ground still warm from a week of early Autumn sunshine, I took the opportunity to get it in the ground. Planting in Autumn gives the young shoots time to develop before winter’s cold kicks in and holds back any further growth, and a sharp frost or two will help the cloves to divide and grow on into full bulbs.

Preparation involved re-raking a patch of ground that had previously grown this year’s ‘Saxon’ potatoes and been covered over since they were lifted. There wasn’t too much weed to deal with and no need to rake too far down; garlic is an Allium so its roots are shallow and well-spread, rather than deep. As long as the tilth is nicely crumbed, they should be just fine.

Here’s the garlic, ready for planting out:

October 2016 garlic bulbs
The bulbs – and individual cloves of elephant garlic – from The Garlic Farm.

I ordered three varieties this year: Extra Early Wight (Allium sativum) which grew very successfully this year, Red Duke Wight (Allium sativum) which is a new (to me) variety that I’m trialling, and firm favourite elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum), which is supplied by the giant clove, rather than as a whole bulb.

Splitting the smaller bulbs into individual cloves yielded a total of 28 Red Duke and 36 Extra Early; if they all develop that will be a handsome harvest to keep us going through winter 2017/18.

October 2016 garlic cloves
Split down into individual cloves, ready for planting.

And this is the planting arrangement, before they went in.

October 2016 garlic planting scheme
This year’s planting plan – elephant garlic flanking the smaller varieties.

Row (A) is the Garlic Farm’s elephant garlic, the two rows (B) are Red Duke, then (C) is Extra Early and finally (D) is a row of cloves from our own elephant garlic harvest this year. I’ll be interested to see whether our own stock will perform any differently, given that they’re from plants that have grown and adapted to our local conditions and soil, rather than the very different temperatures and chemistry of the Isle of Wight.

The planting method was relatively simple: dib (or dig with a trowel for the elephant garlic) a hole around one and a half times the size of the clove, then sprinkle in a small amount of The Garlic Farm’s proprietary blend of garlic fertiliser (N-P-K 5-12-20 +3%MgO made with 100% of the K from Sulphate of Potash) before popping in the clove and covering over.

Once the shoots begin to show I’ll mulch over with leaf mould and then net the patch, just to keep inquisitive pigeons at bay. Garlic isn’t a crop that suffers much from slug-damage and although white rot and rust can be problems to watch out for in Spring and early Summer, it’s usually just a case of watering in prolonged dry spells, but otherwise letting it get on with growing. Wonderful stuff, garlic.

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Plot #59 Update: September 2016

September 2016 Plot #59 Update:
It’s all starting to die back and quiet down as Autumn begins to kick in.

September turned out to be a really good month, weather-wise, so I ought to have been down at Plot #59 for most of it, working my backside off to finish a few infrastructure projects, clearing the last few patches of stubborn weeds, sowing a few winter crops and prepping for next year’s growing season. Instead, I spent most of the month working on our cottage garden project – digging, digging, and more digging – so progress wasn’t quite as dramatic as I’d hoped.

Still, with a few good weather days on the weekends, Jo and I were able to get down to the plot and put in a good few hours’ graft. Here’s what we achieved:

Harvesting

September is, of course, the month of multiple harvests. At the beginning of the month we lifted the last of our main-crop ‘pink fir apple’ potatoes and a bit later on we picked our squash and put them to cure in the greenhouse. We’ve also had the last of the fresh runner and French beans and have been picking dozens to dry for winter stores.

September 2016 drying beans in the grenhouse
A quite small sample of the vast number of beans we’re drying this year. Anyone for cassoulet..?

Our chilli harvest has been pretty good this year as well; a first attempt at chilli jam was made, with reasonable results. We’ve also been picking and eating sweetcorn – served up in smoked paprika butter, more often than not – and have lifted a few turnips – they’re surprisingly tasty when oven-baked – and picked the first cabbage and kale of the year late (we planted them out quite late) last week.

September 2016 cabbages under cover
The enviromesh does a really good job of keeping the cabbage whites at bay.

I deliberately planted the cabbages out quite close, the aim being to grow smaller, two-person heads, rather than football-sized monsters. Of course, what’s happened is that every other plant seems to have out-grown its neighbours, crowding them out and developing into big ‘uns. Nature, eh?

And of course, the Autumn-fruiting raspberries are in their element at the moment. We’re picking a good-sized clip-top boxful every few days and we’re managing to eat our way through most of them, either fresh or stewed down with apple and blackcurrant as a topping for our morning porridge.

September 2016 autumn fruiting raspberries
Plump, juicy and tart-sweet – what could be better?

All in all, we’re doing quite well; we’ve not had to buy much veg from the market or supermarket to supplement what we’ve been able to pick from the plot, and if I was spending a bit more time down the plot and a little less in the back garden then we’d be eating even more of our own-grown, I’m sure. Next year we’ll see if we can get to 100% plot-grown for the whole of the Summer and as much of the Autumn as we possibly can.

Projects

I’ve finally been able to get to grips with the tricky central section of the plot and have started digging and levelling a channel for the main path. Again, progress has been a little slow, mainly due to the presence of a rubbish midden right in the middle of where I’m working; more on that in another post.

September 2016 Path Progress
The plan: a central path, paved with recycled flagstones.

Soon to be tackled: the asparagus patch is looking like it’s ready for cutting back, once the stems begin to turn a little more yellow:

September 2016 asparagus patch
Not long now until we take the clippers to this lot.

Growing On

The leeks that I planted out at the end of August have put on some good growth. It’ll soon be time to start thinning out a few baby leeks for eating, to give the others more room to grow and develop.

September 2016 leek patch
A mass of foliage is a good thing at this stage. Time to thin then out a bit to improve air-flow.

It’ll soon be time to start pulling our root crops – for roasting and mashing with some of our squash and ‘Saxon’ spuds – as well. The salsify and scorzonera seem to be doing well, we’ve got massive mooli radishes coming along, and I think the carrots – presumed fly-eaten and useless – might actually have made a comeback. I’m not too sure about the Hamburg parsely, but I’ll lift some in the next couple of weeks and see where we stand.

Floral Department

The sunflowers have finished and gone over – we’re leaving the seed heads for the birds – but Jo’s Rudbeckia and Cosmos are lovely at this time of year, adding bursts of late-season colour in splashes of yellow, orange and red.

September 2016 rudbeckia mixed

September 2016 rudbeckia red

September 2016 rudbeckia yellow

Our Dahlias are still going strong as well; they’ll keep flowering until the first frosts and then we’ll need to see about lifting, drying and storing the tubers. Likewise the Tagetes among the courgettes and the Nastutiums that have run rampant across about a third of the plot; they’ve dropped so many seeds we’ll be seeing them for a few years to come, I reckon.

September 2016 Dahlia 'Christmas Carol'
We’ve had months of glorious colour from our collarette dahlias.

It’s been a good month, lack of time notwithstanding. Let’s see what the rest of October brings.

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