Water Feature or Pipe Dream?

The one essential element that’s missing from the cottage(ish) garden that Jo and I have been gradually developing over the past three years is a source of moving water. We didn’t want to put in a pond – if only because we didn’t know much about pond planting or pond care – and all the wall-mounted water features I’ve seen for sale have tended towards the overly-decorative, or have just been downright plastic-tacky.

I do, however, have a (possibly mad) idea that I’ve been toying with for a couple of years. Twelve years or so ago I helped my grandmother move house from Tenby to Leeds. After we’d packed her personal possessions up and my folks had driven her off to her new bungalow, I was left to supervise the loading of the rest of the furniture and decades’ worth of boxed stuff into the removal van.

Poking around in the attic, I found an old, salt-glazed, stoneware demijohn that has been left behind. I grabbed it, brought it home, and have left it standing in a corner of the garden (or down at the allotment) ever since:

Stoneware demijohn

It seems to me that if I could somehow rig up a reservoir, and a power source, and a pump set to burble a steady flow over the top of the demijohn spout, then I might just have the makings of a rather unique and interesting-looking water feature.

Unfortunately, I have no real idea how I’d go about setting up such a thing. I guess I’d have to suspend the out-flow in the neck of the top aperture, and run an inlet pipe out of the bottom spout and into a subterranean reservoir? Or something?

If there’s anyone out there who tackles hare-brained schemes like this on a regular basis, or has a better-than-average working knowledge of water features in general, or just a damn good idea as to how I could make it work, then I’d love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment below…

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Re-Vamping the Soft Fruit Section on Plot 59

We’ve been talking about reorganising the soft fruit on our main plot for a couple of growing seasons now. This year we’ve rolled up our sleeves and made a start.

Raspberries

First up: our raspberry patch has been a reasonably productive one for three or four years, but we’ve decided it’s time for a change.

January 2019 random raspberry canes

All the raspberry plants in this section are ones that we moved from elsewhere on the plot when we first took it on five years ago. We have no idea what cultivars they are, all we know is that they’re pretty much all Autumn fruiting primocanes and some of them are unpleasantly spiny.

They’ve also been doing the usual raspberry thing for two or three years: putting out runners, setting up colonies, choking the space. So they’re all coming out – finding new homes with plot neighbours who don’t mind so much which raspberries they grow – and we’re replacing them with fresh stock that we’ve ordered from Pomona Fruits.

We’ve opted for three cultivars, all Autumn primocane (we already have plenty of early-season soft fruit to eat from our plot): Glen Coe, Joan J and Allgold. All three cultivars are recommended in James Wong‘s rather excellent book Grow For Flavour, and two of them – Glen Coe and Allgold – carry the personal recommendation of my good friend Ian P, who grows them both on his allotment and rates them highly.

I’ll post again in more detail when the crowns arrive and we’ve completed the setup of the new planting bed. We’re setting up a short-term support structure to test out a growing method that we’ve seen in action in various walled and/or botanic gardens on our travels.

Strawberries

Next: lift and dispose of our old, tired, strawberry plants. They’re easily three, maybe four years old, so they’re past the recommended replacement age.

January 2019 old strawberry beds

When we planted these rows out – back in our novice days – I hit on the bright idea of growing them on weed membrane-covered soil ridges. Cut a hole every 12 inches (30cm) and plant through the membrane. It was something I’d seen in passing on Beechgrove Garden and I thought it would help keep the fruit off the soil and stop it spoiling.

We encountered two major problems with that concept:

1) A couple of summers ago we had a run of soggy, grey humidity and discovered that our 12″/30cm spacing was far too compact. The plants put on masses of dense foliage that held onto the moisture, providing a perfect environment for grey mould to take hold and run rampant. Net result: mushy, mouldy fruit everywhere, very little of it salvageable and fit to eat. Half the plants (every other one) came out the following winter in an effort to improve air-flow around them.

2) As anyone who grows anything in a raised bed of any sort knows, a raised bed drains and dries out much more quickly than flat ground. Good for plants that hate wet roots, not so good for shallow-rooted strawberries. In last summer’s drought it was almost impossible to keep the plants well-watered, especially trying to aim the water through the mass of foliage and into the stem-choked holes in the membrane. Net result: far fewer strawberries than we should have had for the number of plants.

So the plants are out and we’ve ordered a dozen ‘Malwina’ – another James Wong recommended-for-flavour cultivar – as runners, from Pomona. The ridges have been flattened and we’re planning on growing our new strawbs in long, deep plastic trays. Yes, trays will also dry out in hot weather, but they’re easier to irrigate. Water will at least be contained within the trays for long enough to soak the soil and be of some use to the plants. And we can more easily control the amount of fertiliser they get as well.

Rhubarb

I know, technically a vegetable, but it’s growing in the soft fruit section of the plot, so I’m including it in this round-up.

Rhubarb on plot 59

Our rhubarb patch is pretty impressive when it’s in full growth, if we do say so ourselves. Again, the eight crowns were all gathered from elsewhere on the plot, and they’ve been in-situ for three or four years now, so they’re well-established and produce kilos and kilos of stems that in the height of the season can be as thick as your wrist. But they’ve got to the stage now where they need to be divided and replanted to stop them becoming dead and woody in the centre.

We’re going to do it in stages: take up half of them, divide and re-plant three good, healthy chunks of root with a crown bud attached, further down the fruit section. Then we’ll add an earlier cultivar (ours all come in late Spring through Summer) and call it a day at four plants instead of eight (too many for us). The other four will be left to do their thing for this year and then next winter they’ll be lifted, divided and either given away or donated to work.

Lingonberries

Lingonberries
Pic by Wildfeuer – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Also in that order from Pomona, we’ll be taking delivery of three lingonberry plants. These tart cranberry-relatives are staples of Scandinavian and Baltic cuisine, where they’re made into sauces and condiments to serve with meat and fish. They’re acid-lovers, so we’ll need to make sure we have plenty of ericaceous compost in before we plant them out.

I’m not sure yet whether to grow them in containers or to dig a trench and back-fill with ericaceous compost. If anyone out there is growing lingonberries already and can offer any advice, it would be gratefully received, via the comments.

Blueberries

Backyard blueberries

We already have a pair of six or seven year old blueberry bushes growing in large tubs in the back garden at home. As far as I can remember though, they’re the same cultivar, and introducing a pollination partner is meant to help improve productivity. I can’t for the life of me remember what the original two are, but I know they’re not ‘Spartan’, so that’s what we’ve ordered from Pomona. It’s another James Wong recommendation and has an AGM from the RHS as well, so hopefully a good choice.

How about you? What sort of soft fruit do you grow and do you have any plans to add to it, or change it up this year? Let me know, via the comments.

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First Sowings of the Season: Chilli, Goji Berry, Potato Onion

January 2019 - seed sowing underway

It’s still far too early to sow most types of fruit and vegetable seeds. Unless you have a well-appointed propagator / greenhouse / cold-frame setup and the knowledge to move and manage your seedlings to safeguard them through the tricky, all-too changeable first part of the year, the results are usually disappointing. Thin, leggy seedlings, starved of light and desperately reaching up for any glimmer they can strive for: not the stuff that strong, healthy, productive plants are made of.

Having said that, there are always a few exceptions to the general rule; a few plants that it’s good to get started early. Either species that need a long season of growth to develop to their full potential, or leafy mini-veg that you’re going to harvest before they’re anywhere near full-grown (think micro-greens, cress, that sort of thing) or, frankly, a few things that you’re only growing out of vague interest whose potential failure won’t constitute a disaster.

Because, dammit, it’s good to get growing again! It’s good to feel like Spring isn’t so far off after all, and we’re doing something positive to bring a little new greenery into our lives. And as gardeners, we all need more of that sort of thing. So if there’s something you can get away with growing now, then get the hell on with it!

With all of the above in mind, and the fact that we do have a Vitopod heated propagator – complete now with recently-purchased grow-light rig – and a large, unheated greenhouse to provide plants with the required light and protection, I’ve sown a few seeds this morning.

  • Capsicum annuum – Chilli pepper ‘Bolivian Rainbow’ and ‘Trifetti’ – Chillis need a good long season (and plenty of protection) to reach fruiting size in the north Manchester climate.
  • Lycium ruthenicum – Goji berry ‘Black Pearl’ – old seed that I first sowed a couple of years ago. Might not even germinate, but it needs similar temperature to chillis, so I’ve sown it while the propagator is set to 24o.
  • – Allium cepa (var. aggregatum?) – Potato onion ‘ Red Dakota’ – I’ve sown half now in propagator conditions and will sow the other half later in the year in a cool greenhouse, see how well either or both batches germinate.

“Potato Onions”, by the by, are a multiplier onion, similar to shallots. In fact, they may well be shallots, just with a different name. Alex Taylor the Air-Pot Gardener very kindly sent me some seed last year, which I didn’t get around to sowing. Alex sourced the seed from the USA and grew his own onions from it, then I think he saved seed from those and that’s what I’m sowing. That reminds me: must check in with him and see how his grew last year and whether there’s any noticeable difference to the shallots we know and love over here in the UK.

How about you? Are you starting anything off early? Casting caution to the wind and just going for it? Or waiting until the weather’s a lot warmer? Let me know, via the comments…

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Allotment Jobs for January 2019

Plot #59 winter 2018/19

Apart from a frosty start this morning, we’ve had another mild January so far and it seems set to continue for the next week or so at least.

That means the ground is workable and although we’re moving more and more towards no-dig growing for our main plot, there are still some mildly invasive jobs that need to be done whilst the weather allows.

Here’s what we’ve been working on or are planning for this month (any links are to further blog posts on the subject):

Jobs On Plot #59 (main plot)

  • Soft fruit section re-vamp – we’re re-planting our strawberries and raspberries, dividing and re-planting some of our rhubarb and adding lingonberries.
  • Annual willow coppicing – every year we take it right down to the stump and every year it throws up 12’15 feet of new growth. Astonishing.
  • Central path laying – there are another 7 or 8 3×2′ industrial-grade concrete slabs waiting to be bedded down, but the base needs digging out first and sand spreading.
  • Clearing grass – a lack of time at the plot last year has led to a resurgence of grass in a few places. I plan to scrape it back and use the rough turf in a hugelkultur-style growing mound.
  • Plant shallots – I fully intended to get some shallot bulbs in the ground in mid-December but didn’t get around to it. Better to get them in a bit late than never.

Jobs On Plot #79 (orchard)

  • Formative Pruning – it’s the right time of year, as long as no heavy frosts are forecast – to carefully prune the still-very-young apple, pear, medlar and quince trees on our orchard plot. They were only planted last winter, so they’re still very much at the structural shaping stage.
  • Path repair – the flag path between plot #79 and the next-door neighbour is in a pretty poor state of repair. It needs lifting, digging out, re-sanding and re-laying. A gradual job to do over the next few months, I reckon.

Jobs at Home

  • Propagator setup – it’s time to get the heated propagators back out of the shed, give them a wipe-down with citrox and check they’re still in good working order.
  • Sowing: chillis – Capsicum annuum / chinense / baccatum all need a long growing season if they’re to fruit well here in north Manchester, so starting the seeds off now under heat and then growing them on in the protection of the propagator until summer is the way to go.
  • Sowing: onions – my dad-in-law swears by starting onions off early so I’m going to give it a go this year. I also have some ‘potato onion’ (possibly shallot, we’ll see) seeds from the US, courtesy of Alex Taylor the Air-Pot Gardener, although I’ll maybe wait on sowing those for a while.
  • Sowing: windowsill herbs – I’ve had a couple of packets of veg meant to be suitable for ‘microgreens’ in the seed-box for a while now, so I might give them a go.
  • Pot and label cleaning – if the weather deteriorates it’ll be time to get out the scrubbing brush and mild detergent to clean up a batch of seed trays, pots and plant labels, ready for Spring.

Coming Soon…

  • Greenhouse cleaning – the 10′ x 8′ at home and the 6′ x 6′ at the plot will both need a good scrub down to clear out the winter crud.
  • Sowing early herbs & veg – there are a few hardy or longer-season crops that can be started off in February or early March and it’s always good to feel like you’re getting going for the season.
  • Manuring for squash and beans – I’m planning to grow all sorts of interesting squash and bean cultivars again this year. They’re both hungry plants, so it’s worth manuring the ground well in advance. Not too early though as our soil is quite sandy, so there’s a risk that winter rain will leach a lot of the added nutrient from the soil before the plants need it.

How about you? What are you up to this month? Let us know via the Comments…

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Plot #59 Update: June 2018

Plot #59, June 2018
Looking good, despite the temperatures in the high 20s.

Right, we’ll take it as read that it’s too damn hot and drier than a teetotaller’s liquor cabinet. Otherwise, things aren’t looking too bad down on Plot #59. As long as we can keep on top of the irrigation requirements, we ought to be able to keep everything alive long enough for the temperatures to dip again to a point where the plants can be happy again.

Here’s what we’ve got in the ground at the moment:

Alliums

June 2018 - onions

Our onion patch is doing fine, despite the heat. The red onions are autumn-planted sets, and they’re quite a bit larger than the white onions, which are spring-planted sets. A few of the whites tried to bolt, but I’ve been keeping up with the watering and so far most of them have behaved themselves. Another couple of weeks and I’ll be lifting them to dry and store.

June 2018 - Shallots and Garlic

This is a mixed patch of shallots, elephant garlic and cluster-planted white onions. I can never remember whether you’re supposed to remove the elephant garlic scapes or not so this year I’ve gone half-and-half. I’ll compare bulb-size when I lift them to see if there’s any noticeable effect.

June 2018 - leeks

And this is our newly-dibbed leek bed. Two varities this year: ‘Pandora’ and ‘Elefant’. I did grow a tray of ‘Musselburgh’ seedlings as well, but I’ve donated those to the allotment plot at work, to make up for a poor germination result this year.

Courgettes and Squash

June 2018 - courgettes

I think I’ve finally got the hang of courgette (summer squash) plant spacing. After a few years of crowded, sprawling, lanky stems, this year’s plants – a good two feet apart – seem to be growing in nice, neat, large clusters of foliage. First harvest tomorrow, all being well.

June 2018 - squash planting

Likewise trailing squash. This year I’ve created soil ridges around three metres in length and have planted a single squash plant at either end. Each is mounded around with soil to create a water reservoir, meaning I can soak each plant knowing the water will go right to the roots, where it’s needed most. As they grow, they’ll trail along the top of the ridge and can be tied in to short cane pegs if needed. Varieties planted (so far): ‘Blue Hungarian’, ‘Australian Butter’, ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Rouge Vif d’Etemps’, ‘North Georgia Candy Roaster’ and ‘Knucklehead’.

June 2018 climbing squash

I’m also growing a few climbing squash up plastic mesh supported by canes: three ‘Black Futsu’ and one ‘Uchiki Kuri’.

Sweetcorn

June 2018 sweetcorn

This years I’m growing the James Wong recommended ‘Mirai White F1’. They’ve been in the ground since the start of June and seem to be thriving so far.

Peas

June 2018 - maincrop peas

Jo and I built the usual pea-harp growing frame and planted out two rows of maincrop (‘Telephone’ and ‘Carlin’, above) and two rows of mangetout (below) in the middle of May. The plants have been growing strongly ever since and the mangetout have just started cropping this past week. Fresh, crunchy, tasty, a lovely addition to any salad.

June 2018 - mangetout peas

You might just be able to pick out some of the pods in the picture above. We’re growing yellow ‘Golden Sweet’ and purple ‘Shiraz’ again. The yellows are a bit more vigorous than the purples, so you end up with a rather lovely split level colour effect. And lots of tasty pods, of course.

I’m also growing ‘Timperley Wonder’ in large square tubs at home. They’re podding up nicely, but I’m seed-saving them for Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library, so they ain’t for eating (not this year, at least).

Potatoes

June 2018 - potatoes

The one good thing about all this hot, dry weather is it’s kept the blight -which thrives in warm and damp conditions – under control. Normally on our site it’s a race to get your spuds in and cropping as early as possible, before the inevitable pestilence descends and you end up cutting back the haulms and hoping for the best, any time from mid-June onwards. Two years ago I was cutting back on July 1st and I think last year was even earlier than that.

June 2018 - spud harvest

However, there is a down-side. Without moisture to swell the tubers, this year’s yield is likely to be poor. Above is the total harvest from two plants that I dug up a week or so back. Not exactly spectacular. I finally caved yesterday and gave the potato plants a drink – watering without a rose on the can, pouring very carefully to the base of each plant so as to avoid splashing the foliage – which will hopefully help a little. I’ll leave them another week, then see what’s what.

Brassicas

June 2018 - new cabbages under mesh

We planted out a couple of rows of early cabbage – ‘Golden Acre’ and ‘Jersey Wakefield’ – under mesh tunnel protection and they seem to be doing just fine. Likewise a row of six ‘Brendan F1’ Brussels sprout plants, which are already shoving their tunnel up and off as they reach fro the sky. I ‘ll have to switch to an enviromesh cover for those soon, to try to keep the cabbage white larvae off ’em.

June 2018 - over-wintered savoy cabbage

And just to show what hardy plants cabbages are, the above is a row of savoy cabbage that I planted out in Autumn 2017. I’ve been picking leaves from them to use as spring greens for weeks now, and apart from a downpour a few weeks ago, they’re not under any sort of protection and haven’t been watered since the last regular rain we had back in April, but they keep on growing. They also make good decoys for the cabbage white, keeping them off the younger plants, with any luck.

Soft Fruit

June 2018 - gooseberries

The one section of the plot not too badly affected by the lack of water is the soft fruit plantation. Our two large and one massive gooseberry bushes have put on kilos and kilos of fruit; we’re struggling to pick, wash and freeze it quickly enough. Delicious they are, too, soft and sharp-sweet, right off the bush.

June 2018 - blackcurrants

Our blackcurrants have been typically prolific this year. The currants are smaller than they have been in past years, but that seems to have concentrated the flavour. I’m freezing those as well and am looking forward to making blackcurrant jam – the king of jams – when things have calmed down a bit.

June 2018 - Japanese wineberries

Our Japanese Wineberry plant has grown massively this year – its third on-site – and looks set to produce a glut of fruit in the next few weeks. If you haven’t tried the fruit from this prickly monster it’s well worth tracking down. Raspberry-like, but with a winegum sweetness. Incredibly easy to pick as well. When ripe the berries almost fall off the bush as soon as you look at them.

Also waiting in the wings: redcurrants (not quite ripe yet), whitecurrants (hard to tell, but likewise not quite done, I think) and raspberries. I made time to thin the canes properly a week or so ago, so hopefully they’ll be much easier to harvest than they were last year.

Well, that’s it for now. If you’ve posted a similar plot update recently, or just want to let me know how your own plot is coming along, leave a link in the comments below and I’ll take a look-see.

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All Go

Yeah, so, that was a busy few months. From sitting on my horticultural hands, wondering whether Spring would ever arrive, to a shift in weather from cold, wet and grey March to a dull-but-workable April. At long last it was sowing time, followed by pricking out and potting up time, with a whole lot of greenhouse-based catching up to do. And then the blazing heat of an incredibly dry May – that shows no sign of abating in June – bringing the added time-sink of almost daily irrigation requirements, both at home and on Plots #59 and #79.

Plus: a building job at home – a new porch / conservatory, to house the ever-expanding cactus and succulent collection – and then the biggie: a major change at work as our head gardener left for a new job at Haddon Hall, with all the upheaval (and extra hours on my part) that has entailed.

All of which has left me with no mental energy for blogging, and barely any for tweeting. But with a relaxing break – a few days down in the beautiful Wye Valley, with visits to Powis Castle and Garden, Westbury Court Garden and Dyffryn Gardens to refresh and inspire, I’m feeling the urge to get going again and chuck some new content out into the blogosphere from time to time. I’m sure regular readers (you know who are, both of you, and thank you for stopping by) will be delighted.

More soon, all being well.

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Checking and Re-Potting Over-Wintered Dahlias

August 2016 Dahlia Esther Chamberlain
Dahlia ‘Esther Chamberlain’, a personal favourite

A timely reminder from Monty on last week’s episode of Gardener’s World sent me down to the greenhouse yesterday afternoon to check on our stock of over-wintered Dahlia tubers.

Dahlias are perennial plants that over-winter by storing sugars in large tubers below ground. But these tubers aren’t particularly frost-hardy or water-proof, so they do require protection to get them through the wet British winter. So they were dug up, dried out and potted up in spent compost last November, just after the first frosts killed off the foliage.

They’ll soon (hopefully) be bursting into new growth, which makes now the ideal time to check them over and make sure they’ve survived their winter hibernation intact. Here’s how:

1. Quick Visual Check

March 2018 Dahlia tuber
Tip out your tuber, compost and all, for a quick once-over.

Start by tipping the Dahlia tuber clusters out of their storage tubs, and have a look for any obviously rotten, shrivelled or split tubers. Remove those, either by very carefully cutting them away with a sharp knife, snipping with secateurs, or gently twisting the affected tuber, which carries less risk of accidentally damaging healthy tubers.

2. Manually Check Every Tuber

March 2018 Dahlia tuber checking
Give every tuber a firm squeeze to check for non-obvious softening, or outright rotting.

It’s important to check every singly tuber in the cluster, in case there’s one that looks fine but is actually rotten beneath its skin. Give every tuber a squeeze to make sure it’s firm and healthy, once again removing any of them that aren’t.

March 2018 rotten Dahlia tuber
If a tuber is rotten you’ll quickly know about it, so don’t squeeze too hard…

You’ll soon find out if a tuber is rotten. Luckily, squishy tubers don’t seem to smell all that bad, but there’s always a risk of squirtage, so don’t squeeze them too hard…

3. Clean Up and Re-Pot

March 2018 Dahlia tuber cleaned up
Remove the rotten or damaged tuber sections and re-pot the remaining plant.

Once you’ve cut, snipped or twisted off any dead or diseased material, you should be left with a clump of healthy tubers, attached to a section of stem. At this point, you can also divide large clusters of tubers. Sometimes they split and separate during the checking and cleaning process. Otherwise, a bit of gently pulling might reveal a faulty line that you can take advantage of.

As long as the section you break off includes one or more storage tubers and a section of the stem / growth node part of the plant, then you should be be able to pot it up and grow on a whole new Dahlia plant from it. We started off with five or six bought-in tubers and over the past couple of years have increased our stock to around two dozen plants.

Re-pot each tuber into a mixture of spent and fresh compost. You can use all-fresh compost, which isn’t a bad idea if you’re planning on keeping the Dahlias in pots year-round, but I’ve found found that if you’re planning on planting them out when all risk of frost has passed then a 50:50 mix of spent – you can re-use the over-wintering compost – and fresh is fine. Once the plants go into the ground they’ll be able to draw on the nutrients in the soil.

Hopefully your efforts will be rewarded with a glorious display of dazzling Dahlias from mid-summer right through to Autumn!

July 2016 Dahlias Top Mix 'Mama' and 'Purple'

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Is it Spring Yet?

Well, what a couple of months we’ve had. After an incredibly mild January, February and March have pulled a double shift on winter weather duty, chucking pretty much the full repertoire of sleet, snow, hail and frost at us, quite frequently all at once. All of which has meant our January plans haven’t moved on as far as we would have liked, but it is what it is: the first thing you learn as a gardener is that you can’t control the weather, you just have to work around it.

That didn’t stop work progressing on Plot #79, our new orchard plot. Orchard-buddy Mike and I covered the plot in heavy duty weed membrane back in December, before planting out 20 trees – stakes, ties and all – in January. We started the job in breezy sunshine and finished it in freezing rain, but we’re now the proud custodians of 11 heritage apples, 4 heritage pears, and one each of quince, greengage, plum, damson and medlar. I’ll write up a more detailed progress report and post that separately.

Plot #79, work very much in progress
Plot #79, work very much in progress

I also found enough dry(ish) weather at the end of January to prep the slab base for our new shed, which we ordered yesterday. It’ll be with us in 3-4 weeks and that will allow us to finally move all the junk out of the greenhouse and use that as proper growing space instead. Cucumbers, y’say? I think so.

Last week was the first reasonably fine, dry spell we’ve had for a while, and I was able to get on with some of those infrastructure and clearance jobs, that I was really hoping to do much earlier in the year, on our main plot #59. Another half dozen recycled concrete slabs laid along the central path, another couple of square metres of the remaining midden mound – a previous tenant’s rubbish dumb, right in the middle of our plot – dug over and a few more kilos of broken glass, metal, pottery, brick, plastic (you name it) picked out and set aside, ready to dump in the annual site skip. Nothing glamorous, but essential work that’s better done than pending.

Another forkful of assorted crap from the midden mound
Another forkful of assorted crap from the midden mound

Jo and I also spent a few hours yesterday planting out onion sets, sprouted shallots and over-wintered broad beans – I know the weather is due to turn a bit colder again this week, but it’s only a short snap, and the plants need to be in the ground rather than the greenhouse – so they’re providing a bit more green amidst the see of brown earth and wood-chip. I noticed that the gooseberry and jostaberry leaf buds are just starting to break, the rhubarb as well, which is always a good sign that things are finally getting underway.

February 2018 - broad beans planted out
After a winter in the greenhouse, these broad beans should be glad to get their roots into some fresh soil.
March 2018 - jostaberry leaf buds breaking
Josteberries and gooseberries are among the earliest fruit leaf buds to show signs of life.

This week’s forecast of a short burst of cold, wet weather aside, I think we can say it nearly, almost feels like Spring is here. At long last.

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Gallery: Signs of Life

In common with much of the rest of the country, we’ve had a burst of proper wintry weather for the past few days: snow, sleet, hail, high winds and rain, usually all within the space of an hour.

Despite the inclement conditions, our back garden is showing signs of precious life. Spurred into action by a mild December, most likely, and probably regretting it just a little now, but clinging on regardless.

Here are a few snaps I took yesterday afternoon, in-between the worst of the showers:

January 2018 Hamamelis flowers
It’s Hama(mellis x intermedia ‘Diane’) time!

That’s our brand new Witch Hazel. We opted for the ‘Diane’ cultivar because we’re planning on planting a Cornus mas in the same area, which has similar-looking flowers in yellow rather than Diane’s deeper reds. Hopefully they’ll coincide at some point and provide a nice contrast to one another.

January 2018 Hellebore
Helleborus nigra are amongst the earliest winter flowering plants to put on a display.
January 2018 Hellebore flower
We rather enjoy this lovely Helleborus nigra hybrid with its picotee petal edging.

We’re not sure whether this is one of the hellebore hybrids that we bought from Ashwood Nurseries a couple of years back, or one of our own hybridised seedlings. Jo has been collecting the latter from beneath their parent plants and carefully potting them up and nurturing them along. Either way, it’s particularly lovely, with that delicate purple rim on the white flowers.

January 2018 primrose
I suspect this Primula (vulgaris?) had a bit of a shock when the hail came down…

One newly-planted section of our back garden is liberally scattered with primroses. This one tentatively flowered during the mild December and seems to be weathering the worst that January can throw at it since.

Janaury 2018 winter foliage
Yeah… can’t actually remember what we planted here. Should have made a better site-plan…
January 2018 bulb foliage
This Tulipa (?) and Digitalis clump seems to be doing well despite the ice and snow.

A fair fer bulbs and other plants started putting on fresh growth a few weeks ago. Let’s hope they’re not too badly frosted and knocked-back by the recent drop in temperatures.

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The Science of Digging – How to Reduce Injury Risk

Here’s an item that allotmenteers might be interested in. Researchers at the University of Coventry, in partnership with the RHS, have published the results of a study into the damaging effects of bad digging practice, along with a few suggestions as to how to improve your posture and technique to help reduce the risk of back and shoulder damage.

Using the University’s 3-D motion capture technology lab, the team assessed the impact of various digging methods in terms of musculoskeletal damage risk. In the researchers’ words: “A novel method of determining joint angles, joint torques, and contact forces, using three-dimensional motion capture and musculoskeletal modeling, was applied to the movements of a sample of workers, engaged in the horticultural task of digging, to determine if objective biomechanical data could be correlated with a subjective visual assessment to predict risk of injury.”

The general conclusion – which was also mentioned in a short article on BBC Breakfast on Monday – is that good posture and practice involves standing as close to the spade as you can, bending with your knees rather than your back, and using smooth, regular actions (top row, below). Bad technique involves stretching and reaching with the spade, bending the back and using jerky, irregular actions (bottom row).

University of Coventry digging posture diagram
Image via HortTechnology online.

The full study has been published in the journal HortTechnology. One thing I noticed was that the 15 subjects that participated in the study were asked to use the same spade throughout. Which makes sense from the point of view of comparing two digging methods, of course, but it would have been interesting to see if there was any difference between the standard ‘digging spade’ used and a long-handled spade or shovel, which I’m a big fan of. The latter allows for a more upright posture, provides more leverage during the digging action, and seems to encourage more leg and shoulder work, rather than back-twisting, which the study highlights as a particular danger. But that’s just my experience, and a motion-capture study might prove me wrong.

Of course, if you really want to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal damage, you could adopt Charles Dowding‘s no-dig methods and save yourself a lot of back-ache that way.

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