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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Introducing Plot #79, Orchard-in-Progress

Apple Harvest
This is what it’s all going to be about…

For at least the past four years, Langley Allotments Plot #79 – the one opposite ours across the road – has been a derelict eyesore. When we first took on our plot, Plot #79 was an overgrown mess of trees and bushes with a collapsed greenhouse and not much else going for it. It’s right in the middle of site, on one of the roads through to the car park at the lower end. It’s also a rough triangle shape, on a fairly steep slope, with a dug-out gulley down the middle, where a previous tenant had attempted to put in a stream.

Here’s a bit of two-year-old Google Maps imagery to illustrate the general shape of things:

Plots #59 and #79 as of 2016?
A couple of years out of date, but not much had changed since…

Even after the committee paid to have the trees and shrubs ripped out, and the knee-high weeds regularly strimmed, nobody had shown the slightest interest in renting it. Then an idea started to form in my head, which I voiced to the Secretary this time last year: “Wouldn’t it be good if someone really took hold of that plot and turned it into, I dunno, some kind of community orchard or something…”

It turned out I wasn’t the only one who had been having similar thoughts. Fellow plot-holders Christine – who has the plot on the far side of #79 and had also previously rented a strip down the side of the new plot to grow fruit bushes – and Mike, whose plot is on the far side of hers, were both keen to do something similar. And so we had a word with the committee, and a plan was born…

Stage One: Clear The Site

Here’s what the plot looked like before we started:

November 2017 Plot #79, from top-left corner before
Looking down and across the plot from the top-left corner, with Christine’s fruit bushes on the left.
November 2017 Plot #79, from top-right corner before
Looking back down and across from the top-right corner.
November 2017 Plot #79, from bottom corner before
Looking up from the bottom corner towards the road.

Mike and I were up for this part of the job, and last November we set to with a will. Of course, it turned out to be much more easily said than done. Aside from the topographical challenges mentioned above, as soon as we started digging we discovered that the plot was absolutely full of all sorts of junk.

Beneath a reasonably thick top-layer of mulched plant material – legacy of successive years’ worth of strimming, re-growth and more strimming – we discovered the remains of the old plot. Including more than one concrete slab path, buried under soil. There was also a lot – and I do mean a lot of plastic sheeting, in various forms ranging from sheet tarpaulin to patchwork quilts of individual compost sacks.

We also had that gulley to deal with: said former tenant had dug a channel and a couple of deeper pools, outlined with sand, then used what looked like a boiler insulation jacket (!) as a bottom layer, covered that with overlapping sheet plastic – rather than butyl rubber – and then lined it with assorted cobblestones. They’d probably spent a fair bit of time wondering why the water kept leaking out of the pool, too.

It took us the best part of six days’ worth of pretty hard slog to lift the slabs, clear the cobbles, drag out the plastic sheeting and pick out as much general plastic litter, broken glass and metal junk as we could. Mike made about six trips in his van to get rid of the bulk of it, and some we stacked down the bottom of the site where the skip will be at Easter, when we’ll load it all up and get rid.

And then there was the perennial weed to tackle. Every time we ripped out another section of plastic, we found a mass of bindweed stem, horsetail runners, or both. That’s the thing about plastic sheeting: it’s good as a temporary measure to kill surface growth by blocking light, but after that the perennials will start using it as a handy shelter, sending their stems questing horizontally between soil and sheeting until they find a chink of light to grow up into.

We also shifted a couple of tonnes of soil around, filling the gully back in and levelling off some of the larger hummocks as we went. Which really annoyed the fox who’d been attempting to dig holes in the soft sand of the gulley’s sides:

November 2017 - Plot #79 foxhole
Fantastic or not, Foxy was going to have to find somewhere else to live.

We burned a lot of the weed and any other wood that we found when it was dry enough, and Mike was able to run his rotivator over the surface a couple of times. By the time rain stopped play in early December – and hasn’t really let up much since then, apart from allowing us to sneak in one or two more sessions – we’d done pretty well.

November 2017 Plot #79, from top-left corner during
From the top-left corner again, and looking much better already.
November 2017 Plot #79, from top-right corner during
Another look from the top-right corner, with most of the surface weed and rubbish gone.
November 2017 Plot #79, from bottom corner during
A big improvement after about six days’ hard slog with forks, barrows, buckets and rotivator.

There’s still a lot to do, starting with an epic litter pick to get rid of as much of the freshly-unearthed rubbish that’s now lying around on the surface. Then we’ll need to double-check we haven’t left any slab in the ground (we found another buried path right at the edge of Christine’s fruit section and started digging that out before we stopped for winter) and rake the whole lot over to check for sub-surface junk. Then we might be ready to move on to…

Stage Two: Cover It Up

The committee have very kindly agreed to fund the purchase of enough heavy-duty weed membrane to cover the whole plot, through which we’ll plant the trees. Mike’s going to get in touch with a few local tree surgeons to see if we can source enough woodchip to cover everything in a good, thick layer (we reckon 14 tonnes ought to be just enough). And then we’ll be ready to the most important – and enjoyable – phase of the project:

Stage Three: Plant an Orchard

I’ve been in touch with an active member of the Northern Fruit Group who lives in Manchester. He regularly grafts a selection of heritage apple, plum and pear trees, and we’ll hopefully be buying our initial stock of assorted young trees from him. We might have to heel them in on a spare bit of one of our plots until we’re ready for them, but with any luck it won’t be too long before we can get the beginnings of an orchard into the ground.

We’re planning to start with around twenty one or two year old trees to begin with, on dwarfing rootstock, which will hopefully grow into reasonably-sized bush / standard trees. We’ll also be re-laying the path along the long diagonal edge, which is in a shocking state, and hope to erect a post-and-wire fence along it, which we’ll use as a support for a number of diagonal-cordons as well. Eventually, our orchard should consist of between 40 and 60 trees, if all goes according to plan.

I’ll post further updates as and when I have news and photos to share.

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Allotment Planning Notes, Winter 2018 Edition

December 2017 Plot 59 in the snow
A brief taste of proper winter amidst the rain, rain and more rain of December 2017.

Depending on the weather, December and January can seem like a long, long slog through some of the bleakest, wettest, least productive days of the year. But they also offers an opportunity that no allotment holder should pass up on: with no massed ranks of vegetation and no jobs much more pressing than a spot of pot-washing and plant label scrubbing, right now you have the chance to walk the ground when you can really see the site properly and get to grip with the shape, the structure, the bones of your plot.

Now is a great time to examine, assess and think ahead. The joyful, chaotic frenzy of Spring’s seed sowing, pricking out, potting on and planting up is still a good three or four months away. That’s around twelve weeks in which to plan and execute any essential maintenance work, infrastructure improvements or upgrades that your plot needs. Weather allowing, of course, but if all you do is continue to hibernate through to the end of March then that’s a lot of opportunity to toll your sleeves up and get stuck in that you will have missed.

Four years into our tenancy of Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. A slow couple of years – due to a house move and then the complete re-development of our back garden – has meant that we’re not as far ahead of our stated goals for 2016 or 2017 as we’d like to be.

Here’s a photographic meander up the central path of Plot #59, to give you a general idea of the state of the place. As you can see, it’s far from perfect-looking at the moment, although there’s been such a huge improvement from the early days (check out some of the pics I posted here) that Jo and I can’t help but be proud of all we have actually managed to achieve.

December 2017 Plot 59, front section
From the front, the plot looks pretty good, if a little seasonally-bare.
December 2017 Plot 59, from front-left corner
Looking up diagonally across the plot, from the front left corner.
December 2017 Plot 59, from front-right corner
Looking up diagonally across the plot, from the front right corner.
December 2017 Plot 59, centre-front section
The middle of the plot still has a section of midden to dig out and lots of junk to clear.
December 2017 Plot 59, centre-back section
Coming up past the remaining brassicas on the right and the green manure on the left.
December 2017 Plot 59, back section
Right at the back of the plot, with a patch dug over for a shed, and some rough ground to clear and level off.

But the past is past and it’s time to look to the future. This year I’m aiming to treat the allotment much more like a part-time job than a hobby or pass-time. The aim – again, weather allowing – is to put in three good (three hours plus) sessions a week, plus weekends, and evenings too, when the evenings are warm enough for me to venture out after tea. Jo works full-time and so will be joining me for weekends and the odd evening or two as well.

So, here are the major goals for the first quarter of the year, taking us from the end of winter through into the early days of Spring and that glorious rush to get growing.

  • Dig out and prepare a concrete slab base for a small shed / tool store. Buy and install said shed.
  • Finish as much of the central path – concrete slab again, using any slabs that are salvageable from our forthcoming driveway overhaul at home – as possible, as well as the floral planting beds either side.
  • Level off and roughly pave the area around the compost bins, greenhouse and shed-to-be at the back of the plot.
  • Finish any more bed preparation that I haven’t completed yet – I’ve already set up a couple of no-dig beds that I hope to make good use of later in the year.
  • Prepare a full sowing, propagation and planting plan for the year, and carry out my annual seed audit.
  • Chit spuds.

Of course, in addition to the above, Jo and I have also decided to completely re-develop our front garden as well as the back (although we’ll be getting landscapers in for that one, rather than attempting to do the work ourselves) and we still have plenty to do on the back garden as well.

Plus, I’ve taken on a second plot at Langley with two fellow tenants (more on that in another post, soon). There’s also chance I might be studying for an RHS Level 3 qualification (although that might end up on hold for a year). I’d like to do some more volunteering this year; maybe at RHS Bridgewater, maybe at another venue (details pending). And of course there’s my hugely enjoyable part-time job at Ordsall Hall, which accounts for the best part of at least two days per week.

So, yeah, feel free to check back in April to see if it’s been a case of Mission Accomplished or ‘best laid plans’…

Wish us luck!

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Road Trip! Garden Organic and the Heritage Seed Library

New in from the Heritage Seed Library

Last week, my colleagues on the gardening team at Ordsall Hall and Gardens and I hopped on trams and trains down to Ryton, on the outskirts of Coventry, to visit the headquarters of the UK’s organic gardening movement, Garden Organic.

We were there to meet the team who do the incredibly important work of managing and running the Heritage Seed Library; a repository of heritage, heirloom and orphaned seed varieties that are no longer grown commercially and therefore at risk of disappearing from circulation.

The HSL’s manager, Katrina, very kindly spent a couple of hours showing us around their seed collection and processing facilities, storage areas and growing spaces and it was all rather fascinating. I’ve been an HSL member for a couple of years, including a stint this year as a Variety Champion for French Bean ‘Black Valentine’, and we grow and save seed on the HSL’s behalf at Ordsall Hall and Gardens. So it was a real treat to see how the operation is run, and get a taste of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Huge thanks to Katrina for taking the time out of her busy day to show us around.

Here are a couple of shots of some of the HSL’s seed-winnowing gear. I seem to remember that this vicious-looking contraption, with a sliding panel on top to move those spikes back and forth, is for threshing and breaking open tough seed pods:

November 2017 HSL seed thresher
You do not want to get your hands trapped in here…

A little more towards the technical end of the scale, here’s an auto-winnower, which works by dropping seed into one chamber, and blowing the separated chaff into another:

November 2017 Garden Organic auto-winnower
A serious bit of kit for the serious job of separating the seed from the chaff.

But most of the HSL’s work is done by hand – either by the staff or their legion of loyal volunteers – such as the measuring of finer seed into packets for distribution to members, using this rack of short lengths of pipe of assorted guages:

November 2017 Garden Organic seed measures
A clever and cost-effective way of kitting yourself out with a seed measure for every occasion.

And here’s what it’s all about: packets of seeds ready to distribute to the Heritage Seed Library members, for growing, saving and of course, eating the resulting crops:

November 2017 Garden Organic HSL seed stocks
Seeds! So many lovely seeds ready to go out to the membership. (Need, got, got, need, need, need…)

We also enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the organic show gardens. Perhaps a chilly November day, with the sun dipping rapidly towards the horizon, wasn’t the best time to see the gardens at their glorious best, but there was still plenty of interest in the low-maintenance and therapeutic gardens, the veg growing area, and my favourite area, the heritage orchard:

November 2017 Garden Organic low maintenance border
Various ornamental grasses add height and structure to the low-maintenance border and look great at this time of year.
November 2017 Garden Organic therapy garden
GO’s accessible and peaceful space for therapeutic gardening.
November 2017 Garden Organic fruit tree walk
I snapped this shot on the way back to the office, so I’m not sure if they’re crab apples or Cornus mas, but it’s a lovely splash of colour either way.
November 2017 Garden Organic brassicas
This kale (‘Sutherland’?) is doing wonderfully well inside its bubble-wrap greenhouse.
November 2017 Garden Organic pear tree
I forgot to check, but I think this gnarly old specimen is a heritage pear variety.
November 2017 Garden Organic cordon orchard
These lovely old apple trees look superb, even without their leaves or fruit.
November 2017 Garden Organic apple mulching
This younger apple tree has been well-mulched with grass-cuttings.

All in all, it was a fascinating visit to an incredibly important project. Without the work of the Heritage Seed Library, a great many varieties of seed would have been permanently lost. True, not every heritage seed variety automatically deserves to be grown. Some varieties have fallen out of favour because they’ve gradually lost vigour, or have just been superseded or supplanted by better, stronger cultivars – often off-shoots of the originals – which seed companies will naturally prefer.

But in an age of increasing agricultural monoculture, vanishing wildlife and dwindling variety in the shops, it’s supremely important to keep our options open, and our genetic seed stocks as diverse as possible. Katrina told us of a couple of cultivars that the HSL no longer makes available because they became so popular they were re-stocked by commercial seed breeders and are now available in all the major seed catalogues. That, of course, is a major win for the HSL, although they’ll always keep a small batch of seed in reserve – frozen, if necessary – just in case the situation changes back again.

How to Join Garden Organic and the Heritage Seed Library

Now is the perfect time of year to join Garden Organic and take part in the Heritage Seed Library project as a grower, or even a Variety Champion. The new seed catalogue has just been sent out to members (I put my 2018 order in this morning) and it contains a gloriously wide range of heritage and heirloom veggies to choose from. The price of HSL membership is £51 per year, for which you get a full membership of Garden Organic – including their bi-annual newsletter and discounts at their online shop – and a chance to request up to six varieties of seed from the HSL list, plus a lucky dip variety (which has a quite high chance of being Calalloo…) if you’re so inclined.

I’ve been a member for two years now and am looking forward to my third; I’ve grown some fascinating cultivars – runner bean ‘Blackpod’ and pea ‘Kent Blue’ being particular favourites so far – and have enjoyed adding a wider range of vegetables to the harvests from Plot #59. I highly recommend taking out a membership, or buying one for a friend or family member, and doing your bit to help preserve vital heritage seed stocks for future generations.

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Yacón Harvest, Part One

Last week we had a couple of frosty nights and down on Plot #59 I spotted that our Yacón plants were feeling the effects:

November 2017 frosted Yacon plants
When the temperature drops and the foliage dies, it’s time to check for Yacón tubers.

With the frost starting to kill off the leaves and stems, and not much more photosynthesis in prospect, that meant the tubers would probably be as large as they were likely to grow. So I trimmed back the top growth and carefully up-ended the first of three pots to see what, if anything, the plant had produced. I was very happy indeed to find the following:

November 2017 - harvested Yacon
That’s not a bad yield at all for a single plant and a first attempt.

A few years ago, veg pioneer Mark Diacono wrote a piece on growing, harvesting and cooking Yacón for The Guardian, which explains what happens next. The larger, ‘storage’ tubers are detached from the plant and left for a couple of weeks to sweeten. The smaller, Jerusalem artichoke-like ‘growth’ tubers are the essential part of the crown that needs to be packed in moist, spent compost and stored in a cool, dark place over the winter. It’s the same sort of procedure as you might use to store a Dahlia crown.

They’re very easy to tell apart, as you can see:

November 2017 Yacon tubers
The Yacon develops two kinds of tubers; edible ‘storage’ and next year’s ‘growth’ tubers.

With the large tubers detached and sweetening, and the crown carefully packed away for winter, the next stage will be to cook ’em, eat ’em and see if Jo and I actually like ’em or not. (I did try a small piece raw on the spot and it was rather like a juicy radish / sweet chestnut, so I’m probably a fan already). Then then there are two more tubs to come. Apparently the large tubers store really well, so either we’ll be eating them for weeks and months to come, or my colleagues on the Ordsall Hall gardening team will be getting a few more Yacón tubers to try than they’ve been led to expect.

How about you? Have you grown Yacón before? Do you have any top tips for storing crowns or cooking the tubers? Please do let me know, via the comments.

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Ulluco Woes: DEFRA Biosecurity Alert Issued

June 2017 Ulloco pots
Our first and probably last ever batch of Ulluco plants, in happier times.

This year we’re growing three Andean tuber crops down on Plot #59: Oca, Yacon and Ulluco. It could also be the last year that we grow the third of that trio. DEFRA – the government’s Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs – have issued a biosecurity warning, because some Ulluco tubers imported into the UK may be infected with several non-native viruses.

The situation is a serious one: the viruses could potentially infect plants of three major families: Amaranthaceae (spinach, beets, chard etc.) Cucurbitaceae (squash, pumpkin, courgette, etc.) and Solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes, etc.) so that’s a number of our major food crops. I double-check with the head gardener where I work – Lindsay Berry, M.Hort – and she confirmed that yes, this sort of warning should be taken very seriously indeed.

Frustratingly, DEFRA haven’t updated their website with their own biosecurity alert, so I can’t point you straight to the source, but Emma at the Unconventional Gardener blog has posted details of the warning, along with a copy of the DEFRA document that was issued to tuber suppliers and sent on to me by the folks at Incredible Vegetables, from whom we bought our tubers this year.

This is the relevant section of the DEFRA document, with instructions to Ulluco growers:

  1. Ulluco should only be harvested for personal consumption and should not be sold or transferred to other sites (and all tubers should be removed from the soil).
  2. Tubers of ulluco should not be saved for planting in the following year.
  3. If potatoes and species of Amaranthaceae, Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae are also grown nearby to ulluco, these should only be harvested for personal consumption and any seed/tubers should not be saved for planting in the following year.
  4. Any remaining waste from the vegetables, including peelings, can be disposed of in general waste bins to go to landfill and should not be composted.
  5. Remaining plant material (leaves and stems) of ulluco, should be destroyed following harvest, either by incineration (burning on site), via deep burial (to a minimum of 2 m) or bagged and disposed of with waste for land fill.
  6. Remaining plant material or potato and species of Amaranthaceae, Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae, which you have grown, should be destroyed following harvest, either by incineration (burning on site), via deep burial (to a minimum of 2 m) or bagged and disposed of with waste for land fill.
  7. The planting area should be cleared of all plant material, including weeds.
  8. If any ulluco and potato plants regrow in the following year, they should be destroyed as for the plant material above.
  9. The viruses are potentially transmitted mechanically (on people, clothes, equipment etc.), so hygiene best practice should be followed:
    • Wash hands with soap before and after working on a crop.
    • Clean any tools and equipment which have been in contact with ulluco thoroughly to remove all plant material and soil.

Once again, rather frustratingly, there’s no information on how to spot signs of a definite viral infection, or whether the viruses are likely to persist in the soil next season, which of course would prevent growing any crops from potentially infected species. Although, as DEFRA hasn’t told us to immediately destroy all Ulluco crops and remove the soil, it would seem that the viruses in question might need a living host to persist?

In any case, because of the potential risk for mechanical transmission, I spent an unpleasant couple of hours on Sunday dragging half-decomposed vegetable matter out of our large compost bay – to which for the past few weeks I’d been adding the foliage from this year’s squash plants, which had been growing right next to the Ulluco – then bagging it up and taking it to the municipal tip.

So that’s an entire year’s worth of compostable material destroyed, because DEFRA haven’t specified the precise conditions under which the viruses can persist. Still, better safe than sorry, eh? I’d rather loose a year’s compost than risk a future year or more’s potato, tomato, squash and beet harvest.

I just hope we have a decent Ulluco crop this year, to make up for all the hassle.

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2017 Winter Squash Report

I’m a huge fan of the whole Cucurbitae family, but particularly squash. I love their savoury-sweet flavour – especially chopped into chunks, oiled, seasoned and baked in the oven until the edges start to caramelise nicely – but also the longevity of the fruits; picked at the right time, well-cured and properly stored they can last right through the coldest months of winter and into early spring.

But I have confession to make: this year I took my eye off the ball at the crucial time (July into August) and let the plants grow and ramble far more than I intended. The result was – rather predictably – far too much foliage and far fewer fruits than I was hoping for. As a result, we’ll be lucky if we get half a dozen good squashes this year, and at least three of those are overgrown courgettes.

But hey, next year will be better – I’ll have more time to keep on top of the plot, seeing as I’ll have finished the hard landscaping in our back garden that’s kept me so busy through the summer – and the harvest will be mighty.

In the meantime, here are a few pics of the squash / pumpkin / overgrown courgette fruits that we’ll hopefully to be able to enjoy eating later in the year.

Squash / Pumpkin

One of the new varieties I tried to grow this year is ‘Ukichi Kuri’, a compact Japanese squash. We have one decent fruit developing at the moment:

September 2017 squash 'Uchiki Kuri'
This compact, bijou Japanese squash has a little more ripening to do yet.

Another new-to-me variety this year is the old French heirloom ‘Rouge Vif D’Etampes’, which means ‘bright red, of Etampes’, a town to the south-west of Paris. It still has some reddening to do, but is coming along nicely:

September 2017 squash 'Rouge Vif D'Etampes'
Another squash / pumpkin that will hopefully develop its full colour on ripening.

Last year one of our allotment friends gave us a ‘Crown Prince’ squash in exchange for one of our ‘Turk’s Turban’. It was delicious, and even though it’s an F1 variety – which never come true to type if you grow from their seed – I thought I’d give a second generation a go. This is the most promising of the two fruits that have come from the saved seed:

September 2017 squash 'Crown Prince X no.1'
It will be interesting to see how this hybrid develops as it ripens – and how tasty it is when cooked.

And this is the other, not quite so promising-looking specimen:

September 2017 squash Crown Prince X no.2
Not quite so attractive, but you never know, the flavour might be fantastic..?

We’ll see how they turn out. You never know, they might be absolutely delicious.

Finally, this variety of squash is called ‘blue banana’:

September 2017 squash 'blue banana''
Who could resist growing this one, with a name like ‘blue banana’?

So far, not very blue – more of a mucky dark green – and not very banana-like. But again, the proof is in the eating, so we’ll see how that one turns out.

Overgrown Courgettes

The ‘Zephyr’ courgettes that we tried earlier in the season were very tasty, and quite unusual with their two-town green and yellow bisected colouring. It looks like they develop into some sort of crookneck squash if left on the plant long enough to mature:

September 2017 - Courgette 'Zephyr' / Crookneck Squash
Leave a courgette long enough and it will most likely turn into some sort of squash.

We’ve also got a smallish marrow that we’ve grown from courgette ‘Midnight F1’ and a gem squash from a courgette ‘Tondo di Piacenza’, already curing in the greenhouse.

That’s it for this year. Not quite the haul we were hoping for. But as I said, next year will be much, much better. I plan to nick Monty’s idea for growing smaller squash up stout poles (in our case, Jo suggested using three bamboo canes lashed together for each ‘pole’, which I reckon is a good idea) and also set up a couple of larger manure mounds for the more rambly, ground-hogging varieties.

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