Month: January 2016

Plot #59 Update: January 2016

There hasn’t been an awful lot of activity on Plot #59 this month. Rain has stopped play most days. Admittedly we haven’t been anywhere near as badly-hit as some folks have and my sympathies and best wishes really do go out to anyone whose plot has been water-logged or flooded. But still, apart from a bit of a tidy-up in the greenhouse and a few digging and weeding sessions in-between the downpours there hasn’t been much that we can usefully do to move things forward.

January 2016 Plot #59 status - soggy
Rain has stopped play, although nothing’s too horribly flooded.

We did have a hard frost earlier in the month at one point, which I though might herald a proper slice of winter, but it failed to materialise. Hopefully it was enough to kick-start the strawberries and garlic for the year ahead.

Sowing

Just the one batch of seeds sown this month: four varieties of chillis (Capsicum annuum ‘pot black’, ‘prairie fire’, ‘cayenne’ and C. chinense ‘Habanero’ and/or ‘Scotch Bonnet’).

Planting

Our fruit bush and strawberry sections were established last year, so we haven’t had anything new to plant out just yet.

Harvesting

This month was mainly about the roots, with a couple of batches of parsnips (Pastinaca sativa, var. unknown) and salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius ‘Mammoth’) harvested, both of which have definitely been improved by that frost. I also pulled up a few leeks (Allium ampeloprasum ‘Autumn Mammoth 2’ and ‘Musselburgh’) and had a couple of small pickings of kale (Brassica oleracea ‘green curled’, the standard stuff but still very tasty).

About the only other crop we have in the ground at the moment is some purple sprouting broccoli, which hasn’t really sprouted yet, and some half-hearted, limp celery, which is probably destined for the compost when I get around to digging it out. Last year’s house move meant there was hardly any sowing and planting for winter veg, but this year into next will be very different.

Projects / Maintenance

As well as doing as much weeding of last year’s veg beds as possible, I have made a start on digging the ground in what will become our long-term asparagus patch. Progress was slow, but I’ve managed an initial dig of around three-quarters of the allotted space. Once the weather clears a bit, I need to incorporate plenty of organic matter and grit for fertility and drainage, then form the ridges for the crowns to be planted on. I have until the end of March / early April when the crowns I’ve ordered are due to be shipped, so hopefully plenty of time yet. As always, with one eye on the local forecast and another on my list of odd jobs that I can fit in around the rain showers.

Onwards!

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New Seeds: Heritage Seed Library 2016

My first ever seed selection from Garden Organic‘s Heritage Seed Library has arrived!

New in from the Heritage Seed Library
New seeds from the Heritage Seed Library (pic fancied-up via Pixlr.com)

I’m delighted to say that I’ve received five out of my six first-choice varieties, and one of my second-choice (more about the request process in my earlier post on joining the HSL), as well as a lucky dip packet (one that isn’t actually on this year’s seed list, rather mysteriously).

Here’s what I’ve been sent:

  • Runner Bean (Phaseolus coccinea) ‘Blackpod’
  • Climbing French Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) ‘Major Cook’s Bean’
  • Dwarf French Bean (P. vulgaris) ‘Peewit’
  • Kale (Brassica oleracea) ‘Georgia Southern Collard’
  • Leek (Allium ampeloprasum) ‘Walton Mammoth’
  • Squash (Cucurbita maxima) ‘Zapallito de Toscana’
  • Turnip (Brassica rapa) ‘Kaskinauris’ (lucky dip)

A bit of research on that turnip variety turns up Garden Organic’s Adopt a Veg site, with the following info:

“The name is thought to be a Finnish compound word, ‘Kaski’ meaning an area managed using ‘slash-and-burn’ cultivation (which ceased more than 100 years ago in Finland), and ‘nauris’, which is the Finnish word for turnip. This variety has a very sweet long root that keeps well even in winter. The flesh is white and firm with a sugary flavour.”

Sounds good, I’ll definitely give it a go and see what happens, although it might be this time next year before I’m harvesting the roots.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to sowing and growing everything else and will providing updates in due course. The leeks will be the first to be sown as they can be started off as early as last February or March, depending on the weather. I’m particularly looking forward to trying the beans and squash. I did well with beans last year but my squash-growing efforts didn’t turn out well at all, largely due to the poor summer we had, and a lack of time to look after the plants properly. Here’s hoping for better conditions this year.

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First Sowing of 2016: The Chillis Are In

I really enjoying growing chillis – the plants always look lovely with their cargoes of red-spike fruits – but to-date I’ve had mixed success. The very first year I grew any veg at all, I chucked a managed to germinate some free seed and ended with a couple of plants in a south-facing wall-basket. They did pretty well, resulting in around half a kilo of fruit. I tried them again a couple of years ago, bringing them inside to grow on the greenhouse staging. They were pretty poor, mostly failing to ripen.

This year I’m determined to up my game and produce something worthwhile. I’ve invested in a Chilligrow planter from Greenhouse Sensation which, combined with the Vitopod heated propagator that I got from them last year, I’m hoping ought to do the trick.

I’ve also done a bit of reading up on the subject of when to sow, when to pot on, etc. and the general consensus seems to be that chillis should be sown quite early in our climate, because they need a good, long growing season to help them fully mature. And so that’s what I’ve done today.

Jan 2016 - Chilli sowing
Chilli sowing kit at the ready

Preparation

I warmed both the seed compost and the water in the propagator for a couple of days, to make sure everything was within the optimal, 18°C – 21°C temperature range before I began. I then sowed the seeds into the small, green trays shown above. I’ve been caught out in the past by sowing multiple varieties into a single, large seed tray only to find that they germinate, grow and develop at different rates. This can mean that you’re attempting to prick out and pot on one variety before the others have had chance to properly establish, which makes accidental damage to the not-yet-ready seedlings a bit more of a risk.

Method

I filled each 6cm deep tray to within 1cm of the top with seed compost and pre-soaked it with the tepid water (to avoid disturbing the seed by watering from above). I then sowed the seed at regular intervals and covered them with a thin layer of vermiculite. All fairly standard stuff.

Jan 2016 - Chillis sown in the propagator
Chillis sown, time for the propagator to go to work

Varieties Sown

I’ve gone for four (or possibly five) different types of chilli this year, none of them particularly fancy or mouth-blisteringly hot on the Scoville scale. Until I’ve sorted out a basic technique and timings there’s not much point in going for something particularly outré – plenty of time to experiment in future years, once I know what I’m doing.

Here’s this year’s line-up.

  • Capsicum annuum ‘pot black’ – A bushy, ornamental variety with dark purple/black fruits that ripen to red. No info. on the T&M website as to Scoville rating, but Black Hungarian looks very similar and is 5,000 – 10,000 Scoville.
  • Capsicum annuum cayenne (‘Hot Portugal’?) – The bog-standard magazine freebie with supermarket-style red fruits. 5,000 – 30,000 Scoville.
  • Capsicum annuum ‘prairie fire’ – Another bush variety that’s meant to be a prolific fruiter. c. 70,000 Scoville.
  • Capsicum chinense ‘Hotscotch’ – Technically a seed-mix of C. chinense ‘Habanero’ and C. chinense ‘Scotch bonnet’ so I’m not entirely sure what will come up (if anything – it’s an open seed packet b.b. 2016 so might not do so well). 100,000 – 350,000 Scoville.

I’ve already got my eye on some more interesting and/or challenging varieties that I’ve spotted from the likes of www.pepperseeds.eu and www.sowchillies.co.uk, and I’d like to try my hand at C. annuum poblano as well, but as I say: walk first, jog a bit in years to come.

Aftercare

I’ll be potting any successful seedlings on to small- and then medium-sized pots before selecting the three strongest candidates for the Chilligrow. That will be positioned at the business end of our new 8’x10′ greenhouse, at least 9′ away from the door. (Any particularly strong also-ran plants might be grown on in decent-sized pots or tubs, or maybe added to wall-baskets, or maybe just given away to friends and allotment neighbours. We’ll see what happens, rather than count any chickens at this stage.)

I’ll be reading up on watering and feeding regimes when the time comes and trying to get those as spot-on as I can. If anyone has any advice on any of the above, please do post notes and/or links via the Comments.

I hope to be able to bring you future updates, pics and all, as the crop progresses. (Memo to self: chilli jam / dipping sauce recipes will hopefully need to be researched as well…)

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Harvest Monday for 22nd January 2016

Having spotted the Harvest Monday sharing meme on Mark’s Veg Plot recently, I thought it might be fun to join in. Here’s a quick shot of some root veg – parsnips and salsify – that I lifted on Saturday, along with a few small leeks.

Harvest Monday! Parsnips, leeks and salsify.

I honey-baked the roots yesterday afternoon, along with a few (shop-bought) carrots to accompany a chicken. I can now definitely vouch for the phenomenon mentioned in my earlier post on the benefits of a good, hard frost: the parsnips were definitely sweeter (although some of that would have been the honey, etc.) and the turpene-flavours much less pronounced. The salsify was fuller-flavoured as well, quite delicious. I’ll definitely be growing them both again this year. Oh, and the leeks will be going into a chicken risotto tonight, to make best use of the leftover meat from yesterday’s dinner.

This week’s Harvest Monday is hosted by Michelle at From Seed to Table and next week reverts to its usual home with Dave at Our Happy Acres.

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Allotment Planning Notes: 2016 Edition

With the recent weather continuing in distinctly inclement mode and not a great deal of digging done, I’ve turned my attention to a spot of plot planning instead.

Last year – our second full year on the plot – we managed to achieve the majority of what we set out to do, despite the disruption of a house move over the summer. A full half of the plot was cleared for cultivation – which involved a lot of deep-digging and one full-on tree-stump-removal job – on top of the quarter or so that we’d managed to clear the year before. Also: our old greenhouse was transported from our previous home and re-erected on base of salvaged paving slabs, and the long-term fruit bush (assorted currants and gooseberries), rhubarb, strawberry and raspberry sections were planted up. Not too shabby, considering the state of the ground when we took it over in January 2014.

Stumpy, just before The Chop
Meet Stumpy, the biggest obstacle we had to overcome in 2015.

We have some pretty ambitions plans for 2016. I’m no artist, but hopefully these amateurish felt-pen jottings (nothing’s precisely to scale, although the 9.5m x 27m dimensions of the plot are pretty well-reflected) ought to offer a decent idea of the general shape of the plot as it finished up last year, alongside my outline plans for the work to come.

Plots #59 in 2015    Plots #59 plans for 2016

Click either of those two pics for a larger image.

All of which means we’re going to be attempting the following sub-projects in 2016 (from the top of the pic):

  • Remove the old, pre-takeover compost bay from the back-left corner, weed thoroughly (it’s rife with bindweed, sticky willie and dock) and replace with three plastic compost bins that we’ve bought or acquired.
  • Move the three water barrels from the left-hand side and add them to the existing greenhouse mini water-butt setup.
  • Remove the cherry tree, unless it manages an impressive display of blossom and promises some actual fruit, unlike the last two years.
  • Use our collection of various cast-off driveway blocks, assorted bricks, slabs of patio stone etc. to make a rough, patchwork paving area around the compost bins and greenhouse.
  • Clear the rough area around the base of the willow tree (W) and plant with spuds in due course.
  • Remove (and scrap) the old 3×1 metre raised bed to make way for a central path (which will be paved, eventually) up the centre of the plot.
  • Clear space either side of the path for perennial / annual flowering plants (a.k.a. pollinator magnets).
  • Dig out the asparagus bed, add manure and gravel, form ridges and plant up with newly-acquired crowns.
  • Work out how to weave last year’s willow cuttings into some sort of useful wind-break screens to help cut down on wind-rock damage for taller and/or vulnerable plants.
  • Continue to clear, cultivate and plant the rest of the plot with a lovely assortment of vegetable goodness, in rotation, with a fair amount of successional sowing thrown in for good measure…

I reckon that little lot should keep us busy enough. Of course, we’ll be finding the time to make a proper start on the Cottage Garden Project as well. It’s going to be a good year.

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First Hard Frost of the Winter – At Last!

At -1°C, last night was the coldest we’ve had so far this winter, and temperatures are set to dip below zero for the next couple of nights as well. And not before time, either.

Frosty red kale
Something suitably frosty from the photo-archive…

I might seem strange to be glad to see a frost – after all, now the allotment isn’t only waterlogged, it’s waterlogged and semi-frozen, so digging is definitely off the agenda – but there are a couple of key food crops that I understand need a really good freeze to boost their performance: strawberries and garlic.

Strawberries require a period of chilling to help initiate flowering (as per Thompson & Morgan‘s advice page), although of course a late frost can kill off any flowers that have already set and damage new shoots. So this time of year, when the plants are still dormant, is ideal.

Garlic needs a period of cold to help it sprout and develop a bulb (as per greyduckgarlic.com’s FAQ) and I’m sure I’ve read that frost helps trigger division of the bulb into multiple cloves as well (online references remain frustratingly elusive…). Again though, late frost can cause leaf damage and yellowing, so the earlier the better.

We have three rows of strawberries on our allotment – 36 plants in total – and I planted around 80 cloves of garlic and/or elephant garlic last year, so I’m understandably keen that both of them have as many of their growing requirements met as possible. The garlic has already sprouted, as you can see from this pic, taken just last week:

Winter 2016 in the Allium Patch
January 2016: Last year’s Leeks and next year’s garlic growing well.

Fingers crossed a couple of frosty nights is just the ticket on both counts. We’ll know the score come strawberry- and garlic-harvest time, next June or July.

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Heritage Seed Library – All Signed Up

Garden Organic

I’ve been thinking about joining Garden Organic‘s Heritage Seed Library (@HeritageSeedsUK) since I found out about it a couple of years ago. This year, settled in to the allotment and with no major disturbances on the horizon (such as last year’s house move), I decided to take the plunge.

The HSL is a scheme that’s run, in effect, as a seed-swap club, with members of the HSL sent seed to grow and, ideally, collect and save for onward-swapping. It gives growers the opportunity to try varieties of vegetables – often old favourites or particularly good performers – that for whatever reason aren’t available in commercial seed catalogues. Bean, pea, squash and tomato enthusiasts are particularly well-served – presumably because these are among the easiest seeds to collect and save – but there’s a much wider range available in the catalogue, including a slightly more exotic crops like Achocha, Amaranth, Callaloo, Dudi, and two varieties of something called a Shark Fin Melon.

Here’s how it works: You pay your membership fee (£18, on top of the fee for joining Garden Organic; in my case £33) and they send you a catalogue of currently available seed varieties every December. You then request six seed varieties from the catalogue, along with a dozen second and/or third choices in case they’ve run out of your first choices (they’re assigned on a first-come, first-served basis). They then send the seed out to you within 28 days of receiving your request, and off you go.

I’ve requested a selection of fairly standard vegetable types that I’m confident should perform well on our allotment, with back-up variations on a similar theme:

  • Runner Bean – Blackpod
  • Climbing French Bean – Major Cook’s Bean
  • Dwarf French Bean – Hutterite Soup
  • Kale – Georgia Southern Collard
  • Leek – Walton Mammoth
  • Squash – Zapatillo de Toscana

I’ll be trying to save seed from all of them, even if only for my own use. And if things work out well, I’ll definitely look into volunteering to become a seed guardian for a particular variety or two in future.

In any case, I’m really looking forward to seeing what arrives in the post in due course.

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When is a Courgette not a Courgette?

Courgettes are one of my very favourite allotment crops. When the weather conditions are right they grow like crazy and they’re very versatile in the kitchen, too. I’m sure everyone who’s grown courgettes will be familiar with the phenomenon of turning your back on a not-quite-ready fruit or two for a couple of days, only to find that you’ve now got a decent crop of marrows. I certainly am; last year I even discovered one foot-long specimen lurking beneath a couple of leaves that I hadn’t checked under for a week or so.

But what I wasn’t expecting was a courgette that turned into… well, this:

Courgette or pumpkin?
Courgette? Pumpkin? Squash? Round Marrow?

This one started life as a Courgette Tondo di Piacenza which (as you can see from the pic on the Mr Fothergill’s site via that link) is a round, dark green variety. I grew three Tondo di Piacenza plants last year, alongside nine others of different types, and the yield across the dozen plants was extremely good. So good that when one of the TdPs, towards the end of the season, produced a fruit that was rapidly swelling through crown-green-wood towards regulation F.A. football size, I decided to leave it on the plant, if only to stop that particular one from producing. When I cleared the patch at the end of the season, I picked my still-green, giant courgette and stuck it on the veg rack in the kitchen.

Three months later, it had matured and cured to the rather fetching shade of mottled orange that you see above. Last night (with a tomato and pepper stew with baked eggs due to go into the oven) I was curious enough to wonder what it was like inside…

Tondo di Piacenza carved up and ready to cook
Looks very pumpkin / squash-like to me…

That’s definitely a pumpkin, or a squash of some kind. Of course, it’s not exactly a shocking development, as courgettes, marrows, squash and pumpkins are all members of the cucurbita (gourd) family. What was a surprise, and a very pleasant one, was just how tasty it was when oven-roasted in a little olive oil with plenty of seasoning. I’ve tried roasted or baked pumpkin and marrow before now and found them a bit bland – although of course that’s most likely down to the supermarket varieties I was cooking – but my out-sized Tondo di Piacenza was very good indeed: quite sweet with a delicious, nutty flavour and very more-ish. No photo, I’m afraid. Jo and I scoffed the lot before I could think to take one.

I’ll definitely be growing the Tondo again this year and I think when the season comes to an end I’ll try to keep one fruit per plant and let them grow to football-size. They clearly store well and they definitely taste good. What’s not to like?

Edit, 16:00 hrs Via this Tweet from South Africa, a likely i.d. for the mystery squash:

And via a serendipitous glance at my Twitter feed just now, a potential a.k.a. (‘Italian Stripe’) via the ebfarm.com Pumpkin ID chart (pdf link). You’ve got to love social media sometimes.

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All a Bit Too Soggy on the Allotment Front

Here in North Manchester the rain has been falling, on and off, for most of the past fortnight. Where we are the after-effects haven’t been anywhere near as bad as the horrendous conditions that have caused flooding up in Cumbria, or down the road in Salford, but still: weather has stopped play and not much has been happening down on the allotment as a result. I did manage to harvest a few roots for our Christmas dinner roasting tin – parsnips, beetroot and salsify – but that’s pretty much it.

December 2015 - Roots!
Roots! Parsnip, beetroot and salsify for Christmas dinner.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I made a list of the jobs that need doing before the next growing season kicks in. Most of them involve digging and clearing perennial weeds from the sections of the plot that we haven’t properly tackled just yet. Either that or surface-weeding the sections that we cultivated last year. Of course when the ground is wet, even if it isn’t actually water-logged per se, it’s often advisable to leave well alone. Digging wet soil can damage the structure by compacting rather than breaking it up and aerating. Even weeding can be problematic, with great clumps of soil coming away with the weed roots and ending up in the rubbish bag, rather than crumbling back down to the ground.

For now, Jo and I will continue to watch the weather forecast and crack on with a few seasonal admin jobs: cleaning tools and containers, sorting seed packets, tidying up the piles of junk in the shed and separating the useful from the recyclable. Hopefully it won’t be too long now before we can get back on with the digging and clearing, and of course a spot of early seed-sowing, too.

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