Month: February 2016

Now Sowing: Leeks and Broad Beans

There’s always a temptation – one I admit I succumbed to when I first started growing – to start sowing seeds at what seems to be the earliest possible opportunity. We get that first warm(ish) weekend in mid-February or early March, when surely Spring can only be a few days around the corner, and the urge to start sprinkling seed around starts to become all-but irresistible.

A well-stuffed seedbox
So many seeds, so little space left in the current storage unit…
Over the past few years I’ve learned, through trial and error (mostly error…) that it’s far better to exercise patience than it is to watch your first few crops of precious seedlings fall foul of the pitfalls of early Spring. A late March or April frost could kill them off, or they could stretch out towards the dribs and drabs of available sunlight until they’re so thin and leggy they’re likely to snap as soon as you look at them, or they might simply run out of steam before the conditions are warm enough for them to start developing the root, stem and leaf systems that they’ll need to power them on to productive adulthood. Better to wait until a little later in the season – especially here in North Manchester, where the weather’s seldom balmy until April at the earliest – than lose the lot and have to start over again.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule of thumb, of course: early-cropping veg, hardier varieties, those that take their time to germinate or need a long, slow growing season to develop, and crops destined to spend their entire lives under cover in a greenhouse. These are the sorts of seeds that I’ve learned you can get away with sowing round about this time of year. I’ve already sown my chillis (to grow under cover) a few weeks back – they’re doing quite nicely in the propagator at the moment – and over the past couple of days I’ve sown two more essential food crops: leeks (long season) and broad beans (early, hardy).

Leeks

2015 Leeks and 2016 Garlic
Last year’s leeks and this year’s garlic, doing well in February 2016, despite the endless wet weather…

I’m a late but enthusastic convert to eating leeks. Up until three or four years ago I hated the things (due to a childhood trauma involving being force-fed leek and potato pie until I ran out of tears to cry) but then I tried them sautéed in butter and the proverbial lightbulb clicked on. I’ve grown them every year since, with a pretty decent success rate, although last year’s crop wasn’t the finest I’ve seen, mainly due to various house-move related timing issues.

This year I’ve sown three varieties of leek (Allium ampeloprasum / Allium porrum – sources differ): ‘Elefant’ (Mr Fothergill’s), ‘Herfstuezen 3 – Porvite’ (Thompson & Morgan – no longer on sale) and ‘Walton Mammoth’, an heirloom variety that I was sent as past of my first Heritage Seed Library selection.

I’ve changed my sowing method slightly; in the past, I’ve sown leeks in standard, shallow seed trays and then picked out individual seedlings to grow on in modules. That’s definitely one of the most laborious, tedious gardening tasks I’ve set myself to-date and has meant the loss of a number of seedlings in the process: not great fun.

This year, I’ve sown them in a deeper tray instead, with 2-3cm of seed compost on top of around 7-8cm of multi-purpose. The theory being that they’ll grown and develop to the ideal pencil-thickness in those tubs, and when the time comes I can just split them up and dib them in to their final growing position in one go. Less fuss, more leeks. I’ll keep you posted.

Broad Beans

Broad Bean 'The Sutton' ready to go
A quick top-coating of compost and a good soaking and they’ll be left in the greenhouse to germinate.

I’m a huge fan of all the members of the Fabaceae family that I’ve encountered so far. They’re a joy to grow and a wonderfully versatile, protein-rich food crop. This year I’ll be growing around a dozen different varieties of beans; it is the International Year of Pulses, after all.

The first to go in, sown this afternoon, are Broad Bean (Vicia faba) ‘The Sutton’ (SowSeeds.co.uk). It’s a white-bean variety, which should contrast and compliment nicely with the ‘red epicure’ (Unwins), which I grew and enjoyed last year and will be sowing tomorrow. I’ve also bought a packet of ‘aquadulce’ (Thompson & Morgan), which I grew last year as well. I’m saving those for an Autumn sowing, to see if I can over-winter them for an even earlier crop next year.

After some reading around, I decided to soak the beans overnight in tepid water to see which ones swelled and were therefore more likely to be viable. Of the 28 I soaked, 23 were definitely nicely fattened and one was borderline. Those 24 have now been sown in modules of standard multi-purpose compost: beans aren’t so delicate that they need special seed compost and the young plants should grow strongly in the richer compost. With any luck they’ll be large enough to be planted out sometime in April and Jo and I should be feasting on garlic-butter sautéed broad beans by June.

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Setting Up Our Asaparagus Bed, Part 2 – Soil Enrichment

With the weather taking a turn for the brighter and drier this week, I’ve been able to put in a few more hours on the Plot #59 asparagus bed to-be. After the basic preparation phase – an initial dig-over to remove as much rubbish weed root and rhizome as possible – the next phase involved adding a large amount of fertilizer in the form of well-rotted horse manure.

Here’s what the ground looked like after the initial dig:

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: before
Dug over once and ready for excavation

Next up: excavate a trench, around a spade blade’s depth, along the full 4m length and 3m(ish) width of the allotted section. Time to roll up my sleeves, grab my new shovel by its 54″ handle and start digging. I started excavating at one end, re-loosening the soil with a fork before shovelling it into a heap. Once the trench was a metre or so wide, it was time for a short trip to the nearest manure-pile (luckily just over the path on a derelict plot). A barrow-load at a time went into the trench, and was the next section of soil (minimising overall effort, maximising efficiency, etc.)

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: during
Coming along nicely: trench excavation, manure dumping, re-covering.

…and continue until the job was done, over the course of two afternoon sessions, mostly in glorious late-winter sunshine. Here’s the finished job; not much different to the ‘before’ state, admittedly, but it’s what’s lurking beneath the surface that counts.

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: during
And we’re done! Ready for the gritting and ridging stage…

The final preparation stage will involve copious amounts of grit. That will need mixing in, along with as much of the surplus soil as is required, and then forming into the three long ridges that the asparagus crowns will be planted on top of. Hopefully at the weekend, weather allowing.

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Setting Up Our Asaparagus Bed, Part 1 – Basic Preparation

The first big project for this year on Plot #59 is the planting out of an asparagus bed.

Now, this is a serious matter. Actually, that’s worth capitalising – it’s a Serious Matter. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a long-term crop with a long-term return on investment, providing the job’s done properly. Everything I’ve read on the subject recommends that asparagus crowns should be given royal treatment: a patch of ground in a sunny but sheltered spot, with minimal weed interference, fertile soil and good drainage. All of which, in our case, is going to require:

  1. An initial deep dig to get rid of as much perennial and problem ephemeral weed as possible.
  2. Secondary digging to excavate a trench, about a spade’s blade deep.
  3. The addition of plenty of horse muck, mixed with soil and a lot of gravel, for drainage.
  4. The creation of ridges to plant the asparagus crowns on top of (again: drainage).
  5. Back-filling to a suitable level, then mounding up as the plants develop.
  6. Setting up wind-breaks to stop the young plants being bent out of shape as soon as they appear.

Over the past few weeks, weather allowing, I’ve been proceeding with step #1. The patch of ground had already been selected the year before, and covered over with a tarp to help kill off the massive wild geranium clump that was growing in the middle of it. Pulling back the tarp in early January revealed the following:

Asparagus patch, January 2016, pre-dig
Clear enough to make a start on…

The patch wasn’t 100% cleared – most likely because the tarp was silver rather than black, but it’s what we had – but it was good enough to make a start on the digging. A few sessions later and I’ve rough-dug a four-by-two metre patch, clearing out three or four rubble sacks’ worth of weed root and rhizome, as well as a large plant pot’s worth of the usual miscellaneous rubbish – glass, crockery sherds, plastic, twine, metal, brick, you name it – that our plot has been so amply supplied with by past tenants. (There’s an actual midden-heap right in the middle of the plot, which has been no end of fun to dig out, I can tell you.)

Next up: manuring and re-digging, then gravelling and ridging. Finally – round about the end of March or early April, when my 30-crown, three-variety order from Blackmoor nurseries arrives, I’ll be planting, back-filling, setting up wind-breaks and then… waiting. It’ll be another two or three years before the crowns are well-established enough to start picking, but hopefully another 20 or 25 before they’re exhausted and need to be replaced. And of course, once they’re in there will be no more need for digging, just plenty of good quality mulch at the appropriate time of year.

As I say, it’s a long-term investment, but given the amount we spend down Bury Market when English asparagus is in season, it’s one with a great potential rate of return.

If anyone has any advice on asparagus planting that I’ve missed, or that scientifically contradicts any of the above, please do leave a comment and let me know!

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A Head Start for the Onions

Last year I grew a decent crop of onions from sets – a gift from one of the old boys down the allotment who ended up with more than he could use – and they did rather well. So this year I decided to go ahead and buy my own sets and have another go.

They arrived last Sunday along with a couple of kilos of seed potatoes (more on those at a later date). I’ve gone for the same variety – ‘sturon’ – mostly because the finished crop had a lovely, strong flavour (but also because they sound a bit like ‘Sauron’, which amuses my not-so-inner geek no end).

Pre-planted onion sets in the greenhouse
Variety: ‘sturon’. Mission: “one (onion) ring to rule them all” (sorry…)

The sets went straight into the ground last year and quite late too – I think it was April or so before they were planted – which meant that although they grew strongly the onions were mostly quite small when I came to harvest them in September or so.

This year, having read about the technique on a couple of other blogs, I’ve pre-planted them in modules in our greenhouse at home, in the hope that they’ll begin to develop early and by the time they go into the ground down at the allotment they’ll be well on their way to becoming big, strong onions packed full of allium goodness.

On a more serious note, growing them on should help prevent curious pigeons from pecking at and dislodging the mini-sets – which, even with the preventative netting, can be a problem if our feathered friends are particularly persistent – and doing so in modules, rather than one big seed tray or trough, should help minimise root damage when it comes time to transplant.

I just have to make sure that the shallow-rooted plantlets don’t dry out in the meantime, so I’ll be judiciously watering as we go.

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We Have Germination! The Chillis Are Coming…

Always one of my favourite moments of the growing season: the appearance of the first seedlings of the year. A small start, but so much promise of harvests to come.

Here we have germination from seven of the twelve cayenne chilli seeds that I sowed on January 26th. They’re about three days above-ground in this pic, which means they germinated in around (does sums in head…) ten days in our Vitopod heated propagator.

Chilli Seedlings are go!
First up: Capsicum annuum var. cayenne

As you can see, I’ve taken them out of said heated unit (seven plants should be more than enough) and transferred them to a vented, un-heated propagato: just a lid on top of a standard seed tray, on our north-west-facing kitchen window-sill.

Two reasons for doing so: firstly to (hopefully) avoid these seedlings from damping off in the humid atmosphere, and secondly so I could whack up the heat in the Vitopod to 24°C in order to give the three slower-germinating varieties of chilli – pot black, prairie fire and habanero / scotch bonnet – a bit of a boost. (It worked, by the way, as there are now tiny seedlings showing in all three trays).

Once the cayenne seedlings are large enough to safely handle, I’ll prick them out and pot them up in individual small pots of compost, then pot them on again a time or two and move them to the greenhouse, before deciding on their final growing position. I suspect that the three-pot Chilligrow planter will be reserved for the more interesting varieties, depending on how they do, so these cayenne might end up in pots in the greenhouse, or wall-baskets in a sunny spot somewhere.

I’ll post more pics and updates as things develop.

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Harvest Monday for February 8th 2016

Another wet and windy week gone by, with a short window of opportunity on Sunday to get down to the plot and pick up a few veggies.

This week, I picked a few more smallish leeks, cut down our one half-decent stem of (nevertheless still a bit small and manky) sprouts, and then grabbed a handful of crisp, fresh kale. I was hoping for some PSB as well, but I think the birds have been at it and there was nothing worth cutting. So it goes.

The leeks were sautéed in butter with mushrooms and went very well with yesterday’s sausage and mash. The kale will be added to tonight’s salmon pan fry, along with a few more of the seemingly never-ending mountain of last year’s pink fir apple spuds.

Love fresh kale, green curled
Love fresh kale, green curled
Runner bean chutney, 2015 vintage
Runner bean chutney, 2015 vintage

I also dug a jar of August 2015 runner bean chutney out of the fridge and enjoyed a dollop on my teatime bacon butty yesterday. I think I used this allrecipes.co.uk concoction. It’s very tasty, but a bit too sweet for me. I think next year – I’ll definitely be making it again – I’ll try Valentine Warner’s version from eatseasonably.co.uk, which has a lot less sugar in the mix.

This week’s Harvest Monday is hosted by its regular curator, Dave at Our Happy Acres.

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Cottage Garden Project Update: January 2016

Well, I say “update”, but there’s really not much activity to report. Earlier in the month our back yard had a light covering of snow:

January 2016 Cottage Garden Project update - snow!
No sign of any sort of garden under a brief blanket of snow.

…which all-but disappeared overnight. Otherwise though, it’s been as soggy as the allotment.

Floral Displays

We do have a few early flowers in the pots that we brought with us from our old house. A few very pale primroses (Primula vulgaris), some bright white cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium), a few deep red wallflowers (Erysimum sp., too many to narrow it down) that have lingered through the winter, some white hellebores (Helleborus orientalis, I think) and another hellebore species with very small, dainty green-tinged flowers (Helleborus viridis, most likely).

Just a very small pot-display at the moment, but with many more to come in due course.

Projects / Maintenance

The big news this month is that we’ve taken a major step forward on the Cottage Garden Project planning front: a consultation with local garden designer and Tatton Park RHS Gold Medal winner Joan Mulvenna of Garden Design Manchester.

Joan has a fantastic eye for making the best use of a small space like ours, and within a couple of hours she was able to give us a completely fresh perspective on how we can adapt the space to make it as attractive as possible. It was a great session, well worth Joan’s very reasonable consultation fee.

I’ll be revealing our future plans in more detail in a fresh blog post once Jo and I have had a chance to incorporate our own ideas into Joan’s outline and get them down on paper.

That’s it for January. Hopefully we’ll have a bit more to report at the end of February.

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