Month: March 2016

Starting Out With Dahlias

I know, I know, it’s a potentially dangerous path to follow. One that could lead to obsession or even addiction, uncontrollable impulse-purchasing and gigabytes of digital photography… but Jo and I have decided to start growing Dahlias.

We’ve both always liked them and Jo’s Dad (“Gardening Guru Glyn”, as far as I’m concerned) grows them on his plot down in Shropshire, and very handsome his are, too. This year we decided to take the plunge, make a start on our own small Dahlia selection, and see where it takes us. So when we saw a posted on our allotment shop notice board, advertising a talk by champion Dahlia-grower Jack Gott of J. R. G. Dahlias (also @gott_jack on Twitter), we thought we should go along and see what it was all about.

Thus it was that one Wednesday evening a couple of weeks ago found us in a darkened pub lounge in Bolton, watching with rapt attention as Jack ran a slideshow of his best blooms – with the occasional trophy and prize certificate thrown in for good measure – and talked us through the finer points of his 30+ years of Dahlia growing experience. I scribbled notes furiously as he talked, Jo and I both ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed and jotted down the names of the varieties we liked the best, and at the end of the session we hot-footed it over to the table of tubers to buy a few of our favourites.

The one we really wanted – named ‘JRG’ in honour of the man himself; a rather lovely dark-leaved single variety – wasn’t available, alas (but we’ve asked Jo’s folks to keep an eye out for it at the Malvern Spring show). But we came away with five good-sized tubers to start us off: Don Hill (dark red collerette), Christmas Carol (red/white collerette), Topmix Reddy (red single), Topmix Purple (purple single) and Topmix Mama (red, dark leaf single). All open-faced, pollinator-friendly varieties, as per our general rule of flowering plants number one: thou shalt feed the bees. For that reason we’re steering clear of the pompom, ball, cactus, anenome and water-lilly types, all of which are a bit too closed-up and inaccessible for our liking.

March 2016 - Our selection of JRG Dahlia tubers
This lot should see us right to start with.

We brought them home and stored them in a polystyrene box for a couple of weeks, but when I noticed that they’d started sprouting already, I realised I should pot them up, which I did at the weekend. After a quick check-in with Guru Glyn for his take on potting procedure, I put them into containers just big enough to take the tubers, with well-moistened general purpose compost above and below:

March 2016 - JRG Dahlias being potted up
Add compost to pot, insert tuber, cover with more compost… easy.
March 2016 - JRG Dahlias potted up
Dahlias all potted up and ready to do their thing…

A few days in the greenhouse later and they’re already sprouting well, especially the Christmas Carol which seems the most vigorous so far. Hopefully that means I haven’t made any novice blunders just yet. On the night of the talk, Jack mentioned that once the smaller tubers are sprouting strongly, I can split them up and create a few new plants to help spread them out a bit. I’ll be giving that a go, seeing as I’ve promised a few cuttings to Guru Glyn, and besides it will be nice to develop a number of mature plants over the next few years, to provide plenty of colour down at the allotment bee-buffet and in our new cottage garden as well.

If you’re a Dahlia grower yourself and have any top tips, please feel free to post them in the comments below. Otherwise, wish us luck, and we’ll report back on the plants as we plant them out and watch them grow over the course of the season.

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Our Allotment Year in Review: 2015/16 Edition

January is the traditional time to post a year-in-review piece, but for me, the start of the sowing and growing season – with the last of the previous year’s over-wintered veg crops being harvested or cleared away and the first of this year’s plants being sown and planted out – seems a good time to think back on what went well and what wasn’t such a success.

Last year was an odd one: we moved house (eventually) at the end of July, which meant that from March through to October – almost the entire growing season – we were doing a lot more sorting, skipping, packing, moving, unpacking, redecorating and recovering than we’re (hopefully) likely to have to do again for a very long time.

Nevertheless, we still managed a pretty good all-round showing.

Spuds

Good

Last year we deliberately grew far too many potatoes in order to help condition and turn over a massive, newly-cleared section of the plot; almost an entire quarter of the total space. Our ‘swift’ first earlies were great, as were the ‘saxon’ second earlies – which we actually harvested as main-crop and turned out to be an excellent all-rounder – and ‘pink fir apple’ main-crop. We had so many of these latter two varieties that we were still eating them well into February, until they started shooting like crazy and depleted their starch stores.

October 2015 Spuds drying out
About a quarter (?) of our total 2015 potato harvest…
October 2015 - Pink Fir Apple
Knobbliest pink fir apple contest? We have a winner!

Not so Good

Our fourth variety was ‘Golden Wonder’ which grew reasonably well, albeit with smaller yields than the other three, but turned out to be less useful from a culinary point-of-view. Their extreme starchiness meant they were okay as roasties or oven-baked wedges, if you didn’t mind the uber-crunchy exterior and quite dry interior, but rather useless for anything else; you just have to wave them in the general direction of a pot of boiling water and they start to dissolve, so you can’t even par-boil them. I even tried making crisps with them… frankly, not worth the effort. Ah, well.

Alliums

All Good

We had a pretty decent harvest of regular garlic, the elephant garlic was excellent (double the amount is already planted out and growing on for this year), our ‘Musselburgh’ leeks grew well – they’re still going strong and are very tasty with it – and the brown onion ‘sturon’ sets, that one of the old boys donated from his surplus, did well.

Beans

Good

I love beans. I love growing them, harvesting them, cooking with them and eating them. Last year we grew broad beans in Spring and then runner beans (scarlet emperor), climbing French beans (borlotti and fasold) and dwarf beans (cannelini) in Summer. All of them did very well indeed and we managed to fill a freezer tray with pods and a couple of tubs with dried beans for the winter.

May 2015 broad beans
Broad beans coming along nicely, back in May 2015

Not so Good

The one failure was the variety I tried to grow as part of my ‘three sisters’ (squash / sweetcorn / beans) companion planting section. Not wanting to plant anything too vigorous, I went for a dwarfing purple variety, which were almost totally swamped by the masses of squash foliage that I didn’t have time to control. This year: a climber, and more pruning.

Fruit

Good

Around a quarter of our plot is planted up with soft fruit bushes and rhubarb, many of which were newly-transplanted from home or elsewhere on the plot at the end of year one, so we weren’t expecting anything amazing in their first full year. We were surprised and delighted though by bumper crops of blackcurrants, raspberries and rhubarb, all of which featured heavily in my jam-making. We also had an excellent blueberry harvest from our two potted bushes in the back garden. No jam there though, they barely made it inside the house. Our gooseberries and redcurrants were less impressive but still put in a good effort; the bushes should do better this year. Still to perform (hopefully this year): whitecurrants, Japanese wineberry and loganberry.

Not so Good

It was an awful year for our strawberries. The previous November we planted up three ridges, with a dozen plants on each, and looked forward to the glut to follow. What happened instead was a red-hot April that forced early blossom, followed by a cold, wet May which killed it all off again before it could be pollinated. Net result: three fruits. Not three kilos, or even three fruiting plants. Just three lonely little fruits. Here’s hoping for better growing conditions this year.

Brassicas

Good

The three varieties of cabbage – all pointy-headed types – that we planted did very well and we enjoyed them immensely. Our kale was good as well and over-wintered nicely, until the pigeons worked out that the new shoots were ripe for raiding.

Not so Good

Our sprouts were a big disappointment: small, poorly formed buttons on spindly stems, barely a crop worth the name. I think I know where I went wrong: I kept them covered in enviromesh for too long, so they got a bit cramped as they were growing strongly over the summer. This year I’ll take the covers off sooner and plant them a bit further apart, too, to give them more room to stretch out. Because we couldn’t keep on top of the watering, our Romanesco broccoli bolted. It was still tasty as shoots/spears, but we didn’t get the tight, fractal-pattern heads. We’ll have another go this year and see what happens. And our purple sprouting broccoli was annihilated by the same pigeons (we assume) that did for the kale, back in February.

Cucurbits and Corn

Good

Courgettes! So many lovely courgettes. We grew four varieties and they all did extremely well; we were eating them from late Spring right through to mid Autumn. A superb crop, they pretty much take care of themselves and will keep on producing until the frosts start to bite. Highly recommended. Our sweetcorn did rather well, too. It was the first year that I’d grown it properly so wasn’t sure what to expect. When we ended up harvesting around two-dozen good-sized cobs from a dozen plants I was rather pleased. More of the same this year, I reckon.

August 2015 Courgette harvest
Courgettes! And one mini-marrow. And a round one on the way to a pumpkin.

Not so Good

The ‘sweet dumpling’ squashes that we planted in the three sisters section didn’t work at all well. Again, it was down to a lack of time to keep on top of the masses of foliage that the vines produce; I didn’t cut them back soon enough or hard enough and they sprawled massively as a result, causing damp, humid conditions that rotted the fruits on the vine. More care and attention needed this year.

Roots etc.

Good

We didn’t do all that much on the roots front, except to sow a few rows in a spare patch of ground just to see what happened. As it turned out, the parsnips and salsify did rather well, with the latter a very tasty revelation. We still have the last few parsnips in the ground; they’ll be coming up shortly.

March 2016 - Last of the Salsify
This strange, hairy stuff is salsify – rather tasty baked or sauteed in butter.

Not so Good

Carrots. Ugh. They didn’t do at all well, we got nothing at all from the row I sowed. But then I didn’t do much soil preparation and didn’t take any precautions against carrot-fly. More and better of both this year. The celeriac was poor as well; sprouted greens but failed to set roots. I’ll have to read up on that one. Likewise, the celery plants that our next-door plot neighbour donated did nowt worth mentioning. To be fair though, I don’t know if they were a trenching or self-blanching variety, so just chucking them in and hoping probably wasn’t the best strategy.

Salads, Misc. Others, etc.

So-So

We didn’t grow our usual trays of greenhouse salad leaves last year, due to the uncertainty of the move, but what we did have made a fresh, tasty change from supermarket lettuce. I didn’t go in for peas much either – I usually do pea shoots at home for salads and mange tout in tubs, as well as down the greenhouse – but those will feature more heavily again this year. No exotic or unusual fruit or veg last year (same reason as before), the chillis were a bit of a failure (I blame the wet summer) and the three bush tomatoes that I chucked in at the allotment didn’t do much (except sprawl through the courgette patch and make a nuisance of themselves) before getting blight-struck. So it goes.

This Year’s Changes

Fewer spuds, more elephant garlic and onions, hopefully a better fruit harvest, more (and better spaced) brassicas, even more beans, a new asparagus patch, improved squash-foilage control, more salads, greenhouse and outdoor tomatoes, plenty of chillis, a few exotics, an actual carrot harvest (hopefully), and all sorts of other stuff.

Watch this space!

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Comparative Germination: A Few Degrees of Difference

On March 15th I sowed two batches of Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris – Swiss Chard ‘five colours’ – in coir pellets; two seeds (or rather, seed clusters, as per beetroot and other member of the Beta family) per pellet.

One batch of six pellets was put into an unheated mini-propagator unit in our (also unheated) greenhouse. The temperature will have fluctuated from around 2°C at night to temporary peaks of 34°C during the day (memo to self: check auto-vents are working…) with a probable average of about 14°C to 18°C.

The second batch was put into our Vitopod heated propagator, set to 20°C (bringing the chilli seedlings along). The difference in performance between the two batches isn’t entirely unexpected, but is still dramatic:

March 2016 Swiss chard germination
Spot the difference…

As you can see, the heated propagator seedlings have romped away, having germinated in only three days, to the point where they’re probably a little too vigorous and leggy, but hopefully not etiolated. By contrast, the unheated seeds have only just started to break the surface, although there’s a good chance more of them have put out their radicle (initial root) and are on the cusp of putting up their cotyledons (seed leaves).

I’m going to move the germinated seedlings into the greenhouse, where the dull weather that’s set for the next few days should slow them down a little and hopefully encourage them to grow more steadily. I’ll also thin them out to the two strongest specimens per pellet and let them fight it out from there, otherwise there’s a risk that they’ll all compete each other to death. Winner will take all eventually, with one plant per pellet remaining to be potted on. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years of growing: there’s no point being sentimental about seedlings, if you want strong plants for cropping.

The other batch will remain out in their unheated propagator unit as well. Either they’ll catch up eventually or they’ll lag behind a bit, which won’t be a bad thing from a crop succession point-of-view.

It all goes to show the difference that a steady, reasonably high temperature makes when it comes to germinating seeds. Of course, whether it’s worth using a heated propagator – taking electricity consumption and associated environmental factors into account – just to bring on a few early seeds, is a matter for debate and conscience.

(In my eco-defence, I’ll point out that I’m only using the heated propagator for Swiss chard because it’s already switched on to nurture my chilli seedlings, which do need a long growing season and a higher temperature – not currently achievable at a constant rate in the greenhouse – to thrive. If there hadn’t been a spare bit of space in there than I wouldn’t have used it just to run this quick experiment.)

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Setting Up Our Asparagus Bed, Part 3 – Drainage

With (reasonably) fine weather continuing over the weekend, I took the opportunity to finish off the essential preparation for the soon-to-be asparagus bed down on Plot #59.

Quick recap on the process so far:

  1. Part 1 – Basic Preparation
  2. Part 2 – Soil Enrichment

Here’s what the ground looked like before I started work:

March 2016 - Asparagus bed, pre-ridging
Dug over, manured and ready for ridging.

The next stage was to work on providing plenty of drainage for the asparagus crowns, which thrive in soil that’s fertile but well-drained. Following advice from various gardening books and a Gardener’s World piece on asparagus planting that Monty Don did last year, I invested in ten bulk bags of gravel from B&Q. Because I was using builders’ grade gravel, rather than the pre-washed, decorative-grade (and more than twice as pricey) stuff, the first job was to give the gravel a thorough rinsing. Into the wheelbarrow, along with a watering can’s worth of saved rainwater, a good sloshing around and out comes (hopefully) a lot of the surplus clay, silt and salt:

March 2016 gravel washing
Important to get rid of the excess salts in particular.

Three and a third(ish) bags then went to form the basis for each ridge:

March 2016 asparagus ridge bases
Hopefully enough gravel there to keep the crowns well-drained.

I then added soil from the big pile of material that I dug out of the section to begin with, mixed with a fork and went along the ridges with a spade, straightening the rows:

March 2016 asparagus ridges finished off
Straight enough for purpose…

And that’s pretty much that, until the crowns arrive from Blackmoor Nurseries, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. One more post to come as the crowns go in, and then the long wait for a harvest will begin…

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Vitopod Pro-Tip: Maybe Invest in that Extra Level..?

Yeah, it’s cute when your cat sits on top of the toasty, warm Vitopod propagator. Well worth taking a snap and tweeting it:

But later on, when she decides that vermiculite smells like cat food, works out how to open the top vent, reaches in with a furry paw and trashes half a tray of chilli seedlings trying to get at the good stuff… you’ll wish you’d remembered to put the second level in and raised the overall height a bit more.

Trust me on this one 😐

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Chilli Progress: Potting on the Seedlings

Last weekend I decided the time had come to pot on this year’s successfully germinated Chilli seeds. it being around six weeks since I sowed them. Not all had germinated but I wasn’t expecting a 100% hit rate, so I wasn’t at all disappointed by the tally of 17 viable seedlings.

March 2016 - Chilli seedlings
Ready to pot on – if they haven’t germinated now, they never will

I’d already half-filled a sufficient number of 7cm(ish) pots with general purpose compost, soaked it and left it to warm in the greenhouse. The next job was to get the chilli seedlings from their trays to the pots. My tool of choice for that job is an old dessert spoon, which allows a good scoop of compost around the base of the seedling to be lifted in one piece. This helps to minimise damage to the incredibly delicate roots – and the even more fragile, microscopic root hairs – that are so essential to the health of the plant.

March 2016 pricking out chilli seedlings
Using a spoon helps to minimise root and root-hair damage

Once all 17 (7x Cayenne, 5x Prairie Fire, 3x Pot Black and 2x Habanero / Scotch Bonnet) were safely potted up, topped up with compost and watered in, they went back into the Vitopod propagator – set to a balmy 20°C to bring them within the optimal temperature range for photosynthesis – to grow on. They’ll be moved to the greenhouse in another couple of weeks (some maybe a little sooner if we need the space to germinate more seeds) but it’s a little too chilly in there overnight just yet.

March 2016 chilli seedlings in ptopagator
Back in the Vitopod to grow and strengthen

They seem to be doing quite nicely back in the Vitopod: a few of them have started putting out a second pair of true leaves. When they’re big and strong enough – around 12 to 15cm tall, with five or six good leaf pairs – they’ll be re-potted again into 15cm pots. The best three (hopefully of the more interesting varieties) will then be put in the Chilligrow containers.

It’s going to be a bumper year for Capsicum, with any luck. Anyone know a good recipe for chilli dipping sauce?

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Now Sowing: Experimental Clover for Garden Organic

This morning I cleared the final stragglers – some non-producing purple sprouting broccoli and a few pigeon-knackered kale plants – from the main veg section down on Plot #59. Having found a bit of clubroot in the p.s.b. and not wanting to risk spreading it to this year’s brassicas, I decided that the newly-cleared section would make an ideal location for the green manure trial that I’m carrying out for Garden Organic this year, which will run through to March 2017.

Garden Organic clover trial patches  - newly sown
Newly cleared, raked, sown and watered experimental trial patches.

That’s two one-metre square plots (with some celery that survived the winter relocated as a boundary marker and a few parsley plants to keep them apart) freshly cleared, raked and sown with the seed provided. I noticed that the Persian clover seed was quite a bit smaller than that of the red clover; I expect that means the red will be a more robust plant than the Persian? Time will tell and I’ll be keeping track of progress as the two patches develop.

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Greenhouse Pest Control, the All-Organic Way

Thanks to one of the warmest, wettest UK winters since records began, the utility area at the end of our (soon to be demolished and replaced) garage/shed, which is home to three compost bins and three large water butts, is also hosting a small, but growing (and irritating) colony of mini mosquitoes.

The greenhouse just next door is sure to make an attractive hanging-out space for these pesky critters, and so I’ve taken steps to try to keep their buzzing and biting under control.

A selection of Wack's Wicked Carnivorous Plants
Insectivores reporting for greenhouse duty

Enter, stage left: my latest botanical acquisitions, sourced from Wack’s Wicked Plants, a specialist carnivorous plant nursery based in Malton, North Yorkshire.

What we have here (from the left) is:

  • Sarracenia alata ‘red tube’ – a North American pitcher plant from the De Soto National Forest, George County, Mississippi.
  • Drosera filiformis – a sundew that traps its prey on long, sticky, downward-curling stems.
  • Dionaea muscipula ‘giant peach’ – a venus fly trap with a red-coloured interior leaf.
  • Sarracenia x purpurea ‘Barba Papa’ – a hybrid North American trumpet pitcher plant.

Obviously they’re all quite small plants – the better to ensure they survive the mail order delivery process – so I’m looking forward to watching them grow and develop (and devour those damned mosquitoes) over the course of the growing season. I’ll post more photos as they do.

If you’re interested in obtaining a few organic bug-catchers of your very own, check out the full range of carnivorous, insectivorous plants at Wack’s Wicked Plants. Or see the list of shows and plant fairs that Wack and H will be attending this year, if you’re keen to buy some larger, more menacing specimens.

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Green Manure on Trial for Garden Organic

When I signed up for Garden Organic‘s Heritage Seed Library earlier this year, I ticked a couple of boxes on the form to indicate my general willingness to take part in their 2016 trials programme. As well as participating in a seed-saving survey, I also said I’d like to help trial a potential new green manure seed: Persian clover (Trifolium resupinatum, meaning ‘having the appearance of being upside-down’).

As I’m sure most gardeners and plot holders are well aware, green manure is any one of a range of fast-growing crops that’s intended to cover a patch of otherwise un-used ground. The plants help to keep weeds down and then can be dug in to provide compost matter and food for worms, both of which help to improve soil quality.

At the weekend, the postman delivered a package from Garden Organic with two packets of clover seed: Persian and the more common red (Trifolium pratense, meaning ‘of the meadow’) variety. We grew the latter as a green manure last year, but didn’t get around to digging it in, and this was the general result:

Red clover, yellow kale
Our 2015 green manure patch , which we didn’t quite get around to digging in…

(We got a lot of comments from our plot-neighbours about how lovely the patch looked and the bees went mad for the nectar, so we left it to do its thing. It went to seed and re-grew a second time, which I also didn’t get round to digging in, until I ended up clearing the patch earlier this week.)

According to the notes from Garden Organic, Persian clover – which is widely grown as a fodder-crop – is meant to be a little more no-dig-friendly, as the stems are quicker to rot down and can be left on the surface for the worms to deal with; unlike the red clover steams which tend to dry to a straw-like consistency and don’t incorporate into the soil unless you do dig them in.

The seeds need to be sown in mid-March, so I’d better get my skates on and decide where I’m going to put the two one-metre trial sections on the plot. I’ll be sure to take plenty of photos and record my progress as I go, with further updates here as the two clover crops develop.

If you’re interested in using green manure on your own plot or garden, take a look at the range of seeds available from sowseeds.co.uk sub-site www.greenmanure.co.uk, which is who we bought our red clover seed from, and read their notes on choosing the right green manure to see what’s best to sow where, when and why.

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Thinking Ahead – Doing Our Bit for the Bees

Jo and I are starting to plan our new, suburban Cottage Garden, with a number of key goals in mind. It has make best use of the available space, look stunning for as much of the year as possible, produce a few food crops that will supplement and add to the main work being done down on Plot #59 and, last but definitely not least, provide a haven and a rich food source for bees and other propagating insects.

I’m sure if you’re a gardener you’ll be aware of the plight of the world’s bee populations: beset on all sides by a changing environment, a loss of their food sources, parasitical invasion and pesticide poisoning. Without bees to pollinate a huge percentage of our food crops, the human race would be plunged into food poverty and a massively-reduced diet faster than you can say “why are there no strawberries on the supermarket shelves?” And that’s just one reason to do everything we can to help halt their decline, the knock-on effect would be a massive disruption to entire ecological systems; nothing short of environmental catastrophe.

There’s plenty more factual information and helpful advice in this rather excellent infographic from Suttons Seeds, which was just too good not to share:

suttons-bee-friendly-gardening

As you can see, the main things we as domestic gardeners can do to help them out are to provide food for foraging bees and suitable habitat for solitary bees to over-winter in. Jo and I also benefit from the nearby location of the Manchester & District Beekeepers Association and their dozen or so hives at their apiary in Heaton Park, so providing a source of nectar for their bees is only neighbourly, which is why we’re aiming to grow a large volume of pollinator-friendly flowers at Plot #59 as well. Last year we grew red clover as a green manure and let it go to flower: it looked absolutely stunning and on warm, sunny days the patch was thick with bees; a huge success.

RHS Perfect for Pollinators
Look for the logo when browsing the seed racks
Individually, none of us are going to be able to solve the problem, of course. But collectively, our efforts can add up to a sum total that’s at least a step in the right direction. So if, like us, you’re planning ahead to your Spring and Summer displays, think bee-friendly first. Check out the RHS Perfect for Pollinators plant lists, which include some absolutely stunning native and world plants, and look for the logo when browsing seed packets. If you have a choice between two, equally attractive options, opt for the one that will do the bees the most good. Our furry, flying, pollinating friends will thank you for it.

(Plenty more information on how to help save the bees can be found by searching online for the many organisations who are working and campaigning on their behalf.)

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