Almost the first thing we did when we moved into our new house last Summer (apart from put he kettle on) was to invest in the biggest greenhouse that we could sensibly fit into our new back garden. We hoped that the 8’x10′ we opted for would offer more than enough working and storage space to meet our needs. It really should have done, but thanks to these cold snaps that the weather keeps throwing at us, we’re rapoidly running out of room.
We’ve currently got about as much heavy duty plastic shelving crammed into the place as we can sensibly fit and pretty much every shelf is taken up with plants in various stages of development. They range from newly-sown seeds – I put in some peas at the weekend; sweetcorn, gherkins, squash and kale in the last couple of weeks, and Jo has been working hard on her flower selection – through to good-sized plants – the broad beans for instance, and the dahlia tubers – which are pretty much ready to go out onto the allotment. That is, they would be if it wasn’t too darn cold to risk trying to harden them off in the cold frame, and there wasn’t a very real danger of frost and snow showers damaging the tender young shoots if we did.
Here’s a small selection of what we’re currently juggling:
The forecast for the weekend is a bit more promising. If there’s no frost on the longer-range radar then we’ll start moving a few things out into the newly re-stained cold frame to begin hardening off, and all being well we can take them down to Plot #59 in a couple of weeks’ time.
(And please do feel free to sing the title of this post to the tune of the E-Street Band classic, chorus line, if you feel the urge…)
Of all the veggies I’ve tried to grow in the past few years, I think carrots have to be the most frustrating. The first year I grew them, in our back garden plot back at our old place, the carrots actually did quite well. If by ‘well’ we mean beautifully twisted and gnarled beyond any supermarket-standard definition of a carrot:
They still tasted rather fantastic (the knobbliest ended up in a rather nice carrot and cumin soup, as I recall), but that’s been it for carrots ever since. I’ve sown them a few more times and all I’ve ever really grown is carrot tops (apparently they’re quite edible, if you cook ’em right, but I’ve never tried) with short, stumpy rootlings at best.
“Why bother?” You might cry, and with reasonable reason. Carrots are around 60p a kilo bag in most supermarkets, so why do I put myself through the hassle and heartache of trying to raise them from seed?
The answer, as with so much that’s home grown, has to be: the flavour. Compared to the long-stored, shop-bought versions – and especially the stored-in-the-ground-for-months specimens that are around at the moment – fresh-out-of-the-ground carrots really are a taste sensation.
There’s a perfectly good scientific reason why: carrots are biennials. Their roots are storage bunkers for the sugars that the plant needs to keep it alive over winter so it can grow again, set flower and spread seed the next year. That’s what, if we pick ’em and eat ’em fresh, gives them their sweet, pungent, palate-pleasuring burst of flavour.
Whilst hibernating though, the plant is gradually using up those sugars (via respiration) to keep its cells and tissues in good order. But it isn’t able to replenish them as it doesn’t have the chlorophyll-filled foliage to photosynthesise new carbohydrates. Which is why, come Springtime, stored carrots mostly consist of sugar-depleted packing material, which keeps ’em crunchy, but really doesn’t do much for their flavour.
Conclusion: if you want your carrots to taste really, really good, then grow your own is the way to go. Here endeth the lesson.
On to this year’s carrot (and other root) growing plan: I’ve read up on the subject, and the general consensus is that what carrots need is super-fine soil with minimal stone content – when a carrot root hits a stone, it grows around or away from it rather than shoving it out of the way, causing forking and splitting you see above (which, when you think about it, is a terribly British way of doing things: “I’m so sorry, were you obstructing me? I’ll just inconvenience myself by going around…”) – that’s still reasonably fertile. But not too fertile, because that encourages the growth of side-roots and yet more forking. Not that I mind a bit of forking – I’m growing for food, not for show – but they’re quicker and easier to clean if they’re reasonably straight-ish.
Next up there’s the dreaded carrot fly to consider: they can smell freshly crushed carrot leaves from a mile away and will zoom on in to lay their eggs at the base of the stems. The grubs will then tunnel into the root and chomp away until it’s damaged beyond all hope of use or salvage. They do have one weakness though: the egg-laying females can’t fly more than 60cm / two feet (or so) above the ground. So a barrier of fine mesh around the growing area should be enough to keep them out.
Here’s what I’ve been working on the past couple of days:
Firstly, I forked over and re-loosened the soil in the section I’m using this year – most of which was dug out of the back section when we laid the base for the greenhouse last year – and then relocated a couple of old raised beds (former pallets) that we inherited when we took over the plot.
Next, I tacked strips of doubled-up weed membrane around the inside of the beds, to block the gap between slats, which will hopefully keep most of the slugs out and most of the soil in.
The biggest part of the job involved bringing in soil from a section in the middle of the plot that I’m levelling to make way for a path, and hand-riddling the lot through a large, metal sieve to remove as much stone and weed root as I possibly can. As you can see, the result is about six inches or so of prime-quality crumb tilth, over a sub-surface of reasonably well-broken soil.
Next, I raked in a reasonable amount of fish, blood and bone fertiliser – round about NPK 4-7-4; a slightly higher phosphorus level should aid root growth – and then formed drills in the beds and watered them well. I was going to sow the carrot seed mixed in with fine sand, but the local DIY shop didn’t have any, so I ended up doing without.
I’ve sown six carrot varieties into the larger of the two beds: ‘Nantes 5’, ‘Royal Chantenay 3’, ‘Autumn King 2’, ‘Charlemagne’, ‘Purple Sun’ and ‘Creme de Lite’. The last two are from James Wong’s Grow For Flavour range (from Suttons Seeds). The Chantenay seeds were sown right along the edge of the bed, to see if they germinate any faster for the soil being extra-warmed by the heat stored in the wooden bed edging.
In the smaller bed I’ve sown some other root crops: salsify ‘Giant’ and root parsley ‘Eagle’ (another Grow For Flavour variety) so far. I’ll be adding parsnip, mooli, scorzonera and quite possibly a catch-crop or two of radish at a slightly later date as well.
Finally, I surrounded both beds with a screen of fine enviromesh, around 30″ or so in height. It’s reasonably sheltered by the neighbour’s compost bay and fruit trees, so hopefully won’t suffer too much wind-damage, but I’ll have to keep an eye on the pegs, or maybe invest in some cane-clips if they seem to be getting loose.
Fingers crossed for a decent carrot crop this year! Because if all of the above preparation doesn’t provide an amenable-enough environment for carrots to grow in, then there’s probably not much else I can do to help.
After a properly lazy day on soggy Saturday, I was back down the plot on Sunday afternoon to enjoy a burst of Spring sunshine (albeit tempered by some distinctly northerly breezes) and to get the last of this year’s potatoes in the ground.
Having already dug and manured trenches and planted out my first early (‘swift’) and second early (‘saxon’) spuds over the past few weeks, it was the turn of the main-crop variety ‘pink fir apple’.
I left the job until after lunch to give the ground a chance to heat up and hopefully that absorbed warmth will help to insulate the tubers through the spell of cold weather that’s forecast for the end of this week. There are no shoots showing on any of the trenches yet, but if that changes this week I’ll have to keep my eye on the likely minimum temperatures and if a frost seems imminent, scoot on down and do a spot of earthing-up. A frost won’t kill the plants, but if the early shoots are damaged then it will set them back.
Meanwhile, back in the greenhouse, the shelves are packed full of seed trays and modules with all sorts of things that are taking their sweet time to get going. We have a row of broad beans to plant out, once the cold wind stops blowing for a bit, and plenty of pricking out and potting on in progress, with more seed to sow… once we have the space.
Again, it’s the chilly temperatures that are holding things back. Still, I think it’s better than the situation we had last year: the heatwave in April, followed by a cold, damp May sent everything out of whack. If we’re actually going to experience a ‘normal’ seasonal growing pattern this year then that won’t be so bad, eh?
The majority of our assorted chilli plants have now been moved from the propagator to a high shelf in the greenhouse – except the two habanero / scotch bonnet plants, which are still a little on the small side – and are coming along nicely:
I’m very happy with the size of the plants at the moment: a few good sets of leaves, strong root development and the main stems are starting to thicken up nicely. Another few weeks and they’ll need staking, and another few after that they’ll be ready for pinching off and planting out into their final positions. I’ll be topping them up with a nitrogen-rich liquid feed every so often in the meantime to keep those stems and leaves healthy.
A few weeks ago I placed an order for a few packets of seeds from Suttons and ticked the box on the order form to receive two plug plants of Squash (Cucurbita pepo) ‘tromboncino’ (which, according to one online translator app means “spigot-type grenade launcher”… the mind boggles).
It was partly because I’m a sucker for free plants (who isn’t?) and partly because I fancied entering the inaugural Suttons Cup Competition to see who can grow the longest tromboncino fruit. Or at least, see how close I could get to something worth entering in the competition. It’s just a bit of fun, after all.
The plug plants arrived on Tuesday, neatly packaged up:
They both had good (only slightly nitrogen-deficient) leaves and a healthy (if slightly module-bound) root system. I’m assuming they’ve been grown in hothouse conditions to bring them on to this size in so small an amount of growing medium:
The first job was to tease out those roots and then plant the plugs in small pots with some fresh multi-purpose compost. A good watering with a liquid feed late, and they were onto a greenhouse shelf to recover from their postal ordeal and re-establish themselves.
In a couple of weeks’ time I’ll pot them on again into an intermediary container before working out where I’ll be keeping them in the long-term. Squash ‘tromboncino’ is a vigorous climber, so I’ll need to provide sturdy support. And given my relatively poor track record with squashes to-date, I’ll need to read up on suggested optimal growing conditions and general care / feeding instructions as well.
The other week I nipped in to Wilkinsons in Bury to pick up some small plastic pots. As I wandered around the gardening section, I spotted a shelf crammed full of miniature cacti, scattered around, pots all over.
Although they’re not edible and don’t attract pollinators, I do like the shape, form and texture of a nice cactus. Priced at just £1 each, not likely to take up much space in the greenhouse and in desperate need of rescuing from Wilko’s, I decided to treat myself to a fiver’s worth – four cacti, one succulent – and brought them home for re-potting.
The first step was to make up a suitable potting mix. I used equal measures of sandy seed compost, horticultural grit and vermiculite, the better to simulate the rough, sandy desert soil.
Then it was a case of on with the thick gloves, ease each mini cactus out of its pot (they were bone dry and root bound, as you’d expect), then site it in a larger pot – about 2-3cm of extra diameter, no more at this stage – and back-fill with the potting mix, using a spoon to slide it in and tamp it down to avoid a spiny surprise.
After I’d re-potted them all I gave them a good bottom-soaking before positioning them in a gravel tray full of gravel and finished off the pots with a top-dressing of gravel as well (after I took the next pic). They’re now up on a south-facing shelf, the better to soak up as much Spring sunshine as we can muster. I have no idea what species and/or cultivar any of them are, of course, so if anyone can i.d. anything in the pic below, I’d be very grateful for a comment.
I look forward to seeing them grow on over the summer and will probably re-pot them again into the next size up this time next year.
I was faced with a dilemma this weekend. My order of asparagus crowns arrived from Blackmoor Nurseries on Wednesday. With a run of poor weather up to that point, and more rain forecast, I wasn’t sure whether to plant the crowns and hope they didn’t get too soggy, or keep them in their packaging and risk them drying out. After a word or tow of advice from my RHS course tutor on Friday (“get them in the ground,”) I ventured down to the plot yesterday morning to make my final preparations and finish the job.
My nicely prepped planting ridges had taken a bit of a beating during the rainy period, so the first task was to rake them back into shape:
However, walking between the rows made me realise just how claggy and wet (and therefore cold) the soil still was, so after a quick check of the afternoon’s forecast – bright spells until a light shower around 5.00 p.m. – I headed back home to give the ground a bit longer to drain. I took a soil sample with me and ran a pH test – which came in at a perfect 6.5, meaning I wasn’t going to have to add garden lime to the soil before planting – did the shopping, had lunch, and came back in the afternoon.
Those few extra hours of sunshine seemed to have done the trick. By 2.00 p.m. the ridges were looking much drier and had absorbed some warmth, although I still made a point of re-forking between the ridges to break up the thick pan that had formed as I’d been walking on it – the last thing we want is for water to accumulate between the ridges and rot the root tips as they grow – I also took the opportunity to fork in a bit more (extremely) well-rotted horse manure, just to give the plants an extra boost once their new roots reach that far. Then it was time to start planting.
I’d ordered Blackmoor’s thirty crown pack of three varieties: Connover’s Colossal and Guelph Milennium are both RHS AGM varieties, and the latter is a later variety, which should extend the picking season from late April until late June. The third was Pacific Purple, which apparently has spears that are more tender, less fibrous and better tasting than pretty much anything else; time will tell, hopefully.
The crowns were laid on top of the ridge, with their roots spread out in a fan to either side of the bud, roughly 30cm apart. I then sprinkled on a bit of fish, blood and bone – a relatively phosphate-rich fertiliser, which should help the roots to develop in their first year – before shovelling soil over them, covering the roots, but leaving the bud-tips exposed, as advised in the instructions from Blackmoor.
I worked in stages, to make sure I wasn’t trampling or dislodging any crowns, and to give me chance to fork and manure between the ridges as I went. This shot shows the three ridges with varying degrees of progress:
Bare ridge, ready for planting.
Crowns in position, ready for back-filling.
Back-filled ridge, with just bud-tips showing.
By 4.15, with half a ridge left to finish off, the promised “light shower” arrived, except it turned out to be a moderate hail shower, followed by a burst of heavy rain. I finished the job off – what’s a little rain to an allotmenteer, eh? – and focused on the silver lining: nature was apparently going to lend a hand and water the rows in for me. I’ll be back down today though, to make sure the soil hasn’t settled too far and exposed any roots (I do hope not, as we had a light frost overnight) and will back-fill some more if necessary.
And then: the waiting begins. First for those oh, so exciting signs of new growth this year, and then a full two seasons – it’s essential to allow the crowns time to properly establish and strengthen, rather like rhubarb – before we can pick our first harvest. That will be the true test of my patience, but I’ll just have to grit my teeth and bear it.
Come back in 2018 for a harvest update and in the meantime, please do feel free to torment me by sharing your top asparagus recipes in the comments, below…
For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that even if you’re a novice allotmenteer or gardener you’ve already identified and invested in some essential equipment. We’re talking spade, fork, hoe, rake, shears, secateurs, hand trowel, that sort of thing. If you can pick it up in your local supermarket at this time of year, then it’s classifiable as ‘basic kit’ in my book.
Once you’ve tended an allotment, or a large enough garden plot, for a couple of years, you’ll realise that there are some extra bits and pieces of less-obvious kit that, once you’ve identified a need for them, quickly become essentials in their own right. Some might be right under your nose, others you won’t find unless you got looking for them, either online or at your friendly, neighbourhood garden centre or nursery. But once you do discover them, you’ll wonder how you managed without.
Here are my top ten (that I’ve discovered so far…)
1. Long-handled shovel
Made by: All the usual suspects Price: Around £20 – £30 Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, various, any good garden centre
A couple of the old boys down the plots strongly advised me to get myself one of these, and by heck I’m glad I did: it’s quite possibly the best £20 I’ve spent for a long while. The extra length in the handle – I went for the Spear & Jackson 54″ model (pictured) as I’m 6’2″, but you might want to get a shorter one if you’re not as lanky as me – allows you to adopt a completely different digging position. Instead of stooping and lifting primarily with your knees and lower back (danger! danger!), you can take a much more upright stance and spread the effort across your shoulders and thighs, as well as your whole back. Short version: much quicker to dig large volumes of soil, longer reach, less back pain. What’s not to like?
I first read about this little beauty a couple of years back, in a ringing endorsement by Alys Fowler. It’s the best form of hand-weeder I’ve used to-date. The hook-shaped blade and extended neck enables you to skim along beneath a surface weed like creeping buttercup, slicing through the roots as you go. Or you can use the point for even more delicate, tricky work, such as furtling out hairy bittercress from between the roots of fruit bushes.
Looking at the manufacturer’s website, it seems they also do both left- and right-handed versions as well as a long-handled one (and a new device they’re calling a weed slice, which looks rather interesting for larger areas…)
This one is very handy indeed for getting at those hard-to-extract perennials: dandelion, dock, bindweed comfrey and the like. The narrow, two-prong shape means you can focus on a single weed without too much disturbance to nearby plants (not always do-able with a border spade or even a standard hand-fork). You can then dig around the tap root, loosening soil until the thing can be levered out or, in conjunction with the aforementioned razor hoe, sliced off deep enough down that it won’t bother you again for a good while yet and will hopefully die for lack of stored carbs before it breaks surface. Also great for chasing down long runs of bindweed rhizome.
Unless your allotment site is blessed with a brew room (which ours will be soon, as it happens) then chances are you’re going to need to supply your own hot beverage of choice. We started out with a Thermos flask, which turned out to be a bad idea. Four months into ownership, I was giving it a clean out and the inner glass container shattered, explosively. According to various product reviews that I subsequently read, this is quite a common problem. So to replace the self-destructing model, we opted for a stainless steel Stanley Classic Vacuum Flask instead of another Thermos. It’s shiny, tough, cleans up nicely and, most importantly, keeps a brew – four or five good-sized cuppas in our 1L version – nice and warm for a good three or four hours at least (we’ve not needed to test it for longer just yet). I’d say it’s worth spending a bit extra for something a lot more robust.
There are knives for all occasions, if you want to get really specialist about it. But when it comes to a general-purpose knife-plus-multi-tool setup, there’s still nothing to beat the good ol’ Swiss Army Knife. I have a Hiker model (pictured) which when I bought it had seemed to have the best selection of bits for allotment use: two knife blades, two screwdrivers, small saw, bottle opener, can opener, stabby thing (for punching holes in plastic pots, etc.) and a toothpick (er…) as well. If you want to go mad, check out the SwissChamp XAVT, but a Hiker has been fine for my use and never leaves my pocket, whatever trousers I’m wearing. Speaking of which…
6. Cargo Trousers
Made by: Various Price: £15 – £40 Sold by:Amazon.co.uk, pretty much anywhere else that sells clothes
I’m no allotment work clothing purist: I firmly believe you should feel free to garden in whatever you find most comfortable and/or useful. But for me, you can’t beat a good pair of what they’re now calling ‘cargo’ trousers (they used to be ‘combat’ trousers when I was a lad because you had to go to the army surplus store for a pair, but times have changed). It’s all about the pockets for me, and the range of easy-access leg pockets on a good pair of cargoes will beat the limited options on a pair of jeans any day, particularly at seed-sowing time. The ones I’m currently wearing are cheapish pairs from ASDA but I’m sure higher quality alternatives are available (like the Lee Cooper bad boys pictured and now on my Wishlist) if you want something a little longer-lasting (and with even more pockets!).
7. Builders’ line
Made by: Various Price: £3 – £4 Sold by:Amazon.co.uk, any DIY or hardware store
“What’s wrong with a bit of garden twine, or good old string?” I hear you cry. Well, nothing whatsoever, but builders’ line has a couple of small-but-significant advantages when it comes to edging, marking out etc. For one: it’s bright yellow, which aids visibility a tad. And for two: it comes on a handy spool, which makes winding it back up and then storing it – without it magically transforming into a tangles rats’ nest of knots overnight – a breeze. For a few quid, it’s worth grabbing a couple of spools’ worth and keeping them in your shed, greenhouse or allotment bag.
8. Large metal sieve / riddle
Made by: Various Price: Around £10 Sold by:Amazon.co.uk, any good garden centre or nursery
You’ll often see the smaller, potting-sized sieves, or larger plastic models, in supermarket selections. But what you really want – if there’s a particularly stony or weed-debris choked patch on your plot that you need to break down to a lovely fine tilth for direct-sowing – is a more robust, metal-and-wire job. Far less likely to break if you accidentally step on it (although much more likely to whack you in the shin and leave a hell of a bruise if you tread on the rim, so do watch your feet, folks) and tough enough for you to really smush those clods of earth through the mesh.
A tweet from Rob of @RobsAllotment switched me on to this one. It’s a recent purchase, but I already know it’s a good one. I’m not lifting or demolishing anything with it, but I am breaking up a fair few pallets. As any allotmenteer knows, a good bit of pallet timber comes in handy in so many situations: for bed-edging, path-edging, compost-bin making, and anything else you choose to do with it. Previously I tried breaking them up with a hammer and pry-bar, but it was a pain in the neck (and back, shoulders, legs) and I ended up taking a saw to the damn things to chop out various bits here and there… a right dog’s dinner. With a lifting bar, it’s a case of position, tilt, wrench free and you’re done. A couple of minutes per pallet, with a lot less wastage.
Hardening off your precious seedlings can be a bit hit-and-miss at the best of times, but you can take a lot of the guesswork out of the process with a decent cold frame. Open the lid when the weather’s toasty to make sure your young plants get plenty of air, and close it again when inclement weather threatens and you’ll be helping them acclimatise properly without (hopefully) running the risk of encountering the sort of heavy, seedling-shredding hail showers we had yesterday. We invested in a tanalised timber model from The Greenhouse People a couple of years back and yes, it did cost around £200, but we’re thinking of it as a long-term investment. With any luck it will still be providing essential protection for our seedlings for a decade or more. Cheaper versions are available (but sometimes you get what you pay for – our previous, plastic cold frame lasted about two seasons) or if you’re the handy type, then of course you could reclaim some timber and glass and make your own.
That’s my selection of non-standard allotment gear that’s well worth investing in. Do you have anything to add to the list? Questions about any of the above? Something you’d take issue with, or a counter-suggestion to make? Let me know via the comments, below.
I swung by Plot #59 this afternoon on the way back from a volunteering session for Incredible Edibles Prestwich, raking over the new raised beds in the polytunnels, to get the third of my second early potato trenches dug while the weather was good enough for digging. Strolling up the middle of the plot, I noticed that the fruit section is showing some welcome signs of life (click for a bigger pic).
Good to see the gooseberries and raspberries bursting into leaf there. The strawberries are putting on a lot of new foliage as well (note to self: they need a good prune to cut out the old, dead leaves and make room for the fresh ones). And although we must have the latest of late varieties of rhubarb – honestly, some folks on Twitter are eating crumble already! – they’re finally showing signs of Spring growth as well. Mind you, the crowns might be a bit laid back, but once they get going they’re usually unstoppable right through to Autumn, so I’m not complaining.
How’s about your plot? What’s coming along nicely and what are you still waiting for?