Month: May 2016

Working on the Compost

I spent a couple of sessions earlier this month clearing out an old compost heap that we inherited when we took on the plot. After a couple of years of neglect by us it was rife with bindweed and cleavers, plus the occasional deep-rooted dock, but I was sure there must be something worth salvaging in there, too.

April 2016 Old Compost Heap
All sorts of unwelcome weeds lurking in here…

Nothing for it but to fork it all loose and dig it all out. I went at it methodically, rough-sieving each spadeful through an old bread crate into the wheelbarrow:

May 2016 wheelbarrow-sieve
A rough finish, but good enough to get out the worst of the perennial weed.

The compost was quite dry and broke up easily, so this sort of rough sieving was fine for picking out the larger lengths of bindweed root. A quick fingertip-search through the contents of the wheelbarrow then turned up any smaller bits and pieces that had made the grade.

You can see what I was up against:

May 2016 Bindweed root mass
This lot is probably enough to give any gardener nightmares.

Whichever previous tenant built the heap had done their best, putting down polythene sheeting and a couple of old flags at the bottom. But they hadn’t quite reckoned on the amazing (and frankly terrifying) power of bindweed to go over, around, under or (if all else fails) through whatever barrier you try to put in its way.

Once I’d finished rough-sieving I dug over the area of the heap to get at as much more of the bindweed root as I could find, then levelled it off. I moved in the black plastic compost bins that I’ll be using as the final stage of my own compost rotation (more on that in another post) and set up what an old bath that will eventually become a worm farm (all being well).

May 2016 New Compost Area
Looking much better after some hard work and t.l.c.

After all that sieving and sorting, I was left also with a large pile of good soil improver. Most of it went on the courgette patch and the rest was used to earth up the potato rows.

I knew it was a job that was going to be worth the effort.

Now Planting: Peas, Swiss Chard, Courgettes

After a busy few plot sessions I’m pleased to say that Jo and I have made some good progress. Here’s a quick picture round-up:

Peas and Swiss Chard

The pea frame that we constructed last week has now been populated with a ten-pack of ‘Golden Sweet’ and another of ‘Shiraz’; both mangetout varieties. We’ve put four of our Swiss Chard ‘five colours’ plants in at the end of the row as well:

May 2016 peas and chard
Two more slug traps in, and hopefully the mice will pass them by…

Courgettes (and more Chard)

We’re growing our courgette plants at the far end of the plot this year. A dozen plants will be going in eventually, the first to be ready are three each of ‘Soleil F1’ and firm favourite ‘Tondo di Piacenza’, which I’ve planted motte-and-bailey style, on small mounds surrounded by a water-catching reservoir. A couple more Swiss Chard have been planted as well; they should look good growing up through the courgette plants. Assuming the slugs don’t get ’em first, that is. We’ve put in a beer trap and scattered organic pellets to hopefully deal with them.

May 2016 courgettesplanted
That’s half of this year’s plants in.

Three Sisters

I also found time to prep this year’s three sisters patch. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s a companion-planting scheme of Native American origin, involving beans, sweetcorn and squash. The corn provides a climbing frame for the beans to scramble up whilst the squash foliage shades the ground and keeps weeds at bay.

That’s in theory, anyhow. Didn’t work too well last year – the squash foliage went berserk and the dwarf beans I planted were swamped, although the sweetcorn did rather well – but hopefully this year it’ll have better results. Not much to see so far, just six large and well-manured mounds of soil, awaiting planting at the weekend, time and weather allowing.

May 2016 three sisters patch prepped
Bare and bleak for now, but a riot of colour later in the year, all being well.

Oh, and I weeded between the potato ridges. Actual progress, coming along nicely.

A Spot of Structural Work

With a few hundred seedlings coming along nicely in the greenhouse at home, we’ve been busy down at Plot #59, preparing ground and putting up a few of this year’s support structures for the crops to come.

Pea Harp

In the past I’ve grown peas up plastic netting, or just let them scramble through pea sticks. Earlier this year though, I read Jane Merrick’s blog post about her pea harp on and decided to give it a go.

First up, a standard A-frame (bean support, type #3) to provide the bare bones:

May 2016 sweet pea harp framework
The bare bones of the framework in place and ready for stringing.

…and then over to Jo with her smaller hands and nimbler fingers to run a ball of string up and down the frame to provide the vertical support for the peas to scramble up:

May 2016 sweet pea harp fully strung
The finished pea harp, missing only a couple of slug traps… oh, and a few dozen pea plants.

A lovely job, I’m sure you’ll agree. We’ll see how it performs later in the year.

Sweet Pea Obelisks

Over to the decorative department, and a couple of simple obelisk structures for Jo to grow her sweet peas on. All my own work, with four black bamboo canes and a couple of horizontal string sections for additional support and tendril-grips. Jo might add a few more strings later on, depending on how the plants seem to be managing.

May 2016 sweet pea obelisk #1
One of a matching pair framing the path onto the plot.

Willow Wind-Break

We’re not calling this willow weaving, simply because that would be an insult to folks who actually have the skills to weave willow properly. But what Jo and I have done between us is stick some thicker willow branches into the ground (upside-down to reverse polarity and hopefully prevent rooting). Then we’ve rammed, jammed, wedged, bodged and tied in a selection of thinner canes, whips and twigs to sort of make a wind-break (although not a very tall one) and terrier-barrier (our plot neighbour’s dog is very cute, but very inquisitive) for the asparagus patch. All materials (string aside) cropped from the willow tree at the back of the plot, so fully up-cycled, if a bit scruffy in places:

May 2016 willow wind break
Don’t look too closely, folks, it’s not a particularly pretty sight, but it’ll get the job done.

We then transplanted three mature Erysimum ‘Bowle’s Mauve’, which ought to help with the wind-breaking and should be enough to hide a multitude of weaving-related sins.

May 2016 wind-break with wallflowers
Good old Erysimum ‘Bowle’s mauve’ should disguise the worst of it…

More structural work to come in due course: plenty of A-frames for this year’s beans, more sweet pea structures, all sorts of good stuff.

Pot Up, Pot On, Repeat…

May is a pretty mad month in the greenhouse as the seedling shuffle continues apace. Last month’s sown seeds are shooting like crazy. More new seedlings need to be pricked out and potted up daily. And larger plantlets are outgrowing their starter pots and being potted on at a rate of knots. I’m loving every minute of it.

In lieu of time to describe everything in detail, here’s a quick photo gallery to convey the general impression:

May 2016 chilli 'cayenne'
Three chilli ‘cayenne’ potted up into their permanent containers.
May 2016 Tromboncino squash
Two tromboncino for the #SuttonsCup, potted up into long toms.
May 2016 Swiss chard
I reckon we might just get a decent Swiss Chard crop this year.
May 2016 Brassica seedlings
The massed ranks of cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprout seedlings.
May 2016 squash 'turk's turban'
These squash plants look promising. Here’s hoping we’ll actually have a harvest this year.
May 2016 assorted chillis
Chilli plants in their penultimate pots, permanent placement pending.
May 2016 pea seedlings
Two types of mangetout here: ‘shiraz’ (front) and ‘golden sweet’ (back).
May 2016 beans germinating
Here come the beans!
May 2016 coldframe plants
Meanwhile, out in the cold frame: sunflowers and sweet peas and courgettes (oh, my!)

What’s giving you particular joy in the greenhouse at the moment? Let me know via the comments…

Let’s Hear It for Soft Fruit Flowers

The merry month of May is when blossom season really gets going. Whilst the big, showy masses of apple, cherry and early strawberry flowers are grabbing the bulk of the attention and hogging the photo opps, I thought I’d take a closer look at what’s going on in the soft fruit patch down at Plot #59.

What I found was our selection of berry and currant bushes quietly doing their subtle, under-stated thing: putting out a lovely array of tiny, delicate bee-lures that don’t scream “pollinate me!” anywhere near as loudly, but carry just as much productive promise of bumper harvests to come.

Here’s what’s happening at the moment:

May 2016 blackcurrant blossom
Last year we harvested so many blackcurrants we ran out of room for them in the freezer…
May 2016 gooseberry blossom
Our gooseberry bushes are just coming into their full maturity – a good harvest ahead, hopefully.
May 2016 redcurrant blossom
Anyone know a good recipe for Cumberland sauce so we can make best use of our redcurrants?
May 2016 whitecurrant blossom
We’re looking forward to sampling a few whitecurrants, all being well.
May 2016 blueberry blossom
Meanwhile, back home, our potted blueberries are blooming marvellously.

What’s your favourite soft fruit? Or are you growing any unusual varieties? (We have a Japanese Wineberry plant and have edible fuschia berry plugs on order). Let me know in the comments…

How To: Grow Your Own Fancy Salad Leaves

Equipment Needed: 2x plastic troughs, with trays. Compost. Watering can. Mixed salad seeds.
Care Requirements: Minimal.
Difficulty Level: Ridonkulously easy.

In our house, salad season officially starts when: a) the first batch of salad leaves are ready in the greenhouse, and b) it’s too damn warm to eat soup for lunch any more.

Both conditions have been met round about now, and as luck would have it – thanks to a bit of forward-planning – we’ve got a great big crop of lovely, fresh, healthy salad leaves ready to go at just as the temperature reaches the top-teens:

May 2016 salad leaves
Rocket and lettuce and mizuna and all sorts of tasty things… yum!

You too can grow your own fresh salads – and avoid having to splash the cash at the supermarket for those tiny bags of premium-priced leaves – all summer long.

Here’s how:

Firstly, buy yourself a few packets of mixed salad seed – there are plenty of varieties available, with flavours ranging from hot and spicy to mild and succulent – along with two deep, rectangular plastic troughs – around 15-20cm deep and 50-60 cm long would be ideal – along with trays to stand them on (quite important), and a bag of compost. Multi-purpose is fine, no need for seed compost, unless you have some spare.

Fill the first tray (not the second one, not yet) to around the 4/5 mark with compost. You can use seed compost for the final half inch or so, if you have some handy, but don’t worry if not, your leaves will grow just fine without. Water the compost well – give it a good drenching – and allow excess water to run through.

Sow (scatter / sprinkle) your mixed salad seed on the surface of the compost (I use an old Schwarz herb pot to help them scatter and spread out). Not too thickly, feel free to nudge them about a bit if they’re clumping together, but don’t worry about spacing them out exactly; the idea is to let your leaves grow wild and free.

Lightly cover the seed with another cm or so of compost. You probably won’t need to water the surface compost; the seeds should be able to soak up enough moisture from the main compost layer to germinate, but if in doubt, water with a very fine rose watering can, taking care not to disturb the seed.

Finally, stand the trough on its tray and leave it on a light, sunny window-sill or on a shelf in the greenhouse, then wait for the seeds to germinate.

April 2016 salad trays
Salad trays in full swing.

A couple of things to watch out for: sometimes the surface of the compost can dry out and form a crust, which the emerging seedlings can have difficulty breaking through. If that happens, gently dampen the compost with a fine-rose watering can and it should fall back into place around the seedlings.

Also, keep the compost reasonably moist, but not too wet – remember that even though the surface appears dry, the compost underneath can still be damp. The seedlings’ roots need both water and air to thrive, so keeping the compost too wet will actually be quite bad for them. As the plants get larger they’ll need more water, so keep an eye on the compost and top them up as needed; a good soaking every couple of days is better than a sprinkling here and there. If you’re going to be away for a while, give them an extra-good soak before you go, fill the tray that they’re sitting in with as much water as you can fit in it and hope for the best.

Once your leaves are well-established – with individual plants growing well, showing plenty of true leaves and basically looking like they’re just about ready to harvest – start off your second tray in exactly the same manner as the first. That way, by the time you’ve finished picking or cutting the leaves from the first tray the second trough-load should be ready to start harvesting.

April 2016 second salad tray
Tray #2 is coming along nicely, and I’ll need to re-sow pea shoots at some point too.

You should get three or four harvests from each tray – at least 60 or more portions – before the plants are exhausted; you’ll know when they’ve gone over, as the stems will be much tougher, or flowers will begin developing as the plants desperately try to reproduce. At this point you can empty the first tray – dump everything into the compost bin – then start that first trough off again with fresh compost and seed. With a bit of careful management and good timing you’ll be eating home-grown salad leaves all through the summer and into the Autumn.


Now Sowing: Beans, Beans and More Beans

Borlotti, fasold, cannellini.

2016 is apparently the International Year of Pulses, so I thought I’d mark the occasion by sowing and growing a quite ridiculous number of beans this year.

Actually, I really didn’t need any encouragement. I love growing beans. They’re easy to germinate, easy to grow on, largely take care of themselves as long as you see to their basic watering and nutrient requirements, they look great when they’re in full flower and they produce masses of edibles: fresh green pods for summer salads and side dishes, soft new beans in late summer and early autumn, then dried, haricot versions to liven up any winter stew. Pick the right variety and they’ll freeze beautifully as well. Honestly, what’s not to love?

This year I’m growing twelve (count ’em: twelve) varieties of bean (including the broad beans already hardening off in the cold frame…) and I’m aiming to have between four (new-to-me varieties, to see how they do) and twelve (reliable favourites) plants of each. I spent a good couple of hours on Monday preparing my planting tubes – recycled toilet roll inners have always done the job for me – and another good couple of hours yesterday sowing around 120 runner and French beans (always a good idea to have a couple of spares of each, in case some of them do fail to germinate) in tubes and small pots.

May 2015 soaking the beans
Don’t forget the labels – sometimes they can look pretty similar…

There’s not a huge amount to tell in terms of method. I did soak the beans overnight in tepid water prior to sowing; I understand that it’s optional, but I have experienced failed germinations before, and I do know that getting water into the bean is always the most important part of the germination process, so soaking occurred. Then it was just a case of 1) add bean to tube, 2) top up with compost, 3) drench in water (albeit gradually, to avoid washing the bean back out of the tube / pot) and 4) leave on a shelf in the greenhouse to get going.

May 2015 bean tubes
A mass-germination event in the making…

Here’s a full list of the varieties I’m trying this year, and where I sourced them from:

  1. Vicia faba (broad bean) ‘red epicure’ – Suttons
  2. V. faba ‘The Sutton’ –
  3. Phaseolus coccineus (runner bean) ‘Scarlet Emperor’ – from my own stock of saved seed.
  4. P. coccineus ‘blackpod’ – Heritage Seed Library.
  5. P. coccineus ‘prizewinner’ – Mr Fothergill’s (free with Grow Your Own).
  6. Phaseolus vulgaris (French bean) ‘fasold’ (climber) – my own saved seed, originally from my Dad-in-law, Guru Glyn’s saved seed.
  7. P. vulgaris ‘cobra’ (climber) – Thompson & Morgan.
  8. P. vulgaris ‘Medwyn’s exhibition’ (climber) – saved seed from Guru Glyn.
  9. P. vulgaris ‘Major Cook’s bean’ (climber) – Heritage Seed Library.
  10. P. vulgaris ‘peewit’ (dwarf) – Heritage Seed Library.
  11. P. vulgaris ‘purple queen’ (dwarf) – Unwins.
  12. P. vulgaris ‘cannellini’ (dwarf) – Unwins.
  13. V. faba ‘aquadulce claudia’ – Thompson & Morgan (to be sown in late Summer / early Autumn for over-wintering).

Those three Heritage Seed Library entries are heirloom varieties, so you won’t find them in any commercial seed catalogues. I highly recommend getting hold of ‘fasold’ if you’re in the market for a climber that’s vigorous, prolific and produces very tasty pods that freeze well, and black beans that you can use in all sorts of dishes. ‘Scarlet Emperor’ is pretty ubiquitous, but a solid performer and my go-to runner bean (so far, at least). The others should be pretty easy to track down as well.

Next bean-related job (potting-on aside): putting up a whole lot of bean support frames down at Plot #59. And when harvest season rolls around, we might have to invest in a new chest freezer…

Plot #59 Update: April 2016

Plot #59 Update April 2016
A burst of early morning sunshine in mid April 2016.

“April is the cruellest month,” said T. S. Eliot, in the opening line of his epic poem ‘The Wasteland’. He could well have been referring to the tricks that April seems to enjoy playing with the weather. Last year April served up a prolonged, scorching heatwave, followed by a thoroughly miserable, damp cold-snap. This year the month started out typically grey and wet, switched to a few days of August-like temperatures, then conjured storms for the South, dropped hail, snow and sleet on us here in the North, and now seems to have settled back to a steady, spluttering, mucky mizzle.

As a result, Plot #59 has gone from a sodden mud patch to a parched, cracked hard pan and back to a sort of dank dreariness that’s keeping air and ground temperatures well below useful ranges. Recent overnight frosts have meant that seedlings germinated earlier in the month have been kept greenhouse-bound, taking up space that I should be using to sow the next batch of edibles: beans and cabbages in particular. But then I remind myself that last year, due to the house move, we were even later getting most things into the ground and everything quite happily caught up. So there’s really no need to panic. I just have to be patient, keep everything ticking over and moving along when possible. It’ll all come good in the end.

The jobs I have managed to do this month have all been useful ones though. The month started with signs of life in the fruit section and since then the gooseberry bushes have all been given a further pruning and the whole section has been fertilised and then thoroughly mulched with leaf mould. Jo has hacked back a lot of last year’s dead or dying strawberry foliage and it looks like the plants stopped just short of actually putting out blossom in the recent hot spell – the buds have formed but not opened yet – so I’m hopeful that they’ll come along later this year and won’t suffer as badly. We might actually get more than three berries, all being well.

April 2016 - mulched fruit section
A good thick layer of leaf mulch will help keep moisture in.

I finished another one of this year’s Big Jobs when I planted out asparagus crowns on the ridges that I prepared last month. I’m happy to report that they’ve nearly all sent up their first shoots, so I’m confident that they’ll establish well this growing season. I also finished off this year’s potato planting, with main-crop ‘pink fir apple’ joining first-early ‘swift’ and second-early (or main-crop) ‘saxon’. We’re growing around half the number of potato rows that we deliberately over-grew this year. Hopefully this time around we’ll be able to use up all our stored tubers without this sort of thing happening again:

April 2016 potatoes sprouting
Yeah, I think the last of the spuds have gone over…

I’ve put a bit more thought and effort than usual into this year’s carrot and root veg beds after a few years’ of disappointing results in the carrot department and hit-and-miss cropping elsewhere. Here’s hoping all the digging and sieving pays off later in the year. One notable failure already is the Garden Organic clover experiment that I started last month. The combination of scorching heat and cold, dry winds has blasted the seedlings and they’ve all-but died off completely. Garden Organic have sent me a fresh batch of seed, and I’ll be re-sowing just as soon as conditions improve a little.

With sowing and planting largely off the agenda, I did take the opportunity to do some maintenance work on the composting section at the back of the plot. The two compost beds that Jo and I built in our first couple of months, way back in 2014, were cleared of stored pallets, plastic piping and water butts, then turned one into the other and well watered; the first time I’d done that for a good while. A lot of the material was bone-dry, so I gave it a good soaking as I turned it, then covered it all over with empty bin bags, dumped a pallet back on top and I’ll leave that lot to break down for a couple of weeks before I turn it back again. And so on, through the summer and into the Autumn, when the bulk of the fresh material will be ready to add in again.

April 2016 - compost turning
There’s good compost in here, somewhere.

Elsewhere there are promising signs of blossoming fruit trees, and the over-wintered garlic and Spring-planted onion sets continue to grow strongly. The rhubarb patch has finally woken up and our eight crowns are sending up some good, thick, stems. But there’s not a lot else going on, just yet. I get the feeling that it’s all poised and ready to explode into activity just as soon as the temperatures come up a bit and then stay there. We can never rule out late frosts in May, of course, but with any luck we’ll get enough of a run of decent weather to start the process of hardening off and planting out in earnest. I can’t wait to share the summer updates.

By the by, I found time in April to share my recommendations for top bits of allotment kit that you might not immediately think of. Please feel free to take a look and let me know if there’s anything else you’d recommend, via the comments on that post.