Month: February 2017

New Seeds: Heritage Seed Library 2017

February 2017 Heritage Seed Library
This year’s selection plus a few from 2016 that still need sowing…

A couple of weeks ago, we took delivery of our annual selection of seed from Garden Organic‘s Heritage Seed Library club. The H.S.L. aims to maintain and distribute heritage, or non-commercially available varieties of vegetables and herbs, encouraging its members to save their own seed and keep these varieties going as long as they can. It’s a great way to get hold of either reliable croppers that for some reason are no longer in favour, or varieties that just aren’t available in the regular seed catalogues.

The seed-requesting process has changed since last year. There’s now an online order form for club members which lets you know which seed varieties are still available. This means you can ask for more of your first-choice varieties, if you’re quick enough. I left it until early January to put my order in and a fair few of the seeds I really liked the sound of had already been divvied-out. Next year I’ll be online within half an hour of the catalogue coming through.

Here’s what I opted for this year, including a bonus ‘lucky dip’ freebie that’s available as an optional extra:

  • Climbing French Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) ‘Dinah’s Climbing Blue’
  • Lablab Bean(Dolichos lablab) ‘Ying’s’
  • Sweetcorn (Zea mays) ‘Rainbow Sweet Inca’
  • Leek (Allium porrum) ‘Kelvedon King’
  • Kale (Brassica oleracea) ‘Asparagus’
  • Pea (Pisum sativum) ‘Kent Blue’
  • Callaloo (Amaranthus spp.) ‘Bangladeshi Dhata’ (lucky dip)

I also have three packets of my 2016 selection that I didn’t get around to sowing last year:

  • Kale (Brassica oleracea) ‘Georgia Southern Collard’
  • Squash (Cucurbita maxima) ‘Zapallito de Toscana’
  • Turnip (Brassica rapa) ‘Kaskinauris’ (lucky dip)

Plus, I’ve signed up to be a ‘variety champion’ – with the aim of saving seed and sending stocks back to Garden Organic – for the following:

  • Dwarf French Bean (P. vulgaris) ‘Black Valentine’

And, because I had a problem with a couple of bean varieties that refused to germinate last year (‘Major Cook’s’ and ‘Peewit’ both completely failed to break dormancy, alas), Garden Organic very kindly sent me a replacement packet of ‘Peewit’ when I mentioned it to them, so I have those to go in as well.

As for the Heritage Seed Library crops I did sow last year, results were generally good. Leek ‘Walton Mammoth’ went in late and so hasn’t yet achieved its ‘Mammoth’ stature, but the young leeks we’ve been eating over winter have been very tasty indeed, with a good, strong flavour. Runner Bean ‘Blackpod’ was superb:

September 2016 Runner Bean 'Blackpod'
The very lovely deep purple colour of these pods is worth the ticket price alone.

Vigorous growth and a good, heavy cropper. You do have to catch the pods early, when they’re still mostly green, if you want to eat them sliced and steamed, otherwise once they start to darken to their beautiful deep purple colour, they’re a bit too tough. The dried beans store well and are very good in soups and stews. I’ve saved a few seed beans for this year as well, so I’m hoping for a repeat performance.

For more information on joining the Heritage Seed Library and helping to preserve these old varieties, see Garden Organic’s website.

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Spring-Cleaning Our Main Greenhouse

November 2016 greenhouse interior
The usual, end-of-growing-season state of our greenhouse…
With a solid twelve hours of traditionally Mancunian rain forecast from 14:00 hrs yesterday, I thought I’d nip out in the morning and give our still-newish main greenhouse its first ever Spring Clean.

It’s a wet and messy job and, as I usually aim to get it done in February before the germinating season kicks into high gear, also a cold one. But it’s an essential job, too; a mucky greenhouse is an inefficient greenhouse, suffering from reduced rates of photosynthesis and an increased risk of pest and disease problems. Plus, greenhouse cleaning marks one of the key turning-points of the gardening year, from the tail-end of still-winter to the earliest days of pre-spring, so it’s a task I welcome, and attack with gusto.

Here’s how I go about it:

Get Kitted Up

I always wear my oldest, scruffiest, scrattiest work-gear for this job, because I know I’ll end up soaked and stinking of Jeyes Fluid before I’m done. Heavy-duty rubber gloves are a good idea too if, like mine, your hands tends to be prone to chillblains.

Pick Your Poison(s)

The aim of the greenhouse spring clean is to kill things that you don’t want hanging around with all your tender young seedlings: algae, moss, fungal spores, weed seeds, over-wintering pests. Anything that’s likely to cause a problem needs to go. But at the same time, you don’t want to unnecessarily damage nearby plants that might be coming out of winter hibernation and putting up new shoots. For that reason, I use good old Jeyes Fluid inside the greenhouse and Citrox outside.

February 2017 Greenhouse cleaning solutions
Jeyes for Inside Citrox for Outside.

Jeyes is a traditional cocktail of germ-zapping chemicals that will apparently get rid of everything from algae to bird-flu. It’s an evil-looking dark brown colour and it stinks, so you know it means business. You really don’t want this stuff to come into contact with your dormant dahlias or chilli seedlings though, so make sure you’ve removed everything green to a safe distance before you start spraying it around.

Citrox is an organic alternative, a “soluble formulation of bioflavonoids, derived from citrus fruits, [that] has antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi and viruses” (according to one study into its possible use as a mouthwash). It won’t damage any plants it comes into contact with, so it’s generally safer to use on the outside of your structure.

Pros and Cons of both: Jeyes is probably more powerful (although I haven’t seen any documentary evidence either way), and is certainly cheaper. 500ml of Citrox cost me £6.49. At the recommended 25ml per litre dilution rate, that’s ten applications (in a 2 litre pressure sprayer) at round about 65p each. Jeyes retails for around £10.92 a litre, but with a dilution rate of only 14ml per 2 litre sprayer, that’s 71 applications per tin, at around 15p each.

On the other hand, Jeyes is most definitely not compatible with organic growing principles, whereas Citrox is. And if you have a bare soil growing bed in the greenhouse, then you’ll need to change out the soil after you’ve sprayed with Jeyes, otherwise I can imagine it doing a fair bit of damage to the soil biota. Then again, Citrox might do that as well. Best best is probably to change the soil out anyhow, just to be sure.

Dilute as Instructed and Spray

I used to use a hand-trigger spray gun to apply the Jeyes fluid. That was a monumental pain in the… well, the hand mainly. This year I invested in the aforementioned 2 litre pressure sprayer (all of £3 from Wilkos) and it made the job a whole lot easier and quicker.

February 2017 pressure spraying
Add chemicals, dilute as instructed, pump, spray. Easy as.

Start with the outside of the greenhouse. First, disconnect any water butts that are hitched up to the greenhouse guttering. A bit of Citrox in the water is no bad thing, but you don’t want to add in the dead and dying algae / moss mix that you’re about to create.

Start at the top of the roof. Spray one panel at a time and work methodically around the structure, ensuring thorough coverage. You’ll want to spray into all the gaps and joints, because that’s where the algae tends to accumulate. Don’t be shy with the spraying. Much better to give the whole structure a thorough drenching than miss a bit and let the muck get an early foothold. I used around 8l of solution on our 8’x10′ greenhouse, so that’s 400ml of the concentrate, in case you’re keeping score.

Scrub Those Nooks and Crannies

An old toothbrush (or two, or three) is your best friend for this stage of the process. They’re great for getting into the guttering and all the fiddly corners to really scrub away at any hard-to-shift gunk and gunge.

February 2017 old toothbrush
Don’t forget to do the back molars… er, I mean, under the ends of the panes of glass.

If you don’t have an old toothbrush to hand, you might get away with using the very end of a scrubbing brush, or a washing-up brush. See what you’ve got that fits.

Don’t rinse everything off just yet though. Leave the Citrox to do its work for a while.

Move Inside, Sweep the Floor

If, like me, you’ve got a concrete slab floor in your greenhouse then now is a really good time to get down on our hands and knees with a hand-brush and sweep up as much of the loose soil and bits of dead plant matter as you can. Your flooring may vary, of course.

February 2017 greenhouse floor sweeping
You’ll be amazed at just how much crud ends up on the greenhouse floor.

What you don’t want to do is leave all that the crud lying around and assume it’ll just wash away later. That just leads to blocked drainage channels, or a puddle of Jeyes-flavoured mud splashing around when you’re trying to get everything rinsed off later on.

Spray, Spray and Spray Again

This is where the pressure sprayer comes in handy again. With a manual spray gun, you have to be quite close to the glass to ensure the solution makes contact. That means you get spray in your face, your hair, your lungs, and the stuff will drip all down your arm when you’re doing the inside roof panels, too. Far better to pump up the pressure, hit the trigger and spray from a safer distance.

If you’re using Jeyes rather than Citrox, make sure you open the doors as wide as they’ll go, and if you have manual ventilation, peg the vents open as well, once you’ve sprayed them. Trust me, you’ll need all the fresh air you can get.

Again, get the old toothbrush out and scrub away at any awkward bits that you can reach. Don’t forget to run it along the underside of any support struts as well, to dislodge the over-wintering slugs.

Tea Break!

A tea / coffee / hot beverage of choice break is mandatory at this point. You’ll need one by now (if only to wash away the taste of Jeyes) and it’s worth leaving the Jeyes / Citrox to do its thing for a while anyhow.

February 2017 tea break time
Gloves off, brew up…

(Personally, I recommend a round or two of toast and jam as well. But you might be on a diet or something. Entirely up to you.)

Hose Down

You should start on the inside this time (for reasons that will become apparent). This year I invested in a variable nozzle-head for the hose and again, it made a big difference. The ‘jet’ setting is almost as good as a pressure washer. Applied to the narrow gaps where the vertical panes meet the eaves in particular, it’s great for blasting out any lurking mats of algae that you can’t quite reach with your trusty toothbrush.

February 2017 hosing down
Blast into all the corners and crevices to make sure you’ve missed nothing.

Admittedly it’s not the most environmentally responsible use of fresh tap-water, but if you have a full water-butt that you can attach the hose to, you might be able get enough water pressure to do the job with rain-water instead.

It’s worth noting: if you’re hosing down flooring flags as well, do those first, otherwise you’ll just splash a load of muck up onto the lower panels that you’ve just hosed down.

When you move to the outside you’ll find that a lot of the gunk you blasted from the joints has been splattered out through the gaps in the structure, which is why you don’t do the outside first. And of course, you could just leave the outside to nature if you have a lot of rain forecast. But then again, getting that pressure jet into the bits you couldn’t quite reach before is a great way to ensure the job is done properly.

Don’t Forget the Staging and Shelving

We use large, plastic shelving units and metal / wooden staging in our greenhouse and that all needs a good cleaning as well. Spray, scrub, rinse as required.

And You’re Done!

That’s it. Job finished. You’ll need to wait a while before piling everything back into your greenhouse, to make sure the Jeyes fumes have dissipated (if applicable) and to give the inside a chance to drip-dry. Overnight, with the doors open, should do the trick.

Get your work gear into the washing machine, get yourself under a hot shower and then get a warming bowl of soup inside you and you can deservedly pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on a messy job well done. Your plants will thank you, too.

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Planting Our Fig Tree

I just love the taste of figs. Dried (nature’s toffees) or fresh (as a snack or in a goat’s cheese salad, with honey) I could eat them every day. One of the first things I put on the Cottage Garden Project wishlist when we moved house in Summer 2015 was a fig tree. Jo didn’t mind (she’s quite fond of a fig herself) and so plans were set in motion which culminated in a Fig Tree Planting session last Wednesday afternoon.

Here’s how I went about planting up our Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’. (Having described the process of formative pruning and potting up our apple trees at some length earlier in the week, I’ll try to keep this post reasonably short and sweet…)

Preparing the Fig Pit

July 2016 Fig Pit
Restricted root growth and a sunny aspect – ideal for figs.

Last summer, whilst digging out one of the main planting beds, I prepared a fig pit in the sunniest spot in the garden, up against the wall of the new shed. It’s basically a rectangular hole in the ground, around 1.2 metres deep, lined with roof tiles on top of vertical concrete slabs, with a good 15-25cm of smooth pebbles in the bottom for drainage. The idea is to restrict the root-growth of the fig tree, preventing it from growing into a garden-dominating monster and encouraging it to produce fruit on a regular basis.

Last week, prior to planting, I back-filled most of the pit with a 3:2:1 mix of John Innes #3 loam-based compost, horticultural grit and well-weathered builders’ sand. And then, it was time to plant the tree.

Preparing the Tree for Planting

I ordered the fig last summer, along with the apple trees, from Grow at Brogdale, home of the national fruit collection. They told me at the time that they don’t grow figs themselves, but would order one in for me from another supplier.

Here’s a shot of the roots of the fig when it came out of the pot:

February 2017 - Fig Tree Un-Potted
Not as impressive as the Brogdale-grown trees, plus a dreaded vine weevil grub (circled)

I have to say I wasn’t 100% happy with what I saw. Perhaps I’m just over-thinking it, but the roots seemed a little sparse and a little too dark for my liking. The growing medium itself was very damp – despite the pot being stored in the greenhouse for 2-3 days prior to planting to keep the worst of the rain off – and there was no evidence of any drainage material being included in the potting mix. Plus, there was a vine weevil grub – circled in red on the photo – very much in evidence, which was worrying, to say the least.

I tried to tease out the roots and loosen the compost as much as I could to check for more weevil larvae. I didn’t find any, thankfully, but the roots were breaking away a little too easily for comfort, so I had to stop before I’d checked the entire root ball. Which left me in something of a quandary – go ahead with planting anyway and hope for the best, or ditch the tree and try to source another?

In the end, I opted for giving it a chance and hoping it establishes, sans vine weevil infestation. If the worst comes to the worst, I can always dig it back up and re-plant another specimen. I’ll also try to take a couple of cuttings later in the year and see if I can grow them on as backup, just in case the tree isn’t strong enough to survive whatever next winter throws at it.

Planting the Tree

February 2017 Fig Tree Planted
Fig tree, meet fig pit. May you be wonderfully happy together for many fruitful years to come.

I applied mycorrhizal fungi powder to the root-ball, on the grounds that those roots will probably need all the help they can get, placed the fig in the fig pit, back-filled with more of the planting mix, firmed in well and then watered thoroughly. I’ll apply a final mulch of washed gravel once I can spot enough new growth to know the tree has established successfully. And then we’ll have to see what the harvests are like, most probably in a year or two.

How about you? Do you grow figs? Do you have any top tips or advice to share? If so, I’d love to hear it, via the comments below.

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Establishing Our Air-Pot Mini Orchard

February 2017 potted apple trees
Three apple trees pruned, potted, temporarily staked and awaiting moving to their final growing space.

With the weather turning a little warmer and the immediate threat of frost receding this week, I took the opportunity to pot up our newly-delivered fruit trees. Even more importantly, I gave them a formative pruning to set them up for their future roles as small, hopefully highly productive, fruit-bearing trees.

Here’s how I went about it.

TL;DR Version

This is quite a long post, you might not have time to read it all. In summary: I carried out formative pruning on our three apple trees, training them towards a vertical cordon system. I then potted them up in Air-Pot containers, which they’ll stay in for the foreseeable future, all being well. (Please feel free to scroll on down and take a quick look at the photos, they’re quite self-explanatory.)

Pruning Principles

As I understand it: formative pruning takes place in the first 1-4 years of the tree’s life. The aim is to establish the framework shape and form that you’d like the tree to develop into, and encourage new growth in keeping with that concept. Pruning in winter, when the tree is dormant, generally removes the main, apical buds of individual branches and stems, encouraging new, branching growth from the buds further down towards the trunk. The result should be a bushier, denser canopy and more fruiting spurs.

Once the tree’s shape is well established, winter maintenance pruning removes any dead, diseased or damaged growth, thins out any congested sections and helps to keep the tree’s structure well-balanced, light and airy. Maintenance pruning can also be carried out in summer, mainly to control and manage any of that vigorous new growth that might be getting out of hand and ensure a trained tree conforms to type.

Our Trees

I started out by taking a close look at each apple tree in turn; assessing the existing structure, checking for damage or poor growth and deciding on where and how far to cut them back.

We’ve invested in 2-3 year old small bush trees, rather than maiden whips (single stem) or feathered maidens (single stem with a few small side-branches) to give us a head start on fruiting. As a result they each have between three and six established lateral branches, with one or two leaders. Apart from one or two evident pruning cuts, most of the growth had been left to its own devices, so a lot of the branches were long and quite whippy.

After much research and consideration, I’ve decided to develop our trees as vertical cordons, keeping them permanently potted up in Air-Pot containers. They’re all on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing root-stock, so shouldn’t grow too vigorously, but in order to keep a good balance between a relatively small root-zone and the amount of top-growth, I don’t really want them to grow much taller than two metres (six feet, six) or so.

Cordon Training – Modified Lorette System

Last summer I found a copy of the 1955 Garden Book Club edition of Fruit From Trained Trees by Stanley B. Whitehead, in a National Trust bookshop, for the princely sum of £1. On pages 23-46, Mr Whitehead discusses the establishment of a modern fruit garden that includes trained apple trees in such new-fangled (within the previous 30 years or so) shapes as “cordons”, “espaliers” and “pyramids”. Clearly Mr Whitehead’s words weren’t falling on deaf ears.

The aim of a cordon system is to maintain a single stem (unless they’re developed as ‘U’ or ‘double U’ cordons), with a strong network of healthy fruit-bearing spurs, like so:

February 2017 - Cordon Pruning Diagrams
Stanley B. Whitehead shows us how it was done back in 1955.

According to the current RHS advice on cordons, oblique cordons are more productive, but that’s not really practical with the Air-Pot containers and the space we have available, so I’m sticking to vertical.

Mr Whitehead’s book also makes mention of the Modified Lorette system of formative pruning and a quick Google search suggests it’s a system that’s still very much in use today. In a nutshell (if I understand it properly) it’s a summer maintenance prune that takes all lateral shoots from the main stem or leaders back to three leaves, not including the basal cluster) and any side-stems on the laterals back to a single leaf. This should help to develop the fruiting buds that will provide next year’s blossom and fruit on fruiting spurs. So that’s what I’ll be doing in August.

In the meantime though, back to the formative pruning cuts:

Herefordshire Russet

This tree wasn’t too tall, but had three well-developed laterals with a distinctly downward-slant to them. I shortened those, and took about a third to a half off the twin leaders as well, cutting back to a strong, outward-facing bud in each case.

The second photo shows an example of a pruning decision: to cut at point 1 or point 2. I went for 2, on the grounds that those large, fat buds will hopefully bear blossom and even if we remove the fruit this year to help promote root establishment, it will be lovely to see the flowers in spring. And I can always shorted than lateral in summer if needs be.

Before

February 2017 Herefordshire Russet - before
Horizontal branches are good for fruiting, but these are excessively downward-oriented.

Pruning Decision

February 2017 Herefordshire Russet - pruning decisions
A choice of two potential fruiting buds, by the looks of things… which one to cut to?

After

February 2017 Herefordshire Russet - after
I went for cut #2 and shortened those straggly branches, as well as the main leaders.

Blenheim Orange

This tree was a little awkward, with a double-leader (top-left corner of the pic) coming off from the main stem at quite an acute angle, and several whippy laterals lower down.

I’ve shortened the double leaders by around half, and the lowest laterals to four or five buds, depending on which was outward-facing. I’ve left one lateral, which is growing opposite the double-leaders, quite long to hopefully provide balancing weight and prevent the tree becoming too lop-sided.

Before

February 2017 Blenheim Orange - before
Some very long laterals here, in need of shortening.

After

February 2017 Blenheim Orange - after
The laterals have been cut back and the leaders shortened (just out of shot).

Cornish Aromatic

This tree was, if anything, even more awkward than the Blenheim. The bamboo cane that was used to support it was distinctly curved and it looks like the tree has grown with a definite bowing of the trunk in response. So as well as a less-then-straight main stem, there are three main leaders coming from a v-joint at the top of the stem, and then a couple of quite leggy laterals and three or four skinnier side-stems further down.

I’ve done the best I can for now, reducing the leaders by around a third and pruning back the laterals to four or five buds. We’ll have to see what happens in due course.

Before

February 2017 Cornish Aromatic - before
A couple of needlessly twisty, thin branches here that will have to be shortened.

After

February 2017 Cornish Aromatic - after
Those branches have been clipped back and will hopefully develop fruiting spurs.

Potting Up

With the formative pruning done the trees were all a bit more manageable and less likely to snag and snap on anything; time to transfer them from their training pots to their new Air-Pot homes.

Air-Pots are widely used by commercial growers. The walls of the pots are made up of small plastic cones with the ends trimmed to leave a hole. As the plant in the pot sends out roots, they eventually grow to the end of the cones and come into contact with the air. This dries and kills the root-tip, preventing further growth of that particular root and encouraging new root formation elsewhere. The result is a stronger, denser network of feeder roots, with little or no root-circling and no chance of the plant becoming pot-bound.

If you’re interested in Air-Pot growing, check out Alex Taylor’s blog at Air-PotGardener.com. Alex grows a wide range of crops in Air-Pots and provides plenty of photos of the root systems that develop and the harvests that he achieves. As far as I know he’s not directly associated with the manufacturers of the Air-Pot (although they really ought to be sponsoring him with a few freebies by now…)

Back to the potting up: first job, rolling up the plastic sheet around the base and applying a couple of screw-fasteners to construct the Air-Pots.

Before

February 2017 Air Pots, pre-construction
It takes about 2 minutes to turn these odd-looking bits of plastic into root-growth maximisers.

After

February 2017 Finished Air-Pot
Insert base, wrap sides around, fix in place with plastic screws… voila, one Air Pot.

Next, fill the bottom and as much of the sides of the Air-Pot as practical with John Innes #3 loam-based compost, working it into all those outward-pointing cones. JI3 is quite a rich mix and should provide enough nutrients to give the trees an initial boost once they start to grow and leaf up later in the year. After a couple of months then I’ll need to provide supplemental feed on a reasonably regular basis to keep them healthy and of course, plenty of water.

Then it’s time to knock each tree out of its pot and check the root system:

February 2017 Potted Apple Roots
Good, healthy roots on this Brogdale-grown tree.

Lovely. A bit of circling, but that’s easily dealt with by gently teasing the roots out from around the edges.

I then decided to apply a sprinkling of mycorrhizal fungus powder to each root-ball:

February 2017 mycorrhizal fungi
Applied as a powder, the fungal spores are dormant until activated by warmth and moisture.

Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial fungi that grow in association with plant roots. In return for sugars taken from the roots, the fungi helps the plant to take up mineral nutrients from the soil more effectively. Perhaps it’s not strictly necessary in the case of a potted tree, but if it aids root development in the vital first year or two, then it’s worth trying.

Finally, back-fill with the John Innes #3 mix and soak with a couple of litres of clean rain water. The results can be seen in the photo at the top of the post.

The trees are currently standing in the shelter of the shed. This is a temporary position and they’ll probably be moved around a couple of times as work progresses on the garden, until they’re eventually put in their final position, when they can be properly staked, and perhaps a support structure put in place, if it seems as though they’ll need one.

I’ll be covering fig tree plating in a separate post, and I haven’t potted up the Morello cherry just yet either, so that’s another post to come.

Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions or observations on any of the above, please feel free to leave a comment, below.

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Now’s the Time For Your Annual Seed Audit

January 2017 seed packets
It’s seed sorting time!

Don’t you just love this time of year? Okay, the weather can be pretty atrocious – the ground tends to swing from too wet to walk on to frozen solid – and maybe there isn’t much colour around to speak of. But hey, that’s just outside. Plenty of time for outside later in the year. Now is the time when you have the perfect excuse for some inside jobs (with hot beverage of preference and biscuits of choice to-hand). And right now, one of the most exciting inside jobs you can get on with is… your annual seed audit!

Trust me on this, there’s nothing like sorting through your seed box on a cold, dark, February evening to get you excited about the horticultural year ahead. All those brightly coloured packets, so full of the promise of wonderful things to come. Here’s your favourite variety of runner bean – remember how fresh they tasted, picked and steamed within half an hour? – and those tomatoes that actually managed to stay blight-free, and a few seeds left from that squash plant that did so well, and oh, yeah, there’s that paper wrap of “special herbs” you picked up at the farmer’s market… er, maybe the least said about that the better. Look, leeks! (You’re on much safer ground with leeks). And beetroot, and courgettes, and callaloo, and calabrese, and okra, and physalis, and kale, and cabbage, and spinach, and… and…

You get the picture. So many seeds. And the best thing to do with them right now is give them a proper sort out. Otherwise, how will you know what you need to go seed shopping for..?

Here are some general, rule-of-thumb criteria that I apply during my own seed audit, offered as a starter-for-ten.

Criteria #1 – Did You Grow These Last Year and Did They Taste / Look Good?

If Yes: You’ll probably want to grow those again, then. If you have any seeds left, move to Criteria #2. If you’ve kept the empty packet to remind you to buy more, add them to the shopping list. Unless you’ve found another variety that’s likely to taste even better, or just fancy a change, of course.

If No: Let’s face it, life’s too short and space is probably too tight to grow crops you know you’re not going to eat (unless you’re growing them for someone else) or flowering plants that just aren’t as attractive as you’d hoped they’d be, or don’t fit in with your overall schemes and plans.

Put them aside and then, when you’ve been through your whole seed collection, donate the unwanted ones to someone who might be able to make good use of them. There ought to be a local school, charity garden, Incredible Edibles group, youth organisation or someone who’ll put them to good use.

With everything that’s left (probably still at least 90% of the total…) move on to:

Criteria #2 – Did You Pay Good Money For Them?

If Yes: You probably had an idea at the time that this was something you definitely wanted to grow. Or, like me, you thought that it would be interesting / challenging / too bizarrely wonderful-looking to pass up on. Whatever your reason, you should really make an effort to sow them this year, before they do go out of date and fall victim of Criteria #3.

Do your research: read the instructions on the packet, or the printed sheet that came with your order, or Google sowing methods, and then make a few notes. Plan ahead so you don’t miss the best sowing window and get those seeds in when the time is right. The results could be amazing.

If No: Magazine freebie? Donation from a well-meaning friend / neighbour / fellow allotment holder? A momentary whim that you’ve de-whimmed on second thoughts? Again, if it’s surplus to requirements, add it to the donation pile.

Criteria #3 – Are the Seeds Still in Date?

Now Then: I know a lot of you folks will swear that stored seed can and will last a lot longer than the dates on the packet and yes, this is probably true in a lot of cases. But having done a couple of RHS courses and been taught a fair bit about plant biology, I’ve learnt that there’s such a thing as ‘seed viability’, which varies according to the type of seed, its ripeness at picking and the conditions in which it has been kept.

If a seed is viable, it should germinate under the right conditions, unless it’s dormant and needs to have its dormancy broken by scarification (scratching the seed coat) or stratification (a period of cold treatment), or soaking prior to sowing. If it isn’t viable, nothing whatsoever will make it germinate, because it’s dead.

If Yes: If a packet is still in date then there’s a good chance that the seed inside should be viable.

If No: If you take best-by dates on seed packets as a general guide then yes, you might get away with sowing them a year or two (or more) beyond the suggested ‘sow by’. Or you might not. The safest way to tell, if you have enough seed, is to perform a seed germination test. Which is very easy to do, and all fine and good, but depending on how many packets of older seed we’re talking about, and how many seeds are left in the packet, germination testing might not be practical.

By way of a compromise, I’d suggest re-buying or swapping for new stock of your very favourites – why risk disappointment? – running germination tests on anything you’ve got spare seed and time for, and then anything you’d like to grow but won’t be upset if you miss out on, you can just sow anyhow, and see what happens.

Don’t Forget to Organise and Take Notes!

Checking through your seeds obviously offers the perfect opportunity to organise them into some sort of order and compile some sort of a ready-reckoner to help you remember just what’s in that overflowing seed box of yours, and when you need to sow it.

2017 seed box
A well-organised seed box is a happy seed box…

I think the easiest way to organise a seed collection is in rough sowing-date order, with monthly dividers to give you a clue as to where you’re up to. At the end of the month, simply move everything you haven’t sown yet that’s still within its sowing window into next month’s section. Leave everything you’ve sown, or honestly aren’t going to get around to sowing, in the current month’s slot, for sorting out in next year’s seed audit.

You may prefer to organise by lifespan (annual, biennial, perennial), height, colour, the section of the garden they’re destined for, or something else entirely. Whatever works for you is fine, of course.

As for the ready-reckoner, my favourite method is to set up a Google spreadsheet and record the pertinent details: veg type, variety, sowing dates, and any specific germination conditions, temperatures, stratification requirements and so on.

If you’d like to take a look at my seed list for 2017, you can visit it here. It’s locked for editing by anyone other than me (no offence, I trust you really, but accidents will happen) and if you’d like to ask questions about anything you see on there, please do feel free via the comments below.

Finally, it’s Time to go Seed Shopping

Of course, the best part of taking stock of the seeds you’ve already got is working out where the gaps are. This gives you the perfect excuse (as if one was ever needed) to start browsing through the seed catalogues, looking for replacements for that all important favourite variety you’re now missing. And while you’re there, it’s a chance to see what’s new and interesting, which new varieties look like they’re worth a try, which old heritage varieties have been rescued from obscurity and might be good to grow.

Here’s a quick link-list of some of the seed suppliers I’ve bought from in the past, or know of from Twitter or online browsing. You’ve probably heard of most of them, but there might be a few independents that you haven’t come across yet. And of course, if you’re a seed supplier that I haven’t become acquainted with yet, or your favourite online seed shop didn’t get a mention, then please do feel free to add a link in the comments, below.

(All suppliers listed are UK-based unless otherwise stated. Links provided for information only – inclusion in the list does not constitute a personal endorsement of a particular supplier.)

Larger Suppliers

Smaller Independents

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Our Fruit Trees are Here!

Last summer, on the way back from our garden-visiting holiday in Kent, Jo and I stopped off at the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale. It turned out to be the day of their annual cherry festival, which looked like a huge amount of fun, but we weren’t there to eat pie or spit pips. No indeed, we had only one thing on our mind: apple trees.

We had two apple trees at our old place – prolific ‘Discovery’ and zero-fruiting ‘Bloody Ploughman’ – and we knew that when we moved we’d really miss having fresh fruit to pick from right outside the door. They’re also an essential part of our Cottage Garden Project plan; to include a good mix of herbs and edibles amongst or alongside the mainly decorative planting beds.

After half an hour talking to Brogdale’s Sales Manager about suitable varieties for our Northern climes, pollination compatibility and dwarfing root-stock suitable for container growing, we placed an order for three apples: ‘Cornish Aromatic’, ‘Herefordshire Russet’ and ‘Blenheim Orange’, one crab apple: good old ‘John Downie’ of the stunning blossom displays and excellent jelly-making, and, yes, one cherry: Morello – I do love ’em sour, and a fig: ‘Brown Turkey’, apparently the most reliable cropper in the UK climate. Of course, they weren’t for immediate delivery. We had to wait for winter, when the trees were in a dormant state, suitable for transporting and transplanting. And wait we did…

…until, as I sat in the pub after my four RHS exams on Tuesday afternoon, a text came through from Jo to say that the end of our driveway was now occupied by a pallet of trees. Huge excitement! Couldn’t wait to get home and take a look. Couldn’t see much in the dark when I got home, of course, except that the order seemed to be all present and correct, and was well-wrapped in cellophane.

Yesterday morning, I headed outside with my trusty knife and, like a kid at Christmas, unwrapped our delivery.

January 2017 Pallet from Borgdale
Now that’s the sort of delivery I’d be happy to come home to any day.

First off: I was very pleased with the manner of the delivery. Although I was out, due to a minor mix-up as to the delivery date (which was entirely my fault for saying “any time after the 7th” rather than stressing “the 8th onwards”…) the delivery driver still not only dropped them off, but fork-lifted the pallet up the drive and placed it neatly behind the bins into the bargain. Fair play and thank you to them for making the extra effort. All the trees were in great condition; a couple of small twigs had snagged in the cellophane and snapped, but nothing worse than that, and certainly nothing you wouldn’t expect on a journey from Kent to North Manchester.

January 2017 Brogdale Order Unwrapped
Removing the cellophane wrap reveals… trees!

The unwrapped trees all looked great. We’ve invested in 2+ year old bush standards rather than maiden whips or feathered maidens – apart from the cherry – to give us that head start on fruit production, and all the trees have a decent amount of lateral growth, as you can see when they were lined up ready to move round to the back of the house:

January 2017 Trees from Brogdale
The full line-up: three apples, and ensemble backing group.

Two of the trees – the crab apple and the fig – are quite small, but that works to our advantage. We don’t want the crab apple to grow too big, based on where we’re hoping to place it in the planting scheme, and the fig is hopefully going to be quite vigorous, so starting off with a small specimen gives us a chance to prune and train it to suit the space.

We also ordered a couple of Jostaberry bushes, which you can see in the pic below. (They’ll be heading down to the allotment in about half an hour…)

January 2017 Smaller Plants from Brogdale
A close-up of the fig, crab apple, Morello cherry and 2 Jostaberry bushes.

Here are the technical details of the trees we’ve bought:

Malus domestica ‘Herefordshire Russet’: M27 rootstock (extreme dwarfing). Pollination group C(3). Diploid. Harvest September.

Malus domestica ‘Cornish Aromatic’: M9 rootstock (dwarfing). Pollination group D(4). Diploid. Harvest September.

Malus domestica ‘Blenheim Orange’: MM106 rootstock (semi-dwarfing). Pollination group B(2). Triploid. Harvest October.

Malus ‘John Downie’: M9 rootstock. An effective cross-pollinator for all three maincrop apples and a source of fruit for crab apple jelly, as well as pectin for other fruit jams.

Prunus cerasus ‘Morello’: G5 rootstock (semi-dwarfing). Self-fertile. Shade tolerant. Harvest July to August.

Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’: Figs are propagated by hardwood cuttings, so no rootstock applicable. Self-fertile. Pollinated by Chalcid wasp. Harvest when ripe, late summer onwards, hopefully.

The next stage will be to transfer the three apples and the cherry into the Air-Pot containers that we’re planning to grow them in for the first few years, at least. All the varieties are grafted onto dwarfing or semi-dwarfing root-stock, so we’re hoping they’ll develop strong root systems, courtesy of the Air-Pot’s air-pruning characteristics and not suffer from having a lack of open ground to grow into.

Formative pruning will be carried out after potting, either as columnar cordons or compact bush shapes. The idea is to fit all four potted trees along the fence outside the back door, without risking the branches becoming congested or tangling with each other. I’ll be reading up on the pros and cons of both methods before I make any cuts, and asking the gardeners down at Ordsall Hall for their advice, when I’m down there volunteering tomorrow.

The fig will be planted into the fig-pit that I prepared last summer. And the crab apple will be planted out in pride of place in the shed bed, once that has been suitably edged, back-filled and the soil considerably improved. It should be happy enough in its pot until that’s done.

What do you reckon? All sounds good, or is there anything I’ve over-looked? Are you a bit of a pruning expert, or have you grown potted fruit trees yourself? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences, down below in the comments.

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First Germination of 2017

The developing theme for this week seems to be “emergence”. On a personal level, I’ve emerged from my Deep Dark Revision Cave, sitting four RHS Level 2 exam papers yeesterday, and am once again able to focus on things that don’t necessarily have a Latin binomial or a key role within a cohesive garden design scheme. For the time being, anyhow.

Meanwhile, on the growing front, the first seedlings of 2017 have emerged in the Vitopod propagator. First germination is always a lovely moment, one I look forward to immensely every year.

Here are the first few chillis to emerge:

January 2017 Chilli germination
The first three chilli seedlings have poked their cotyledons above the surface and are starting to develop.

They were all sown on January 20th. Note the ones that have germinated are all seeds sown in the middle part of the small trays. I’m assuming they’ve benefited from a lower rate of moisture loss and a higher constant temperature due to the volume of compost surrounding them.

January 2017 Goji Berry germination
These tiny green shoots will hopefully grow on into two varieties of Goji Berry bushes.

These specks of green are Goji Berry seedlings. I’ve sown far more than we’re likely to need for our own purposes so with any luck we’ll have spare plantlets to share around later in the season. They were sown on Jan 31st and emerged yesterday, so that means they germinated in just seven days.

I’m going to leave the seed trays in the Vitopod for the time being, although I’m conscious that the humidity in there is probably too high to do so for too much longer, as it could result in poor growth and maybe even damping off disease. Once the majority of the seedlings have emerged I’ll transfer them to cooler, un-heated (therefore room temperature) trays with lids and let them grow on in peace until they’re robust enough to be pricked out into a more nutrient-rich compost.

How are your seedlings coming along? Let me know in the comments, and please feel free to post links to your own blog as well.

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