Month: March 2017

Our Allotment Year in Review: 2016/17 Edition

Plot #59 Update: July 2016
Plot #59 at the height of August 2016

A year has rolled on by since I posted the first Year in Review piece here on Notes From the Allotment, and a lot has changed down on Plot #59.

After three years of hard graft, we’ve finally reached the point where almost the entire plot has been transformed from a weed-choked, debris-strewn nightmare into a usable, cultivated growing space. There’s still one small area of midden-ground that I’ll be clearing later this year, and a problem section or two at the back. Once those are tackled though, Jo and I can draw a line under phase one (disaster response) and get on with the serious business of full-scale growing.

In the meantime though, here are the particular high-points and low-points of the last twelve months:

Legumes – Beans and Peas

Last year we grew a stupid amount of beans – we’re still eating through the freezer stocks of blanched pods, and have a couple of kilos of dried beans that we probably won’t get around to using, unless we get a lot more creative – and it was great.

As well as the traditional ‘Scarlet Emperor’ runners and ‘Fasold’ climbing French, we tried a couple of new-to-us varieties, the best of which had to be the ‘Blackpod’ cultivar that we received through our Heritage Seed Library membership. Very tasty when young and still in the green, maturing into deep, burgundy pods filled with purple-black beans, they were a visual feast and a delicious accompaniment to many a pork chop.

September 2016 Runner Bean 'Blackpod'
The very lovely deep purple colour of these pods is just superb.

We also had a good year for broad beans, with Spring-grown ‘The Sutton’ and ‘Red Epicure’ providing us with a rainbow of colours. And the mangetout peas ‘Shiraz’ and ‘Golden Sweet’ grew like crazy up the pea-harp that we constructed for them, and provided us with fresh, sweet pods for weeks and weeks. We’ll be growing both varieties again this year, along with a couple from the Heritage Seed Library.

August 2016 broad beans
A selection of tasty broad beans – ‘Red Epicure’ and ‘The Sutton’

Cucurbits – Squash and Courgettes, and Corn

We had our best year yet for the Cucurbitaceae family, with a dozen courgette plants performing at their usual prolific rate and then a harvest of around a dozen good-sized, firm-fleshed and very tasty ‘Turk’s Turban’ squash to brighten up our autumn and winter dinner plates. (I think I might be getting the squash-growing bug, if the dozen varieties poised and ready in the seed-box are anything to go by.)

September 2016 squashes
Turk’s Turban and Tondo ahoy!

The sweetcorn performed well again last year. It seems to like the spot we grow it in – at the front of the plot, in full sun (when the sun is out) – and we ended up with another good haul of sweet, juicy cobs. This year we’re trying a heritage variety called ‘Rainbow Sweet Inca’ which promises multi-coloured kernels. Sounds like good fun.

Alliums – Onions, Leeks, Garlic

Our over-wintered garlic did very well indeed. We harvested a good dozen or so large bulbs of ‘Elephant’ garlic around 30-40 of the ‘Extra Early Wight’ and ‘Carcassonne Wight’, although the latter’s bulbs were a little on the small side.

July 2016 elephant garlic
Properly dried and stored, these giant Elephant bulbs will last us well into next Spring.

A good year for onions, with around 80 of assorted sizes from the ‘Sturon’ sets that we started off in modules before planting out. They kept well in an old dresser drawer in the shed and had a good, strong-flavour to them. Same again this year.

The leeks went in rather late, at the tail-end of August rather than in June, so they didn’t get much growing done before winter set in. We’ve been happily harvesting every other one for the past few months though and they’ve been very enjoyable indeed. The last few dozen are starting to put on new growth now, thickening up a treat. We may even end up with some decent-sized specimens before we need to clear the patch for this year’s courgettes.

September 2016 leek patch
Lots and lots of lovely leeks.

Spuds and Toms

Alas, we suffered from a double-dose of potato disease last year. Our first earlies were hit by potato leaf-roll virus which killed off about half the plants, and then a rather vicious attack of early blight ripped through our allotment site back in late June and early July. That meant the haulms had to be removed before the tubers had reached their maximum potential, and cropping was affected as a result. We still managed to harvest a decent haul of ‘Pink Fir Apple’ and ‘Saxon’ but nothing like 2015/16’s enormous piles of tubers. This year I’m sticking to Saxon and crossing my fingers that we have a drier spring.

June 2016 potato blight
The last thing you want to see on your spud foliage…

Same story with the tomatoes, alas. We didn’t actually grow any down the plot, they were all in the back garden at home, where we’d hoped they’d be isolated from blight. But we must have brought some spores back with us from somewhere, because it took hold and destroyed the lot. We didn’t get so much as a single usable green tomato… one more try this year, and then we’ll have to decide whether they’re worth the inevitable disappointment.

Soft Fruit

It was another great year for blackcurrants, rhubarb (I know, technically a veg stem, but if it goes in a crumble it gets a mention here) and raspberries, with kilos and kilos of fruit filling up the freezer, or being turned into delicious jam. We also enjoyed our first really good crops of gooseberries and redcurrants. Our potted blueberries did okay, but they were re-potted earlier in the year, so we thought they might rest up and recover a bit.

July 2016 - berry harvest
How’s this for a berry selection? By no means the entire crop, either.

The real discovery though was the Japenese Wineberry. The fruit of this spiny, long-stemmed bush is small, bright red, and slightly tacky to the touch. When the berries are ripe they come away from the bush with the slightest encouragement and taste like slightly tart wine-gums. They don’t keep all that well, which means you have to eat ’em up quick – a terrible shame, that – but they’re great in a summer fruit salad. This year we’re going to try to increase our stock by layering in a couple of branches.

July 2016 - Japanese wineberries
These wineberries are something of a taste revelation – a lovely balance of sweet and sharp.

The one disappointment was our strawberry patch. We did have a reasonable crop back in June, but we lost a hell of a lot more to botrytis grey mould, which ripped through the tightly-packed plants in May and destroyed most of the early fruit. The plan this year is to thin out every other plant and then keep on top of trimming back foliage to increase ventilation. Then at the end of the year we’ll probably re-plant the whole section with brand new stock.

Roots etc.

Despite having big plans and high hopes for a carrot crop, the carrot fly managed to get in and ruin about 75% of what we grew last year. We did harvest a few small, stunted, but still quite tasty roots, but nothing worth shouting about:

We did have a pretty good year for roots of other types though: mooli and black radish, scorzonera and salsify all grew well and were tasty additions to our baked root veg dishes. We also tried root parsley, but it didn’t really get going. We’ll give that one more go this year on the off-chance we were just unlucky.

October 2016 root veg
Carrots, salsify, scorzonera and mooli.

Brassicas – Cabbage, Kale and More…

We went big on brassicas this past year, planting out four varieties of Brussels sprout, purple cauliflower, romanesco cauliflower, calabrese, red cabbage, green cabbage, savoy cabbage, green kale, red kale, and walking stick kale.

The best performers were the cabbages, which grew strongly despite a late planting and we’re still finishing off the last few red and savoy. The worst were the romanesco, which bolted again, and Brussels sprouts, of which only one variety (Rubine) produced anything decent-sized enough to eat. We’ll try sprouts again this year, and get them in a bit earlier, see if that helps.

The walking stick kale was an interesting novelty, growing to around 6′ in height with huge leaves, but those leaves were pretty tough and leathery. They did cook down, if you fried them for long enough, but the flavour wasn’t so spectacular that we’d rush to grow them again. Not when smaller varieties of kale are generally tastier, and more manageable too. As for drying the stems to use as plant supports or even walking sticks, we’re giving one a go, but we’ll have to see how useful it turns out to be.

January 2017 Plot Planning #10
The Big Brassicas section – something of a disappointment, truth be told.

Experimentals

Last year we grew a few novelty items just for the fun of it. One of them was the aforementioned walking stick kale. Another was the electric daisy, and the third was an allegedly highly-edible Fuschia called ‘Berry’.

Electric daisies were kinda fun. The plants and flowers themselves aren’t much to write home about – straggly, thin stems with not much leaf and strange, lumpy daisy-type yellow flowers – but it’s the effect you get when you eat a flower that’s the point of growing them. It’s a bit like licking a 9 volt battery with a mouth full of popping candy. Not entirely unpleasant, unless you really hate the dentist-esque sensation of your mouth going steadily numb, but it wasn’t something that either of us were hugely enamoured with.

James Wong, who champions the variety via the Sutton’s Grow For Flavour range, suggests breaking up the flowers and sprinkling them into a lime jelly for a more gentle, fizzing sensation. But I don’t think we have time to make lime jellies from scratch. And really, we just grew them so we could see the look on Jo’s Dad’s face when we made him try one. That particular moment was well worth the time and effort.

The same can’t really be said, alas, for the Fuschia ‘Berry’, which you may have seen touted last year by Thompson & Morgan. We bought five plugs (they’re now selling them in packs of 10, but you probably won’t want or need that many) and four grew to a decent size.

The flowers were rather lovely, in shades of deep pinkish-red and purple. But the berries, although large, were… meh. Bland and tasteless, not very juicy, hardly anything to recommend them. It could be because they were grown in pots in the greenhouse, rather than the open air and rain, or it could be because the berries just aren’t all that nice. We’ll grow on any plants that have survived the winter, but for their flower display rather than their fruit.

Honourable Mention – Asparagus

We established and planted up the asparagus section of the plot in March and April last year. With no harvests for the first year or two – to give the crowns plenty of time to develop – we haven’t actually tasted any just yet. But we saw plenty of good, strong growth last year, and the first spears have just about broken ground this year, so things are looking good for next year’s first cropping.

September 2016 asparagus patch
Lots of leafy growth in October, just before we cut back for the winter.

The Floral Department

Our plan has always been for Plot #59 to be somewhere to grow an abundance of flowers as well as edibles. Mainly as a food-lure for pollinators, but also because they’re so gosh-darn pretty. Jo is in charge of the floral department and over the past year she’s sown and grown some absolute stunners.

I’ll just leave this gallery here for you to browse through…

Plans for 2017/18

As discussed back in January the aim for this year is to make the entire plot as productive as possible. There’s some infrastructure work to do – the central path will finally be laid, and a seating / hard-standing area at the back, hopefully – and of course the regular rounds of maintenance, watering and weeding. But at long last, the focus will be set firmly on growing and harvesting, rather than clearing and sorting.

We’ll keep you posted as things develop. Please feel free to drop in from time to time to see how we’re doing.

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Meet our Three-Bin Home Composting System

Compost, rich in organic matter, is one of the essential building blocks of good soil. It helps retain moisture and adds nutrients as well as binding mineral particles into a lovely crumb structure. It’s great to add to sandy soils to help them clump together, and clay soils to help them break down. Or any soil, for that matter, to improve its overall condition.

Making compost at home is incredibly easy. Not all of us have room for the sort of multi-bay composting setups that Monty Don or Charles Dowding have access to, but the good news is you don’t need a huge amount of space to run a really efficient composting system.

Having experimented over the past few years, I can highly recommend a rotation system using either two or three of the standard black compost bins. They’re available from most DIY stores and garden centres, but you should definitely check online with GetComposting.com to see if your local authority has a subsidy scheme that could get you a couple of standard bins at a very good price.

March 2017 compost bins
Our three-bin compost system helps us put our kitchen waste to good use.

We have enough room in the utility corner behind our shed for a three-bin setup. The two bins on the right at the ‘current’ and ‘resting’ bins. The ‘current’ bin is the one we’re adding new material to at the moment. They’re open-bottomed, placed on bare soil (or in our case, sand) to allow worms and other organisms easy access to the contents. They’re technically ‘cold’ bins, as they’re not insulated to retain internal heat (like the pricier but more efficient HotBin composter), but they are sited in a spot that catches the sun (as you can see) so they do heat up pretty quickly on a warm day.

There’s a vast amount of information and advice available as to the right mix of nitrogen rich ‘green’ (living or recently-deceased plant matter) and carbon-rich ‘brown’ (long-dead plants, cardboard, paper that isn’t too glossy or heavily inked) material to add your your compost. The RHS advice page on composting suggests a 25% – 50% ratio of greens topped up with browns.

We add all our kitchen peelings, including eggshells, and garden clippings, but not perennial weed roots1 or potato tubers, as well as the contents of our shredder, ripped up egg-boxes and cardboard tubes, along with regular sluices of water. We aim for a 50/50 mix, but it probably skews towards green due to the large amounts of veg trimmings we produce, even though we’re just cooking for the two of us.

March 2017 compost bin contents
Any and all non-perennial-weed plant matter belongs in here, along with plenty of ‘brown’ card and paper.

The ‘current’ bin is gradually filled over the course of a year. Then it becomes the ‘resting’ bin for the next year. Nothing new is added to the ‘resting’ bin, and the mix is checked monthly, to make sure it’s moist enough and to give it a good stir around with the garden fork to get plenty of air in.

The switch-over between the two happens any time between now and the end of April, whenever I can find the time to scoop out last year’s compost and bag it up until it’s ready to use on the garden. I started on the job yesterday, and this is the sort of thing I found at the bottom of the bin:

March 2017 home compost
The results: a bin half-full of lovely home-made compost.

As you can see, everything has broken down quite nicely over the past 12 months, into a dark, crumbly, odour-less mix that will make a great soil improver. There are a few clumps of egg-shell that haven’t fully disintegrated yet, but they can be plucked out and dropped back into the newly-designated ‘resting’ bin before the lid goes on for 12 months.

I think there’s between 120 and 150 litres of compost in just the one bin. Whilst that might not represent a huge monetary saving over bought compost, it’s still the value of a couple of potted up perennials or a few packets of seeds. So in terms of the return on the cost of the initial investment in plastic bins, I’d reckon it will pay for itself in around three or four years.

The third, left-hand, bin is for woody waste: tougher plant stems, clumps of grass, anything that you know will take a longer time to break down. This bin will be left to do its thing for at least three years, allowing as much time as possible for the thicker plant material to break down. At the end of three years the contents will be scooped out and sieved. Any usable compost will be extracted and the rest of the material will go back in the bin for further decomposition.

The main advantage of running two bins side-by-side is that you can ensure a full breakdown of the contents of the ‘resting’ bin over the course of twelve months – especially if you switch at the start of Spring, to really get the temperature up over the summer – without the problem of having to add fresh new material on top of the compost you’re trying to extract from the bottom. That’s always a messy, smelly way to do things, not really recommended if you can avoid it. And you can manage perfectly well without the third bin, but you may have to spend a bit more time picking woody chunks out of your ‘resting’ bin at switch-over time.

Finally, a quick pro-tip re: tea-bags. It’s very tempting to assume that they’re entirely biodegradable, but experience – and much sieving – has taught me that’s not the case, as many tea-bags contain artificial fibres. I’d rather not spend extra time spent picking chunks of half-rotted bag out of the finished compost before it can be used, so instead I invest a smaller amount of time in splitting the tea-bags open and dumping out the spent tea before it goes in the compost:

March 2017 - composting tea bags
Tearing open tea bags might seem like a faff, but it’s a lot less of a faff than sieving…

I dump them in the sink to rinse, then squeeze them out and leave them to dry in a dish on the side before ripping them open when they’re reasonably dry. It doesn’t take too long to do – you can always split a few while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or your next cuppa to brew – and it’s a lot less fiddly than all that picking-out.

Either that or you could always drink more loose leaf tea, which always seems to taste better anyway.

What are your experiences with composting at home? Do you have any suggested improvements on the way we’re doing things? Please do let me know via the comments, below.

Additional Links

1 Kevin at epicgardening.com subsequently got in touch (Nov ’17) to point me at an article on his site on composting weeds, if you’re interested in trying a method or two.

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Crimson vs Persian Clover: The Results

Last year I volunteered to take part in a growing trial for Garden Organic. The aim of the trial was to assess the suitability of Persian Clover (Trifolium resupinatum) as a green manure crop, against the more regularly-used Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum).

In my last update, back in October, I suggested that it wasn’t looking good for the Persian variety. The year-long trial period has now come to an end, and I have to say the situation really hasn’t improved.

Results

Here’s a photo of the Persian trial patch, taken a couple of weeks ago:

February 2017 Persian Clover final
No sign of the Persian clover, just grass and weeds.

As you can see, the clover has all-but disappeared, and the Poa annua grass, Ranunculus repens creeping buttercup and other assorted weeds have moved in en-masse.

By contrast, the Crimson clover patch is at least showing some evidence that clover was once sown there:

February 2017 Crimson Clover final pic
Mostly clover straw and weed seedlings here.

Again, there’s a fair bit of weed growth in evidence, but the clover straw remains and will at least be usable on the compost heap.

Conclusions

On the evidence of the above photos, it’s very tempting to suggest that Persian clover isn’t such a great green manure crop after all. However, there are a few provisos that need to be taken into account before drawing any firm conclusions.

1. Sample Size

Obviously, this is just a single result from one particular site. A rather windy, weed-prone site at that. Garden Organic will be collating results from all their participants and I’ll be very interested in seeing the aggregate view in due course.

2. Duration and Parameters of the Trial

Garden Organic asked participants to run the trial for a whole year, specifically to assess whether the Persian clover would degrade better than the Crimson, which does tend to leave straw behind. On the evidence of my own trial I’d say that yes, it does. The problem being that it degrades too quickly, leaving bare soil behind for weeds to colonise.

But that’s not how green manures tend to be used, at least not on a small to allotment-sized scale. Rather, the crops are grown to the point just before they set seed – or earlier if the ground will be needed for sowing or planting sooner – and then either dug into the soil (or maybe shallow-rotovated, or just cut back and allowed to decompose on the surface, if you practice a no-dig methodology – discussions are ongoing). The idea is that their green growth provides organic matter to improve soil structure, and eventually degrades to release nitrogen and other minerals.

That being the case, there may be an argument for Persian clover being sown, as long as it was dug in at the appropriate stage. However, based on the update I posted last August, I’d have to say that, on our site at least, Persian clover is too slow to germinate and develop to be of any real use. It would still allow annual weeds to establish and potentially set seed before it had established enough ground-cover foliage to prevent the weeds from getting started.

To summarise: I, personally, wouldn’t use Persian clover as a green manure on our site. Not when the stronger, faster-growing Crimson variety does a much better job of quickly covering the ground and puts on a lot more soil-boosting foliage in the process. Digging in the Crimson clover at the appropriate time would avoid the issue of tough straw lingering and being slow to decompose in the soil.

2017 Trials

This year, I’m running another trial on behalf of SoilFixer.co.uk, testing the efficacy of two of their soil improvement products. Details of the initial setup can be found here. I’ll also hopefully be taking part in a wildflower growing and bumble bee counting project for Garden Organic. Details to follow.

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The Growing Season is Under Way At Last

March 2017 onion sets
Starting onions off under cover in modules avoids risk of damage from late frost or excessive wet.

After a slow start to the year – February swung wildly between too cold and far too wet to be able to get much of anything useful done – it’s great to finally get some of the early sowing and growing jobs started.

As you can see from the pic above, I’ve potted up a bag of onions sets in modules, to grow on in the greenhouse until the ground is warm enough to plant them out at the allotment. Last year I moduled them up a few weeks earlier, round about Feb 11th, but then we had that ridiculously mild winter, with temperatures a fair bit higher than they are this year. Always better to work according to the prevailing weather rather than the calendar, I reckon.

I’ve also sown broad beans – again, starting them off in modules for transplanting later – and red onion seeds. Before too long I’ll be sowing leeks, brassicas and getting our first indoor salad leaves of the year started. I’m going to risk sowing my tomatoes soon as well. Last year I sowed them quite early – round about mid-February if I remember it right – and they were extremely slow to germinate out in the greenhouse, due to a prolonged cool spell. This year I’ll get them started in the propagator, once we have space available.

February 2017 Dahlia surgery
This ‘Don Hill’ clump isn’t too bad at all, just a few mushy tubers to cut away.

And I spent most of this morning taking our Dahlias out of their winter storage pots, checking them over for any damage, removing the occasional rotten tuber and then re-potting them to start sprouting in the greenhouse before they go outside after the risk of late frosts has hopefully passed.

It’s good to get going. And there’s so much more to do. Can’t wait.

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