Month: April 2017

Soilfixer Trial Part III: Setting Up the Trial Beds

Old pallets, as long as they’re in reasonably good nick, are a great boon to the allotmenteer. Especially if you need to knock together a few small raised beds. Such as these four, which I set up yesterday for the trial of four different soil mixes that I’m running this year for the folks at

April 2017 Soilfixer trial beds
Half an hour with a saw, a hammer and a bag of nails did the trick.

I nipped back down to Plot #59 this morning, lugging a tub of Soilfixer’s SF60 along with me, and back-filled the four beds. In all four cases, I’ve re-used the soil from last year’s carrot bed, which I know is of a reasonably uniform texture and plain composition, as it was all sieved through last year and didn’t have any fertilisers or other amendments added to it.

April 2017 SF60
Soilfixer’s SF60 soil improver. Looks a bit like someone set fire to a compost heap…

In bed #1: a mix of soil and the compost that I made with Soilfixer’s C.H.A. (composting humification agent) over the winter.

In bed #2: a mix of soil and the non-C.H.A. enhanced compost.

In bed #3: a mix of soil and a few measures of Soilfixer’s SF60 Soil Improver.

In bed #4: plain soil, no enhancements.

Here are comparison pics of the contents of the four beds (as above, clockwise from top-left) just after the relevant amendment had been added (or not), before final raking in and levelling.

April 2017 Soilfixer trial soils
The contents of four beds, amended (or not) as required.

The pics were all taken at roughly the same time of day, in similar light conditions (direct sun, little or no cloud cover) so I think we can safely conclude that the C.H.A.-enhanced compost is a little darker in colour than the non-C.H.A. compost. Whether that’s down to an increased amount of colloidal humus or simply the darkening effect of the C.H.A. (a charcoal-dust-like black powder) I’m not able to say. But the darker colour might help the soil to warm marginally quicker.

I’m going to leave the beds to rest for a few days, then I’ll be back at the weekend to plant out the first crops: a couple of broad bean ‘The Sutton’ plants in each bed, for starters. I’ll also be sowing a few seeds that I think will be reliable germinators: beetroot and turnip. Later on I’ll add some more veg plants, maybe a tomato and a kale, and probably a couple of flowers as well, perhaps some Tagetes or French marigolds, and possibly a mignonette Dahlia or three.

Then it’ll be a case of observing and recording any observations as often as I’m able to, including rates of germination, any noticeable differences in growth patterns, the degree of weed infestation, and anything else that I notice.

I’ll keep you posted.

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A Quick Mint-Cuttings Experiment

I brought back an old, tired, ‘Eau de Cologne’ mint plant from Plot #59 yesterday. The pot is disintegrating and is destined for crocks, and the plant itself – which isn’t in a good condition at all – is likely to end up in the compost. Before that happens though, I’ve decided to take a trio of cuttings of slightly different types so see which, if any of them, takes and performs noticeably better.

April 2017 mint cuttings
Varying amounts of stem, root and leaf left on these propagules.

In this highly unscientific experiment, I’ve put the propagules into pots of gritty seed compost. In one (top-right), a bare stem with no established roots or shoots. In another (middle), a rooted stem with a small amount of leaf already established. In the third (on the left), a couple of quite well-rooted stems, with a slightly larger amount of leaf. Mint is hardy enough, so they’ve been left in the unheated greenhouse, rather than the heated propagator indoors.

Theoretically, the leafier stems should be able to photosynthesise straight away and use the energy to produce more root and stem material, establishing quickly. Then again, they’ll also be losing moisture by transporation and evaporation from the leaf surfaces and using up their internal energy stores; it’s a race between the processes to see which one wins out. At the other end of the scale, the bare stem will need to use its stored energy to produce root, shoot and leaf material, but shouldn’t be losing much moisture at all. So it might take longer, but could establish a stronger plantlet in the long run.

It’ll be interesting to see whether there are any noticeable differences between the hare and tortoise approach. Although of course I’d need to set up a larger sample to establish any sort of definite pattern.

Edit, 17.05.17 I’ve posted a quick one-month-on update if anyone would like to see how these cuttings are doing.

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Now Planting: Peas and Broad Beans

Yesterday Jo and I braved the rather chilly wind that was sweeping across Plot #59 and set about planting the first batch of this year’s peas and broad beans.

We started by setting up a pea harp: a bamboo cane A-frame with additional string supports (see last year’s post on the subject for more details, hat-tip again to Jane Merrick for the idea), ideal for scrambling climbers such as peas. I was in charge of the bamboo and Jo did a marvellous job of the stringing.

Here’s the finished structure, with a mix of mangetout-type peas ‘Golden Sweet’ and ‘Shiraz’ planted out:

April 2017 pea harp
Plenty of string for the pea tendrils to cling on to as they get themselves established.

Next up: simply inserting a double-row of five-foot canes to tie the broad beans to as they grow, and then planting out one plant per cane:

April 2017 broad beans planted
This double-row of broad beans should keep us well-stocked for months.

These are a mix of three varieties: reliable ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, new-to-us ‘Mangetout Stereo’ and a few plants that I’ve grown from beans collected from last year’s crop, which may or may not turn out to be ‘Red Epicure’, or some variant on that theme.

We have about 20 over-wintering ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ that are already in flower, so between those and this new batch we should be munching on fresh, tasty broad beans from May through to July, or thereabouts. Yum.

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Spring Has Sprung, Allotment Work Has Been Done

Plot #59 March 2017
Here we are at the end of March – still grey and sparse, but things are starting to happen again…

The clocks have gone forward, buds are breaking open everywhere and, yes, the weeds are growing again – it must be Spring!

With temperatures rising in March and the rain holding off for reasonable periods of time, Jo and I have been able to get down to Plot #59 and get stuck in to some of the main jobs of the season. Digging, weeding and clearing away winter’s detritus for starters. But also a few more interesting, positive, forward-looking highlights. The sort of jobs that gardeners and allotmenteers everywhere look forward to, because they mean the new growing season is finally getting under way.

Here are a few of them.

Feeding Soft Fruit Bushes

March 2017 soft fruit section
Signs of greenery amongst the fruit bushes – a sure sign of Spring!

The soft fruit section is starting to leaf up nicely. There’s even signs of early blossom on the gooseberry and redcurrant bushes – hopefully not too prematurely.

March 2017 josteberry
The jostaberries that we planted earlier in the year are leafing up nicely.

This jostaberry was planted out earlier in the year and it seems to be doing well, which is good to see.

In order to give the bushes a boost, I scraped back the woodchip mulch from around each plant and sprinkled on a handful of fish, blood and bone. That ought to give them a feed just as they’re waking up for the season and hopefully improve fruit yield later on.

Broad Beans, Old and New

March 2017 overwintered broad beans
These ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ broad beans weathered the winter storms rather well.

Last November we planted out a couple of rows of broad bean ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ and tented them with enviromesh. They seem to have survived and thrived, with only one or two losses, and many of them are already putting out flowers. Hopefully we’ll have an early crop of tasty beans to enjoy in a few weeks.

March 2017 broad bean plantlets
Lovely strong roots on these broad bean plantlets.

And back in the greenhouse, this year’s Spring crop is coming along nicely. I’ve potted up a couple of varieties that have been growing strongly. More ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ and a cultivar called ‘Stereo’, which is meant to be a mangetout bean. Interesting, no?

Preparing for Potatoes

April 2017 potato trenches
Just the three rows of potatoes this year – here’s hoping for a blight-free one.

We’re only growing one variety of potato this year – good old, reliable, all-rounder Saxon – and only three rows of them. About 24 plants’ worth, all being well and if blight and/or leaf-curl virus stays away this year. Digging the trenches is one of my favourite jobs of the early Spring.

I’ve remembered to allow plenty of space between them this year, and have manured them well. Two rows are in already, and I’m saving the third for a week or two, in a vague attempt to spread the harvest. I suspect everything will catch up once the weather warms up and I’ll end up harvesting them all at once, as usual, but we’ll see.

Planting Out Onions

April 2017 onions planted
Jo did a cracking job of getting these onions in the ground.

We planted out garlic last Autumn and we’re still harvesting last year’s leeks, but we didn’t try to over-winter any onions this year. Instead we’ve gone down the route of starting sets off in modules, and as they’d mostly reached the 10-15cm leaf length stage it was time to get them in the ground. Jo took charge of the operation last weekend and did a much neater job of it than I probably would have done, too.

Next Up

More digging and clearing, preparing the beds for the SoilFixer trial section, planting out those broad beans and the first of the peas. And seed sowing. So much seed sowing…

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Planting Horseradish in Open(ish) Ground

Horseradish root
This is what I’m talking about! (pic by Anna regOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0 | Link)

I love a bit of horseradish, me. Grated fresh and mixed into mayonnaise it does wonders for grilled mackerel. Or creamed and added to English mustard, it really makes your sausages sing.

The thing is though, when you try to buy fresh horseradish, it’s only really available as a whole root about a foot or so long, which frankly is a bit too much even for me. So I decided to grow some of my own, in the hope of being able to harvest it in smaller portions.

This, folks, is an Armoracia rusticana plant, a.k.a. horseradish (see the website of the Horseradish Information Council – I kid ye not – for the likely etymology of the common name, if you’re interested):

April 2017 - potted horseradish
A small plant now, but give it time and it will grow in to a bit of a monster.

Unassuming little thing, isn’t it? But it’s incredibly vigorous and will spread itself around by sending out underground stems (rhizomes) and colonising nearby growing space, especially if its roots are disturbed. And as harvesting the fleshy tap-root is the whole point of growing the stuff, if you don’t want it to take over half your plot, you need to do something to contain those rhizomes.

One option is to grow it in pots, but they carry the usual risk of drying out in hot spells. Instead, I’m using an old plastic bin, with a missing bottom:

April 2017 horseradish container
I’m hoping the depth of this old bin will be enough to contain the horseradish rhizomes.

It’s about 60cm deep and as you can see, I’ve dug it into the ground to reduce the amount of heat it will absorb and hence the amount of water loss due to evaporation. In goes the plant, along with a good drenching and a quick finish with a mulch of chipped bark:

April 2017 horseradish planted our
I’m hoping this will be enough space for the plant to grow well, without taking over the entire plot.

Job’s a good ‘un. I’ll leave the plant alone to establish for a while, but with any luck I’ll be harvesting horseradish before the end of next year.

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Soilfixer Trial Part II – Post-Winter Check-In

This year I’m trialling two soil improvement products on behalf of the folks at The first, a Compost Humification Agent, was added to a bagful of compostable material back in December. A second bag of compostables was set aside at the same time, to act as a control.

Checking In

This past weekend, I checked in on the two proto-compost samples to see how they were getting along. The bags have been sitting around on plot #59 over the winter, so I wasn’t expecting anything to have changed massively, what with the lack of heat to kick-start the decomposition process. But as I dumped each sample out into a plastic bucket, I was pleased to see that actually there had been a fair bit of break-down, even in the colder winter conditions

Non-C.H.A. Sample

March 2017 Non-C.H.A. compost sample
Reasonable decomposition, as it happens. Except for the tough grass stems.

C.H.A. Sample

March 2017 C.H.A. compost sample
Similar decomposition, perhaps a little darker in colour..? Hard to tell.

Hard to tell at this stage whether the addition of the C.H.A. has significantly accelerated the decomposition process, but the second sample did seem a little darker in colour. But of course, the proof will be in whether or not the trial crops actually perform better in C.H.A. compost enhanced soil.

Topping Up

Each sample was churned around, to get some air into the organic matter, before being re-bagged. I removed a couple of handfuls of tough, grassy stems from each sample. The stuff didn’t seem to have broken down at all – some shoots were even showing signs of re-sprouting – and it’s not the sort of material I want to add to the trial beds in due course. I then added a few scoopfuls of home compost from our recently-emptied bin and added more C.H.A. to the relevant mix.

Each bag will be re-aired and re-mixed a couple of times over the next week or two. Ten, before too long, it will be time to start the trial proper by setting up the four trial beds, adding the appropriate amendments (or not) to each, and planting out some of the seedlings that are already coming along in the greenhouse.

I’ll tell you what crops I’m planning to grow in the next Trial update.

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