Month: May 2017

Now Planting Out: Sunflowers and Tomatoes

Over a busy Bank Holiday weekend, Jo and I managed to grab a couple of hours to head down to Plot #59 and do a bit of planting out.

First in, Jo’s sunflowers:

May 2017 sunflowers planted out
They might look small now, but give them a couple of months…

Jo has grown three varieties this year: ‘Giant Single’, ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Ruby Red’. They might not look like much now, but come back in a couple of months and we should have a stunning display to show you.

Whilst Jo was tying her sunflowers in to their cane supports, I planted out a row of tomatoes:

May 2017 tomatoes planted out
‘Legend Bush’ interplanted with marigolds, which will hopefully deter a few aphids.

These are a variety called ‘Legend Bush’, which I sourced from the Real Seed Catalogue. It’s described as an early-cropper, which helps it to avoid the dreaded blight, and is meant to do well outdoors in cooler conditions. Hopefully we’ll be picking a few of those in a month or so as well.

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Thinning and Trimming Leek Seedlings

I’ve been growing leeks using the same method for the past three or four years now and it seems to be working quite nicely.

Rather than tray-sowing and then pricking out individual leeks into modules, I use deep plastic troughs – the sort of thing you can find in most large supermarkets at this time of year or online of course – about half filled with general purpose compost. On top of that I layer about 5cm of seed compost, and sow the leek seed thinly on top, before covering lightly with seed compost and watering with a fine-rose can.

A few weeks later, the leek seedlings should be about 15-20cm tall and looking rather grass-like. This is when I like to thin them out and give them a trim.

May 2017 leeks for trimming
Long and leggy leeks need cutting down to size

Thinning

If there are two or more seedlings growing within about 1cm of each other, then one or more of them has to be plucked out. Be ruthless. Better to have one good seedling with enough room to grow to planting-out stage than two or three that eventually compete each other to the point of uselessness. Plus, the leek-trimmings can be used like chives, in pasta, fritatta or anything else you fancy.

Trimming

Next, take a pair of sharp scissors and give your leeks a hair-cut. I gather up a small bunch and then chop the lot off at around 10-12cm in length. Trimming the main growing shoot(s) helps to prevent them becoming hopelessly leggy and tangled. It also encourages the growth of new leaves from the basal plate at the bottom of the leek, and that’s what you want: a thickening of each seedling to roughly ‘pencil thickness’, ready for planting out in June or early July.

If you’re thorough (and brave) enough then you might only have to thin your leek seedlings once before planting out, although a second trim may be needed in another three or four weeks.

How about you? Is this how you grow leeks, or do you use a different method? Let me know via the comments.

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Over-wintered and Spring-Sown Broad Beans

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

Successional growing – staggering the sowing and planting of crops – is a great way of to extending the harvest over a longer period and avoiding those “help, I’ve run out of chutney recipes” gluts.

It tends to work best either with fast-maturing crops like salad leaves or radishes which, with a bit of experience and also luck, can be sown every few weeks so that just as one batch has been harvested, the next ought to be ready to pick. But it doesn’t always work for slower-growing crops, which can often just sulk when the weather is poor and then put on a burst of growth and catch up when the weather improves. I’m thinking beans, courgettes, that sort of thing.

Another successional method, which does work well for slower-maturing crops, is to extend the season by over-wintering hardier varieties; sow and plant out in autumn, provide protection against winter frosts and/or rain, then watch them grow like the clappers as soon as spring rolls around.

Last year, we tried over-wintering a batch of broad beans. We planted out 20 ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ – a recommended hardy variety – under enviromesh, and only lost two to the winter weather. Here they are just a week or so ago:

May 2017 overwintered broad beans
These bean plants are much further on than their spring-sown cousins.

They’ve already flowered and are setting beans, and we’ve been picking the leafy tops as a bonus veg crop as well.

We then sowed another batch – this time a mixture of ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, ‘The Sutton’, ‘Rd Epicure’ and a mangetout variety called ‘Stereo’ – and planted them out in mid-April. Here they are in a pic taken at the same time as the above:

May 2017 spring-sown broad beans
These spring-sown broad beans will come in later than the overwintered ones, extending the season.

They’re just about starting to flower but they’re a good few weeks behind the over-wintered batch. That should mean the beans are ripe much later, so we might have had a chance to eat all the over-wintered ones before the new ones are ready.

Other crops with cultivars that over-winter well, or that can be harvested in the winter months, include onions, cabbages, kale, leeks, peas, sprouting broccoli, brussels sprouts, parsnips, carrots and of course garlic. We always plant our garlic and elephant garlic cloves in September as a couple of sharp winter frosts will help the bulbs to form properly. The same goes for strawberries; the best time to plant them out is in the Autumn.

How about you? What have you over-wintered from last year and is it doing well? Let me know via the comments, below.

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A Quick Mint-Cuttings Experiment – Update

About a month ago I posted details of – well, not really an experiment, more an observation – of three different mint cuttings that I’d taken and potted up. As a few people were interested enough to comment, I thought I’d post a quick follow-up.

Here are the original cuttings – all taken at the same time from the same stock plant, an ‘Eau de Cologne’ mint – for reference:

April 2017 mint cuttings
Various amounts of stem, root and leaf left on the propagules, to see which, if any, perform better.

All three cuttings have shown signs of new growth:

May 2017 mint cutting - leafy stem

This first pot was the one at the bottom of the first pic. As you can see, the existing growth has increased dramatically (and it’s picked up a few greenhouse whitefly or aphid passengers…) but there hasn’t been any new growth from elsewhere along the stem. It seems that the apical dominance of the growing tip has ensured that one node continues to grow, and others are being suppressed.

May 2017 mint cutting - bare stem

In contrast, this pot was originally the bare-stem cutting (top-right, original pic). As you can see, three new growth points have developed at nodes along the stem and are developing at varying rates. I’d expect that they’d all eventually continue to develop to roughly the same size.

May 2017 mint cuttings - assorted leaf

Here (originally the top-left pot) there are two different growth patterns, a mixture of the above. On one cutting the two existing leafy growths have developed. One the other the original (very small) leaf growth has died back and two new ones have developed instead.

Interesting, no? I’ll keep an eye on all three pots and see if the situation changes.

Edit: For an alternate and soilless take on rooting mint cuttings, see Mal’s Edinburgh Allotment Blog.

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Help a Researcher – Record Your Yield with MYHarvest

MYHarvest.org.uk

One thing Jo and I have been wondering, over the past three years of allotment growing, is: just how much fruit and veg are we harvesting from Plot #59? I’ve thought in the past of trying to track and measure the weight of the crops that we pick, lift and cut from the plot, but the sheer faff of weighing and recording has always seemed likely to be more effort than it was worth just to satisfy our curiosity.

Well, now we have an excuse for taking those measurements, and a means of recording them, and a good reason to do so, in the form of MYHarvest.org.uk.

The website is the front-end of a research project by three academics from the University of Sheffield, who are interested in getting in touch with home and allotment-based grow-your-own gardeners. The aim of the project is to “estimate the contribution people who grow their own fruit and vegetable crops are making to UK national food production”. They hope to gather significant evidence to support the use of land within towns and cities for growing food. And if that means more allotment sites are made available, then that has to be a good thing.

The research is focusing on the 25 most popular UK food crops – simply because there won’t be time to collate the data on every possible species and cultivar – but you’re welcome to record anything outside the list as ‘other’. And I’m sure the researchers will enjoy spotting the more unusual and/or interesting crops that participants end up recording.

Anyhow, we’re going to give it a go, for as long as our good intentions hold out. We’re up to (an estimated) 7Kg of rhubarb so far, and counting.

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Plot Troubles – A Dose of Double Desiccation

May 2017 dry weather
Tomorrow’s forecast from BBC Weather – more of the same…

Manchester, a city not exactly renowned for its Mediterranean climate, doesn’t seem to have had more than a drop or two of rain for at least the past fortnight (rainchester.com says three days, but they’re obviously not checking here in Prestwich).

Down on Plot #59 we’re experiencing a period of Double Dessication, as the ground bakes under the drying effects of both sun and wind. As the state of our over-wintered leek bed demonstrates, the soil is in a pretty poor state just now:

May 2017 dry leek bed
Not the healthiest of soil soils just at the moment.

Those same cracking, crumbling, dusty conditions are replicated right across the plot. However, as you can see from the dark area in the centre of the pic where a couple of leeks have been harvested, the soil about four or five centimetres down is still reasonably dark and moist.

This is the ‘dust mulch’ effect in action: the surface tilth has desiccated to the point where it’s too dry for any more water to evaporate out of it, and too dry even to wick up the moisture from the soil beneath. In effect, it creates a protective layer that actually helps to preserve moisture below.

But still, these sort of conditions are obviously far from ideal, and they do have a number of implications for the work that ought to be going on at this time of year:

1) Minimise Digging and Deep-Weeding

Except for non-growing areas like paths, it’s a really bad idea to dig the soil when the weather is dry, as you’ll just expose the moisture that is in the soil and accelerate its evaporation.

Likewise, there’s little point in trying to dig out perennial weeds when the ground is baked hard. Aside from exposing moist soil, you’re far more likely to snap the tap root and leave a chunk of it stuck deep in the ground to re-grow at a later date. Do keep on top of removing seed heads though; dandelions in particular will be going to seed like crazy right now.

It’s fine to hoe off surface annual weeds as well, as long as you’re not exposing too much of the darker soil in the process. Larger weeds can be removed, and weed seedlings will quickly dry up and die, then rot back into the soil when it rains again.

2) Maintain Regular Irrigation

Note, ‘regular’ rather than ‘frequent’. Plants that are rooted in the ground will benefit more from a longer, deeper soak every few days, rather than a light sprinkling once a day or so. This will allow the water to soak into that dust-mulch protected region, and encourage the plant roots to grow deeper in search of it. You’ll also save yourself time and back-ache.

Container-grown plants are of course a different case entirely and will need to be irrigated much more often. If the growing medium in a container dries out too much it can be almost impossible to re-moisten it just by watering. You’re better off standing them in a bucket or tray of water and allowing it to soak back in gradually, rather than wasting water that will just run right through or off the dry soil.

3) No Direct Seed Sowing

Seeds need both heat and moisture to germinate successfully. It’s the uptake of moisture into the seed that triggers the initial development of root and stem, and a steady supply of moisture is needed to swell the cotyledon(s) – the initial ‘seed’ leaves – and to carry nutrients from the soil throughout the fast-growing seedling.

Sowing into a medium that’s a quagmire one minute and then back to dust half a day later won’t do seedlings any good at all. Combined with the scorching effect of sun, the blasting effect of wind and the damage done by heavy drops of water from a can or hose, it’s a recipe for a distinct lack of success. Far better to start seeds off indoors, in modules or trays, and then transplant outside when soil conditions improve.

Fingers Crossed

The forecast here in North Manchester is for rain showers from Friday through the weekend, but it’s set to turn dry again next week. And we’re going to need a bit more than a few showers to restore the soil and re-fill the water butts. Here’s hoping we don’t end up with a full-blown Spring drought on our hands.

How about you? Are you experiencing similar conditions, or have you been pleasantly drenched recently? Feel free to let me know (and in the latter case, make me jealous) via the comments.

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Air-Pot Mini-Orchard Update: It’s Blossom Time

I’m very happy to report that the fruit trees we bought from Grow at Brogdale and potted up in Air-Pot containers back in February all seem to have settled in nicely and are producing a healthy flush of blossom.

Here’s our Malus domestica (apple) ‘Herefordshire Russet’, putting on a lovely show in shades of pink and white:

April 2017 Herefordshire Russet blossom

Malus domestica ‘Blenheim Orange’ is joining in as well:

April 2017 Blenheim Orange blossom

A little way behind those and looking like it might be a partial tip-bearer (not to self re: future pruning requirements) we have the later-fruiting Malus domestica ‘Cornish Aromatic’:

April 2017 Cornish Aromatic buds

The Malus (crab-apple) John Downie has been on the verge of breaking bud for a fortnight, but very wisely decided to wait for the recent chilly spell to pass:

April 2017 Malus John Downie blossom

And not to be outdone, the Prunus avium (cherry) ‘Morello’ is currently a column of shining star-like flowers:

April 2017 Morello Cherry blossom

In a couple of years time, when the fruiting spur structures have had a little longer to establish, these trees should be absolute stunners.

The next stage will involve monitoring the blossom for fruit-set and then deciding just how many fruits to leave on each tree this year. I think I’ll err on the side of caution and thin down to two or three per tree, as this is their first, establishing season, and I’d rather they put their energy into root development as they settle in to their Air-Pot homes. But if you think that’s over-cautious and there’s a good, hortcultural reason why I should just let nature take its course, please do let me know via the comments.

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