Month: January 2019

Allotment Jobs for February 2019

January 2019 - Plot 59

January has finally delivered a spell of cold weather – essential for helping apple and pear trees to break dormancy and set blossom at the right time, and for killing off slugs and other pests – and as this photo shows, Plot #59 is hunkered down and riding it out.

The ground, when not frozen solid, is sodden and so shouldn’t even be walked on, never mind worked. Compacting the soil at this time of year will lead to all sorts of problems with poor aeration later in the growing season. Best to keep off and bide your time for now.

That said, there’s still work to be done, when the weather does allow it. Here’s what we’re hoping to push ahead with in February:

Jobs On Plot #59 (main plot)

Looking back at the jobs for January, I’m pleased to say we got a couple of them done: the willow has been coppiced, the raspberry and strawberry beds grubbed up ready for re-planting (if our order of plants ever arrives…) and the shallots are potted up in the greenhouse, putting down roots before they’re planted out later in the year.

Next up:

  • Soft fruit section re-planting – half the rhubarb crowns need to be lifted, divided and re-planted. The new plants will go in as soon as they’re here and it’s feasible to plant them out.
  • Greenhouse deep clean – I like to give both of our greenhouses – the 10’x8′ at home and the 6’x6′ on the plot = a thorough citrox-spray and rinse in February, in advance of the start of the growing season.
  • Central path laying – (as per January) there are another 7 or 8 3×2′ industrial-grade concrete slabs waiting to be bedded down, but the base needs digging out first and sand spreading.
  • Clearing grass – (as per January) a lack of time at the plot last year has led to a resurgence of grass in a few places. I plan to scrape it back and use the rough turf in a…
  • Hugelkultur-style growing mound – we’ve set one up at work, using logs, woody prunings and lifted turf. I’m planning the same sort of thing on a smaller scale using the material from the old log / branch pile at the plot.

Jobs On Plot #79 (orchard)

January 2019 - Plot 79 Orchard

Nothing happened in January. I did speak to fellow plot-holder Mike about the annual pruning, but the weather has been against us ever since. The to-do list therefore remains:

  • Formative Pruning – it’s the right time of year, as long as no heavy frosts are forecast – to carefully prune the still-very-young apple, pear, medlar and quince trees on our orchard plot. They were only planted last winter, so they’re still very much at the structural shaping stage.
  • Path repair – the flag path between plot #79 and the next-door neighbour is in a pretty poor state of repair. It needs lifting, digging out, re-sanding and re-laying.

Jobs at Home

January 2019 - Vitopod propagators and lights

Both our Vitopod propagators have been set up and the lights kit for the smaller unit has been set up and is helping our chilli, potato onion and goji berry seedlings grow strongly. Due to a stock shortage of the correct light tubes and unsuitable substitute being sent out (sorted out with minimum fuss by the supplier and as quickly as stock of the replacement light tubes would allow, I have to say) some of the seedlings ended up etiolated and leggy despite my best efforts to keep turning them, so we lost a few. But what’s left seems to be enjoying a 12 hour cycle of good growing light.

On the rest of the list for this month:

  • Sowing: early / hardy herbs – I’m planning to establish a small herb / tea plantation outside the back door this year. I’ll have a look at the seed stocks and see what can be started off early, get them in the Vitopod whilst the lights are on.
  • Shed sort-out – we’re having new fencing installed right around our boundary in a few weeks, so there’s going to be a lot of rubbish heading for the skip. Now’s a good time to have a clear out in the shed, see what else can join it. And to make room for all the pots, trays and assorted stuff that needs to come out of the greenhouse ready for the aforementioned deep-clean.
  • Sowing: windowsill herbs – (as per January) I’ve had a couple of packets of veg meant to be suitable for ‘microgreens’ in the seed-box for a while now, so I might give them a go.
  • Pot and label cleaning – (as per January) if the weather deteriorates it’ll be time to get out the scrubbing brush and mild detergent to clean up a batch of seed trays, pots and plant labels, ready for Spring.

That lot should definitely keep the pair of us busy. How about you? What are you up to this month? Let us know via the Comments…

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Notes On a Restorative Pruning Workshop, Platt Fields, Mcr

January 2019 Platts Fields
An overview of the Platts Fields Community Orchard site (screenshot from Google Maps)

Last Sunday I girded my loins against the chill and headed down to Platt Fields Park in south Manchester for a day of restorative top fruit pruning. The session was organised and run by The Orchard Project, with The Friends of Platt Fields Park, and was led by Mark Simmonds, a Hebden Bridge based orchardist whose day job involves helping to establish sustainable community co-operative ventures with Co-op Culture.

It was a mixed group that attended. Some previous volunteers, some self-confessed complete novices, and some first-time Platt Fields volunteers – like myself and my good friend Ian P – with a bit more horticultural knowledge. Before we were let loose on Platt Fields Park’s collection of mature and, in some cases, somewhat overgrown fruit trees, Mark provided us all with an hour’s worth of tuition and pruning theory.

That hour alone was was well worth the £10 entry fee. I was greatly reassured when the first thing Mark said was “forget what they tell you in the gardening books, pruning doesn’t work like that,” (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist) and then went on to explain the basics of apical dominance, hormonal balances within the tree, and the importance of focusing on next year’s likely re-growth pattern, rather than what you think the tree should look like once you’ve finished cutting. All excellent stuff, all very well delivered. (More on that sort of thing in another blog post or three, another time…)

January 2019 Mark Simmonds
Workshop tutor Mark Simmonds, demonstrating the use of a pole saw.

Once we’d covered a bit of blade-based health & safety, we were shown the trees and, after a bit more demonstration and Q&A, allowed to start work. Ian and I teamed up with David from the Friends, and made light work of an overgrown apple. After lunch David was needed elsewhere (decisions to be made) so Ian and I cracked on with a couple more trees.

The most extreme pruning job of the day was on a tree that had forked a couple of times near the base, resulting in had four narrow trunk-limbs, shooting up a good three or four metres. It was quite close to three other trees and we spotted a problem at the base of one branch: a bore-hole filled with rotting-down wood. We cut that branch out completely, although unfortunately we discovered that the rot had progressed deeper into the core of the tree:

January 2019 rotten Malus domestica wood

We were worried that the rot might affect the stability of the tree and so Ian suggested taking the other three limbs right back to shoulder-height. This would lighten the load on those three limbs in case the base rotted further, and Ian pointed out that the Friends could potentially use those limbs as the stock for grafting some new (and named – none of the trees in the Platt Fields Orchard are identified, alas) varieties.

Mark agreed, and further suggested that instead of cleft-grafting this year, they could wait for the re-growth wood to sprout and then use that as the stock to graft scions onto next year. I added that they could make it into a multi-variety ‘Franken-tree’, David liked the idea, and so we went ahead.

This was the result:

January 2019 Malus domestica pruned for grafting

I’m rather hoping I’ll be free to come along when the grafting happens next year. I’ve not tried grafting onto a tree in-situ yet, so I’d be interested to pick up a few tips.

More general pruning and tidying went on after that, but as we had paperwork to do before we left, we had to call it a day and could only work on a fraction of the total orchard. It’s a great site, with a large number of trees (80+ mostly apple or pear, some cherry). If I lived closed I’d volunteer to do a lot more work there. Hopefully David and the more local Friends and volunteers can crack on and get some more done whilst the trees are still dormant.

All in all, it was an excellent session. Good weather for the time of year, good company, good knowledge, good practice. A good time had by all.

Mark said that he works and runs workshops with various groups, and on various sites, particularly in West Yorkshire. If you’re interested in orchard work, or just improving your general pruning skills, and get a chance to go along to one of his sessions, you really should.

The Orchard Project work at sites in Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and London. See the events page of their website for details of upcoming sessions.

January 2019 Ian P pruning
My mate Ian getting on with the job…

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Water Feature or Pipe Dream?

The one essential element that’s missing from the cottage(ish) garden that Jo and I have been gradually developing over the past three years is a source of moving water. We didn’t want to put in a pond – if only because we didn’t know much about pond planting or pond care – and all the wall-mounted water features I’ve seen for sale have tended towards the overly-decorative, or have just been downright plastic-tacky.

I do, however, have a (possibly mad) idea that I’ve been toying with for a couple of years. Twelve years or so ago I helped my grandmother move house from Tenby to Leeds. After we’d packed her personal possessions up and my folks had driven her off to her new bungalow, I was left to supervise the loading of the rest of the furniture and decades’ worth of boxed stuff into the removal van.

Poking around in the attic, I found an old, salt-glazed, stoneware demijohn that has been left behind. I grabbed it, brought it home, and have left it standing in a corner of the garden (or down at the allotment) ever since:

Stoneware demijohn

It seems to me that if I could somehow rig up a reservoir, and a power source, and a pump set to burble a steady flow over the top of the demijohn spout, then I might just have the makings of a rather unique and interesting-looking water feature.

Unfortunately, I have no real idea how I’d go about setting up such a thing. I guess I’d have to suspend the out-flow in the neck of the top aperture, and run an inlet pipe out of the bottom spout and into a subterranean reservoir? Or something?

If there’s anyone out there who tackles hare-brained schemes like this on a regular basis, or has a better-than-average working knowledge of water features in general, or just a damn good idea as to how I could make it work, then I’d love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment below…

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Re-Vamping the Soft Fruit Section on Plot 59

We’ve been talking about reorganising the soft fruit on our main plot for a couple of growing seasons now. This year we’ve rolled up our sleeves and made a start.


First up: our raspberry patch has been a reasonably productive one for three or four years, but we’ve decided it’s time for a change.

January 2019 random raspberry canes

All the raspberry plants in this section are ones that we moved from elsewhere on the plot when we first took it on five years ago. We have no idea what cultivars they are, all we know is that they’re pretty much all Autumn fruiting primocanes and some of them are unpleasantly spiny.

They’ve also been doing the usual raspberry thing for two or three years: putting out runners, setting up colonies, choking the space. So they’re all coming out – finding new homes with plot neighbours who don’t mind so much which raspberries they grow – and we’re replacing them with fresh stock that we’ve ordered from Pomona Fruits.

We’ve opted for three cultivars, all Autumn primocane (we already have plenty of early-season soft fruit to eat from our plot): Glen Coe, Joan J and Allgold. All three cultivars are recommended in James Wong‘s rather excellent book Grow For Flavour, and two of them – Glen Coe and Allgold – carry the personal recommendation of my good friend Ian P, who grows them both on his allotment and rates them highly.

I’ll post again in more detail when the crowns arrive and we’ve completed the setup of the new planting bed. We’re setting up a short-term support structure to test out a growing method that we’ve seen in action in various walled and/or botanic gardens on our travels.


Next: lift and dispose of our old, tired, strawberry plants. They’re easily three, maybe four years old, so they’re past the recommended replacement age.

January 2019 old strawberry beds

When we planted these rows out – back in our novice days – I hit on the bright idea of growing them on weed membrane-covered soil ridges. Cut a hole every 12 inches (30cm) and plant through the membrane. It was something I’d seen in passing on Beechgrove Garden and I thought it would help keep the fruit off the soil and stop it spoiling.

We encountered two major problems with that concept:

1) A couple of summers ago we had a run of soggy, grey humidity and discovered that our 12″/30cm spacing was far too compact. The plants put on masses of dense foliage that held onto the moisture, providing a perfect environment for grey mould to take hold and run rampant. Net result: mushy, mouldy fruit everywhere, very little of it salvageable and fit to eat. Half the plants (every other one) came out the following winter in an effort to improve air-flow around them.

2) As anyone who grows anything in a raised bed of any sort knows, a raised bed drains and dries out much more quickly than flat ground. Good for plants that hate wet roots, not so good for shallow-rooted strawberries. In last summer’s drought it was almost impossible to keep the plants well-watered, especially trying to aim the water through the mass of foliage and into the stem-choked holes in the membrane. Net result: far fewer strawberries than we should have had for the number of plants.

So the plants are out and we’ve ordered a dozen ‘Malwina’ – another James Wong recommended-for-flavour cultivar – as runners, from Pomona. The ridges have been flattened and we’re planning on growing our new strawbs in long, deep plastic trays. Yes, trays will also dry out in hot weather, but they’re easier to irrigate. Water will at least be contained within the trays for long enough to soak the soil and be of some use to the plants. And we can more easily control the amount of fertiliser they get as well.


I know, technically a vegetable, but it’s growing in the soft fruit section of the plot, so I’m including it in this round-up.

Rhubarb on plot 59

Our rhubarb patch is pretty impressive when it’s in full growth, if we do say so ourselves. Again, the eight crowns were all gathered from elsewhere on the plot, and they’ve been in-situ for three or four years now, so they’re well-established and produce kilos and kilos of stems that in the height of the season can be as thick as your wrist. But they’ve got to the stage now where they need to be divided and replanted to stop them becoming dead and woody in the centre.

We’re going to do it in stages: take up half of them, divide and re-plant three good, healthy chunks of root with a crown bud attached, further down the fruit section. Then we’ll add an earlier cultivar (ours all come in late Spring through Summer) and call it a day at four plants instead of eight (too many for us). The other four will be left to do their thing for this year and then next winter they’ll be lifted, divided and either given away or donated to work.


Pic by Wildfeuer – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Also in that order from Pomona, we’ll be taking delivery of three lingonberry plants. These tart cranberry-relatives are staples of Scandinavian and Baltic cuisine, where they’re made into sauces and condiments to serve with meat and fish. They’re acid-lovers, so we’ll need to make sure we have plenty of ericaceous compost in before we plant them out.

I’m not sure yet whether to grow them in containers or to dig a trench and back-fill with ericaceous compost. If anyone out there is growing lingonberries already and can offer any advice, it would be gratefully received, via the comments.


Backyard blueberries

We already have a pair of six or seven year old blueberry bushes growing in large tubs in the back garden at home. As far as I can remember though, they’re the same cultivar, and introducing a pollination partner is meant to help improve productivity. I can’t for the life of me remember what the original two are, but I know they’re not ‘Spartan’, so that’s what we’ve ordered from Pomona. It’s another James Wong recommendation and has an AGM from the RHS as well, so hopefully a good choice.

How about you? What sort of soft fruit do you grow and do you have any plans to add to it, or change it up this year? Let me know, via the comments.

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First Sowings of the Season: Chilli, Goji Berry, Potato Onion

January 2019 - seed sowing underway

It’s still far too early to sow most types of fruit and vegetable seeds. Unless you have a well-appointed propagator / greenhouse / cold-frame setup and the knowledge to move and manage your seedlings to safeguard them through the tricky, all-too changeable first part of the year, the results are usually disappointing. Thin, leggy seedlings, starved of light and desperately reaching up for any glimmer they can strive for: not the stuff that strong, healthy, productive plants are made of.

Having said that, there are always a few exceptions to the general rule; a few plants that it’s good to get started early. Either species that need a long season of growth to develop to their full potential, or leafy mini-veg that you’re going to harvest before they’re anywhere near full-grown (think micro-greens, cress, that sort of thing) or, frankly, a few things that you’re only growing out of vague interest whose potential failure won’t constitute a disaster.

Because, dammit, it’s good to get growing again! It’s good to feel like Spring isn’t so far off after all, and we’re doing something positive to bring a little new greenery into our lives. And as gardeners, we all need more of that sort of thing. So if there’s something you can get away with growing now, then get the hell on with it!

With all of the above in mind, and the fact that we do have a Vitopod heated propagator – complete now with recently-purchased grow-light rig – and a large, unheated greenhouse to provide plants with the required light and protection, I’ve sown a few seeds this morning.

  • Capsicum annuum – Chilli pepper ‘Bolivian Rainbow’ and ‘Trifetti’ – Chillis need a good long season (and plenty of protection) to reach fruiting size in the north Manchester climate.
  • Lycium ruthenicum – Goji berry ‘Black Pearl’ – old seed that I first sowed a couple of years ago. Might not even germinate, but it needs similar temperature to chillis, so I’ve sown it while the propagator is set to 24o.
  • – Allium cepa (var. aggregatum?) – Potato onion ‘ Red Dakota’ – I’ve sown half now in propagator conditions and will sow the other half later in the year in a cool greenhouse, see how well either or both batches germinate.

“Potato Onions”, by the by, are a multiplier onion, similar to shallots. In fact, they may well be shallots, just with a different name. Alex Taylor the Air-Pot Gardener very kindly sent me some seed last year, which I didn’t get around to sowing. Alex sourced the seed from the USA and grew his own onions from it, then I think he saved seed from those and that’s what I’m sowing. That reminds me: must check in with him and see how his grew last year and whether there’s any noticeable difference to the shallots we know and love over here in the UK.

How about you? Are you starting anything off early? Casting caution to the wind and just going for it? Or waiting until the weather’s a lot warmer? Let me know, via the comments…

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Allotment Jobs for January 2019

Plot #59 winter 2018/19

Apart from a frosty start this morning, we’ve had another mild January so far and it seems set to continue for the next week or so at least.

That means the ground is workable and although we’re moving more and more towards no-dig growing for our main plot, there are still some mildly invasive jobs that need to be done whilst the weather allows.

Here’s what we’ve been working on or are planning for this month (any links are to further blog posts on the subject):

Jobs On Plot #59 (main plot)

  • Soft fruit section re-vamp – we’re re-planting our strawberries and raspberries, dividing and re-planting some of our rhubarb and adding lingonberries.
  • Annual willow coppicing – every year we take it right down to the stump and every year it throws up 12’15 feet of new growth. Astonishing.
  • Central path laying – there are another 7 or 8 3×2′ industrial-grade concrete slabs waiting to be bedded down, but the base needs digging out first and sand spreading.
  • Clearing grass – a lack of time at the plot last year has led to a resurgence of grass in a few places. I plan to scrape it back and use the rough turf in a hugelkultur-style growing mound.
  • Plant shallots – I fully intended to get some shallot bulbs in the ground in mid-December but didn’t get around to it. Better to get them in a bit late than never.

Jobs On Plot #79 (orchard)

  • Formative Pruning – it’s the right time of year, as long as no heavy frosts are forecast – to carefully prune the still-very-young apple, pear, medlar and quince trees on our orchard plot. They were only planted last winter, so they’re still very much at the structural shaping stage.
  • Path repair – the flag path between plot #79 and the next-door neighbour is in a pretty poor state of repair. It needs lifting, digging out, re-sanding and re-laying. A gradual job to do over the next few months, I reckon.

Jobs at Home

  • Propagator setup – it’s time to get the heated propagators back out of the shed, give them a wipe-down with citrox and check they’re still in good working order.
  • Sowing: chillis – Capsicum annuum / chinense / baccatum all need a long growing season if they’re to fruit well here in north Manchester, so starting the seeds off now under heat and then growing them on in the protection of the propagator until summer is the way to go.
  • Sowing: onions – my dad-in-law swears by starting onions off early so I’m going to give it a go this year. I also have some ‘potato onion’ (possibly shallot, we’ll see) seeds from the US, courtesy of Alex Taylor the Air-Pot Gardener, although I’ll maybe wait on sowing those for a while.
  • Sowing: windowsill herbs – I’ve had a couple of packets of veg meant to be suitable for ‘microgreens’ in the seed-box for a while now, so I might give them a go.
  • Pot and label cleaning – if the weather deteriorates it’ll be time to get out the scrubbing brush and mild detergent to clean up a batch of seed trays, pots and plant labels, ready for Spring.

Coming Soon…

  • Greenhouse cleaning – the 10′ x 8′ at home and the 6′ x 6′ at the plot will both need a good scrub down to clear out the winter crud.
  • Sowing early herbs & veg – there are a few hardy or longer-season crops that can be started off in February or early March and it’s always good to feel like you’re getting going for the season.
  • Manuring for squash and beans – I’m planning to grow all sorts of interesting squash and bean cultivars again this year. They’re both hungry plants, so it’s worth manuring the ground well in advance. Not too early though as our soil is quite sandy, so there’s a risk that winter rain will leach a lot of the added nutrient from the soil before the plants need it.

How about you? What are you up to this month? Let us know via the Comments…

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