Month: March 2019

How To: Divide and Re-Pot Your Mint Plants

A Lovely Cup of Fresh Mint Tea
Fresh Mint Tea by Chris RubberDragon – CC BY-SA 2.0

Now is the time of year when your over-wintered, potted mint plants will be waking up and starting to put on new growth. That means it’s a great time to check your plants for winter damage, re-pot them in fresh compost, and take stem cuttings for propagation in the process.

Here’s a quick example of one I propagated the other day: a 9cm potted black peppermint (Mentha x piperita vulgaris) plant that I bought last year (at the RHS Chatsworth show, if I remember correctly), it was still a relatively small specimen when it entered its winter dormancy period.

Taking the plant out of the pot, the first thing I noticed was that the original section in the centre had indeed died back and rotted, leaving a couple of healthy sections of stem growth circling the outer edge:

March 2019 - Mint ready for dividing

This is perfectly normal for mint plants grown in pots, as they should be if you don’t want them to take over huge swathes of your borders, lawns and anywhere else they can reach. This is because propagate freely by runners (technically stolons) – horizontal stems growing outwards from the main plant – which then put down further roots and develop vertical stems, leaves and flowers. The original centre of the plant can sometimes die back as the energy goes into the new growth.

This growth habit gives us the opportunity to divide the plant and create new plantlets. After gently teasing the soil out from my plant, I found it neatly divided itself into two sections:

March 2019 - Mint self-divided

But we can do better than that. Any section of horizontal stem growth that already has roots growing from the underneath – and even those that don’t have roots yet, as long as they’re healthy and have a couple of good growth nodes – can be potted up to form new plants. A judicious snip or two with sharp, clean secateurs and we already have four plants to re-pot:

March 2019 - Mint re-divided into four sections

In fact, after a bit of further snipping, I ended up with a total of five small plantlets that were already exhibiting root growth and vertical stem growth, plus another three good horizontal stem-cuttings that should root themselves without too much trouble. That’s a total of eight plants for the price of one. They were potted up into small containers of gritty compost – to aid drainage – and covered in a thin layer of fine grit as well, to help retain moisture and hopefully prevent weed seeds from gaining a foothold.

I’ll grow the new plants on in a semi-shady area, pot them on as required and within a couple of years they’ll hopefully be supplying me with handfuls of black peppermint leaves for my favourite variety of fresh mint tea.

How about you? Have you divided your mint plants yet? Do you have any top tips for success with mint cuttings, or any other sort of cuttings? Please do let me know, via the comments.

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2019 Seed Sowing So Far

One thing Jo and I have definitely learned over the last 5 or so years of growing our own fruit and veg from seed: sowing too early rarely rewards you with the early crops you’re hoping for, unless you’re very lucky, or have a very good propagation setup.

Yes, it’s tempting to get going just as soon as the seed packets say you can. Then there’s the thrill of seeing the first bright flash of green as the seed-leaves break through the surface of the compost, and when those seedlings reach out into the world it really feels like spring has sprung.

Until, that is, the weather takes a turn for the worse, light levels plummet and your poor, light-starved seedlings go into a frenzy of elongated growth as they twist and turn desperately towards the nearest source of illumination.

The technical term for this is etiolation and the characteristically scrawny, over-stretched stems, barely able to support the weight of the few under-nourished leaves, are unlikely to live long or prosper.

I’m sure you know what etiolation looks like, but just to prove that I’m as guilty as the next grower of not always getting it right, here’s a shot from my own rogue’s gallery, taken not 10 minutes ago:

March 2019 etiolated seedlings

These poor parsley seedlings are having a terrible time of it. I sowed them early on the off-change they’d be able to grow on in a windowsill tray, but they got out of hand before I could prick them out and move them on. Game over for these plants; they’re already too poor to be worth saving, and given how many parsley seeds you get in a packet, I’ll be better off re-sowing at a later date, when the weather is clement enough to start them off in the greenhouse rather than indoors.

By contrast, here are a few young chilli plants that are doing rather well, if I do say so myself:

March 2019 strong chilli plants

These plants have had completely the opposite treatment. Mollycoddled from start to finish, they were sown two months ago today and have spent their entire lives to-date in the cosy environs of a heated propagator, with a full-spectrum LED grow-light eight inches or so above their leaves.

The results are clear to see: no filters or Photoshoppery (size-cropping aside) has been used on that pic. They really are that green and fresh-looking, leaves packed full of photosynthetic chlorophyll and arranged in almost perfect symmetry around the stem to catch the maximum possible life-giving light.

They’ll stay where they are, along with four plants of a second chilli cultivar that’s a few weeks behind, until the propagator is desperately needed by something else, or the nights are warm enough to move them to our unheated greenhouse and pot them on.

In between those two extremes, I’ve got some – much hardier – broad beans that were sown, germinated and are growing on slowly but happily in the greenhouse. And a few trays of leeks and onions – including pricked-out potato onions – that were germinated indoors at room temperature, then taken out to the greenhouse for more light, albeit at a lower temperature, as soon as their green tips showed.

I’ve also sown three varieties of tomatoes today – they’re in the heated propagator as well, as I’d like them to grow into strong plantlets before I prick them out of their seed trays – and some radish, which should germinate and grow on in the greenhouse quite happily until they’re ready to harvest.

And that’s about it for early sowings, except for parsnip which I’ll be direct-sowing down at Plot #59 just as soon as the ground dries out and warms up a bit. Oh, ans I might try to start a few patty-pan type squashes off before the end of the month, as they won’t need quite so much summer heat to ripen their fruit before picking, and maybe a few summer cabbages, just to get them started.

Everything else will have to wait, until the mad, maximum seed-sowing months of April and May. By then we should (hopefully) have temperatures that will mean most species will have a short blast in the propagator to maximise the chances of germination and then be moved into the greenhouse to grow on until they’re ready for hardening off and planting out. But of course that will depend on the next few weeks’ worth of Great British weather.

If you’re vaguely interested in keeping tabs with the Plot #59 sowing and growing stats for the season, I’m doing my best to update a public read-access Google Sheet, which you can take a look at via that link.

How about you? Have you started anything off just yet, successfully or otherwise? Do you have any top tips for avoiding etiolation without going to the expense of installing grow-lights? Please do let me know, via the comments.

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How To: Propagate a Japanese Wineberry

July 2016 Japanese Wineberry fruits

A few years ago, I saw Japanese Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) growing in the walled garden at Beningborough Hall. It was an incredible thing: a mass of thick, red, spiny stems, arcing out in all directions from a central crown. And they had a single specimen for sale in the plant shop: mine!

It’s taken a couple of years for the plant to really get going in the fruit section on Plot #59, but with last year’s heatwave it really hit its stride, producing masses of small, raspberry-like, winegum-flavoured fruits. Thinking this might be a good one to share around, I decided to propagate a few plantlets.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Leave it Alone

Japanese Wineberry needs very little assistance to propagate. Similarly to its Rubus genus cousin, the bramble, it will happily send out its long, arcing stems over a metre or so from the parent plant.

Where the tips touch the ground they’ll take root – in a process called tip layering – and, with time, easily and happily produce another plant. (For this reason it’s considered an invasive species in some U.S. States, so, y’know, caveat emptor on that score.)

You can, if you really want to, help the tip layering along by burying the end of the stem in the ground and pegging it down with a stout wire hoop. Maybe encourage the stems away from rooting in the middle of your largest gooseberry bush (!) but it’s probably not hugely necessary.

2. Dig Out the Plantlets

Any time during a dryish spell in winter, when the plant is still dormant, look for the ends of stems anchoring themselves in the ground. Give them a gentle tug – wearing thick gloves, these plants are viciously spiny – and if they’re solid, dig them out with a trowel, trim back the stem to a few inches, and pot them up.

Feb 2019 - Japanese wineberry rooted

There’s a lovely root system all ready to go there. (Although I admit I could have taken the snap against a better background…)

Anyhow, that’s it. All you have to do then is wait for signs of new shoots growing from the base, and you’ll have a new Japanese Wineberry to plant out yourself, give to a friend, or sell at your allotment shop.

The last job I like to do after propagating the plantlets is to tidy up the main plant. I cut back all main stems and side-stems to the three strongest and most vertically-aligned, cut those back to around four to five feet in length – to encourage the development of side-shoots – and then tie them firmly to a triple-cane support:

Feb 2019 - Japanese wineberry stems tied

(It’s almost impossible to get my phone camera to auto-focus on the item in the foreground that you actually want a picture of, but you get the general idea…)

This helps the plant to fruit at a height that’s convenient for picking – bearing in mind that’s a potentially prickly job to do – and encourages those long, arcing stems for more propagation next year.

How about you? Have you grown Japanese Winberries yourself? Do you fancy giving them a go? Let me know, via the comments.

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Allotment Jobs for March 2019

End of February 2019 - Plot #59

After January’s appropriate chill, February threw us a curve-ball in the shape of a blast of warm air up from the Canary Islands. A few days of positively June-like warmth saw weed seedlings shooting up, pear and apple blossom buds almost breaking (hopefully they’ll have paused again now the weather has returned to grey, damp normal) and the first insect-bite of the year (ouch!)

Now the calendar has turned again, and March presents us with new additions to the list of jobs to be cracking on with. It won’t be quite as busy as April, when the Propagation starts to ramp up and the seed-sowing production line really clicks into gear, but there are still plenty of maintenance and preparation jobs to be done on the plot.

Here’s a run-down of what’s on our to-do list:

Jobs On Plot #59 (main plot)

We’re pleased with the amount we were able to get done in February – in stark contrast to last year when we were stuck inside, sheltering from the Beast From the East – the highlights of which were undoubtedly starting off a hugelkultur bed, setting up and planting out the new raspberry section, dividing and replanting half our rhubarb crowns, and pruning the Plot #79 orchard. (If you’re interested in a more detailed run-down of activity last month, please see the Feb 2019 journal page.)

Next up:

  • Planting – two more step-over trained apples.
  • Constructing – a post-and-wire support for cordon apples, planting the six that I grafter last year, which have been growing in air-pots at home.
  • Sowing – parsnips (direct).
  • Planting out – potatoes. Er, if I remember to get hold of some seed spuds from somewhere, that is. And broad beans, once the plants in the greenhouse are large enough.
  • Greenhouse deep clean – I’ve done the the 10’x8′ at home but the 6’x6′ on the plot still needs to be citrox-washed and sluiced down. I’m hoping to get that done during the week.
  • Planning – for a pond. (We’ve been thinking of buying a plastic liner and putting in a small pond at the plot, just big enough to host a few frogs and their spawn.)
  • Central path laying – (still on the list…) 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 – (ditto…) 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 on the aforementioned hugelkultur bed.

Jobs On Plot #79 (orchard)

My good mate Ian P and I took care of the formative pruning of the apples, pears, quince and medlar a couple of weeks ago, so that’s done and done well. Members of the Prunus family – our plum, gage and damson – will wait until late April or early May, once the risk of silverleaf disease has abated.

I’ve also weeded the tree circles, which leaves the following:

  • Additional stakes and ties – one or two of the young trees are growing away at odd angles. A fresh stake and a re-tie should help encourage them into a better growth pattern.
  • Tree circle re-mulch – add a bit more composted bark where needed.
  • 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

With the main (10′ x 8′) greenhouse freshly scrubbed and hosed down, it’s ready for the seed sowing season to start. Although April and May are the main months for mass-propagation, there are a few plants it’s either wise or necessary to start off a bit earlier, or that we’re trying to sow and grow in waves this year, to avoid massive gluts. (Ha! 50p says nature has other ideas…)

On the list for this month:

  • Sowing – early cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, beetroot, first batches of salad leaves, squash (patty pan types), maybe a few others.
  • Re-Sowing – early / hardy herbs – The first batch did not work well. Old seed, maybe. I’ll check the dates on the packets, re-sow a few, see what happens.
  • Shed sort-out – ongoing. Still some rubbish to clear though.
  • Pot and label cleaning – (as per Jan / Feb) it hasn’t happened yet, but 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.

How about you? What are you planning to crack on with in March? Let us know, via the comments…

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