Author: Darren T

Allotment Jobs for April 2019

April 2019 Plot #59

April has started with a minor cold snap – nothing too drastic, but just enough to remind you that when the planting advice says “after all risk of frost has passed” we haven’t reached that point just yet, and might not until the end of the month. Hardier plants only for now, folks.

Here’s a look at our to-do list for the rest of the month:

Jobs On Plot #59 (main plot)

March was a good month – or at least the second half of it was, after the wet and wild weather had passed – with a lot of infrastructure work moved forwards. A lot of grass has been cleared and added to the hugelkultur bed, along with some well-rotted horse manure and rotted rhubarb root. I reckon that’s now ready for planting up, or will be once we have squash plants to plant into it.

A delivery of wood chippings to the site (mostly Prunus laurocerasus and very leafy, but you work with what you’ve got) means I was able to replenish or lay down quite a lot of paths. Speaking of paths, I also forged ahead with the flag path up the centre of the plot, as you can see from the photo at the top of the post. Just a few more to complete that one – plus the block pavers down the side to widen it to around 1m – and then I can start on the side path, eventually.

I also planted out two more stepover apples and a dozen broad bean ‘Martock’ – a centuries-old variety that’s meant to produce small, but very tasty beans – sowed three rows of root veg, and continued harvesting last year’s leeks; just a dozen or so of those to go now.

We’ve started April well, with a good afternoon’s work yesterday resulting in a post, wire and cane-framework for cordon apples:

April 2019 cordon apple support structure

We’ll be planting our six cordon apples – grafted last year and started off in air-pots to help establish a healthy root system – at the weekend. More details to follow.

Next up:

  • Planting out those six cordon apples.
  • Planting out potatoes. I’m steadily sourcing a few spare tubers from work, assorted varieties.
  • Direct sowing More carrots (once I’ve topped up two carrot bins with fresh soil and drilled and filled a third) and more beetroot at the end of the month, in an attempt at successional sowing.
  • Greenhouse deep clean. The 6’x6′ on the plot still needs to be citrox-washed and sluiced down. No mad rush, but better sooner than later…
  • Compost management. The black bins need to be emptied and / or transferred, and a new second-hand one that we acquired last year set up. Then the main bays need to be emptied into the black bins and/or turned one into the other.
  • Planning – for a pond. (Still thinking about buying a plastic liner and putting in a small pond at the plot, just big enough to host a few frogs and their spawn.)

Jobs On Plot #79 (orchard)

Not much action on the orchard plot last month. The plum, gage, damson and pears have put out blossoms, which will hopefully survive any frost this cold snap has thrown at them – but otherwise it’s all quiet.

Still to-do, same as last month:

  • 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

The main seed sowing season is about to start. Lots to do this month:

  • Potting up – tomato seedlings, and re-potting over-wintered chillis.
  • Pricking out – lots and lots of onion and leek seedlings.
  • Sowing – early cabbage, first batches of salad leaves, squash (patty pan and potimarron types), peas.
  • Shed sort-out – ongoing.
  • Pot and label cleaning – it’ll have to be done as required now, rather than en-masse.

How about you? Is April the month that your sowing and growing efforts really get going? Let us know, via the comments…

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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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Garden Inspiration: Dunham Massey, February 2019

20190215 Dunham Massey lake wall

For Jo’s birthday the other week we both took the day off work and made a tram-and-bus trip down to the National Trust’s Dunham Massey to see their winter garden and maybe pick up a few tips and ideas for enhancing our own patch at this time of year.

It was a glorious day, sun-drenched but with enough of a chill still in the air to remind you that it’s not Spring just yet, not quite. The car park was packed and the gardens likewise – it was the last Friday of half term for one of the Manchester local authorities and maybe Cheshire as well – but somehow I managed to shoot forty-odd pics without too many surplus bodies wandering into frame.

The winter garden at Dunham is a woodland glade writ large: huge mature trees surround an area of planted smaller specimens – more of those later – and the ground, at this time of year, is a stardust-scatter of snowdrop, aconite and crocus, with larger clumps of hellebore and iris clustering beneath the shrubs and winter-interest trees.

Here’s a run-through of the sights we saw. I’m afraid you’ll have to imagine the scents and the sounds of the early foraging bees buzzing in the Spring flowers for yourself. (Likewise the ice cream we enjoyed on the way back to the bus…)

Hamamelis (witch hazel)

Jo and I both love a witch hazel. We have a specimen in our back garden – Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, young but developing nicely – and seeing the trees at Dunham in their prime, allowed to grow low and wide and festooned with flowers, was a real treat.

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis orange

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis soft focus

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis yellow

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis glade

Floral Delights

Late winter and early spring flowers are always such a wonderfully uplifting and encouraging sight, especially the more subtle, paler species – Galanthophiles are in for a real treat at Dunham at the moment – that grab their chance to shine at the centre of attention for a while before the larger, showier Naricssi and friends rock up and hog the limelight.

20190215 Dunham Massey Helleborus niger

20190215 Dunham Massey Helleborus niger

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus en masse(y)

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey crocus

20190215 Dunham Massey viola group

20190215 Dunham Massey viola

20190215 Dunham Massey Viola

Trees

There’s a superb mix of trees at Dunham Massey, from massively mature woodland species to the smaller, more delicately apportioned Magonlias, Cornus and Hamamelis that dwell happily in the dappled shade of their much larger cousins. Plus a feature Sorbus with bright white fruits and red-pink stems that stands beside the house and is well worth seeing.

20190215 Dunham Massey lakeside

20190215 Dunham Massey ancient oak

20190215 Dunham Massey Dogwood and Bark

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus avellana 'Cotorta' I presume?

20190215 Dunham Massey Birch on Blue

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus catkins

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus catkins

20190215 Dunham Massey Sorbus and sky

20190215 Dunham Massey Sorbus fruit

Single-Stem Silver Birches

One of the feature-planting sections in the winter garden is this stand of Betula pendula. There’s another section just over the path of trees that have been allowed to grow multi-stemmed, but they don’t have quite the same visual impact as these ones do:

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

Form, Texture and Contrast

As a gardener and a (very) amateur photographer, I’m always interested in form, shape, shadow and especially contrast, particularly between the man-made and the natural. I love to see a wall or canal bank that was clearly laid out straight, true and pristine, but over the years has gradually been reclaimed, re-greened and softened by encroaching plant life.

20190215 Dunham Massey canal bank

20190215 Dunham Massey Magnolia buds

20190215 Dunham Massey bark light and shade

20190215 Dunham Massey copper bark

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula utilis?

20190215 Dunham Massey dried inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey dried inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Citrus

There you go, a few picto-memories of our hugely enjoyable visit to one of the finest winter gardens in the North West. It’s not too late to go see the same seasonal delights for yourself. See the Dunham Massey website for details of opening times.

If you’ve enjoyed a trip to Dunham recently, or can recommend any excellent winter gardens, please feel free to share your thoughts, via the comments.

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Pruning: Crown-Lifting a Bramley’s Seedling

A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed the opportunity to work on a rather lovely Bramley’s Seedling tree that hadn’t been pruned for a while and was starting to get too big for its space.

The owner of the tree – which was highly productive last year – was very keen that it shouldn’t just be hacked back, but wanted to gain space around the base of the tree for lawn maintenance and accessing the border that the tree is planted.

The clear answer was a crown-lift: removing three large, low-growing branches to reduce crowding at the base and allow in more light as well.

Here’s a pic of the tree, with the three branches marked for removal:

Jan 2019 tree before pruning

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a pic the side to show just how much it leans out away from the fence: the fence and next door’s garage are to the south to south-west and so the sun is blocked for large parts of the day; the tree grows out into the middle of the garden as a result, looking for light.

The three marked branches plus one more around the back – and particularly that thick one – growing low and potentially dangerous to unprotected eyes, were following the same pattern. In addition, and even more importantly, they were adding a lot of weight to that side of the tree and contributing to the the lean of the trunk.

Here’s a close-up of the area I was working in:

Jan 2019 lower branches before pruning

And here’s how much cleaner and less congested it looks after the branches were removed:

Jan 2019 pruning cuts after

I used good, sharp tools – bypassloppers to take back the branches and reduce the weight, then either a Felco F180 or SilkyFox Pocketboy pruning saw to finish – to make clean cuts that should heal nicely once the tree emerges from dormancy. I cut on a good, steep angle to ensure water would run off as well:

Jan 2019 pruning cuts after

Looking at the rings on the cut end, I reckon that branch that been growing and thickening – adding to the weight on that side of the tree – for a good seven or eight years:

Jan 2019 pruning cut close-up

(RHS Level 3 revision, anyone..?)

Looking at the post-pruning shape of the tree, although the photo isn’t amazingly clear, you can hopefully get a sense of how much more open and balanced it looks:

Jan 2019 tree after pruning

Admittedly, there are still parts of the tree that need work: the crown is a little lofty and could perhaps be reduced, and that odd-angled branch on the right of the pic is another possible candidate for removal. But as I judged I’d already removed around 15%-20% of the tree’s canopy, I decided to stop there and not make any other cuts – aside from removing a few damaged or congested smaller branches from the centre of the tree – rather than risk causing too much imbalance in the tree this growing season.

I’m going to go back and take another look at it in the summer to see how the tree has responded to the cuts I’ve made and then I’m hopeful that I’ll be asked back next winter to work on it again: maybe a crown reduction or a more general thinning next time, once that problem branch has been addressed and corrected.

In the meantime, here’s hoping the owner will enjoy another year’s bounteous harvest. The tree is covered in potential fruit buds, so as long as the weather and the pollinators (the tree is less than half a mile from a 15-hive apiary, so that shouldn’t be a problem) are kind, then there should be plenty more apples to enjoy for many years to come:

January 2019 Bramley's Seedling pic from Louise

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Building a Hugelkultur Bed on Plot #59

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #6

After researching and constructing a couple of Hugelkultur growing beds for our ‘growing for the future’ project at work recently, I decided that I’d put one in on our allotment as well.

Hugelkultur – it’s a German word meaning ‘mound (or hill) culture’ – is a technique developed by Permaculture practitioners that is said to offer a range of benefits:

  • It’s a good way to productively use up unwanted biomass that won’t compost easily and might otherwise sit around on a site for years before it decomposes.
  • It helps with water retention, as decaying woody matter tends to be sponge-like, soaking up water and releasing it slowly to nearby plants.
  • Nutrients stored in the biomass are released slowly over the 5-6 year lifetime of the mound, without the need for re-fertilisation.

The system does also have its detractors – see the Wikipedia article on the subject for more details – but as I’m only trying it on a relatively small scale, I’m sure the interest of the experiment alone will outweigh any minor drawbacks.

Biomass

For ‘biomass’ read: pretty much any woody organic matter that you have lying around that you’re happy to bury in a mound of earth.

In our case, I was keen to get rid of two old wood piles that had built up at the back of the plot, consisting of four years’ worth of fruit bush, willow and other assorted clippings and cuttings. Unfortunately, they were both situated right next to my neighbour’s huge compost heap, which is sadly infested with bindweed. Said woodpiles were therefore a bindweed climbing frame for most of the year, and of minimal use for anything else, except wildlife habitat (and we’ll be addressing that with more bug hotels in due course).

I also had a few branches left over from cherry tree that we removed three or four years ago, and some prunings from the overgrown plum at the back of a neighbour’s plot that I tackled for them last summer, and some old, brittle sunflower stems. All good material for Hugelkultur. The one thing I avoided using was the fresh trimmings from the willow on our plot that I coppiced right back a couple of weeks ago. That stuff sets down roots and re-grows at the slightest excuse and I didn’t want to turn the Hugelkultur bed into a willow fedge.

Hugelkultur Bed Construction

If you’d like detailed instructions on how to build a Hugelkultur bed, there are plenty to be found online, including lots of video demonstrations. Edit 12.02.19 Also, Helen – who left a very helpful comment, below, has a post on her ‘Growing Out of Chaos’ blog with some further tips and pointers.

Here’s how I went about it.

1. Trench and Ridge

Last year I grew potatoes and then squash on the two ridges shown here. To prepare for the Hugelkultur bed, I dug out a channel between them, just a couple of inches deep or so, to give an overall height of around 8 inches (18-20cm or so)

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #1

2. A Layer of Biomass, a Layer of Soil…

Starting with the thicker, woodier stems that will take longer to decompose, I started building up the bed in layers. First a good layer of woody material, then a thin cover of soil. The latter is to make sure there are plenty of soil microorganisms and fungal mycelium introduced to the centre of the pile.

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #2

3. And Repeat

Keep doing the above, until you’ve got a pile that you feel is high enough for your purposes, or until you run out of biomass to add to the heap.

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #3

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #4

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #5

4. Cover with Turf and Soil

I haven’t actually completed this stage yet. Some of the wood from the bottom of the second pile was still quite dry and with persistent rain forecast towards the end of last week, I wanted to leave the top off to give it a good soaking, again, to help with the decomposition.

Next week I’ll be digging out some rough, grassy turf from the centre of the plot, where I need to lay some more flags for our path, so I’ll dump that on top, inverted, and will finish off with a load of leaf-mould that’s been breaking down for a couple of years, and soil that I’m digging out of the back of the plot, where I plan to recycle some more concrete flags.

5. …And Grow

I’m expecting that the Hugelkultur bed will shift and settle as the woody material in the middle breaks down and collapses, so it’s probably not suitable for anything like a fruit bush or a tree. But annual plants should do well, planted into the outside of the mound.

I’m planning to grow squashes in the bed this year, to see how they do. They’re quite hungry plants, so I’m hoping the mass of slow-release nutrients will feed them well through their growing season. I’ll aim to grow the same variety elsewhere on the plot in regular soil at the same time, by way of comparison. I’ll keep you posted.

How about you, have you ever tried a Hugelkultur growing system? Any tips or warnings if so? Please do let me know, via the comments.

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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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