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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Right, we’ll take it as read that it’s too damn hot and drier than a teetotaller’s liquor cabinet. Otherwise, things aren’t looking too bad down on Plot #59. As long as we can keep on top of the irrigation requirements, we ought to be able to keep everything alive long enough for the temperatures to dip again to a point where the plants can be happy again.
Here’s what we’ve got in the ground at the moment:
Our onion patch is doing fine, despite the heat. The red onions are autumn-planted sets, and they’re quite a bit larger than the white onions, which are spring-planted sets. A few of the whites tried to bolt, but I’ve been keeping up with the watering and so far most of them have behaved themselves. Another couple of weeks and I’ll be lifting them to dry and store.
This is a mixed patch of shallots, elephant garlic and cluster-planted white onions. I can never remember whether you’re supposed to remove the elephant garlic scapes or not so this year I’ve gone half-and-half. I’ll compare bulb-size when I lift them to see if there’s any noticeable effect.
And this is our newly-dibbed leek bed. Two varities this year: ‘Pandora’ and ‘Elefant’. I did grow a tray of ‘Musselburgh’ seedlings as well, but I’ve donated those to the allotment plot at work, to make up for a poor germination result this year.
Courgettes and Squash
I think I’ve finally got the hang of courgette (summer squash) plant spacing. After a few years of crowded, sprawling, lanky stems, this year’s plants – a good two feet apart – seem to be growing in nice, neat, large clusters of foliage. First harvest tomorrow, all being well.
Likewise trailing squash. This year I’ve created soil ridges around three metres in length and have planted a single squash plant at either end. Each is mounded around with soil to create a water reservoir, meaning I can soak each plant knowing the water will go right to the roots, where it’s needed most. As they grow, they’ll trail along the top of the ridge and can be tied in to short cane pegs if needed. Varieties planted (so far): ‘Blue Hungarian’, ‘Australian Butter’, ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Rouge Vif d’Etemps’, ‘North Georgia Candy Roaster’ and ‘Knucklehead’.
I’m also growing a few climbing squash up plastic mesh supported by canes: three ‘Black Futsu’ and one ‘Uchiki Kuri’.
This years I’m growing the James Wong recommended ‘Mirai White F1’. They’ve been in the ground since the start of June and seem to be thriving so far.
Jo and I built the usual pea-harp growing frame and planted out two rows of maincrop (‘Telephone’ and ‘Carlin’, above) and two rows of mangetout (below) in the middle of May. The plants have been growing strongly ever since and the mangetout have just started cropping this past week. Fresh, crunchy, tasty, a lovely addition to any salad.
You might just be able to pick out some of the pods in the picture above. We’re growing yellow ‘Golden Sweet’ and purple ‘Shiraz’ again. The yellows are a bit more vigorous than the purples, so you end up with a rather lovely split level colour effect. And lots of tasty pods, of course.
I’m also growing ‘Timperley Wonder’ in large square tubs at home. They’re podding up nicely, but I’m seed-saving them for Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library, so they ain’t for eating (not this year, at least).
The one good thing about all this hot, dry weather is it’s kept the blight -which thrives in warm and damp conditions – under control. Normally on our site it’s a race to get your spuds in and cropping as early as possible, before the inevitable pestilence descends and you end up cutting back the haulms and hoping for the best, any time from mid-June onwards. Two years ago I was cutting back on July 1st and I think last year was even earlier than that.
However, there is a down-side. Without moisture to swell the tubers, this year’s yield is likely to be poor. Above is the total harvest from two plants that I dug up a week or so back. Not exactly spectacular. I finally caved yesterday and gave the potato plants a drink – watering without a rose on the can, pouring very carefully to the base of each plant so as to avoid splashing the foliage – which will hopefully help a little. I’ll leave them another week, then see what’s what.
We planted out a couple of rows of early cabbage – ‘Golden Acre’ and ‘Jersey Wakefield’ – under mesh tunnel protection and they seem to be doing just fine. Likewise a row of six ‘Brendan F1’ Brussels sprout plants, which are already shoving their tunnel up and off as they reach fro the sky. I ‘ll have to switch to an enviromesh cover for those soon, to try to keep the cabbage white larvae off ’em.
And just to show what hardy plants cabbages are, the above is a row of savoy cabbage that I planted out in Autumn 2017. I’ve been picking leaves from them to use as spring greens for weeks now, and apart from a downpour a few weeks ago, they’re not under any sort of protection and haven’t been watered since the last regular rain we had back in April, but they keep on growing. They also make good decoys for the cabbage white, keeping them off the younger plants, with any luck.
The one section of the plot not too badly affected by the lack of water is the soft fruit plantation. Our two large and one massive gooseberry bushes have put on kilos and kilos of fruit; we’re struggling to pick, wash and freeze it quickly enough. Delicious they are, too, soft and sharp-sweet, right off the bush.
Our blackcurrants have been typically prolific this year. The currants are smaller than they have been in past years, but that seems to have concentrated the flavour. I’m freezing those as well and am looking forward to making blackcurrant jam – the king of jams – when things have calmed down a bit.
Our Japanese Wineberry plant has grown massively this year – its third on-site – and looks set to produce a glut of fruit in the next few weeks. If you haven’t tried the fruit from this prickly monster it’s well worth tracking down. Raspberry-like, but with a winegum sweetness. Incredibly easy to pick as well. When ripe the berries almost fall off the bush as soon as you look at them.
Also waiting in the wings: redcurrants (not quite ripe yet), whitecurrants (hard to tell, but likewise not quite done, I think) and raspberries. I made time to thin the canes properly a week or so ago, so hopefully they’ll be much easier to harvest than they were last year.
Well, that’s it for now. If you’ve posted a similar plot update recently, or just want to let me know how your own plot is coming along, leave a link in the comments below and I’ll take a look-see.
Well, what a couple of months we’ve had. After an incredibly mild January, February and March have pulled a double shift on winter weather duty, chucking pretty much the full repertoire of sleet, snow, hail and frost at us, quite frequently all at once. All of which has meant our January plans haven’t moved on as far as we would have liked, but it is what it is: the first thing you learn as a gardener is that you can’t control the weather, you just have to work around it.
That didn’t stop work progressing on Plot #79, our new orchard plot. Orchard-buddy Mike and I covered the plot in heavy duty weed membrane back in December, before planting out 20 trees – stakes, ties and all – in January. We started the job in breezy sunshine and finished it in freezing rain, but we’re now the proud custodians of 11 heritage apples, 4 heritage pears, and one each of quince, greengage, plum, damson and medlar. I’ll write up a more detailed progress report and post that separately.
I also found enough dry(ish) weather at the end of January to prep the slab base for our new shed, which we ordered yesterday. It’ll be with us in 3-4 weeks and that will allow us to finally move all the junk out of the greenhouse and use that as proper growing space instead. Cucumbers, y’say? I think so.
Last week was the first reasonably fine, dry spell we’ve had for a while, and I was able to get on with some of those infrastructure and clearance jobs, that I was really hoping to do much earlier in the year, on our main plot #59. Another half dozen recycled concrete slabs laid along the central path, another couple of square metres of the remaining midden mound – a previous tenant’s rubbish dumb, right in the middle of our plot – dug over and a few more kilos of broken glass, metal, pottery, brick, plastic (you name it) picked out and set aside, ready to dump in the annual site skip. Nothing glamorous, but essential work that’s better done than pending.
Jo and I also spent a few hours yesterday planting out onion sets, sprouted shallots and over-wintered broad beans – I know the weather is due to turn a bit colder again this week, but it’s only a short snap, and the plants need to be in the ground rather than the greenhouse – so they’re providing a bit more green amidst the see of brown earth and wood-chip. I noticed that the gooseberry and jostaberry leaf buds are just starting to break, the rhubarb as well, which is always a good sign that things are finally getting underway.
This week’s forecast of a short burst of cold, wet weather aside, I think we can say it nearly, almost feels like Spring is here. At long last.