We've had a soggy old start to the month, but never mind. The ground could do with a soaking, and there's drier weather ahead, according to the forecast.
Here's our general action plan for May, once the weather sorts itself out a bit...
We've had a soggy old start to the month, but never mind. The ground could do with a soaking, and there's drier weather ahead, according to the forecast.
Here's our general action plan for May, once the weather sorts itself out a bit...
Blossom Time is one of my very favourite times of the year, when fruit trees and bushes are filled with the simple beauty of their un-fussy flowers and the promise of good, fruity things to come.
Here's a quick gallery of some of the fruit blossom I've been thoroughly enjoying of late.
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:
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
Depending on the weather, December and January can seem like a long, long slog through some of the bleakest, wettest, least productive days of the year. But they also offers an opportunity that no allotment holder should pass up on: with no massed ranks of vegetation and no jobs much more pressing than a spot of pot-washing and plant label scrubbing, right now you have the chance to walk the ground when you can really see the site properly and get to grip with the shape, the structure, the bones of your plot.
Now is a great time to examine, assess and think ahead. The joyful, chaotic frenzy of Spring’s seed sowing, pricking out, potting on and planting up is still a good three or four months away. That’s around twelve weeks in which to plan and execute any essential maintenance work, infrastructure improvements or upgrades that your plot needs. Weather allowing, of course, but if all you do is continue to hibernate through to the end of March then that’s a lot of opportunity to toll your sleeves up and get stuck in that you will have missed.
Four years into our tenancy of Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. A slow couple of years – due to a house move and then the complete re-development of our back garden – has meant that we’re not as far ahead of our stated goals for 2016 or 2017 as we’d like to be.
Here’s a photographic meander up the central path of Plot #59, to give you a general idea of the state of the place. As you can see, it’s far from perfect-looking at the moment, although there’s been such a huge improvement from the early days (check out some of the pics I posted here) that Jo and I can’t help but be proud of all we have actually managed to achieve.
But the past is past and it’s time to look to the future. This year I’m aiming to treat the allotment much more like a part-time job than a hobby or pass-time. The aim – again, weather allowing – is to put in three good (three hours plus) sessions a week, plus weekends, and evenings too, when the evenings are warm enough for me to venture out after tea. Jo works full-time and so will be joining me for weekends and the odd evening or two as well.
So, here are the major goals for the first quarter of the year, taking us from the end of winter through into the early days of Spring and that glorious rush to get growing.
Of course, in addition to the above, Jo and I have also decided to completely re-develop our front garden as well as the back (although we’ll be getting landscapers in for that one, rather than attempting to do the work ourselves) and we still have plenty to do on the back garden as well.
Plus, I’ve taken on a second plot at Langley with two fellow tenants (more on that in another post, soon). There’s also chance I might be studying for an RHS Level 3 qualification (although that might end up on hold for a year). I’d like to do some more volunteering this year; maybe at RHS Bridgewater, maybe at another venue (details pending). And of course there’s my hugely enjoyable part-time job at Ordsall Hall, which accounts for the best part of at least two days per week.
So, yeah, feel free to check back in April to see if it’s been a case of Mission Accomplished or ‘best laid plans’…
Wish us luck!
Last week we had a couple of frosty nights and down on Plot #59 I spotted that our Yacón plants were feeling the effects:
With the frost starting to kill off the leaves and stems, and not much more photosynthesis in prospect, that meant the tubers would probably be as large as they were likely to grow. So I trimmed back the top growth and carefully up-ended the first of three pots to see what, if anything, the plant had produced. I was very happy indeed to find the following:
A few years ago, veg pioneer Mark Diacono wrote a piece on growing, harvesting and cooking Yacón for The Guardian, which explains what happens next. The larger, ‘storage’ tubers are detached from the plant and left for a couple of weeks to sweeten. The smaller, Jerusalem artichoke-like ‘growth’ tubers are the essential part of the crown that needs to be packed in moist, spent compost and stored in a cool, dark place over the winter. It’s the same sort of procedure as you might use to store a Dahlia crown.
They’re very easy to tell apart, as you can see:
With the large tubers detached and sweetening, and the crown carefully packed away for winter, the next stage will be to cook ’em, eat ’em and see if Jo and I actually like ’em or not. (I did try a small piece raw on the spot and it was rather like a juicy radish / sweet chestnut, so I’m probably a fan already). Then then there are two more tubs to come. Apparently the large tubers store really well, so either we’ll be eating them for weeks and months to come, or my colleagues on the Ordsall Hall gardening team will be getting a few more Yacón tubers to try than they’ve been led to expect.
How about you? Have you grown Yacón before? Do you have any top tips for storing crowns or cooking the tubers? Please do let me know, via the comments.
This year we’re growing three Andean tuber crops down on Plot #59: Oca, Yacon and Ulluco. It could also be the last year that we grow the third of that trio. DEFRA – the government’s Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs – have issued a biosecurity warning, because some Ulluco tubers imported into the UK may be infected with several non-native viruses.
The situation is a serious one: the viruses could potentially infect plants of three major families: Amaranthaceae (spinach, beets, chard etc.) Cucurbitaceae (squash, pumpkin, courgette, etc.) and Solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes, etc.) so that’s a number of our major food crops. I double-check with the head gardener where I work – Lindsay Berry, M.Hort – and she confirmed that yes, this sort of warning should be taken very seriously indeed.
Frustratingly, DEFRA haven’t updated their website with their own biosecurity alert, so I can’t point you straight to the source, but Emma at the Unconventional Gardener blog has posted details of the warning, along with a copy of the DEFRA document that was issued to tuber suppliers and sent on to me by the folks at Incredible Vegetables, from whom we bought our tubers this year.
This is the relevant section of the DEFRA document, with instructions to Ulluco growers:
Once again, rather frustratingly, there’s no information on how to spot signs of a definite viral infection, or whether the viruses are likely to persist in the soil next season, which of course would prevent growing any crops from potentially infected species. Although, as DEFRA hasn’t told us to immediately destroy all Ulluco crops and remove the soil, it would seem that the viruses in question might need a living host to persist?
In any case, because of the potential risk for mechanical transmission, I spent an unpleasant couple of hours on Sunday dragging half-decomposed vegetable matter out of our large compost bay – to which for the past few weeks I’d been adding the foliage from this year’s squash plants, which had been growing right next to the Ulluco – then bagging it up and taking it to the municipal tip.
So that’s an entire year’s worth of compostable material destroyed, because DEFRA haven’t specified the precise conditions under which the viruses can persist. Still, better safe than sorry, eh? I’d rather loose a year’s compost than risk a future year or more’s potato, tomato, squash and beet harvest.
I just hope we have a decent Ulluco crop this year, to make up for all the hassle.