Category: Plot #59

Harvesting our Onion, Shallot and Garlic Crops

Jo and I have not long returned from an eight-day break down in beautiful Devon and Cornwall, touring gardens, sampling the regional cuisine (particularly the ice cream section of the menu) and quaffing a few of the local ales. I’ll be talking more about the rather wonderful gardens we visited – RHS Rosemoor, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Hartland Abbey, Docton Mill, Baddesley Clinton, Barrington Court, Trelissick, Glendurgan and Cotehele – in later blog posts.

We got back to Plot #59 to find that weeds had sprung up everywhere (of course), Jo’s flowers were blooming (you should have seen the A-frame of sweet peas before we picked them…) and, most of our edible Allium crops were ready for harvesting.

June and July are the best months, depending on the weather, for lifting and drying the edible members of the Allium family – onions, garlic and shallots – before putting them into store for autumn and winter. This year we grew all three, and through a combination of plenty of sunshine, tempered with occasional bouts of rain, they’ve all done rather well.

Onions

This year we grew ‘Sturon’ from sets. I did sow some other varieties from seed back in January or February but they didn’t do too well, so I’ll have to try those again next year.

Unfortunately, our plot has a pretty endemic problem with onion white rot. The best advice is to not re-grow alliums anywhere that’s suffered white rot, but as that could be anywhere, for the past couple of years we’ve just planted anyhow and taken our chances.

Luckily around half of this year’s crop managed to escape infection. I laid them out for drying in old plastic bakers’ trays that I rescued from the skip earlier in the year:

July 2017 onion harvest
Four trays of pristine onions drying in the greenhouse.

The bulbs that have any sign of white rot have been temporarily quarantined out on the surface of the onion bed. When I have a bit more time at the weekend, I’ll clean each one up, removing any infected material, and then assess them for usefulness. If they’re edible then we’ll use them as soon as possible, otherwise they’ll go in the bin, rather than the compost heap.

July 2017 onions in quarantine
These bulbs are all showing some signs of white rot and will need careful cleaning.

Shallots

Last year, Dad-in-Law Guru Glyn gave us half a dozen seed sets of two varieties of shallots. Of course, I can’t remember which varieties they are (I’ve emailed him to check.) Anyway, they grew rather well and divided nicely:

July 2017 shallots ready for harvest
Plenty of shallots on this clump, they’ve divided and grown quite well.

Each set has split into between four and ten new bulbs – plenty enough for a fair few portions to eat, with seed stock left over for next year:

July 2017 shallot harvest
Two varieties of shallot laid out for drying.

Edit: Guru Glyn says: “On the left, ‘Hative de Niort’, on the right, ‘Jermor'”.

Garlic

We’ve always had mixed results with garlic and this year was no exception. Back in October we planted three cultivars: Extra Early Wight, Red Duke Wight and Elephant Garlic, with two rows of the latter, one of seed cloves from The Garlic Farm and one of our own, plot-grown cloves.

Both the Extra Early and the Red Duke started developing allium rust back in May and by the end of June it had completely covered the plants, killing off the outer foliage, preventing photosynthesis and effectively halting the growth of the plants.

Luckily, the Extra Early has already developed decent-sized bulbs:

July 2017 garlic harvest
VAriety: Extra Early Wight. Yield: good enough.

But the Red Duke was next-to-useless; small, barely-divided bulbs good enough only for chucking whole into winter stews, or saving to use in next year’s garlic spray.

The elephant garlic, interestingly enough, managed to avoid the rust problem completely. The outer foliage died back and dried up, as you’d expect, but there were no signs of the orange pustules that affected the other two, despite them being grown next door and so within easy infection distance.

The plants grown from the Garlic Farm seed stock germinated, grew, developed and went over much faster than those grown from our own cloves, even though those were originally grown from the previous year’s Garlic Farm seed stock. The environmental conditions are obviously very different in the Isle of Wight to North Manchester, which probably accounts for the disparity. So the Garlic Farm plants have been lifted and put to dry, whilst our own stock plants are still in the ground:

July 2017 elephant garlic harvest
Elephant garlic grown from the Garlic Farm stock bought last September.

I’ll wait to lift the second row before I make a firm decision, but I think this year I’ll just re-plant from our own stock, rather than spend extra money on bought-in cloves, which do tend to be rather pricey.

How have you done with your edible Alliums? Do let us know, via the comments below, or on Twitter.

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Soilfixer Trial Part IV: Strong Growth So Far

Let’s take a look at how the SoilFixer trial beds are coming along.

Quick Recap

I’m participating in a trial for Soilfixer.co.uk, testing two of their compost / soil enhancement products against regular compost and plain soil. In mid-April I’ve set up four small raised beds, and planted broad beans and sowed two varieties each of turnip and beetroot in each. The simple aim of the trial is to assess whether the product-enhanced beds result in better crops.

Planting and Sowing

Each bed was planted with two broad bean ‘The Sutton’ plants (stated off in modules in the greenhouse, in identical, shop-bought compost). I also direct-sowed a row each of beetroot ‘Detroit 2’ and ‘Boldor F1’, and turnip ‘Purple Top Milan’ and ‘Petrowski’.

Good, Strong Growth

The beetroot and turnip seeds germinated well – I made a note that the germination in the SF60 bed seemed to be slightly stronger than the others, although not by much – and, along with the broad beans, have grown strongly in all four beds. Here’s a quick comparison of just one bed (the plain soil control bed) to give you an idea of how much growth they’ve put on:

May 25th – Just over a month after planting / sowing, and following an earlier thinning of every row, and everything is starting to grow away nicely:

May 25th 2017 - trial bed #4
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #4

May 31st – A few days later and the increase in leaf-mass on the turnips in particular is quite considerable:

May 31st 2017 - trial bed #4
May 31st 2017 – trial bed #4

June 11th – Another 12 days’ worth of growth and the plants were beginning to choke each other:

June 11th 2017 - trial bed #4
June 11th 2017 – trial bed #4

At this point all four beds were thinned to 10 or 11 beetroot and six turnips per row.

Comparison

As for the comparative growth rates between the four beds, I have to say that there’s not much in it at this stage. Here are the four beds on the 25th May, which probably gives the clearest indication of how the individual plants were growing, before the mass of foliage makes differentiation difficult:

(Click on the images for a larger version, if you’re interested in more detail, and your screen-size allows)

May 25th 2017 - trial bed #1
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #1
May 25th 2017 - trial bed #2
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #2
May 25th 2017 - trial bed #3
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #3
May 25th 2017 - trial bed #4
May 25th 2017 – trial bed #4

As you can see, much of a muchness. But the end result that matters is the quality of the crops, so there’s still a way to go before I can draw any firm conclusions.

Next Steps

I’ve planted out a pair of ‘Redbor’ kale in each bed, to start filling up the as yet un-planted half. I’ll be adding two or three cabbages before too long as well.

Pest Problems

Unfortunately, the broad beans in the trial beds have been hit pretty hard by an aphid infestation of assorted blackfly and greenfly. Or at least, three of them have, so far. Here’s a pic from June 11th of the beans in bed #4, the plain soil control bed:

June 2017 - broad beans, many blackfly
Trial bed #4, plain soil, major blackfly infestation

The same problem was spotted on the broad beans in beds #1 and #2. However, bed #3, the SF60 bed, was pretty much pest-free:

June 2017 - broad beans, no blackfly
Trial bed #3, SF60, no blackfly?

A couple of days later I checked again, and there were now a few blackfly on the bed #3 beans. It could be that the pest just hadn’t found these beans when I took the pics on the 11th, or it could be that something in the SF60 imparts a quality to the beans that makes them less attractive to the fly. It would need a much larger trial to reach a firm conclusion, of course.

And I’m happy to say that a small tribe of ladybirds has since moved onto the beans and is hopefully making short work of the blackfly problem:

June 2017 - broad beans w. ladybird
Organic pest control, ladybird style.

Additional Observations

As I mentioned, it did seem as though the SF60 bed produced slightly stronger seedlings, but as all the others have performed as well in the long run, it may just have been a quirk in the seeds.

Also, all four beds have been quite weedy – as you’d expect on an allotment site such as ours; very windy and so open to incomers from all directions – but the two compost beds were the weediest. That’s more likely to do with the quality of the home-made compost that was used. Sterile, shop-bought compost might have resulted in fewer weeds, but the point of that part of the trial was to see if the C.H.A. produced better home-made compost, so the weed seeds were probably inevitable.

I’ll continue to observe and record, and the next update will hopefully include a cropping comparison.

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Now Growing: Yacon, Oca and UIluco

Down on Plot #59, Jo and I are always keen to expand the range of edible crops that we grow, especially anything that stores well and can be used over winter, when there’s usually a lack of fresh stuff to harvest. This year I decided to try three South American tuber crops that I’d heard about: Yacon, Oca and Ulluco.

Yacon

Smallanthus sonchifolius produces large, crisp (some say brittle) tubers that, based on the pictures at downtheplot.com look a lot like Dahlia tubers. According to Mark Diacono, writing for The Guardian back in 2010, they’re crunchy and sweet-tasting, and can be eaten raw in salads, or as a snack. Sounds great.

I bought a pack of growing tips from The Real Seed Catalogue and started them off in pots in March. I potted them on when they started to sprout and then planted them out in large plastic tubs last month. A few sources had suggested that ground-grown Yacon can be difficult to harvest due to the tubers’ habit of snapping too easily, but turning them out of pots was a lot easier.

May 2017 Yacon tubs
Growing the plants in large tubs or pots makes it easier to harvest the brittle tubers.

Harvesting should take place just after the first frost, before any prolonged cold spell has a chance to damage the tubers. So that’s a job to do around the same time that I’ll be lifting and storing the Dahlia tubers.

Oca

Oxalis tuberosa is a relative of the wood-sorrel that develops clusters of small, knobbly, often brightly-coloured tubers. They’re growing in popularity, with organisations such as the Guild of Oca Breeders working to spread the word. The tubers can be eaten raw or cooked much as you would a potato: roasted, boiled or mashed, they’re apparently quite sweet-tasting.

I bought a variety called ‘Dylan Keatings’ from The Real Seed Catalogue and was sent six or seven smallish tubers. I started them off in large modules and three of them sprouted into strong, healthy-looking plants.

May 2017 Oca planted out
Planting Oca on ridges is recommended to make harvesting the tubers in winter a lot easier.

Once again I followed the advice on Downtheplot.com and planted them out on ridges of soil. Oca tubers don’t start to form fully until after the first frost has killed the leafy part of the plants. Leaving them a couple of weeks after the first frost could mean levering them out of cold, wet mud, and the process is meant to be much easier if you can dig them out of a ridge instead.

Ulluco

Ullucus tuberosus, the third of this year’s new tuber trio, is very similar in appearance to the potato, but in a much wider spectrum of colours, from golden yellow to pale green, to bright pink. Once again they can be eaten raw, as well as cooked as you would a new potato.

My stock came from Incredible Vegetables, and I’ve been following the detailed growing advice on their website, along with added notes from Downtheplot.com (very useful site, that. I wonder if it’s still being updated?) As a result, the plants are currently in pots in the greenhouse, pending planting out once the current spell of grim weather seems to have safely passed. I might even wait until I’ve harvested this year’s garlic and re-use that part of the plot.

June 2017 Ulluco pots
These plants will go out once conditions improve and grow on until late November.

Late November to December is harvest time, and they do need to be earthed up, so I’ll grow them on ridges as well.

Jo and I are looking forward to trying all three of these new tubers over the winter. We might even give Dahlia tubers another go and make it a foursome.

If you grow them regularly yourself and have any top tips on cultivating the best crop, please do leave a comment below. Any advice would be very gratefully received.

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P&D Identification: Leafminer

The other day, I spotted the tell-tale marks of a leafminer on the leaves of a pea plant down at plot #59. Here’s what the damage looked like:

May 2017 leafminer damage
The tell-tale tunnels that are the sign of a leafminer problem.

On the top of the leaf you can see the obvious tracks of leafminer tunnels, caused by larvae munching their way through the soft, tender leaf tissues. On the back the leafminer pupae are equally obvious.

According to the results of my Google-based research, this could be caused by any one of a small number of leafminer species. The damaged leaves will be less photosynthetically active, slowing the rate of plant growth. And whilst it’s not a drastic problem, short of using some pretty drastic chemical sprays, the only sensible course of remedial action is to remove the affected leaf section and add it to the council green waste bin. Which of course further limits the growth rate of the plant.

The damage seemed to be limited to one pea-plant, hopefully it’s under control for now, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on all our peas and sweet peas to make sure the problem doesn’t escalate.

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Now Planting Out: Sunflowers and Tomatoes

Over a busy Bank Holiday weekend, Jo and I managed to grab a couple of hours to head down to Plot #59 and do a bit of planting out.

First in, Jo’s sunflowers:

May 2017 sunflowers planted out
They might look small now, but give them a couple of months…

Jo has grown three varieties this year: ‘Giant Single’, ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Ruby Red’. They might not look like much now, but come back in a couple of months and we should have a stunning display to show you.

Whilst Jo was tying her sunflowers in to their cane supports, I planted out a row of tomatoes:

May 2017 tomatoes planted out
‘Legend Bush’ interplanted with marigolds, which will hopefully deter a few aphids.

These are a variety called ‘Legend Bush’, which I sourced from the Real Seed Catalogue. It’s described as an early-cropper, which helps it to avoid the dreaded blight, and is meant to do well outdoors in cooler conditions. Hopefully we’ll be picking a few of those in a month or so as well.

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Thinning and Trimming Leek Seedlings

I’ve been growing leeks using the same method for the past three or four years now and it seems to be working quite nicely.

Rather than tray-sowing and then pricking out individual leeks into modules, I use deep plastic troughs – the sort of thing you can find in most large supermarkets at this time of year or online of course – about half filled with general purpose compost. On top of that I layer about 5cm of seed compost, and sow the leek seed thinly on top, before covering lightly with seed compost and watering with a fine-rose can.

A few weeks later, the leek seedlings should be about 15-20cm tall and looking rather grass-like. This is when I like to thin them out and give them a trim.

May 2017 leeks for trimming
Long and leggy leeks need cutting down to size

Thinning

If there are two or more seedlings growing within about 1cm of each other, then one or more of them has to be plucked out. Be ruthless. Better to have one good seedling with enough room to grow to planting-out stage than two or three that eventually compete each other to the point of uselessness. Plus, the leek-trimmings can be used like chives, in pasta, fritatta or anything else you fancy.

Trimming

Next, take a pair of sharp scissors and give your leeks a hair-cut. I gather up a small bunch and then chop the lot off at around 10-12cm in length. Trimming the main growing shoot(s) helps to prevent them becoming hopelessly leggy and tangled. It also encourages the growth of new leaves from the basal plate at the bottom of the leek, and that’s what you want: a thickening of each seedling to roughly ‘pencil thickness’, ready for planting out in June or early July.

If you’re thorough (and brave) enough then you might only have to thin your leek seedlings once before planting out, although a second trim may be needed in another three or four weeks.

How about you? Is this how you grow leeks, or do you use a different method? Let me know via the comments.

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Over-wintered and Spring-Sown Broad Beans

August 2016 broad beans
A selection of tasty broad beans – ‘Red Epicure’ and ‘The Sutton’

Successional growing – staggering the sowing and planting of crops – is a great way of to extending the harvest over a longer period and avoiding those “help, I’ve run out of chutney recipes” gluts.

It tends to work best either with fast-maturing crops like salad leaves or radishes which, with a bit of experience and also luck, can be sown every few weeks so that just as one batch has been harvested, the next ought to be ready to pick. But it doesn’t always work for slower-growing crops, which can often just sulk when the weather is poor and then put on a burst of growth and catch up when the weather improves. I’m thinking beans, courgettes, that sort of thing.

Another successional method, which does work well for slower-maturing crops, is to extend the season by over-wintering hardier varieties; sow and plant out in autumn, provide protection against winter frosts and/or rain, then watch them grow like the clappers as soon as spring rolls around.

Last year, we tried over-wintering a batch of broad beans. We planted out 20 ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ – a recommended hardy variety – under enviromesh, and only lost two to the winter weather. Here they are just a week or so ago:

May 2017 overwintered broad beans
These bean plants are much further on than their spring-sown cousins.

They’ve already flowered and are setting beans, and we’ve been picking the leafy tops as a bonus veg crop as well.

We then sowed another batch – this time a mixture of ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, ‘The Sutton’, ‘Rd Epicure’ and a mangetout variety called ‘Stereo’ – and planted them out in mid-April. Here they are in a pic taken at the same time as the above:

May 2017 spring-sown broad beans
These spring-sown broad beans will come in later than the overwintered ones, extending the season.

They’re just about starting to flower but they’re a good few weeks behind the over-wintered batch. That should mean the beans are ripe much later, so we might have had a chance to eat all the over-wintered ones before the new ones are ready.

Other crops with cultivars that over-winter well, or that can be harvested in the winter months, include onions, cabbages, kale, leeks, peas, sprouting broccoli, brussels sprouts, parsnips, carrots and of course garlic. We always plant our garlic and elephant garlic cloves in September as a couple of sharp winter frosts will help the bulbs to form properly. The same goes for strawberries; the best time to plant them out is in the Autumn.

How about you? What have you over-wintered from last year and is it doing well? Let me know via the comments, below.

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Plot Troubles – A Dose of Double Desiccation

May 2017 dry weather
Tomorrow’s forecast from BBC Weather – more of the same…

Manchester, a city not exactly renowned for its Mediterranean climate, doesn’t seem to have had more than a drop or two of rain for at least the past fortnight (rainchester.com says three days, but they’re obviously not checking here in Prestwich).

Down on Plot #59 we’re experiencing a period of Double Dessication, as the ground bakes under the drying effects of both sun and wind. As the state of our over-wintered leek bed demonstrates, the soil is in a pretty poor state just now:

May 2017 dry leek bed
Not the healthiest of soil soils just at the moment.

Those same cracking, crumbling, dusty conditions are replicated right across the plot. However, as you can see from the dark area in the centre of the pic where a couple of leeks have been harvested, the soil about four or five centimetres down is still reasonably dark and moist.

This is the ‘dust mulch’ effect in action: the surface tilth has desiccated to the point where it’s too dry for any more water to evaporate out of it, and too dry even to wick up the moisture from the soil beneath. In effect, it creates a protective layer that actually helps to preserve moisture below.

But still, these sort of conditions are obviously far from ideal, and they do have a number of implications for the work that ought to be going on at this time of year:

1) Minimise Digging and Deep-Weeding

Except for non-growing areas like paths, it’s a really bad idea to dig the soil when the weather is dry, as you’ll just expose the moisture that is in the soil and accelerate its evaporation.

Likewise, there’s little point in trying to dig out perennial weeds when the ground is baked hard. Aside from exposing moist soil, you’re far more likely to snap the tap root and leave a chunk of it stuck deep in the ground to re-grow at a later date. Do keep on top of removing seed heads though; dandelions in particular will be going to seed like crazy right now.

It’s fine to hoe off surface annual weeds as well, as long as you’re not exposing too much of the darker soil in the process. Larger weeds can be removed, and weed seedlings will quickly dry up and die, then rot back into the soil when it rains again.

2) Maintain Regular Irrigation

Note, ‘regular’ rather than ‘frequent’. Plants that are rooted in the ground will benefit more from a longer, deeper soak every few days, rather than a light sprinkling once a day or so. This will allow the water to soak into that dust-mulch protected region, and encourage the plant roots to grow deeper in search of it. You’ll also save yourself time and back-ache.

Container-grown plants are of course a different case entirely and will need to be irrigated much more often. If the growing medium in a container dries out too much it can be almost impossible to re-moisten it just by watering. You’re better off standing them in a bucket or tray of water and allowing it to soak back in gradually, rather than wasting water that will just run right through or off the dry soil.

3) No Direct Seed Sowing

Seeds need both heat and moisture to germinate successfully. It’s the uptake of moisture into the seed that triggers the initial development of root and stem, and a steady supply of moisture is needed to swell the cotyledon(s) – the initial ‘seed’ leaves – and to carry nutrients from the soil throughout the fast-growing seedling.

Sowing into a medium that’s a quagmire one minute and then back to dust half a day later won’t do seedlings any good at all. Combined with the scorching effect of sun, the blasting effect of wind and the damage done by heavy drops of water from a can or hose, it’s a recipe for a distinct lack of success. Far better to start seeds off indoors, in modules or trays, and then transplant outside when soil conditions improve.

Fingers Crossed

The forecast here in North Manchester is for rain showers from Friday through the weekend, but it’s set to turn dry again next week. And we’re going to need a bit more than a few showers to restore the soil and re-fill the water butts. Here’s hoping we don’t end up with a full-blown Spring drought on our hands.

How about you? Are you experiencing similar conditions, or have you been pleasantly drenched recently? Feel free to let me know (and in the latter case, make me jealous) via the comments.

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Soilfixer Trial Part III: Setting Up the Trial Beds

Old pallets, as long as they’re in reasonably good nick, are a great boon to the allotmenteer. Especially if you need to knock together a few small raised beds. Such as these four, which I set up yesterday for the trial of four different soil mixes that I’m running this year for the folks at Soilfixer.co.uk.

April 2017 Soilfixer trial beds
Half an hour with a saw, a hammer and a bag of nails did the trick.

I nipped back down to Plot #59 this morning, lugging a tub of Soilfixer’s SF60 along with me, and back-filled the four beds. In all four cases, I’ve re-used the soil from last year’s carrot bed, which I know is of a reasonably uniform texture and plain composition, as it was all sieved through last year and didn’t have any fertilisers or other amendments added to it.

April 2017 SF60
Soilfixer’s SF60 soil improver. Looks a bit like someone set fire to a compost heap…

In bed #1: a mix of soil and the compost that I made with Soilfixer’s C.H.A. (composting humification agent) over the winter.

In bed #2: a mix of soil and the non-C.H.A. enhanced compost.

In bed #3: a mix of soil and a few measures of Soilfixer’s SF60 Soil Improver.

In bed #4: plain soil, no enhancements.

Here are comparison pics of the contents of the four beds (as above, clockwise from top-left) just after the relevant amendment had been added (or not), before final raking in and levelling.

April 2017 Soilfixer trial soils
The contents of four beds, amended (or not) as required.

The pics were all taken at roughly the same time of day, in similar light conditions (direct sun, little or no cloud cover) so I think we can safely conclude that the C.H.A.-enhanced compost is a little darker in colour than the non-C.H.A. compost. Whether that’s down to an increased amount of colloidal humus or simply the darkening effect of the C.H.A. (a charcoal-dust-like black powder) I’m not able to say. But the darker colour might help the soil to warm marginally quicker.

I’m going to leave the beds to rest for a few days, then I’ll be back at the weekend to plant out the first crops: a couple of broad bean ‘The Sutton’ plants in each bed, for starters. I’ll also be sowing a few seeds that I think will be reliable germinators: beetroot and turnip. Later on I’ll add some more veg plants, maybe a tomato and a kale, and probably a couple of flowers as well, perhaps some Tagetes or French marigolds, and possibly a mignonette Dahlia or three.

Then it’ll be a case of observing and recording any observations as often as I’m able to, including rates of germination, any noticeable differences in growth patterns, the degree of weed infestation, and anything else that I notice.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Now Planting: Peas and Broad Beans

Yesterday Jo and I braved the rather chilly wind that was sweeping across Plot #59 and set about planting the first batch of this year’s peas and broad beans.

We started by setting up a pea harp: a bamboo cane A-frame with additional string supports (see last year’s post on the subject for more details, hat-tip again to Jane Merrick for the idea), ideal for scrambling climbers such as peas. I was in charge of the bamboo and Jo did a marvellous job of the stringing.

Here’s the finished structure, with a mix of mangetout-type peas ‘Golden Sweet’ and ‘Shiraz’ planted out:

April 2017 pea harp
Plenty of string for the pea tendrils to cling on to as they get themselves established.

Next up: simply inserting a double-row of five-foot canes to tie the broad beans to as they grow, and then planting out one plant per cane:

April 2017 broad beans planted
This double-row of broad beans should keep us well-stocked for months.

These are a mix of three varieties: reliable ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, new-to-us ‘Mangetout Stereo’ and a few plants that I’ve grown from beans collected from last year’s crop, which may or may not turn out to be ‘Red Epicure’, or some variant on that theme.

We have about 20 over-wintering ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ that are already in flower, so between those and this new batch we should be munching on fresh, tasty broad beans from May through to July, or thereabouts. Yum.

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