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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
The clocks have gone forward, buds are breaking open everywhere and, yes, the weeds are growing again – it must be Spring!
With temperatures rising in March and the rain holding off for reasonable periods of time, Jo and I have been able to get down to Plot #59 and get stuck in to some of the main jobs of the season. Digging, weeding and clearing away winter’s detritus for starters. But also a few more interesting, positive, forward-looking highlights. The sort of jobs that gardeners and allotmenteers everywhere look forward to, because they mean the new growing season is finally getting under way.
Here are a few of them.
Feeding Soft Fruit Bushes
The soft fruit section is starting to leaf up nicely. There’s even signs of early blossom on the gooseberry and redcurrant bushes – hopefully not too prematurely.
This jostaberry was planted out earlier in the year and it seems to be doing well, which is good to see.
In order to give the bushes a boost, I scraped back the woodchip mulch from around each plant and sprinkled on a handful of fish, blood and bone. That ought to give them a feed just as they’re waking up for the season and hopefully improve fruit yield later on.
Broad Beans, Old and New
Last November we planted out a couple of rows of broad bean ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ and tented them with enviromesh. They seem to have survived and thrived, with only one or two losses, and many of them are already putting out flowers. Hopefully we’ll have an early crop of tasty beans to enjoy in a few weeks.
And back in the greenhouse, this year’s Spring crop is coming along nicely. I’ve potted up a couple of varieties that have been growing strongly. More ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ and a cultivar called ‘Stereo’, which is meant to be a mangetout bean. Interesting, no?
Preparing for Potatoes
We’re only growing one variety of potato this year – good old, reliable, all-rounder Saxon – and only three rows of them. About 24 plants’ worth, all being well and if blight and/or leaf-curl virus stays away this year. Digging the trenches is one of my favourite jobs of the early Spring.
I’ve remembered to allow plenty of space between them this year, and have manured them well. Two rows are in already, and I’m saving the third for a week or two, in a vague attempt to spread the harvest. I suspect everything will catch up once the weather warms up and I’ll end up harvesting them all at once, as usual, but we’ll see.
Planting Out Onions
We planted out garlic last Autumn and we’re still harvesting last year’s leeks, but we didn’t try to over-winter any onions this year. Instead we’ve gone down the route of starting sets off in modules, and as they’d mostly reached the 10-15cm leaf length stage it was time to get them in the ground. Jo took charge of the operation last weekend and did a much neater job of it than I probably would have done, too.
More digging and clearing, preparing the beds for the SoilFixer trial section, planting out those broad beans and the first of the peas. And seed sowing. So much seed sowing…
I love a bit of horseradish, me. Grated fresh and mixed into mayonnaise it does wonders for grilled mackerel. Or creamed and added to English mustard, it really makes your sausages sing.
The thing is though, when you try to buy fresh horseradish, it’s only really available as a whole root about a foot or so long, which frankly is a bit too much even for me. So I decided to grow some of my own, in the hope of being able to harvest it in smaller portions.
Unassuming little thing, isn’t it? But it’s incredibly vigorous and will spread itself around by sending out underground stems (rhizomes) and colonising nearby growing space, especially if its roots are disturbed. And as harvesting the fleshy tap-root is the whole point of growing the stuff, if you don’t want it to take over half your plot, you need to do something to contain those rhizomes.
One option is to grow it in pots, but they carry the usual risk of drying out in hot spells. Instead, I’m using an old plastic bin, with a missing bottom:
It’s about 60cm deep and as you can see, I’ve dug it into the ground to reduce the amount of heat it will absorb and hence the amount of water loss due to evaporation. In goes the plant, along with a good drenching and a quick finish with a mulch of chipped bark:
Job’s a good ‘un. I’ll leave the plant alone to establish for a while, but with any luck I’ll be harvesting horseradish before the end of next year.
This year I’m trialling two soil improvement products on behalf of the folks at SoilFixer.co.uk. The first, a Compost Humification Agent, was added to a bagful of compostable material back in December. A second bag of compostables was set aside at the same time, to act as a control.
This past weekend, I checked in on the two proto-compost samples to see how they were getting along. The bags have been sitting around on plot #59 over the winter, so I wasn’t expecting anything to have changed massively, what with the lack of heat to kick-start the decomposition process. But as I dumped each sample out into a plastic bucket, I was pleased to see that actually there had been a fair bit of break-down, even in the colder winter conditions
Hard to tell at this stage whether the addition of the C.H.A. has significantly accelerated the decomposition process, but the second sample did seem a little darker in colour. But of course, the proof will be in whether or not the trial crops actually perform better in C.H.A. compost enhanced soil.
Each sample was churned around, to get some air into the organic matter, before being re-bagged. I removed a couple of handfuls of tough, grassy stems from each sample. The stuff didn’t seem to have broken down at all – some shoots were even showing signs of re-sprouting – and it’s not the sort of material I want to add to the trial beds in due course. I then added a few scoopfuls of home compost from our recently-emptied bin and added more C.H.A. to the relevant mix.
Each bag will be re-aired and re-mixed a couple of times over the next week or two. Ten, before too long, it will be time to start the trial proper by setting up the four trial beds, adding the appropriate amendments (or not) to each, and planting out some of the seedlings that are already coming along in the greenhouse.
I’ll tell you what crops I’m planning to grow in the next Trial update.