Tag: asparagus

Our Allotment Year in Review: 2016/17 Edition

Plot #59 Update: July 2016
Plot #59 at the height of August 2016

A year has rolled on by since I posted the first Year in Review piece here on Notes From the Allotment, and a lot has changed down on Plot #59.

After three years of hard graft, we’ve finally reached the point where almost the entire plot has been transformed from a weed-choked, debris-strewn nightmare into a usable, cultivated growing space. There’s still one small area of midden-ground that I’ll be clearing later this year, and a problem section or two at the back. Once those are tackled though, Jo and I can draw a line under phase one (disaster response) and get on with the serious business of full-scale growing.

In the meantime though, here are the particular high-points and low-points of the last twelve months:

Legumes – Beans and Peas

Last year we grew a stupid amount of beans – we’re still eating through the freezer stocks of blanched pods, and have a couple of kilos of dried beans that we probably won’t get around to using, unless we get a lot more creative – and it was great.

As well as the traditional ‘Scarlet Emperor’ runners and ‘Fasold’ climbing French, we tried a couple of new-to-us varieties, the best of which had to be the ‘Blackpod’ cultivar that we received through our Heritage Seed Library membership. Very tasty when young and still in the green, maturing into deep, burgundy pods filled with purple-black beans, they were a visual feast and a delicious accompaniment to many a pork chop.

September 2016 Runner Bean 'Blackpod'
The very lovely deep purple colour of these pods is just superb.

We also had a good year for broad beans, with Spring-grown ‘The Sutton’ and ‘Red Epicure’ providing us with a rainbow of colours. And the mangetout peas ‘Shiraz’ and ‘Golden Sweet’ grew like crazy up the pea-harp that we constructed for them, and provided us with fresh, sweet pods for weeks and weeks. We’ll be growing both varieties again this year, along with a couple from the Heritage Seed Library.

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

Cucurbits – Squash and Courgettes, and Corn

We had our best year yet for the Cucurbitaceae family, with a dozen courgette plants performing at their usual prolific rate and then a harvest of around a dozen good-sized, firm-fleshed and very tasty ‘Turk’s Turban’ squash to brighten up our autumn and winter dinner plates. (I think I might be getting the squash-growing bug, if the dozen varieties poised and ready in the seed-box are anything to go by.)

September 2016 squashes
Turk’s Turban and Tondo ahoy!

The sweetcorn performed well again last year. It seems to like the spot we grow it in – at the front of the plot, in full sun (when the sun is out) – and we ended up with another good haul of sweet, juicy cobs. This year we’re trying a heritage variety called ‘Rainbow Sweet Inca’ which promises multi-coloured kernels. Sounds like good fun.

Alliums – Onions, Leeks, Garlic

Our over-wintered garlic did very well indeed. We harvested a good dozen or so large bulbs of ‘Elephant’ garlic around 30-40 of the ‘Extra Early Wight’ and ‘Carcassonne Wight’, although the latter’s bulbs were a little on the small side.

July 2016 elephant garlic
Properly dried and stored, these giant Elephant bulbs will last us well into next Spring.

A good year for onions, with around 80 of assorted sizes from the ‘Sturon’ sets that we started off in modules before planting out. They kept well in an old dresser drawer in the shed and had a good, strong-flavour to them. Same again this year.

The leeks went in rather late, at the tail-end of August rather than in June, so they didn’t get much growing done before winter set in. We’ve been happily harvesting every other one for the past few months though and they’ve been very enjoyable indeed. The last few dozen are starting to put on new growth now, thickening up a treat. We may even end up with some decent-sized specimens before we need to clear the patch for this year’s courgettes.

September 2016 leek patch
Lots and lots of lovely leeks.

Spuds and Toms

Alas, we suffered from a double-dose of potato disease last year. Our first earlies were hit by potato leaf-roll virus which killed off about half the plants, and then a rather vicious attack of early blight ripped through our allotment site back in late June and early July. That meant the haulms had to be removed before the tubers had reached their maximum potential, and cropping was affected as a result. We still managed to harvest a decent haul of ‘Pink Fir Apple’ and ‘Saxon’ but nothing like 2015/16’s enormous piles of tubers. This year I’m sticking to Saxon and crossing my fingers that we have a drier spring.

June 2016 potato blight
The last thing you want to see on your spud foliage…

Same story with the tomatoes, alas. We didn’t actually grow any down the plot, they were all in the back garden at home, where we’d hoped they’d be isolated from blight. But we must have brought some spores back with us from somewhere, because it took hold and destroyed the lot. We didn’t get so much as a single usable green tomato… one more try this year, and then we’ll have to decide whether they’re worth the inevitable disappointment.

Soft Fruit

It was another great year for blackcurrants, rhubarb (I know, technically a veg stem, but if it goes in a crumble it gets a mention here) and raspberries, with kilos and kilos of fruit filling up the freezer, or being turned into delicious jam. We also enjoyed our first really good crops of gooseberries and redcurrants. Our potted blueberries did okay, but they were re-potted earlier in the year, so we thought they might rest up and recover a bit.

July 2016 - berry harvest
How’s this for a berry selection? By no means the entire crop, either.

The real discovery though was the Japenese Wineberry. The fruit of this spiny, long-stemmed bush is small, bright red, and slightly tacky to the touch. When the berries are ripe they come away from the bush with the slightest encouragement and taste like slightly tart wine-gums. They don’t keep all that well, which means you have to eat ’em up quick – a terrible shame, that – but they’re great in a summer fruit salad. This year we’re going to try to increase our stock by layering in a couple of branches.

July 2016 - Japanese wineberries
These wineberries are something of a taste revelation – a lovely balance of sweet and sharp.

The one disappointment was our strawberry patch. We did have a reasonable crop back in June, but we lost a hell of a lot more to botrytis grey mould, which ripped through the tightly-packed plants in May and destroyed most of the early fruit. The plan this year is to thin out every other plant and then keep on top of trimming back foliage to increase ventilation. Then at the end of the year we’ll probably re-plant the whole section with brand new stock.

Roots etc.

Despite having big plans and high hopes for a carrot crop, the carrot fly managed to get in and ruin about 75% of what we grew last year. We did harvest a few small, stunted, but still quite tasty roots, but nothing worth shouting about:

We did have a pretty good year for roots of other types though: mooli and black radish, scorzonera and salsify all grew well and were tasty additions to our baked root veg dishes. We also tried root parsley, but it didn’t really get going. We’ll give that one more go this year on the off-chance we were just unlucky.

October 2016 root veg
Carrots, salsify, scorzonera and mooli.

Brassicas – Cabbage, Kale and More…

We went big on brassicas this past year, planting out four varieties of Brussels sprout, purple cauliflower, romanesco cauliflower, calabrese, red cabbage, green cabbage, savoy cabbage, green kale, red kale, and walking stick kale.

The best performers were the cabbages, which grew strongly despite a late planting and we’re still finishing off the last few red and savoy. The worst were the romanesco, which bolted again, and Brussels sprouts, of which only one variety (Rubine) produced anything decent-sized enough to eat. We’ll try sprouts again this year, and get them in a bit earlier, see if that helps.

The walking stick kale was an interesting novelty, growing to around 6′ in height with huge leaves, but those leaves were pretty tough and leathery. They did cook down, if you fried them for long enough, but the flavour wasn’t so spectacular that we’d rush to grow them again. Not when smaller varieties of kale are generally tastier, and more manageable too. As for drying the stems to use as plant supports or even walking sticks, we’re giving one a go, but we’ll have to see how useful it turns out to be.

January 2017 Plot Planning #10
The Big Brassicas section – something of a disappointment, truth be told.

Experimentals

Last year we grew a few novelty items just for the fun of it. One of them was the aforementioned walking stick kale. Another was the electric daisy, and the third was an allegedly highly-edible Fuschia called ‘Berry’.

Electric daisies were kinda fun. The plants and flowers themselves aren’t much to write home about – straggly, thin stems with not much leaf and strange, lumpy daisy-type yellow flowers – but it’s the effect you get when you eat a flower that’s the point of growing them. It’s a bit like licking a 9 volt battery with a mouth full of popping candy. Not entirely unpleasant, unless you really hate the dentist-esque sensation of your mouth going steadily numb, but it wasn’t something that either of us were hugely enamoured with.

James Wong, who champions the variety via the Sutton’s Grow For Flavour range, suggests breaking up the flowers and sprinkling them into a lime jelly for a more gentle, fizzing sensation. But I don’t think we have time to make lime jellies from scratch. And really, we just grew them so we could see the look on Jo’s Dad’s face when we made him try one. That particular moment was well worth the time and effort.

The same can’t really be said, alas, for the Fuschia ‘Berry’, which you may have seen touted last year by Thompson & Morgan. We bought five plugs (they’re now selling them in packs of 10, but you probably won’t want or need that many) and four grew to a decent size.

The flowers were rather lovely, in shades of deep pinkish-red and purple. But the berries, although large, were… meh. Bland and tasteless, not very juicy, hardly anything to recommend them. It could be because they were grown in pots in the greenhouse, rather than the open air and rain, or it could be because the berries just aren’t all that nice. We’ll grow on any plants that have survived the winter, but for their flower display rather than their fruit.

Honourable Mention – Asparagus

We established and planted up the asparagus section of the plot in March and April last year. With no harvests for the first year or two – to give the crowns plenty of time to develop – we haven’t actually tasted any just yet. But we saw plenty of good, strong growth last year, and the first spears have just about broken ground this year, so things are looking good for next year’s first cropping.

September 2016 asparagus patch
Lots of leafy growth in October, just before we cut back for the winter.

The Floral Department

Our plan has always been for Plot #59 to be somewhere to grow an abundance of flowers as well as edibles. Mainly as a food-lure for pollinators, but also because they’re so gosh-darn pretty. Jo is in charge of the floral department and over the past year she’s sown and grown some absolute stunners.

I’ll just leave this gallery here for you to browse through…

Plans for 2017/18

As discussed back in January the aim for this year is to make the entire plot as productive as possible. There’s some infrastructure work to do – the central path will finally be laid, and a seating / hard-standing area at the back, hopefully – and of course the regular rounds of maintenance, watering and weeding. But at long last, the focus will be set firmly on growing and harvesting, rather than clearing and sorting.

We’ll keep you posted as things develop. Please feel free to drop in from time to time to see how we’re doing.

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Asparagus Update

It’s out first year of growing asparagus on Plot #59 and whilst we won’t be able to harvest anything until the 2018 growing season, we’ve been keeping a close eye on the plants’ development and we’re pretty pleased with what we’ve seen so far.

Every crown bar one sprouted not long after planting, and the majority of the spears shot up to around three feet in height. Unfortunately they were all quite spindly – new growth, we assume – and got blown around in the high winds back in May – we put in a decent wind-break in what we thought was the prevailing wind direction, but of course the wind has been blowing from the other end of the site this year – so some of them are a tad more horizontal than we’d like.

Recently, all twenty-nine viable crowns have been sending up fresh shoots though, so it looks like they’re establishing nicely. It’ll be time to feed them soon, to give them a bit of a boost – one fellow grower on another plot recommended Super Phosphate, but I’ll double-check that before I go ahead – and it’s very important to keep on top of the weeding, to minimise competition.

Here’s that flush of second growth, across the three varieties:

June 2016 Asparagus 'Guelph Milennium'
Guleph Millennium is meant to be a late-season variety, but it’s been strong since planting in April.
June 2016 Asparagus 'Purple Pacific'
A lovely colour on this variety, although it does run to green as it grows taller.
June 2016 Asparagus 'Connover's Colossal'
Connover’s is looking anything but Colossal, but hopefully it’ll shine next season.

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Plot #59 Update: May 2016

Plot #59 Update May 2016
Starting to look a lot like a hard-working allotment again…

May was a manic month down on Plot #59, and no mistake. My plate is particularly full at the moment with revision for my RHS Level 2 exams in mid June, so please do excuse me if I whizz through this month’s update.

Projects / Maintenance

As well as sorting out an old compost bed Jo and I started on some of this year’s structural work: a pair of sweet pea obelisks and a pea harp.

Sowing

Not a lot happened this month on the sowing front, just five varieties of cabbage in a multi-module in the greenhouse. They all germinated with at least 90% success, so after thinning I should have around 100 cabbages to pot up in due course. I had a small selection of other seeds that I wanted to sow this month, but time hasn’t been on my side. I’ll have to get them in soon though, or they’ll run out of growing season.

Planting

The courgette patch that I started planting out a couple of weeks ago is now full:

May 2016 courgette patch
12 courgette plants, plus companion Swiss chard and Tagetes.

Four varieties of courgette there: ‘Tondo di Piacenza’, ‘Soleil F1’, ‘Midnight F1’ and ‘Zucchini’. The companion plants are four Swiss chard and three Tagetes, for a splash of colour amidst the eventual sea of green foliage.

Next door to the courgettes, I’ve set up and planted out the first two climbing bean A-frames:

May 2016 runner beans planted
‘Prizewinner’ and ‘Blackpod’ good to go.

They’re both runner beans: ‘Prizewinner’ and ‘Blackpod’ (a Heritage Seed Library variety, and the only one of three varieties I had from them this year that’s actually germinated, alas). I’ve got three more A-frames and a few wigwams still to go for the rest of this year’s beans.

Swiss Chard and Peas went in to populate the pea harp and the latter are scrambling away nicely.

Meanwhile, Jo has planted out her sunflowers around two edges of the three sisters section, set sweet peas to scramble up their black bamboo obelisks and provided a tray or two of nasturtiums to accompany the climbing beans, broad beans and peas. All for the good of pollinators, who are always welcome on our plot.

All good so far. A lot more to be planted out in June.

Harvesting

Rhubarb! We’ve got so much rhubarb from our eight crowns this year.

May 2016 rhubarb patch
Romping away and clearly enjoying the warm, wet weather earlier in the month.

We’re stuffed to the gills with stewed rhubarb (and sometimes custard) and are rapidly running out of freezer room. We’re giving away as much of it as we can, but it just keeps growing. Send help… and jam recipes!

May 2016 - first rhubarb harvest
This was our first harvest. The stalks have only gotten longer and stronger since…

Also, lots of lovely fresh salad leaves and pea shoots from the trays in the greenhouse.

General Progress

The asparagus bed seems to be coming along nicely. All but one of the crowns have sent up one or two thin, spindly shoots. As it’s just year one, we’ve left them to do their thing; which seems to be branching, setting flower buds and (rather unfortunately) blowing over in the wind. Ah well, as long as the root system is developing under the surface they should be a lot stronger next year.

The raised carrot and root beds are showing strong signs of life, albeit in a slightly irregular pattern in the carrot section:

May 2016 carrot bed
I think this raised bed might have a bit of a slope on it…

There was a lot of annual weed in the soil I used for the beds as well, so I’ve been in and hand-cleared between and among the rows a couple of times.

I posted a few shots of our fruit bushes in flower and I’m glad to say that they’ve been visited by the bees and pushing on to set fruit:

May 2016 redcurrants
Nowhere near ripe just yet, but a good redcurrant crop in prospect.
May 2016 strawberries
Looks like we might actually get a strawberry harvest this year..!
May 2016 gooseberries
Goosegogs far from ripe and rock hard at the moment.

There are signs of fruit-set on the blackcurrants, whitecurrants and the mystery fruit trees at the front of the plot as well.

Elsewhere, the broad beans are in flower, the onions seems to be bulbing up nicely, the garlic is producing scapes (very tasty) and the dahlias are just starting to hint at one or two flower buds opening. And the potatoes are doing well; I think just about all of the seed spuds I planted have sprouted, with maybe one or two exceptions. I’ve earthed them up once, but with not much risk of a frost now, I’m going to leave them to do their thing and hope for the best.

It’s all hugely exciting. Can’t wait to see what June brings (endless hours of revision aside…)

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A Spot of Structural Work

With a few hundred seedlings coming along nicely in the greenhouse at home, we’ve been busy down at Plot #59, preparing ground and putting up a few of this year’s support structures for the crops to come.

Pea Harp

In the past I’ve grown peas up plastic netting, or just let them scramble through pea sticks. Earlier this year though, I read Jane Merrick’s blog post about her pea harp on heroutdoors.uk and decided to give it a go.

First up, a standard A-frame (bean support, type #3) to provide the bare bones:

May 2016 sweet pea harp framework
The bare bones of the framework in place and ready for stringing.

…and then over to Jo with her smaller hands and nimbler fingers to run a ball of string up and down the frame to provide the vertical support for the peas to scramble up:

May 2016 sweet pea harp fully strung
The finished pea harp, missing only a couple of slug traps… oh, and a few dozen pea plants.

A lovely job, I’m sure you’ll agree. We’ll see how it performs later in the year.

Sweet Pea Obelisks

Over to the decorative department, and a couple of simple obelisk structures for Jo to grow her sweet peas on. All my own work, with four black bamboo canes and a couple of horizontal string sections for additional support and tendril-grips. Jo might add a few more strings later on, depending on how the plants seem to be managing.

May 2016 sweet pea obelisk #1
One of a matching pair framing the path onto the plot.

Willow Wind-Break

We’re not calling this willow weaving, simply because that would be an insult to folks who actually have the skills to weave willow properly. But what Jo and I have done between us is stick some thicker willow branches into the ground (upside-down to reverse polarity and hopefully prevent rooting). Then we’ve rammed, jammed, wedged, bodged and tied in a selection of thinner canes, whips and twigs to sort of make a wind-break (although not a very tall one) and terrier-barrier (our plot neighbour’s dog is very cute, but very inquisitive) for the asparagus patch. All materials (string aside) cropped from the willow tree at the back of the plot, so fully up-cycled, if a bit scruffy in places:

May 2016 willow wind break
Don’t look too closely, folks, it’s not a particularly pretty sight, but it’ll get the job done.

We then transplanted three mature Erysimum ‘Bowle’s Mauve’, which ought to help with the wind-breaking and should be enough to hide a multitude of weaving-related sins.

May 2016 wind-break with wallflowers
Good old Erysimum ‘Bowle’s mauve’ should disguise the worst of it…

More structural work to come in due course: plenty of A-frames for this year’s beans, more sweet pea structures, all sorts of good stuff.

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Plot #59 Update: April 2016

Plot #59 Update April 2016
A burst of early morning sunshine in mid April 2016.

“April is the cruellest month,” said T. S. Eliot, in the opening line of his epic poem ‘The Wasteland’. He could well have been referring to the tricks that April seems to enjoy playing with the weather. Last year April served up a prolonged, scorching heatwave, followed by a thoroughly miserable, damp cold-snap. This year the month started out typically grey and wet, switched to a few days of August-like temperatures, then conjured storms for the South, dropped hail, snow and sleet on us here in the North, and now seems to have settled back to a steady, spluttering, mucky mizzle.

As a result, Plot #59 has gone from a sodden mud patch to a parched, cracked hard pan and back to a sort of dank dreariness that’s keeping air and ground temperatures well below useful ranges. Recent overnight frosts have meant that seedlings germinated earlier in the month have been kept greenhouse-bound, taking up space that I should be using to sow the next batch of edibles: beans and cabbages in particular. But then I remind myself that last year, due to the house move, we were even later getting most things into the ground and everything quite happily caught up. So there’s really no need to panic. I just have to be patient, keep everything ticking over and moving along when possible. It’ll all come good in the end.

The jobs I have managed to do this month have all been useful ones though. The month started with signs of life in the fruit section and since then the gooseberry bushes have all been given a further pruning and the whole section has been fertilised and then thoroughly mulched with leaf mould. Jo has hacked back a lot of last year’s dead or dying strawberry foliage and it looks like the plants stopped just short of actually putting out blossom in the recent hot spell – the buds have formed but not opened yet – so I’m hopeful that they’ll come along later this year and won’t suffer as badly. We might actually get more than three berries, all being well.

April 2016 - mulched fruit section
A good thick layer of leaf mulch will help keep moisture in.

I finished another one of this year’s Big Jobs when I planted out asparagus crowns on the ridges that I prepared last month. I’m happy to report that they’ve nearly all sent up their first shoots, so I’m confident that they’ll establish well this growing season. I also finished off this year’s potato planting, with main-crop ‘pink fir apple’ joining first-early ‘swift’ and second-early (or main-crop) ‘saxon’. We’re growing around half the number of potato rows that we deliberately over-grew this year. Hopefully this time around we’ll be able to use up all our stored tubers without this sort of thing happening again:

April 2016 potatoes sprouting
Yeah, I think the last of the spuds have gone over…

I’ve put a bit more thought and effort than usual into this year’s carrot and root veg beds after a few years’ of disappointing results in the carrot department and hit-and-miss cropping elsewhere. Here’s hoping all the digging and sieving pays off later in the year. One notable failure already is the Garden Organic clover experiment that I started last month. The combination of scorching heat and cold, dry winds has blasted the seedlings and they’ve all-but died off completely. Garden Organic have sent me a fresh batch of seed, and I’ll be re-sowing just as soon as conditions improve a little.

With sowing and planting largely off the agenda, I did take the opportunity to do some maintenance work on the composting section at the back of the plot. The two compost beds that Jo and I built in our first couple of months, way back in 2014, were cleared of stored pallets, plastic piping and water butts, then turned one into the other and well watered; the first time I’d done that for a good while. A lot of the material was bone-dry, so I gave it a good soaking as I turned it, then covered it all over with empty bin bags, dumped a pallet back on top and I’ll leave that lot to break down for a couple of weeks before I turn it back again. And so on, through the summer and into the Autumn, when the bulk of the fresh material will be ready to add in again.

April 2016 - compost turning
There’s good compost in here, somewhere.

Elsewhere there are promising signs of blossoming fruit trees, and the over-wintered garlic and Spring-planted onion sets continue to grow strongly. The rhubarb patch has finally woken up and our eight crowns are sending up some good, thick, stems. But there’s not a lot else going on, just yet. I get the feeling that it’s all poised and ready to explode into activity just as soon as the temperatures come up a bit and then stay there. We can never rule out late frosts in May, of course, but with any luck we’ll get enough of a run of decent weather to start the process of hardening off and planting out in earnest. I can’t wait to share the summer updates.

By the by, I found time in April to share my recommendations for top bits of allotment kit that you might not immediately think of. Please feel free to take a look and let me know if there’s anything else you’d recommend, via the comments on that post.

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Setting Up Our Asparagus Bed, Part 4 – Planting

April 2016 asparagus crowns from Blackmoor Nurseries
Lovely specimens – these ‘Connover’s Colossal’ certainly live up to their billing.

I was faced with a dilemma this weekend. My order of asparagus crowns arrived from Blackmoor Nurseries on Wednesday. With a run of poor weather up to that point, and more rain forecast, I wasn’t sure whether to plant the crowns and hope they didn’t get too soggy, or keep them in their packaging and risk them drying out. After a word or tow of advice from my RHS course tutor on Friday (“get them in the ground,”) I ventured down to the plot yesterday morning to make my final preparations and finish the job.

Quick recap on the process so far:

  1. Part 1 – Basic Preparation
  2. Part 2 – Soil Enrichment
  3. Part 3 – Drainage

My nicely prepped planting ridges had taken a bit of a beating during the rainy period, so the first task was to rake them back into shape:

April 2016 - Asparagus ridges - repair needed
Nothing that a few minutes’ work with a rake can’t see right.

However, walking between the rows made me realise just how claggy and wet (and therefore cold) the soil still was, so after a quick check of the afternoon’s forecast – bright spells until a light shower around 5.00 p.m. – I headed back home to give the ground a bit longer to drain. I took a soil sample with me and ran a pH test – which came in at a perfect 6.5, meaning I wasn’t going to have to add garden lime to the soil before planting – did the shopping, had lunch, and came back in the afternoon.

April 2016 - asparagus bed pH test results
Not the best photo, but I think you’ll agree that’s a 6.5 result there?
Those few extra hours of sunshine seemed to have done the trick. By 2.00 p.m. the ridges were looking much drier and had absorbed some warmth, although I still made a point of re-forking between the ridges to break up the thick pan that had formed as I’d been walking on it – the last thing we want is for water to accumulate between the ridges and rot the root tips as they grow – I also took the opportunity to fork in a bit more (extremely) well-rotted horse manure, just to give the plants an extra boost once their new roots reach that far. Then it was time to start planting.

I’d ordered Blackmoor’s thirty crown pack of three varieties: Connover’s Colossal and Guelph Milennium are both RHS AGM varieties, and the latter is a later variety, which should extend the picking season from late April until late June. The third was Pacific Purple, which apparently has spears that are more tender, less fibrous and better tasting than pretty much anything else; time will tell, hopefully.

The crowns were laid on top of the ridge, with their roots spread out in a fan to either side of the bud, roughly 30cm apart. I then sprinkled on a bit of fish, blood and bone – a relatively phosphate-rich fertiliser, which should help the roots to develop in their first year – before shovelling soil over them, covering the roots, but leaving the bud-tips exposed, as advised in the instructions from Blackmoor.

April 2016 - asparagus crowns planted on ridges
30cm spacing, a sprinkle of FBB and we’re good to start back-filling.

I worked in stages, to make sure I wasn’t trampling or dislodging any crowns, and to give me chance to fork and manure between the ridges as I went. This shot shows the three ridges with varying degrees of progress:

  1. Bare ridge, ready for planting.
  2. Crowns in position, ready for back-filling.
  3. Back-filled ridge, with just bud-tips showing.
April 2016 - asparagus planting in progress
The soil pile was to the left, so I worked from the right across towards it…

By 4.15, with half a ridge left to finish off, the promised “light shower” arrived, except it turned out to be a moderate hail shower, followed by a burst of heavy rain. I finished the job off – what’s a little rain to an allotmenteer, eh? – and focused on the silver lining: nature was apparently going to lend a hand and water the rows in for me. I’ll be back down today though, to make sure the soil hasn’t settled too far and exposed any roots (I do hope not, as we had a light frost overnight) and will back-fill some more if necessary.

And then: the waiting begins. First for those oh, so exciting signs of new growth this year, and then a full two seasons – it’s essential to allow the crowns time to properly establish and strengthen, rather like rhubarb – before we can pick our first harvest. That will be the true test of my patience, but I’ll just have to grit my teeth and bear it.

Come back in 2018 for a harvest update and in the meantime, please do feel free to torment me by sharing your top asparagus recipes in the comments, below…

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Plot #59 Update: March 2016

March 2016 Plot #59 Update
Plot #59, looking good in a bit of early Spring sunshine

The weather in our neck of the woods was distinctly variable during March, although thankfully storm Katie largely passed us by. A couple of dry weeks meant I could go full steam ahead on digging and clearing the back section of the plot, for a while. We haven’t worked this bit since we took it over two years ago and so has been lying fallow for who knows how many years (previous tenants only worked small sections and those infrequently, so our plot neighbours have told us). The net result so far is three new potato trenches, two of which now contain nicely-chitted first early ‘swift’ tubers.

March 2016 Chitted first early 'swift'
Nicely chitted and ready for planting out.

I removed all but three chits from each tuber before planting them a good spade’s depth deep and then mounding up the earth above. Potato tubers form as modified stems rather than roots, so you want the tuber to sit deep and reach upwards through the soil, rather than spreading out on the surface, which leads to inedible green spuds if you don’t do a lot of mounding up. Too deep though, and the shoots might not be able to break surface and put out photosynthesising leaves before the tuber exhausts its store of starches, so it’s best not to go mad and dig them six feet under.

March 2016 spud trenches dug
Line and spade gets the job done, without my usual wild swerving.

The digging and clearing job is continuing forwards from the back of the plot, through some horribly bindweed- and buttercup-choked patches, down towards the fruit bush section in the middle. It’s slow, steady, fiddly work, especially when heavy rain stops play for a day or three, but we’re getting there.

Jo and I also spent a couple of hours weeding the over-wintered allium patch (white onions, garlic and the as-yet-uneaten leeks) before planting out the ‘sturon’ sets that had been started off in modules in the greenhouse. As you can see, after about six weeks of growth the majority of them had developed great roots and strong, healthy leaves; time to get them in the ground before they started to get pot-bound and run out of nutrients. Jo and I planted around 110, in three rows (plus filling in a few gaps in the white onion section from winter losses) and they should be ready to start harvesting round about late June or July, if the weather goes our way.

March 2016 - Onion 'sturon' ready for planting
Good roots and strong stems – these are ready to go in.

Progress has continued on the new asparagus bed, with free-draining ridges set up in the previously well-manured section. The crowns are arriving sometime next week, all being well, so I look forward to getting those planted before too long.

Another section of the plot has been sown with red and Persian clover for a green manure trial on behalf of Garden Organic. At last-look, the clover seedlings that I sowed in the middle of March were just starting to germinate. The Persian clover came up first, but so far the red clover seedlings seem to be more robust.

March 2016 Clover germination comparison
Persian clover seems to have the edge in germination speed.

Meanwhile, back at base, I’ve been sowing the first of our brassica and tomato seeds. It’s perhaps a little early for some brassicas, but so far I’ve just sown cauliflower (‘purple cape’ and ‘all year round’) and brussels sprout (‘rubine’, ‘Evesham special’ and ‘Bedford’), both of which need a longer growing season than the likes of cabbage or kale. They’re in a plastic propagation trays (seed trays with a domed lid) in the greenhouse, making the most of whatever sunshine comes their way.

I know a lot of folks will have tomato seedlings well on the way by now, but I’m planning on keeping a lot of ours outside this year, so given the state of the North Manchester weather at the moment, I didn’t see the point in starting anything off too soon. I reckon they’ll catch up once (or if…) the temperatures start to rise. I’ve sown five different varieties, two determinate (bush) or tumbling forms for containers: ‘maskotka’ and ‘principe borghese’, with indeterminate ‘red pear’, ‘tigerella’ and ‘gardener’s delight’ all likely to need a bit of support later in life. (I might sow one or two more varieties at some point as well, depending on how things go.) Again, they’re in the greenhouse in plastic propagation trays for now, as I don’t want them to grow too quickly and become leggy as a result.

In other news, I potted up the chilli seedlings (two weeks on and they’re coming along very nicely) and we took a few first steps in two new (for us) horticultural directions: carnivorous plants for greenhouse pest control and Dahlias for growing at the allotment and at home.

Exciting developments all round. Lots (and lots) more to come in April, weather allowing. Please do feel free to add any comments, questions or helpful suggestions down below, and check out the monthly updates archive for more round-ups from earlier in the year.

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Setting Up Our Asparagus Bed, Part 3 – Drainage

With (reasonably) fine weather continuing over the weekend, I took the opportunity to finish off the essential preparation for the soon-to-be asparagus bed down on Plot #59.

Quick recap on the process so far:

  1. Part 1 – Basic Preparation
  2. Part 2 – Soil Enrichment

Here’s what the ground looked like before I started work:

March 2016 - Asparagus bed, pre-ridging
Dug over, manured and ready for ridging.

The next stage was to work on providing plenty of drainage for the asparagus crowns, which thrive in soil that’s fertile but well-drained. Following advice from various gardening books and a Gardener’s World piece on asparagus planting that Monty Don did last year, I invested in ten bulk bags of gravel from B&Q. Because I was using builders’ grade gravel, rather than the pre-washed, decorative-grade (and more than twice as pricey) stuff, the first job was to give the gravel a thorough rinsing. Into the wheelbarrow, along with a watering can’s worth of saved rainwater, a good sloshing around and out comes (hopefully) a lot of the surplus clay, silt and salt:

March 2016 gravel washing
Important to get rid of the excess salts in particular.

Three and a third(ish) bags then went to form the basis for each ridge:

March 2016 asparagus ridge bases
Hopefully enough gravel there to keep the crowns well-drained.

I then added soil from the big pile of material that I dug out of the section to begin with, mixed with a fork and went along the ridges with a spade, straightening the rows:

March 2016 asparagus ridges finished off
Straight enough for purpose…

And that’s pretty much that, until the crowns arrive from Blackmoor Nurseries, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. One more post to come as the crowns go in, and then the long wait for a harvest will begin…

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Setting Up Our Asaparagus Bed, Part 2 – Soil Enrichment

With the weather taking a turn for the brighter and drier this week, I’ve been able to put in a few more hours on the Plot #59 asparagus bed to-be. After the basic preparation phase – an initial dig-over to remove as much rubbish weed root and rhizome as possible – the next phase involved adding a large amount of fertilizer in the form of well-rotted horse manure.

Here’s what the ground looked like after the initial dig:

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: before
Dug over once and ready for excavation

Next up: excavate a trench, around a spade blade’s depth, along the full 4m length and 3m(ish) width of the allotted section. Time to roll up my sleeves, grab my new shovel by its 54″ handle and start digging. I started excavating at one end, re-loosening the soil with a fork before shovelling it into a heap. Once the trench was a metre or so wide, it was time for a short trip to the nearest manure-pile (luckily just over the path on a derelict plot). A barrow-load at a time went into the trench, and was the next section of soil (minimising overall effort, maximising efficiency, etc.)

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: during
Coming along nicely: trench excavation, manure dumping, re-covering.

…and continue until the job was done, over the course of two afternoon sessions, mostly in glorious late-winter sunshine. Here’s the finished job; not much different to the ‘before’ state, admittedly, but it’s what’s lurking beneath the surface that counts.

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: during
And we’re done! Ready for the gritting and ridging stage…

The final preparation stage will involve copious amounts of grit. That will need mixing in, along with as much of the surplus soil as is required, and then forming into the three long ridges that the asparagus crowns will be planted on top of. Hopefully at the weekend, weather allowing.

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Setting Up Our Asaparagus Bed, Part 1 – Basic Preparation

The first big project for this year on Plot #59 is the planting out of an asparagus bed.

Now, this is a serious matter. Actually, that’s worth capitalising – it’s a Serious Matter. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a long-term crop with a long-term return on investment, providing the job’s done properly. Everything I’ve read on the subject recommends that asparagus crowns should be given royal treatment: a patch of ground in a sunny but sheltered spot, with minimal weed interference, fertile soil and good drainage. All of which, in our case, is going to require:

  1. An initial deep dig to get rid of as much perennial and problem ephemeral weed as possible.
  2. Secondary digging to excavate a trench, about a spade’s blade deep.
  3. The addition of plenty of horse muck, mixed with soil and a lot of gravel, for drainage.
  4. The creation of ridges to plant the asparagus crowns on top of (again: drainage).
  5. Back-filling to a suitable level, then mounding up as the plants develop.
  6. Setting up wind-breaks to stop the young plants being bent out of shape as soon as they appear.

Over the past few weeks, weather allowing, I’ve been proceeding with step #1. The patch of ground had already been selected the year before, and covered over with a tarp to help kill off the massive wild geranium clump that was growing in the middle of it. Pulling back the tarp in early January revealed the following:

Asparagus patch, January 2016, pre-dig
Clear enough to make a start on…

The patch wasn’t 100% cleared – most likely because the tarp was silver rather than black, but it’s what we had – but it was good enough to make a start on the digging. A few sessions later and I’ve rough-dug a four-by-two metre patch, clearing out three or four rubble sacks’ worth of weed root and rhizome, as well as a large plant pot’s worth of the usual miscellaneous rubbish – glass, crockery sherds, plastic, twine, metal, brick, you name it – that our plot has been so amply supplied with by past tenants. (There’s an actual midden-heap right in the middle of the plot, which has been no end of fun to dig out, I can tell you.)

Next up: manuring and re-digging, then gravelling and ridging. Finally – round about the end of March or early April, when my 30-crown, three-variety order from Blackmoor nurseries arrives, I’ll be planting, back-filling, setting up wind-breaks and then… waiting. It’ll be another two or three years before the crowns are well-established enough to start picking, but hopefully another 20 or 25 before they’re exhausted and need to be replaced. And of course, once they’re in there will be no more need for digging, just plenty of good quality mulch at the appropriate time of year.

As I say, it’s a long-term investment, but given the amount we spend down Bury Market when English asparagus is in season, it’s one with a great potential rate of return.

If anyone has any advice on asparagus planting that I’ve missed, or that scientifically contradicts any of the above, please do leave a comment and let me know!

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