One thing Jo and I have definitely learned over the last 5 or so years of growing our own fruit and veg from seed: sowing too early rarely rewards you with the early crops you’re hoping for, unless you’re very lucky, or have a very good propagation setup.
Yes, it’s tempting to get going just as soon as the seed packets say you can. Then there’s the thrill of seeing the first bright flash of green as the seed-leaves break through the surface of the compost, and when those seedlings reach out into the world it really feels like spring has sprung.
Until, that is, the weather takes a turn for the worse, light levels plummet and your poor, light-starved seedlings go into a frenzy of elongated growth as they twist and turn desperately towards the nearest source of illumination.
The technical term for this is etiolation and the characteristically scrawny, over-stretched stems, barely able to support the weight of the few under-nourished leaves, are unlikely to live long or prosper.
I’m sure you know what etiolation looks like, but just to prove that I’m as guilty as the next grower of not always getting it right, here’s a shot from my own rogue’s gallery, taken not 10 minutes ago:
These poor parsley seedlings are having a terrible time of it. I sowed them early on the off-change they’d be able to grow on in a windowsill tray, but they got out of hand before I could prick them out and move them on. Game over for these plants; they’re already too poor to be worth saving, and given how many parsley seeds you get in a packet, I’ll be better off re-sowing at a later date, when the weather is clement enough to start them off in the greenhouse rather than indoors.
By contrast, here are a few young chilli plants that are doing rather well, if I do say so myself:
These plants have had completely the opposite treatment. Mollycoddled from start to finish, they were sown two months ago today and have spent their entire lives to-date in the cosy environs of a heated propagator, with a full-spectrum LED grow-light eight inches or so above their leaves.
The results are clear to see: no filters or Photoshoppery (size-cropping aside) has been used on that pic. They really are that green and fresh-looking, leaves packed full of photosynthetic chlorophyll and arranged in almost perfect symmetry around the stem to catch the maximum possible life-giving light.
They’ll stay where they are, along with four plants of a second chilli cultivar that’s a few weeks behind, until the propagator is desperately needed by something else, or the nights are warm enough to move them to our unheated greenhouse and pot them on.
In between those two extremes, I’ve got some – much hardier – broad beans that were sown, germinated and are growing on slowly but happily in the greenhouse. And a few trays of leeks and onions – including pricked-out potato onions – that were germinated indoors at room temperature, then taken out to the greenhouse for more light, albeit at a lower temperature, as soon as their green tips showed.
I’ve also sown three varieties of tomatoes today – they’re in the heated propagator as well, as I’d like them to grow into strong plantlets before I prick them out of their seed trays – and some radish, which should germinate and grow on in the greenhouse quite happily until they’re ready to harvest.
And that’s about it for early sowings, except for parsnip which I’ll be direct-sowing down at Plot #59 just as soon as the ground dries out and warms up a bit. Oh, ans I might try to start a few patty-pan type squashes off before the end of the month, as they won’t need quite so much summer heat to ripen their fruit before picking, and maybe a few summer cabbages, just to get them started.
Everything else will have to wait, until the mad, maximum seed-sowing months of April and May. By then we should (hopefully) have temperatures that will mean most species will have a short blast in the propagator to maximise the chances of germination and then be moved into the greenhouse to grow on until they’re ready for hardening off and planting out. But of course that will depend on the next few weeks’ worth of Great British weather.
If you’re vaguely interested in keeping tabs with the Plot #59 sowing and growing stats for the season, I’m doing my best to update a public read-access Google Sheet, which you can take a look at via that link.
How about you? Have you started anything off just yet, successfully or otherwise? Do you have any top tips for avoiding etiolation without going to the expense of installing grow-lights? Please do let me know, via the comments.
Well, what a couple of months we’ve had. After an incredibly mild January, February and March have pulled a double shift on winter weather duty, chucking pretty much the full repertoire of sleet, snow, hail and frost at us, quite frequently all at once. All of which has meant our January plans haven’t moved on as far as we would have liked, but it is what it is: the first thing you learn as a gardener is that you can’t control the weather, you just have to work around it.
That didn’t stop work progressing on Plot #79, our new orchard plot. Orchard-buddy Mike and I covered the plot in heavy duty weed membrane back in December, before planting out 20 trees – stakes, ties and all – in January. We started the job in breezy sunshine and finished it in freezing rain, but we’re now the proud custodians of 11 heritage apples, 4 heritage pears, and one each of quince, greengage, plum, damson and medlar. I’ll write up a more detailed progress report and post that separately.
I also found enough dry(ish) weather at the end of January to prep the slab base for our new shed, which we ordered yesterday. It’ll be with us in 3-4 weeks and that will allow us to finally move all the junk out of the greenhouse and use that as proper growing space instead. Cucumbers, y’say? I think so.
Last week was the first reasonably fine, dry spell we’ve had for a while, and I was able to get on with some of those infrastructure and clearance jobs, that I was really hoping to do much earlier in the year, on our main plot #59. Another half dozen recycled concrete slabs laid along the central path, another couple of square metres of the remaining midden mound – a previous tenant’s rubbish dumb, right in the middle of our plot – dug over and a few more kilos of broken glass, metal, pottery, brick, plastic (you name it) picked out and set aside, ready to dump in the annual site skip. Nothing glamorous, but essential work that’s better done than pending.
Jo and I also spent a few hours yesterday planting out onion sets, sprouted shallots and over-wintered broad beans – I know the weather is due to turn a bit colder again this week, but it’s only a short snap, and the plants need to be in the ground rather than the greenhouse – so they’re providing a bit more green amidst the see of brown earth and wood-chip. I noticed that the gooseberry and jostaberry leaf buds are just starting to break, the rhubarb as well, which is always a good sign that things are finally getting underway.
This week’s forecast of a short burst of cold, wet weather aside, I think we can say it nearly, almost feels like Spring is here. At long last.
I’ve harvested the first batch of produce from the SoilFixer trial beds down on Plot #59.
I’ve been carrying out a soil improvement product trial this year at the invitation of the folks at SoilFixer.co.uk, testing two of their compost and/or soil enhancement products, versus ordinary compost and untreated soil.
It’s a very rough, ready and rather unscientific method that I’m following: I set up four small raised beds, planted broad beans and sowed two varieties each of turnip and beetroot. In mid-June I reported on the good growth so far.
I took a look at the beds last weekend and realised that it was past time to pick some crops. I freely admit, I’ve left the harvesting a bit too late, and should probably have done so sooner, but Jo and I were on holiday in mid-July and things have been hectic before and since.
There was really no point in picking the broad beans; the blackfly had all-but wiped them out and the few pods left on the plants had all gone over anyhow. So, I decided that for comparison purposes I’d lift the four largest ‘Boldor F1’ golden beetroot (the ‘Detroit 2’ don’t look like they’re worth harvesting yet) and the largest ‘Purple Top Milan’ turnip. Just the one? Well, yes, because frankly I’d let them get a bit out of hand:
Here are the results, table-wise:
One (C.H.A. Compost)
Boldor F1 Beetroot
Purple Top Milan Turnip
Boldor F1 Beetroot
Purple Top Milan Turnip
Three (Soil & SF60)
Boldor F1 Beetroot
Purple Top Milan Turnip
Four (Plain Soil)
Boldor F1 Beetroot
Purple Top Milan Turnip
And here’s a quick graph I threw together:
That’s right folks, I’ve picked almost 5kg of turnips so far, and there are plenty more to come. If anyone knows any good turnip recipes, please do post links or details in the comments (I’m begging you…)
Well, what can I say? Based on this very small and not-at-all statistically significant sample there’s a clear winner in terms of yield – the soil that had been enhanced with SoilFixer’s SF60 product – as long as by ‘yield’ we mean sheer mass, rather than anything relating to how usable and tasty the veg might actually be. (I hasten to add that the beetroot were fine, it’s the massive turnips I’m worried about.)
Would I be happy to use SF60 again? Most certainly, and I plan to use up the rest of the tub I was sent in next year’s greenhouse containers. Likewise, I’ll be adding a good scoop or two of C.H.A. to my home compost bin when I put the lid on it at the end of the year.
But would I be happy to put my hand in my pocket and buy a supply of SF60 or C.H.A. for my personal use? Well, that will depend on my doing some further testing, and also reading the results of the other triallists’ efforts (which were hopefully a bit more usefully clear-cut than mine).
Hedging my bets, I’d say that if I was trying to grow a specimen crop – super-hot chillies, say, or something tropical in a greenhouse, or a heritage vegetable that I wanted to save seed from – and wanted to give my growing medium a boost, then I think SF60 would be a good product to use. Commercial growers might want to investigate further.
I’m not so sure about the C.H.A. for my own use. I don’t think my compost quality requirements are stringent enough to require much in the way of amendment. Again, if I was producing a lot of compost for a commercial or specimen growing project then it might be worth trying. But I’d need to see more evidence of a clear-cut and dramatic compost improvement before I’d be able to commit.
Room For Methodological Improvement
On reflection (hindsight being a wonderful thing) I could have designed and executed the trial much better; either by growing a smaller selection of crops, or even a single crop – ideally one that wasn’t quite as prone to pest-problems as broad beans (blackfly) or cabbages (slugs) – and assessing how many plants of usable size and quality had been grown by a particular date. Either that or growing something simple to assess, like potatoes (again though, potential pest and disease problems there) and simply harvesting them all at once and weighing the yield from each bed. Or I could have tried something like strawberries; grown the same variety, then assessed both yield and flavour with a blind taste test.
I could also have done better with the production of the compost used in the first two beds. Unfortunately I used too much touch grass in the original mix (the stems didn’t break down properly) and the bags I used didn’t drain as well as I’d hoped. Plus, I started the compost off late, or rather, early in the year, which didn’t give it enough time to break down fully into the humus-rich material that the C.H.A. product is designed to produce.
What I can (and will) do next is harvest the rest of the turnips and beetroot from the trial beds and weigh them, to add to the data-set, on the off-chance that clarifies anything. Although after eating a few meals’ worth of roasted beetroot, I reckon that’s going to leave me with around 25kg of turnip to dispose of. They’ll be destined for a return trip to the compost heap, unless I can think of something more intelligent to do with them. I know for a fact there not room in the freezer for that much turnip soup…
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 31st – A few days later and the increase in leaf-mass on the turnips in particular is quite considerable:
June 11th – Another 12 days’ worth of growth and the plants were beginning to choke each other:
At this point all four beds were thinned to 10 or 11 beetroot and six turnips per row.
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)
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a slow start to the year – February swung wildly between too cold and far too wet to be able to get much of anything useful done – it’s great to finally get some of the early sowing and growing jobs started.
As you can see from the pic above, I’ve potted up a bag of onions sets in modules, to grow on in the greenhouse until the ground is warm enough to plant them out at the allotment. Last year I moduled them up a few weeks earlier, round about Feb 11th, but then we had that ridiculously mild winter, with temperatures a fair bit higher than they are this year. Always better to work according to the prevailing weather rather than the calendar, I reckon.
I’ve also sown broad beans – again, starting them off in modules for transplanting later – and red onion seeds. Before too long I’ll be sowing leeks, brassicas and getting our first indoor salad leaves of the year started. I’m going to risk sowing my tomatoes soon as well. Last year I sowed them quite early – round about mid-February if I remember it right – and they were extremely slow to germinate out in the greenhouse, due to a prolonged cool spell. This year I’ll get them started in the propagator, once we have space available.
And I spent most of this morning taking our Dahlias out of their winter storage pots, checking them over for any damage, removing the occasional rotten tuber and then re-potting them to start sprouting in the greenhouse before they go outside after the risk of late frosts has hopefully passed.
It’s good to get going. And there’s so much more to do. Can’t wait.