Tag: broad bean

Soilfixer Trial Part V: First Results

I’ve harvested the first batch of produce from the SoilFixer trial beds down on Plot #59.

Quick Recap

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.

Harvesting

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:

July 2017 SoilFixer Harvest
Nice-looking golden beetroot and… turnip, or deadly weapon? You decide.

Here are the results, table-wise:

Bed Crop Weight
One (C.H.A. Compost) Boldor F1 Beetroot 290g
  Purple Top Milan Turnip 935g
Two (Compost) Boldor F1 Beetroot 305g
  Purple Top Milan Turnip 1147g
Three (Soil & SF60) Boldor F1 Beetroot 414g
  Purple Top Milan Turnip 1678g
Four (Plain Soil) Boldor F1 Beetroot 371g
  Purple Top Milan Turnip 1141g

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…)

Conclusions?

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…

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Soilfixer Trial Part IV: Strong Growth So Far

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

Quick Recap

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

Planting and Sowing

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

Good, Strong Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison

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

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

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

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

Next Steps

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

Pest Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Observations

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

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

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

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Over-wintered and Spring-Sown Broad Beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Soilfixer Trial Part III: Setting Up the Trial Beds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In bed #4: plain soil, no enhancements.

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll keep you posted.

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Now Planting: Peas and Broad Beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring Has Sprung, Allotment Work Has Been Done

Plot #59 March 2017
Here we are at the end of March – still grey and sparse, but things are starting to happen again…

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

March 2017 soft fruit section
Signs of greenery amongst the fruit bushes – a sure sign of Spring!

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.

March 2017 josteberry
The jostaberries that we planted earlier in the year are leafing up nicely.

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

March 2017 overwintered broad beans
These ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ broad beans weathered the winter storms rather well.

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.

March 2017 broad bean plantlets
Lovely strong roots on these broad bean plantlets.

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

April 2017 potato trenches
Just the three rows of potatoes this year – here’s hoping for a blight-free one.

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

April 2017 onions planted
Jo did a cracking job of getting these onions in the ground.

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.

Next Up

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…

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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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The Growing Season is Under Way At Last

March 2017 onion sets
Starting onions off under cover in modules avoids risk of damage from late frost or excessive wet.

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.

February 2017 Dahlia surgery
This ‘Don Hill’ clump isn’t too bad at all, just a few mushy tubers to cut away.

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.

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Plot #59 Update: November 2016

December 2016 Plot #59 Update
Not a lot of greenery left by now, as the clearing away continues.

November was a mixed month, weather-wise. A soggy start gave way to a dry, cold, bright last couple of weeks; perfect for all those cutting back and clearing up jobs that are so necessary at this time of year.

Here’s what we’ve been up to:

Harvesting

We’re well into our late Autumn veg now, with cabbages, kale, turnips, swede, leeks, giant black radishes, the last of the manky carrots and a few other roots about all that’s left in the ground. It’s all extremely welcome and means that, alongside our cured squashes, dried beans and stored garlic, we’re never short of veggies for the sort of stews and casseroles that we’re eating a couple of times a week.

November 2016 - Manky Carrots
Never going to win any beauty contests, are they? But tasty enough once they’re cleaned up a bit.

Next year we’ll be making sure that there are even more winter crops available, with a bit of better planning and succession-sowing. All being well.

Planting Out

It might seem odd to be putting crops in the ground at this time of year, but we took advantage of the warm gap between the rainy week and the freezing week to get a crop of greenhouse-raised (and hardened-off) Vicia faba (broad bean) ‘aquadulce’ planted out under fleece tunnels.

November 2016 broad beans planted
Two rows of nine; should make for a decent harvest in late May / early June.

I’ve not over-wintered broad beans before now, but I saw some on another plot that were around six feet tall and cropping prolifically in late Spring, so I’m hoping for similar results.

Mulching

I’ve been a man on a mulching mission the past couple of weeks. Having missed the mid-November window to get the asparagus section weeded, cleaned and covered, I went at it with a will as soon as the heaviest frosts had passed (hopefully not damaging the precious asparagus crowns too much).

All three rows have now been cut back, cleaned up – a lot of annual weed and moss had moved in, as the section became shaded out by a row of sunflowers – and liberally mulched over.

November 2016 asparagus mulching
Leaves for the crowns, woodchip for the walking-on-areas.

I did the research before I began and various methods were generally recommended. Bob Flowerdew suggests using sand, but I didn’t have anywhere near enough, so went with what was available: a thick covering of leaves for the planting rows themselves, and a good couple of inches of chipped wood on the paths in-between. Asparagus roots are said to reach around 12′ deep, so I don’t think there should be too many concerns with nitrogen depletion as the woodchips decompose. But I’ll keep an eye on the strength of the spears when they re-grow in the Spring and feed if necessary.

Once I had the bit between my teeth I was hard to rein in, and ended up spending the rest of the same afternoon carting trug-loads of leaves and woodchip around to mulch over the cur-back raspberry crowns and beneath our freshly-pruned soft fruit bushes. It all looks rather good, if I do say so myself:

November 2016 soft fruit section
Blackcurrants, gooseberries and redcurrant bushes, spaced out, freshly mulched and ready for winter.

I also took the opportunity to re-space the bushes, which had become rather over-crowded since we first planted them out a couple of years ago. A couple of gooseberries were moved and re-planted, and three blackcurrants likewise. The result will hopefully be a lot more space for the plants to grow, and for us to get in amongst them and pick their berries come harvest-time next year. The mulch will hopefully keep the surface weeds down a bit better as well.

Floral Department

A couple of Erysimum (wallflower) ‘Bowles’s Mauve continue to defiantly bloom, and probably will do all winter, but those aside there’s very little colour on the plot at the moment. Even last month’s Tagetes, Rudbeckia and Verbena bonarienses have given up the ghost and gone over. Never mind, they’ll be back next year, in a joyful riot of colour.

That’s it for this month. We’ll continue to work the plot as much as we can, weather allowing – we were down there at the weekend, and the soil was the perfect consistency for weeding out the Ranunculus repens (creeping buttercup) that had invaded the cut-back kale patch – and when it’s inclement, sit inside with a mug of something warming and make our plans for 2017.

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Harvest Monday for August 15th 2016

I spent a happy couple of hours this weekend lifting the last of our second early potatoes down on Plot #59 . They’re a variety called ‘Saxon’, which is fast becoming a firm favourite. They have a lovely, creamy texture when boiled or steamed as new potatoes, store really well and make great mash, roasties and even jackets, if they get large enough. A true all-rounder.

This year’s crop was hit by the potato blight that has swept through our site this damp and dreary summer, and I took the haulms off at the beginning of July. Luckily a decent number of tubers had been able to form before I took drastic measures, and although we’re well down on last year’s epic crop, we should have enough to last us through to the end of the year at least.

They’re currently drying in the greenhouse before cleaning up a bit and sorting for either immediate use or storage, depending on the degree of slug damage.

August 2016 spud harvest
A shelf full of Saxons drying out in the seldom-seen sun…
August 2016 spud harvest
…and another shelf full of Saxons.

(There’s a third shelf full as well, but honestly, it just looks an awful lot like the first two…)

Jo and I also picked several kilos worth of assorted beans – runner, French and broad – which I spent my Sunday evening trimming, chopping, blanching and freezing for our winter stores. We picked another few tubs of mixed berries, too: raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and Japanese wineberries (see last week’s post for pics).

August 2016 broad beans
A selection of tasty broad beans – ‘Red Epicure’ and ‘The Sutton’
August 2016 redcurrant sprig
No-one does jewellery quite like nature does jewellery…

And we’ve picked the last of the peas, most of which are too dry for eating fresh, but we’ll try storing them for soaking and adding to winter stews, see what happens. Oh, and more courgettes (which rather goes without saying) and a bit more purple calabrese.

Still to come: sweetcorn (forming up nicely, let’s hope they get enough warmth to ripen), winter squashes, chillis, cabbages (not long gone in, let’s hope they establish before winter), kale (likewise) and hopefully more turnips. Hardly any carrots though. The carrot-fly have ripped through them and destroyed around 95% of the crop. More on that set-back in another post.

Harvest Monday is a GYO meme hosted by Dave at Our Happy Acres.

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