Tag: Dahlia

Checking and Re-Potting Over-Wintered Dahlias

August 2016 Dahlia Esther Chamberlain
Dahlia ‘Esther Chamberlain’, a personal favourite

A timely reminder from Monty on last week’s episode of Gardener’s World sent me down to the greenhouse yesterday afternoon to check on our stock of over-wintered Dahlia tubers.

Dahlias are perennial plants that over-winter by storing sugars in large tubers below ground. But these tubers aren’t particularly frost-hardy or water-proof, so they do require protection to get them through the wet British winter. So they were dug up, dried out and potted up in spent compost last November, just after the first frosts killed off the foliage.

They’ll soon (hopefully) be bursting into new growth, which makes now the ideal time to check them over and make sure they’ve survived their winter hibernation intact. Here’s how:

1. Quick Visual Check

March 2018 Dahlia tuber
Tip out your tuber, compost and all, for a quick once-over.

Start by tipping the Dahlia tuber clusters out of their storage tubs, and have a look for any obviously rotten, shrivelled or split tubers. Remove those, either by very carefully cutting them away with a sharp knife, snipping with secateurs, or gently twisting the affected tuber, which carries less risk of accidentally damaging healthy tubers.

2. Manually Check Every Tuber

March 2018 Dahlia tuber checking
Give every tuber a firm squeeze to check for non-obvious softening, or outright rotting.

It’s important to check every singly tuber in the cluster, in case there’s one that looks fine but is actually rotten beneath its skin. Give every tuber a squeeze to make sure it’s firm and healthy, once again removing any of them that aren’t.

March 2018 rotten Dahlia tuber
If a tuber is rotten you’ll quickly know about it, so don’t squeeze too hard…

You’ll soon find out if a tuber is rotten. Luckily, squishy tubers don’t seem to smell all that bad, but there’s always a risk of squirtage, so don’t squeeze them too hard…

3. Clean Up and Re-Pot

March 2018 Dahlia tuber cleaned up
Remove the rotten or damaged tuber sections and re-pot the remaining plant.

Once you’ve cut, snipped or twisted off any dead or diseased material, you should be left with a clump of healthy tubers, attached to a section of stem. At this point, you can also divide large clusters of tubers. Sometimes they split and separate during the checking and cleaning process. Otherwise, a bit of gently pulling might reveal a faulty line that you can take advantage of.

As long as the section you break off includes one or more storage tubers and a section of the stem / growth node part of the plant, then you should be be able to pot it up and grow on a whole new Dahlia plant from it. We started off with five or six bought-in tubers and over the past couple of years have increased our stock to around two dozen plants.

Re-pot each tuber into a mixture of spent and fresh compost. You can use all-fresh compost, which isn’t a bad idea if you’re planning on keeping the Dahlias in pots year-round, but I’ve found found that if you’re planning on planting them out when all risk of frost has passed then a 50:50 mix of spent – you can re-use the over-wintering compost – and fresh is fine. Once the plants go into the ground they’ll be able to draw on the nutrients in the soil.

Hopefully your efforts will be rewarded with a glorious display of dazzling Dahlias from mid-summer right through to Autumn!

July 2016 Dahlias Top Mix 'Mama' and 'Purple'

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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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Dahlia Update: Lifting Tubers for Winter Storage

This was the first year that Jo and I have grown Dahlias and we’ve both thoroughly enjoyed the collarette varieties that we bought from J. R. G. Dahlias back in March – ‘Don Hill’, ‘Christmas Carol’, ‘Top Mix Reddy’, ‘Top Mix Mama’ and ‘Top Mix Purple’ – and the extremely lovely, deep purple-flowered ‘Esther Chamberlain’, which was a gift from Jo’s Dad, Guru Glyn.

We started them off in the greenhouse in April and planted out in May. They’ve been performing incredibly well since they first flowered in early June. We’ve had an absolute riot of colour, particularly from the two larger varieties, ‘Don Hill’ and ‘Christmas Carol’, as you can see from these pics (click a thumbnail for a larger image).

But the first hard frost of the year hit us last week and we knew that the time had come for these Mexican beauties to die back. So at the weekend, Jo and I nipped down to Plot #59 to lift the tubers and prepare them for storage.

As you can see, they were definitely feeling the cold:

November 2016 dahlias frost-bitten
Our dahlias were definitely looking sorry for themselves when we arrived.
November 2016 dahlias frost-bitten
In close-up, you can see the extent of the damage: blackened foliage, dead flowers.

After compiling notes gathered from various sources – Guru Glyn, Jack Gott’s website, Monty Don on Gardener’s World – here’s how we went about the job. If you spot anything amiss, or can think of a better method that we could employ or apply next year, please do shout out in the comments, down below.

1. Cut Back Foliage

With a nice, sharp pair of secateurs, we trimmed back all the leaves and stems, until there was just 15cm or so – maybe a little more, it’s easy enough to trim down further later on – of stalk remaining:

November 2016 - Dahlias trimmed
All the dead and dying foliage is cut back to around 15cm of stem.

2. Loosen Soil and Lift

Next, we worked a fork in around the plant, gradually loosening the soil in a circle that stayed well clear of where the main mass of tubers was likely to be:

November 2016 - lifting Dahlias
After gently loosening the soil, the entire plant is lifted out of the ground.

Once the soil was freely-moving, the entire plant was carefully raised up with the fork, taking care not to damage any of the tubers that hadn’t already snapped off. (The ‘Don Hill’ tuber clump was so massive that it neatly split itself into three sections whilst lifting; so that’s two plants for the allotment next year and one to take down to Guru Glyn as a return prezzie.)

November 2016 - Dahlias lifted
The plants have been carefully lifted and are ready to be cleaned up a bit.

3. Clean and Crate up for Transportation

We carefully brushed off as much loose soil as we could. Luckily it hadn’t rained much recently, so the soil was moist but not claggy and we were able to get a lot of it off:

November 2016 - Dahlias brushed off
We brushed off as much of the loose soil as possible – no point taking half the allotment back home with us.

Once we were happy that we we’d cleaned them as much as we could without risking damaging the tubers, we put the plants into plastic crates for the car journey home:

November 2016 - Dahlias crated
The trimmed and lifted plants are crated up and ready to transport back home.

The next job will be to wash off any remaining soil and then thoroughly dry the tubers. Standing the plants upside-down on their stems for a few days will make sure that all the moisture drains out of the stems and doesn’t soak the tubers instead.

November 2016 - Dahlias drying
Back home in the greenhouse, ready for drying out before packing and storing.

The last stage will be to pack them in used compost (or I think we could use a compost / perlite mix) for over-winter storage in a cool, dark place. We have an old bedside table or two in the shed with good, deep drawers that should be ideal for the purpose. We’ll give them a check-over every fortnight to make sure there are no signs of rot.

Assuming all goes well, in four months’ time or so they’ll be ready for potting up in the greenhouse and encouraging back to life for another stunning display next Summer and Autumn.

Of course, now Jo and I have been bitten by the Dahlia bug, the trick will be to avoid buying too many new varieties to add to our selection. But then, when does one more Dahlia tuber become a Dahlia tuber too many? We’ll leave you to ponder on that little bit of horticultural philosophy.

If you’ve grown Dahlias this year, please feel free to share your pics on Twitter @nftallotment. We’d love to see them!

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Plot #59 Update: September 2016

September 2016 Plot #59 Update:
It’s all starting to die back and quiet down as Autumn begins to kick in.

September turned out to be a really good month, weather-wise, so I ought to have been down at Plot #59 for most of it, working my backside off to finish a few infrastructure projects, clearing the last few patches of stubborn weeds, sowing a few winter crops and prepping for next year’s growing season. Instead, I spent most of the month working on our cottage garden project – digging, digging, and more digging – so progress wasn’t quite as dramatic as I’d hoped.

Still, with a few good weather days on the weekends, Jo and I were able to get down to the plot and put in a good few hours’ graft. Here’s what we achieved:

Harvesting

September is, of course, the month of multiple harvests. At the beginning of the month we lifted the last of our main-crop ‘pink fir apple’ potatoes and a bit later on we picked our squash and put them to cure in the greenhouse. We’ve also had the last of the fresh runner and French beans and have been picking dozens to dry for winter stores.

September 2016 drying beans in the grenhouse
A quite small sample of the vast number of beans we’re drying this year. Anyone for cassoulet..?

Our chilli harvest has been pretty good this year as well; a first attempt at chilli jam was made, with reasonable results. We’ve also been picking and eating sweetcorn – served up in smoked paprika butter, more often than not – and have lifted a few turnips – they’re surprisingly tasty when oven-baked – and picked the first cabbage and kale of the year late (we planted them out quite late) last week.

September 2016 cabbages under cover
The enviromesh does a really good job of keeping the cabbage whites at bay.

I deliberately planted the cabbages out quite close, the aim being to grow smaller, two-person heads, rather than football-sized monsters. Of course, what’s happened is that every other plant seems to have out-grown its neighbours, crowding them out and developing into big ‘uns. Nature, eh?

And of course, the Autumn-fruiting raspberries are in their element at the moment. We’re picking a good-sized clip-top boxful every few days and we’re managing to eat our way through most of them, either fresh or stewed down with apple and blackcurrant as a topping for our morning porridge.

September 2016 autumn fruiting raspberries
Plump, juicy and tart-sweet – what could be better?

All in all, we’re doing quite well; we’ve not had to buy much veg from the market or supermarket to supplement what we’ve been able to pick from the plot, and if I was spending a bit more time down the plot and a little less in the back garden then we’d be eating even more of our own-grown, I’m sure. Next year we’ll see if we can get to 100% plot-grown for the whole of the Summer and as much of the Autumn as we possibly can.

Projects

I’ve finally been able to get to grips with the tricky central section of the plot and have started digging and levelling a channel for the main path. Again, progress has been a little slow, mainly due to the presence of a rubbish midden right in the middle of where I’m working; more on that in another post.

September 2016 Path Progress
The plan: a central path, paved with recycled flagstones.

Soon to be tackled: the asparagus patch is looking like it’s ready for cutting back, once the stems begin to turn a little more yellow:

September 2016 asparagus patch
Not long now until we take the clippers to this lot.

Growing On

The leeks that I planted out at the end of August have put on some good growth. It’ll soon be time to start thinning out a few baby leeks for eating, to give the others more room to grow and develop.

September 2016 leek patch
A mass of foliage is a good thing at this stage. Time to thin then out a bit to improve air-flow.

It’ll soon be time to start pulling our root crops – for roasting and mashing with some of our squash and ‘Saxon’ spuds – as well. The salsify and scorzonera seem to be doing well, we’ve got massive mooli radishes coming along, and I think the carrots – presumed fly-eaten and useless – might actually have made a comeback. I’m not too sure about the Hamburg parsely, but I’ll lift some in the next couple of weeks and see where we stand.

Floral Department

The sunflowers have finished and gone over – we’re leaving the seed heads for the birds – but Jo’s Rudbeckia and Cosmos are lovely at this time of year, adding bursts of late-season colour in splashes of yellow, orange and red.

September 2016 rudbeckia mixed

September 2016 rudbeckia red

September 2016 rudbeckia yellow

Our Dahlias are still going strong as well; they’ll keep flowering until the first frosts and then we’ll need to see about lifting, drying and storing the tubers. Likewise the Tagetes among the courgettes and the Nastutiums that have run rampant across about a third of the plot; they’ve dropped so many seeds we’ll be seeing them for a few years to come, I reckon.

September 2016 Dahlia 'Christmas Carol'
We’ve had months of glorious colour from our collarette dahlias.

It’s been a good month, lack of time notwithstanding. Let’s see what the rest of October brings.

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Dahlia Update: First Flowers

Not just the first flowers of the season, either. Our first ever Dahlia flowers, courtesy of tubers that we bought from J. R. G. Dahlias back in March.

The three ‘topmix’ cultivars – ‘red’, ‘purple’ and ‘mama’ – have been the first to flower; we’re still waiting on ‘Christmas Carol’ and ‘Don Hill’ to do their thing, but buds are showing on both, so it shouldn’t be too long.

June 2016 - Dahlia 'topmix purple'
Dahlia ‘topmix purple’ has a lovely gradation of colour from almost-black, through deep burgundy to almost-pink.
June 2016 - Dahlia 'topmix mama'
Dahlia ‘topmix mama’ has dark green foliage and bright red flowers.
June 2016 - Dahlia 'topmix red'
Dahlia ‘topmix red’ is a splash of bright scarlet and yellow against a vivid green leaf.

Lovely, no?

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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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Doing the Seedling Shuffle

Almost the first thing we did when we moved into our new house last Summer (apart from put he kettle on) was to invest in the biggest greenhouse that we could sensibly fit into our new back garden. We hoped that the 8’x10′ we opted for would offer more than enough working and storage space to meet our needs. It really should have done, but thanks to these cold snaps that the weather keeps throwing at us, we’re rapoidly running out of room.

We’ve currently got about as much heavy duty plastic shelving crammed into the place as we can sensibly fit and pretty much every shelf is taken up with plants in various stages of development. They range from newly-sown seeds – I put in some peas at the weekend; sweetcorn, gherkins, squash and kale in the last couple of weeks, and Jo has been working hard on her flower selection – through to good-sized plants – the broad beans for instance, and the dahlia tubers – which are pretty much ready to go out onto the allotment. That is, they would be if it wasn’t too darn cold to risk trying to harden them off in the cold frame, and there wasn’t a very real danger of frost and snow showers damaging the tender young shoots if we did.

Here’s a small selection of what we’re currently juggling:

April 2016 broad beans
I reckon most of these Vicia faba (broad beans) are ready to be planted out.
April 2016 - Chilli plants
The Capsicum annuum / chinense (chillis) are coming along nicely – further updates in another blog post soon.
April 2016 - Swiss chard seedlings
Beta vulgaris Swiss chard ‘five colours’… 100% yellow in our case.
April 2016 cucurbit seedlings
Recently-sown and newly-germinating members of the Cucurbitae family (squash and gherkins).
April 2016 - Dahlias sprouting
The dahlia tubers we invested in seem to be doing rather nicely.
April 2016 sunflowers
Jo’s sunflowers are growing well – some will need to be potted on again soon.
April 2016 - sweetcorn shoots
This year’s Zea mays (sweetcorn) crop is just starting out.
April 2016 electric daisy seedlings
Electric daisies pricked out and getting ready to rock (and shock…)
April 2016 pricked out brassica seedlings
A selection of potted-on brassicas (cauliflower and Brussels sprout) coming along nicely.
April 2016 more brassica seedlings
The next batch of brassicas (kale and cauliflower) aren’t too far behind.
April 2016 - salad trays
Lovely, fresh mixed salad leaves and pea shoots.

The forecast for the weekend is a bit more promising. If there’s no frost on the longer-range radar then we’ll start moving a few things out into the newly re-stained cold frame to begin hardening off, and all being well we can take them down to Plot #59 in a couple of weeks’ time.

Fingers crossed!

(And please do feel free to sing the title of this post to the tune of the E-Street Band classic, chorus line, if you feel the urge…)

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Cottage Garden Project Update: March 2016

Things are still pretty quiet on the cottage garden project front. We’ve been making progress on planning the hard landscaping – which is going to involve a couple of trellises, one or two arches, plenty of board for path-edging and about four tonnes of gravel – and have successfully researched and identified our new shed. That’s the one major change to the old plan since the last update: rather than knock down the old, leaky, asbestos-roofed garage and replace it with a brick-built structure, we’re going to invest in a 4.8m x 2.4m heavy-duty, prefab shed from local specialist supplier Cocklestorm.

In the meantime the pots that we brought with us from the old house and the baskets that Jo planted up last Autumn, have been putting out splashes of Spring colour: irises, snowdrops, hellebores, cyclamen, narcissus, winter pansies, primroses, euphorbia and wallflowers have all been making a contribution to cheering the place up. We’ve also enjoyed a neighbour’s blossoming cherry on one side and t’other neighbour’s white (and only slightly pink) rhodedendron on the other. (Click on the thumbnails below if you’d like to see a larger pic)

Down in the greenhouse, Jo has been pushing ahead with sowing this year’s selection of annuals, some of which will feature in the new cottage garden, others which will be used to brighten up Plot #59. So far, she’s sown (deep breath): sweet peas, French marigold, Osteospermum (a.k.a. daisybush), Didiscus (a.k.a. lace-flower), sweet scabious, viola, sunflower, Gaillardia (a.k.a. blanket flower), Rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan, Tagetes, oriental poppy, evening primrose, Zinnia and snapdragon. And there are plenty more to come.

Jo has a few general rules when choosing her flowers, the first few of which are: 1) they have to be as bee-friendly as possible, 2) and the bugs, and 3) no pink (Jo doesn’t really do pink). Based on the above, and having seen the rest of her to-be-grown list, I know we’re going to have one of the most colourful, bee-attractive plots on the whole allotment site by the middle of Summer, guaranteed.

And I’ve done my bit on the decorative front by potting up our five handsome dahlia tubers to grow on in the greenhouse until the ground is warm enough to plant them out. I’m happy to say that four of them seem to be sprouting nicely, so fingers crossed for a good summer display.

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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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