In common with much of the rest of the country, we’ve had a burst of proper wintry weather for the past few days: snow, sleet, hail, high winds and rain, usually all within the space of an hour.
Despite the inclement conditions, our back garden is showing signs of precious life. Spurred into action by a mild December, most likely, and probably regretting it just a little now, but clinging on regardless.
Here are a few snaps I took yesterday afternoon, in-between the worst of the showers:
That’s our brand new Witch Hazel. We opted for the ‘Diane’ cultivar because we’re planning on planting a Cornus mas in the same area, which has similar-looking flowers in yellow rather than Diane’s deeper reds. Hopefully they’ll coincide at some point and provide a nice contrast to one another.
We’re not sure whether this is one of the hellebore hybrids that we bought from Ashwood Nurseries a couple of years back, or one of our own hybridised seedlings. Jo has been collecting the latter from beneath their parent plants and carefully potting them up and nurturing them along. Either way, it’s particularly lovely, with that delicate purple rim on the white flowers.
One newly-planted section of our back garden is liberally scattered with primroses. This one tentatively flowered during the mild December and seems to be weathering the worst that January can throw at it since.
A fair fer bulbs and other plants started putting on fresh growth a few weeks ago. Let’s hope they’re not too badly frosted and knocked-back by the recent drop in temperatures.
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.
June was a quieter month than you might think, down on Plot #59, thanks to a combination of wet weather and exam revision. Nevertheless, Jo and I forged ahead as best we could and kept things moving on several fronts.
Projects / Maintenance
The ground was too wet for most of the month to allow any serious digging, but we have made a start on clearing the last properly overgrown section of the plot. More progress in next month’s update, all being well.
We found a spare patch of ground in-between the carrot bed and the pea harp, so we’ve sown a couple of rows of swede and a few of turnip for later in the year. The turnips have germinated well and need thinning, but the swedes are a bit sparse. We might have to re-sow to fill the gaps.
We finally managed to get the first batch of this year’s brassicas planted out and covered over with enviromesh. There are a dozen sprout plants of four different varieties under there, and next door I’ve planted out a few cauliflowers. They’re staked and well-spaced, and we’ll be keeping a closer eye on the watering and clearing dead foliage a lot quicker this year, so hopefully they won’t suffer from the same problems as last year’s plants – sooty mould and wind-rock mostly – and we’ll actually have a decent sprout harvest this winter.
A cauli or two would be nice as well, but it’s the first time we’ve grown them, so we’ll have to wait and see there. We’ve draped a loose net over the top of those to hopefully make the pigeons think twice, and have companion planted a few chives to hopefully keep the brassica pests at bay, but I suspect the diomandback moths have found them already. So it goes.
The courgettes that we planted out at the end of last month are doing really well. They seem to be doing well in their sheltered location, with a greenhouse to one side, and runner beans / potatoes providing wind-breaks on two others.
As per the latest Harvest Monday post the summer fruit and veg is starting to flood in. Strawberries, raspberries, broad beans, mangetout peas, Swiss chard, potatoes, carrot thinnings, courgettes and garlic are the main crops at the moment. We’re still getting rhubarb, too, with the crowns showing no signs of needing a rest just yet.
Lovely stuff, and lots more to come.
Jo’s flower beds are really coming into their own as well, with dahlias (an update post on those shortly), lavender, sunflowers, foxgloves, sweet peas, geraniums, lupins, toadflax, ox-eye daisies, marigolds, nasturtiums, tagetes, evening primrose and cornflowers all doing their bit to add splashes of colour and bring the pollinators to the plot.
Here are a few highlights, and I’ll see if I can persuade Jo to put together a floral-themed blog post at some point, too:
It’s all coming along rather nicely, and judging by the way things have already moved on and changed there’s lots more to come in next month’s round-up.