Tag: gooseberry

Plot #59 Update: June 2018

Plot #59, June 2018
Looking good, despite the temperatures in the high 20s.

Right, we’ll take it as read that it’s too damn hot and drier than a teetotaller’s liquor cabinet. Otherwise, things aren’t looking too bad down on Plot #59. As long as we can keep on top of the irrigation requirements, we ought to be able to keep everything alive long enough for the temperatures to dip again to a point where the plants can be happy again.

Here’s what we’ve got in the ground at the moment:

Alliums

June 2018 - onions

Our onion patch is doing fine, despite the heat. The red onions are autumn-planted sets, and they’re quite a bit larger than the white onions, which are spring-planted sets. A few of the whites tried to bolt, but I’ve been keeping up with the watering and so far most of them have behaved themselves. Another couple of weeks and I’ll be lifting them to dry and store.

June 2018 - Shallots and Garlic

This is a mixed patch of shallots, elephant garlic and cluster-planted white onions. I can never remember whether you’re supposed to remove the elephant garlic scapes or not so this year I’ve gone half-and-half. I’ll compare bulb-size when I lift them to see if there’s any noticeable effect.

June 2018 - leeks

And this is our newly-dibbed leek bed. Two varities this year: ‘Pandora’ and ‘Elefant’. I did grow a tray of ‘Musselburgh’ seedlings as well, but I’ve donated those to the allotment plot at work, to make up for a poor germination result this year.

Courgettes and Squash

June 2018 - courgettes

I think I’ve finally got the hang of courgette (summer squash) plant spacing. After a few years of crowded, sprawling, lanky stems, this year’s plants – a good two feet apart – seem to be growing in nice, neat, large clusters of foliage. First harvest tomorrow, all being well.

June 2018 - squash planting

Likewise trailing squash. This year I’ve created soil ridges around three metres in length and have planted a single squash plant at either end. Each is mounded around with soil to create a water reservoir, meaning I can soak each plant knowing the water will go right to the roots, where it’s needed most. As they grow, they’ll trail along the top of the ridge and can be tied in to short cane pegs if needed. Varieties planted (so far): ‘Blue Hungarian’, ‘Australian Butter’, ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Rouge Vif d’Etemps’, ‘North Georgia Candy Roaster’ and ‘Knucklehead’.

June 2018 climbing squash

I’m also growing a few climbing squash up plastic mesh supported by canes: three ‘Black Futsu’ and one ‘Uchiki Kuri’.

Sweetcorn

June 2018 sweetcorn

This years I’m growing the James Wong recommended ‘Mirai White F1’. They’ve been in the ground since the start of June and seem to be thriving so far.

Peas

June 2018 - maincrop peas

Jo and I built the usual pea-harp growing frame and planted out two rows of maincrop (‘Telephone’ and ‘Carlin’, above) and two rows of mangetout (below) in the middle of May. The plants have been growing strongly ever since and the mangetout have just started cropping this past week. Fresh, crunchy, tasty, a lovely addition to any salad.

June 2018 - mangetout peas

You might just be able to pick out some of the pods in the picture above. We’re growing yellow ‘Golden Sweet’ and purple ‘Shiraz’ again. The yellows are a bit more vigorous than the purples, so you end up with a rather lovely split level colour effect. And lots of tasty pods, of course.

I’m also growing ‘Timperley Wonder’ in large square tubs at home. They’re podding up nicely, but I’m seed-saving them for Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library, so they ain’t for eating (not this year, at least).

Potatoes

June 2018 - potatoes

The one good thing about all this hot, dry weather is it’s kept the blight -which thrives in warm and damp conditions – under control. Normally on our site it’s a race to get your spuds in and cropping as early as possible, before the inevitable pestilence descends and you end up cutting back the haulms and hoping for the best, any time from mid-June onwards. Two years ago I was cutting back on July 1st and I think last year was even earlier than that.

June 2018 - spud harvest

However, there is a down-side. Without moisture to swell the tubers, this year’s yield is likely to be poor. Above is the total harvest from two plants that I dug up a week or so back. Not exactly spectacular. I finally caved yesterday and gave the potato plants a drink – watering without a rose on the can, pouring very carefully to the base of each plant so as to avoid splashing the foliage – which will hopefully help a little. I’ll leave them another week, then see what’s what.

Brassicas

June 2018 - new cabbages under mesh

We planted out a couple of rows of early cabbage – ‘Golden Acre’ and ‘Jersey Wakefield’ – under mesh tunnel protection and they seem to be doing just fine. Likewise a row of six ‘Brendan F1’ Brussels sprout plants, which are already shoving their tunnel up and off as they reach fro the sky. I ‘ll have to switch to an enviromesh cover for those soon, to try to keep the cabbage white larvae off ’em.

June 2018 - over-wintered savoy cabbage

And just to show what hardy plants cabbages are, the above is a row of savoy cabbage that I planted out in Autumn 2017. I’ve been picking leaves from them to use as spring greens for weeks now, and apart from a downpour a few weeks ago, they’re not under any sort of protection and haven’t been watered since the last regular rain we had back in April, but they keep on growing. They also make good decoys for the cabbage white, keeping them off the younger plants, with any luck.

Soft Fruit

June 2018 - gooseberries

The one section of the plot not too badly affected by the lack of water is the soft fruit plantation. Our two large and one massive gooseberry bushes have put on kilos and kilos of fruit; we’re struggling to pick, wash and freeze it quickly enough. Delicious they are, too, soft and sharp-sweet, right off the bush.

June 2018 - blackcurrants

Our blackcurrants have been typically prolific this year. The currants are smaller than they have been in past years, but that seems to have concentrated the flavour. I’m freezing those as well and am looking forward to making blackcurrant jam – the king of jams – when things have calmed down a bit.

June 2018 - Japanese wineberries

Our Japanese Wineberry plant has grown massively this year – its third on-site – and looks set to produce a glut of fruit in the next few weeks. If you haven’t tried the fruit from this prickly monster it’s well worth tracking down. Raspberry-like, but with a winegum sweetness. Incredibly easy to pick as well. When ripe the berries almost fall off the bush as soon as you look at them.

Also waiting in the wings: redcurrants (not quite ripe yet), whitecurrants (hard to tell, but likewise not quite done, I think) and raspberries. I made time to thin the canes properly a week or so ago, so hopefully they’ll be much easier to harvest than they were last year.

Well, that’s it for now. If you’ve posted a similar plot update recently, or just want to let me know how your own plot is coming along, leave a link in the comments below and I’ll take a look-see.

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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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Autumn-Pruning our Soft-Fruit Bushes

July 2016 - berry harvest
Clockwise from bottom-left: raspberries and blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, Japanese Wineberries. Yum!

With the weather holding dry and fair last week, I took the opportunity to spend some time down at Plot #59 and make a start on of the more essential winter maintenance jobs: pruning our soft-fruit bushes.

Soft-fruit crops are among the most useful you can grow on an allotment. They’re perennial, so once they’re in they take very little to maintain, and count towards your area-under-cultivation score for purposes of satisfying the allotment committee’s quotas. The fruit itself is the sort of thing that’s generally classed as a ‘superfood’ (although it seems that pretty much anything fresh is going to be vitamin-packed and bloody good for you). And when you look at the shop-price of a small punnet of raspberries or blackcurrants in the shops, then think of the kilos of fruit you can pick from even a couple of bushes in a decent year, I think you’d be a bit daft not to.

We have a small but highly fruitful selection so far: five gooseberry, around ten blackcurrant, a Japanese Wineberry, three redcurrant and a whitecurrant. We also have a section of assorted raspberry canes relocated from elsewhere on the plot; mostly Autumn-fruiting, one or two Summer-fruiting. We have plans to grub the raspberries up and replace them with named varieties next year, but for now they’re staying put. And we’re hoping to add a few more bushes to the section as well: one or two Jostaberries, maybe a Gojiberry, that sort of thing.

Confession time: we made a bit of a noob mistake when we planted them out back at the start of our allotmenteering and the fruit bushes went in too close to each other. Now, well-established well and with conditions this year proving favourable for lots of new growth, they’re a little too closely packed for comfort. Some of them will need to be relocated, or donated to plot-neighbours. But before that stage, they all need a good winter prune.

I’ve tackled the blackcurrants and gooseberries so far, going over the plants to remove any congested, crossing or damaged stems and branches. I’ll be giving them a second pass shortly, and working on the redcurrants, too, following the generally prescribed method (Carol Klein’s book Grow Your Own Fruit is a good source for general advice).

Blackcurrants: Fruit on new growth. Up to the fourth year after planting, remove weak and wispy shoots to establish a framework of 6-10 strong, healthy branches. After year four, cut out about a third of the old wood at the base to make room for new growth. Continue to remove weak shoots and those leaning towards the ground.

We moved the blackcurrants from elsewhere on the plot, or brought them in from home, so I’ve assumed that they’re all probably more than four years old and so have pruned accordingly.

Gooseberries, Redcurrants, Whitecurrants: Fruit on old wood and at the base of new stems. Shorten leaders back by a third and sideshoots back to two buds to encourage fruiting spurs.

Here’s a before-and-after shot of the largest of the gooseberry bushes. A bit difficult to make out – especially with the different light levels between shots – but hopefully you’ll spot that the second pic is less congested, with a more open, goblet-shaped centre. This should hopefully allow for good ventilation when the plant is in full leaf next year, cutting down on the risk of grey mould infection, and allow plenty of light to reach the whole plant.

November 2016 gooseberry pruning
The aim is to cut down on congestion in the centre of the bush, improving air flow and light levels.

Raspberries (Autumn): Fruit on new canes. Cut down all old canes, right to the ground.

Which is what I’ve done with all of ours. There’s a different pruning regime for Summer-fruiters, which fruit on one-year-old canes which need to be tied in to a support framework. Check out this short GardenersWorld.com video for useful advice from Monty Don.

Japanese Wineberries Fruit on this year’s growth. Sprawling habit, will self-layer (like blackberries, they’ll form roots if stem-tips touch the ground), and can become invasive…

The Japanese Wineberry only gets a passing mention in Carol Klein’s book as a hybrid berry of interest, but I’ve read up elsewhere. Knowing about the tip-rooting habit, I made sure that the one strong stem that grew last year from the newly-planted rootstock (which I think we bought from Beningbrough Hall NT, where they grow them in the walled garden, if I remember it right) was tied to an upright bamboo cane. This year it sprouted prolific side-shoots, all of which developed multiple clusters of delicious berry-producing blossom. After fruiting, these side-stems seemed to die right back, and so I pruned them out as they failed, leaving a single strong, upright stem and three or four smaller side-stems. We’ll see what happens next year: hopefully more of the same, and I might be able to encourage a stem or two to self-layer into pots so we can increase our stock.

Blueberries: Maintain a soil pH of 5.5 or lower, using ericaceous compost or a sulphur-based amendment, and mulching with conifer clippings (a handy use for your neighbours’ chucked-out Xmas tree). For established bushes, remove 2 or 3 old stems at the base to encourage new growth and tip back vigorous new shoots to a healthy bud to encourage fruitful side-branching. These hardwood cuttings can be used for propagation purposes, too.

We have two blueberry bushes growing in large pots at home. I’ll be taking a look at those this week and checking to see what needs doing with them, but as I re-potted them at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I’ll be doing anything too drastic.

And that’s pretty much it, apart from the aforementioned reorganisation and relocation, followed by a good mulching with composted bark.

If you’ve had success – or not so much success – with the same or different pruning and care regimes, please do feel free to share your top tips in the comments below. All feedback and advice will be very welcome indeed.

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Harvest Monday for July 25th 2016

Summertime (down on Plot #59) and the harvests are mighty! Here’s what we’ve been picking for the last couple of weeks:

July 2016 - courgettes #1
A selection of lovely courgettes…
2016 - courgettes #2
…and a few days later, another selection of lovely courgettes.

Our four varieties of courgette are all producing like crazy, as you can see from the above. Not a few of those ended up in this year’s batch of courgette and tomato chutney, now maturing nicely in the cupboard.

And all three ‘Tondo di Piacenza’ plants have decided to throw off their mere ‘courgette’ appellation and make a bid for full ‘squash’ status:

July 2016 - Tondo di Piacenza
Not a bad week’s worth of growth on this courgette…

I’ll leave those to mature and toughen up, before bringing them inside for curing into gem squash (at least, that’s what someone from South Africa told me the larger versions are called and who am I to argue?)

In other news, the (predicted to be) truly epic bean harvest has begun:

July 2016 - three beans
The first (of very many) beans have been picked.

From left to right there, we have ‘Blackpod’ (a Heritage Seed Library runner bean variety), ‘Fasold’ French beans and good old ‘Scarlet Emperor’ runners. Still to come: ‘Prizewinner’ runners, ‘Medwyn’s Exhibition’ French and maybe a few ‘Cobra’ French as well. Oh, and we had a few ‘Purple Queen’ French from the plants in the greenhouse (which I tried to blanche to keep their colour, but they turned dark green. I’ll steam the next batch instead.)

Further down the plot, the broad beans and peas have been doing very nicely indeed:

July 2016 - broad beans
Plenty of pods ready for picking.
July 2016 - peas
A bumper crop of golden and purple peas this year.

The ‘Shiraz’ (purple) and ‘Golden Sweet’ (yellow) peas grew like crazy while we were down in Kent and no-one was around to pick them. Luckily the latter variety more than lives up to its name, delicious as a crunchy mangetout and, as it turns out, equally sweet and tasty as a young pea, either raw from the pod or lightly steams. We’ll be growing those again next year.

Just next door, we’ve lifted this year’s elephant garlic crop:

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

I forgot to add a pound coin for scale so you’ll have to trust me when I say those bulbs are as big as my fist. I brought them home for drying in the shed – the recent heatwave will have helped with that – and as long as they’re stored well we’ll still be eating them in March next year.

We also lifted an initial batch of onions and the ones we left in the ground seem to have swelled nicely while we were away:

July 2016 - onions
The rest of these onions will be ready for lifting soon.

Meanwhile, over in the fruit patch, the strawberries might be over (and in desperate need of reorganising and thinning out) but we’ve enjoyed a good-sized crop of gooseberries:

July 2016 - gooseberries
Sweet enough to eat raw, but delicious in a crumble.

And just this weekend, we picked a big bowlful of redcurrants, the vast majority of which I turned into redcurrant jelly.

July 2016 - redcurrants
A big bowl of juicy fruit destined for the jelly pan.

Still to come: many more courgettes, beans and peas. The blackcurrants need picking; a dozen rows of potatoes need lifting, drying and storing; I need to check the carrots to see if any of them have escaped carrot-fly attack; cabbages and kale are going in at the moment (a little late, I know, but the weather was against us earlier in the year); and we need to re-check the seed packets to see what we can sow now for late Autumn and/or winter harvests.

Damn, I love this time of year!

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

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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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Let’s Hear It for Soft Fruit Flowers

The merry month of May is when blossom season really gets going. Whilst the big, showy masses of apple, cherry and early strawberry flowers are grabbing the bulk of the attention and hogging the photo opps, I thought I’d take a closer look at what’s going on in the soft fruit patch down at Plot #59.

What I found was our selection of berry and currant bushes quietly doing their subtle, under-stated thing: putting out a lovely array of tiny, delicate bee-lures that don’t scream “pollinate me!” anywhere near as loudly, but carry just as much productive promise of bumper harvests to come.

Here’s what’s happening at the moment:

May 2016 blackcurrant blossom
Last year we harvested so many blackcurrants we ran out of room for them in the freezer…
May 2016 gooseberry blossom
Our gooseberry bushes are just coming into their full maturity – a good harvest ahead, hopefully.
May 2016 redcurrant blossom
Anyone know a good recipe for Cumberland sauce so we can make best use of our redcurrants?
May 2016 whitecurrant blossom
We’re looking forward to sampling a few whitecurrants, all being well.
May 2016 blueberry blossom
Meanwhile, back home, our potted blueberries are blooming marvellously.

What’s your favourite soft fruit? Or are you growing any unusual varieties? (We have a Japanese Wineberry plant and have edible fuschia berry plugs on order). Let me know in the comments…

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Plot #59 Update: April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Signs of Life in the Plot #59 Fruit Section

I swung by Plot #59 this afternoon on the way back from a volunteering session for Incredible Edibles Prestwich, raking over the new raised beds in the polytunnels, to get the third of my second early potato trenches dug while the weather was good enough for digging. Strolling up the middle of the plot, I noticed that the fruit section is showing some welcome signs of life (click for a bigger pic).

Good to see the gooseberries and raspberries bursting into leaf there. The strawberries are putting on a lot of new foliage as well (note to self: they need a good prune to cut out the old, dead leaves and make room for the fresh ones). And although we must have the latest of late varieties of rhubarb – honestly, some folks on Twitter are eating crumble already! – they’re finally showing signs of Spring growth as well. Mind you, the crowns might be a bit laid back, but once they get going they’re usually unstoppable right through to Autumn, so I’m not complaining.

How’s about your plot? What’s coming along nicely and what are you still waiting for?

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Our Allotment Year in Review: 2015/16 Edition

January is the traditional time to post a year-in-review piece, but for me, the start of the sowing and growing season – with the last of the previous year’s over-wintered veg crops being harvested or cleared away and the first of this year’s plants being sown and planted out – seems a good time to think back on what went well and what wasn’t such a success.

Last year was an odd one: we moved house (eventually) at the end of July, which meant that from March through to October – almost the entire growing season – we were doing a lot more sorting, skipping, packing, moving, unpacking, redecorating and recovering than we’re (hopefully) likely to have to do again for a very long time.

Nevertheless, we still managed a pretty good all-round showing.

Spuds

Good

Last year we deliberately grew far too many potatoes in order to help condition and turn over a massive, newly-cleared section of the plot; almost an entire quarter of the total space. Our ‘swift’ first earlies were great, as were the ‘saxon’ second earlies – which we actually harvested as main-crop and turned out to be an excellent all-rounder – and ‘pink fir apple’ main-crop. We had so many of these latter two varieties that we were still eating them well into February, until they started shooting like crazy and depleted their starch stores.

October 2015 Spuds drying out
About a quarter (?) of our total 2015 potato harvest…
October 2015 - Pink Fir Apple
Knobbliest pink fir apple contest? We have a winner!

Not so Good

Our fourth variety was ‘Golden Wonder’ which grew reasonably well, albeit with smaller yields than the other three, but turned out to be less useful from a culinary point-of-view. Their extreme starchiness meant they were okay as roasties or oven-baked wedges, if you didn’t mind the uber-crunchy exterior and quite dry interior, but rather useless for anything else; you just have to wave them in the general direction of a pot of boiling water and they start to dissolve, so you can’t even par-boil them. I even tried making crisps with them… frankly, not worth the effort. Ah, well.

Alliums

All Good

We had a pretty decent harvest of regular garlic, the elephant garlic was excellent (double the amount is already planted out and growing on for this year), our ‘Musselburgh’ leeks grew well – they’re still going strong and are very tasty with it – and the brown onion ‘sturon’ sets, that one of the old boys donated from his surplus, did well.

Beans

Good

I love beans. I love growing them, harvesting them, cooking with them and eating them. Last year we grew broad beans in Spring and then runner beans (scarlet emperor), climbing French beans (borlotti and fasold) and dwarf beans (cannelini) in Summer. All of them did very well indeed and we managed to fill a freezer tray with pods and a couple of tubs with dried beans for the winter.

May 2015 broad beans
Broad beans coming along nicely, back in May 2015

Not so Good

The one failure was the variety I tried to grow as part of my ‘three sisters’ (squash / sweetcorn / beans) companion planting section. Not wanting to plant anything too vigorous, I went for a dwarfing purple variety, which were almost totally swamped by the masses of squash foliage that I didn’t have time to control. This year: a climber, and more pruning.

Fruit

Good

Around a quarter of our plot is planted up with soft fruit bushes and rhubarb, many of which were newly-transplanted from home or elsewhere on the plot at the end of year one, so we weren’t expecting anything amazing in their first full year. We were surprised and delighted though by bumper crops of blackcurrants, raspberries and rhubarb, all of which featured heavily in my jam-making. We also had an excellent blueberry harvest from our two potted bushes in the back garden. No jam there though, they barely made it inside the house. Our gooseberries and redcurrants were less impressive but still put in a good effort; the bushes should do better this year. Still to perform (hopefully this year): whitecurrants, Japanese wineberry and loganberry.

Not so Good

It was an awful year for our strawberries. The previous November we planted up three ridges, with a dozen plants on each, and looked forward to the glut to follow. What happened instead was a red-hot April that forced early blossom, followed by a cold, wet May which killed it all off again before it could be pollinated. Net result: three fruits. Not three kilos, or even three fruiting plants. Just three lonely little fruits. Here’s hoping for better growing conditions this year.

Brassicas

Good

The three varieties of cabbage – all pointy-headed types – that we planted did very well and we enjoyed them immensely. Our kale was good as well and over-wintered nicely, until the pigeons worked out that the new shoots were ripe for raiding.

Not so Good

Our sprouts were a big disappointment: small, poorly formed buttons on spindly stems, barely a crop worth the name. I think I know where I went wrong: I kept them covered in enviromesh for too long, so they got a bit cramped as they were growing strongly over the summer. This year I’ll take the covers off sooner and plant them a bit further apart, too, to give them more room to stretch out. Because we couldn’t keep on top of the watering, our Romanesco broccoli bolted. It was still tasty as shoots/spears, but we didn’t get the tight, fractal-pattern heads. We’ll have another go this year and see what happens. And our purple sprouting broccoli was annihilated by the same pigeons (we assume) that did for the kale, back in February.

Cucurbits and Corn

Good

Courgettes! So many lovely courgettes. We grew four varieties and they all did extremely well; we were eating them from late Spring right through to mid Autumn. A superb crop, they pretty much take care of themselves and will keep on producing until the frosts start to bite. Highly recommended. Our sweetcorn did rather well, too. It was the first year that I’d grown it properly so wasn’t sure what to expect. When we ended up harvesting around two-dozen good-sized cobs from a dozen plants I was rather pleased. More of the same this year, I reckon.

August 2015 Courgette harvest
Courgettes! And one mini-marrow. And a round one on the way to a pumpkin.

Not so Good

The ‘sweet dumpling’ squashes that we planted in the three sisters section didn’t work at all well. Again, it was down to a lack of time to keep on top of the masses of foliage that the vines produce; I didn’t cut them back soon enough or hard enough and they sprawled massively as a result, causing damp, humid conditions that rotted the fruits on the vine. More care and attention needed this year.

Roots etc.

Good

We didn’t do all that much on the roots front, except to sow a few rows in a spare patch of ground just to see what happened. As it turned out, the parsnips and salsify did rather well, with the latter a very tasty revelation. We still have the last few parsnips in the ground; they’ll be coming up shortly.

March 2016 - Last of the Salsify
This strange, hairy stuff is salsify – rather tasty baked or sauteed in butter.

Not so Good

Carrots. Ugh. They didn’t do at all well, we got nothing at all from the row I sowed. But then I didn’t do much soil preparation and didn’t take any precautions against carrot-fly. More and better of both this year. The celeriac was poor as well; sprouted greens but failed to set roots. I’ll have to read up on that one. Likewise, the celery plants that our next-door plot neighbour donated did nowt worth mentioning. To be fair though, I don’t know if they were a trenching or self-blanching variety, so just chucking them in and hoping probably wasn’t the best strategy.

Salads, Misc. Others, etc.

So-So

We didn’t grow our usual trays of greenhouse salad leaves last year, due to the uncertainty of the move, but what we did have made a fresh, tasty change from supermarket lettuce. I didn’t go in for peas much either – I usually do pea shoots at home for salads and mange tout in tubs, as well as down the greenhouse – but those will feature more heavily again this year. No exotic or unusual fruit or veg last year (same reason as before), the chillis were a bit of a failure (I blame the wet summer) and the three bush tomatoes that I chucked in at the allotment didn’t do much (except sprawl through the courgette patch and make a nuisance of themselves) before getting blight-struck. So it goes.

This Year’s Changes

Fewer spuds, more elephant garlic and onions, hopefully a better fruit harvest, more (and better spaced) brassicas, even more beans, a new asparagus patch, improved squash-foilage control, more salads, greenhouse and outdoor tomatoes, plenty of chillis, a few exotics, an actual carrot harvest (hopefully), and all sorts of other stuff.

Watch this space!

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