Tag: kale

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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New Seeds: Heritage Seed Library 2017

February 2017 Heritage Seed Library
This year’s selection plus a few from 2016 that still need sowing…

A couple of weeks ago, we took delivery of our annual selection of seed from Garden Organic‘s Heritage Seed Library club. The H.S.L. aims to maintain and distribute heritage, or non-commercially available varieties of vegetables and herbs, encouraging its members to save their own seed and keep these varieties going as long as they can. It’s a great way to get hold of either reliable croppers that for some reason are no longer in favour, or varieties that just aren’t available in the regular seed catalogues.

The seed-requesting process has changed since last year. There’s now an online order form for club members which lets you know which seed varieties are still available. This means you can ask for more of your first-choice varieties, if you’re quick enough. I left it until early January to put my order in and a fair few of the seeds I really liked the sound of had already been divvied-out. Next year I’ll be online within half an hour of the catalogue coming through.

Here’s what I opted for this year, including a bonus ‘lucky dip’ freebie that’s available as an optional extra:

  • Climbing French Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) ‘Dinah’s Climbing Blue’
  • Lablab Bean(Dolichos lablab) ‘Ying’s’
  • Sweetcorn (Zea mays) ‘Rainbow Sweet Inca’
  • Leek (Allium porrum) ‘Kelvedon King’
  • Kale (Brassica oleracea) ‘Asparagus’
  • Pea (Pisum sativum) ‘Kent Blue’
  • Callaloo (Amaranthus spp.) ‘Bangladeshi Dhata’ (lucky dip)

I also have three packets of my 2016 selection that I didn’t get around to sowing last year:

  • Kale (Brassica oleracea) ‘Georgia Southern Collard’
  • Squash (Cucurbita maxima) ‘Zapallito de Toscana’
  • Turnip (Brassica rapa) ‘Kaskinauris’ (lucky dip)

Plus, I’ve signed up to be a ‘variety champion’ – with the aim of saving seed and sending stocks back to Garden Organic – for the following:

  • Dwarf French Bean (P. vulgaris) ‘Black Valentine’

And, because I had a problem with a couple of bean varieties that refused to germinate last year (‘Major Cook’s’ and ‘Peewit’ both completely failed to break dormancy, alas), Garden Organic very kindly sent me a replacement packet of ‘Peewit’ when I mentioned it to them, so I have those to go in as well.

As for the Heritage Seed Library crops I did sow last year, results were generally good. Leek ‘Walton Mammoth’ went in late and so hasn’t yet achieved its ‘Mammoth’ stature, but the young leeks we’ve been eating over winter have been very tasty indeed, with a good, strong flavour. Runner Bean ‘Blackpod’ was superb:

September 2016 Runner Bean 'Blackpod'
The very lovely deep purple colour of these pods is worth the ticket price alone.

Vigorous growth and a good, heavy cropper. You do have to catch the pods early, when they’re still mostly green, if you want to eat them sliced and steamed, otherwise once they start to darken to their beautiful deep purple colour, they’re a bit too tough. The dried beans store well and are very good in soups and stews. I’ve saved a few seed beans for this year as well, so I’m hoping for a repeat performance.

For more information on joining the Heritage Seed Library and helping to preserve these old varieties, see Garden Organic’s website.

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Plot #59 Update: October 2016

Plot #59 Update: October 2016
Starting the long process of clearing away and putting to bed for winter…

October was another mild month – the ongoing legacy of the El NiƱo phase of the ocean temperatures in the Southern Pacific earlier this year, most likely – which meant we were able to put in a fair few sessions down on Plot #59.

Here’s where we’re up to, as Summer is banished to the halls of fond memory for another year and Autumn takes a firm grip on the plot:

Harvesting

As per my latest Harvest Monday post, the Autumn fruit and veg has been in full swing. We’ve had cabbages, kale, squash, leeks, mooli, scorzonera, salsify, turnip, swede, chillis (back home in the greenhouse) and, to take the savoury edge off, lots and lots of raspberries.

Speaking of squash, I swapped one of our Cucurbita maxima ‘Turk’s Turban’ for a plot-buddy’s Cucurbita maxima ‘Crown Prince’, and baked half of each last Sunday.

October 2016 Squash ready for cooking
A tale of two squash: The Crown Prince and the Turk’s Turban.

After about 40-45 mins in a reasonably hot oven (around 200oC) they were both delicious; rich, creamy orange flesh with some lovely caramelised bits on the cut-side.

Jo and I agreed that the Turk’s Turban was ever-so slightly sweeter, but the Crown Prince had a slightly smoother texture and consistency. We’ve since eaten the other half of the ‘Crown Prince’, steamed and added to a risotto, and it was very tasty again.

I’ll be growing both again next year, all being well. I’ll need to buy some ‘Crown Prince’ seed though; I’ve saved seed from the one we ate, but as C.P. is an F1 hybrid and squash cross-breed quite readily anyhow, it’s guaranteed that any offspring won’t be true-to-cultivar. But who knows, my Cucurbita maxima ‘Crown Prince X’ might end up being even more delicious than its sire. It’s worth a shot.

Growing On

Although the summer crops – peas, beans, courgettes, in particular – are over and done for us now, there’s still plenty to look forward to harvesting in the next few weeks and (hopefully) months. Here’s a quick gallery:

October 2016 root section
We have a few tasty roots still to pull: carrots (hopefully), scorzonera, salsify and Hamburg parsley, all being well.
October 2016 Swede
We have a few decent-sized Brassica napus swedes to look forward to adding to our Autumn stews and mashes.
October 2016 cabbages
Our cabbage patch went in late but has caught up nicely and is eating very well indeed.
October 2016 kale
Kale ‘redbor’ and ‘cavollo nero’ are both growing – and eating – very well, too.
October 2016 sprouts / walking stick kale
A few of our sprouts are afflicted by club root, but we’re hoping we’ll have a decent crop for our Yuletide dinner.
October 2016 purple cauliflower
I think I’m giving up on growing caulis next year – they always seem to bolt before I can get them cut and eaten.
October 2016 black radish
Radishes the size of swedes, anyone? No? No-one? Ah well, they’ll compost down like everything else…

Not too shabby. Not as much winter veg as I’d hoped to have in the ground by now, but this year has been busier than anticipated in the back garden landscaping department, so I haven’t had as much time as I’d hoped for successional and winter seed sowing. Next year. Definitely.

Floral Department

We had the first hard frost earlier this week, so I expect that when we head down to the plot later today we’ll find the dahlias foliage blackened and the tubers in need of lifting for storage over the winter. They’ve been doing astonishingly well until now, though and even as the temperatures have started to dip, their bright reds have provided a welcome splash of colour at the front of the plot.

Elsewhere we’re still getting cheery colour from Erysimum ‘Bowles’s mauve’ (wallflower), Verbena bonariensis, Tagetes(marigold), Centaurea cyanus (cornflower), Oenothera fruticosa (evening primrose), Rudbeckia and a few others. And I know Jo is already planning ahead for next year, when the riot of colour will be a joy to behold and the bees, butterflies, hoverflies (and other members of the ever-welcome Union of Associated Pollinating Insects) will be utterly spoilt for choice.

October 2016 rudbeckia
Jo’s Rudbeckia are still brightening up the plot with splashes of gold and bronze.
October 2016 tagetes
The two small Tagetes plants we added to the courgette patch have taken over since the dead courgettes were removed.
October 2016 Verbena bonariensis
We grow Verbena bonariensis mainly as a bee lure among raspberries, but it’s very lovely indeed in its own right.

Projects

Most of the work this month, rather inevitably, has involved clearing away summer crop residues, tidying up winter crops, the inevitable ongoing weeding, and working on the central path; the long-awaited first thing we put on the to-do list when we took the plot on back in January 2014. It’s been slow going, as per my recent Hard Slog: Man vs. Midden post.

The plan is to roughly level it off and lay weed membrane down for now. Over the winter I’ll start moving the flags that we’ve currently loosely laid at the back of the plot down to the front, and then when we have our driveway at home re-done – next Summer, most likely, after the back garden hard landscaping has been finished – we’ll recycle the old flags from the current drive and extend the path right down to the back of the plot. That’s the plan, anyhow. We’ll see how it goes.

That’s it for October, then, and November is already bringing colder nights and, since the clocks went back last weekend, darker ones, too. Here’s hoping the rain isn’t too torrential and we can get down the plot to carry on digging and weeding as much as possible. Fingers crossed.

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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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Pot Up, Pot On, Repeat…

May is a pretty mad month in the greenhouse as the seedling shuffle continues apace. Last month’s sown seeds are shooting like crazy. More new seedlings need to be pricked out and potted up daily. And larger plantlets are outgrowing their starter pots and being potted on at a rate of knots. I’m loving every minute of it.

In lieu of time to describe everything in detail, here’s a quick photo gallery to convey the general impression:

May 2016 chilli 'cayenne'
Three chilli ‘cayenne’ potted up into their permanent containers.
May 2016 Tromboncino squash
Two tromboncino for the #SuttonsCup, potted up into long toms.
May 2016 Swiss chard
I reckon we might just get a decent Swiss Chard crop this year.
May 2016 Brassica seedlings
The massed ranks of cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprout seedlings.
May 2016 squash 'turk's turban'
These squash plants look promising. Here’s hoping we’ll actually have a harvest this year.
May 2016 assorted chillis
Chilli plants in their penultimate pots, permanent placement pending.
May 2016 pea seedlings
Two types of mangetout here: ‘shiraz’ (front) and ‘golden sweet’ (back).
May 2016 beans germinating
Here come the beans!
May 2016 coldframe plants
Meanwhile, out in the cold frame: sunflowers and sweet peas and courgettes (oh, my!)

What’s giving you particular joy in the greenhouse at the moment? Let me know via the comments…

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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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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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New Seeds: Heritage Seed Library 2016

My first ever seed selection from Garden Organic‘s Heritage Seed Library has arrived!

New in from the Heritage Seed Library
New seeds from the Heritage Seed Library (pic fancied-up via Pixlr.com)

I’m delighted to say that I’ve received five out of my six first-choice varieties, and one of my second-choice (more about the request process in my earlier post on joining the HSL), as well as a lucky dip packet (one that isn’t actually on this year’s seed list, rather mysteriously).

Here’s what I’ve been sent:

  • Runner Bean (Phaseolus coccinea) ‘Blackpod’
  • Climbing French Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) ‘Major Cook’s Bean’
  • Dwarf French Bean (P. vulgaris) ‘Peewit’
  • Kale (Brassica oleracea) ‘Georgia Southern Collard’
  • Leek (Allium ampeloprasum) ‘Walton Mammoth’
  • Squash (Cucurbita maxima) ‘Zapallito de Toscana’
  • Turnip (Brassica rapa) ‘Kaskinauris’ (lucky dip)

A bit of research on that turnip variety turns up Garden Organic’s Adopt a Veg site, with the following info:

“The name is thought to be a Finnish compound word, ‘Kaski’ meaning an area managed using ‘slash-and-burn’ cultivation (which ceased more than 100 years ago in Finland), and ‘nauris’, which is the Finnish word for turnip. This variety has a very sweet long root that keeps well even in winter. The flesh is white and firm with a sugary flavour.”

Sounds good, I’ll definitely give it a go and see what happens, although it might be this time next year before I’m harvesting the roots.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to sowing and growing everything else and will providing updates in due course. The leeks will be the first to be sown as they can be started off as early as last February or March, depending on the weather. I’m particularly looking forward to trying the beans and squash. I did well with beans last year but my squash-growing efforts didn’t turn out well at all, largely due to the poor summer we had, and a lack of time to look after the plants properly. Here’s hoping for better conditions this year.

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