Tag: leek

Thinning and Trimming Leek Seedlings

I’ve been growing leeks using the same method for the past three or four years now and it seems to be working quite nicely.

Rather than tray-sowing and then pricking out individual leeks into modules, I use deep plastic troughs – the sort of thing you can find in most large supermarkets at this time of year or online of course – about half filled with general purpose compost. On top of that I layer about 5cm of seed compost, and sow the leek seed thinly on top, before covering lightly with seed compost and watering with a fine-rose can.

A few weeks later, the leek seedlings should be about 15-20cm tall and looking rather grass-like. This is when I like to thin them out and give them a trim.

May 2017 leeks for trimming
Long and leggy leeks need cutting down to size

Thinning

If there are two or more seedlings growing within about 1cm of each other, then one or more of them has to be plucked out. Be ruthless. Better to have one good seedling with enough room to grow to planting-out stage than two or three that eventually compete each other to the point of uselessness. Plus, the leek-trimmings can be used like chives, in pasta, fritatta or anything else you fancy.

Trimming

Next, take a pair of sharp scissors and give your leeks a hair-cut. I gather up a small bunch and then chop the lot off at around 10-12cm in length. Trimming the main growing shoot(s) helps to prevent them becoming hopelessly leggy and tangled. It also encourages the growth of new leaves from the basal plate at the bottom of the leek, and that’s what you want: a thickening of each seedling to roughly ‘pencil thickness’, ready for planting out in June or early July.

If you’re thorough (and brave) enough then you might only have to thin your leek seedlings once before planting out, although a second trim may be needed in another three or four weeks.

How about you? Is this how you grow leeks, or do you use a different method? Let me know via the comments.

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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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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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Plot #59 Update: August 2016

Plot #59 Update: August 2016
Lush foliage everywhere, plenty of rich pickings to be had.

Ah, the long lazy days of high Summer! (What’s that? Summer? Has it arrived yet? Are we due one? Answers on a postcard to the usual address…) Definitely long, but not so lazy if you’re an allotment holder, with early crops finishing and going over that need clearing away, and later crops just starting to come into their own, with plenty of picking, preparing and preserving to do as well. And of course, that’s before you start on the weeding…

Down on Plot #59 we’re in full Summer-to-Autumn transition phase. All the onions and garlic have been lifted and dried. The broad beans have finished producing and have been cleared away. The peas will follow shortly. The strawberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants are long-finished, but the Autumn-fruiting raspberries are starting to fruit on a regular basis. Likewise the Japanese wineberry: from a single plant we’ve had a regular supply of sweet, tart, raspberry-like fruits with just a hing of wine-gum about them.

The beans are in full flow: runners and French varieties alike. We’ve been eating them and giving them away for weeks now, and our freezer is packed to the gunnels with packets of beans for winter. It’s getting to the stage now where we’re deliberately leaving the larger pods on the plants to ripen up: we should have plenty of dried beans for winter soups and stews.

August 2016 bean plants
Beans, beans and yet more beans… yum!

Our courgettes are marching on as well. The three ‘Tondo di Piacenza’ plants each produced a full-sized fruit, so we have three large squashes maturing for use later in the year. Speaking of squashes, this is the first year we’ve grwon ‘Turk’s Turban’ and the results have been impressive: we’ve got a good dozen maturing on their vines in the ‘three sisters’ section at the front of the plot, alongside some nicely-ripening sweetcorn cobs (and yet more beans).

This year’s leeks have been planted out and the area nearby cleared, ready for the seed garlic which will be arriving before too long from the Garlic Farm.

I’ve made a start on lifting the last of the blight hit second early potatoes – ‘pink fir apple’, which a couple of folks have told me is particularly blight-susceptible – and I’m happy to say that the crop has been reasonable, if not as impressive as last year. The tubers are smallish, but perfectly usable and tasty. Thankfully, taking swift action to remove the haulms seems to have kept the blight from infecting them, so they should store quite nicely.

None of the cabbages are ready yet – they’ve only been in the ground since late July so there’s a chance they went in a bit too late, but we’ll see – apart from a bit of calabrese-style broccoli. Hopefully we’ll start to get some kale in September. The sprouts seem to be coming along nicely though, and we have lifted a few decent-sized turnips, and some very tasty black radishes that I sowed on a whim.

August 2016 brassica nets
Got to keep those pesky cabbage whites and diamond-back moths at bay.
August 2016 - Black radish and turnips
Golden and trad turnips and a couple of peppery black radish.

And of course, the floral department continues to put on a good display. The sunflowers are starting to look a little ragged around the edges, but the Dahlias, Lavender, sweet peas, Tagetes, wallflowers, evening primrose and Verbena are still going strong and the Nasturtiums are everywhere. Jo has planted out a few rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan, and Zinnia as well. We’ll have a lot more flowers on show next year, when we sort out the central path and dig out flower beds either side.

Apart from all of the above, the main work on Plot #59 has been the aforementioned weed-clearing. Unfortunately our plot-neighbour to the back moved to a new plot and his old one has been left to go to wrack and ruin, rather than taken on by new tenants. So that’s now weed-choked and is spreading seed, spores and rhizomes through to the back of ours. And another plot-neighbour hasn’t been around as much as usual (for entirely valid personal reasons), so his plot is starting to go the same way. I’d love to spend a bit of time helping him out, but to be perfectly honest there’s more than enough to do to keep our own plot in reasonable shape at the moment. I’m spending a lot of time at home digging out the first bed for our cottage garden project, so that’s keeping me from putting in the hours that I’d like to.

Well, nowt for it but to do what I can, when I can: roll up my sleeves, reach for the fork and dig out the worst of the weeds, then get the covers down and try to keep the beggars at bay until we next need the ground for planting. That’s the allotmenteers way: grin and get on with it.

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The Leeks Are Finally In

August 2016 Leeks
A few rows of – hopefully – lovely leeks. Grow, my beauties, grow!

It’s been a funny old year. The weather in May and June was so atrocious -preventing any serious attempt at weed clearing and/or cultivating down at Plot #59 – it threw all my planting and sowing plans out of whack. Which is why I only just got round to planting out this year’s leeks a fortnight ago.

I tried a different growing method this year. In the past I’ve sown into seed trays, then potted up individual seedlings into larger pots, before planting those out in the summer.

This year, I sowed straight into 8″ deep troughs, thinned the seedlings a couple of times (which meant leek thinnings for pasta sauces and soups: bonus) and then the plan was to plant them out in June, when the seedlings reached approximately pencil-thickness.

Instead, they haven’t gone into the ground until mid-August (planting out the cabbages was even more urgent) at slightly below ideal size (too long in the troughs).

August 2016 planting leeks
Dib, drop. dib, drop, dib, drop… water in well and leave ’em to their own devices.

The usual method: separate the plants, mark a line with string, dib a deep hole, drop the leek in, water in to back-fill, repeat. About 280 times, as it turned out, and that was after I’d discarded anything too small or twisty to be worth bothering with.

I’ve planted them quite close; the plan is to thin out every other as a baby leek (and there’s to be the odd failed or damaged specimen) then leave the rest to grow on to full size. Three varieties: ‘Herfstuezen 3 – Porvite’, ‘Elefant’ and ‘Walton Mammoth’, the latter one of my Heritage Seed Library picks this year.

I’m very happy to report that a couple of weeks later, after a few days of sunshine and a few of rain, they seem to be doing fine. Here’s hoping they can put on enough growth between now and the end of Autumn to be hardy enough to survive whatever the winter throws at them, and thicken up nicely in the Spring.

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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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Now Sowing: Leeks and Broad Beans

There’s always a temptation – one I admit I succumbed to when I first started growing – to start sowing seeds at what seems to be the earliest possible opportunity. We get that first warm(ish) weekend in mid-February or early March, when surely Spring can only be a few days around the corner, and the urge to start sprinkling seed around starts to become all-but irresistible.

A well-stuffed seedbox
So many seeds, so little space left in the current storage unit…
Over the past few years I’ve learned, through trial and error (mostly error…) that it’s far better to exercise patience than it is to watch your first few crops of precious seedlings fall foul of the pitfalls of early Spring. A late March or April frost could kill them off, or they could stretch out towards the dribs and drabs of available sunlight until they’re so thin and leggy they’re likely to snap as soon as you look at them, or they might simply run out of steam before the conditions are warm enough for them to start developing the root, stem and leaf systems that they’ll need to power them on to productive adulthood. Better to wait until a little later in the season – especially here in North Manchester, where the weather’s seldom balmy until April at the earliest – than lose the lot and have to start over again.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule of thumb, of course: early-cropping veg, hardier varieties, those that take their time to germinate or need a long, slow growing season to develop, and crops destined to spend their entire lives under cover in a greenhouse. These are the sorts of seeds that I’ve learned you can get away with sowing round about this time of year. I’ve already sown my chillis (to grow under cover) a few weeks back – they’re doing quite nicely in the propagator at the moment – and over the past couple of days I’ve sown two more essential food crops: leeks (long season) and broad beans (early, hardy).

Leeks

2015 Leeks and 2016 Garlic
Last year’s leeks and this year’s garlic, doing well in February 2016, despite the endless wet weather…

I’m a late but enthusastic convert to eating leeks. Up until three or four years ago I hated the things (due to a childhood trauma involving being force-fed leek and potato pie until I ran out of tears to cry) but then I tried them sautéed in butter and the proverbial lightbulb clicked on. I’ve grown them every year since, with a pretty decent success rate, although last year’s crop wasn’t the finest I’ve seen, mainly due to various house-move related timing issues.

This year I’ve sown three varieties of leek (Allium ampeloprasum / Allium porrum – sources differ): ‘Elefant’ (Mr Fothergill’s), ‘Herfstuezen 3 – Porvite’ (Thompson & Morgan – no longer on sale) and ‘Walton Mammoth’, an heirloom variety that I was sent as past of my first Heritage Seed Library selection.

I’ve changed my sowing method slightly; in the past, I’ve sown leeks in standard, shallow seed trays and then picked out individual seedlings to grow on in modules. That’s definitely one of the most laborious, tedious gardening tasks I’ve set myself to-date and has meant the loss of a number of seedlings in the process: not great fun.

This year, I’ve sown them in a deeper tray instead, with 2-3cm of seed compost on top of around 7-8cm of multi-purpose. The theory being that they’ll grown and develop to the ideal pencil-thickness in those tubs, and when the time comes I can just split them up and dib them in to their final growing position in one go. Less fuss, more leeks. I’ll keep you posted.

Broad Beans

Broad Bean 'The Sutton' ready to go
A quick top-coating of compost and a good soaking and they’ll be left in the greenhouse to germinate.

I’m a huge fan of all the members of the Fabaceae family that I’ve encountered so far. They’re a joy to grow and a wonderfully versatile, protein-rich food crop. This year I’ll be growing around a dozen different varieties of beans; it is the International Year of Pulses, after all.

The first to go in, sown this afternoon, are Broad Bean (Vicia faba) ‘The Sutton’ (SowSeeds.co.uk). It’s a white-bean variety, which should contrast and compliment nicely with the ‘red epicure’ (Unwins), which I grew and enjoyed last year and will be sowing tomorrow. I’ve also bought a packet of ‘aquadulce’ (Thompson & Morgan), which I grew last year as well. I’m saving those for an Autumn sowing, to see if I can over-winter them for an even earlier crop next year.

After some reading around, I decided to soak the beans overnight in tepid water to see which ones swelled and were therefore more likely to be viable. Of the 28 I soaked, 23 were definitely nicely fattened and one was borderline. Those 24 have now been sown in modules of standard multi-purpose compost: beans aren’t so delicate that they need special seed compost and the young plants should grow strongly in the richer compost. With any luck they’ll be large enough to be planted out sometime in April and Jo and I should be feasting on garlic-butter sautéed broad beans by June.

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Plot #59 Update: January 2016

There hasn’t been an awful lot of activity on Plot #59 this month. Rain has stopped play most days. Admittedly we haven’t been anywhere near as badly-hit as some folks have and my sympathies and best wishes really do go out to anyone whose plot has been water-logged or flooded. But still, apart from a bit of a tidy-up in the greenhouse and a few digging and weeding sessions in-between the downpours there hasn’t been much that we can usefully do to move things forward.

January 2016 Plot #59 status - soggy
Rain has stopped play, although nothing’s too horribly flooded.

We did have a hard frost earlier in the month at one point, which I though might herald a proper slice of winter, but it failed to materialise. Hopefully it was enough to kick-start the strawberries and garlic for the year ahead.

Sowing

Just the one batch of seeds sown this month: four varieties of chillis (Capsicum annuum ‘pot black’, ‘prairie fire’, ‘cayenne’ and C. chinense ‘Habanero’ and/or ‘Scotch Bonnet’).

Planting

Our fruit bush and strawberry sections were established last year, so we haven’t had anything new to plant out just yet.

Harvesting

This month was mainly about the roots, with a couple of batches of parsnips (Pastinaca sativa, var. unknown) and salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius ‘Mammoth’) harvested, both of which have definitely been improved by that frost. I also pulled up a few leeks (Allium ampeloprasum ‘Autumn Mammoth 2’ and ‘Musselburgh’) and had a couple of small pickings of kale (Brassica oleracea ‘green curled’, the standard stuff but still very tasty).

About the only other crop we have in the ground at the moment is some purple sprouting broccoli, which hasn’t really sprouted yet, and some half-hearted, limp celery, which is probably destined for the compost when I get around to digging it out. Last year’s house move meant there was hardly any sowing and planting for winter veg, but this year into next will be very different.

Projects / Maintenance

As well as doing as much weeding of last year’s veg beds as possible, I have made a start on digging the ground in what will become our long-term asparagus patch. Progress was slow, but I’ve managed an initial dig of around three-quarters of the allotted space. Once the weather clears a bit, I need to incorporate plenty of organic matter and grit for fertility and drainage, then form the ridges for the crowns to be planted on. I have until the end of March / early April when the crowns I’ve ordered are due to be shipped, so hopefully plenty of time yet. As always, with one eye on the local forecast and another on my list of odd jobs that I can fit in around the rain showers.

Onwards!

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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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Harvest Monday for 22nd January 2016

Having spotted the Harvest Monday sharing meme on Mark’s Veg Plot recently, I thought it might be fun to join in. Here’s a quick shot of some root veg – parsnips and salsify – that I lifted on Saturday, along with a few small leeks.

Harvest Monday! Parsnips, leeks and salsify.

I honey-baked the roots yesterday afternoon, along with a few (shop-bought) carrots to accompany a chicken. I can now definitely vouch for the phenomenon mentioned in my earlier post on the benefits of a good, hard frost: the parsnips were definitely sweeter (although some of that would have been the honey, etc.) and the turpene-flavours much less pronounced. The salsify was fuller-flavoured as well, quite delicious. I’ll definitely be growing them both again this year. Oh, and the leeks will be going into a chicken risotto tonight, to make best use of the leftover meat from yesterday’s dinner.

This week’s Harvest Monday is hosted by Michelle at From Seed to Table and next week reverts to its usual home with Dave at Our Happy Acres.

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