Honestly, I don't know what it is about leeks, but I seem to have a mental blank when it comes to remembering to get them in the ground in good time...
We've had a soggy old start to the month, but never mind. The ground could do with a soaking, and there's drier weather ahead, according to the forecast.
Here's our general action plan for May, once the weather sorts itself out a bit...
Well, what a couple of months we’ve had. After an incredibly mild January, February and March have pulled a double shift on winter weather duty, chucking pretty much the full repertoire of sleet, snow, hail and frost at us, quite frequently all at once. All of which has meant our January plans haven’t moved on as far as we would have liked, but it is what it is: the first thing you learn as a gardener is that you can’t control the weather, you just have to work around it.
That didn’t stop work progressing on Plot #79, our new orchard plot. Orchard-buddy Mike and I covered the plot in heavy duty weed membrane back in December, before planting out 20 trees – stakes, ties and all – in January. We started the job in breezy sunshine and finished it in freezing rain, but we’re now the proud custodians of 11 heritage apples, 4 heritage pears, and one each of quince, greengage, plum, damson and medlar. I’ll write up a more detailed progress report and post that separately.
I also found enough dry(ish) weather at the end of January to prep the slab base for our new shed, which we ordered yesterday. It’ll be with us in 3-4 weeks and that will allow us to finally move all the junk out of the greenhouse and use that as proper growing space instead. Cucumbers, y’say? I think so.
Last week was the first reasonably fine, dry spell we’ve had for a while, and I was able to get on with some of those infrastructure and clearance jobs, that I was really hoping to do much earlier in the year, on our main plot #59. Another half dozen recycled concrete slabs laid along the central path, another couple of square metres of the remaining midden mound – a previous tenant’s rubbish dumb, right in the middle of our plot – dug over and a few more kilos of broken glass, metal, pottery, brick, plastic (you name it) picked out and set aside, ready to dump in the annual site skip. Nothing glamorous, but essential work that’s better done than pending.
Jo and I also spent a few hours yesterday planting out onion sets, sprouted shallots and over-wintered broad beans – I know the weather is due to turn a bit colder again this week, but it’s only a short snap, and the plants need to be in the ground rather than the greenhouse – so they’re providing a bit more green amidst the see of brown earth and wood-chip. I noticed that the gooseberry and jostaberry leaf buds are just starting to break, the rhubarb as well, which is always a good sign that things are finally getting underway.
This week’s forecast of a short burst of cold, wet weather aside, I think we can say it nearly, almost feels like Spring is here. At long last.
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Down on Plot #59, Jo and I are always keen to expand the range of edible crops that we grow, especially anything that stores well and can be used over winter, when there’s usually a lack of fresh stuff to harvest. This year I decided to try three South American tuber crops that I’d heard about: Yacon, Oca and Ulluco.
Smallanthus sonchifolius produces large, crisp (some say brittle) tubers that, based on the pictures at downtheplot.com look a lot like Dahlia tubers. According to Mark Diacono, writing for The Guardian back in 2010, they’re crunchy and sweet-tasting, and can be eaten raw in salads, or as a snack. Sounds great.
I bought a pack of growing tips from The Real Seed Catalogue and started them off in pots in March. I potted them on when they started to sprout and then planted them out in large plastic tubs last month. A few sources had suggested that ground-grown Yacon can be difficult to harvest due to the tubers’ habit of snapping too easily, but turning them out of pots was a lot easier.
Harvesting should take place just after the first frost, before any prolonged cold spell has a chance to damage the tubers. So that’s a job to do around the same time that I’ll be lifting and storing the Dahlia tubers.
Oxalis tuberosa is a relative of the wood-sorrel that develops clusters of small, knobbly, often brightly-coloured tubers. They’re growing in popularity, with organisations such as the Guild of Oca Breeders working to spread the word. The tubers can be eaten raw or cooked much as you would a potato: roasted, boiled or mashed, they’re apparently quite sweet-tasting.
I bought a variety called ‘Dylan Keatings’ from The Real Seed Catalogue and was sent six or seven smallish tubers. I started them off in large modules and three of them sprouted into strong, healthy-looking plants.
Once again I followed the advice on Downtheplot.com and planted them out on ridges of soil. Oca tubers don’t start to form fully until after the first frost has killed the leafy part of the plants. Leaving them a couple of weeks after the first frost could mean levering them out of cold, wet mud, and the process is meant to be much easier if you can dig them out of a ridge instead.
Ullucus tuberosus, the third of this year’s new tuber trio, is very similar in appearance to the potato, but in a much wider spectrum of colours, from golden yellow to pale green, to bright pink. Once again they can be eaten raw, as well as cooked as you would a new potato.
My stock came from Incredible Vegetables, and I’ve been following the detailed growing advice on their website, along with added notes from Downtheplot.com (very useful site, that. I wonder if it’s still being updated?) As a result, the plants are currently in pots in the greenhouse, pending planting out once the current spell of grim weather seems to have safely passed. I might even wait until I’ve harvested this year’s garlic and re-use that part of the plot.
Late November to December is harvest time, and they do need to be earthed up, so I’ll grow them on ridges as well.
Jo and I are looking forward to trying all three of these new tubers over the winter. We might even give Dahlia tubers another go and make it a foursome.
If you grow them regularly yourself and have any top tips on cultivating the best crop, please do leave a comment below. Any advice would be very gratefully received.
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Over a busy Bank Holiday weekend, Jo and I managed to grab a couple of hours to head down to Plot #59 and do a bit of planting out.
First in, Jo’s sunflowers:
Jo has grown three varieties this year: ‘Giant Single’, ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Ruby Red’. They might not look like much now, but come back in a couple of months and we should have a stunning display to show you.
Whilst Jo was tying her sunflowers in to their cane supports, I planted out a row of tomatoes:
These are a variety called ‘Legend Bush’, which I sourced from the Real Seed Catalogue. It’s described as an early-cropper, which helps it to avoid the dreaded blight, and is meant to do well outdoors in cooler conditions. Hopefully we’ll be picking a few of those in a month or so as well.
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Old pallets, as long as they’re in reasonably good nick, are a great boon to the allotmenteer. Especially if you need to knock together a few small raised beds. Such as these four, which I set up yesterday for the trial of four different soil mixes that I’m running this year for the folks at Soilfixer.co.uk.
I nipped back down to Plot #59 this morning, lugging a tub of Soilfixer’s SF60 along with me, and back-filled the four beds. In all four cases, I’ve re-used the soil from last year’s carrot bed, which I know is of a reasonably uniform texture and plain composition, as it was all sieved through last year and didn’t have any fertilisers or other amendments added to it.
In bed #1: a mix of soil and the compost that I made with Soilfixer’s C.H.A. (composting humification agent) over the winter.
In bed #2: a mix of soil and the non-C.H.A. enhanced compost.
In bed #3: a mix of soil and a few measures of Soilfixer’s SF60 Soil Improver.
In bed #4: plain soil, no enhancements.
Here are comparison pics of the contents of the four beds (as above, clockwise from top-left) just after the relevant amendment had been added (or not), before final raking in and levelling.
The pics were all taken at roughly the same time of day, in similar light conditions (direct sun, little or no cloud cover) so I think we can safely conclude that the C.H.A.-enhanced compost is a little darker in colour than the non-C.H.A. compost. Whether that’s down to an increased amount of colloidal humus or simply the darkening effect of the C.H.A. (a charcoal-dust-like black powder) I’m not able to say. But the darker colour might help the soil to warm marginally quicker.
I’m going to leave the beds to rest for a few days, then I’ll be back at the weekend to plant out the first crops: a couple of broad bean ‘The Sutton’ plants in each bed, for starters. I’ll also be sowing a few seeds that I think will be reliable germinators: beetroot and turnip. Later on I’ll add some more veg plants, maybe a tomato and a kale, and probably a couple of flowers as well, perhaps some Tagetes or French marigolds, and possibly a mignonette Dahlia or three.
Then it’ll be a case of observing and recording any observations as often as I’m able to, including rates of germination, any noticeable differences in growth patterns, the degree of weed infestation, and anything else that I notice.
I’ll keep you posted.
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Yesterday Jo and I braved the rather chilly wind that was sweeping across Plot #59 and set about planting the first batch of this year’s peas and broad beans.
We started by setting up a pea harp: a bamboo cane A-frame with additional string supports (see last year’s post on the subject for more details, hat-tip again to Jane Merrick for the idea), ideal for scrambling climbers such as peas. I was in charge of the bamboo and Jo did a marvellous job of the stringing.
Here’s the finished structure, with a mix of mangetout-type peas ‘Golden Sweet’ and ‘Shiraz’ planted out:
Next up: simply inserting a double-row of five-foot canes to tie the broad beans to as they grow, and then planting out one plant per cane:
These are a mix of three varieties: reliable ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, new-to-us ‘Mangetout Stereo’ and a few plants that I’ve grown from beans collected from last year’s crop, which may or may not turn out to be ‘Red Epicure’, or some variant on that theme.
We have about 20 over-wintering ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ that are already in flower, so between those and this new batch we should be munching on fresh, tasty broad beans from May through to July, or thereabouts. Yum.
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I love a bit of horseradish, me. Grated fresh and mixed into mayonnaise it does wonders for grilled mackerel. Or creamed and added to English mustard, it really makes your sausages sing.
The thing is though, when you try to buy fresh horseradish, it’s only really available as a whole root about a foot or so long, which frankly is a bit too much even for me. So I decided to grow some of my own, in the hope of being able to harvest it in smaller portions.
This, folks, is an Armoracia rusticana plant, a.k.a. horseradish (see the website of the Horseradish Information Council – I kid ye not – for the likely etymology of the common name, if you’re interested):
Unassuming little thing, isn’t it? But it’s incredibly vigorous and will spread itself around by sending out underground stems (rhizomes) and colonising nearby growing space, especially if its roots are disturbed. And as harvesting the fleshy tap-root is the whole point of growing the stuff, if you don’t want it to take over half your plot, you need to do something to contain those rhizomes.
One option is to grow it in pots, but they carry the usual risk of drying out in hot spells. Instead, I’m using an old plastic bin, with a missing bottom:
It’s about 60cm deep and as you can see, I’ve dug it into the ground to reduce the amount of heat it will absorb and hence the amount of water loss due to evaporation. In goes the plant, along with a good drenching and a quick finish with a mulch of chipped bark:
Job’s a good ‘un. I’ll leave the plant alone to establish for a while, but with any luck I’ll be harvesting horseradish before the end of next year.
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November was a mixed month, weather-wise. A soggy start gave way to a dry, cold, bright last couple of weeks; perfect for all those cutting back and clearing up jobs that are so necessary at this time of year.
Here’s what we’ve been up to:
We’re well into our late Autumn veg now, with cabbages, kale, turnips, swede, leeks, giant black radishes, the last of the manky carrots and a few other roots about all that’s left in the ground. It’s all extremely welcome and means that, alongside our cured squashes, dried beans and stored garlic, we’re never short of veggies for the sort of stews and casseroles that we’re eating a couple of times a week.
Next year we’ll be making sure that there are even more winter crops available, with a bit of better planning and succession-sowing. All being well.
It might seem odd to be putting crops in the ground at this time of year, but we took advantage of the warm gap between the rainy week and the freezing week to get a crop of greenhouse-raised (and hardened-off) Vicia faba (broad bean) ‘aquadulce’ planted out under fleece tunnels.
I’ve not over-wintered broad beans before now, but I saw some on another plot that were around six feet tall and cropping prolifically in late Spring, so I’m hoping for similar results.
I’ve been a man on a mulching mission the past couple of weeks. Having missed the mid-November window to get the asparagus section weeded, cleaned and covered, I went at it with a will as soon as the heaviest frosts had passed (hopefully not damaging the precious asparagus crowns too much).
All three rows have now been cut back, cleaned up – a lot of annual weed and moss had moved in, as the section became shaded out by a row of sunflowers – and liberally mulched over.
I did the research before I began and various methods were generally recommended. Bob Flowerdew suggests using sand, but I didn’t have anywhere near enough, so went with what was available: a thick covering of leaves for the planting rows themselves, and a good couple of inches of chipped wood on the paths in-between. Asparagus roots are said to reach around 12′ deep, so I don’t think there should be too many concerns with nitrogen depletion as the woodchips decompose. But I’ll keep an eye on the strength of the spears when they re-grow in the Spring and feed if necessary.
Once I had the bit between my teeth I was hard to rein in, and ended up spending the rest of the same afternoon carting trug-loads of leaves and woodchip around to mulch over the cur-back raspberry crowns and beneath our freshly-pruned soft fruit bushes. It all looks rather good, if I do say so myself:
I also took the opportunity to re-space the bushes, which had become rather over-crowded since we first planted them out a couple of years ago. A couple of gooseberries were moved and re-planted, and three blackcurrants likewise. The result will hopefully be a lot more space for the plants to grow, and for us to get in amongst them and pick their berries come harvest-time next year. The mulch will hopefully keep the surface weeds down a bit better as well.
A couple of Erysimum (wallflower) ‘Bowles’s Mauve continue to defiantly bloom, and probably will do all winter, but those aside there’s very little colour on the plot at the moment. Even last month’s Tagetes, Rudbeckia and Verbena bonarienses have given up the ghost and gone over. Never mind, they’ll be back next year, in a joyful riot of colour.
That’s it for this month. We’ll continue to work the plot as much as we can, weather allowing – we were down there at the weekend, and the soil was the perfect consistency for weeding out the Ranunculus repens (creeping buttercup) that had invaded the cut-back kale patch – and when it’s inclement, sit inside with a mug of something warming and make our plans for 2017.
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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).
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.