After a busy few plot sessions I’m pleased to say that Jo and I have made some good progress. Here’s a quick picture round-up:
Peas and Swiss Chard
The pea frame that we constructed last week has now been populated with a ten-pack of ‘Golden Sweet’ and another of ‘Shiraz’; both mangetout varieties. We’ve put four of our Swiss Chard ‘five colours’ plants in at the end of the row as well:
Courgettes (and more Chard)
We’re growing our courgette plants at the far end of the plot this year. A dozen plants will be going in eventually, the first to be ready are three each of ‘Soleil F1’ and firm favourite ‘Tondo di Piacenza’, which I’ve planted motte-and-bailey style, on small mounds surrounded by a water-catching reservoir. A couple more Swiss Chard have been planted as well; they should look good growing up through the courgette plants. Assuming the slugs don’t get ’em first, that is. We’ve put in a beer trap and scattered organic pellets to hopefully deal with them.
I also found time to prep this year’s three sisters patch. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s a companion-planting scheme of Native American origin, involving beans, sweetcorn and squash. The corn provides a climbing frame for the beans to scramble up whilst the squash foliage shades the ground and keeps weeds at bay.
That’s in theory, anyhow. Didn’t work too well last year – the squash foliage went berserk and the dwarf beans I planted were swamped, although the sweetcorn did rather well – but hopefully this year it’ll have better results. Not much to see so far, just six large and well-manured mounds of soil, awaiting planting at the weekend, time and weather allowing.
Oh, and I weeded between the potato ridges. Actual progress, coming along nicely.
After a properly lazy day on soggy Saturday, I was back down the plot on Sunday afternoon to enjoy a burst of Spring sunshine (albeit tempered by some distinctly northerly breezes) and to get the last of this year’s potatoes in the ground.
Having already dug and manured trenches and planted out my first early (‘swift’) and second early (‘saxon’) spuds over the past few weeks, it was the turn of the main-crop variety ‘pink fir apple’.
I left the job until after lunch to give the ground a chance to heat up and hopefully that absorbed warmth will help to insulate the tubers through the spell of cold weather that’s forecast for the end of this week. There are no shoots showing on any of the trenches yet, but if that changes this week I’ll have to keep my eye on the likely minimum temperatures and if a frost seems imminent, scoot on down and do a spot of earthing-up. A frost won’t kill the plants, but if the early shoots are damaged then it will set them back.
Meanwhile, back in the greenhouse, the shelves are packed full of seed trays and modules with all sorts of things that are taking their sweet time to get going. We have a row of broad beans to plant out, once the cold wind stops blowing for a bit, and plenty of pricking out and potting on in progress, with more seed to sow… once we have the space.
Again, it’s the chilly temperatures that are holding things back. Still, I think it’s better than the situation we had last year: the heatwave in April, followed by a cold, damp May sent everything out of whack. If we’re actually going to experience a ‘normal’ seasonal growing pattern this year then that won’t be so bad, eh?
I was faced with a dilemma this weekend. My order of asparagus crowns arrived from Blackmoor Nurseries on Wednesday. With a run of poor weather up to that point, and more rain forecast, I wasn’t sure whether to plant the crowns and hope they didn’t get too soggy, or keep them in their packaging and risk them drying out. After a word or tow of advice from my RHS course tutor on Friday (“get them in the ground,”) I ventured down to the plot yesterday morning to make my final preparations and finish the job.
My nicely prepped planting ridges had taken a bit of a beating during the rainy period, so the first task was to rake them back into shape:
However, walking between the rows made me realise just how claggy and wet (and therefore cold) the soil still was, so after a quick check of the afternoon’s forecast – bright spells until a light shower around 5.00 p.m. – I headed back home to give the ground a bit longer to drain. I took a soil sample with me and ran a pH test – which came in at a perfect 6.5, meaning I wasn’t going to have to add garden lime to the soil before planting – did the shopping, had lunch, and came back in the afternoon.
Those few extra hours of sunshine seemed to have done the trick. By 2.00 p.m. the ridges were looking much drier and had absorbed some warmth, although I still made a point of re-forking between the ridges to break up the thick pan that had formed as I’d been walking on it – the last thing we want is for water to accumulate between the ridges and rot the root tips as they grow – I also took the opportunity to fork in a bit more (extremely) well-rotted horse manure, just to give the plants an extra boost once their new roots reach that far. Then it was time to start planting.
I’d ordered Blackmoor’s thirty crown pack of three varieties: Connover’s Colossal and Guelph Milennium are both RHS AGM varieties, and the latter is a later variety, which should extend the picking season from late April until late June. The third was Pacific Purple, which apparently has spears that are more tender, less fibrous and better tasting than pretty much anything else; time will tell, hopefully.
The crowns were laid on top of the ridge, with their roots spread out in a fan to either side of the bud, roughly 30cm apart. I then sprinkled on a bit of fish, blood and bone – a relatively phosphate-rich fertiliser, which should help the roots to develop in their first year – before shovelling soil over them, covering the roots, but leaving the bud-tips exposed, as advised in the instructions from Blackmoor.
I worked in stages, to make sure I wasn’t trampling or dislodging any crowns, and to give me chance to fork and manure between the ridges as I went. This shot shows the three ridges with varying degrees of progress:
Bare ridge, ready for planting.
Crowns in position, ready for back-filling.
Back-filled ridge, with just bud-tips showing.
By 4.15, with half a ridge left to finish off, the promised “light shower” arrived, except it turned out to be a moderate hail shower, followed by a burst of heavy rain. I finished the job off – what’s a little rain to an allotmenteer, eh? – and focused on the silver lining: nature was apparently going to lend a hand and water the rows in for me. I’ll be back down today though, to make sure the soil hasn’t settled too far and exposed any roots (I do hope not, as we had a light frost overnight) and will back-fill some more if necessary.
And then: the waiting begins. First for those oh, so exciting signs of new growth this year, and then a full two seasons – it’s essential to allow the crowns time to properly establish and strengthen, rather like rhubarb – before we can pick our first harvest. That will be the true test of my patience, but I’ll just have to grit my teeth and bear it.
Come back in 2018 for a harvest update and in the meantime, please do feel free to torment me by sharing your top asparagus recipes in the comments, below…
The weather in our neck of the woods was distinctly variable during March, although thankfully storm Katie largely passed us by. A couple of dry weeks meant I could go full steam ahead on digging and clearing the back section of the plot, for a while. We haven’t worked this bit since we took it over two years ago and so has been lying fallow for who knows how many years (previous tenants only worked small sections and those infrequently, so our plot neighbours have told us). The net result so far is three new potato trenches, two of which now contain nicely-chitted first early ‘swift’ tubers.
I removed all but three chits from each tuber before planting them a good spade’s depth deep and then mounding up the earth above. Potato tubers form as modified stems rather than roots, so you want the tuber to sit deep and reach upwards through the soil, rather than spreading out on the surface, which leads to inedible green spuds if you don’t do a lot of mounding up. Too deep though, and the shoots might not be able to break surface and put out photosynthesising leaves before the tuber exhausts its store of starches, so it’s best not to go mad and dig them six feet under.
The digging and clearing job is continuing forwards from the back of the plot, through some horribly bindweed- and buttercup-choked patches, down towards the fruit bush section in the middle. It’s slow, steady, fiddly work, especially when heavy rain stops play for a day or three, but we’re getting there.
Jo and I also spent a couple of hours weeding the over-wintered allium patch (white onions, garlic and the as-yet-uneaten leeks) before planting out the ‘sturon’ sets that had been started off in modules in the greenhouse. As you can see, after about six weeks of growth the majority of them had developed great roots and strong, healthy leaves; time to get them in the ground before they started to get pot-bound and run out of nutrients. Jo and I planted around 110, in three rows (plus filling in a few gaps in the white onion section from winter losses) and they should be ready to start harvesting round about late June or July, if the weather goes our way.
Progress has continued on the new asparagus bed, with free-draining ridges set up in the previously well-manured section. The crowns are arriving sometime next week, all being well, so I look forward to getting those planted before too long.
Another section of the plot has been sown with red and Persian clover for a green manure trial on behalf of Garden Organic. At last-look, the clover seedlings that I sowed in the middle of March were just starting to germinate. The Persian clover came up first, but so far the red clover seedlings seem to be more robust.
Meanwhile, back at base, I’ve been sowing the first of our brassica and tomato seeds. It’s perhaps a little early for some brassicas, but so far I’ve just sown cauliflower (‘purple cape’ and ‘all year round’) and brussels sprout (‘rubine’, ‘Evesham special’ and ‘Bedford’), both of which need a longer growing season than the likes of cabbage or kale. They’re in a plastic propagation trays (seed trays with a domed lid) in the greenhouse, making the most of whatever sunshine comes their way.
I know a lot of folks will have tomato seedlings well on the way by now, but I’m planning on keeping a lot of ours outside this year, so given the state of the North Manchester weather at the moment, I didn’t see the point in starting anything off too soon. I reckon they’ll catch up once (or if…) the temperatures start to rise. I’ve sown five different varieties, two determinate (bush) or tumbling forms for containers: ‘maskotka’ and ‘principe borghese’, with indeterminate ‘red pear’, ‘tigerella’ and ‘gardener’s delight’ all likely to need a bit of support later in life. (I might sow one or two more varieties at some point as well, depending on how things go.) Again, they’re in the greenhouse in plastic propagation trays for now, as I don’t want them to grow too quickly and become leggy as a result.
In other news, I potted up the chilli seedlings (two weeks on and they’re coming along very nicely) and we took a few first steps in two new (for us) horticultural directions: carnivorous plants for greenhouse pest control and Dahlias for growing at the allotment and at home.
Exciting developments all round. Lots (and lots) more to come in April, weather allowing. Please do feel free to add any comments, questions or helpful suggestions down below, and check out the monthly updates archive for more round-ups from earlier in the year.