Phew! That’s the exams done and dusted. Until I start the next RHS Level Two course in September and sit the next set of exams in February 2017, that is.
My pre-exam weekend was spent down the allotment, on the grounds that I’d already crammed about as much into my head as was going to fit, so a bit of fresh air and exercise was likely to do me more good. Here’s what the place was looking like:
It’s starting to look a lot like Summer. My next few Harvest Monday posts should be a bit more interesting and varied, too.
“April is the cruellest month,” said T. S. Eliot, in the opening line of his epic poem ‘The Wasteland’. He could well have been referring to the tricks that April seems to enjoy playing with the weather. Last year April served up a prolonged, scorching heatwave, followed by a thoroughly miserable, damp cold-snap. This year the month started out typically grey and wet, switched to a few days of August-like temperatures, then conjured storms for the South, dropped hail, snow and sleet on us here in the North, and now seems to have settled back to a steady, spluttering, mucky mizzle.
As a result, Plot #59 has gone from a sodden mud patch to a parched, cracked hard pan and back to a sort of dank dreariness that’s keeping air and ground temperatures well below useful ranges. Recent overnight frosts have meant that seedlings germinated earlier in the month have been kept greenhouse-bound, taking up space that I should be using to sow the next batch of edibles: beans and cabbages in particular. But then I remind myself that last year, due to the house move, we were even later getting most things into the ground and everything quite happily caught up. So there’s really no need to panic. I just have to be patient, keep everything ticking over and moving along when possible. It’ll all come good in the end.
The jobs I have managed to do this month have all been useful ones though. The month started with signs of life in the fruit section and since then the gooseberry bushes have all been given a further pruning and the whole section has been fertilised and then thoroughly mulched with leaf mould. Jo has hacked back a lot of last year’s dead or dying strawberry foliage and it looks like the plants stopped just short of actually putting out blossom in the recent hot spell – the buds have formed but not opened yet – so I’m hopeful that they’ll come along later this year and won’t suffer as badly. We might actually get more than three berries, all being well.
I finished another one of this year’s Big Jobs when I planted out asparagus crowns on the ridges that I prepared last month. I’m happy to report that they’ve nearly all sent up their first shoots, so I’m confident that they’ll establish well this growing season. I also finished off this year’s potato planting, with main-crop ‘pink fir apple’ joining first-early ‘swift’ and second-early (or main-crop) ‘saxon’. We’re growing around half the number of potato rows that we deliberately over-grew this year. Hopefully this time around we’ll be able to use up all our stored tubers without this sort of thing happening again:
I’ve put a bit more thought and effort than usual into this year’s carrot and root veg beds after a few years’ of disappointing results in the carrot department and hit-and-miss cropping elsewhere. Here’s hoping all the digging and sieving pays off later in the year. One notable failure already is the Garden Organic clover experiment that I started last month. The combination of scorching heat and cold, dry winds has blasted the seedlings and they’ve all-but died off completely. Garden Organic have sent me a fresh batch of seed, and I’ll be re-sowing just as soon as conditions improve a little.
With sowing and planting largely off the agenda, I did take the opportunity to do some maintenance work on the composting section at the back of the plot. The two compost beds that Jo and I built in our first couple of months, way back in 2014, were cleared of stored pallets, plastic piping and water butts, then turned one into the other and well watered; the first time I’d done that for a good while. A lot of the material was bone-dry, so I gave it a good soaking as I turned it, then covered it all over with empty bin bags, dumped a pallet back on top and I’ll leave that lot to break down for a couple of weeks before I turn it back again. And so on, through the summer and into the Autumn, when the bulk of the fresh material will be ready to add in again.
Elsewhere there are promising signs of blossoming fruit trees, and the over-wintered garlic and Spring-planted onion sets continue to grow strongly. The rhubarb patch has finally woken up and our eight crowns are sending up some good, thick, stems. But there’s not a lot else going on, just yet. I get the feeling that it’s all poised and ready to explode into activity just as soon as the temperatures come up a bit and then stay there. We can never rule out late frosts in May, of course, but with any luck we’ll get enough of a run of decent weather to start the process of hardening off and planting out in earnest. I can’t wait to share the summer updates.
By the by, I found time in April to share my recommendations for top bits of allotment kit that you might not immediately think of. Please feel free to take a look and let me know if there’s anything else you’d recommend, via the comments on that post.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A couple of weeks ago I took delivery of this year’s seed spuds from our allotment shop. Now, I know it’s perfectly possible to grow new spud plants from supermarket spuds, or even from spud peelings, as long as there’s a decent eye, but I do prefer to stick my hand in my pocket and buy seed tubers instead.
The main reason is because seed tubers are guaranteed to be free of disease and/or viruses. Of course, I’m not saying that supermarket spuds are riddled with pathogens, but for me the added peace of mind is worth a few quid. After all, in a good year every tuber is produce a kilo or three of potatoes come harvest time, but a plant lost to early disease isn’t going to produce much of anything. It seems like a false economy to me to skimp on the seed spuds, given their relatively low cost. (Although I will also be growing some of last year’s spuds – that have been sprouting away in their sacks in the under-stairs cupboard for the past few weeks – in old compost bags in the back garden, just to see how they do.)
And yes, I do always chit my seed spuds which, again, some folks might roll their eyes at. But I think the process of chitting – placing seed potatoes in a light, dry place to encourage germination and allow small, green shoots to develop before the potatoes are planted – has a few important advantages that makes it worthwhile:
It gives the developing stems a head-start, allowing them to establish a focus for ongoing growth (in botanical terms, a meristematic zone of cell development) which means they’ll be shoving their way up and out of the soil much sooner than if left to their own devices. Which is important, because the plant needs to be putting leaves up into the light, to enable it to start getting its energy from photosynthesis before the stored starches in the seed tuber run out and the plant loses vigour.
It allows you to control how many growing stems are left to develop, by removing all but the strongest chits before you plant. Two or three are generally ideal, again ensuring that those growing stems have the best chance of breaking the surface and putting out leaves in good time. Too many developing stems all competing for those stored starches – which is what will happen if you leave a tuber to its own devices and every eye on the spud puts out a new shoot – could mean the plant may run out of steam before it breaks leaf above ground and is able to photosynthesise effectively.
On a personal level, I find chitting provides a psychological boost at the dullest time of the year. It means you’re doing something to get the growing season under-way, and something is growing, even if it’s just a few chits for now.
It seems I’m not alone, either. I ran a quick Twitter poll last week, and although the results are by no means statistically relevant, they’re still pretty darn conclusive:
It's chitting time! Or is it? What's your view – to chit, or not to chit your #potatoes before planting?