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.
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.
After a slow start to the year – February swung wildly between too cold and far too wet to be able to get much of anything useful done – it’s great to finally get some of the early sowing and growing jobs started.
As you can see from the pic above, I’ve potted up a bag of onions sets in modules, to grow on in the greenhouse until the ground is warm enough to plant them out at the allotment. Last year I moduled them up a few weeks earlier, round about Feb 11th, but then we had that ridiculously mild winter, with temperatures a fair bit higher than they are this year. Always better to work according to the prevailing weather rather than the calendar, I reckon.
I’ve also sown broad beans – again, starting them off in modules for transplanting later – and red onion seeds. Before too long I’ll be sowing leeks, brassicas and getting our first indoor salad leaves of the year started. I’m going to risk sowing my tomatoes soon as well. Last year I sowed them quite early – round about mid-February if I remember it right – and they were extremely slow to germinate out in the greenhouse, due to a prolonged cool spell. This year I’ll get them started in the propagator, once we have space available.
And I spent most of this morning taking our Dahlias out of their winter storage pots, checking them over for any damage, removing the occasional rotten tuber and then re-potting them to start sprouting in the greenhouse before they go outside after the risk of late frosts has hopefully passed.
It’s good to get going. And there’s so much more to do. Can’t wait.
It’s still very early in the sowing and growing season, of course, but there are one or two crops that can benefit from starting off in January. The hotter members of the Capsicum family – chilli peppers – are one example, and so, as I did last year I’ve sown four varieties and tucked them away in our Vitopod heated propagator to (hopefully) germinate.
This year’s sown varieties are:
Capsicum annuum ‘Cayenne’ (‘Hot Portugal’?) – Once again, the bog-standard magazine freebie with supermarket-style red fruits. 5,000 – 30,000 Scoville.
Capsicum baccatum ‘Aji Limon’ – A bush variety with bright yellow fruits that’s apparently good for hanging baskets. 40,000 – 60,000 Scoville.
Capsicum annuum ‘Prairie Fire’ – A bush variety that did well for us last year. It’s a prolific cropper and looks very attractive when it’s in full fruit. c. 70,000 Scoville.
Capsicum annuum ‘Padron’ – The classic tapas pepper, known for its mildness when young and green, apart from the odd one or two that develop their heat sooner than the rest. 500 – 2,500 Scoville.
I only want to grow one or two plants of each variety, so sowing six of each ought to include plenty of redundancy, but of course you can never guarantee germination rates. And I’m planning to keep a closer eye on the pepper production line this year. Last year the seedlings got a little leggy and some of them weren’t strong enough to grow on into strong plants, so I aim to move each variety into an unheated but covered propagation unit as soon as the seedlings show. Hopefully that will help them grow a little more sturdily. (And if all else fails, I’ll send away for some interesting plug plants later in the year.)
If you’re interested in the full sowing method I used, details can be found in last year’s chilli sowing post. I used the same method this year, albeit without the vermiculite top layer.
(By the by, do please excuse the recent lack of new content; a situation that may continue for the next fortnight or so. I’m sitting my second set of RHS Level 2 exams two weeks today and I’m deep in my revision cave, so not much else is going on. I’ll be back in full swing just as soon as I’ve recovered the brain power to devote to anything other than memorising Latin binomials…)
Equipment Needed: 2x plastic troughs, with trays. Compost. Watering can. Mixed salad seeds. Care Requirements: Minimal. Difficulty Level: Ridonkulously easy.
In our house, salad season officially starts when: a) the first batch of salad leaves are ready in the greenhouse, and b) it’s too damn warm to eat soup for lunch any more.
Both conditions have been met round about now, and as luck would have it – thanks to a bit of forward-planning – we’ve got a great big crop of lovely, fresh, healthy salad leaves ready to go at just as the temperature reaches the top-teens:
You too can grow your own fresh salads – and avoid having to splash the cash at the supermarket for those tiny bags of premium-priced leaves – all summer long.
Firstly, buy yourself a few packets of mixed salad seed – there are plenty of varieties available, with flavours ranging from hot and spicy to mild and succulent – along with two deep, rectangular plastic troughs – around 15-20cm deep and 50-60 cm long would be ideal – along with trays to stand them on (quite important), and a bag of compost. Multi-purpose is fine, no need for seed compost, unless you have some spare.
Fill the first tray (not the second one, not yet) to around the 4/5 mark with compost. You can use seed compost for the final half inch or so, if you have some handy, but don’t worry if not, your leaves will grow just fine without. Water the compost well – give it a good drenching – and allow excess water to run through.
Sow (scatter / sprinkle) your mixed salad seed on the surface of the compost (I use an old Schwarz herb pot to help them scatter and spread out). Not too thickly, feel free to nudge them about a bit if they’re clumping together, but don’t worry about spacing them out exactly; the idea is to let your leaves grow wild and free.
Lightly cover the seed with another cm or so of compost. You probably won’t need to water the surface compost; the seeds should be able to soak up enough moisture from the main compost layer to germinate, but if in doubt, water with a very fine rose watering can, taking care not to disturb the seed.
Finally, stand the trough on its tray and leave it on a light, sunny window-sill or on a shelf in the greenhouse, then wait for the seeds to germinate.
A couple of things to watch out for: sometimes the surface of the compost can dry out and form a crust, which the emerging seedlings can have difficulty breaking through. If that happens, gently dampen the compost with a fine-rose watering can and it should fall back into place around the seedlings.
Also, keep the compost reasonably moist, but not too wet – remember that even though the surface appears dry, the compost underneath can still be damp. The seedlings’ roots need both water and air to thrive, so keeping the compost too wet will actually be quite bad for them. As the plants get larger they’ll need more water, so keep an eye on the compost and top them up as needed; a good soaking every couple of days is better than a sprinkling here and there. If you’re going to be away for a while, give them an extra-good soak before you go, fill the tray that they’re sitting in with as much water as you can fit in it and hope for the best.
Once your leaves are well-established – with individual plants growing well, showing plenty of true leaves and basically looking like they’re just about ready to harvest – start off your second tray in exactly the same manner as the first. That way, by the time you’ve finished picking or cutting the leaves from the first tray the second trough-load should be ready to start harvesting.
You should get three or four harvests from each tray – at least 60 or more portions – before the plants are exhausted; you’ll know when they’ve gone over, as the stems will be much tougher, or flowers will begin developing as the plants desperately try to reproduce. At this point you can empty the first tray – dump everything into the compost bin – then start that first trough off again with fresh compost and seed. With a bit of careful management and good timing you’ll be eating home-grown salad leaves all through the summer and into the Autumn.
2016 is apparently the International Year of Pulses, so I thought I’d mark the occasion by sowing and growing a quite ridiculous number of beans this year.
Actually, I really didn’t need any encouragement. I love growing beans. They’re easy to germinate, easy to grow on, largely take care of themselves as long as you see to their basic watering and nutrient requirements, they look great when they’re in full flower and they produce masses of edibles: fresh green pods for summer salads and side dishes, soft new beans in late summer and early autumn, then dried, haricot versions to liven up any winter stew. Pick the right variety and they’ll freeze beautifully as well. Honestly, what’s not to love?
This year I’m growing twelve (count ’em: twelve) varieties of bean (including the broad beans already hardening off in the cold frame…) and I’m aiming to have between four (new-to-me varieties, to see how they do) and twelve (reliable favourites) plants of each. I spent a good couple of hours on Monday preparing my planting tubes – recycled toilet roll inners have always done the job for me – and another good couple of hours yesterday sowing around 120 runner and French beans (always a good idea to have a couple of spares of each, in case some of them do fail to germinate) in tubes and small pots.
There’s not a huge amount to tell in terms of method. I did soak the beans overnight in tepid water prior to sowing; I understand that it’s optional, but I have experienced failed germinations before, and I do know that getting water into the bean is always the most important part of the germination process, so soaking occurred. Then it was just a case of 1) add bean to tube, 2) top up with compost, 3) drench in water (albeit gradually, to avoid washing the bean back out of the tube / pot) and 4) leave on a shelf in the greenhouse to get going.
Here’s a full list of the varieties I’m trying this year, and where I sourced them from:
Vicia faba (broad bean) ‘red epicure’ – Suttons
V. faba ‘The Sutton’ – SowSeeds.co.uk
Phaseolus coccineus (runner bean) ‘Scarlet Emperor’ – from my own stock of saved seed.
P. coccineus ‘blackpod’ – Heritage Seed Library.
P. coccineus ‘prizewinner’ – Mr Fothergill’s (free with Grow Your Own).
Phaseolus vulgaris (French bean) ‘fasold’ (climber) – my own saved seed, originally from my Dad-in-law, Guru Glyn’s saved seed.
P. vulgaris ‘cobra’ (climber) – Thompson & Morgan.
P. vulgaris ‘Medwyn’s exhibition’ (climber) – saved seed from Guru Glyn.
P. vulgaris ‘Major Cook’s bean’ (climber) – Heritage Seed Library.
P. vulgaris ‘peewit’ (dwarf) – Heritage Seed Library.
P. vulgaris ‘purple queen’ (dwarf) – Unwins.
P. vulgaris ‘cannellini’ (dwarf) – Unwins.
V. faba ‘aquadulce claudia’ – Thompson & Morgan (to be sown in late Summer / early Autumn for over-wintering).
Those three Heritage Seed Library entries are heirloom varieties, so you won’t find them in any commercial seed catalogues. I highly recommend getting hold of ‘fasold’ if you’re in the market for a climber that’s vigorous, prolific and produces very tasty pods that freeze well, and black beans that you can use in all sorts of dishes. ‘Scarlet Emperor’ is pretty ubiquitous, but a solid performer and my go-to runner bean (so far, at least). The others should be pretty easy to track down as well.
Next bean-related job (potting-on aside): putting up a whole lot of bean support frames down at Plot #59. And when harvest season rolls around, we might have to invest in a new chest freezer…
Of all the veggies I’ve tried to grow in the past few years, I think carrots have to be the most frustrating. The first year I grew them, in our back garden plot back at our old place, the carrots actually did quite well. If by ‘well’ we mean beautifully twisted and gnarled beyond any supermarket-standard definition of a carrot:
They still tasted rather fantastic (the knobbliest ended up in a rather nice carrot and cumin soup, as I recall), but that’s been it for carrots ever since. I’ve sown them a few more times and all I’ve ever really grown is carrot tops (apparently they’re quite edible, if you cook ’em right, but I’ve never tried) with short, stumpy rootlings at best.
“Why bother?” You might cry, and with reasonable reason. Carrots are around 60p a kilo bag in most supermarkets, so why do I put myself through the hassle and heartache of trying to raise them from seed?
The answer, as with so much that’s home grown, has to be: the flavour. Compared to the long-stored, shop-bought versions – and especially the stored-in-the-ground-for-months specimens that are around at the moment – fresh-out-of-the-ground carrots really are a taste sensation.
There’s a perfectly good scientific reason why: carrots are biennials. Their roots are storage bunkers for the sugars that the plant needs to keep it alive over winter so it can grow again, set flower and spread seed the next year. That’s what, if we pick ’em and eat ’em fresh, gives them their sweet, pungent, palate-pleasuring burst of flavour.
Whilst hibernating though, the plant is gradually using up those sugars (via respiration) to keep its cells and tissues in good order. But it isn’t able to replenish them as it doesn’t have the chlorophyll-filled foliage to photosynthesise new carbohydrates. Which is why, come Springtime, stored carrots mostly consist of sugar-depleted packing material, which keeps ’em crunchy, but really doesn’t do much for their flavour.
Conclusion: if you want your carrots to taste really, really good, then grow your own is the way to go. Here endeth the lesson.
On to this year’s carrot (and other root) growing plan: I’ve read up on the subject, and the general consensus is that what carrots need is super-fine soil with minimal stone content – when a carrot root hits a stone, it grows around or away from it rather than shoving it out of the way, causing forking and splitting you see above (which, when you think about it, is a terribly British way of doing things: “I’m so sorry, were you obstructing me? I’ll just inconvenience myself by going around…”) – that’s still reasonably fertile. But not too fertile, because that encourages the growth of side-roots and yet more forking. Not that I mind a bit of forking – I’m growing for food, not for show – but they’re quicker and easier to clean if they’re reasonably straight-ish.
Next up there’s the dreaded carrot fly to consider: they can smell freshly crushed carrot leaves from a mile away and will zoom on in to lay their eggs at the base of the stems. The grubs will then tunnel into the root and chomp away until it’s damaged beyond all hope of use or salvage. They do have one weakness though: the egg-laying females can’t fly more than 60cm / two feet (or so) above the ground. So a barrier of fine mesh around the growing area should be enough to keep them out.
Here’s what I’ve been working on the past couple of days:
Firstly, I forked over and re-loosened the soil in the section I’m using this year – most of which was dug out of the back section when we laid the base for the greenhouse last year – and then relocated a couple of old raised beds (former pallets) that we inherited when we took over the plot.
Next, I tacked strips of doubled-up weed membrane around the inside of the beds, to block the gap between slats, which will hopefully keep most of the slugs out and most of the soil in.
The biggest part of the job involved bringing in soil from a section in the middle of the plot that I’m levelling to make way for a path, and hand-riddling the lot through a large, metal sieve to remove as much stone and weed root as I possibly can. As you can see, the result is about six inches or so of prime-quality crumb tilth, over a sub-surface of reasonably well-broken soil.
Next, I raked in a reasonable amount of fish, blood and bone fertiliser – round about NPK 4-7-4; a slightly higher phosphorus level should aid root growth – and then formed drills in the beds and watered them well. I was going to sow the carrot seed mixed in with fine sand, but the local DIY shop didn’t have any, so I ended up doing without.
I’ve sown six carrot varieties into the larger of the two beds: ‘Nantes 5’, ‘Royal Chantenay 3’, ‘Autumn King 2’, ‘Charlemagne’, ‘Purple Sun’ and ‘Creme de Lite’. The last two are from James Wong’s Grow For Flavour range (from Suttons Seeds). The Chantenay seeds were sown right along the edge of the bed, to see if they germinate any faster for the soil being extra-warmed by the heat stored in the wooden bed edging.
In the smaller bed I’ve sown some other root crops: salsify ‘Giant’ and root parsley ‘Eagle’ (another Grow For Flavour variety) so far. I’ll be adding parsnip, mooli, scorzonera and quite possibly a catch-crop or two of radish at a slightly later date as well.
Finally, I surrounded both beds with a screen of fine enviromesh, around 30″ or so in height. It’s reasonably sheltered by the neighbour’s compost bay and fruit trees, so hopefully won’t suffer too much wind-damage, but I’ll have to keep an eye on the pegs, or maybe invest in some cane-clips if they seem to be getting loose.
Fingers crossed for a decent carrot crop this year! Because if all of the above preparation doesn’t provide an amenable-enough environment for carrots to grow in, then there’s probably not much else I can do to help.
Things are still pretty quiet on the cottage garden project front. We’ve been making progress on planning the hard landscaping – which is going to involve a couple of trellises, one or two arches, plenty of board for path-edging and about four tonnes of gravel – and have successfully researched and identified our new shed. That’s the one major change to the old plan since the last update: rather than knock down the old, leaky, asbestos-roofed garage and replace it with a brick-built structure, we’re going to invest in a 4.8m x 2.4m heavy-duty, prefab shed from local specialist supplier Cocklestorm.
In the meantime the pots that we brought with us from the old house and the baskets that Jo planted up last Autumn, have been putting out splashes of Spring colour: irises, snowdrops, hellebores, cyclamen, narcissus, winter pansies, primroses, euphorbia and wallflowers have all been making a contribution to cheering the place up. We’ve also enjoyed a neighbour’s blossoming cherry on one side and t’other neighbour’s white (and only slightly pink) rhodedendron on the other. (Click on the thumbnails below if you’d like to see a larger pic)
Down in the greenhouse, Jo has been pushing ahead with sowing this year’s selection of annuals, some of which will feature in the new cottage garden, others which will be used to brighten up Plot #59. So far, she’s sown (deep breath): sweet peas, French marigold, Osteospermum (a.k.a. daisybush), Didiscus (a.k.a. lace-flower), sweet scabious, viola, sunflower, Gaillardia (a.k.a. blanket flower), Rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan, Tagetes, oriental poppy, evening primrose, Zinnia and snapdragon. And there are plenty more to come.
Jo has a few general rules when choosing her flowers, the first few of which are: 1) they have to be as bee-friendly as possible, 2) and the bugs, and 3) no pink (Jo doesn’t really do pink). Based on the above, and having seen the rest of her to-be-grown list, I know we’re going to have one of the most colourful, bee-attractive plots on the whole allotment site by the middle of Summer, guaranteed.
And I’ve done my bit on the decorative front by potting up our five handsome dahlia tubers to grow on in the greenhouse until the ground is warm enough to plant them out. I’m happy to say that four of them seem to be sprouting nicely, so fingers crossed for a good summer display.
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.
This morning I cleared the final stragglers – some non-producing purple sprouting broccoli and a few pigeon-knackered kale plants – from the main veg section down on Plot #59. Having found a bit of clubroot in the p.s.b. and not wanting to risk spreading it to this year’s brassicas, I decided that the newly-cleared section would make an ideal location for the green manure trial that I’m carrying out for Garden Organic this year, which will run through to March 2017.
That’s two one-metre square plots (with some celery that survived the winter relocated as a boundary marker and a few parsley plants to keep them apart) freshly cleared, raked and sown with the seed provided. I noticed that the Persian clover seed was quite a bit smaller than that of the red clover; I expect that means the red will be a more robust plant than the Persian? Time will tell and I’ll be keeping track of progress as the two patches develop.
After a slow start to February – mainly due to repeat bursts of very wet weather – the past week has been dry and fine enough to finally get down to Plot #59 and get on with some of the season’s prep work.
Mainly that has involved basic prep work and digging in horse muck for the asparagus bed to-be. I’ve still got some more work to do there before the crowns arrive at the end of March, but it’s definitely on schedule.
Jo and I also spent some time this last weekend weeding and clearing last year’s growing areas, around the permanent fruit bushes and along the rows of over-wintering leeks, onions and garlic. And I started in on rough-clearing the back section that hasn’t really been touched at all for at least two years. Getting on top of the weeds now will mean less to do over the next couple of months, when it will be all hands to the seed trays to get this year’s crops sown, germinated and potted on as needed.
Meanwhile, back at base, I’ve been sowing leeks and broad beans. It’s always good to get started on some of the main edible staples and these are two of my (admittedly many) favourites.
All in all, I think things are looking pretty good. There are some landscaping, organising and infrastructure jobs on the to-do list that I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to. March and April should be busy and then May, June and July even more so. Bring it on.
(There won’t be a Cottage Garden Project update this month as we’ve not done much at all to the garden since the last update. Although Jo has sown some sweet pea and other flower seeds… but more on those once they’ve germinated).