Tag: soil preparation

Cottage Garden Project Update: October 2016

So here we are at the end of October and, being realistic, at the end of the season for work on the back garden.

It’s been a strange old month, hasn’t it? If, on the first of October, I’d seen an accurate weather forecast for the next four weeks, I might have been tempted to go ahead and order a load of hard landscaping materials, push ahead with getting the trellises in and the patio laid, with the balustrade railings installed to boot. But with the constant threat (if not a promise) of the weather turning wet, windy and a lot more Autumnal at any moment, it didn’t seem worth the risk of getting bogged down mid-job. Plus, laying stone and putting timber in place now would just mean a winter’s worth of lifespan-shortening weathering before we could actually start to use and appreciate any of it. Best to leave it all until Spring.

What I did get on with was digging out the base for the patio area. It’s quite a large area, 3 x 3.7m, with cut-off corners, but then we’re planning on investing in a couple of sun-loungers, so we’ll need the space eventually. Since this shot was taken, I’ve been busy with short lengths of bamboo cane, marked to 10, 12.5 and 15 cm depths, which I’m levelling in to mark out a slight gradient for the M.O.T. limestone sub-base:

October 2016 patio base dug
Dug out, subsequently re-levelled, and to be filled with three tonne of MOT limestone in due course.

You can probably just make out some of the dark-coloured muck – ground up tarmac, or some sort of clinker by the looks of things – that someone, sometime, thought would make a good garden soil, at the back of the house. I’ve been able to usefully re-distribute most of it though, by digging out the usable top-soil from where the main path is going to run (see September’s update for a more overhead plan-view) and back-filling with the useless muck.

This, then, is where we’re up to at the end of the digging year.

October 2016 back garden
It’s starting to take shape, if not actually take form…
October 2016 back garden
Work very much still in progress across the back of the house.

We’ve achieved the following check-list tick-offs to-date:

  • Install new greenhouse and shed.
  • Remove old crazy-paving style concrete patio.
  • Dig, bastard trench, back-fill large planting bed alongside shed.
  • Dig the fig-pit, line with concrete slab and tile, back-fill a third with smooth stones.
  • Dig out main path, back-fill with sand / tarmac grounds.
  • Dig post-holes for trellis panels, front (18″) and back (36″).
  • Dig out area for patio sub-base.

Not too shabby. We’ve also bought, but not yet planted, a few choice specimens: Eupatorium maculatum (for height in one of the beds), Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’ (a rather lovely variegated ivy for the low trellis), Dryopteris affinis ‘Crispa Gracilis’ (lovely, compact, thick-leaved fern) and a pair of rather handsome Miscanthus (ornamental grass, can’t remember the name off-hand).

Although the project hasn’t moved on as far as I’d hoped, that’s partly due to my focus on the RHS Level 2 exams earlier in the year, but mostly down to the soil (or lack of it) conditions. Having encountered nothing but builders’ sand in large parts of the area that I’m turning into planting beds, so having to mix that in with top-soil from elsewhere as I go, all whilst bastard trenching the old lawn – removing perennial weed root by hand in the process – and breaking through a sub-surface pan of compacted clay and silt (see my July update for more on the soil) to boot… well, the job has taken a whole lot longer than digging a similar-sized section on the allotment would have done.

So it goes. I was hoping to have the hard landscaping done and be moving on to initial planting by now, but I’ll have all that to look forward to next Spring. I’ve got a second set of RHS Level 2 exams to focus on between now and early February, then I’ll see what the weather is doing and start making plans for more progress.

Here’s one final, panorama-mode shot of the whole back garden. It’s a bit blurry in the middle (I must have swung the phone around a bit too fast) but you get the gist. When I do a panorama-shot at the end of next year it will look very different indeed, I can promise you that. As I say, I’m hugely looking forward to cracking on with it all in the Spring.

October 2016 back garden panorama
The view across the back, in panorama-mode.

And here, for the convenience of any interested readers, are the rest of this year’s Cottage Garden Project updates:
January | March | May | July | August | September

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Welcome to Your New Plot. The Hard Work Starts… Now.

July 2016 main onion harvest
How d’you like them onions?

What’s that? You’ve just taken on an allotment for the very first time? Hey, congratulations! You’re about to start on something that could be truly wonderful; great for your health (physical and mental alike), your diet, your shopping bill, your social life, you name it. Just wait until you lift your first potatoes, or start picking your first raspberries, or see your first sunflowers unfurl, or… well, the possibilities are endless.

Jo and I started out on Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments back in January 2014. Here are a few things we’re either very glad someone mentioned, or wish someone had sat us down and properly told us, before we launched ourselves at the plot and got stuck in.

1. Slow and Steady Wins the Race

On the Facebook allotment groups people sometimes post before & after pics of the scrubby patch of ground that they’ve transformed into a ready-to-go allotment in, oh, around a week or so. If you’ve got the time, the energy and maybe a small enough plot, then that’s great. The feeling of achievement after that week of intense toil will be incredible. (As will be the back pain, most likely, unless you take suitable precautions.)

Plot #59, January 2014, middle section
Here’s what we were looking at on day one…

On the other hand, if like us you’re not really keen on (or suited to) the ‘going at it hammer and tongs’ approach, then remember: it’s fine to eat the proverbial elephant in nice, small bites. Pick a manageable section to work on and sort it out properly. And then pick the next section, and repeat until you’re done. Because…

2. There are Very Few Short-cuts to Long-term Success

Yes, a quick strim and a once-over with a rotavator might seem like a great way to quickly make your new plot look lived in (and of course you get to play with power tools, which is always fun).

But once you realise that you’ve just chopped up a huge patch of calystegia sepium (better known as bindweed) – which re-grows into a whole new plant from even the tiniest fragment of root – and liberally distributed it across a large section of your allotment, you really will wish you’d taken a bit more time and been a bit more thorough with your hand-weeding.

Know Your Enemy! This is Bindweed. Looks pretty, chokes other plants to death...
Know Your Enemy! This is Bindweed. Looks pretty, chokes other plants to death…

Luckily, Jo’s folks warned us about this sort of thing before we started, so we’ve made it our practice to weed and clear thoroughly and diligently from the beginning. A few other plot-holders on our site don’t seem to have been given the same advice though, and they’ve tended to be the ones who haven’t lasted the distance.

Likewise, Glyphosate-based weedkiller might seem like a handy solution to a problem patch, but, well, it’s been banned in several countries for being probably carcinogenic, and although its license has been temporarily extended by the EU, the debate is raging across the rest of the World.

Your health, your risk, your decision, of course. Personally though, I’ll only ever use the stuff on path areas that I know won’t be used to grow any food crops, ever. And then only on a still, dry day, to avoid the stuff blowing into areas I might actually want to grow on.

So what to do about those tricky, problem areas..?

3. Dig, Cover, Repeat

On a year-one (or -two, or -three) allotment, your very best friend might just turn out to be a large, dark-coloured tarpaulin or a long, wide roll of heavy-duty weed membrane. Beg, borrow and, er, acquire as many as you can, and then cover over as much of the plot as you’re able to.

May 2014 - tarpaulins
Get those covers down!

All plants – including weeds – need light to thrive. Block the light and you prevent photosynthesis. No photosynthesis means not enough energy for the plant to grow, whilst respiration continues to consume its internally-stored resources. Net result: dead plant.

Black is best, blue and green let a bit too much light through to be totally effective, white and/or clear are next-to useless, but putting down a layer of cardboard under a lighter-coloured tarp is a good combination; the cardboard blocks the light and a well-weighted tarp on top prevents the cardboard ripping up and blowing around in the wind.

Leave those covers down until you’re ready to tackle a section – a year or more, if you can – and when you lift them, you’ll find the job of clearing whatever might have survived is much, much easier.

Two-and-a-half years on, our patch is looking a whole lot better than when we started. We still have a section in the middle that needs properly clearing, plus the central and border paths to sort out, and some sort of seating area to set up at the back, and… well, it’s still very much a work-in-progress is what I’m saying. But we’re getting there. We were lucky in that our allotment secretary told us to think of it as a three year project just to get the basics sorted out. Which took a lot of the pressure off, so we’re grateful for that.

But along the way, we’ve tried very hard not to lose site of the need to…

4. Love Thy Neighbour

I don’t just mean that in a ‘have a chat, make friends, share a flask of tea, swap surplus produce’ kinda way, although all of that is important (and great fun) too. I’m talking about the responsibility that you have to your neighbouring plot-holders not to let your patch get out of hand.

In my previous advice to would-be allotmenteers post, I mentioned that weeds have no respect for boundaries and borders. None whatsoever. If you ignore those persistent dandelions, or that rapidly-spreading clump of creeping buttercup, or the gnarly mess of bindweed clambering up your apple tree, or the forests of dock leaves that are sheltering a thriving population of slugs, then before too long the stuff will be making a bid for freedom and heading for pastures new and plots next-door. And that’s not going to make you a popular plot-holder.

January 2014 - weeds!
More Weeds – Bramble and Bindweed and Buttercup (oh, my!)

You’ll be given a bit of leeway to start with, especially if you’ve bravely taken on a plot that’s been an absolute nightmare for a while (as we did). But if all you do is turn up at the beginning, dig a bit, weed a bit, promise yourself you’ll be along again shortly, then disappear off for a nice long holiday abroad during weed-growing season (which is any time from March through to October) then you might come back to a few less-than-friendly mutterings about your spreading weed problem, or maybe even a pointed chat with the allotment Secretary about the need to improve standards or move on.

Keep things under control with the aforementioned covers. Dig, clear and plant when you need the space and then make an effort to keep that planted space as weed-free (or at least, as low-weed) as you can, and everyone will get on just fine.

Speaking of planting, here’s something I’m only just getting to grips with after two-and-a-half years:

5. Don’t Get Greedy!

When you first start growing your own, there’s an awfully strong temptation to assume that more means… well, more. Cramming an extra fruit bush into a gap, or planting up eight kale seedlings in the row instead of six or generally ignoring the spacing instructions on the seed packet and assuming that it’ll probably be okay.

May 2016 courgette patch
12 courgette plants, plus companion chard and tagetes. Looked sparse when planted. Now a jungle…

Fooling yourself you are, Padawan. Those spacing guides are there for a reason: namely that the experienced plantspeople who come up with them know how big those plants will get in time. Plants need enough space to ensure an adequate supply of light (see photosynthesis note, above), water, nutrients and root-room if they’re to grow and expand to their full, adult, food-producing potential. Healthy plants are also better able to fight off the almost inevitable pests and diseases that will afflict and attack them during the course of the growing season. Deny them the essentials and there’s a good chance that the plants will suffer, maybe even die, and overall yields will be reduced.

Also: you need to remember to leave room for you. Jo is constantly telling me off – and quite rightly – for forgetting to leave adequate walking and working space between rows of crops. How is she supposed to get in to weed the brassica patch – she quite reasonably wants to know – if there are so many brassicas in the patch that there’s nowhere left to step, stand, crouch, or perform any of the other necessary weeding manoeuvres? Good point, well made.

One job we’ll need to do this winter is re-spacing the fruit bush section. When I planted out a few blackcurrants, gooseberries, redcurrants etc. a couple of years back, I didn’t take eventual sizes into account. We now have a patch of highly vigorous gooseberries right in the middle of our blackcurrants and redcurrants, making it extremely difficult to harvest either of the latter without risking severe puncture wounds from the spines of the former. Note to self: when Carol Klein says, in her Grow Your Own Fruit book, “space blackcurrant bushes six feet apart”, she doesn’t mean “ah, go on, three feet will probably do”.

There are exceptions, of course. A lot of the spacing recommendations have been handed down from Victorian kitchen gardens, when maximum yield was the absolute goal. James Wong, in his book Grow For Flavour points out that not all the Victorian guidelines will produce food crops with the best flavour and that sometimes, treating them mean badly make them produce better-tasting results. And in last year’s series of Beechgrove Garden, Jim demonstrated that cabbages will grow to fill the space you assign to them, so if you want smaller, two-person plants rather than leafy beach-balls, then planting them closer is the way to go.

So, yes, your mileage may vary. But generally speaking, my advice would be to go by what they tell you on the seed packet, plant larger specimens with enough room around them to prune, harvest, water and weed under them, and bear in mind that anything else you do is an experiment and that results may not be guaranteed.

Above all, though, the most important piece of advice I can offer to any new allotmenteer is:

6. Stick At It!

Because once you’ve put the hours in, covered over, dug and cleared the weeds, planted out your seedlings, done your very best to guard them from pests and diseases, nurtured them through droughts, floods, tornadoes and hailstorms (if the average British summer is anything to go by)… you’ll finally get to the really, really good part: harvesting the fruits of your labours.

Delicious sweetcorn
That’s what I’m talking about! And so much more…

If your fingers are even vaguely green, or you have any sap in your blood whatsoever, then the feeling of picking, cooking and eating your own is a truly great one. Whether you get your buzz from doing your bit to eliminate food miles, putting good food on your family’s plates, a renewed connection to the Earth, or just a tiny bit of (understandably slightly smug) self-satisfaction at a job well done, then it’s a really great feeling to have. You can and should be justifiably proud of yourself, because whichever way you look at it, you will have achieved something good, wholesome and genuinely beneficial to you and those around you.

Appreciate it for as long as it lasts – pretty much all year, if you get your crop planning right. Then, once the harvest has slowed to a winter-trickle, sit yourself down with a pad of paper and a pencil, and start planning for next year’s growing season. As you steadily move from novice to experienced allotmenteer, you’ll find that there’s always more work to do, more mini-projects to dream up, more lists of new must-grow crops to jot down, and so much more to learn. It all starts again in the Spring and, with your first season under your belt, you’ll be desperate to get on with the next one.

Don’t forget to make good use of the off-season as well. Work out what jobs you can usefully do – remember: you shouldn’t dig when the soil is wet, because you’ll destroy the structure and limit its potential – and set yourself up with an action list. There are tools and pots to clean, equipment inventories to check, maybe a greenhouse to scrub in February or early March. Plenty to keep you occupied.

You can develop your allotmenteering skills and knowledge during the winter break, too, by reading and researching. There’s a huge amount of information out there, in books and magazines, on websites and blogs, to be had by picking the brains of the old boys from your allotment site over a pint or a cuppa, and if you avail yourself of that you’ll be in a much better position long-term.

Go for it! And enjoy!

It’s National Allotments Week this week, and the National Allotments Society website is a great place to go for all sorts of allotment-related info.

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Working on the Compost

I spent a couple of sessions earlier this month clearing out an old compost heap that we inherited when we took on the plot. After a couple of years of neglect by us it was rife with bindweed and cleavers, plus the occasional deep-rooted dock, but I was sure there must be something worth salvaging in there, too.

April 2016 Old Compost Heap
All sorts of unwelcome weeds lurking in here…

Nothing for it but to fork it all loose and dig it all out. I went at it methodically, rough-sieving each spadeful through an old bread crate into the wheelbarrow:

May 2016 wheelbarrow-sieve
A rough finish, but good enough to get out the worst of the perennial weed.

The compost was quite dry and broke up easily, so this sort of rough sieving was fine for picking out the larger lengths of bindweed root. A quick fingertip-search through the contents of the wheelbarrow then turned up any smaller bits and pieces that had made the grade.

You can see what I was up against:

May 2016 Bindweed root mass
This lot is probably enough to give any gardener nightmares.

Whichever previous tenant built the heap had done their best, putting down polythene sheeting and a couple of old flags at the bottom. But they hadn’t quite reckoned on the amazing (and frankly terrifying) power of bindweed to go over, around, under or (if all else fails) through whatever barrier you try to put in its way.

Once I’d finished rough-sieving I dug over the area of the heap to get at as much more of the bindweed root as I could find, then levelled it off. I moved in the black plastic compost bins that I’ll be using as the final stage of my own compost rotation (more on that in another post) and set up what an old bath that will eventually become a worm farm (all being well).

May 2016 New Compost Area
Looking much better after some hard work and t.l.c.

After all that sieving and sorting, I was left also with a large pile of good soil improver. Most of it went on the courgette patch and the rest was used to earth up the potato rows.

I knew it was a job that was going to be worth the effort.

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Now Planting: Peas, Swiss Chard, Courgettes

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:

May 2016 peas and chard
Two more slug traps in, and hopefully the mice will pass them by…

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.

May 2016 courgettesplanted
That’s half of this year’s plants in.

Three Sisters

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.

May 2016 three sisters patch prepped
Bare and bleak for now, but a riot of colour later in the year, all being well.

Oh, and I weeded between the potato ridges. Actual progress, coming along nicely.

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We Need to Talk About Carrots

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:

Mutant Carrots!
On the left: “nudist jogger”. On the right: “carrothulhu”.

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 Science

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.

The Plan

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.

The Process

Here’s what I’ve been working on the past couple of days:

April 2016 - relocated raised beds
A couple of old raised beds should provide a sturdy framework.

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.

April 2016 - membrane barrier
Membrane round the inside should keep out slugs and keep in soil.

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.

April 2016 - raised carrot beds in progress
One done, one to go…

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.

April 2016 root beds initial sowing
Carrots, salsify and root parsley sown so far, parsnip, mooli and scorzonera to follow.

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.

April 2016 root beds prepped and protected
That enviromesh fence is about 30″ high, hopefully enough to keep the carrot fly out.

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.

Update: 27.04.16

I’ve just watched these vids on the Allotment Diary YouTube Channel (@AllotmentDiary on Twitter). This would be how the serious show growers do it:

And this is the sort of result they’re after:

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Setting Up Our Asparagus Bed, Part 4 – Planting

April 2016 asparagus crowns from Blackmoor Nurseries
Lovely specimens – these ‘Connover’s Colossal’ certainly live up to their billing.

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.

Quick recap on the process so far:

  1. Part 1 – Basic Preparation
  2. Part 2 – Soil Enrichment
  3. Part 3 – Drainage

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:

April 2016 - Asparagus ridges - repair needed
Nothing that a few minutes’ work with a rake can’t see right.

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.

April 2016 - asparagus bed pH test results
Not the best photo, but I think you’ll agree that’s a 6.5 result there?
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.

April 2016 - asparagus crowns planted on ridges
30cm spacing, a sprinkle of FBB and we’re good to start back-filling.

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:

  1. Bare ridge, ready for planting.
  2. Crowns in position, ready for back-filling.
  3. Back-filled ridge, with just bud-tips showing.
April 2016 - asparagus planting in progress
The soil pile was to the left, so I worked from the right across towards it…

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…

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Plot #59 Update: March 2016

March 2016 Plot #59 Update
Plot #59, looking good in a bit of early Spring sunshine

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.

March 2016 Chitted first early 'swift'
Nicely chitted and ready for planting out.

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.

March 2016 spud trenches dug
Line and spade gets the job done, without my usual wild swerving.

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.

March 2016 - Onion 'sturon' ready for planting
Good roots and strong stems – these are ready to go in.

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.

March 2016 Clover germination comparison
Persian clover seems to have the edge in germination speed.

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.

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Setting Up Our Asparagus Bed, Part 3 – Drainage

With (reasonably) fine weather continuing over the weekend, I took the opportunity to finish off the essential preparation for the soon-to-be asparagus bed down on Plot #59.

Quick recap on the process so far:

  1. Part 1 – Basic Preparation
  2. Part 2 – Soil Enrichment

Here’s what the ground looked like before I started work:

March 2016 - Asparagus bed, pre-ridging
Dug over, manured and ready for ridging.

The next stage was to work on providing plenty of drainage for the asparagus crowns, which thrive in soil that’s fertile but well-drained. Following advice from various gardening books and a Gardener’s World piece on asparagus planting that Monty Don did last year, I invested in ten bulk bags of gravel from B&Q. Because I was using builders’ grade gravel, rather than the pre-washed, decorative-grade (and more than twice as pricey) stuff, the first job was to give the gravel a thorough rinsing. Into the wheelbarrow, along with a watering can’s worth of saved rainwater, a good sloshing around and out comes (hopefully) a lot of the surplus clay, silt and salt:

March 2016 gravel washing
Important to get rid of the excess salts in particular.

Three and a third(ish) bags then went to form the basis for each ridge:

March 2016 asparagus ridge bases
Hopefully enough gravel there to keep the crowns well-drained.

I then added soil from the big pile of material that I dug out of the section to begin with, mixed with a fork and went along the ridges with a spade, straightening the rows:

March 2016 asparagus ridges finished off
Straight enough for purpose…

And that’s pretty much that, until the crowns arrive from Blackmoor Nurseries, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. One more post to come as the crowns go in, and then the long wait for a harvest will begin…

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Plot #59 Update: February 2016

Plot #59, February 2016
Still a bit sparse and scruffy-looking, but a dose of sunshine really makes a difference.

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).

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Setting Up Our Asaparagus Bed, Part 2 – Soil Enrichment

With the weather taking a turn for the brighter and drier this week, I’ve been able to put in a few more hours on the Plot #59 asparagus bed to-be. After the basic preparation phase – an initial dig-over to remove as much rubbish weed root and rhizome as possible – the next phase involved adding a large amount of fertilizer in the form of well-rotted horse manure.

Here’s what the ground looked like after the initial dig:

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: before
Dug over once and ready for excavation

Next up: excavate a trench, around a spade blade’s depth, along the full 4m length and 3m(ish) width of the allotted section. Time to roll up my sleeves, grab my new shovel by its 54″ handle and start digging. I started excavating at one end, re-loosening the soil with a fork before shovelling it into a heap. Once the trench was a metre or so wide, it was time for a short trip to the nearest manure-pile (luckily just over the path on a derelict plot). A barrow-load at a time went into the trench, and was the next section of soil (minimising overall effort, maximising efficiency, etc.)

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: during
Coming along nicely: trench excavation, manure dumping, re-covering.

…and continue until the job was done, over the course of two afternoon sessions, mostly in glorious late-winter sunshine. Here’s the finished job; not much different to the ‘before’ state, admittedly, but it’s what’s lurking beneath the surface that counts.

February 2016 asparagus bed 2nd dig: during
And we’re done! Ready for the gritting and ridging stage…

The final preparation stage will involve copious amounts of grit. That will need mixing in, along with as much of the surplus soil as is required, and then forming into the three long ridges that the asparagus crowns will be planted on top of. Hopefully at the weekend, weather allowing.

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