We’ve been talking about reorganising the soft fruit on our main plot for a couple of growing seasons now. This year we’ve rolled up our sleeves and made a start.
First up: our raspberry patch has been a reasonably productive one for three or four years, but we’ve decided it’s time for a change.
All the raspberry plants in this section are ones that we moved from elsewhere on the plot when we first took it on five years ago. We have no idea what cultivars they are, all we know is that they’re pretty much all Autumn fruiting primocanes and some of them are unpleasantly spiny.
They’ve also been doing the usual raspberry thing for two or three years: putting out runners, setting up colonies, choking the space. So they’re all coming out – finding new homes with plot neighbours who don’t mind so much which raspberries they grow – and we’re replacing them with fresh stock that we’ve ordered from Pomona Fruits.
We’ve opted for three cultivars, all Autumn primocane (we already have plenty of early-season soft fruit to eat from our plot): Glen Coe, Joan J and Allgold. All three cultivars are recommended in James Wong‘s rather excellent book Grow For Flavour, and two of them – Glen Coe and Allgold – carry the personal recommendation of my good friend Ian P, who grows them both on his allotment and rates them highly.
I’ll post again in more detail when the crowns arrive and we’ve completed the setup of the new planting bed. We’re setting up a short-term support structure to test out a growing method that we’ve seen in action in various walled and/or botanic gardens on our travels.
Next: lift and dispose of our old, tired, strawberry plants. They’re easily three, maybe four years old, so they’re past the recommended replacement age.
When we planted these rows out – back in our novice days – I hit on the bright idea of growing them on weed membrane-covered soil ridges. Cut a hole every 12 inches (30cm) and plant through the membrane. It was something I’d seen in passing on Beechgrove Garden and I thought it would help keep the fruit off the soil and stop it spoiling.
We encountered two major problems with that concept:
1) A couple of summers ago we had a run of soggy, grey humidity and discovered that our 12″/30cm spacing was far too compact. The plants put on masses of dense foliage that held onto the moisture, providing a perfect environment for grey mould to take hold and run rampant. Net result: mushy, mouldy fruit everywhere, very little of it salvageable and fit to eat. Half the plants (every other one) came out the following winter in an effort to improve air-flow around them.
2) As anyone who grows anything in a raised bed of any sort knows, a raised bed drains and dries out much more quickly than flat ground. Good for plants that hate wet roots, not so good for shallow-rooted strawberries. In last summer’s drought it was almost impossible to keep the plants well-watered, especially trying to aim the water through the mass of foliage and into the stem-choked holes in the membrane. Net result: far fewer strawberries than we should have had for the number of plants.
So the plants are out and we’ve ordered a dozen ‘Malwina’ – another James Wong recommended-for-flavour cultivar – as runners, from Pomona. The ridges have been flattened and we’re planning on growing our new strawbs in long, deep plastic trays. Yes, trays will also dry out in hot weather, but they’re easier to irrigate. Water will at least be contained within the trays for long enough to soak the soil and be of some use to the plants. And we can more easily control the amount of fertiliser they get as well.
I know, technically a vegetable, but it’s growing in the soft fruit section of the plot, so I’m including it in this round-up.
Our rhubarb patch is pretty impressive when it’s in full growth, if we do say so ourselves. Again, the eight crowns were all gathered from elsewhere on the plot, and they’ve been in-situ for three or four years now, so they’re well-established and produce kilos and kilos of stems that in the height of the season can be as thick as your wrist. But they’ve got to the stage now where they need to be divided and replanted to stop them becoming dead and woody in the centre.
We’re going to do it in stages: take up half of them, divide and re-plant three good, healthy chunks of root with a crown bud attached, further down the fruit section. Then we’ll add an earlier cultivar (ours all come in late Spring through Summer) and call it a day at four plants instead of eight (too many for us). The other four will be left to do their thing for this year and then next winter they’ll be lifted, divided and either given away or donated to work.
Also in that order from Pomona, we’ll be taking delivery of three lingonberry plants. These tart cranberry-relatives are staples of Scandinavian and Baltic cuisine, where they’re made into sauces and condiments to serve with meat and fish. They’re acid-lovers, so we’ll need to make sure we have plenty of ericaceous compost in before we plant them out.
I’m not sure yet whether to grow them in containers or to dig a trench and back-fill with ericaceous compost. If anyone out there is growing lingonberries already and can offer any advice, it would be gratefully received, via the comments.
We already have a pair of six or seven year old blueberry bushes growing in large tubs in the back garden at home. As far as I can remember though, they’re the same cultivar, and introducing a pollination partner is meant to help improve productivity. I can’t for the life of me remember what the original two are, but I know they’re not ‘Spartan’, so that’s what we’ve ordered from Pomona. It’s another James Wong recommendation and has an AGM from the RHS as well, so hopefully a good choice.
How about you? What sort of soft fruit do you grow and do you have any plans to add to it, or change it up this year? Let me know, via the comments.
A year has rolled on by since I posted the first Year in Review piece here on Notes From the Allotment, and a lot has changed down on Plot #59.
After three years of hard graft, we’ve finally reached the point where almost the entire plot has been transformed from a weed-choked, debris-strewn nightmare into a usable, cultivated growing space. There’s still one small area of midden-ground that I’ll be clearing later this year, and a problem section or two at the back. Once those are tackled though, Jo and I can draw a line under phase one (disaster response) and get on with the serious business of full-scale growing.
In the meantime though, here are the particular high-points and low-points of the last twelve months:
Legumes – Beans and Peas
Last year we grew a stupid amount of beans – we’re still eating through the freezer stocks of blanched pods, and have a couple of kilos of dried beans that we probably won’t get around to using, unless we get a lot more creative – and it was great.
As well as the traditional ‘Scarlet Emperor’ runners and ‘Fasold’ climbing French, we tried a couple of new-to-us varieties, the best of which had to be the ‘Blackpod’ cultivar that we received through our Heritage Seed Library membership. Very tasty when young and still in the green, maturing into deep, burgundy pods filled with purple-black beans, they were a visual feast and a delicious accompaniment to many a pork chop.
We also had a good year for broad beans, with Spring-grown ‘The Sutton’ and ‘Red Epicure’ providing us with a rainbow of colours. And the mangetout peas ‘Shiraz’ and ‘Golden Sweet’ grew like crazy up the pea-harp that we constructed for them, and provided us with fresh, sweet pods for weeks and weeks. We’ll be growing both varieties again this year, along with a couple from the Heritage Seed Library.
Cucurbits – Squash and Courgettes, and Corn
We had our best year yet for the Cucurbitaceae family, with a dozen courgette plants performing at their usual prolific rate and then a harvest of around a dozen good-sized, firm-fleshed and very tasty ‘Turk’s Turban’ squash to brighten up our autumn and winter dinner plates. (I think I might be getting the squash-growing bug, if the dozen varieties poised and ready in the seed-box are anything to go by.)
The sweetcorn performed well again last year. It seems to like the spot we grow it in – at the front of the plot, in full sun (when the sun is out) – and we ended up with another good haul of sweet, juicy cobs. This year we’re trying a heritage variety called ‘Rainbow Sweet Inca’ which promises multi-coloured kernels. Sounds like good fun.
Alliums – Onions, Leeks, Garlic
Our over-wintered garlic did very well indeed. We harvested a good dozen or so large bulbs of ‘Elephant’ garlic around 30-40 of the ‘Extra Early Wight’ and ‘Carcassonne Wight’, although the latter’s bulbs were a little on the small side.
A good year for onions, with around 80 of assorted sizes from the ‘Sturon’ sets that we started off in modules before planting out. They kept well in an old dresser drawer in the shed and had a good, strong-flavour to them. Same again this year.
The leeks went in rather late, at the tail-end of August rather than in June, so they didn’t get much growing done before winter set in. We’ve been happily harvesting every other one for the past few months though and they’ve been very enjoyable indeed. The last few dozen are starting to put on new growth now, thickening up a treat. We may even end up with some decent-sized specimens before we need to clear the patch for this year’s courgettes.
Spuds and Toms
Alas, we suffered from a double-dose of potato disease last year. Our first earlies were hit by potato leaf-roll virus which killed off about half the plants, and then a rather vicious attack of early blight ripped through our allotment site back in late June and early July. That meant the haulms had to be removed before the tubers had reached their maximum potential, and cropping was affected as a result. We still managed to harvest a decent haul of ‘Pink Fir Apple’ and ‘Saxon’ but nothing like 2015/16’s enormous piles of tubers. This year I’m sticking to Saxon and crossing my fingers that we have a drier spring.
Same story with the tomatoes, alas. We didn’t actually grow any down the plot, they were all in the back garden at home, where we’d hoped they’d be isolated from blight. But we must have brought some spores back with us from somewhere, because it took hold and destroyed the lot. We didn’t get so much as a single usable green tomato… one more try this year, and then we’ll have to decide whether they’re worth the inevitable disappointment.
It was another great year for blackcurrants, rhubarb (I know, technically a veg stem, but if it goes in a crumble it gets a mention here) and raspberries, with kilos and kilos of fruit filling up the freezer, or being turned into delicious jam. We also enjoyed our first really good crops of gooseberries and redcurrants. Our potted blueberries did okay, but they were re-potted earlier in the year, so we thought they might rest up and recover a bit.
The real discovery though was the Japenese Wineberry. The fruit of this spiny, long-stemmed bush is small, bright red, and slightly tacky to the touch. When the berries are ripe they come away from the bush with the slightest encouragement and taste like slightly tart wine-gums. They don’t keep all that well, which means you have to eat ’em up quick – a terrible shame, that – but they’re great in a summer fruit salad. This year we’re going to try to increase our stock by layering in a couple of branches.
The one disappointment was our strawberry patch. We did have a reasonable crop back in June, but we lost a hell of a lot more to botrytis grey mould, which ripped through the tightly-packed plants in May and destroyed most of the early fruit. The plan this year is to thin out every other plant and then keep on top of trimming back foliage to increase ventilation. Then at the end of the year we’ll probably re-plant the whole section with brand new stock.
Despite having big plans and high hopes for a carrot crop, the carrot fly managed to get in and ruin about 75% of what we grew last year. We did harvest a few small, stunted, but still quite tasty roots, but nothing worth shouting about:
We did have a pretty good year for roots of other types though: mooli and black radish, scorzonera and salsify all grew well and were tasty additions to our baked root veg dishes. We also tried root parsley, but it didn’t really get going. We’ll give that one more go this year on the off-chance we were just unlucky.
Brassicas – Cabbage, Kale and More…
We went big on brassicas this past year, planting out four varieties of Brussels sprout, purple cauliflower, romanesco cauliflower, calabrese, red cabbage, green cabbage, savoy cabbage, green kale, red kale, and walking stick kale.
The best performers were the cabbages, which grew strongly despite a late planting and we’re still finishing off the last few red and savoy. The worst were the romanesco, which bolted again, and Brussels sprouts, of which only one variety (Rubine) produced anything decent-sized enough to eat. We’ll try sprouts again this year, and get them in a bit earlier, see if that helps.
The walking stick kale was an interesting novelty, growing to around 6′ in height with huge leaves, but those leaves were pretty tough and leathery. They did cook down, if you fried them for long enough, but the flavour wasn’t so spectacular that we’d rush to grow them again. Not when smaller varieties of kale are generally tastier, and more manageable too. As for drying the stems to use as plant supports or even walking sticks, we’re giving one a go, but we’ll have to see how useful it turns out to be.
Last year we grew a few novelty items just for the fun of it. One of them was the aforementioned walking stick kale. Another was the electric daisy, and the third was an allegedly highly-edible Fuschia called ‘Berry’.
Electric daisies were kinda fun. The plants and flowers themselves aren’t much to write home about – straggly, thin stems with not much leaf and strange, lumpy daisy-type yellow flowers – but it’s the effect you get when you eat a flower that’s the point of growing them. It’s a bit like licking a 9 volt battery with a mouth full of popping candy. Not entirely unpleasant, unless you really hate the dentist-esque sensation of your mouth going steadily numb, but it wasn’t something that either of us were hugely enamoured with.
James Wong, who champions the variety via the Sutton’s Grow For Flavour range, suggests breaking up the flowers and sprinkling them into a lime jelly for a more gentle, fizzing sensation. But I don’t think we have time to make lime jellies from scratch. And really, we just grew them so we could see the look on Jo’s Dad’s face when we made him try one. That particular moment was well worth the time and effort.
The same can’t really be said, alas, for the Fuschia ‘Berry’, which you may have seen touted last year by Thompson & Morgan. We bought five plugs (they’re now selling them in packs of 10, but you probably won’t want or need that many) and four grew to a decent size.
The flowers were rather lovely, in shades of deep pinkish-red and purple. But the berries, although large, were… meh. Bland and tasteless, not very juicy, hardly anything to recommend them. It could be because they were grown in pots in the greenhouse, rather than the open air and rain, or it could be because the berries just aren’t all that nice. We’ll grow on any plants that have survived the winter, but for their flower display rather than their fruit.
Honourable Mention – Asparagus
We established and planted up the asparagus section of the plot in March and April last year. With no harvests for the first year or two – to give the crowns plenty of time to develop – we haven’t actually tasted any just yet. But we saw plenty of good, strong growth last year, and the first spears have just about broken ground this year, so things are looking good for next year’s first cropping.
The Floral Department
Our plan has always been for Plot #59 to be somewhere to grow an abundance of flowers as well as edibles. Mainly as a food-lure for pollinators, but also because they’re so gosh-darn pretty. Jo is in charge of the floral department and over the past year she’s sown and grown some absolute stunners.
I’ll just leave this gallery here for you to browse through…
Plans for 2017/18
As discussed back in January the aim for this year is to make the entire plot as productive as possible. There’s some infrastructure work to do – the central path will finally be laid, and a seating / hard-standing area at the back, hopefully – and of course the regular rounds of maintenance, watering and weeding. But at long last, the focus will be set firmly on growing and harvesting, rather than clearing and sorting.
We’ll keep you posted as things develop. Please feel free to drop in from time to time to see how we’re doing.
June was a quieter month than you might think, down on Plot #59, thanks to a combination of wet weather and exam revision. Nevertheless, Jo and I forged ahead as best we could and kept things moving on several fronts.
Projects / Maintenance
The ground was too wet for most of the month to allow any serious digging, but we have made a start on clearing the last properly overgrown section of the plot. More progress in next month’s update, all being well.
We found a spare patch of ground in-between the carrot bed and the pea harp, so we’ve sown a couple of rows of swede and a few of turnip for later in the year. The turnips have germinated well and need thinning, but the swedes are a bit sparse. We might have to re-sow to fill the gaps.
We finally managed to get the first batch of this year’s brassicas planted out and covered over with enviromesh. There are a dozen sprout plants of four different varieties under there, and next door I’ve planted out a few cauliflowers. They’re staked and well-spaced, and we’ll be keeping a closer eye on the watering and clearing dead foliage a lot quicker this year, so hopefully they won’t suffer from the same problems as last year’s plants – sooty mould and wind-rock mostly – and we’ll actually have a decent sprout harvest this winter.
A cauli or two would be nice as well, but it’s the first time we’ve grown them, so we’ll have to wait and see there. We’ve draped a loose net over the top of those to hopefully make the pigeons think twice, and have companion planted a few chives to hopefully keep the brassica pests at bay, but I suspect the diomandback moths have found them already. So it goes.
The courgettes that we planted out at the end of last month are doing really well. They seem to be doing well in their sheltered location, with a greenhouse to one side, and runner beans / potatoes providing wind-breaks on two others.
As per the latest Harvest Monday post the summer fruit and veg is starting to flood in. Strawberries, raspberries, broad beans, mangetout peas, Swiss chard, potatoes, carrot thinnings, courgettes and garlic are the main crops at the moment. We’re still getting rhubarb, too, with the crowns showing no signs of needing a rest just yet.
Lovely stuff, and lots more to come.
Jo’s flower beds are really coming into their own as well, with dahlias (an update post on those shortly), lavender, sunflowers, foxgloves, sweet peas, geraniums, lupins, toadflax, ox-eye daisies, marigolds, nasturtiums, tagetes, evening primrose and cornflowers all doing their bit to add splashes of colour and bring the pollinators to the plot.
Here are a few highlights, and I’ll see if I can persuade Jo to put together a floral-themed blog post at some point, too:
It’s all coming along rather nicely, and judging by the way things have already moved on and changed there’s lots more to come in next month’s round-up.
Summer is here! Although you wouldn’t know it to look at the weather records of late. But the crops are starting to come in down on Plot #59 and we’re beginning to enjoy a wider range of the fruits of our labour.
Here’s a quick photo-montage of the foodstuffs that we’ve been able to harvest recently:
Last year adverse weather conditions meant we harvested a total of three ripe strawberries. This year we’ve done much better, although the grey mould has ripped through the patch, so we’ve thrown away three times as many as we’ve picked, but it’s still a good result. A lot of these were a tad mushy, and so they went in to a batch of mixed fruit jam. The rest went into us, with a dollop of natural yoghurt and a handful of early summer raspberries.
Having spotted blight patches in the second earlies and lifted a plant to make sure we had tubers to rescue, it would of course have been daft not to enjoy the spuds. Many, many more to come, all being well. Those radishes are called ‘China rose’ and are probably a bit bigger than ideal, but have a good, peppery kick.
Our summer veg is in full swing now, with broad beans, Swiss chard, peas and the inevitable courgette glut kicking in. I’ve been thinning our < a href="http://allotmentnotes.com/2016/04/24/we-need-to-talk-about-carrots/">carrot patch and we’re eating any thinnings big enough to crunch in a salad or chuck in a stir-fry. And having lifted garlic t’other week and saved a few bulbs from allium white rot, we had some green garlic to cook with as well.
All of which went into…
…our first allotment medley stir-fry of the year. That was our Sunday dinner, along with a few sausages, those new potatoes and steamed chard leaves – delicious! And of course there was far too much there for just two of us, which meant allotment bubble-and-squeak for my lunch today – bonus!
May was a manic month down on Plot #59, and no mistake. My plate is particularly full at the moment with revision for my RHS Level 2 exams in mid June, so please do excuse me if I whizz through this month’s update.
Not a lot happened this month on the sowing front, just five varieties of cabbage in a multi-module in the greenhouse. They all germinated with at least 90% success, so after thinning I should have around 100 cabbages to pot up in due course. I had a small selection of other seeds that I wanted to sow this month, but time hasn’t been on my side. I’ll have to get them in soon though, or they’ll run out of growing season.
The courgette patch that I started planting out a couple of weeks ago is now full:
Four varieties of courgette there: ‘Tondo di Piacenza’, ‘Soleil F1’, ‘Midnight F1’ and ‘Zucchini’. The companion plants are four Swiss chard and three Tagetes, for a splash of colour amidst the eventual sea of green foliage.
Next door to the courgettes, I’ve set up and planted out the first two climbing bean A-frames:
They’re both runner beans: ‘Prizewinner’ and ‘Blackpod’ (a Heritage Seed Library variety, and the only one of three varieties I had from them this year that’s actually germinated, alas). I’ve got three more A-frames and a few wigwams still to go for the rest of this year’s beans.
Meanwhile, Jo has planted out her sunflowers around two edges of the three sisters section, set sweet peas to scramble up their black bamboo obelisks and provided a tray or two of nasturtiums to accompany the climbing beans, broad beans and peas. All for the good of pollinators, who are always welcome on our plot.
All good so far. A lot more to be planted out in June.
Rhubarb! We’ve got so much rhubarb from our eight crowns this year.
We’re stuffed to the gills with stewed rhubarb (and sometimes custard) and are rapidly running out of freezer room. We’re giving away as much of it as we can, but it just keeps growing. Send help… and jam recipes!
Also, lots of lovely fresh salad leaves and pea shoots from the trays in the greenhouse.
The asparagus bed seems to be coming along nicely. All but one of the crowns have sent up one or two thin, spindly shoots. As it’s just year one, we’ve left them to do their thing; which seems to be branching, setting flower buds and (rather unfortunately) blowing over in the wind. Ah well, as long as the root system is developing under the surface they should be a lot stronger next year.
The raised carrot and root beds are showing strong signs of life, albeit in a slightly irregular pattern in the carrot section:
There was a lot of annual weed in the soil I used for the beds as well, so I’ve been in and hand-cleared between and among the rows a couple of times.
I posted a few shots of our fruit bushes in flower and I’m glad to say that they’ve been visited by the bees and pushing on to set fruit:
There are signs of fruit-set on the blackcurrants, whitecurrants and the mystery fruit trees at the front of the plot as well.
Elsewhere, the broad beans are in flower, the onions seems to be bulbing up nicely, the garlic is producing scapes (very tasty) and the dahlias are just starting to hint at one or two flower buds opening. And the potatoes are doing well; I think just about all of the seed spuds I planted have sprouted, with maybe one or two exceptions. I’ve earthed them up once, but with not much risk of a frost now, I’m going to leave them to do their thing and hope for the best.
It’s all hugely exciting. Can’t wait to see what June brings (endless hours of revision aside…)
“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.
I swung by Plot #59 this afternoon on the way back from a volunteering session for Incredible Edibles Prestwich, raking over the new raised beds in the polytunnels, to get the third of my second early potato trenches dug while the weather was good enough for digging. Strolling up the middle of the plot, I noticed that the fruit section is showing some welcome signs of life (click for a bigger pic).
Good to see the gooseberries and raspberries bursting into leaf there. The strawberries are putting on a lot of new foliage as well (note to self: they need a good prune to cut out the old, dead leaves and make room for the fresh ones). And although we must have the latest of late varieties of rhubarb – honestly, some folks on Twitter are eating crumble already! – they’re finally showing signs of Spring growth as well. Mind you, the crowns might be a bit laid back, but once they get going they’re usually unstoppable right through to Autumn, so I’m not complaining.
How’s about your plot? What’s coming along nicely and what are you still waiting for?
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.
At -1°C, last night was the coldest we’ve had so far this winter, and temperatures are set to dip below zero for the next couple of nights as well. And not before time, either.
I might seem strange to be glad to see a frost – after all, now the allotment isn’t only waterlogged, it’s waterlogged and semi-frozen, so digging is definitely off the agenda – but there are a couple of key food crops that I understand need a really good freeze to boost their performance: strawberries and garlic.
Strawberries require a period of chilling to help initiate flowering (as per Thompson & Morgan‘s advice page), although of course a late frost can kill off any flowers that have already set and damage new shoots. So this time of year, when the plants are still dormant, is ideal.
Garlic needs a period of cold to help it sprout and develop a bulb (as per greyduckgarlic.com’s FAQ) and I’m sure I’ve read that frost helps trigger division of the bulb into multiple cloves as well (online references remain frustratingly elusive…). Again though, late frost can cause leaf damage and yellowing, so the earlier the better.
We have three rows of strawberries on our allotment – 36 plants in total – and I planted around 80 cloves of garlic and/or elephant garlic last year, so I’m understandably keen that both of them have as many of their growing requirements met as possible. The garlic has already sprouted, as you can see from this pic, taken just last week:
Fingers crossed a couple of frosty nights is just the ticket on both counts. We’ll know the score come strawberry- and garlic-harvest time, next June or July.