One thing Jo and I have definitely learned over the last 5 or so years of growing our own fruit and veg from seed: sowing too early rarely rewards you with the early crops you’re hoping for, unless you’re very lucky, or have a very good propagation setup.
Yes, it’s tempting to get going just as soon as the seed packets say you can. Then there’s the thrill of seeing the first bright flash of green as the seed-leaves break through the surface of the compost, and when those seedlings reach out into the world it really feels like spring has sprung.
Until, that is, the weather takes a turn for the worse, light levels plummet and your poor, light-starved seedlings go into a frenzy of elongated growth as they twist and turn desperately towards the nearest source of illumination.
The technical term for this is etiolation and the characteristically scrawny, over-stretched stems, barely able to support the weight of the few under-nourished leaves, are unlikely to live long or prosper.
I’m sure you know what etiolation looks like, but just to prove that I’m as guilty as the next grower of not always getting it right, here’s a shot from my own rogue’s gallery, taken not 10 minutes ago:
These poor parsley seedlings are having a terrible time of it. I sowed them early on the off-change they’d be able to grow on in a windowsill tray, but they got out of hand before I could prick them out and move them on. Game over for these plants; they’re already too poor to be worth saving, and given how many parsley seeds you get in a packet, I’ll be better off re-sowing at a later date, when the weather is clement enough to start them off in the greenhouse rather than indoors.
By contrast, here are a few young chilli plants that are doing rather well, if I do say so myself:
These plants have had completely the opposite treatment. Mollycoddled from start to finish, they were sown two months ago today and have spent their entire lives to-date in the cosy environs of a heated propagator, with a full-spectrum LED grow-light eight inches or so above their leaves.
The results are clear to see: no filters or Photoshoppery (size-cropping aside) has been used on that pic. They really are that green and fresh-looking, leaves packed full of photosynthetic chlorophyll and arranged in almost perfect symmetry around the stem to catch the maximum possible life-giving light.
They’ll stay where they are, along with four plants of a second chilli cultivar that’s a few weeks behind, until the propagator is desperately needed by something else, or the nights are warm enough to move them to our unheated greenhouse and pot them on.
In between those two extremes, I’ve got some – much hardier – broad beans that were sown, germinated and are growing on slowly but happily in the greenhouse. And a few trays of leeks and onions – including pricked-out potato onions – that were germinated indoors at room temperature, then taken out to the greenhouse for more light, albeit at a lower temperature, as soon as their green tips showed.
I’ve also sown three varieties of tomatoes today – they’re in the heated propagator as well, as I’d like them to grow into strong plantlets before I prick them out of their seed trays – and some radish, which should germinate and grow on in the greenhouse quite happily until they’re ready to harvest.
And that’s about it for early sowings, except for parsnip which I’ll be direct-sowing down at Plot #59 just as soon as the ground dries out and warms up a bit. Oh, ans I might try to start a few patty-pan type squashes off before the end of the month, as they won’t need quite so much summer heat to ripen their fruit before picking, and maybe a few summer cabbages, just to get them started.
Everything else will have to wait, until the mad, maximum seed-sowing months of April and May. By then we should (hopefully) have temperatures that will mean most species will have a short blast in the propagator to maximise the chances of germination and then be moved into the greenhouse to grow on until they’re ready for hardening off and planting out. But of course that will depend on the next few weeks’ worth of Great British weather.
If you’re vaguely interested in keeping tabs with the Plot #59 sowing and growing stats for the season, I’m doing my best to update a public read-access Google Sheet, which you can take a look at via that link.
How about you? Have you started anything off just yet, successfully or otherwise? Do you have any top tips for avoiding etiolation without going to the expense of installing grow-lights? Please do let me know, via the comments.
This year we’re growing three Andean tuber crops down on Plot #59: Oca, Yacon and Ulluco. It could also be the last year that we grow the third of that trio. DEFRA – the government’s Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs – have issued a biosecurity warning, because some Ulluco tubers imported into the UK may be infected with several non-native viruses.
The situation is a serious one: the viruses could potentially infect plants of three major families: Amaranthaceae (spinach, beets, chard etc.) Cucurbitaceae (squash, pumpkin, courgette, etc.) and Solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes, etc.) so that’s a number of our major food crops. I double-check with the head gardener where I work – Lindsay Berry, M.Hort – and she confirmed that yes, this sort of warning should be taken very seriously indeed.
Frustratingly, DEFRA haven’t updated their website with their own biosecurity alert, so I can’t point you straight to the source, but Emma at the Unconventional Gardener blog has posted details of the warning, along with a copy of the DEFRA document that was issued to tuber suppliers and sent on to me by the folks at Incredible Vegetables, from whom we bought our tubers this year.
This is the relevant section of the DEFRA document, with instructions to Ulluco growers:
Ulluco should only be harvested for personal consumption and should not be sold or transferred to other sites (and all tubers should be removed from the soil).
Tubers of ulluco should not be saved for planting in the following year.
If potatoes and species of Amaranthaceae, Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae are also grown nearby to ulluco, these should only be harvested for personal consumption and any seed/tubers should not be saved for planting in the following year.
Any remaining waste from the vegetables, including peelings, can be disposed of in general waste bins to go to landfill and should not be composted.
Remaining plant material (leaves and stems) of ulluco, should be destroyed following harvest, either by incineration (burning on site), via deep burial (to a minimum of 2 m) or bagged and disposed of with waste for land fill.
Remaining plant material or potato and species of Amaranthaceae, Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae, which you have grown, should be destroyed following harvest, either by incineration (burning on site), via deep burial (to a minimum of 2 m) or bagged and disposed of with waste for land fill.
The planting area should be cleared of all plant material, including weeds.
If any ulluco and potato plants regrow in the following year, they should be destroyed as for the plant material above.
The viruses are potentially transmitted mechanically (on people, clothes, equipment etc.), so hygiene best practice should be followed:
Wash hands with soap before and after working on a crop.
Clean any tools and equipment which have been in contact with ulluco thoroughly to remove all plant material and soil.
Once again, rather frustratingly, there’s no information on how to spot signs of a definite viral infection, or whether the viruses are likely to persist in the soil next season, which of course would prevent growing any crops from potentially infected species. Although, as DEFRA hasn’t told us to immediately destroy all Ulluco crops and remove the soil, it would seem that the viruses in question might need a living host to persist?
In any case, because of the potential risk for mechanical transmission, I spent an unpleasant couple of hours on Sunday dragging half-decomposed vegetable matter out of our large compost bay – to which for the past few weeks I’d been adding the foliage from this year’s squash plants, which had been growing right next to the Ulluco – then bagging it up and taking it to the municipal tip.
So that’s an entire year’s worth of compostable material destroyed, because DEFRA haven’t specified the precise conditions under which the viruses can persist. Still, better safe than sorry, eh? I’d rather loose a year’s compost than risk a future year or more’s potato, tomato, squash and beet harvest.
I just hope we have a decent Ulluco crop this year, to make up for all the hassle.
Over a busy Bank Holiday weekend, Jo and I managed to grab a couple of hours to head down to Plot #59 and do a bit of planting out.
First in, Jo’s sunflowers:
Jo has grown three varieties this year: ‘Giant Single’, ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Ruby Red’. They might not look like much now, but come back in a couple of months and we should have a stunning display to show you.
Whilst Jo was tying her sunflowers in to their cane supports, I planted out a row of tomatoes:
These are a variety called ‘Legend Bush’, which I sourced from the Real Seed Catalogue. It’s described as an early-cropper, which helps it to avoid the dreaded blight, and is meant to do well outdoors in cooler conditions. Hopefully we’ll be picking a few of those in a month or so as well.
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.
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.