2015 Review of the Year

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI realise that this may be a little early in the year to review the highs and lows of Maddi’s allotment but, as every gardener knows, January is a time of great optimism, so I thought I’d get it done now while I have some time on my hands…

January and February were a time for planning and preparation. Overnight rain gave way to chilly but bright days, perfect for digging over the ground and incorporating the well rotted horse manure delivered for free by a retiring farmer who was desperate to get rid of it. By the end of the month every bed was ready for the year to come with not a weed in sight. So good was the weather that seed beds were already raking to a ‘fine tilth’ and they were looking like illustrations from a RHS guide book. The over-wintering kale and purple sprouting broccoli were in full swing and daffodils, aconites and snowdrops were beginning to flower on the plot borders. I had 100% success with the tomato, chilli, sweet peppers and aubergines that I started off early in the polytunnel, with no additional heat. I was even able to supply young plants to friends who had had erratic results with their tender seedlings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarch and April are always the busiest on the plot. Sowing seeds, thinning, transplanting and pricking out seemed to take all my time and I rarely had a moment to hoe and pick out the annual weeds that normally compete so successfully with everything I plant. Fortunately annual weeds were not a problem this year because they didn’t seem to be able to cope with the lush growth of the vegetables I was growing and the rampant horsetail, couch grass and ground elder, which I have been fighting for years, seem finally to have been eradicated from the plot. Slugs and snails caused havoc again with my allotment neighbours this spring but I found very little sign of their presence. Normally parsnips are slow to germinate but this year they came up so quickly that I had no problem telling them apart from the occasional weed and I had no irritating gaps where seed had failed. The blossom on the apple and pear espaliers and the Victoria plum fan was spectacular and with no overnight frosts or heavy rain to spoil the display, it seemed to last for ever.

By the end of June the plot was looking a picture. I wanted the plot to look more ‘arty’ this year so I mixed the planting up (yellow tagetes amongst the cavolo nero kale, ruby chard next to spinach and Californian poppies everwhere) and used hazel sticks instead of bamboo canes for the climbing french beans, sweet peas and squash. I was approached by a BBC producer who wanted to film the plot but I didn’t want cameramen, make-up artists and other hangers-on trampling everywhere so I declined their kind offer. I am still considering their book deal…

P1010531Overnight showers meant I hardly had to spend any time watering and the warm, breezy days kept potato and tomato blight well away. The plot was alive with butterflies, bees, hoverflies and other beneficial insects and I had no bother from greenfly or blackfly. We ate salads and herbs, sprinkled with edible flowers of borage, nasturtium and day lily, every day and the strawberries were the best ever. We went away on holiday for a couple of weeks at the end of June and I came home expecting neglect to have taken its toll on the plot, but everything was fine. There was hardly a weed to be seen, none of the cloches were broken and everything was growing strongly and healthily.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn July and August the plot came into full production. We pickled, bottled and preserved for hours on end (my, we had fun!) and still had such a surplus that were were able to supply two local restaurants and the general hospital. The rust that so badly affected the garlic, onions and leeks last year was entirely absent as were pea moth, vine weevil and carrot fly. The crops tasted better than I can ever remember and I’m tempted to take on another plot. The currant bushes that were moved last winter to the new fruit plot have not only survived but thrived, with each bush providing about 20 lbs of fruit, just like it said in the catalogue.

As the autumn arrived I expected everything to slow down but, despite the worst storms in living memory, the plot just kept going. Actually, they weren’t the worst storms in my memory because whilst the rest of the country was giving its impression of a Shakespearean blasted heath the storms missed Southern Hampshire and we suffered no more that a brief heavy shower. I must mention my pumpkin. I don’t enter my fruit and vegetables in shows because I grow them to eat, not look at, but I was flattered to be told by an allotment neighbour that my Atlantic Giant pumpkin was half as big again as the winner at the Hampshire Show and would easily have won had it been entered. I was offered £150 per seed from this mammoth fruit by a Giant Veg competitor, but they taste so good toasted that it seemed a waste to just sell them. Getting this pumpkin home caused some damage to the axle on my pick-up but it was worth it to see the looks on the faces of the little ones after it was carved for Halloween.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANovember and December saw temperatures fall and the first frosts of the winter (all the better to kill off those unwanted pests). The dry weather meant I could clear the beds as the crops subsided and I now have three enormous compost heaps, which will make me self-sufficient in compost next year. The day after I took down the netting from the fruit cage roof we had a heavy snowfall (that was lucky!) and I was able to spend some time with my feet up in front of the fire sampling my home-made rhubarb wine and planning for next year, which will be even better than this.

In my dreams…

Last Year’s Experiment – Sweet Potatoes

sweet potatoI only ‘discovered’ sweet potatoes a few years ago (they’re like everyday potatoes, only sweeter!) and I’ve never grown them before because I’ve always assumed that they need plenty of heat to thrive. It turns out that they do indeed need heat and whilst our Southern English summers are probably mild enough for them I decided to grow them last summer in my polytunnel and greenhouse.

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) originate from South America but they are not direct relatives of the humble spud; sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family so they have more in common with the dreaded bindweed than King Edward or Charlotte. This explains why they are described as ‘vines’ that ‘grow up to 3m’ by the seed companies.

Sweet PotatoSeveral companies supply slips (cuttings) or plug plants with ‘Beauregard’ being the most popular but ‘Carolina Ruby’ and ‘Murasaki’ are also advertised. I ordered a pack of six slips which duly arrived in April (costing about £2.00 each) but by way of an experiment I also decided to grow my own slips from a tuber bought from our local greengrocers (costing about £0.20 each). This process started in February and was really very simple. I cut a tuber in half and then stood it in a shallow tray of water for a few months (changing the water daily to keep it fresh). Gradually white roots began to grow out from the eyes on the tuber and shortly after this a stem started growing upwards and leaves began to unfurl.

P1010516In May I snapped each young plant away from the tuber and potted them into 7.5 cm posts of multipurpose compost. The original tuber produced enough growth for about 8 young plants so I kept the strongest 6 and composted the remainder. I grew the young plants on for a few weeks and then planted them into a polytunnel bed that had been enriched with some blood, fish and bone and some well rotted horse manure. At the same time I transplanted the nursery supplied slips (which had also been grown on in small pots of multipurpose compost) into the greenhouse and gave them the same start with manure and fertiliser.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABoth sets of plants were slow to get going but soon they were putting on lots of vine-like growth. The nursery supplied plants in were trained up string supports (a bit like I do with cucumbers) and by September they had smothered the space available. My own plants in the polytunnel were allowed to crawl along the ground, in between the tomatoes, so the growing conditions were not quite identical.

In October, the foliage was starting to brown off so I dug them all up to see what we had. The plants I raised myself (in the polytunnel ) provided enough tubers for about 3 meals. The tubers were on the small side and didn’t quite have the flavour or sweetness of their parent tubers. I assume that, wherever they originated from, they were used to warmer and perhaps wetter growing conditions than I provided for them.

The nursery supplied plants fared better, giving enough good-sized tubers for about 5 meals. The flavour was still not quite what I was hoping for but it was not bad. In terms of value for money I have no doubt that my own raised plants won hands down; the nursery supplied slips were so expensive that the cost of the cropped tubers was very high and it would have been cheaper to buy the same quantity of tubers directly from the greengrocer and because they were grown in more appropriate conditions they would probably taste better too.

s potato 2Would I grow them again? Well, yes, but not in the valuable space of the polytunnel or greenhouse. This year I am going to try and grow my own plants, raised from a shop bought tuber again, but I am going to see how they do in an open-air plot. I’ll give them some cloche protection in June (when I plan to plant them out) but otherwise they’ll just have to tough it out. I’ll let you know how they do.

Happy New year to you all.

December 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis summer I took over the neglected plot next to Maddi’s Allotment and started clearing it of debris, weeds and various derelict structures, some of them so badly decayed that I cannot say what they originally were. Until this week it seemed like I’d spent all my available time digging the new plot and bending over to pick out the National Collection of perennial weed roots. Of course, other things have been going on (maintenance and cropping of the existing plot) but I had set myself a target of clearing the whole plot by the end of this year and I’m pleased to say that I’ve now managed to do this. There is something very satisfying seeing a well dug plot, bare brown soil and nothing else – I suppose it’s pregnant with promise for the coming season – whatever the reason, I’m enjoying the view!

WP_20141216_14_19_19_ProThe new plot is about 6 metres wide and 35 metres long and I have broadly divided it into 3 parts. It slopes gently from the site’s central access track down to a small brook that runs along one boundary of the site. The top part of the plot, next to the access track, will be the new fruit plot, the centre portion will contain 12 beds (running width-ways across the plot) and the bottom of the plot, next to the brook, will contain flower beds, the new shed, a seating area and some water butts and compost bins. The plot lies on a South East to North West orientation and gets sun most of the day.

I have put up a 2 metre high chicken wire fence, with an access gate, at the top of the plot in order to keep the deer out and there is a space between this fence and the access track where I can grow rhubarb (which the deer don’t touch) and store manure deliveries. I have also used a variety of shed panels and timber found on the plot to construct a boundary fence at the bottom of the plot, next to the brook, because (as unlikely as it seems to me) my allotment neighbours assure me that the deer also come onto the plots via the brook, so hopefully I am now fully secure from these lovely but irritating animals.

I have already planted up the flower beds near the shed with a variety of perennial flowers and plants gathered from a variety of sources, including several that I have grown from seed such as lupins and aquilegia. I have under-planted these with daffodil bulbs, which have already begun poking up through the soil, and although these beds look pretty uninteresting now (at the beginning of December) I know that come spring they’ll provide plenty of colour and fragrance for me and the bees to enjoy.

WP_20141202_14_54_24_ProHaving secured the plot against deer I have now started transplanting the currant bushes from the old plot (which I shall be giving up soon) into their new homes. The new fruit plot was the first part of the plot to be cleared and dug over and since then I have added and dug in loads of compost and manure in order to enrich the soil and raise the beds. The first things to go in were some autumn and summer fruiting raspberry canes, each planted 40 cm apart in a single row. These were then all cut down to just above ground level to encourage the roots to establish themselves. Although cutting them back in this way seemed brutal it appears to have worked since many of the canes have small growth buds appearing – so far so good.

WP_20141202_15_10_05_ProI ordered two dessert apple trees, one cooking apple tree and a quince tree from a local Hampshire nursery and these arrived just last week. I have planted to cooking apple (Newton’s Wonder) and the quince (Meech’s Prolific) on the new plot and the two dessert apples (Ellinson’s Orange and Honeycrisp) on the boundary of Maddi’s plot. The cooking apple and quince will be grown as half-standard trees (so the don’t over-shadow other plots) but I will train the two dessert apples as espaliers. They will take longer to come into fruit production grown this way but espaliers are a good way to grow fruit trees in a limited space. All four of these trees have been severely pruned as the first stage of their training and it must be said that they look pretty pathetic right now, but with a fair wind they will start growing next year and I’ll have something to show for the money spent.

WP_20141208_14_25_06_ProThis week I have transplanted 3 gooseberry bushes, 1 white currant, 2 black currant and 3 red currant bushes from the old fruit plot to their new home. These bushes were planted on the old plot two years ago and, although conditions were not the best, they have all grown into substantial sized bushes and moving them was not easy. I started by digging a ring around each bush and loosening the roots from the soil towards the centre of the plant. Then, taking as large a rootball as I could, I planted the bushes in the new fruit plot. Some of the roots will have been damaged in this process but I’m hopeful that they will survive and thrive in the new location where the soil and light is better than than they had before. Needless to say, I gave each tree and bush a really good soaking as soon as they were planted and they’ll all be mulched with well rotted horse dung in the spring, to reduce water loss and limit competition from weeds.

I still have 2 pear espaliers and a Morello cherry fan to move (and these will the most difficult to successfully transplant) but after several months hard preparatory work the new plot is beginning to take shape. I’ll need to erect a bird-proof net cage around the fruit bushes and I’ll need to add a lot of compost and manure to the main beds over the next few years to improve the neglected, clay soil, but I have high hopes for the plot and now that the relatively uninteresting digging and clearing has been completed I’ll be writing more frequently about developments and plans for the two plots.

Autumn – The hard work starts here

I think that if I had to choose just one season in which to live my fantasy life over and over again it would be spring. Seeing seedlings germinate, cuttings put on new growth and tubers, bulbs and corms bursting into life all remind me of what it’s like to be a young kid at Christmas, opening presents. But as you get older, and specifically as you learn the meaning of ‘delayed gratification’, you learn that spring in the garden doesn’t just happen; you have to invest time, effort and, perhaps, money, in order to maximise the bounty of the season. And that investment starts now, in the autumn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince July, when I took on the plot next to Maddi’s allotment, I have been doing what I enjoy most in gardening terms; actually making the garden, or to be exact in this case, designing, preparing and creating a new allotment. The new plot was particularly overgrown with weeds and hadn’t been well looked after for several years. The shed was dilapidated and could only partly be salvaged. As is often the case when taking on a new plot, a lot of scrap metal, wire, plastic bags and other detritus had to be removed first before any ground clearance could take place, but better to do it thoroughly now than do it piecemeal later in the year.

I have now built a new shed, incorporating glazing from the old shed, and put up fencing at the bottom of the plot to stop deer coming through. I have moved some paving slabs from the old fruit plot and made a small patio in the lea of the shed so I have somewhere sheltered to have a coffee and I have created some flower beds near the shed so I can appreciate the flowers and associated wildlife easily from the patio. I have transplanted wallflowers and sweet williams that I have been growing in a seedbed since June as well as aquilegia, lavender, pinks, sweet rocket, purple sage and globe artichokes that have either been taken as cuttings or grown from seed this year. I have planted mixed daffodil bulbs in places and a few tulips.  Over the winter I will move crocosmia (three varieties), evening primrose, rudbeckia and a few other plants that I have growing near the bank on the old fruit plot and transplant them into the new flower beds. Any thought of an overall design has gone out of the window here; these plants will just have to fight it out for space and light.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the top of the plot I have cleared and dug over about a quarter of the area and prepared it for growing fruit. Over the winter I will transplant my young pear espaliers, the cherry fan, gooseberry, redcurrant, white currant and blackcurrant bushes into their new home and hope that losses will be minimal. I have already lifted, divided and moved the rhubarb to its new home and on Saturday I planted the first of the new fruit in the fruit area; summer and autumn fruiting raspberries. These were bought bare rooted from a Hampshire nursery and looked good and healthy. Once cleared of weeds, the ground was dug over three times before planting the canes; twice to break up the soil and remove as much of the perennial weed roots as possible and again to incorporate plenty of well rotted horse manure. Then, when the canes were planted, I did something that I find really hard but which is important if the canes are to get off to a good start in life; I cut them all down to ground level – they are now just about invisible. As brutal as this seems to be, it nevertheless encourages new growth and is the best way to tempt the plants into a productive life.

A sprinkling of blood, fish and bonemeal raked in and a good watering should mean that I can forget all about the raspberries until the spring when shall have my fingers crossed that new shoots will appear. I won’t let the canes fruit next year because I want them to concentrate their efforts towards root development. Assuming they grow well, late next summer I’ll cut the autumn fruiting raspberries to ground level and tie in the new summer fruiting canes to a set of support wires that I’ll be putting in when things are a bit quieter this winter.

As well as the raspberries I’ve ordered a quince and a cooking apple tree as well as two varieties of eating apples that I will train as espaliers. These will be delivered in December, when the young trees are dormant, and so I have a little longer to wait before I can see them in situ and longer still before the first harvest. Espaliers, fans and cordons are excellent space saving ways of growing fruit and although you have to spend a few years training and pruning before they come into full productivity, the wait is well worth it.

Because of the deer I will erect a 2 metre high chicken wire fence across the top of the plot to keep them out (with a gate so that I can get in) and I will build a fruit cage using small gauge netting to keep the birds away. All this costs money but I have found in past years that I will lose the whole fruit crop unless I take these precautions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have dug over, prepared and in a few cases, started planting about two thirds of the new plot and I have now started digging over the ‘middle ground’ between the fruit plot and the flower beds around the shed. This is hard going but better now that the ground has softened up after the recent rain. I reckon I’ve got about twenty more sessions before the plot has been completely cleared and then I’ll mark out the beds, dig them again and incorporate manure and compost to the beds that need it most. The first double load of horse manure is arriving a a couple of weeks time and it will need to be barrowed into position fairly quickly because I’ve ordered another couple of loads to take their place two weeks after that.

Each visit to the allotment at the moment means plenty of hard, physical work but I like this; I get great satisfaction from seeing the plot gradually take shape and I know that in future years the fruit, vegetables and flowers that I grow will benefit from my current labours. A lot of the work this year results from ‘breaking new ground’ and moving plants and material from one place to another. In the future the amount of work needed each autumn will be less than this year but the productivity will increase; my enjoyment of the allotment and the goodness of my crops make the wait worth while and that’s what I understand as ‘delayed gratification’.

Bean there, done that.

P1010052A few weeks ago I ordered the bulk of my seeds for next year. This is very early – I don’t normally get my seeds until Christmas time but this year the excitement of going through all those new seed packets got the better of me and I cracked. I ordered from an online company and the seeds arrived three days later – great service. Amongst the seeds I always order were a few new ones that I’ll try for the first time next year, including salsify and scorzonera, two ‘weedy’ looking root crops that were recommended to me by a friend (and Mark Diacono in the excellent River Cottage Handbook No 4 Veg Patch, published by Bloomsbury). For the first time I can remember I have not bought any french bean seeds. We love french beans and the harvest this year was so good that I am going to try saving some seed of the various varieties I grew to sow next year.

I have saved seeds sporadically in the past but I have never done it with any seriousness for three reasons; first I have often bought F1 seeds, which do not come true from saved seed, second I never quite believe that my saved seed will actually germinate and third I like pawing over seed catalogues too much (online and actual) and handling the new packets – for some people it’s shoes or fishing floats, for me it’s packets of seed.

P1010457But I’m changing my ways. For example, I’m buying fewer F1 seeds nowadays. F1 seeds have the advantage of generally being more reliable than non-F1; they have a higher germination rate, grow more strongly and give consistent results. However, non-F1 seeds grow healthily enough for me and because they are less uniform in their growth habits, they tend to crop over a longer period, rather than all at once, causing gluts. F1 seeds are also more expensive than non-F1 varieties so I can save a bit of money as well as being able to save seed confidently from non-F1 varieties.

I suppose with age and experience I’m also becoming more confident that my saved seed will actually germinate and produce good plants. I grew some marigolds this year and left them to seed. I reckon I could have supplied most of Britain with their seeds – they were prolific and it made me realise how paltry the quantities of seeds often are in commercially produced packets. Another good reason to save seed – I can supply friends and neighbours.

In general I find that the larger the seed, the easier it is to save but the principles of saving seed are the same whatever the size. In my opinion, it is not worth trying to save seed from plants that readily cross pollinate; the results are too unreliable unless you actually want to cross pollinate because you are looking for new forms. Vegetables and flowers that are insect pollinated are most susceptible to cross pollination; brassicas, peppers and chillis, carrots, parsnips and the beets (chard, beetroot etc) all readily cross pollinate unless grown in isolation. But beans are self-pollinating and generally come true when grown from seed so they are a good choice if you want to save your own seed for next year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo save bean seeds leave the pods to mature as long as possible on the vine. Ideally the pods should be brown, dry and brittle when harvested. Unfortunately it tends to rain a bit in this country so if the pods are not drying naturally on the vine, pick them and put them somewhere warm to dry off. With dwarf varieties you  can hang the whole plant upside down in a shed or outhouse to dry off. When the pods become brittle it is time to take the seeds out. This is much easier when the pods are brittle and dry. Once out of their pods, lay the beans out in a shallow tray somewhere warm and dry to fully harden off. Don’t be tempted to put them in a low-heat oven – you run the risk of cooking them. Let them dry naturally.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you were lucky with the weather, this will probably be sufficient for the beans to be viable for sowing next year. However, it is worth putting a few spoonfuls of ordinary rice in with the seeds to act as a desiccant, absorbing any moisture that is still present; this will increase the proportion of viable seeds. Some people keep their seeds in tightly sealed jars but I prefer to store them in paper envelopes kept in our dark under-stairs cupboard where I know they will keep safely until the spring.

This year I grew Blue Coco, Bob and Mary, Carter’s Polish and Borlotta Lingua di Fuocco, all climbing varieties of french bean that I grew primarily for drying and winter use in soups and stews, but we had a good few meals from pods picked young as well. These all grew very well and cropped prolifically. I also grew a two types bean given to me my my friend Jose (who lives near Bilbao in Norther Spain), one climbing and one dwarf variety; I don’t know the varietal names so I just called them Jose’s tall and Jose’s short beans. These grew well but not as well as the others; I guess they were better suited to growing in warmer weather than I could provide for them in England.

IMG00069-20140930-1142I started the seeds off in individual modules because the mice found my plot this year and ate all the large seeds of peas, beans, sweetcorn etc that I tried to sow directly. When they were a few inches tall I transplanted them to a bed which had been well dug over with plenty of well rotted horse manure. I built a series of wig-wams using 2.4 metre tall bamboo canes and kept the plants well watered during the summer. I’ve been rewarded with enough bean seeds for our use as well as plenty to save as seed or give away to friends and family.

Doh! A deer (proof plant)

Bank Finished Feb 14Back in spring this year I spent some time clearing an awkward bank of weeds and brambles and constructing some timber framed raised beds. Apart from the difficult aspect and position of this bank its most challenging problem is the deer who wander and graze through our allotments, eating what they will as they go. So I spent quite a bit of time researching the topic of “deer-proof plants” and, of course, I found that there are no such things, only plants that deer are more or less reluctant to eat. Nevertheless, I did find a selection of plants that deer were reputed to dislike; this is how they fared.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI started off planting some foxgloves that I had grown from seed last year. These were planted early in the year when there is not much else available for deer to eat so I kept a daily eye on them, hoping to find them intact each time. And they were; not so much as a nibble on leaves or flowers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEncouraged, I sowed a mixture of poppy seeds; Californian, Iceland and a big fluffy burgundy coloured variety, whose seeds were free with a garden magazine. These all germinated and grew on well except the Iceland poppy seeds, which, judging from the ‘gelatin’ trails, were regularly eaten by slugs and snails although they appeared not to be so keen on the Californian or burgundy coloured poppies.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had noticed last year that along the main allotment access track several allotmenteers had patches of comfrey and borage growing and that these appeared untouched by deer so I decided to plant a few of these as well. I’d also noticed that rhubarb was often grown in areas that deer could get to and that they they it alone, but I wanted the bank to be for flowers and I had rhubarb growing elsewhere on the plot, so I didn’t plant any more. The borage and comfrey grew well and again they were left alone by the deer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had grown nasturtiums, sunflowers and cosmos just above the bank and although they were growing behind deer-proof netting, inevitably some of their flowers grew through the netting but as far as I could tell, the deer left these alone as well. I was given some spare annual aster seedlings and I planted these where the Iceland poppies had been ‘slugged’. I hadn’t seen these on any internet “deer-proof” plant lists so I wasn’t expecting them to last long, but to my surprise they not only survived deer visits but have added a late summer floral boost to the bank.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOverall I have been very pleased with the results. The deer have left the exposed flowers and plant growth alone and there have been wildlife-friendly flowers blooming most of the spring and summer. Of course, this is hardly a convincing set of trial results; the plants may have been left alone because they had plenty to eat elsewhere or there may have been fewer of them visiting the site this year (we’ve had far more foxes this year – it may be that they dislike sharing ground) or I may just have been lucky. However, if you have a problem with deer and you want to grow easy ornamentals, those I’ve listed above would probably be a good starting point.

Ironically, the bank where I’ve planted these flowers is part of the difficult fruit plot that I am giving up this year. Instead, I will be moving the fruit to the new plot, adjacent to Maddi’s allotment, which has better soil, a better location and will be easier to keep deer off. I have now cleared about half of the new plot and built a new shed; I’ll be writing about this soon.

They Call My Melon Yellow

High summer on the allotment is a time for exuberance, reveries and relaxation and who am I to buck this trend? Well, actually I have bucked it a little because I’ve been practising clearing weeds, digging concrete-hard ground and building sheds (I’ve just about got the hang of it now…) but apart from that I’ve still managed to spend a good amount of time day-dreaming and planning for the next season.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the highlights of the summer growing season is the colour that appears on ripening peppers, chillis, aubergines and the like. These plants like the heat (and return it in spades) and have the endearing habit of turning from green to fiery red or purple when ripe; there’s no mistaking when these beauties are ready for the table! But when the fruit are still on the plants in the greenhouses, polytunnel or even outside in a good year, they bring a zing and sparkle to proceedings. No wonder strings of Christmas lights shaped and coloured like chillis sell so well in the depths of winter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough I’ve had an allotment for many years I’ve never tried to grow melons before. This is because I’ve never had the means of protecting them and I’ve always considered them a difficult and temperamental crop that couldn’t possibly be grown outside, even in the south of England. Maddi’s allotment now boasts a 3 metre long, 1.2 metre wide and 0.7 metre high glass cold frame, which is in direct sunlight for most of the day, so this year I tried to grow my own melons.

Now I know that in some parts of the world melons are no big deal; they are cheap, plentiful and seem to grow as easily as weeds. However, in England they are still considered a little exotic and our variable weather (mostly we just call it rain) makes growing them a bit of a challenge and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting great results. Late last year I ordered my seeds, including some Blenheim Orange melon seeds, and started poring over growing guides and online tips. Like any other subject, as soon as you start researching it the clouds of mystery erupt. Too much information about germination, rotting seedlings from over-watering, pollinating the female flowers with squirrel hair brushes and training and pruning back growth had me doubting the vanity of my plans but I had the seeds now so nothing ventured…

I sowed six seeds individually in small pots of general purpose compost and left them on our bedroom windowsill to germinate early in March. All but one germinated and after three or for weeks they had started growing their ‘true’ leaves. They were slow growing, perhaps not liking the variable temperatures and low light levels from an overcast, wet spring. By May they were big enough to transplant to the cold frame. I dug some well rotted horse manure into the ground in the cold frame before putting a layer of black polythene down. I made three equally spaced holes and planted the three strongest seedlings, one to each hole. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot much happened for a few weeks; the seedlings grew a little but not enough to make me think they were happy. Then, quite suddenly in the middle of June they seemed to double in size almost every time I looked at them. I had to open gaps in the glass to control the temperature and allow germinating insects access, and the melons just grew through and out of the cold frame. Lots of small yellow flowers appeared (none of which I pollinated with squirrel hair brushes, or anything else) and I checked hourly to see if any fruit had set. I didn’t cut back the trailing vines or restrict the growth in any way; I just watered regularly and gave a couple of comfrey feeds.

The fruits appeared, swelled and lay on the polythene sheet, happy as you like. I’d read that melons are ripe when their skin, which is generally rock-hard, feels softer to the touch, but having had no experience of growing melons before, I wasn’t sure how soft the skins were supposed to be. So I cut the largest melon from its vine about three weeks ago and bought it home to try. As I cut it open I had mixed feelings. On the one hand it looked like a real shop-bought melon, with orange flesh, a distinct melon aroma and hundreds of irritating seeds in the middle, but it wasn’t yet ripe – it just wasn’t sweet enough (just like a shop-bought melon).

I tried another a week later. Better results, sweeter and juicier but still not quite ripe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen, almost overnight, all the foliage withered brown and died back, leaving just the fruit lying randomly about in the cold frame. There was nothing for it; I cut all the fruit from the vines and bought them home. As I lifted each fruit I noticed that two or three of them felt a little soft; were they actually ripe? Oh yes – melon success! We polished off three by tea time and they were delicious; soft sweet flesh and juice dripping everywhere. 

Altogether, the three plants that I grew provided fifteen fruits (one or two are a little on the small side) and those that have not already ripened are basking in the sun in our kitchen; they won’t be long there. I’ll definitely be growing them again next year.


Digging, Dust and Daydreaming

On 1st August Maddi’s allotment become the proud tenant of a second allotment, happily one that lies alongside the original plot, and since then I have spent almost all my spare time clearing the weeds, demolishing the dilapidated shed and digging the ground. This is all necessary preparatory work to growing fruit flowers and vegetables productively, indeed it is only the start of the process, but it has been dusty, tedious and hard work – not really the stuff of interesting blogs but here goes!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy plan is to clear the new plot so that I can start with a blank canvas, a rare treat for those taking on an allotment, since the new plot has no existing fruit trees or bushes, a shed that cannot be used in its current state and an abundance of well established annual and perennial weeds. I want to move the gooseberries,black, red and whitecurrant bushes, the cherry fan and two pears espaliers from the existing fruit plot (where the growing conditions are not good and they have not thrived) to the top part of the new plot and it is here that I have spent most of the last three weeks.

The ground on the next door plot (our existing plot) is deep and friable; it has benefited from years of good husbandry as the previous tenant was a professional gardener and knew the value of repeated applications of horse manure. Once the weeds were cleared on the new plot it became obvious that the soil was in a pretty poor state compared the existing plot; the level of the ground is a good 15 cm lower than the surrounding plots and it is very compacted, with a layer of clay barely a spade’s depth below the surface. What little rain we’ve had recently has run off the surface without troubling the soil below. In places the soil is so compacted that I could not get a spade in to the ground, even jumping on it ‘pogo stick style’, and I have had to use a fork to break the clods up. Wresting horsetail roots from the half-baked clods has been a slow and laborious procedure, but slowly, the ground has been broken and the new fruit plot has taken shape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf course, I would be naive to think that I had actually managed to get all the perennial weed roots out of the ground or that years’ worth of accumulated weed seeds will not have been brought to the surface ready to do their worst, but the area is now relatively tamed and it will be easier to keep on top of the weeds from now on.

I have ordered some raspberries from an online nursery (they are due to arrive in October) and I have prepared the beds for these already. I gave them a second forking over to break up the soil a bit more and I then added a load of well rotted horse manure, which I have had on site since spring. I have ordered a summer fruiting variety (Glen Ample) and an autumn fruiting variety (Polka), ten bare-rooted canes of each. Raspberries are shallow rooting and like good drainage, so they should do well in this part of the plot. The beds for these run down one side of the plot and then across the width in an “L” shape. I will transplant the nine currant and gooseberry bushes from the old fruit plot into the square formed by the “L” shaped raspberry beds in early winter, after the plants have become dormant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust below this soft fruit area I have dug over the ground that will receive the two transplanted pear espaliers as well as two new trees, a quince (Meech’s Prolific) and a cooking apple (Newton Wonder). These are on dwarfing rootstock and should grow no taller than about 3 metres tall in time. The ground where these trees are going is deeper than the soft fruit area, but I will still need to dig in plenty of organic matter to enrich the soil and I will mulch the fruit every year to suppress weeds and add humus.

The top-growth of grass and weeds from the new fruit area (about 25 square metres) has been piled up at the bottom of the plot, next to where I shall build the new shed. It is currently the size of a hay rick but will collapse down as it decomposes. This pile will be good to use as a soil improver or mulch after about twelve months. This is longer than if it had been a properly constructed compost heap, comprising well mixed proportions of ‘greens’ and ‘browns’, but I’m in no rush; if I turn the pile two or three times in the coming year it’ll end up as perfectly good compost.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the last few days I have demolished the old shed, well, most of it. There was no floor to the shed. It once had a timber floor but that had completely rotted away, leaving bare soil. The fellow who had this plot before me had laid three industrial timber pallets on a plastic sheet to use as a floor but the rats had taken up residence… The bottom of three of the shed’s walls had also rotted but with a little effort I will be able to reuse them and incorporate them into my grand design for a ‘new’ shed and sitting area. When I was demolishing the shed I discovered that part of the back wall of the shed had been constructed out of six timber window panes; I will definitely be able to reuse these. More on the shed in a subsequent blog.

Digging and preparing a new plot, especially one baked hard over the summer, is long, hard work but it does give you time to plan and daydream and what greater luxury can there be to have the time (and aptitude) to spend on these two pastimes? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Sow those Seeds!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMaddi’s allotment has been in full summer production mode for some time now. The freezers (yes, plural) are jammed full of beans, peas and goodness knows what else – we’ve been so busy freezing the inevitable glut of vegetables that I’ve just about lost track of what we’ve got in there. We’ve pickled beetroot and jars of preserved french beans with rosemary, garlic and lemon and the bike shed is jammed full of red and white onions. We’ve had such a wide choice of fresh salad crops and other vegetables that choosing what to have each day is not always easy (today we’re having aubergine, courgette, tomato and onion bake with basil and parsley) – getting our ‘5-a-day’ has not been much of an issue!

Given the bounty that is swamping us at the moment, this may seem like an unlikely time to be thinking of sowing yet more seeds, but in order to maintain the fresh fruit and vegetable supply late into this season and early next year, now is the time to get sowing. I don’t normally to “Things-to-do-now” lists because everyone has different priorities and individual growing conditions and climates can vary enormously. However, planning ahead is important and so I hope the following (not exhaustive) lists are useful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASow now for crops this season:

Salad leaves, such as lettuce, rocket, mizuna and beetroot and don’t forget radishes.

Kohl rabi and turnips. Kohl rabi will be ready to harvest in 5-6 weeks and you can use the thinnings from turnips as ‘baby veg’, leaving the rest to mature fully.

Carrots. Sowing a fast maturing variety such as Amsterdam Forcing or Early Nantes now will mean that you are very unlikely to be troubled with carrotfly so late in the season and these will be ready before winter really hits.

Perpetual Spinach and Chard. Perpetual Spinach is fast growing and an August sowing will give you leaves well into this winter. It is also a tough plant and will stand all winter ready to give you an early crop of new leaves next spring.

Oriental Greens such as pak choi, Chinese cabbage and mustard greens are all good to go now.

French beans sown now should provide a crop before winter arrives.

Spring Onions. You can’t have too many of these.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASow now for next spring:

Spring cabbages. Varieties such as Duncan, Durham Early or Wintergreen will provide tasty green leaves early next year – remember to keep the pigeons off!

If you remembered to sow Spring cauliflowers or winter sprouting broccoli last month, now is the time to plant them out into their permanent bed. If like me you forgot, you may still have time to sow appropriate varieties now (Claret and Rudolph for broccoli and Winter Aalsmeer and All Year Round for cauliflowers).

Onions. Some hardy types of onion (often referred to as Japanese Onions) can be sown from seed now, either in modules or directly into the ground. These will form small bulbs that will sit in the ground over the winter and then get off to an early start in the spring ready to give a crop in June. These bulbs tend not to store as well as spring sown seed or sets but they will give you a crop a month earlier than the spring sown ones. Try Senshyu or Toughball varieties.



Broad beans. Start preparing space for autumn sown broad beans. These are probably best sown in September (of course, this will vary depending on your growing climate); the idea is for the beans to put on sufficient growth to withstand the winter weather but not so much growth that they become damaged by high winds. The traditional variety for over-wintering is Aquadulce Claudia but The Sutton is a good, more compact, alternative.

Peas. If you have well-drained soil or use raised beds an autumn sowing of a smooth pea variety (such as Feltham First or Kelvedon Wonder) will provide an early crop in May or June. Don’t sow a wrinkly pea (such as Petit Pois or Onward) because although these are sweeter tasting, their seeds tend to rot in wet winter ground.

Autumn Onion sets. These should be planted in September and will be ready for harvesting about a month before spring sown seed or sets. Sets cost more than seed and there is less choice of variety available (I use Shakespeare) but they are more reliable – you pays your money and takes your choice.


Green Manures

No list of late summer or autumn sowings would be complete without mentioning green manures. When crops have done their stuff they can be cleared and put on the compost heap. If their space is used for following crops (such as autumn sown broad beans or brassica transplants) all well and good, but if the ground is to be empty until next spring it is best to protect it. This could be done by covering it in black plastic (as many of my allotment neighbours do) but whereas this stops weeds growing over winter and leaves the ground ready to rake and sow in the spring it looks ugly and adds nothing to the fertility of the soil. For these reasons I prefer to use a variety of green manures for over-wintering ‘unused’ ground.

P1010531My favourite and most used green manure is Phacelia Tanecetifolia. I sow this up to the end of September and then either dig it in early in the spring if the bed is needed early or leave it to flower if the bed isn’t needed until later. The flowers attract plenty of bees and are good for cutting. Phacelia is very good at inhibiting weed growth so it’s easy to clear away when it’s time to prepare beds for use.

Crimson Clover and Winter Tares are good ‘nitrogen fixers’ and are good for digging in just before sowing brassicas or for sowing late summer under blackcurrant bushes and then hoeing in before they flower in the spring. I tried growing crimson clover in my brassica beds as the Brussels sprouts etc., were growing this year; it wasn’t entirely successful but the flowers were lovely and they attracted plenty of bees and hoverflies. Winter tares grows well on heavy clay soils.

I am going to try Buckwheat this year, especially on the part of the new allotment that has been dug over already. Buckwheat is supposed to grow well in poor soils and since the new allotment has had nothing but weeds growing on it for the best part of two years I think it is reasonable to assume the soil is ‘poor’. I want to incorporate plenty of well-rotted horse manure into the new allotment over the winter but I can dig in the buckwheat as I do this. Both winter tares and buckwheat are excellent suppressors of weeds, crimson clover less so.


A New Plot for Maddi

P1010421The plot next to Maddi’s allotment has been unworked for about 18 months and it was poorly tended before that. When I first took on Maddi’s allotment (three years ago) the fellow who had the next door plot had it primarily to keep chickens. He grew a few bits and pieces on the rest of the plot but nothing did well and he never really got on top of the weeds. His chicken coop was a ramshackle affair and it seemed inevitable that his chickens would succumb to the local predatory wildlife and indeed they did (a badger got the blame). In a bout of anger this chap took a sledgehammer to the coop, removed all his fencing, posts and useful allotment gubbins and gave up the plot. The photograph above was taken in April.

Several months later (at the beginning of January this year) the plot was taken on by a Polish fellow. He was energetic in the first week in taking away several car loads of rubbish that had been left laying around and applying some running repairs to a dilapidated shed. And that was the last we saw of him. At the beginning of June the plot’s weeds had grown shoulder high and he was served a notice to quit by the City Council but he managed a stay of execution by telling them that he had been unable to tend the plot because he had been ‘on holiday’. Over the next two evenings (unseen by anyone else on site) the weeds were cut down to the ground but that was it; nothing else was done to cultivate the plot and so he was told to quit by 31st July.

P1010514My allotment neighbours and I were frustrated by the weeds and lack of cultivation partly because the weed seeds were coming our way but mostly because the unused plot was being wasted – surely there were plenty of people who would have wanted to take it on and bring it into production.

I happened to be on site at the end of July when the Allotments Officer made her monthly visit and after a discussion with her and the site reps, I expressed an interest in taking on the plot. I wasn’t overly optimistic since I know that there is quite a long waiting list for allotments on our site but it seems fortune was on my side. Coincidentally about five other plots on our site have been given up by their tenants in the last month or so and have been taken on by those waiting on the list. At the time the next door plot became available, the waiting list was exactly zero – so on 1st August, Maddi’s allotment empire expanded by 100%.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn my recent blog “Summer Pruning Apple and Pear Espaliers (and not much else)” I wrote that the fruit plot on Maddi’s allotment has problems with drainage and poor soil that make growing fruit problematic. The new plot offers much better growing conditions; better and deeper soil, better drainage and easier to keep deer out. So my plan is to move as many of the currant bushes (gooseberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and white currants) as I can to the new plot this winter, whilst the bushes are dormant, and also to try and move the two pear espaliers that I have been training over the last two years. This will be a challenge; the pears especially will have well developed root-balls and digging them up and moving them might cause serious damage resulting in their loss. If I can take a big enough root-ball they may survive; they have an even chance. When everything has been moved I will give up the fruit plot and let someone else have a go at it; I’ll leave it cleared of weeds and in good order.

The new plot (10 rods for the medievalists, or roughly 6 metres by 35 metres)  is much bigger than the fruit plot and I am already looking forward to being able to grow more of the fruit and vegetables that we like as well as having the space to grow more unusual crops and a greater variety of flowers. But first comes the hard work.

Digging IV Feb 14The plot is knee high in dock, horsetail, nettles, comfrey and numerous other weed plants that have settled in nicely over the last couple of years. The ground has been baked hard by our hot and largely dry weather this summer and the small area I have cleared already has been hard won. Still, it is good honest work and the effort should be rewarded in future years. I have covered about a third of the plot (furthest from the central access track) with thick polythene held down with heavy stones and wooden pallets. It will take me about a month to dig the plot as far as the polythene and this will prevent the weeds growing and make digging over the area covered a little easier.

1 Year Old Weeds Feb 14I am making a temporary pile of the weeds (roots and top-growth) at the bottom of the plot. In time I will move this a short distance to where I plan to put the permanent compost bins, after I have demolished and replaced the old shed. Contrary to most published advice, this will make perfectly good compost in about twelve months. I will cover it to exclude light, turn it a few times and keep it moist. Almost all the pernicious roots will be killed by this process and the resultant compost will make a very good mulch for the fruit area. The photograph shows just such a pile of weeds composted after just 6 months.

I plan to put most of the transplanted fruit, as well as some new quince and cooking apple trees and raspberries, in one area so that I can more easily build a fruit cage to keep the birds out. The rest of the plot will be divided into 1.2 metre wide beds, with plenty of well rotted horse manure incorporated where needed (not for carrots or parsnips but definitely for most other crops). I’m already going through seed catalogues and online suppliers’ sites with mouth watering at the prospect of what I can grow – exciting times!


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