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.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGet ready to sow:

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!

 

Aubergines

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve always regarded aubergines as being a bit of a luxury crop on my allotment. They need warm temperatures to do well in Britain and the only way to guarantee this is to grow them under cover, in a greenhouse or polytunnel or at the very least in a high cloche. Of course, this year we’ve had wonderful weather and several of my allotment neighbours have grown very healthy looking aubergine plants in outside beds. These are just beginning to set fruit so they’re about four weeks behind those grown under cover.

P1010459As I wrote in my last post, (…And the Livin’ is Easy), I sowed my Bonica aubergine seeds on 3rd March and kept them in the house on a warm window sill until they’d germinated. In fact, I sowed the seeds in a pot of multi-purpose compost and then put the pot in a clear polythene bag to give the seeds an extra bit of protection against variable temperatures. After germination, which took about two weeks, I pricked the seedlings into individual 7.5 cm pots and transferred them to the staging in the polytunnel. By the end of March the temperature inside the polytunnel had reached a good level for bringing on delicate seedlings and although, like all gardeners, I was worried about a sudden and calamitous drop of temperature in late spring, this didn’t happen and all was well.

P1010507On 12th May, the five young plants were transplanted into the greenhouse border. I dug in a little well-rotted horse manure to the bed first and also added a sprinkling of blood, fish and bonemeal. My greenhouse is cooler than the polytunnel in the spring (although it has been hotter than the polytunnel so far this month) so I kept a close eye on them while they settled in. I didn’t need to worry about low temperatures though because this year has been very warm, so all I had to do was water regularly. I had a small problem a few weeks after transplanted when I found some of the lower leaves were turning brown with grey mould patches. After cutting off the affected leaves I sprayed the plants with a bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and slaked lime, used as a preventative organic control of mildew and grey mould problems) and then repeated the treatment two weeks later. This appears to have dealt with the problem and the plants are now producing 3-4 fruits each week.

And what fruits! Unlike sweet peppers, chillis and tomatoes, which change colour from green to orange and red as they ripen, aubergines start off with their characteristic purple colour and keep it as they grow. Their skin has a fantastic gloss and they have every appearance of being a very sophisticated fruit. They don’t have the sweetness of tomatoes or the heat of chillis and for cooking purposes they are more akin to courgettes. But aubergines are ‘meatier’ than courgettes and can hold their own when barbecued or grilled, as well as being a mainstay of moussakas.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you want to try something a little different on your plot (and you have suitable growing conditions) you could do worse than try aubergines; they have beautiful lilac flowers and a few fruits in your trug for home will always impress your family.

…And the Livin’ is Easy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARemember a few months ago when it was cold and wet (very wet in certain areas of Britain)? Well now it’s hot. Very hot. And dry as well. We’ve had the odd scattered thunder storm over the last week, which resulted in lots of spectacular photographs of nocturnal lightening being shared on social media, though not by me because I generally sleep through such events. So we’ve had a little rain but far too little to keep crops in tip-top condition.

So about 7.30 am most mornings I visit the allotment and give the greenhouses, cold-frame and polytunnel a good soaking, and they need it because the soil dries out under cover in no time. On alternate days I also give most outside beds a thorough going over with the hose as well, although I tend to concentrate on salads and squash, which need a constant supply of moisture to keep growing unchecked, and leave the root crops (such as parsnips) to send their roots deep for moisture.  So far this year I’ve had some very good results (that faint grin you detect reading between the lines is a sure sign of smugness, guaranteed to precede calamity) but I’ve also had a couple of problems.

First the good news.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week I’ve picked the first aubergines (Bonica) from the greenhouse. These were sown on 3rd March and transplanted into the greenhouse bed on 12th May. They suffered a bout of grey mould a few weeks ago but I picked off the affected leaves and they seem OK now; they certainly have plenty of flowers and young fruits on them. I’ve also picked the first of the Blue Coco climbing french beans. These have small, delicate lilac and white flowers and purple-tinged pods, which turn green when cooked. They taste delicious and I would recommend this variety to anyone who likes french beans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sweet peppers (Macedonian Sweet) and chillis (De Cayenne) are also romping away in the greenhouse. The plants are hip-high and they have plenty of green fruits on them, which will begin turning orange and red any day now. This year I have tried growing sweet potatoes for the first time. I will post a full blog about these in the autumn (hopefully after harvest) but at the moment I am amazed by how much growth they seem to put on each day. If the top growth is anything to go by I shall be tucking into some bumper tubers in a few months time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe courgettes (Atena Polka) have been providing a crop for a couple of weeks now and it’s been hard to keep up with them. I have them growing beneath sweetcorn (Sweet Nugget) but it has only been for the last couple of weeks that the sweetcorn has managed to rise above the courgettes’ massive leaves. The cobs are just beginning to set, promising delicious yellow chin-drippers in September.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe flowers I’ve grown around the plot this year have been spectacular. The annuals, (calendula, nasturtiums, poppies and sweet peas, amongst others) have grown better than I can remember from previous seasons; their abundance of colour has added a tropical touch to the plot. The dahlias, especially the orange cactus varieties, also contribute an exotic flavour to the overall vista and the sunflowers are also just coming into their own. The herbs, particularly the mints, bergamont, thymes and hyssop, have been flowering profusely for a while now and attracting many bees and hoverflies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sunny, warm weather has provided good growing conditions for most crops growing on Maddi’s allotment, but it has also bought its problems, of which the most serious has been blight on the polytunnel tomatoes. Sungold is the worst affected, which has brown mottled patches on leaves, stems and fruit, but even Fandango, which is advertised as having a degree of blight resistance, has started to succumb. I’ve cut off (and disposed of, not composted) the leaves showing tell-tale signs but even taking this step I know that the crop will be severely depleted. I’ve heard tales that diluted aspirin sprays applied every three weeks or so help prevent the attack and I may well give this a try next year.

My early carrots (Amsterdam Forcing) have been nibbled by carrot fly larvae, leaving blackened trails around about a third of the crop. This is not too serious at the moment because the larvae are still young and they haven’t had too long to do their worst. Once carrot fly damage has been found it is worth digging up the whole crop and freezing as much as possible. The longer they are left in the ground the more damage the larvae will cause.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery garden has its problems and by mentioning the blight and carrot fly damage I hope I haven’t created the impression that I’m fighting a losing battle with nature! Overall this year is shaping up to be one of the best growing seasons I can remember and I don’t think I’ve felt as on top of things on the allotment as I have so far this year. Walking around the plot, hoeing or watering, I take a great deal of pleasure in seeing (and eating) the results of my efforts; lush chard, swelling squash and bendy cucumbers all remind me of the winter work, carrying manure, digging and weeding, that facilitated their growth. I did that – I made them grow!

Remind me, what is it that comes before a fall?

Summer Pruning Apple and Pear Espaliers (and not much else)

P1010493Like most bloggers I’m adept at putting my best side forward and conveniently forgetting to mention the things that don’t quite work out. The fruit plot on Maddi’s allotment is one of those things.

I’ve put a lot of time, effort and money into this part of the allotment but I think it’s about time I took stock and consider my options. This part of the allotment is towards the top of a slope and is bounded on three sides by ‘weed’ trees and scrub that have grown over the years as the allotments on this part of the site have been abandoned. Now, this site (like most others in Southampton) is over-subscribed; there is a four year waiting list to get a plot, so why were the allotments near the fruit plot abandoned and allowed to get into such a poor state? The answer is water – a lot of it.

Puddle Path Feb 14Towards the top of the plot are a series of natural springs that spew water most of the year but over the past couple of winters, when we’ve had record levels of rainfall, these springs have pretty much saturated the ground and made it very difficult to cultivate the area. I suppose other allotmenteers have tried growing fruit and vegetables here in the past and given up. When I took over the plot, three years ago, the fruit plot was head-high in brambles. I cleared the area in late summer and realised then that the soil was poor; it had thick layers of a revolting blue-tinged clay just below the surface and I noticed that relatively few weeds (other than the brambles) were growing there. A series of soil tests confirmed my suspicions that the ground was very acidic (an average  pH of 5.5) and it was practically devoid of all nutrients, presumably leeched out by the constant washing it received from the springs.

Freshly Mucked Fruit PlotNothing daunted, I cleared the area and dug it over – old bramble roots are a sod to take out but into each life some rain must fall… I decided that raised beds were the way forward. By adding lots of compost and manure to the beds where the fruit was to grow, the bed heights would be raised, thereby increasing soil fertility and drainage. I spent quite a bit of time building the timber edging to the beds and when the fruit canes, trees and bushes arrived from the nursery everything was ready for them. Over the winter and following spring the water in the ground made it just about impossible to walk around the plot and I became increasingly worried that the fruit roots would rot before they could get growing. In fact, everything did OK apart from the raspberry canes; all twenty four of them withered and died before their first summer. I tried a new batch of canes last year and they all died too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI planted two pear trees (Conference and Buerre Hardy) that I’m training as espaliers. This is basically a tree that is shaped to within an inch of its life so that it produces (in theory at least) a lot of fruit in a small amount of space. I’ve grown one against the side of the south-facing shed and the other in a nearby bed of its own. I hammered in posts and tied in horizontal wires as a frame against which to train the pears and also used bamboo canes as supports for branches before they get tied into their horizontal tiers. These two tress have grown well and appear not to mind the wet winter soil too much although there was no blossom on the lower tiers this spring and I was hoping that there would be some, so perhaps they’re not as happy as I think.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApples and pears trained as espaliers or fans need to be summer pruned. This encourages fruit buds to form in the late summer and autumn and directs growth to the newly forming parts of the tree. It also clears leaves from around ripening fruit (sic) to let the sun in. For the first few years of growth, each spring and summer, the young stems that will form the horizontal branches are tied into the canes leaning over at an angle and then are tied down to their final positions over the winter. In summer, new growth from the main stem is cut back to a few leaves and growth from the horizontal tiers is cut back to a few leaves above the basal cluster, which is where the blossom and fruit should grow next year. Specialist books on pruning explain this much better than this, and some of them have excellent diagrams to help, but once you’ve done it a few times it’ll seem the easiest thing in the world.

As I’ve mentioned before, we have deer on site so I erected a 1.8m high black heavy-duty net fence around the plot to keep them out. It didn’t work, they chewed their way through it and then chewed their way through the young shoots of the currant bushes I’d planted – no crop this year and no photographs of black, red and whitecurrants or gooseberries. I dug a drainage channel along the back of the plot and down one side to take excess water away. This didn’t work very well either; the channel certainly took surface water away from the plot but there was plenty left over that soaked like a sponge into the ground I’d lovingly prepared. Last week I found an adult fox asleep on the bed under the Morello cherry fan I’m trying to train; he sneaked off pretty sharply through a hole he’d evidently created (and I’d not seen) into the surrounding undergrowth. I’m beginning to realise that the wildlife around here is getting more benefit from the fruit plot than I am.

By replacing the net fence with a galvanised metal wire one, and properly maintaining it, I reckon I can keep most of the larger animals away from the fruit, but the fact remains that the underlying poor soil and the surrounding trees, that cut out a lot of natural light in the summer, make this a difficult place to grow fruit. So, what to do?

Well, I could keep going. I could replace the fence and make it deer and fox-proof at some expense. I could continue to add mulches to raise the beds and increase fertility and I could concentrate on growing the plants that tolerate the conditions and just forget about raspberries. Alternatively, I could just give it up as a bad lot and give in to nature; why push a boulder uphill? I think though that I’ll do something in between. I’ll attempt to move the fruit bushes (the currants and gooseberries) down to the main vegetable plot (which is well drained and receives plenty of sunshine) in their dormant season this winter. I’ll keep the pear espaliers and the cherry fan going and try growing shallow-rooted vegetables in the vacated beds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOr perhaps Father Christmas will come early this year and bring me the plot next door to Maddi’s allotment, which is currently vacant…

 

Football and the Art of Gardening

CAUTION – THIS BLOG INCLUDES THE GRATUITOUS MURDER OF METAPHORS AND SIMILES; READERS OF A NERVOUS DISPOSITION SHOULD MOVE STRAIGHT ON TO THE FLOWER BLOG

The FIFA World Cup is currently being played out in Brazil and because the weather has been ever so slightly hot here in the south of England, I have been enjoying TV pictures of sun-drenched beaches and stadia, full of enthusiastic supporters, as a background to some pretty exciting and skillful football, with a little more empathy than might have been the case had it been pouring with rain with miserly temperatures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn previous World Cup competitions, the group stages have tended to be pretty dour affairs, with teams demonstrating a greater fear of losing matches than desire to win them, but not this time. In this tournament, teams have been ‘having a go'; they have been attempting to score more goals than they let in and the tactical emphasis has been on creative forward play rather than ‘park the bus’ defences. The exuberance of much of the play has reminded me of those fantastic walled kitchen gardens found in country houses and large estates, where a myriad fruit and vegetable varieties of assorted shape, colour and size create a visual firework display that, at its best, takes your breath away. And just like those kitchen gardens, the best teams have demonstrated that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. Costa Rica, Colombia and, perhaps most notably, the USA showed what a committed group of players can achieve, even when, as was often the case, man-for-man, they were not as good as their opponents. A row of emerald green cos lettuce looks good but pair it with burgundy lollo rosso or verdigris cavolo nero kale and sparks may fly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike this World Cup, gardening is, for the most part, a summer activity. Of course, planning, preparation and training go on all year round but the zenith occurs in the heat of the summer, when most of our crops bear fruit. Unless you’re an England fan, in which case the planning, preparation and training was apparently for naught. Like a single poppy growing against the odds in a bed of sweetcorn and courgettes, the England team were not long for the competition and were plucked as quickly and gently as possible from the scene, to leave a more harmonious event in their absence. Having been born in Glasgow I could claim to support Scotland but, alas, they did not even qualify for the finals (an unreliable seed strain left in the packet whilst stronger, more resilient varieties were given their chance) so I must bear my share of the pain for at least another four years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe winners of the competition are still to be decided but it looks like one of the hardy perennials, Brazil, Germany, Argentina or Holland will take the honours. These are the teams with pedigree and breeding who will always perform well when their time comes. They are to football what globe artichokes, asparagus, runner beans and rhubarb are to the productive garden. This year we were pleasantly surprised by the performance of rarely trialed varieties like asparagus kale (Switzerland), blue coco french beans (who else but France), Syrian black broad beans (Mexico) and, most thrilling of all, sweet potatoes (the plucky USA). But when push come to shove, the prize will be taken by one of the old guard, as sure as eggs are eggs.

There have been some memorable moments of individual skill in this world cup. Who will forget the heroics of Tim Howard, the USA goalkeeper, in the ultimately vain attempt to deny Belgium passage to the quarter-finals; my sweet peas have put on a terrific show this year but, like Howard, are beginning to wilt under the constant pressure of aphid attack – something has to give. My aubergines looked as good as any I have ever grown but have recently found themselves able to wither from some sort of diving disease (grey mould), rather like one of the Dutch strikers, who seems able to trip over the most innocuous, and sometimes nonexistent, of tackles inside a penalty box.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApart from the excitement and quality of most of the matches, I think my abiding memory of this world cup will be of those individuals in the crowds who have had their faces (and sometimes whole bodies) daubed with makeup, depicting their national flags or emblems. The Dutch fans are famous for creating fields of orange at their sporting events but other nations too have taken up the challenge of supporting their teams through judicious and sometimes non-judicious use of colour. Most of the crowds have been dressed in yellow, the colour of the host nation’s shirts, made more garish when Brazil played Colombia, who also normally play in yellow. These are the high-summer colours of the flower borders and also of my nasturtiums, calendula and Californian poppies, scattered amongst the vegetables. The Argentinian and Grecian blue and white regalia are mimicked by the borage and some of the comfrey flowers, but whilst these colours add depth to the flower display, they jar a little; we need warmer colours in the heat of summer, some Spanish and Portuguese reds and yellows and African reds, oranges and greens to add fizz and heat to the lushness of all those vegetable greens. And for sparkle, the odd white highlight of cosmos – alas I mean Germany, not England.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe spectacle of the World Cup will be over soon enough and already coaches and team leaders will be planning for the future, (arguably, England have already started this process by picking a young and inexperienced team for this World Cup). And planning for Maddi’s allotment has already begun. I’ve written previously that I want the plot to become more ornamental next year, so I’m busy researching planting combinations and varieties that will help to achieve the effect I’m after. I will try new types of vegetables and try to push the historically conservative boundaries of my planting. I will adjust the design of the bed layout and it’s about time I bought some decent gardening clothes (instead of using ex work clothes); it’s a pity I can’t redesign my kit every year or so and make loads of money by pressurising my fans (?) to have to buy the latest strip, like most football teams.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd, like the national football teams, there will post mortems and analysis on this year’s performance. Some players will be ear-marked for future potential (so far my sweet potatoes show Pele-like qualities) and there will be cuts, retirements forced and unforced (over-wintered peas and broad beans in the polytunnel were failures and do not earn their places in Team Maddi). And then there will be the wildpicks, the erratic potential match-winners that have yet to come through the youth development system (cucamelons? oca? balsam pear?). One thing’s for sure – the next generation will have to go a long way to maintain the standards of play from this year, but isn’t it the promise of tomorrow that always spur us on?

Growing Asparagus from Seed

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost gardening books and websites recommend growing asparagus from one year old crowns purchased in the spring when the plants have died back and are dormant. The spider like crowns and their roots are planted on a small mound of soil, quite deeply, and then the soil is gradually heaped up around the growing spears over the first few years of growth. Grown this way, asparagus spears should not be cut for at least another two years in order to allow their root systems to develop strongly, so that they can withstand the late spring harvesting over the twenty years or so of their productive lifespans. Although the crowns are quite expensive, this method is recommended because it saves a year of waiting for the first crop compared to growing plants from seed.

P1010537I bought a dozen crowns of  asparagus (Mondeo) and planted them in a raised bed near the fruit plot on Maddi’s allotment in the spring of 2012, two years ago. I tended them carefully, pulling weeds by hand because hoeing can damage the roots, and kept them well watered during hot summer spells. In the first summer I was relieved to see that they had all survived the transplanting process and had all sent up a few thin but nevertheless asparagus-like ferny fronds. I didn’t crop any spears. In the second year, they all grew well but again, the spears seemed small and a little spindly, so I didn’t crop any spears so as to allow the roots to build up their reserves. This spring, the spears were still a little on the thin side and. although I had been looking forward to a first, modest harvest, I decided once again to let the crowns build up their reserves for another year, so no harvest in year three.

Asparagus likes a well drained, almost sandy, soil, and although my asparagus is growing in a raised bed on a slope, the underlying soil is heavy clay and I suspect that the poor drainage is affecting the growth of these plants. I cannot do much more to improve the drainage of this bed so I decided last winter that I would create a new asparagus bed on the main vegetable part of maddi’s allotment, where the soil is deeper, finer and better drained but, having spent rather a lot on the plot recently, I decided to try and save some money by growing plants from seed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI chose asparagus Connover’s Colossal because I know from past experience that this is a hardy and tasty variety that generally grows well in the south of England; the packet cost £1.99 for 120 seeds compared to £17.99 (plus postage and packing) for 10 crowns from an online supplier.  I sowed 50 seeds in general purpose compost in seed trays late in March this year and after four weeks found that every single one of them had germinated (despite being left outside on our garden table) – so far so good! I then transplanted each seedling to a 7.5 cm pot of general purpose compost and grew them on outside in our garden. No pests (not even slugs and snails) and no diseases set them back; they grew healthily and easily, surviving on occasional watering and quite a lot of neglect.

LaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAst week (third week in June) I pulled up the autumn sown onions (Shakespeare) and bought them home to dry off under cover. In recent years I have sown a green manure, such as phacelia, in the vacated onion bed, but this year I decided that this would become the new asparagus bed. I gave it a good digging over, removing the few weeds that had survived the hoe, and created two shallow furrows along the length of the bed, about 10 cm deep, 30 cm wide and 60 cm apart, using my rake. I scattered a little blood, fish and bonemeal into each furrow and raked it in. I then transplanted 28 of the strongest looking asparagus seedlings into the furrows, each about 40 – 50 cm apart, and buried each seedling a little lower in the ground than it had been in its pot. As the seedlings grow this summer I will gradually rake the soil in the bed so that it is level and each seedling is buried a little deeper.

I will keep the bed well watered this summer and in the autumn, when the top-growth dies back, I will cut the stems to about 5 cm above ground level and then add a winter mulch of manure or compost, whatever is handy, to add even more height to the soil covering the developing crowns. I will repeat this over the next few years so that in three years time the asparagus spears will be growing in mounds running the length of the bed.

P1010541OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApart from poor drainage, the worst problem to deal with for the new plants will be the asparagus beetle and its grubs. The beetles appear as if by magic each May and lay their eggs on the new leaves. When hatched, the grubs munch their way through the leaves and if left unchecked, they can completely defoliate the plants. There are chemical controls to deal with the beetle but I prefer an organic (if brutal) approach and I squash the beetles and grubs by hand. The beetles are devious; they hide behind stalks when approached or drop to the ground as you try to pick them off.

I won’t cut any spears for three years and it will be interesting to see how these plants grown from seed compare in vitality with the established crowns growing further up the plot. At least those will provide a crop next spring so hopefully I won’t have to wait for another three years before being able to taste the delicious young spears.

 

Transplanting Leeks

Leeks January 2014One of my aims for Maddi’s allotment over the next few years is to increase productivity, by which I mean firstly to increase the amount of fruit, vegetables and flowers the plot provides for us but also to grow better and healthier plants more consistently. One way of increasing the amount produced is to have crops growing in the ground in quick succession so that as one variety finishes its cropping season, another takes its place in the appropriate bed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy autumn-sown broad beans (Aquadulce Claudia) have just finished cropping, and what a fantastic crop it was! I think the wet, mild winter we had must have suited the plants because they were hardly set back by the few frosts and, whereas I normally expect damage to the young plants from strong winds, and thereby a few losses, this year saw nothing but healthy and consistent growth. Seven full carrier bags of beans have now been shelled and eaten, but mostly frozen, and the plants and pods added to the compost bin. The spring-sown broad beans (Bunyard’s Exhibition) are just beginning to pod up and we will eat most of these fresh from the plants over the next month or so, keeping the frozen beans for use later in the year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly in April, I sowed a row of leeks (Musselburgh) in a seedbed near the cold-frame. These are now 20 – 30 cm tall and ready to be transplanted into their permanent positions, where they will grow steadily until the late autumn when I will start harvesting them. If space is at a premium, you can sow the leeks in a a shallow seed tray; I did this for many years and got very good results. One bed of leeks generally lasts us until February. Leeks are a hardy plant that will withstand pretty severe weather; ideal for extending a season into the winter and early spring, even with quite heavy soil. I have now transplanted these leeks into the bed vacated by the broad beans, so this bed was ‘unoccupied’ for only a few days.

Because it has been so hot and dry in recent weeks, the ground beneath the broad beans had become compacted and difficult to fork over; digging beds in the heat of summer is always difficult. One trick to alleviate this problem is to give the bed a thorough soaking a few hours before you dig it, preferably overnight. This softens the surface of the ground, making it easier to remove weeds and dig. Even with a really good watering, it is still surprising to find how dry the soil is just below the surface but the process of lightly forking over the bed will allow rain, or the hose, to penetrate deeper towards plants’ roots.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI usually rake in blood, fish and bonemeal to the surface of ground before sowing seed or transplanting young plants, but one of the the benefits of growing broad beans, like most of the legume family, is that their roots ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil. So by cutting the bean plants off at ground level and incorporating their roots into the soil, their nitrogen is made available to following crops, in this case, the leeks. You can see the nitrogen-fixing nodules, if you look closely, on the broad bean root in the photograph.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou generally have to treat young transplants very gently but leeks do not need mollycoddling. I use a trowel to make a hole 20 cm deep and simply drop a leek into it. Don’t bother back-filling the hole, just fill it with water and the roots will be covered enough to anchor the plant and for the leek to grow happily. I plant four rows along a 1.2 m wide bed, with a spacing of 15 cm between plants. This is quite closely spaced but it allows me to hoe between rows and I’m not trying to grow exhibition sized specimens. Some people recommend trimming the roots and leaves of the young plants; the roots to encourage quick re-growth and the leaves to minimise loss of moisture through transpiration. I have never bothered with this and have always had good results. Leeks are a pretty robust crop whose only real problems are a little rust (ignore it, it won’t really affect the plants) and the leek moth (pretend you haven’t noticed it or cover the bed with horticultural fleece and, other than making one or two layers of the outer skin slightly soft and mushy, it will be only a minor irritation). Keep them well watered in dry periods.

That’s all there is to it; leeks are a really easy and robust crop to include in your kitchen garden, providing delicious stems deep into winter and early spring. I am also growing the variety Jolant, which will crop earlier than Musselburgh, and that I will use to infill gaps as they arise in beds around the plot, minimising ‘unused’ space.

As a footnote, I would add that leeks are a very ornamental vegetable whose foliage contrasts nicely with other, broad leafed, plants so if, like me, you are interested in creating a visually stimulating garden and like the ‘potager’ style, leeks are a very useful addition. Like most of the allium family, their seed heads are also quite beautiful and if you leave one or two to flower they will attract lots of beneficial insects to your plot.

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