Friday, March 28, 2008

Harvesting this month - March

Swiss Chard

Swiss chard is something most people think of as a summer vegetable - but if you make a late sowing, in around late July or August, you can overwinter it and the result is a really tasty filler for the hungry gap.

The white-stemmed chard might not be quite as pretty as ruby chard (ruby red stems and purple leaves) or the extraordinary multicoloured 'Bright Lights' (yellow, purple, green, white, pink and orange stems all on the same plant) - but I think it has a charm of its own, and what's more it's said to have by far the best flavour. Now, I can't testify to that first-hand, never having eaten either ruby or multicoloured chard; but I do know that this stuff has given us some really delicious eating.

It's a very forgiving plant and will just keep on growing and growing whatever the weather (and you) throw at it. It'll take a degree of neglect, and it's a cut-and-come-again crop, which means you can pick off the outer leaves several times in one season so long as you don't take the central crown. If there ever was an easy-to-grow vegetable, this is it.

You cook chard in two stages: the stems, and then the leaves. The stems take about 10 minutes to steam, and the leaves between 3 and 5; so if you put the stems in first, and add the leaves a couple of minutes before the end, you can have a combined dish. Or just eat them separately: the leaves behave and taste just like spinach, while the stems can be eaten as a celery substitute, or stir-fried, or just sauteéd in a little butter and served up as a side dish.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Snowed in

Well, that was just about the worst Easter I can remember. There I was, poised with chitted new potatoes ready to go, and the snow started to fall. And kept on falling.

It's bitter cold weather like this that has me grinding my teeth in frustration. I almost always succumb and start sowing seeds far earlier (which means in colder weather) than I should do. I've got a bit wise to this and am now armed with assorted cloches, fleece and bubblewrap to cover the seedlings with, but I expect given this awful weather I shall have some failures again. It always seems as though delays will kibosh all your best-laid plans, and there will never be time to catch up - mostly of course this doesn't happen at all, and you still end up with a full allotment by June, but it's hard to find that thought very convincing right now.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Taking cover

When the weather's at its worst - and let's face it, it has been for the last week or so - this is where I retreat to.

It's my greenhouse, technically speaking not on the allotment but in my back garden. I did experiment with raising seeds in my allotment greenhouse, but I couldn't reliably get up there often enough and lost a lot when the weather turned warm.

So these days I sow dozens of trays of seedlings where I can keep an eye on them - as you can see, it's almost full and the sowing season hasn't really got into top gear yet! I have no idea where I'm going to put the seeds I intend to sow next week. I've already decided to direct-sow more than I usually do this year - leeks, for example, carrots and broad beans have been deemed tough enough to fend for themselves out on the plot. But most veg I raise in modules simply because that way, you can stop most things eating them, keep an eye on watering and growing rates and generally mollycoddle them until they're big enough to look after themselves.

Another somewhat overlooked benefit of greenhouses is that you can retreat in there in rainy weather, so you can carry on allotment gardening even in the worst of downpours. Essential equipment, I'd say - I just need a bigger one!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

It's a mucky business

I visited my compost bins for the first time this season today, and to my horror realised the one I'm filling is miles from the top, and I've already used up all the rotted stuff from last year. My third one is empty altogether, and growing a healthy crop of nettles through the bottom.

I'm not sure how I came to neglect my composting to quite this extent, as I'm usually an excessively enthusiastic composter - to the point of obsession. I suppose what with all this rain it hasn't exactly been conducive to barrowing muck around, so the best it's got is flinging the odd vegetable trimming over the side. Not really enough to sustain a composting system at full throttle.

No longer, though. We are lucky enough to be next to a stable at the allotment, but unlucky enough for it to be a stable which uses wood shavings, like most of the ones around here (I used to bed my horse on straw when I was a kid - whatever happened to make everyone change to shavings?) Wood shavings are fine in principle, but I find that when they're applied as a mulch they're far too acid - I've lost the crops through stem rots to prove it. Instead, I make sure it's been in the compost bin for a good six months, mixed in with lots of other things like grass clippings, veggie trimmings and annual weeds, before I use it.

So I went and fetched a big barrow of the stuff today and upended it into the compost bin. I'm about to open up a new bed on the allotment, which means taking off a good chunk of turf, so I'll pitch that onto the compost heap next, followed by another layer of muck. It won't take much of that before I'm back to full strength - but I won't get the benefit until autumn, so in the meantime I've got to think of another solution.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Grafted tomatoes

One of the nicer things about being a garden writer is that you get the occasional freebie. The latest has given me an interesting experiment to do - the nice people at Suttons have sent me one of their grafted tomato plants, along with a non-grafted one, to let me see what the difference is.

I first came across grafted tomatoes at their stand at the Garden Press Event in London earlier this year. I have to confess I am very sceptical: it strikes me as really a very fiddly way to produce tomatoes, which seem to do perfectly well on their own stems most of the time, so why you would want to go to the silliness of cutting the top off one tomato plant and grafting it onto a more vigorous rootstock is beyond me.

Well, they say it produces plants that are twice as vigorous and produce twice as many tomatoes, that's why. Oh, and it makes them a bit more money if they can convince everyone else of that - since by definition, you can only buy grafted tomatoes as ready-made plants.

Time will tell. I have to say I'm a little suspicious that the two plants I was sent were already (as you can see from the pictures) rather different in size: but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief there, as of course plants do catch up with each other quite quickly this time of year. What I have found is that I felt I had to give the grafted plant (on the right in the picture) extra support, in the shape of a little stick up the side, as the stem was long and rather lax, so I feared that it would break at the graft. I may be entirely over-cautious here, though, and it might have managed fine without it.

I'll be reporting back in due course!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Knowing your onions

Don't tell anyone, but I'm not all that good at growing onions. Not yet, anyway. I love them, and we eat loads of them, so I keep trying and I'm getting better at it every year - but the results always seem to be disappointing.

The first year I tried Sturon, which are supposed to be nice and round and store really well. Unfortunately I didn't realise that year that you're supposed to keep onions religiously weeded - they can't stand competition. So I got a tiny crop of very little onions (they were nice and round, anyway....) Tried again, same variety, in the second year, kept them a little better weeded but still they were quite small.

Last year I decided the variety was the problem and tried a whopper, Stuttgarter Giant, which are meant to be show onion sized. They have flat bulbs, which I wasn't too keen on - I find them annoying to chop when you're cooking - but I figured if they were big enough it wouldn't matter.

Well... they looked very nice, golden brown and really not a bad size. But exhibition-worthy they were not. I even kept them beautifully weeded, all summer. It might have been the very wet, sun-free summer we had last year: or it might have been that the soil up at the lottie just isn't quite good enough for them yet.

So, on to this year. I'm steering away from the posh flat onion types and gone back to bog-standard, with a variety called Setton. It's actually closely related to Sturon, so has the same uniformly round bulbs, but apparently the yield is heavier. I shall still keep it well weeded, but will try feeding and mulching this year too and see if that works.

I will crack this one day, if it takes me another ten years in the trying!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Harvesting this month - February

Sprout tops

How's this for a bucketful of brassicas?

I cleared my brussels sprouts bed today, and this is what I came home with. Sprout tops, the cabbagey bits on top of the sprout plants, are delicious dark-green greens which are fabulously good for you. They have a really strong, earthy taste that tastes great with traditional Sunday roasts and also stir-fries very well. You can also cook them by dunking them whole in a pan of water flavoured with a knob of butter and some garlic, salt and pepper - simmer for 6-8 minutes and you have a real chef's delight.

These ones were Trafalgar - the sprouts were a bit disappointing, to be honest, as they didn't have the best of sites. The bed gets a bit too shaded by the shed, and the soil is a bit poor, too. But what we missed on the sprouts, we've more than made up for on the tops. We'll never chuck our old sprout plants on the compost again.