Thursday, November 29, 2007

The waters are rising...

About this time of year, things get distinctly soggy up at the allotment. This is typical: the last trench of the bed I'm double-digging at the moment, about a spade's depth and dry when I left it, but a day later the water table is high enough to fill it from underneath.

I've also got soup-plates attaching to my wellies every time I go in there, and I keep having to take days off because the soil is simply too wet to work. It does it no good in any case - as soon as you tread on soggy soil you squeeze out the air pockets, compacting it so that when it dries out it becomes a hard pan that nothing will grow in (and which is murder to cultivate).

Luckily though my allotment has a split personality: on one side (the lower side - particularly the end that's towards the middle of the site) it gets like this very very quickly in the year - that's where the double-dug bed in the picture is sited. At the other end, on the left-hand side, though, it stays more or less dry-ish until about February, so I've now transferred to that end and am double-digging another bed there. Nice to have a choice in the matter!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

PSB disaster

I haven't been up the allotment for a couple of days as it's been raining stair-rods - and when I arrived this morning in brilliant sunshine, I discovered the pigeons have snaffled my prize PSB plant.

I had a fairly Heath Robinson contraption of netting and bamboo canes over the top of a row of plants, of which this one was the biggest at about 4'6" and already showing signs of deep purple sprouts in the leaf joints (why is it always your best plants that get clobbered?!). Anyway, it must have blown off at some point, as it was all tangled around the bamboo and nowhere near the PSB. The pigeons have been having a field day and though they haven't exactly stripped it to a skeleton, it's looking really sad. To add insult to injury, they've even pooped on the netting where they perched on it to enjoy their feast in comfort.

Just goes to show - you really do need sturdy netting cages, not just a bit flung over at the last minute (my other row of less impressive PSB and a line of winter cabbage and sprouts are doing just fine - because I went to the effort of making a proper netting cage for them out of 2x1 timber). Honestly, you turn your back for a minute....

Friday, November 16, 2007

The new season starts here

It's November, so it must be time to sow broad beans and peas to overwinter as early crops for next year.

I've learned my lesson from last year, when I sowed my broad beans much too early (in October) so that by this time they were long, leggy and very susceptible to rotting off. These little babies should be up by the end of the month, with a bit of luck and not too much more frost, and shouldn't be more than a couple of inches of sturdy shoot come late February next year, when I'll plant them out.

As you'll see from the picture, I sow my broad beans into toilet roll inners. These clutter up my house all year as my poor family is forbidden to ever throw them away, but then I get to see the point of it all at this time of year as I need 44 of the things for one sowing of beans - two 11ft rows with one plant every 6". The toilet rolls need standing up in something - I use wooden fruit boxes from the local greengrocer - but after that it's simplicity itself: just fill with multi-purpose compost, sow one bean to each roll and water in. You don't even have to take the loo roll off when you plant - it just rots away into the soil (and provides a bit of organic matter while it's at it). Easy-peasy!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Blackcurrant boogie

I have a couple of blackcurrant bushes in my back garden which have been here since I got here (about 7 years now) but have always been in the wrong place - a bit too shady and too crowded, being in the corner between the fence and the greenhouse. Now at last I've got space (and time) to get them onto a far nicer spot on the allotment.

I'm putting them into 1mx1m raised beds - partly because I can't really be bothered to double-dig anything bigger than they actually need, partly because I got given a Link-a-bord raised bed to trial, so I thought this would be a good way to test it out (it's the green one in the front in the picture). So far the verdict is: really easy to install, but a bit on the flimsy side - I had a job to get it level as it doesn't have enough weight to sit steadily on the ground by itself so it moves around all over the place. and for the same reason I'm also a bit sceptical as to how efficiently it'll stay in place (the pegs used on each corner to anchor it keep rising up).

Anyway - so I've dug the space out to a spade's depth, loosened the bottom with a fork, and then filled in with 2 barrows of stable manure and 2 barrows of the compost from my allotment compost bins. Mixed it up thoroughly, put in the edging for the raised beds (the other one's more straightforwardly made of gravel boards) and then replaced the topsoil. It looks dead smart - next step is to hoick out the blackcurrants and shift them over.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Seedy tales

All my planning led to the inevitable lengthy wishlist of seeds and plants - my favourite kind of shopping!

I've ordered all mine from Thompson & Morgan this year - a departure from my usual habit of getting everything from The Organic Gardening Catalogue, but then I thought I'd try someone different. And besides, all the mainstream suppliers are now offering organically-produced seed so Garden Organic have some competition at last.

New varieties (for me, anyway) which I'm trying out this year include the carrot Red Samurai, a deep red maincrop; Sungold tomato, which I've been told is the best of the cherry varieties; and the purple-podded climbing bean, Blauhilde. I'm going to be having another go at growing sweetcorn - last time the rats got the lot, so I'm hoping to confuse them a bit by growing it in the "three sisters" system, a companion planting technique where you grow beans to climb up the corn stalks and underplant with squash (Harrier - a butternut type). I'm also trying growing two types of Brussel sprout, Trafalgar - early, and Maximus, a late-cropper, so I can get the longest season possible from them. And I'm having a go at kale (Dwarf Green Curled) for next winter, and I've even bought "proper" pumpkin seed ("Jack of All Trades") since we've entirely failed to provide ourselves with a Halloween lamp tonight and have the shame of having to buy one in!

It's all very exciting: the new season has officially begun!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Green gold

The plot is starting to go to sleep now so I'm working my way through my beds to get them ready for overwintering (those I'm not going to use, anyway - I have four still up and running, mostly for winter brassicas but also for chard and Japanese onions).

The main weapon in my arsenal against the winter weather is green manures - I'm a real convert, after trying them last year. They're basically just weeds under a different name, but you harness them to your own ends. So long as you don't let them get out of control (not difficult, since you basically kill them in spring) you've got free fertiliser that looks after your soil all winter, too.

This year I've branched out from grazing rye and am trying red clover, too. This is the bed where my mid-season peas and beans were growing - full of lovely lush green foliage, keeping the soil surface from cracking up, holding goodness in the soil and preventing the rains from washing it all out.

I'm hoping that this (a legume) will be a double boost for fertility: not only will it help inject nitrogen when I dig it in in the spring, but it'll also fix nitrogen from the air, a quality common to most legumes. That's also why I chose it for this particular spot - you should always choose green manures of the same vegetable group as the one it's following. So if the bed was used to grow legumes, like peas and beans, you can use a leguminous green manure; but I wouldn't have used, for example, mustard, as that's a brassica and I'm planning to grow cabbages here next year so if the mustard caught club root, I'd be clobbered.

It sounds complicated but it's actually quite easy once you get the hang of it. Who would have thought there would be so much involved in growing a load of weeds?!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Having a think about next year

Looking after an allotment is a constantly evolving task. About this time of year I get itchy about what's going to happen next season - and I always find there's something I've done this year which I want to change, or just have an idea on how I can do it better, next year.

This year it's summer cabbage and winter brassica. Not one of my Golden Acre summer cabbages has yet been eaten - though they're not a bad size and only slightly nibbled! So from this I conclude that a) it's too much of a faff to make coleslaw and we don't like it enough anyway, and b) nobody wants to eat cabbage in summer.

The exception is red cabbage, which I love braised with apples so I think I'll carry on growing those. Last winter though I had to buy in all my seasonal produce for January & February - which means sprouts, kale, winter cabbage, spring greens and PSB, all of which I and the family enjoy in season. So I'm trying to squeeze in as many of these as possible and dropping the white summer cabbage next year, so hopefully my brassica beds should be more successful at keeping us fed!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The best laid plans...

I've had some interesting conclusions from my experiments with successional planting this year. I tried it with peas and beans - early sowing, then normal March-sown mid-season, then a late planting which went in after the early crop came out.

I'm just picking over the late crop now. The peas have been fantastic - better than the earlier two sowings (partly I think because I tied them up a bit better - but also because the weather is drier). The beans were really promising to begin with: one of the things I hadn't quite appreciated was that blackfly aren't around later in the season, so for the first time ever I've grown a crop of broad beans without having to pinch out the tops. They're entirely unblemished, lovely, healthy plants but.... there's a single, solitary, and very sad pod and that's my entire harvest, out of two 11ft rows.

I have absolutely no explanation for this, except that it's possible the insects which pollinate broad beans simply aren't around later in the season. Or maybe it was the variety? It would be such a shame if it's not possible to grow broad beans this late on, since they grew so well and were far easier than the earlier plantings. Ah well... I'll try it again next year and if it doesn't work for a second time, it's back to the drawing board...

Friday, September 14, 2007

The long wet summer

Well what with school hols haven't been around much lately - or rather, I've been around the allotment more than ever, just haven't had time to write about it!

It's been the longest, wettest summer any of us can remember. Everyone else seems to be complaining about it - is it just me who's having a bumper year?! My tomatoes are coming off the vine by the bucketload (literally - stewed up 2kg yesterday and picked another 1.5kg today). The beans have been beautiful, long, straight and full of flavour, I've had hundreds of courgettes and the longest cucumber in history (well, OK, slight exaggeration - but in my gardening history, at any rate!) And I've even grown calabrese successfully for the first time ever.

The only slight negative has been the blight that hit my crop of second early potatoes. But even that I'm putting down to the particular susceptibility of that variety (Kestrel). My first earlies, Red Duke of York, were fantastic, though you wouldn't expect them to get blight in any case. The Kestrel were about 50% ruined - a horrible, smelly, unpleasant job that meant I was eyeing my maincrop, King Edward, with dismay, convinced they too would have succumbed. Not a bit of it: despite the fact that King Edwards have a reputation for small yields and for being disease-prone, not one plant was blighted and I've got two full bucketloads in store in paper sacks in my understairs cupboard. That's from one bed of 4ft x 11ft (I didn't get the second bed dug over in time for two crops, sadly). You can't complain about that too much: I'll be keeping a close eye on them in storage, as I'm still not entirely sure they won't have blight spores clinging here and there, but I was so pleased with them.

Wet summers? Let's have more of them!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Yummy raspberries

I'm lucky enough to have access to the produce from one of my client's fruit cages, so I've been spending a happy hour or so picking summer raspberries. This is no ordinary fruit cage: it has 10 blackcurrant bushes, 5 whitecurrant bushes, and about the same number of redcurrants and gooseberries too. And all around the edge is a thicket of suckering summer raspberries - to say nothing of the autumn raspberries next door...

The whole thing is horribly neglected, so you have to wade through the cleavers and nettles to get to the raspberry plants - but that doesn't seem to have stopped them pouring their hearts into producing as much fruit as possible. I've frozen a lot from the last couple of pickings, but I'm now turning my thoughts to summer puddings and raspberry jam...

The idea is that I take over maintaining the top fruit from autumn, doing it in my own time as a kind of "second allotment" in exchange for the harvest. I'm not sure at the moment a) if I have quite enough time (there's a small vineyard involved too), and b) if the client is going to actually stay in her house for long enough for me to see my investment bear fruit (sorry, couldn't resist that...). We'll see: for now, I'm just enjoying all that bounty!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bombing at the local show

I had a go at showing a few of my veg at the local Horticultural Society's summer show at the weekend. I have, to put it politely, a long way to go before I pose any kind of threat to the regulars.

I tried potatoes and broad beans, since they're my best crops at the moment, and since my pea crop isn't much this year I didn't have much of an option. Off I trotted on Saturday morning to pick the best of my Green Windsor - the second planting, which is just hitting maturity now as the Aquadulce Claudia have finished. The timing of this successional planting couldn't have been better this year - definitely one to repeat again.

Anyway; then I dug up some lovely egg-sized Red Duke of Yorks and lovingly wiped the mud off them to bring up that ruby sheen. It all looked pretty good until I got to the hall and started "staging" (putting it on plates to show it off to best advantage).

The summer show - unlike the spring and autumn shows - is fiercely competitive, a fact I only appreciated once I was elbowing plates of perfect beans to one side in order to squeeze in my little offering. And oh dear - those broad bean pods which looked so perfect on the allotment; how tragic they looked next to those platefuls of perfectly straight, perfectly uniform, perfectly enormous models of What a Broad Bean Should Be. Mine suddenly turned out to be wonky, not the same length at all, and all stubbornly twisting in different directions.

It wasn't much better with the potatoes: I thought they were all roughly the same size, but roughly isn't good enough. Everyone else's were exactly the same size, to the millimetre, and mine stuck out like a sore thumb with three chicken's egg-sized and one big turkey's egg-sized in the corner like an uninvited guest.

All very hopeless, and I had to suffer the ignominy of being one of those who didn't even get a "highly commended". Instead of doing the sensible thing, though, and retreating with my tail between my legs never to darken the doors of the village hall again, it's actually got my blood up. You just wait till the Autumn Show. They won't know what's hit 'em.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Getting into a routine

I thought it might be useful to write down the routine I've established this year - everything changes so much over winter and spring that I forget from one year to the next what I was doing this time last year.

So... I'm trying out the half-hour allotment idea at the moment, from Lia Leendertz's book of the same name. I don't have the book myself, but have leafed through someone else's copy: I'm intrigued by the idea of giving the allotment regular but relatively short bouts of time, but disagree with her on a few points - she says, for example, that you shouldn't try to feed your family on this small amount of time, yet at the same time advocates not going up to the allotment at the weekend. So I've kind of adapted it: my mission is indeed to feed my family, and I do go up at the weekends (actually that's my longest chunk of time each week).

Monday-Friday: half-an-hour in the mornings between the end of the school run and starting work. This covers general planting out, earthing up, tending, troubleshooting, clearing beds, mulching, sowing new seeds.. whatever needs doing really. Except...

Wednesday: this is harvest day, when I go through and pick anything that needs picking. If we don't need to eat it, I freeze it that same day. This makes sure nothing goes to waste. I do pick things other times in the week - strawberries, for example, need picking over at least every other day when they're at full steam - but having a definite day makes it easier to keep on top of it.

Weekend session (usually 2-3 hours): watering, every week that we haven't had much rain; and either weeding or mowing. I do each every other week, so one week I'll weed through, the next I'll mow & strim the grass down. Other weekly tasks are picking over the crops again (as for Wednesdays), trimming off strawberry runners and pinching out tomato sideshoots. And I give the tomatoes an extra water with liquid feed added.

In addition to this, I fill the water-butt Wednesday and at the weekend to operate my wonderful automatic watering system, which is keeping the toms going beautifully!

So far it's working really well, on what I think is a minimal amount of time (good thing too given I'm juggling small kids, work, and my garden at home). It'll probably all have to change next summer, but hopefully I can build on this rather than starting all over like I usually do!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Letting everyone in

The allotment site opened to the public yesterday as part of the village Open Day - there were about 16 gardens and two allotment sites in the scheme and it was a huge success.

I was up there most of the day - it was great chatting to people. Most people wanted to pass the time of day rather than talking veg; several told me they'd lived in our area for years but hadn't ever known there was an allotment site there. It is quite tucked away - that's part of its charm, of course. We also had quite a few people signing up for plots - we now have an official Waiting List (like so many allotment sites). What a change from when I first came, three years ago, and just walked onto my plot. Then, I was about halfway down on the left-hand side, there was nothing oppposite me, and I was the last on the row and had a virgin patch of grazing field to deal with. Now there are allotments all around me, and another four or five down the hill from me. It's such a testament to how much it's all caught on. Long may it continue, I say!

I did my stint on the front desk (not that it was any hardship - mainly drinking tea and gossiping!) and then we all pulled up our chairs, brought our families and had a barbecue. There was a "best scarecrow" competition and much fresh salad and potatoes straight from people's plots. It was allotment holding at its best - a great community spirit, with people of all ages from very young to very old mucking in together. Fantastic.

Friday, June 15, 2007

What happens when you don't pay attention...

I made one of those really silly mistakes today. I've been desperate to get the last tray of Calabrese out onto the allotment - they were getting pot-bound and a bit miserable, but I was waiting for my Build-a-Balls to arrive to make sure I could net them as soon as they were in.

So there I was merrily popping in a tray of Calabrese Chevalier (a late-maturing variety I hope will follow on from the Pacifica).... and then happened to notice there were two labels in the tray. One half was indeed calabrese... but the other half was the purple-sprouting broccoli I had planned to pot on so they could follow my summer cabbage (or maybe the early calabrese, depending on which came out first).

Now if you've ever tried to tell the difference between calabrese seedlings and PSB seedlings - forget it. I would have thought the PSB would be gratifyingly purple, and one or two were, but not enough to be sure. It's infuriating and almost certainly means the massive PSB plants will overshadow my poor beleaguered calabrese later in the season.

Moral of the tale: never, ever sow more than one brassica in the same tray. They all look the same. And it's bound to end in tears.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Strawberries and pheasants

Get a load of this! My first proper strawberry harvest last week - and it's a whopper!

I had been expecting a bit of a poor showing this year - not because the plants weren't producing, but because I failed to net the crop early enough and when I got back from holiday there was a hen pheasant nesting in the middle of the strawberry patch. Being a hopeless softy, I couldn't possibly have shooed her off, so she sat there for weeks, taking a peck out of whatever strawberry was more-or-less ripe and within reach. I also assumed that her little babies would gobble up whatever she left over for them.

As it turned out, though, she left last week, leaving only a single cracked eggshell behind her: I'm not sure if her babies were caught by something horrible, like the rats, or if she managed to hatch a few. Certainly there's been no sign of her or babies since.

The good news, though, is that now she's gone I've got the strawbs all to myself - and as you can see they're cropping fit to bust! All the above are Cambridge Favourite, which are now in their second season and definitely in their prime: it's so noticeable how much better they're doing than last year. They must have produced a pound or so every couple of days for a fortnight now.

The Honeoye in the next-door bed have hardly produced anything - but then, they're in their first year. Having seen the difference a year makes in the Cambridge Favourites, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt - but will expect big things next year.

Now, where's that strawberry jam recipe....!

Monday, June 11, 2007

The allotment in June

Here's what's happening on the allotment this month!

The broad beans (Aquadulce Claudia) I had so much trouble with back in March are doing amazingly well and have caught up brilliantly. Pods are swelling and soon to be harvested. The only trouble I'm having is that they aren't supporting each other as well as usual - so are sprawling all over the peas next door. I'll be bracing up this variety next year.

Another crop that's just about to start harvesting (well, I've dug up one or two plants already in fact) - Red Duke of York first early potatoes. So far, so good: lovely coloured tubers, some large, though some really tiny (could be I'm harvesting a bit too early yet though). My only little niggle is they're really tricky to spot in the soil!

Another surprise success after a bad start: this is one of my calabrese plants. Not the Tiara - yes, there is just one plant remaining - but the Pacifica, which have bounced back from being allowed to get too leggy as seedlings and are making great growth under their netting cloche.

And this is the biggest success story of all this season - the Cambridge First strawberries, now in their prime second year and fruiting fit to bust. More on these at a later date as they're fantastic enough to deserve their own entry - but they get my medal for Best Crop So Far!

You'll notice I haven't taken any wide views so you won't have to see the knee-high grass (now mown, thank goodness) and the piles of rubbish :D - maybe I'll include those next time!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Salad days

One little innovation this year has actually been in my back garden, and not on the allotment at all.

I've got two little awkward squares, in between some fencing panels, which I had been trying to make a herb garden from (they're about 5ft x 2ft and you couldn't do much else with them). Unfortunately they've turned out a bit too shady for the herbs - I managed to get some nice low rosemary hedges going as edging, but that's about it.

So I've converted them into salad gardens, since lettuce and salad leaves tend to like it shady, and it's conveniently close to the kitchen so you get your salad stuff as fresh as it's possible to have it. This niftily solves the other problem I had with growing lettuce - that by the time you'd picked it on the allotment, finished whatever else you were doing and brought it home, it had started to go limp. And by the time suppertime came round, it was really pretty sad!

So now I've evicted the remaining herbs (though I've kept the rosemary hedges) and have some fairly tight-packed rows of lettuces growing happily. Varieties so far have been Lollo Rosso and Salad Bowl for cut-and-come-again, and the compact variety Tom Thumb for whole lettuces. We've been tucking in - and it's been a great success, really delicious lettuce and as much as we can eat. The idea is that once we eat through one row, I'll replace it with other varieties - next to go in is a salad mixture from Thompson & Morgan. Not sure quite what's in it but it'll be interesting to find out!

Salad is one of the few crops I should be able to keep going all year round, so I'm expecting big things of this little patch. Cue yet more planning and seed-buying as we move through the summer into autumn...!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The greenhouse is go!!

At last... I've sorted out the watering system for the greenhouse, and now have a dripper hose connected to the water butt up at the allotment. I'll be very interested to see how it keeps everything going.

So it's all systems go for transferring my poor overgrown tomato plants from the home greenhouse, where they've been getting increasingly drought-stricken and pot-bound, to the luxurious quarters of the allotment greenhouse. Because I've got a whole greenhouse devoted to toms this year, I've been able to go to town on the varieties: I'm growing good old Gardeners' Delight for general use, then San Marzano, the "only" cooking tomato according to some - it's a plum variety and very reliable; and then Brandywine for massive beefsteak tomatoes for salads.

Brandywine can be quite tricky as you need to get the watering just right to avoid blossom end rot and all sorts of other difficulties: last year I only got a couple of edible ones, and the rest split and went to waste. But this year I've got my watering system, and anything is possible...!!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Off we went to mow...

Been away for a couple of weeks and came back to knee-high grass. It took me a whole hour to strim the edges alone - and I still haven't got around to mowing the main drag!

Our allotment site is going to open to the public in a few weeks' time, as part of a scheme run by the local parish council. Everyone's getting very excited about it: there are notices galore and we've all got to clear up our plots a bit. That's no mean feat when you realise that shed which blew down a month or three ago is still in a heap in a corner, and you have about 10 compost bags full of rubbish to take off to the tip. My days of comfortable messiness are soon to come to an end, I fear...!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Strawbs on the way

At last I got around to weeding the strawberries today: they were sprouting thistles by the time I got to them, so they've been a bit neglected, but fortunately I've shoved so much manure and compost into the beds that the soil is about the best on the allotment and the weeds just jumped out.

The Honeoye I planted last year have been a bit disappointing - small plants still and only a handful of strawbs. They aren't much further along than the Cambridge Favourites next door, either - but perhaps it's just that it's their first season.

The Cambridge Favourites, on the other hand, are in their second year and quite amazing. I don't think I've ever seen so many strawberries per plant - must be a good dozen to 20 each. They're still tiny but should produce a fantastic crop - that is, if I can beat the slugs and mice to them...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Planting, planting, planting...

This time of year I abandon everything else in the rush to get my baby plants into the ground. That means my poor allotment is looking increasingly shaggy - grass up to my knees and weeds in the strawberries. But the coldframe is full of hardened-off veggies which demand to be taken to their new home.

Today it was the turn of my calabrese - Pacifica is a good mid-season hybrid which I'm hoping will take the place of my poor failed Tiara (early) sowing. Just two seeds germinated - I still don't know quite what I did wrong - and then I turned up this morning and found that one of the seedlings had been eaten by slugs.

Since one early calabrese plant is too sad for words, I've filled up that row and the one next to it with the Pacifica. I try to sow three "sittings" of calabrese - otherwise you get a glut which can't be frozen easily. Last year the whole thing was a failure as the drought got the lot; this year the Tiara have, as I said, turned up their toes, and I was away on holiday when the Pacifica germinated so though I got lots of lovely seedlings they were very leggy. Time will tell how they survive their bad beginnings.

The third late sowing is currently two seed-leaves in my greenhouse, but looking lovely and healthy so if I can keep the slugs off (beer traps have been set!) I might yet get some sort of crop...!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Juggling glass

I have two greenhouses. Yes - I know, it's a bit much. The worst of it is, I have a secret yen for a third one, too.

One greenhouse is at home - that's currently stuffed to the gunwhales with bedding and cutting flowers for the garden, but also raises all my veg seeds (I prefer to have them where I can keep an eye on them). Outside it are also two rather ramshackle coldframes, soon I hope to become one very large and less ramshackle one, where I eventually evict all the baby plants when the pressure to use the borders inside the greenhouse becomes too great. The process has already started - today I took out one of the benches and planted my cucumbers out. They're "Cum Laude" - an F1 female-only variety which cost a small fortune but I hope will be worth it. They've formed some great little plants, at least.

The next bench will come out once I've evicted my tomato plants. They're currently growing into small monsters in 3-litre pots, waiting for the automatic watering system to get itself sorted out up at the allotment greenhouse. I've just bought a dripper system from Two Wests - great online greenhouse/watering/gardening site - which connects up to a water butt. So far, so good. The plan is to feed the hose through a hole in some marine ply which I've replaced one of the glass panes with. However - if you've ever taken a close look at water butt taps, you'll know they're not exactly standard. So I've had to order a new connector - one of the ones with a screw thread to fit any size tap - and an in-line filter as they don't supply them with the dripper kit (to their shame - there's nothing more infuriating than realising you've got to search out another bit of kit to make the first bit work).

Once they've arrived and I've got it going, off go the tomato plants and I can free up another border for the aubergines and peppers. I did also want to grow melons this year - but the slugs have taken a good munch at the growing tips so I'm not sure the plants will make it through.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

From deluge... to drought

Talk about extremes of weather.

Having spent most of the winter under water, I'm now having to get out the watering can again - we've had nearly four weeks without any rain and with 20+ degree temperatures. It's lovely if you like sunbathing, not so nice if you have young plants to nurture.

As a result my carrot sowings have almost entirely failed - I'm having a go at sowing them direct, which is not something I usually do but on the other hand it's the normal way of growing carrots so I thought I'd try it. Of course I haven't been able to keep the rows watered, so that's about the only reason they've keeled over (or rather, haven't germinated in the first place).

Never mind - I'll keep going when - or rather if - the rains come again, and hope for more success then. On the plus side, my baby plants are shooting up: I now have tomato plants a couple of feet high and very, very healthy waiting to go in my greenhouse border in mid-May; the peas are starting to form pods already (well, they are Feltham First); and the broad beans are looking lovely, strong and healthy. I've got quite a few brassicas in modular trays hardening off in the coldframe ready to go out in a week or two - my brussels sprouts sowing failed, mainly I think because the seed had been kept a bit too long, so I had to buy in 12 from my garden centre which is another first so we'll see how they do.

Busy, busy, busy! I do love this time of year.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

All is not lost!

Popped up to the lottie this morning and more in hope than expectation had a peek under the fleece that's covering the broad bean seeds.

So far there had been no sign of them but an awful lot of mice in my traps, so I'd assumed the mice weren't in the slightest bit put off by the holly snippets and had scoffed the lot. How wrong can you be - I lifted the fleece to find a lovely long straight row of inch-high bean shoots! So it looks as if we will be having an early broad bean crop this year after all.

It's so nice when things go right for a change. And I'll try the holly trick next year - it really does seem to have worked.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

It's spring!

I'm in heaven. The allotment has dried out, the soil is warming up, and I've been sowing seeds all day. Spring is officially here.

I've had very mixed results from sowing directly in the ground - too often I've had absolutely no germination at all, for a variety of reasons including slugs, mice, tricky weather or all three. So in recent years I've taken to sowing all my seed into modules of one sort or another - usually the cell trays, 24 to a tray, which is happily one row in my raised bed with plants every 6", or two rows of larger plants with a 1ft spacing, plus a couple left over for luck. I also sow broad beans in loo rolls (they need a good root run and you also avoid disturbing the roots as you plant them with loo roll intact), and peas go into 4" pots, three to a pot, and get planted out almost as soon as they've germinated one pot per foot. It worked beautifully last year - hope it does this year too.

So far I've been struggling badly with my early broad bean crop, and in fact can probably write it off as a failure. First I was too impatient and sowed the autumn seeds (Aquadulce Claudia, so no problem with the variety) far too early - October, when temperatures were still quite mild. Fatal - by November they were already flopping over, and they had a bad winter when they really needed to go out onto the plot but it was too wet to even try. By the time I got to planting them out in February, they'd rotted away and I had to chuck the lot.

Then I tried planting broad beans straight in the ground: that was about 2 weeks ago, and I haven't had a snifter of a plant at all. I think they've all been harvested by the mice - I've trapped four now, but that probably means there have been a dozen or more running over the seed bed, taking no notice at all of my holly branches. Maybe I should have put a few more down. So anyway - I'll have to cut my losses, I think, and just plant mid-season beans instead.

The good news - my pea plants have picked up, and apart from a few losses (which I think were due to slug attack - I was late protecting them) they're now growing heartily. My next door neighbour, who's a coppicer, is due to deliver a batch of hazel peasticks any time soon, and then I'll dare to take off the fleece cloche and let them do their stuff. Won't be long now!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Pesky pests

This time of year, whatever you put in the ground is a magnet for pests of every possible kind. My poor little pea plants which I planted out last month are struggling to get away - what with the deluge of rain that's been going on for a month now, they haven't been able to make much headway, and in the meantime they've been snack fodder for my three major betes noirs - rats, mice and slugs.

I planted some broad bean seeds today, Aquadulce Claudia again, direct in the ground for the first time, since the autumn-sown plants keeled over (a combination of my mistake - sowing them too early - and an accident - the gale-force winds a few weeks ago blew the fleece off and there was a vicious frost which clobbered the top growth). I spent more time protecting the seeds than actually planting them. First I put down slug pellets - before you throw up your hands in horror, I use the Growing Success iron sulphate ones which don't harm wildlife (but do harm slugs).

Then I cut some short sprigs of holly from the next-door woodland and laid them over the top to put the mice off. And finally I sank some plastic lily toms someone gave me into the ground as mouse traps. They're about 18" deep and no mouse could escape once inside: I've baited them with peanut butter and will be checking them regularly, as there's no point setting humane traps unless you're going to be humane about not letting them starve to death in there in the process.

Then I'm in discussions with the local hardware shop as to the best way to deal with the rat problem. Poison is really tricky, as I take my dog up to the allotment. But I've yet to hear of anyone being very successful with traps, though the bloke over the road at the allotment site trapped 36 rats last year with a squirrel trap, so perhaps that's the way to go. Either way, it's quite an investment as the traps are £17.99 each - so I want to make sure I'm getting something that works!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Rain, rain, go away

This is a horribly frustrating time of year to have an allotment. It's been either snowing or raining for weeks now, and there's standing water on the lower "slopes". The soil is totally unworkable, cold and uninspiring. It's all a bit depressing.

I'm diverting myself by chopping up holly to put around my little baby pea plants. Something is eating them, and I can't work out whether it's slugs or mice - probably a bit of both. So I'm cracking open the slug pellets (I use the organic ones - they look the same but don't kill the birds). As for the mice, I'm trying a little tip I got from Carol Klein's veggie programme (not a favourite as it keeps whizzing off into irrelevant camera effects, but you do get the odd useful tip). She suggests putting holly all over baby peas & beans since mice find it too prickly to walk over. So far it seems to be working OK and is also providing something for the little pea plants to climb over - so with a bit of luck it should save them.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

To chit or not to chit...

It must be nearly spring! I've been chitting my potatoes.

There's a lot of debate over whether or not to chit potatoes - that's the process of putting them out in trays, or eggboxes, in a bright, frost-free place for a few weeks so the eyes can sprout and form short shoots before you put them in the ground.

I've always thought it best to take the common sense view: after all, the only thing chitting is for is to bring your potatoes on a bit, and make sure they get up and running as early as possible.

The only potatoes that's relevant to is the earlies - so I've always chitted my Duke of Yorks and they've always done brilliantly, cropping at the beginning of June.

But even second earlies will develop fine if you plant them, unchitted, in mid-March, cover with fleece and then start harvesting once the first earlies are finished - usually the end of June. That's plenty of time for them to get going well without any extra help.

And as for maincrops - they'll be in the ground all summer, right up until August and September, so they have even more time. Just bung them in towards the end of March and they'll be away - couldn't be easier!

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Setting up a vineyard

Well, that sounds a bit ambitious, but it's actually not far from the truth.

A client of mine (when I've got my other hat on as a professional gardener) has a huge garden that's a bit neglected in places. One of the areas we haven't been able to get around to sorting out has been a very overgrown and wild planting of grapevines, with about 8 rows of vines around 20-30ft long.

I'm in the process of doing a deal with her under which I'd take over the maintenance of the grapevines in exchange for the grapes! It's quite a lot of work to begin with, but once I've got them in production it should be reasonably straightforward.

This time of year is busy for grape-growers: pruning has to be finished by the end of January or the sap starts rising and the vines will bleed half to death from the pruning cuts. I've been pruning several ornamental vines in various gardens lately: it's one of my favourite jobs, as you simply trace the main vine and snip off all the side shoots to about 3" or two buds away. There aren't any thorns to deal with and training is easy!

Pruning for grape production on wires - as for my vineyard above - is a bit different. There are a few different systems, but I'm going to try the Guyot system. Here's (roughly) how it works on established vines:
In winter:
1) You take two side shoots and pull them down to a horizontal wire. These will be the fruiting arms.
2) Then cut the middle, vertical shoot to three strong buds.
In summer:
1) The fruiting arms will have produced a lot of vertical shoots: stop them three leaves above the top wire and remove any sideshoots.
2) The central branch will be producing shoots too. Remove all except the strongest three and tie them in vertically. These will form the framework for next year. Pinch back any sideshoots to one leaf and make sure you take out any blossom (you don't want these ones fruiting... yet!)

The next winter you take off the two fruited arms, then train the three strong shoots you saved as for the previous winter - two horizontally and the third (central) cut back to three strong buds. And start again.

It all sounds very complicated but the logic is simple. So hopefully it'll make sense when I come to do it for real....!

Monday, January 29, 2007


This includes summer & winter cabbage, but not other brassicas such as sprouts, kale or calabrese.

Marks out of five: the more pink stars, the better the variety.

Spring cabbage

Advantage: grown 2007

I'm not giving these a rating just yet, as they've only just (in early autumn) gone out into their proper home having been sown in August and brought on as seedlings. They germinated well, though, and have been growing on strongly, so I have high hopes!

Durham Early: grown 2008

Summer cabbage: white

Golden Acre: grown 2006, 2007

I haven't been that impressed by this fairly ordinary white summer cabbage variety. First year I grew them was a drought year, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt, but 2007 was the summer that wasn't (i.e. it rained all the time) and still they didn't exactly light up my life.

Germination was very good, and they got off to a flying start, but then seemed to stop dead. Caterpillars made pretty lacy doily covers out of the outside leaves, but then that's my fault since I didn't pick them off often enough. Inside there were some nice hearts, but they weren't very large and didn't have a great flavour, either. I've decided not to grow these again - and besides, we don't eat much coleslaw (these are that kind of white cabbage), so one to cross off the list.

Summer cabbage: red

Marner Early Red: grown 2006

These were a pleasure to grow - strong seedlings followed by good growth. They suffered from the same problems as "Golden Acre" (see above) concerning drought conditions and poor soil, but seemed to cope far better - they certainly produced a higher percentage of good-sized hearts and bigger plants (though again not as big as I'd have liked). Caterpillars don't seem quite so taken with red cabbage, though there was some damage. Flavour was very good: excellent braised with apples and sultanas! I'd happily grow again and may increase the rating once they have better conditions.

Red Drumhead: grown 2007, 2008

These were no problem at all to grow - germination was quick and easy and the plants grew on well. Despite a nice wet summer they didn't grow to a great size though and only a few hearted up - perhaps more of a fault with the soil than with the variety? Will try again and see if they improve with some more feeding.

Winter cabbage

January King: grown 2005, 2006, 2007

This is the classic winter cabbage: tough and dark-green, with a crabby surface that's just made to see off the worst possible frost. The first year I grew this it was a great success, forming medium-sized cabbages with good hearts and only minimal caterpillar damage. I found the taste very "cabbage-y" and not that subtle - but there are times when you need a really ballsy brassica!

In 2006 it was less of a success - not many plants made it past seedling stage due to a disaster with watering which also wiped out most of my brussels crop and my entire supply of leek seedlings. Left with a mere handful of cabbages, they never quite got going, and though I did manage to enjoy the pittance I ended up with, I think the crop can best be described as a failure. 2007 was far better: they hearted up nicely, with a firm dusky purple centre that looks as good as it tastes. No problem to grow at all, despite being given a less-than-perfect spot in largely unimproved soil, though they would probably have been bigger given more nutritious circumstances. And the caterpillars get the outside leaves - but don't seem to make too many inroads into the middle, so they're great if you're (like me) of the organic persuasion.

Siberia: grown 2008

Trying a new type next year - another Savoy, but apparently even tougher (in constitution rather than taste I hope) than January King. We'll see!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

RIP shed...

So that's it then. No more shed.

Last week we had near-hurricane force winds which demolished half-a-dozen trees in our area, killed 7 people across the country, and caused no end of damage. One of the casualties was my rickety old shed, which I found in several pieces scattered all over the allotment - the roof, which I'd battled with once or twice before, had been blown right into the next-door-neighbour's allotment (and this is the roof that requires at least two people to lift it).

I shifted all the vulnerable stuff like the lawnmower over into my greenhouse, which is also sporting a plywood sticking-plaster after one pane of glass was blown loose and cracked its corner and the corner of the one below it. At least it's still standing, and relatively dry inside! Then I stacked all the bits of shed in a big heap and gazed disconsolately at the sorry-looking and very damp floor which is all I now have left. Luckily I also have a very handy and generous husband who's offered to build me another one - discussions are continuing as to exactly how!

Meanwhile my baby peas and broad beans are now up at the allotment under fleece waiting for me to find the time (between shed-related crises) to plant them out. The beans haven't overwintered well - I planted them in October which these days is far too early - but the peas are looking great. The garlic is already in, so once those two are planted that'll be my early crops in place - just in time for spring!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Another raised bed completed

I spent this afternoon battling with the soup again - marginally more diggable since it hasn't rained for all of about 3 days, but it still left me with mud soup-plates attached to the bottom of my wellies.

Never mind: object achieved. I finished constructing the next raised bed: having double-dug the area over the last couple of weeks, I finally up-ended the last wheelbarrow load of compost and then put in the scaffold boards.

The worst of constructing raised beds, I find, is getting it all level. When you've got a site like mine - sloping not just from side to side, but also from front to back - it's the devil's own job to get four sides of a rectangle on a level. With this bed, as with others, I had one end almost proud of the ground level while the other end was sunk almost level with it. At the end of the day, it doesn't affect the result, which is a defined, contained area of really well-cultivated soil which produces seriously good crops. Well worth the work - and the frustration.

The strawberries are now in - four rows of Honeoye which I hope (mice permitting) will provide me with lots of really early strawberries this year. I'm planning to plant out the garlic soon, too, and the early crop of peas and broad beans which have been pre-germinating in my coldframe at home. It's amazing how much there is to do at this time of year!

Monday, January 08, 2007


New potatoes (early varieties)

Duke of York: grown 2005 and 2006

For me these are quite simply the only new potatoes to grow. Perfectly shaped, palest yellow, floury, and the best, melt-in-the-mouth flavour you can possibly imagine. Add to that, their apparent resistance to slug damage and scab (unless you leave them too long in the ground, for which I think we can forgive them) - and you have very close to the perfect new potato.

One little problem I did have with them in 2005 was that they got clobbered by a very late frost, after the beginning of June which is about as late as I can ever remember. They did pick up again and grew a reasonable crop, but the next year I took the precaution of covering the newly-planted tubers with fleece. As it happened, we didn't have a late frost in 2006, but the fleece had an amazing effect: the plants practically doubled in size with the addition of an extra degree of warmth, so as a result I went around the allotment site feeling unconscionably smug because my potato plants were twice as big as anyone else's. And I harvested them a full fortnight earlier, too. I'll be doing the same again this year.

Red Duke of York: grown 2007

As a concession to trying out new varieties (well, and because the catalogue didn't have regular Duke of York in stock) I grew the red version this year - and found them equally outstanding.

The same excellent flavour, good texture and sheer deliciousness of Duke of York, plus a very good crop - twice as remarkable considering it was the driest spring in living memory, followed by the wettest summer... ditto, this year. There was some eelworm damage but not much, and no other problems. Their colour was really lovely, a rich pinkish red which looked great on the plate. My only tiny niggle - and it really is a niggle - is that it's practically impossible to see them in my clay-ey soil so I think I probably missed quite a few digging them out - and that means more sprouts next year where I don't want them. But it's a small price to pay.

Second earlies
These are the potatoes which bridge the gap between new potatoes and maincrops. They're planted much as for earlies but which crop that bit later - extending the season by a month or so and providing some good-tasting spuds in their own right. They don't keep well, though.

British Queen: grown 2006

This is one of the classic second earlies, though I only stumbled across it by accident when my mother-in-law gave me a few spare tubers she had left over.

It turns out to be an excellent second-early, producing big, healthy plants and good-sized tubers with no signs of disease or damage from slugs. They stayed in the ground well, and I was still eating them straight out of the plot well into August without even any problems with scab - usually the price you pay if you leave your early spuds in too long.

Texture was quite floury, and the taste was good, though for my money not mouth-wateringly spectacular. But then I'm being nit-picky here: all round, a potato I'd happily grow again.

Kestrel: grown 2007
A new departure again this year: these have a good write-up so I'll be interested to see how they turn out.


King Edward: grown 2007

Growing maincrop potatoes for the first time this year, and King Edwards are the classic spud so I thought I'd start with them. I'm expecting problems - rumour has it they're susceptible to blight and erratic to crop.

Remarka: grown 2007

The back-up in case the King Edwards fail. It's supposed to have excellent disease resistance so looks promising.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Petition to protect allotments

If you're reading this because you care about allotments - sign a petition to protect them.

It's here:

With more and more allotment sites under threat because of the pressure to build ever more houses, especially here in the south-east of England, it's never been more important to speak out and insist on the right to grow our own food.

I love my allotment - and I'd like everyone else to have the chance to feel the same as I do.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Broad beans

As always - the more pink stars, the better it is!

Just for the record - all my broad beans are sown into multi-purpose compost in empty toilet rolls, mainly because otherwise the mice scoff them all! I try to plant them out (still in the toilet rolls - they rot off in the ground) soon after germination, when they're no more than an inch or so high.

Aquadulce Claudia: Grown 2007

This is the classic early sowing broad bean: it's bone hardy, and you can sow it in autumn to overwinter and provide the earliest possible crops the following year. Unfortunately my first attempt to do this ended in disaster: I sowed in October, and a particularly warm one at that, so the plants became too big and leggy and flopped, then rotted over winter. The crop was ruined (but no fault of the bean variety!)

I tried again, sowing straight into the ground in late February. This was a particularly risky strategy for me what with mice and slugs: I protected the crop though and despite some early apprehension I needn't have worried - they all came up. Large, healthy plants - but almost too large and healthy as they toppled over! These need support to do well.

Crop was heavy: beans were excellently flavoured but pods were only moderately well-packed. I can only put this down to the variety as growing conditions were pretty good. Otherwise an excellent variety and would happily grow again.

Bunyards Exhibition: Grown 2007
These will be my first foray into sowing straight into the ground - I'm planning to put them in as I start harvesting my early crop in June to provide a late-season crop, in the hope that the mice will be otherwise occupied and will leave them alone...

Green Windsor: Grown 2007
Germination was speedy and almost 100% from a March sowing. Grew steadily though very badly affected by blackfly so some plants underperformed as a result (despite pinching out tops - but perhaps a little late in the season?). Cropping started late-ish June.

Imperial Green Longpod: Grown 2006

These had a good germination rate and formed strong, sturdy plants. I planted them about 4-6" apart in a double row and didn't have to support them. The usual problem with blackfly was almost entirely eliminated as soon as I pinched out the tips in about May.

Crop was heavy and really excellent quality: flavour was outstanding and the young beans especially were very tender. Pods were well-filled and a good size. All in all - the best broad bean I've yet had the pleasure of growing!

Witkiem: Grown 2005

This broad bean was very disappointing for me. In its defence, there were a number of things against it: this was the first year I had the allotment in cultivation, so the soil was fairly poor (although the bed it was growing in was in the best corner of the plot). There was also a very late frost (after the beginning of June) which set back many of the crops in this year. But otherwise conditions were reasonable - not, for example, the drought conditions we had the next year.

The plants were a bit weedy and floppy, and needed a lot of support. They suffered badly from blackfly and I had to jettison a few entirely (despite pinching out tops). Then the pods came through medium-sized at best, and most of them with only two or three beans in them. At least the flavour of those beans I got out of them was very good. All in all a bitter disappointment: I might give this variety one more chance in better soil, but otherwise wouldn't consider growing it again.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Onions & shallots

(the more pink stars - the better the variety)

Sturon: grown 2006, from sets

I'm not sure you'd get show-standard onions out of these ones: they were far smaller than I'd have liked (but then, I've never been brilliant at growing onions: and also I grew them through the drought season so they won't have had as much water as they should have).

However, the flavour was really good and concentrated, and the texture very solid and dense. We ate them with pretty much everything, which meant our three 11-ft rows were all eaten up between the beginning of August and the end of September. I didn't, therefore, get much of a chance to find out about their storing properties, but they're supposed to be very good.

Stuttgarter: grown 2007, from sets
Growing this year in an attempt to improve the size of my onions! Related to the show-bench onion, Stuttgart Giant, it's reported to have good flavour and keeping qualities.


Mikor: grown 2006, from sets

This is a compact, yellow-skinned variety with a pinkish heart. Small and rounded in shape.
I planted them in an unimproved bed and it was, of course, the summer of the drought - yet they did pretty well, considering.

The clusters weren't very big, and there were a lot of small kernels in them which were, to all intents and purposes, unuseable: but there were enough large-ish ones to make it worthwhile.

Flavour was mild compared to some shallots, but good. Keeping seemed to be pretty good (stored in a net bag from early August, lasted until October - but would have gone a lot longer, and don't forget the yield was low).

Monday, January 01, 2007

A new year... and it's gale force again

Happy New Year - I hope it's a good one!

It didn't start too well for me, as my first allotment visit of the year was another tale of woe. Once again, the gale-force winds and torrential rain have done for my shed. Max, the bloke who runs the site, very kindly moved the roof off my fence so it didn't knock that down too, and I arrived to another heavy, sodden chunk of wood to move.

Luckily my next-door-neighbours, who have a double allotment and are pickle and chutney supremos, were around this morning so they helped me get the wretched thing back up. This time I bit the bullet and attached it properly to the top of the shed, fixed a gap where the corner is rotten and renewed the roof felt where it had given way to the elements. Then I sorted out the door, which has been off its hinges with a six-inch gap at the top for quite some time - the theory is that the gap is creating a pressure differential which is literally blowing the roof off. Let's hope it's done the trick and this is the last time...

Otherwise it's a new year, so I must be double-digging... every year I make the resolution to start my double digging before January, but every year I end up squelching about with two inches of mud on my wellies. It's so wet that there are actual puddles of standing water in places (though admittedly only those bits I haven't dug over yet).

It's not the ideal time for working the soil, either, as it's really no good for the structure to turn over soggy muddy spadefuls. I'm hoping that the fact that I'm double-digging will mean the structure is improved anyway, so it should cancel itself out. That's how it worked out last year, though I think if anything it's wetter this year!

It's seed ordering time, so I've decided to start a series of reviews of the various varieties I've grown, to remind me which ones were best and why. I hope it's useful to others, too. There's nothing quite like first-hand experience of growing something to sort out which bit of the catalogue hype is true, and which bit is creative licence. Anyway - look out for the first instalment in the next few days.