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.