Notes from a seed collector, Episode two.

Monday, 9 March 2009

You win some and you lose some in the gardening game and this year has been no exception.

As an avid seed collector and seed saver the prolonged, cool and wet summer is causing some havoc with ripening and seed drying. Ever the optimist however, I expect my collection and my experiments to yield a valuable harvest.

In 2007 I travelled to French Polynesia. In a market on the small island of Huahini I bought some very punchy small chillies with the hope that I could germinate some of the seed. As I write this on yet another wet and windy August day, the two plants I was able to germinate from the pinch of seed I saved are growing slowly and pathetically in the cold greenhouse on my allotment. I hope yet for a warm and long autumn, when the plants might fruit and I could gather some seed to try again next year. The plants are isolated from other capsicums which are growing in another greenhouse in my garden. Of them more anon! The allotment greenhouse is also home to half a dozen plants of a cucumber called Dekah, which I received from the HSL. The crop is reasonably heavy, early, delicious and the plants are robust and fully six feet tall. I have allowed a couple of fruits on each vine to grow to maturity and look forward to harvesting the seed in the next few weeks.

Outside, on the allotment the wet weather has been wonderful for vigour and yield of most, if not all the sixty and more types of vegetables I grow. I was given a few pea seed by an HSL member, Victorian Purple Podded and the plants are cropping well. I have yet to try the peas as I want to save all the seed to grow a full row next year. However, I had no idea how tall they might grow and only now know that I will need at least five foot of support in 2009! Last year I was inundated with requests for my favourite broad bean, Bowland Beauty. Determined not disappoint the many people to whom I could not provide I have grown a thirty foot double row just for seed. The pods are blackening and ripening nicely but I need a few days of dry weather before I can harvest.

I had one surprise- an unintentional cross-pollination. I collect two other broad beans, Canadian Purple flowered and White Continental. I received a letter from a fellow collector who had some Canadian Purple flowered seed from me, to say the plants where both white and purple flowered. Horror of horrors. Even though I had sown seed of the two varieties at different times and opposite ends of the allotment I must have suffered cross-pollinations. Sure enough, when I sowed some purple seed myself, many of the flowers where white. As soon as I became aware of this ‘infection’ I removed the white flowering plants before they could be pollinated and I just hope that the next generation of beans will be true. But then again, maybe I have created a new hybrid… So, what to call it?

Next year I will see if I my White Continental seed is equally corrupted.

I have tried growing a new variety of Brussels Sprout called Seven Hills that another HSL member very kindly gave me. I started them off very early in late January – the time I usually sow sprouts. The plants are strong and vigorous, but one bolted in June and two others have a great crop of sprouts already! I will be interested to see if they hold until the winter. If not I shall try again with a later sowing next year.

The beans I found in a market in Tanzania and grew for the first time last year are growing well. They took time to take off, but are now five feet tall and starting to flower. The crop will be late but I hope can mature before the weather gets too cold. A prolific crop of stubby pods each holding four fat beans. On another part of the allotment I am growing an HSL bean, Bonne Bouche. The young beans are delicious, but I must not be tempted and allow the pods to mature to yield enough beans to share with others and grow more of in the future.

My surprise success this year is one of my staple beans, Ryders’ Top o’ the Pole. I had a complete germination failure in early May. Despite warming the ground up with a long cloche before sowing seed, come late May there was nothing to see. I had given all but a few of my seed away, but after a foray into the depths of a kitchen cupboard, I found some forgotten and ancient beans meant for the pot. They looked pretty inedible; wrinkled and dull white. But more in hope than certainty I sowed then and to my delight they all germinated. Now I have a magnificent crop of beans. Most I am allowing to mature, some to freeze as fresh shelled beans and some to dry. And of course, some to eat now as tender young whole beans. They are my finest crop.

I tried a Kale called Delaway last year. It’s delicious, slow to bolt and very hardy. I left the old plants to go to seed and a few weeks ago I was able to harvest them. The set was not brilliant but after hanging the plants up in my garage – safely cocooned in a bag made from fleece – to dry properly, I still managed to extract a jam-jar full of bright black seeds. I immediately sowed a few and they germinated within a couple of days. So, some time in late September I’ll be able to transplant my first lot of home-saved Delaway.

Other crops doing well include the sensational radish Pasque. Shelling the pods is enough to drive a sane man to drink, but, again, once we get a dry spell and the harvest can fully ripen I will be spending happy hours with these unruly plants. Then, as soon as possible I’ll sow a couple of rows to harvest through the winter. Yum yum.

And as for the garden greenhouse? A variety of chillies and sweet peppers are growing purely for the table. But I have isolated a couple of plants of a tiny chilli I discovered on the island of Rodriguez – using a curtain of fleece – and will keep back some fruits for their seed.

Time to check the forecast and pray for some sun.

Adam Alexander
© 2007


Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The morning was cool, but the rising sun, revealing a solitary kingfisher gazing into the muddy waters of Chiang Rai’s Mae Kok river, promised light and warmth, something absent from England. Boxing Day had been spent in the air and this was my first day of an eagerly awaited month-long vacation to Laos and Cambodia.

But, before heading off to the Laos border and the Mekong River some three hours drive to the north, there was an important expedition to the main market in the centre of town to make.

Chiang Rai is an unassuming place, dusty now in the dry season, a small town that is a launch pad for tourists heading into the hills. Fortunately it retains an aura of Thai normality and purposefulness. The main market, housed in a dingy, cavernous concrete enclosure the size of a football stadium, is a maze of narrow isles that lead one past people selling everything from fruit and vegetables to fake watches and flip-flops; from clutches of colourful hens tethered to a table leg to great mounds of dried fish and belligerent bright blue and very much alive crabs.

Having the good fortune to be able to travel I can satisfy my passion to collect and grow native and indigenous vegetable seeds. I am especially interested in capsicums, cucurbits and legumes, although anything unusual that takes my fancy, especially if I don’t know what it is, invariably finds itself secreted in my suitcase. On this holiday I was to find something quite astonishing.

A very large number of vegetables that are a core part of Far-eastern cookery were introduced from the Americas, first by the Portuguese and later by other explorers on their global adventures to colonise the New World. 400 years ago people throughout the Far East and Indo China had yet to embrace chillies, peppers, tomatoes, ground nuts, sweet potatoes, the humble cabbage even.

My interest in seed-collecting is two-fold. Firstly I am keen to see how the growing habits of these introduced varieties vary from region to region – comparing for example, the difference in the vigour, habit, taste, colour and adaptability of chillies grown in East Africa with those that have a similar appearance in Eastern Europe, the Far East, and the Americas. I am also always on the look out for varieties that are possibly unique to a region, even though they are certainly not native. For example I have found a chilli on the island of Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean which is no more than a centimetre long and is grown exclusively for pickling when green. I have found a hot, sweet pepper in the Ukraine that bares similarities in size, taste and vigour to a pepper I discovered in an oasis in Morocco, but is four-lobed, rather than three-lobed. I found a potent chilli in Kenya that is no more than five centimetres long, but is the thickness of a knitting needle.

Secondly, I like to see how adaptable my discoveries are to growing in the UK. I have had some spectacular failures but also many successes and saving seed over several generations I have often found improvements in vigour, earliness and hardiness. So it is always exciting to bring more seeds home and see just how they will perform.

Chiang Rai market on that dusty, cool, early December morning was packed with locals. There wasn’t a ‘farang’ in sight. Those ‘western foreigners’ still in bed didn’t know what they were missing! I was like a kid in a sweet-shop, checking out everything edible, searching in the dim light for someone selling chillies, someone selling seeds. Commercial Chinese seed is sold widely, but it wasn’t brightly coloured packets of listed varieties I was after. In these markets there is nearly always someone selling little packets of home-save seed but this morning was not to be as fruitful in that regard as later along the Mekong. What I did find were two stalls selling a wide variety of locally grown chillies and peppers. I counted more than sixteen sacks brimming with goodies. Fat, long, almost black peppers, pale orange small fiery chillies, others slender, elegant, blood-red, pink, short, all in all I was in pick-n-mix heaven. Having determined with the help of an English-speaking passer-by that these goodies were all grown locally I spent the princely sum of sixty pence and bought a handful each of half-a-dozen different varieties. On this occasion I was unable to determine if the source seed was from a commercial supplier. Even though the provenance of this selection from Thailand is unclear, a good growing season back home will reveal their individual secrets. Seed hunting was soon to be a very different experience, however. It was time to head off to the Mekong and a trip along a river that has a very clever trick up its sleeve to make this gardener green with envy!

The Mekong is the longest river in Asia, starting its 4,200 kilometre journey to the South China Sea in the highlands of Tibet. I joined it after the river had already journeyed some 2,500 kilometres to a point just south of the Golden Triangle, the place where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet. Here the river runs unhurriedly yet purposefully and in January is already some 5 metres lower than its normal height at the peak of the rainy season in November. The entry point into Laos is at Houay Xai – no more than a village across the river from the small town of Chiang Kong. A 200 metre trip in a long-tail boat across the muddy, swirling waters brings one to a concrete slipway and Laos customs. In January it’s as pleasantly warm as a blissful summer’s day in England; the evening chill begs a sweater to be worn, no more. I watched my first Laotian sunset from a monastery perched on a hill above the river, the balmy air mellifluous with the sound of chanting monks.

After a night in a local hotel we boarded our river transport that would take us the 150 kilometres south to Luang Prabang. A two-day trip through some of the most spectacular scenery one could wish to soak up, with stops en-route to visit the odd tribal village and check out the vegetable gardens. In this climate you can grow just about anything and in northern Laos, rice is grown in paddy fields cut out of the forest near the river. Black mountain rice is grown on the slopes further away, irrigated by mountain streams. Vegetables like onions, garlic and greens, herbs, principally dill and mint are grown all year round, and gardeners have taken the art of cultivating raised beds to literally, great heights. Everyone in Laos, it seems, keeps chickens, ducks and black pot-bellied pigs. None of these animals are corralled, but happily peck, scratch and snuffle through the villages and around the houses, all of which are built on stilts to keep from being flooded in the rainy season. Every hen I saw had a brood of chicks that scavenged in carefree fashion, rubbing shoulders with all the other animals including the most laid-back dogs I have ever come across. Likewise, the ducks would hang out together in gregarious and talkative gangs hoovering up whatever was to be found in the dust as well as by the river. I digress. Having that lot around is any gardener’s worst nightmare because, as we know hens will gladly scratch up a seed bed, ducks will shovel their way through a row of greens hunting for slugs and pigs… well, need I say more. In order to protect cash crops like spring onions, lettuce and dill, all of which grow at a furious pace in the perfect climate, everyone has at least one raised bed which is two or three feet wide and up to six feet long, made from slats of wood, about six inched deep and supported on posts up to six feet off the ground. A ladder is essential for good management. An effective and animal proof plot.

Every year as the snows of the Himalayas melt and water pours off the Tibetan plateau through the precipitous gorges in the north, the Mekong does something truly miraculous. As the waters of the swollen river rush to the sea scraping and gouging at its banks two things happen. Firstly, the river sweeps away the deposits of alluvial soil that were left behind during the previous year in its bends and shallows. Then, as the rainy season comes to an end and the waters recede the Mekong leaves behind its remarkable gift – brand new beds of fertile and weed-free sandy loam.

As soon as these new gardens are revealed by the subsiding waters everyone is out planting. Along the length of the river for thousands of kilometres, wherever there is exposed ground, pocket-sized plantations of sweet potatoes and ground nuts rapidly take hold. Stands of maize, ordered rows of onions, tomatoes, capsicums, squash, beans and peas, brassicas, lettuce, spinach, Pak Choi, Kai Lan and Chinese greens of all types plus herbs like coriander, dill and morning glory grow in joyous profusion from beds created in the drying mud. I was surprised at the half-hearted and seemingly ineffectual enclosures that surrounded some crops. But usually no effort was made to protect the plots from predators and I can only presume that stray animals didn’t need to go to the trouble of digging up veggies to feed themselves.

This is organic gardening at its purest and most perfect. Everything I saw growing along the Mekong was from home-saved seed. The only nutrients the plants got were from what the Mekong provided. Insecticides were unheard of and unaffordable herbicides unnecessary as the fresh deposits of rich alluvial soil were, for the most part weed-free. Besides, pushing a hoe around occasionally as the crops grow in such conditions is a leisurely and convivial pursuit.

I had never seen anything like this before and was eager to get to the market at Luang Prabang as soon as possible. I had to wait until after the New Year and a cookery course, when I was able to not only explore one of the most extraordinary and diverse markets I have ever seen, but could check the provenance of every vegetable I saw. Laotians eat every part of an animal so the ‘meat section’ was colourful, and to some perhaps, a little gruesome. But for me, to see bags of buffalo blood and buffalo bile along side piles of pigs ears; mounds of melancholy frogs harnessed together with cotton in large enamel bowls next to families of ducklings sitting on the ground eyeing passers-by nervously– and with good reason along with mean looking giant cockroaches destined to be turned into paste to eat with sticky rice, was fascinating. But what I wanted to see most where the veggies. The Laotians eat a great many herbs, usually by the handful; loose lettuce is a staple as are Chinese greens. They grow many different gourd and squash including two varieties of cucumber. In the north during the dry season a small gourd-shaped type I have never seen before. It has a strong but sweet cucumber flavour without any bitterness. In the south during the rainy season a squat, smooth-skinned type. I found some locally grown chillies and was able to confirm that the seller had also grown them from her own seed. My first purchase that morning. There were also two types of tomato, one small, the other of medium size, but as I had no means to dry the seed I reluctantly passed them by. Also, throughout Laos and Cambodia locals tend to eat tomatoes very under-ripe as they do mango and papaya as they like the sour taste. It was hard to find really ripe specimens, so it wasn’t so hard to deprive myself!

I nagged my guide that morning to find someone selling seeds and before long, in a dimly illuminated corner of the market sandwiched between a woman selling loose tobacco and sachets of cheap shampoo on one side and a fruit seller on the other, squatting amongst mounds of mandarins from Vietnam and bunches of grape-sized Longon from orchards on the edge of town, a toothless old dear had little packets of all sorts hanging from her awning. There were soya beans harvested last year from the banks of the Mekong, as well as seed that yield long green beans like cow peas from blue-flowered vines I had seen growing through hedges of convolvulus and hibiscus that border the paths between allotments by the river. The old lady also sold fennel, dill and black mange-tout seed, something I had never seen before. And the price for a bag full of palm-sized packets? Just thrity pence.

It was another week before I was able to feed my habit in the main market of the Laos capital Vientiane. The location is undergoing a complete makeover so the central market was closed for re-building which meant the stalls were overflowing into th bus station and waste-land around the new market building site. As ever, I was in search of a seed seller. Using our guide as an interpreter I asked a stallholder if such a place could be found and she just pointed behind us. There in a corner under a stairwell was another old lady with a plentiful supply of local and imported seed. This was where I found my second real surprise, red coriander seed. She couldn’t tell me if the seed would produce red leaves but I am ever hopeful of something magic sprouting! She also had seed of a gourd I saw being sold nearby – green, bottle-shaped and about 4 inches long. I will be interested to see if this vegetable is in fact the same as the gourde-like cucumber seed I found in Luang Prabang. Only later this summer will I know!

Part of our journey through Laos took us to the Bolaven plateau, an area in the south about the size of Yorkshire itt is situated between the Mekong River and the mountains along the border with Vietnam. This area of highlands situated at an altitude of between 1000m and 1300m is a veritable Eden for temperate crops. The French introduced coffee production 100 years ago and as well as some rather – in my opinion – over-rated Arabica and genuinely filthy Robusta, there are also large tea plantations producing black tea but best of all, delicious green tea. So, travelling through the region was a horticultural delight, especially as January is peak harvest time for coffee so the roads were lined with great sheets covered in red beans drying in the sun. I saw large groves of bananas, fields full of cabbages, orchards of cashew, orderly rows of pineapples and wonderful vegetable gardens and the ubiquitous raised bed verdant with cash crops. I also saw acres of new rubber plantation and land being cleared to plant more as well as swathes of rice fields. But there was one truly organic product I didn’t see any evidence of on the plateau – elephant dung. Earlier we had spent a few days on a reserve further south which offered elephant rides to the tourists. Everywhere you went along the trails used by the elephants the locals would collect the dung in large fish-food sacks. These bags would then be taken to a collection point in the centre of the village where a truck came regularly to carry the load up onto the plateau for use as an organic fertilizer… allegedly!

Whilst on the plateau we stopped to visit a coffee co-operative where along with huge mounds of beans being dried and de-husked I spied a tray of chillies drying in the sunshine. Needless to say a handful was pocketed – with the owner’s permission of course! Then, in the local town of Paksong the market yielded up another interesting herb, celery leaf. This time the seed came in its own little tin! One for the herb garden this summer methinks.

It’s all going like the clappers

Monday, 28 April 2008

Late April, what a time of year for the obsessive veggie grower! With the ground getting warmer and the days ever longer everything is just growing like the clappers. My beetroot and artichoke seedlings are filling their cloches and need fresh air; the early potatoes are a mass of green under their cloche; the early broad beans are in full flower; the lettuce and spinach in the green house demand to be eaten, so lush and Green are they, and, between the showers I have sown runner beans and French beans of all types under cloches. My main crop spuds too are poking their noses through the soil and I have given them their first earthing up. Short rows of chard, turnips, rocket, spring onions, spinach, more lettuce and radishes are all coming through as are the weeds, so I have my little ring-hoe to hand at every inspection.

In the greenhouse celery, celeriac, fennel are all transplanted into bigger cells to grow on and be hardened off in a couple of weeks time. I have planted out tomatoes in the greenhouse border and a fine collection of peppers and chills now demand to be potted on.

My Robinson peas are growing fast too and I will spend this evening building a giant frame for them to scramble up. And with spring cabbage, early cauliflowers, calabresse and Brussels sprout plants all growing fast the allotment is looking happy and healthy.

Now is the time to get successional. I’ll sow a short row of lettuce very couple of weeks and also radishes, which unless eaten young get woody and unpleasant. Also herbs like coriander and rocket especially, quickly go to seed, so a sowing once a month for the net three months will ensure a plentiful supply right through to the autumn.

This is such a fabulous time of year. The asparagus is coming through which means I’ll be cutting later this week; the early garlic is starting to swell promising succulent new bulbs to eat whole early in June. This is the time when diligent husbandry really pays off with good crops into the summer and beyond. The madness of harvesting is to come. meanwhile I can chill out with a hoe, complete the final preparations for summer planting of brassicas, sweetcorn andcucurbits and spend many a happy hour on the allotment day dreaming about the bounty to come.

A busy time to sow

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Although the weather has been cool, especially at night, with a string of frost, my early spuds are doing well under their cloche. Today, with the sun warming damp soil the weeds are muscling through and it is now that I have a circular hand hoe permanently stuck in my back pocket so that as I peruse the beds I can scalp offending weeds on sight.

My sowings of radish, lettuce, beetroot and spinach of a couple of weeks ago are now well up under their cloches. The parsnip have yet to show themselves, but this vegetable is notoriously slow to germinate, as is carrot, so I must be patient. The important thing is to keep the seed bed moist. It is amazing how quickly the top inch of soil can dry out under a cloche when their is lots of sun.

Today I have sown spring onions, rhubarb chard, rocket and turnips into open ground. A major sowing of cucurbits in the propagator at home has taken place this weekend. I have sown four varieties of squash – Butternut F1, Pompeon, Uchiki Kiri and Marina di Chioggia – three types of cucumber – my outdoor favourite Burpless green tasty, the Zanzibar one I tried for the first time last year and a HSL variety Dekah, the latter two to be grown under glass. I have also sown some gherkin seed I bought in Lidl for 29 pence!!! as well as a white marrow i found in a Zanzibar market and a hybrid melon Sweetheart. So the greenhouse this year will be full of cucumbers and melons I hope. I also sowed two types of courgette, Zucchini F1 and Altedellio Sakara, (if my memory serves me correctly).


Thursday, 6 March 2008

OK, so I’ve been quiet these last couple of weeks. It’s not that I have been ignoring my veggies, but it has just been less frantict. The major task has been the preparation of the first new raised bed, which has required a serious amount of digging, shit shovelling and back-breaking moving of soil and building of timber sides, etc. I have transplanted some Broad Beans from the allotment greenhouse. Now they are establishing themselves under a cloche and look quite happy.

This weekend I will plant my early potatoes, a variety called Accent. The ground has been warming up for them for some time now. They are planted six inches deep, 12″ apart in two rows 2 feet apart, through black poly. I’ll keep them covered with a poly-cloche until the haulm is filling the space, probably around early May and then they will have to take their chances against late May frosts. With luck I’ll be pulling early spuds for my birthday on 20th May.

A number of crops in the greenhouse, (onions and beetroot) need to be moved into a cold frame prior to transplanting at the end of the month: My lettuce and brassicas will be transplanted under bottle cloches on a warm day in the next week or so – probably the Easter weekend.

I have noticed that some peas that I sowed last autumn are now demanding attention. they’re a bit patchy but large enough for the cloches to come off and for me to give them a wire-netting framework to grow up.

My lettuce, radish and spinach are all doing well in the allotment greenhouse but the early carrot seed germination is very poor and I worry that the crop will be ready by the time I need the space for tomatoes, peppers adn melons.

Shovelling shit on a Saturday

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Another glorious weekend and with the arrival of a couple of tons of fresh shit, a lot of donkey work too.

I am building two new raised beds this year on an old area of lawn. This requires digging – a once only operation, but a back-breaking one. I do recommend this technique however. Old lawns need burying. Forget double-digging. An act of pure masochism to be avoided at all costs. I take out my first spit a full spade deep and set the whole row to one side. I then fill this trench with manure, allowing a large barrow load for every 10 feet or so. Ideally I like to use well rotted stuff but the fresh supply in today was dumped a short distance away and because I will use this ground for my maincrop potatoes – reasons to follow – I figured a bit of slightly fresh manure wouldn’t hurt. By the time I am ready to plant in April it will have pretty much completed rotting down anyway. I then turn the next spit over, grass-side down on top of the shit-filled trench. Because it is impossible to cut the spits exactly to fit in place every ten spade lengths or so I chuck one spit on top of the previous row. Don’t worry about things being tidy. The important thing is to make sure the grass sward is upside down on top of the shit.

Each raised bed is a metre wide. So, once I have dug the bed to this width I then dig two trenches without adding shit, setting the spits to oe side and then digging down a second spade deep – alright, I occasionally do a bit of double digging – pilling these spits on top of the dug bed. These two trenches will become a path about 14″ wide between the raised beds. I return the top spits to this trench grass-side down. It is also necessary to double dig the outside of each raised bed. Once again, set the spits to one side and then dig another spade deep, chucking this soil on top of the new bed. Then take the first spits and put them in the double trench upside down to make the path down the outside of your bed.

My other rather easier job was preparing the bed for my broad beans. the seeds I sowed in January are now lovely strong plants, sitting in a tray on the floor of the allotment greenhouse. In two weeks time I want to plant them out. In order to avoid them having a check in growth I want to put them under a cloche. So today I raked some fish, blood and bone into a bed that had previously had brassicas in it and had been manured last year and then put a poly-cloche over the ground to warm it up a little.

Oh yes, and why plant potatoes in new ground? Because it’s a crop that smothers weeds, so makes a gardener’s life a little easier. Also, by ridging up the ground as the potato shoots emerge one is already weeding. I’ll need to be vigilant and remove perennial weeds like dandelion and creeping buttercup, but hopefully after one season the beds will be in pretty good shape. My one worry is the dreaded wire worm, which are found in undisturbed pasture and love to eat potatoes. There isn’t much I can do to stop an attack, but once ground has been dug they tend to bugger off to pastures new so following crops are left alone.

seductive February sunshine

Friday, 15 February 2008

Am I alone in being seduced by the capriciousness of our climate? Why is it that, despite the advise of wise old gardeners I look to sow earlier, harvest sooner despite knowing that a warm weekend in February doesn’t mean that summer has already started!

Last weekend was more like an April one. Chilly at night but sunny and in the sixties during daylight hours. Sorry folks, but when the weather is as good as that the last place I will be is sitting in front of a key board dashing off pearly lines of blather.

yes, I was seduced last weekend, but only moderately so. Nothing too foolish. I planted onion sets and soft-neck garlic. That was all, I promise. And, with a sunny Saturday on offer actually now is a very good time to get those alliums in.

Onions, shallots and garlic like ground that is slightly alkaline. Some talk of a pH of 6.7. I suggest that if you want to grow these crops on ground that hasn’t been limed for a couple of years then its probably a good idea to apply a generous couple of handful per square yard, (I am repeating myself I know), before planting. Alliums also need potash to grow well and this also helps to reduce rust, a real problem on my allotment. I planned to plant my Red Baron onion sets and my Isle of White garlic last Sunday. As the crop is following brassicas the ground was well enough limed but on Saturday I applied a top dressing of 100% pure wood ash, collected from the sitting room fire. If you don’t have a supply then sulphate of potash is great. I understand that salt petre is also a good fertiliser – if you can buy it without going to gaol first! I applied wood ash as a thin but clearly visible grey blanket and raked it in along with a small dressing of fish, blood and bone. A day later I was ready to plant.

Onion sets will push themselves out of the ground as the first roots emerge, so I draw up a shallow drill and press the sets gently into this at a spacing of 4″ in rows 9″ apart. This is quite dense planting but means I get nicely sized onions. You know you have it right when the mature crop is touching in the rows, rather like bread rolls as they come out of the oven. If the sets do push themselves out of the ground then push them back in. Birds often like to pull them out too, but then they just leave them. be vigilant until the crop is established.

This is the first year I have planted garlic in the spring. My early crop has been in since last October and is growing well. I have been told that spring planting for long-keeping soft-neck garlis is worth a try. So, plant your garlic cloves 6 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart and pray it doesn’t freeze!

Have a great weekend in the veggie plot.

Some musings on crops.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Having spent a very enjoyable time on Sunday showing my allotment to a fellow vegaholic I thought it might be a good idea to distil part of the conversation here as it might answer some questions for you who read this stuff!

Brassicas grow well in heavy soil because they like to be firmly rooted. But, although clay can be very fertile, getting the Ph, (level of acidity or alkalinity) in your soil right is very important to enable the plants to access the nutrients that they need to flourish. In general you are looking for a neutral to slightly alkaline soil, which is why the addition of lime in the rotation is so important. Lime helps plants to access these nutrients. If your cabbages don’t flourish even though the soil has been manured, it is very likely the pH is too acidic and you need to add lime. I lime my ground in the brassica rotation. A good couple of handfuls of garden lime per square metre is enough. Rake it in to the top couple of inches, leave for a week or two and then plant.

There are certain crops that don’t like too much lime. The most important one is potato. With an alkaline soil you get scab on your crop. This disfigures the tubers but doesn’t prevent you from eating them!

There is no reason why you cannot grow vegetables to harvest every day of the year. Growing for winter is especially rewarding. It just requires a little planning. Parsnips, brassicas like winter cabbage, Romanesco and Brussels Sprouts need a long growing season and should be sown early in the spring. Celeriac needs to be sown in April. Over-wintering carrots need to be sown in late June/early July. Winter salad crops like Radicchio and endive should be sown in summer after the solstice. As the days shorten young plants grow more slowly, so things that you sow from late July onwards tend to mature in late winter/spring. For example, winter radish, spring onions, spring lettuce, spring cabbage and certain cauliflower types.

The trick for successful successional harvesting is always to put cleared ground to good use. In autumn plant winter onion sets, garlic, shallots, broad beans, even some types of pea. These will crop in May/June. When your greenhouse beds are cleared in autumn sow over-wintering lettuce. Early in the year sow fast maturing crops like spinach, carrots and radish in the greenhouse which you will harvest before you need the ground again for your summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. And if you do have vacant ground sow a cover crop or green manure in the late summer/autumn.

And lastly, grow small amounts of lots of different things, apart from staples like spuds and pulses. Think how many lettuce you eat in a month and sow accordingly. How many red cabbage? How many sprouts? A wider variety of plants helps with rotation and when, as inevitably happens, something fails, there are still things in the garden to eat!

Frozen February

Saturday, 2 February 2008

What to do when the ground is frozen?  Well, apart from excavating a very long parsnip and cutting a cabbage, not a lot is the answer. I don’t need to sow anything at the moment. My tomato and capsicum seed are slow to germinate. This could be because I have not got the propagator warm enough, but one variety, Nello’s Piccolino, have shot up. Capsicum, in any event are slow, so I keep my nerve.

I am going to cut back the three chilli varieties I have had growing through this winter. They are beginning to wilt so time for a good hard trim followed by a feed and it will be interesting to see if they come back strongly this year.

Now is a good time to get in a load of shit to complete rotting down for use in the autumn. I have three bins for compost and manure. The bigger the bin the better, so if you are going to build some I recommend they are not less than one cubic metre in capacity (30 cubic feet). Make sure the site for the heap is on soil. Mine are against the north facing end of the allotment and are 80 cubic feet each. I made them using a framework of posts and wire. I then lined each frame with carpet. When a bin is full I also cover it in natural fibre carpet. This helps to keep the heap well insulated and rain off! But you do have to re-line the bins every two or three years as the lining rots away! Now is also a good time to turn a compost heap as it will have been working slowly through the winter and needs a good mix and aeration to get it going as the days warm up. With a three bin system like mine once one bin is empty I tip the contents of the fullest compost bin into it. Then I fill the empty bin with shit. My third bin provides me with a supply of compost/rotted manure through the spring and summer for replenishing beds as veggies are harvested. Or, if it is not full I continue to fill it with organic material.

Happy gardening this weekend.

The start of a new year

Saturday, 5 January 2008

I feel most remiss that I haven’t written anything about the goings on with my veggies for 7 months. I will endeavour to turn over a new clod and try and regularly keep y’all updated as to what to do when and how and the success and failures on my allotment.

So, it’s the first weekend of January and time to start off broad beans. I do occasionally sow Aquadulce in November – Guy Fawkes day is considered the optimum date in the Forest of Dean. But I often have problems with blackening of the stems in spring and never get a particularly good crop. 2007 was a very poor crop so I am reverting to a more certain method which will ensure a good and early crop.

The variety I start now is Bowland Beauty, a magnificent long-podded variety which is sadly off-list so cannot be purchased, but is available through the Seed Heritage Library of Garden Organic or from HSL members like me who try and save extra seed to share out. This winter the demand for seed has been huge and I have run out. Last year I gave away so many I was only able to grow beans for seed. This year will be different! I save the centres of loo-rolls, kitchen rolls and wrapping paper to use as biodegradable pots. 9-months of defecation in the Alexander household yields more than 60 inners, enough for me to plant up a big tray.

This year I am also trying a new mix of potting compost. Normally I use John Innes seed compost for all initial sowing, but now I am mixing it in equal measure with a soilless multi-purpose compost to see if the more open texture will help water retention.

My tray of 60 loo-rolls each with a single bean seed is now in the greenhouse and hopefully germination should be in the next three or four weeks. I will transplant the seedlings in early March under a cloche and my guess is I will be eating broad beans just as soon as if I had sown Aquadulce in November. If you want to try this technique and do not have a greenhouse to start the crop off then leave the pots in a frost-free shed until the beans germinate and then put them in a light place during the daytime, bringing them in at night if there is danger of frost. The beans will grow more slowly but nevertheless, you will still achieve an early crop. You can do this with any variety of broad bean. A tip: If you are intending to fill loo-roll inners get yourself a narrow trowel to make the job easier and to limit the amount of compost that end up in the tray rather than the rolls!

I plant the onion variety Electric as sets in October as well as a long shallot called Jermor. Last year I bought some seed from Franchi of an onion/shallot variety Rossa Lunga Di Firenze. I sowed the seed in gentle heat in mid-February. The crop was terrific, but was very late to mature. I lifted the crop as clumps, like the classic shallot, in October but wished I had extended the growing season. According to the packet the seed can be started in trays in late autumn but I fancy starting them off now in heat and see if the extra six weeks of growing will mean the seedlings are more mature when the summer ends and they begin to ripen. Being Franchi seed, the packet cost me £1.50 and I have enough seed to last me for ten years! If only British seed merchants were as generous with their portions! So, I will sow a pinch of seed into a couple of trays of 1″ pots tomorrow.

I saved a lot of a fantastic variety of Runner Bean called Stenner. It’s early, prolific, stringless, incredibly tasty and very long. If you want some do e-mail me or send an sae.

Happy 2008 and may your crops be plentiful.

My experiment with global warming of keeping my lemon tree outside throughout the year may have been a mistake this winter, with a long cold and wet spell the tree is looking distinctly miserable at the moment. I just hope it will revive as the weather warms up, but I worry that the new growth from last year which should bear fruit is so damaged I will not get a crop worth shouting about.