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.

a lovely sunny Sunday in January

Sunday, 27 January 2008

When it’s minus 12 degrees I don’t care how sunny and dry it is, it’s no good for a veggie grower like me. So, it was with relief I left Washington DC on Friday night and having gotten over my jet-lag was able to put in a full and fruitful day on the allotment today.

I am the proud owner of two greenhouses. One at home with a heated propagator chugging along at 22 degrees and a thermostatically controlled fan to keep a minimum temperature of six degrees centigrade in the house itself. The second glass house is on the allotment and unheated. But it was my first port of call this morning. A sprinkling of lime and some fish blood and bone on the empty borders within and I soon had two rows of carrot, (Amsterdam Forcing and a new variety for me, a Nantes type called Heracles. I’ll compare how well they both do. A row of tasty Scarlet Globe radish and a row too of a fast-growing salad spinach called Campania and I was in my element. I thinned and transplanted my Winter Density lettuce so now the greenhouse is full again – and warm too from all that sun we had today.

It was also a good time to prepare my early potato bed. I grow a variety called Accent and they are now happily chitting away in the potting shed at home. To get the bed ready I used one that had grown both cucurbits, a few beans and salad crops late in the year. A good 4-inch thick layer of manure went down which I loosely turned in and then raked roughly level. I then rolled out a layer of black poly, anchored down with bricks. I will plant a double row in the three-foot wide raised bed so I set up two lengths of poly-cloche using my tried and tested wire hoops. Now, over the next couple of months the ground will warm up nicely so when I plant the tubers early in March they should race away to give me crop later in May.

I also prepared my first brassica bed. Pretty easy really. Using a raised bed that had been manured last summer and grown pulses, I sprinkled on a goodly dose of lime and then some fish, blood and bone. The ground had been left fallow since October and with all the wet weather we have had it has become a little leached, hence the lime and organic fertiliser. I then very lightly raked the bed over, being sure not to loosen the soil too much as brassicas like to be planted into firm ground. The spring and summer cabbage I have growing in the greenhouse will be planted out early in March.

A harvest of celery hearts, radicchio, rocket and winter radish for one salad; red cabbage, carrots and celeriac for another and as teh sun went down it was time to wend my weary way home and make supper.

The greenhouse at home is looking good too. The lettuce and brussels sprouts I planted last weekend are already up. Home saved seed is so much more vigorous than bought seed I find. My tomatoes will take a day or two longer before they show themselves and some of the capsicums can take weeks to emerge.

Happy gardening folks. With the days starting to lengthen and the sun beginning to warm the ground it’s a good time to get some cloches erected and that magic black poly on the ground.

Time to get some more seed sown

Saturday, 19 January 2008

It’s another wet weekend but between the showers I have been busy today sowing a variety of seed which is now warming up on the propagator in the greenhouse.

Now’s a good time to start sowing tomatoes and capsicums as well as early lettuce, Brussels sprouts and beetroot. so that’s what i have been doing.

As a bit of a seed collector I do like to try varieties of chili and tomato especially ones that I have come across in local markets or just found in gardens or on farms.

A couple of years ago I was in East Africa and went seed hunting first in a little port in Kenya close to the border with Tanzania. The town was dusty and busy. I found a farm shop that had a variety of Tomato called Kentom. A large packet of seed cost me just a few pence! The variety grows well here and produces vigorous indeterminate vines with a good crop of juicy fruit that are good eaten both raw and cooked. In the market I bought some local dry beans which I have been trying to propagate here with some limited success, (but more of this in May when I sow them again). On that same trip I ended up in Zanzibar and went to the market in search of more goodies. I found two tomato varieties being sold out of a tobacconist store. The seed came in little clear plastic slips and one variety was called Green Tomato and the other Red Tomato. I have sown these today for the first time and will see what emerges. Great fun!

When travelling in French Polynesia last year I bought some small chillies in the market on the island of Huahini. The seed from this find have been sown along with some home saved seed of a tiny chilli I found on the island of Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean four years ago. My little sister Leone bought me some giant chilli and odd tomato seed on a holiday to Turkey a while back. The long Turkish chilli is fantastic and grows well. For the first time I allowed a fruit to fully ripen and have sown seed from this today too. it’ll be interesting to see if the variety has bred true and just how productive it is. My eldest boy Jake brings me seed from his various forays around the world and this year he gave me some sweet pepper seed from Croatia. I am also growing a hot, sweet pepper that I have bee growing for many years and which i found in an oasis in the Moroccan desert. Altogether I have sown 7 varieties of tomato and eight varieties of capsicum today.

More prosaically I have also sown a pinch of seed given to me by a fellow collector, Mike Wicken of a Brussels Sprout he grows called Seven Hills. I am going to ave another go at globe artichokes this year. I will plant up a clump in the flower bed at the front of the Almshouses. So I have sown a Dobie variety and also some Little Gem lettuce. I also sowed a load of beetroot called Boltardy in protapacs.

The cabbage seed I sowed a couple of weeks ago is well up and my broad beans are sticking their noses out of the loo rolls they have been sown into! The Italian shallot seed is also up, so lots of new growth in the greenhouse to enjoy.

I hope the weather improves soon for all of us so we can get out and tidy up the rather sorry looking veggie plots around teh country. Happy gardening to y’all

A wet weekend

Sunday, 13 January 2008

With a dump of snow on Friday afternoon my best laid plans to do some ground work on the allotment has been put on hold for a week. However, for those of you who are into raised beds and have more convivial weather to do prep here are some thoughts.

I tend not to prepare beds until early spring. With a very free-draining soil and a wet winter I like to chuck shit around late and then cover with black polythene to allow nature to take its course, allowing a couple of months before major planting. Equally, beds needed for roots like carrot and parsnip, which do not need a top dressing of manure or compost, I give a light dressing of fish, blood and bone and then cover with poly for a month, prior to sowing. This helps with warming the ground up. I will also put polythene cloches over the poly. A three-foot wide bed accommodates two cloches nicely. One can buy clear and black poly in 100 metre rolls from a horticultural supplier and its cheap(ish). The hoops for the cloches can also be bought by the hundred in pre-cut lengths with loops a foot or so from each end to hook over thinner wire when the polythene is laid. Personally I am happy to buy 2mm gauge wire from the local farm supplier and cut my own. Forget the loops and just use another length of wire bent over the poly to hold it in place.

Next weekend will be busy. Catching up on ground preparation weather permitting and sowing tomato and capsicum seed and beetroot in mini-pots in the greenhouse.

more early January activity

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The onion seed are now sown. Two seed tray each with two 24-module inserts equals 96 onions if they all germinate! Enough to keep the Alexander kitchen supplied from October!

I have also sown in loo-rolls a few early cabbage. I had a disaster last summer with my spring greens. The effing cabbage white decimated my seedlings of Early Offenham before they could be transplanted. So I am trying a Dobie variety called Frostie, which should have been sown in the autumn, but I hope will catch up by being brought on in gentle heat in the greenhouse. I also planted a few Hispi summer cabbage. They’re fast maturing and very reliable.

I am trying an experiment with some of my chilli plants this year. I still have sitting on the propagator at 18 degrees centigrade a plant each of a fantastic hot chilli I found in the Masai Mara a couple of years ago, a very long Turkish mild chilli and a yellow Hungarian wax paprika type. The Kenyan chilli is continuing to crop well despite having temperatures a couple of times at or near freezing when I forgot to put on the heater! The other two have fruit which may yet ripen, but my plan is to cut them back in about a month’s time and see if I can get them to crop for a second year. They’ll need potting up and lots of feed, but as most capsicum are perennial it should work if I can keep them growing and botrytis free. Right now though it’s very nice to be picking fresh chillies in January!

My asparagus bed has been a disappointment in the last few years with the crop becoming thinner and weaker. I saw somewhere that asparagus likes slightly alkaline soil. As I have only been ladling shit on the bed for years I gave it a good dose of lime. I’m also going to sprinkle a little rock-salt on the bed for good measure. Watch this space. It’s kill or cure time!

Despite the inclement weather lately the allotment is yielding a good crop of rocket to go with the winter radish, radicchio and celery that makes such a tasty winter salad. My parsnips are large but very mis-shapen and I don’t really understand why this has happened as the ground they are in hasn’t been manured for three years! I do have problems with canker too and need to devise a means to deal with this. The celeriac crop is good as are my winter carrots, although I am finding more and more signs of carrot fly damage. Again this is mysterious as I protect the crop religiously with fleece and all year they have been damage-free. Anyway, it doesn’t stop them tasting fab. My early Romanesco is starting to come fit too. I had a second head for supper last night and of course there is still a goodly supply of January King and red cabbage as well as leeks to sustain us through these bleak days.

Next weekend will be quieter. Just some tidying up to do. It’s still a bit too soon to start tomatoes and capsicum in my view. Wait another week or so.

The start of summer madness

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

here at least we are getting some much-needed rain and this means it’s pretty manic on the allotment. With everything now growing flat out the art of successful successional growing is to be practised. Crops like rocket and spinach are notoriously prone to bolting as the days lengthen and the ground dries out. I am now into a three-week sowing programme. just a 3 foot row of each, but already my first sowing of rocket from March is about to bolt as has the spinach. I am sowing radish fortnightly, again, just 3 foot rows which provide enough for two of us. Lettuce are on a monthly cycle now as I have a number of different varieties growing which mature at different times. Also, transplanting retards growth by a week or two which helps successional planning. So, sow a little and often.

I have sown last weekend my main crop pea Robertson – (I still have a few seed of this off-list and completely delicious tall pea if anyone wants some BTW). Because of the unseasonably warm weather all my climbing beans are now groin up their poles with the cloches off. But, I have yet to transplant my courgettes and squashes or my sweetcorn, which, weather permitting I will do this weekend. as the wind is now in the SW I am banking on no more cold nights in May. My fennel seedlings, celery and celeriac will all get transplanted in a couple of weeks time as they need to be hardened off in a frame starting this week. Ditto outside cucumbers and tomatoes. They don’t like cool nights and will sulk for weeks if put out too early. I like to put a cloche over these plants when they first go out anyway to help them establish.

If you haven’t sown brassicas like sprouts and autumn/winter cabbage varieties by now it’s probably too late. Other crops to start now in short rows are fennel, endive and spring cauliflower, Romanesco, etc. Also it’s a good time to start a bed of main-crop carrots and beetroot for harvesting through late summer and autumn. the later hardier varieties can wait to be sown later next month as ground from other harvested crops becomes free.

It’s hotting up on the allotment

Friday, 27 April 2007

I’m sorry I missed posting last week but I was up to my eyes in seeds and planting and simply forgot.

Now we have come to the end of April, had a thorough drenching and the thermometer is rising again I know that all hell is breaking out. Stuff just grows like the clappers. My tasks are to provide support for my peas, keep up successional sowing of salad crops like lettuce, rocket, radish, mizzuna and spinach and make second sowings now of main-crop carrots and beetroot.

It’s also not too late to sow courgette and squash, to start parlsy outside in open ground and of course get those sweet corn going.

I will be transplanting tomatoes into the greenhouse borders now. the plants are about 8 inches high with six true leaves and the first embryo flowers showing. I transplant them deep, (Up to the calyx or first embryo leaf, or even slightly deeper as the plant will make new feeder roots from the stem below ground. I plant in a zigzag form at 18 inch stations. There are lots of way to stake tomatoes. i like to put a thin bamboo can in the ground alongside the plant which is then tied at the top to a wire that stretches along the greenhouse eave. This makes the cane rigid and I can tie the plant loosely to the stake as it grows.

The peppers are much slower growing so will get potted up on my return from China next weekend probably.

Because I grow tall, old varieties of pea they need careful support. I use 6 foot pea netting stretched across a bamboo frame, running the net either side of the row of seedlings. In this way they can scramble up without flopping over. But the cane frame has to be rigid so a little engineering is required wit cross-bracing! I support the shorter varieties with wire netting. of course hazel twigs are the traditional means of support and very effective and green too.

Broad beans will also been it from tying in. This I do by putting short canes about four foot long in the ground around the double rows about 3 foot apart and running three or four lines of string around the canes to stop the plants flopping over. The winter beans, Aquadulce look awful and ragged but beans are already setting. The early potatoes are now pushing at the poly cloche, but I wil leave them covered for another week or so just in case we get a late frost. All my runner and French beans have germinated. I will leave them under their cloches for another week or so until they have four true leave. then I will stake the climbers. (Details later!).

I am picking the first of my winter lettuce and will even sell some to raise money for the almshouses at the farmers market this weekend. Also, the asparagus is coming thick and fast, although I am not happy with the state of the plants which are getting spindlier. to that end the seed I sowed for a new bed are now germinating in the greenhouse and I’ll transplant them in the summer into a new asparagus bed, yet to be prepared.

It’s going to be a busy weekend – again!

Friday, 13 April 2007

I know I’ve said never be too hasty with getting this started at this time of year but…

With the ground warm and everything growing like the clappers I will risk a few things.

Firstly. I have lovely strong seedlings of Hispi cabbage and summer cauliflower to plant out on beds I prepared last weekend. The Hispi will be planted in a block of 12 plants 12″ apart. I’ll plant just 8 cauliflowers in two rows 18″ apart with the plants 2 feet apart.

The rocket I sowed last weekend is already up and I have started harvesting French Breakfast radishes. Yum yum. The main sowing task this weekend however will be French beans. I sowed some Maxiglot peas under a cloche before I went on holiday. The seed was old and the germination has been crap, so I will sow in place of those peas some of my home saved Empress of Prussia dwarf beans which are fab. I’ve plenty of seed so if you want some send me an sae and I’ll let you have enough to both eat and save seed yourself for next year. this really is a magnificent bean, long stringless and delicious. It freezes well too. But being off-list you cannot buy it.

I will also be sowing climbing French Beans, (Borlotto and Top o’ the Pole) sowing two seeds at 9″ intervals in two 15 feet long double row 18″ apart. They are going into ground Jesse prepared while I was away and will be covered in a cloche until they are well up and I can then put in the ean sticks to support them in about a month or so. This will yield me enough bean seed for drying and freezing to keep me going until July next year. I will also be sowing a short row of Runner Beans called Stenner which are again off-list. A delicious very long and late cropping variety. (no spare seed of this one this year I’m afraid). But I’ll plant just just two 3 foot rows across the bed as that will give me more than enough beans for the summer and a few to freeze too.

The early sown parsnip and carrots are all up and doing well so i will take their cloche off now. However, because I have problems with carrot root fly I’ll erect a 2-foot high curtain of fleece around the rows of carrots to protect them.

The winter Density lettuce are nearly ready to crop. I will remove half the bottle cloches I have over them to extend their cropping period. It’s a good idea if using individual cloches on plants like lettuce and courgettes to leave some on longer than others to vary the rate of maturing.

And then there is the old greenhouse to re-erect on the allotment. New base made of old breeze-blocks. A lot of heaving and I can move some tomato plants in their next weekend perhaps.