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!

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