Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Conquering Compost

They say composting is easy. They say you just chuck your garden and kitchen waste in a big box and leave it a year. Then they talk about greens and browns, and layering, and mixing, and activating it if it's not going well. They talk about insulating it, ventilating it, aerating it, covering it, making sure it's not too wet, making sure it's not too dry. Then they talk about formulae; two thirds brown and one third green, or maybe it's 90% brown and 10% green (and what kind of waste do we create more of? Green!), or maybe it's half and half. Then some guy says you've gotta add ash or clay, and another says you've gotta buy worms, and another says you need a bokashi bin, and another says a hotbin is the only way, and another says you only get really good compost if your heap is three cubic yards. One guy says you have to turn it regularly and another guy says never turn it. Then there are the big questions: how hot does your heap get? Is that really properly-formed humus, or is it just decomposed organic matter? Let me tell you, compost is THE number one most hotly debated subject at our community veg-growing plot at FoodSmiles.

Me, I find life's too busy to worry about it very much. On our allotment, we have a two-cell bin made of pallets. We fill it up, it sinks a bit, we keep filling it up until we can't fill it any more, and then when we have to - usually every two years or so - we dig it all out and use the good stuff at the bottom and in the middle. There's always a lot of uncomposted stuff, on the top and round the edges where it's exposed to the air, so we just return it to the bottoms of the bins to keep going. It's slow going, and the compost isn't going to win any prizes and is usually still full of fibrous bits of root and twigs that didn't quite break down enough, and a few bright white bindweed roots to pick out, but it makes a satisfactory mulch, must contain plenty of nutrients, and disappears into the soil soon enough - and I certainly can't complain about the quality of my soil.

Last autumn, though, we were despairing about the size of our compost heap, which just didn't seem to be breaking down at all. It may be because we moved it into the part-shade of a tree, or because of the big piece of cardboard we threw in without tearing it up, or maybe we just produced more waste than usual for some reason. But we couldn't add any more to the mountain - we even had to start a new heap in another corner temporarily.

In November we started forking all the uncomposted matter off the top onto an empty bed. We didn't have time to finish the job and it just sat there all through December, but yesterday, at last, we got back to it. We forked out the rest of the uncomposted stuff, piled the good stuff into the right-hand bin (plus three plastic dustbins) ready for use, and piled the uncomposted stuff back into the left-hand bin.

We also wrapped black plastic sheeting round the bins and stapled it in place. Despite the popularity of compost bins constructed from old pallets and a lingering notion that bins should be well-ventilated, I've noticed lately that bins without ventilation seem to be much more effective, and by enclosing the waste you don't get a layer round the outside that dries out and doesn't break down. We'll have to find a lid as well, I think...

Somehow, almost everything fitted back into the bins (we did also fill three 80 litre plastic dustbins with good stuff), and despite mostly ignoring the bins for two years, one of them was 80% or more good compost and the other about 50%. The mountain is no more - hurrah!

I guess composting is easy...

Monday, 17 August 2015

Tomato Update

As usual, I've grown a range of tomato varieties this year, all lined up across my patio. They're barely ripe yet - I'm still waiting on four out of the five varieties to redden - but it's looking like a pretty good crop on the way!

The first variety, nearest my door, is Skykomish, an open-pollinated variety from Real Seeds that is supposed to be blight resistant. Unfortunately it's the least vigorous of the lot, hasn't grown very tall, and has the least fruit on it (fruit set seems poor) - and it's always had a few sickly-looking yellowy leaves! The fruits are a real mix of sizes, but there are a few nice big ones so hopefully it will be worthwhile in the end...

The next is Indigo Rose, the black tomato bred to be very high in antioxidants (anthocyanins, like in blueberries). The dark leaves and black fruits look rather dramatic and prompted lots of questions when I had friends round for a barbecue, but the plants have always looked rather stressed, with curled leaves, no matter how I've cared for them!

Whatever the problem is, it hasn't stopped the plant producing an abundance of fruit on looong trusses. They look black from any distance, but if you peek underneath, where the sun don't shine, they have green patches, and it's these I'm watching to check for ripeness - they should turn red eventually...

In the middle is Angelle, my trusty favourite from seeds saved from hybrid supermarket toms. I used to save the seed from year to year but they got more and more susceptible to blight with each generation, so I've started again from the hybrid this year. They're performing as well as before and are the most vigorous (and tallest) of the bunch, with huge trusses of small plum-shaped toms - and they've been the first to ripen!

We have a few Angelle plants in a plastic greenhouse on the allotment too, and under cover they ripened even quicker - we've had a few harvests from them now while we're only just about to start picking the ones at home.

Next in line is heirloom Amish Paste, a great tom for cooking (though I like it sliced as well), with vigorous plants and huuuge fruits!

I've had my first-ever experience of blossom-end rot this year with these - my watering habit must have slipped! - but thankfully only lost one truss of fruits, and I've been extra careful to water well since to prevent it from happening again. Blossom-end rot is caused by a lack of calcium, but it's rarely actually a shortage of calcium in the soil; more often lack of good transport through the plant's system, due to a shortage of water.

Finally, Dr Carolyn, another Real Seeds heirloom which I love, and they're doing really well. They're not as productive as some other varieties, but they're delicious!

I had the dreaded notification from Blightwatch at the weekend that my area was experiencing a 'Smith period' - perfect conditions for blight to develop - so I'm watching them carefully now for any signs. I'm disappointed that we've reached this stage already and I've harvested so few ripe toms so far - I think I need to choose an early variety or two next year so I can start picking sooner. In the meantime, I've cut a lot of the leaves off these plants to try to speed ripening - really I should have started this sooner so that air circulation around the plants was better when the conditions for blight struck. I've taken off everything below the first truss and leaves which crossed over and touched each other a lot, and I've taken off leaves which shaded the fruits a lot.

It's only been a day since I did it and I'm sure I can see new tinges of colour appearing already, so hopefully it's working! But when blight does strike, I'll be ready to pick lots of the toms green and use them in chutney, green chilli and whatever other green tomato recipes I can drag up!

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A Wildflower Lawn

We don't have a very big lawn in our garden, but it still managed to be a lot of trouble - it had become infested with couchgrass and lots of weeds, and was always trying to escape its brick boundary and creep across the paths. So last year we decided to turn it into a wildflower lawn, where 'weeds' could be at home, within reason, and we wouldn't have to worry about keeping it looking tidy and even and flawless.

We covered it up with black plastic for a couple of months in the late summer, to kill off the exisitng growth. That seemed to work fine for the lawn itself but the couchgrass, dandelions and creeping buttercups still kept going, so it's been a battle since then to get rid of all the weeds, and I spent a couple of weeks in April hoeing regularly to cut down any new weed seedlings.

We bought a low-flowering seed mix from Wildflower Lawns and Meadows which contains 26 different flowers including buttercups, daisies, agrimony, selfheal, ragged robin, camomile, creeping thyme, cowslips, clovers, yarrow, fox and cubs, wild orchids and more, as well as a mixture of grasses. It's supposed to have a very long flowering season, to be tough enough for light traffic, and to reflower rapidly after mowing, which will only be needed around once a month. And of course it'll be wonderful for bees and butterflies!

After much weeding, hoeing and raking, I scattered the seed about two weeks ago and we've been keeping it watered to help things germinate. The first seedlings are beginning to show now - I hope they are the seed I sowed and not other things which were already in the soil! (Of course, some of the old 'weeds' were species which are also in the seed mix, so it's not all bad!)

There are some tough older weeds rearing their heads again too - obviously I missed a few - so it's going to be an ongoing task to weed out docks and couchgrass for a little while...

Though I'd really like to be using the lawn this summer, I think it's going to take quite a while to grow strongly enough to walk on. But I'm sure it's going to be worth the wait and look lovely when it's established!

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Tater Time

We've had some early potatoes growing in sacks in the garden for a few weeks now - I've been gradually filling the sacks to cover the growing shoots and protect them from frost, and we should have our first new potatoes by the end of the month. I've made three successional sowings, three weeks apart, to spread the harvest out.

But we've only just planted our maincrop potatoes on the allotment. As with seed-sowing, when I was new to growing I used to be anxious to get this job done as soon as we hit March, but these days I take a more relaxed attitude; it takes about two weeks for potato shoots to appear so they'll be arriving in mid-May and I suspect they'll be safe from frost by then.

Our three chosen varieties - Pentland Crown, King Edward and Sante - have been chitting on the bathroom windowsill for a good long time now, and all have healthy chits which should get them off to a good start. They have a full bed to themselves in our crop rotation - space for about 60 plants - and had we to remove a few forgotten carrots and parsnips, as well as quite a lot of dead nettle and chickweed, to clear the area. Then we raked some home-made compost over the whole lot, divided the bed into three, laid out the seed spuds in two double rows, and used trowels to plant them all 4-5 inches deep.

I'll be sure to hoe this bed over the next couple of weeks to get rid of any new weeds, and then in a few weeks time when all the shoots are up we'll earth them up, but otherwise we'll just leave the spuds to do their thing now until they die off again in August or September. Easy-peasy - just the way I like it :-)

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Seedlings Update

When I first started growing things, March was the month of frenzied seed-sowing, but now, having had a few years experience, I've chilled out a bit and a lot more happens in April. That way I don't have so much trouble looking after young plants and protecting them from frost, and plants don't get pot-bound and unhappy in their containers. So yes, with those digging and structural tasks out of the way, April has been largely about seed-sowing and caring for baby plants.

At home I have several trays of tomato, pepper, squash and cucumber plants to look after. They live outside on sunny days and all over the kitchen table and floor overnight. It's a bit of a chore but hardens the plants off thoroughly and allows them all the light they desire, and it's only for a few weeks.

The raised bed is looking great, full of salad veg seedlings including lettuce, mustard, spinach, watercress, komatsuna, kohlrabi, carrots, radish, turnips and spring onions - it'll be a salad bar all summer, and there'll be space for pepper plants here too. Despite my fears and the poor performance last year, I'm seeing no growth problems at all so far - hooray!

The plastic greenhouse is full of seedlings too; chard and perpetual spinach, kale and cauliflowers, dill, leaf celery, achillea, cerinthe, stock, snapdragons, cosmos and marigolds.

The cerinthe seedlings are so pretty!

On the plot, parsnips, beetroots and turnips have germinated and I gave them a good hoeing between the rows yesterday to keep the weeds down. Soon I'll sow swedes and calabrese in this bed too, and plant out young celeriac, leeks and cauliflowers.

The bindweed in this bed and our perennials bed is bad, but all I can do now is keep pulling it and hope it gives up eventually! You can see below there are a few gaps among the broad beans. Not sure why... But I think I'll resow them next time I'm down there - it's not too late! I'm a bit ashamed to say I forgot to put insect-proof mesh over my carrots again, having failed last year too. I couldn't bear to see the carrots split and deformed from carrot fly again, and carrot fly are no doubt laying eggs by now, especially thanks to this mild spell! So I've hoed out all the seedlings and will resow them in a new location at the weekend and put the mesh in place straight away!

We've sown the flower bed with hardy annuals now too (cornflowers, vipers bugloss, ammi majus, bupleurum), though loads of tiny weed seedlings are coming up too and it's going to be a job to know which seedlings to weed out and which to keep!

April has rushed by but I'm glad it's nearly May - the month of planting-out! By the end of May the house will be seedling-free again and I should be able to stop worrying about cold nights and spring hailstorms!
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