Friday, 11 March 2016

Looking Back: Year of Flowers!

Last year I set myself two new challenges: to start a cut flower patch, and to grow some cauliflowers.

I'm pleased to report that my late summer cauliflowers were pretty successful, although varying in size. These 'Autumn Giant' caulis from Real Seeds were sown in April and planted out in May, and by mid-August we were enjoying them. The slugs enjoyed them quite a lot as well... But I'm calling it a success and we'll hope to grow even more of them this year. I've sown them earlier this spring, to give them more time to get nice and big...

The spring cauliflowers still on the plot now (variety 'Aalsmeer') are not doing quite so well; they haven't really gotten big enough, a few have disappeared completely, and I'm not very hopeful they'll provide us much worth eating. But still, I think I'll put that down to 'probably planted out a bit late' and give them another try; anything that crops in early spring is worth striving for as it can be a lean time in the veg garden.

The cut flowers were a roaring success, brightened up the plot no end and brought more beneficial insects to our plot than ever before, and they'll certainly be a permanent feature from now on! We brought home flowers once or twice a week, most weeks from May through to October - and we won a first at the allotment show with them too!

Here are eight things I learned about growing cutting flowers:

1) Deadheading (and harvesting the flowers too for that matter) takes aaaages.

2) We didn't provide proper support for our flowers, but it turned out we didn't really need to. As it's a small patch and the flowers were grown close together, they generally supported each other. They did sprawl out across paths on the outside of the patch, but a simple bamboo-cane fence round the perimeter was enough. I'll put this in from the beginning this year.

3) I'm not very good at arranging flowers. (I'm not letting this stop me.)

4) It's hard to know where to cut the flowers sometimes; for example cornflowers are very branching - should I cut at the first branch, which doesn't leave me a very long stem? or should I cut a whole branching arm from the plant?

5) Cosmos are not actually that great in the vase, with their scrawny, twisting stems. But they're so good on the plot - attracting bees until well into the autumn - that I'll keep growing them anyway. Corncockle, with short stems and a short vase life, weren't terribly useful either, but again the bees loved them so I might grow one token plant...

5.5) Sweet peas are amazing.

6) Some others weren't so good in the vase either but I know it's because I haven't got the knack yet of conditioning them properly. Cerinthe was the worst - absolutely lovely, but always the first to wilt. Apparently you're supposed to dip the stems in boiling water, which frankly just seems wrong... But this year I'll give it a go.

7) Mixed seeds are never a good mix. My 'mixed' scabiosa were all white, my 'mixed' snapdragons were 90% pink, and my 'mixed' salvia viridis were 90% purple. Just buy the individual colours you want to grow.

8) It's SO worth it. Give up just a few square metres of your plot for some flowers and see for yourself.

Unfortunately I somehow missed out on sowing flowers last autumn for an early show this spring (except for some October-sown sweet peas), so I'm a step behind with my flowers this year, but nevertheless I've invested in a few new varieties to try and I'm looking forward to seeing them brightening up the plot again soon :-)

In addition to the annuals and biennials I plan to sow, I've got a few other flowers coming up...

Our local nursery, Aylett Nurseries, is a bit of a dahlia specialist and has a dahlia show every September. I went along for the first time last year and, though I find some dahlias a bit too much, was wowed by the bright colours and the huge variety...

So I've invested in a single 'Finchcocks' dahlia tuber (pictured above, bottom right), just to see how I go with it... Actually it's not my first dahlia; I have a compact, dark-leaved 'Mystic Illusion' in a pot. As you probably know by now, I'm really not one for fiddling about with plants with complex needs, so there was no digging up tubers when winter came; I just bunged the pot in the summer house and hoped for the best...

Anyway, today I potted up my new tuber in some compost in the summer house to start sprouting. I doubt this one will get any coddling either; I may just mulch it in winter and see how it does by itself.

I bought a verbena bonariensis 'Lollipop' plant last summer just because the butterflies and bees seem to love it so much, and I adore that deep purple glow - but this could be a good cutting flower too, and it's now planted out by the side of our pond on the allotment. I heard they self-seed easily, so I crumbled some of the seed heads over a tray of compost last autumn, stuck it at the back of the greenhouse, and whaddaya know...

I can't possibly use all of these seedlings, but I pricked some out and potted them up today so that now I can enjoy them in the garden as well as at the allotment - and so can the bees :-)

Monday, 15 February 2016

And We're Off!

I don't feel quite right these days when I'm not actively growing things; in winter my green fingers begin to itch, and boredom and frustration creep in, and it's a huge relief when February arrives and I can justify getting a few early seeds started. I used to wait until mid-Feb - Charles Dowding recommends this as there are ten hours of daylight or more from this time and seedlings are less likely to get leggy - but I sometimes feel that my chillies and things are a bit behind, so this year I started sowing slightly earlier; at Imbolc, which marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

So here we are; my first (slightly leggy) seedlings are tucked up in the heated propagator, the seed potatoes are chitting, and I've even treated myself to a nice new cloche to get some things started early outside in the raised bed.

Last year I vowed not to bother with peppers and chillies this year and concentrate on plants that would actually crop for me instead; they're a lovely idea but without a polytunnel or greenhouse they just don't seem to be worth it here, and end up a waste of space. Of course, when I actually got round to sowing it was hard to stick to that decision  - I just wanted to sow as many things as I could get away with, and I had to remind myself of those past failures! But I did allow myself two varieties: 'Basket of Fire' chillies, which I'll grow under a bell cloche to see if that helps them along, and some 'Ancho' chillies which I did really well with a couple of years ago. I also started some 'Bonica F1' aubergines, and two each of three early tomato varieties; 'Latah', 'Stupice' and 'Jen's Tangerine'. I'll sow some more when I sow the other tomatoes in March, and see if the early start really made any difference... Germination has been excellent, except from the 'Ancho' chilli seeds which are a bit old. I'll set the seedlings deeper when I pot them up, to counter the legginess.

I've also started some 'Monarch' celeriac, and some 'Golden Spartan' celery - a variety we saw looking particularly impressive at Wisley last autumn. (It's no guarantee we'll be able to replicate the success of the Wisley gardeners, of course!) We've never succeeded with celeriac yet, so let's hope it's third time lucky... These seeds are in an unheated propagator indoors on a windowsill.

Potato varieties chosen this year include 'Pentland Crown' and 'King Edward' which both did well for us previously, plus 'Desiree' on the recommendation of several Twitter friends. I've always steered clear of red-skinned potatoes, mostly due to a memory of eating them weirdly soaked in vinegar at a French friend's house as a child... But they've gotta be worth a try, right? For earlies to grow at home, I really wanted 'Accent' - we grow them at FoodSmiles and they produce extremely well and taste delicious - but couldn't seem to find them except by mail order, with a £5 delivery fee of course! So I settled on 'Home Guard'. Then, at Seedy Sunday in Brighton last weekend, there they were; I picked up not only six 'Accent' but six 'Yukon Gold' to try too! We certainly won't be short of potatoes this summer...

My new cloche is from Harrod Horticultural; a rigid plastic thing that slots together in sections, so I can extend it in future if I want, and it seems very sturdy indeed. It has indentations in the roof to collect rainwater and let it drip through tiny holes to water the plants, so it shouldn't dry out beneath and is easy to water, and it's so much simpler to handle than faffing about with fleece, which I detest. As soon as I've cleared space (the right space) on the raised bed, I'll get it in place, let the soil warm for a week or so, and then start sowing early carrots, spinach, lettuce, radishes, rocket and spring onions under it.

So off we go! Another growing season begins. Isn't it funny how every one is just as exciting as the last? :-)

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!
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