Sunday, 4 January 2015


It's easy to think that winter is a quiet time for gardeners, but there's plenty to be done. Between harvesting winter crops, checking fleeces and stakes, winter digging, construction projects and maintenance, nurturing overwintering plants and looking after little seedlings in the greenhouse, there's also plenty of planning to be done, and it inevitably involves a good look back over the past growing season to see what worked and what didn't.

2014 was a pretty bumper year for us, but there are always lessons to be learned. Our plot was under a couple of feet of floodwater for a week early on in the year, but thankfully it didn't do any real damage or set us back - we just had some extra clearing up to do, and to be patient in waiting for the soil to dry out again. We've settled on a new 'structure' for our plot, with three main beds in a rotation plus a number of perennial areas, and we made several new paths. We failed to cultivate the difficult far corner of the plot or our old strawberry bed, but we did clear them and cover them up to stifle the weeds and make the job easier later. We planted a new perennials bed with asparagus, artichokes, strawberries and herbs - hopefully some perennial kale will go in here too. We built new compost bins in a new area, and grew beans on the super-fertile patch where the old bins were. We also upped our growing game in the garden at home, converting a shrub bed to grow vegetables and adding three raised beds - more on all that in another post.

2013, compost bins. 2014, French beans. 2015 greenhouse!
We tried a new way of adding fertility to our plot; the 'Complete Organic Fertiliser' recommended by Steve Solomon for rebalancing soil nutrients for maximum plant health and nutrition. Though I can't quantify the results or compare to a 'control' area, I have to say everything on the plot just grew better than ever with virtually no problems, and I am quite sure the COF helped that happen. I will be going one step further this year: sending some soil samples off for laboratory analysis and creating a custom mix to balance it even better.

Another thing we trialled was 'Rootgrow' or mycorrhizal fungi, endorsed by the RHS; a mix of natural fungi that forms symbioses with plant roots and gives plants access to more nutrients and water. It's primary recommended use is in planting trees and shrubs, to help them establish quicker and more easily, but it is supposed to help any plant so I used it under every single crop to see what happened. In theory it should drought-proof plants and help fruits and roots to swell more steadily and evenly. In practice, though we had great growth almost everywhere and the new asparagus and artichokes established without a hitch, my container potatoes gave identical yields whether I used the Rootgrow or not, the newly-planted strawberries didn't establish well for some reason, squashes and swedes came in a huge mix of sizes, and my celeriac completely failed to swell, so I'm not entirely convinced...

Potatoes did wonderfully - we managed to grow a kilo for every week of the year. (If only I had somewhere better to store them - they are now sprouting and turning soft). Scab was very bad on our old favourite Kestrel, but we also tried Pentland Crown this year, which makes a much better baked jacket spud, seems to store slightly better, and doesn't suffer as much scab, so we will be growing more of these in 2015! On reflection I wondered if I should have left the lime out of the COF applied to this area, as it probably made it worse.

Carrots were our best ever, even though we couldn't find our enviromesh in time to protect our first sowing so we lost some to carrot fly - our later sowings did brilliantly and they even won a first placing in the allotment association show! We have only succeeded with carrots since we added lime to our soil - perhaps they need the extra calcium.

Pumpkins and squashes did brilliantly too; we brought home 18 lovely fruits and many are still sitting around happily on windowsills and doormats waiting to be eaten. Arguably we might have expected even more squashes from our eight plants - some plants only gave us one or two fruits - but they suffered from quite a lot of weed competition... Turns out it wasn't such a good idea to undersow them with clover; clover actually gets quite big and unruly when it wants to!

Leeks, parsnips, swedes, broad beans and beetroots all got along just fine. Beetroots really are just THE easiest vegetable to grow - nothing seems to stop them. I only wish Eddie liked them better as I'm eating them mostly by myself. The leeks are suffering from some allium leaf miner and I think we should cover them with mesh next year. We only grew one variety of French beans - a local heritage variety called Ryder's Blue Coco - and I sowed them rather late due to a lack of space earlier on. They were delightful - really tender - and we were eating them long after our neighbours' beans had finished, but we couldn't save any seeds from them because they didn't have time to mature before the first frost, which was a great shame. I do have just a few seeds left so I MUST do better at this next year!

Our chard and winter spinach, planted out in late summer, suffered a bit of neglect due to an extremely busy autumn, but though we lost a few to slugs and snails, they grew superbly and we really should have harvested more from them before the winter. We will still be able to pick from them when growth starts again in early spring though. Our first attempt at fennel suffered the same neglect but also grew very well indeed, and again we failed to harvest it in good time. It's certainly one to try again this year though. We also have a few spring cabbages nearly ready which have done really well - a nice compact variety called Pixie which, assuming it tastes good come spring, I will certainly grow again.

2014 was our first year growing both celery and celeriac. The celery did okay, though it was a bit thin and stringy (I don't usually eat it raw much anyway - just use it for soups, stocks and stews - so that doesn't really matter). The celeriac was a huge disappointment; no root to speak of at all, and I'm not sure why or what to do differently next year...

The importance of beneficial insects really, properly hit home to me last spring when scores of ladybirds descended on our blackfly-infested broad beans and cleared the whole lot up for us. I'm pretty sure there were more ladybirds around than before because I'd grown phacelia in the next bed over winter - ladybirds seem to be attracted by lacy foliage and as we cleared it up in the spring there were loads of them among it. I always grow a few flowers here and there, but now I will grow more!

In the home garden, our courgettes and tomatoes were just fabulous and kept me busy finding new ways to use them! The tomatoes succumbed to blight in the late summer, as they always do. We tried a local heritage variety of tomato - 'Ryder's Midday Sun' - but sadly didn't find them up to a good standard; the plants grew slowly, the tomatoes were watery and lacked flavour, and they were first to succumb to blight! Maybe they'd do better in a greenhouse... But while I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to try them, I'm not sure I have the space to persist with them. Cucumbers and salad greens in our new raised beds did not do well at all and I'm sure there was a problem with the soil - more on that in another post... Peppers did okay but gosh, they take so long to ripen! We were disappointed in a new variety we tried - 'Hebar' - which had very thin flesh and not much flavour at all. The seller described it as "particularly sweet and tasty" so I'd love to know what anyone else thinks of them! We have bought a plastic greenhouse to put on the allotment this summer, which should be just big enough to grow a few tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in. This way we hope to have blight free tomatoes and earlier peppers! We'll still grow some at home too though...

Kaibi Round, Ancho Grande, Hebar, Lipstick
The enviromesh over the kale bed got torn in high winds early in the year, and by late summer caterpillars had stripped the plants as I was too lazy to do anything about it... Thankfully some of the plants made a surprisingly good comeback though! Another mistake I will not repeat next year is planting French beans behind courgette plants. After the courgettes had been growing a month I couldn't reach the beans at all, and had to leave them all to pick for drying instead! The mangetout was great - we could hardly keep up with it - and we were really impressed by variety 'Carouby de Maussane' with giant pods! I have never grown ordinary peas, as frozen British peas are extremely good and convenient, and all the podding seemed like too much of a faff, but last year we did grow a multipurpose mangetout/podding pea - 'Ezeta's Krombek Blauwschokker' - and when they got too big to eat as mangetout I was forced to pod a few... They were so lovely that I might just add a few real podding peas to my garden this year...

Carouby de Maussane mangetout - still gorgeously sweet and tender at this size!
The 'perennial salad mix' from Suffolk Herbs turned out to be a mix of chicories and radicchios, which have grown well but... I just don't really like the taste. Admittedly I should have read the back of the pack more carefully, but this picture is a bit misleading I think!

All in all, we will do much the same this year as last, but here are the things we plan to do differently:
  • Grow more flowers - to include a cutting-flower patch!
  • Do even more to balance our soil nutrition according to Steve Solomon's great book 'The Intelligent Gardener'
  • Add a plastic greenhouse to the allotment to grow a few summer veg under cover.
  • Don't plant anything behind courgettes!
  • Improve raised bed soil.
  • Buy more enviromesh, to replace torn piece and cover leeks too.
  • Keep squash bed weed-free - perhaps mulch beneath plants - and grow fewer plants so they don't get so tangled.
  • Grow some proper peas, perhaps.
  • Try harder with celeriac.
  • Grow more Pentland Crown potatoes and less Kestrel - and try another new variety too.
  • There are always new varieties to try; this year new ones for us include oyster leaf, beefsteak plant, pink banana squash, skykomish tomatoes (supposed to have some blight resistance), marconi rosso peppers, and we're going to attempt to grow cauliflowers for the first time, since we buy them quite a lot...
  • We also plan to plant a new fruit patch on the long-neglected and difficult far corner of the allotment, and clear and replant our overgrown herb bed.
Frosty radicchio

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