Showing posts with label weather. Show all posts
Showing posts with label weather. Show all posts

Saturday, 28 July 2012

New Potatoes

As well as my usual maincrop of Kestrel potatoes on the allotment, I'm growing spuds in sacks in the garden this year for the first time. I started the first ones - three 'Foremost' earlies - in late February, with a covering of fleece, against the wall of the house where it's a little warmer than in the open. They were growing by March 20th, when I sowed more 'Foremost' and some 'Charlotte' in two more sacks.

They all grew pretty well, and I earthed them up periodically until the sacks were full to the top. The foliage was so big and healthy I eventually had to stake it back to keep the walkway round the side of the house clear. But they took a long time to flower and I'm not even sure they all did - I blame the gloomy weather - and when I had a rummage around in the soil of my earliest-planted potatoes in late June I was dismayed that I couldn't find a single spud! Early potatoes are supposed to take 10-12 weeks from planting to harvesting - this was at around 17 weeks!

But I had broken quite a lot of the foliage off by accident when I was trying to keep the walkway clear, and realised that that first early planting wouldn't be able to grow much more anyway, so a couple of weeks later I gave in to curiosity and emptied the sack. I found the soil rather dry - apparently all the rain we've been having didn't reach them enough in the shelter of the house and didn't penetrate deep enough into the sack - but at the bottom of the bag I found several handfuls of beautiful firm white tubers. Phew! Some of them were tiny and I expect they still could have got bigger with more watering and more time (and without having their leaves broken off).

Fresh potatoes are so delicious, and we ate them up quickly in a Ligurian pasta dish with green beans and homemade pesto, and boiled and buttered with a pie. My faith is restored that something really is happening in the other sacks, and I quickly replanted the first with my last two 'Charlotte' seed spuds - I have ten 'Melody' spare too so I'll keep the cycle going when I harvest the others. Shrivelled-up seed potatoes that have been chitting since spring grow like the clappers - they were up in less than a week and growing at an incredible rate!

I'm a bit confused that all the potatoes harvested were right at the bottom of the sack - I thought the whole idea was that earthing up encouraged more tubers to form higher and higher up. I did find a tuber high up in another sack while rummaging, so this obviously can happen to some extent. But another piece of advice is to plant tubers in levels, so that you have more plants per sack, each producing tubers at different heights - I suspect this may be more productive and I think I'll try it next time...

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Six Strategies to Cope With Persistent Rainfall

At the beginning of the season I wrote about strategies for coping with drought and hosepipe bans. Hmm. Now, after two record-breakingly wet months, and amidst what is likely to become a third, I think it's time to start calling summer in Britain 'the wet season' and adjusting our practices to match, don't you? I've already talked about flooding, here, but what else can we do in future to improve the health of our plants when the sun don't shine?

1 - Look after your soil
Organic matter is a must for healthy soil; not only does it retain moisture to protect plants from drought, but it improves drainage too, by providing a more open soil structure. Dig it in early in the season, or spread it on top and let the worms do the work. Organic matter is even more important in heavy clay soils, which waterlog easily. To improve drainage even more, create a lighter soil by adding sand.

2 - Plan for good drainage
Raised beds are the ultimate in improved drainage for veg crops - assuming of course they are filled with good, well-draining soil. It can also be useful to plant on mounds or ridges. Aerate soil by spiking it to help drainage and drying. There is debate about whether crocks or stones in the bottoms of pots actually help or hinder drainage - scientists say they hinder it - but one thing we must certainly do is make sure there are enough drainage holes in our pots and make sure they stay clear. Raising containers off the ground on bricks or stones will also help. If you have a serious problem, consider a drainage trench or soakaway, filled with rubble or gravel, to carry water away. You can leave it open or top it with plastic sheeting and cover with soil.

3 - Restore nutrients
Excessive watering can leach nutrients out of the soil and leave plants hungry, so be sure to feed them regularly. Liquid feed, though, may do more harm than good in a very wet container! Blood, fish and bone is a great all-round dry feed which you can just sprinkle on the soil and allow the rain to water in gently, or work into the top few inches of damp soil. Rock dust is a highly recommended soil 'remineraliser', which I've just begun experimenting with this year - they say it improves plant health and yields dramatically... Seaweed is another good all-round plant-booster, that stimulates and strengthens plants against all problems. It can be watered in or used as a foliar feed on dry days.

4 - Protect your plants
I know I'm always whinging about not having a greenhouse, but this year it would have been more useful than ever. Cucumbers and gherkins dropped dead in the gloom and even cool-weather peas and asparagus grew painfully slowly. A little cover to intensify what few UV rays we've had would probably have been a great benefit. If this wet-summer trend continues, I think growing under glass or plastic will become more and more important, and I will certainly try to grow my cucumbers under cover after this year. Others that would benefit from it are tomatoes of course, French beans, peppers and chillies, strawberries and asparagus. Rosemary hates being wet, and I have moved mine into the mini-greenhouse where my aubergines and West Indian gherkins are already thriving. Oh, how I dream of my very own polytunnel... On another note, just like mulch can help in drought conditions by preventing evaporation, it can help in wet weather by absorbing some of the water before it reaches the soil. Use an impenetrable mulch such as plastic over the roots of waterlogged plants, or something absorbent such as straw or newspaper as a general cover, and pull it back on sunny days to let things dry out!

5 - Defend against pests and diseases
Keep on top of pruning, staking and mulching to keep plants off wet soil and improve ventilation - this will lessen the risk of fungal diseases. And be prepared for slugs and snails, which thrive in wet conditions. Hand-picking, beer traps, barriers of copper/tinfoil/eggshell/ash/sand, decoy plants (French marigolds are good), wheat bran, nematodes and organic pellets are all methods worth considering, and a combination of several of these is best! Encourage natural predators such as ground beetles, amphibians, hedgehogs and ground-feeding birds (thrushes, robins, blackbirds, starlings) by providing food and undisturbed habitats for them. Perhaps there is an opportunity to alter your landscaping to draw excess water to a pond or bog garden, and make the most of the excess water to encourage wildlife! Slugs also struggle to feed on high-up plants, so climbing plants are less at risk, as are those on roofs and windowsills.

6 - Pollinate
Rain keeps pollinating insects at home indoors, and pollination of my tomatoes in particular has been very poor so far this year. Tomatoes and peppers are self pollinating and only require a shake or a flick on the back of the flower to pollinate them. Others can be carefully hand-pollinated using a soft paintbrush.

What about you? How do you plan to improve things for your crops if next season is as wet and gloomy as this one?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Great Garlic

My garlic harvests to date have always been rather pathetic - small bulbs and few of them. But this time round I tried overwintering my garlic - planting it last autumn and harvesting, well, now, and I added a sprinkle of onion fertiliser to the soil before planting to give it a bit of a boost. It's been a great success!

The garlic (Provence Wight) grew strongly from the off and looked great by spring. Despite a bit of rust (no doubt exacerbated by the wet weather) they've been going for it all season, until recently when the leaves began to die off, signalling harvest time.

Digging veg up in the mud is never pleasant, but it became clear there was no point waiting for dry weather... When the sun came out late yesterday afternoon, we went for it.

Twenty minutes later, it was pouring again. Hmph.

But we were there by then, already getting drenched, so we dug the garlic anyway, and brought it home caked in mud. There were a few losses - some were just rotten and pests had moved in, others were pathetically small for reasons unknown. Some lost their protective skins as I dug them up and the stalk pulled off - is this because I left it a bit late to dig them, or because of the wetness and rot, or a combination?

But the vast majority are big, plump, firm, healthy bulbs - by far the best result I've had with garlic. Lots of them have a white mould on the outside - my first thought was the dreaded white rot, which I know I have in my soil - but the bulbs seem otherwise big and healthy and have good strong root systems so I guess that's not the case. Hopefully it'll just go away as they dry.

The whole house stinks of them!

After a couple of days indoors for the worst of the mud to dry off (I'm going to move them to a wire rack to improve ventilation), I'll hang them in the summer house to dry for a few weeks, then trim them and clean them for storage. I'm a garlic fiend, but this lot should keep me going for a while!

Monday, 2 July 2012

Allotment update. Gah!

I'm finally starting to face up to the fact this is a bad, bad year for growing. Between torrential rain and scorching sun, and thanks to weeds thriving through the mild winter, we still haven't cleared enough earth to plant out our sweetcorn, beans, sunflowers and squashes, and they're languishing and potbound at home. Grass is taking over everything and slugs are eating everything else. We've had the worst asparagus crop ever, and the spring hail that blasted blossoms off fruit trees and bushes is going to mean a pretty poor fruit crop too. All my cucumbers and gherkins (at home) yellowed and died for reasons unknown - I suspect they just couldn't take the prolonged cold, wet, dull weather - cutworms (or something) mowed down 90% of my broad beans, and my shallots have inexplicably gone straight to flower without swelling to any kind of decent size.

At least the potatoes are doing okay.

The garlic is looking good and the onions are doing all right, albeit with rather liberal applications of (organic) slug pellets to try to keep it that way.

And despite a lot of slug damage and a few weeds as always, we're picking plenty of strawberries, which are always a joy.

We've achieved one of our allotment goals at least - we've finally planted up the corner patch we hardly ever use (hard, root-filled soil) with some artichokes, perennial cauliflowers and heritage kales - all planted through weedproof fabric to try to keep things under control...

I'm gradually covering it with stones to protect the fabric (it's gonna take a while!), and plan to plant some sage between the brassicas to try to keep caterpillars at bay - apparently cabbage whites hate the smell. I'll believe it when I see it...

At home, our tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, herbs, mangetout, chard and French beans are doing all right, I've resown a couple of cucumbers, and I might actually manage to grow some aubergines this year - they're loving the extra warmth of the plastic greenhouse - so all is not lost.

But I'm gonna have to accept we're just not going to get everything done on the plot this year. Sigh.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Come on now, this is getting silly. I know we're in a drought situation (whatever that actually means) but we still need sunshine too, and the man on the telly said only winter rain could help us so your efforts are wasted. I swear most of my warm-season plants have just stopped growing - even the ones that didn't get smashed to bits by hail - and a few are just rotting in their pots, including the artichokes I spent good money buying. The slugs and snails are doing so well, in the meantime, that the remaining plants barely stand a chance, and after frost got my first early asparagus spears, the next wave has been so slow to grow without sunshine that most of it's been eaten before it's big enough to cut! Beans sown under fleece have not sprouted yet, and I strongly suspect they're rotten by now. There's a serious amount of weeding to do before I plant my maincrop potatoes and it's such a muddy job when the ground is practically waterlogged. I bought one of those weed wand thingies to burn the weeds but I can't do that when they're soaking wet, can I? Frankly, it's just depressing and uninspiring and motivation-crushing when the skies are grey and gloomy all day every day, and I'm not usually one to complain about the weather, but seriously, we don't usually have three (or is it four?) solid weeks of the same. Enough, okay?

Of course, I try to look on the bright side. The early potatoes and most of the herbs are doing well (except the rosemary which doesn't like to be wet), and the peppers and cucumbers in the relative warmth of the greenhouse are doing okay, if a little slowly.

The strawberries are pretty happy and green, with a few flowers appearing, and a couple I thought I'd lost to vine weevil have suddenly bounced back. The radishes, lettuces and mizuna are doing really well, too, although it's a constant battle keeping the slugs off them.

The tiny pots in which I've sown my brassicas are getting a constant watering where usually it'd be a fight to stop them drying out! And I have now harvested the first of my asparagus, even if it doesn't look very appetising.

Having battled with the allotment weeds for five full years now to virtually no avail, I've given up on digging and bought, as I said, a 'Weed Wand' to kill 'em all with. The environmental (and financial) cost of the gas canisters is not ideal, but as long as I'm economical with them and dispose of them properly, I think it's got to be better than either of the other options, which are using chemicals, or throwing in the towel. The cell-damage to the weeds is supposed to kill the whole plant, so I have high hopes that with this we'll finally be able to gain control, and it's going to be so much easier and less daunting than all that digging! Once the weeds are dry enough to start, anyway...

I'm also delighted to report the arrival of the year's most awaited seedling! After the hail killed all my ancho peppers - the ones I was most excited about growing - I sowed the last few seeds I had to replace them. And I waited... and I waited... and everything else I sowed came up but them. Finally, one has arrived! I hope more will still follow in the coming days.

At this time of year I'm usually starting to think about the likelihood of any further frosts and looking forward to planting things out, but everything's so far behind this year! So come on, rain. Enough!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Hail Devastation

It all started fairly normally. Rain. It's April, after all. More rain. A little hail. I checked on the plants, laid out on the shed roof - I like to give them as much daylight as I can to keep them from getting leggy, and leaving them out in the rain too means no watering. They're also well-hardened-off this way and strong against winds - and anyway, there isn't room in my tiny home to keep them all in all the time. They were fine - they didn't mind the hail at all. They're big now. They're tough. And this kind of thing usually only lasts a minute or two, doesn't it? I took some pictures. The hailstones got bigger, but they weren't coming down very hard so still, the plants were fine. I took some more pictures.


And then it got worse. We're talking brutal. We're talking near-apocalyptic. And the damage was done in seconds.


I couldn't get the plants in fast enough, and it fell so thickly I spent the next hour scraping it away from the stems in each pot in case it frosted them through at soil level. And then I spent the next hour cleaning mud and puddles out of my kitchen.

The hail also battered some of the flowers in the garden, and blasted all the gorgeous blossom off the amelanchier. It even knocked over a couple of pond plants. And there was so much on the ground that it hung around for the rest of the day.


Thankfully not everything in the garden was so affected; all the shrubs seem okay, except for damaged flowers, and my spinach and beetroot seedlings and lettuces, radishes and mizuna are mostly okay. The peas got a bit of a battering but I think they'll be fine. The strawberries have a few holes but are pretty hardy.


Mercifully, all the tomatoes, aubergines, two squashes and a couple of cucumbers were safe in the greenhouse and are unharmed.

The damage looks worst on the squashes, but it's the peppers, that I've been babying since January, that have really suffered, with the growing tips just smashed right off several, and I'm really not sure it's worth resowing them this late. Some young brassicas, too, have bent stems that may not recover. All the plants will be stressed and bruised and set back.

I pretty much feel like giving up right now.

But I won't. I'm trying to figure out whether or not to remove the damaged leaves, to try to reduce stress on the plants and get them thinking about new growth. Then I will spray them with seaweed extract, keep them indoors except in perfect weather, and reassess in a week. I already bought a little bag of seed compost for resowings, and I think I'll get some new ancho chillies started right away as I really don't want to miss out on them.

Oh, for a proper greenhouse...

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Herb Garden Revamp

The herb tub outside the back door has been looking a bit sorry since winter. I must have forgotten to cut it back when I should have, and with everything beginning to grow again and the herbs now enjoying the sunshine, a few weeds were popping up.

So I gave it a trim, cutting out all the dead flower stems from last year, got rid of some old stuff, chucked in some new stuff, did a bit of rearranging, and now it's much tidier.

As well as the thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano and garlic chives that were there before, I moved a tarragon plant and a few chives in (and put all the garlic chives together in one place). In the other pots around it there are spring onions, newly-sown parsley and coriander, and a little pot of chives I've had going for a few years now.

And I scored a bunch of sage to dry for later use, too. It's easy to dry herbs - just hang them in a warm, airy place out of direct sun until they crumble easily.

I also took the opportunity to repot my 'Eau de Cologne' mint - not a culinary sort but reputedly good for keeping wasps and bugs away... and it smells good. And when I say repot, I mean take a teeny tiny little sideshoot like this...

...and replant it in a whole new pot of soil. It's that vigorous. Mint is really, really rampant, and the big pot I had this in before was completely rootbound after just two years. It only takes a little bit of root to make a new plant, so divide to your heart's content!

Can't wait to see how my herb garden looks when it's all in full growth in a month or two!

The allotment herb garden is in a sorry state too - the couch grass has crept in, as couch grass always does, and some of my hardiest herbs didn't make it through our mild winter! I don't get it! The rosemary and hyssop are both completely dead, and the Russian tarragon and one of the sages don't look too good either. On the plot, the herbs are mostly there for the benefit of the insects - it's no use relying on them for culinary use when they're a fifteen-minute drive away. But the insects are still a worthy cause, and in the name of companion planting and nurturing a healthy ecosystem, I will still replace them - I've ordered my new hyssops from Victoriana Nursery already.
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