Saturday 21 April 2007

Beans and peas

I planted beans and peas today - always the most exciting seed packets to open!

I put in all the Borlotto and Canadian Wonder I had space for - they're for drying so they need as long a ripening season as possible and they'll all be harvested at the same time. All the others (runner bean Prizewinner (can't go wrong surely!), Purple King and Delinel) will be sown a little at a time to extend the cropping season as long as possible.
I also planted peas Sugar Snap Delikett and mangetout Ambrosia (which I'll sow successionally as with the green beans).
That done I wrapped the bean trellises in net to keep the birds off (apparently pigeons love sprouting bean plants). It was a little difficult on my own and took far longer than it should have done - I kept getting tangled up! Not knowing how these things are usually done, I ummed and aahed and ended up sticking the net to the canes with electrical tape! (I use it for everything at work - why not here?!)

In the middle of all this, I was surprised by a sudden squawk and loud ruffle of feathers behind me, and looked round to see a huge pheasant in the allotment next to mine! I've heard that squawk before and other allotmenteers nearby weren't the least bit surprised to see it, so he must be resident, and as I ran to get my camera he wasn't at all worried about me being so close.

While out buying my bird-protection netting in Wilkinsons I accidentally bought a box of six young lavender plants. It was too tempting; the lavender seeds I planted haven't even stuck their heads up yet and I bet they'll take ages to produce a worthwhile plant anyway, and they were really cheap, so I gave in and planted three near the pond, in my 'wildlife area', so it's starting to look a teeny bit less bare! The only other thing planted there so far (not including pond plants) is some horseradish, which is taking a long time to get started. The other three lavender plants will stay in their pots until I've dug a bit further down the plot.

I was also given some baby raspberry plants today by a friendly neighbour (they were popping up in the doorway of her fruit cage) but I'm not sure where to put them. I've planned to plant a 'bumper pack' of eighteen plants in a row near the bench in the autumn and I'm not sure there's room for more, plus I don't know what type these are or when they'll fruit. They're in pots at the moment anyway, waiting for me to decide their fate...

Thursday 19 April 2007

April showers?

Tonight I am nursing a foot covered in nettle stings. That's the last time I go gardening in flip flops until the last of the weeds are gone!

I haven't written for a long time because progress has felt so slow - the weather has been ridiculously hot for April and digging has been really hard; not just because of the extra sweat, sunburn and dehydration (not to mention the lethargy caused by sizzling sunshine and the lure of a cold cider...), but the ground is rock solid in places and when you do manage to dig it up half of it blows away, it's so dry! But thinking about it now, there is quite a lot to report, so here I go.

My strawberry plants finally arrived in the post so we planted them straight away (in the patch that was meant for lettuces, but there's no harm in shuffling them along).

It was a special offer from Fothergill's; six plants each of Mae, Florence and Flamenco strawberries, which all fruit at different times to give us a constant crop for four or five months! I was careful to label which ones were which, having already begun to regret not labelling the early and maincrop potatoes, or marking where my parsnip rows are... We bought a bucket of fish, blood and bone and raked some into the soil in accordance with the strawberry instructions. The tiny plants looked pretty sorry for themselves at first, but today they seem to be settling in nicely.
The asparagus is doing well too; I was worried about one of the plants which didn't seem to be doing anything at all, but today I spotted the very first tiny purple shoot poking up. The rest of the plants are growing really quickly, and most have three or four shoots already.

The pond has developed a lot of scum and algae, on the surface and on the liner, so I haven't put any tadpoles in yet but bought some barley straw, which is supposed to help keep the water clear due to some chemical it releases as it decomposes in the water. Realising there was no shade at all for any wildlife in the pond, I bought a few more plants as well; an oxygenating grass that lives at the bottom but should grow right up to the surface (and mum says frogs love it!), another marginal plant with little white flowers (can't remember what it's called right now... Mazus something...), which I couldn't resist just because it was so pretty, and a gorgeous orange water lily, which will take a while to grow up to the surface but will be well worth it (well it better, for £15!). I also carefully constructed a pile of rocks on the edge of the pond with spaces underneath for frogs and things to hide in. (Not terribly cosy at the moment, but when there are a few plants growing round it it will be.) I also put a couple of big rocks in the shallow end of the pond to help things climb in and out.

Despite the dry conditions, we have managed to dig one more square of new ground (me and Dave, my very good friend - and boss!) and today Eddie and I prepared it for planting beans and peas. We have no manure or compost to make the soil any more bean-friendly, so a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone had to do, and we marked the patch out and built two trellises out of bamboo canes. There's a pair of canes every six inches for intensive planting - that's 72 canes altogether!

One set is 8ft high for runner beans and climbing Borlotto and Purple King french beans, and the other set is 6ft for mangetout and sugar-snap peas, which don't grow quite as high (and to make use of the shorter canes we already had from our garden last year). There are also two 1ft strips for bush beans Delinel (a green french bean which did really well for us last year) and Canadian Wonder, which is a red kidney-type bean we'll dry for the winter along with the Borlotto. I'm pleasantly surprised at how sturdy the finished trellises are, although I'm thinking of putting in some kind of diagonal brace to stop the side-to-side wobble. I'm a bit worried, too, about the very narrow path between the two trellises - it'll be a real squeeze to harvest the beans once the plants are full size! I should have made it bigger really, but space is short and I really enjoyed the beans we grew last year so I want to squeeze as many in as possible. I'm supposed to grow companion plants coriander, marigolds and borage here too, but at the moment it doesn't look like there'll be room!

In the onion patch we're having a bit of weed trouble; thousands upon thousands of tiny annual seeds have sprouted over the whole patch. I can't just hoe because I'll disturb the parsnip and red onion seeds, and they're growing so fast they'll take over if I leave them, so I have no choice but to pull them all up by hand.

Every time I go down there I spend a while carefully weeding but it takes ages, and when I go back there seem to be just as many there again! They're coming up here and there in other patches too, but nothing like the amount in the onion patch - we must have dug it over at just the wrong time so they had the perfect conditions. Never mind; I shall triumph, and if I get rid of them all this year without them seeding, they won't be a problem next year.

SO, jobs for next week will be planting (and underplanting with herbs) the beans and peas, and digging the lettuce patch (which I've moved three times now to make way for more urgent things!). The seedlings are really taking over the kitchen now; some kind of plastic greenhouse is a must for next year, if not before. I've ordered some Nemaslug to guard against the dreaded slugs so I'll be using that as soon as it arrives, and then maybe I'll feel safe enough to plant a few seedlings out!

Monday 9 April 2007


I don't have much time so I'm mostly just going to leave pictures of what we did today! It's bank holiday Monday and the whole family got involved...

Having got Mum's approval on the pond shape and size (she's a bit of a pond expert, having made a huge one in her garden a couple of years ago) we went out to get a pond liner (just under £30 for the liner and fleecy underlay stuff) and started filling it.

Didn't take long - it's not a very big pond - which was good because without a hose we had to fill it by bucket! Mum and I dug a little trench to bury the edge of the liner, while Dad, Steve and Jess put together our storage bench. (At last!!) Now we don't have to keep all our stuff in the communal shed and we have a comfy place to sit and rest from all that hard digging!!

This is the pond complete, seen from the comfort of our brand spanking new bench.

I bought a few marginal plants for it too, and Mum and Dad gave us some oxygenating weed (and no doubt a few pond-creepy-crawlies) from their pond. Seen below are water mint, sweet flag and an iris (purple, when it flowers in the summer).
All this was pretty exciting, but most exciting of all...

The very first asparagus spear has popped up! (Guess I did plant them the right way up then!) It's going to be torture not harvesting any this year to let the plants get established. We're allowed to take a few next year but don't get a full harvest 'til the third year! But it's going to be so worth it!

Saturday 7 April 2007

Potatoes and the pond

It's been getting to the point lately where I couldn't dig up any more weeds because there was nowhere to put them, so the first job of this morning was to build a new compost bin. (My brother Steve and his work van finally helped me get some more pallets yesterday.)

Now there's a masterpiece of carpentry if I ever saw one! I thought it didn't matter that the first one was leaning a tiny bit, but now I've fixed another to it the effect is somewhat exaggerated! Don't worry; they're sturdier than they look...

While I struggled to dig a particularly clayey spot in what was to be the potato patch, Jess arrived and started to dig the pond for me with surprising enthusiasm! (Have you ever seen anyone look so fashionable while digging a garden?)

It's a small pond; only about four foot at the longest point. The council sent me a letter 'suggesting' I make it a maximum of 1m square and 18" deep - I've pushed this a little bit (since it was only a suggestion, and who wants a square pond??) but there's no point digging it just for them to tell me to fill it in again, so small it will stay.
About a foot down the soil turns into solid clay so I helped Jess out with the deep bit and we got it finished pretty quickly.

Small but perfectly formed. (The pond ain't bad either.)

Jess planted a row of parsnips between the onions while I dug the last of the Orgro into the potato patch. That leaves red onions and carrots still to go in, which I'll do as soon as I can. And at last, I planted the potatoes. There are four rows of 'Melody' maincrop potatoes to harvest at the end of the summer (that's 28 plants), and two rows of 'Charlotte' for new potatoes (we'll dig them up gradually throughout the spring and summer, from when the plants start flowering). I also put in two horseradish plants between the rows, which is supposed to deter potato pests. When we dig up all the spuds we'll be able to dig up all the horseradish roots too so hopefully there won't be a problem with them spreading.

I must confess; I felt my first twinge of boredom today with all the digging. I can't wait 'til it's summer and everything's just growing... But I won't rest until it's done; it's nearly time to start planting beans and peas so the pressure's on to dig the next mini-plot straight away.
I'm also anxious to treat the whole allotment with anti-slug nematodes; I want to direct-sow a lot of lettuces, spinach and the like but I have a strong feeling the seedlings will be eaten before I even see them unless I have some form of defence in place. Then there's those red onions and carrots to plant, and the pond to fill... So much to do and summer seems to be here already; I got proper sunburn today. Will have to buy a bottle of suncream to keep on the site with our tools, methinks. Now all that digging's done I think the first priority will have to be the pond; I'm just hoping the edges don't dry out (or get rained in) and collapse overnight... Easter Sunday tomorrow so I'll have to wait til at least Monday and probably later to get a pond liner in. Perhaps that wasn't the best planning...

Wednesday 4 April 2007

First crops planted!

Having considered the lengths of time veg need to stay in the soil, I have redesigned the plot a little (no use wanting to sow onions and carrots in March in the patch April/May cabbages are still growing in). I have shuffled things a bit so the areas I need to sow now are those already dug (or nearly dug), and I have moved the pond; I originally put it in the middle hoping to centre the frog population there, but I've since discovered there is another pond on a plot very close by, so I've moved mine further away from it. Now hopefully my whole plot will be a route between the two ponds, with a slug-feast on the way! So the plan now looks like this:

Spent a few more hours digging yesterday with Dad (he's a very fast and businesslike digger, unlike Jess and Eddie who stop to make friends with every earthworm!) and finished the salad patch, which we'll be able to plant pretty soon. Starting so late in the year, I haven't had the time or the resources to manure properly but I dug in some 'Orgro' to enrich the soil a bit (concentrated organic manure - I used to use it in pots in the garden so I thought I may as well make use of it here too). The whole bag was too heavy to carry to the allotment on my own, so I filled a bucket and brought that. I must have looked - and smelled - pretty funny walking through town with a bucket of manure!

Today I had plans to build a second compost bin, finish digging the potato patch, plant all my onions, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and asparagus, and start digging the pond. Far too much, it turns out, for one day!
I marked out the shape of the pond and stuck canes in the ground to show the postions of the 'minarette' fruit trees I hope to buy next winter. I was afraid it would feel much too cramped but looking at it all set out I think it will work; it'll be cosy, not cramped!
While Eddie carried on digging I planted the asparagus, which arrived this morning to great excitement!
I must have read a dozen articles on how to plant and care for asparagus, but had no idea what an asparagus crown actually looked like until I opened that package, and I have to be honest; I couldn't figure out which way up the things were supposed to go! (I should have put a picture here of course, but in the excitement I forgot to take any.) After much umm-ing and ah-ing, planting one and digging it up again, replanting it, leaving the others out in the sun for probably far too long, and so on and so on, they finally got buried. I think I got it right in the end, but there's a fair amount of hoping-for-the-best going on! I won't worry too much; I read about one man who just chucks them in a hole and covers them up (none of this spreading the roots out evenly) and someone who actually recommends planting them upside down!
Next priority was the compost bin; our first one is full to overflowing now with weeds. But all our attempts to get hold of some more pallets were thwarted, wasting half the afternoon for nothing.
As the sun began to set I marked out the onion patch, dug in some 'Orgro', and planted seven rows of onions, with space for other veg in-between. If every plant is successful, this 8x9ft plot will yield 112 white onions, 48 red onions, 48 leeks, 48 parsnips and 64 or more carrots!
Darkness fell and the potato patch still wasn't ready, so our spuds will have to wait until the Easter weekend, along with the rest of the onion patch and the pond.

In the kitchen, seeds are sprouting in earnest and I'm yearning for that greenhouse again; a lot of them are rather leggy from not getting enough light and I don't know what I'm going to do with them all as they get bigger! There are more to sow this week (celery and basil) and even more next week; they're just going to keep accumulating until May when I can start planting things out!
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