Thursday 26 February 2015

An Alternative Fruit Patch

The bottom end of our allotment has never been very productive - unless you count couchgrass and nettles. When we first dug it over the soil was very dry and fully of woody matter and old roots, not to mention half an ancient greenhouse, in small pieces. It's also in the shade of an elder tree and next door's little shed for part of the day.

We grew outdoor tomatoes down here and they very quickly succumbed to disease. We grew artichokes here and they all died. We grew raspberries here, and even they didn't do well! The couchgrass seems to move in here faster than anywhere else but nothing else seems to thrive.

Last year we moved our compost bins to this area - it seemed a better use of land that won't easily grow crops, and it would help to stamp out some of the grass and nettles that kept invading. But that still left our overgrown raspberry patch to deal with. Half the raspberries had died and the rest were swamped in a jungle of grass.

We took out the old raspberry plants and dug the bed over three times to get rid of every last grass root we could find. Then we laid a new weedproof-fabric-and-woodchip path down one side of it, dug a trench along the top where it meets the next (derelict) plot, and put a border of weedproof fabric along the end of the plot too, so it should be much harder for new roots to find their way in.

I was keen to keep the area as permanent planting, since our three main rotation beds are working nicely now and perennial planting has benefits for the soil and wildlife as well as my workload! But I wanted to try some new fruits; I do like raspberries but I'm not a fan of the other usual berries and currants people tend to grow on allotments, and I fancied trying some new things I'd been hearing about. So our new fruit patch will feature... Japanese wineberries, Chilean guavas, and Cape gooseberries!

Botanist James Wong famously promotes a number of unusual crops, and his book 'Homegrown Revolution' encourages gardeners to ditch some of the 'old-fashioned' stuff we've been growing for generations but that is actually quite tricky in our climate (aubergines and cauliflowers, for example) in favour of more exotic crops that actually grow very easily here. I have only just bought the book this week, but the above fruits all feature in it - and I'm rather tempted by one or two others he recommends too - perhaps another year!

EDIT: Whoops, the Japanese wineberry isn't in the book - I think I heard about it in a conversation about unusual crops which centred around the book and assumed it was.

Japanese wineberry is similar to raspberry but with striking red stems and lime-green leaves, and the fruits are surrounded by a spiny calyx that means birds don't usually go for them. It can handle a little bit of shade, so the shed shadow shouldn't bother it. I'm not really sure what its growing habit is going to be like - I'm kind of expecting it to be like a bramble! - but I am well prepared to train it up some canes if need be...

Chilean guavas are small berries that ripen in the winter on a rather attractive evergreen bush. I bought these plants nearly a year ago when I saw them on sale and they have been waiting patiently in pots at home until now! (I have two more in large containers at home too, from which I got just a few berries last year, though I think I picked them before they were ripe!)

Cape gooseberries (or Inca berries, or golden berries) are perhaps better known, and sometimes seen served at wedding receptions and posh restaurants, usually with smoked meats. The fruits are similar to tomatilloes, but sweet and golden yellow, and come in a papery husk. They're grown as an annual in this country, so it's not exactly permanent planting, but it also means I can change my mind easily and try a cocktail kiwi or something here next year instead if I like... I've sown the Cape gooseberry seeds at home (no seedlings yet...) and I'll plant them out here in June or so.

I'm not really sure how big these plants get so that's all I'm putting in for now, but I hope my alternative fruit patch will fill up some more in time. For the moment I've put in some biennial flowers too - foxgloves and wallflowers I had in pots at home - and I might just put in some perennial achillea or summer bulbs or something... The biennials should have been planted out in autumn really so I'm not sure how they'll get on, but the part-shaded spot behind the shed must be about perfect for foxgloves so I hope they will self-seed there and I'll keep a small patch of them going.

I'm very glad this troublesome corner is under control again, and I hope the trenched and covered edges will help it to stay that way!

Monday 23 February 2015

Stevia and Oysterleaf

After my chillies, peppers, aubergines and leeks, next on the list to sow this month were two unusual leaf crops; stevia and oysterleaf.

Stevia (stevia rebaudiana) is an extremely sweet-tasting leaf that can be used as a natural sweetener, 150 times sweeter than sugar. I was given some seeds last year but failed to get any to germinate - but ended up buying a small plant at a nursery later on in the summer. It didn't get very big and I didn't harvest more than a few leaves from it, but after its tiny white flowers faded I made sure to save some seeds for another attempt this year.

(Whole stevia leaf isn't approved by the Food Standards Agency as a food for human consumption - even though it's been eaten for centuries in South America and in Asia since the seventies - so it can't be marketed as food in its natural form. You can buy approved stevia extracts (you might have noticed the new Coca Cola 'Life' is part sweetened with a stevia derivative) but watch out for their purity. Truvia, the 'big brand' option marketed as a natural stevia-derived sweetener, has as its main component erythritol, a sugar alcohol similar to sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol, which is fermented from dextrose, a sugar made from corn.)

I haven't managed to find much out about how to sow the seeds, except that it's tricky and they need a lot of light. The seeds are very tiny, so I have sown some under a light sprinkling of soil and some on the surface. It's very easy for surface-sown seeds to dry out, so I've put the whole pot in a plastic bag to retain moisture, and I'm keeping them on a bright windowsill and crossing my fingers... If I have any success, I hope to experiment more with my harvest this year and find some good ways to use it! I'll also try to overwinter a plant (like I should have done last year!) to avoid the tricky germination game next year - I think they grow as perennials in warmer climates...

Oysterleaf (mertensia maritima) or 'sea bluebells' is another edible leaf crop, with round, blueish, fleshy leaves supposed to taste like - you guessed it - oysters. It's not to be confused with salsify - a root crop sometimes known as oysterplant! It's a perennial (you know I'm a sucker for perennial edibles!) and it has really pretty edible purple and blue flowers, similar to borage - it's in the same family. Again, I was given some seeds last year but failed to grow them successfully (I think a snail got them!) so it's round two this year, with seeds purchased from Pennard Plants. There were only five seeds in the pack, so again I'm having to be careful with them! The seeds are relatively big so I've sown them a few millimetres deep and I'm keeping a close eye on them to make sure they don't dry out. They're not going in a plastic bag, as they grow wild in the Hebrides so I don't think they want to be too warm. But I will be keeping them safely indoors, away from snails, this time! (Until they're bigger, anyway.)

In other seedy news, I've also now sown some stock and snapdragon seeds for my new flower patch, and my first aubergine seedlings popped up on Thursday, just five days after sowing, closely followed by the chillies and the leeks after seven days. It's all go!

Friday 20 February 2015

Chitting Potatoes

At the beginning of the month I bought my seed potatoes, and it's that time of year again when the pretty coloured bottles and candles on the bathroom windowsill get packed away... make room to chit my potatoes!

Chitting potatoes makes them develop nice strong shoots so that they start growing faster when you stick them in the ground. Just lay them out in a bright place. Too dark and they'll grow long spindly shoots that break easily, but put them in direct sunlight and the delicate new shoots might shrivel. This north-east facing windowsill is perfect. They get damp whenever someone has a shower, but they dry out again and don't seem to mind. Here's what they look like after nearly three weeks. You can see tiny rolls of new green leaves starting to form, and the little-white-bump beginnings of new roots.

Some people like to debate whether chitting is a good thing to do or a waste of the potatoes' energy which creates a risk of shocking the spuds when you put them in the cold ground. Some major gardening organisations have run tests to see how much difference it made, and found it generally didn't. But I mainly do it because, well, they've gotta go somewhere, right? And I do like to buy them early, so I can get the varieties I want and I'm not left with the shrivelled up manky ones, and it does help to check that they're all healthy and find out which eyes are strongest (I'll plant those facing upwards), and it's good to feel like I'm making a start on the growing season nice and early, even if it is just putting potatoes on a windowsill... I've also read somewhere that chitting stimulates production of solanine in the spuds, which makes them less appealing to any hungry rodents that might eat them after planting, and stops them rotting in the soil. Some people like to sit their seed potatoes in the cups of egg boxes, or even buy special chitting trays, to keep them all neat and tidy with their best eyes standing straight up. I just cram them all together, eyes up-ish - they take up less room that way, they don't mind touching each other and the chits will always grow upwards...

We've grown Kestrel potatoes for a few years now - they seemed to do best on our plot and they taste delicious, especially as mash and roasties. But when we tried Pentland Crown on a quarter of our potato bed last year in the search for a better jacket potato, they did really well too, and suffered much less scab and took longer to soften and sprout in storage, so we decided it was time to branch out and see what we were missing with some more new varieties...

So our maincrop spuds this year are a third King Edward, a third Sante and a third Pentland Crown. We bought them from our local independent garden centre, Aylett Nurseries, where you can select individual tubers and fill a bag for a set price. We got 60 tubers for £3.95! Much better than buying online!

We did buy some seed spuds online too, though. At FoodSmiles last year I was really impressed by a particular first early potato called Accent, which gave huge yields and tasted lovely, so I sought it out and found it at Tuckers Seeds. They arrived last week too, and are chitting on another windowsill. They'll be grown at home, in sacks.

I've also found some leftover seed potatoes from last year which I left in the summer house when we didn't have room for them. I can't remember what they are and I'm not sure I'll grow them, but you can see, even a year after buying them, they're still raring to go, having been kept in the right bright but cool conditions!

Saturday 14 February 2015

Seed Sowing!

At last! The day is here! I've been itching to get starting with this season's seeds since, ooooh, about the second of January, but there's really not much point starting that early and seedlings grown when days are short can end up leggy and weak. Instead, I've taken on board a tip from veg-growing guru Charles Dowding, who advises waiting until there are ten hours of daylight each day before sowing seeds. This happens in mid February, and I've certainly noticed the evenings lengthening these last two weeks so hopefully it will make all the difference.

I like a good clear rule like this - it means no umming and aahing about whether or not it's the right time, no 'well I'll do a few now and a few later and see if there's any difference', no worrying.

Setting myself a clear day to get started - and making it a bit later than perhaps I'd like - has also meant I was far more organised than usual beforehand. I'd cleaned and tested the electric propagator in advance. I'd sorted out all my pots, and I've got a big bag of surplus ready to give away. I'd even written out my plant labels - I usually put the seeds in first then find myself writing labels with grubby fingers while trying to remember which pot's which - not clever!

I've also written up a sowing and planting plan for the whole year, which I'll use to keep records of the dates I actually sow as well. I can see at-a-glance what needs to be sown and where each month, so there'll be no forgetting things or puzzling over when to sow things for winter. I'm sure it'll get tweaked a bit along the way, but you can see it here if you like.

I sow all my seeds in peat-free compost - usually New Horizon organic peat-free. Peat-free seems to have a bad rap in the press - they'll tell you it's not suitable for seed-sowing, or that you have to sieve it and add vermiculite and water more, as if it's somehow more complex or more dangerous - but I've never, ever had any trouble with it; it's really very good stuff. And digging up peat is destructive, unsustainable, and totally unnecessary.

So here they all are. Tucked up in the electric propagator are three sweet peppers (Marconi Rossa, Lipstick and Kaibi Round), three chillies (Ancho Grande, Jalapeno and Big Jim Numex), and one aubergine (Bonica F1). They all need a bit of extra warmth to germinate well, so the electric propagator is really helpful, and I hope to be able to pot them up just in time to sow my tomatoes in the same propagator sometime around mid-March. On the windowsill are cape gooseberries, two pots of leeks (Autumn Giant Porvite and Lyon 2 Prizetaker) and some celeriac (Monarch). I've sown these things first as they are all slow-growing crops that need an early start in order to crop in good time, or to reach a good size.

Hooray! Getting these seeds started is a really good feeling and makes the spring feel that much closer. There's nothing else quite like the promise of big beautiful plants and tasty harvests just from putting a seed in the soil.

Monday 9 February 2015

The Food Shortage is a Lie

It's easy to be confused by the current opposing issues of world hunger and food waste. We seem to hear them everywhere now: Hundreds of millions of people are going hungry! We need to grow more food for our fast-growing population! 30-50% of food produced is not eaten! Huh?!

But this article - How the Great Food War Will Be Won - clears things up thoroughly, and I'd like to urge everyone to read it.

The fact is, we produce an overabundance of food; the stats show it and the World Bank Institute admits we produce enough, globally, for 14 billion people. This isn't exactly new news; I've argued before that we could already produce more than enough food for the global population. But yet industrial agriculture and its supporters - from the UK's National Farmers Union to CropLife International to, of course, Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto - want us to believe we do not - perhaps cannot - produce enough. The article points out;
The strategic centrepiece of Monsanto’s PR, and also that of just about every major commercial participant in the industrialised food system, is to focus on the promotion of one single overarching idea. The big idea that industrial producers in the food system want you to believe is that only they can produce enough for the future population.
It's a lie. An industry lie, to promote industrial agriculture over small-scale agroecological growing. An industry lie to make money, at great cost to the earth. every single case where industrial agriculture is implemented it leaves landscapes progressively emptier of life. Eventually, the soil turns either into mud that washes into the rivers or into dust that blows away on the wind. Industrial agriculture has no long term future; it is ecological suicide. 
The article goes on to describe how the ecological food movement needs a new strategy; one that involves dismantling this lie and changing perception. Do give it a read:
How the Great Food War Will Be Won

Friday 6 February 2015

An Exception

I've always tried to avoid growing F1 hybrids - well, mostly. If I'm sent free seeds with an order or magazine it seems rather churlish to reject them, and a few others have slipped through the net over the years for one reason or another. It's not that there's anything 'wrong' with hybrids, but you have to support the things that you want to thrive. It's a bit like buying British or local. I want to see biodiversity and food security thriving, and hybrids undermine these by drastically reducing demand for traditional open-pollinated varieties, and because they're not genetically stable and can't reproduce to create another generation the same. I also like to think I can save the seeds of all my crops, although my seed-saving operation has a long way to go yet... And F1 seeds can be pretty expensive too!

But this year I'm making one deliberate exception, and it's this:

Aubergines are a luxury vegetable for us - something that we could easily do without, but something I'd love to eat more. I rarely buy them, simply because I'm buying less and less veg anyway - my priority is to eat what I grow and I'm far too busy eating all the courgettes and French beans and tomatoes and peppers and leafy greens coming out of the garden when they're in season. So the only way I'm gonna get to eat them is if I grow them myself!

But aubergines, lets face it, are just not really suited to the British climate - they need lots and lots of warmth and sunshine - yet I know many gardeners have moderate success with them, especially under cover. Not me; I've managed to grow just two small aubergines in five or six years of trying, and one of them went bad on the plant. There are only really two open-pollinated varieties of aubergines widely available (not counting fancy-coloured ones or mini ones, which I'm less interested in for now) and I've tried them both, without success. So when I read a recommendation for this variety, Bonica F1, on Nicky Kyle's great blog I thought well, why not have one last bash? Better to grow an F1 hybrid than not to grow them at all! Hybridisation brings the best traits together from other varieties to create new varieties that are (generally) more productive or earlier, more consistent and more reliable - the easier (though pricier) choice for any gardener, and in theory they will crop more readily where traditional varieties have failed. The plastic greenhouse we're putting on the allotment this year means we'll be able to provide them with a bit more protection than at home, too, so I'm crossing my fingers and looking forward to a bountiful aubergine harvest for once!

Sunday 1 February 2015


Despite having a long list of jobs I need to get done before the growing season starts again, very little is happening on the plot at the moment; a week or two of bitterly cold and wet weather has made digging unpleasant at best and impossible at worst. I wouldn't mind so much if it would just snow properly, like it has in much of the country, and make the place look pretty for a while! But all we've had is yucky icy sleet and lots of rain.

I've also been very busy with preparations for our first FoodSmiles AGM last week, and the FoodSmiles seed order this week! If you think figuring out what to grow on your own allotment can take a while, try figuring out what you need for a giant veg plot for 25 families using strictly organic seed only!

There's still plenty to harvest from the allotment and this week we brought home these carrots, leeks, parsnips and the last two (very small!) swedes.

We have made some progress on what is to be our new 'alternative' fruit patch, shown above. It's always been a tough corner of the allotment, this, and the couchgrass has really colonised it again, so we've dug it over once and we're halfway through a second go to pick out remaining roots. I was hoping to finish it off tomorrow and start planting it up, but if the weather is as cold as forecast I won't even be able to get a fork in the ground, and we'll have to settle for a trip to the garden centre instead - I think I have finally sated my seed-buying urge now, but there are still seed potatoes and compost to buy. Now it's February I'll be counting down the days to sowing my first seeds in the middle of the month... Better get the propagator out and clean up some pots!
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