Sunday, 31 March 2013

Busy Season

Now that we have a very truncated season all the jobs seem to have come at once.  I still haven't finished the winter digging. There is still about 12 to 15 feet to go.  That has to be a priority.

All the sweet pea canes need to be put up and the sweet peas need to be planted.  The ground for the potatoes needs to be forked over and leveled so that I can plant the potatoes.  They will go in frost or not.  The red onion sets and the second planting of garlic and shallots need to be put out.

I need to prick out leeks, onions tomatoes and peppers.  I need to sow a lot of seeds.  Lettuce is the priority.  All the brassicas, celery, celeriac, peas, beans, and others need to be sown.

The weather is going to continue to be cold so it will just have to be adapted to.

Lawns need to be mown and kept tidy both at home and at the old allotment.

I don't think that there will be any time for sitting around contemplating nature until well into May.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Celebrating the Legacy of South America

The plant breeding legacy of the native South Americans have left us with some of the most important worldwide crop plants.  Potatoes, Maize and tomatoes must be the three main ones.  The climbing beans, peppers, pumpkin group, oca, quinoa and nasturtium  are all of South American origin.   They were a result of active breeding programs designed by the native Americans and are very important crops for us now.  

I want to celebrate the legacy that these sophisticated gardeners and farmers have given us, demonstrating the wide variety of garden vegetables grown today that have originated in South America. Plant breeding developed over millennium in South America. The legacy has continued in Europe without full recognition  of native South American contribution.  Although some of the plants collected by Europeans were from the wild, the majority were cultivars honed by careful breeding.  

The South American legacy is not restricted to plant breeding but also to development of sustainable soil fertility.  They developed soils now called Terra preta and used charcoal as an effective soil conditioner;  something discovered independently by the James Barnes appointed  head gardener of Bicton in 1839.  The Victorian gardeners took the South American cultivars and developed them to crop in the colder regions of the Earth. They were justly applauded for their skill but did not seem to consider the multitude of previous native American gardeners that contributed to their achievements   

I think that we will still have a lot to learn from native methods of cultivation.  

I once heard on a radio program that, in the presenter's view,  nothing that tastes good comes from the Andies.  Well I disagree.  I would suggest that nothing of use comes from gardening radio programmes.  

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Snow damage

I went up to the old allotment today to get the last two hundredweight bags of potatoes out of the store shed.     I don't think there were many duff ones.  There are more than enough to last through April and with the cold weather they are much less likely to sprout and get all wrinkly.   I might sort them when the weather is a little warmer but it was a maximum of four degrees today.

The green manure seems to have died due to the cold weather so I can dig this in as soon as possible.  I will use the new Mantis Tiller to do this because I will not have much time.

The snow has squashed down the enviromesh barrier that I constructed for the alliums. The garlic, which had grown quite large, will have suffered the most.  The mesh still had about 4 or 5 inches of snow over  it as did the rest of the allotment so there was no point in trying to clear it off. I will just wait until it thaws and reconstruct it. If the garlic or shallots are damaged I will replace them with the ones I was going to grow on the new allotment as a later crop.

The cloches have been a little more robust although this does not seemed to have helped the broad beans. They are looking decidedly sorry for themselves.  I will leave the broad beans until it is obvious they will not come to anything then replace them with the exhibition ones in the greenhouse.   What ever happens I will have some broad beans.

I had a look at the hot bed manure pile and really it needs turning again.  It is warming up because there was no snow on it.  The bed really needs to be made now so that the cauliflowers can be planted out.  I might make this a priority.

Everything has stopped growing in the greenhouse.  I thought that I had lost all the peppers and tomatoes but they seem to be hanging on.  If the weather changes and we get more normal April weather then I may just be lucky and they will survive.

Lots of seedlings need pricking out and lots of seeds need to be sown but the greenhouse is bulging at the seams and I cannot fit anything else in there.  Once the weather changes I can get the potatoes and the sweet peas planted out and that will give me a great deal more space.  This will be my second priority.

I am really getting a little frustrated now because the winter digging should have been finished by now.  There is still quite a bit to do but I will not rush it.  My thoughts were to plant later crops on the new allotment and the delay due to the weather will make that the only thing I can do now.

Two things that I am catching up on while the weather is so bad are late grafting and pot washing.  I use a prodigious number of three and a half inch pots and the turnover means that I need to wash quite regularly.  I have done all the plant labels but I still have quite a few pots to do.

When the pots are dry, I brush out the dry soil.  The pots are then washed in warm soapy water, using an old rag, and left to dry.  This keeps the likelihood of pest and diseases becoming established a little less likely.  The plant labels are washed and then cleaned with white spirit.  The white spirit will remove both indelible ink and pencil which is useful because I use both.

I have everything ready for grafting except the weather.  I was very reluctant to containerize the St Julien A suckers while the weather was just hovering above freezing and there was 6 inches of snow covering the ground.  Now there is a very slow thaw it is a little more acceptable. Once they are containerized I will graft straight away and put them in the greenhouse.

 Hopefully by next week the snow will have gone and I will be able to get on.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013


This year I am planting a lot of earlies. Thank heavens that I decided to plant them towards the end of March rather than the beginning.  There is still a covering of snow and the ground is frozen.  All the potatoes are chitting in the greenhouse and I am not worried about whether I can get them through this cold spell.  I will plant them as soon as the ground thaws.  It is looking more like the end of the first week in April.  I will plant both earlies and second earlies at the same time.

I am sure that I have listed the potatoes I am going to use this year but I can't find it.

These are the ones that are chitting:

Red Duke of York
Arron Pilot
and second early Kestrel.

The earlies are going in the old allotment and I will need about 30 plants of each.  The Kestrel potatoes are going in the new allotment and I will have about 120 plants.  The potato bed on the old allotment has not been properly prepared yet and there is  manure that needs to be dug in.  I will definitely do this with the Mantis Tiller now.

Although the wind is bitter, the ground is thawing a little so maybe planting towards the end of the week might be possible.

Spent some of this afternoon washing plant labels.  I will have even more when I clear out the greenhouse.  I'm not sure but I think that I have lost a lot of tomatoes and peppers.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Using Scaffold Boards on the Allotment

The new allotment was covered in small beds surrounded by wooden boards.  They were about 4 inches in height and most of them had rotted away at the bottom.  They were not really retaining the soil because the level was below the bottom of the boards. They did give the beds some shape and boundaries.

I cannot be doing with lots of little beds and the Calystegia sepium was spreading along the boards because it was difficult to weed below them.   As I have been sieve double digging, I have taken out all the boards except those down the sides of the allotment.  This has also meant that I have taken out all the paths as well.

The paths were topsoil covered in carpet which was covered in shredded brushwood.  I have a great collection of carpets which are slowly being taken down to the tip.   The shredded brushwood had decayed well and was of a lovely fibrous texture.  This got sieved into the top soil as I dug down the allotment.

The boards down the sides of the allotment have rotted away as well but they are still serviceable.  However, I do have access to some 13 foot scaffold boards so I need to decide whether I box in the allotment or leave the old rotten boards.  Leaving the old boards will be cheaper.

Using the old wood, I probably have enough stakes to take boards along both sides of the allotment and across the top but I will need to buy the scaffold boards.  I am not going to build little beds across the allotment but rather divide the beds with the bay trees and asparagus.  I will possibly use some of the black currant cuttings to divide the beds too.

On the old allotment, I have used old paving slabs to retain the soil and this would be my favourite choice but I am not sure that I will be able to get any soon.  They do not rot.
As I have raised the old allotment up the paving slabs became invaluable
in retaining the soil and preventing it from over spilling the path.  
This soil has only been raised with home made compost, leaves and manure.  

In any case I would use paving slabs to cover the paths  made using the sieved  stone.  Only when I have a good path down the side of the allotment and across the bottom to the shed will I start to use the slabs as edging.

The scaffold planks do eventually rot away.  I will not use preservative on them because this is just another chemical I do not want leaching into the allotment soil.

Scaffold boards are very effective at retaining the soil and giving the allotment shape.  They do tidy the allotment up and make it look better but that will not improve the soil or increase my harvest.  The priority is the growing rather than the aesthetics.

If I think that I have the time this spring I will get some boards but with the weather as cold as it is, I think that the season will be contracted and time will be short to finish more important jobs.  

Saturday, 23 March 2013


One of the things that I have never done before is to try grafting.  It always seemed to be a little to technical and specialized.  I also never found the need to graft anything.  I am not particularly expert in the ways of top fruit and this also made me much more reluctant to do anything drastic to the trees.

However, now that I have had a lot of practice (I don't know how successfully yet though) I am a little more confident in taking on the grafting challenge.  So today I grafted three apples onto M9 root stock.  The rootstock was containerized on the second of March in a 3:1 multipurpose vermiculite growing medium and left to grow on until the buds began to swell.

Today, I made a whip and tongue cut and grafted on Newton Wonder. The graft was covered with grafting tape and wax.  Flushed with success,  I also grafted  Ribstone Pippin and James Grieves onto M9 rootstock.  The M9 rootstock should give me a tree about 6 - 9 ft. tall.  The grafts were covered with grafting tape and wax.

It is not as difficult as I imagined but it does need more care than a lot of other garden jobs.  Care must be taken not to cut yourself with the very sharp knife.  Care also has to be taken to make sure that cambium touches cambium in the graft.

So another new useful skill learnt.

 I have also grafted Corylus avellana "Purpurea" onto Corylus avellana using a side veneer graft and this was quite difficult.  Getting the cambium layer to match up is quite a challenge.  These were wrapped with grafting tape and wax as normal.

Now the grafting that may be less successful is that of Salix caprea pendula "Kilmarnock" on large cuttings of Salix alba vitellina.  Both the cutting and the graft need to take before the plant can grow on.  I used traditional elastic ties for these grafts then covered the ties in wax.  If it works I will be dead chuffed.  If any of the grafts take then I will be dead chuffed.

I wanted the weeping head of Kilmarnock willow to be quite high off the ground so the rootstock had to be quite long.  I doubt whether the length of the willow cutting will be that significant but I would have liked to have rooted the cuttings before doing the graft.

With the snow I have not been able to pot up the St. Julien A suckers which is a bit of a bind.  The Moorcroft scions are fine in the cold store at about 5 degrees celsius but I would like to crack on and finish all the grafting so that I can concentrate on spring seed sowing.  I have not got any grafting tape or wax having done the other grafting on the RHS course at Wolverhampton College so I am going to experiment wrapping the grafts with electrical tape and gaffer tape.

Grafting is not as hard as I thought it was.  This will not happen until the end of the week if then.

However, the cold weather will enable me to do some other jobs such as servicing the lawn mower and reading the Mantis Tiller manual.

R.J. Garner's book "The Grafter's Handbook"  has a great deal to answer for.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Late season this year

Due to the covering of snow we have had last night, the prospects of sowing and planting are going to be postponed for at least a week.  The beginning of April seems to be the first week that temperatures will have risen enough to start the major planting season.

I finished off the asparagus bed at Shugborough putting mychorrhizal fungi on the roots.  Afterwards, I was incorrectly told by a volunteer that asparagus should not be planted in spring.  Looking at the RHS April magazine "The Garden"; it has two articles about asparagus: "Tips for Taste" page 92 and "Establishing and harvesting asparagus" page 28 because now is the time for planting.  Just looking at Thompson and Morgan website for delivery of one year old asparagus crowns shows that they will be delivered between March and May.  What are you supposed to do with them until the autumn if you cannot plant them when they come? To say that I was not pleased by this this comment is an understatement.

The St. Julien A suckers from the plum tree seem to be growing on now.  I am going to try to graft an apricot onto two of them.  I will have to pot them up and keep them in a greenhouse because apricot is fairly frost sensitive.  I will be using the Grochar compost to give them a really good start.  It will be great if the graft takes.  It will make buying an expensive grafting knife very worth while.

Nearly completed the sieve double digging of the new allotment.  I will have to move the large pile of stones that I have sieved out of the soil.  I am using them as the foundation for my shed and path.  If the top soil is going to be covered by a shed or path then it is going to be wasted.  This soil can be removed and put onto the growing area and the hole filled with the stones sieved out while digging.  So that is what I am going to do.

I still don't have a coherent plan for the new allotment and at the moment I am going to use it as an overflow area.  I will plant things that I cannot fit into the old allotment.  I always grow too much in any case.

Due to having two allotments and also working at Shugborough, I have bought a Mantis Tiller.  It is only a small tiller but it will save time.  I have covered the early potato bed with horse manure and this needs to be forked into the top soil.  The Mantis Tiller will be able to do this much quicker than I can  with a fork.  It also forms quite a good fibrous tilth that is ideal for planting into.  So with a little raking to smooth out the surface I will be planting early potatoes as soon as the weather changes.

I am turning over a pile of fresh horse manure in order to make it heat up for a hotbed; watering it with some comfrey liquid and hoping that this is adding a little nitrogen to help the process.  I am making the hot bed for the early cauliflowers.  I will dig out the top soil and put the horse manure in the trench when it begins to steam a lot.  This will be covered by a six inch layer of topsoil.  The cauliflowers seedlings in the greenhouse are about 2 cm. tall now but they will not be planted out until the middle of April when the hotbed has had time to cool a little. In Victorian times they made a four foot cube of horse manure with straight sides putting 6 inches of good sieved soil at the top.  Over the surface they would put some sort of glass cloche in order to capture some of the heat.  I doubt if I will use the cloches on the cauliflowers because I am going to cover them with some scaffold netting.  Cauliflowers seem to attract all the brassica pests and diseases out there.  So to keep pigeons, cabbage white and slugs and snails off them, they have to have a barrier and the most effective one that I have seen is scaffold netting.  I have got some quite large pieces  and will support them with blue water pipe.

I have already covered the shallots, elephant garlic and ordinary garlic with enviromesh in a similar way.  The red onion sets and Bedforshire Champion onions will be tucked under it as well when I plant them out.  This is to protect them from the onion miner fly which is a real pest on the allotment site.  I will have to protect the leeks in a similar way.  Hopefully, this cold snap will have reduced the population of flies for this year but I think that is a forlorn hope.

Growers are always moaning about something going wrong on their allotment; it is part of the fun...

My main moan at the moment is not being able to get out and plant.


Friday, 15 March 2013

Planting asparagus

It may be a little early to start transplanting asparagus but they needed moving because the walled garden at   Shugborough Hall Staffordshire is being redesigned.  As  the soil had been well manured the previous autumn I just forked the soil over and leveled it with a rake.  The soil is still quite heavy due to the rain  over winter.

The asparagus plants are quite old and were easily divided.  Plants this old do not like to be transplanted and they may not produce good spears for a couple of years.  However, it is still worth a try.  Asparagus has not been grown in this part of the garden for over 100 years so there is a chance that they will be able to grow quite well.  It would have been better to buy in new, one year old named varieties because they will crop much better particularly in new ground.  I would have also liked to put some mychorrhizal fungi in with the plant roots. However, digging up some of the dandelions;  Taraxacum officinale there were mychorrhiza all over them and these might find their way onto the asparagus roots.  

I moved the Shgborough rhubarb in February and put some rhubarb forcing pots over them.  After that, I put some good farmyard manure over the whole bed.  The rhubarb has just started to grow and the leaf stems are quite large in the forcing pots.  The gardeners were a little concerned that there might be some evil chemicals in the straw from the cattle manure.  Well, if there is, there is a much more concentrated amount of these chemicals in the cattle themselves and people eat the cow meat...

On the allotments, I have put old, black, plastic dustbins over the rhubarb to force it.  Again they are beginning to grow well and produce some good petioles.  I have put some more horse manure onto the old allotment mulching the blackcurrants.  I like to do this every year and this year I remembered to give them a good dose of comfrey liquid before putting the mulch around.  I haven't put any horse manure around the rhubarb on the old allotment because they had a good dose of compost last autumn.   However,  if there is any left in the bins by the gate next week I might put a thin layer over them.  The rhubarb at the new allotment has been planted in the soil I manured with pigeon muck and that definitely does not need any extra manure.

I put a large pile of horse manure onto the brassica bed to make a hot bed for the cauliflowers. I turned it a couple of times to put some air in it so that it would heat up.  The pile was also watered with comfrey liquid.   I will dig a trench  and put the manure at the bottom then cover the pile with top soil.

The grazing rye and tares that I planted in the autumn seems to have died off and needs to be dug into the top soil.  It will easily break down releasing nutrients just in time for planting out the new vegetable plants.  I think that I will empty the two compost heaps again and spread that over the pumpkin and squash bed and the leaf vegetable bed.  These beds do not really need any more organic matter in them but you can't have too much of a good thing.

I am still triple, sieve digging the new allotment and the soil is looking quite good even though I say it myself.  Very satisfying when you put this much work into it.  However, it does not matter how good it looks because to be of merit it must sustainably produce good harvests.  I have about 15 foot by 25 foot still to do and I will start to do this at the weekend.  I want to finish the digging before I start to do anything else.

I will be grafting again tomorrow.  I am still practicing so that I get it right when I do it seriously.  I have got some M27 apple root stock and I am going to graft on some heritage apple scions.  I have not grafted before and it is a skill that needs a lot of practice.  I am quite optimistic about  grafting though and if it is not successful I will try budding in the summer.  I have some St. Julien A suckers that have grown from the plum on the new allotment.  I am going to grow these on and have a go at budding during July and August.

I really need to start to sow some seeds but this cold weather is not encouraging me to do it.  Maybe towards the end of the month would be a better time.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Cold weather has returned

I was just about to start sowing celeriac, and celery but the  weather has  turned very cold again.  I think that the seed sowing will have to wait until this cold snap is over. I need to sow some lettuce, early peas,  cabbage, and  cauliflower too but they need the weather to be a little more clement to be successful.

However, this gives me time to continue with the  sieve digging that  I  am doing on the new allotment.  There  is not a lot more  to do  but  it is quite  unpleasant  with a cold north  easterly wind blowing.  As the  allotment boundary  slopes at  the bottom I  will finish  one side before the other. The  ground has not been dug in this area before by the looks  of things  but I think that I will double dig closer to the hedge.  The hedge will not be damaged and whether I use this area or not it will remove  the Calystegia sepium  which will be an  irritation if it is not removed.

People ask me  how  my allotment looks so good  in the summer.  The  reason it  does so well is down to the preparation that takes place during the winter.  Double and  triple digging mixing in lots of organic matter will enable  the plants  to develop good deep root systems that  will sustain  them during the summer.

While I have been digging at the new allotment,  I have seen very few people working on their allotments.  Most will fork over the soil in the  spring and sow and plant in soil that is not well mixed and full of weed seeds.  To get a worthwhile harvest from an allotment, you have to  put the  work in and turn the soil over.

I will not neglect the old allotment but with the  cold weather there is little to do.  The  next jobs will be to  plant out the onion seedlings and the  seed potatoes.  Any left over will be put onto the  new allotment.

I have not worked out the beds  and  the  rotation  system on the new allotment yet but that will be done  after I have  dug the whole area and can see how much room  I  have.  After planting out  the rest of the soft fruit,  I  don't think that there will  be that much room.

I will probably have room enough  for a row of runner beans and these will probably be  put along the east side  of the  allotment so that they do not shade the other plants. I have some tall peas which  I  will plant alongside  the runner  beans.  I have  some old concrete reinforcing mesh that will be ideal for growing them  up.  It is about 5 ft. in  height and 10 ft long.  I will use  some  fence posts to  support it tied in with garden wire. I don't like making permanent structures on the  allotment because I may  need  to change the design of the garden.  Lots of people like to  make permanent supports for their  runner beans but  I like to rotate them.  Even though they can be  planted in the  same ground successfully for several years, they can be useful  in  adding nitrogen to  the soil because they form a symbiosis with  nitrogen fixing bacteria.

There was quite  a lot of chicken wire on  the allotment which seemed associated with  various compost heaps. It was covered in Calystegia sepium and I don't think that the previous tenants of the allotment were prepared to take the  time to untangle it so they could take it  away.  I will  use  this  to support the  garden peas.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Towards the busy time in the allotment

I have planted out the  broad beans, shallots and garlic that I  started in the greenhouse.  I was going to cover the broad beans with  plastic cloches but I don't think they need it.  The cloches are not doing anything at the moment  except  languishing in the  store  shed so I might  get them out to cover something.  I  will  want them for  the early lettuce and  they can  easily be moved.
Some good horse manure was delivered to the  allotment but I  wasn't going to  use  any.  After everyone had  had a share there  was still a big pile so I changed  my mind  and  took  some. Although  the potato bed had green manure on it,  it really needed a little more organic matter to bulk  it  up.   It was covered with a 4-6 cm layer  of manure  all over.  Together with the  green manure and  comfrey liquid,  I think that this will  be sufficient for the potatoes.  I will  be planting  them  with mychorrhizal fungi too but this  will  be later in  March.   I have a wide selection of early potatoes  this  year and  they will go in  this  bed while the second earlies, Kestrel, will go in the new allotment.  The  new allotment potato bed has been  triple dug, sieved and  pigeon  manure added.  This  ground  was also sown with  a rye tares green manure which will  be  dug in a week  or two  before I plant the potatoes.
I am hardening  off some of the onion seedlings and exhibition broad  beans and these  will  be  planted in the  old allotment until I run  out of space.  The  mammoth onions  and  the big  leeks have germinated  and need to be  pricked out into individual pots this  week.
The cabbage and cauliflower seedlings  are growing  well  but  they will  be kept in the  greenhouse until the  middle  of March and then  hardened off in the cold frame which  will  be repaired by then - hopefully.  
It is  all right  germinating  the seeds but keeping them alive  is  quite  difficult especially as the  night  temperatures regularly go down to just above  freezing.
I have tomato and peppers germinated and producing quite large seedlings  now but whether  they will  last until they  can  be put into the  allotment remains  to be seen.
I will be using my trusty little paraffin heater but that will only just  keep the temperature in the  greenhouse above freezing during very cold nights.
The cold does not seem to affect the sweet pea seedlings and they are germinating well.  I will have to pinch them out fairly soon.
On the new allotment I have planted out another apple tree "Discovery" on M9 rootstock, a plum "Opal"  and a pear - I forget the name but it is a French one.  
The Victoria plum has set off some  suckers  from the roots.  It is probably on St Julien root stock and these will make good root stocks for new trees.  They are just heeled in at  the moment but they will  be  planted and possibly budded during the summer.  
The new raspberries and gooseberries  are  just  heeled in  too and  will need to be  planted in  their  permanent  positions soon.   They  will  not fruit this year but they should grow away during  the  year  and be  big enough  for  fruit next year.   I am  still planting them in concentric semi circles around  the  established Victoria plum and the next line  of strawberries  has  gone in.  I have  enough strawberries for another  line but  I  don't  think  that I will  need them.  I  hate  putting good  plants on the compost  heap though.   
I have double dug and  sieved all the soil down to the shed  now.  There is  about 15 feet of digging still  to do.  As I go along the shed there is  less soil to  dig over so it is  taking  less time to do  a row.  Also I have run  out of things to bury or mix  in  so the digging  now  takes much less time.  The  thing that is taking the  time is  getting things  out  of  the  way so that I can have  a clear run.  The next thing I  will  have  to move is the makeshift compost heap.  I will move the  pallets up to the  front of the allotment and make  a new compost  heap there and  that  will  be right  out of the  way.  After that it is moving the stones to make  a really good foundation  for the  shed  and  finally moving the  shed.  
After that it  is back to the greenhouse and doing some  serious  seed sowing.  Middle  of March will be the sowing of the parsnips.  However, before I can do this I will have to dig in the green manure  on  the roots  bed. I will do  this  fairly soon because  a lot of the roots can  be  sown from the  middle  to the end of March.  
So, busy times ahead.