Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Further hugelkultur experiments.

I have just taken down a 20 foot field maple, Acer campestris, tree which I grew from a seed.  I planted it a little too close to the house and its roots were making the lawn bulge.  Rather than see the tree burnt, I am going to make some more hugelkultur trenches.

I have been told for many years that adding brushwood and logs to soil depletes it of nitrogen so should be avoided.  I also avoided adding it to compost heaps because it looked dry and decomposed so slowly.

It seems reasonable to conclude that adding lots of carbon in the form of wood does reduce nitrogen but most people forget that adding nitrogen to the soil reduces carbon.  Furthermore, adding air to the soil increases the activity of aerobic bacteria and fungi and reduces both nitrogen and carbon.  Both these elements can leave the soil as greenhouse gas molecules.

I have been criticised in the past because burying logs and brushwood produces carbon dioxide and methane; both greenhouse gases.  Although this does occur, it is a much slower process than burning it and some of the carbon could be sequestered in the soil for many years.

As logs decay, they form a very sponge like crumbly structure that can absorb and retain water.  While there is a slow release of trapped water within the wood, there is also an increase in the soil's ability to drain relatively quickly and avoid waterlogging.  Those with limited rainfall can make hugelkultur swales to retain more water, while people like me that have too much water in their soil can increase the drainage in a similar way.

Together with this water, bacteria and fungi can use carbon and any nitrogen they can glean from the wood and soil to grow and respire.  When they die they will release molecules that the plants can absorb and so these elements will be recycled.

 To overcome the problem of nitrogen loss, I bury the logs and brushwood at least two and a half feet (three spits) deep in the soil by taking out trenches.  Any nitrogen that is available at the depth of my trenches has been leached out of the top soil and is much less available to plant roots so the bacteria and fungi are welcome to it.  Nitrogen capture and retention might be another benefit of hugelkultur.

The organic matter that is added to a hugelkultur trench will enable plant nutrients to remain in the soil rather than being leached away.  Organic matter and clays have a relatively high cation exchange capacity and this can be used by the plants to obtain nutrients.

I take the opportunity to bury a lot of pernicious weeds like couch grass, Elymus repens,  and nettles Urtica dioica and in order to add more nitrogen to the mix, I add lots of grass mowings; animal manures; shredded clippings; weed turfs and any other compostable material I have to hand.

I like to sieve the soil back into the trench to remove large stones and rhizomes of  plants like bindweed, Calystegia sepium  and Equisetum  arvensis.   As the soil is sieved back into the trench compost or animal manures can be added.  I would suggest that this hugelkultur and sieving procedure produces a deep fertile soil that conventional digging or no digging methods would take ten years to produce.

My trusty bread tray sieve.

I have begun to get more interested in developing my skills in making hot beds and, reading the Victorian gardeners handbooks, they used tanner's bark because it decomposed slowly and kept its heat longer than animal manures..

So, covering the logs and brushwood with soil and then building an animal manure hot bed on top might warm the soil for a number of months due to the heat produced by a multitude of microorganisms respiring while decomposing the buried litter.  This is what I aim to do, so that I can continue to grow salad plants in the autumn.

Burying the logs and brushwood is easy.  Making the hot bed work is much more difficult.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

What to plant after cropping.

I am still sowing leaf salad vegetables like lettuce, rocket, annual spinach, lamb's lettuce, nasturtium, mixed leaves and Claytonia perfoliata  but you don't really need a lot of these vegetables.  I still have a lot of other leaves that I have not used very much including the perpetual spinach and chard so I don't really want to grow lots of plants that I will not need.

The areas of clear ground that harvesting the potatoes and peas will produce is much more that I need for planting leaf vegetables.  In fact, I am using the ground vacated by the summer lettuce, coriander, parcel and fennel to plant more leaf vegetables.

So what do I do with this cleared space during the late summer and autumn?

I am using some of the ground to plant out the chrysanthemum cuttings.  I am going to put the plants about 3 feet apart and take up only two or three flowering side shoots to produce some big flowers.  However this will not cover the whole area.

I have harvested all the garlic and shallots and this area is now space for the pumpkins and squashes to grow into.  The pumpkins are thugs when it comes to growing over and smothering things so I like to give them as much room as possible.  They can grow into the comfrey bed if they want.

I could plant some more peas but last time I did this the results were very disappointing. Furthermore, I have enough peas to freeze and last me until next year.  So no more peas will be sown.

So what am I going to do?  Well some of the ground will be covered in horse manure which I am going to continue to make hot beds with and experiment to find the best methods to use.  I am reading William Cobbett's book "The English Gardener" and will use his method of hotbed making to begin with.  This year's effort was not as effective as I wanted.  I am sure that I planted the cauliflowers far too close together.

To make a hot bed properly you need the space to make it in.  As it needs to be turned several times the area of ground that clearing off the potatoes and peas has produced will be ideal.  The horse manure can be taken to the allotment and put into a conical heap.  If there is not enough horse manure then cow, sheep or pig manure can be added.  In fact any grassy material will help the pile heat up.

The best manure for the hot bed is stable manure and then sheep manure.  The  manure is best with wheat straw.  While these are the best materials to make a hot bed, you have to use what you have got and if it not quite so good you will need more of it to make an effective bed.

  After collecting all the materials into a flattish conical heap, you need to shake them up together and mix them well.  This must be done carefully and diligently and shaken so that the straw separates out throughout the heap from the top to the bottom.  If the manure is good then it will heat up and steam will come off it in less than 24 hours.  The heap can be left for two or three days and then it is all moved again.  The manure should be turned and well shaken into pieces and another conical heap formed from it.  The outsides of the old heap should be put on the inside of the new heap.  Again it can be left for another two or three days for it to heat up sufficiently and then turned once more.

If the manure is dry or the weather hot then it should be watered with a watering can when it is first mixed together.  Water being added at every foot in height that the heap grows.  Water is necessary for fermentation to begin, however this is less necessary if the manure is wet or the weather be changeable.  So the manure heap should be turned three or more times in nine days before it is put into a hot bed.  If this is not done then the heat in the hot bed will not last very long or be irregular.  The hot bed will sink more in some places than other and will be hotter in some places than in others.

The ground for the hot bed must be levelled out with the rake.  The ground needs to be level to prevent the heap from leaning to one side or the other, the cold frame will not sit well on the surface, the frame lights will not be sloping correctly, the bed will crack and water will run off rather than sink into the bed.

The hot bed needs to be made the same dimensions as the cold frame and in order to achieve this the frame should be put onto the levelled ground and four stakes placed at each corner.  The frame can be withdrawn and boards can then be placed on the outsides of the stakes and kept in place with pegs.

Manure can then be shaken into this temporary box from the manure heap.  Every four or five inches deep the manure should be beaten all over with the back of the fork to stabilise the heap.   After the boards have been overtopped the height of the heap the height is increased but the sides and ends need to be kept vertical and the stakes at the four corners need to be put in perpendicularly.  Cobbett does not specify a height the hot bed should attain but there are other references to them being four foot high.  A line can be stretched from stake to stake to make sure that the sides are perpendicular.  Care should be taken to make sure that the edges are well beaten because, if not done, the sides will sink more than the middle and a crack will form in the middle of the bed.  So when it is finished the bed should be as smooth and upright as a wall and uniform in height.

The cold frame or other protection should be put on immediately.  The top of the bed should not be more that an inch more that the bottom of the frame.  The frame lights should be opened to allow air to circulate within the cold frame.  If the hot bed is working the temperature should begin to rise in the next twelve hours
and in about three days the bed will be at its maximum temperature.  In order to prevent the soil from heating up too much you need to wait until the highest temperatures have abated before adding the top soil.

When the hot bed is just beginning to cool and you can push your finger into it without discomfort, six inches of good sieved garden top soil can be added inside the frame.

I will probably use the hotbed frame for growing winter lettuce.

Making the hot bed will only take a little of the  space that I will have.  Most of the cleared ground will be sown with an overwintering green manure such as tares or grazing rye.  I sow these in drills rather than broadcast so that it is easier to weed until a canopy covers the ground and the weeds are shaded out.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Overall third place in the 2013 Wolverhampton allotment competition.

I don't think that third place is that bad because I am up against allotments that are not organic.  I can truthfully say that my allotment is completely organic this year.  I have been using nematodes to control the slugs and snails on the allotment and the next batch of these animals is coming this week some time. Hopefully, just after the thunderstorms have passed so that I do not have to water the allotment.

Comfrey bed
Not that it matters much because Tuesday is my watering with dilute comfrey liquid day.  I add nutrients to the soil once a week in this way.  I have not used any artificial fertilisers for many years now.  

Comfrey liquid.  
I have spent five days at a scything course and now have the knowledge to scythe properly.  However whether I have the skill is still to be judged. The scything course was organised by Simon Farley

I don't know what the allotment will be like, but the weather has been so warm that I doubt if anything has grown much particularly because it has not been watered.

Tomorrow, I will be taking a couple of trays of lettuce to transplant out into the allotment.  I will also be sowing some spinach.  The old lettuce have gone over now and need to be put onto the compost heap.  I have about five lettuces that have not been used out of about 50 planted.  I would have used these five lettuces too but the fox seems to have taken a liking to the ground around them and dug holes, trampled the leaves and generally made a mess of them.

I will sow the spinach where the lettuce have come out and put the lettuces where the coriander and parcel have gone to seed.

The chrysanthemums have continued to grow well in their pots and will have to be transplanted into the allotment soon.  I have taken the growing point out and allowed two or three side shoots to develop on each of the plants.  Any other side shoots are removed while they are small.

I am hoping to get quite large flowers because I will make sure that each of the side shoots only to bear one flower.  This means that each plant will have only two or three flowers.

These plants will go where I take the early potatoes out.  I doubt that they will fill the whole bed so the rest will be put down to green manure.  I would like to use winter tares but it did not do very well during last winter so I am not sure whether to plant again now.

There is still time to decide because I will continue to plant green manure during August and September.

I will have to buy some green manure and some paper potato sacs.  If I buy some clover green manure, I will be able to top it with the scythe.  Topping means to take off some of the top growth of the green manure. This material can be put into the compost bin while the clover produces more roots and tops.

I will get the potato bags from the Bag 'N Box Man Ltd. because the sacs were delivered promptly and were good quality.  

Sunday, 14 July 2013

July allotment photographs. Is this an award achieving allotment?

Well, the judges came to look at the allotment today and said that it was good.  I am not sure whether that will translate into getting better than last year's third place.  I explained that it was a working organic allotment and it would not be a pristine show garden and they seemed to take this on board very well. It shows what you can achieve with an organic garden.  I have only used comfrey liquid as an additional amendment during the summer.  I have not used blood, fish and bone or chicken manure this year.
The late spring and wicked easterly winds made growing very difficult earlier on in the year.  However, with perseverance and hard work the allotment seems to have suddenly begun to produce some acceptable vegetables.  The temperature today was a balmy 31oC and the vegetables are growing  apace.  
The compost heaps 
The two compost heaps were emptied earlier in the year but with all the weeds and clippings I have refilled them already.  I have been adding horse manure to the compost heaps to help heat them up but the level does not seem to be going down as quickly as it was.  .  
Comfrey bed
I cropped quite a lot of comfrey and put it into the comfrey bins.  I have been using liquid comfrey as the only additional fertiliser on the allotment.  As my nettle bed was sprayed with glyphosate by the allotment committee, I took them out and now I have none to add to the bins.  Also, the sweet cicely that I was using to add to the bins has started to die back so my liquid fertiliser only has comfrey and a little worm bin liquid.  I will replant the sweet cicely from seed next year.  I have collected quite a bit of seed from the old sweet cicely plants.  They will be kept in brown paper bags and planted next spring - if I remember.
Black comfrey liquid
I put  the comfrey leaves into the bin and let the black liquid seep out at the bottom of the bin.  I add this to the main bin by the store shed.
Main comfrey bin by the shed
I have raised the comfrey bin up using bricks and slabs.  This is to allow me to get a watering can under the tap easily.  I usually dilute the comfrey to a 1:10 concentration.  I am not using it to mix with charcoal at the moment because there is a lot of inoculated charcoal on the allotment beds already and I want to assess how well this behaves over several years.  (Sometimes I marinade charcoal in comfrey liquid, crush it and add it to the soil in the spring.  This is to produce a "Terra preta" type soil. You can judge for yourself if the inoculate charcoal is doing its job.)

The store shed is coming into its own now.  The garlic and shallots will be the first vegetables stored on the racks.  I made the racks out of an old garden bench.  The back and the seat of the bench make ideal racks for storing vegetables on.

I am harvesting the garlic and shallots at the moment.  The very hot weather is ideal for drying out the bulbs before they are put into the store shed.
First elephant garlic
Shallots drying in the sunshine
 You can just see the pumpkins on the left of the photograph.  I have planted them here to cover the ground after the alliums have been harvested. I have now planted some squashes to replace the garlic and shallots.
A few normal garlic bulbs.  
This is the first year that I have grown elephant garlic.  They are much milder that the normal garlic but they look very impressive.  I will get the rest out and store them next week.

I still can't grow onions very well.  They are very small and these were the ones planted in January!   I have fed them once a week with comfrey liquid and watered them in the hot weather but still they are not growing as well as I would like.  I might have to accept that I will never grow large onions.  The onions on the new allotment were sown in March and they  are a similar size.  Why do I bother?

Santerno, Mammoth and Bedfordshire Champion onions
Sweet peas and runner beans in the background.
Mammoth onions
Either you have to cover the alliums until June or plant them very late in order to avoid the onion fly Phytomyza gymnostoma.  This second row of Mammoth onions was planted in early June.  They seem to be very healthy at the moment but I still think that Phytomyza gymnostoma is active.   This is why I have kept the leeks covered with the scaffold netting.

I reckon that I will not take the netting off the leeks until they are harvested in the autumn.  They are growing really well under the barrier.
The other half of this bed is devoted to South American vegetables.  Squashes, oca, tomatoes, courgettes, marrow and sweet corn.
Hunter squashes
Can't remember the name of these squashes
I have never grown so many squashes as this.  I always considered them difficult vegetables to grow in England.  However, these seem to be growing away really well.  I forgot to take a photograph of the Totem and Latah tomatoes but they are starting to produce a lot of tomatoes.  No red ones at the moment.  The oca has got its yellow flowers on and looking very healthy too.
Courgette and sweet corn
This is my last surviving courgette out of ten plants.  The others perished in the cold spring.  I am not too worried for two reasons.  Firstly, it has given me much more room for the squashes and secondly I can never use all the courgettes I harvest.  The sweet corn in the background has doubled its height in a week.  It is growing surprisingly quickly.  I have another block of sweet corn by the cucumber frame.
The cucumbers are a little behind because they were eaten by slugs until I put nematodes down.  Now they are growing up the supports quite well.  Several of the bigger ones have little cucumbers on them.  These old wire mesh supports are past their sell by date but I am hoping they will stay intact for another couple of years because the cucumbers climb up them really well.  Ridge cucumber fruits that hang down are usually long and straight but those on the ground are curved and misshapen.

You can just see the oca on the left hand bottom corner of the photograph above.  They have grown particularly well this year.  I only had six tubers but I am hoping to over winter this years tubers so I can have a big bed of them next year.

Sweet corn by the cucumber frame
The time is about half past eleven by the sundial.

The vine has produced some small bunches of grapes but really needs to be trained a little better than this. I have had this vine for over thirty years but never had grapes bigger than peas off it.  I don't mind because they make a pleasant snack when I am having my cup of tea.

Victoria rhubarb in the background and Champagne in the foreground.  I have harvested quite a lot of the rhubarb this year and it is not as big as it was last year.  Still a bit of a brute though and needs a lot of room.

This is what is growing in one bed only five others to go.

The raspberries seem to have been affected by the cold easterly wind in March and April but they are still producing heaps of berries.
New raspberries.  
The new raspberries are showing no signs of soil sickness.  I replaced all the soil in this area with new from elsewhere in the allotment to avoid soil sickness.  The new raspberries were planted with mychorrhizal fungi and have been watered weekly with dilute 1:10 comfrey liquid.  This is their first year and are covered in berries.
Old raspberries.
The old raspberries are going yellow already but there are a lot of berries to be harvested.  Some of the canes have survived the winter intact but others have broken off in the wind.  I think that I will transfer these to the new allotment with their supports.  They will have more room there.
Broad beans
The broad beans are starting to produce pods.  I like to harvest them when they are quite small.  There has been a little black fly on the tips but most of them are still clear.  I just take out the tips as soon as I see the black fly.  If you do this they do not spread down the stems and the rest of the plants stay clear of them as well.
Climbing french beans.
You might just be able to make out that there are some climbing french beans going up the canes.  Although they were planted about two feet away from the broad beans they have still been shaded by them.  Now the french beans are climbing into the sunlight they are growing much faster. After a ferocious beginning of the year where these sweet peas were subjected to a bitter east wind for two months, snow in March, flea beetle and slugs, I was going to take them out and compost them.  However, they have perked up over the last couple of weeks and provided us with quite a display.  .

Sweet pea 'Anniversary' 
Sweet pea 'Jilly'
Jilly is a lovely creamy white sweet pea.
Sweet pea 'Millenium' 
Sweet pea 'Bristol'
This photograph does not do justice to the sweet pea Millenium.  It has a very deep blood red colour.  The light shining through the petals seems to have taken some of the colour out of them.

Sweet pea 'Charlie's Angels'

Sweet pea 'Karen Louise'

Sweet pea 'Blue Danube'

Sweet pea 'Red Ace'

Sweet pea 'Eclipse''

Sweet pea 'Gwendoline'
The sweet peas are still not up to exhibition standard because they need to have at least four flowers on each stem and the flowers should be evenly spaced.  These stems have two or three flowers at the moment and are not up to standard. Lovely flowers regardless.

I will probably plant these varieties next year but on the new allotment.

Tone, you have not photographed the runner beans! You can just see them next to the Blue Danube sweet peas.  Aintree on one side and Scarlet Emperor on the other.  Lots of flowers but no beans yet.

The brassicas are looking healthy.

Brussel sprouts from one side of the bed

Brussel sprouts from the other side of the bed
A little bit of damage from cabbage white butterflies that I can live with is the only damage on the Brussel sprouts at the moment.  The kale looks more squashed in than it is.  It is a brute of a plant and will overshadow the other brassicas if it can.  The calabrese next to it has been cropped already and if it does not throw out any heads on side shoots, I will take it out completely.


Romanesque green cauliflower


Turnip, kohlrabi and swede
I got a little club root in the cauliflowers I have cropped but not a lot.    This  bed will not be used for brassicas for another six years so I think that it will have died back before then. You can just see the remains of the hot bed I made for them, this side of the white boards.

The cabbages are growing quite big and covering the area that the cauliflowers were in.  I will not have room to replace the cauliflowers with anything.
I have planted all the rest of the winter brassicas on the new allotment because I couldn't fit them in here.  So the winter cabbages, broccoli, winter cauliflowers, more kale and more brussels are in a big bed to give them sufficient room.  All these need at least two feet both ways to give them room to grow.
Alderman pea

Douce Provence pea
The Alderman and Douce Provence peas have suffered because they are in the shade of next door's shed. They are just beginning to produce some good pods now.  They need a lot of water in this very warm weather. I think they are doing well because of the mychorrhizal fungi added when I planted the seedlings. There is also a lot of charcoal in this soil that I added when the sweet peas were on this bed two years ago. The charcoal was marinated in comfrey liquid for six months before being crushed and put on the soil.  I reckon that this helps to release comfrey nutrients slowly over many years.  Well, it does not seem to have done the peas any harm.  Furthermore, the charcoal is on all the other beds now and it does not seem to have done any of the vegetables any harm either.  The only disadvantage of adding charcoal is that it can be very alkaline even after being marinaded in comfrey liquid and this has raised the pH of the allotment soil to nearly 7.  This is why I have not added any more charcoal this year.

First row of Early Onward with some mixed up
Alderman.  Shows you why you need to label

Second row of Early Onward

It is amazing how seeds get mixed up.  I don't know how these Alderman peas got into the Early Onward row.  I'm not taking them out though.
Third row of Early Onward 
Lincoln Pea
The Lincoln pea is a heritage pea.  It is growing very well and producing flowers.  The pea plants will be dug in after cropping as additional green manure.  After the soil has settled down after digging, I will sow some grazing rye as a green manure to cover the soil in the winter.

Progress No9 pea.  
I have picked most of the strawberries.  They have not done quite so well this year because they were shaded by big trees in the hedge.  This bed is shaded on both sides.  The bed will be moved again in August to where the brassicas are now.  I will plant them where the cauliflower's hot bed was.
I thought that I had planted another black berry but it turns out to be a loganberry - I think.  

The blackberry is fruiting really well again this year.  Much later than last year though.  The hedgerow blackberries fruit in August and September but these are much earlier.

The Ben Sarek blackcurrant has done well, however some of the others have only fruited adequately.  It is only the ones nearest the trackway that have not done very well and these are the oldest bushes.  I might cut them hard back to see if I can get them to fruit heavily again but I have planted a lot of cuttings on the new allotment so I might just take these poor fruiting ones out.
I have fed the blackcurrants with comfrey this year and they have produced a lot more top growth.  Maybe this is why some of them have produced little in the way of currants.  Next year I will not give them so much comfrey liquid.
Chard and perpetual spinach
I have cropped the chard and perpetual spinach several times now.  The chard is beginning to go to seed but it is still worth keeping.  I have planted some nasturtiums to replace a line of coriander that I took out because it had gone to seed.   There is some parcel and salad burnet at the top of the lettuce rows and a small line of celeriac on the right of the lettuces.  I put some heritage lettuces 'George Richardson'  in the lettuce line which I will let go to seed.  They are outstanding performers producing good upright cos type lettuces.
Dill, lettuce, Victoria heritage celery
and Florence Fennel
All that's left of the Webb's Wonderful

There are a few more 'George Richardson' lettuces growing at the end of the celery row.  The dill and Florence fennel are overtopping the celery but not as seriously as the photograph seems to indicate.  I have been harvesting the Webb's Wonderful lettuces and resown with claytonia and rocket.  I have not grown claytonia before so this is an experiment to see what they taste like. The asparagus peas have germinated but they are under the canopy of the fennel.  I think that I will take this fennel out soon because there is no way I am going to eat all of this.  I have had quite a lot of meals off it so it will not be a hardship.  Although I did not thin them out they have produced a lot of bulbs.  The asparagus pea will give me a vegetable for September and October.

Self blanching celery, more fennel and
Hamburg parsley

I have sown some mixed leaves seeds where I have cropped the fennel.  Fennel is being used for soups, curries and salads.  I have not thinned the Hamburg parsley or the beetroot yet.  I might leave them and get a lot of small roots.
Salsify and lettuce
Just started cropping the redish lettuce.  The fox keeps on digging the lettuce up and then lounging about on the carrot netting.  Blooming animal.  Carrots are very small because they would not germinate in the Spring. This is my third effort and they are doing relatively well. The carrots I bunged in, with little soil preparation, at the new allotment all germinated and are growing vigorously.   Contrary plants.
Electric daisies Acmella oleracea
These electric daisies are recommended by James Wong the ethnobotanist.  They taste like a very strong bulb fennel but with the same affect as a chilli pepper.  Not to be recommended for the faint hearted.  I doubt if I will be sowing them again but they have given me pleasure in growing them this year.  My poor old sage in the foreground suffered really badly in the cold spring as did the thyme.  They have regenerated but it has taken them some time.  They are all along the path to the tap butt and produce a very strong fragrance even when they are not crushed underfoot.
Parsnips and George Richardson lettuce
Early potatoes
I think that the George Richardson lettuces will go to seed before I can harvest them all.   I have taken out all the Swift potato tubers and they were quite clean of slugs.  They have a reputation for attracting slugs.  I put some nematode worms on the swift to counter this and it seems to have been very effective. The other earlies need to be harvested soon or they will be full of slugs; nematodes or not.  Some of these potato tops were over 1.5 metres in length but the second early potatoes at the new allotment are even longer.  Just shows you that adding mycorrhizal fungi does when planting the seed potatoes.

So these photographs were taken directly after the judges left the allotment site and are what they saw when judging.  Lots of plants are not as big as last year due to the late Spring but they are what they are.  This is a working allotment not a show garden.  If I get into the top ten best allotments in Wolverhampton, I will be chuffed.

I will not be making as much effort next year!  -Probably.