Saturday, 31 March 2012

Battle plans - pea and bean weevil.

I grew peas and broad beans for the first time last year and in terms of taste and freshness these crops demonstrated most to me the benefits of growing your own.  I'd previously overlooked broad beans remembering the rather shrivelled leathery skins and metallic taste of school dinners fame.  Whilst there's nothing wrong with frozen peas for the table, eating these sweet little capsules straight from the pod can't be beaten and reminded of my Grandad's garden as a child; then, as now, I think I think more than half were eaten before they reached the kitchen. 

Unfortunately, it's not just humans who find these vegetables tasty and on my plot it's necessary to net the young plants in particular to fend off pigeons and later on in the season action needs to be taken to remove black fly which are attracted to the tender growing tips.  However, a big problem for me is that my plants are weakened by attacks from the pea and bean weevil which I felt dramatically reduced vigour and the productivity of my plants. They exist in the soil at first then emerge to feed on the leaves. Common advice is that these pests can make the plants look unsightly (cutting quite regular little notches in the edges of the leaves) but that the plants recover and only the most intense attacks can prove terminal. 

Nevertheless, I want to take some direct action (chemical free) in the aim of defeating this enemy and have discovered the following advice.  Although they are quite quick, it is possible to capture these creatures and some suggest that you place a container of water or a piece of sticky card under the plants to
catch them when you shake the plants and make them fall off the leaves.  Another suggestion I found on the Internet was to make up a nicotine solution to use as a spray: boil up 3/4 pound of cigarette ends in a gallon of water for 30 minutes and dilute this solution 1:1 before spraying.  This recipe came with some strong advice about storing this liquid carefully and did not mention its potential effects to other beneficial insects.  I'd hate to disrupt the burgeoning ladybird population on my plot so I may consider the nicotine plan as back up position and try the manual removal techniques first.

I'd be interested if anyone has any opinions on these tactics or any other ideas how I can maximise my pea and broad bean supply this year?

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Potato plans 2012

This weekend saw my first potatoes of the year go into the ground. I have set aside around a sixth of my plot to grow potatoes (about 6x6 yards) which I estimate I can fill with eight rows of a few different varieties. I don't think you can beat fresh new potatoes especially with home grown salad in the summer months so this is what I will be devoting most of the space to with a few rows given over to enjoy later in the season.

For the Summer crops I'm planting four rows of Rocket (two rows of 12 tubers planted now and two more in a few weeks time to stagger harvesting). At this time I'll also plant one row of Anya (14/16 tubers) a particularly tasty salad type. A short while later I'll plant a row each of Charlotte (10) , Desiree (10) and King Edward (10) .

I will give the later varieties a bit more space to develop than the early ones but the planting procedure is roughly the same. I dig a trench and nestle the chitted tubers about 6-8 inches below the surface. I did spread a few sacks of manure over this ground during the winter but before I back fill the trench to cover the tubers I'll sprinkle some composted litter from my hens on the spoil which will hopefully give the plants a boost. The first 2 rows at least will no doubt break through the surface before the risk of frost has passed. Whilst I will 'earth up' the rows to cover the foliage when they break through, this will provide some protection but I will use a sheet of fleece to cover them completely if frost is forecast after they have completely emerged.

Frost won't be the only challenge though and later on in the season (July onwards) I'll be keeping an eye out for any signs of blight (brown and yellow patches on the leaves on my plants or neighbouring plot holders') so I can remove the foliage and save the crop beneath. Fingers crossed that won't be necessary and that the foliage can be left to develop the tubers until it withers naturally. There's also the danger from pests such as Wireworm which will take the opportunity of eating at my crop before I get the chance. A trick I've heard about which I'll use try to reduce the numbers is to place half a cut potato on the surface, wait for the Wireworms to take up residence in this bait then remove them from harm's way (harm to my crops that is).

These are my potato plans, I'll just have to see how they'll turn out. Fingers crossed!

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Make do and mend.

One of the most enjoyable things for me about having an allotment is that things only need to be functional; what matters is if things serve a purpose, looking good comes second. This means I have been able to indulge in another passion of mine, re-using or recycling things. When I've finished with something or when something breaks, before throwing it away I'm definitely one of those people who thinks carefully about whether there is another use for it or if it can be saved. In that sense the off-cuts of wood, bits of chicken wire, sheets of plastic from packaging and other similar items contained in my garage that "I may find a use for one day" are evidence that I am somewhat of a hoarder.
Another thing I tend to do is keep my eye out for things other people no longer want but which are useful to me. Both from my local 'Freecycle' group (an on-line community where people can advertise unwanted items to potential new owners, with the aim of reducing waste going to land-fill in particular) but also things that people have discarded or 'fly tipped' by the roadside. As well as feeling satisfaction at re-using or recycling things it also means my hobby costs less.

Now I should give you some examples: the tyres you see here were found thrown in a hedgerow but I'll use these for containers/raised beds. The black plastic membrane was given to me by a friend who had it left over after having a garden landscaped. The wire is just some of a bundle I found discarded in a lay-by among a pile of other rubbish (which looked like the remnants of a building project)and the corrugated plastic sheets were left over off-cuts from a project at my Dad's workplace which he passed to me as he thought they were too good to waste and he new I 'might be able to use them'. A few minutes work turned these sheets and lengths of wire into these cloches, perfect for sowing some salads and parsnips under later today.

Among the items I have been kindly given from local 'Freecyclers' are two black plastic compost bins. One of these was missing a lid so it now has an old green dustbin lid which by chance happened to fit. I was also given a set of tools, garden netting and the wheelbarrow by someone who was moving to a smaller property and my three water butts all came from people who no longer wanted them but wanted to pass them on to someone else to use. These butts are filled by guttering on my shed which is grey on one side and black on the other as this was what I could find, cost nothing and didn't need to match as they perform the job perfectly.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A walk in the snow and some animal impressions

 No chance of doing any gardening activity today (other than clearing paths and feeding chickens at home). Nevertheless, I walked to the allotment to have a look.  

When I got there I found I wasn't the first visitor today.  At least one Hare seemed to have been running around.  The two impression on the left are the back feet and the two on the right are the front feet, one landing in front of the other.  The direction of travel may seem confusing at first, in this set of prints it was from right to left; front feet landing first and then the back feet overtaking them before the next bound...

and so on.

 This wasn't the only visitor to the plots though.  No, these distinctive tracks are not those of someone on a pogo stick but the characteristically single file footprints of a fox.  Several plot holders have chickens, ducks and other fowl on their allotments which are no doubt attractions foxes.  There didn't seem to be any disturbance and although the runs and coops don't always appear attractive it seems they proved secure enough, this time at least. Whilst I'm confident the fox missed out on the fowl, I wonder if the Hare got home safely?

Monday, 30 January 2012

Rhubarb: Divide and multiply

I’ve been growing rhubarb in my back garden for several years, moving clumps occasionally for various reasons (including when I moved house) and harvests have been plentiful bearing in mind the relatively small spaces given over to this crop.  My back garden clump has been in its present confined position for about five years and has become quite congested.  This situation happily coincided with my plans to grow rhubarb on my allotment so this weekend I set about dividing the rhubarb to make some new plants. 

Some guidelines I picked up regarding this task were:
  • to divide Rhubarb crowns after about 5/6 years in one position;
  • to do this in mid-winter when dormant, or early spring when you can distinguish where the growing buds are on the ‘crown’, thus making it easier to decide where to chop with the spade; and
  • that each divided crown section should have at least one growing bud (along with as much root as possible) which when transplanted should be just below ground level. 

In several places on forum websites I read that there is no need to fear this brutal act, that rhubarb crowns are tough and rarely does the process fail to produce viable new plants or invigorate long established and congested clumps.  I also read that Rhubarb is a crop which benefits from being frozen during winter and that one idea when transplanting rhubarb is to leave the crowns on the surface for few weeks to ensure they experience a good winter frost before planting in their intended growing positions. 

Having now prepared a space at the allotment I have left my new clumps in pots outside, to be planted either next weekend or whenever conditions are favourable over the next few weeks.  This year picking from the new clumps will be sparse in order to allow them to establish but I still have some undisturbed plants at home to supply my favourite rhubarb recipes (including the traditional crumble and rhubarb & ginger jam).  I will plant two of the new crowns about 3 feet apart, making sure to give them a good supply of manure.  The spares I can offer to neighbouring plot holders who have also recently taken on new plots. 
Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Mid-winter thoughts of heat and warmth: growing chilli peppers in the UK

It's probably the coldest time of year but my thoughts have turned to the most exotic plants I grow - chillies.  For us in the UK, growing chillies is a real challenge as to do this with any degree of success we need to replicate the dry hot climate they originate from.  Moisture and temperature can be controlled to a degree by growing indoors (in addition to my greenhouse bench I've grown a few plants on the windowsill in my office).  However, the added complication is that our growing season is much shorter than in their native Mexico thus making the act of growing chilli peppers from seed a bit more challenging, requiring more attention and intervention than most other food crops.  

Over the past few years I've experimented with a few varieties, both growing from seed and purchasing small plants from garden centres or garden shows in the spring/early summer.  Varieties such as Hungarian Hotwax, Scotch Bonnet, Habanero and Cherry Bomb have all provided me with a small supply of fiery fruits but on the whole the plants have never seemed entirely comfortable nor have they matched vigour and the supplies of fruit provided to me by a variety which happened to catch my eye and I grew for fun and interest rather than anything else.

My most successful chilli growing has been with the variety, Razzamatazz (Mr.Fothergills). The seeds are not the cheapest perhaps - last year's cost £2.05 for 50 seeds (which is two year's sowings worth) - but the germination rates have been very high providing me with as many plants as I needed to fill my greenhouse bench, spare windowsills and spares to give away.  I don't have a heated greenhouse or use heated propagators.  Nevertheless, sowings in late February or early March, on a warm window sill or covered in my unheated greenhouse, have been successful and provided me with seedlings to pot on up until May when they go into their larger pots* to remain until their fruits are fully ripened in September or October.  By mid summer the fruits start to appear in a variety of colours (including orange, green, yellow and purple) finally ripening to a rich red providing you can resist the temptation to use them earlier.  The chillies are as hot as most people require and have proved perfect on pizzas and as the fiery ingredient in other regular meals such as curries and chilli-con-carne.  They are also suitable for adding to jars of home made pickled onions and six or eight added to a kilo of ripe tomatoes, garlic, red wine vinegar and brown sugar make the most amazing chilli jam - a perfect accompaniment to a toasted cheddar sandwich for a 'chilly' January weekend lunch.  Storing couldn't be easier as they can be dried or simply placed in a plastic pot in the freezer until needed. 

Hmmm time for that sandwich. 
Thanks for reading,

 * I've found 6" pots are as good as 9" for these plants with a free draining gritty medium.  Up until last year I never went smaller than a 9" pot for chillies but last year I posed a question via Twitter to Monty Don (@TheMontyDon) about the optimum size pot for chilli plants and received the succinct reply 'rather smaller than you might think'.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Permanent crops: planning ahead and some recycling

When I took on my allotment in April 2011 the furthest end of my strip had the greatest number of weeds including nettles and 'horsetail'. This ground also seemed to have been left uncultivated for the longest time, if indeed it had ever been dug at all. This is where I chose to place my shed, water butts, compost bins and seating area. In front of these I placed some horticultural membrane (left over from a relatives garden landscaping) to suppress the weeds with the view of getting some raised beds up and running for this year (2012). I've made some rough frames using gravel boards giving me two rectangular beds (approximately 9 feet by four feet). This year I'm putting strawberries in one and will try some tomatoes in the other - I noticed with interest that these two crops were the highest money savers for Jono at . I propagated some strawberry 'runners' from my small patch at home (not sure of the variety); the tomatoes I aim to grow from seed, 'Cherry Falls' a cherry tomato variety I grew last year in pots outside. These plants formed compact bushes which I think will be ideal to keep them low and sheltered. Once I've dug the beds again in the spring and sifted out as much of the weeds as I can, I'll grow the tomatoes and strawberries through the black membrane in the hope this will suppress the more persistent weeds which will no doubt emerge from the depths I can't hope to reach.

In front of these beds I will be planting some rhubarb (from my garden also, variety unknown). I will dig up, divide and transplant some crowns in early spring. Next to this I will plant a gooseberry bush (I have some which I grew from cuttings and yes you guessed it, I have no idea of the variety).

I have some other space to devote to permanent crops - herbs, salads and perhaps flowers (to attract pollinating insects) and this is where I took the opportunity to do some recycling. Surrounding my small town are many country roads which unfortunately attract a certain type of human who regard countryside and fields as a wastleland appropriate for dumping any unwanted items or rubbish. The bare hedgerows allowed me to see that from the gate entrance to a field someone had dumped a number of old tyres, simply thrown them over the fence to run down the field and into the hedge. These I retrieved and arranged near my shed to be filled with soil/compost suited to the plants they will hold e.g. light, free draining soil for Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary and thyme or richer, moisture retaining soil for herbs such as parsley. Might see if there is any spare paint in the garage to spruce them up a bit.

Thanks for reading.