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.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Allotment 2011: a review.

I started to blog when I took on my allotment in early summer 2011 with the aim of documenting my progress;  work pressures, getting the allotment straight and other things took up my spare time so blogging fell by the wayside.  Enough excuses, the start of a new year (and an encouraging nudge from a fellow blogger) has spurred me on to resurrect my blog, starting with an overview of my first growing season in 2011.

I started out with a plan to set aside some space for some permanent beds (for strawberries, herbs, a longer term asparagus project, rhubarb, soft fruit etc.) and five zones to separate and rotate crops grown each year - potatoes; alliums (onions, leeks, garlic); brassicas (broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts); beans (dwarf french, french climbing and runners); and pumpkins and squashes.  Whilst the permanent beds are in the process of construction or preparation in ready for 2012 use, the other beds were put to full use.

Potatoes: as soon as I cleared the weeds and uncovered some bare ground I planted potatoes, whilst these were tasty (especially the Anya variety) the yield was somewhat disappointing which I attribute to a lack of nutrition and the unusually dry conditions in Spring/Summer 2011.  Whilst I can't change the weather or water to any great extent, I have now secured a manure supplier (a friend's daughters have a pony stabled nearby) so hope to improve this year.

Alliums: I planted some onions sets and a short row of leeks (a surplus from a neighbour's plot) which although quite small, matured in the short space of time and produced a modest supply of edible bulbs.  Due to the time spent clearing the ground these were planted later (May) than would have been preferred.

Brassicas: these suffered from drought and pest attack during the summer (flea beetle and whitefly especially) but had established by the autumn and then have flourished through the winter so far producing well.  I want to avoid using chemicals so when things were really bad I tried to battle the pests using a diluted solution of boiled rhubarb leaf , quite sparingly, which seemed to assist the beneficial ladybird population in keeping the pest numbers down.  It could have been my imagination but pleasingly, the ladybird population seemed to increase greatly during the summer.

Beans: these seemed the easiest to grow and produced the greatest yield.  Whilst the broad beans were quite slim pickings (again due to a lack of moisture and late planting) french beans and runners were much more prolific and I still have some of these in the freezer.  Introducing organic matter and earlier sowings will hopefully improve the broad bean situation this year as I've developed a new liking for these since eating some picked young and eaten fresh. 

Pumpkins and squashes: by the time summer arrived I had prepared my ground and established my domestic arrangements (including shed and water butts) so was able to meet the growing season for these crops according to convention.  Three butternut squash plants produced six fruits each (a few of which are still in store in my garage); six plants produced a mountain of courgettes (too many to keep up with); and a self set marrow plant adopted from my neighbour provided a few marrows to experiment with in the kitchen (stuffed, marrow & ginger jam) and some seeds for next year.  My attempt at a giant pumpkin was a bit of fun and my main learning point about this was to take stricter control of the plant - by constantly removing the competing juvenile fruit and restricting the growth of side shoots to ensure everything goes into the main pumpkin. 

I grew other crops, in an around those above, where space became available: parsnips took a while to get germinating but despite some problems I've had a modest supply so far this winter; beetroot proved an easy and bountiful crop to grow; and my carrots were plentiful but somewhat ruined by carrot root fly.  For carrots I am developing plans for resistant varieties, netting or growing at altitude (above 2-3 feet, the flying height of the carrot fly by popular consensus - we shall see). 

A big surprise was the local horticultural society show in September.  I looked at the schedule and was able to enter in 17 categories.  This resulted in five firsts, four seconds and three thirds...totalling 26 points!  The winning grower (my allotment neighbour 'Brush') achieved 28 points so the challenge for the coming year has been set.  My five successes were a butternut squash, 3 little gem lettuces, sweet peas (grown among my beans), cherry tomatoes (from the greenhouse at home) and the longest carrot (grown as an experiment in a spare piece of drain pipe). 

The combination of spending time outside and being rewarded with some great food meant that I enjoyed my first allotment season as much as I anticipated.  The enthusiasm I started with has not diminished and I can't wait to get on with the next one.  My greenhouse has been cleaned and cleared and is ready to accept my first sowings...more on that later. 
Thanks for reading, Adam.