Thursday, 30 March 2017

Supporting Broad Beans

My first row of (12) Broad Bean plants has grown to about 30cm / 1ft tall now, and they looked in need of some support. One of the disadvantages of having my veg plot just outside my back door is that I can see my plants being buffeted by the wind! We have had quite a lot of strong wind recently, and I don't want to risk losing any of my precious beans. I have therefore given each one the support of a 1.5m / 5-foot bamboo cane.

"Why bother supporting Broad Beans?" you may ask. Well, the reason is that if you don't, the bean plants will soon flop over into an untidy sprawling mess that takes up a lot more ground-space than if they are held upright. More importantly, bees find it difficult to access the flowers on a sprawl, so they won't get pollinated and your crop will be smaller.

Over the years I have tried various different ways of support Broad Bean plants, using twiggy sticks, criss-crossed string, wire, etc, but the most effective way is this. I push a bamboo cane into the soil and then tie the plant to it loosely with soft string. As the plant grows I tie it to the cane in more places - usually about four in total.

Different varieties of Broad Bean grow to different heights and therefore need different lengths of cane. These beans are "Witkiem Manita", which supposedly get to about a metre tall, so allowing for the fact that each cane is pushed into the soil about 30cm, the 1.5m canes should be plenty tall enough.

I've mentioned before that I'm growing a row of Radishes alongside the Broad Beans, and you can see them clearly here:

My second batch of Broad Beans is just germinating now.

To be honest, I'm not sure what variety these ones are. I got them at the Potato Day I attended in January, and I recorded them just as "the brown ones"!  It doesn't really matter to me what variety they are, just as long as I manage to get a decent time interval between the two rows in order to spread out the harvest.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

End of March update

We have had a few days of fine, mostly sunny, weather with daytime temperatures in the mid-teens, and the plants in my garden have responded enthusiastically. So have I! I have been out sowing, planting, pruning, tidying-up etc. I thought an update-style post would be in order...

Daffodils are already giving way to Tulips. It's a shame they only last a couple of weeks, isn't it?

The Purple Sprouting Broccoli is still going strong. I have used two of my four plants now. The remaining ones are the two "Early Purple Sprouting" ones, one of which is certainly trying very hard to earn its place as an ornamental plant as well as an edible one.

My Onion sets are growing strongly now:

The spare ones in pots (which I am going to use in lieu of Spring Onions) are bursting into life as well:

The First Early potatoes (planted on 11 March) are appearing:

The first tentative shoots of Asparagus have poked through the soil this week too:

There's not much evidence of the sowing I have been doing, apart from a few re-located cloches, and a recently-deployed anti-cat net:

Beetroot sown under the one on the left; Radishes under the other

I have sown a short (1.2m) row of each of two types of Beetroot - "Cylindra" and "Boltardy". The former is a long thin (cylindrical!) type, whereas the latter is a more conventional round type.

The Parsnips I have sown this year are "Student" and "Hollow Crown". Since I have two fewer raised beds this year I can only afford to grow a few Parsnips, but I will be doing my best to make sure they're good ones. I sowed them well-spaced-out, and with two seeds per station to maximise my chances of getting good even spacing.

Seen through the net: sticks and labels mark where I have sown Parsnips

My chilli seedlings have had a couple of outings to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air.

It's good to be able to get them outside, because I don't like to keep them under artificial light for too long. Besides, when kept indoors they seem to be exceptionally susceptible to aphid attack. The blessed creatures seem to appear from nowhere! When the plants are outside they are much less bothered by aphids, and predators soon reduce the number of them.

Many of the chilli seedlings are "racing away" and looking fine, like the ones seen in the next photo, but unfortunately I also have several that look weak and unenthusiastic for some reason. [This is why it is good to avoid "putting all your eggs in one basket", so to speak.]

I also have 6 types of chilli that have not germinated at all - or at least, not yet. I haven't totally given up on them because I know that it can sometimes take up to two months for a chilli seed to germinate, but I'm acutely aware that even if a seed were to germinate now it may be too late for it to grow into a plant big enough to produce ripe fruits this year. It might have to be reserved for over-Wintering. By the way, I have got rid of all the chilli plants that didn't make it thorough the Winter, and I have been left with five. That's approximately a 50% success rate. Not as good as I had hoped. Unusually, the plants that did best were the ones I had clipped least severely.

I sowed my Tomato seeds last Monday (20th March), in unheated propagators on a windowsill, and they almost all germinated on Friday. I have just one variety ("Cherokee Purple") that hasn't shown (yet). The seeds are ones I saved myself last Autumn using the fermentation technique about which I wrote. I hope I did it properly...!

I have done with the Tomatoes what I did with the chillis - sown 6 seeds of each type in a small pot, with a view to keeping a maximum of two plants of each type, even if all the seeds germinate. In most cases all six seeds germinated, but there have been a couple where only 3 have come through so far.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Radishes - a second sowing

The first row of Radishes which I sowed alongside my Broad Beans have come up now and are looking good, so it's time to think about the next lot.

I haven't bought any new Radish seeds this year, because I have lots left over from last year and before. I find that they keep very well and remain viable for at least 3 or 4 years.

Today's sowing is an exact copy of the previous one. Having prepared the ground (removing any large pieces of twig, and breaking-down any lumps of soil), I made a shallow drill by pushing the handle of my rake horizontally into the soil. Into this drill I placed the seeds individually, spacing them a couple of inches apart. With big seeds like Radishes, this is eminently possible when you are only sowing a short row like mine (2.4 metres), but would be a bit too laborious if you're working in larger scale! Then I gently watered the row using a watering-can with a fine rose and covered the seeds with a thin layer of dry soil.

The final part of the task was to mark the ends of the row with a couple of short sticks, and then cover it with the cloches. The cloches will warm the soil a bit, but they are there mainly to dissuade the local cats and foxes from digging up the seeds.

Radishes grow to maturity very quickly (approx. six to eight weeks is normal), so they are a good crop to get going now, when fresh veg is a bit scarce. They never get big either, so there is no chance of them blocking out the light to other crops that you will be sowing in the next few weeks.

I usually grow Radishes early in the season because I find that later on - say, after June - they tend to bolt very easily, especially if the weather is hot and dry. They like moist soil, so I'm always careful to water them frequently.

Another little tip: either sow the seeds well spaced-out right at the start, or thin them out very soon after germination, because if they are overcrowded they will never develop properly. They will go thin and leggy, without the swollen roots that you want. I find that a spacing of approximately 2 inches between plants is about right.

Radishes to the left of Broad Beans.

Friday, 24 March 2017

More spuds planted!

Yesterday I judged that it was time to plant the rest of my potatoes. Having planted my First Earlies about a fortnight ago, the remaining ones were mostly Second Earlies, with a couple listed as possible Early Maincrops. I don't generally grow Maincrops, for two reasons: first, their late maturity time makes them vulnerable to blight; and second; their (bigger) size makes them less suitable for growing in the pots I have.

Having been kept indoors on the windowsill of an unheated spare bedroom for the last two months, the chits (shoots) on these potatoes were gratifyingly impressive:

The varieties I planted today were Charlotte (4), Nicola (2), Kestrel (2), Ratte (2), Orla (2) and International Kidney (2).

Following my usual technique, I planted them into the big black plastic pots, making a hole for them in the soil with my trowel and placing them rose-end (the end with most shoots) upwards, and then covered them over to a depth of about 3 inches. As the shoots grow, I will earth them up again with some more soil / compost.

Most of this batch went into my biggest pots - these 35-litre ones:

A few of the lucky ones went into the protection of the "Seedling Greenhouses". Hopefully the extra warmth will bring them on more quickly than the ones out in the open, so that I will have a nice steady succession of harvests.

Now all I have to do (apart from the earthing-up, which is a fairly quick, probably once-off, task), is water them occasionally and wait for them to mature...

Thursday, 23 March 2017

New shoots everywhere

The sap is rising and the plants in my garden have sprung into action in no uncertain terms!

A couple of weeks ago I pruned my Rose bushes, and they are responding vigorously:

It's the same with the Dogwoods:

I haven't pruned the Cotinus, which is still recovering from a near-death experience in the Autumn of 2015, but it's not hanging back - it's covered with little black buds splitting open to reveal new red leaves like these:

Even my Rhubarb is beginning to show a certain amount of promise. It always starts off with small leaves, but normally goes on to produce some huge ones later on.

The site where my Rhubarb grows is far from ideal, being partially shaded and very close to a massive Leylandii tree in my neighbour's garden. That tree sucks up all the available moisture and has rendered the nearby soil very dry, which is not good for Rhubarb, so a couple of years ago I moved it into a big deep container filled with rich home-made compost, in which it has rebuilt its strength very nicely.

Elsewhere in the garden I have another issue - something is eating the flowers on my Fritillaries:

I have looked carefully to see if I could find the culprits, but in vain. I have in the past seen Lily Beetles attack the seed-pods of Fritillaries that have finished flowering, but I've never seen whole petals eaten like this.

In the raised beds there's more welcome news. The Radishes I sowed alongside my Broad Beans, only a few days ago, have germinated:

In case you're wondering, the grey thing at the right of that photo is the frame of the protecting cloche.

Since I'm writing today mostly about shoots, I think the PSB qualifies too, doesn't it?

As some readers will know, I have two "Early Purple Sprouting" plants, one grown from Mr.Fothergill's seeds, and one from Marshalls. The contrast between these two plants is very marked. This one is the Mr.Fothergill's one:

And this is the Marshalls one:

I'm going to finish my post today with a photo of something that is finishing, instead of starting: a Hellebore.

My Hellebores have done better this year than previously. As the plants mature they produce more and better flowers. I think the fact that we have not had much heavy rain during their flowering period has helped, because the blooms have not had so much of a battering.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Getting the best from your mini-greenhouse

If you are not fortunate enough to have a "proper" (i.e. glass) greenhouse, then the little plastic ones you can get are the next best thing - as long as you know how to get the best out of them!

In the early Spring, I use my greenhouses a lot. They allow me to get plants started much earlier than would otherwise be possible. Seedlings grown on that mythical "sunny windowsill" are often a bit under-par because they seldom get as much light as they need - unless you are prepared to keep shifting them round your house to follow the sun!

I keep my greenhouses in different places according to the season. Until recently I had them up against the house, in a sheltered position, because they were protecting dormant pot-plants against the worst of the Winter chill. Now I have moved them out into the middle of my plot, where they get light for most of the day, and direct sunlight for several hours. Later in the year, when strong winds are less common, I have been known to move the greenhouses around the garden two or three times a day in order to get the best light conditions.

As it happens, mini-greenhouses are designed to be kept against a wall. Most of them have some metal D-rings at the back, which are there to facilitate attaching them to hooks or nails in a wall. If like me, you want to be able to move them around frequently, you will need to consider other ways to stop them blowing away, taking your precious plants with them, because they are very light and have high wind-resistance. I use bricks laid over the bottom layer of rods, as you can see here:

Each one of the greenhouses gets 4, 5 or 6 bricks. Anything less would be tempting fate. If you don't have any bricks, I reckon a couple of paving-slabs or a big bag of compost would work just as well. You'll have noticed that I only use the 2-Tier type of structure, because I found that the taller 3-Tier and 4-Tier ones were very susceptible to damage. I think they would definitely need to be tethered to a wall.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with these things is maintaining the correct temperature inside them. Stood in the shade, a plastic greenhouse will not raise the temperature, though it will certainly protect young plants from frost, damaging winds and heavy rain. However, put the greenhouse in the sun with the door closed and it's another matter altogether.

Yesterday was the sort of day that poses some big problems for a gardener. The forecast said it was going to be sunny most of the day, and I wanted to give my young chilli plants the benefit of a few hours of real sunshine (as opposed to the artificial light of the Growlight House). The outside temperature was cold though (about 4C at 0800 and 9C at midday) and it was very windy too, so I would have liked to keep the greenhouse doors closed. However, with doors closed and in bright sunshine, the temperature shot up to over 35C.

Sure, chilli plants like warmth, but little seedlings can easily be damaged by such high temperatures - especially if they go too quickly from cold to hot, without the opportunity to acclimatise. I had to make a compromise: with the doors zipped-up to the halfway point (and flapping around furiously in the wind!) the temperature was in the mid-20s, which is probably quite comfortable for a little chilli plant.

You know, if I were designing things like this, I'd put a zipped opening in the roof, to allow more flexible ventilation. Heat rises, doesn't it?

Once the sun had moved on during the afternoon, and the greenhouses were again out of the direct sunlight, I went out and zipped the doors to the fully closed position. Now the point here is that not everyone will have the luxury of being able to do such a thing. A working person leaving the house for the day has to make a decision: shall I leave the doors open or closed (or halfway)? They may live to regret their decision! On the other hand, a non-working person like me (whose plot is right outside the back door) can pop outside several times a day to make the necessary adjustments. Ahhh, the joys of Retirement!

P.S. If you want to know more about where to get these things, and the costs, you might like to read this post I wrote last year: Re-vamping the mini-greenhouses

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Starting some salads

The weather has improved sufficiently to tempt me to sow some more seeds. I sowed a seed-tray with a couple of pinches of seed from two different packs of Mixed Lettuce. One of them is French Salad Leaves Mix, which includes not only Lettuce but also a proportion of Endive, Radicchio and Rocket. I placed the seed-tray in my big new coldframe, and they germinated within just a few days (I think it was only 4).

I am also having a go at a batch of what I call "Daddy Salad" - i.e. salad leaves intended to be cut at a very young age. The name is the one that my kids gave to this style of salad when they were young, and it has been used in our family ever since.  Last year I used a technique that proved very successful, so I'm using it again. It involves sowing the seeds in a sort of "bed within a bed":

Last year I made two of these little wooden squares, using bits of scrap wood. They are roughly 45cm square. The idea is that with the wire grilles laid over the top, as seen in the photos, they act as a protected environment, shielding tiny seeds/plants from the ravages of cats, foxes and badgers.

The wooden frame and the metal grille is held in place by a bent wire "staple" at each corner.

For this salad I have used a mix of Lettuce, Rocket, Endive and Greek Cress, which should give a crop that is varied in colour, shape, texture and flavour. Once the seedlings are a couple of inches high, I will sow the second square with a similar mix of seeds, so that they mature at about the time that the first one's plants are finished. You can usually get 2 or 3 cuts from this type of salad.

Today I also want to show off this:

It is Wild Garlic coming up amongst the Lysimachia (or vice versa!). I think it makes a good colour combination, don't you?