Tuesday 31 March 2015

Herbs - sowing seeds and taking cuttings

We use a lot of herbs in our cooking, so I try to ensure a steady supply of the ones we like. Over the weekend I sowed seeds for Parsley, Thyme and Chives:

As you can see, some of the seeds came from Wilkinson's (Wilko's), and I bought them at a nice price. They were marked 80p, but they were on Half Price offer when I got them. They are just generic no-name ones, but I will be surprised if they don't do as well as seeds five times the price. Some of the seeds from the big Seed Merchants seem very expensive these days, so it is a nice change to see some that are affordable for people on a low budget.

If you are wondering what the sieve is for, I use it for sifting a fine layer of compost onto the seeds after sowing. The Thyme seeds are particularly tiny and I wanted to cover them very thinly. My plan failed on this occasion though, because the compost was to moist to go through the sieve!

As well as sowing seeds, I was also taking some cuttings. These are Sage cuttings:

Actually that photo is of some from my previous batch, taken a couple of weeks ago. They have already begun to produce new leaves, so I suppose they have "taken".

New growth on Sage cuttings

This is the most recent batch. They have been dipped in Hormone Rooting Powder and pushed into damp compost around the edge of a pot. The plastic bag helps to keep the humidity high, which will encourage the cuttings to root.

The Mint I divided and re-potted a few weeks ago is growing strongly now, and it won't be long before I feel justified in picking some.

Likewise, the Chives are shooting up rapidly. I didn't divide and re-pot them this time. I don't think they need it every year. They look fine at present.

These Parsley seedlings were sown on 20th September last year and have grown very slowly, which is unsurprising. I'm debating whether to plant them out or just keep them in the pot.

Thyme is the herb we use most in our cooking, so it is always a struggle for me to grow enough of it. Thyme plants don't normally do very well in my garden. I think they don't get enough sun. Usually they suffer pretty badly in the Winter, barely surviving even when protected, so I like to re-stock every so often with plants bought from the Garden Centre. These ones are nearly two years old, and have been harvested a lot. In the circumstances, I think they look pretty reasonable.

Monday 30 March 2015

Harvest Monday - 30 March 2015

I'm sure you were expecting to see PSB, weren't you? Well, yes, I have harvested more PSB, but what about this:

Those two cabbages are the "Tundra" ones that I planted out late last Autumn. "Tundra" is a semi-Savoy type, in other words it is fairly crinkly. Definitely a Winter vegetable.

This pair were spares, and were planted very late. I hadn't expected much of them. I cut them because they looked as if they were just about to bolt. The heads were beginning to elongate. From the outside they look quite decent, but they are not very dense. They will have to be treated as loose-leaf cabbage or Spring Greens.

Anyway, apart from the PSB, that is the end of my veg from last year. All my efforts will now be concentrated on the new year ahead.

Well, I'm sure you also want to see some PSB as well, so here you are:

My over-Wintered Parsley is going great guns at present, so I'm making the most of it with frequent pickings.

Linking up with Daphne's Dandelions for Harvest Monday.

Nothing to do with Harvest Monday, but this photo is specially for Lou(isa) from Lou@RainbowChard who is probably the only person who will see its significance!

Sunday 29 March 2015

Birds - "our feathered friends" or not???

I am as keen as the next man to live as far as possible in harmony with Nature and to avoid doing harm to other creatures, but recently my patience has been sorely tested. I am under siege by birds!

The other day I planted out my Broad Bean seedlings, but the Pigeons have attacked them, chomping off the growing-points of several plants:

Left one is OK, right one is severely damaged

This is what they should look like.

I see those as baby plants just at the start of their lives. A Pigeon sees them as a tasty morsel for immediate consumption!

Hopefully the plants will survive and will put up some more stems. In fact I know that some people advocate pinching-out Broad Beans just like Sweet Peas, to produce bushier, more compact plants. That's not what I want though, and I shall take steps to protect my property!

Those wire grilles (shelves from the mini-greenhouses) were all I could think of in the short term, but I doubt whether they will help much. I'm hoping their unfamiliar presence will worry the Pigeons, as well as going some way towards stopping the Blackbirds furtling around in the compost.

As a second line of defence I got Jane to give me some offcuts of ribbon from her store of crafting materials and I have attached them to the canes, so that they blow around in the wind:

I thought there was a nice irony in this choice of ribbon...

Meanwhile, I have got fed up with the blooming Blackbirds kicking the compost off my Asparagus bed so I have covered it with a piece of chicken-wire. It won't stop them, but it will make their game a bit more difficult.

Notice that there is nearly as much compost outside the bed as there is inside it!

Saturday 28 March 2015

Seeing the light

Last Sunday I sowed my tomato seeds. The timing was deliberate. I was away from home for work purposes from Sunday evening until Wednesday evening, and I didn't want Jane to have to cope with supervising a load of new seedlings in my absence. Exactly on cue, the first of the seeds germinated overnight Wednesday / Thursday.

Tomato "Gardener's Delight"

What this means is that many of the chillis must now be evicted from the Growlight House to make way for the tomatoes. Again, I had thought about this in advance, and I had delayed sowing any tomatoes until the chillis were (mostly) big enough to take their chances on a windowsill. So now I have to juggle the whole lot, progressively exchanging chillis for newly-germinated tomatoes.

This is my tomato-germinating arrangement:

The Growlight House now has a mix of the two types:

Likewise the windowsills now play host to a mixture of the two.

I will soon be planting more potato tubers, which will free-up some more windowsill room.

Chilli "Calico", with potatoes chitting in the background.

Not all the chillis are ready to be moved from under the lights yet. Some of the later-sown ones are still very tiny, like this "Blondie" one:

A few of my chilli seeds didn't germinate (or haven't yet), so I sowed another batch, of which one or two have come up. Variations in temperature and humidity can make a big difference. My chillis mostly start their lives in our airing-cupboard, and whilst the heat in there is nicely constant, I don't think it ever gets hot enough for the liking of some chilli varieties.

Friday 27 March 2015

Sowing Tomato seeds

Most of my chilli seedlings are doing OK, and growing rapidly under the lights. I reckon they will be strong enough to move out onto the windowsills within the next few days, so it is time to sow the Tomatoes, who will be next into the Growlight House.

[Actually, the Tomato seeds were sown on Sunday 22 March, but I wrote this post for later publication via Blogger's Scheduler facility, since I was going away on business for a few days.]

Just like with the chilli seeds, I was spoilt for choice. I have loads of tomato seeds; some that I have bought and some that I have been given by friends. There are certain types that I like to grow every year, but I always like to try some new ones too - particularly ones that have been supplied and recommended by friends. Shown in the photo below are the ones I initially selected to grow. I say "initially" because things didn't go exactly according to plan. More on that later.

My plan was to grow 18 tomato plants. Most of you will know that I am perennially short of space so I grow my tomatoes in containers.

This was my starting list:
Ferline (2)
Orkado (2)
Maskotka (2)

From Eddy Ceyssens in Belgium
Giant Syrian

From Enrico Ferrario in Italy
Chocolate Stripes
Possena del Vesuvio

From Stephen Shirley of Victoriana Nursery Gardens in Kent
Caspian Pink
Vintage Wine
Giant Delicious
Black from Tula

My normal technique is to sow two seeds in every container, aiming to pinch out the weaker seedling if they both germinate. The containers are old Elmlea (low-fat cream substitute) pots, which are a good shape - tall and narrow. Being tall allows the seedlings to achieve a decent depth of root before needing to be transplanted, and being narrow means I can fit lots of them in a seed-tray!

I fill each container about two-thirds of the way up with general-purpose compost, from which I have picked out any big lumps. I do this the day before sowing, and keep the containers indoors overnight to warm up the compost.

The seeds are then put in position manually and pushed down just under the surface of the compost. I use a plastic plant-label for this. Of course it is also vital to label the containers so that you will know which ones are which. Then the containers are gently watered with warm water. The final stage is to slide them into large clear plastic bags, pegged shut, which will help to keep the humidity high. Unlike the chilli seeds, I am not giving the tomatoes any additional heat. The trays of containers will sit on a windowsill for now, benefitting from the heat of the radiator below during the day. The room in which they will live is equipped with an electric heater set to come on if the temperature falls below 15C, as it may well do at night-time.

The unexpected change of plan I hinted at earlier came about when I opened the packs of "Orkado" and "Ferline", which were remainders from last year. I realised that there were only 3 seeds of each type left. These (along with "Maskotka") are Must Have ones which I grow every year now. Obviously my "two seeds in each container" thing was not going to work, so I put one seed of each type into three containers.

If they all germinate I will therefore have a spare one of each, which is never a bad thing. I know that if I have too many tomato plants I will easily be able to find homes for them. (Rosemary, are you reading this??)

Then I changed my plan again. I suddenly began to think "What happens if NONE of my favourites germinate? I'll be left really short of "standard" tomatoes". Furthermore, I realised that if was going to sow more than 15 pots, I might as well fill two complete seed-trays - in other words 30 containers.

Because of this, a few more tomato seeds just made it onto the 2015 grow-list. Three of "Harbinger", and one each of "Cherokee Purple", "Gardeners Delight" and "Ace 55". The latter is a variety that I inherited from a contact on Twitter, who was having a clear-out. One way or another, I should have a fairly varied selection of tomato plants to choose from!

Before I finish today, I want to make particular mention of the varieties "Clou", "Primavera" and "Primabella".

These are all products of a German breeding-programme aimed at developing blight-resistant tomatoes. Blight is a devastating disease and strikes most gardens in our country most years, so plant varieties that can resist it would be hugely welcome. These three are new types that I have never encountered before, so I will be very interested to see how they do. If you want to get some for yourself, they are available in the UK from Victoriana Nursery Gardens, to whose proprietor Stephen I am indebted for these trial seeds.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Container gardening

I'm sure most readers know full well that the majority of my crops are produced in raised beds. However, since space is tight I often resort to growing things in containers too. Growing veg in containers is also a good plan if you need to adjust the soil in any way: what would be impractical for a big plot becomes possible in a container. For instance, I have grown Rhubarb for many years now, and it has never done very well because the soil in my garden is very light and sandy, so completely unsuitable for Rhubarb. Last Autumn I decided on Plan 'B'. I moved it to a big container:

When I dug them up the Rhubarb crowns were looking very sorry for themselves. The soil in which they were growing had become full of roots from my neighbour's huge Leylandii tree, which were evidently monopolising the nutrients. In fact some of the crowns had faded away entirely. I have planted six crowns at various times but I could only find two decent ones and one very tiny one.

The container I have used for the Rhubarb is actually just a ring - it is the upper part of an old water-butt, without a bottom to it. I dug down quite a long way - deeper than most of the offending tree roots (which were coming into my garden laterally), before installing the ring, and then filled it with composted stable-manure previously used for growing potatoes, and a fair bit of home-made compost. When the Rhubarb crowns were in I covered them with another good layer of compost and then with a big plastic cloche to protect them from the worst of the Winter weather.

Now that the temperatures are rising, the Rhubarb has begun to grow again, and is looking much happier:

I think I will try to resist harvesting any of it this year, and let it recover its strength. Next year I will take a small crop.

Elsewhere in the garden I have this:

It is the plastic crate in which is growing my Leaf Celery, started last year.

The Leaf Celery seems to have survived the Winter OK. I have removed all the big tatty leaves, many of them yellow, to allow more light to reach the growing-points of the plants (there are 9 in that container). In order to replenish the nutrients in the compost I have added a handful of Growmore general-purpose fertiliser. Leaf Celery is officially a biennial, producing flowers (and then seeds) in its second year, but it looks as if there will be more useful leaves to come still so I'm not discarding this lot just yet!

Here is another example of how I grow veg in containers. These two are planted with potatoes (First Early "Vale's Emerald" in this case). Since they wouldn't fit in the plastic greenhouse (right), I have covered the containers with cloches to protect them from frost, but of course the cloches will be removed then the danger of frost has passed - by which time the plants will have grown too big for them anyway.

It's not only vegetables that I grow in pots. Look at this little lot:-

Apart from the obvious Spring bulbs you can see flowering, most of these are herbaceous perennials, just springing into new growth. I have got the pots up near the house at present, for protection from the wind, but in due course they will be distributed around the garden.

In fact, wherever you look in my garden you see containers!

Most of them look pretty bare at present, but just you wait till Summer...

Wednesday 25 March 2015

PSB update

This year the Purple Sprouting Broccoli has been very good. The quality has been good, and the timing has been good. Much as I like PSB, I don't want it all to come on at the same time. It doesn't freeze well, and is best eaten as soon as possible after harvesting.

This is a "Red Spear" plant moments before cutting - at its best.

This, on the other hand is a "Rudolph" plant putting up another flush of little spears three weeks after the main head was cut. They are not as big or as succulent as the first lot, but acceptable nonetheless.

Meanwhile, this is "Red Arrow", biding its time. It has a tight cluster of nascent spears snuggled down under the leaves, just waiting for the right moment to spring into action.

This year my four different varieties of PSB have all developed at different times, which is just what I wanted. It spreads the harvesting time over a period of about two months. The crop has been coming on at a rate with which we can keep pace. Enough for us, but also some to give away, because our daughter Emma and her husband Dave like it as much as we do and it is nice to be able to give them some sometimes.

For the record, the order of maturity has been: Rudolph (Feb), Red Spear (March), Red Arrow (soon - probably early April) and Early Purple Sprouting (Despite its name, looks like being ready last - late April I would say).  They were all sown at the same time, in the first week of May 2014.

Having grown PSB for many years, I think the key to success is to get the plants to grow as big as possible during the Summer and Early Autumn, because after that they hardly grow at all. This means that you need to sow the seeds promptly. Anything after the end of May would be too late, in my opinion. Last year I also went to great lengths to protect my PSB from butterflies / caterpillars. If you don't keep on top of this they can damage your plants a lot and weaken them. This year I will try the same approach, using my Build-a-Ball kits and netting.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Planting, more planting and some sowing...

Last Thursday I planted out my Broad Bean seedlings.

You may recall that I had sown them in pairs in little pots. Now I just tipped them out of the pots and popped them into holes made with my trowel. Look at the healthy roots they have!

I have left the plants together in their pairs, and given each a 5-foot bamboo cane for support.

One of the "pairs" is still a singleton - the second seed never germinated - but I think I will probably have enough anyway.

Just to be on the safe side I have also sown some seeds for some "Stereo" Broad Beans. Whether I will need them, or even have space to grow them, is a moot point, but at least I will have the option.

I have also planted some more potatoes. They are Second Earlies "Charlotte", and I have put them in some of the new big black plastic pots. As you can see, they are now in the second of my new "Seedling Greenhouses":

The pots are (intentionally) a lot bigger than their predecessors, and only four will fit into the greenhouse.

The design of the new greenhouses is quite different to the one I had before. I won't be able to keep plants in them as long as previously because the lid will obstruct them. This is a pity. In the previous version the openable lid was the full width of the greenhouse. I hadn't known about the changed design before making my purchase, and it might have influenced my decision if I had.

This pair of pots contains tubers of First Early "Vale's Emerald". Notice my cunning plan for protecting them from frost!

Here is a tray of Lettuce that has recently germinated:

The tray is sown with half each of "Cervanek" and "Devin", the two varieties sent to me by blogging friend Dominika in the Czech Republic. They both did really well last year, so I'm hoping for a repeat performance this year.

And these are my Leeks, looking good so far...

So as you can see, there is already lots happening in my garden. April is probably the busiest month in the gardening year here in the UK, so expect more stuff like the above!