Monday 27 February 2017

When is "Early" early?

The first of my Purple sprouting Broccoli is just about ready for picking. "Hooray!", I say, it's been a long wait.



It seems to me that some seed-suppliers' claims about their product may be unjustified. For instance, the PSB variety "Rudolph" (presumably named in honour of a red-nosed reindeer normally seen at Christmas) is supposedly an extra-early one. Marshalls claim that it starts cropping in September (!) but is best from November to January; Suttons say "from October to December (from early sowings)"; DT Brown's say "Ready as early as January", etc, etc. As you can see, despite it being the end of February now, my "Rudolph" is only just about ready for picking - and then only if I'm very selective.


The biggest of my plants this year is "Red Spear", which is a little way behind "Rudolph", but nearly ready for picking - perhaps in 10 days' time?

"Red Spear"

"Red Spear" is a variety I have grown several times. It doesn't develop such a big central flower as many other types, but it does produce a multiplicity of long spears. In this next photo it is the tall one at the right:

Surprisingly, my PSB plants that are furthest from being ready are the two "Early Purple Sprouting" ones. In the previous photo they are the one at the extreme left and the one second right, next to the tall "Red Spear". One of them is from Marshalls and the other is from Mr.Fothergills. There is no sign of them producing any spears just yet, but then that's OK because (despite its name) this is one that crops any time from January to April.

As you can see, one of them is very short - not that that is necessarily a bad thing, especially if you happen to have a very exposed plot or garden.

"Early Purple Sprouting" (Mr.Fothergill's)

My experience with PSB (and I have been growing it for well over 20 years) tells me that it is unwise to rely too much on plant names or the advice given by seed merchants concerning sowing / planting / harvest times. All I can say is that this type of broccoli takes approximately 10 months to grow; it is sown in Spring, planted in Summer and harvested "early the following year"! [You'll have to define "early" for yourself...]

Sunday 26 February 2017

From small beginnings...

I'm sure that my regular readers will know that I'm not much in favour of sowing seeds early in the year just for the sake of being early. There are however some types of seed that genuinely should be sown early. In this category fall Broad Beans and most of the Allium family.

Unlike most other beans, Broad Beans / Favas are very hardy and will survive some pretty adverse conditions. Some types are even allegedly suitable for sowing in the Autumn, though most of the gardeners with whom I interact say that it's often a struggle to keep them going over Winter and that the benefits of doing so are marginal. Broad Beans can certainly be sown in February though, and if you do sow them at this time they can be harvested early enough to permit growing another crop in the place where they stood. I usually sow two batches of Broad Beans, at different times and of different varieties, because this means they will come to maturity at different times rather than all being ready at once.

This is 2017's first batch:

As you can see, I sowed them (individually) in 5cm pots and I have kept them under cover in one of my plastic greenhouses - heavily weighted-down to stop it blowing away, you'll note!). I sowed 18, simply because that's how many 5cm pots fit in the long seed-tray I'm using, but I expect I will only use about 10 of them. It's always good to have some spares though, because some may get damaged by animals or eaten by slugs.

I sowed this batch on February 7th. So far, 7 of the 18 have germinated, but I'm confident that the others will follow suit within the next couple of days. The variety is "Witkiem Manita".

I'll keep them in the plastic greenhouse until they have 4 leaves each, and at that stage I'll choose the best ones and plant them out in one of my raised beds. In about 10 days time I'll sow another batch of a different type, so that they will be about a month behind this first batch.

Meanwhile, the Onion sets are springing into life as well:

Onion "Red Baron"

The sets were planted on Feb 4th, and the first signs of growth were visible on Feb 22nd.  Not all of them have sprouted yet, but I have no reason to doubt that they will all sprout when they're ready.

Looks like I need a couple more of those square pots, doesn't it?

Again, I'm getting an early start by growing these Onions under cover to begin with. They are currently in my big new coldframe, which is perfect for this purpose. In due course the young Onions will be transplanted into one of the raised beds. This year I'm devoting a whole bed to the Allium family, and will be growing Leeks, Onions of three types (from sets and from seed), and Spring Onions. If the results are any good, I might have another try with Garlic next year too.

These are my Leeks  - still tiny at this stage.

Leeks "Musselburgh" - photo from 21 Feb 17

I germinated the Leeks indoors, but they have now gone out into one of the plastic greenhouses too, because I don't want them to get soft and leggy.

So, despite all my pontificating about "Don't sow too early", things are already kicking off in Mark's Veg Plot...

Friday 24 February 2017

Sowing Chilli seeds

Yesterday (Thurs 23 Feb) was "National Chilli Day". Don't ask me who decided this! It seemed like an auspicious day on which to sow chilli seeds. However, my plans were thwarted by Storm Doris, and it was just too windy to venture outside to fill pots with compost, so I left it 24 hours.

Despite the short delay, the task got done today. First job was to bring the Growlight House in from the garage, clean it,  and get it set up in the spare bedroom.

It is now nearly 4 years since I got this item, and I realised that the little black rubber "washers" that are used to position the moveable light part at the correct height on the uprights had perished and fallen off. This could have been a disaster if one or both had given way once there were seedlings underneath. In the absence of any spares I used some thick general-purpose rubber bands as substitutes. [I know I am not the only person to have had this problem, so if you own one of these things, I recommend you check the state of the washers on yours too.]

Having got the Growlights sorted out it was time to get sowing. My method is to sow the seeds in little pots of moist compost and keep them on the floor of the warm airing-cupboard until germination takes place. The temperature in there is about 22 - 25 degrees Celsius most of the time.

Chilli seeds germinate at many different rates, dependent on variety and temperature, so it is important to keep checking after the first 2 or 3 days. I usually check mine at least twice a day, and bring out into the light any that have germinated. At this stage they go into the Growlight House.

If you have an unsophisticated Growlight House like mine it's worth investing in a simple timer device like this one.

I have set mine initially to give the plants 14 hours of light per day (and therefore an 10-hour "night"). Keeping the lights on permanently is not a good idea, because the plants need to learn about days and nights before they go outside later in the year. In any case, if they are in light all the time they may become thin and leggy because they grow too fast.

Having only just sown my seeds, I have no seedlings to show you yet, so I'll just list the varieties I have decided to grow this year. It was a tough choice, I can tell you, especially since several of my friends had kindly sent me even MORE chilli seeds! For better or worse, these are the ones that "made the cut":-

Pink Tiger
Piri Piri
Fidalgo Roxa
Aji Limon
Ai Benito
Challock Chilli
Ring of Fire
Cozumel Fat
Cozumel Thin
Big Jim
Panama 1
Panama 5
Redfields Long Red

Some of those names are of course nicknames, helping me to identify ones whose official identity I don't know.

In view of the above, and considering that I believe that a few of my over-wintered mature plants will survive, I should end up with somewhere in the region of 20 - 25 plants. I will of course keep you posted on progress!

Wednesday 22 February 2017


Although the Chilli is a plant of tropical origin and will seldom survive a UK Winter outdoors, it is quite possible to over-Winter it if kept in a suitably protected environment. Chillis are short-lived perennials and if well cared for can be made to last several years. With our short and often cool Summers it can be hard to bring chilli plants to maturity in a single year if sown from seed, so if you can keep alive a few plants from the previous season you will often get ripe fruit much earlier in the year. I have tried this for several years now, and I have found that a survival rate of about 50% is normal for me - some plants give up very easily, but others are much tougher!

This Winter I brought indoors 5 chilli plants, I put 4 more in my garage (which is integral to the structure of my house, but unheated), and I kept two others in my big coldframe, so 11 in total.

The indoors ones have fared pretty well. All 4 are definitely still alive. This is "Devil's Tongue, Chocolate", looking quite luxuriant for February:

Next to it lives "Jay's Peach", which is a notoriously slow grower in the UK. I grew it from seed last year and didn't expect it to produce any fruit. It eventually did though - you can see some in this photo:

I wouldn't say that it's a strong, or good-looking plant, but it's definitely ALIVE! I'm hoping that as the weather warms up it will fill-out with new growth.

On our Dining-room windowsill sits this little chap:

He's nicknamed "Panama 6", being one of the plants grown from seeds brought to me from Panama by my daughter. He grew incredibly slowly (wishing for warmer weather, I'm sure) and I didn't think he would survive, but he has defied the odds and kept going. Maybe he will flourish this year?

The plants kept indoors have all benefitted from the warmth provided by our central heating, but the ones in the garage and coldframe have not been so lucky. I'm still not sure whether they will pull through. I generally reckon that if a chilli plant still has at least some green colour in its stem(s) it will probably be OK, but once it all goes brown, dry and woody it is beyond redemption. This "Aji Limon" one (which I have brought indoors to photograph) still has some green, so it may be OK:

On the other hand, this "Panama 4" (still out in the garage) is probably a goner:

Out in the coldframe (the least attractive of the 3 locations) it's probably 50 / 50. The Rocoto (already over 2 years old) is a pretty hardy type and will probably be OK, but the other one is a "Pimenta Puma", a heat-loving Capsicum Chinense type and is almost certainly dead!

Rocoto "Alberto's Locoto"

"Pimenta Puma"

The point I'm making today is that if you can give your chillis the right conditions (e.g. a greenhouse with artificial heat and light) they will most likely survive (though even keeping them in the warm is no guarantee), but it's also worth a try even if you can't. You could get rid of the plants in Autumn, but you can just as easily do this in the Spring, and if any survive the Winter, so much the better!

Monday 20 February 2017

Compost distribution - another annual event

More has been written about compost than any other aspect of gardening! (This is possibly an  ALTERNATIVE FACT), so today I'm not going to write about making it. I'm just going to mention using it...

I am a fanatical collector of composting materials. All suitable garden waste goes in my bins, as do all the vegetable peelings from the kitchen. I have also been known to scour the local lanes in search of horse manure, bracken and nettles!

I have three of the plastic "Dalek bins", though one of them is currently only used for Autumn leaves. You can see two of them in this photo:

The wire grille contrivance is a way of stopping animals from unpacking the bin via that (useless) little door. If I don't barricade it in this way, the badgers / foxes / whatever just pull the material out and scatter it around, in their search for worms. I have to admit that the bins are usually full of worms, so they are presumably an attractive target for the animals. In all honesty, the worms do most of the work, and all I have to do is stir the decomposing material once in a while, to aerate it. I use a long stick for this - you can see it at the left in the photo above, between the bin and the fence.

The worms do such a good job of processing the material that it gets reduced in volume very successfully, so I normally empty my compost bins only once a year, occasionally twice.  What I do is remove the top 50% or so of the material, storing it temporarily on an old groundsheet. Then I lift off the plastic bin, allowing easy access to the good stuff at the bottom of the pile. I use a spade to repeatedly fill my trusty Trug-tub, and then transport the compost to where I want it to go. Each bin usually yields about 15 - 20 Trug-tubs-full.

And this is where most of it ends up - the raised beds:

One of the big benefits of the raised bed system is that it helps you to put the good stuff only where it is most needed - a concentrated dose of goodness! In the photo above, the things that looks like twigs are actually last year's bean-stalks. They are very soft now, and crumble when touched.

I did the compost-spreading task just a couple of days ago. It needs to be done on a dry day, because it is a messy enough job without being complicated by rain. It's also a good idea to do it early in the year so that the compost has time to break down fully and be incorporated into the soil by the worms before prime sowing time in late March / early April. The local Blackbird population will have a Field Day kicking the compost all over the place in their search for worms, so I need to give them a week or two to do this before attempting any sowing!

Saturday 18 February 2017


I don't claim to be an expert on Blueberries, but I just want to write a few words about what I have learned about them...

The first thing is: Blueberries love acid soil and will not thrive if they don't get it. Not all suppliers will tell you this, in order to avoid putting you off buying their product because it may be perceived as difficult to grow. The solution is to grow them in containers, where you can more easily control their growing-medium:

As you can see, I have four Blueberry plants, and they are all in containers filled with Ericaceous compost, the type specially formulated for lime-hating plants like Blueberries.

My Blueberries are all ones obtained as Freebies in magazines, so I don't know their names. One of them produces pink berries. It is the one seen at the left in my photos. It's interesting to see that unlike the other three it hasn't dropped its leaves over the Winter. I expect that once Spring begins, those leaves will fall off and be replaced with new ones.

Blueberry plants produce most of their fruit on growth from the previous year, often in the form of a number of twiggy shoots at the end of a bigger branch, which is a point to bear in mind when pruning.

New shoots (red) emanating from an old branch (brown)

When I first started growing Blueberries I used to prune them quite severely each year, in an attempt to keep them compact, but the yields were disappointing. I have since learned that it's best not to cut too much off, even if this means letting the plants get very tall. When you get your young (Freebie?) Blueberry plant as a little tiny stick in a 1-litre pot you may not immediately realize that it will soon grow to 5 feet tall or more! This year I have just trimmed a bit off the tallest stems to make it easier to net them. I think the best approach to pruning is probably to remove some of the oldest stems in their entirety, when they get very woody. This promotes the formation of fresh growth from the base of the plant, rather than at the top.

By the way, I have learned through experience that Blueberries are very attractive to birds - particularly Blackbirds. And Blackbirds are both voracious and cunning. If you do not securely net your Blueberries, you will most likely lose all their fruit! In the past I have constructed various forms of temporary fruit-cage to protect my plants, reasoning that they are only vulnerable while the fruit is ripe or nearly so, but to be honest, a more permanent structure would be highly desirable. The Blackbirds will often steal the fruit well before a human would consider it edible, so "Better Safe Than Sorry" is the best policy.

You may have noticed that a couple of the Blueberry pots have got a lot of moss in them (why not all four, I ask...?)

Now, I'm not sure how much of a problem this is, but I'm planning to remove the moss soon anyway. My reasoning is that it probably uses up water and nutrients that should more properly be available to the Blueberries themselves, and may perhaps cause the compost to be more airless than would otherwise be the case.

Talking of water, Blueberries are supposedly best watered copiously (they are originally a bog plant, I think), and preferably with rain water. The water that comes out of our taps is full of chemicals that may adversely affect the pH of the compost. I have to say though that I know of several people who have disregarded this advice and yet have produced fine crops of Blueberries...

And if you do all the right things (or if you're lucky), this is what you get:

I'm not going to kid you that I have had massive crops from just 4 plants, but the yield has certainly been worthwhile. I would say off the top of my head that about 500g per plant would be a good result. Frustratingly, Blueberries ripen successively, not all at once, so you have to pick the berries on several occasions. I tend to pick all those that are mainly blue, even if it's obvious they are not 100% ripe, and then ripen them indoors. This is not only more convenient, but it also reduces the risk of losing them to the birds.

One final thought: Just like Strawberries, some Blueberry plants produce their fruit early in the year (June, maybe), and others later - say September or October - so it's possible to have ripe berries available for quite a long period of time. If you are buying new plants, it's worth researching this.

Thursday 16 February 2017

A blank canvas

I haven't seen my veg plot as empty as this for many years!

Four of my five raised beds (one not seen in photo above) are bare at present. The only vegetables left from last year are 3 leeks, one solitary Chicory, and the four PSB plants.

At least the PSB is looking as if I will be able to pick some before long:

As you know, this year I am aiming to have the garden look a little less cluttered than it has been in recent years, and striving for better quality at the expense of quantity. This is why I am currently resisting the temptation to sow and plant too early. Despite the fact that it's still only half-way through February, many other gardeners are proudly writing about all the seeds they have sown this month. I'm not going to join in with the trend though: I'm deliberately leaving things a bit longer, because I know that seeds started off too early often struggle in the cool temperatures and low light levels. I want sturdy, strong plants that will give me a good yield and be more resistant to pests and diseases.

The beds and pots are ready to go, when the time comes. I expect I will be sowing my chillis at the end of this month, and tomatoes in early March. Likewise, the first potatoes will be ready to go into these big pots in the first half of March, with some protection from the more-or-less inevitable frost.

Even I have sown a few seeds already though - onions, leeks, parsley and Broad Beans. All but the beans are in little pots indoors, and the beans are in pots inside one of the plastic greenhouses.

I'm also beginning to see new growth on many of the herbs, like these little Thyme seedlings, raised last Autumn and over-wintered in a coldframe:

Those will be planted out within the next few weeks too, because I will soon be needing the coldframe for raising chillis and tomatoes.

Another job I need to do soon is re-pot the Mint, which is beginning to show signs of new life:

I always grow Mint in pots (several of them), because it is very invasive and will spread rapidly if given half a chance. I discard most of the plants each time, reserving just a few nice shoots for re-planting in fresh compost.

One other thing that will need replacing is this pot, which holds my Olive tree:

The big crack appeared about 10 days ago, when we had that prolonged spell of very cold weather. Terracotta pots do have a habit of doing this. Water gets into them, and when it freezes, it expands and can crack the pots. To be fair, this particular pot is fairly old, so it has had a good run for its money, and is in any case hosting a big plant whose roots are presumably putting the pot under considerable pressure. Incidentally, one way of reducing the risk of frost-induced cracking is to stand the pot on purpose-made "feet" or just some pieces of brick. This will reduce the amount of water taken up by the pot.

The last part of the blank canvas I want to show you today is this:-

It is the border on the side of the garden opposite the veg-patch - in other words the North-facing wall. I know, because of its orientation, that this border is not ideal for this, but I am going to attempt to grow some flowers here. To this end I have removed some of the big Dogwood shrubs (and that wasn't easy, I can tell you), to make space for planting the root-division "cuttings" I took last Autumn. I have several each of Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Helenium and Verbena Bonariensis, most of which will go into the vacant space. These are all reasonably tall types, so hopefully they will be able to cope with the continued presence of the remaining Dogwoods - I couldn't bear to part with them all.

By the way, I just want to say Thank You to all the people whole left me comments about using spare Onion sets to produce Spring Onions / Green Onions, by planting them in pots. I have done this with a few because I had loads of sets which would otherwise have remained unused. Here's the evidence:

Sunday 12 February 2017

Project complete!

Well, the project to remove the two old raised beds has been finished. The space where they stood is now a flat open space covered with 25mm shingle:-

So now I can get rid of that nasty blue Builder's Bag. Hooray!

And of course the whole purpose of this project was to make a place to house big containers for growing things like potatoes, chillis and blueberries, so I have re-located all those pots I filled with soil the other day.

I have put 8 of the smaller pots into my two so-called "Seedling Greenhouses", which will hopefully allow the soil in them to warm up a bit before planting-time. The greenhouses are weighted-down with bricks to stop them blowing away!

It's too early to plant the potatoes just yet, but they are chitting away quite nicely on the windowsill in an unheated spare bedroom, and should be ready in about a month's time.

This is "Charlotte" (my favourite), an ever-reliable and heavy-cropping Second Early variety.

Friday 10 February 2017

This week I have mostly been shovelling s...

"Soil", that is... The two old raised beds have now gone, along with the line of paving-stones that used to run between them.

Most of the soil has gone into the other 4 big raised beds - you can see that the ones in the photo above are pretty full now. I have put the remainder of the soil into a number of big pots:-

Most of these will be used for growing potatoes, so as I filled them I added a handful of "Growmore" general-purpose fertiliser into each one in preparation. I'm not adding any pelleted chicken manure this time (which I usually do, for potatoes), because I think the soil from the raised beds will have enough nitrogen in it already. I'm quite pleased with that soil, actually. I have been enriching it with compost year on year for the past 15+ years (I can't remember when I first made the beds!), and it is now lovely and dark, rich and crumbly.

The next phase of the project is to cover the empty space with shingle. What this means is that I will soon be able to get rid of the unsightly blue nylon builders' bag that has been lurking in my garden for the last two years! When it arrived it contained 1000kg of shingle. Even now, when it is about 75% used up, it is too heavy for me to shift, so I have to transport the shingle a little at a time, which is very time-consuming (and hard work).

Still, we're getting there, and the garden is beginning to look a little bit less like a tip.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Leeks - a meagre harvest

OK, I'll admit it. My crop of Leeks this year was not a success! Foolishly, I tried to cram too many vegetables into a small space and planted my Leeks in beds that were already hosting other crops - Parsnips and PSB. The foliage of the Parsnips was particularly luxuriant last year. As a result, the Leeks were completely overshadowed and never grew beyond the "miniscule" stage.

However, it's not all bad news, since I did plant my spare Leeks in a big (35-litre) pot and they have done a lot better.

Leeks "Toledo"

Eight Leeks crammed into one pot were never going to be huge. Furthermore, the soil in the pot had already been used to grow a crop of potatoes, and had not been refreshed. I now need the pot for this year's potatoes, so I have pulled up the Leeks.

Actually, if I had been planning to grow these as "Baby Leeks", I would be well pleased. Other than their diminutive girth, there is little to complain about.

Here they are, cleaned up ready for using in the kitchen:

The moral of this tale is definitely "Less is More". The concept of under-cropping (growing one crop underneath another) sometimes works, but you have to choose the right crops! I was greedy, hoping to get two crops at once, but it didn't work this time.