Sunday 30 April 2017

My potatoes dodged the frost

Being away from home when you have young plants is always a worrying time! This past week, while we were away, the night-time temperatures in Fleet were very low - hovering around the zero degrees point - so I was concerned about my potato plants. However, with the aid of fleece and the plastic greenhouses they have come through unscathed.

The forecast for the next 10 days shows night-time temps of 6 or 7 degrees, so hopefully the danger is past for the time being, though I think it is still perfectly possible for us to get frost right up until about the end of May.

I really hope that it won't be necessary for me to protect those potatoes again, because some of them are getting tall now - too tall to fit in the mini-greenhouses.

First Earlies at the Right, Second Earlies at the Left.

As you can see in the next photo, I haven't put the fleece away just yet. I'm keeping it close at hand, weighted down with some bricks, so that I could deploy it quickly if necessary.

Just a tip for any novices reading this: if you are going to use fleece to protect plants, ideally you should try to make sure it doesn't actually touch the plants - by suspending it over some hoops or something. This is because if it gets wet the fleece itself will freeze too, and therefore do more harm than good. The alternative is to cover the fleece with an outer layer of something, like a cloche for instance, to keep the fleece dry.

At the rate things are going at present, I expect to harvest my first potatoes some time towards the end of June. With a bit of luck all the different varieties will mature at different times, giving me a harvest period of about 2 - 3 months.

Friday 28 April 2017

Rufford Old Hall

If you hadn't already guessed it because of my recent low profile on Blogger, I have been away for a few days. Jane and I have been spending time with her elderly mother, who lives near Warrington. While we were there we escaped for a few hours to visit Rufford Old Hall, a property in Lancashire (about 10 miles South of Preston), owned by the National Trust.

This is not one of the National Trust's bigger properties, but it is one with lots of interesting features. Originally built in about 1530 for local magnate Sir Robert Hesketh, it remained in the Hesketh family until 1936. Only part of the original H-shaped building remains, but luckily the surviving part includes the Great Hall, which is very impressive, and particularly interesting to me because of the displays of arms and armour it contains, much of it dating back to the 17th Century and the English Civil War.

17th C breastplates, swords and helmets - including Morion, Burgonet, Close and Lobster styles.

Pole-arms including Halberds, Pole-axes and a Partisan

16th C Continental armour

The Great Hall also includes this imposing ornately carved wooden screen, made in about 1530 - 1540.

It surprised me to learn that this amazing piece of furniture / art was intended primarily to screen-off the entrance to the kitchens, so that the aristocratic diners in the hall didn't have to see the 'minions' labouring away on making their food! Reading-up on it, I found that the screen's intricate design includes at least 3 probably deliberate errors - imperfections included to avoid a charge of heresy, on the understanding that only God could create something perfect.

The National Trust does not permit photography inside the property, with the exception of the Great Hall and from this position:-

That is the view of the Hall that you get from a small opening in the wall of a 2nd-storey Drawing Room. This type of opening is known as a "squint". It allows people upstairs to take a discreet look at the goings-on down below. It also affords a closer view of the carved angels at the ends of the five beams of the Hammerbeam roof.

Other items that attracted our attention inside included the very realistic displays of food on the tables of various rooms, laid out to illustrate the sort of fare that would have been eaten at various periods of the history of the house. We enquired what they were made of, and were surprised to learn that mostly they were real food (e.g. cakes, meat, fruit and vegetables) that had been cooked very slowly until completely desiccated, but still retaining their original shape and colour.

We also liked the collection of very detailed watercolour paintings of plants and flowers, painted by a lady from Southampton whose name I forget. I must say that I felt it a bit odd that paintings from so far afield and with no connection to this property or its owners were displayed here. I believe that it would be more appropriate to display work by local artists. Unfortunately due to the aforesaid photography restrictions, I cannot show you any of them either.

Our exploration of the gardens of this property were much curtailed by the very cold and breezy weather. If it had been warmer, we would have lingered longer!

It is the height of the Bluebell season at present, so it was no surprise to see the paths lined with swathes of them:

As well as visiting the "posh" bits of NT properties, we always like looking at the functional, more mundane bits too - like this piggery with walls made of stone slabs. [There are also stables and a shippen (cow-byre) too.]

This granite water-trough must have taken a fair bit of work to make!

Of course, if it were mine I would have it full of vegetable plants by now...

Jane and I are members of the NT, so we get into properties like this for free, but even if you are not a member, I think it is well worth a visit. The admission price is £8.50 for adults, £4.25 for children.

Finally, a mention of the Tea-Room (one of the most endearing features of many NT properties!). It was nice to see them serving proper home-made-style cakes, including local speciality the Eccles cake, traditional Lancashire Hotpot with red cabbage, and Lancashire Rarebit (an upmarket form of cheese-on-toast, this one made with Lancashire cheese). In view of the near-freezing weather a hot snack and a nice pot of tea was very welcome indeed.

Thursday 27 April 2017

Blackbirds - do you love them or hate them?

In general I'd say I'm a lover of Nature, but there are certain times when certain aspects of Nature are a PITA. Right now, my gripe is with Blackbirds.

Singing sweetly late on a Summer's evening, the Blackbird can be a charming creature, but most of the time these birds seem to be arguing vociferously with their neighbours / rivals, or (more likely) destroying my little plants! To be fair, they don't deliberately set out to destroy my plants; they just do so as a consequence of their endless scratching around in the compost, looking for insects to eat.

Their favourite places to carry out these searches seem to be the edges of my raised beds, and lots of my seedlings have become casualties as a result. This is the main reason why I have invested a fair bit of cash in netting and mechanisms for supporting it, so that I can make structures like this:

This most recently-erected structure is now protecting my Salads bed, currently hosting lettuces, radishes and beetroot - all at the small, vulnerable seedling stage.

In the next-door bed I have my Broad Beans, one row of which are supported by 5-foot bamboo canes, making it impractical to use a net. As a low-level deterrent to the Blackbirds I have lain some stout pieces of scrap wood along the edges of the bed. Whether as a result my Radishes will survive is a moot point.

I had a similar row of Radishes along the other side of this bed, next to the first row of BBs, and about 50% of them have been lost to Blackbird damage (although I think squirrels are partly to blame too).

Since I've mentioned Broad Beans, I want to finish today with a photo of some Broad Bean flowers.

These ones appear to have long mascara'd lashes.

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Tomatoes and chillis

I have been taking advantage of the sunshine, and putting my tomato and chilli seedlings outside in the fresh air whenever possible.

Unsurprisingly for April the nights are still very cold, and even during the early part of the day it is usually too cold for the seedlings to be outside without protection, so I normally put them in the mini-greenhouses. However, when conditions allow, they get to be really outside. Initially they only stay in the fresh air for a couple of hours at a time, but gradually, as they become accustomed to the conditions, they can remain longer. If you are not aware of this, the procedure of gradual acclimatisation is called "hardening-off".

The light-coloured wall of a raised bed is a useful feature here, because it provides protection from wind (only from one direction of course), and reflects sunlight onto the plants. I expect the wood also retains warmth from the sun and acts like a storage heater.

I'm also lucky that this location is directly outside the sliding doors of our Living Room, only about 5 metres from where I sit when I'm writing blogposts - and visible without me even standing up! This means that I can react very quickly if weather conditions change. It is very different to being miles away from an allotment, isn't it?

My tomato seedlings are looking particularly healthy this year, and they are all doing well.

The chillis, on the other hand are a bit of a mixed bag. For reasons I don't understand some of them are really good and strong, but others are tiny and very weak.

This one is my best chilli plant. Unfortunately I don't know what variety it is - the seed came from a self-saved pod.

Contrast that with these puny specimens:

At first I thought the problem might be to do with the potting compost I used - Levington's John Innes No.1 - but this is a high-quality specialist seed-sowing compost, which ought be the best type to use. When potting-on the chilli seedlings into 5-inch pots I have used Levington's John Innes No.2, which again is supposedly the right type of compost to use for well-established seedlings. You might say "but the chillis doing best are the ones in the No.2", but that doesn't ring true because I only moved up into the bigger pots the seedlings that already looked relatively strong.

Just to emphasise the size disparity, look at these three "Fidalgo Roxa" plants:

They were all sown at the same time in exactly similar fashion, (in the blue Elmlea pots) and come from the same source.  It's interesting to note the difference in leaf colour too. The one on the left, with the green leaves, was the strongest and was therefore moved up to a bigger pot (with the John Innes No.2 compost) earliest. The other two have some much darker leaves. I wonder whether the leaves of the middle one (more recently potted-on) will now turn completely green too? If they do, this will confirm that the compost has an influence.

Yesterday I potted-on the "A-team" tomatoes and chillis - in other words the ones I expect to grow to maturity, not the spares. I moved them from 3.5" to 5" pots. The size disparity in the chillis was very apparent!

Choosing which tomato plants to be my A-Team was easier than usual, because they all seemed equally good. Sometimes a few plants look much stronger or weaker than the others, but not this time. I'm not discarding the spares just yet, but I can't afford the space to put them in 5" pots, because all of this lot has to come indoors at night-time and be carted outside again in the morning!

B-Team ones still in 3.5" pots are seen at top left

Observant regular readers will be saying "Mark was growing three of each type of tomato, but now I only see enough pots of two of each type. Where are the others now?" Well, the answer is that I have passed them on to another member of a Fleet-based gardening group on Facebook. In return I have taken delivery of some little Jalapeno chillis, a Cucumber plant and a Courgette plant (these are seen at bottom left in the photo above).

Sunday 23 April 2017

Late April pics

Late April is a time of feverish activity in many gardens - humans are busy sowing seeds and planting seedlings, but the perennial plants, trees, shrubs etc are busy too.

The countryside is presently adorned with swathes of blossom of every conceivable sort. This is my apple tree "Winter Banana" joining in:

My few crowns of Asparagus are putting up some spears now. I think we have eaten four so far!

I hope there will be a lot more to come, because Asparagus is one of my favourite vegetables (I have lots of favourites, depending on the time of year).

Here comes the Comfrey, pushing up undaunted through the mound of soil I dumped on top of it a few months ago.

This particular plant has decided to flower more or less immediately. You can see buds forming on it already.

The first few buds are also forming on some of the Aquilegia plants, many of which have self-seeded all over the garden.

Late April / early May is also the time for the Lily of the Valley to come into flower.

I always find it hard to get good photos of Lily of the Valley. If you set the settings bright enough for the dark green leaves, the brilliant white of the flowers is often TOO bright. This is the best I have been able to produce.

I've mentioned before that I'm leaving my PSB to flower. Well, it is beginning to show some yellow now:

What about this diminutive specimen?

That's a 7cm pot it's in

It is the "runt of the litter" from my first batch of Broad Beans. It looked very weak right from the start and unusually produced two stems instead of one. I had enough plants for my requirements without using this one, but I kept it anyway. Despite its tiny size, this plant seems determined to make a name for itself and is already starting to flower. Just for interest, I think I will keep it alive and see if it goes on to produce any beans. If it does, I expect they will be very small!

This is the new foliage on Cotinus "Royal Purple", currently looking much more red than purple.

And here's some fresh new leaves of Golden Dogwood "Cornus Alba Aureum".

Finally for today, a photo of the emerging Oxalis "Burgundy Wine":

Oxalis is often considered a pernicious weed, but if kept under control (like mine, in a pot), this cultivar can be very attractive. When mature it produces delicate white flowers, but the deep crimson foliage is definitely its primary characteristic.

Friday 21 April 2017

Bye Bye Bay-trees

I have decided to get rid of my two standard-trained potted Bay trees.

Much as I love them, I feel that they have got too big for my little garden. More to the point, they cast too much shade on my raised beds. Because of this, they are being re-located to my daughter's house, in nearby Wokingham.

I can't remember exactly when I started off these trees, but it must have been fairly soon after we moved into this property, which was in 1991. They were cuttings from a tree we brought with us from our previous house. I wish now that I had started them both at the same time, so that they would be an evenly-matched pair, but I didn't think of that then, and one must be a couple of years older than the other - hence slightly larger.

I already have this little tree waiting for its place in the limelight. It is three years old now.

I think it's time this one went into a bigger pot, which will encourage it to fill out into a bigger tree.

If you are interested in how to grow a Bay tree from a cutting, I described that procedure HERE.

P.S. (Nothing to do with Bay trees). Yesterday I harvested the first of this year's Radishes:-

These are "French Breakfast".

Thursday 20 April 2017

Frost protection

After some "unseasonably warm" weather in early April, this week we are experiencing much colder conditions, particularly at night time. In view of this I thought it might be interesting to show you the methods I use for protecting my tender plants.

I am not a great believer in spending vast amounts of money on garden "hardware", but I have a variety of different cheap-and-cheerful products that give an acceptable degree of protection without breaking the bank. Also, I am quite careful with my kit - I look after it and make it last quite a long time, thus assuring good value for money.

At present, these are the most useful - the contraptions called "Seedling Greenhouses". They are great for accommodating my container-grown potatoes.

The only problem with these is that they are not very tall (they are designed for seedlings, after all), and the potatoes are beginning to get too tall for them. The logical next step is this:

That trio of 2-tier mini-greenhouses is worth its weight in gold! I use them a lot. Right now they are housing the potato plants that have got too tall for the Seedling Greenhouses. Unfortunately, each greenhouse only holds one potato plant, so the unlucky ones get this...

Yeah, fleece. Probably the most cost-effective form of frost-protection. From my point of view the big problem with this is that it is traditionally sold in long thin rolls - which are never wide enough! This one of mine is only 1.5 metres wide. I wish they made fleece in wider widths. Still, with a bit of ingenuity, it can be put to good effect:

In the background of that photo above you can see my four "Longrow" cloches. They are each 1.2 metres long and 40cm tall. To be honest, they are probably better at protecting plants from damage by animals than by frost. For one thing, the end pieces went West long ago. They were extremely flimsy and completely unfit for purpose.

We mustn't forget the big wooden Gabriel Ash coldframe. This is an old photo. The coldframe is full of plants right now. By the way, this coldframe definitely doesn't qualify as cheap-and-cheerful! You may remember that I didn't buy it - Jane won it for me in a competition.

Here are a couple of general shots of my plot, with most of the frost-protection kit visible:


P.S. Re the St.George's mushrooms: I cooked them with Wild Garlic from the garden, and cream, and served them with potato cakes and crispy bacon. I thought they were delicious, but Jane didn't like them. She said they tasted like burnt plastic! In her defence I'll say that she likes scallops and tuna and salmon - all of which I find utterly repellent.