Saturday, 21 July 2018

Soft fruit - almost a wipeout

Earlier this year I was full of enthusiasm for the prospect of getting a lovely harvest of fruit from my new plot at Courtmoor Avenue, and in between spells of digging I spent some time pruning and weeding lots of rather neglected Blackcurrant bushes and Raspberry canes.





However... my hopes have all been dashed, by a combination of two factors - weather and birds. The current hot dry spell of weather started at more or less the time when the fruit began to ripen, and ever since then my attention has been primarily focussed on vegetables rather than fruit. By this I mean that each time I have visited the plot (approximately an hour and a half every other day) I have had to spend most of my time watering, just to keep the plants alive. I haven't had the time (or indeed the energy) to do much to the fruit bushes. They ought to have been netted, and I ought to have pursued more vigorously my hosts' vague mentions of "We used to net them...", but I didn't, and I still haven't established if there are any nets available. The lack of netting has given the birds (specifically Blackbirds and Pigeons) free rein with the ripe fruit. They cleared the whole lot, and to the best of my knowledge none was picked by humans.

The total lack of rainfall for the past several weeks (it must be about six weeks now) has meant that the Raspberry crop was negligible anyway. If the weather had been kinder, the fruit would have swollen and become juicy, but instead the Raspberry canes have become parched and desiccated and the fruit was tiny and dry - almost crumbly.


Miraculously, the plants have managed to put up some new canes which are surprisingly green!


These canes are what will (or should) produce fruit next year, so I can only hope that we get some rain soon, so that next year's harvest is not lost even before it has begun! I'm tempted to make these canes into a new row of Raspberries, erect a new support system and remove the old one.


There is just one little shred of good news. I managed to pick about half a pound of Blackberries this week:


These came off the plant which I had protected with a scrap of spare Enviromesh. It looks as if I did this just in the nick of time!


I felt that the plot-owners should get first priority with this meagre harvest, so I can't tell you what the berries were like, but I'm hoping there may be a few more to pick next time I visit, and if so it will be my turn.


This coming Winter I will obviously have to spend less time in digging and preparing the veg-plot, so maybe I'll be able to spend some time giving the fruit bushes / canes / vines a bit more attention. Oh, and maybe I'll be able to sort out something in respect of netting...

Incidentally, back in my own garden the Blueberry bushes that normally give me a few pounds of fruit have produced practically no berries at all this year. I don't really know why, but I suspect it has something to do with the really cold, snowy weather we had in the early Spring.


The Blueberry plants are in pots, so I have had to water them religiously to keep them alive in the scorching weather, hoping all the while for a better result next year.


Still, looking on the bright side, at least this year I don't have to worry about netting the Blueberries, hehehe!

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Second Early potato "Nicola"

A couple of days ago I harvested the last of this year's crop of container-grown potatoes - two pots of the 2nd Early variety "Nicola". As with my other varieties this year, I have been conducting comparative trials to see which produces a better yield - a pot planted with a single seed-tuber, or one planted with two seed-tubers.

This time the result was more decisive than with the other varieties. Although it's not particularly obvious from the photo below, the pot with two seed-tubers was the clear winner.

The yield from the 2-tuber pot is at the top of this photo

The 1-tuber pot yielded 1.356kg and the 2-tuber pot yielded 1.686kg.

In view of the prolonged hot dry spell of weather, I think this is OK. I normally reckon anything over one kilogram per seed-tuber is a good result. Of course, these "Nicola" ones have had longer to develop than the other varieties, so in a way you would expect them to produce a better yield. Actually, although I have not put this to the test, I have heard that "Nicola" keep fairly well in the ground even after the haulm has completely died down, so presumably I didn't need to rush to harvest them. Having said that, I know that the skins of older potatoes can be a bit rough, and the flesh tends to be denser.


I find that "Nicola" is quite similar to the more well-known "Charlotte", which it closely resembles. However, I think that "Charlotte" is still superior. The texture is always so light and buttery - and it cooks really quickly. "Nicola" is good, but not that good.

In amongst this batch of potatoes I found one that had already started to sprout:


Presumably if I had just left it in the ground, this one would have begun the growing-cycle all over again - maybe producing spuds for Christmas?!

For the record, these are the full results from the comparative trials:-

Variety                        1-tuber pot                  2-tuber pot
Annabelle                    628g                             1237g
Juliette                         863g                             1103g
Charlotte                     1182g                            1048g
Nicola                         1356g                             1686g

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Patience and Persistence

They always say that in order to be a good gardener you have to be an optimist. I also think that Patience and Persistence are important qualities to have, and this year it has been more important than ever.


The long hot dry spell has been a particular trial for gardeners - especially veg-gardeners. It has brought a constant need for watering - and then watering again, and more watering. Vegetable plants are particularly vulnerable to lack of water. If they don't get enough of it they often "close down" - they stop growing, or become tough and woody instead of succulent like we want them to be. And watering occasionally (only when you remember, or when your social life allows) it not enough. It needs to be constant and regular. I have been watering my home garden every day during the dry spell, and doing the Courtmoor plot every other day. I reckon I'm spending something like 10, possibly 12 hours a week just watering. A person who lacks that Persistence quality could easy lose heart and give up. Furthermore, this sort of regime doesn't leave much opportunity for other garden tasks, does it? I'm very glad I am Retired and don't have to go to work these days! In this age of technology I suspect many gardeners will be setting reminders on the phones or tablets so that they don't forget the watering after a busy day at work.

The irony of this situation is that when watered efficiently, most plants love the hot weather and often grow better than normal, because they are not having to struggle against wind, rain and low temperatures. As an example of this I cite my chillis. In a more typical English Summer they are often a bit unenthusiastic and set only a few fruit because many of their flowers get damaged or blown/washed away and don't get pollinated. This year though, most of my chilli plants are laden with fruit.

Chilli "Small Red Turkey" (nickname)

If you are a gardener gifted with patience you just have to keep plugging away in the knowledge that your dedication will get you a harvest in due course. "Good things come to those who wait!" I'm thinking here of my "Boltardy" beetroot, sowed on April 18th. Yes, they are swelling, but My Goodness, it seems as if they are taking an age. I'll be honest and admit that I should have thinned them out, but I didn't, so they are a bit crowded and this will be slowing their growth as they will all be vying for the scarce moisture. Still, I've managed to pick two small batches already so the row will gradually be thinned!

Beetroot "Boltardy"

By the way, I should just point out that "Boltardy" is an ideal beetroot variety for growing in very dry conditions because it lives up to its name and very seldom bolts even when under stress.

One thing that I find helpful when it comes to exercising patience is the fact that I keep records of the dates when I sow all my seeds. I use an MS Word document for this. It means that I can compare the current year with previous ones and if I think something is taking longer to develop than normal, I can see if it's actually true or just my perception. This blog of mine serves as a good reference too, since I often write about planting and harvesting.

Naturally, I'm applying my Patience and Persistence policy to my Winter Squashes. I'm not expecting them to be ready for at least another couple of months (these were also sown on April 18th), but I feel sure that as long as I keep them watered it is only a matter of time before I get my long-awaited harvest. At present they seem to be healthy enough and several of the flowers have set fruit.


I was initially worried that I might not get any Butternuts because the embryonic fruit were always aborted, but this one looks more hopeful:

Butternut squash "Sweetmax"

There are two "Crown Prince" fruits that are definitely growing, and another couple that might be OK. This one is now as big as my hand.

Winter Squash "Crown Prince"

I'm sure I must have said this before: gardening as a hobby can be very relaxing and enjoyable, but it can also be challenging; frustrating; exhausting; sometimes repetitive (cf watering), but ultimately (given persistence and patience) hugely rewarding!


Sunday, 15 July 2018

Beans, Bugs and Brassicas

July is bean month, for sure! For the last couple of weeks my Climbing French Bean "Cobra" has been pumping out pods at a rate of 200g every other day. The plants are taking a rest now, though I hope they will have a second flush later on. Now the Runners must move up to take over the baton.


So far I have only been able to pick a very small number of Runner beans, because so many of the flowers have dropped without setting pods. I'm sure this is because of the very hot dry weather. I have watered the plants practically every day, but it doesn't seem to have helped the formation of pods. Still, it has kept the plants alive and when (if) we get a cooler spell and some rain they will probably perform better.


Up at my Courtmoor Avenue plot I have two types of shelling bean coming along. The first is the Tunny Bean. It produces beans that are 2-tone cream and pinkish brown. These are ones that you dry and keep for Winter use. The pods are swelling nicely and you can see the outline of the beans inside.


I have 8 of these plants and they are all laden with pods, so I ought to get a reasonable harvest.


Growing up a tepee I have 14 plants of "Cherokee Trail of Tears" beans.


This again is a shelling bean, and the beans are small and black. They are nowhere near ready yet, but lots of pods are forming.


While photographing the beans I saw this rather attractive shield bug. I love the sort of scalloped edge to his body.


Moving now to the brassicas... Many of them (having survived the ravages of the pigeons) have grown quite tall - particularly the Brussels Sprouts - and I felt the need to re-arrange their protection. Unfortunately I don't have enough nets to protect them all properly, so a certain amount of shuffling around needs to take place. The biggest net I have has been covering the Sprouts, Caulis and Red Cabbage, but it is an anti-bird net, not an anti-butterfly net. It has successfully kept the pigeons off, but the Cabbage Whites fly in and out of it with impunity.

I decided to move the anti-bird net to the row of Winter cabbages and Kaibroc which until now has been protected with chicken wire, held in place with sticks. The plants have grown too tall for this arrangement and were pushing against the wire.


This is the same row, after deploying the net, which is draped over some flexible plastic hoops.


Since the net is now covering a single narrow row I was able to fold it over so that it is double-thickness. This might keep the butterflies out. If you are interested in the hoops, I got them from a firm called Gardening Naturally. Here's a LINK. I bought 2 sets of 10 of these a few years ago but never used them much in my home garden because the Build-a-Ball system and aluminium rods worked so much better with my raised beds. I gave one set away, but the second set is earning its keep very well at the Courtmoor plot.

Meanwhile, I have weeded around the Brussels sprouts and given each of them a stout wooden stake, to which they are now secured with soft string.



The chicken wire that was over the cabbages is now balanced rather precariously on top of the stakes (no photo, I'm afraid). I hope this will be enough to deter the pigeons, but I can't say I'm confident!

Talking of pigeons, I scored a point against them today: I harvested a cabbage!

Cabbage "Golden Acre"

It's not big and it's not pretty, but it's quite heavy and certainly edible (most of it, anyway). Considering that a few weeks ago I thought ALL my cabbages had been lost, I count this as a significant victory!

Saturday, 14 July 2018

First harvest of carrots

This week I picked a few of my carrots, just to see how big they were. I didn't really expect them to be mature yet, but it's hard to tell for sure until you actually pull some up, isn't it?

Well, the verdict is that they are still too small to be picked in quantity, but this little bunch was pretty damn good for a first test!


I sowed four different types of carrot this year, and these are a mix of two of them: "Nantes" and "James Scarlet Intermediate". The bigger, more regularly-shaped ones are the "James Scarlet Intermediate" ones. For some reason a high proportion of the "Nantes" ones were forked.


As I have reported earlier, germination of my carrot seeds was very poor this year and I decided I would not thin the rows. However, picking that bunch this week convinced me that this had been a mistake. It was evident that the carrots were in some places far too closely packed. I decided that they were unlikely to mature into decent roots unless I thinned them out, and fiddly though it might be, the job had to be done.

Before doing the thinning I watered the carrot bed very thoroughly because this helps to minimize root disturbance in respect of the ones being left in the ground. I did the job early in the day too, before it got too hot for me or the carrots! Gently teasing out the superfluous roots, I was eventually left with this:


Some of the carrots were very tiny and not worth keeping, but I managed to save this little lot, which are certainly useable. When you grow your own vegetables it's very seldom that anything even remotely edible gets wasted!


Tiny carrots like these make a delicious snack - they seem to have all the flavour of a mature carrot, but concentrated in a small space! We like eating them with a drink before dinner.


It was encouraging to see that although my carrots are still small, they are nice and clean, with no sign of Carrot Root Fly damage. I'll leave them another 2 or 3 weeks and try another lot.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Potato "Charlotte"

This week I harvested my Second Early "Charlotte" potatoes.


In common with the other varieties I have grown in my garden this year I planted one container with a single seed-tuber and another with two. Here we see the results of the comparative trial.

The single-tuber pot produced a yield of 1182g, and included some very big tubers. The biggest weighed over 300g.



The pot which had two seed-tubers produced a smaller yield both in weight and in the size of the tubers. The weight was 1048g.


The total yield from both pots (3 seed-tubers) was therefore 2.23kgs.


The quality of the tubers is a bit down on previous years, but still not bad. Despite frequent watering I know that the soil/compost growing-medium has at times been too dry. I know I have said this before, but if you are going to grow potatoes in containers you do need to incorporate masses of moisture-retaining organic matter, and you need to water thoroughly and regularly!


A couple of the tubers had a little bit of Scab, and one from each pot had worked its way to the surface and had gone green in the sunlight, but apart from that I think I can be pretty pleased with these. "Charlotte" really is one of the best potato varieties of all time! I shall definitely be growing it again next year.


My experiment shows that in this particular instance, you can get just as good results (better, even) from sowing one tuber per pot instead of 2 or more, but with some of the other varieties it was the other way round, so I reckon the overall result (with one variety - "Nicola" - still to come) is probably inconclusive! To do this scientifically of course a bigger sample would be necessary...

Thursday, 12 July 2018

More harvests from the Courtmoor plot

Despite the continuing hot dry weather the plot has been giving me some more harvests. Amongst the most attractive was this bunch of "Long Red Florence" onions:


You may remember that I planted these in little groups, like this:


I grew this variety last year, and let them become fully mature before harvesting and then drying them. In retrospect this was not the best thing to do, because they didn't keep very well. They began sprouting after only about a month or so.  This year I have decided to pick them very young and to use them as a sort of super-sized Spring Onion. They are lovely sliced thinly and steeped in red wine vinegar for a short while...



Less picturesque, but more significant was this "All Year Round" Cauliflower:


Despite its name, this variety of cauliflower (I have / had 5 of them) is probably best grown in the cooler months. The recent hot weather has brought them on prematurely. This, my first-ever homegrown cauli had just about bolted. It looked more like Sprouting Broccoli!


However, despite is appearance it had a good texture when cooked, and tasted nice too.


I have also brought home more New Zealand Spinach.


Despite my assurances that "it's not really spinach at all", Jane, having nobly tried it the first time I cooked it, has decided she definitely doesn't like it, so from now on it's all mine! I ate the batch pictured above alongside two poached eggs and a couple of slices of homemade sourdough bread. Delicious!

The "Cobra" Climbing French Beans are delivering now too.


So far I have picked four batches, each of about 200g, like this one:


I'm giving alternate batches to my hosts, because I know they like green beans, and for the same reason I now have four batches each of 9 plants of Dwarf French Beans on the go - two of "Canadian Wonder" and two of "Jean's Beans" saved from the plot's 2017 harvest.