Saturday 30 March 2019

Over-Wintered Endives

Last year I accidentally sowed my Endive seeds a lot later than usual. I think I was confused by the additional responsibilities of looking after the plot at Courtmoor Avenue! Anyway, I had almost resigned myself to not having a worthwhile harvest of what is one of my favourite salad vegetables, but nevertheless decided to see if I could persuade the Endives to survive the Winter.

For the last several months, the Endives have been underneath a couple of my "Longrow" tunnel cloches (seen in the photo below), and since about Christmas they have also been covered with a double layer of horticultural fleece. Because of this they have not been very visible, and it was thus a pleasant surprise when (searching for ingredients for a salad) I lifted the coverings to look inside.

Well, the plants are individually not very big, but they look very healthy - and there are quite a lot of them. After picking a couple, I think there are now about 15 left, and each one provides enough for a meal.

The Endives are of several different varieties. Last year I made a mixture of seeds from several part-used seed-packets and sowed them randomly. Mostly they are the frizzy type, like this:

But there are a couple with wider, plainer leaves, like this:

And one very tiny but very frizzy one:

As most readers will know, Endives do have a certain level of bitterness (I like this!), and it is traditional to blanch them to reduce it. My method is to bunch them up by gathering all the leaves into the centre and then tying them tightly with soft string. The more robust outer leaves exclude the light and the inner leaves soon become paler and sweeter.

Here's a closer view of one that has been tied:

When blanching Endives it is important to do it when the leaves are dry. If the leaves are wet they tend to rot very quickly. Blanching using this method takes anything from a few days to a couple of weeks.

Wednesday 27 March 2019

Planting potatoes in containers

I expect many readers already know that I grow my potatoes in containers, not in my raised beds. This makes it easier to protect them from adverse weather (thus getting them off to an earlier start), and allows me to move them around if necessary. It also allows me to adjust the soil / compost mix to get the desired texture - potatoes like moisture-retentive soil, and often do badly if their soil is too dry.

My seed-tubers have been indoors on a light windowsill since I got them at the end of January, and they have developed some nice sturdy chits (shoots).

One day a few days ago the weather was mild and the wind was little more than a gentle breeze - a welcome change after a period of prolonged gales - so it seemed a good time to plant my first potatoes. As usual, the first part of this task involved preparing the containers and filling them with the growing-medium.

I use a mixture of roughly 50% garden soil and 50% homemade compost. The latter is composed entirely of "bulky organic matter" and serves to keep the mixture moist. Usually I add a handful of pelleted chicken manure to each pot, but this year I'm trying out some specialist potato fertiliser instead.

The potatoes I planted on this occasion were all First Early types: "Foremost", "Annabelle" and "Lady Christl". I'll plant the Second Early ones in about a couple of weeks.

My technique is to fill each container half-full with the soil/compost, gently push two potato tubers into the mix (chits pointing upwards), and then cover them over, though not too deeply. The tubers will be under about an inch or two of soil. Additional soil will be added once the shoots push up into the light.

An important part of the procedure is to add a label, so that I know which is which!

I have three pots each with two tubers of "Foremost", two pots with two of "Annabelle" and one pot with two of "Lady Christl". Because there is still a significant risk of frost the pots of "Foremost" have gone into my three upright 2-tier mini-greenhouses:

The others are in slightly larger (35L) pots - the ones in the foreground here (note white labels!):

These ones have the protection of one of my "Seedling Greenhouses", which each accommodate four of those big tubs.

Here it is with the cover zipped up:

I should perhaps mention that I have weighted-down all of the greenhouses with a number of bricks, to stop them being blown over, which is a significant risk.

If things go according to plan, these potatoes should be ready to harvest in early June - late May if I'm really lucky and the weather is good!

Sunday 24 March 2019

Planting Broad Beans

A couple of days ago I planted out my first row of Broad Bean seedlings. They were some of the "Witkiem Manita" ones that I described last week. I judged that with at least two pairs of leaves each, they were at just the right stage for planting. You can leave them longer, but I like to get mine established as soon as possible. Besides, tall or leggy seedlings are much harder to plant without damaging them.

This is the size of Broad Bean seedling that I consider ideal for planting-out

The first part of the job was preparing the ground. I dug in the thick layer of home-made compost with which I had covered the raised bed about a month ago, incorporating at the same time a few handfuls of Fish, Blood and Bone fertiliser. Both of these types of fertiliser are of course organic and not composed of artificial chemicals.

I laid out the seedlings in their pots, arranging them at the "correct" spacing before planting them. My raised beds are 2.4 metres long and I think that 10 Broad Beans fit comfortably in this length, so (allowing for some space at the ends of the row) they end up approximately 20cm apart. Eventually I will have two rows of ten, but on this occasion I only planted one. The second row will go in a bit later, with plants from my second sowing, so that my harvest is extended.

Notice the already well-developed root structure.

Planting is easy: dig a hole in the moist soil; tap the plant out of its pot; place the plant in the hole; backfill with soil and firm-in; job done!

So here's my first row of ten Broad Beans:

For the time being they will be covered with the long cloches you see in the next photo. This is in order to provide protection not only from the weather, but also from animals, because lots of the latter seem to enjoy digging in my raised beds in the middle of the night!

These raised beds are 2.4 metres long x 1.2 metres wide x 40cm tall

My next major task will be to plant Early Potatoes in some of those black tubs you see in the background. Details in a later post.

Thursday 21 March 2019

First harvest of PSB

It was my birthday on Monday, and one of my ways of celebrating was to pick the first of the season's Purple Sprouting Broccoli to have with our dinner. It was only a few spears, but since this is one of my favourite vegetables, it certainly did qualify as a special treat! This first batch was from my "Rudolph" plant.

While picking the spears I was very conscious that not only do different varieties of PSB mature at different times, but they also produce spears of very different colours. "Rudolph" is very blue:


At the other end of the scale is "Early Purple Sprouting", which as almost red:

"Early Purple Sprouting"

And "Red Spear" is somewhere in the middle:

"Red Spear"

To be honest, I don't think the different varieties have noticeably different flavours though. To me they all seem equally good! In the past I have grown White Sprouting Broccoli ("White Eye") and I found it to be a lot stronger in flavour than its purple cousins - it had a very "brassica-ey" taste, if you know what I mean, more along the lines of Brussels Sprouts, and I know that doesn't appeal to everyone.

"White Eye" - photo from 2011

I'm hoping that with my 3 plants being of 3 different varieties I will be able to pick batches of spears for much longer than would be the case if they were all of the same type. With a bit of luck my harvest period will last until about the end of April, or possibly later, by which time I'll need to start thinking about sowing next year's crop!

Monday 18 March 2019

Broad Beans nearly ready for planting

I sowed my first Broad Beans seeds of 2019 on 17th February. A month later, the first ones are nearly ready for planting out.

I normally grow about 20 Broad Bean plants. It's a quantity that fits neatly into one of my raised beds. However, I always sow more than 20 seeds, because one or two may fail to germinate and one or two may get damaged while still young. This year I have sowed 32 seeds. As you can see from the next photo I sowed them in 5-inch pots, in batches of 8.

The two trays furthest from the camera in that photo are "Witkiem Manita". They were kept in the garage until germination, protected from mice by clear plastic covers. Because of the extra warmth, these were the first to germinate (after 11 days), though one is so far still a "No Show".

"Witkiem Manita"

On the same day I sowed 8 " De Monica" in a tray that went into my big wooden coldframe. They germinated a few days later.

"De Monica"

Finally, the fourth tray was sown with what I think are "Imperial Green Longpod". They were seeds from the mixed bag I bought last year at the Whitchurch Potato Day, so I'm not 100% sure. The first one or two of these are only just breaking the surface of their soil.

"Imperial Green Longpod"?

For the time being, I am holding off planting out any of these beans because it is still mighty chilly, especially at night-time, and we are experiencing some very violent winds. During the day I put the trays outside on my garden table, gradually accustoming them to an outdoor existence, but putting them back in the coldframe overnight. Maybe next week...?

Friday 15 March 2019

Scarlet Elfcups

Many people think that fungi only appear in late Summer / early Autumn, but having now been seriously interested in fungi for over four years, I can tell you that this is definitely not the case. There are fungi to be seen in every month of the year - just different ones. Right now Scarlet Elfcups (Sarcoscypha coccinea and austriaca) are definitely in season.

In a local woodland area that I know well, there is a patch of these. Fortunately (for me) they are in a fairly well-hidden location where not many people go. To be fair, these fungi are not big and you do have to look quite carefully to see them, but once you know what you're looking for there are quite a lot of them.

The patch I have been observing this year is about 25 or 30 metres away from where I saw similar fungi this time last year, but curiously this year there are none at all in in that place.

Scarlet Elfcups grow on old (often mossy) twigs and branches in amongst the leaf-litter of the woodland floor. Damp conditions are preferred.

Scarlet Elfcup growing on a twig - showing the characteristic goblet shape

This year I first spotted Scarlet Elfcups at the end of January, at which time they were mostly very small, like these:

Now, several weeks later, they have grown much bigger. Here my little plastic soldier "Woody" (35mm tall) helps me demonstrate their size:

This type of fungus is reportedly edible, though by all accounts pretty tasteless and rubbery, so I think "non-poisonous" might be a better description. Some people use them (raw) to decorate salads - often ones comprised mainly of foraged wild ingredients - but I'm not tempted to try them. I'm always wary of eating any fungi raw, because in so many cases they are toxic unless well cooked. I would also advise careful cleaning / washing before consumption. My next photo (enlarged) shows a colony of aphids inhabiting the rim of a Scarlet Elfcup:

Still, I think they are very attractive to look at, so for the time being I shall just continue to admire them!

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Product review: Growseed chilli-growing kit

It's not very often that I review products on my blog, because all too often the suppliers are only interested in 100% positive reviews (even if they are not justified) but in this case I think you'll understand why I am making an exception - this is a chilli-growing kit. How could I resist?

Gerry from Growseed has kindly sent me a free sample of one of their new range of products, featuring simple kits with everything you need to get started on growing one of three types of vegetable - chillis, sweet peppers and tomatoes. I think this type of product will be most suitable for less-experienced gardeners, and children with adult supervision.

As seen in the photo above, the kit comes inside a black plastic seed-tray and is held together with a sleeve identifying the product. Unpacked, it looks like this...

There is an 18 x 23 cm seed tray with a clear plastic propagator-style lid; two small bags of soil enriched with blood fish and bone fertiliser; three different packs of seed (several variants are available, but mine were Jalapeno, Demon Red and Cayenne Long Slim), and three plastic labels. Due to difficulties with printers, the Review products do not have this, but the general-release item will also include a card with instructions for use.

The seeds themselves are sealed in foil packs, so should keep fresh for quite a while if unopened. The packs do not have any growing instructions on them, but I'm sure that will be covered in the instruction leaflet mentioned above. It's already a month past the time when I usually sow my chilli seeds, but I'm going to sow some of these ones straight away to see how they do.

Actually, one of the things I like least about the kit is the labels. I think white ones would be better, so that what you write on them would be more visible!

The lidded seed-tray / mini-propagator is quite flimsy, but I think well-suited to a Starter kit like this. The more experienced gardener would probably choose something more durable.

I have four grandchildren, and I reckon that at least three of them (excluding the youngest, who is only 3) would be very pleased to receive a kit like this as a gift from a gardening grandparent - though probably they would prefer the Tomato kit to the Chilli one.

Of course it needs to be emphasised that these kits only cover the initial stages of growing a chilli or a tomato. The pricking-out, potting-up, staking etc come later on, and the kits don't cover those. A child or novice gardener might not be aware of this!

These products, with full descriptions and instructions for their use are available via Growseed's website HERE . The price is £2.99 plus £1.00 postage on orders less than £10.

Saturday 9 March 2019

It's PSB time again!

Purple Sprouting Broccoli (PSB) is one of my favourite vegetables. I grow some every year.

This is not a crop that will appeal to impatient gardeners who want "instant gratification"! It takes approximately 10 months to grow (depending on the variety). I usually sow mine in May or June and harvest it the following March / April. I always say that it's worth the wait though, because it is a vegetable that deteriorates rapidly after picking, and shop-bought PSB is usually a disappointment.

Last year we had a bit of a glut of PSB, so this time I have been a bit more restrained and only grown three plants - one each of three different varieties, in order to extend the cropping season.

The one that is going to be ready first is "Rudolph".

The spears are still a little on the small side, so I plan to leave them another week or ten days before harvesting any.

Coming along after that is "Red Arrow".

And finally there is "Early Purple Sprouting". It's ironic that one with a name like that should be the last to mature! This variety has a big central main head. You can see it in this next photo, although it is still greenish-yellow and hasn't yet turned purple.

These days you can get varieties of PSB that mature in Summer or early Autumn, but I don't go for these. The real reason is lack of space. There are so many vegetables that I want to grow in the warmer months that it doesn't seem justifiable for me to plant Summer PSB, since the more traditional over-Wintering types can make use of space which otherwise might be unused, at a time when there are fewer options to choose from.

Having said that PSB takes a long time to grow, which might sound like a criticism, I feel that in its defence I should add that once established it needs very little care, which many will see as a big advantage. I always tie mine to wooden stakes to support them against Winter gales, helping them to avoid root-rock, but with only three plants to worry about that's a 5-minute job. As Winter draws to a close and cropping-time approaches, I give my PSB plants a top-dressing of general-purpose fertiliser (Growmore, in fact), which gives them a boost at the most vital point of their lives. Not long to wait now...