Monday 29 April 2019

Garlic progress report

In the first week of October, I planted 19 cloves of "Mikulov Wight" garlic, in black plastic crates. Using the time-honoured principle of "Plant it on the shortest day, harvest it on the longest" (or thereabouts), I'm hoping it won't be very long before mine is ready.

My previous efforts with garlic didn't meet with a lot of success, but I'm convinced that that was because I didn't give it enough light. This time, the fact that my garlic is in portable plastic crates means that I have been able to move it around the garden in order to maximise the light it receives. Right now, the crates are sitting next to one of my big raised beds, in a position that is sheltered from much of the wind, yet exposed to direct sunlight for about half the day.

The garlic plants are looking healthy enough, though there is no sign yet of bulbs forming - or indeed of scapes. The plants currently look just like young Leeks!

I think what they need now is a few weeks of really hot sunshine!

Just recently we have been going through a period of unusually dry weather, and I have been particularly careful to remember to water the containers very frequently - about every other day.

Saturday 27 April 2019

But where are the Parsnips?

I'm pleased to say that this year the germination rate of my carrots (3 different varieties) has been very good. [This is not always the case...]

You can see them "from afar" now - 3 well-populated rows of little plants. At the right of the picture, close to the edge of the bed you can also see a row of radishes, coming on very nicely, but between them and the carrots is quite a wide gap. There is supposedly a row of Parsnips in there, but so far I don't see any sign of them germinating.

Parsnips are often very slow to germinate, and many is the time I have decided to re-sow, only to find the original seeds popping up a day or two later! We had that nice warm weather over the Easter weekend, which ought to have persuaded the parsnip seeds to get going, especially since I have watered them two or three times in the last few days. Maybe tomorrow...?

In the next-door bed, the one designated as the Salads Bed, I have planted out most of my clumps of beetroot seedlings, between the lettuces and the endives.

Each clump has about 5 or 6 seedlings. The theory is that doing it this way I'll get more beetroot, but they will be smaller ones. Suits me!

I've kept back three of the clumps, simply because the space where I want to plant them is still occupied by endives. The latter are just beginning to bolt, so rapidly approaching the "Use it or Lose it" stage.

Once the endives are finished, they will be replaced with more lettuces. I have been getting them ready... I sowed a whole load of lettuce seeds in one seed-tray filled with compost. Many of the seeds were old ones and didn't germinate, but I have plenty of two varieties: Great Lakes (an Iceberg type) and Marvel of Four Seasons (a red-and-green Butterhead type). These two were kindly sent to me for review by Gerry from Growseed. Since they were fresh seeds, germination was excellent.

I have recently pricked out six of each of those two varieties, and put them into little 3-inch pots. This way they will have the opportunity to grow on without competition from any of their siblings, so hopefully they will soon be big enough to plant.

I haven't yet decided what to do with the remainder of the lettuce seedlings. In theory I should ditch them, but it seems such a waste to do that. I'll probably leave them in the original seed-tray and treat them as Baby Salad Leaves. Meanwhile, I've just been sowing another batch of seeds. I have some "Biscia Rossa" and "Lollo Bionda" from Seeds of Italy, which also should be good.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

The garden is filling up rapidly

One minute you are anxiously peering at the soil to see if you can spot any germinating seeds, and the next your garden looks full already! There have been lots of changes in mine over the last few days.

The Purple Sprouting Broccoli is almost over now. Since I'm the only one in our household that likes this veg, I feel I'm sated with it now and I'm leaving the remaining secondary and tertiary spears to flower, so that the bees can enjoy them too.

A couple of days ago I planted out my "Ailsa Craig" onions - 30 of them in 3 rows of 10, alongside the Shallots.

The surface of that raised bed is covered with flowers from the nearby Bronze Maple tree, and in amongst the compost are loads of tiny seedlings which I think (hope) are Parsley.

Unfortunately, the seedlings could also be Leaf Celery, which grows near my compost bin and produces a prodigious amount of seeds, some of which may well have found their way into my home-made compost. I don't mind having lots of volunteer Parsley plants, but I only want a small amount of the very powerfully-flavoured Leaf Celery.

The over-wintered Endives are providing us with lots of salad at present, but I'm beginning to wish we could use them more rapidly, because I want to get on and plant more lettuces in the place where they are growing.

The biggest Lettuces I have at the moment are these, one each of 6 different varieties, given to me by a friend:

You'll notice that they are protected by anti-bird structures, because I reckon the local pigeons would find them very attractive. The structures are in fact shelves from my trusty mini-greenhouses, held together at the apexes with some twist-ties.

I also have a mixed tray of "Great Lakes" [Iceberg type] and "Marvel of Four Seasons" [Red-speckled Butterhead type] Lettuce seedlings, but they are currently very tiny. I'll be pricking-out the best of these in the next few days, and discarding the rest. My aim as always is to sow Lettuce successionally, every few weeks, so that I never have loads maturing at the same time.

There has been lots of action on the Chilli and Tomato front too. Some of the chilli plants are getting quite big (maybe 12 inches?), and I have moved them to larger pots. I think it is still too early to risk them outside at night-time, which (for space reasons) precludes putting them into their final 10-inch pots.

The Tomatoes, which were started a month later than the Chillis, are a lot smaller, but looking good and growing very rapidly, so they too will need moving to bigger pots very soon.

Talking of Tomatoes, let me tell you about these ones:

They have been grown from tiny seedlings that popped up in the shingle where I grew some plants last year. I think they may be "Maskotka" ones. I took pity on them and potted them up in October last year, since when they have been languishing on the windowsill of a spare bedroom. Due to very low light levels they went exceptionally leggy, but they survived. I have recently trimmed them back very severely and given them a good feed. I hope they will now put out some fresh sideshoots and go on to become viable plants. One of them has actually set a couple of fruit already!

Finally for today, I just want to show you my potted Mint plants. At the end of March I potted-up some clumps of root saved from last year's plants, and they have gone "whoosh"! The next 2 photos were taken just 3 weeks apart:

1st April

21st April
The Mint was sufficiently well advanced for me to snip some for serving with our "Charlotte" new potatoes (regrettably not home-grown) alongside roast Lamb on Easter Sunday.

Monday 22 April 2019

Bursting out all over

Not me, the plants! The warmer weather over the Easter weekend has certainly kicked the plants into life.

Blossom on the "Winter Banana" apple tree.

I planted my shallots on 25th March and until this week none of them had shown any signs of life. Now little green shoots are showing on every one of them.

Two rows of shallots at Left, clumps of Onions at Right.

The Beetroot seeds I sowed into small pots have also popped up now.

I sowed two seed clusters in each of those pots, and most of them have produced three or four seedlings. I'll be planting them out as clumps rather than separating them and planting them individually.

My first Radishes are up too - this is one of the fastest vegetables to germinate. I have half a row of "Cherry Belle" and half a row of "Malaga Violet".

One of the Radish seedlings is markedly different to its siblings. If this is "Malaga Violet", why are the other ones green???

The Asparagus is shooting up quickly, but it too is much more purple than it usually is. This is "Gijnlim", which is normally green, with just a little purple at the tips. Maybe it was just too cold?

These is one of my only Maincrop potato plants, which are a pair of "Highland Burgundy Red".

Although they have only just shown through the soil, you can already see that the leaves have a reddish-purple tinge, indicative of the red tubers that the plants will hopefully go on to produce.

Last year my Blueberries were almost a complete washout. The number of berries was so small that I didn't even think it was worth netting the plants! This year there is a sensible amount of blossom on the plants, so hopefully I'll get a better crop:

The weather forecast for the next 10 days predicts cooler days (more typical of late April) but also warmer nights - which the plants will enjoy, I think.

Saturday 20 April 2019

Staking the Broad Beans

The advent of warmer weather has meant that I have been able to remove the tunnel cloches from over the Broad Beans. It's just as well really, since the first row of bean plants was beginning to push up against the roofs of the cloches.

I find that if Broad Beans are left unsupported they do tend to flop all over the place, so I give each plant a bamboo cane to keep it upright. I use 5-foot canes - that's one foot underground, and four above. Of course some varieties of Broad Bean are taller than others, so this height is variable. For instance "Stereo" and "The Sutton" are very low-growing varieties and hardly need any support at all.

I tie the plants to the canes very loosely, using soft garden string, like this:-

As the plants grow, I will repeat this process three or four times.

You will notice that the plants in one of my two rows of beans are a lot bigger than those in the other. This is because I sowed the second row later, in order to spread the harvest over a longer period. If you are growing beans for the freezer, this is not a good idea and you'll want them all to mature at the same time, but since I only have room for a small number of plants I never have a crop big enough to freeze, and we eat all our Broad Beans fresh. This staggering of the harvest is also improved by sowing beans of at least two different varieties.

Over the years I have experimented with different spacings for Broad Beans, but I have come to the conclusion that the ideal number of plants in one of my raised beds (2.4 metres x 1 metre) is 20, in two rows of 10, so the plants are very approximately 20cm apart.

I have also learned to leave a decent gap between the rows - something like 50cm - to allow good light penetration and air circulation. I did once try growing a row of Radishes between the rows of beans but they were starved of light and never came to anything, so I won't be repeating that experiment.

In case you were wondering, I'm also going to stake the other row of beans, but that will take place in a week or so, when the beans are big enough to conveniently tie to the canes.

Thursday 18 April 2019

Protected potatoes pushing up powerfully!

Tucked up inside their little plastic greenhouses, my potato plants are doing really well.

On sunny days I unzip the lids for a few hours (as seen above) so that the plants don't get too hot. Our nights have been very cold recently, so the covers are definitely closed long before dark!

April weather is very changeable at the best of times, one minute warm and sunny, the next dull cold and windy, so I often hedge my bets and leave the greenhouses partially open, like this...

Notice the bricks for added stability.

The tubs inside the upright greenhouses hold the "Foremost" (1st Early) tubers. They are growing rapidly and I have already earthed them up once (that's to say I have added another layer of compost).

In the first of the lower "Seedling Greenhouse" structures are "Annabelle" (Left and Right in pic below) and "Lady Christl" (pot furthest from camera). They are all well-advanced too, and growing very strongly.

This is one of the "Annabelles". It, and all the other First Earlies were planted on March 20th.

Despite being planted a week later, some of the Second Earlies are only slightly behind. These are "Nicola".

Slowest so far are the "Charlottes", which have only just broken the surface. It's good to have the different varieties developing at different rates, then they don't all mature at the same time.

Apart from opening and closing the greenhouses to regulate the temperature, the only other thing that needs doing at this time is watering. The aim is to keep the compost moist but not wet, so the pots only need water every few days at present. With the weather now warming up this will become a daily task. If the plants get parched they will produce a small harvest, and the potato tubers will probably be dry inside too. Earthing-up, whilst traditionally done at least once during the development of the young plants, is not strictly necessary. Just ensure the plants have a good depth of soil/compost for the roots to go down into and they'll be fine.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Crop protection equipment

In England, the month of April is traditionally associated with very variable weather - especially the sudden (but usually brief) April showers. The nights are still very cold (we have had frost a couple of times this last week), and although there are often periods of sunshine the sun is not yet very strong and the daytime temperature is often only 10 - 12 degrees Celsius. Having said that of course I see that predicted temperatures for the forthcoming Easter weekend are 19 - 21C!

What this is leading up to is the need to be prepared to provide some good - and flexible - protection for your tender young plants. Of course every gardener's house is full of those at present.

Over the years I have gradually built up a collection of different pieces of crop-protection kit. Some of them are short-lived, like the horticultural fleece, which only lasts a year or two at most, but others are real veterans by now.

In the photo above I'm displaying 4 types of equipment. In the foreground is a simple propagator which is just a clear plastic lid that fits over a standard seed-tray. I use these for germinating seeds indoors, but they are also useful for protecting tiny seedlings on their first few outings into the garden. Behind the propagator is a lightweight wooden-framed coldframe with polycarbonate panels. I use this for bigger seedlings and small plants, keeping it closed unless the sun is shining strongly. It heats up very quickly so I often have to prop the lid open to stop it overheating. Even with the lid open this coldframe is very good as a windbreak.

Behind the coldframe are four 1.2-metre tunnel cloches. Despite being rather flimsy, (and in my opinion over-priced at about £35 each when I bought them several years ago) I use them a lot, and move them around the garden very frequently. The end-pieces were never much good and were discarded long ago. Nevertheless these cloches provide a good level of protection from frost, wind and animals and let in a good amount of light. They have protruding "feet" at each corner which can be pushed down into the soil to provide stability, or left up to increase ventilation. At present they are covering two rows of Broad Beans, but they will have to come off soon as the plants are beginning to touch the roofs.

In the background of the first photo are my plastic mini-greenhouses. I have three 2-tier upright ones, and two lower-profile ones marketed as "Seedling Greenhouses". The latter are shaped like a traditional coldframe - high at the back and lower at the front. Both types are extremely useful, and good value for money. I think I paid about £12.99 for the upright ones and probably about £20 for the others - though don't quote me on this, because my memory is a bit hazy!

In the Spring these greenhouses are absolutely vital to my growing regime. It is inside them that my early potatoes are raised, and subsequently my chillis and tomatoes inhabit them for a couple of weeks during the process of "hardening-off" (gradually acclimatising them to outdoor conditions). The greenhouses are very flexible (no pun intended). The doors on the upright ones have zips at both left and right, so it is easy enough to adjust the ventilation level as required. Furthermore they have removable wire-mesh shelves so they can accommodate two layers of small plants or a single layer of tall ones. Their only real weakness is their lightness: I always weight mine down with a few bricks to stop them blowing away!

The Jewel in the Crown of my array of crop-protection hardware is undoubtedly this upright coldframe:

Here on my blog I refer to this as the Gabriel Ash coldframe, for the simple reason that it was manufactured by a company of that name. This fabulous piece of kit costs nearly £700 to buy, but it didn't cost me a penny because my lovely wife won it for me in a competition! It is very sturdily built, in metal and real seasoned timber, so it's very heavy and in no danger of blowing away unless we get a proper hurricane.

The coldframe came with two shelves, but I seldom use the top one, which is a half-width one, because it fits in at a very high level, meaning that it is only suitable for very small plants. Again, this coldframe has a lot of flexibility in terms of ventilation, with not only double doors at the front, but also a hinged lid which can be propped open at two different angles. I sometimes use a little stone wedged between the lid and the main body, to keep the lid open just a crack so that the inside doesn't overheat. At present the floor of the coldframe is mostly taken up with pots of beans (only recently sown, so not yet germinated) and a couple of frost-tender Geraniums, while the shelf supports trays of tomato and chilli plants, which are brought indoors at night-time, by the way.

I must make mention of the good old Horticultural Fleece, some of which is visible at the right of this next photo.

Fleece like this is a very useful alternative to the "hard" types of crop-protection. It's inexpensive, lightweight, easy to store when not in use, and quick to deploy. It is best used draped over some sort of support mechanism, such as plastic hoops or lengths of semi-rigid water-pipe, or even some sticks, to ensure it has a layer of air between it and the plants. This is because the material is easily saturated by rain (or snow!) and if it then freezes the plants underneath it are not going to be happy if they are in contact with it. [NB: During hot dry weather, a single layer of fleece draped loosely over the plants can provide a useful protection from sun-scorching.]

Before I finish this post, I want to mention one other little trick I have learned. One of the biggest dangers faced by my young plants is encountered in transit from back door to coldframe and vice versa. There is a narrow gap between our house and our neighbours', and the wind fairly howls down it, even when it seems like just a gentle breeze elsewhere in the garden, so to protect my plants during this brief but perilous journey, I place each tray of plants in turn inside this large plastic crate, which acts as an all-round windbreak.

Taking the plants to and fro in this manner is a lengthy job, but if it saves them from damage, it's definitely worth it.