October 19

The invasion marches on

I have lived in my present house for 20 years now. When we first moved in there was a pretty white flower that was tucked around the edges of the garden in shady parts. I left it for about three years until one day I realised that it was all over garden and had spread incredibly. In fact, it was taking over.

The plant was Allium triquetrum, also known as Snowbell, three-cornered leek or onion weed. I came to call it something much ruder!  It has taken me 15 years to get rid of it and I am now at the point where I might find one or two in planting that I haven’t changed since I moved into the house.  Imagine my horror when I discovered that at the bottom end of the wildlife garden (see how I got this here) the two beds are overrun with it. I know it is because the first leaves start to come through in October and continue to about April/May when the plant flowers.  I started to dig it up but realised once I had filled three compost bags with the blighters from one small corner that I needed to think about this problem.

I recently read Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture  Approach to Ecosystem Regeneration by Tao Orion. It is not a ‘light’ read but the basis of the book is that using multiple applications of weedkiller at regular intervals is surely not the way to remove invasive species and regenerate land.  Permaculture offers a different way based on its ethics and principles and we should be taking a slightly longer and more considered view. I don’t know if I would agree if Japanese Knotweed were damaging my  house but in this instance, I can afford to take a different view. Tao Orion offers 4 phases to dealing with an invasive species: Turn on the macroscope, complete a site assessment, make a plan and then implement it.

What follows is my plan for dealing with the plant over the next 5 or more years.

Phase 1 – Turn on the macroscope

Here we need to stop looking at the plant and consider the ecosystem it finds its self in and try to develop a deeper understanding of why the plant is there. Orion suggests doing this over the course of a year.

The allium is growing in a couple of beds that contain trees – mostly cherry and hazel but some euonymus, holly, an apple tree and a hawthorn. The cherry trees have suckered because the original ones have been pruned and on a quick count I found 12 suckers in a bed that is probably not much more than 2m by 3m. They are all more than 3m tall.

The bed is in deep shade because of all the trees plus an overgrown hedge about 4m away that has not been cut for 3 or 4 years and is now blocking out the evening sun.  Hazels have been planted or suckered around the outside of the bed and clipped to keep them under control. This has caused them to grow like a hedge so the whole area is very enclosed with very little light coming in.  When I weeded the bed on a windy day, very little wind came through the bed due to the proliferation of trees so it is not only dark but has very little air movement.

The soil is sandy and very, very dry. There is little humus on the top of the soil – even the ivy is struggling to grow there.

I have now cut the hedge but need to observe the beds over the course of the next year and look at the light and how much rain enters the beds.  I have on old rain gauge so I will stick that in the bed in the middle and see how much falls in there. I have another rain gauge which I can put in a different part of the garden that is more open to see how much falls on the plot to compare it with.

Phase 2 – Site assessment

This phase demands that we find out about the site in more detail, its geology and history, how the watershed works and take photos of it during different seasons.  It is time to study the species and find out more about it and what its function is.

Exmouth is the start of the Jurassic Coast and has the earliest geology of the coast. The cliffs which are about a mile away are from the Triassic Period – 250-200 million years ago. The soil is very stony – often round water-shaped pebbles. During the triassic period the climate was like that of the Sahara Desert today. Seasonal flash floods swept large quantities of sediment into the valleys and the plains fringing the deserts and both the red mudstone and the pebble beds found in east Devon are classic examples of  deposition.  We don’t have the mudstone but we do have the pebbles.

Jumping forward a lot, the allotment site has been a set of allotments since the first world war and although there is little written about it, prior to that it was part of the land that was agricultural in its use.

Allium triquetrum it a native in the Mediterranean basin – south-west Europe, North western Africa, Madeira and the Canary Islands where it grows in meadows, woodland clearings, riversides and roadside verges.  It appears in disturbed forest and shrubland and is an early incomer where land has been sprayed or cleared. It is tolerant of many conditions, including some salt, making it common in coastal areas.

The plant has both male and female parts and so you only need one!  The bulbs produced are deposited on the soil where the roots pull them underground, deeper and deeper. The seed can be dispersed by wind and sometimes by ants.  I must admit to not having noticed seeds so will look for those next year.

Every part of the plant is edible. The leaves, flowers and bulbs and can be eaten raw or cooked and it is particularly useful because it is just starting to come out (in October) when things like chives and spring onions are finishing.

Phase 3 – Make a plan Year 1

  1. The edges (of beds) are very important in permaculture. They are the space where two elements come together – the very shady, dry bed of trees and the lighter, damper path. It is often here where invasive species settle and there are certainly more of the allium around the edges of the bed.  So, first thing I will do is create a buffer all around the beds by hand weeding these edges about 50 cm into the bed. Later in the year, I will cut all the flowers off the rest of the plants that are left.
  2. Plant other things around the edge of the bed that will tolerate the conditions. I need to investigate plants that will do well here but those that I have some experience of growing in dry shade are Libertia Grandiflora, Liriope muscari, hellebores, cyclamen, ferns and epimediums.  These would also increase the diversity of plants on the site.
  3. The rest  of the alliums I will leave and observe closely across the year to see what they do, how much there is and where they appear most. I will photograph these and make notes at least once a month to build up a knowledge bank about the plant.
  4. If I were inclined, I would start to eat the things but I am not!  However, for those who like to forage for their foods, this is a real possibility. I also saw some for sale for 4 euros so if I were an entrepreneur, I would dig them up and start to sell them.  Again, I am not.
  5.  Thin out the cherries, removing the suckering ones to let in more light and prune the cherries that are left. This should let in more light and possibly rain.
  6. Investigate why there appears to be no humus on the bed. Find out what happens when leaves fall. Where do they end up? Why does there appear to be no humus on a bed under trees?
  7. With knowledge gained from 2021 observations, plan the next year’s work with the plant.

Have you ever had to deal with this plant or another invasive species? How did you do it?

September 11

A new addition to my plots

All this time in lockdown and you would think that I had had enough time to write a blog post or two wouldn’t you?  Where has that time gone? Days seem to have slipped by all running into one as there has been little to punctuate the time in any meaningful way.  It isn’t true that NOTHING has happened. One of the things that has is my taking on another plot on the allotments next to my current two.

The Wildlife Trust used to use the plot as a demonstration garden to show people how they could have a wildlife garden in a normal sort of garden space. They have sadly had to give up the plot and so I have agreed to manage it – not change it from a wildlife plot.

It has all sorts of things on it: a large flower border, apple trees, hazel, a pond, sitting areas, a great bug hotel and beds that are a little empty at the moment but can soon be filled.

I have said that I will run the plot along permaculture principles which most allotmenteers would be very familiar with. Principle number 1 is observe and interact so I thought I would go and have a look around and see what is flowering/seeding/berrying at the moment as we have lots of beekeepers on the plots.

What is flowering in September?

I think this is Sedum Spectabile and the bees love it.

Oenothera or Evening Primrose for Hawkmoth, parasitic moths and bees.

Geranium – maybe Ann Folkard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valeriana Officianalis or valerian loved by hoverflies.

Verbena bonariensis loved by hoverflies, butterflies, bees of all sorts and sometime dragonflies.

 

T

Linaria purpurea or purple toadflax loved by bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are also some lone flowers on an Osteospermum, Potentilla and Rudbeckia but they are not in their prime.

I wonder if these flowers are enough for this time of year or whether we should have more flowers.  Perhaps some asters, single flowered dahlias and colchicums.

 

April 30

The endless polytunnel

I do love a trial and usually have something I want to try out each year. In the past I have looked at sowing seeds and the best ways to do this and when to use each method.  This year I am trialling something completely different. Last year my tomatoes were a bit indifferent in places in the polytunnel.   That was partly due to ants, which are a real problem and I can’t find a way to get rid of them, and very dry soil.  I have tried everything to get rid of the ants, and I mean everything my friends, from boiling water to nematodes. And NOTHING works!

Many years ago I read Eliot Coleman’s book The New Organic Grower and instantly wanted his moveable polytunnels. He designed and built them himself and they run on tracks and have 3 different places they can settle.  I don’t have the know-how or desire to build my own but I now have a temporary tunnel which I can move around.

For about 18 years I have had a hooped tunnel frame without a cover on my plot. I planted an apple tree inside it thinking I would move the frame soon but of course, never did.  This winter I pruned the tree hard so that I could get the frame over it and then walked it to its new site. It has had go where it would fit rather than where it would look best so it is in an unusual place but it is in.  The polytunnel companies are all taking a long time to send items out, understandably, and I couldn’t wait for 6-8 weeks so I bought some cheap plastic from Amazon for £3 to cover it with. It will do for this year.

The thing that is different about it is that it has no ends. I know! What was I thinking? Actually, I was thinking about the fact that it is the wet that I am really trying to keep off the tomatoes and probably provide a bit more heat than our ‘normal’ summers. (Not sure what a normal summer is nowadays!) The tunnel’s side is facing the prevailing winds, offering some protection but I can not deny that it is airy inside. And that the plastic blows around a bit because it was too stretchy to put on tightly.

Inside, I have planted tomatoes and a cucumber in the same way as my other tunnel. This means bottles sunk to water and string underneath the rootball to train the tomatoes up as they grow.  At each end, half in and half out, I have two courgettes under plastic domes because it is a bit early for them to be out yet.  The downside might be slugs and snails. The tunnel is near the patch of comfrey and there must be hundreds of the little critters hiding under the leaves. However, the tomatoes that I planted out when it was really warm are growing well.

 

 

 

Outside the tunnel, I have buried the plastic and then planted some lettuce in the ditch, covered in plastic bottles at the moment to protect them from things until they are big enough to cope on their own. They are growing well but need more frequent watering than if they were in the soil with no polythene underneath them.

So, this is my trial for the year. Will the tomatoes grow and fruit well? Will the endless tunnel be later than the one with ends? Can I use it for a second year in this place or will I need to move it after I have harvested the fruit, if there is any?  If I want to move it, I only have to pull it up and move it to the side where I reckon I can fit it on twice more before running out of bed. Then I can bring it back to this patch. My very own mobile polytunnel.

I will keep you posted with updates.  What are you trialling this year?

April 1

Keeping busy …

Gosh, it’s a difficult time at the moment. I have been holed up in my house for about 15 days now and can see this going on for months and months – in fact, until we get a vaccine for Covid19. We are still able to walk around so I can get down to the allotment but have been thinking for some time about growing some vegetables in my garden. In the past, I have wanted to keep the flowers and vegetables separate but found myself wondering what would happen if we went into a ‘total lockdown’ like Spain or Italy and I couldn’t get to the allotment even though it is only 5 minutes away.

Over winter, I removed a hedge as I wanted to replace it with fruit trees and have started to plant some – a cherry bush Porthos and an apple, Christmas Pippin, which I am espaliering.  However, I have now decided to use the space to grow vegetables as well.  I have become more and more interested in saving my own seed and so have decided to grow only open pollinated seeds in the garden where they will not cross with F1 plants which I have on the allotment. I have started to create the beds and planted out my Ailsa Craig onions under fleece yesterday. I grew these from seed, sowing them mid February, and am hoping that they don’t bolt as easily as sets sometimes do.

The other thing that I have become much more interested in is Permaculture and its principles.  I had started to tidy  where the hedge had been but had three tree trunks that were quite old and starting to rot down and wasn’t sure what to do with them. I can’t take them to the tip now and one is too heavy to move. I thought about putting them behind another edge on the other side of the garden to rot down but really they would just get in the way there.  Then I read about Hugel beds.

These are made out of materials that are generally lying around the land but have a core of wood at the heart. The idea is that wood, leaves, twigs, compost soil and turf are layered on top of each other to create a mound which rots down slowly over time.  Vegetables and shrubs can be planted into them and are reputed to perform very well.

Being an impatient sort of person, I started straight away. I marked out an area where the bed was to go. The advice says to put it so that the prevailing winds hit it sideways on to provide some protection for what is behind. I have managed to do that and therefore protect the vegetable beds behind it.

You have to clear the grass and then dig down so that the trunk is buried a little bit. This helps it to act as a water soak and to be in contact with more soil which will help it to rot down.  As a no-dig gardener, this part is proving to be difficult. It just feels wrong to dig and because I don’t dig, I have managed to rub blisters in several different places on my hands just removing the turf.

Once the grass was cleared and I had dug down 1 fork’s depth, I rolled the trunk into the pit and then packed all around it with twigs, old grasses I had cut down and then weeds.  I trampled all over these until they had all squashed down and were quite compact.  Then I laid all the turf over it again but across to try and hold the ingredients in.

I watered it thoroughly and then started to put the soil I had dug out back on to of the turf. You can see both in this picture. I have to admit, it is starting to look a lot like a burial mound.  This is as far as I have got for now but intend to top it with home made compost and possibly pin some twigs the length of it down the sides to act as little shelves for the plants because I am worried that when it rains everything will just run down the sides.  Then I will plant into it.  The far side in this picture faces south-west so I will probably put lettuces this side and more sun-loving things the other side.  I am also presuming that it will be damper towards the bottom of each side and drier on the top so need to plant accordingly. More photos of this in the next post. I have to say that this has taken me days and in the meantime, I made two beds that are bigger than this my usual no-dig way in 2 hours this morning. Just cardboard and compost on top of the grass. And I didn’t get any blisters doing it!

What are you doing in the garden to keep busy?

September 5

When your vegetables have offspring!

I love fennel and this year has been a particularly good year for it on plots 11 and 24.  I grew two types; Rondo and Doux de Florence.  They both did well, fattening up before bolting – something which I struggle with here on sandy soil but they have very different habits.

As Rondo matures, it tends to get wider and wider, becoming like its name suggests rounder. The scales (I’m not quite sure what you all each overlap of fennel) get thicker and are quite juicy when eaten raw or cooked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doux de Florence seems to get taller as it matures and bolted. Maybe I should have eaten this type of fennel when it was younger and smaller.  The bulbs that were left all bolted at the same time which means we need to eat quite a bit of fennel NOW!

The Doux de Florence did also do one other thing.  Just before they bolted, offspring appeared attached at the base of the bulbs at the sides first and then all around. I haven’t ever seen this before so when I pulled each bulb there were actually three or four fennel which could be snapped off and eaten too.

I don’t usually grow tomatoes outdoors because of blight. I grow them in the polytunnel but this year, I put four plants an a small patch of land behind the green house as I thought this would protect them a little bit. They have grown into large plants with a few tomatoes – something to do with the compost I put on the ground before planting.  The best have been Sungold, probably as they are small and much more likely to ripen. I’ll repeat this next year but only with cherry type tomatoes.

What is doing well on your plot?

November 5

The last and first harvest of Autumn

It has been over two months since I last wrote a post on this blog. Time has flown by. I thought when I retired I would have a lot more time and yet this doesn’t seem to have happened. How did I manage to work?

Anyway, back to the vegetables. The weather has finally broken with gales and much-longed for rain.  I went down to the allotments to check on the polytunnel and then couldn’t leave it without picking almost the last of the tomatoes and the very last of the cucumbers.

I haven’t watered these since the beginning of September in order to prevent splitting which always seems to happen at this time of year. The plants have done remarkably well, a little droopy on some of the hotter days but recovered overnight. It does make me wonder if I need to water them as much as I do during the hotter months.

The cucumbers have been one of the stars of this year.  I have had one grafted plant of Mini Munch and it has produced 19 kgs of cucumbers. I debated buying two plants but thank goodness I didn’t. I haven’t ever kept records of how much I grow before – too busy working- so I can’t categorically say that it is a lot for one plant but it did feel like a lot when we were eating them. I have now pulled the plant out as well as the aubergine plants to make way for some winter crops of salads and garlic.

But as ever there are things to look forward to.

Last year I grew one decent sized celariac of the type Giant Prague. This year I have 12   I put that down to the very thick layer of home made and bought compost I put on the bed before planting them out. I watered them as much as the other vegetables so they didn’t get any special treatment in that sense.  I am looking forward to these as chips and mashed up with potato on cold winter nights.

The squash haven’t done too badly considering the weather.  The green ones are Crown Prince which are my all time favourite but we eat last because they keep better than the butternut squash. The orangy ones are Hunter which have been developed for the UK and the yellowy ones behind the Crown Prince are Waltham. They are not quite ripe but will not ripen any more on the plant so I have picked them. These should last us until next spring.

Although I have been picking chard throughout the summer, it seems to come into its own at this time of year and through the winter. I add it to almost everything and I am hoping that I have grown enough for us to have some all through the winter.

And looking good, apart from the slug nibbles, are the Cavalo Nero or Black Tuscan kale. I net it against the pigeons that sit in the trees surrounding my plot. This year has been a terrible year for the little white fly that love to live on brassica leaves. They were everywhere and it is quite hard to wash them off. As I walked past the beds of brassicas, clouds of them would ascend although the colder weather does seem to have killed off many of them.

As ever, this post is part of the Harvest Monday blog posts hosted on the wonderful blog Happy Acres.

September 3

A changing harvest

The start of September usually signals a change in harvests for us. The courgettes are slowing down and the sweetcorn is ready.  We picked our first cobs this week and they were very sweet and tender. Now it will be a race between us and the badgers to see who gets the most!

The chillis are now in full swing. I have two types: cayenne (long and pointy) and one from a seed packet called Chilli Shakes. When I looked at the packet more clearly it is yet another mixed packet that I bought and so I don’t know what type this is.  I really MUST stop buying mixed packets!

I am also picking chard regularly now. I add the leaves to almost everything. Tonight it is chilli made with black beans to which I will also add shredded chard leaves.

L to R: Leaf beet, Lucullus and Rainbow chard

It has taken me a very long time to work out what to do with the stems. I read somewhere that we grow chard for the leaves and the french grow it for the stems.  After reading a blog post from the Frugalwoods about their mammoth chard growing and storing days, I too decided to chop the stems very finely and add them to stir fries. It works a treat and now no waste!  I believe the french use the stems in a gratin – I do love a gratin but am not convinced about a chard stem gratin.

The allotment seed catalogue from Kings has arrived and I have already spent a pleasant hour perusing the delights.  The more blogs I read about growing, the wider the range of seed companys I need to use. For instance, I want to grow Aji Limon chillis this year so will have to get them from the South Devon Chilli Farm. I will get the Stupicke tomatoes from Sarah Raven and the Coriander Cruiser from Simply Seeds. (I have just bought the coriander because it is on sale at 29p!) And I haven’t even made a list of all the things I do want to grow yet.

I did something I have never done before. I pulled up some tomato plants that were still productive.  Zlatava was a tomato that I tried for the first time this year and found it to be watery and tasteless and prolific. It didn’t matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of the wateriness so I pulled the plants up. It felt wrong but who wants food that they don’t like to eat?

What are you thinking about growing next year?

My thanks to Dave at Happy Acres for linking us all up with his Harvest Monday posts.

September 2

Seed trial update no. 2

This trial is to try and find out which method of seed sowing is the  quickest and easiest and results in plants that grow quickly once they are moved to the allotment.

I looked at the seedlings in the cells and the transplanted ones and decided they were big enough to go out on the plot.

Cell sown seedlings 31/08/18

This is the part that I find difficult with cell seedlings: getting them out of the cells without destroying the roots.  What I noticed this time around was that the more roots, the easier it was to get the seedling out. The easiest way is to quickly squeeze both sides of the cell and then pull the seedling out. I have tried just pushing from the bottom of each plant but can’t get them out completely.

A root system like the one on the Red Frills mustard below will come out reasonably easily.

The rocket seedlings, however, were still tiny and I could not get them out intact at all. I left the rest in the cells to get bigger and try again later.

What this did mean though is that I didn’t go ahead and plant out the transplanted seedlings. They look the same size as the seedlings that had been sown in the cells but their root systems can’t be as big.

I am going to leave these another week and then plant out. It is probably just as well because I am going to have to clear some ground for these.

Conclusions from today are:

  • seedlings in cells probably need a bit longer than I really want to give them to ensure that they have good root systems that come out of the cells easily
  • transplanted seedlings will definitely take longer to get into the ground – they are still not in yet whilst the seeds sown in soil blocks are in the ground and growing.
August 27

Harvest Monday

On Wednesday and Thursday last week the weather felt a bit autumny. Slightly cooler mornings with dew and balmy sunshine by mid day. Today we have strong winds and rain. I am very thankful for the rain as the allotments are so dry and I have been watering every other day even though the heatwave is well and truly over.

The harvests continue, however, regardless of the weather. I pick every two or three days just because I don’t want to miss anything. Below is Friday’s harvest.

I am still finding it difficult to believe that these are the last of my blackberries. I do have canes that ripen in October but I have moved them this year so there will be no harvests from them until next autumn.  I don’t know what type they are, they were given to me by a nearby allotmenteer, but they have long, stiff fairly upright canes and I had placed them where they caught all the prevailing winds.  The second time they were all blown over I decided to move them to a more sheltered spot which I have done.

The fennel bulbs are now big enough to start to harvest and they are delicious. I sowed three different types: Montebianco, Doux de Florence and Di Firenze (I’m not sure whether the last two are the same plant just with French and Italian names).  Whilst it has been a difficult year for fennel, the Montebianco has bolted very quickly with the Di Firenze producing good, round bulbs. I love roasted fennel where the edges go a little bit caramely  or raw in a salad with grapefruit, avocado and Manchego cheese.

The cabbage is Dutchman and has done very well.  It makes a very tasty slaw. I much prefer raw cabbage to cooked cabbage and so we eat a lot of this!

At the bottom of the basket are the onions I grew from seed. Let’s just say they are not enormous!    The seed sown onions were sown a little late but were regularly watered and were grown on a sandy soil.  The white onions are Aisla Craig, the red are Red Baron and the shallots are Figaro. As I look at the picture, the shallots definitely did better than the onions.

Not an impressive harvest.

A much better harvest.

The set onions have not been watered by me once, just rainfall, and were grown on a clay soil. I don’t know the variety because these were the last lot of sets in the supermarket near the garden and they had lost their labels. The onions are flat bottomed making them very irritating to peel so I wonder if they are Stuttgart Giant. I have no idea about the shallots.

I tried seeds  because I always found that the red onion sets bolted and I wondered if seeds were the way to go. Can you believe it? Neither seeds nor sets bolted this year. The conclusions from this very variable trial have not helped me decide one way or the other. I’ll run this trial again  next year but try and get the onion seed started earlier.

One thing I will say about both groups of onions is that shop bought onions rarely induce tears  but these make me cry copiously when cutting them. It must mean that they have more of the chemical compounds in them that do this and are therefore probably have more nutrients in general.

Do you use seed or sets when growing onions? How have they done this year?

 

August 26

Sowing trial update no.1

This trial is to try and find out which method of seed sowing is the  quickest and easiest and results in plants that grow quickly once they are moved to the allotment.

At this time of year germination is very quick and so within three days some of the seedlings were up. I have to say that the seedlings in the soil blocks were up before those in the cells or trays for transplanting.

You can see the blocks behind the cells with more seeds germinated.  It did take another 4 or 5 days for the trays and cells to catch up with the soil blocks. They look starved of light because they have been covered in black plastic which I remove as soon as I see the seedlings.

But… something has started to eat the seedlings in the soil blocks. I moved the trays and looked for the culprit but couldn’t find it at all. I am not sure if it is coincidence that only seedlings in the soil blocks have been eaten or not. Those in the trays and cells were untouched. The seedlings in the soil blocks were the biggest of the three on the 24th of August. Below are the cells, blocks and transplanted seedlings.

Update: I eventually found a caterpillar on the seedlings which would explain why there was no slug or snail slime trail.

I decided to put the soil block seedlings that hadn’t been eaten out on the allotment. They were smaller than I would normally plant out but it might prevent them from being completely destroyed. I have covered them with plastic bottles: I do this with all seedlings to protect them from slugs and snails and to give them a slightly more protected start.

So to summarise:

  • soil block seeds germinated first and more evenly than the other methods. This meant the seedlings were slightly bigger than the others.
  • soil blocks did not need watering as often as the cells or trays. The cells needed watering twice a day on warm days, the trays once. The soil blocks would last a couple of days without watering.
  • the soil blocks seem to be more susceptible to slug/snail damage.
  • It didn’t take very long to pot on the seedlings from the trays.

I’ll report again in a week to share how the seedlings are doing.

See seed trial update 2 here.