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.

 

August 19

It’s a tomatotastic harvest!

 

It has been a fantastic year for tomatoes. We have had kilos of them and they are still going strong although they have slowed down a little as the weather is  slightly cooler. The new tomatoes I grew this year have been a mixed bunch and the only one I will keep is Rosella – the small dark red tomato at the bottom of the picture on the left-hand side. It is sharp but sweet which is just how I like my tomatoes. I won’t grow Yellow Pear and Zlatava (large orange one at the bottom) again.

The aubergines, cucumbers and courgettes continue to be prolific and I am off to buy a second freezer tomorrow as we just can’t fit it all in to the one we have. I am going for a chest freezer this time so that I can just pile it all in and work our way through it during the winter.

The climbing French beans have been a little difficult this year. I sowed them in May, June and July. The May bunch were covered in black fly and never recovered. The June batch produced beans but were not prolific. The July batch have been very prolific. They obviously did not like the early heat and I probably didn’t water them quite enough at the right time. The photos are the May and July sowings and you can see why the last lot are more prolific..

The beans were a packet of mixed climbing beans. Once I had sown them in July I threw the packet away so I don’t know which sort they are but are yellow, green and purple and taste fine.  We ate them in a pasta dish with broccoli, artichokes and home made pesto.

I do prefer these to the dwarf French beans not for taste reasons but because I find the beans on the dwarf plants tend to touch the soil and get muddy and then the plant flops over.

 

The new harvest for this week is cabbage.  I am not really ready for red cabbage thinking of it as more of an autumn vegetable but the red cabbage is ready to be picked.

The cabbage is a pointed type, Kalibos, and is good in salads but this one is quite large –  over 2.5kgs – so that will be many salads.  The only thing I could find to show the scale when I took a picture  was a peg which is at the bottom of the stalk on the chair.

And finally, to celebrate National Allotments Week we held an Open Day which had lots of tea and cake but also included a tour around the plots.  I don’t often walk around the plots – I think there are over 300 – as I normally need to get on with the work so it was a real treat. The image that will stay with me is the dahlias grown for shows protected by umbrellas . They were enormous and fantastic.

I have started to sow autumn and winter seeds and am undertaking a small trial. I hardly ever direct sow: carrots and parsnips being about the only things. I find the plants get off to a better start in a warm, protective environment. I sow in three main ways: into a tray and then transplant seedlings, into cells and into soil blocks.  I have sown several types of seed in these three ways and will see which method produces the plants that take off best once planted.

As ever, this post is hosted by Dave at Happy Acres 

 

 

 

 

 

August 9

A new trial

As we move into the start of the autumn, I know – it is only half way through August but the weather has changed, I usually start to sow seed for late autumn/winter.  I thought I would do a small trial about methods of sowing because I have changed how I sow and I am not sure that it is any better.  Time to look more closely.

I have sown a variety of seed in three different ways:

  1. into trays for potting on
  2. into cells where the seeds stay until there is space to plant out
  3. into soil blocks until there is space to plant out.

One thing I have done is change my sowing medium. This year I have been using Sylvan compost or ‘growing medium’ as they call it. The conclusion I have come to is that there is not enough ‘food’ in this medium to sustain seeds for the length of time that I need to keep them. It’s a shame because the germination rate is good. So, I have gone for a general compost with a bit of sylvan compost mixed in.

I have sown the following seeds. They should give a good indication for a much wider range of vegetables at this time of year:

  1. spinach: medania
  2. rocket: Jekka McVicar rocket that was free with a gardening magazine
  3. choy sum: this is quite old seed so it might not germinate well
  4. april: a good basic cabbage for early next year
  5. red frills: a mustard for salads over winter
  6. beetroot – boldor: a yellow beetroot. I didn’t sow this for transplanting as this would not suit the vegetable.
  7. Treviso and pallo rossa: chicories for early next year

Sowing in trays and cells is very common. Fewer people use soil blocks.  They are made with a trusty soil blocker. I bought mine about 18 years ago from Organic Gardening and makes 4 blocks 5cm by 5cm. I do like the look of the larger block which this block fits into but I reckon you would only need it for tomatoes and squash so it is probably not worth getting.

Mix compost with water to make a wet mud pie

Push the soil blocker down and compress the compost into the blocker

Press the lever down to release the blocks

Voila! Blocks with a depression to sow into

And here they all are on in the greenhouse.  The soil blocks are covered in black plastic until the seeds germinate and then it is removed: the seeds are not covered in compost. Those in the trays and cells are covered in a light layer of compost.  

 

The disadvantage of the soil blocks are the time it takes when sowing to make the block but that time may be made up if seeds because the seedlings don’t need to be potted on.  The advantages are that the compost contains more water than the other two methods which may mean faster germination and I find them the easiest to get out of the tray to plant.

The advantages of the cells are that they are very quick to sow and stay there until planting so no further work needed. The disadvantage is that I find them really difficult to get out of the cells and often split them or break the roots.

The disadvantage of sowing into trays is that there is more work to transplant them before planting out but I do think that the transplanting seems to benefit the seedlings, making them stronger and providing fresh compost and space to grow into.

The cells and blocks are very economical with seeds. I put two seeds into each cell or block where as I tend to end up with a few seedlings left over when sowing into trays.

What I am interested in knowing is what is the quickest method for sowing and planting out that leads to the strongest seedlings that take off as soon as they are in the soil.  I will keep you updated.

Have you undertaken any trials this year?  What happened?

Seed sowing trial update 1

Seed sowing trial update 2