Brussels sprouts – firm treatment required
Isn’t it lovely to know that there is something that loves heavy clay soil. Having had cause to visit the plot today and having come away about four inches taller than when I arrived, owing to the ‘platform soles’ my boots had developed as a result of walking over the soil (don’t do this if you can humanly avoid it, compacting wet clay soil makes it difficult to grow anything on it, but until we get proper cross paths, I have to walk on the soil sometimes) I am glad to remember that Brussels sprouts love a firm, fertile soil. If you have grown Brussels in the past and they’ve ‘blown’ – that is, become open frilly sprouts instead of nice tight ones, it’s almost certainly because your soil has been too loose. Infertility can also cause blowing, so you need to ensure that you have either dug in lots of manure in the previous autumn, or planted your sprouts where your beans were in the previous year. Then let the soil go to sleep for the whole of the winter, so that it becomes firm.
If you have an acid soil you’re inviting club root, so you will need to lime the surface, using lime at the right quantities and digging it in early in the autumn so the earth can settle again.
As your plants grow, hoe gently around them to remove weeds, but remember not to loosen the soil directly around the roots and not to dig in with the hoe. And to ensure there is no root rock, which loosens the plant in the soil, you will want to support them so that the later, stronger, winter winds don’t blow your crop to the ground. Put in stakes when you plant your seedlings, one for each plant and tie them in securely.
Next year I want to grow purple Brussels sprouts, although I haven't heard anybody say they perform as well as the green ones, I shall just have to have both!
November – no end to allotment tasks!
I don’t quite understand why, when everybody else seems to be winding down, and Soilman has even gone into hibernation, I seem to be getting busier!
Partly it’s because the days are so short now, that I’m lucky to get half an hour of gloom on the allotment when I’ve finished my ‘real’ work, so everything seems to take forever to get done, and partly it’s because a new allotment, particularly one that’s been neglected, just has so much that needs to be done.
So far we’ve:
1. sort of sorted the shed – more to be done in Spring, but it’s at least watertight now
2. begun to restore the cold frame – or at least, Tony has, while I just make admiring noises
3. cleared about a tenth of the runners, slugs, bindweed and thistles from the strawberry bed – that’s my job, and horrible, fiddly, backbreaking work it is too
4. started to clear the brick path – very satisfying, especially as it means less risk of slipping on something slimy and end up on your a**e!
5. laid some shuttering to make new paths – again, very satisfying, it gives the allotment a sense of structure.
What we haven’t begun on yet is:
1. mending dodgy fence posts
2. laying a new hardstanding
3. cutting back the holly tree
4. moving the compost bins
5. refixing the entire far end fence which is now leaning against the rest of the fence, looking pathetic
6. any planting
7. any digging.
If we had brassicas this year then this is also what I’d be doing:
1. keeping my Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli and kale tidy and weed-free, and staking the outer Brussels against wind damage
2. sowing broad beans is something I’ve already done on Duncan’s allotment, although how many will come up, given that we appear to have mice, is anybody’s guess.
I wonder if things will slow down in December ...?
Deadon F1 Winter Cabbage
This is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, isn’t it? Not the weeds, of course, just the cabbage which is only a joy until I harvest it in January, if I can wait that long, at which point it will become a fleeting pleasure on the palate and a nice weight in the stomach. I love the colour of this hybrid, because the purple veining, which actually becomes a sort of ‘fringe’ around the outer leaves as the weather chills, gives way to an almost luminous green when you cut into the cabbage.
It’s said to produce 3-5 lb heads in old money (that’s 1 – 2 kilos, I think) but ours won’t get that big for two reasons:
1 we planted them a bit late (everything got planted late this year)
2 – we planted them in situ in a not very well prepared bed because we had little time to get things ready.
Next year they will go into a seed bed first, and then be transplanted once they have five or six leaves – around July. This also gets around Tony’s infamous ‘thinning is cruel’ approach to vegetable growing. Even he can see that when you’ve transplanted enough cabbages, there’s no room for others. They go into their final positions about a foot apart, with a foot between rows and remember to stagger those plantings you can easily hoe between them.
They like a sunny spot with a rich soil that holds reasonable moisture and they will not be happy if you’ve manured it recently.
Around 20 weeks after first sowing, they are ready to harvest and should sit comfortably in any not utterly Arctic soil from November to January, when you should be finishing them up or the leaves will have become too fibrous to be pleasantly edible.
Favourite recipe: Cabbage Pie
Dead easy this one. You need one pack of frozen puff pastry, one large cabbage, an onion, some butter and herbs to suit you.
Chop and fry the onion in some oil until it’s soft. While that’s happening, shred the cabbage, placing it in a colander. Pour a kettle of boiling water over it slowly to wilt it. Roll out the pastry and cut more or less in half, one ‘half’ wants to be about an inch and a half bigger all round than the other. Press down the cabbage to release any trapped water and then mix the onion into it. Season to taste, making sure you use plenty of pepper (we use mixed herbs plus some fennel seeds which we like but not everybody does). Pile cabbage mix into the middle of the smaller piece of pastry, leaving about an inch all round the edge. Put second piece of pastry on top and seal edges, cut a couple of small circles in the top of the pie and bake. When baked, melt about half an ounce of unsalted butter and using a funnel if your hands aren’t steady, pour into each of the top holes. Leave for a couple of minutes and serve.
Great big cold frames …
… and what they cost to renovate.
We inherited this when we ‘moved in’ to 201. And, next to our ‘Swiss Chalet’ shed, it’s been our favourite new toy. A cold frame – lovely!
We’re still not entirely sure what we’re going to do with it because we’ve never had one before. But we knew what we had to do to it, if you take my meaning.
It had to be painted, well repainted. The lids had to be rehung but before that, they had to be repaired and the glass had to be cleaned. There should have been a central strut supporting the cold frame but there wasn’t so it had bowed both back to front, side to side and (annoyingly) both ends to middle. It wasn’t perceptible to the naked eye but when you tried to level it to the soil, you couldn’t, nothing was quite square, or true or flat.
By this time, I was starting to think our new toy was a blithering nuisance. So on Sunday, while I weeded the strawberry bed, Tony spent: the whole day, a tin of paint, several metres of weed-suppressing membrane and a couple of bags of gravel, creating this.
Much better. Now we only have to finish the lids and we’ll have a cold frame to be proud of.
But we’ve still got no idea what to do with it …
• One very large cold frame
• One eight foot by six greenhouse (but not actually erected yet, and not actually on the allotment, it’s still in boxes on the floor at home)
• half of one allotment and three quarters of another, that could technically be called ours, although it doesn’t work like that – we are growing collectively so there’s no dividing up plots into ‘your’ bed and ‘my’ bed, we’re all in the same bed (that’s not as dirty as it sounds)
• good but somewhat clay soil: one allotment suffers from bracing winds, the other may possibly suffer from not much sun at one end.
So now you know as much as I know. What would be your priorities for spring if you were me?
We’ve already ordered potatoes to plant on 201 and 235 has a large bed full of overwintering onions and garlic and a small bed with spring cabbage (not doing well) rhubarb chard (sort of okay) and broad beans – we will want more potatoes on 235 so we have to decide what varieties we’re going to plant there, given that the maincrop suffered from slugs but not blight. Everybody got tomato blight last year, so I’m going to try and work out which varieties might be a bit more blight resistant in Sussex, start them off in the greenhouse and move them down to the allotments when they are ready. But what I really want is to grow something interesting, something exciting, something to celebrate our first spring on both plots – ideas?
We’ve just put in our potato order:
First earlies – Accent
Second earlies - Kestrel
Maincrop – Pink Fir Apple.
I can’t tell you how good it is to say that! Placing a potato order really proves you’re an allotment holder. Of course there’s a lot of mythology and mysticism that surrounded the growing of the great British staple food, and some pretty confusing terminology too: all those earlies and chitting and blight and what have you. But it’s nowhere near as difficult as it sounds.
First – potatoes have two main problems: blight and slugs. We already know that on Duncan’s plot we have slugs (the evil little black keel slugs) so we shall be giving both plots a lovely dose of nematodes in the hope of killing the slugs before they get to the potatoes.
Second – the early and maincrop terminology is all about how long it takes from planting to harvesting so:
1. First earlies – ten weeks
2. Second earlies – thirteen weeks
3. Maincrop – twenty weeks.
Third – chitting is just the process of getting your potatoes to produce shoots and I’ll go into that when the time is right.
And while maincrops store much better (larger thicker skinned tubers) than the thin-skinned smaller early varieties, is the maincrop types that are likely to get hit by potato blight. Usually the earlies and second earlies have been harvested before it strikes.
Potato blight is properly called Phytophthora infestans and it happens in warm humid weather. The signs of blight are brown freckled leaves or leaves with brown wilted patches. The blight causes the potatoes to die in the ground but even worse because it’s airborne, it can get into your harvested potatoes and rot them too. Worst still, it spreads literally overnight – one day you have a crop, the next day you have a rotting stinking mess.
Fighting blight – don’t water the leaves of your potatoes, only the plants. Earth them up carefully and well so the spores of the blight can’t get in. If you see an early sign of blight, dig up that plant and burn it, but to be honest, if blight is within three or four miles of your crop, there’s little you can do to fight it, except grow earlies only, or blight resistant varieties.
Preventing blight – don’t leave a single potato, no matter how small, in the ground when you harvest – the spores can overwinter in the potato much easier than in the ground, where a frost usually kills them. Rogue (volunteer) potatoes left in the soil can infect the whole of a subsequent year’s crop. And rotate your crops – that way it should be three years before potatoes go back into the ground they occupied before, which gives the spores much less chance to hang on and ‘get them’. And store your harvested potatoes off the plot, if you possibly can.
Allotments'r'Us says the most unlikely person
Yes, London Mayor Boris Johnson, famous for putting his foot in it, seems to think that putting his foot in a nice big heap of freshly-turned earth is the right thing to do. We won’t argue with that!
So what’s his big idea? (I can’t believe I just wrote ‘big idea’ and meant Boris, but there you go, one can be wrong in one’s early judgements.) Let me tell you, he wants to encourage backyard gardening even on flat roofs. It’s called Capital Growth and the excellent Rosie Boycott is overseeing the first phase which intends to 2,012 patches of land by 2012 for Londoners to grow food. All kinds of organisations: councils, schools, hospitals, housing estates and utility companies are supposed to pinpoint idle lands which could be converted into vegetable gardens, including mini-plots on canal and reservoirs sides and unused railway yards.
Lovely idea – I hope it happens, because with credit crunches, food miles and soaring energy costs, everybody deserves the chance to reduce their food bill and increase their quality time spent exercising in the fresh air.
Meantime, can anybody identify this beastie? We found it crawling across our enormous cold frame on plot 201 – November seems rather late for caterpillars to me, but perhaps it’s a particularly hardy brute? I carried up to the overgrown end of the plot and let it go – hardened gardeners can express their disgust now – I know I should have squashed it, but I just couldn’t! It’s the first bit of wildlife we’ve found on 201 and that made me feel like Scott finding a sauna at the North Pole!
And on Duncan's plot, the garlic, onion sets and onion seed are all showing beautifully. No difference yet in the germination or growth rates between the direct sow and the paper and paste sow onions, but we'll see how it continues ...
Broad Bean Planting
On two allotments and in one garden, I shall be sowing broad beans this weekend. There are few crops about which I’d say ‘you can’t have enough’ because you can definitely have too much of some: courgettes and spinach, for example, but broad beans, like raspberries, are something I just can’t get enough of, particularly as broad beans freeze so incredibly well.
Autumn-sown broad beans have several advantages: they do not need a rich soil and can be sown on ground that has been manured for a previous crop, as long as it has good drainage, you can sow them directly 5cm deep in double rows in late October which gives them a chance to establish good roots to support the heavy yields you hope they will carry next year! Over the winter the plants should reach 5-10cm tall and then stay this size through to spring – but out of sight they are putting on side roots to allow spring growth. To promote this, you can add an organic fertiliser around the roots in the spring and rake it in lightly, being careful not to damage the roots.
And in spring they’ll take off, producing those distinctive white and black flowers, and a lovely light scent that draws bees from miles away.
What allotment holders do when it rains
And rains, and rains and rains …
Well, some of us are honing our crime-scene skills like Garden Punks Chris and Katie who’ve been on the trail of a seed thief. Others are counting their seed potatoes or weeding out the couch grass.
We are trying to re-roof 201’s shed. Compared to the tiny shed on Duncan’s plot, 201’s shed is palatial: we’re calling it ‘The Swiss Chalet’ – but it don’t half leak! There are three reasons for this:
1 – the holes rubbed in the roofing felt by the branches of the pear tree means that the rain comes straight through the roof and drips down the rafters
2 – the blocked guttering and stolen water butt that mean a trickle of rain runs down the side of the shed and seeps mordantly into a puddle that then travels up the side of the shed by capillary action
3 – the eejits who nailed a batten to the shed roof, with three nails, meaning there are three routes via which miniscule amounts of water can sink through the roof and drip to the shed floor.
And a wet shed is a miserable thing. So we’ve spent the weekend trying to lay roofing felt in the driving rain, while getting our eyes (and other bits of anatomy) poked by sharp bits of pear tree. Which makes it all the more galling when you see that one of your neighbours is so far ahead of the game that they’ve dug over all their summer beds already … honestly, some people are just too organised for their own good!
Composting in autumn
Have you ever wondered why so many people have so many compost heaps? Well it’s because they have different ‘maturity’. Young compost is hot and wet, mature compost is brown and friable (breaks up easily, to you and me) and there’s every stage in between, but hopefully not the black, slimy, fetid stage which is called ‘failure’!
And different heaps, made at different times of year, have different properties – the best heaps are made between late summer and late autumn because healthy compost requires around two thirds 'brown’ material such as leaves, shrubs and twigs and one third 'green material' – grass clippings, green leaf clippings, fruit and vegetable peelings and kitchen scraps. Usually you have no problem supplying the green material but it is the brown material that is more difficult to find. However, the situation is reversed in autumn when leaves, shrubs and twigs become plentiful and by creating a compost bin in autumn, you’re stockpiling this carbon-heavy material which will improve your compost composition no end.
If you have a bazillion leaves, say for example you’ve just taken over a plot with a pear tree on it, and the leaves are not diseased, you can create a wire bin or separate leaf pile under a polythene sheet and compost down the leaves there, as they will take longer, up to a year, to break down, but leaf-mould, as we all know, is pure garden gold.
And remember that, as it gets colder the composting process slows down to hibernatory levels so if you want a faster composting rate, you can line your compost bin with cardboard or pile blankets on top to trap the heat generated by the biodegrading process.
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