Oh hell, every penny I get given at Christmas tends to go on seeds. It’s an addiction, I know but there doesn’t seem to be a Seed Buyers Anonymous that I can call on for help. In fact, just about everybody I know has the same weakness.
The only thing that stops me is not being really sure what I’m doing (and that doesn’t always stop me, I won’t bore you with the years I’ve spent trying to germinate Romneya Coulterii but it involves wood smoke, ash, stratification … and so far, no Romneya!) so this year I’m trying to limit myself. Not easy when himself gets in on the act.
What he wants to buy is exploding cucumbers, celettuce and rainbow quinoa. Now quinoa I’m happy to grow (except he doesn’t eat it, so why does he want to grow it?) but exploding cucumbers? And a plant that looks like a lettuce on top of a celery stalk but apparently tastes like neither?
Because they are a challenge and a novelty. And no matter how often we sit down and talk about productivity, staple food crops and filling the freezer for winter, we always end up with one or two of these novelties that usually go nowhere but soak up hours of effort. Last year it was the peanut plant which produced exactly nothing for all our labours.
I do rather fancy purple Brussels sprouts, although apparently they are not as productive as their green cousins. And I have a sneaking desire for yellow leeks too, so perhaps we should limit ourselves to one flight of fancy each … but then we’ll go to February’s seed swap and come back with armfuls of weird things that caught our eyes. Honestly, we’re hopeless!
And a Happy New Year
... with shedloads of everything an allotment holder could wish for!
Pea seeds – to soak or not to soak …
Do you or don’t you soak your pea seeds before germination? Old wives’ tales say that you should (it speeds up and increases germination) or that you shouldn’t (it breaks through the embryonic seed case and allows disease in) or that you should soak them in paraffin (to prevent mice eating the seeds).
So we decided on a bit of an experiment – and one packet of smooth peas (hardy growers but not as sweet as the later wrinkled peas), a whole bunch of toilet roll inners and some compost later … a test!
Fifty-one seeds were soaked overnight in cold water. Fifty-one weren’t. Each seed was planted in a toilet roll inner and put in an unheated greenhouse. The soaked seeds had a blue wavy line drawn around their toilet roll inner for instant identification. That was nine days ago.
Today – two pea seedlings!
But both, rather worryingly, have appeared in the unsoaked tray. Perhaps there will be a better germination rate from the soaked seeds by the end of the experiment, but right now, it looks to me as if soaking pea seeds might be a waste of time. In the spirit of allotment innovation, I’ll keep you posted as the germination progresses (hopefully) and we’ll see what the final outcome is when we get to plant the seedlings out.
Quick and dirty allotment gardening
Actually, that’s misleading. There’s a lot of dirty but not much quick I’m afraid. The past week has meant every spare minute we’ve been digging. Digging. Digging.
And it’s really tough digging too, as plot 201 hasn’t been worked for at least a year, probably two. Compared to Duncan’s plot, where the soil has been turned and rotovated at least twice it’s like digging through rock when it’s dry and clay when it’s wet, but it will be worth it when we put our early potatoes in.
What do you think of our scarecrow? He’s called The Green Man and I rather like the idea of an abstract bird scarer – whether the birds will actually be scared by a cartoon man is another matter ….
We have a thornless blackberry. Let me tell you, if you’re going to transplant blackberry plants, it’s always worth paying extra for a tasty thornless variety, because transplanting thorned blackberries is painful.
Okay, basic lesson in soft fruit here, which I didn’t know until last week, so I hope it will fascinate you as much as it did me. You can tell if a plant is a raspberry or a blackberry by checking if the core stays in the ripe fruit or is left on the plant when the fruit is picked. Berries with the core intact are blackberries and berries that lose the core are raspberries.
I can hear you scoffing already at the woman who can’t tell a raspberry from a blackberry but bear with me. What’s a loganberry then, clever-clogs? Or a tayberry? See … it is a useful thing to know. In fact both berries are classed as blackberry/raspberry crosses: the loganberry keeps its core intact and is therefore classified as a blackberry. Confusingly, the tayberry has a core that sometimes stays with the fruit and sometimes comes free of it, and is classed as a hybrid.
Now, to the issue of pruning and transplanting. When any of the four berries above have flowered and fruited, any cane that bore fruit dies back to the crown. This means, when prune, you are simply working to make space for the primary buds just below the soil line to grow and bear fruit. Everything above those buds is cane that the previous summer and is now two years old but will still try to produce fruit at the expense of the new canes that have grown from soil level.
So quite obviously, transplants need to be cut back hard, to get good growth. In addition, any transplant will suffer stress – think about how stressful it is for you to move, and then think about the plant – same process! So cutting back allows the plant not to put all its strength into old grown so it can concentrate on settling in and producing new growth that will be adjusted to its new conditions and that new growth should appear within 4-6 weeks.
We moved this blackberry a week or so ago, but because we didn’t have its blue screen in place I didn’t cut it hard back, or we wouldn’t have known where it was when it came to siting the screen for it to grow up. Now the screen has been fixed to the fence, I shall prune the blackberry back (taking care not to cut so far that the parent, thorny, plant is live above the graft) and watch it take off in spring).
Raspberry Bed - the final allotment version
Because I got nagged by email, I have somewhat reluctantly agreed to post a picture of the raspberry bed. It doesn’t look like anything much at this time of year, and certainly I don’t look like anything much, planting raspberries in my pixie hat and old allotment coat! You can see the raspberry canes that Tony dug out of the middle of the strawberry bed - and that I then cut the old wood from and pruned to planting height - laying across the planting string. We offset the plants from one side of the string to the other, to make weeding and harvesting slightly easier and to give each plant the maximum amount of air ventilation and sunlight – if you plant them in straight rows, the front one shields the next from the sun and the second one shields the third, so by halfway down the row, the plants are getting very little sun indeed.
As I say, it looks like nothing much now, but wait until I show you another picture in late Spring, when the canes will be shooting up and the leaf buds will have opened to show the lovely fresh green of new leaves.
We’re still doing lots of structural work – you can see that the cold frame is completely half finished! In other words, the front end of the frame has been reglazed and is ready to be used, but the back end hasn’t had its glass covers put back on yet because we’re waiting for the wooden frame to dry out – it was utterly sodden with rainwater and we don’t want to dry it too fast or it will warp and not fit the base. Initially Tony used webbing on the front end of the frame: it allowed the glass cover to fall back away from the frame without actually hitting the ground on the other side and breaking the glass – that lasted two nights! On the third morning we went up and found that mice had eaten straight through it. Now we have a wooden prop that fits into a narrow groove cut into the front edge of the lid – it means we can’t open it past the vertical, but it also means the mice can’t catch us out by chewing through it. We’re hoping that the regular presence of Rebus the Cairn Terrier will discourage the rodents from visiting us quite so often.
And if possible, I shall report on 235's onion experiment in my next post. I wanted to report today, but the rain and wind were so strong I actually couldn't see the onion bed well enough to check how many seeds had germinated. Oh the joys of a winter allotment!
Allotment tasks – December
This is the month to start forcing rhubarb. The simple way to do it is to set a large bucket or dustbin over the hibernating crown to encourage the fresh, pink shoots to form – they do this better in darkness. A good mulch of straw or well rotted manure or compost cast over the crown before covering creates extra warmth to speed up the process further. As we now have a greenhouse (hurrah) and we’ve dug up and transplanted some crowns this year, we took one good root home, left it out in the frost for a couple of nights (this apparently accelerates the new growth. I am not convinced, as all the other advice is to protect crowns from frost but hey, it’s an experiment!) and then potted it up in a large pot with good compost, covered the pot with a black box, and set it in the greenhouse. The box exclude the light while the heat in the greenhouse should drive the forcing process so that we end up with slim, pink rhubarb as early as March!
If the weather is mild and expected to continue so for a couple of days, you can sow broad beans in a sheltered spot. The advantage of this, assuming you can keep the mice away from what they always view as an early Christmas feast, is that aphids find the tops of overwintered broad beans much less attractive than spring sown ones, because the overwintered leaves are much tougher.
this is also the ideal time to lay new paths, as can be seen in the proud example of the new plotholders on plot 254. And if the soil is neither frozen or waterlogged, you can always dig, and dig and dig …
Parsnips – and how to grow them
Not my parsnips – Christina’s parsnips – aren’t they fantastic? Christina is a neighbour of ours on 235 and she was kind enough to donate these to the needy co-workers! If you can see the toothmarks on the largest root, it’s not giant rats, it’s Rebus the Cairn Terrier, (pictured up to his oxters in mud, below) who has a bit of a fetish for parsnips and managed to nip a bite off the end of that one as I was carrying it back to be photographed. He’s a good allotment dog, apart from this one foible.
So, why are parsnips considered difficult? Partly because the germination is so erratic. You must make sure your seed is less than 12 months old and even then it’s a bit hit and miss as to how many seedlings you’ll get.
To prepare the soil, dig in some well rotted organic matter in winter, and turn the topsoil over before planting seed. Sow in mid to late spring when the soil is warming and if you can, tread the soil gently (not sixteen stones of hobnailed boots) after planting. I have a scaffold plank that I lay over the row and walk along, but you can obviously only do this on a dry day or you’ll find the soil (plus seeds) is stuck to the underside of the plank when you lift it!
Seedlings should appear between 15 and 20 days and will need thinning when the first true leaves appear, to about four inches apart. If you have module plants or grew them in trays, transplant to the same distance and space the rows about 18 inches apart. I make the rows 2 feet apart and sow quick crops in between them because parsnips are in the ground for sooooo long.
If the weather becomes dry, water weekly and hoe carefully to remove weeds. Now, the best time to harvest is after a week of frosts or near frosts – so in my area that’s sowing in April and harvesting in late November, see what I mean about a long time in the ground (not that we have any in the ground this year, but next year we will!) and that’s why planting catch crops in between stops me losing the will to live while the parsnips mature. Extreme cold allows the starch in the parsnip to become a sugar compound, massively increasing the sweet and nutty flavour of the roots.
For such a delicate fruit the raspberry needs a heavyweight support system to give of its best. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks investigating other people’s raspberry cane arrangements, so that we could decide what to do with ours. There’s everything from concrete stanchions with solid metal poles running laterally across them through to individual rustic wooden fenceposts with wires wrapped around them. Raspberries grow to six feet tall, quite comfortably.
And so we're busy, constructing the right frames for our raspberries, whenever the weather allows. This is real winter work.
In spring you plant new canes, tying their stems to the supports and then feed and mulch.
Pruning is a little complicated because you prune summer fruiting varieties in autumn, cutting canes that bore fruit to ground level and tying in the strongest new stems to the wires, then in the cold of winter you trim the tops of the canes to about six inches above the top wire. But autumn fruiting varieties get pruned in mid-winter, cutting every stem to ground level. In either case, planted north-south they usually get the most evenly distributed sunlight although they don’t require actual heat.
Our raspberries have invaded the strawberry bed on 201, or perhaps the strawberries took over the raspberry bed, it’s difficult to tell – in either case, they’ve got to be straightened out and taught to live apart. Both fruits are prone to be invasive though, so I can see we’ll be digging up random fruiting plants for years to come.
I wonder why we say a ‘raspberry’ to denote a rude noise made with the lips?
Harvesting and storing winter crops
It’s a bit depressing to say this, but we have no winter crops to speak of. Because we didn’t become co-workers with Duncan until late spring, we’d already missed the window to put in a lot of the crops we’d normally start harvesting now, like Brussels sprouts, parsnips and salsify, on top of that, our Jerusalem artichokes came to nothing – being stored for a week in a plastic bag before they got to us obviously did as little for the roots as I’d feared it would, I think they sweated to death – and finally, we’ve already eaten all our carrots!
Still, all is not lost, I’m nagging himself to think about making a carrot clamp now, for use next year (assuming we get enough excess crop to store). There are two ways we can do this – the first is in wooden boxes containing moist sand or peat substitute in a dark and frost free place: for this method you have to remove the leaves and shake out the loose soil and then lay them neatly in the boxes, not touching, and spread more sand or peat over the top. It has to be moist or the carrots will give up all their moisture to the soil – other crops that should be treated this way are celeriac, Swedes and beetroots.
A clamp is a hole in the ground with added extras! It needs to be a sheltered well-drained site, which could be a problem for us as I’m not convinced we have good enough drainage. The hole should have a good layer of straw at the bottom, the carrots should be laid in a circular pattern, points in, and not touching, and straw should be placed between each layer and mounded well over the top, before covering the whole thing with soil, but allowing a tuft of straw to stick up out of the top to conduct dampness out of the pile.
The good old parsnip can stay in the ground unless the weather turns really cold, at which point you need to cover them well enough to ensure they don’t freeze so thoroughly into the soil that you can’t lift them.
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