Allotment raised beds
This was today’s job: painting decking! We ‘scored’ the decking out of a skip (with the skip owner’s permission, let me add!) and the table on which the decking planks are resting was also a ‘rescue’ item. The wood preserver we paid for, but it was a worthwhile investment – it was a clearance sale item, and preserving the wood we use on the allotment will quadruple its lifetime.
The decking will be used in the autumn to build raised beds. We haven’t really decided how we’re going to structure the allotment yet, but we know we need at least three raised beds: one for asparagus, one for strawberries and one to use as a seed bed. It would be great to have the entire allotment down to raised beds because they are easier to manage, make less mess, have less problems with pests and diseases and – I think – look more attractive. But that would be a lot of wood and a lot of work, and it may be that we decide to stay with the open bed route instead.
So on a hot day I slapped on the stain (it’s called avocado – does that look like avocado to you? I’m not convinced by the accuracy of the name but it’s a very pretty colour) and felt very pleased with myself, until I looked down and realised my legs were almost as green as the wood. It’s good stuff: even after a bath I’m still speckled green!
Allotment: perennial crops
We can’t take any credit for this, it was planted long before we arrived but we’re going to have the pleasure of harvesting it, that’s for sure! If we’d been around in the autumn, I would have taken greater care of our rhubarb crown, although it seems to have coped pretty well without me.
What I would have done is cut it back a little and mulched the crown with about four inches of compost to feed the roots and also protect the first growth from any frost in the months ahead. With only one crown I would also have forced it which makes the stems more tender (less of those fibrous strings) and sweeter, as well as bringing it on a bit earlier in the season. With several crowns I’d force half and leave the others, so as to space out the crop a bit.
To force rhubarb I usually use a big old bucket, often one with some holes about its person. Those holes need to be patched with a bit of tape and folded newspaper. Just chuck the container on top of the crown as soon as the first crinkled new leaves appear and it will provide both a micro-climate (removing the wind-chill as well as protecting from frost) and remove light which blanches the stems, making them more tender. This brings on the rhubarb so its ready to harvest between three and six weeks before unforced rhubarb. It does also make the stems a bit narrower in diameter than unforced rhubarb which is why I like to grow both. When the crown starts to lift the bucket I take it off and harvest the stems, leaving that crown to recover in the sun and feed itself for the following year when I’ll leave that one unforced and force all the ones that were un-bucketed in the previous year.
What do you see on your allotment?
I don’t just mean jumbo carrots and bumper tomato crops (although I’m happy for you if that’s what feasts your eye) but animals.
The People’s Trust for Endangered Species wants to know, and I’ve only just found out about their Living with Mammals survey which takes place in May and June every year. But there’s still time to join in a bit this year, and it’s definitely gone into my diary for next year!
Here’s what they say: We need your help with a survey to find out how our wild animals use the built environment and the green spaces within it. By carefully identifying and counting the mammals that live in and around built up land, we can begin to understand – and encourage – the biodiversity on our doorstep. The survey takes place between April and June of each year and requires you to spend some time observing a chosen site (eg your garden or allotment) throughout the survey period.
So far on the allotment we’ve seen: a large rat, two feral cats, and a very small fox and we've only been going up for a few weeks. What do you see on yours?
New allotments – slug damage
How everybody hates the slug (except hedgehogs perhaps) and how little there is you can do about the beast! I lost one of my celery plants to slugs yesterday and at least six of the brassicas Duncan put in have been eaten back to the stem in a single night – not much chance of any of them surviving. Not all the brassicas are labelled and some went in before we became co-workers, so I’m guessing from the stems what these were and I think they were purple sprouting broccoli, a particular favourite of mine, which makes it even more annoying.
The usual routes for slug prevention are slug pellets or slug traps. The former is simple but works out as quite an expense if you have to ‘protect’ an entire allotment and may harm wildlife. The latter is cheaper but time-consuming and if, like me, you’re fastidious (not a good allotment trait) it becomes increasingly horrible to empty the drowned slugs out of the traps and refill them.
Another route is the nematode, a parasitic creature of microscopic size that is watered into the soil where it searches out slugs and creeps inside them (think of the alien inside John Hurt in the film Alien and you’ve got the picture). Once inside, the nematode releases a bacterium which it feeds on and as that bacterium multiplies, the slug dies. The nematodes multiply inside the slug and within 3-5 days the slug stops feeding and will burrow underground to die. As the slug decomposes in the soil, the nematodes are released back into the soil to search out more slugs. I’m thinking we might have to order some.
Here’s the problem though – a lot of our plot is covered in black planting membrane through which holes have been cut for the seedlings – I can’t find any information about whether nematodes will work in those circumstances. Normally you water them across the whole growing area with a watering can and they burrow down into the soil – so will it work if you just pour the nematode water through the small holes in the black plastic? I don’t know, and nobody seems to be able to tell me.
New allotment – the ground we work with
My allotment federation has the following advice: Allotments that have not been worked for many years or have had nothing put back in to the soil would benefit from an annual application of manure or mushroom compost. If supplies are limited, concentrate it where you intend to grow potatoes or members of the cabbage family. If you practise crop rotation you will gradually improve the whole area. Start a compost bin immediately and recycle as much organic matter as possible.
Well, our soil is really not that bad. Wonderful Duncan dug a whole lorry load of manure into the first half of the plot and it’s produced fantastic potatoes and onions, and the courgettes are thriving, so that’s good. The second half of the plot though, is still ‘unimproved’. We’re rough digging a couple of rows every time we go up and mainly trying to take out as much couch grass as possible (it is definitely our best crop so far!) – I’m spreading the removed perennial weeds out on a slab of carpet to dry, as several books say that once it’s totally desiccated you can just stamp it to smithereens and put it in the compost. Stamping on couch grass could become my favourite hobby!
It seems to have good water holding capacity and it definitely clods up when wet so there’s a lot of clay in there, but its not chalky, which was a big worry as many allotments in our area are. All in all I think we’ve been very lucky. The test will be when we establish an asparagus bed … maybe next year!
Celery – an allotment crop to fear
Hmmmm … Maurice gave us celery seedlings. Now I do love celery, especially fresh with a good slice of a local sheep’s milk cheese or braised with carrots in a chicken stock topped with cheddar. But ...
...it is supposed to be a b***** to grow.
The first thing my reference books tell me is that rotationally it should be included with potatoes, which rather scotches the idea I’d had of digging up our row of first early spuds and putting the celery in there – but as we have nowhere else to put it, it may be the only option. The second thing that I’m told is that at least I might be getting the timing right for once
I learn that it prefers rich soil, stuffed with organic matter, that will hold moisture but offers good drainage – well, well, well, in other words, the best of all possible worlds; and it does well in wet locations – so far we’ve no idea if we have any wet locations because it hasn’t been wet enough to assess the plot.
Onward! Celery is a heavy feeder and needs plenty of fertiliser for quick growth, says the book – well I’m not sure I want quick growth. I want tasty celery and I’m prepared to wait for it.
Celery will be bitter if it isn't blanched. Ah, but since my book was published in 1972 (the old ones are still the best in many ways) new self-blanching varieties have come onto the market. But which do we have? Answer, we don’t know. So I’ve fired off a quick email to Maurice, to ask, and will await his reply. Blanching is achieved by covering the plants to protect them from the sun. Okay, that I understand. As the plants grow, pile soil up around them to blanch the stems. Maybe so, or maybe just tie brown paper around them, particularly if they are self blanching? I saw that done at the BBC garden at Berryfields and it looked both elegant and much less work than damping soil and making cones around plants. Still I shall have to wait for Maurice to reply. Meantime I shall ponder the wisdom of jumping in at the deep end.
Carrots and celery courtesy of Steffenz
Tomato blight and what to do to avoid it.
Sadly, tomatoes are remarkably prone to viruses and diseases:
The first cause may be you! It’s because you’ve been growing tomatoes, or plants in the same family (peppers, aubergines, even potatoes), on the same site or in the same greenhouse soil for years on end, leading to the actual soil becoming infected. This can cause your tomatoes to develop almost every symptom of almost every other virus, pest or disease, such as mottling, rolling, distortion, discoloration, drop and curl! Before asking any deeper questions, aks yourself if you’ve rotated your crops properly on a four year pattern. If you could be guilty of rotation failure, start doing so immediately and in a greenhouse grow your tomatoes in pots or bags while you transfer the old soil outside and bring in some fresh. Tomato blight is a horror and it sits in the soil, transmitting itself to each new generation, and can spread from potatoes so if you have potato blight, watch out for your tomatoes and clear the site thoroughly.
Rapid changes in temperature can lead to inward-curling leaves. For example if the morning feels chilly to you, but you’re sweltering by noon, you’ll almost certainly see inward curling leaves on your tomatoes – try to shield them from these extremes with a bit of shade and shelter.
Something that isn’t a problem but often appears to be is the browning off of old leaves. These leaves at the bottom of the plant will go yellow and brown and droop. It’s nothing to worry about, they have just spent all the starches contained in them in fruit production, you can leave them alone or nip them off as you please.
Irregular watering makes tomatoes split, especially at the end of the season when there are fewer fruits on the plant and they fill up with water. At peak growth each plant can need about a pint of water per day, and those in growing-bags and pots need frequent watering – but you need to think about how many fruits you’ve removed and adjust watering accordingly. Blossom end rot is not a disease, but a disorder caused by lack of calcium resulting from inadequate or intermittent watering. If the soil is allowed to dry out, the roots are unable to absorb nutrients effectively and if fertiliser is added to dry soil the nutrients are too concentrated for absorption by the plant and so it develops splits in the fruit.
Growing Tomatoes and Using Gluts
I can’t get enough tomatoes. I grow them at home, and now we’re planting out some generously donated seedlings on the allotment too. There is no such thing as a tomato glut as far as I’m concerned!
These are the ways I deal with ‘too many tomatoes’:
Freezing – using a big pasta pot and water at a rolling boil, I cut a small cross in the non-blossom end of each fruit, drop a dozen into the water and scoop them out as soon as the cuts begin to curl back. I drop in another dozen while I’m shucking the skins from the first lot wearing thick rubber gloves and by the time I’ve done one dozen, the next are ready to come out. Chuck them all in a big bowl and when you’ve removed all the skins, chop them roughly by hand – instant chopped tomatoes! Just bag them and freeze them.
Drying – using washed, ripe and firm tomatoes. Half or quarter plum-type tomatoes and cut cherry tomatoes in half or leave really small ones whole. Slice other types 1/2- to 1/4-inch thick, depending on your preference. A kilo yields only a couple of ounces of dried tomatoes! Oven-drying takes 6 to 12 hours, depending on the moisture content of the fruit. It's important to remove as much moisture as possible without allowing the fruits to dry completely, because the lower the moisture content, the longer the tomatoes can be stored safely. Dried fruits should be leathery and pliable but not either sticky or burnt or desiccated. Preheat the oven to 140° to 145°F and place the tomatoes with their skin side against plastic-mesh screen (if you only have metal, line it with greaseproof or it will taint the tomato taste), or on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper or a flexible baking mat. Prop the oven door open slightly to allow the moist, hot air to escape. Check the tomatoes regularly, and rotate the baking sheet if necessary. Stored in airtight bags they keep until the first of the next year’s fresh tomatoes.
Next time - tomato problems!
Here’s what we’ve been loaned or given so far:
Petrol powered strimmer (loan)
Celery, tomato, garlic, leek and cabbage seedlings
Wood and pallets to build fencing
Unlimited amounts of advice!
It’s amazing how nice people can be when they see you up on the plot. We’ve noticed it before of course, but because we’ve always been ‘visitors’ on other people’s plots, we’d sort of assumed it was the plot owner’s sunny personality that caused the generosity.
Now we have a plotshare, we’re finding that the generosity continues (and I don’t have a sunny personality, so it can’t be that!)
We haven’t forgotten our old friends who gave us so many opportunities to work alongside them until we got a plot of our own – on Sunday we’re going up to sink a small pool liner for Beryl, and I’ve potted up a marsh marigold to give it an instant start – a kind of housewarming present for a pond!
--Plant cabbage seedlings
--Water if necessary
--Weed around beans and beetroot
--Work out where to put celery! It’s self-blanching, but even so, we didn’t think we’d get any in this year, so we’re having to be a bit flexible about our plot plans.
Oh dear, blight on the horizon?
So, there we are with our wonderful new plotshare, half of it already in excellent cultivation, and already the serpent has appeared in our little Eden.
I was making the most of Sunday’s sunshine when I looked along the row of potatoes our ‘official’ plotholder had planted with such care, and I saw a single potato - out of line but earthed-up - and with the wrong colour flowers just about emerging, to boot.
So I dragged our lovely plotholder, Duncan, out of his Sunday lie-in to tell me what he thought and we agreed that it's probably a rogue from the previous owner not clearing the bed properly which Duncan had earthed up by mistake. Being a remnant means it may well be harbouring blight, so out it came, I carried it home in a plastic bag and it's going in the bin tonight!
The dirty on potato blight
The first signs are darker or brownish patch and yellowing of the leaves, which may either curl up or turn black, then a white bloom develops on the underside as the foliage dies. The spores produced by the fungal bloom are washed down into the soil resulting in dark spots on the potatoes and reddish-brown stains like rust appearing right through the flesh. Potato blight can survive the winter as mycelium (tiny spores) especially if tubers are left behind in the soil after harvest. The fungus grows on shoots from these tubers the next spring and – in the nastiest possible way -produces asexual spores which are airborne to new crops during warm moist conditions.
At the first signs of infection the top growth or haulms, should cut off and destroyed to prevent the spores being washed down to the tubers. All leaf debris should be removed too, and the entire blighted crop should be removed from the site.
Now we just have to wait and see if we got to it in time! Potato blight is the absolute pigging end in my opinion.
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