Allotment Gardening: Raised Beds

We’ve been having a good old ding-dong on our site about raised beds, amongst other things. We’ve put a quarter of 201 into a raised bed system, with chipping paths in between, and so far we’re pleased with the results.

The benefits of raised beds include:

1. Being able to grow a wider range of plants on difficult soils or where a plant requires a specific pH as you can change the soil mix inside the box.
2. Reducing the need to bend down to work on the soil at ground level
3. Improved drainage (assuming you’ve improved the soil in the bed, that is) which allows the soil to warm quicker in spring and bringing forward the vegetable growing season
4. Pest control – carrot fly is defeated by a foot tall bed, slugs and snails do not like crawling across chipping or grit paths to get to plants and selective treatments like garlic sprays or seaweed mulches can be more easily applied
5. Watering is often reduced because you’re not watering the space between plants as they are closer packed in a bed, and retention is usually better too, because the sides of the bed reduce wind-induced evaporation slightly.

Anybody else got any benefits from raised beds to share?

There are downsides, of course. Raised beds are not suitable for all crops – you can’t really grow spuds in them, for example, because of earthing up. If you get a pest or infestation in a raised bed, you’ve got to tear out the bed and dig out the soil to get rid of it. If you are the kind of gardener who grows large amounts of crops for a big family, it may be better to stick to the long row system rather than fiddling around with raised beds, and – of course – the capital cost in setting up beds is considerably higher than just digging and planting. Also, until you get used to them, you are inclined to trip over them and bruise your ankles – or perhaps that’s just me.

But in general, we’re happy with our raised beds. I planted out our asparagus at the weekend, in what will be there permanent home (the grey bed) and I am fondly imagining the years of asparagus luxury ahead …

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, April 30, 2009 6 Comments

Allotment tasks: Earthing-Up and Hardening-Off

I hope I’m not the only person who hates earthing up potatoes? It’s one of those things that I suspect may separate the allotment diehard from the allotment wimp. Possibly there are people out there (and not all of them blokes in flat caps and wellingtons) saying ‘A a good day’s earthing-up is my idea of Heaven’ and really meaning it.

I really do hate earthing up potatoes. It’s back breaking work (particularly if your soil is 99.9% clay, as our is at present) and although it looks lovely to see the neat rows of potatoes, with their piled heaps of earth, the process of getting there involves hours of heavy labour with a rake and such complex situations as not treading on the next row to be earthed-up as you work. And even if that makes me an allotment wimp, I shall be a wimp till the end of my days.

Hardening off plants is another kind of endurance test, but it’s a bit more like the old days, before people had tumble dryers and automatic washing machines and your Granny (or your Mum, depending how old you are) used to keep an eye on the weather once the washing was on the line, because rain would destroy a whole day’s hard labour over the washtub and mangle.

Hardening-off is the process of getting tender, usually indoor or greenhouse raised plants ready for the rigours of a British Spring. I don’t mind it so much as earthing up spuds, but I do get fed up with running out to check:

1. The dogs haven’t cocked their legs on the tray of borlotti beans that is on the ground because it’s too tall for the outdoor staging
2. That the slight crashing sound wasn’t a frog leaping from the pond into the same beans
3. That the wind isn’t so strong it’s threatening to snap the stems of the sunflowers that are out for the first time today (it’s not too strong – and a certain amount of wind is good for making seedlings grow shorter and develop stronger stems, that’s why commercial flower growers have fans over their seedling trays)
4. That the rain is only light (wrong, it’s torrential – all nine trays of tomatoes, beans [four kinds], herbs, hardy trees and violas have to be taken indoors)

Then, half an hour later, the rain stops and you start all over again …

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, April 27, 2009 2 Comments

Allotment: pots, watering cans and predators

What I want to know is, what happens to the flowerpots? Is it like the sock monster that eats socks out of the washing machine or is there a genuine flowerpot thief around?

This is the way it goes. I buy forty pots. I take them to the allotment and put them in the shed. The following weekend I decide to transplant something and go to my brand new pot-stock …

… and there are about a dozen left.

I challenge Himself who reminds me that I’ve watched every move he’s made at the allotment in the past week and none of those moves involved pots.

I rack my brains and remember giving a couple of pots to neighbours, and actually, now I come to think of it, potting up a few alpine strawberries and giving them away too, but not 28 of them, for Heaven’s sake! So I go and buy some more pots and the following weekend …

And it was brought home to me very forcibly yesterday that we need a hosepipe on 201. I found myself trudging up and down with watering cans, and even at half-four in the afternoon, it was a hot and wearying task. I don’t want to be doing that twice a week. The thing is, we have an attachment but it’s the wrong one: we have a push-on hose coupler and we need a threaded hose coupler. I remember this every weekend, and then forget all week, until it’s time to do the watering again. This week, even the dog gave up following me and sat at the halfway point, content to point his head in my general direction and thus fool himself he was doing his canine duty in getting under my feet whenever I’m carrying something.

And the slugs have been at our peas again. They don’t bother the first batch we put out at all, which goes to prove that perfect timing can be everything. If you can get a crop to be tall and sturdy, and well-hardened-off, and plant it when two or three days of dry weather are expected, it’s much less attractive to slugs and snails. The second lot of peas were slightly smaller and had to be planted when we knew there would be a heavy dew for several nights and sure enough, they have been slugged almost into submission, despite applications of ash, sand and wildlife friendly slug pellets.

And whenever I straighten up from my watering, this is the view I get, through the pear tree that borders our plot into our 'back' neighbour's plot. Isn't it heavenly?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, April 23, 2009 2 Comments

Allotment planting: broad beans

Yesterday was broad bean day. We’ve had broad beans overwintering on 235 and the seem to be doing okay, but there were many more ready to go into the ground and we’d seen the distinctive black and white flowers on many a plot during the previous week, so we felt that we should be getting ours sorted out too. Most broad beans are quite sturdy, but in windy Sussex they still need some support, so Himself got on with creating that, while I dug up the area that will become our brassica cage. It was horrible work, at exactly the wrong time of year, the soil is still cold and yet the perennial weeds have got away wonderfully, so that it was a combination of deeply compressed earth, tussocky grass and horrible root systems that had to be dug out.

I mention this so that you understand that while Himself was making pretty things, I was doing the ugly, unnoticed labour that later allows pretty things to be made – I don’t want you to think I was swanning around drinking tea and talking to the neighbours while he toiled away.

So eventually, bean supports!

Because of the mouse, shrew, rat problem (we’ve seen them all in the past year) we start all our peas and beans in pots and don’t plant them out until we’re sure the plant has grown enough to have completely absorbed the legume from which it grew – it’s those legumes that are so attractive to rodents that they dig up the plant (or seed) to eat it. Once the plant has taken the stored nourishment from that pea or bean, which is really an embryo, the plant doesn’t have the same attractiveness for rodents. I don’t know if they can actually smell the seed in the ground, but it seems to me that they can.

Our autumn-sown Aquadulce Claudia went into the ground on 235 in October, and have suddenly shot up, as they always do in spring. It’s often not necessary to pinch out the tops of autumn-sown broad beans as for some reason they don’t have the same blackfly problem as spring-sown ones, possibly because the overwintered leaves are very much tougher than the tender spring growth.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, April 20, 2009 8 Comments

Allotment: Hungry Gap

Apparently, according to some folk, we are now in the hungry gap. And for us, the hungry gap has been big indeed! Because we only got ‘our’ allotment (which isn’t, strictly speaking even ours) in October, we had no winter crops at all. There was a row of spinach and a couple of purple sprouting broccoli on 235, where we’re co-workers, but not enough to keep two vegetable hungry couples going for very long. Anyway, although I shouldn’t say it, I’m not a great spinach fan.

So this year, while we’re merrily greenhouse planting, transplanting, hardening off and outdoor planting all kinds of summer crops, I am intoning, at every opportunity, ‘Don’t forget the hungry gap’. At which himself gives me a funny look and goes and gets a sandwich. Not quite what I had in mind.

Anyway, for the bit between late February and Mid April which is what many people consider to be the hungry gap, the crops that you can overwinter and hope to have ready are the purple-sprouting broccoli (Rudolph appears to be the favourite), the kales, elderly (and whiskery) swedes, carrots and parsnips and onions and leeks.

We’ve got 74 leeks in degradable pots – as I’ve never grown leeks before I can’t tell if this is too many or not enough. Why did it never occur to me to keep a list of all my weekly shopping so that I could work out how many leeks or whatever I use in a year? Well, quite possibly because that would have been a bonkers thing to do! But it’s very annoying not to have some idea if I’m planting enough and to spare, or whether our hungry gap next year will have to be filled with expensive trips to the supermarket.

Smart folk will also have had all-year-round lettuce growing in greenhouses or cold-frames. No, we’re not that smart, but we will be next year, and if we’d thought ahead enough, we’d have done the same with deep trays of radishes, because they grow so fast that I reckon you could sow them in February and have a harvest easily by now, if you can control light and heat a bit, and there’s nothing like a peppery radish to make you feel that spring is on its way.

Other people, by the way, say the hungry gap is in late May and early June, when the broad beans are ready but nothing else is. Given the way we get through all forms of fresh fruit and vegetables, I would happily say that the hungry gap could be almost any time of year, for us.

I said I would mention himself's runner bean frame. Isn't it a thing of beauty and a joy forever? Well, not a joy forever in the same place, as it's sort of portable, having two long stakes that anchor it to the ground so we can rotate the beans around the plot. It was also the cause of much swearing in the allotment blogger household. Swearing is the natural accompaniment of woodwork, I gather, as green fingernails are the natural accompaniment of harvesting pea pods. The clever among you will have noted that the poles lean outwards - according to Andi Clevely, this makes it easier to harvest the beans. We'll see ...

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, April 16, 2009 2 Comments

April seedlings and potatoes

As of this morning we have nine sweetcorn seedlings, 23 dwarf kale seedlings, and more than 50 petits pois seedlings all springing out of their pots.

And we have five rows of maincrop potatoes (Desiree and Pink Fir Apple) which we planted using a bulb dibber, which is so much easier than trenching them. We’d already planted two rows of first earlies on 201, one row on 235 (and half a dozen tubers went into tyres on both sites, which should be harvestable about a fortnight earlier than those in the ground) and two rows on each plot of second earlies.

There’s a horrible fact about potatoes – when you’re planting them, it seems like you are planting acres, but when you have planted them, and you step back and look at the results, it’s never quite enough to get you through the year without buying spuds.

We also had to earth up our first earlies – they had suddenly put out masses of lovely strong foliage, so that was more back-breaking work with the rake, to cover the potatoes thoroughly so they don’t go green. Another horrible fact about potatoes is that while you can sometimes find easier ways to plant them, I don’t think there is ever an easy way to earth them up – just plain old hard work.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, April 14, 2009 0 Comments

Allotment Problems – perennial weeds

Here’s our worst culprit, the dandelion. And as you can see, the very bad news about these two mammoth horrors is that the taproots have broken, meaning that the entire plant will grow again from the remaining fragment of root in the soil – but that does take a little while (say two years) to happen. Of course, when you get a new allotment in the autumn or winter, you have no idea what’s lurking in the soil, waiting to horrify you in spring. We have dandelions aplenty and as I don’t keep chickens, there’s no point us tolerating them in the soil. They are absolutely swine to remove, especially if you’re trying to be organic.

1. The first thing is prevention: when they are in flower, cut, hoe or kick the heads of dandelions to stop them setting seed that grows into new plants. You can’t kill them by cutting off the tops, although it does weaken them. If you have fairly friable soil they are quite easy to dig you – but if you have a clay soil, like ours, it can be back breaking work to get right down to the end of the taproot and on well-established plants it will often break before you do. Just keep hoeing the top off when the new plant emerges if you have already planted seeds or seedlings around it, but if you haven’t, when the new leaves appear as a rosette, try digging it out again, sometimes it’s easier second time around.
2. I like to pour boiling water over the plants – it cooks them alive! Of course if you’ve got loads, it’s not a time effective way of dealing with them, but where they appear in cracks in paths etc, it can be the simplest and cheapest way to remove them organically.
3. For large areas of dandelion growth, mulching with black plastic, well-weighted down, is the best way to go. First give them the boiling water treatment, then cover them and leave that mulch down for at least three seasons. You can cover the mulch fabric with chippings if you don’t like the look of it. The problem with this method is that if you want to use the soil to grow crops, it’s a nuisance to have substantial areas out of cultivation for nine months of the year.
4. Himself favours the flame thrower approach. He hires one of those weed burners and uses that. The problem with this is that you can’t do it near existing crops or wooden structures and as we have raised wooden beds and wood-edged paths, it’s of limited usefulness.
5. In the long run, better soil kills off weeds – when it’s friable and rich in organic content, weeds aren’t as happy as they are in poor acid soils and they come out a lot easier too!

And in the short run, I dig out all the roots I can, kick the tops of all the ones I can’t and treat them to a kettle-full of boiling water on a regular basis. I also remind myself that I’d rather have dandelions than couch grass, any day!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Sunday, April 12, 2009 4 Comments

Planting Peas on an Allotment

We spent the weekend preparing a runner bean frame (more of that later in the week) and planting peas. I’m of the opinion that you’d can’t have too many peas, and my family generally agrees. Okay, you have to pick peas every day, and okay, you then have to pod them (we aren’t nearly so keen on mange-tout) but even so, our current planting of 76 pea plants is nothing. We have another 140 to go. There are about 28 peas on 235, supported by twiggy branches, and on 201, until Sunday, we had 24 peas growing up a bit of fencing. There were another 24 to go into the ground, which is what I did.

Here’s the pea fencing, which is wire mesh stretched between a metal post banged into the ground and the fence. And below the fence, holes made with a bulb dibber, to put the pea plants into.We grew the peas (Meteor) in toilet roll inners – which allows them to have a really good root development before we put them in the ground. Because we have a bit of a rodent problem, there’s virtually no point planting peas or beans directly in the soil, as the mice dig them up and eat them. Any they miss, they dig up as soon as the first true leaves appear! It seems that growing the peas in this way means that the seedling uses up the pea from which it has grown, making the plant much less attractive to mice - although pigeons still have the occasional rampage.

The seedlings are planted on both sides of the fence and are tall enough when planted out to immediately self-twine themselves onto the fencing. The first row had horticultural fleece to protect them for the first week or so that they were in the ground, but now we hope that the fact that the are close to the fence and other structures will mean that if we do get late frosts (still 12 days to go to our last frost date of 2008) they won't be severe enough to damage the peas, even if they reach them.
Back in the greenhouse there are 100 petits pois being grown two to a paper pot – because they are even smaller than Meteor, we can rip the bottom out of their pots and plant them both at once, if both come up, and the spacing will still be about right for petits pois. And then there are another 40 Meteor, which is another two rows of fencing, which should be ready in about two week’s time.

That means that if we do get any really vicious late frosts, horrible weather or insane attacks by mating pigeons on the peas that are already in the ground, all is not lost.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, April 6, 2009 4 Comments

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