Greenhouse growing in February

It’s all about germination right now. Looking back on last year, when we planted 50 pots of peas (that 150 pea seeds) and nearly all of them were in strong growth by the last week of February, I’m a bit shocked to realise that this year we’ve planted the same number of pots, but with only two seeds each, and several weeks later, so that today we only have a dozen pea seedlings, rather than the hundred plus that we had this time last year. And I’m trying not to panic about it, because actually, it got really difficult last spring to get all the pea seedlings in the ground in good order – the weather turned wet and nasty and so we ended up having mammoth planting sessions that were back-breaking and even then a few peas began to falter in their pots and had their growth checked. We said we’d start later this year and so we have … but it feels all wrong not to have vast acres (okay, vast square feet) of growth going on under glass!

The first of the leek seedlings have appeared – I always forget how miniscule they are for the first few days of life. We didn’t plant enough leeks last year, so I’m hoping that this year we can really get enough in the ground to carry us right through the winter.

Last year’s saved nasturtium seed has rotted off – very strange. I’ve never had that happen before.

Three tiny Nantes carrot seedlings have poked their heads through the compost in their container. They’ll be grown in the greenhouse in the ten inch deep pot they’ve been sown into, to give us very early fingerling carrots.

The picture has been drawn in the window of a neighbour's shed - can't work out if it's graffiti or bored half-term grandchildren getting creative!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, February 25, 2010 4 Comments

Growing sweet potatoes in England

Margaret emailed allotmentblogger@gmail.com to ask what I knew about growing sweet potatoes. The answer is virtually nothing! But I do know a man who grows them, so I wandered along to talk to Andy, whose allotment work is supervised by a seagull called Henry who shares Andy’s lunch and will eat from a fork (I kid you not!)

Apparently the key thing here is to get some organic sweet potatoes if you’re using supermarket stock – because most of the other ones they sell have been treated in some way to stop them sprouting. It’s not that easy to get seed tubers of sweet potatoes in the UK, but Andy doesn’t even bother, he just grows supermarket tubers.

He lays them lengthways, half-covered only, in damp sand over a heated base tray to promote sprouting in early March and this causes ‘slips’ to grow and when they are four or five inches long he breaks them off and pots them into 1 litre pots. Other people grow the slips by setting the lower half (generally more pointy) of the tuber in a jar of water on a windowsill apparently.

Then in late May or early June, once all risk of frost has passed, he sets them out into a sunny trench. Where they go insane! It takes at least 110 days for them to mature and because they are Ipomeas (morning glories) they spread out like jungle plants and tend to take over nearby areas. Keep them warm, keep them watered but don’t worry about pests, it appears they don’t really have any – a bit of wire worm in late tubers is about all he’s seen, he says.

Dig them up as late in September as the good weather permits, then put them in a greenhouse for a week to let the skins cure and the tubers sweeten and Bob’s your uncle, apparently!

Now this is all based on growing in the South East of England, and shouldn't be taken as a guide to anywhere else, but if you treat sweet potatoes as a semi-tropical plant, I think you'll do okay

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Sunday, February 21, 2010 15 Comments

First early potatoes and February weather

I can’t believe that some of our allotment-holders have already put their earliest spuds in, but they have!

I won’t be planting mine until at least mid-March, but this allotment-holder appears to know something I don’t – I fully expected to find some containerised potatoes had been planted on site over the weekend, as I know a lot of our plot-holders are very keen to start off first earlies in tubs and sacks, but I was utterly gobsmacked to find these substantial rows of potatoes already well earthed up.

I shall track down the gardener and find out what variety he or she has planted and what aftercare they use, as my soil stills seems too cold and wet to make a good base for potato planting, but perhaps there’s something to be learnt from this grower? Or perhaps they are just wildly optimistic …

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, February 18, 2010 3 Comments

Growing vegetables under cloches

We don’t use cloches much at the allotment, for two reasons:

1. We start almost everything off in the greenhouse, and only move it outside when the weather is clement
2. We have a nine raised beds – six of them for rotated crops (the others hold early strawberries, late strawberries and asparagus) so we can cover them with fleece if we want to start crops off under cover.

However, we are wondering about whether to put cloches over our earliest potatoes – my parents, down in Torquay have already got their first earlies in the ground under cover, and they were harvesting a month before we were.

At this time of year, lots of gardeners are covering their soil with cloches to warm it up – I’ve never been entirely convinced by this process for two reasons – first I don’t quite see how the soil is warmed (okay, covering it can remove the chill of frost but it can’t actually make it any warmer than the ambient air temperature unless you use black plastic to conduct heat) by covering it, and second, covering soil ignores the action of convection: soil isn’t just made warmer or colder by the sun or frost but also by the movement of water through the soil which freeze in cold temperature and then melts in warmer ones. So if all the soil around the cloche freezes, then surely when it melts again, the meltwater will penetrate quite a way into the soil that hasn’t frozen at all, and drop its temperature?

On the other hand, the value of cloches in protecting tender plants, whether those overwintering or new seedlings, is undoubted – and that’s where we cover our raised beds with one of three media: glass, horticultural fleece or mesh, depending on the plants in question.

I now have ten beef tomato seedlings, so I shall be offering at least seven of them at seedling swaps, and I’ve just covered one of our empty raised beds with fleece and sown the first row of salad seedlings.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, February 15, 2010 11 Comments

Allotment crops in February

There’s not an awful lot going on around the allotments right now. Some people still have Brussels sprouts and kale, on 201 we have a tiny amount of kale but all our Brussels have been harvested. We have also just finished up our parsnips although there are a couple of celeriac still in the ground, I don’t know if they will be any good or not.

We’ve started off our tomatoes too, or at least our beef tomatoes, in a heated propagator at home. We didn’t grow beef tomatoes last year, and I missed them. Now we have a greenhouse I can feel a bit more confident about getting really big tomatoes to ripen, which they just haven’t the past three years, in the open.

The bad news is, it’s snowed again. Nothing has actually settled, but the ground is frozen, which is rather depressing. However, poking through the solid earth I found that the rhubarb, which is indestructible, is on its way. So we’ll at least have broad beans and rhubarb this year …

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, February 11, 2010 3 Comments

Allotment planting February

We finally managed to get our Golden Gourmet shallots in the ground – just in time for predicted snow in the week! We’ve sown three rows, with some sand added to the soil to give them the lighter conditions they like, and we’ve covered the rows with a little netting because we’ve had problems in the past with pigeons pecking out both shallots and onions. No photo, because, seriously photos of shallots being planted are really not interesting! What I do is scrape away a little soil and drop the shallots in – making sure they are root end down – and then just rearrange the soil around them. Lots of books recommend that you ‘simply push the shallot into the soil’ but they don’t presumably, have the clay that we do and the writers don’t presumably, mind losing a few shallots to rot as you push them down onto what turns out to be a stone, puncturing the bulb, which then sits in the cold, and usually damp, winter soil, gently mouldering away instead of growing. I am a pinch-penny gardener and I think the extra couple of seconds required to scrape a shallow trench into which to drop them is worth the effort!

I also transferred two barrows of lovely manure from the heap outside the shop to the bed for our first early potatoes – it’s a pretty long walk with a barrow so two a day is the most I can manage. I’ll need six barrows for the firsts, seconds and maincrops, so I’ll do two a weekend, and still have a couple of spare weekends to dig it in before I have to think about planting the first earlies.

In the greenhouse we’ve started off Feltham First and Meteor peas in toilet roll inner tubes (aka anti-mice devices), a tub planting of Nantes carrots which I’ll hope to be harvesting as baby salad carrots in six weeks time, and two trays of Elephant leeks for transplanting into pots when they are two inches tall, and then again to the plot a little later on. All in all it’s been a productive weekend!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, February 8, 2010 5 Comments

Early potatoes and how to grow them

Quite a few people we know don’t grow potatoes and I can understand why – they take up a lot of space, and require a lot of work, compared to simple plant and harvest crops like carrots or beans. However, there are good reasons to grow potatoes if you have the room: you can invest in non-supermarket varieties that are often tastier than shop bought ones, you can grow enough to store for the winter months when potatoes can become expensive or get the earliest croppers which taste delicious and are much cheaper to grow than to buy!

Very early potatoes are called ‘earlies’ when you grow them yourself and ‘new’ when you buy them in the shops. They are planted at almost the same time as maincrop (standard) potatoes but you harvest them much earlier in the year.

Soil preparation is essential – if you’ve dug the ground over and added as much compost as you can, you should get a good potato harvest. Last year we ended up putting seed potatoes in ground that hadn’t been adequately dug – it really wasn’t worth it as we barely got a crop from them.

Position is key – potatoes like sun, and are best grown in north-south rows to make the most of it – they need lots of space and you can’t grow them in the same ground two years running without risking the development of diseases that will run rampant through your crop. Be aware that potatoes and tomatoes are both part of the nightshade family, so you can’t grow potatoes in soil that held tomatoes in the previous year.

Chit (encourage sprouts on) your seed potatoes by putting them in a cool, light, airy position from around mid February . Lots of people put their seed potatoes in egg boxes – I used to, but now I just put them in a shallow tray and have done with – it doesn’t seem to affect their ability to sprout!

I know people who rub off all but three sprouts. I never bother with that either, although it is supposed to produce fewer but larger potatoes. The key thing is to ensure that the growing sprouts are green – if they are yellow or white the plant isn’t getting enough light.

In most places you’ll want to set your potatoes out around mid March – early potatoes need to be about a foot from each other, with the rows about two feet apart.

And later on we’ll get to the mysteries of earthing up …!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, February 4, 2010 4 Comments

Purple sprouting broccoli in January

We just, just, just managed to pick enough broccoli on 31st January to make a meal out of. The pigeons have obviously done better than we have from our overflow plants, but now the secondary shoots are appearing and the pesky birds seem to be leaving them alone (at least for now).

We also harvested a monster parsnip. I’m not sure how we managed to overlook this goliath and he’s got his shoulders a bit nipped, possibly by the frost that preceded the snow, but even so there’s enough on this baby to make a very good soup, which is great, as the weather’s turned cold again.

What we didn’t manage to do was get any shallots planted. This made it all the more galling to do our monthly tour and discover that many of our neighbours already have the fine green shoots of shallot growth poking out of the frozen ground. On the other hand, Peter-from-two plots-up found that he’d had a whole tray of apples and a bag of shallots nibbled by rodents, so at least our shallots are still whole, and still in their bag, rather than inside a rat!

Speaking of wildlife, as we were heading for the gate we saw a large dog fox mooching around an apple tree on a plot, obviously finding rotten windfalls that were tastier than anything else around. What made it remarkable was that less than three yards away was the plot owner, digging in some manure! She said that the fox often came to within a couple of feet of her and she thought it was because she works shifts and is sometimes the only person on the site early in the morning or late in the evening, so he’d got used to her presence. I wish I’d had my camera handy.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, February 1, 2010 2 Comments

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