Crystal cucumbers and voodoo sheds

We have finally exorcised the voodoo shed – we decided the way to do it was give the shed the most wholesome, productive and healthy crop to grow, so that it would become cleansed and serene as a result. The crop we chose was Crystal Apple cucumbers, which are possibly the most celestial of vegetables, they should have little angel wings!

Seriously though, we’re really proud of the way the voodoo shed has gone from being a derelict holder of old rubbish and ‘the walking sticks of the dead’ to a clean and hygienic glasshouse. And we do like Crystal Apple (also known as Crystal Lemon) which are pretty little cucumbers: pale green-white in colour and charmingly tasty. They are also open-pollinated, so once you’ve got a plant or two, you’ve got seeds for the rest of your life. What they aren’t (always) is hardy outdoors in the UK, so this year we’re trying them in glasshouse (formerly known as the voodoo shed) but with the door and window open to allow pollinating insects in but keep frost and gales out.

Crystal Apple is great for salads and sandwiches, and needs to be picked daily, because once it starts to become yellowish the fruit is past its best and becomes bitter really quickly.

And in addition to the rehabilitation of the shed, we have relocated, and restyled, the green man, who this month is a green woman in a rather fetching dress …

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, April 28, 2011 4 Comments

103 – strawberry bed made for summer

I always think it’s a bit odd to make up a strawberry bed: sounds like eiderdowns and pillows and such when in fact ‘making up’ for my strawberries involves barley straw and—this year—the amazing strawberry dome!

Usually I wouldn’t be strawing until mid May, but the fruit is so well developed, as you can see, that it needed to be done this week to stop the green berries resting on the soil which has several unpleasant consequences: where the fruit touches the ground it can start to rot; once it gets dirty the fruit is more difficult to clean, especially as grit and grains of soil can embed themselves in the growing fruit as it presses into the ground; slugs and snails can travel over wet earth much more easily than they can over straw, and love to munch out the insides of fruit resting on the ground. There’s also a couple of benefits to strawing the fruit when it comes to picking: first, they ripen more evenly as the pale straw reflects back the sun to the underside of the plant and second, ripe fruit are much easier to spot against the golden straw than they are against dirt!

When it came to our circular bed, we were a bit unsure about the dome that supports the net, but it worked out okay. The instructions showed the struts being placed outside the largest metal circle but we found it more structurally sound to set them inside the metal. We haven’t used the pegs and ties, but simply put stones on the outside of the net to hold it down, as we aren’t sure how often we’re going to have get in there and weed, as we’ve strawed them so early. Now I can’t wait until they are ripe!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 6 Comments

Allotment Productivity and Inspections

There has been (or soon will be) an inspection of our allotment site. It’s always a time of some trepidation for those of us who have been given a plot fairly recently. We were given plot #103 nearly a year ago – in June 2010 in fact, so we get quite worried about whether we’ve ‘done enough’ to avoid a cultivation notice.

So I’ve been looking at the evidence: this is plot 103 when we took it over last June. Not so much an allotment as a place with potential to be an allotment. We took a good look at the trees and the lack of cultivation and decided that we could do something with it. Of course at the time we didn’t know about the lizards …

Lizards are a protected species and you are not supposed to do anything that will disturb their habitat, so when we found a complete nest (haven, collection, flock?) of juvenile lizards in the August, we realised we were going to have to do a bit less work and a bit more environment management than we’d anticipated. We’re still trying to work out how to get the bottom corner of the plot into reasonable cultivation whilst preserving the home of the lizards but I think we’ve made a reasonable fist of getting quite a lot of the rest of the plot into cultivation.

From this picture you can see that the trees are gone, there’s a strawberry bed, a raspberry bed, broad beans, onions, cardoons and currants. We’ve sown a bed of parsnips and got another ready for leeks, while the double beds behind the fuchsia are for sweetcorn when it’s ready to go out. Then there’s a bed for courgettes and both sides of the path are in the process of being planted: the east side with flowers and perennials and the west side with salad vegetables and winter greens.

But we won’t know for a couple of weeks, until we hear that others have been given their cultivation notice and we haven't …

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, April 11, 2011 6 Comments

Container gardening for allotments and homes

We’re told that many more people want to grow fruit, flowers and vegetables at home in the current economic climate. This could be an attempt to save money (in which case they are on a hiding to nothing, honestly speaking!), or a concern about food miles and carbon footprints or just that UK holidays have become more attractive (or families even do without a summer holiday because money’s tight) leading people to realise they can be at home to nurture plants through the summer.

So … how do you get started?

Well there are loads of starter kits out there and very gorgeous they are too, but assuming you have a little common sense and no money, why not look at what you’ve already got to serve as containers?

In the picture are an old metal trough that a neighbour was throwing away and a plastic shopping bag on which the handle snapped. Both have holes drilled in the bottom and a layer of grit to allow for good drainage. The trough has a row of radishes in between two rows of carrots which we will pick at fingerling length and the shopping basket will produce three reasonable-sized parsnips: not as long as the ones I grow on the plot because it doesn’t have enough depth, but enough for a meal. And the reason I bother with that basket of parsnips? That basket, the trough and a couple of other old receptacles, are filled with last year’s tomato compost mixed with a third of the volume of sand and they make superb straight parsnips in soil that would otherwise just be scattered on the garden, so I get two years of crops from every grow-bag, if you like.

This works because parsnips and carrots will fork or fang in an overly rich soil or one that has stones in, so by re-using a semi-exhausted growing medium (tomatoes are demanding) I can grow crops outside my back door in soil and containers that would otherwise pretty well be thrown away.

And I happen to think they look rather attractive. Nifty and thrifty, that’s my motto!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, April 7, 2011 0 Comments

Potting On

Today is grey, chilly and totally not allotment weather. So I’ve been transplanting my tomato seedlings. Working in the garden greenhouse is fantastic, as I can make as much mess as I like and I’m still out of the extremely cold wind that’s blowing in Sussex.

We don’t grow tomatoes outdoors, or haven’t until this year. We certainly won’t on the allotment as the site is blight-ridden and every year we watch people lose their entire tomato crop to the blight and it’s heart-breaking. At home we never grew tomatoes outdoors because little Falco dog would eat them (he also dug up carrots and parsnips and ate those) but as he’s no longer with us, perhaps we’ll try a few hardier varieties in the south border.

Anyway, today I had Yellow Submarine and Orange Heart ready to be moved into the next size of pot. I have a confession to make now, just to prove I am an honest gardener. The Yellow Submarine have gone into little pots because I only intend to keep two plants and will be giving two away. When I was writing “Minding My Peas And Cucumbers” I got involved in trying to work out whether you could actually make a profit from running an allotment and had an awful realisation. I was calculating up the amount I spend on sowing and potting compost and it seemed awfully high for the volume of medium that was actually around the plot. Then I saw the truth—because we pot everything on and give lots of seedlings away when we have decided which we want to keep—I have, for years, been giving away about half the compost that I buy.

So now I have become mean. I pot all the seedlings that I’m not sure I’m going to keep into little pots so that when I give them away I’m not donating most of my compost too!

On the other hand, the Orange Heart tomatoes will probably all stay with us, so I’ve put them in bigger pots.

One thing that I notice with novice vegetable growers is that they make a couple of mistakes with potting on: one is that they don’t bury the stem almost right up to the leaves when they repot a plant. Tomatoes and peppers need to be sunk right back into the compost when you transplant them as this makes them stronger and less likely to snap as they grow and become heavy with produce. As you can see, that spindly stem that the seedling has produced is now deep in the rich soil that surrounds each plant in its own pot.

The other mistake is that beginners tend to keep a large ball of compost around the roots of the seedling when they move it into a bigger pot. It’s only my view, but I think this can lead to problems, particularly if you’re using a medium like John Innes #2 to germinate seeds. The reason I think it’s wrong is that those seed-germinating mixes seem to run out of nutrients really quickly and by the time the plant has put out the first true leaves it’s pretty well exhausted the food in the soil, so if you move that soil over into the new pot, you’re going to have an area of nutritionally depleted compost in which the roots are sitting which can check the plant’s growth.

So my babies are growing up and some of them are going to need new homes soon!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, April 5, 2011 1 Comments

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