Allotment slugs, circular beds and edible landscaping

Plot 103 is literally taking shape, and the shape is circular! It’s caused a little debate in our allotment neighbours (along with our scarecrow changing gender from Mrs Green to Green Man!) and I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to people about what we’re trying to do and why. That means OH has spent quite a lot of time doing the actual tough work of digging and shaping the growing areas and the end result, yesterday, was the emergence of the second circular bed.

It looks great (yes, the cardoons are in the wrong place and need to be moved, but that’s where they were when we got the plot and we haven’t been able to relocate them yet) and echoes the shape of the round, tiered strawberry planter. The brassica cage sits off centre in the circle (which is actually something of an ovoid) and will be surrounded by edible planting.

The edible planting is starting to take shape too, although it’s still very low and unexciting to look at right now. One of the problems with starting an edible landscape from scratch is that nearly everything goes in as seedlings, so for the first year the planting is rather flat in profile. We’re working around what we decided to keep in place for at least a year: the cardoons, the redcurrants and the gooseberries and trying to build height and interest as soon as we can with fast-growing tall plants like hollyhocks, sweetcorn and mountain spinach and through annual climbers growing up screening. From next year some perennials like lavender, small rose bushes, fruit bushes and perennial broccoli will give structure through the year while others, like the cardoons and rhubarb, will give dramatic ‘splash shapes’ in summer and then pretty well vanish in the winter.

Anyway, in the picture you can see a planted area in front of the brassica cage that contains (from foreground to background) Redbor kale, fennel, leek, red cabbage, white poppy, iris, lavender, patio rose. In the metal hoop is another dwarf lavender seedling and a sprinkle of cornflower and other wildflower seeds. This planting area has been finished off over the weekend with a few nicotiana seedlings and a couple of marigolds.

A primary idea is that the mixed planting encourages pollinators and a wide range of other insects but confuses pests (like leek moth and carrot fly) that find their host plant by smell and work through a row or bed of the same plant, destroying them all. Another key idea that informs the creation of an edible landscape is that is should be beautiful. Ours isn’t yet… but I hope it will be by the autumn.

Under one of the many bits of random metal, concrete and slab that are buried below the soil on plot 103 we found this monster. I’m not sure what it is but I think it’s a leopard slug. Urgh.

And I'm teaching a free workshop on writing about growing things on Saturday, if you're in Hove (East Sussex) and want to come along. It's first come, first served for around 20 people at Hove Library, New Church Road, starting at 11am and finishing at 1pm - I am bringing some allotment based baking to share at coffee break and there is a little writing competition to make it more fun!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, May 31, 2011 4 Comments

Growing plants in dry, windy weather

It’s been an unusual spring, with very little rain and lots of strong winds, rising to amber alert (gale force) along the south east coast of the UK, an almost unheard of situation without lots of rain to accompany the gales.

All this can make it very difficult to keep seedlings alive – most seeds, no matter how tough they are before they germinate, produce extremely tender seedlings with stems that are both fragile and full of water which acts as a the carrier for all the nutrients provided by soil and light and the chemical ‘messages’ that instruct the seed how to grow. It’s a time when plants are very active, which is why they can be so easily damaged if any part of the miniature plant is squashed, torn or otherwise deformed.

One way that seedlings become deformed is wind damage. If the young plant is subject to hot dry wind on one side only, the cells on that side of the stem will become tougher and dryer. It’s the same principle as the one that makes trees produce more and bigger leaves on the lee side of a wind, but in a seedling the effect of desiccation on a stem can lead to uneven growth throughout the rest of the life of the plant, and that’s bad news if you are hoping to get a good crop from it. In extreme cases, the instructions being conveyed to the plant can fail to get through, leading to the plant failing to grow at all on that side, which causes collapse.

Obviously watering is important, but while many plants benefit from evening watering so they can take up as much of the liquid as possible and avoid being scorched by the heat of the sun on the water, some, like tomatoes, prefer to be watered early in the morning as they do not like spending a night with cool damp roots.

Windbreaks are valuable too, and putting up mesh or fleece to shelter plants from the effects of scouring hot dry winds will really benefit seedlings. Solid windbreaks can create funnel effects with the wind piling in over the top so they should be avoided (in gales they also fall down and flatten the plants behind them!)

Mulching is a great way to protect plants from desiccation – grass clippings laid between newly planted crops can hold down a lot of moisture and keep the soil soft enough for new plants to get their roots out easily. Don’t put grass right up against little plants though, as that can overheat them and cause them to die off – leave a couple of inches space around each seedling.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, May 25, 2011 4 Comments

Broad Bean Top Pie

For some reason this is called Top Hat Pie in our house. No idea why. Several people asked what to do with broad bean tops once you’ve pinched them out, and apart from stir-frying them, this is our favourite recipe.

First pinch out your broad beans – this stops them getting blackfly. Once they’ve set bean pods at the bottom, you can take out the top growth with your finger and thumb. This encourages the pods to fill and stops the beans getting taller (and therefore prone to blow over in gales like the current one!).

Broad bean tops have a texture a little like spinach and a flavour like broad beans but with an added component of fragrance (as if you’d put a drop of Anais Anais in the cooking water) that is a reminder of the wonderful scent of the flowers.

Ingredients

• 1 pack chilled puff pastry (you’d have to be mad to make your own!)
• 2 tablespoons olive oil (for greasing and frying)
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• Around 350 grams (uncooked weight) broad bean tops, washed and shaken
• 3 hard boiled eggs
• 150 grams sliced mushrooms
• A good pinch of dill
• An even better pinch of thyme
• You own favourite cheese sauce (if you don’t make cheese sauce, try combining a tub of marscapone with a good soft piece of brie and beating them together – instant cheesy goo!)
• 75 grams strong Cheddar.

Method

Oil a casserole dish. Bring a large saucepan to the boil and steam the broad bean tops for around 5 – 7 minutes. They change colour from light to dark when ready. Put them in a colander and push out any excess water you can.

Lightly fry the mushrooms with the garlic and herbs. While you are doing this, preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.

Strew a layer of mushrooms in the bottom of the dish, top slices of egg, then half the broad bean tops, then a layer of Cheddar and half the cheese sauce. Repeat the process.

Roll out the pastry and cut a circle to cover the dish, making a good sized vent in the centre to allow steam to escape. If you are posh, brush with beaten egg.

Put the casserole on a baking tray and bake for 10 minutes before reducing heat to 180 degrees for a further 20 minutes.

Delicious hot or cold, but quite gooey, so don’t take it to a picnic!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, May 23, 2011 4 Comments

Edible landscapes and other allotment experiments

I have been reading and re-reading all my reference books, trying to find cogent examples of how to get started on edible landscaping. Sadly, none of the books I have actually explain how to go from traditional to edible landscape growing. Alys Fowler has good hints and tips but doesn’t explain how to start with bare earth and lay out an edible garden.

And anyway, we’re not ‘just’ edible gardening, we’re keeping some perennial beds and the brassica cage, because I refuse to let the birds have access to my purple-sprouting broccoli (mainly because they don’t share, they eat the whole damn lot!) And the peas of course - can't live without acres of peas!

So … we’ve made a sort of a start. I’m beginning to fill in the odd shaped gaps between the raised beds. I’ve planted out the chilli plants that won’t be overwintered in the house this year and the overstock sweetcorn seedlings, some dwarf lavender grown from seed, sown small drifts of wildflower seeds and salads, planted sage, chives and lemon basil and relocated lupins and hollyhocks. I still have red cabbage, kale, leeks, marigolds and drumstick primulas to plant out and walking onions, currants and thornless blackberries to relocate to the ‘landscape’. The whole thing feels very weird – dotting things around in a totally haphazard fashion – but we’ll see how it goes!

We’ve also got our back door container sowings to keep an eye on. The parsnips and carrots are doing well and the first potatoes have come out and the planter has been re-sown with white carrots as a main crop. After the carrots come out, we sow oriental greens in the planter as an overwintering crop and then empty the totally spent compost into the compost bin and begin again the following year with new compost and more early potatoes: three crops from one container and one lot of soil!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, May 18, 2011 4 Comments

Sweetcorn planting and aminopyralid (manure) problems

We spent Sunday planting out our sweetcorn. This year we’ve planted up a double bed, as we found last year’s crop to be just a little too small, and we’ve used fleece to act as a windbreak around the lower 25-30 cm of the bed, just to give the baby sweetcorn a chance to get their roots down before the Sussex winds start ripping into them. We have some old trellis that sits on the two corners from which our most prevalent wind arrives (although now we have a middle row plot I think this will be less of an issue than it was on the windy end plot #201).

This year we’re trying not to be the first to plant everything, so we’ve waited until around a third of allotments have sweetcorn out before planting ours. Last year, for some reason, we were first with just about everything and I’m not sure we gained anything for our troubles but extra work in protecting tender crops from wind, air-frosts and predators who flocked to our plot because we had the only food around!

Sadly, since 2008 there have been intermittent problems with horse manure being contaminated with aminopyralid, a herbicide that causes peculiar curling problems with leaf growth, particularly on the solonacae family (potatoes and tomatoes and their ilk) and dahlias.

Our next door neighbours have been unlucky enough to use contaminated manure and the results can be seen on their potato crop.
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If you are buying horse manure, try to find out if Forefront, Banish, Halcyon, Pharaoh, Pro-Banish, and Runway have been used on the grass that the horses have eaten. If so you may find there are aminopyralid residues in the manure and that’s bad news for the allotment-holder! Further information on the problem can be found here and if you think you have a problem, contact your local council as soon as possible to get their advice.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, May 16, 2011 7 Comments

Growing Lemongrass in the UK

Apparently, lemongrass can be grown from seed in the UK. This is something I’ve never tried, and I know it would need a heated propagator or at very least a kitchen windowsill.

Instead, if you don't have a neighbour who grows lemongrass, wait until February, then buy a couple of lemongrass stems from the supermarket. You need to be sure they have bases on, which you can check by fiddling around with the packing until you can see the bottom of the lemongrass – if it has a solid base, you can get it to grow, but if you can see rings (like a miniature leek in cross section) the base has been removed and it probably won’t root.

There are two schools of thought about getting lemongrass to root: the ‘glass of water’ school and the devotees of the ‘pot of sowing compost’ route. As I had two stems to root, I decided I would try one each way. If you’re trying to get roots in a glass of water, remember to change the water every day and if you’re rooting it in damp compost, it’s worth cutting a circle from a plastic tub and laying over the soil surface so the stem pokes through a hole cut in the middle: this keeps the moisture levels up by preventing evaporation. In either case you need a heated greenhouse or warm windowsill to put the glass/pot on.

My experience suggests that the stem in potting medium roots better. That’s the one on the right of the photograph, the one on the left is from the water. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Once all risk of frost is past, I simply plant my lemongrass out in a sheltered spot on the allotment: it can make five feet in height (it’s a grass, remember?) so give it some space, but if you want to eat it regularly, I’d say take out stems on a regular basis as soon as it makes around 24 inches of growth. This year I’ve put mine in the top of the strawberry bed – by the time the net comes off it will be well established and then it can grow there until October, when I will take a couple of stems, with roots, and set them in a pot to overwinter in the house, while the rest gets dug up, topped and tailed and frozen. The top tier of my strawberry bed has a tree stump in it, so there wasn’t really much room for strawberries, but a fast-growing and tropical grass will like that location and benefit from the feeds we give the strawberry plants too.

Lemongrass works just as well frozen as fresh, so you can cut it to convenient lengths, peel away tough and flavourless outside layers and open-freeze on a tray before packing into a resealable bag. An outlet of a couple of pounds for good fresh lemongrass stems from a supermarket should – with care – provide a lifetime of fresh lemongrass for cooking, plus lots of rooted stems you can simply slice away from the parent plant with a good trowel and give to friends to grow. It likes to be reasonably moist, and enjoys free draining soil (which also makes it easier to harvest) but isn’t too fussy as long as it has lots of sun in summer and isn’t in a harsh wind.

The first frost will take the plant down though, so remember to get some indoors and into a reasonable sized pot, several weeks before there’s any risk of air chill.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, May 11, 2011 6 Comments

Weekend working at the allotment

Sometimes things go better if I take a day off … or even two!

On Saturday I had a full and demanding day of meeting friends, celebrating birthdays and visiting the beach. On Sunday I spent the day walking with a friend and then cooking a roast pork lunch.

The net result of my almost total allotment neglect is that I now have a roof on my shed and three (yes three!) compost bins!

Of course it’s because I was out of the way that OH was able to get on with his famed structural stuff – when I’m there he’s constantly distracted by the process of growing things, harvesting things and killing the things that stop our things growing or eat them before we can.

But today I have made up for things. I’ve planted the lemongrass (tutorial in the next post for those who didn’t know you could grow your own!); harvested strawberries; planted out fennel, lavender and some bulbs; inaugurated the first compost bin with most of a spotted laurel, some comfrey ribs and chicken manure; picked out the broad bean tops; weeded the salad bed and taken two bags of rubbish to the tip.

The beans were getting infested with blackfly, so I’ve picked all the infested tops and disposed of them and then checked all the other plants and the ones that have already set beans have had their good tops picked out too, so that the aphids find them less attractive. It’s one of the downsides of not overwintering broad beans that the aphids find the succulent tips so delicious and the ants farm the aphids so that there’s a constant source of aphids being herded to the plants. But at least we have broad beans this year – so many people lost their overwintered ones to snow.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, May 9, 2011 0 Comments

Strawberries and Compost

I’m amazed by the strawberries – and my cynicism says that it can’t end well! Surely it’s way too early for them to be turning colour already? Anyway, I’m going up and peering at them daily, wondering how on earth they are going to survive the April showers that we didn’t get, and which will almost certainly turn up in May to beat the poor half-ripe berries into the straw.

And we’ve been trying to work out where to put a compost bin or three. The problem is that we need more space than we have. Well, that’s not true. We have loads of space, but most of it is occupied by horrible old plastic rubbish bins, broken glass, random bits of chicken wire nailed to staves, tree stumps and buried sheets of corrugated iron. We’re digging it out, piling it up and taking it to the tip as fast as we can, but between that kind of miserable discovery, the nettles, and the dandelions, we’re a bit stuck.

I want to have three lovely big slatted bins, so that I can fork the contents of one bin into the next and produce compost as fast as possible (we need it, and we have plenty of waste greens to convert to soil goodness) but there’s no point doing any of that unless we can clear enough space for OH to build the bins and whenever we get around to clearing a new area, supposedly for the bins, we end up putting something else there, like the brassica frame.

With a new plot it’s a constant battle: crops or infrastructure. Do we plant something or make a path? Should we work on locating water butts and guttering or finding spaces for our thornless blackberries and (very thorny) tayberries? Is it better to get our cultivation percentage up or to create some supports for our raspberries? I get totally confused about how best to develop plot 103 and end up doing about a dozen things at once … and then I forget about all of it and go and have another look at the strawberries!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, May 5, 2011 2 Comments

Allotment tasks in May

If this was Sesame Street, today’s blog would be brought to you by the word ‘lots’.

Lots of Life

We started with lots of wildlife, some welcome, some not. Lovely slow worms, all sizes, all colours but why are they so happily co-existing with vast numbers of woodlice? It’s not that I have a particular problem with woodlice but I’d really rather not see anything bug-like in quite such infestation proportions. Slow worms are supposed to eat woodlice and other shelled creatures although their preferred diet seems to be softer prey such as slugs.

On the other hand, it’s rather pleasing to see those empty snail shells: the slow worms are doing their job in that respect. It’s about time that the frogs and lizards got their act together and started munching up the woodlice, in my view!

Lots of Work

At one point we were wavering between bringing our old bean frame (made from the teenager’s out-grown toddler bed and some canes) down from plot 201 and building a new one with some metal mesh fence panels we’d been offered. I was in favour of the wooden construction but OH liked the idea of a metal frame as it would last longer and be much sturdier than a wooden one. As OH is the one who has to do all the design and building of structures, I usually fall in with his plans. This time though, I suggested we try moving the old frame before coming to a decision and to my great joy we managed to walk the old bean frame down one allotment path and along another with only the loss of a couple of canes, which a neighbour kindly gathered up and returned to us.

I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t want a metal bean frame even if it was guaranteed to last till Armageddon! I thought it would be ugly and difficult to move each year for crop rotation and once our wooden frame was in place, OH agreed that it’s better to stick to what we’ve got than try a new system that might not work as well (phew!)

This frame will be for borlotti beans again. We don’t grow runners any more as we find we get given enough runner beans by other allotment holders never to need to grow our own, and instead we grow beans we can dry and use through the winter.

Lots of Crops

We do like our peas, I can’t deny it, but even for us this is a staggeringly large amount of peas. I’m getting worried now that this hot dry weather will stop the maincrops producing pods (peas like cool weather) but there are already good pods on the earlies and we’re going up tonight to harvest some as mangetout.

The thing with peas is the more you pick, the more you get! Once they start to show croppable pods (if you eat the pods, as we do) they you might as well take off every third pod in a row and stir fry them as you’ll get fatter peas in the other pods as a result.

The parsnips are germinating nicely, the rocket and lettuce are off and running, and there are pods on the broad beans. It’s starting to look like an allotment at last!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, May 3, 2011 5 Comments

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