Seed saving and winter planning
This year we are saving:
• Shallots – we grew reds this year and will buy golden shallots to plant next year – we always save one year’s seed and buy a new variety too, as there are so many to choose from
• Royal Black Chilli – as always: I can give away the seed and I never have to throw away the seedlings I germinate, also I give away the ripe chillies which are very popular.
• Crystal Lemon cucumber – because I get asked for the seed all the time.
We are not saving:
• Padron peppers – just too hot for us really. We like hot and sweet but not purely hot, so we won’t grow these from seed again.
• Chard – I still don’t like it. Tastes like a bucket of mud!
I’ve torn out the sweet peas and I’m digging over the soil and adding some well-rotted compost to prepare that area before planting a thornless blackberry to grow up the mesh screening that previously supported the sweet peas: it was always our intention to use this as a fruit support but we didn’t have time to do it last year.
The peas will come out this week too. We’ve already decided where to put the brassica cage next year, and so we’re readying the rest of the area for potatoes. Not sure where the onions are going to be planted yet: last year they did pretty well dotted around the edges of our curved paths but we can’t repeat that this year. We’ve also worked out where to put the asparagus bed which is so exciting it’s keeping me awake at night! And for my birthday this year I’m going to Brogdale to choose some new currant bushes … I can’t wait.
Allotment gluts and swaps
Fair exchange is no robbery – so when a neighbour said she had more plums than she could use, I agreed to take as many as I could manage. They are Victorias and made a lovely plum and apple jam with the windfall apples from the park. I took up a jar of said jam on Sunday, but she had already finished for the day so I left it outside her greenhouse.
There’s a lot of this kind of thing that happens on allotments: our butternut squash plant is one of half a dozen that were just left outside the allotment gates with a notice saying ‘help yourself’. We’ve swapped or given away hundreds of plants over the years, and why not? We can’t grow them all ourselves and in a good year we may have a dozen times more seedlings than we have room for.
Of course sometimes you receive something you just couldn’t ever pay for – our greenhouse was given to us! We simply had to dismantle it and walk it down the path from the plot it was on, to ours. We were able to give the donor’s daughter and son-in-law half a load of manure in thanks, but there’s really no comparison. I was hoping to be able to give them some lovely produce this year too, but that’s looking less likely. Despite having three aubergine plants, I can’t get any two of them to produce a flower at the same time, so although they flower, I don’t think there’s any pollination going on. I’ve had this problem with aubergines before, some years ago, and I’d forgotten how frustrating it is, so I think that next year I’ll give aubergines a break and grow something else!
Our golden raspberries are doing well – we had the first really ripe fruit on Sunday and it was good: tangy and sweet, just what we were hoping for. They are supposed to be autumn fruiting but everything is a few weeks early this year. I think raspberries, like currants, do tend to produce a little earlier in their first year of planting because they respond to the stress of a changed environment by fruiting prolifically, so I’m hoping that they will come good for us this year in August and then settle down and produce fruit in September.
Overcrowded alpine strawberries.
Each plant has formed four or five clumps.
The plants get bunged in a washing up bowl.
And are then divided. Many are replanted in pots.
And ruthlessly pruned to encourage root formation.
The bed gets weeded, lightly manured and levelled.
Replanted alpines look scrawny but will fill the bed in a year!
Wildlife gardening on allotments
This wasn’t what I planned to write about today – I’d intended to document the process of clearing and readying a strawberry bed for winter – but once I started work, on Sunday, it became obvious that I wasn’t going to get the whole thing done in a day, so I’m postponing that particular process until later in the week and instead showing you how the wildlife garden is developing.
There are three wildlife areas on plot 103, each of which combines wildlife friendly perennials with native flowers and some early and late season flowers that aren’t necessarily native but that provide pollen and nectar when there’s little else around. One area is under the elder tree on our east boundary. The tree is on our neighbour’s land so we have to live with it, but as with most elders, nothing much will live under it! I’m sowing wildflower seed and some purchased alliums on the basis that the soil is useless for anything else but an elder is a relatively good wildlife habitat so I can at least boost the diversity of the little area by offering a range of foodstuffs etc.
The area around our pear trees at the top of the plot will also become a wildlife area: it’s quite good soil but has to cope with us using the shed and the celestial potting shed, and the water butt that is attached to those structures, so there’s a lot of footfall and water spillage going on. We’ll have more of a wetland area up there, with limnanthes planted around the water butt itself and a range of native plants around and between the two trees – the plants will be chose for the tolerance to being trodden on and scythed down!
And the pond is the real wildlife garden – OH was working hard at clearing this area on Sunday and has removed a lot of the rubbishy stuff: intertwined ivy and crocosmia for example, so that we can plant a more complex and diverse range. In the metre of ground between the pond (old bath, really) and the hedge there was nothing but ivy and nettles – now we’ll add all kinds of interesting plants: fennel and woad for height, woodruff and goat’s beard on the shady side, borage and gentians on the sunny one … it will look wonderful one day, and already it looks better, if you ask me!
Deterring Cabbage Whites
We’re fighting something of a battle – we’ve got most of the brassicas in our cage, and the cauliflowers are covered by smaller netted cages – but the cabbage whites have got hold of one batch of spinach and have had a fair go at one of the newly planted hollyhocks and a couple of the red cabbages. This year I think we’re closer to winning than losing, but we’ve got to uncover the cauliflowers soon, as their leaves are pushing against the sides of their cages and then ….
Our only recourse, once the plants are exposed, is the inspection and squashing route. This means a daily turning over the leaves of cabbages and cauliflowers and squashing the clumps of small yellow eggs with gloved fingers. Other people can squash the caterpillars too, but I can’t. If I see them on the ground, I can tread on them, but I can’t actually squish them with my hands. I’ll get a little help from the starlings and some other birds, but it’s difficult for any predator to keep pace with the number of caterpillars that can hatch in a couple of days. There’s an organic deterrent in the form of a bacterium that you can spray on the plants but I haven’t got to that point yet. I try to think about routes like nematodes and organic treatments but they don’t come naturally to me, to be honest.
I’ve heard it said that it’s better to avoid planting colourful flowering plants near brassicas because the colour/nectar can attract the caterpillars. This year we’re not growing nasturtiums as they are said to be the biggest attractor of cabbage whites. Are there fewer cabbage whites? I believe so, but that could just be wishful thinking.
Conversely I’ve known people have some success with setting small white objects, like ping-pong balls, amongst the brassicas – apparently it makes the butterflies think a rival is already on the leaves. Next year I might even try cutting some fake butterflies from white plastic – maybe that would serve as a deterrent?
Edible border update
I’m happy with the way the edible borders are working out. From now on it should get easier every year, as perennials do their jobs in anchoring the borders. Their jobs, apart from being edible, are:
• To attract pollinating insects (or those predating on insects that damage crops)
• To provide shade or shelter or to act as a companion for a valued annual
• To be a habitat for desirable wildlife
• To be beautiful.
It seems that the judging committee are more or less in agreement with me on this, as they have given us second place in the category ‘Most Creative Allotment’!
It’s a new competition, and we’re new to plot 103, so we had no idea what the judges considered to be ‘creative’ and quite possibly they had no idea what we were trying to achieve with plot 103, but obviously something of our intention got through.
I’m a bit miffed that we didn’t get better marks for our herbs, which I think probably happened because the judges didn’t find all our herbs (dotted around the plot as they are) and therefore didn’t see that we have two categories of herb: edible and cosmetic, and that they are completely integrated into the border planting rather than being in a separate section (apart from the mints, which are segregated in containers under the apple trees, like the ‘dangerous’ wing of a prison) so that they complement other crops.
For example, we have basil growing around our tomatoes to improve their flavour, borage alongside our squashes to attract pollinators, dill with our cucumbers and kale goes next to our lavender plants because lavender deters whitefly. We have soapwort to wash our hands with and cotton lavender and ginger mint to tie in bunches to hang in doorways and deter flies. Then there’s the agastache, mint, chamomile and hyssop that can be used for tea … I’m sure they didn’t spot them all!
Anyway, we’re really thrilled to have got second place and I suspect we’ll be entering again next year.
Summer allotment cultivation
If you can actually see your allotment at present, you clearly don’t have the driving rain that we have. I am not complaining though! Well, maybe I am, a little bit.
The thing about British weather is that it seems to be tending to extremes these days – it’s always been changeable, of course, but now it’s not changing within what seems to me to be normal parameters but veering between arctic and tropic or arid and monsoon – and today is monsoon!
It’s still pretty warm out there, but the rain is relentless and filling the water butts and buckets, pots and trays. I’m sure that it’s washing all my seeds into the lowest point of the bed so that when they germinate they will all come up in a clump and have to be thinned and, with any luck, transplanted, although with the current level of rainfall they might just float away altogether! I did manage to get to the plot yesterday to harvest courgettes and spinach to make a summer pie, plus rocket, mountain spinach and chillies for a salad and sweet peas and white lavender just to fill a vase. It's bizarre to see that the spinach began to wilt within two minutes of being picked because of the heat, while today it's been flattened to the ground by the torrents of rain!
It’s also a bit annoying because I wanted to pinch out the beans today. Runners and borlotti beans in particular benefit from having their tops pinched out when they reach the top of their canes, so that they produce more beans further down the plant. I can still ‘stop’ the tomato plants though, by cutting off the growing tip on the main stem. This causes the plant’s energy to remain on filling the fruit that have already been set, rather than on producing more leaves, more stems and more flowers, which creates smaller fruit.
The brassica cage is looking great – and the rain will deter some of the whitefly that cluster around brassicas. It will bring out the slugs and snails, of course, but the purple sprouting broccoli, perpetual broccoli and kale are now big enough to fight off that kind of depredation and the cage stops the plants having to contend with caterpillar attacks.
Sowing August vegetables
It is hot out there!
We’re still sowing, but honestly, only about 25% of our seeds are germinating and that’s probably down to aridity: we can water and water and water the soil but if there’s no underlying moisture to break the dormancy cycle of the seed, it won’t germinate. And underlying moisture, for seeds, needs to be constant, accessible and only about an inch or an inch and a half below the surface, not the three to four inches down that it is on plot 103.
There are three reasons our growing medium is so arid:
1. We’ve only been cultivating it a year so it’s still a compacted form of soil without much nutrient content
2. It’s neglected soil, so it tends to have no organic matter (except for the roots of perennial weeds!) to hold moisture
3. Plot 103 once had 5 trees on it: two oaks, two elder and a rowan – where there are, or have been, tree roots, you tend to find the topsoil is dry because the trees blocked precipitation and their roots drained the surface moisture away – it takes a while for any soil to recover from that.
And that means that seeds aren’t doing anything much. We’re not alone in the problem, loads of allotment holders are complaining about the low germination rates since June, and I’ve been preparing seed beds by:
• Working in compost – but because we’ve only had 103 for a year, we haven’t been able to make much compost so we don’t have much to dig in
• Watering and then covering with newspaper to hold in the sub-surface moisture, then watering again for several days in a row – this builds up a level of moisture below the newspaper that seeds can draw on when you finally lift the paper and sow them.
Still, the things that will always germinate are rocket, winter density lettuce and radishes. Less guaranteed are spring and Chinese cabbages, white Lisbon onions and spinach (although our spinach has germinated this year) and really quite tricksy unless conditions are good are kohlrabi, turnips and carrots. And you can see from that list that the quicker a thing grows to maturity, the more likely it is to germinate in summer – the more ‘input’ a plant needs to reach maturity, the greater the likelihood it will sulkily refuse to get started at all, unless conditions are perfect.
And if you've got poor soil, it's always wise to sow as much as you can in biodegradable pots so that you can control the conditions of germination perfectly - it seems to have worked for our hundredweight pumpkin!
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