Allotment tasks at Halloween
The last day of October is when we take stock for winter. The first frosts are normally around and about, not quite with us yet, but air temperatures have dropped enough for us to see the effects: the butternut squash is denuded of leaves already.
We’re planning to harvest the last of the mini cauliflowers this week, and start lifting the leeks for winter use. We’ve been picking kale for weeks, and we’re wondering if anything short of a tactical strike with a smart missile will kill off the whitefly that are making each kale plant an unsightly mess. For three years we haven’t had a hard enough frost to destroy all the whitefly and infestation levels are ridiculous now – walking our plot causes clouds of tiny white insects to fly up in a horrible wave that gets in one’s hair and even up one’s nose! There are some bigger uglies on plot 103 too ...
Our carrots are all container grown and in sheltered positions so we’re not lifting them, but if we had ground grown carrots we’d be taking them up now to store in a clamp or to blanch and freeze. Our parsnips stay in the ground, with a bit of fleece over the top of the raised bed to stop them freezing fast in the ground (if we’re lucky enough to get enough of a frost, that is).
We’re going up this week to cover the compost bins (cardboard is enough, although next spring I hope to put up corrugated plastic ‘roofs’ that will also be water harvesting systems) so that the rain doesn’t wash all the nutrients out of the compost and to try and keep warmth up so decomposition continues, even if slowly.
We can have open fires on site as from tomorrow and we have another tree to burn! Yes, OH finally conceded that the apple tree at the top of the plot was simply a nuisance and it’s gone. We think it might have been a seed-grown tree as it was very badly sited, just a couple of feet from two well-espaliered apples; it produced few fruit last year and even fewer this year, so out it’s come. Instead, we’ll sear the ends of the twiggy branches that will serve to support our flowers and bush-beans next year, cut up the main trunk to give to friends with wood-burning stoves, and burn all the middling wood that’s too small to log and too large to compost in an open fire over the stump of the tree to kill the root.
The area in which it was growing is set aside for currants and other perennial frhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifuits so we’re aiming to get a quince tree to replace the apple, if we can find one that will be productive within the 2 metre height restriction that operates on our site. To my great joy, that means a trip to Brogdale …
Planning allotment crop rotation
According to the RHS there are three reasons to rotate crops: soil fertility, pests and diseases and weeds. I have to say, that third point has never occurred to me, but actually it’s pretty logical – certain crops like squashes (and rhubarb, although it’s a perennial and isn’t rotated) have large lush leaves that tend to suppress the weed growth underneath them (even bindweed which will become pale and even more straggly, but is pretty well ineradicable) which means that if you plant something after them that is easily swamped by weeds, you’ve already reduced the chance of harm to that later crop.
The classic way of rotating crops is to divide your growing space into four, with a fifth space for perennials, and then rotate through the four vegetable families:
1. Brassicas – which like a firm, well-limed soil
2. Legumes – peas and broad beans in particular (other kinds of beans, like French, runner and bush beans don’t have the same soil-based requirements and problems and can be dotted around)
3. Onions – plus garlic, shallots and leeks
4. Potatoes – spuds and tomatoes, which suffer from the same devastating blight. Peppers and aubergines are in the same family but less prone to the blight and can be dotted around or (more likely in the UK) grown under glass.
I put beetroot, carrots and the celery family in with the onion family and always grow my parsnips in special raised beds. Swedes and turnips go in with the brassicas because they are the same family.
Then you simply move the plot around, clockwise or counter-clockwise, every year legumes follow brassicas and are followed by onions and then by potatoes and back to brassicas etc.
Of course we have a brassica cage too, for our purple-sprouting broccoli and calabrese and every year we have to relocate that. Most of the rest of our crop rotation is a bit more haphazard than the ideal plan, because we have a mad blend of classical four bed system, plus raised beds, plus edible landscaping but it seems to work out for us.
Allotment Seed Saving
I just looked at what I was posting 12 months ago and I’m doing exactly the same thing this week! The house is full of saucers and bowls and various other containers full of seeds. The soldier beans did well this year and they’re a great addition to an edible landscape because they are bush beans.
Bush beans require some support – usually twiggy sticks but they are highly fertile and attract many pollinators – as a result you can grow them more widely spaced and they still produce lots of beans. We often sow an informal hedge of bush beans to act as a windbreak for more tender plants like sweetcorn seedlings, but they can also be dotted about an edible landscape. We sow two seed in a paper pot and then when they germinate, pinch out the weaker one and plant the stronger, pot and all, alongside a twiggy branch that we’ve charred the end of (to stop it rooting!) and just stuck in the ground. The bean grows into the branch for support and with eight or ten spread around the place, we get a good harvest of beans without having to allocate a separate area for them on the plot.
At this time of year we just cut down the bean plant, leaving the roots in the ground to add to the nitrogen levels, and move the stick, if it’s still usable, to another location so that we don’t sow the same plant in the same place two years running. In edible landscaping, simple crop rotation is maintained by immediately marking a new spot for a crop when you remove the old one, otherwise it can be easy to forget what was planted where.
I’ve got packets of fennel and marigolds for companion planting, Royal Black Chillies, coriander, dill and garlic chives to swap, and we’ll be having a seed swap as part of the Grow and Tell workshop on 13 November, so I’m also packing up flower seeds like purple ipomeas, sweet peas, woad and lupins to be able to swap with people. The last place on the workshop was taken this morning so I’m looking forward to meeting some new participants and seeing how they get on with planning a theoretical crop rotation of their own!
Overwintering allotment potatoes
Okay it’s hardly winter yet, but we’ve just emptied our first box of ‘winter’ potatoes. If you have a garden or allotment that has a few wasted corners, you can use them to grow container spuds without much cost or effort.
First – there’s not a lot of point container-growing anything other than premium potatoes: we like to grow King Edwards for their exceptional quality, and also these, which are Rocket first earlies. We have three containers of Rocket one of which is this old recycling box which somehow got a large hole in the base. It’s no good for anything except as an allotment container, so we’ve saved it from being recycled to serve this purpose.
We fill the bin with leftover seed and cutting compost. What we do is use the compost left over from growing seeds or cuttings, put it into a large bucket and when we’re ready to plant the potatoes, we just give it a big stir and pour it in. This means that we are re-using something that would otherwise be discarded, so we’re benefitting twice from our purchase or production of good compost.
The potatoes, apart from this lot, are now in the cold greenhouse, still in their containers. We got nineteen spuds from three seed potatoes in this tub, and expect to get around the same amount from the other two containers, which won’t be harvested until Christmas week. This means we have new potatoes for Christmas, at the cost of £1.99 (for all ten seed) potatoes, as the compost has already been used once and therefore is cost-neutral.
To grow Christmas potatoes, you simply get some first earlies in August, plant them in containers and let them get on with it. We give ours a liquid feed (usually comfrey tea) a week after we plant them to ensure they are well on their way. Before the first frost the haulms (the greenery) will die down and at that point you stop watering them or you run the risk of having them rot in wet compost.
Come late December you simply tip the container up and harvest the gorgeously fresh potatoes. If there is no sun they will tend not to cure (leave them in sunshine for 4-6 hours for their skins to harden up a bit) so we grow waxy rather than flour Christmas spuds as we don’t like them exploding in the saucepan which is what tends to happen if they are grown over the winter.
Onion set preparation
A lot of people seemed to have decided in recent decades that large-scale onion production on allotments wasn’t cost effective. The last couple of years of recession have begun to change that view and lots more allotment-holders are getting ready to plant over-wintering onions than I’ve seen for a long time.
Growing overwintering onions is simple. It can involve either sets or seeds and this year we’re growing both. The sets are Electric and Senshyu and the seeds are Kelsae. This week we planted out the sets.
Soil for good onions needs to be rich in slow-release nutrients – if you use anything too juicy, like manure, too close to planting date, the onions just bolt, but if the soil is too poor, they don’t bulb up properly. As a result we use a granular slow feed about a week before planting them out. In previous years we’ve also used fish, blood and bone but that’s a bit of a non-starter on plot #103 as the local fox (lives in the shed next door) is very keen on vacuuming up that particular form of feed and will remove or tear through netting to get to it!
The soil also needs to be finely raked and for this we’re using raised beds this year. In previous years we’ve used a tiller to produce fine tilth in the open ground into which they can be planted.
Some people (and some ill-informed books) tell you to just ‘push’ your set into the soil. This is, in my opinion, a stupid thing to do. Onion sets are really easy to grow, but one of the very few ways you can make a mess of them is to start shoving them into the ground. Two things can happen that damage an onion: you can press too hard, pinch or twist it, so that the small bulb is bruised inside the papery skin which leads to a deformed onion or one that rots before it can grow, or you can push it down into the soil and come across a pebble, stone or other hard object, which tears a hole through the root base of the set and leads to rot or deformation as above.
Instead of pushing, try dibbing little holes for your onion sets so that they can be popped, rather than pushed, into the fine soil. The pointy end goes up, the nubbly or whiskery end goes down (never be embarrassed not to know stuff like that – everybody has to start somewhere!) Plant on a dry day, preferably with a couple of days of dry weather beforehand – that’s why we get ours in the ground in October, because November is too unpredictable in terms of rain. Gently nudge the soil back around the set.
We plant ours around 15cm apart. If you put them closer together you get smaller onions, but if you set them further apart, you don’t get bigger ones, unless you are growing something in the exhibition line, like Kelsae (which I’ll be posting about in a couple of weeks). It’s also good to note that if you find some of your sets are tiny, they are actually the better plants, as they are less likely to bolt – the bigger the bulb the great the risk of it bolting and producing a flower-head.
Once they are planted, cover the planting area with netting to stop birds pulling them out of the ground and then lift it whenever you need to, to hoe or hand-weed between the sets. You don’t need to water, overwintering onions are more likely to rot through overwatering than to dehydrate through lack of it.
And that’s it! Once the sets are well rooted, you can take the netting off permanently, and then leave them, apart from weeding/hoeing, until you lift them in June.
Apparently the RHS think it’s a bad year for pumpkins and a good year for apples. I definitely concur on the apple front, but our pumpkins have been pretty good this year.
I think we were lucky in that we decided, deliberately, to grow smaller varieties of pumpkins and squashes, because I find the vast orange beasts totally demoralising: you can pretty well only get into them with a hatchet, when you do get in you have kilos of flesh to process and the discarded rinds fill up almost half a compost bin on their own.
The Turk’s Turban, although we only got two fruit, were delicious, and the small pumpkins grew three fruit after I stopped the rest, and the remaining vine is stubbornly producing one more now, long after it should have given up. The baby pumpkin is still green and about the size of a milk bottle, so it probably won’t cure by the time the frost hits, but if it doesn’t we’ll have green pumpkin to make chutney with.
The two big pumpkin vines were grown really for ground cover – just to suppress weeds and fill in areas of plot #103 that weren’t ready for a more sensitive crop. Both produced a single pumpkin after I stopped the other flowers setting, and although one was rather damp and had to be lifted onto a roof tile to ensure better air circulation and turned a fraction of an inch every day for a fortnight to get the damp area to cure, the other, planted in a weed heap by the rhubarb, is still roaring away, becoming more orange by the minute.
What we failed on completely was butternut squash. Not a single whole squash was produced all summer. We had one, but it split, and there are two about half-sized squashes, still struggling along on the vine, but to be honest, I don’t fancy their chances.
Looking at the cost, we paid £1.50 for our Turk’s Turban seed, grew five plants, planted out two and harvested two squashes, so seventy-five pence each. I have six seed still to grow this year, so if I get two more squashes (which is a bare minimum, I reckon) they will have cost around forty pence each – bargain! The other pumpkin seeds were all swaps, so they cost me nothing. The big beasts kept down weeds and counted towards our cultivatable area, so we avoided a weed notice, and the small ones produced three fruit for nothing, each fruit giving a couple of kilos of flesh. The butternut was an orphan plant left outside the allotment with a tray of siblings and a note saying ‘help yourselves’.
For all the pumpkins there was the cost of germinating in potting compost, the foliar feed was a home-made comfrey soup and the mulches on which they sat were also free (either cardboard or chippings, with roof tiles taken [with permission] from skips, so the cost there was less than pennies.
It may be a bad year for the RHS, but it’s a great year for plot #103!
More herbs for allotment overwintering
• Usually, thyme just gets on with the job – ours is planted in containers this year, as we are still playing around with the location of paths on plot #103, but next year it will be a plant, along with lavender, that frames the chipping paths and offers an easy cutting location. Many herbs don’t get eaten because they are in a place that’s inaccessible or unpleasant to get to in winter. No point having a bay tree if you have to wade across a muddy patch to reach it, because most of us will just do without the bay leaves! If the weather is truly harsh I drop a little cloche over the thyme when it’s planted in the ground, but as it’s in pots this year, it’s moving into the cold greenhouse as its roots are much more susceptible to damage in a pot.
• Sage – there’s a temptation to cut back leggy sage now, but don’t do it! Wait until spring … I lost quite a few autumn-pruned sage before I learnt this lesson, the straggly stems seem untidy but obviously offer some root protection through the winter. Sage is one of our favourite winter herbs and I cut a long stem almost every time we visit the allotment – the leaves are either chopped and added to cheese scones or fried in butter and dropped on top of soups and stews. Either way, sage is great for those winter sore throats that plague some people, and you can just make it into a tea.
• Fennel - I cut the heads off the fennel as soon as they brown and turn them upside down in a large paper bag to dry. This is not just so we can have the seed (although it’s great added to bean dishes to prevent flatulence or chewed when you’ve been eating garlic or cumin to cut through the taste/odour and make the mouth sweet again) but to stop it spreading. Fennel will germinate madly once it likes the conditions and I get fed up with pulling baby fennel plants out of the rest of the allotment. When I want fennel seed I just shake the bag and grab a pinch of the seed that lands in the bottom.
Otherwise, this week’s haul is a bit meagre: some borlottis ready to go home and be taken out of their pods, the one and only butternut that made it to maturity (and even that split), a few golden raspberries and a handful of greenhouse herbs to have with our lunchtime cauliflower cheese pie.
Allotment herbs and flowers
This is the time of year when I am doing extensive work with herbs: I’m either planting or transplanting, drying or freezing, all in order to have enough fresh herbs to get through the winter. Because people often don’t realise that herbs can really change the way we cook and taste food, I thought I’d do a couple of blogs on how I store my herbs to get me through the winter.
• Different herbs require different treatment – we freeze parsley for example by laying it out on large trays and open freezing it. Then we put it in plastic bags and use a rolling pin to crush it before putting it in small plastic boxes so that a pinch or two can be added to an omelette mix, while a ladleful gets shoved into a minestrone soup.
• I dig up the tarragon (French, never Russian) and divide it, putting one plant in each unheated greenhouse and replanting the rest, ensuring that there’s reasonable shelter and drainage. Tarragon sometimes makes it through the winter here, and sometimes doesn’t, so having plants in the greenhouse to replant in April when the heavy frosts are over is an insurance policy. Dividing tarragon also keeps the plant vigorous so that it produces more leaves.
• Basil is fast growing and tender and gets sown every six weeks or so through the winter, starting off in the kitchen and when the plants have four leaves, being moved out to the greenhouses – this gives us a constant succession of large-leaved succulent basil to eat. While the winter growth is slow, it’s great to have fresh basil in January and for the price of just one pot of supermarket basil I can sow four or five 20cm pots with seed which keep us going for half the year.
• In this picture, along with the marigolds I use to make salads and the nerines I grow because I love the colour, you can see the lemon balm and scented-leaf pelargoniums. We use both in cold drinks in summer, by freezing the leaves into ice-cube trays or skewering them with slices of fresh fruit on the rim of a glass. The lemon balm just gets thrown away in November, with a single root being replanted in a pot in the cold greenhouse – replanted outdoors in a pot in April, it’s always a huge bush by June – basically it’s a herbal thug which is never allowed near open ground as it runs riot. The pelargoniums are different: because their scent is so redolent of summer, I like to keep them in flower all year if I can, which means moving them indoors (they need 7C or more at night to stay in bloom) and cutting them back by about half, so they don’t need too much water which can cause them to rot if the temperature drops unexpectedly. I use the lemon-scented pelargonium leaves to flavour scones and cakes as well as adding them to flower arrangements in winter so that by brushing or pinching the leaves as I pass, I can scent the room with them. Also in the photo is tansy which can be used as an insecticide, although it's probably not recommended around fish as it can kill them.
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