Asparagus beds: getting ready to get ready
It still doesn’t look wintry on plot #103 – chipping paths definitely help by stopping the mud that plagued us on plot #201, but even so, this looks ridiculously summery to me.
Allotments are 90% preparation, 10% perspiration, in my experience! So we’re busy trying to work out exactly how to build our asparagus bed.
Those of you who have read the book will know that this is not a new experience for us. It’s the fifth asparagus bed we’ve built in our lives, the third, in fact, in five years … are we crazy? (Don’t answer that).
So, we’ve got some substantial wood, rather like railway sleepers, to make the bed itself, but before we can get on with it, we have to double dig, or as Woody Wilbury has it ‘bastard trench’. I haven’t heard that phrase for years, but his post on the subject is well worth reading, and anyway, I want everybody else to get the earworm it’s given me.
We need to bastard trench with manure so that the soil is both enriched and well drained, then we can put up the bed walls and continue to till the soil so that we can be sure we have no weeds or weed seeds that will compete with the asparagus. As the bed could be in place for twenty years, it’s worth doing the work now to reap the rewards later.
We can only get an east/west facing asparagus bed, not a north/south one which is a bit annoying, and we’ll have to stagger the crowns to ensure they don’t shade each other. We’ve thought a lot about this as the location has to work for the plants and within our overall crop rotation system, but we’ve finally decided that the location will be directly in front of the greenhouse, where the borlotti beans were this year, which is good as it offers a substantial nitrogen load to the soil in that location. But as it’s just been chucking it down in stair-rods and umbrella spokes for the entire day, our bastard trenching may have to wait for a week or so.
In the meantime we got a good haul from the allotment: a smallish red cabbage (ideal for winter coleslaw), a mooli, a huge leek and some oriental greens for a stir-fry. Not bad for the last week of November!
Allotment Book Review: The Fruit Tree Handbook
It’s not a secret that I have a yearning to own an orchard. It’s not something that comes up in the average conversation, it’s true, but many people who know me are aware of this particular ambition of mine. I’ve documented my fruitless (pun intended) quest for a quince tree small enough for our allotment site, for example. As a result, books about fruit trees feature much more often on my wish-list than would normally be the case for a non-orchard-owning individual.
The Fruit Tree Handbook, by Ben Pike, is a book I’ve been looking forward to for a while … not just because it covers some of the rarer trees like the eponymous quince and the medlar but because it has that most rare of sections – an orchard management plan! Yes, I’ve been able to indulge my fantasy of buying a neglected orchard and bringing it back to productive life, via the pages of Ben’s book!
This is a book for the tree grower, pruner and fruit harvester, not the cook. If it has a weakness it’s the sections on storing and using fruits that follow each tree section: they definitely feel like an afterthought and have little detail. For example, I would very much like to know how to scald plums with boiling water to stop their skins toughening when frozen – is this blanching or pouring boiling water over plums in a colander? Do they have to be left in the water for only a split second, or for longer? The alternative, Ben says, is to ‘use ascorbic acid’ but how?
On the other hand, if you want one book on pruning fruit trees, this is the one. The illustrations are clear and easy to follow, the pruning schemes (based either on the formation of new trees or working with established ones like those one inherits on an allotment site!) are comprehensive and intelligent and the intention behind pruning – the bit that’s often left out – is so clearly stated that if you have any doubt about what you are doing you can revisit the purpose to each stage of pruning and from that understanding of purpose, work out how to tackle any tree. Brilliant work, beautifully presented.
As I say, this is not a book for a fruit user, but its value to any fruit tree owner is immense – it’s both a manifesto for growing fruit and a horticultural bible. Like most gardening books these days, it’s also a visual feast, with a blend of informative photographs and aspirational ones: clear pictures of fruit scab are balanced with evocative ones of elderly gents with ladders and fruit boxes in poetic looking orchards. One of the most useful parts of the text is an excellent glossary, which I think a beginner would find invaluable, and having tested the index extensively against my own experience, I think the more experienced grower will find it contains just about everything I could think of, from diploids to Winter Nellis!
Highly recommended as a book to browse for the sheer pleasure of reading about this wonderful part of the British landscape, as well as a good reference manual for your garden, allotment or orchard trees.
Allotment shallots revisited
The tradition is to plant shallots around the shortest day of the year in the UK which is 21 December and then to lift on the longest which is 21 June. Shallots turn up all the time in supermarkets now, and cost a fortune, so it’s worth growing your own even if you don’t have an allotment. As they need a period of cold to divide and produce more shallots, we tend to get them into the ground earlier than 21 December, as our warmer winters mean there's a risk they won't get the 30+ days of near or sub zero temperature that they need.
To plant them, offer a rich but well-drained soil as they are prone to rotting if it’s too waterlogged. Plant them like a miniature onion, with just the tops visible. Don’t push them down into the earth as all the old gardening books say: it damages them if they get bruised or can even cause them to fracture on stones or bits of sharp grit in the soil which gives mould and disease easy access to the bulb.
If they are planted around six inches apart and weeded carefully you can pretty well ignore them until the growing tops begin to yellow, which shows it is harvest time. They keep well and have a wonderful flavour, like concentrated onions in a titchy format.
A couple of years ago I wasn’t sure why the folk lore claimed that if you want large shallots you should plant small ones, and if you want small shallots you should plant large ones. However, I think I have now found out why. It’s because the smaller shallots are the outside cloves, which are productive (they bulb and produce other cloves) while the big ones tend to be big inner cloves around which the smaller ones would nestle and they don’t have the same cellular make-up as the little ones: the larger ones act more as a food store, and if you planted a whole head of shallots you’d find that the outside ones multiplied while the inside one (or ones) will shrivel up and rot away, as they transfer their store of nutrients to the outer ones. If you plant a large shallot and it’s an inner one it will tend just to replicate, not to proliferate, apparently!
Once again: leek moth
I thought we’d got away with it, but once again plot #103 has been blighted by leek moth. This year we spread our leeks out in the edible landscape and around half of them have been tunnelled by the moth, but the other half have escaped unscathed. This is rather cool news, as I had thought it was possible to limit the effects of the blight by breaking up the traditional rows of leeks so that the moths struggled to find the next plant to attack and that does seem to be true.
We still have to be vigilant about removing every trace of leek debris from the plot, and burning it, so that the adult moths which are tiny and which over-winter in leek debris, are totally destroyed.
It seems that our plan to encourage winter birds is working too: birds, bats, frogs and beetles are all moth and caterpillar consumers. So are hedgehogs but I think our site has too many foxes for us to have a hedgehog population, certainly I’ve never seen a hedgepig on the site. Anyway, we can also cover leeks with fleece (although I hate that, as I try to keep the ugliness of fleece to a minimum), dig over the soil in winter so that any moths and pupae below the surface are available for predators or killed by frost, and above all we can try to not plant our leeks out until Mid May, which is past the peak of the egg-laying season.
Broad bean day
Sunday was a teaching day on the plot for me, and rather delightfully, it turned out to be balmy and sunny so students got to spend time outdoors in very clement weather, planting our broad beans!
One of the things we talked about was crop rotation and raised bed versus no bed systems of growing. I’ve noticed that people often don’t get the hang of raised bed crop rotation systems because it doesn’t get covered very much in books, and so there’s very little explanation of the downside of raised beds. Apart from the cost, there really isn’t much of an argument against raised beds, but what argument there is, can be based on crop rotation.
I’ve found from time to time that people just don’t understand that you can’t grow everything in the same kind of soil. Our great-grandparents knew this: they knew Kent was good for apple trees and Lincolnshire for potatoes, Yorkshire for rhubarb and Scotland for raspberries. But we want to grow everything well, regardless of climate and soil, and to a certain extent, we can. However, it’s important to understand the soil conditions that different plants require. You can grow fantastic sweetcorn in rich, deep soil, well-manured and high in nutrients, but plant Brussels sprouts in the same soil and they will produce flowery cabbages on the vertical stem instead of neat little sprouts, and parsnips planted in those conditions will probably fang, producing any number of roots like a wisdom tooth instead of one long, deep, straight root.
Brussels, you see, like a limed soil which is heavily compacted around their roots as both too much richness and too much wind can cause the sprouts to ‘blow’ into mini-cabbages while parsnips like free-draining soil, preferably sandy, and not too rich, or they too get carried away and try producing five roots when one would do. They’ll also fang (or fork) if they hit a pebble or rock, so you need to take all those impediments to straight growth out of a parsnip bed before you sow seed.
Most of us growing in open beds opt for a fairly neutral soil, liming a bit for brassicas, using potatoes to break up the ground where the brassicas were the previous year, and so on. But often raised beds get filled up with beautiful rich compost from day one, so they produce wonderful leafing and fruiting crops, but awful rooting ones and brassicas just refuse to play along at all in such potent soil And then the allotment holder or grower doesn’t know how to rectify the problem.
We work our raised beds on a rotation system with the top four inches of soil being taken off the bed every fifth year and replaced with fresh compost, after which they are used grow something insanely luxurious like melons for the first year. In the fifth year we use them to grow parsnips, adding quite a lot of sand to the less than rich soil, but also feeding the roots with granulated fertiliser and with a foliar feed. This means we get the maximum productivity from each bed before we have to scrape a top layer off (which is used in pots and planters) to replenish it with fresh soil. This also removes any build up of bacterial or fungal threats to our plants.
Allotment delights and disappointments
Well, we can’t have a quince. The excellent David at Brogdale confirmed that we can’t get a decent fruiting quince on a quince C graft but only an A and an A graft which would mean a tree of 2-3 metres. The maximum height of trees on our site is 2.4 metres and a quince pruned down to that height would probably never crop.
I can’t tell you how sad I am about this. But I am a responsible allotment-holder, and a former committee member, and I know that breaking the rules, even with the best of intentions, leads to all kinds of problems. So with great regret I’m giving up the idea of a quince tree – and that is going to disappoint everybody who tried membrillo at our last workshop and was looking forward to picking quinces in a couple of years to make their own!
Instead I’m back to currants and cranberries as the staple elements of the perennial fruiting quarter of the allotment. That sector of the plot is backed by two espaliered apple trees and on the other side of the path are two rather ill-shaped but productive pear trees (planted far too close together by a previous tenant) so the fruit issue is well addressed even if we don’t have another cropping tree.
And in other more exciting news, Minding My Peas and Cucumbers has been nominated for an award! If you'd like to vote, please click here and fill in the survey: you can vote for your favourite garden related presenter, TV programme, seed company, blog (sadly, we didn’t get nominated this year but several really good bloggers did!) and tool or implement as well as for books …
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