Planting currants on allotments
This is the time of year to be planting fruit, which is good, as that’s what we’ve been doing. Actually, it’s a bit more than ‘planting’. January’s workshop on plot #103 is ‘Improving the Plot’ and as I was writing the outline for the session, a creeping feeling doubt began to grow on me. Eventually I put down my keyboard and went up to the plot to try and see what it was that was making me so uncomfortable and as soon as I got there I saw it was the proposed asparagus bed.
When I looked at our raspberry bed, and where we wanted to put the asparagus, I felt we’d made a mistake. Both beds run east to west and for perennial crops that’s less than ideal – it means that one end of the row always gets a lot more sun than the other. So I wanted to have north/south beds if possible, but that would mean dismantling the raspberry bed – and I couldn’t imagine OH being willing to do that.
In fact, when we’d had a long debate about it, and then gone away to do something else while the ideas percolated, we found a compromise solution that works really well. We’re going to plant the raspberries along one of our boundary lines which is difficult to maintain because our neighbours have a bit of an unruly hedge. That means the plants will be north/south and as raspberries are hardy creatures, they’ll cope well with the brambles, elder and other items that make the hedge difficult to cope with. The asparagus bed will run north to south, taking up some of the space that the raspberries used to fill.
While we worked all this out, we planted currants. Bare rooted plants are available from around November to March and December is the ideal planting time for them. Container currants, which is what we had, can be planted all year round, although my preference is to plant in early winter so the plants aren’t stressed into immediate productivity in a spring planting or shocked by sudden cold in autumn into a dormancy that can be difficult to break.
As long as winter soil isn’t frozen or waterlogged, you can plant currant bushes. They need a degree of shelter from strong winds, and like full sun although they will produce good fruit in dappled shade too. Currants need a good-sized planting hole with well rotted manure or compost beneath and around the roots. If you have a container plant with the kind of root binding this one exhibits, you also need to get in there with a hand fork and open up the roots by main force, or the plant may remain root bound forever. Currants just don’t spread bound roots naturally so you have to untwine them and spread them out in the hole to get a good crop of fruit. Given that a good currant bush can fruit consistently for twenty years, it’s worth making the effort.
After planting I prune out any crossing branches and take back other stems to a third of their original length, ensuring that the cut is diagonal so that it doesn’t hold water and that it is made just above an outward facing bud.
It may not look like much now, but this will be a productive fruit garden, with both early and late red and black currants. All we need to do now is work out how to net them against birds!
Seed ordering and swapping
It’s that exciting time of year when we decide what to grow next year. Some things are really easy – Lark F1 hybrid sweetcorn, for example. Yes I know they are F1 and that goes against everything I believe in terms of seed swaps and seed conservation but they taste so very good … nothing else will do. If I can’t have Lark, I don’t grow sweetcorn.
Tomatoes – not a success for us this year, so we’re starting with all new seed, a spring-cleaned greenhouse and new pots. I want to grow one plum tomato, a really good tomato for making passata and a sandwich tomato (one with good flavour and not too moist because they make the bread soggy) and I’m open to suggestions on all three.
Peppers – we’re going back to the chocolate pepper this year – it’s the variety called Choco in the USA and it’s been a reliable, sweet, fleshy pepper for us, it’s always cropped well too. We tried Gourmet this year and it was less good. We also grew Padron and Corno de Toro but they were both too hot for salads (for us) so we’re looking for another bell pepper that’s slightly hotter than Choco, but not as fiery as those two.
Chillies - it's always Royal Blacks for us!
Onions – Kelsae are our best performing seed onions. They are utterly dependable and easy to get started if you have a heated greenhouse or electric propagator. And they can become real giants without sacrificing flavour or cutting quality.
What are you growing in 2012?
Permanent fruit beds and winter allotments
For the first time, we had a casualty on the allotment. Mr Green was blown over by the wind, and had spent a couple of days face down on a red cabbage. Fortunately the purple kale bent under his weight, rather than snapping, so we can still expect to harvest from it for a few more weeks.
We had a bit of a bicker about the fruit area, which has ended up with us having a fruit cage. Well, we don’t have a fruit cage … yet. We will though. We have four currant bushes and two honeyberry bushes to plant in the permanent fruit area. I wanted to net each bush individually while OH was in favour of building a cage. I don’t like cages for two reasons, no, three reasons.
1. They are ugly.
2. They get damaged easily
3. Birds get trapped in them and panic
Nope, four reasons:
4. They are painful to get into and out of and pick inside.
OH reasoned thus: he has to build whatever system we use; netting is ugly too; birds get trapped in netting that’s pegged even easier than in a cage; netting has to be lifted and replaced to pick fruit.
And that means that he won the debate because he’s right – he has to build it, so whatever he says goes! Although I’m the one who mends cages (we once worked together to line a butterfly world with netting: hand-sewing every inch of a building the size of a small aircraft hanger, in December and January - since then he has not sewn netting!) and there are three holes in our brassica cage that have to be patched before summer. I think a fox chased a rat into the cage – that’s what usually makes tear holes, rather than gnaw holes in plastic netting.
When we’d got over that, and while OH ‘pruned’ the pear tree (which is code for sawing off yet another of its misshapen and hideously crossed branches – we are doing one a year) I lifted the wire mesh off the onions, which are doing extremely well, and had a look around to see what else had been damaged by the wind/rain/frost/snow. Everything looked pretty good, and so it wasn’t until we got ready to lock up that we noticed that one of our shed’s glass roof panels had come adrift from its neighbour. So that’s another job to be tackled next time we’re up at the plot.
Digging allotments – do you or don’t you?
We’re in the middle of a big dig. Plot #103 was neglected for years before we took it on, so the soil is heavily compacted. Packed down soil, that is largely clay over chalk, does not retain water, has little fertility and is inclined to crack in dry weather leaving channels which ants and other somewhat dubious creatures find useful.
As a result, we’re digging the plot, bit by bit, incorporating manure in some areas and compost in others. In five years we hope to only be digging small areas: maybe to lift the roots of old brassicas that have been cut off at ground level, and to released the hard-packed soil that allowed those plants to produce their crops. Of course we’ll end up digging where we plant root crops, as there’s a necessary amount of soil turning that goes on to get the crop out of the ground, but we don’t expect to be digging over where we’ve planted our peas or beans much in future, assuming we can get the perennial weeds out this year.
We also have to dig over the area that will become the asparagus bed, removing every bit of weed root that we can, without breaking things like these damned dandelions, lifting and breaking up the soil and adding some nicely aged manure as well as compost to create a fine soil that is rich in nutrients without being overly weighted in the direction of nitrogen.
It needs to be able to support the crowns for many years once they’ve been planted, as it won’t get dug again, so it’s important to ensure the drainage is good, the soil is of equal consistency right across the bed and any chunks of clay or chalk are removed so that they don’t form an impermeable area of ground which could lead to the crown planted above them being less productive.
I think no dig systems sound fine in theory, but rarely work in practice –while I do know some proponents of permaculture and no-dig who are making it work for them, they don’t grow the range of foods that I do – I want an allotment that is as productive as possible in fruit, vegetables and flowers, and that means working hard on soil quality, so I think we’ll always be digging around half the plot.
Allotment broad beans and winter preparations
Yes, the first of the broad beans have emerged! As usual, despite the gales and snow, wind and sleet, the broad beans have decided it’s their time to appear. It always amazes me just how tough some plants are – the broad beans that are as tender as cherries when picked young enough, grow on a plant that emerges in the worst of winter and grows steadily through the most damaging and difficult weather of the year. Miraculous.
And yes, as an aside, that is black and gold distressed nail varnish in the photo – very Christmassy, I think, like a Renaissance picture frame …
Anyway, once I’d stopped showing off and put my work gloves back on, we had some winter protection to undertake. First, checking the covers on the compost bins. By next year we hope to have slanted plastic covers that provide for water conservation too, by taking the runoff from the bins into a little tank that can be used to water seedlings, but this year we’ve just got a couple of pallets laid over two of them and corrugated plastic over the third. This helps to retain the heat in the heap and stops it getting so wet through rain that all the nutrients are washed down into the soil below the bins.
Then checking the greenhouse. We haven’t ‘winterised’ the allotment greenhouse, because we start our seedlings off in the home greenhouse, so all we needed to do was check the joints, check the guttering from that greenhouse that runs into one of our two water butts (the other is on the celestial glasshouse [formerly known as the voodoo shed]) and finally to see if any of the plants that are being overwintered: sweet peas, tarragon, parsley, pelargoniums, thyme, need watering. They did, because the greenhouse door had blown open and one of the major overlooked effects of winter is the desiccating effect of cold winds, which take the moisture out of leaves as well as out of soil in pots – plants that have been well cut back, such as pelargoniums, probably only need watering once or maybe twice in winter, but herbs that get cut back and used, like tarragon and thyme, may need a monthly sprinkle of water, or more if they’ve been exposed to icy gusts, as ours were.
Finally we had to check the trees to ensure we had no broken branches that might come down (fortunately not, but we do have to get on with pruning the apples in the next fortnight) and damage our crops and then home to warm up!
Allotment hauls and overwintered crops
Below is my photo for Matron’s 20 December blog about Christmas vegetables, complete with an impromptu portrait of my toes!
We emptied one of our potato containers for the photo, managing that time to photograph both my toes and OH's, and were pleased with the results: a reasonable haul of fresh potatoes with a lovely floury flavour that is unusual in December. These are the potatoes that we grow in bags, sacks and boxes in odd corners around the site that aren’t being used – as we approach the first frost date we move the containers into the cold greenhouse so that they don’t get damaged by the cold, and then we empty out one container at a time until we’ve used them all up.
In addition to the potatoes we’ll be harvesting purple kale, mooli, parsnips and (we hope) early purple sprouting broccoli to eat for our Christmas dinner. We’ll also have garlic to roast and mash into these lovely spuds . . .
Winter protection on allotments
Our broad bean ‘cloches’ appear to be holding up really well. In previous years we’ve started off our overwintering broad beans under glass, but with the new restrictions in our allotment rules about using glass on allotments, we decided to adopt a new method. I’m actually rather in favour of the new rules, as I’ve spent many years trying to get rid of broken windows and shattered panes of glass that former allotment-holders had abandoned on their plots. Some sites remove glass but charge the incoming allotment-holder, some remove it but at the council operatives’ leisure (longest time I’ve waited – seven months!) and some insist that the new tenant removes it themselves. In every case, it’s a bother.
So we’ve come up with a combination method that we hope will work: seeds mulched with newspaper, topped with straw and then covered with horticultural fleece. We mark the rows and then dampen sheets of newspaper and lay along the planting line, through which we dib holes to the right depth for the seed, sow the seed and infill with compost. Then we strew hay over the top, tent the fleece over the line markers and pin it down with old scaffold poles that we found at the back of the voodoo shed, along with the walking sticks, the nine mirrors and the dolls’ heads.
The theory is one we’ve used in the past for summer crops. The wet newspaper suppresses weed growth around the seedlings as they emerge, the straw traps warmth and the fleece keeps off damage, in this case snow and ice, while allowing moisture to penetrate.
We were a bit worried that the wintry gales over the weekend could have ravaged the broad beans, but it turns out that our theory holds good so far … as long as the wind stays below hurricane levels I think we’ll have found a new and productive system for early broad bean germination.
Pinch and Punch, new allotment month
December is usually a month of frosts and gales and this one has started exactly on target: today was as close to frost as December can be without actually freezing and the winds over the last two nights were phenomenal. Not looking forward to pruning apple trees unless those windspeeds drop a lot!
When we left the plot on Wednesday, the broad beans looked like this: I wonder if the fleece is still over them, or whether it’s in torn tatters all over the site? I won’t know until tomorrow when I can get back to the plot.
I’ve moved the chilli plants indoors for the winter – many people don’t know that chillies can be overwintered, although they need either a heated greenhouse or to be in the house proper to make it through the bad weather. I grow Royal Black Chillies, which have miniature fruit that look very pretty as indoor Christmas decorations, and which can be frozen whole to use throughout the year in cooking. The fruit are black but mature to a pillar-box red colour when ripe. I remove about half the fruit when I bring the plants in, and leave the rest to look attractive through the cold months.
I wash and freeze the ones I take off the plant, and then take out one or two as I want to use them, halving them, scraping out the seeds and slicing the flesh direct from the freezer.
Bizarrely, one of our old espaliered apple trees decided to produce blossom this week too – although I’m willing to bet that definitely won’t still be there by the weekend!
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