Winter arrives at the allotments
On Sunday we got a number of things done, just in time. While OH was up the ladder, pruning (by which I mean hacking and sawing) a third off one of the espaliered apple trees, I was busy wrapping the strawberry bed in fleece against the frosts that my instinct told me were on their way.
It turns out I was right! Today's sub-sub-zero temperatures definitely prove that a grower's instincts are usually to be trusted.
While we were busy with that, and with burning some of last year’s prunings (both an essential task to clear the allotment of old wood and an essential contribution to us being able to move our freezing fingers and warm our freezing toes) we found some old tools that we have never used, must have inherited them from an allotment holder who was giving up, so we took them down to the shop and found that another kind soul who had too many Brussels Sprouts had dropped off some immature Brussels sticks for people to help themselves. We did! Baby Brussels Sprouts, gently steamed, then fried in butter with bacon and chestnuts, are a delicious treat …
Guest Post from Mr McGregor of Notcutts
Today I'm delighted to bring you Mr McGregor’s Guide to Pruning!
Pruning is an essential part of a plant’s growth and removing parts of the plant that are no longer required and early training is all in a day’s work. It’s extremely important to remove weak or dead shoots to improve the plant’s development and retain a healthy and pleasant looking garden.
Now that we know why it’s important to prune back plants, you need to know what techniques to employ and the tools required to carry out the job. Over the years I have learnt a great deal about when and how you should prune certain flowers. Some varieties need occasional pruning in hope they will grow into a well shaped specimen, whereas others require a lower maintenance, annual prune.
There are many traditional tools and techniques you can get to grips with. The main tools to acquire include an assortment of secateurs (Scissor, Bypass and Anvil), saws (Combination Pole Saw Pruner and Pruning Saw F600) and lopper shears (Scissor and Hedge). The size of tool is determined by the size of the job and plant.
When it comes to traditional techniques, you’re sure to come across these terms:
• Hedging Back: This will primarily increase the density of the plant and can make it sturdier
• Thinning: Use this technique to accomplish a taller and more open plant
• Pinching: This is employed during the growing season to prevent future pruning , increase the plant’s density and more importantly to redirect growth – very useful when you have space or two to fill
• Shearing: Cutting back plants with hedge shears.
Many shrubs benefit from an annual pruning as this retains health, shape and balance and ensures vigorous growth. When it comes to evergreens you may need to tidy them from time to time. Removing dead, damaged or diseased wood and light shaping is all that’s required and can be accomplished using secateurs.
We all love Clematis plants with most of us having at least two or three variations/hybrids in our garden. They can flower on last season’s stems or ones produced during the flowering season. To obtain early flowering I suggest you leave the old stems intact. However, if you wish to promote new growth prune back old growth from the previous year. I also advise anyone who has recently planted Clematis to prune it back to a healthy pair of buds that sit 30cm above ground level.
Tips: Pruning Cuts
• Make all cuts clean and smooth
• When removing large branches try to avoid tearing the bark
• Choose branches that form an angle of no more than 45 degrees
• Bear in mind the position of the last pair of buds determines the direction the new shoot will grow
• It is advisable to cut back each stem to a bud or branch
• When removing limbs that grow upward, make a slanting cut.
Mr McGregor is a writer for Notcutts, an online gardening store who specialise in all things horticultural. As an enthusiastic gardener, Mr McGregor loves to share his experiences and advise, retaining a regular blog spot on the Notcutts blog.
Allotment training and strawberries!
I’ve just finished working out the spring/summer courses on Plot #103, Weald Allotments, Hove. So on 18th March, we’ll be covering:
1. Planting early potatoes
2. Soil warming techniques
3. Which crops to sow in the ground and which need heat
4. Monthly tasks
I’ve revised the teaching schedule to offer smaller classes and more practical experience and I’m really looking forward to meeting some new allotment holders and vegetable gardeners and working with them.
In the meantime, we’ve been getting Plot #103 ready for the year ahead – I think it’s looking pretty good … especially OH’s sterling work on rechipping the paths with gorgeous golden, pine-scented shippings.
I’ve been fighting with the strawberries. The planter is clearly in the right place and the strawberries are clearly in the right soil, as this is the fourth (fourth!) time I’ve trimmed back the strawberries since October, and I was astonished to find that as well as the furled new leaves which I was fully expecting to find at the heart of each plant there are actual strawberries! It’s been the mildest winter I can remember and this proves it …
Broad bean disaster on plot #103
Yes, we’ve lost half our beans! This is the first year we’ve had a broad bean disaster since we moved onto the Weald site, and I’ve got to be honest, it’s the result of a certain kind of smugness.
You see, in previous years we’ve been very careful about planting our beans as we’ve had complete crop failures on previous allotment sites. We plant early, we protect our beans before they germinate and after they germinate, and we take care to protect the seedling plants from pigeons. But this year we got sloppy.
The beans themselves were planted by students who were taking a Grow and Tell class with me and every single one germinated! But this week we saw that the tops had been eaten off about half of the seedlings and broad beans don’t usually come back from that kind of denudation.
What did we do wrong? Well, this was the first year we didn’t scatter holly prunings around the broad beans and so either mice, rats or pigeons, but probably mice, have quietly got in under the fleece covering and chewed the tender top leaves off our six inch tall seedlings. Grrr!
So we’re into plan B – raising the replacement seedlings in the cold greenhouse. Now, once you get into providing rodent food on your allotment, you’ll tend to continue providing rodent food whether you want to or not, so we’re sowing the new broad beans into paper pots that have been gently daubed with dilute Jeyes Fluid. You can use dilute patchouli oil if you dislike Jeyes for environmental or other reasons. The dilution in both cases is around 1% to 99% water and you just paint a little dab on the outside of the bottom of each paper pot. The strong odour keeps away the rodents until the seed germinates, at which point digging it up is of no interest to the mouse or rat. They will still be interested in the top leaves though, so when we plant, we’ll be strewing holly liberally to make it difficult for them to get to the plants – you bet we will!
The weather is proving to be difficult to judge. We’ve got Orla, Rocket, Carlingford and Estima potatoes to chit, and while we’d happily put them in the ground in this kind of temperature—we often find March is colder than this—we’re also confident that we’re going to get a cold snap and if we get the spuds going too early they will exhaust the food store in the tuber if we can’t plant them out until after, say, a late March frost.
So these are the Orla (one of the varieties highly recommended by Peter, our site rep) and they are already in their egg box home, a bit early I agree, but we’ve had situations in previous years where a rotten seed potato would infect half the tubers in a bag, before we realised, so we let them get air from the beginning these days. If the sprouts get too long (the ideal is not more than a couple of centimetres) we’ll just rub the sprout off the tuber and let it start growing again. If the sprouts get too long they become attenuated and brittle and use up all the value of the tuber instead of transferring it directly to growing a new generation of potatoes.
Normally we’d aim to plant most of our potatoes in the middle of March, but some years that hasn’t happened until April.
And yes, for those who follow the blog, I did say we wouldn’t be growing potatoes this year, as plot #103 is a new plot to us and may have the same wireworm problem as plot #201 did, but OH saw the seed potato sacks and that was it – he does love his potatoes!
Look at this! When I planted these cauliflowers as seedlings in October, I heard some scoffing from the old guard on my allotment site but I didn’t pay any attention and let’s see who’s scoffing now!
This is the babiest of the six caulis I put in the ground – they had a little bit of fleece protection and it has been a very mild winter, so I could have got no curds on any of them, but as it is, all of them are heading up and two were just the right size to be harvested when we went to the plot on Sunday – they are fist-sized, which is just enough to make a little one-person cauliflower cheese, or even a cauliflower cheese pie in a biggish ramekin (dead easy – just steam the cauli, pop it in the ramekin whole, pour a good cheese sauce over it and then top with a round of puff pastry).
This one will be ready in another two or three weeks, I reckon and given the prices of cauliflowers in the shops, it was well worth us re-using a bit of empty ground with a gamble crop. I feel like Marie Antoinette, only I'm saying 'let them eat cauliflower ...'
The haul wasn’t bad this weekend, a few soup parsnips, a red cabbagette (they make great coleslaw and lunchtime salad leaves and you get three or four if you cut a red cabbage about two inches above the ground and let the stump produce more baby plants), a leek and the cauliflowers.
Winter salad growing
Jane Perrone has written about winter salads and her experience growing them. Hmmm. I love salad, but for me it has to have some constituents that just can’t be grown in a British winter: either tomatoes or beetroot, and peppers.
But Jane’s post got me thinking again. We have rocket growing in both greenhouses – it’s slow, very slow, but it’s growing. I use it mainly as a sandwich filling for packed lunches. Then we’ve got delicious new potatoes, grown in containers in the same greenhouses, and the Cylindra beetroot that I froze this year are utterly glorious when grated frozen and mixed into a robust winter coleslaw (red cabbage, beetroot, winter carrot and a few frozen redcurrants in a sesame oil and red wine vinegar dressing) so perhaps I need to up my game?
I have walking onions which grow all year round, and tiny leaves of kale which are crunchy and finally, wonderfully, whitefly free. I don’t like nettles or Good King Henry, and it looks like my French Tarragon may have succumbed to rot (my fault, I stood it in the same tray as some overwintering sweet peas and they need more water than it does, so it may have rotted at the root as a result of me meeting their thirst) but the greenhouse parsley and thyme are available, and small amounts of radicchio, finely chopped are deliciously zingy (too much is painfully bitter) so we do have the nucleus of a salad, without doing any more than we already are.
I’m going to talk to OH about this, and see if we can’t get better use out of the greenhouses next winter. One is already being geared up for peas and seed onions, but the other could easily be used to grow winter salad crops … thinking hat firmly on!
Pot-bound plants and how to deal with them
A couple of people asked me at a workshop this week, how to ‘open up’ the roots of a pot-bound plant and it became clear, on talking to them, that they were frightened that they might harm their plants if they were too aggressive with them. One said that they’d been told to ‘tease’ the roots out which sounded gentle. I agree, it does. But that’s not what it takes.
The truth is, a pot-bound or root-bound plant is unlikely to thrive. Once the roots get into that behaviour of circling themselves in an impenetrable whirl, water and nutrients can’t get in and the plant can’t grow, even though water, nutrients and growing room are right there – you have to alter the behaviour of the roots so it’s like open heart surgery. The patient will die if you don’t, so you might as well get in there and get it done.
There are two ways to tackle the issue: teasing – which works for smaller plants like this one and less tightly wrapped roots in general, or cutting, which is necessary for bigger plants or where the central roots (the thick knobbly ones) are also circled around each other.
I ‘tease’ with a sturdy three-pronged plastic fork and it’s a brutal process of sticking the fork in, about halfway up the root pack, and twisting it too and fro as I pull down – a bit like getting a really tough tangle out of long hair. As you can see, it’s opened up the rootball on this little honeyberry very nicely. (Please ignore the couch grass, it needs to be dug out but I haven't got round to it yet!) Then, when I plant them I spread the roots out in the planting hole.
Cutting is necessary where the plants are in 1.5 litre or above sized pots. A rootbound plant at that size is unlikely to make good growth even with teasing, so I lay the plant down on its side and with an old carving knife I cut into the bottom third of the root ball, slicing it in half vertically. Then I turn the plant through ninety degrees and cut again so that the plant ends up with four stubby ‘legs’ made of compacted roots. I reach into the heart of the plant by splaying the legs and tease out the larger central roots with my plastic fork before planting, ensuring that the four legs are spread out so the central root system is touching the compost beneath it.
If I am planting in summer, I put any plant that has root-binding into a bucket of water for several hours, agitating the plant every so often so that the roots float free. But for winter plants this can be deadly as it means that the inactive roots are coated in water which can then freeze, constricting and expanding so that the roots, already fairly feeble, are damaged even further by the action of icing and defrosting and may then rot below ground. So for winter plants a really good shake to give the roots a sense of freedom is about all that I recommend. I also mulch over the top of rootbound plants with great care, to protect the plants from frost damage striking down through the opened up soil.
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