End of month allotment recipe: Kale crisps
Plant and go away propagators for cucurbits
These are my favourite toys, for three reasons:
1. They recycle an otherwise single use bit of rubbish
2. They allow us to plant seeds and go away for a week, without worry
3. They are fun to make!
The wick conveys water so you can be quite reckless about going away and leaving your plants, and as long as you don’t fill to the top, the clear plastic rim creates a nice warm, breeze-free micro-climate that supports squashes, pumpkins and cucumbers for their first few days of growth – after that they crawl out of the planter and take over the windowsill, so hearty are they!
Take a 1.5 litre or 2 litre pop bottle and cut it in half, ensuring the bottom half is slightly taller than the top half
Drill a hole in the lid, big enough to take a doubled cotton-rich string about 40 cm long
Make a knot in the string, so that a couple of inches stick up through the lid and the loose ends hang down beneath
Put the lid back on the bottle
Fill the upper half of the bottle with soil, pulling the loop of string to the centre so it runs up through the compost/potting medium. Fill the bottom of the bottle with water
Sow two cucumber, pumpkin or squash seeds in the soil, edge on – it’s best to label the planter at stage 2, but I always forget until this point!
Water each planter well from the top, on the first occasion and give it a nice tap to ensure any air pockets inside the soil collapse so the ‘wick’ can convey water easily Set in a sunny place and watch them thrive!
Pests, Predators and Hungry Gaps
In between dodging showers we’re doing structural work. The bamboo that we cut from the garden a few weeks ago is still supple enough to be shaped, and while it may not be strong enough to act as a support, it can be strengthened.
The picture shows a bamboo wind-break. It will be sunk into the ground at a point where plot #103 is very windy, or where we tend to cut corners and walk across the plot instead of using the path. If it’s the former, we’ll grow a nasturtium up it, to provide a crop (lovely flowers and leaves for salads and seeds to pickle like capers in autumn) and reinforce the wind-break’s power. If it’s the latter, we’ll hang stuff off it that might come in useful: a couple of bits of wire, some plant clips, and a hook on which to put gloves or a hat if we get too hot to wear them, or hang pruners or a trowel when we’ve finished with it. That way we can just look around the plot at the end of the day and identify all the strewn belongings that would otherwise blend in with the soil. It’s a much easier task to gather up all the tools and kit when we’ve got a series of landmarks beside which we’ve placed them.
Rain, irrigation and seeds
It’s really easy to get convinced, with spring showers, that there’s enough water. But just in case you’re a water optimist, here’s a great picture to show why we need to check water, not just make assumptions, especially with tender plants and seedlings.
This is one of our espaliered apple trees. Under it, this winter, we planted garlic. Garlic doesn’t like to be overly wet, so I knew that the trees would shield the plants from a lot of the winter rain, but wouldn’t keep the frost off them. They like a good month of zero or sub-zero nights, do garlic. In spring, we put in a couple of rows of shallots - also plants that don't like too much water.
In the trees, through the winter, we put hanging baskets filled with winter pansies etc. They don’t make a huge show, but they do give a bit of winter colour and at this time of year, they keep the birds off the broad beans etc – for some reason birds love to tear at tender foliage in spring, and I’d rather let them have the pansies than tangle them in netting that can tear off their toes. We do put metal mesh over our shallots and garlic until they are well established.
The picture shows a perfect rain shadow, the size of the bottom of a hanging basket, hung in a leafless tree. If I’d planted seeds in that area, they would still be completely arid and unable to germinate, even though the soil either side is nicely moist.
For seeds, soil moisture matters at the depth they are planted. For plants it is anything from ten to forty centimetres below ground, depending on their root system. Checking the surface of the soil is useless in either case, you need to asses the soil at the depth the plant is growing.
Sunday’s allotment haul included the first head from one of our two perennial broccoli. I’m quietly pleased by this, as OH was becoming pessimistic about our chances of a harvest, but I haven’t admitted to him that I have some rather different doubts about them.
Those doubts are threefold:
1. How are they going to cope when we take the brassica cage off them and move it to its new location? Will they be destroyed by cabbage whites/birds?
2. How much staking are they going to need? They are already pretty tall, and can only get taller over the next two to three years, and that means quite a lot of support.
3. What do they take from the soil over their lifetime? Brassicas are hungry feeders and perennials always change the soil composition around their root system, so a perennial brassica is going to be pretty demanding of its surroundings.
The seed companies have very little information about harvesting and maintenance of the plants, which I find is an increasingly common problem with seed packets – everything is treated like an annual, even if it isn’t!
That apart, the flavour is excellent and it’s going to be interesting to get these tall plants incorporated into edible landscaping, where they can provide height and structure for a planting scheme that aims to be attractive, useful and environmentally low-impact.
Plot #103 has been given two agricubes to grow things in! They are easy to assemble and made largely of natural materials apart from the (plastic) base and the cable ties that hold the sides together.
I certainly found it easy to assemble a cube on my own, and as I’m pretty ham fisted, this was quite an unexpectedly pleasurable part of the job.
We’re going to be using the cubes through the year to test their utility for container growing on allotments or in gardens. The Grow and Tell workshop team helped me to plant up the first one.
We found several issues in filling the planter:
1. Watering will not be easy, especially with a hosepipe ban. We opted for a drainpipe filled with stones and with downward facing holes drilled into it, to act as a water feed system.
2. Planting seeds between the slats was hit and miss – next time we will try using a seed planter to get an even row, but even then, getting the right amount of soil coverage over the seeds was tricky.
3. We wondered about the performance of the four sides of the planter: the north side will get very little light, the south side will get a lot of sun and the east side is exposed to prevailing winds.
We planted the same crop in the same slat on each side to compare growth and a short row of the same seeds in open ground as a control. To date we have spring onions, radishes, spicy salad, green salad and carrots, with some leftover broad bean seedlings planted in the top along with limnanthes seeds to encourage ladybirds to visit the planter.
Potatoes and strawberries
The Rocket potatoes we planted as part of the workshop on 18 March are living up to their name. They have broken surface from the trenches in which the students so carefully set them. We planted them on a bed of combined comfrey, grass and friable soil. The comfrey has to be torn so that the ribs, stems and flowers aren’t included in the trench as the plant is invasive and it can definitely take over anywhere it gets a chance to put down roots. It’s an unmatched producer of plant-friendly nutrients though, and in conjunction with grass clippings which offer moisture and warmth, and friable soil that allows roots to push down strongly, it’s a winning combination for growing things like spuds.
So the potatoes are on their way, and that’s great news for those who like new potatoes – which we do, very much!
Strawberries are a different issue though. Our strawberries are in full flower, which is a little early on last year, but given this is their second (optimum) year in the bed, it’s a wonderful sign. The weather isn’t so wonderful though, and after strawing the berries to keep them lifted from the ground, I had a bit of a panic at the weather forecast and went back and put fleece over them to keep the air frost off.
There are differing views about early strawberries and frost. Some say that strawberries take it in their stride, others that it can deform and distort the growth pattern of the berry if it takes an air frost. I know that I like strawberries a lot and don’t like the ones that curl over and have tightly packed seeds which can taste bitter, so for ten minutes extra work, I was happy to get a simple cover over the bed to try and prevent that happening. Of course it’s a lot easier if you have your strawberries in a raised bed, as we do, to cover them, and that’s just one reason I always make a strawberry bed rather than have them in the ground alongside other crops. The other reasons are:
1. The extra height of the soil in the bed ensures that water runs down and away from the berries and water is a major contributor to strawberry mildew.
2. The soil in the bed can be controlled better – strawberries are greedy and need a lot of nutrients.
3. Watering is easier in a raised bed – I can give the plants extra water through bottle watering without losing most of it to the surrounding soil. Strawberries need a lot of water to grow well.
4. Slug and snail control is easier in a raised bed – whether I go for pellets, sand, barrier methods, salt or nematodes, I can use the bed to act as a boundary.