I don’t know about you, but the start of this veggie growing year has begun rather late. I had too much going on in November to get broad beans or overwintering onions in, so the allotment has been completely sparse of any harvests at all. An above freezing day in February got my sowing juices going and I put some broad beans in which, when placed upon the windowsill, quickly germinated and shot towards the sky. This year I made the positive step of actually acclimatising the seedlings fairly on so, yes, whilst they’ve got leggy, they’re not as bad as usual. The small sweet peas that I put in around the same time have also been hardened off – to the extent that they were snowed on and survived – so they’ve now been planted out along the fencing.
With the warm weather finally arriving this past weekend, the first broad beans are in, 120 potatoes have been planted and two rows of parsnips are now sown in the increasingly warming beds. The potatoes range vastly, but I’m glad to have got some charlottes (my favourite) and pink fur apples (a great rot-resistant or so I’ve found potato) in. Luckily, a huge delivery of wood clippings has allowed us to finally get rid of the grass paths completely and mulch the entire plot. Not only should this reduce mowing times, but it’ll also ensure that there are less avenues for those belligerent couch grass roots to invade our beds and pull precious time away from growing. Last year was a hell-of-a-year for veggies, with slugs and the wet weather resulting in minimal harvests all round. 2013? This year just has to better!
As many of you know, I’ve had an allotment for many years and grow a variety of scrummy veggies to harvest for the kitchen table. But all too often I don’t get down to the allotment because it’s raining, because I can’t be bothered to mooch the 20 minute walk through the forest or because I only have a few minutes to spare. It’s hard with an allotment; you need to set aside some real time to go and work. There’s no pottering here. So, this year, in addition to growing larger harvests, such as potatoes and onions, down on the plot, I’m going to be growing some veggies at home amongst the ornamentals.
Due to the allotment, I don’t have a specified veggie path at home. Nor do I want one, because my garden is so tiny that there really isn’t room. I love flowers too much to be digging in a veggie patch, but there are some areas that can be utilised for easy harvests.
One of the crops I’m definitely going to be home harvesting this year are beans. My broad beans are already sown, and I have a spot amongst the sedums ideal for a lovely little bean patch. I also have a large expanse of empty fence and trellis panels which will be ideal for runner beans. The panels in question are right by the house in a south facing spot so, in addition to the clematis, this year they’re going to become home to a swathe of perfumed sweet peas and, hopefully, the heavy stems of prosperous beans. Runner beans are incredibly delicious when picked right off the stem, so having them within backdoor leaning distance will be rather indulgent.
But these two harvests will not be alone, and the yearly salad growing continues with containers of cut-and-come-again greens on the windowsill. There’s no point putting these amongst ornamental borders, unless you’re trying to save your hosta’s from being munched, in which case, throw in some lettuces and watch the slugs devour them. Meanwhile, I’m intending on growing a couple of gourds next to the reading bench, intertwining some French beans on the flowering blackcurrant and planting a few beetroot and carrots at the front of some of my ornamental borders.
There’s no reason not to enjoy your ornamental garden and grow a few home veggies too. And, in many circumstances, being able to pick both edibles and flowers from the same patch will be an additional joy.
It’s safe to say that in the past seven or eight months my work on the allotment has been minimal. Holidays towards the end of the year, a new social life re-introducing me to hangovers and then missing the key-swap ceremony meant that I not only had little time for veggie growing, but that I couldn’t even get onto my plot. The war of the weeds was lost, couch grass invaded from all sides, and whilst the amphibians leapt for joy at their new home, Mary wept for my lack of diligence.
Having finally had a weekend when we were both free, we headed to the allotment and discovered horror; in addition to the dead squirrel floating in the water butt, our plot seemed to have grown a lovely couch grass meadow.
Today, after securing a new key and digging for several hours, the backs of my legs are locked in pain. But it’s a good pain. It’s the type of pain that you only get when hard work has been done and washed down with several evening G&T’s.
Work is moving on quickly, and I’ve already uncovered large beds of beautiful soil for planting in. No wonder the weeds were growing so fast; they had the perfect soil to give them a foothold.
Today, the first of the peas went in. I’m trying to plant more in situ this year rather than transplanting as it helps to acclimatise seedlings faster, whilst also giving them a better resistance against dry conditions. I never grow enough peas, and always make the mistake of forgetting to plant successionally.
This year I want to grow peas across an entire bed and plan to sow a line a week. I normally place two seeds per 5cm to take care against mishaps. Lack of germination can leave you will holes that need to be plugged later. Meanwhile, eager pigeon beaks often decimate a crop in mere minutes. I have found that the holly leaf trick works though, prickly little mice noses and keeping vermin at bay.
With good weather on the forecast, the coming week is an allotment blitz as I prepare beds to get in onions and spuds before its too late. And, with the sun in the sky, I may even get a little golden brown whilst I’m at it.
Blissful and refreshing rain has arrived in London today, quenching the ground and offering that vital life-force towards plants which have begun to thrive after the recent warm spell. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and wet but as one friend stated, it means only one thing; wet, Irish rugby players!
There’s nothing quite like opening the back-door to the wet skies on a warm day and letting the gentle drizzle freshen the home and wash away the grime. Particularly in a cityscape, you really get the sense that the rain manages to wash away the pollutants, dust and stifling grubbiness of surroundings, allowing everything to be fresh and new. But, with drought ahead, it’s important to recognise that this rain is not likely to be a regular occurrence in 2012, and so it’s important to take steps to protect plants and crops when water wells start to run dry.
Certainly in the south-east of England, they’re already discussing hosepipe bans from as early as April 2012. This means that either you abandon watering the garden completely, or you look to labour intensive drenching with a can, running back and forth from the water butt or kitchen as you go. In many ways this is preferable anyway because much of the fine mist provided by hosepipe’s or sprinkler systems evaporates long before it is anywhere near soaking into the soil. So, what to do?
1. Install water-butts
Obviously, one of the best ways to survive a drought is to collect as much rainwater as you can. If you can install water-butts, then your days of running back and forth to the kitchen are over and you can ensure to catch as much rainy liquid as you can on the odd occurrence that the sky plummets down.
2. Water infrequently and hard
If you water your garden only a little, every day, you’ll end up with plants whose roots all lie just under the surface of the soil. This is BAD news, and as a result the slightest touch of drought and lack of watering by you will cause plants to flop and wither. Providing a drenching drink on an infrequent occasion will encourage root systems to develop deeper into the soil as they search for natural water, helping plants to stave off drought effects.
If you want to do a spot of recycling too, you can use plastic bottles to help irrigate plant roots. Simply cut the bottom off a bottle, take the cap off and plunge it upside down into the soil next to your plant. You can water directly into the bottom and the water will escape through the nozzle into the soil where it’s most needed
3. Plant in-situ
If you’re worried about your little seedlings needing constant watering, one way to help them survive the odd day or two without a drink is by sowing them in-situ. This will help plants to acclimatise to their environment as soon as they germinate, rather than being grown in a lovely moist and human controlled environment before being dumped into a relative desert later on in the year. Seedlings WILL still need watering, but they’re more likely to survive dry and hot spells when you’ve forgotten to take a trip down the garden or allotment.
Plants, plants, plants. Some love a good ‘ol drought. Other…not so much. We are a nation of lawn loving individuals (well, some of you) and love our borders to be lush with life. However, not all of these plants are great in a drought and a birds-eye view of many gardens this year is likely to capture an urban sprawl of brown gardens. There are lots of great plants which are slightly better at surviving dry periods, especially those with silver and grey leaves. Use these to your advantage and replace thirsty foliage with succulents, hebes, lavender or lambs ears. Consider reducing the size of your lawn to increase borders or vege-patches, and if you know of particular plants which have caused troubles during previous drought periods, resign yourself to giving up and trying an alternative.
Whether we like it not, droughts will cause the garden landscape to change and without the uses of hoses or sprinklers, there is no way to provide enough water to all flowers and foliage. Nor is the an ecologically sound or economical route to take. So, instead of ignoring the drought and trying to plough on regardless, take a few steps to reduce your water requirements whilst letting your outdoor retreat flourish.
Whilst gardening plans may have started with gusto in 2012, the weather of late has made getting out amongst the plants a rather cold and damp affair. I’ll admit, I couldn’t wait for the seasons to change and already have windows filled with early germinating seeds. Broad beans are growing towards the ceiling, the salads for the 52 Week Salad Challenge are almost harvestable and under the safety of their heated propagator, echium seeds and other ornamentals are gently unfurling their first true leaves. However, with recent rain washing the snow away and temperatures beginning to become a little milder, your thoughts, as well as mine, may well be turning to allotments, veggies and self sufficiency.
Winter is in fact a great time to start preparing for self sufficiency as you have time to dig veggie beds, enrich the soil and sit down to actually plan what you want to grow. Start too late in the year and there’s a sudden frenzy to try and get everything done in time, and the British seasons move very swiftly and are unfaltering in their march ahead. If you’re new to self sufficiency it’s also a good time to reflect on just how much time you can put into the Grow Your Own bug. When I first got an allotment I was instantly convinced that I was headed for the Good Life. Like Tom and Barbara, I’d rope in the Gerry’s and Margos’ of this world and put them to work with a crop of potatoes, before repaying their kindness with a shower of beetroot. I’d never had to buy another vegetable ever again. How wrong I was.
Self sufficiency is an ongoing process, and it’s probably a good idea to come into self sufficiency gradually. Not many people have the time to set aside hours of work every week to plant, weed, water and harvest. Starting off small allows you to grasp one thing at a time, building your confidence and enthusiasm as you go. Self sufficiency also goes further than the actual crops you grow, but the ways in which you are reliant on gardening necessities such as water and manure. So, you can actually increase your self sufficiency without doing much at all.
Simple starts to self sufficiency can be as small as growing herbs in your garden instead of buying over-packed supermarket pots each week which are, more often than not, left on the windowsill to dry out or rot away. You could begin a small veggie patch which includes some of the vegetables most used in your kitchen, or even better, you could get a couple of hens. Garden Eco has a great range of coops, and you get the benefit of free food and free manure. That’s two simple self sufficiency steps in one feathery friend. Including a water butt in your garden so you’re self reliant on water is also an important step. You could even do away with your huge lawn – a resource needing mowers, fertilisers and a lot of labour to keep looking good – and change to smaller flowers beds and borders, vegetable patches or naturally draining patios. By the latter I mean not using concrete or other manmade materials if possible. Then there’s the consideration of the compost heap, making those trips to the garden centre a thing of the past as you nourish your garden from your own, controlled soil source.
2012 will in no time at all be racing ahead, leaving little time for gardeners to catch up. But, if you’re already champing at the bit to get your self sufficiency plans on track, you don’t have to jump in the deep end. Sometimes, starting off small can be the start of great things to come.
I’ll admit, I’m a bit slow on the uptake. Two weeks of jury service, writing clients coming out of my ears, and my sister about to drop a sprog has found me suddenly near the end of January without really knowing how I got here. Thus…getting to grips with the inspiring new challenges for 2012 has also passed me by, until now that is.
Over at Veg Plotting, the marvellous 52 Week Salad Challenge has started. Want to stop buying plastic wrapped green leaves at your supermarket? Fed up of finding festering packets of forgotten Iceberg and Rocket at the bottom of your fridge? Well, this is certainly the challenge for you.
VP has outlined some inspirational content over at the 52 Week Salad Challenge. Every fourth Friday of the month shall now be known as ‘Salad Days’, when leaves are harvested and VP will update with the progress from her patch, ideas for new seeds to sow, new recipes to make and general musings to get you going. You can also follow VP on her @Malvernmeet and @VegPlotting twitter handles, and use the #saladchat search.
Getting into the spirit things I’ve started the challenge myself, though a little late! With the first salads sown, and with promise of a harvest within three weeks, I’m champing at the bit to see the first germinations of 2012.
If you, like me, are keen on growing a few things that not only taste a hell of a lot better than shop bought produce but are pretty much free, then growing your own sugar might sound like an amazing prospect. And, well, it is an amazing prospect. I don’t have a huge amount of sugar in my diet but I like a sprinkle on my porridge, I like a muffin or twenty, and once I’ve cracked open a packet of biscuits there’s no hope that even one will survive.
I’m not talking about growing your own field or beet here, or attempting to fill your garden with sugar cane. A small and quite literally sweet garden herb is making a comeback and offers the chance for ZERO calories – Stevia.
If you have’t heard of this herb before I’m not surprised as, until this year, it wasn’t available in the European Union. There remains a lot of contention both politically and medically over Stevia resulting in a vast difference in availablity depending on the country you live in. Japan has used this herb as a natural sweetener since the 1970′s whilst Brazil has been using Stevioside extract as a food addiditve since 1986. However, many other countries including Switzerland, France and Australia banned all Stevia herbs and extracts until the current 21st century. For Stevia’s full history, the Wikipedia page has a good overall view, with arguments for and against the previous ban of this herb.
Turbulent past or not, Stevia is now available in the UK as a natural sweetener which can be added to tea or even dried, ground down and used in baking. Though the particular packet I was supplied with said that they were ‘easy-to-grow Seeds’ this is a slight fasle pretence as I’ve only have about 30p% germination rate. Plus, they’ve been slow growing to the point where this year there certainly hasn’t been any harvest. However, with the possibility of growing and harvesting my own, zero calorie sugar replacement at home, I’m going to persevere with this promising plant.
Much of the 2011 allotment was put over to onions and potatoes. It’s all very well growing thousands of beans, hundreds of beetroot and enough squashes to start a small pumpkin carving school, but if you don’t actually eat them then what’s the point of growing them. As Mary relies heavily upon onions and potatoes as cooking ingredients it seemed obvious to grow as many of these as possible, and get self sufficiency to as large a prospect as it can be.
This year, a neighbourly allotment holder offered us some Pink Fir Apple’s – not apples as you may think, but actually potatoes! And not even obviously looking potatoes as they actually look quite carrot-esc when you uproot them from their soily tombs. They also reminded me of naked mole rats, harking back to my zoological research days, so I was instantly in love with this quirky potato form.
Pink Fir Apple’s are a great allotment addition
These delicious salad potatoes are a waxy variety and are ideal both hot and cold, making them a great little spud to grow on the allotment. I also found them to have stood up to the weather this year extremely well and, whilst many of the main crop potatoes in our bottom-of-hill plot had been subject to some slug and rot damage, the Pink Fir Apple’s were in fine condition. They’ll definitely be grown again on our plot next year and, with a relative high yield in comparison to space requirement, I can strongly recommend these potatoes for the 2012 season.
There is a slight white lie that I have to admit. Whilst my tag for The Guide to Gay Gardening notes that there’s a dash of dahlias in my garden and on my blog, I’ve never actually had much luck with these traditional allotment-side plants. Get it right, and they can be very easy to grow, throwing their enormous variety of blooms into the air through summer and early autumn. Get it wrong and you end up with a few slugged and slimy stumps; this being the normal case for my own plants. I rarely have time for my own garden as I’m too busy seeing to other people’s, and whilst dahlias thrive after a good start, it’s those careful beginnings that are the all important stages.
This year, having initially thrown two new dahlia tubers into the ground where they were immediately slugged, I opted to plant them up in pots first. This proved to be the best decision I’ve ever made, and aside from a few drought setbacks where my uncaring hand forgot to water, they’ve done extremely well. Once both had a reasonable root system I planted them out and, hey presto, whilst the lower leaves were indeed gorged upon by those opportunist garden molluscs, flowers have filled the air this month.
With the onset of colder weather the care for dahlias doesn’t stop though, and winter concern for tubers arises. As the foliage does back dahlias need some protection to avoid frost and wet getting into their system and causing them to rot. There are a couple of methods which are ideally used for dahlias, and if want returning growth next year, it’s a good idea to take the time to protect as I’ve found that hoping for the best simply doesn’t work in this case.
One method allows you to leave the tubers in situ, cutting all foliage back to ground level, and covering the area by pegging plastic down. The theory is that this will stop the frosts and wet getting in, though wet can still seep across so I can’t see how this really works. I’ve never had luck with this method and wouldn’t advise using it as your time and effort is normally met with disappointment when nothing appears in spring.
A far better method is to lift, dry and store the tubers. I like to cut the stems back to a couple of inches from the base and then leave them drying in a frost and damp free place for a few days. Whilst you can nestle overwintering tubers on top of a fine layer of soil I’ve found that simply wrapping them in newspaper works best. Leave them in a cool, frost free and dry place over winter such as a garage or shed and they’ll be fine. The following spring, as green shoots begin to appear, you can simply unwrap individual specimens and pot them up before planting them out later in the season.
I may have never been very successful at home, but having cared for a huge number of client dahlias in addition to taking extra care this year with my own, I’m determined to continue. These plants may have a slightly blousy and old-skool appeal, but with an immense range of flower and leave variations, they are well worth the care and effort for incredible flowering throughout the summer and autumn seasons.
It’s been an odd year for gardening, especially at the allotment. A burning heatwave in early spring meant seedling watering was a vital necessity to keep those young shoots growing, and I’ll have to admit, both on the allotment and at home veggies and ornamental plants perished. Summer arrived, bringing British weather and the onslaught of rain, driving weeds into the sky only akin to something from Sleeping Beauty. However, amongst the thriving vegetation and the desperate pleas of Londoners wanting some sun, food has been happily growing away.
Like last year, the carrots may be covered in Fat Hen, but they’re happilythriving away below the surface. Indeed, I find that some weed coverage actually protects those tender carrot shoots from being nibbled my multiple birds and bugs. Onions, happy with the falling rain, have become engorged to huge sizes, whilst the first potato dig this past Sunday showed a welcome sight of a bountiful harvest. Ongoing path clearance is also getting under way, with the former and naively allowed grass paths being replaced with far more manageable bark chip ones. And as I dig and scrape and sift the grass out, a wealth of toad and newt creches seem to appear as little amphibians hop, scuttle and slither away.
Whilst London burns around us, the plants at least are happy, providing a bountiful harvest. This year’s young hens are almost to point of lay, whereas the two cocks are moulting into their adult plumage and will soon likely to be going under “The Despatcher”. And though the London riots continue to confuse, scare and panic Londoners, the smell of beautiful, hand picked sweet peas wafting through my house is refreshingly relaxing.