Tuesday, 30 August 2011


I use a basic four year rotation cycle and I pretty much follow this in the polytunnel too, although I don't grow potatoes in the polytunnel beds (I don't want potato volunteers constantly coming through). Potatoes are grown in containers early in the year, more about that in another post.

To remind myself of the rotation cycle I use the mnemonic Slugs Like Bad Apples, where the capital letter stands for the four vegetable groupings:
Solanum - potatoes and tomatoes etc.
Legumes - peas and beans,
Brassicas - cabbages, kale, turnips etc.
Alliums - onions and garlic, this group also contains the carrots and parsnips.

Crops such as lettuce, spinach, beetroot, chard don't really need rotation and can be slipped in where space is available.

Using the rotation cycle, on the same patch of ground, legumes follow solanum, and brassicas are the next crop with alliums being planted in the fourth year.

Different crops have requirements for particular nutrients, and rotation ensures that crops take these nutrients from the soil without depleting it. For example, brassicas require a fertile soil (with plenty of nitrogen) they enjoy freshly fertilised ground, but will leave enough for the follow on crop (alliums) to utilise without their companion crop carrots producing forked roots, which they would if grown on rich soil.

Rotation also minimises the risk of the crop suffering from pests and diseases, as a build up of the problem is less likely to occur if the crop is grown in different soil each year.

In a polytunnel the rotation tends to be on a rather quicker basis than yearly as you can grow a two to three crops on the same ground in one year. However I try to follow a rotation pattern as much as possible and keep notes or labels in the ground to remind me of what I have done. I also use the non-rotation crops to break the cycle. The spinach I sowed from freshly saved seed on the 19th August is now up and has followed an onion crop. It is a useful winter crop and will provide plenty of leaves in the early part of the year. I will make about 3 to 4 sowings, each sown after the last one has germinated.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The many benefits of a polytunnel

Today there is a strong cold wind and even for a keen gardener that makes the garden less appealing, however the polytunnel offers shelter and there is always something to do.

My polytunnels are of a domestic scale, just 9m by 3m, but are perfectly adequate for a family of five, combined as they are with the adjacent vegetable patch. One is primarily for vegetable growing, the other is partly used in the summer for vegetables but is mostly dedicated to the nursery.

They are Solartunnels, strong galvanised frames and a double skin with square mesh between which prevents rips (useful when the highland cows get too close!) The sides are vertical and there are two doors which help with airflow. They were very easy to erect and are also capable of being relocated without too much difficulty. Not cheap, but all the space is usable and for the volume of vegetables they can produce they pretty much pay for themselves within 2 or 3 years. I have had them for about 8 years and wouldn't be without them.

As autumn arrives the plants in the polytunnel begin to succumb to more diseases and it is important to be vigilant with hygiene. The spread of mildews and rust can be rapid in warm humid conditions. It is important to ventilate even on cool days, the temperature can rise quickly with only a small amount of sunshine. Remove all infected leaves and fruits and bury them in a hot part of the compost heap.

Watering can be more tricky with the erratic weather conditions particularly if you are growing in pots. Try to water on warm days in the mornings and avoid wetting the leaves. Watering in the evening as the nights cool will further reduce the temperatures around the plants. At this time of year you want to keep as much warmth in the polytunnels in the evenings as you can, remember to close the doors as the sun begins to leave the tunnels.

Keep removing weeds. The protected conditions of the polytunnel enables annual weeds to produce many generations if left. They can start producing seed by February for the hardy varieties, and will continue all year. A sunny day can make the polytunnel too hot to work comfortably in, so a cool day like today is perfect for a thorough clearing of weeds and diseased materials, guess where I'm heading!

Friday, 26 August 2011

A small cauliflower

What to do with a small but perfect cauliflower?

I do a number of sowings of cauliflowers, the earliest, in January, go into the polytunnel as young plants and provide an early crop. The second sowing in March/April go outside and this year produced a bumper crop of large cauliflowers which tend to be ignored by the slugs. A fresh cauliflower has a fabulous crisp flavour and makes the basis of a substantial meal.

This year I then made a third late sowing and three went into the polytunnel after the sugar snap peas had been cleared. Now the first has matured and will go into a medley of vegetables in a borlotti bean stew. The stew will showcase all the vegetables that are presently being harvested; onions, potatoes, carrots, beans, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, celery, black kale and the small cauliflower.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Winter salad

A very autumnal morning, with swirls of mist and a heavy dew. The outdoor lettuces will withstand some cold and even a touch of frost but there are salads to guarantee pickings throughout the winter and early spring.

If you don't have a polytunnel a cloche will provide some protection but under cover you should be able to harvest salads in all but the coldest weather. I was picking mixed leaves from early February this year, once the frost had left the polytunnel, and the lowest temperature I had recorded in the tunnel had been minus 19C.

Seeds of winter varieties of lettuce need to be sown now, I sow in a seed tray and prick out into modules. It enables me to grow good sized plants to plant out once space becomes available. Lambs lettuce can be sown direct as can rocket. Mizuna and spinach are extremely hardy and fast growing, again best sown direct, together with the different varieties of mustard.

Pak choi and other Chinese vegetables can also be sown now and I have found them capable of withstanding even the snow outside, though rather difficult to pick then!

Young kale leaves also make an interesting addition to salads, Red Russian, is probably one of the best and very attractive too. It gets my vote as one of the tastiest soft kales, with Black Tuscan being better for more robust cooking, stews etc.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


If, like me, you are no great fan of green tomato chutney now is the time to start taking action.

I sow my tomatoes early and by the time they are being sold in April/May they are beginning to flower. This ensures an early crop and this year my tomatoes, despite a cold May and June, began to produce (in the polytunnel) in June. They have been steadily cropping since but are eager to produce more. This they must not do. These later tomatoes will not ripen and will slow down the ripening of the ones which have set. Time to be ruthless and remove new flowering trusses as they emerge. Let the plants concentrate on the tomatoes they have already set. Feeding is not important now, and personally I only remove leaves that are showing disease or dying back. Later you can defoliate to increase ripening but where tomatoes are still being formed the leaves provide the sugars necessary for their growth.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Onions and shallots

'Toughball' harvested in June from September sowing.

For a number of years now I have been growing onions and shallots from seed.

Why? Because the seed is often cheaper than the sets, you get more seed, and I enjoy sowing from seed. I have also found that the shallots are bigger and the onions tend not to bolt.

This year my saved onion seed didn't germinate well so I bought some onion sets, rather late too. They have produced a crop, but with the dry start to the year and the damp summer the crop is not brilliant.

The shallots however have been fantastic. The seed, Ambition, germinated well and I did two sowings. One group were planted out in what seems to be a damper part of the patch and produced shallots almost the size of my fist! They have a lovely sweet flavour. The other group are smaller but will keep better. We only finished the last of the previous year's crop as I began to pull this year's crop.

I also grow autumn onions for an early crop in June. Last year I sowed Toughball, not as the seed supplier directed but in my usual way, in a pot and pricked out into modules. They were sown in September and looked very small as winter started. I only grow in the polytunnel and good job too with the snow we had! They made it through the winter and romped away in the spring forming good solid large bulbs. They were so successful that I have recently made a sowing of the remaining seed (if it fails to germinate I should have time to order some fresh seed). I cannot direct sow into the polytunnel as it remains too crowded until the summer crops have been harvested, and I have never found direct sown onions or shallots to be successful.


'Albigensian' harvested July from outdoor crop.

A fantastic garlic crop this year both indoors and out.

Red Sicilian was grown in the polytunnel and was harvested at the end of June. The bulbs have been left to dry in the polytunnel but we have also been using them. The crop was followed with some young purple sprouting broccoli which is now making healthy sized plants, they will ensure we get a crop no matter the weather.

Outdoors I grew Albigensian, from my own saved cloves, and have had a successful crop of large bulbs, harvested in July as the foliage went yellow. Again drying in the polytunnel they are about to be stored in a cool dark place. The space they left behind was cleared and now has a selection of lettuces.

Last year as I harvested the bulbs I discovered that a number, particularly Early Purple Wight, had bulblets on the stem. These I removed and planted around the sides of shallow pots. When they began to sprout they were planted in their groups, but without the pots, in a spare part of the polytunnel. They produced this year either small bulbs with individual cloves, or large single cloves/bulbs. These singles will be planted outside this October. The others will be eaten!

As the Albigensian have produced bulblets I have done the same again. A useful way of increasing the crop!

What's happening now?

Seed saving. It is always with some reluctance that I start taking seed from crops. It is a recognition that the autumn harvest is beginning and winter will follow.

Saving your own seed is worthwhile if, like me, you otherwise would end up spending large sums of money with seed suppliers each year. Many vegetables produce quantities of good seed which are viable and produce the same variety next year. Presently I am drying Oregon Sugar Snap peas, an excellent cropper both in the polytunnel and outdoors. Eaten as a mangetout or left to produce peas, I always take seed from pods that have gone over. Leave them to dry thoroughly in the greenhouse or a sunny windowsill then store, labelled, in an airtight box in a cool place.

I keep my seeds in a plastic tub with sachets of silica, to absorb any moisture, and the seed will keep in many cases for a number of years.

Broad bean seed is still on the plant, but harvest the pods as they wither and blacken before damp weather causes rot.

An autumn start

The approach of autumn may not be an obvious place to start, however this is the time to take stock or to make plans for next year's kitchen garden.

I have a dedicated vegetable patch, about 10 metres square, divided into 4 parts for potatoes; legumes (peas and beans); an onion and carrot bed; and the brassicas (cabbages, kale, broccoli etc.). I also have a polytunnel for tender crops and to extend the growing season, and a greenhouse for propagation.

Despite many people thinking not much will grow this far north, I and many others, find that most vegetables will crop well and that we can produce plenty of variety over a long period of time, especially when polytunnels are also involved.

My aim here is to encourage others to have a go and pass on my own experience, highs and lows.