Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Choosing seeds and the bewildering array of carrots.

One of winter's pleasures is choosing seeds for the coming year.

The first packets have arrived and need to be stored carefully away in a cool, dry place. I keep my seeds in an airtight plastic box with sachets of silica gel to mop up any moisture. These are stored in a cupboard in the potting shed, where no mice can attack them.

I tend to go back to the same seed merchants which I have found supply good quality seed at a reasonable price. There are many suppliers out there now and if you are not careful you can spend a lot of money, especially if you are seduced by the pictures and descriptions!

Before buying new seed I review my existing seed packets and consider how well the varieties performed. I keep seed from one year to another and, if stored well, this is no problem. Many seed packets contain far more seed than you require in any one year - few amateur growers need 100 plus cabbages! Sow the number you think you would like to eat and keep the rest for the coming years.

Like many people I am tempted to grow a wide variety of different cabbages, salad crops etc. Try to envisage your needs and draw up a list of varieties you want to grow, checking you have the space to do so. Then stick to it! Only buy the seed that you need to fulfil that list. By all means try a new variety, that's what keeps it fun, but consider replacing one variety with another, particularly if a crop didn't perform well for you.

When I first started growing carrots I was bewildered by the choice available; early, stump, main, round, different colours, etc. Many were not worth the effort, let alone the expense of the seed. Small carrots are fiddly to clean, and you need to harvest the whole row for a decent meal! It took a number of years, with many disappointments, before I settled on a couple of varieties which I have found to be reliable and tasty. Now I tend to stick to them and they rarely let me down. What are they?

Remember, I am growing in the far north and the soil doesn't really warm up sufficiently for sowing carrots until May, so early varieties are usually a non starter. For an earlier crop I sow 'Purple Haze' in the polytunnel, usually around the beginning of April. This is a sweet purple carrot with an orange core. We can usually start harvesting in June and by then they are a nice size perfect for salads. They will continue to bulk up, and even in December I can harvest them from the polytunnel. Outdoors I sow 'Autumn King' in May, usually later sowings don't do as well and there isn't much advantage in later sowings. By late summer they are a good sized carrot and they continue to hold well even as the temperatures drop and the ground freezes. They have a good flavour and I do not find that they are troubled by carrot fly to any great extent.

Would I be tempted to try any other variety of carrot? This is one of those vegetables where I would now probably only try another variety if it had been recommended by a local grower. Carrots may seem rather a common and easily bought vegetable to bother with, but the flavour of a home grown carrot surpasses any that you would buy. They are usually easy to grow and produce well from a small area. Also, when did you last see a purple carrot for sale?

A lack of fruit and vegetables

2012 will go down as the worst vegetable and fruit growing year for me, and I suspect many others. I won't put it down to cultivating so far north, even trees in Cornwall failed to produce fruit. I think we can all see the problems in our local shops and, being optimists, we look ahead to the coming growing season determined to succeed whatever the weather.

After any season it is worth reviewing what did well, failures and gluts. Keeping a notebook throughout the season really helps when the time to assess comes.

Failures this year were potatoes (disastrous crop), tomatoes (mostly failed to ripen), french beans (poor fruit set), cabbages (bolted), butternut squash (not much fruit) and soft fruit and tree fruit (no apples, no plums, unripe strawberries).

Gluts were had in broad beans, cauliflower and calabrese, and peas, both mangetout and podding peas.

Lack of warmth and sun and fluctuating seasons (a warm spring followed by a cool summer), account for most of these failures and it is unlikely that any grower could have avoided the problems that such weather brings.

I am a firm believer in 'not putting all your eggs in one basket' and diversity may be more important than ever when growing under challenging weather conditions. Having a wide variety of crops should ensure that there is something tasty to harvest throughout the year, even if some of the crops don't do well.

Presently I am harvesting leeks, carrots, parsnips (small this year but unblemished), kale, salad (though there will be a break in supply now that the hard frosts have started) and stored potatoes (Pink Fir Apple did quite well), onions and shallots.

What I am really looking forward to are the spring cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli in the polytunnel (to keep them safe from the deer and ensure a better crop whatever the winter brings). Having a crop to look forward to is one of the pleasures of vegetable growing and all growers should endeavour to have something to anticipate.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Sweetcorn in a polytunnel

Growing sweetcorn in Scotland may be considered a frivolous luxury. But when you cook that first cob and know that that taste is only enjoyed from a freshly picked cob it makes the growing truly worthwhile.

This year our last frost in spring was at the beginning of June and at the end of August we had our first light frost of autumn. Not a long growing season this year for tender produce! Growing sweetcorn outdoors would not be possible. Fortunately the polytunnel kept that August frost at bay and also protected the tall stems of the sweetcorn safe from the gales that raged at the beginning of September. Now the sweetcorn is ready for harvest.

Is it difficult to grow? No, embarrassingly easy. Being a grass it isn't too fussy about soil type or depth, and it is best to grow the individual plants closely together to ensure that there is good pollination. I have even grown the plants in a large fish box with excellent results.

I start the seed off individually in modules around April in the warmth of the greenhouse. It does not like the cold and it is important to ensure that it is planted out in the polytunnel once the risk of frost has passed. Larger plants can withstand cooler conditions. This year I potted up the plants partly because the space wasn't ready for them and also because the spring was so cool. Once they were planted in the polytunnel they were given extra protection on cold nights with a tent of fleece.

When the warmer weather came they romped away and then it is just a matter of shaking the male flowers at the top of the plants to let the pollen fall onto the female tassels below. Keep watering and finally start to check the cobs at the end of August. Ripe kernels will release a milky fluid when the skin is broken. Have the pan of water on the boil and put the cobs in once you have stripped off the outer covering. In a few minutes you will be enjoying a taste only home producers have the privilege of experiencing.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Summertime, and the annuals are flowering.

It is a very satisfying sight to start to see the benefits of your hard work pay off.

It has been an important part of my plan for the nursery to develop the garden. Here customers can see how the plants that I produce grow.

Unfortunately my garden is somewhat problematic, it is on a slope with very variable soil depth and type. It has never been worked as a flower garden, nor much of any type of garden, although it is bordered by an old stone wall and therefore separate from the croft land. Part of the garden, as evidenced by the peaty soil, was obviously used for stacking the peats for the home fire. It has taken some work to incorporate this into the soil underneath.

Much of the garden was covered with wild raspberry canes, brambles, nettles etc. Clearing, and keeping on top of the weeds, has been the focus of much of my work over the last 6 years. Whist the weeds grow much of the structure of the garden has been set out with yew, hornbeam, Cornus, Stipa gigantea, and bamboo. These, for the most part, have done extremely well.

Breaking new ground leads to more weeds. Most of the garden has been waiting under black plastic, but even then tough weeds penetrate through. Creeping thistle, nettles, rosebay willow herb and those raspberry canes again. Planting perennials in new ground only creates problems as even tiny parts of roots not cleared send up new shoots. I therefore decided to break the ground and plant with annuals. Some parts with thin soil were not dug, but layered first with grass cuttings the previous season and then with cardboard and clean compost. The plan is to clear out any returning weeds and only when the soil is 'weed free' plant perennials. Mean while to create colour, help suppress weeds and feed bees and other insects, I have sown and planted out annuals.

Annuals are much underrated plants, for flower power, variety and insect friendliness they should be more widely appreciated. Today they are beginning to put on a spectacular show, the cornflowers are humming with bees, the poppies are vibrant, Tagetes and Alonsoa are mixing with hardy annuals and looking right at home. Following the RHS trial I sowed some of the hardy annuals during the autumn and planted them out in March. Cornflowers, poppies and pot marigold - all have put on a fantastic amount of growth and are covered in flowers. Definitely worth doing again. And the weeds? Yes they keep returning, but are easy to pullout, and with all those flowers to enjoy it makes the job seem worthwhile. It seems almost a pity that they will have to make room for perennials in due course. However meanwhile I will be able to gather plenty of seed to create the look again in subsequent years, even if on a smaller scale.

A taste of summer - the first tomatoes!

Whereas much of the UK has been suffering with prolonged rain we have been fortunate in our northern outpost.

Temperatures may not be high but we have seen the sun and it has been dry and warm.

Summer may be said to have truly arrived when the first of the tomatoes have ripened. 'Sungold', a sweet yellow cherry, was the first, with 'Lucciola', a small plum, hot on it's heels. 'Red Alert', a standard size tomato, is coming on strong with abundant fruit on it's small bushy frame.

Many of the tomato plants still look pretty small for the time of year, thanks to our tricky spring, but they are forming fruit and beginning to show more vigorous growth. The healthiest looking ones are in the tubs on my own compost, but I am somewhat concerned that their abundant vegetative growth may be at the expense of fruit, time will tell.

For those who already grow your own tomatoes you don't need me to tell you how good the flavour is, for those who don't it's time you started, especially if, like me, you don't care for the taste of shop bought.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Purple sprouting broccoli

The Queen of winter vegetables, little can beat the sweet flavour of home grown purple sprouting. Unfortunately the deer appreciate the flavour as well and who can blame them with their dreary, sparse winter diet.

Last year I made the decision to grow the broccoli in the polytunnel to protect it. The major problem with growing it inside is that it is a large plant and takes some months to grow. Polytunnel space is limited and therefore the vegetable has to be worth it to make the list. Seeds are sown around May in the greenhouse and the plants pricked out into individual 7cm pots and taken into the polytunnel to acclimatise. It is important to choose late purple sprouting or the heat will lead to early purple sprouting cropping during the summer.

A decision has to be taken quite early where it is to grow so that the space is available at the time of planting, which is now drawing near - you don't want your plants becoming pot bound. If the plants need potting on because the space hasn't be cleared then do it, it will be worth the trouble.

Last year they replaced some early tulips, grown for cut flowers. That didn't present any problem with timing. This year they are following a garlic crop which is not quite ready to harvest. When it is harvested I will enrich the ground with some well rotted compost. To avoid weed seed problems this compost will be buried beneath the plants, not just dug in. This will ensure that the goodness goes directly to the plant and also helps to provide moisture at the roots.

Was it worth it last year? Definitely yes! The plants started to crop around March through into late April. They provided plenty of sprouts and everyone declared the flavour to be superb. No toughness, possibly due to being grown undercover, and the leaves were also used as a kale substitute for stews etc. The plants grew so large one or two required a support, but in the winter polytunnel it was wonderful seeing something growing so strongly.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Weeds, weeds, weeds!

Days are long and nights reasonably warm, perfectly weather for the weeds.
When busy in the nursery and tackling other parts of the garden it is not uncommon for me to find that one patch of ground has sprouted weeds that are threatening to smother all and sundry.
The vegetable patch, which was looking in perfect order, suddenly seemed to have been engulfed in chickweed, creeping thistle and hemp nettle.
My generally way of tackling weeds is either to prioritise the clearing of weeds from vulnerable crops/plants or destroy an area of weeds before they shed copious seed.
This time both events were threatening to take place in the onion/carrot patch. The combination of damp cool weather and midges had driven even the most determined from the garden so when the sun shone it was imperative to tackle the weeds.
Having a positive attitude and a plan of campaign makes short work of most weeds, but I also confess to enjoy weeding. It allows you to look carefully at your ground and there is great satisfaction in seeing the end result.
All weeds are composted unless they are particularly troublesome like ground elder (which I fortunately don't have in this garden but did have in the last).
Due to the quantity and size of the weeds I initially fill up empty compost bags with them and stack them beside the compost bins. Here they will start to decompose and then when I have an empty compost bin I will be able to layer the weeds between grass cuttings and shredded paper. This will ensure more effective composting than an uneven filling of bins with whatever you happen to have gathered at the time.
When weeding between very young seedlings like carrots particular care must be taken to avoid them being inadvertently pulled out. It is definitely a two handed job with one hand protecting the seedling whilst you pull the weeds with the other. Afterwards I like to earth up around the seedlings and water them to ensure that they are settled back in and their roots are in contact with the soil.

A Primrose Summer

Each day brings a surprise with the weather in this part of the world and today it was the warmth of the wind. Yesterday was a cold wind and the day before was blazing sunshine!
Walking the dog this morning I couldn't help noticing the primroses, usually past their best at the longest day, this year the weather suits them just fine. Many are flowering and producing further flowers and they are an indicator of how slow summer has been at arriving.
Last year we were enjoying the strawberries well before Wimbledon, this year the outdoor plants are bearing plenty of flowers but no ripening fruit. We have been enjoying some strawberries from the polytunnel but sadly not as many as we would like.
The fruit trees in the orchard are showing very little fruit. I see nothing on the plums and the apple trees are still sporadically flowering! Whether they produce any fruit and what size it reaches is anyone's guess. I think the old adage "don't put all your eggs in one basket" is a useful one to remember for anyone living from the land. We may not have many strawberries or the promise of much tree fruit this year but the rhubarb has been very productive!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012


The humble courgette can be a maligned vegetable but in this household it is considered to be one of the finest of summer vegetables.
Today was the first harvest of two fine sweet courgettes. Picked young with unblemished fresh skin they were greeted with delight.
I grow my courgettes in the polytunnels with great success. To keep them out of the way of other plants I grow each one in a large tub trug with good sized drainage holes. The tub trug keeps them at an easy picking height and out of draughts. It is deep enough to give them a generous root run and I fill the trug with home made compost, this doesn't need to be perfectly rotted. It feeds them as they grow and retains more water than commercial composts. The black walls of the tub trug warm up and release heat during the evening and night keeping the plants cosily warm.
I grow a number of varieties, with green, yellow and ribbed fruits. 'Tuscany' is a good smooth green variety producing many small fruits. Keeping picking the fruit before they get beyond 10 inches, or 25cm, and they will be firm and sweet with a soft skin.Frequent picking will ensure they keep producing.
Try to avoid getting the flowers wet when watering, it can cause rot at the end of the courgette. Watering is easy when the plants are contained, you can give each plant a good soaking. Better to give regular generous watering with dry intervals, the plants dislike being kept continuously damp and this, together with cooler conditions, is why they don't do well for me outdoors.
Use in a variety of dishes and enjoy as a vegetable sliced finely and fried with garlic in butter. Delicious.

Friday, 15 June 2012

What weather for potatoes!

It is alarming to think how dependent crofter were on their potato patch when you consider the weather in this part of the world.
We had a warm March and I planted some of my early potatoes outside. Then April came and it got cold and frosty. No problem the potatoes were well down, no chance of damage.
May arrived and the chitted potatoes really needed to be planted, in they go, where are the early ones? Still no sign.
Warm weather finally and all the potatoes began to come up. They start to grow strongly in the heat - up to the high 20's here, not usual even in summer! The long days and warm nights, for a full week, make for some rapid growth.
Then June arrives and the temperatures plummet. Reaching 10 degrees during the day is a struggle. On the 2nd June the frost strikes, three frosty nights later and the potatoes are gone.
Now I look at weeds with the occasional potato shoot peeking out of it's frost bitten stalks. At least the weeds are sheltering the potatoes and once I see the potatoes growing strongly again I'll hoe the weeds away.
Early potatoes will not be a feature this summer, but at least we have had a harvest from the potatoes in the polytunnel. These are grown in pots and were fleeced during the cold nights, sadly nearly all eaten now, but very tasty they were and a reminder of why we try to grow them despite the weather.

June in the polytunnel

The busy months of early spring now begin to pay off.
The first spinach harvests through March and April have been cleared out and replanted with spring onions and leeks.

The Oregon sugar snap pea, sown back in January, are providing bumper crops and have been a staple dinner vegetable for a few weeks. Shame they don't freeze well.
Turnips were a quick crop during May, growing to a suitable sweet size within a few weeks. They have been replaced with beetroot. Last year the beetroot failed outside but were good in the polytunnel. I had a similar story from other growers and have decided not to bother sowing them outdoors this year. The first row is up and looking healthy, the thinnings were used in salads, and I look forward to the first harvest soon.

We finally had a burst of warm weather in late May and I decided it was time the tomatoes were planted in the polytunnel. For days I had been carrying them back and forth getting them used to the polytunnel temperatures but not risking leaving them over night. Poor things were beginning to look quite yellow but tomatoes were setting! Finally planted they soon perked up and it began to look like we were going to have a healthy selection. June brought a return to the cold spring and overnight frosts, despite fleece, caused some damage. I am glad to say they have not been lost, but they have been severely checked. The exceptions were the ones planted in some polystyrene cold boxes which continue to look very healthy, just hope the bees can brave the cold to do their work.

Fortunately the cold nights didn't damage the runner beans, which were planted in the centre bed and probably had some protection from the cold by the sugar peas which are their close companions.

The crop I most enjoy from the tunnel at this time of the year are the autumn sown onions. For months they look incapable of forming anything usable then suddenly, around March, they begin to swell and from then on each day sees a visible increase in their girth. We begin to use them as green onions and then I lift them all to make room for other crops, celery etc. I don't need to worry about trying to store them, they will all be used over the summer, but it is so satisfying not to need to buy onions again!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The polytunnel in February

It has been a mild winter, but even so a touch of sun will raise temperatures in the polytunnel quite rapidly and it needs daily ventilation.

What's happening in there?

The autumn sown onions are looking perky and have had their first foliar feed, they get going pretty quickly now, I will expect to see progress on a weekly basis.
The winter lettuces are growing and can take being picked quite frequently now. I tend to use loose-leaf varieties and then can take as much or little as I require. Lamb's lettuce and rocket have self-seeded and will be available soon. I have sown mizuna and spinach and these have all germinated well.

Early sowings do need protection from slugs, which have also woken up with the warmth.
I have planted the first pot grown sugar snap peas and have sown some more pots for growing outside too.

The garlic that was planted both inside and outside the polytunnel is up and growing strongly.
Inside strawberries have been given their spring tidy and an organic fertiliser.

My cabbages that were in the polytunnel have been eaten, but the purple sprouting broccoli is just about to produce.

Most of the carrots from last year have been eaten but there are still some 'Autumn King' in the ground which will need using up soon, especially before the first sowing of carrots, but even before then they will start to regrown if not lifted and put in a cool place. Carrots which start to regrow will begin to go to seed and the roots will get tough.

The rhubarb is beginning to sprout. Last year I upturned a bucket over them and they produced a lovely sweet crop of first stalks. I will do it again.

Broad beans

It is not often that this part of Scotland can boast warmer temperatures than most of the UK, but it has been a complete contrast to last year.

The broad beans 'Jade', which were sown into pots in the greenhouse on 9th January, have been planted out today.
They have been hardened out, coming unscathed through the last few cold days, and are now under a micro-mesh fleece in the vegetable patch. The fleece will give them a little extra protection and prevent attack from hungry animals.

Autumn sown broad beans are not favoured here, the winters can be too unpredictable, and they rarely make any earlier crop than one started off in pots.
I will do another sowing in about a months time to prolong the cropping.

Early potatoes

The seed potatoes have arrived and are being put to chit. They will be planted when the ground begins to warm.

Meanwhile, to access some earlier potatoes, some of the smaller potatoes from last year's crop have been growing in pots in the warmth of the greenhouse. Now with the current warm spell and their subsequent growth, they are ready for larger pots and moving into the polytunnel. The polytunnel is unheated so they will need fleecing at night when frosts threaten. However the large pots provide some insulation and raising them from the ground will keep them warm.

Growing in pots is convenient and, if you use saved compost, cheap. I enrich the compost with an organic fertiliser and, apart from watering and fleecing, they require little care. Harvesting is a matter of weeks away, depending on the variety and weather. Generally speaking roughly 10 weeks from planting up. Just tip out the pot.

Last year we got enough from each pot to feed 5 people (all who like potatoes!) and, as they were salad varieties, they were not only tasty but saved a huge amount of money.
I have tried a variety of different pots and even small compost bags. My preferred potato growing pot is now the red Crystalyx sheep lick boxes. With 5 holes drilled for drainage they are just the right size for a meals worth, easy to use and find.