Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Brassica Patch

Balmy weather today for working in the garden, after the storms, snow and frost the ground remains remarkably warm and is very easily worked.

The black plastic in the vegetable garden needed tidying up after the strong winds. It was mostly in place but smoothing it out brought me to the vegetable garden and the fact that the brassica bed for next year still needed working. Some of the plot (used for legumes this year) had been dug over and freshly manured with straw and sawdust from the hen and goose sheds. This has been protected by plastic and needed more weights on it to ensure it stays put, but other areas were still waiting to be dug over. The weeds are enjoying this warm (for the most part) late autumn and early winter. The vegetable plot is a favoured spot for buttercup and they are growing as vigorously as if it were spring. Digging them out is very satisfying, and nice and easy with no plants in the way.

Putting fresh manure on the brassica patch has always given good results. I only put it on the ground at the beginning of the winter, and not too thick, it is strong stuff. It is then protected under plastic. By the spring much of it has been worked down into the soil by the worms and I can plant directly into the soil without further digging. Each plant is pot raised and planted deeply with a dusting of lime to sweeten the soil. The plants grow huge and healthily, and I have no qualms about bacteria if the plants are to be cooked.

However I am more cautious if I want to grown leaves for salads. Many of the salad leaves are brassicas; rocket, mizuna, red mustard etc. To keep to your rotation plan they should be grown in the brassica patch; lettuce, beetroot, chard and spinach can be grown wherever space is available as they are not usually part of any rotation group. If you are growing one of the mixed salad seed packets on offer, for cut-and-come-again, these usually include brassicas and therefore should be in the brassica patch too. In the open plot I therefore need to keep a patch manure free, which can then be dedicated to these salad varieties. Near to the path is best for ease of access. Alternatively consider sowing these in a container, which could be outside. They don't need much depth of compost because the plants usually are harvested when very small. A grow bag can be used successfully for raising cut-and-come-again salad and can be put somewhere convenient and away from slugs etc.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Is vegetable gardening a worthy occupation?

You may think what a silly question for a blog about vegetable gardening to ask but sometimes we do need to check that we are doing something for the right reasons.

When I first started vegetable gardening in Scotland it was primarily because I had a large enough garden, time, a keen interest in gardening, and the local shops had very little to offer in the way of fresh vegetables or variety. As a vegetarian that restricted the meals that I could cook. Therefore the answer was simple, grow your own or restrict your diet/travel a long way to get ingredients.

Since then we have moved to the Croft (even more space to grow) and have more mouths to feed, but supermarkets have opened up not so far away and the variety on offer is much better.

So does it continue to be a necessary occupation to grow my own vegetables? No, but....

I still get more variety by growing my own - from potatoes to salads, I grow varieties which are not marketed by the supermarkets.

It is cheaper (not counting my time), the amount I spend on seeds is tiny to the return I get from my crops and since the spring I have bought almost no vegetables from the shops.

The products are fresh, from being picked to eaten is often less than an hour, how many can say that the salad in their sandwich was picked ten minutes previously?

The taste is better, obviously fresh salad has more appeal but also tastes nicer, and as for sugar snap peas or beans, even cabbage, I would argue that they all have more flavour than any bought from a shop.

All the vegetables are chemical-free, I grew them and they didn't need any chemicals to keep the bugs off or prevent them deteriorating on their way to market.

Pride comes into it too, how much more satisfying to serve your family with food you have grown yourself.

But is this a worthy thing? Ah, now we get to morality and whether it is a good thing. In short, yes.

My 100 square metres of vegetable garden are the most productive part of the Croft, the food they produce, even when only operating for 6 months or so, is of more value than would be gained by the land being put to grazing etc.

In addition a large proportion of the food we eat has no food miles and, because most of the food I buy from the shops is dry food, I make fewer trips to the supermarket. One monthly supermarket shop for the main items, and local shops for the milk etc. Agriculture and associated transport of agricultural products and fertilizers, chemicals etc. contributes hugely to carbon dioxide emissions. Individually I cannot make an impact that would make any difference but collectively we could.

I accept that I need agribusiness for cereals and other foods I cannot grow myself, but my dependence on them is less than it might otherwise be. Often you will decide to make meals that use your homegrown ingredients in preference to reaching for commercially made products or bought-in ingredients.

We waste very little, partly because I only harvest what we want to eat, when we want it, but also because any 'waste' is put in the compost bin and then back on the soil.

Pleasure. I enjoy gardening, I enjoy growing food, I enjoy sharing the results with my family. I accept that some people don't find it appealing, I feel sorry for those who do and don't get the opportunity, and I think we all need to share the pleasure as widely as we can.

And now there's snow...

Snow in the Highlands is not unusual, but to have a snowfall in November is uncommon, especially at our level.

Today we woke to a good centimetre of the white stuff, and a fold of cattle who were eager to see us break into the hay store. A complete contrast to two days ago when Chris and I were emptying out the compost bins and spreading the lovely friable compost over the potato patch. Then the sky was blue and it was warm enough to strip down to a t-shirt.

Autumn is a good time to empty the compost bins; the contents had been quietly breaking down over the summer and were now a dark, rich, crumbly material full of organic goodness. I forked over the bed making sure I removed any stray potatoes, stones and persistent weeds (mostly docks). The worm count was tremendous, and it was nice to see how moist the soil now was after the very dry summer we have had. Then we spread the compost over the surface, and covered it with black plastic held down with tyres and old fence posts. All the time being carefully not to walk over the freshly tilled soil. Over the winter the worms will work the compost into the soil and I will have a perfectly ready bed to start growing the beans and peas in next year.

It is very satisfying knowing that you have achieved a job that leaves you gardening-ready, but the sight of plastic covered ground does make you think about the productivity of the vegetable garden.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Stormy weather..

I feel very sorry for the people of the Philippines, we are having wet and stormy weather here but it is insignificant to what they have endured.

As winter and stormy weather approaches we take sensible precautions to prevent as much damage to the polytunnels etc. as we can. When I put the first tunnel up I set it out in a south-north direction to get the sun on both sides. Unfortunately I wasn't aware of how strong the winds from the west could be at the Croft. They get funnelled down the valley and come sweeping across our land. One year we had a particularly bad storm which whipped up from nowhere and took the tunnel and a 150 year old oak tree. I managed to save much of the tunnel but it needed a new cover and re-siting.

We reorientated the tunnel to run east-west, hugging close to the bank, and exposing it end on to the wind. To further reduce the wind we built a simple slatted fence, with gaps between the uprights to allow the wind to filter through. This makes a huge difference to reducing the wind speed and also provides a sheltered area just beside the polytunnel. The second polytunnel lies in the same direction in line with the first tunnel. Now the tunnels have been up a number of years and are well embedded into the ground. Even in a strong wind they feel quite safe to work inside.

Outdoors all plastic sheets are weighted down with tyres and posts. Even bags of rocks etc. Any plants in pots are put in sheltered areas, sometimes within old fish boxes etc to stop them being blown over and rolling around. My young blueberry plants (originally planted but then the cows got to them and they needed remedial care) have been buried in their pots in part of the vegetable bed to keep them from becoming frozen solid. Most perennials are less prone to being caught by the wind because their foliage disappears over the winter. These are placed in areas of the Nursery where they won't become waterlogged or frozen to the benches.

Generally the winter isn't too bad, you expect poor weather, winds, rain, snow and ice. Problems generally start once spring is expected, then the fluctuations in weather can cause more difficulties, especially when you are nurturing young vulnerable plants. I understand many farmers in the Philippines have lost all their crops, many mature coconut and banana plantations. Recovery from that makes our vegetable gardening problems pale into insignificance, particularly when it isn't our livelihood at stake.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Keeping the greenhouse warm.

1st November and we have had a couple of cold nights on the row. Grass frost and thin ice on the water tubs.

The tender plants are in the greenhouse now, some will be allowed to go completely dry and dormant, like the dahlias, but a few will need to be kept in a frost free environment waiting for the warmer weather to return.

With the cost of heating bills very much in the news it makes sense to take various measures to reduce the costs.

The first thing I do is to reduce the internal volume that needs to be heated. As I am needing most of the staging my way of doing it is to reduce the height by creating a false ceiling with training wire and bubble wrap. It is always a relief when this is taken down in the spring (the training wires remain in place), but there is no point in heat going into the roof space. The walls of the greenhouse also get an internal skin of bubble wrap, not only does this cut down the draughts but it stops the heat going straight through the  cold glass. If you don't need all your greenhouse consider creating an internal division so that you are only heating a small area. Alternatively consider investing in one of those cheap, plastic-fabric freestanding 'greenhouses' which can be put inside the greenhouse, and then only heat that space.

The next thing is to group the plants that need protection. Try to raise them off the ground - cold air will sink and the ground will suck any heat out of the pots. On cool nights it may be enough just to put some fleece over them, but if the temperatures fall lower then you may want to ensure that any heater is placed close to those plants that really need the warmth, with the hardier ones on the edge of the heated area.

I use electricity to heat the greenhouse. I have a fan heater with various settings which I do not use all the time, and two tubular heaters which are suspended underneath the metal staging. These cost little to run and provide a gentle, non-drying background heat. They provide base heating for those plants on the top, which is perfect for propagating in the early spring, and also radiate heat to the plants on the lower shelf. On a cold night I can safely drape fleece over the benches and keep the heat in more efficiently. I do have a back up paraffin heater, but I am glad not to have had to use this as it requires frequent visits to the greenhouse during the night and is hard to regulate.

The greenhouse has a double door, and I can only insulate one side, but that is better than nothing. The main problem with all this internal insulation is that it restricts ventilation, on warm, sunny days I do try to open the door and ensure a change of air.

Of course all this only works if you do spend time checking on the plants and heating regularly. It does mean that you can't completely forget about gardening over the winter, but it won't be long before you will begin sowing seeds and a warm greenhouse will mean an early start.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Potatoes in containers

Last years potato crop was extremely poor, and the few potatoes raised were mostly kept back for planting this year. This years crop has been very good, despite the dry summer and I have plenty safely stored away.

However last year I had quite a number of small potatoes which weren't worth cooking and really didn't merit being planted in the potato patch. What to do?

Normally I'll boil them up and feed them to the hens, but by the spring some of these had gone rather green.

At the beginning of the year I usually plant a few salad varieties for raising in the polytunnel for an early crop. These are planted in tubs and I use the compost out of containers planted in the previous summer to save cost. The fertility of the compost can be easily raised with the addition of suitable fertiliser. Usually these are harvested from early May and then the containers are vacant. (See  "Early Potatoes" February 2012)

This year I decided to reuse these containers and plant them up with these small green potatoes. I had plenty of compost to use out of the compost bins and it was an easy enough job to fill up the containers, set them on a piece of ground which I wasn't using, and plant in the potatoes. After that they got only the occasional watering.

Today I emptied them out. Yes, they should have been done earlier, and they have been on the list of jobs to do, but other things have got in the way. The compost was tipped out onto the potato patch and I was very pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the crop. A good size, few blemishes, hardly any are green and with a quick hose down they are good enough to take to the kitchen.

Most are salad varieties but one is a good second early potato with a deep red skin, 'Maxine', a variety I haven't been able to get easily any more, so I'll keep that back for planting next year. Certainly the salad crop will make a pleasant change from the main crop which we are eating at present.

The other benefit has been the number and size of the earthworms that have been living in the containers. Many were probably small worms or eggs when they were emptied from the compost bin. They have now gone into the potato patch for the winter.

Was it worth doing? Yes, if you have suitable containers - they don't need to be very big, up to 40cm tall is deep enough, and a supply of compost. They were no trouble to keep over the summer and easily harvested. The crop was good for the size of the tubers that were planted. Main crop potatoes would not be the most suitable variety to use, unless you wanted to bulk up a few tubers for seed potatoes. Definitely worth doing if you've got an excess of small green potatoes and don't know what else to do with them.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Slugs in the polytunnel

The weather may be getting colder but the slugs are still active, particularly in the polytunnel.

I am fortunate to live on a beautiful croft, with a wide variety of wildlife. Many of these help to keep the slug population down but unfortunately they do not always have access to the polytunnel. During the summer the tunnels often have a resident toad or two, but at this time of the year they tend to find a hibernation spot. This leaves any plants more vulnerable to slug predation, and with growth slowing down slugs can make a big impact.

Because of the natural slug and snail predators I am generally loath to use pellets. However during late autumn and early spring, when the tunnels are generally closed most of the time and the predators are hibernating, I do admit to scattering a few organic pellets around vulnerable plants.

Today I was planting out some winter lettuce, having just cleared out the tomatoes. The lettuces have been waiting patiently in the greenhouse and are a fair size now, but as I was forking over the soil I couldn't help but notice the quantity of baby slugs and snails there were. They would be delighted by my new offerings and after all my careful nurturing of the lettuces I could not afford to lose them overnight.

Last week I picked over the purple sprouting plants and took a good handful of slugs to the hens. Pellets here are no good, the slugs are not interested in leaving the canopy of the broccoli. The only way of reducing their impact is careful hand picking and waiting for the colder weather to set in, when they will seek the warmth of the soil. Then as things begin to warm up again, a few pellets or some beer traps will catch quite a few returning to the feast.

In the spring pellets are judicially employed to protect seedlings. I never use them outside, but the polytunnel provides too good an environment for slug and snail breeding. They can often have three generations in a year in the tunnels, and the baby ones, hard to spot but ravenous, are the worst. Beer traps don't seem to interest them, so using pellets to mop up a few just hatching from the soil seems to be the best method.

In the summer, if you feel things are getting out of hand, try nematodes. These natural predators of soil living slugs will make a significant impact when the soil is warm. You get the nematodes from a good gardening product supplier and add them to some water in a watering can and water them over the soil. They will increase the natural population of these nematodes and will continue to be active during warm weather for a number of years.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Storing onions

Last night there was the second frost, a slightly sharper one which left its traces on the stile to the vegetable garden and gave the leaves of the lettuces a shimmering rime.

The onions have been in the polytunnel drying off prior to storing but now the nights are cold in the tunnel, even though the days have been very hot - up to 35 degrees two days ago! This fluctuation, plus the humidity in the early mornings, will start to harm the keeping qualities of the onions and they need to be prepared for longer storage.

Today is perfect for that, sunny, warm, with a slight breeze; it makes working outside the polytunnel cleaning off the onions a very pleasurable task.

Preparation is simple, wearing gloves makes it less mucky and means that you can rub off the soil and loose outer skin quite easily. Don't be tempted to remove too many layers, as long as the skin is dry and clean it will protect the bulb.
Check over for soft spots, particularly at the neck and root plate. Remaining roots can be easily twisted off and, if the foliage is dry, that can be easily twisted off too. Any bulbs that have bolted need using first and should not be stored.

I grow my onions from seed and don't have many that run to seed, even in this hot summer they kept on growing and I ensured that I watered them well when they were small to encourage them to put on weight.

Once cleaned they need to be stored in a dry airy space which keeps a reasonably constant temperature and doesn't freeze. I hang them in mesh bags from the roof of my potting shed, with the larger ones made up into ropes using their foliage and some string. The ones that I think won't last well are taken straight into the kitchen.

Once the onions are in for storage it's probably time to start thinking about planting the garlic. Originally I purchased named garlic bulbs from a reputable seed merchant but now I use the saved bulbs, as long as they are healthy. These will be planted next month in what was this year's brassica patch.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The polytunnel in September

This is the month of the equinox and just as the days get shorter so the polytunnel grower needs to make plans for the winter.

Many people don't use their polytunnel intensively during September to March, which is a huge shame considering the investment that has been made.

In my polytunnel I have now got purple sprouting broccoli which is a metre high and looking well. Whilst the soil remains warm it is worth feeding these plants and getting them to be as big and healthy as possible before the start of the worst cold weather.

As space becomes available sow spinach now, this will grow into small plants which will overwinter and produce a good crop early in the spring. Keep it well watered during the warm days but reduce watering as the weather gets colder.

The overwintering onions are in their modules waiting for the space to become available for them to be planted. Although the seed merchant says don't transplant I have never had a problem. I transplant the seedlings when they are very small, and try to get them planted before mid October. They then usually have a good month of reasonable weather to put on some growth, but don't expect them to look too substantial. It is quite astonishing how even quite wispy seedlings will tolerate extremely cold weather and go on to produce good sized onions.

Winter kale plants and lettuces get planted as space is cleared. The kale needs to be planted in the area reserved for this season's brassica plants, but lettuces and spinach can be planted wherever you like because you do not need to worry about rotation for these vegetables. However I still try to avoid areas which have been growing these plants recently. I tend to leave the labels in the ground so that I have a means of checking what has been recently grown in that area -  this only works if you put the date on the label and the writing doesn't fade! I find pencil lasts longer, and then when you do lift the label you can rub out the writing and reuse.

This year I sowed some leeks much later than usual (June), and these were put in the polytunnel. They are a nice pencil thickness now and growing strongly, I plan to use them as baby leeks during the winter. The outside ones don't overwinter well here and are difficult to lift as the ground becomes more frozen. I expect they will be used up by December, and then my indoor leeks should be a reasonable size and much easier to harvest!

My latest experiment involves asparagus. I have been promising my husband that I would grow asparagus for years. Fresh asparagus is incomparable to shop bought. Unfortunately the first crowns I bought struggled to survive and were finished off by the winter 3 years ago. I am reluctant to permanently give up significant space in the polytunnel to one crop, so I am trying a more ruthless method of production. This involves seed raised plants (I've chosen 'Connover's Colossal'), potting them on (now they are in 3 litre pots), and planting them out into their harvesting position this month. They are going into the sweetcorn bed. They are handsome looking plants with a number of ferns each, some of which are about the thickness of a pencil. The protection of the polytunnel and the slightly raised bed should mean they come through the winter quite easily, allowing you to harvest whatever grows. They grew very easily from seed, so much so that I have 10 to plant this year but some others will be kept in their pots, overwintered in the greenhouse, and grown on as 2 year old plants to be planted in the polytunnel next autumn. I will report on the success (or otherwise) of this experiment.

The carrots grown this year will remain in the ground and be used as required. Generally at least one row of them will have been finished by February which is when I will be looking for space for the first of the sugar snap peas. They will be started in pots in the greenhouse and then we are swinging around to the next season and the March equinox.

Winter kale in the polytunnel

Preparing the polytunnel for the winter season is a bitter-sweet experience.

The abundance of the summer season gives way to a somewhat sparser look, and it is a recognition of the end of summer when you make the decision to strip out plants that are no longer performing or worthy of being kept.

Deciding exactly when to do this is a bit of an art and really requires some forward thinking. The impetus is usually a change in the weather, but some plants need to be produced in advance for this changeover. Kale is one of those.

Kale sown early in the year will generally overwinter well as large plants outside. There are a wide variety on offer and some are hardier than others. If you have outdoor space, your rotation plans are not affected, and you don't have winter hungry pests (deer or rabbits) then you may not bother with a crop of kale in the polytunnel. However if you like your kale softer, able to be picked without a frosting or covering of snow, or basically need to protect it from pests, then growing in the polytunnel may be something to consider.

During the summer there is no space for kale in my polytunnel and I have plenty growing outside. The polytunnel is also too hot during the summer to suit the kale plants which are happier with cooler conditions. However to have reasonable sized plants to put in now requires sowing in pots in mid-summer. These plants will need potting on as they grow so that they are not checked and then planted in the polytunnel when space is available.

Once in they require watering well during hot spells and good ventilation. If you have outdoor kale then you will probably finish that off (if the deer haven't got to it first) before you start on your poytunnel kale. During the coldest months you will probably find that growth is slow, but will quickly take off as the weather warms up from February onwards. This early spring kale will be soft textured and a very welcome addition to the kitchen.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

A bean feast!

What a summer it has been!

This has been our hottest, driest, sunniest summer for a good 6 years and the vegetable garden has responded accordingly.

We have been harvesting different beans for months now. I grow most varieties in the polytunnel. The only reliable outdoor beans are the broad bean and they have cropped in abundance. The freezer has copious containers of podded blanched beans which I will use in vegetable curries, stews etc.

French beans are eaten as fast as they are produced and rarely, even in a good year like this, do I bother freezing them. I tend to grow the purple podded forms, they taste good and are so much easier to find and pick! Most of the colour disappears on cooking but they do look a nice dark green when on the plate.

Runner beans in the polytunnel have been cropping since July. This year I was more circumspect with my choice and number of plants. Runner beans can produce an abundance of foliage and this then smothers the flowers and encourages mildew. It is important that the plants are grown in a well ventilated spot. I chose 'Red Rum' and was initially concerned whether so few plants would produce enough of a crop. Instead I have had a steady supply over the last two months with a sudden surge in production at the start of September. It is likely that I will be freezing some of this later harvest.

I suspect that the very hot weather through late July and August, which took temperatures in the polytunnel above 30 degrees on most days, probably slowed production down. Now we are getting cooler weather and this is suiting the runner beans which are looking healthy and have plenty of flowers and beans setting. (We have already had a slight grass frost, so had the beans been outside I suspect they wouldn't be looking quite so happy.)

The borlotti beans are always a bit of a indulgence. I love the colour of their pods and really, for the space they take up, the crop isn't that good. You need to let the beans swell inside the pod and this requires time. Eventually a day comes when you know the harvest has to be taken and you have to accept that it is the size it is. In previous years I have been able to take two or three small harvests, this year it has been one larger one. I think the hot weather stopped new flowers coming and therefore the harvest is mostly beans which all set at the same time. However it's not a bad result and now the space can be cleared and I will put in some kale for the winter months.

What do I do with the borlotti beans? Rather than dry them, and risk losing them at the back of the cupboard, I cook and freeze them on the day of harvest. It is a perfect way of combining  beans and perishable vegetables to store as the base for a winter stew. Use an onion or shallot that you think might not keep, add some celery, courgette, fresh tomatoes from the greenhouse, aubergine etc. and add the podded beans. Cook for a while, allow to cool, bag up and freeze. The flavour of this stew base beats anything you can get in a tin!

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Modular sown beetroot

I confess that I have had mixed results with beetroot over the years. Sometimes it is to do with the weather at sowing, occasionally I will admit that the seed has not been fresh. But as someone who has a fondness for beetroot as a vegetable it really wasn't good enough.
A couple of years ago I decided to stop sowing the seed direct and try raising the plants in modules and this has given more consistent results.

Beetroot is an amenable vegetable in that it does not need to be sown in any particular rotation group but can be slotted in to a planting plan wherever space allows.
The individual seeds are in fact a cluster of seeds, so one seed can produce a number of individual seedlings. It therefore means that one seed per module will result in either 1, 2 or more seedlings per module. I don't bother separating them at planting. As long as there are fewer than four they will push each other apart and usually have enough space to grow to a good size.

This year I sowed 4 x 12 cell trays at the end of March in the greenhouse as the weather was very cold then. Once they had germinated they got moved to the polytunnel. There they got rather forgotten about as other plants and the nursery stock demanded attention. Once space became available in the polytunnel bed I planted one of the trays out, nestled between spinach rows. I confess they got rather overshadowed by the spinach and must have taken a deep breath when it was removed and they could see the light again. Progress here was, and remains, slow.

In early May, in a fit of desperation that we would ever get weather suitable for planting outside, I turned to my trusted fish boxes in the other polytunnel and filled them with lovely compost from one of the compost bins. I then planted out one of the other trays, and pushed in some more beetroot seed in between the young beetroot plants. Here progress has been rapid. The beetroot have grown enormous healthy leaves and beneath are lovely round beet. They are close to harvesting and the seed is coming on fast too. They have obviously really enjoyed the rich moist growing conditions and the heat of the polytunnel.

Whilst I was weeding the chickweed from the outside planted beetroot, finally put in around mid-May, the advantages of modular sown beetroot really became clear.
It was so easy to weed around them, no need to thin, they were significantly ahead of the chickweed and well rooted so there wasn't the fear that I would inadvertently pull them out when weeding. In addition they were coming on well, much better than they would have been if I had waited for the weather to sow them direct.

The final advantage is that I can sow another batch to follow on from the autumn sown onions when they are harvested shortly from the polytunnel bed. But I think I will take a lesson from my fish box beetroot and make sure I enrich the bed with some more of my lovely compost before I plant them.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A slow spring

Personally a slow start to spring is better than last years see-saw weather from warm to cold to hot to frost.
It can be frustrating to witness slow growth and the advance of the calendar with no appreciable warmth. But the plants will make up for lost time, day length is increasing and once the sun comes out the growth can be extremely rapid.

Use the time to prepare for this sudden spurt.
Covering bare soil with black plastic will help to warm the ground, avoid the growth of weeds, protect the soil from soaking rain or, with the last couple of days of relentless wind, stop dry top soil from blowing off.

Remove weeds that start flowering early, particularly chickweed, annual grass, bitter cress, and remove sprouting perennial weeds. This is easy whilst any planted crops are still small, but also easy to put off, a slight flush of weeds in early spring will turn to a rash of weed seeds in early summer, so get them young.

Delay direct planting of seed or potatoes until the soil is warm. They will not grow in cold soil and you may end up wasting time and seed. The sowing times on seed packets are a guide, use your own judgement to decide whether it is warm enough to sow.

If you do want to get going then plant in modules so that the plants are ready to go once the weather becomes suitable. If you have a greenhouse or polytunnel this is easy but even a cold frame will suit many hardier vegetable types.  Many seeds will grow in modules: beetroot, Swiss chard, celery, lettuce, brassicas, onions, peas, beans, and herbs.

Finally consider how to protect seedlings when they are planted from the vagaries of the weather. I don't use cloches, my vegetable patch is too exposed and they are too expensive for the amount of plants I grow. I do however use micromesh which I find to be extremely beneficial. It will cover a large area, is relatively easy to pin down and will allow moisture through, both rain and evaporation. It creates a microclimate, reducing wind stress and raising the temperature. Additionally it protects seedlings from pests and predators.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

What to sow in January

The garden and polytunnel are in lock down - by that I mean that they are under the hard grip of frost, and as temperatures remain around zero there is no likelihood of the frost lifting for a few days.

For avid gardeners it is a frustrating time, only a few days ago the soil was easy to work, now a fork would bounce off it. Even pruning shouldn't be undertaken on frost bound stems, damage could be easily caused to the plant.

Leave the garden and head for the greenhouse. This is where the greenhouse, particularly if it has a modicum of heating comes into it's own.

I always insulate the inside of the greenhouse in late autumn with bubble wrap. It provides insulation and, because I sling some bubble wrap over training wire below the roof space, it reduces the internal area needing heating. I employ simple heating by using tubular heaters slung below the metal benches. They provide gentle heat to the plants and limited space heating. On cold nights I fleece seedlings or plants which are further away from the heaters. It works and doesn't cost a fortune. You could use timers to limit the hours which the heaters are left on but I prefer to adjust timing depending on the conditions. Today the heaters will be left on, there is hardly any sunlight, yesterday I could turn them off because it was a lovely sunny day.

As I start most of my nursery perennial sowings now it makes sense to use some of that available heat to kick start the vegetable garden.

Broad beans are a traditional cold weather vegetable and sown in 3cm pots with a little heat they will be up within a couple of weeks. After gentle hardening off they will be ready for planting out from mid February (depending on the weather). This way I don't have to worry about mice or voles.

Sugar snap peas are another crop to start early. Sown on the same day as the beans they are already sprouting. I sow them 5 - 6 seeds to a 9cm pot and they will be planted as a group. The first seedlings will be planted in the polytunnel and I will expect to crop them from late April/early May. Once the first seedlings are growing strongly I will sow the next pots and these will be planted out in the vegetable patch.

I start podding peas a little later because you need more for a good harvest. They can be sown in guttering and I usually do this in the polytunnel around early March.

Lettuces can also be sown now. I sow in seed trays and prick out to modules. Early sowings will do better planted out in the polytunnel, but if conditions are mild cloches or micro-fleece may be sufficient protection. Lettuces don't require deep soil and early crops can be easily and cheaply raised in grow bags or even shallow cardboard boxes lined with old compost bags. Don't overwater early lettuces and always water on warm days trying to avoid the foliage.

Consider sowing other salad crops now, mizuna, mustard, rocket etc. These are best direct sown into polytunnels or greenhouse grow bags. Early sowings may go to seed quickly but frequent sowings can be made, and they are worth the work giving tasty fresh salad pickings from early spring.

I have been growing a wide variety of onions, spring onions, leeks and shallots for years and have always had good results from early sowings. Started now in 9cm pots with gentle heat they will need pricking out into modules when they start to produce their second leaf. They may be fiddly but I rarely have any bolting and they grow to a better size than those I have grown from sets. Obviously modules take up a lot of space but they are cold hardy and can be moved into the polytunnel and covered with fleece on cold nights.

I also sow some early broccoli/calabrese now. Usually a small headed variety which can be planted out in the polytunnel. Homegrown broccoli yields a main head but will go on to produce useful side shoots.

If you are interested in early potatoes and have a polytunnel consider raising some tubers in small pots in a heated greenhouse first. Then plant out in the polytunnel (I use crystalyx sheep lick boxes) as they grow. Usually by early spring fleece will protect them in the polytunnel on cold nights and you will get a good crop by May. Last year my polytunnel earlies gave me a better return than my outdoor varieties.

As January advances it is time to start the tender tomatoes, peppers and chillies. I use propagators to give a more even temperature for them and by the time they require more light and pricking out the weather should be more benign. Longer day length and better light levels make a huge difference to the temperature in greenhouses. Then we need to keep a check on rising temperatures. Ventilate carefully (avoid putting plants and particularly seedlings in draughts) but try to avoid too high a temperature too early. Dramatic temperature changes can cause plants to bolt or check, managing temperatures in polytunnels and greenhouses is an art requiring vigilance.

If you have the time, facilities and itchy fingers, then get growing, it is well worth the effort and what can be more pleasurable on a frosty morning than the sight of seedlings bursting into life?

Monday, 14 January 2013

Different manures and their effects on earthworms.

Yesterday was a mild day, perfect for clearing the ground and preparing for planting. Whilst forking over the various plots I couldn't help but notice the differences in the soil structure and earthworm densities and sizes.

My vegetable plot is divided into four equal areas which correspond to a simple rotation system. The beds all lie next to each other with just a narrow earth path between.
The rotation system is potatoes, followed by legumes, then brassicas and lastly alliums which also includes carrots. This works for me because I grow enough of all the four main groups and the manuring is simple and suits the various crops. Over the years the ground has now had each of the crops at least once and is on its second cycle. In the past the ground has been ploughed for oats but has been pasture for many years before I started working it. I am lucky that it is a good loam soil but am still surprised by the number of stones and even large rocks I keep digging up.

Potatoes start the cycle because they were used to first break up the ground. They are given a general fertiliser, usually chicken pellets, on planting and then a top dressing of homemade compost when they start to grow and need earthing up.

The legumes follow potatoes because they fix their own nitrogen and enjoy the remains of the compost left by the potatoes. I put seaweed on their bed during the winter to cover the soil. It also seems to deter slugs come the spring.

After the legumes are lifted the bed is forked over and fresh manure from the chicken and goose shed is laid thinly over the surface. This is covered by black plastic. Over the winter this starts to break down and is incorporated slowly into the soil by the worms. In the spring I add some lime when planting pot raised brassicas and have had fabulous crops as they enjoy the nitrogen from the manure. I do not raise any salads on this bed during the year because of the fresh nature of the manure, although by summer it will be 6 months old.

Finally alliums and carrots follow the brassicas and no new compost is added. They mop up any remaining nutrients in the soil and leave it ready for the potatoes again. Seaweed makes a good cover for the bare winter soil prior to the potatoes going in during the late spring.

Digging the potato patch this winter after a poor harvest, thanks to last years cold summer, I noticed how grey and barren the soil looked. Then I remembered that the bed had had no compost added to it during the year because there had been hardly any potatoes to earth up, (had I tried I probably would have buried them!)

Going onto the legume bed, still sporting some dried seaweed and barely any weeds, I was astonished at the difference. This bed had had a previous dressing of compost (when under potatoes) and a winter dressing of seaweed, through which the peas and beans had grown. The soil was darker, held together better and the quantity and size of the earthworms was tremendous. Each forkful brought up large dark mature worms and small bright pink young worms. The distance between the beds was barely 60cm.

The brassica bed also yielded good quantities of worms still working in some of the straw from the winter dressing of poultry manure. Again there was a better holding quality to the soil and it was darker than unworked soil. Already parts of this bed held bulbs of garlic and I have good hopes of as good a harvest as last years.

The situation in the potato patch needed remedying and luckily I have plenty of homemade compost. A thin top dressing should ensure the worms migrate back and I covered the bed with black plastic to keep it warm whilst they work it in. A trip to the beach should yield plenty of seaweed for a good covering and then the legumes and worms should be happy. Not long now until planting starts again.