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!