Monday, 13 October 2014

Polytunnel update: First frost brings summer to an end.

Last night the first proper frost struck. It wasn't expected, the nights have been mild and the forecast didn't indicate that temperatures were going to plummet like they did. However sudden frosts are not uncommon here and we have been awaiting their arrival.

In the polytunnel the early sun was bringing temperatures up again but the damage was obvious. Courgettes, tomatoes and the last cucumbers were unmistakably done for. It has been a good run and the cropping has been good on all but the cucumbers, I think they have found the heat too much for them this year.

So today's job was to clear out the tomatoes, only 4 small punnets of ripening fruit left, so that is good. They can go into the greenhouse to fully ripen. The strawberry plants under the tomatoes are also lifted and repotted ready for their new positions in the spring. I have weeded the bed  and added some well-rotted horse manure and replanted it with spring cabbage plants. The ground is very dry because I haven't been watering the tomatoes to encourage them to ripen the fruit, so it is very important to get the hose on the bed and make sure it gets a thorough watering.

The courgettes are in containers so they need only to have the top growth removed and then the containers are stacked and the compost will be reused for the early potatoes grown in pots in the polytunnel in the spring. Saves work and money. Just ensure any reused compost gets some fertiliser added to it and that it doesn't harbour any nasty pests or troublesome weeds.

Now the polytunnel is pretty much ready for the winter. The beds are full of winter lettuce, mizuna and rocket. Winter onions, raised in modules in late August, have been planted out, and the leeks are growing strongly. Kale, spring cabbage and the King of all winter vegetables - purple-sprouting broccoli are growing well. The broccoli plants are nearly as tall as me and promise a bumper crop in early spring. The asparagus is beginning to turn yellow and the fronds will be cut down and the crowns mulched but that is probably the last job I will have to do, apart from some watering.

It remains important to monitor the temperature and soil moisture levels as on sunny days temperatures can rise swiftly and the soil can dry out, even when plants are quite small. Remember that the soil will lose moisture directly to the air so if you can leave a surface mulch of dry soil over damp soil that will help minimise water loss. The best way to achieve this is by watering thoroughly and intermittently. Then water penetrates deeply and over the days when you don't water a surface layer of dry soil will form. Check how wet the soil is by scraping back this dry layer and checking what the soil underneath looks like. As winter progresses you should find that your need to water reduces significantly. Try to water on warm days and avoid opening the tunnel on frosty mornings until the temperature rises. If you have to go to work early, try asking a neighbour to help and reward them with some lovely fresh winter vegetables and salads!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Abysmal carrots!

Carrots are usually a staple for the summer and into the winter but not this year.

The early sowing was almost a complete failure, there were so few germinating that I pulled them out in the end and sowed again in a different spot.

The second sowing in the polytunnel had a better germination rate but the seedlings have been slow to develop. Later sowings outside germinated reasonably well but, despite a mesh to stop carrot root fly, they are riddled with the worms and I will have to remove the carrots to try and prevent the worms pupating and causing more problems next year.

Why the failures? I had heard that other growers were struggling with germination during early spring, and this was put down to dry weather and it being unusually warm. Certainly with the second sowing in the polytunnel I ensured that I watered more frequently and watered the drill before I sowed the seed. Germination was better but it was a hot summer in the polytunnel and this has not been to the carrots' liking. By now we are usually eating plenty but I pulled one a couple of days ago and the carrot (well-flavoured) was too small to have more than a bite or two.

Why did the outdoor ones get carrot root fly? Unfortunately it can be difficult to judge when the carrot fly is on the wing, and it is a very small fly. Possibly it either got through the mesh or hatched from overwintering pupae underneath, although I think that was unlikely as the carrots were sown in a very different spot from the previous year's carrots. Certainly I have plenty of potential host plants around the croft and carrot root fly has become more of a problem, though never as bad as this.

Next year I plan to grow the carrots in tubs and avoid the vegetable patch to try and break the cycle. Even with removing the carrots and, hopefully eradicating the fly larvae, I would expect a few to slip through. If they are in deep tubs, new growing medium and in the other polytunnel I expect to get a clean crop. I'll let you know!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Be careful what you wish for!

We have been enjoying a wonderful summer, which has kept me busy outside in the vegetable garden, and watering copiously in the polytunnel.

Little rain has fallen since the potatoes went in and unfortunately the carrots have not appreciated the hot dry days. Onions have thrived with bulbs the size of tennis balls, and all from seed sown in January!

For days now I have watched the forecast in the hope that the showers indicated would help the potatoes, which are beginning to look in desperate need as the soil is dust dry. Nothing has arrived of any note; drizzle which made the foliage damp. I did resort to an earlier watering with the hose but the foliage is so thick that the hose needed to be put underneath it and consequently the watering was patchy. To get decent sized potatoes the plants need a reasonable quantity of water as they start to flower and boy did they get it last night!

The tail end of Hurricane Bertha arrived during the night with squally winds and heavy showers. The potatoes got the soaking they wanted and managed to withstand the wind, but my sunflowers at the end of the brassica patch are prostrate. The rain is unlikely to make much of a difference to the carrots, I should have watered more frequently during June/July, but a prolonged holiday didn't help with that plan.

I recently sowed some spinach, mizuna and rocket outside, and have been watering daily so now I can take a break from that for a few days. Even the polytunnel plants will benefit as water will flow through the ground under the tunnel and get to the deep roots which they are encouraged to develop. (The raised beds are only a few inches above the ground level, and I water well but not frequently, a good soak once a week or so when the plants are beyond seedling stage ensures they seek for water at deeper levels rather than relying on regular light waterings.)

I'll stop wishing for rain now as I have yet to assess the impact that the wind has had on the fruit trees, and if wishing for rain brings hurricanes, even if they are at the end of their strength, then I'll put up with watering by hand.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


Northern Scotland probably isn't the best place to grow asparagus but I've always promised my husband that I would try it.

My first experiment involved expensive crowns planted in late spring and carefully nurtured through the year, some reappeared the following spring but they were weak and failed shortly after.

I then heard about growing from seed and treating like a biennial. It was considerably cheaper to buy the seed and it germinated well. I potted up the seedlings regularly all last year and eventually planted 10 out in the narrow bed in the polytunnel after harvesting the sweetcorn. Now they are emerging and at least 9 have started with good thick shoots. Not quite as thick as my finger but they would out compete a pencil. I haven't harvested yet (it would be cruel not to wait for my husband to come back from working away!) and the shoots need to be at least a few inches tall, but it is looking very promising and these are only a year old.

The remaining seedlings have been left in their pots and have only sent up thin shoots. I am considering planting these into a separate bed and letting them grow on for next year.

Interestingly I also tried some in a large tub trug in the polytunnel and these started earlier than the ones in the ground, I think that was because the tub trug was warming up in the sun. They also have grown well and reasonably thick but not enough spears to make much of a dinner! I'll let them continue there and see how they do next spring. During the summer they can be put outside which means they won't take up valuable space, and that might be a suitable option for people who can't afford a permanent asparagus bed.

The only problem was some early slug damage with the first emerging shoots. I had to resort to slug pellets in the end but now they don't seem to be affected.

Looks like my promise has been kept in the end!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Well-rotted horse manure

One of my New Year tasks was to collect a large quantity of two year old well-rotted horse manure from a neighbour.

This stuff is full of baby worms and the dark rich colour of black coffee. It probably has the same kick-start effect on the garden as coffee has on people. It is concentrated goodness which will be used sparingly. Because it is from the stable and well-rotted it has few weed seeds, perfect for the polytunnel borders.

Adding manures and compost to the polytunnel beds is always slightly problematic. Fresh stuff from my poultry is too hot and not sterile enough. The compost from my compost heaps can be good but rarely weed seed free. I tend to concentrate this in trenches where the weed seeds won't get light and germinate, or in the base of large containers for beans and courgettes. But concentrating compost in trenches doesn't spread the goodness and if you are cropping the polytunnel year round then you will soon exhaust the soil. Although I do use pelleted poultry fertiliser  to feed the plants, I noticed that the soil was beginning to lose it's colour. The outside vegetable patch was a deep brown but in the polytunnel the soil was beginning to look more grey. The organic matter in the soil was being taken up by the plants and soil life, and wasn't being replaced fast enough.

We have cattle ourselves, but they are not housed, so collecting and rotting their dung wasn't going to be easy. You can buy (and previously I have) well rotted farmyard manure in bags from the garden centre, but it is costly if you need a good quantity. Resting one of the beds after giving it a good helping of compost from the heap wasn't an attractive option, when space is a premium, and weed seeds could come through for years to come (dock seeds can persist in the soil for up to 50 years). I have got the polytunnel to a position where the weeds are not difficult to keep under control and keeping it like that is a priority. So the offer of well-rotted horse manure from the stable was too good to refuse.

How to use? The easiest way is to add to the surface around the plants if they are big enough, like my presently growing purple sprouting broccoli and kale. The worms will take it down and as you water it will also be washed into the soil. The feeding roots of most plants are close to the surface and they will take in the goodness quite easily from a surface mulch. Another way is to dig in when preparing the ground for a crop, or add to a trench or planting hole. I will avoid adding it to the bed which will have the next crop of carrots but once they are growing strongly I will add a small amount to a watering can and water it on the soil near the plants. This suits carrots, beetroot, turnips, onions etc. Gradually the organic material in the soil will build up again and this benefits everything. The soil structure retains water and nutrients better if it has a good quantity of organic matter. The soil life has more organic material available to break down and they release the nutrients making them available to the plants. Healthy plants mean a better crop and arguably a more nutritious crop.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A Happy New Year .... seed sowing starts NOW

Sorry to all you shivering in America, and soggy in southern Britain, but today was perfect in this often overlooked corner of Scotland for the start to be made to the monumental task of seed sowing.

Monumental because I have nursery and annual flower seeds to sow as well as my ever expanding range of vegetable seeds. To make an early start helps to lift the winter blues and I can begin to look forward to the light and warmth of spring. I start with the rugged seeds, those that don't mind the lack of heat. Broad beans and early peas will happily fit that bill, as will sweet pea seeds and some hardy annuals, sown early they make substantial plants and start the summer off nice and early.

Today I planted the broad beans individually in little pots, these will sit on the bottom shelf of the greenhouse staging. They will get a little heat when the heaters are on, but at present it is warm enough to keep the greenhouse heaters off. Cornflowers and marigolds are already germinating and the autumn sown sweet peas are going to be pinched back now that they have true leaves, this will encourage then to send up a number of stems and bear more flowers.

Oregon sugar snap peas will be sown next, 5 to a 9cm pot. These first pots will be planted out in the polytunnel for a crop by May. A small number of brassicas will also be sown extra early for raising in the polytunnel, there are a number of varieties now available for close cropping or small spaces. Some will crop in quite small containers if space is at a premium.

Onion seeds are also sown this month, red and yellow onions, spring onions and shallots. They may be a little more work than sets but are cheaper, rarely bolt and have always given good results. My largest seed sown 'Red Baron' onion was the size of an orange, and all in a few short months of growth from a tiny black seed!