Category Archives: Progress

Picking Peas by Moonlight

August has been a busy month, clearly not due to extensive blogging, but gardening in general has been chugging along.Highly unusual for August but this has been quite the summer. I’ve been doing quite well keeping up with the plot, squeezing in time where and when I can. It’s work that’s eating up my time, my regular clients included but also a week was spent in Oxford installing thousands of plants in a new build project.

My usual routine in the week is to stop by the plot after work, do a bit of weeding and a lot of watering. Occasionally, harvesting as well. I always stop by there with the intent of being there for only an hour or so, but I often end up coming home as the sun is setting and find Scott has had dinner already. That’s always the way, isn’t it? I’ve actually resorted to setting a timer on my phone to keep track of time… I also use the limitation that I’m only allowed to weed three buckets worth/two beds/one wheelbarrow load of weeds maximum. I always cheat.

Early morning watering

Early morning watering

During the hottest weather, I went to the plot quite late in the evening. I found that watering at 6pm wasn’t doing much, as the beds would be nearly dry by the time I put the hose away. I figured the site would be very quiet, but it was surprisingly busy! I ended up coming home past 10pm at one point. Scott asked, “what took you so long?”

“Well, I watered everything, had a long chat with several people, then I started picking peas by the moonlight. It was great.”

Yummy peas.

Yummy peas.

Glory of the Fruit Cage

Another long overdue post, but we’ve been busy and summer has finally arrived. Working as a professional gardener has kept me extremely busy and I’ve been heading to the plot as much as I can to keep things ticking along there.

While there have been a few spits and spats of rain, my main job has been keeping everything watered. With the late start this spring, we have lots of seedlings and young plants coming along right now. We’re very much a month behind compared to last year, but I’m hopeful this warm weather will continue on.

One area of the allotment that’s blowing our socks off right now is the fruit cage. Despite the late start, all the plants are fruiting beautifully. Both the gooseberry and currant shrubs are laden with fruit. The raspberries are forming up nicely. Just having to keep up with trimming the grass in and around it really. For no other reason than keeping the b*****d slug and snail population in check.

Red currants colouring up nicely.

Red currants colouring up nicely.

By far the best has been the strawberries. We planted them very early spring last year and they have truly hit their stride this year. In the last week we’ve harvested about 4lb of strawberries and there’s plenty more coming along. Frantic weeding and a few pinches of slug pellets* has resulted in beautiful, lush berries, some of which never seem to make it back home…

Strawbs!

Strawbs!

We built the fruit cage last summer and it has truly paid dividends. Simon did a fantastic job building the frame work, it’s sturdy and has plenty of space to move around in. Which is especially important as I am rather freakishly tall. Getting the netting, bought cheaply on eBay, was a bit off a faff to get on. When I say faff, it means I ended up using language that would have made a sailor blush. I was chatting to someone late last year and she commented on the lovely new fruit cage, “it’s always worth putting in the effort to build one of those. You really have no idea how much of your crop is lost to the birds until you build one.” Wise, wise words.

Looking good.

Newly built fruit cage

 

*Apologies to those that oppose the use of slug pellets, but they do bloody work and I can’t bear to let all that hard work go into feeding and already exploding mollusc population.

Taking Our Chances

It’s been the coldest spring in thirty years, at least that’s what the gang on Springwatch say and, hey, they know best. So why do I feel like I’m running behind this spring?

I really didn’t do much during the early May long weekend, I pretty much worked the entire weekend. We spent a lovely weekend away the following weekend, then I worked the weekend after that… However, I was determined to get stuck in this long weekend. I would have spent the whole weekend on the allotment, but the bathroom mildew needed bleaching.

Still, enough moaning, Scott and I headed down today to plant out our tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. The forecast is less than stellar for the next couple days, but the plants were starting to take over the flat. A few were started as plugs I had ordered and others as potted plants. I did do everything from seed last year, but these plants have gotten a far better start and are much more robust looking.However, I did lose several plants last year to the cold, so we’ve protected these as best we can. I really should build some sort of mobile polytunnel thing, but chopped up plastic pots and bottles will have to do for now. I will be making after-work visits to check on them!

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Good luck little plants.

We still need to continue our battle against the weeds. Despite the seemingly cold weather, the grass has been growing at an astounding rate. Simon whacked down a massive amount recently with a strimmer, which is great. I’ve already done the fruit cage once, but you wouldn’t know it looking at it today. We’re slowly working our way through clearing the beds and getting things into the ground. Plug plants are all in now, but there’s plenty of seeds that still need direct sowing. A few seedlings are making their way fine so far, but time is ticking on.

Before...

Before…

...and after.

…and after.

I really hope this slow start spring means we’ll be having a hot summer and autumn. If I can get the rest into the ground soon, warmer weather would mean catching up. Too much to ask of the British weather? I suspect so, but we continue on anyway and will just have to take our chances.

And We’re Away!

I’m here, I’m alive and doing a happy dance in the sunshine. Even the odd downpour hasn’t, ahem, dampened my excitement. Here’s hoping it lasts!

Work has been incredibly busy for me these last couple of weeks. My client’s gardens are finally taking off and I’ve been doing lots of big planting projects. Truthfully, it’s left me quite exhausted, resulting in short visits to the allotment and minimal blogging. It really feels like we’ve hardly done anything yet, but a few things are already going. The potatoes and onions are in, as are lots of summer bulbs have been planting. Seeds for direct sowing are all sorted and ready to go, but other than that, it’s been quiet.

Last weekend, with the warmer weather, we made a proper jump forward though. We have a small bed set aside for herbs, but last year our herb crops were a bust. Other than a small sage shrub and a few terragon plants, that was pretty much it. Anything started from seed never managed to get started. My theory is that, unlike our mounded veg beds, this bed was ground-level and got too water logged to allow herbs to flourish. I saved a fair amount of scrap lumber from work projects and we constructed a raised herb bed.

Making a start

Making a start

We did look into making all our beds into raised beds, but we worked out that even with the cheapest lumber, it was going to set us back at least £400. We decided that we’d rather spend that kind of money on a second shed. Mounding the beds was a compromise, but has worked just as well. I’ll admit, having neat, tidy, perfectly sized and spaced beds appeals deeply to my sense of aesthetics, but such is life. I’ll just have to derive satisfaction from the tidiness of our herb garden instead.

End result.

End result.

This weekend is not so nearly ambitious, but I’m hoping to finish weeding out the last few beds and to get the plot looking it’s best. I might even give our recently donated BBQ a clean. If the weather continues as it does, we’ll be needing that soon.

Planting Plans:Ornamental Plants

I feel like I’m being quite lazy this spring, as it seem we haven’t spent much time on the plot this month. Of course, my decision to buy in many of my plants has meant our flat isn’t awash in tiny seedlings this year. Also, given the recent weather, I’m quite happy that there isn’t anything that urgently needs doing. It’s given me far more time to make plans and work on other parts of the plot. The most neglected section was probably the ornamental beds at the top of the plot and this year I’m determined to make something of them.

Last year we cleared the top area and moved the raspberry canes down into the fruit cage. These beds are right next to the access road that cuts through the allotment site and is quite close to the main gates. We get lots of passers-by,  and lots of hellos as well, but in years past Simon noticed that these raspberry plants never produced fruit. We had a slight hunch that fruit theft wasn’t entirely down to birds, so we decided to move the more tempting fruit to the far end of our plot.

The first stages of clearing the ornamental beds.

The first stages of clearing the ornamental beds last winter.

 

In the late autumn, we planted spring bulbs galore and have done so again last autumn. The daffodils from the first year have returned in abundance, as daffodils often do. The tulips last spring were a bit stunted, so this year I’ve mulched the beds with our lovely compost we produced. The trial beds of tulips are coming on well too, I do love having fresh cut flowers in the house when ever possible, especially in the early spring.

Fresh Daffodils in the house.

Fresh Daffodils in the house.

Last year by the summer however, the beds had become a fairly weedy mess. Other than the sunflowers and sweet peas, the beds we’re really not looking like much. I had attempted to sow some wild flower seeds, but they never really took. So in the autumn, I cleared most things out in an attempt to start over and added a few perennials such as Japanese anemones and coreopsis. I’ll likely add more and include some annuals such as cosmos and corn flowers later in the early summer.

While I’m mainly after cut flowers, I can’t possibly use everything and the excess flowers will left to attract bees and other pollinators. We did have an enormous comfrey plant in one bed, which did an amazing job attracting bees. Sadly, it also did a stupendous job at protecting and feeding hundreds of slugs. So I’ve dug it out and will replace it with something else. As  I’ve also ordered some summer bulbs of dahlias and species lilies, which will need to be planted soon, they likely take up that space happily.

I’m not really planting with any real design, which is a bit of a departure from what I do all the time in my job. With this little patch of ground I can plant what I like and where I like, no client imposing any limitations on me. I find it quite liberating to plant like that and I imagine some interesting combinations will come out of it. I’m hoping I’ll finally make something of it, even without a absolute “plan.”

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Anticipation

Spring, it’s all about the anticipation. As much as I love the warmth and abundance of the summer months, it’s the spring season I love best. I feel like a kid at Christmas, I keep peeking at the soil to see what’s coming up and checking bare branches for the first buds.

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First Spring Bulbs.

The spring bulbs are making an appearance finally, the daffodils are about to flower and the tulips are coming along. I tend to use them primarily as cut flowers for the house, but the odd one that flowers before I can cut it will always bring a welcome splash of colour to the plot. For the first time, I have actually given one bed over to a set of “trial tulips.” The gardening company I work for orders thousands of tulip bulbs in the autumn and yours truly was in charge of all our bulb sales. Our suppliers very kindly gifted me several sets of new tulip varieties, which I’m indulgently trying out at our plot. My boss got quite excited at the idea of trialling bulbs and plants in my allotment, but I had to remind him I do want to grow some veg!

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Red and blue potatoes going in. 

Last weekend I planted our shallots and this weekend we planted up our chitted potatoes. We’re growing Charlotte again this year, as it made the most divine French potato salad last summer. As part of my Heritage/ Unusual Variety Helps Disease/ Pest Resistance Experiment, we’re planting Highland Burgundy Reds and Salad Blue potatoes. I was worried the weather is still much too cold, but the soil is perfectly moist and they’d been slowly drying out in our spare room. Also, in deference to the baby potatoes, the heat has been kept off in the spare room, but Scott was getting tired of having to wrap up in a duvet every time he wanted to work on the computer.

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Kale harvest!

In order to make some space for the potatoes, we did have to clear out the kale plants. We met up with our co-plot mate Simon and we set about dividing the kale. We’ve got a nearly exploding carrier bag sitting on the kitchen table now. I will attempt some kale chips/crisps with some, but otherwise will blanch and freeze the rest.I asked for some good kale recipes via Twitter and got some great suggestions, but I’m always open to more. We’ve got lots to go through!

Despite the cold, I can’t wait to get back out there. I’ve got a few long weekends coming up thanks to some leftover vacation still owed to me. The plot is nearly ready to go and I can’t wait to get it up and running again. The anticipation is killing me…

Groundhog Days

Last weekend the weather was glorious and it enticed many a gardener out on to their plots. Like the legendary groundhog  I emerged from my burrow, but I should have known better when I saw my shadow…This weekend it’s back to frigid temperatures  and I’m huddled back in my burrow.

Even though this weekend was less than productive, last weekend we did manage to weed and mulch the fruit patch. The shrubs all got their winter pruning earlier in January and the strawberries are already starting to put on some growth. This will be the strawberries’ second year, so I’m really hoping we might get a nice little crop this year. It’ll be interesting to see how much of a difference the fruit cage makes in regards to our current and gooseberry crops. Last spring, I arrived at the plot to find two plump wood pigeons eating their way through all the red currant flowers, so no currents last summer.

Fruit cage before....

Fruit cage before….

 

...And the fruit cage after.

…And the fruit cage after.

The rhubarb & asparagus patch even got a weed and mulch. We had a rather large rhubarb plant in the middle of the asparagus half, but it has now been donated to a neighbour plot and gives the old ‘gus a bit more space. We’ve still got four rhubarb plants, but I think that will be more than enough for us.

Of course, now that area is all done, I’m itching to push on with a few other jobs before the real madness begins in mid-March. I still need to build our raised herb bed and I want to assemble our log/scrap wood bench. I know I’m not the only one dying to get on with things. Maybe I just need to get over my fussing about the cold weather, layer up and get out there. Or maybe I’ll just have another hot chocolate and wait for another week. Yeah, that sounds good.

Planting Plans: Beans & Fruiting Things

For most of the country, it would seem that winter has found its second wind (so to speak), but here in London it remains mild and rainy. I really should head out there and get some final jobs done, but am struggling to get the gumption to do so.

I haven’t been totally idle, seed potatoes are chitting away in the spare room, winter pruning of the fruit shrubs is already done and the seed packets are already organised by planting month. The sun is setting later and later in the day, before I know it, I’ll be back to visiting to the allotment after work again.

I can’t wait for those longer days and the crops that can only be had with some hot summer sun. We had some great success with dwarf and climbing beans last, even if the summer wasn’t the best. This year we’ll be growing Golddukat, a yellow dwarf French and a purple climbing French, Purple Cascade. Peas were less successful last year, reaching a mere three inches in height, but I’m determined to try again. We’re trying a English heritage variety, Champion of England. Originally developed in the 1840’s and nearly went extinct, but was in part saved by a family farm in Lincolnshire in the 1940’s. I’m hoping I can do the provenance of these seeds justice and grow them successfully.

I really do have my fingers crossed for some hotter weather this year, there are a few crops that I want to attempt again this year. Their lack of success, even utter failure was not just down to the weather. The fault in part to me not being diligent enough in keeping the crops safe from weather changes or pests. We’re determined to grow sweetcorn again and put up fortifications around it to stop the foxes from getting it again. This year we’re growing a bi-coloured variety, Double Standard. With it’s yellow and white kernels, it’s what I could call a Peaches and Cream variety, which is a very popular type back home. We had some success with cucumbers last year, just a few rather wonky looking ones, but they tasted fantastic. Even the chilli plants managed to cough out a couple of Jalapeños. I’ve ordered plants for this year though, I’m hoping they’ll be more robust than the ones I started from seed last year. Also being started from plants are the tomatoes; Sungold, Chocolate Cherry & Tropical Ruby. Last year, I started everything from seeds, but the plants were knocked flat by a sudden cold spell. Thought some recovered, blight struck just as the fruits were about to ripen up. I’m hoping by ordering plants, they’ll get off to a quicker start and fruit out before the inevitable blight gets them.

Baby tomato plants, eventually lost to cold and blight.

Baby tomato plants, eventually lost to cold and blight.

The fruit cage remains more or less the same this year. The strawberries, which were planted last year, are filling out nicely and we’re hoping for more fruitful crops this year. I’ve pruned the gooseberry and current shrubs harder this year as they were getting very congested. I may have lost some fruit due to cutting back much of last year’s growth, but mildew was an issue last year. Really, I’m hoping the fruit cage will make the most difference  protecting what fruit we do get from the marauding wood pigeons. As someone said to me last year, “you don’t really realise how much you’re feeding to the birds until you put up a fruit cage.” My only addition to the fruit cage is a container grown blueberry. The container was left over from a planting job, which means I can plant it in lovely acidic ericaeous soil. It’s a novelty variety of blueberry, bright pink Pinkberry bought from Thompson & Morgan.

Novelty fruit or otherwise, I hope hot summer don’t become a novelty. The rain splattered windows today make it a little hard to imagine, but perhaps through our combined power of hopeful thinking, we can make it so!

Planting Plans: Brassicas & Squash

It’s a month like this where we’re extra grateful for the fresh winter veg that the allotment is providing us. Yes, there’s still a smattering left in our big freezer, even a giant marrow still residing in our kitchen awaiting roasting, but it’s the freshly harvested things that make you feel so good. The snow did little damage to our cabbage and kale. A touch of white fly, but that seems to be under control now. With the slightly warmer weather recently, I’m hoping for everything to “bulk up” just a bit more. The purple broccoli is just sending out the first colourful florets, the kale leafing out some more and the cabbages are forming nice firm hearts. Impatience got the better of us and a few of the cabbages have already been used. Fried up with a generous portion of pancetta. (insert Homer Simpson-like drooling noises here.)

This brings me to a quick run down of the brassicas and squashes we’re planning on in the coming year. Firstly, something we tragically missed out on last year, which is brussels sprouts. Again laziness and a lack of space has meant I doing these from ordered plants. I do love sprouts and not just for Christmas. If they do well enough, I may just not bother with cabbage in the future. I like the idea of being able to harvest a few handfuls of sprouts to cook as and when I need, rather  than contending with one huge head of cabbage. Although, given our current tiny cabbages this hasn’t posed as much of an issue for us really.

The cabbages we have growing at the moment are Tundra, a great winter cabbage. As we haven’t completely given up on cabbage yet, we’re trying out Savoy cabbage next year. I’ve had some excellent Savoy cabbage dishes in the past, so it’ll be nice to see if I can recreate some.

New this year will also be cauliflower and in keeping with our love of purple vegetables, we’ll be growing Graffiti. It’ll make for an interesting looking cauliflower cheese.

Winter crops galore

Winter crops galore

Some repeats will be pak choi, kale and purple sprouting broccoli. All grew really well, but suffered a bit due to my lack of diligence regarding pests. The pak choi was greedily munched by slugs and white fly ruined a significant portion of the kale leaves. However, the last twelve months have been all about riding the learning curve, so I am determined to not let the pests get the upper hand again this year.

Squashes were another success for us, but this year will be more about keeping a strict limit on how much we grow. We discovered that there is only so much courgette any one household can consume! Even with baking, frying and grilling in spades, we really did suffer a glut in the summer months. So with just a few plants, we’ll be growing butternut squash, Atena courgettes and one, just one pumpkin plant.

Last year's rather odd double Atena courgette

Last year’s rather odd double Atena courgette

Ultimately, I’m glad we had the forethought to grow a few winter crops this season, I never imagined we would appreciate it so much. While our decent sized plot will never make us self-sufficent, we should really up the productivity of the plot over the coldest months. We owe it to ourselves to help us get through the toughest time of the year.

Planting Plans: Root Veg

As the snow drifts past the window, it’s yet another weekend where I can’t do much with the allotment, other than dream of warmer days. I don’t need it to be tee shirt weather, just warm enough so I don’t have to Penguin Walk for twenty minutes on slippery pavement to get to the plot.

My weekends haven’t been completely idle, I’ve nearly finished watching the second season of Downton Abbey and have done rather a lot of seed and plant ordering online.

As things begin to arrive, I find myself sorting though and contemplating this year’s planned endeavours. The root vegetables are very possibly my favourites,  not just because they do so well for us, but because there’s such variety to be grown. Last year was really about finding out if we could grow anything at all. As we’ve managed to do that, I now find myself wanting to grow more things we couldn’t otherwise get or afford to buy on a regular basis. The next few posts will be all about our great Planting Plans.

Last year, due to the necessity of having to clear the plot first, we planted our garlic rather late in February. While we got a nice crop midsummer, the size of the bulbs left something to be desired. This year we planted in late October and already we have green shoots poking through. We bought a collection of bulbs from The Garlic Farm which included Elephant Garlic, Lautrec Wight, Iberian Wight and Tuscany Wight. I’m not sure if I’ll be 100% sold on the Elephant Garlic, as I like my garlic strong enough to blow your face off. We shall see.

Planting Garlic.

Planting Garlic.

We grew some rather boring, run-of-the-mill white onions last year. While their impressive size gained us some nods of approval at the allotment association’s annual show, they do take up a lot of space on the plot and are so easy to buy. This year, we’re going for flavour over size and are trying Red Gourmet shallots. Scott makes the best sausage and mash I have ever encountered, so some fried shallots would be a great addition to that.

This year our allotment will be orange carrot-free. Along with the very successful Purple Haze carrots we grew, we’ll be trying out Dragon Purple. I bought the Dragon Purple seeds from The Real Seed Catalogue. Hopefully, carrot fly will be less of an issue this year due to the purple colour throwing them into a state of confusion. Also, I’ll be better about netting the carrot seedlings.

Beetroot is another repeat crop, this year I’m trying Solo. A good friend has supplied me with a beetroot hummus recipe, which I really want to try out. The first crop last year did quite well, but the second crop never really got a chance to grow before the colder autumn weather set in. I’m determined to get a second crop this year, just have to make sure not to leave it so late.

New this year, it’s leeks and  parsnips. I’ll be growing Musselburgh leeks from young plants as I’ve had to accept starting masses of things in our tiny flat is just not feasible. Baby leek plants are one crop that will be ordered in this year.  I will be doing the parsnips from seed however, growing the traditional Tender & True variety.

Finally, the potatoes. Three different varieties this year which are Charlotte, Salad Blue and Highland Burgundy Red. Charlotte is a repeat for last year, as we grow masses of tarragon in the herb plot and we absolutely love French potato salad. Salad Blue and Highland Burgundy Red are coloured varieties, which will be a great cooking experiment. I’m hoping they will retain some colour, as the idea of blue and red chips makes me smile. It’ll also be an interesting experiment to see how these varieties deal with the ravages of blight, which are endemic on our allotment site.

Salad potatoes.

Salad potatoes.

So that’s just the root veg so far, there’s still the rest of the plot to go through. The brassicas are the next big contender, as many of them are still providing for us even now and we should really grow more of them. Then there’s the squashes and fruiting vegatables to consider, which is harder to think about at the moment. They’re such quintessential summer plants, but I still see the vision of them, even as I watch the snow fall.