Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Happy compost, everyone

Don't forget that Christmas is a great time for us compost makers with loads of stuff that can go in the bin/heap.

From the pre-Christmas house clean I got the contents of several vacuum cleaner bags, then the dog had a good grooming (lots of hair), there's all the veg peelings, cardboard packaging, wrapping paper, etc. If you're a nut lover all the shells can go in although they do take a long time to rot down so I put them in a bag first and bash them up small with a hammer.

Even the left-over dinner can be used if you have a sealed bin so that vermin can't get in. Use your imagination, basically anything that is organic in origin can be composted.

Once the celebrations are out of the way you can start to think about using some of that lovely crumbly compost you've been creating through the year. Before you know it you'll have a potting bench overflowing with seedlings just waiting for some decent weather so they can go out on to the plot. If only we could pre-order the weather so we didn't get nasty surprises. Dream on....

potting bench last April.....hope springs eternal

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

parsnip experiment

Anyone who has followed my blog will know that I grow my parsnips in containers rather than on the plot. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that my soil is derived from boulder clay and once you get a few inches down it's rather heavy and stony - not good for parsnips.

So, as an experiment, this year I tried the 'borehole' method as well to see if it would give me a crop. This method involves boring a hole with a pointed iron bar and, by wiggling the bar you get a nice conical shape which you fill with finely sieved compost and sow the seeds on top. My holes were 15-18 inches deep which I figured is long enough for most parsnips and I lifted a couple today just to see.
the variety is Duchess F1
Decent sized roots, I think you'll agree, and they weighed in at 637g and 465g respectively.

There is a problem with this method, though. You have to dig a crater to get the blooming things out and I did find that germination rates for the outdoor sown ones was very poor. I start off my containers in the greenhouse so the compost is relatively warm and this gives excellent germination.

So, will I do it again? probably not as I can get a decent crop without any digging but if you are fed up of forked parsnips it's a technique certainly worth giving a go.

Away from the parsnip theme we've had two days without rain so I've managed to get some tidying up done outside. After what seems like an entire year of downpours it's a blessed relief to see the sun, even if there is very little heat in it!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

November sowings

Just because it's got round to November doesn't mean you can let up on your seed sowing, especially if you can offer some protection such as a greenhouse or cold frame. This year's difficult conditions have convinced me that it's important to have a back-up plan to compensate for the lack of stored produce. Obviously, you can't be sowing tender summer plants and expect them to survive but there are plenty of things that will make it through the winter under cover. And don't expect the sort of quantities you can get from the main growing season either.

Mustard and cress on a warm windowsill are the two winter crops that first spring to mind and some people limit their 'out of season' sowing to nothing more than this.  The more adventurous will add micro-greens to the list but there are quite a few 'full-size' plants that will happily overwinter in a greenhouse or frame. I have two varieties of lettuce, carrots, chard, radishes and spring onions coming along nicely in the greenhouse.

Micro-greens are not just a handy and easy thing to grow in winter but they are a good way to use up old seed that you might not want to risk for the main sowings next year. They are simply immature plants harvested to be used as an addition to such things as salads, stir-fries, soups, casseroles, etc. Almost anything that has edible leaves can be used, including beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, celery, chard, kale, lettuce, rocket and more.
for mustard and cress I use these pot trays with a little MPC in the bottom
Today I've sown beetroot, CCA lettuce and kale in supermarket mushroom trays with a few drainage holes poked in the bottom. They'll be germinated indoors and put out into the greenhouse before they get too drawn in their search for light.
The beetroot are used for their leaves rather than letting them develop a root which would take too long anyway. As I go through my seed packet box and sort out what I no longer need I'll be sowing more over the next few weeks. All you have to lose is a little time. If seed doesn't germinate just use the compost for something else. How about peas sown close together and harvested for the shoots when they are a few inches high. When you think that micro-greens have become rather trendy in top restaurants and realize how easy they are to grow you need never associate home-grown and winter with boring.

Friday, 2 November 2012

2012 - disaster or not?

A lot of people have been saying that this year has been disastrous for gardeners and I have to say that the 2012 growing season has been difficult at times. For some crops it has been a washout but overall my quantity of food produced is roughly the same as previous years. Not as much of some veg. as I would have liked but good crops of others. Onions, beetroot, parsnips, radishes and carrots were better than average while potatoes, cucumbers and tree fruit were very disappointing. Strawberries were almost non-existent but the rasps are still producing and I still have tomatoes and peppers ripening in the greenhouse.

The plot still has enough to keep us going well into the new year but this is largely a result of my continual small sowings, made to ensure there was always something to plant when the space became available. When that eventually runs out we still have a big chest freezer packed with stuff so not really a disaster from my point of view. Tricky, demanding and sometimes downright difficult but gardeners are nothing if not resilient and optimistic.

This year’s harvest from greenhouse, plot and assorted containers is detailed below. Figures are approximate as I don’t weigh every single thing that I grow and I’ve estimated weights of what I still have in the ground. For those of you who think metric just divide by 2.2

Potatoes 170 lb
Onions/shallots/garlic 55 lb
Roots 55 lb
Peas/beans 35 lb
Brassicas 60 lb
Tomatoes 44 lb
Cucumbers/courgettes 24 lb
Peppers/aubergines 9 lb
Leeks 30 lb
Soft fruit 25 lb
Apples 60 lb

Salads: With the greenhouse I can manage an almost year-round supply of lettuce, spring onions, radishes and assorted salad leaves and micro greens. I like the idea of always having something fresh to pop into a sandwich, even if it is just a few sprouted seeds!

kale after its recovery from almost being stripped by caterpillars

Saturday, 27 October 2012

autumn jobs

Bright but chilly autumn days mean that there's lots to be done around the garden and things are dry enough to move around without sinking up the ankles in mud.

First priority is gathering up leaves for the leaf mould cages. My own garden can't produce enough but there are plenty of trees in the village and along the lanes so when I take the dog out I always carry a plastic sack with me. It's easy enough to scrape the leaves into little piles with your feet and then just scoop them into the sack.

For some reason I didn't gather enough leaves last autumn to make up the shortfall due to settlement in the cages and will probably not have enough good stuff next spring. That won't be a problem in future as I've added longer poles to the cages and wound an extra width of netting around them to double the size. Thankfully dry leaves are not heavy and it's easy enough to lift the sacks over the top.

I'll also need at least 10 sacks of leaves to add to the cages as they settle but I've roped in some of the village children to rake them into piles on the greens then all I have to do is bag them. (the leaves, not the children!)

Another major task in readiness for the new season is making sure all the compost is doing what it should be doing. The two daleks are full to the brim and populated by thousands of brandling worms which are doing a fantastic job of reducing it all to dark crumbly goodness.
The open heap is now over four feet high and growing. I just keep piling stuff on and making sure there are plenty of air pockets to both aid decomposition and provide a winter home for the wildlife. Hedgehogs and toads especially seem to like the protection offered by the heap.

Spent potting compost from my many containers is either spread across the beds or piled on the heap. One thing I'm careful about is not not putting any material that has grown potatoes onto the new potato bed or into the daleks. That way, when I'm preparing my potato mix next year, I can be pretty sure there's no diseased material around to cause problems.

I find that getting as much work done as I can in the autumn allows me to concentrate on the actual growing process the following year. Hopefully it won't be quite as bad, weather-wise, as this one.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

apple day

A day of glorious autumn sunshine and, as it was also apple day, I decided now's the time to harvest this year's crop. It wouldn't normally happen all on one day but only one of the four trees actually had any fruit this year so out came the steps and up I went.

Here we have it, 34 lbs of James Grieve and when I add in the windfalls I've been gathering over the last few weeks I'd say 50 lbs+ of smallish apples.  For anyone wanting a variety that performs well in the north-west I'd recommend James Grieve as it has given us a good crop every single year since we moved here.

After sorting out the keepers and the juicers/cookers I put them in their respective cardboard trays to be dealt with later. In previous years I've brewed big batches of cider but with only one variety it's not going to happen this year. Even the crab apple harvest is very poor so I'll leave what there is for the local wildlife.

And keeping with the fruity theme the autumn rasps are still producing big juicy fruit. Not as sweet as I would like but I guess that's down to the lack of sunshine.

I know I go on a bit about how easy I find growing parsnips but I've been amazed at my own results this year. It must be that the weather has been perfect for parsnips but I never expected to produce a monster like this.
I broke the root getting it out but even so it weighed in at 743g, well over one and a half pounds.  Parsnip soup, anyone?

Saturday, 13 October 2012

cheeky chap

I keep a bucket at the back door to collect kitchen waste before dumping it in the compost bins. Normally I have it covered but this lunchtime I left off the lid and went back later to find this little fella in the bottom and looking a bit bedraggled.
young vole
He couldn't have climbed up the slippery outside of the bucket so I assume he must have jumped in from the privet hedge. Anyway, I lifted him out and sent him on his way to find an alternative food source.

Wildlife interlude over and now back to growing things. I bought a couple of bags of overwintering onion sets the other day and planted up some into containers in the greenhouse with the rest going outside. The greenhouse ones are close spaced to be pulled as salad onions early next year.

The picture was taken earlier and the week and already the first green shoots have appeared. These are in one of those supermarket mushroom trays.

In the greenhouse the big clean-up is still under way and I've managed to get half of it washed down with disinfectant. I still have the chillies and an aubergine plant in there but once they're finished I'll get on with the other half. Pots and seed trays are all neatly stacked but not cleaned yet. That's a job I like to do outside on a sunny day and I might have a long wait for one of those!

Out on the plot I still have beetroot, cabbage, carrots, chard, kale, leeks, lettuce, pak choi, parsnips, swedes and turnips so we won't starve for the next few weeks.

Monday, 1 October 2012

side-splitting parsnips

Some of you will know that I grow my parsnips in bottomless plastic flower buckets and generally get very good results. Today I was quite astounded when I lifted one of the buckets to find this amazing mass.
The roots had actually split the side of the bucket and it was only held together by the thicker rim at the top. One slit with a knife and it popped apart.

This is what came out, the ruler is twelve inches long!  Oh, and the variety is 'Dagger F1'

After trimming off all the thin ends and excess root I was left with 2.96kg or (6.5lbs) of parsnips from the one bucket. That, to me, is an exceptional yield  and one which has prompted me to start a little competition for next year. No prizes but I'd like to see just how big a yield of any fruit or veg can be achieved from one 10 litre plastic flower bucket.

Friday, 28 September 2012

clean up begins

It's that time of year again. What a daft expression, surely it's always that time of year, whatever time of year it is.

But I digress, it's time for the autumn clear out and clean up. For some reason over the year I just seem to accumulate mounds of stuff which ends up jammed into any odd place I can fit it. Under the potting bench, in the shed, behind the shed, hanging from the roof......

By stuff I mean containers and lengths of wood I find on the shore, empty compost bags, things I bought and never got round to using.....

So, with the tomatoes and cucumbers now finished and removed from the greenhouse I actually have room to turn round in there and make a start. I want to get it clear and disinfected before I bring the overwintering salads, etc under cover. The glass is quite dirty as well and it obviously benefits the plants to have as much light as possible in the winter months. The only problem with all this is that I hate throwing anything away so what normally happens is that all the pots/containers get sorted for size then stacked inside each other. This frees up space, makes everything look tidier and I get to keep all my rubbish.

That's what I've been doing for the last week or so with a bit of weeding and pruning when it hasn't been raining.  Not very exciting but then gardening isn't all excitement and anticipation. Anyway, doing something is infinitely preferable to sitting on my backside.

Today's picture is evening light on Skiddaw and the Northern Fells. While I was down on the marsh  taking pictures I found a broken scaffold plank. I'm sure I can find a use for it somewhere!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

final sowing frenzy

I took advantage of some decent weather last weekend and had my final sowing frenzy of the season.

In went:
lettuce (winter gem and loose leaf)
pak choi
spring onions
carrots (Amsterdam sprint)

All but the turnips are in containers so they can be brought into the greenhouse over winter. They don't do much during the coldest months but once the sun starts to climb a bit higher in the sky they're off for some super early crops in spring.

Also pricked out some winter gem lettuce into individual pots which will be their permanent home.

These are in a rich compost but they will need a liquid feed boost to help them along once they reach a decent size.

Because the potato crop was later than normal due to the weather I had nowhere on the plot to put the first of my leeks so they were planted in an old plastic basket that I found washed up on the marsh. Sunday's chicken dinner had home-grown leeks which, although not large, were perfectly good. 

These will probably all be used before the first hard frost whereas those on the plot will stand through the winter to give us fresh right through to next spring. With much stuff harvested and not much left to go in it's now a time to catch up on all the jobs that were delayed from the summer. Some overdue pruning of the plum and cherry trees was number one as it needs doing before leaf-fall in order to avoid disease. I don't make a list of things to do but rather just wander round the garden and do things on a random basis. Perhaps I should be more organized but why break the habit of a lifetime?

Friday, 31 August 2012

the year of exotic fruit

Although it has been a real struggle to get worthwhile crops of many things this year my frantic sowing of just about any seed I could get my hands on has had some interesting results.  I've never grown squash before but here's a nicely swelling uchiki kuri growing in a sheltered spot outside.
and a melon 'charentais' spreading all over the greenhouse. The plant has a number of fruit showing and I just hope it doesn't get too cold too soon to give them chance to ripen.

For the first time ever I'm getting a decent crop of aubergines. I've often grown them before but usually only get the odd fruit as most just seem to rot away.
aubergine 'halflange violette'

I know that tomatoes are not especially exotic but the outdoor ones are actually ripening this year. Normally they struggle but these 'Maskotka' (freebie seeds with a magazine) seem to be enjoying our Cumbrian climate.

Now, in case you think I have a magic touch I must add that the butternut squash haven't produced a single flower, never mind any fruit, and the peppers are still as green as the front lawn! You can't win 'em all.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

food hedge

My experimental 'food hedge' has proved a great success. I've only grown runner beans against it this year but it will be climbing peas and anything else that I can find suitable next year. The pics show what it looked like at various stages.

I'm amazed at how well the runners have done, considering they are in containers and not the open ground. (many thanks to Elaine of U.K. Veg gardeners for the seed). Today I picked just short of one pound of beans and I've previously had a couple of similar pickings.
beans means.....beans!

Harvesting and preserving are continuing to occupy a lot of my time. Apart from having the chest freezer almost full I've done pickled beetroot and onions and made the first lot of chutney. Heaven knows why I'm making more chutney when I still have about twenty assorted jars from last year but it just feels the right thing to do. Saw some Kilner jars on special offer in a local shop the other day so I might have a go at bottling as well. Mmm, might have to find another cupboard somewhere!

In order to make best use of the space I have available I make small sowings throughout most of the year to ensure continuity of supply and try and avoid gluts of any one type of veg. Today I've done one tub of carrots (Early Nantes), spring onions (Lisbon) and lettuce (Little Gem). When ready the lettuce seedlings will be transferred to individual pots placed in a large tray so they can be moved in and out of the greenhouse when bad weather threatens. You can also bring them into the house and grow them on a windowsill if you don't have a greenhouse. By doing that you can have something fresh from the garden even in the depths of winter.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

flat out...

....not on my back but at work in the garden and the kitchen. Well, it felt like flat out to me but I suppose most folks would consider it a little gentle exercise!

After more than a week of decent weather there is just so much to do.  I guess all British gardeners have been hoping for some relief after a miserable summer. So there's the inevitable weeding, summer pruning, planting out of winter veg. and harvesting all the maturing crops. And it's not just the harvesting but all that's involved in preserving for the winter. The freezer is filling up nicely and I've made some pickles but there's a load still to be done.
After cleaning and prepping, these turnips and cabbage are now in the freezer  

I'm growing melons and squash this year and noticed the first baby melon yesterday. Not sure how it's going to perform but it's in among the cucumbers in the greenhouse and being treated the same as they are. 

Talking of cucumbers, how's this for a  curly cue
I bet you won't find one like this in a supermarket!

That's it for now. The trouble with being out in the fresh air all day is that you get that lovely warm glow and want to just curl up in bed!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

still here, still gardening

For one reason or another I've not been able to keep my blog up to date. I suppose it's mainly down to the long awaited decent weather which has meant a stack of work to be getting on with. The harvesting, preparing and storing of food has to be dealt with on top of all the general work such as weeding, grass cutting, hedge clipping, summer pruning of the fruit trees, etc.

I finally did get blight on the potatoes but I recognizedt it in time, chopped down the haulms and managed to get a reasonable yield considering they were lifted three or four weeks too early. Top performer and one I'll definitely grow next year is Picasso which has the potential for some huge yields, given decent weather conditions.

This morning I noticed that one of the trusses had broken from the tomato plant stem due to the weight of fruit it was supporting.
Three and a half pounds of juicy toms on one truss ain't bad. I've had to tie up the other trusses with strings from the greenhouse roof to stop them suffering the same fate. The variety is Hildares F1, seed bought from Lidl.

And on the subject of tomatoes I'm picking a couple of pounds a day at the moment. Some are being eaten fresh but a lot are chopped and frozen to use in the winter.
These are Amish Paste, supposed to be good for making sauces, etc.

Cabbages have done quite well this year, they must like cool conditions. This one is 'Greyhound' and weighed in at over two pounds.
Earlier in the year there were very few cabbage white butterflies around which was a blessing but they seem to have appeared with a vengeance now the weather is better. Most of my brassicas are under debris netting but I do have a few unprotected and it's a pain having to constantly check them for butterfly eggs.

Well, I'm blogged-out now but I will try and keep things up to date as the harvest progresses.

Friday, 27 July 2012

how close can you plant onions?

This close it seems.
Early this year I had quite a few spare onion sets so I decided to plant them in containers for use as salad onions. This lot are in a supermarket mushroom tray and they've been buried behind beans and assorted other crops until today. Surprisingly none of them have bolted and I've ended up with a good bunch of usable onions once they've dried.

I've also grown picklers in nine-inch pots quite successfully this year.

These are De Barletta but any bulb onion sown from seed seems to work.

The food hedge experiment is coming along nicely with the runner beans in tubs flowering as they twine their way through the privet. Many of the flowers are white and don't show very well but they are there!
If this works as well as I hope it will I'll be on the look out for more climbing vegetables for next year to fill the fifty foot or so of hedge that's available.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

I shouldn't complain, but...

everything's coming at once. I always sow/plant small blocks of veg. in order not to have a glut but this year, because of the weather, the early plantings just sat there for ages and have now all spurted into production. Broad beans sowed six weeks apart are all at the same stage and ditto the peas. That means I've spent most of the day picking and shelling for the freezer.

Some of the overwintered onions and the shallots had started to rot so they've all had to be lifted and are trying to dry. A week of sun would help but I'm not sure we'll get that.
shallots drying

The shallots harvest is a real disappointment. Those that haven't bolted or rotted are often no bigger than spring onions. On the other hand I've got some good big onions if I can get them dried. The problem there is that you never know how well they're going to keep until you open the net and find the rotten ones.
the biggest of this bunch weighed in at 353g

I also had to cut three cauliflowers today as they were getting very close to 'blowing'. Another couple of days and they would have gone, so more chopping, blanching and freezing. Cabbages I always sow in modules then pot on into 3-4 inch pots before putting them out on the plot with a good root ball. This ensures a good start and a quick getaway for them. By only putting them out a few at a time with a couple of weeks between them I aim to have a constant supply of young cabbages through the season. Not this year, though. When I removed the anti-butterfly netting to get the cauliflowers I found about a dozen mature plants ready for cutting. They will stand for a while but I prefer them small and tender.

Picked tomatoes are now starting to pile up in the kitchen (not literally, but there's more than we can eat) but I still have loads of chutney from previous years so I'm going to have to think of something else to do with them. I might have a go at making ketchup if I get the time.

OK moaning over but you know that gardeners and farmers are never happy unless they're complaining.

Those of you who like to grow things in neatly ordered rows should look away now. My theory is that the space between rows is completely wasted so you might as well fill it with something. If you do that there's no longer any point in the rows in the first place and you end up with a chaotic mix of plants like this. It works and weeds are not a problem because they don't stand a chance among this lot.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

tippin' oot the tattie barra

as they say up north.

The centre display of my back lawn, the wheelbarrow with potato plants, has yielded up its bounty.

The five plants (Novella) gave just under 4kg or 8.5 lbs of decent tubers. Not a great yield but hardly surprising given the appalling weather this year.

After re-charging the compost with a scoop of chicken manure pellets and some BFB it is now home to five cabbage plants. These are 'Golden Acre', a compact fast-maturing variety that should be finished in time for me to get some winter lettuce in. That's three crops from the same patch of ground.

Small space gardening forces you to be inventive and to maximize whatever area you have at your disposal, especially if the intention is to feed your family. I've said before that the ideal of the self-sufficient gardener is to get at least one pound of food for each square foot under cultivation. Given that the cabbages will come in at one or two pounds per head depending on when I harvest them I could easily be looking at 15-20 pounds of food from this barrow which has a surface area of three square feet.

One thing that seems to be enjoying the cool, wet conditions is bush fruit. I picked two pounds of blackcurrants from one of the bushes today and hardly made a dent in the crop.

The gooseberries are all picked and yields have been the equal of any other year. Also, for the first time, I've got some blueberries. The big problem here is that although you could probably survive for quite a while on jam and fruit smoothies I'm not sure I'd really want to!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

rain, radishes and rampant growth

Finally, something that seems to like rain....radishes.

I'm growing my best crops ever this year and have been picking regularly since mid April. Both scarlet globe and french breakfast are performing well and are not too badly damaged by slugs.

I suspect another result of all the rain is the amount of rampant top growth on many plants. I've had to nip out the tops of some broad beans today as they'd got to almost six feet high which makes them very liable to wind damage. The haulms on my Rooster potatoes have reached chest-high and the parsnip tops are heading for three feet! If this all translates into plenty of growth below ground I'll be very happy but I have my doubts on that.

Here's a foxglove that I measured at seven foot eight inches (I only have an old tape measure which doesn't do metric)
Given the few inches above ground before it broke you're looking at the best part of eight feet tall so if it ain't the rain it must be my compost. My wife said I should have combed my hair before she took the picture. Good grief, I don't want to end up looking tidier than the garden!

The rain is also good for our frog population as they don't notice any difference whether they're in or out of the pond. Here's one sunning itself on the netting above the strawberries. I hope it's on slug patrol and not just skiving.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

at last...

The tomatoes are starting to ripen, even without the benefit of sunshine which has been in very short supply for the last couple of months.

Of course, some long sunny days would really help them along but beggars can't be choosers!

I also have some fruit appearing on the pepper plants but, like just about everything else, they are well behind where they should be at this time of year. Plenty of flowers and, even though I'm hand pollinating, they seem reluctant to set fruit. It seems as if things have just ground to a halt and that has a knock-on effect because stuff that should have gone out on to the plot to fill gaps is just languishing in pots. This afternoon I put another dozen cabbages into four-inch pots so they will at least be able to develop a good rootball before going out, thus lessening the likelihood of damage by pests and disease. We've only had two cabbages from the garden so far this year which is really disappointing.

A few of the potatoes have got early blight which, although nowhere near as serious as late blight, has forced me to lift some of the plants and dispose of the tops.
The concentric rings on the affected areas are a characteristic of this fungal disease. On those plants which are only mildly affected I've removed the damaged leaves in order that the tubers will continue to bulk out. That's my hope anyway!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Word of the day.....alliteration

Why? Because my taties are trashed, broad beans battered, courgettes crushed and foxgloves flattened.
broad bean stem broken just below where flowers have formed!
Monsoon rains and gale force winds have, yet again, tried to upscuttle my gardening efforts but all is not lost. I had the foresight to get out on Thursday night with stakes and string and truss up as many plants as I thought would be affected by the weather. I couldn’t do them all, hence the damage, and I’m sure most will survive although it does set them back a bit.

These container-grown onions had their tops bent and broken but at least they can be used. Unfortunately the foxgloves, which were attracting a lot of insects, will probably not pick themselves up.

As for the courgettes, their large leaves act like sails in the wind and get really blown around. Some stems are broken but these plants are so vigorous that they'll soon send out new ones. If this weather is to become the norm for summer I can see plant breeders rushing to produce dwarf varieties that succeed in low light conditions. Until then we'll just have to put up with it.