Wednesday, 21 March 2018

They survived - again!

I like it when the weather forecast turns out to have been right - even when the weather has been poor! At least you feel that any protection measures you have taken were worthwhile. When I saw that the "Mini Beast From The East" spell of cold weather was due to hit us, I moved all my vulnerable plants under cover. In some cases this was relatively easy - for instance some of them went into the garage, and the little seedlings in pots and trays went into the coldframes and mini-greenhouses. The Broad Beans I had planted out a few days previously needed a different approach...

Here they are, shortly after planting out, protected by netting against animals.

When I heard about the imminent severe weather, I covered them with my long cloches. Although Broad Beans will stand a few degrees of frost, I was afraid that they might be broken by heavy snow accumulating on top of them.

I was right to be worried. We had our heaviest fall of snow for several years. This photo was taken when the thaw had already begun.

Well, it seems the cloches did their job pretty well. The beans are fine.

No sign of any damage.

The first few leaves of my Rhubarb were killed off by the Beast From The East weather event, during which the temperatures were lower and the snow lasted longer. This time, the Rhubarb seems to have got off unscathed:

Meanwhile, the little Brassica and Allium seedlings have also survived all right, protected as they were by the big Gabriel Ash coldframe.

One of the few crops I am currently harvesting is the Purple Sprouting Broccoli.

The first variety to be ready was "Rudolph". This year I decided to be unconventional and not cut the tip of the plant first. Doing that is supposed to stimulate the production of spears lower down the plant. This one doesn't seem to need much stimulation. I have already picked 15 really nice big spears from it, and there are plenty more to come.


The things we call "spears" are the flower shoots of the plant, and they grow in the leaf axils (i.e. between the leaves and the main stalk), just like Brussels Sprouts. In this next photo you can see where some have been harvested.

Many readers will know that I am growing four PSB plants, one of each of four different varieties, with the intention of having a longer harvesting period.

L to R: Early Purple, Red Spear, Red Arrow, Rudolph.

The plan is definitely working. The "Rudolph" plant is probably good for another 2 or 3 pickings, by which time "Red Spear" will be ready to come on stream:

"Red Spear"

Though not quite as big as "Rudolph" (which is about 4 feet tall), "Red Spear is a big plant, and will yield a good number of spears.

"Red Spear"

"Red Arrow" is a bit less well advanced, and will not be ready for about 3 or 4 weeks yet.

"Red Arrow"

And ironically "Early Purple Sprouting" will be last of the four!

"Early Purple Sprouting"

Hopefully within a few days I will be able to report my first planting up at the Courtmoor plot, which is scheduled to be potatoes (and possibly a few of the spare Broad Beans).

Monday, 19 March 2018

Chilli update

You might recall that about a month ago I sowed seeds of 20 different varieties of chilli. They germinated at different rates, keeping me guessing (and checking the propagators in the airing-cupboard at least twice a day). Well, 16 of the 20 varieties have germinated now. I think it is unlikely, though possible, that the others will eventually show up. I certainly haven't given up on them yet. However, I did sow "one or two" more varieties, just to make up for the No-Shows.

For the record, the No-Shows were:

Piri Piri (seeds from a Twitter friend, so age of seeds not known)
Turkey Long Red (seeds brought home from a holiday in Turkey in 2012)
Tenerife (seeds saved by me in 2016, but all from a single fruit)
Panama 3 (seeds from dried fruits brought from Panama by my daughter in late 2015)

I think you can probably understand why I am not really surprised that those ones have not germinated!

My first sowing of Aji Limon (one of my favourite varieties) failed to germinate, but then I sowed a second batch, and 4 out of 5 came up. This is curious, because the second batch used older seeds - from way back in 2014. Whilst I am relieved that I did eventually manage to get some of these to germinate, I am also a bit annoyed, because they are now well behind schedule. Aji Limon is usually one of the last varieties to produce ripe fruit and it looks as if this year they may be later than usual! [Except that one of my over-Wintered plants is an Aji Limon...]

Aji Limon, the second sowing

This year, I am growing mostly chilli varieties that have some special significance for me - ones acquired while on holiday for instance, or ones given to me by friends. Here are a few examples:

"Nepali" - seeds from Allan in Brussels

"Fish" - seeds from Paul in Chorley

"Scotch Bonnet" - seeds from Dee in Hawkinge

As you can see from my photographs, the chilli plants are still small, but they look very healthy. I haven't yet had too much of a problem with aphids (tough wood!). The ones seen in the photos above were transplanted into individual 9cm pots about a week ago. Even when all the seeds I had sown germinated, I kept only the two strongest-looking seedlings of each type, and my intention is to give away one, so that I'm only left with one to grow on to maturity. This selection will probably be made some time around the end of April.

The potted-up plants have been doing the usual "Indoors-Outdoors" dance, being taken out to spend a few hours each day in the coldframe whenever the weather has allowed, and brought inside for the nights. In my opinion it is a good idea to toughen-up the plants as soon as possible, and as long as they get good (natural) light they will tolerate slightly lower temperatures. Last week the temperature in my big coldframe was mostly somewhere between 14 and 16C during the day, and on one occasion reached 20C.

Chilli seedlings admiring the snow from a safe distance - March 17th

The later arrivals are a lot smaller and still being nursed in the Growlight House.

I think most of those will be ready for potting-on into individual pots in about another week or so.

Meanwhile, the over-wintered ones are still hanging on - the ones that had the benefit of the self-watering system, that it. The others didn't make it.

Over-Wintered "Aji Benito", showing the self-watering kit

You can see the snow covering my garden in the background of this photo.

I have started giving the over-wintered plants a weak feed of tomato fertiliser ("Tomorite") every few days now, so I'm hoping they will buck up and produce some new growth. At present I would say they are just surviving, not thriving. Still, if I can keep them going for just a few more weeks, until the weather warms up, I think they will be OK.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Getting those seeds started...!

March to May is the prime seed-sowing time for me here in North-East Hampshire, and just like all gardeners I am keen to "get the show on the road"! With our increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, judging when to sow seeds is always a bit of a gamble, so it makes sense to sow the less cold-sensitive ones first. These include Broad Beans, brassicas, and the allium family. My first batch of Broad Beans is well away now, planted out in one of the raised beds, but I have loads of other tiny seedlings awaiting their turn...

These are the "Long Red Florence" onions which I sowed back on 28th January:

I had them in the coldframe, where I thought they would be fine, but when we had that really cold spell nicknamed "The Beast From The East", their compost froze solid, and I thought I had lost them. Once I noticed their predicament, I took pity on them and brought them indoors for a warm-up. When the snow thawed they went back outside (though under a cloche). At that point they looked a bit the worse for wear.

4th March

Thankfully, after a few much milder days, and even some spells of very welcome sunshine, the onions have perked-up a lot, though understandably they haven't grown much. At least they are standing up straight now, so maybe they will do all right after all?

13th March

My other onions didn't have the same cold weather nightmare, because they were indoors, just germinating, during the cold spell. They look fine and healthy.

Onions "Ailsa Craig"

Since onion seeds germinate in a looped shape, it always looks as if there are twice as many, until they unfold and straighten up. I think there are about 10 seedlings in this 9cm pot. When they get bigger they will be separated and planted-out individually with enough space to bulk up.

Also on the allium front, I have 3 pots of Leek seedlings. Well, to be more accurate, I have TWO pots of Leek seedlings, and one pot containing Leek seeds that have yet to germinate. These ones are "Musselburgh", but I also have "Toledo". The ones yet to germinate (sowed later) are "Winter Giant".

Leeks "Musselburgh"

Moving now to the brassicas, first up are some "Golden Acre, Primo 3" cabbages. I germinated the first batch indoors, transferring them to my Growlight House as soon as they came through. Unfortunately, despite the lights, they still went too leggy and I had to move them outdoors as soon as the cold spell ended. I discarded the worst ones and re-planted some of the better ones, planting them very deeply in individual pots. They may be OK, but just in case they aren't, I have sowed a second batch.

Re-planted seedling of "Golden Acre"

This year I was determined to use up as many as possible of my old seeds that had been hanging around for a while, rather than buy new ones unnecessarily. For instance, I sowed some "Mila" Savoy cabbage, from 2015. None of them appeared, so after a couple of weeks I over-sowed them with some "Greyhound" from 2016 - most of which sprouted very quickly. I suppose it's still possible that some of the "Mila" might come up, and if they do I should be able to recognise them by their crinkly-shaped leaves.

Cabbage "Greyhound"

Both "Golden Acre" and "Greyhound" are green cabbages, but I also have some red ones. These are "Red Drumhead". I don't need too many of these, so I only sowed 9 seeds (half of the 18 in my 50p pack bought from Moreveg). So far 8 of them have germinated.

Cabbage "Red Drumhead"

Next up is Cauliflower "All Year Round". Growing Cauliflower is new for me, but I love eating it, so with the extra space now available to me at my new plot, I thought I should have a try.

Cauliflower "All Year Round"

To complete the set, as it were, I have a few Brussels Sprouts "Cromwell". [No photo available, I'm afraid]. I have never been particularly successful with sprouts in my own garden - yields have been small and aphids + whitefly have been numerous - but at the new plot things may be different, so I think it's worth a go.

Evidently, all these plants are at a very early stage, and much could go wrong before they ever reach harvest, but you can rest assured that I'll be doing my best to bring them successfully to maturity! My approach to growing veg is to "hedge my bets" wherever possible, by starting off more of everything than I really need. So, if I want to grow 12 cabbages I'll sow 24 seeds. It's usually easy to give away any surplus plants, and if all else fails they can always go into the compost where they would be recycled. Similarly, I often sow seeds for more than one variety of each veg - so two types of onion instead of just one; two types of green cabbages, three types of leek, etc. This way, if one performs poorly in this year's weather conditions, maybe another will do well.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Planting Broad Beans

I've managed to get some Broad Bean plants into the ground now.

My planting schedule was a bit disrupted by the very severe weather that came in the guise of the "Beast From The East", hitting us just as my seed beans germinated. This meant that the plants had to be kept indoors for several days, and they mostly went "leggy", in other words a lot taller and thinner that is desirable. If things had gone according to plan, they would have been outside in the coldframe, growing slowly and developing into short, sturdy plants well-adapted to the outdoor conditions right from the beginning.

Anyway, I felt they couldn't stay in their little 9cm pots any longer, so I chose the best ones and planted them in one of my raised beds. You may recall that I sowed seeds of 4 different varieties - 8 of each. There were a few No-Shows, but I ended up with 28 plants. I decided I'd have 5 of each type, planted in two rows. This means the plants are about 20cm apart, which seems about right.

This plant is a good one -- short and stocky:

These two on the other hand, didn't get chosen, because they are tall, thin and lanky.

Since many of my plants were far from perfect specimens, I took special care to plant them very deep and to draw soil up around their stems to give them as much support as possible. Here's hoping we don't get any very strong winds in the near future!

I don't know whether I have mentioned this before, but once I realised my beans might be a bit below-par, I sowed some more - "just in case". They are germinating now, and I bet they will be better plants than the first lot.

Assuming I don't need them as spares, I'll take them up to my other plot at Courtmoor Avenue and plant them there.

I don't know yet what problems I will encounter in relation to wildlife at the Courtmoor plot, but I do know that in my own garden, any unprotected seedlings would be in grave peril - hence the beans will remain covered with netting until they are about 3 feet tall.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Planting my first potatoes of the year

As many of you will know, I have recently taken on looking after a plot where the owners used to save seeds from their plants and sow them again, year on year, and I am going to try to preserve some of these true heritage veg. First up are some "Foremost" First Early potatoes, which I rescued during my preparatory digging. They were all very small ones, but most of them seem viable and they have produced some strong-looking chits (shoots):

I am going to give these ones the VIP treatment, and grow them in my own garden, in containers, rather than up at the new plot. Assuming they produce a reasonable crop, I will select the best ones for storage, with a view to planting them at the plot in Spring 2019. In the meantime, I'll grow some new "Foremost" at the plot, because I know the owners like this variety best.

I had about 15 saved tubers, but some of them were very tiny, so I decided I would plant the 9 best ones, three to a pot (approx. 30L size). This was heavily influenced by the fact that I have three plastic mini greenhouses which I can use to protect the pots until the weather improves sufficiently that they no longer need protection.

I used my trusty groundsheet as a base for preparing my growing-medium. I made a mixture of soil (originally from the raised beds I dismantled last year) and homemade compost - the latter with lots of organic matter in it, which will help to prevent Scab forming on the potatoes.

I also threw in a few handfuls of pelleted chicken manure.

Having filled each pot about one-third full, I sprinkled on a dusting of the Fish, Blood and Bone fertiliser. I've not used this before, but someone on Twitter told me it is good for spuds, so I'm giving it a try. I got it from Poundland (Guess how much it cost!). The instructions on the pack say to add 50g per square metre...

Another layer of soil/compost went in on top of the FBB. (I don't like the seed-tubers to be in direct contact with the fertiliser). Then, I gently pushed the potatoes into the soil/compost, positioned with the chits/shoots uppermost, and covered them over to a depth of just an inch or two.

Now some labels. I'm growing quite a lot of different varieties of potato this year, so I want to be able to tell which is which.

The final part of the process was to position the pots inside the mini-greenhouses.

For the time being I'm leaving the doors unzipped, because the temperatures are very mild. It was about 12C when I was planting those potatoes. If frost is forecast, I'll close them up.

In the next few days (as long as we get a decent dry spell) I intend to plant some more of my First Early potatoes, though before I do that I'll need to get the other plastic greenhouse thingies out of the garage and assemble them again. I think it's still too early to plant potatoes without protection, because I believe there is still a strong possibility that we will get more frost.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Harvesting Purple Sprouting Broccoli

Hooray, my PSB has finally reached the harvestable stage! For me, this is one of the high points of the gardening year. I just love those tasty, succulent shoots.

Remember folks, when cutting the 'spears' (shoots) of PSB, keep as much of the stem part as possible, because this is the best bit. The flower and leaves are nice too, of course, but they go very soft when cooked, whereas most of the texture is in the stems. Some people say the texture resembles Asparagus.

These first spears of the year have come from a PSB plant of the variety "Rudolph", claimed to be super-early to mature. I dispute those claims: OK, it's the first of my 4 varieties to be ready, but it's a long time after Christmas! Growing PSB is always a waiting game though - it takes about 10 months from seed to harvest.

For this first picking I have only cut 5 spears, since they are really big fat ones. This is 3 for me and 2 for Jane, because she doesn't like PSB quite as much as I do!

My way of cooking them is to remove the lower leaves, and lay the spears horizontally in a steamer over a pan of rapidly-boiling water. That way you can easily test with the point of a knife to see if the stems have gone tender, which usually only takes 3 or 4 minutes.

As I mentioned, I have four PSB plants this year, each of a different type. Hopefully this will mean that the harvest will be spread over several weeks. Much as I like PSB, I don't want loads of it all at once.

"Red Spear"