Allotment update 18/6/2018

It’s a day under four weeks since my last allotment blog and it was the comparison in the pictures above that prompted me to do an update. The growth rate in the last few weeks has been something to behold. I am now harvesting quite a range of crops and a few more are very nearly there.

Strawberries have been good, almost untouched by slugs, meaning I’ve been able to let them ripen properly. Jam has been made. Lettuce, carrots, sorrel, spinach, spinach beet, rhubarb, beetroot, spring onions and courgettes have made it to the table. Early potatoes and peas will start this week. The only real disaster is that my garlic has rust.

For some strange reason the plots to either side of mine have had their peas ravaged by pigeons, while mine are completely untouched. I was a little earlier than they were but that seems to me the only difference. Not that I’m complaining.

I have mentioned before that I have real problems getting plants going from seed sown directly on the plot, almost everything being brought on in cell trays and planted out when an inch or two tall. Leeks, needing to be planted deeper, I did differently. I sowed them in a one litre pot then pricked them out about an inch apart in a ten litre pot when they were about 2 inches tall. They were then grown on until they were big enough to plant out. They are in the top right picture, beside the spinach beet at the far left.

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The top half of the plot here still has brassicas covered with mesh to stop root fly. The cover will need to come off those on the right very soon. From left to right I have celeriac, first time I’ve grown it, seems to be doing OK. Above that is sorrel, a perennial I grew from seed last year. It is great in mixed leaf salads. Annual spinach serves the same purpose, along with lettuce. The very dark lettuce is Oakleaf Navara, a great success, the lighter one is Lollo Rosso. Green Salad Bowl was in the earlier picture. Between the lettuces is beetroot, a golden form called Boldor. This cooks far quicker than Boltardy and is sweet and tender. I’ll grow it again.

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To the right of my windbreak are onions. Furthest on are Rumba, grown from sets started in cells in mid February and planted out in April. They’re planted quite close, we find medium sized onions more practical. I did two sowings of onion Armstrong, the later ones in early March, planted out in May, have caught up with the experimental earlier ones. They look fine but are way behind Rumba. Red onion Red Baron are at the same stage as Armstrong though they have suffered more slug damage. You can see my rusty garlic, Provence, with four good sized elephant garlics in the foreground.

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Lettuce ‘Oakleaf Navara’ and Onion ‘Rumba’

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In the top half of that section are courgettes, potatoes, sweet corn and runner beans. I sowed all the courgettes in the packet, they all germinated and they were all planted out. I figured to get up to speed quickly then remove plants when the glut kicks in. I’ve only grown first early Charlotte spuds this year. In the four years I’ve had the plot I’ve had one decent crop of maincrops, every other year blight has flattened them. I’ll start harvesting any day now.

I’ve grown two varieties of sweet corn, sowing them about four weeks apart. I’m hoping for a longer picking season. They’re closer than it said on the packet but I figured on a wide open south facing slope I’d get away with it. I run the beans along the top of this section, same place every year, because they are not throwing shade over any part of the plot. I haven’t seen much difference between north and south side of the bean row. The beans are Firestorm, with six odd ones given me by another plot holder who got them in France. A week after he gave them to me, he apologised because his own sowing of them had failed completely so he’d realised they were duff seeds. I sowed 20 and 19 germinated. He wasn’t very happy when I told him, he’d gone out and bought plants. I suspect he’d used poor compost, or had them at too low a temperature, but you never really know.

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Runner beans ‘Firestorm’, Courgette ‘Ambassador’, Carrots ‘Romance’ and ‘Autumn King’

Carrots I have continued to successionally sow in one litre deep pots, planting out as a clump as soon as the compost will hold together. Germination is faultless, fairly slow but always around 100%. Slugs are the enemy, I have had pots of seedlings razed overnight by a single slug in the glasshouse and one clump disappeared overnight just after planting out. The tricky bit is sowing them thick enough to have the roots hold the rootball together for planting but thin enough that they grow to a decent size. I aim for about twenty in the pot, but it’s usually more.

On my other plot (I’m greedy, I have two) I am growing Dahlias, Sweet Peas and Butternut Squash. (There are strawberries there too but I can hardly claim to be growing them). The ground is poor and very weedy. Several months of being covered with Mypex failed to kill nettles and buttercup. I sprayed part of it. The Sweet Peas and Squash are struggling but the Dahlias are doing rather well. I have three rows, all grown from seed collected from my own ‘Orange Cushion’ (rows 1 & 2) and ‘Veritable’. The middle row are from a 2016 sowing, the others from 11th March this year. I’m pretty chuffed to have flower buds forming even on some of those. I’m expecting most if not all to flower this year. I’ll keep you posted.

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Dahlias among the weeds. I started weeding after I took the picture, honest.

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Buds on plants sown 11/3/2018

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Sweet Peas and Butternut Squash. I have high hopes.

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Allotment update – 22/5/2018

The weather has been settled for a week or two, so I’m more or less up to date on where I want to be on my plot. Peas, potatoes and parsnips are the only things I’ve sown directly on the plot, everything else has been raised under glass and planted out. Peas and potatoes are up and away, parsnips were late to go in, on 8th May, and are not showing yet.

I’ve been watering newly planted stuff every two or three days until well established, then largely backing off.

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It’s all pretty functional. I don’t have raised beds, just beds about a metre wide with half metre paths between them. I have enough carpet strips to cover about half the paths. They stay put until the weeds are dead then get moved to another section. For the life of me I cannot see what advantage raised beds would give me. It would just be more work, more expense and more places for slugs to hide. Better to leave the trees standing. Lettuce, peas, broad beans and Rhubarb are in the foreground.

The two enviromesh tunnels are covering cabbages. Last year I was wiped out by cabbage rootfly, in spite of using paper collars. This year so far I have had no such problems, though several small plants were eaten off within days of planting, probably by slugs. The carpet strips are holding down the mesh, which is laid over 4mm wire hoops.

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I have pulled back the mesh here to replace the eaten cabbages, fortunately I had a few spares. The very dark lettuce is Oakleaf Navarro, which I shall certainly grow again. When it is gone, I will fit in another row of brassicas. I should have removed the primrose, but until recently it was very pretty.

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The plot is divided into three sections, the fruit cage to the right of this picture, plus the two vegetable plots separated by a windbreak. I have my runners along the top of this section; that way they don’t shade anything else.
The left hand bed is planted with seed raised onions, next are onions from sets, variety Rumba, then garlic and finally carrots. I removed a block of garlic Solent Wight yesterday from where the fork is because it was riddled with rust. The four rows are Provence, which held out for a while but then went down with it too. The four large plants at the bottom are Elephant Garlic and at the moment they are clean.

The carrots were raised in one litre deep pots and planted out with minimal disturbance as soon as they had enough root to hold together. I will dig them as clumps. The only problem last year was that they pushed up above the soil a bit; this year I have planted them a little deeper.

In the top half of the bed are courgettes and sweet corn Earlyking, both planted in the last few days. The Charlotte potatoes were planted 9th April and need earthing up. As a no digger I tried just covering them with a deep layer of compost last year. It wasn’t very successful, encouraging slugs and not covering the potatoes effectively.

It’s tempting providence to say so, but the season is going well, having got off to a shaky start.

 

Allotment update – 11/4/2018

I read allotment blogs out of curiosity  about what other people are up to rather than to learn how to do things. Now and then an idea will come up that I will try out but on the whole I have found ways that work for me and am reluctant to depart from them.

This then, is what I am up to at this stage of the season. Just in case you’re curious too.

April is perhaps the fastest moving time of year in the vegetable garden and with the cold weather of a few weeks ago fading into memory, there is a lot happening.
The soil on my plot has been wet and cold and the only thing I have “sown” direct so far (9th Apr)  is my early potatoes, Charlotte again this year.

Most of my vegetables I start off under cover, usually sowing seed in 9cm pots then pricking off into cell trays. Lettuce ‘Oakleaf Navarro’ followed this route and went out on the 9th too, along with Broad Beans, sown direct into 9cm pots and Onion ‘Rumba’ sets, planted into cell trays on 17th Feb.

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Assorted seedlings growing on in cell trays.

Growing on in cell trays now I have a fair list of things, some nearly ready to go out, others just pricked off, namely:
Lettuce ‘Lollo Rosso’, ‘’Sald Bowl’, ‘Oakleaf Navarro’
Cabbage ‘Delight Ball’, ‘Huzarro’, ‘Kalibos’
Beetroot ‘Boltardy’ and ‘Boldor’
Spinach and Spinach Beet
Welsh onion, Onion ‘Armstrong’, Spring Onion ‘White Lisbon’
Celeriac ‘Asterix’

I have carrots in 1 litre deep pots and Pea ‘Twinkle’ in 9cm pots, some of which have emerged today. The rest of my peas will be direct sown, probably in the next few days.
I checked through my seeds today to see what else needed sowing and there wasn’t very much. Parsnips need to go in very soon; Runner Beans, Kale, Broccoli and Squash in a few weeks time. Courgettes and one variety of Sweet Corn I have sown today. Successional sowings will be made of Carrots, Lettuce, Spring Onions, Beetroot and so on, but there is a strong sense that the growing season is well under way.

 

The list below is what I have sown so far.

Beetroot Boldor F1 04/03/2018 11/04/2018
Beetroot Boltardy 31/03/2018
Broad Bean Masterpiece Green 03/02/2018
Brussels Sprout Brendan F1 30/03/2018
Cabbage Delight Ball F1 04/03/2018
Cabbage Huzaro F1 04/03/2018
Cabbage Kalibos 30/03/2018
Carrot Early Nantes 17/02/2018 19/03/2018
Carrot Romance F1 19/03/2018
Celeriac Asterix F1 17/02/2018
Chilli Apache 03/03/2018
Chilli Ring of Fire 03/03/2018
Chilli Tabasco 03/03/2018
Courgette Ambassador F1 11/04/2018
Cucumber Carmen F1 31/03/2018
Flower Sprout 30/03/2018
Garlic Provence 02/10/2017
Garlic Solent Wight 02/10/2017
Leaf Beet Perpetual Spinach 04/03/2018
Leek Blue Solaise 30/03/2018
Lettuce Lollo Rosso 19/03/2018
Lettuce Oakleaf Navara 03/02/2018 30/03/2018
Lettuce Red Salad Bowl 19/03/2018
Lettuce Salad Bowl 19/03/2018
Onion Armstrong F1 03/02/2018 04/03/2018
Onion Red Baron 04/03/2018
Onion Rumba sets 17/02/2018
Onion White Lisbon 03/02/2018 30/03/2018
Parsley Plain 30/03/2018
Pea Twinkle 01/04/2018
Potato Charlotte 09/04/2018
Spinach Matador 30/03/2018
Sweet Corn Earliking F1 11/04/2018
Tomato Sungold 19/03/2018
Welsh Onion 11/03/2018

Allotment update – 28/3/2018

I’m into my fifth year of recording seed sowing dates for both veg and flowers. It gets a bit more patchy at the pricking off stage and worse still for planting out. I thought it would tell me how far behind I am this year, but it actually tells me very little.

It feels like a late season, I suspect they all do.

I have broad beans, sown in 9cm pots in early Feb, ready to go out. I want to get early potatoes in. I will soon want to get onions, started from sets in cells, out, with seed raised plants not so very far behind. I have lettuce, beetroot and spinach beet in cells, perhaps a fortnight from planting size.

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Broad Bean ‘Masterpiece Green’, sown into 9cm pots, 2 seeds per pot, 3/2/2018. Being moved out of greenhouse daily to harden off.

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Onion ‘Rumba’, planted in cells to get started, will soon need to go out.

Most of my seed I get from Kings. Why? well for no better reason than that I piggy backed someone else’s discounted allotment society order five years ago, got acceptable results and if it ain’t broke, I don’t fix it. I feel unadventurous, especially when I read other people’s blogs and they’re getting all sorts of stuff from all over the place.

I have tried a bit. I did a small order to Real Seeds last year and a small order to Sow Seeds this year. It’s unfair to just pick at the margins of their ranges while getting the bulk from a big firm. I got mixed results, one out of three chilli varieties from Sow Seeds has not come up at all, against 100% on the other two. The Liria onions from Real Seeds did very well but didn’t keep nearly as well as Rumba from Kings. The sorrel is a perennial so I still have it, not that I use it much. Giant Goosefoot was not popular and the runners were nothing special.

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Chillies on the window ledge, pricked off a week ago. Two varieties germinated 100%, the third not at all; same conditions.

What I want is to get a decent return for the money and effort I invest in the plot. I don’t think my growing conditions are optimal so reliability is important and a high proportion of failures would eventually make me give up. All my experimentation goes into my growing methods rather than different crops. I’d rather succeed with something common than fail with something exotic.

 

 

 

Last year I bought a bag of Melcourt’s sowing and cutting compost. This year I have used their regular potting compost. This is the same peat free compost as is used by an increasing number of commercial nursery stock producers. I have seen no difference between the seed and potting composts, in appearance or in results.

I don’t sow much directly into the ground as I find most things fail, usually being eaten by slugs when very small. Planting out from cells is also easier when the ground still has the remains of a winter mulch on it, which most of my no dig plot does. The ground also gets another month to dry out and warm up before I try to grow anything in it.

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Remains of my autumn mulch are still protecting the soil surface of the plot. Weeds are only a problem if allowed to seed, which won’t happen. My Rhubarb is well away.

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Lettuce ‘Oakleaf Navara’, looking good but will soon need to go out.

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Carrots ‘Early Nantes’ will go out as soon as there is enough root to hold the compost together. They will then get planted just as they are. I may thin them slightly, to about 15 per pot.

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Cabbages were pricked off into cells from 9cm pots; beetroot and spinach beet sown in cells and will get planted as small bunches. Onions will get pricked off into cells very soon, one per cell, as will Celeriac and more lettuce.

Allotment update 11/2/2018

I made a quick visit to my allotment earlier. The wind was slicing across the very open site and, seeing very little that needed doing urgently, I didn’t stay long.

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Spinach, leeks, rhubarb and weeds, lots of weeds.

My leeks were a dismal failure; almost all of them produced flower stems. Sown too early seems to be the verdict. Spinach beet is OK, though it is very battered. There are parsnips in the ground, though they are pathetically small. Mesh over the top stopped root fly but cramped leaf development.

All the bare ground was mulched in autumn with compost, mostly from my compost heap, some fresh shredded material. It has done its job of protecting the soil surface over the winter but because my composting isn’t on a scale that generates much heat, there is a lot of weed to pull out.

 

In the first winter that I had the plot I sowed Italian ryegrass as a green manure. It was very effective but needed digging in. Since I adopted a no dig regime it has not seemed viable. I am going to try it again in autumn 2018, sowing it on the beds that will not be needed until relatively late in the spring. It should mean I can spread my compost a little thicker on a reduced area. The rye I will cover with mypex a couple of months before I need the ground. Hopefully that will be long enough to give me a good kill.

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More weeds, plus parsley, kale and garlic.

As well as not having as much compost as I would like, the stuff I do have doesn’t have the nutrients in it that my crops need either. This is a fairly high rainfall area and the ground is free draining, the more so because I am maintaining good soil structure. I suspect I am losing nutrients to leaching. I also shred a lot of woody material and put it into the compost. It resists decomposition and is effective all winter at protecting the soil surface, but at best it is poor in nutrients, if it isn’t actually drawing nutrients out for its own breakdown. I will feed more this season than I have in the past.

 

The one thing I did do when I was up there today was to open 2018’s account with my mole population. There are too many for my liking. I’m not bothered by their excavations so much as their impact on my worm population. I’m convinced it’s because I have far more worms than my neighbours that they seem to be mostly focussed on my plot. I set two traps though my success with them in the past has been dire. I have also scattered seed of caper spurge around the margins; supposedly it deters them. I sowed a couple of cell trays with spurge too.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Moles. Their hills are all along the edges of the plot but their tunnels are everywhere.

Allotment update.

During the summer I was up to my plot at least every other day, now it’s more like every other week. Such crops as I have still standing seem to include several that have not covered themselves in glory this year, rusty leeks, piddling little parsnips, moth eaten spinach. Cauli’s were not bad, but you only want so much.

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Skanky spinach, gone to seed leeks, piddling parsnips.

 

A good part of the ground is empty and has been mulched with compost to protect it over the winter. Mulch does prevent damage to soil structure from winter rain but not loss of nutrients from leaching. Green manure would do that but then needs digging in, which conflicts with my no-dig ambitions, or smothering, which takes time I don’t have in spring, or spraying, which I am not going to do.

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Weeds. I can weed from the path where the pot is, I never step on the cultivated bit.

 

My compost is weedy. It is made from material from various sources, some of which are full of weed seeds. The quantities I have mean it doesn’t get hot enough to kill the weeds effectively, so where I mulched a few weeks back I now have weeds. I don’t want them going to seed and I don’t want them to get so big I have to dig them out; other than that they are holding onto nutrients and providing further protection for the soil. On closer inspection, there are a few that, even in November, are threatening to flower and seed as very small plants. Annual meadow grass, bittercress, pearlwort, groundsel, chickweed  and petty spurge are all included. Then there were grasses, dandelions and buttercups that needed out while still small and manageable.

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Clockwise, pearlwort, annual meadow grass, hairy bittercress, petty spurge.

 

I weeded that bed. There is another that needs doing too. I spread more compost too. Everything gets shredded so it breaks down quickly, I will try to get more spread in the next couple of weeks, it will do far more good on the ground than in the heap. Because a significant part of its volume comes from shredded leaves and twigs, its nutrient content is not great, so I will apply fertiliser at a moderate rate in the new year. Some of the shortcomings I’m seeing in what I’ve grown this year are for lack of nutrition.

I find myself deviating from the no-dig template in its classic form but consider myself to be responding to my local conditions in as constructive a way as I can.

Composting.

When something in gardening is agreed by absolutely everyone to be a good thing it seems perverse to ask the question “why?”. I tend to the view that that is when it most needs to be asked.

Composting and the multiple benefits of compost are among of the great untouchable sacred cows of gardening, especially among the organic fraternity. However, ask a bunch of gardeners to explain why and I bet you’d get a very mixed bag of responses. Ken Thompson, author of a book on compost, called “Compost”, says “Few things are better for your plants and for the environment than home made compost”.  He then goes on to explain how decaying plant material ends up as humus. He points out though that only a small proportion of the original material ends up as humus, the rest being broken down to carbon dioxide and water.

The breakdown process is effected  by microbes which secrete mucilages that bind soil particles together into crumbs, creating what is known as “soil structure”. However, a protein called glomalin, produced by mycorrhizal fungi, has been found to be present in soils in far greater amounts than humus, and it is largely glomalin that aggregates soil into crumbs, not humus. Since the mycorrhizal fungus is getting its nutrition from its symbiotic partner, the growing plant, not from organic matter added to the soil, the humus derived from compost is somewhat sidelined in the narrative. It is growing plants (including weeds) and their associated mycorrhiza, that are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to soil improvement.

Wikipedia has a bullet point list of the benefits of soil organic matter and humus, the first of which is that organic matter feeds microorganisms, maintaining high and healthy levels of soil life. There is an implication in much of what you read that there is a direct correlation between lots of life in a soil and how well plants will grow in it. To which I would ask why, in commercial horticulture, do nurserymen almost all grow nursery stock in the all but sterile medium of peat and tomato growers in equally sterile variations of hydroponics.

Plants have evolved to grow in an extraordinary range of environments. The ferns growing on my neighbour’s roof, or the sedum around my other neighbour’s chimney, do not have their roots in a lovely friable living soil. Yet they survive perfectly well. Plants that need constant moisture or higher levels of nutrients would struggle or even die, but could all be grown in a peat nursery compost or by hydroponics.

The role played by the living and once living fraction of soil then is to provide the simple things that plants require, water, air and simple inorganic nutrients. A soil in good condition is open enough to allow the free passage of excess water whilst retaining good quantities in the porous organic matter. It holds nutrients sufficiently tightly for them not to be leached by rain, but loosely enough to be readily available to plants.

Humus, organic matter derived from but no longer recognisable as decomposing plant material, is beneficial to the soil in many ways. It adds to a soil’s cation exchange capacity and its water holding capacity. It acts as a buffer against excessively acidic or alkaline conditions and can absorb toxic materials such as heavy metals and excess nutrients.

Another claim about composting that is not true is that all the nutrients in the plant material added to the heap are retained within the heap. One study found that nearly a quarter of the nitrogen in mixed organic refuse was lost in the first twenty weeks of composting, probably mainly as gaseous ammonia. Adding soil to the mix stopped the loss, presumably because the ammonia was absorbed by the clay fraction of the soil. Additionally, any liquid draining from the heap will be taking dissolved potassium with it.

Composting can generate high temperatures, but only if there is sufficient volume of material for heat loss to be reduced enough. The small volume of a typical domestic compost heap has far too high a surface area to volume ratio to heat sufficiently to destroy weed seeds and plant pathogens.

It turns out that simply mixing plant wastes into the soil, or spreading it on the surface and letting worms do the mixing, adds more humus and more nutrients to the soil than if it is composted first and  has also been shown to produce higher yields. The relatively coarse nature of uncomposted material means that adding it to light sandy soils might make them even more open to the detriment of the crop, whereas compost holds much more moisture and will reduce the openness of the soil. On heavy soils there will be a benefit from the opening up of the soil.

What I have been unable to find any reference to is the benefits arising from the early stages of breakdown of organic matter if that takes place in the soil rather than on the compost heap. It seems to me that the level of activity in the early stages is far greater than in the later stages. The very rapid build up of heat, the product of respiration by bacteria, within hours of a pile of suitable material being stacked up, followed by a peak in worm activity in the weeks following, is then followed by a tailing off of activity and a finished product which is not generating any heat or supporting hardly any fauna visible to the naked eye.

It is worth pointing out that nature does not build compost heaps. Plants die down in autumn, or leaves fall from trees, and breakdown happens at ambient temperature. A significant amount of vegetation may be eaten by herbivores and the breakdown process is then well under way when it is deposited on the soil surface.

So it seems to be the case that we put stuff onto a compost heap for convenience. During the growing season there may be no bare ground on which to spread organic material. It is sometimes suggested that fresh material encourages slugs, but if they eat it, rather than the crop, they become part of the solution and less of a problem.

Almost all of what goes on my allotment compost heaps goes through my shredder first, so it breaks down to a material I can use for mulching in my no-dig regime quite quickly. Most of what I accumulate over the growing season is used for mulching bare ground ahead of the winter. There isn’t too much opportunity for nutrients to be lost to the heap in that time, rainfall would likely never be sufficient to run through the heap removing soluble nutrients. Soft material such as peas and beans gets mixed with woodier material like hedge trimmings.

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Pea haulms, shredded and spread directly on the soil.

I believe it is very beneficial to have any bare ground covered in the winter to protect its structure and I have used compost for that purpose. What I am now planning to do is to spread shredded material directly onto the plot where bare ground appears that I am not planning to crop again until spring. I would anticipate the softer material disappearing quickly, the tougher stuff remaining to provide protection to the soil. If a suitable area presents itself, I shall do half with composted material, the other half with uncomposted material. Then if I grow the same crop in both areas I can look for any visible differences.

References.
Roger Brook – The no dig gardener – http://www.nodiggardener.co.uk/search/label/Glomalin
USDA AgResearch Magazine – https://agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/2002/sep/soil
E. W. Russell – Soil Conditions and Plant Growth 10th edition. Composting – pp 271-3