Growing Tips – March

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For two consecutive weekends in February growers were subjected to some of the worst weather conditions nature could throw at them. Storm Ciara brought wind gusts of up to 60mph, which lifted sheds and greenhouses leaving them in a crumpled heap. Storm Dennis then came along a week later and flooded gardens and allotments, leaving them under several inches of water.

Not the best start for any grower.

Mother Nature can be severe and rarely tamed, however, here are a few tips which may help to protect your greenhouse:

  • Site it away from the prevailing winds. If you are unable to do so, look to plant a deciduous hedge approximately 3-4m away which will help to filter the strength of the wind. Hornbeam and beech are ideal subjects.
  • Screw the frame to the floor.
  • Check the glazing clips are secure and even silicone the glass on exposed sites.
  • Keep a check on the forecast and make sure windows and doors are firmly closed before the onset of strong winds.

Remember these tips are not guaranteed to keep your greenhouse safe but may help to reduce damage.

With regards to flooded plots the best way to deal with this is to let the water subside naturally. In most cases localised flooding is short lived and won’t do any lasting damage. Keep off the soil and avoid compaction.

Once dry enough, fork the soil over to increase oxygen levels and add some organic matter. This helps to keep the soil ‘open’. Worm activity will also assist in creating drainage channels.

Excess water will most likely have washed away any nutrients. Add a good dressing of fish, blood and bone fertiliser to improve the fertility.

March is a busy month for sowing. I prefer to sieve all my compost which I use for seed sowing. This removes those lumpy bits which you always find in every bag. I don’t waste the lumps as I line the base of seed trays with them before topping up with sieved compost.

Once my seeds have germinated and after pricking them out into larger pots, with the compost left, I save this and use it to earth up the potatoes which are to be grown in sacks.

Here in Oldham the weather is too unpredictable for sowing outdoors just yet. That is unless you can cover the seeds with a cloche. Cloches come in all shapes and sizes and are a see-through structure similar to a miniature green house. They are designed to protect plants and seeds from extreme conditions and are small enough to be moved around. You can purchase fancy ornate glass ones or make your own out of clear plastic and blue water pipes.

Seeds to try under a cloche include broad beans, peas, parsnip, cabbages and leeks.

Happy growing,

Matt

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Growing Tips-February

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Welcome to the February edition of growing tips.

Last month I mentioned sieving home-made compost to remove stones and pieces of woody material.

Well, I have splashed out on a new rotary sieve which is easier to use and much more fun than the conventional method. It produces a fine crumbly compost in half the time and it’s so easy to use that I have volunteers queueing up to give it a go!

new                                       add soil

Simply place the sieve in a wheelbarrow, add a spade full of dry compost and turn the handle. Alternate the direction of the turn until all that is left are those pieces which won’t fit through the mesh. Empty out what is left and start again.

end product

All being well and ground conditions permitting, I am going to plant out Shallot sets – ‘Red Sun’. These produce a white fleshed bulb which are perfect for salads and pickling.

Sets are immature bulbs which are pushed approximately 3 cm deep into a prepared cultivated soil. Leave just the tips showing and space 15cm apart to allow for growth. I prefer to use sets as opposed to seed when growing shallots as they tend to mature quicker.

Keep them weed free, water if required and feed with a fish, blood and bone fertiliser. By July the leaves will start to die off. This is perfectly natural, and your new shallots can be carefully lifted using a fork. Shake off any clinging soil and store them in an airy, frost-free shed.

Towards the end of January, we had our first snow fall of 2020. Keep a check on crops such as Winter cabbage and Sprouting broccoli which may be under protection of fleece or netting. The weight of snow can pull down the supporting frame exposing the crop to predators.

This month I propose to sow a variety of Broad bean called ‘Crimson flowered’. This is a heritage variety with striking scented, red flowers. Each seed will be sown 5 cm deep in empty cardboard toilet roll holders and kept in the green house.

Once large enough the plants including the holder will be planted into an ornamental planter and positioned where the scent can be enjoyed by everyone. In addition, from June onwards a tasty helping of young beans will be available.

A weed which you may come across whilst preparing the soil is the Rose Bay Willow Herb. At this time of year it is usually in a rosette form waiting to burst into growth. It’s easy to remove but don’t allow it to flower and seed.

rose bay willow herb    Rose Bay

Happy growing,

Matt

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Growing Tips-January

 

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May I take this opportunity to wish you a belated ‘happy new year’ and hope 2020 will be a productive one.

January is usually a cold month so you can be excused for not wanting to venture out. The allotment can be a place of solitude with only the hardiest soles to keep you company.

On the other hand, after all the eating and merriment it could be just the tonic to blow away those cobwebs and to start the new campaign.

So far, we have experienced a mild start to the year. This being evident by the variety of weeds which are thriving, especially Hairy bittercress – a persistent weed which colonises bare ground and spreads by shooting seeds up to 1 metre away.

hairy bittercress  Hairy bittercress

Regular hoeing and hand weeding will reduce numbers although make sure you remove all parts of the plant as stem fragments are capable of re-rooting.

Hairy bittercress is in fact edible and has a taste similar to cress crossed with rocket. Something different to add to your plate.

Over the Christmas period we were blessed with some dry weather. This allowed me to start emptying the compost heap.

I always cover my heap in the winter with a waterproof cover as it prevents the compost becoming too wet.

Homemade compost will inevitably have pieces of woody material, stones and the odd plant label in it. For this reason, I always like to pass it through a riddle. A job for a cold, frosty morning.

compost1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riddling homemade compost.

The one drawback with homemade compost is that it will contain weed seeds. A small price to pay for such a nutritious medium.

Try sowing a few subjects undercover such as Broad bean ‘The Sutton’, Pea ‘Douce Provence’ and various salad crops. Direct sow Carrots ‘Amsterdam Forcing 3’ into raised beds or large pots.

If dry enough continue to prepare outdoor beds with a 15cm layer of well-rotted farmyard manure. Worms and the rain will assist in working it in.

Keep a check on stored crops for vermin damage and anything which may be starting to rot. Finally, check that brassica nets have not been dislodged by the wind.

Happy growing,

Matt

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Growing tips-December

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Welcome to the December issue of growing tips.

Another year has almost gone. Or as I like to think, I’m another year wiser!

So now is the time to start dropping those subtle hints and hope they get picked up on.

Given a choice of presents which I would plumb for, number one on the list would be a foldable garden kneeler and seat. These are great whilst weeding as it reduces strain and injury to your lower back and the foam padding protects your knees. Turn it over and you have a comfortable resting seat.

Next on the list would be a pair of good secateurs. If you buy a decent pair you’ll never need another set. Both left and right-handed models are available to suit your own needs. Just what’s needed for those fruit bushes.

For the greenhouse a minimum/maximum thermometer is a must. It will record the maximum and the minimum temperature since it was last set. It indicates extremes of temperatures, so you know when to start shading or fleecing up at night.

Finally, my luxury would be a wellington boot remover. No more mud flicking and clean hands.

Tasks to consider for the month include:

  • continue weeding and preparing the soil if it isn’t too wet.
  • Prune out the stems of autumn fruiting raspberries to ground level.
  • Sow Broad bean ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ for overwintering in the polytunnel or green house.
  • Remove yellowing leaves from brassicas and compost them.
  • Check stored crops for rodent damage.
  • Remove the last of the leaves from greenhouse guttering.
  • Net over Brussel sprout plants to protect from wood pigeons.

As we are all aware gardening is a great form of exercise and is good for us both physically and mentally. However, doing too much at once can lead to injuries, especially lower back problems.

Always warm up before carrying out any physical exercise. Muscles will tighten up especially when it’s cold. Don’t rush into things and vary tasks every half hour, ultimately this will help strengthen your back muscles.

Bend your knees and not your back when lifting and don’t overstretch yourself.  Use long handled tools to prevent having to stoop and don’t overload your spade or fork.

Finally, make sure your lower back is covered and not exposed to the cold air. Keep your shirt tucked in or wear a boiler suit.

Merry Christmas,

Matt.

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Growing Tips – November

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Welcome to the November issue of growing tips.

One of the benefits of this time of year is the abundant supply of fallen leaves. Once composted these will make excellent leaf mould.

Leaf mould is the end result after leaves have been allowed to decompose. It is an excellent soil conditioner which can be used to mulch around fruit trees, improve soil structure and can be added to homemade compost mixes.

The only drawback is that it can take over a year for the leaves to decay. But as they say, ‘all good things come to those that wait’ and the end product is certainly worth waiting for.

As the cold nights start to draw in, one of the gardener’s allies, the humble hedgehog, starts to think about hibernating. Numbers have declined by 30 per cent over the past 10 years so they need as much help as possible.

Hedgehogs are wonderful pest controllers and will eat slugs and snails as part of their diet. Therefore, it’s in the grower’s interest to provide them with hibernating facilities.

hedgehog

There are many hedgehog houses on the market to choose from. However, access to a log pile, compost heap or an area under your shed will suffice.

hedge

Should the weather turn wet then there are always those jobs you turn a blind eye too. Plastic plant labels will require cleaning for use again next year. Warm soapy water and a sheet of ‘wet and dry’ sandpaper leaves them looking good as new.

Parsnips will be ready for lifting from now on. If you can wait until they have been frosted this should intensify the flavours. Given a deep, loose soil certain varieties will produce nice long tapered tap roots. The variety below is ‘White gem’.

parsnip

Tools will benefit from some TLC. Remove loose soil, rub the metal work over with a wire brush and then rub down with an oily cloth. Wooden handles can be cleaned and wiped down with linseed oil.

Everyone at some stage has inadvertently grabbed a slug and ended up with slime on their fingers. Trying to wash it off just makes the situation worst. Simply take a pinch of dry soil and rub it around the slime which should take the stickiness away. Once home, hot soapy water tends to remove any residue.

If you have a greenhouse remove any fallen leaves from under the staging. If you don’t these will decay and become host to grey mould also known as botrytis. Botrytis can affect a wide range of plants and especially seedlings. Good hygiene and air circulation are key to preventing it.

One last note on moulds.  We have Botrytis to thank for the decomposition process of all the leaves which fall in autumn, the process which ultimately provides us with leaf mould.

Happy growing,

Matt

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Growing Tips-October

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Welcome to the October edition of growing tips.

Things are finally beginning to quiet down after a busy year.

The main tasks for this month will involve the removal of spent crops and preparing beds for winter.

Remember to leave the root system in the soil from anything which belongs to the pea and bean family. Nitrogen fixing nodules that grow on them will provide you with free natural fertilizer. All top growth can be put on the compost heap.

Talking of compost, if you’ve been turning yours regularly you will now be left with a light friable product that adds structure and nourishment to your soil.

This can be spread liberally over a weed free bed surface to allow the worms to take it down. Alternatively, it can be worked into your soil during the single digging process.

Now is the time to plant out over wintering onion sets. Plant about 1-1.5cm deep and 3-5 cm apart with 30-40cm between the rows. Beds should be weed free and dressed with a fish, blood and bone fertiliser prior to planting. Varieties to consider include ‘Radar’, ‘Troy’, ‘Swift’ or ‘Electric’.

Garlic is also planted out at this time of year. Only plant certified bulbs bought from a horticultural outlet and don’t be tempted to use garlic bought from the supermarket. Break the bulb up and plant each clove. Allow 15cm between individual cloves and 30cm between rows. Plant the cloves so the tips are 2.5cm below soil surface. Varieties to consider include ‘Early Purple White’ and ‘Provence Wight’.

As with onion setts blackbirds will sometimes pull them up thinking there’s a meal at the end of them. Simply replant but don’t be tempted to push them into hard ground as it may damage the base plate where the roots form.

Hopefully your pumpkins will have ripened naturally whilst sat on the soil surface. If some are still showing signs of green bring them inside and place near a radiator. The heat will help to ripen them.

Sow salad leaves such as lamb’s lettuce, winter purslane and rocket for picking next spring. I will sow in modular trays and keep in the polytunnel for planting out later. Make sure they don’t dry out as it can get warm in a polytunnel even in winter.

Finally, you can keep busy even if it’s too cold to carry out outside work. There’s always plant labels to clean up for use next year. A bowl of warm soapy water and a sheet of ‘wet and dry’ sandpaper should do the trick.

Happy growing.

Matt

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Growing Tips – September

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Welcome to the September issue of ‘growing tips’

September signals the end of summertime and marks the start of meteorological autumn. Naturally we will start to experience cooler night-time temperatures and even the odd frost. However, we can still have some glorious days so don’t forget to water.

Now is a good time to check over the greenhouse heater. Paraffin heaters can become somewhat smoky after prolonged use. Simply trim the charred part of the wick with a pair of scissors. When lighting turn the wick up and once lit turn it down to just above the wick holder. It should burn with a blue flame rather than a yellow one.

No matter how hard you try you always end up with a glut of fruit and vegetables around this time of year. How you deal with it depends on your culinary skills. Pickling, freezing, drying, fermenting and jamming are just a few methods to consider.

I guarantee every year when taking down the bean frame I find numerous pods which have been missed. Fear not, so long as the pods have dried and turned brittle the seeds will be fine for sowing next year. Collect and place in an envelope and store in a dark, cool place.

Try the same with peas and sow 3 seeds into a 7cm pot for a crop of tasty pea shoots. A healthy supplement to any dish. Below is a photograph of the ones sown last December.

winter peas

As crops finish dig them up and add to the compost heap. Give the heap a turn periodically to introduce oxygen. Don’t add the haulms from potato plants which have been affected with blight. These need to go straight on a hot fire.

How many times have you opened the shed door and a raft of canes have come tumbling down around you?

An easy way to keep them neat and tidy is to fix 2no down spout brackets to a wall to keep the canes contained. These can be fixed vertical as per the photograph or horizontal.

canes

Asparagus plants will start to show signs of yellowing later this month. Cut down the top foliage to 3cm above ground level and compost.

Beds which have been left empty after harvesting can be sown with a green manure. Germination should be quick whilst the soil is still warm, the resulting growth will protect your soil over the winter.

Continue feeding pumpkin plants with a liquid tomato feed. Cut the leaves back from around the fruits to allow as much light as possible to ripen them.

pumpkin-on-vine

Plant out winter onion sets in prepared beds and continue sowing salad leaf crops such as lettuce, rocket, radish and spring onions.

Happy growing,

Matt

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Growing Tips – August

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Welcome to the August edition of growing tips.

Over the past three weeks I have had the privilege to judge plots throughout the borough as part of the annual Allotments competition.

The dedication and effort that plot holders put into growing fruit and vegetables never fails to inspire me. Those that I spoke to oozed enthusiasm and were only too pleased to offer help and advice.

The weather at present is perfect for growing and unfortunately that goes for weeds too. I appreciate weeding isn’t the most interesting of jobs, however, a little and often will help to keep on top of them.

This year the use of protective enviromesh over the brassicas has proved to be worth every penny.

Sarmash cabbage Pest free cabbage

The cabbages have not been troubled with caterpillars, as in previous years, and the kale has been whitefly free.

Kale is such a versatile plant with a long harvest period. My favourite is a variety called ‘Black Tuscany’ whose peppery purple leaves are packed with vitamins and have the same texture as savoy cabbage.

Kale‘Black Tuscany’ in the foreground under enviromesh

Harvest the leaves when young, taking a few from the base of each plant. Older leaves are fine to eat although the central vein can be tough. It is a crop which will easily see you through to the winter months and will tolerate cold temperatures.

Tasks to be considering this month include:

  • Pinching out the growing tips from runner bean plants once they have reached the top of their supports. Otherwise you will be needing a ladder to harvest.
  • Once the tops of the onions have naturally fallen over. Gently lift with a fork to break the root from the soil and leave on the surface for the tops to dry.

onions

  • Plants which have finished cropping such as peas and broad beans will require removing to make way for the following crop. Remember to cut the stems off at ground level and leave the roots in the soil. These will rot down and add nitrogen to the soil.
  • Cut off all the leaves from your strawberry plants approximately 10 -12cm above the crown. Remove any straw which was used to keep the ripening fruits off the soil and pull out any weeds. By now any runners which have been pegged down to grow new plants should have produced a good root system and can also be cut from the mother plant.
  • Keep harvesting French and runner beans regularly. This also goes for cucumbers and courgettes.

In previous issues I mentioned the ban on metaldehyde slug pellets. This ban has now been overturned following an appeal in the High Court in London.

The 12 – 18 August is National Allotment Week so lookout for offers which garden centres may be offering

Happy growing.

Matt

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Growing Tips-July

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Allotments are great places for community engagement and swapping plants with fellow plot holders is all part and part of the culture.

It’s a great way of getting rid of those excess seedlings which you didn’t expect to germinate.

However, always ensure that before you introduce anything new that they are free from pest and diseases.

On occasions I have accidentally brought whitefly, greenfly and a host of other pests into my greenhouse when accepting a kind gesture.

Always look above, under and in the axis of the leaves for any eggs, larva or adults. Check the underside of the pot for slugs and even remove from the pot to check for eggs.

Now is the time to sow spring cabbage. Once germinated prick out into 3.5in pots and then transplant into a weed free bed, 18in apart during September/ October. The bottom leaves should be level with the soil surface. The bed shouldn’t be too fertile as we don’t want the plant to put too much lush growth on before the onset of winter. Weed regularly and protect from pigeons.

Continue to harvest French and runner beans daily. If you leave them too long they will become tough and stringy.

Courgettes are the same, except leaving them too long results in you growing a marrow.

Continue feeding to replace used and leached nutrients. For a quick acting fertiliser use a liquid feed such as a seaweed or a home-made /nettle type. For a longer lasting fertiliser use bone meal or fish, blood and bone.

Here in the North West of England we get our fair share of rain. Connecting a hose from your greenhouse gutter to a water barrel and harvesting your own water is certainly not a new invention.

water butts

However, I tend to find during a dry spell it soon gets used up. On a visit to a local allotment site recently I noticed a set-up which allowed water to run from barrel to barrel. A few snails and pond weed in each barrel helps keep the water fresh.

We have started to harvest potatoes grown in sacks in the polytunnel. The warm climate certainly encourages an early crop.

Avoid watering before harvesting as this prevents a muddy mess. Cut the tops off and carefully tip the compost out of the bag.

Harvest as required and cook with a sprig of mint.

Strawberries are now in season and require picking whilst a bright red colour. If you leave them too long, they tend to go deep red and soft to touch.

Remember to net them over as blackbirds are also admirers.

In view of the imminent slug pellet ban why not try using nematodes as a method of control. Nematodes are microscopic worms which seek out slugs within the soil and kills them within 3 days.

Add a sachet of nematodes to a watering can and apply to the required area. These sachets come in two sizes, one to treat 40 metres sq or one to treat 100 metres sq.

Each application releases approximately 300,000 nematodes for every square metre of soil, giving at least six weeks control of slugs.

Apply from March through to October on moist soils when temperatures are above 5 degrees C. The benefits of using this method is that pets, children and wildlife are safe and need not be excluded.

That’s all for now, enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Matt.

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Growing Tips-June

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There’s always something to do on the allotment and June heralds an exciting time in the growers’ calendar. The weather has been good recently which has given crops the boost they needed. Warm days intermittent with a drop of rain has worked wonders.

Here on the plot the peas and beans have started to produce their first pods and it won’t be long before we will be harvesting our first crop.

broad beans in flower

Strawberries too have produced more flowers this year than ever before and I am confident of a healthy crop. The next stage is to mulch with straw to keep the fruit off the ground to keep them clean.

Remember, if crops are benefiting from good weather so too are the weeds. Keep on top by weeding a little and often. Don’t spend full days weeding as you will start to see gardening as a chore and not something which should be enjoyable.

The first early potatoes which were grown in bags in the polytunnel are now showing signs of flowering. At this stage ensure they are well watered as the tubers will be starting to swell.

flowers on spuds

Slugs are on the rampage at present. This year I have cut off both top and bottom of plastic water bottles and placed them over my climbing bean. I have not tried this before but I’m looking to cut down on the use of slug pellets before the ban comes into effect. Cutting the top part with crimping scissors may also deter the slug from climbing over.

Tomato plants naturally produce side shoots in the axils between the main stem and the leaf branch. These require pinching out as they will form another stem that will compete for nutrients.

Don’t forget to liquid feed every week with a specifically formulated tomato feed.

Earth up main crop potatoes when the stems reach 25-30cm tall. Spread a handful of ‘fish, blood and bone’ fertilizer between the plants prior to earthing up.

Keep brassicas covered to keep pigeons and butterfly’s off.

brassica protection

Blackfly can be a problem on broad beans. Pinch out the soft tips and this generally the reduces damage. Failing that redirect any ladybirds you find as they predate on aphids.

Finally, there’s a plethora of uses for canes around the garden and all too often they are not east to see. Place an empty plastic bottle over the top which will protect your eyes from a nasty injury.

eye protection

 

Happy growing.

Matt

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