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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Growing tips-May

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We were all treated to an abundance of warm, dry days over the Easter holidays which couldn’t have come at a better time.

There was lots of planting done and direct sowing was the order of the weekend. Only plants which had sufficiently been hardened off and capable of withstanding cool nights were planted.

On the subject of cool nights, it’s not uncommon to experience a frost at this time of year. Keep that horticultural fleece or net curtain at the ready just in case and keep an eye on the local weather forecast.

After sowing always label and irrigate along the rows with a watering can fitted with a rose. The rose is a device, similar to a cap, with small holes. It is placed on the end of the watering can spout to break up the stream of water into droplets, replicating a rain shower.

watering can with rose

Start to earth up the first and second early potatoes when shoots are about 10cm out of the soil. It always seems rather drastic when you pile soil over the majority of the plant. Ultimately it will do them no harm at all and in the long run you will benefit from a better harvest. It’s at this stage I also like to throw a handful of grow-more fertiliser around each plant. It gives them a feed and encourages healthy growth.

spuds before earthing

spuds after earthing

The only weed which is allowed to grow on my allotment is the humble nettle. It can be invasive but managed correctly it has many benefits.

nettles

The leaves are high in nitrogen and when cut down, chopped up and added to the compost heap they acts as an activator, quickening up the composting process.

You can also make your own liquid fertiliser by chopping up the leaves and adding to a bucket of water. Place a brick to keep the leaves below the surface and leave for 3-4 weeks. I must emphasise at this stage that the smell can be rather pungent. When ready dilute 1 part fertiliser to 10 parts water and apply around the roots.

This year I have used a heated tray to quicken the germination of my seeds. Below is a photograph of sweetcorn planted 9 days earlier. The one on the left hasn’t been on the tray whilst the one on the right has.

sweetcorn

Finally, I must advocate using a good seed compost when sowing. I have recently potted up some chillies and I am really pleased with the root system these ones have produced. It bodes well for a healthy plant.

chillie seedling

 

Happy growing.

Matt

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Growing tips – April

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If the ornaments on your window sills have still not been replaced with an array of trays, then you’ve not sown enough seeds.

Yes, it’s that time of year when a light, warm window sill is at a premium and you spend most of your time back and forth going to the greenhouse with seedlings at various stages of growth.

Potting bench

I always use fresh compost for seed sowing. Left over compost from last year may contain harmful pathogens. The last thing you want is for your chilli seeds, which have taken an age to germinate, to curl up and die. Keep your compost bags in a dry place and don’t leave outside where it may become sodden.

The delicate leaves of young seedlings are susceptible to strong sunlight and will soon scorch. Due to the erratic nature of the weather this time of year I prefer not to whitewash my glass just yet. Therefore I drape an old net curtain on the outside of the green house and anchor it down to the guttering with bulldog clips. It’s only a temporary measure and can quickly be removed if required.

Once your seedlings have developed their first true set of leaves they can be safely placed into a small plant pot. Only choose the healthiest and strongest looking ones. The seedling will requires regular potting on as the root system develops. To check when this is required carefully remove the plant from the pot and if roots can be seen between the compost and the pot then it’s time for a larger pot.

Weeds will be making the most of the warmer weather and endeavouring to take over. Run a hoe regularly through effected areas to prevent them taking over.

Recently I have had Himalayan balsam seedlings appearing in some of my beds. These have probably come in from the homemade compost which I added back in autumn. A mature balsam plant can produce up to 800 seeds and these can be expelled up to 7 metres, so check your surroundings.

Balsom seedling                  Balsom growing

To reduce the number of weed seeds contaminating my compost I have covered the bays with black plastic sheeting. It also helps to reduces excess moisture, retains heat and quickens up the decaying process.

Compost bays

There’s a plethora of seeds to be sown outdoors. Beetroot, sprouts, cabbage, carrots and leeks. Salad leaves such as rocket, lettuce, mibuna and corn salad. Cover with a cloche if possible which will protect from heavy rain and help to warm the soil up.

Peas sown in the poly-tunnel have now been planted outdoors. Just need to find the twigs!

peas

The clocks have now gone forward, so more time to spend on the plot…

Happy growing.

Matt

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