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"

Sunday, 11 March 2018

A new source of meat

As you know, I am very fond of vegetables, but I am not a vegetarian. I like meat - especially good-quality meat - and I have recently found a new source of it, and it is this that I want to write about today.

A few weeks ago we discovered (purely by chance) that there is a small market in nearby Farnborough every Friday. When I say small, I mean only 3 or 4 stalls, but one of those belongs to the delightfully named "Abby's Happy Farm". This stall carries a surprisingly wide range of meat products, as well as complementary items like eggs (chicken and duck), honey, vinegars, chutneys etc. The first time we saw the stall we were a bit dubious, because Farnborough is not noted for its high-class shops or cuisine, and stalls selling cheap meat of indeterminate origin would most likely be more typical there. However, we had a chat with the stallholder (I know she is not Abby!) and were pleasantly surprised to find that all the meat comes from grass-fed animals reared on local, traceable farms, and much of it from Abby's Happy Farm itself, which is in the village of Herriard (about 15 miles from here). Incidentally, that village is also the place of origin of the award-winning cheese called Tunworth.

Anyway, cutting a long story short, we bought a few items to try. We initially tried some fairly "safe" things like plain Pork sausages, Chicken breast and shin of Beef, mainly so that we could compare them with their supermarket equivalents. We were not disappointed. When cooked, the beef went meltingly tender and the sausages didn't ooze watery white gunk! I would say that the prices were marginally more than what you would pay in a supermarket, but the quality was a huge amount better. When you get good meat, you need less of it too, because it seems more satisfying and there is often less to throw away (e.g. fat and gristle).

Chicken Breast - 2 for £3.50

Next time we visited the stall we were a bit more adventurous, and bought some less-ordinary items like a Ham hock, a whole Chicken, two Venison steaks, some Merguez sausages (good in a tagine, with cous-cous) and even a piece of Morcilla (a Spanish-style blood sausage, a bit like Black Pudding). To be honest, we didn't enjoy the Ham hock, but that's probably more a reflection on our tastes than the quality of the meat. It just never went as falling-apart tender as we pictured it would. Maybe we cooked it wrongly? Likewise, although the Morcilla tasted nice, it was a lot softer than we had anticipated, and it disintegrated on cooking. The Merguez however were fabulous, a great texture with just the right level of spicing, and we are now hoping to get more of them as soon as possible

Star purchase though was some diced Mutton. Mutton is not widely available in the UK. It seems to have fallen out of favour. Most people think of it as being old (probably tough) Lamb. We had actually hoped to get some Goat, with which to make a Caribbean curry, but Goat was not in season, so the Mutton was our second choice. It was really good - very tasty meat, and cooked long and slow it was very tender too. In my opinion it was far superior to Beef or Lamb in this context. I personally think that a lot of the meat sold in our supermarkets today is too "young" - it is sold very soon after slaughter and has had little time to mature and develop flavour. Most people know that extended ageing of beef for steaks is a good thing, so why do they think that Stewing Beef should be sold two days after slaughter?

Diced Mutton - £11.50 per kilo

Anyway, we are hooked now, and are visiting Farnborough every Friday, just to get meat from this stall. I have to say that one of the things we like best about it is that the lady who runs it is really pleasant - chatty, informative, polite, not at all pushy - and genuinely proud of the produce on offer. This counts for a lot in these day of surly, clueless shop-assistants and socially-sterile Self-checkout supermarkets.

This Friday's purchases were two Chicken Breasts, two Mutton Chops, a pack of diced Mutton and a pack of Lamb Mince. Jane and I may well be arguing over who gets to cook what!

Mutton Chops - £12.50 per kilo

Lamb Mince - £8.95 per kilo

Some of you may say that you can get cheaper meat than this. I'm sure that's true, but I believe quality takes precedence over price, and furthermore I like the idea of supporting small local businesses in preference to huge greedy corporates with their dubious commercial practices.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Revitalising soft fruit

A couple of days ago I paid another visit to my plot at Courtmoor Avenue - the first for two weeks, because the weather has kept me away. I have promised myself that I'll do a bit of digging every time I go, so that I will eventually get the whole plot done (I'm at about 75% now, I reckon), but this time I just made a token effort, because I really wanted to do some work on the currant bushes and raspberry canes. The latter are just beginning to show signs of new growth, so they need sorting-out very soon.

I managed to have a chat with the plot owner gentleman this time, and asked him about the raspberries. He has no idea what variety they are ("lost in the mists of time...") but confirmed that they are all Summer-fruiting ones, so the canes currently there are the ones which were new last year. There is no sign just yet of this year's new canes coming up, but there are lots of stumps from last year's fruiting canes (which I presume were cut down in the early Autumn...)

In amongst the canes are lots and lots of weeds, mostly Geum Urbanum (Wood Avens). Looking this one up to confirm its identity, I was amused to find that you can actually use it as a food crop. See here... Wood Avens.

Fortunately it is relatively easy to remove. It just needs a bit of care to avoid damaging the raspberry plants. The area which I am going to clear consists of two rows, each about 5 metres long, spaced about 1.5 metres apart:

There are more canes elsewhere in the garden, but I'm going to try to ignore them for now!

On this occasion I was only able to make a start on the task, and it will need a lot more time to finish, but at least I have crossed a psychological boundary by doing the first bit of it. I did about a third of one row.

I'm not claiming to be an expert on this, but what I have done is remove the weeds, cut down last year's stumps, and remove all the thin and weak-looking canes, leaving just the big strong ones which will bear this year's fruit.

The canes were tied-in with a horizontal line of string at a height of about 4 feet, but it has mostly rotted away, so I plan to re-do it when I have cleared both rows.

As well as making a start on the raspberries, I finished the pruning of the blackcurrant bushes along the line of the fence. This task proceeded much as I have described before, so suffice it to say that I took out a lot of old (mainly dead) wood, leaving the best, strongest-looking and predominantly upright stems:

This is the BEFORE picture

This is the AFTER picture

I was also able to create two new plants, by cutting off drooping branches that had rooted of their own accord where they had touched the soil. This one in particular looks very promising. It already has a number of good branches of its own. Following accepted practice, I planted it with the root/branch union just below the level of the soil, which will encourage it to produce more new branches at ground level.

With the addition of the three new plants, there are now eight blackcurrants along the fence, so there ought to be a decent crop, though I don't expect the new ones to produce fruit this year.

While I was pruning one of the blackcurrant bushes I found this little chap lurking in the long grass:

I think he is a toad. I hope so, because toads are reputed to be voracious eaters of slugs! He wasn't too impressed about having his hideaway cleared out, and rather reluctantly stomped away to find somewhere else to rest up.

I mentioned at the start of this post about the continued digging. This is one of the reasons why I want to dig the whole plot over:-

Yes, practically every spadeful throws up more Couch Grass roots, especially over by the fence where the blackcurrants are, because until recently the next-door garden was very unkempt, and Couch Grass spreads very rapidly if you give it a chance. As I dig, I do my best to remove as much of the grass as I can. I know it would be over-optimistic to expect to be able to remove ALL of it on this one occasion, because it can re-grow from even a tiny piece of root. However, with constant attention I think I will be able to keep it in check.

I'm hoping that before the end of March I will be able to plant the first of my potatoes. The soil on this plot is very light and drains well. With all the rain (and snow) we have had recently, you might expect it to be waterlogged, but it isn't. I just need to decide exactly where to begin planting, and how to delineate the rows, because at present, the whole plot is just one big open expanse.

I'm not used to this - it's very different to the raised beds in my own garden!

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Hellebores - reluctant stars

When you think of Spring flowers, what comes to mind first? Is the Daffodil? Or the Primrose? I bet it isn't the Hellebore. Which is a shame. The Hellebore family (Helleborus sp) has a wide range of varieties that flower from about Christmas right through to late Spring. For this reason they are sometimes called the Christmas Rose or the Lenten Rose, though in all honesty their resemblance to the normal type of Rose is very superficial. I like Hellebores because they can provide (if you choose wisely) some colour in the garden at a time when little else is in flower - usually well before the Daffodils put in an appearance.

Hellebore plants grown from seed take a fair while to reach maturity - usually 3 years, though you may be lucky and get them to bloom in their second year. Once they get going they produce masses of blooms, and come back year after year. They have the useful ability to thrive in areas of dappled shade that get little direct sunlight. They also self-seed profusely. After flowering in the Spring the plants produce robust, long-stemmed and shapely leaves which allow them to build up plenty of energy for the next year. I usually cut off most of the previous year's leaves just as the new flower-stalks begin to appear, so that the flowers become more visible.

Visibility - or lack of it - is the Hellebore's weak point. Although borne on stems that are often up to two feet tall, the flowers naturally droop downwards, so that it is hard to see their inner surfaces, which are normally the most attractive parts. To really appreciate Hellebore flowers, you therefore need to see them from below, or tip them temporarily upwards to admire them. Most of my photos of Hellebores include my own fingers as I try to persuade these shy flowers to show us their charms!

Just as with "proper" Roses the Lenten Rose comes in many different shapes and colours, ranging from white, through mauve, and pink to deep reds - almost black. Some of them are single-flowered and some double. Many of the varieties have so-called Picotee petals - in other words the main petal is lighter coloured than the edge, giving the flower a sort of highlighted appearance. Others, especially the Oriental Hybrid ones, have dark-coloured speckles on their flowers.

A single-flowered variety, with purple speckling on white petals

A double-flowered Oriental Hybrid

A double-flowered bloom, with Picotee effect

This next one was grown from seeds kindly given to me by fellow-blogger Elaine R.

A single-flowered variety

My own favourites amongst the Hellebores are undoubtedly the dark-coloured ones, like this one which was given to me as a fully-rooted plant by Facebook friend Alice D.

When I started drafting this post I thought it might be appropriate to describe the "shy" Hellebore as like the famously diffident "shrinking Violet", and I went and looked up the origin of that term. This is what I found:

"Fey Georgian gentlemen like Keats and Shelley were disposed to wandering around woodland composing poetry and it was a close friend of theirs who was doing just that when he gave the ground-hugging Viola odorata the name 'shrinking violet'. In a poetry magazine called The Indicator, the poet and essayist Leigh Hunt drew attention to the modest wood violet:
There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet. " [Credit:]
The meaning is not quite the same, but you probably understand where I was coming from...