Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Trying some unusual plants

Normally I grow fairly conventional plants - usually ones that we definitely like eating and would like to have lots of. However, I do occasionally branch out and try something different. I tried Yard-Long beans (failed miserably in cold wet Summer). I tried Cucumelons (we didn't enjoy the taste). I tried Tomatillos (got a huge crop, but felt the veg was a bit uninspiring). This year I am trying not one, but THREE types of veg that I have never grown before.

The first of these is the Chinese Artichoke, aka Crosnes. This plant produces a mass of small knobbly tubers, somewhat reminiscent of Oca. Wikipedia says rather pessimistically "While the plant is easy to grow, the tubers are small, convoluted, and indented, so they are considered very tedious and difficult to clean properly." Last Autumn a friend gave me a few small tubers and I stuck them in a 30cm pot, where they spent the Winter outdoors. In early Spring they sprouted and now look like this:


I think there are 3 separate plants there, though it is hard to be sure. I'm not likely to get much of a crop from such a small pot, so I will probably just "re-cycle" any tubers they produce this year, and grow them on in the hope of increasing my stock. I can't show you any tubers (for obvious reasons), so the best I can do is show you a close-up of the leaves. They look a bit like Nettles, I think.


Having tasted some of the tubers (courtesy of the donor friend), I can say that they are pleasantly nutty - a bit like a Water Chestnut - with a firm crunchy texture even when cooked. They are never likely to displace the potato in my growing-plan, but as a curiosity they have potential!

Newcomer No.2 is New Zealand Spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides. I've mentioned this before, in the context of my Courtmoor plot. The couple who own the plot have told me that they used to grow this vegetable and liked it, but had crop failures last year and the year before. I assess then that I should be able to earn some Brownie Points if I can successfully raise some this year!

Tetragonia is not actually related to "proper" Spinach. It just looks a bit like it, and is used in similar ways. The plants supposedly grow into bushes about 3 feet tall, and you crop them by repeatedly picking off the tips of the shoots. It is frost-tender, so mustn't be planted too soon and will not last into the cold weather of Autumn. I'd better get shaping... I sowed 15 "seeds", but soon discovered that each one of these is actually a cluster of seeds which produces several little plants.


Once the little plants were big enough, I pricked them out into separate pots, in which they are now growing nicely.


I potted-up 18 plants, but there are lots more left, so I suspect I'll soon be offering them around amongst my gardening friends.


I have never tried New Zealand Spinach (in fact I don't think I've ever even seen it), but it sounds like a vegetable I would enjoy, so I'm hoping it will do well for me.

The final member of the trio is Huauzontle, Chenopodium nuttalliae, aka Aztec Broccoli, a member of the Amaranth family. Again, this is something quite unfamiliar to me, and it will be interesting to see how it performs. Until a friend gave me some seeds for this vegetable at an informal seed-swap, I had no knowledge of it at all, so I had to look it up. One good resource I found is the Real Seed Catalogue. They describe in detail how it is grown and cooked. Apparently you pick the tips of the flowering shoots, a bit like Purple Sprouting Broccoli. One attractive characteristic of this vegetable is that it holds its texture well when cooked, and doesn't go completely soft as Spinach does.

Aztec Broccoli is another Summer-only plant; one for sowing in late April or early May, and it will be killed off by the Autumn frosts. It must be a fast-growing plant though, because it can allegedly reach 5ft tall. I can't demonstrate this because mine has only recently germinated and is currently about an inch tall:


I had somehow expected the seedlings to be green, but I suppose I should have seen this clue on the Real Seeds website: "The leaves go red as nights cool, looking very pretty." It has been very cool at night here just recently, so maybe that's the reason...




Well, those are my experimental plants for this year. What are you growing that's different?

Monday, 21 May 2018

Hardening-off

In gardening parlance the term "hardening-off" means to gradually acclimatise young plants to outdoor conditions, prior to planting out. The young plants are put outside initially for short periods, progressively getting longer, and they are brought indoors or under cover at night time. After a couple of weeks the plants are left outside throughout the full 24 hours - but possibly kept in their pots for a little while longer, so that they can still be brought inside in an emergency - for instance if a sudden cold snap comes along. If you don't do all this it's likely that your young plants may die, or at least not do well. Sudden exposure to conditions that are too hot for them, or too cold, or too windy is definitely not recommended!

Over the last month or so I have been applying this procedure to lots of plants.  I've found that one of the best places for hardening-off my young plants is just outside the glass doors that open out from our Living-Room into the garden. It gets lots of sun early in the day, but is shaded by early afternoon when the light is at its strongest. It also gets some benefit from the nearby coldframe, which provides some wind-protection on certain days.

Squashes, Cucumbers and Chillis

These squash plants are getting quite big now, and could really do with planting out, but the weather has just not been warm enough for this - especially the nights, during which the temperatures have been typically only 7C or 8C, and a couple of times recently as low as 3C or 4C. The current 10-day forecast looks better, so hopefully I'll be able to plant them in the next day or two.


Tomatoes are one of my staple crops, and I always take more trouble over them than with anything else, so I have been careful to give them the text-book treatment.


My tomato plants are not yet very big, but they are looking good.


With exposure to the outdoor conditions, particularly wind, tomato plants toughen-up and their stems become stronger. One way to judge whether a tomato has been properly hardened-off is to inspect the stem. It should be quite stout - not thin and leggy -and it should be a dark colour, not pale. The one in this next photo is "getting there", but not ready for planting out yet.


I think the tomatoes will be ready to go outdoors in their final containers by about the end of May or the first few days of June.

The same applies to my chillis. If you have been following my blog you will know that they got off to a bit of a shaky start, but have now recovered. Some of them have developed into pretty decent specimens now, if a little small for this stage of the year.


Until this last weekend, the chillis, along with the squashes, have been spending the nights indoors, while the tomatoes have had the use of the big coldframe. During the daytime most of them get lined-up next to the raised beds, which afford some shelter from the breezes.


One of the great benefits of being Retired is that you can be at home more often, which is a great boon when plants need moving around a lot, as they do during hardening-off time! When I was working I always had to guess what the weather was going to be like during the day, and position my little plants accordingly, whereas now I often move them around 3 or 4 times a day. There were often some anxious moments worrying about whether they would still be OK when I got home, but now I can just pop outside and quickly rescue them if they need it. Bliss!

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Two significant milestones

This week, I have passed two significant milestones on my new plot.

Firstly, I finished the digging (at long last!). The veg-patch now extends all the way to the Raspberry canes.


I plan to use that last patch of soil for growing some New Zealand Spinach, and some Dwarf French Beans, but neither of those is ready for planting yet.

The other milestone is the fact that I have harvested my first crop - a bunch of "French Breakfast" radishes. Small but very satisfying!



Coincidentally, on the same day I harvested those "French Breakfast" radishes from the Courtmoor plot I also got a few "Lada" from my own garden.


The plot is now practically full, and the veggies are beginning to fill out.


The Broad Bean plants, although not very big, are covered in flowers, so hopefully some pods will set before many more days have passed. My application of the "Growmore" fertiliser seems to have been pretty beneficial, since the yellowing of the leaves stopped soon after.


The potatoes, whilst healthy enough, are progressing quite slowly, probably because they are not getting enough water. I have been watering the whole plot with the hosepipe every few days for a couple of weeks now, but it's never enough, and we have only had one spell of decent rain.


There's one other thing I want to mention today. Honeysuckle. Though not part of the veg-patch I'm working on, this is too lovely to ignore. In the garden there are two huge Honeysuckle bushes, one of which is climbing up into a big tree next to the shed. The perfume of the flowers pervades everything!


Saturday, 19 May 2018

Casualties and a nice find

The brassicas on my Courtmoor plot have suffered a couple of casualties. Everyone can see that this is not a healthy plant!


You may recall that the purpose of the cardboard collar is to deter the Cabbage Root Fly from laying eggs on or near the plant's stem, at ground level. Well, it looks like I was too late. Both of the casualties were Kaibroc plants; the others seem unaffected. However, my cardboard collars are exonerated, because it is evident that the flies laid their eggs on these plants before they were planted-out, hence before the collars were deployed. Back in my own garden, my only spare of this type is similarly afflicted. Here you can see it in the foreground of the next photo, all pale, limp and sickly whilst the other plants (spare cabbages and Brussels Sprouts) behind it still look fine.


I conducted a Post Mortem. This is what I found:


You can see that the soil around the stem and roots of this seedling is swarming with little white grubs. These are the larvae of the Cabbage Root Fly.


When the larvae hatch they feed on the roots and stem of the brassica plant, stripping them bare, and causing sudden, irreversible collapse.


There is no way back from this. The only solution is to re-sow or re-plant. Since my only spare Kaibroc plant was evidently beyond hope, I filled the gaps up at the plot with other things - one cauliflower and one red cabbage - and I immediately sowed some more Kaibroc seeds. Kaibroc grows very quickly, so it is not too late for me to get a harvest before the Summer ends. I just hope that none of the other plants are infested, because I don't have many more spares.

Incidentally, one way of dealing with the Cabbage Root Fly is to apply nematodes to the planting area shortly before planting.


These will kill most of the grubs and/or the eggs. However, it can be an expensive option when you have to treat a big area. In the raised beds in my own garden, it is a viable solution, but not in the bigger, more open plot.

On a rather more cheerful note, I want now to describe the "nice find" mentioned in the title of this post. This is it:


Yep, Asparagus! Purely by chance, I spotted some spears poking up in amongst the weeds in one of the sadly neglected flower-beds. Look at the next photo and see how many Asparagus spears you can spot...


There seems to be about 4 or 5 plants, but they are very overgrown and the soil they are in is very dry because lots of quite big shrubs are competing for the moisture.


I mentioned the Asparagus to Rupert, the plot-owner, and he very kindly told me to help myself to it. I found 16 spears of useable size. This is what I brought home:


Now that I know these Asparagus plants exist, maybe I'll give them a bit of TLC and nurture them a bit. I'll start with weeding and watering...

Thursday, 17 May 2018

In praise of herbs

If a gardener with very little space available asked me what he / she should grow, I'd definitely say herbs. Herbs are expensive to buy and most shops only carry a very limited range of them. There's also the fact that what's on offer in the shops is frequently less than or more than you need, and you can certainly not buy just one Bay leaf, if that's what you need for a recipe! On the other hand, if you grow herbs yourself they are easy enough to cultivate, require very little space and (most importantly) taste so much better than their shop-bought equivalents because you pick them when you need them and use them at their peak of freshness.

Greek Oregano

Jane and I use lots of herbs in our cooking - in fact there is hardly a meal prepared in our kitchen that doesn't use herbs of some sort, though I'll admit we do use a lot of dried ones too. In my opinion some herbs are actually better - certainly different - when dried. Oregano is the best example of this, with Thyme a close second. With such a constant demand for herbs, I sometimes find it hard to maintain a steady supply, but over the years I have learned what we use most of, and have adjusted my planting to suit. In the Summer time we often eat salad-based meals and these usually call for loads of fresh herbs. For instance one of our all-time favourites is Tabbouleh, which needs masses of Mint and Parsley. An authentic Tabbouleh has only a small proportion of grains (usually Bulgur wheat) and about 75%+ of herbs. I'm not sure what a Middle-Eastern person would make of our version of this dish, but we certainly enjoy it, and as the years go by we tend to put a greater and greater amount of herbs in.

I find that Parsley is the most difficult herb of which to maintain an adequate quantity. In my dry sandy soil it runs to seed very quickly, and it also sometimes succumbs to Carrot Root Fly. This year I have adopted a new tactic: I broadcast-sowed a whole packet of Parsley seeds in the border where most of the fruit trees are. The germination rate seems to have been pretty good...

A mass of young Parsley seedlings

In the same border I have several clumps of Greek Oregano. As well as being used in cooking, these help to disguise the rather stark black plastic pots. Furthermore, when these plants flower, all the bees and butterflies for miles around flock to them!

Greek Oregano

In our house, Mint is also predominantly a Summer herb. The weak spindly stems which are all that can be produced on the mythical "sunny windowsill" in Winter have little appeal. We prefer the robust, vigorous growth the plants put on in May, June or July. You cut some stems and within days they have regenerated! The Moroccan Mint is our favourite, and it has a bit of a history too. Its ancestor was a little plant in a 7cm pot which I bought in a Farmers' Market many years ago. Since then it has been propagated via root-cuttings many many times and is still as good as ever.

Moroccan Mint

I have a few other types of Mint too, but they are mostly more for ornament than for culinary use. Like this variegated Pineapple Mint, for instance. It looks great but its smell and taste mean that it is not very versatile. OK as a garnish on a tropical fruit salad, I suppose...


This Black Pepper Mint is also quite striking to look at, with its very dark-coloured stems. Unfortunately this variety seems to go leggy very quickly, and I find it hard to keep it looking nice.


Another herb that I love is Winter Savory, although I do acknowledge that it is less versatile than many others. It has a very distinctive taste (though some would describe it as rather "medicinal"). It is the perfect partner for beans, especially Broad Beans, which is convenient, because (despite is name) it's at its best at the same time as the main harvest of Broad Beans.

Winter Savory

A herb of a much milder disposition is the Chive, the most diminutive member of the Allium family. Like so many other herbs, this one is incredibly easy to grow: it needs little space and has no special site or soil requirements. Its uses are many and varied. Its mild oniony flavour goes with many different things. We like it sprinkled uncooked as a garnish on top of a dish, (such as a tomato or potato salad) immediately before serving, but it is also good cooked, for instance in an omelette. Chives also have a big visual appeal, and everyone who grows them should really try to leave at least a few to flower, rather than cutting them all. Their modest height, coupled with their attractive mauve-pink blooms make them ideal candidates for edging a border.

Chives - in bud at present.

Returning to my original theme... one of the best things about growing herbs is the fact that with a few exceptions (e.g. Lovage), herbs are quite small plants, so they can easily be grown in small spaces. Many of them do well in pots and containers of one sort or another, or in that odd little space that is too small for anything else. If you are not already a herb devotee, I suggest you give them a go!

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Mid-May plot update

Well, it's the middle of May, and my new plot is almost full up already! The only unprepared ground is one little strip about a metre wide, adjacent to the Raspberry canes (visible in the second photo). This is where the New Zealand Spinach is going to be planted, but there's no hurry since the plants are still very small.

NZ Spinach just after pricking-out into 7cm pots.

On Saturday I planted the rest of the beans.


As well as the "Cherokee Trail Of Tears" and Tunny" beans I planted last week, there are now 15 of "Jean's Beans" Runners and 8 of climbing French Bean "Cobra". The Runners were still not very strong (I'm sure you know why by now), so I gave them the best position - in the middle of the row. Normally Runner Beans are pretty big plants and I usually give them each their own cane, but since these ones are small, I put 2 per cane (with one exception, since there was an odd number).

Runner Beans "Jean's Beans" (nickname!)

The "Cobra" plants went at the end of the row nearest the grass path, again 2 per cane. Incidentally, if things go the way they usually do, the "Cobra" beans will produce their crop well before the Runners are ready. This would be nice because it would mean that I would not be inundated with all the beans being ready at once.

Climbing French Bean "Cobra"

Between the beanpoles and the Raspberries is my main Brassica patch. In it there are 4 each of red cabbage, cauliflower and Kaibroc, and 6 Brussels Sprouts. There is also one row of 24 "Ailsa Craig" onions (next to the bamboo canes in the foreground of the photo below).


On the other side of the beanpoles you might just be able to make out some more brassica plants. This is a row of 10 green cabbages. They are in this next photo too.


To the left of the cabbages (in the "tram-lines"!) are a row of radishes, then a row of beetroot and a row of parsnips. The parsnips are only just beginning to germinate and it is hard to identify them amongst the mass of annual weeds.

Beyond the parsnips is my onion and shallot bed, seen in the foreground here:-


There is another row of "Ailsa Craig" brown onions, 15 little clumps of "Long Red Florence" onions (each with between 3 and 6 plants, I think), and 44 shallots.

Beyond the onion bed you can see 4 rows of potatoes at various stages of development. Curiously, there have been a couple of No-shows here. The tiny "Foremost" potatoes saved from last year were never going to be very vigorous, but I am hopeful that all the tubers I bought at that Potato Day in January will eventually show up!

Furthest from the camera, at the far end of the plot are the Broad Beans. The plants are still not very big or strong compared with the ones in my own garden, but they have plenty of flowers on them, so I still hope to get a worthwhile crop.

Here's an overall view of the plot:


I still haven't done anything about establishing the Pumpkin Patch, but it won't take me long to do, and meanwhile the squash plants that will be going into it are growing away steadily in pots at home. I don't think they will have to wait too much longer...

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P.S. The last one of the shallots finally sprouted - that's a Full House then, 45 / 45. Better late than never!


Sunday, 13 May 2018

Shifting those pots!

This is the time of year when many young plants get potted-on from little tiny (3-inch, 3.5-inch) pots into considerably bigger (5-inch, 6-inch) pots. The tiny pots are easily moved around in large quantities, grouped together in seed-trays and the like.


However, when the plants go into bigger pots, it becomes a lot more difficult. And, like it or not, they do need to be shifted around a fair bit, especially in my garden where the light conditions vary a lot throughout the course of a day. If I leave them in the same place all day long, they risk being too cold at some stages, and scorched at others. And even now, in May, there is every chance that a mention in the TV weather forecast of a late frost will mean a rush to bring the little plants under cover in the evening!

Because of this, I have lifted out all manner of things that will help me to move pots around the garden quickly. I suspect that many readers will have similar requirements, so see what you make of these...(and let me know if you have any other suggestions?)

I am lucky enough to have two big strong plastic "gravel-trays", made by Stewarts. Mine are 40cm x 50cm. They can cope with 9 or 10 pots. I have had these for a few years now, and I don't think this particular model is still produced. I have searched online and found something similar, but not the same.


Then, (seen in the background of the photo above), I have some of these:


These were used in the old Safeway supermarkets, many years ago, when self-scanning and self-packing was just coming in, as an alternative to plastic bags. You had to buy them, but then you were able to use them again and again. We bought four, and they have been used for lots of different purposes over the years - very useful bits of kit! Now I have brought them into use for carting around potted plants. Each one can hold six 6-inch pots.

This next one is the base part of an unheated propagator which I used for several years, until the top (clear) part cracked and went cloudy. I drilled some drainage holes in the base and gave it a new lease of life in a different role.


The least sophisticated items in the inventory are these - old plastic washing-up bowls.


They are not so big - each will only carry 3 pots - but at least it salves my conscience a bit, in that I'm not throwing away an item which is no longer fit for its original purpose. Again, I have been using these as gardening equipment for many years (you don't get a new washing-up bowl that often, do you?), so I suspect that the oldest one is probably 12 - 15 years old! As with the propagator base seen above, I have drilled some drainage holes in them, so that they don't fill up with water when they are outside in the rain.

Writing this post, I am very conscious that all the items I have described are made of plastic, a material which is currently coming in for a lot of criticism. The fact is that plastic is a very useful material, and in the last 50 or 60 years has permeated practically every aspect of our lives. We can't just suddenly stop using it (our society would grind to a halt very rapidly if we did!). However, we can all do our best to minimize the wastage of plastic, and the sending of it to landfill when it could still be used for something else. So let's not be in too much of a hurry to throw away old plastic items if they can be usefully re-purposed - perhaps in the garden.