Thoughts from Ten-aye Part 2

Winter is really settling in now.  It’s a quite time at the allotment site.  With our heavy clay soil now wet, there isn’t much that can be done except tidying up and maintenance.

One of the things I try to do during the winter is keep my compost bins fired up.  I have a set of 4 ‘cubic yard’ bins in a square to keep a much heat in as possible.  The shape also allows me to ‘turn’ the compost in the bins without emptying or spilling.  During decomposition heat is given off.  I liken the process to a fire place.  Turning mixes the content, bringing fresh ‘fuel’ to the composting ‘fire’.  Turning simply involves forking the content of one bin into the next, kind of like blending.  I half empty one bin then put the top of the next onto that, so putting fresh material into the middle of the bin.  By turning twice a year I can make about 2 – 3 cubic yards per year.

If you want to produce good compost in a fairly reasonable time then the heap must be ventilated and be kept neither too dry nor too wet to encourage the decomposition process.  The professionals call it ‘aerobic digestion’.  Like in a fire place, the ‘burning’ is so much faster if you allow air underneath the logs using a grate.  Wet logs don’t burn.  So it is with compost heaps too.  By placing the garden waste on a metal mesh about 150mm off the ground (6” in old money), this will speed up the de-composition by letting air rise through the heap and spread the heat. I use any old thick metal mesh I can find. Mine is supported on wire shopping baskets; I fished a load out of the river at Staines for the job; are good as you can remove them each time the bin is empty, cleaning up the ventilation void ready for the next batch, a la cleaning the hearth of a fire.    My bins have 2 large lids. These really help to control the moisture levels & temperature within the bins.  In the summer they slow the drying due to the sun, in the winter they keep excess rain off.

It is worth noting that domestic composting temperatures are generally not high enough to sterilise weed seed in the bin.   Don’t put any weeds or any seeds on the heap.  I used to put on weeds that had not flowered.  Then I read a little article about how some wild plants can produce viable seed without setting flower.  Then the penny dropped as to why one particular weed plant seemed to be doing so well on my plot!  When you chop your tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, courgette, etc, in the kitchen, don’t put the seed in the compost heap scraps bin, unless you actually enjoy weeding rouge vegetables.  Finally, do make the effort to chop up what you put in your bin as fine as you can, it really is worth the effort.  If it is too course then the composting process just won’t start.  The finer the input the finer the output.

Going back to the last thoughts – I had a problem on my plot with black clover. For ages I could not get rid of it.  I’d not looked at this plant very carefully. Then Marianne pointed something out to me, I hadn’t noticed it’s got a sort of multi- tap root and the finest small yellow flower.  I used to pull it up and thus was actually breaking the root and thus creating multiple plants.  Now I always dig it out with a good trowel of soil as soon as I see it. I’m winning now.

Rabbit fences, now there’s a though.  There’s a lot on our site and they are pointless, that is pointless unless it’s 24” high at the minimum, best 36” and ideally buried 6” too.  How do I know?  When we had a real problem with these fluffy thieves a couple of years ago I’d go down to the site in the evenings after work and casually observe the rabbits hopping over the low 12” – 18” fences, or pushing under those unburied to enjoy their evening meal.  Thankfully, the committee invested in some control measures and at the moment the trouble has gone away.  I’ve no doubt there’s one or two getting in somewhere even now though.  But by covering the crop locally to keep off other bugs, insects etc rabbits can’t indulge in dinner either; and you don’t have the trouble of stepping over the thing or weeding along it. Weeds in these fences seem to be particularly difficult to manage and in just the right position to spread their seeds onto your neighbour. Spend your money on enviromesh instead.

So the soil has been cleared of as much weed as can be found, the compost bin is heating up and digesting down nicely.  Now what?  I’d recommend you stay indoors, keep warm and rest. Plan for next year’s harvests.

Now is a good time to plan for buying the seed for next year.  But which vegetables and from who?  We are lucky here in the UK. We have easy access to such a wide variety of vegetables seeds to grow, also a very amenable climate here in southern England to grow them. Last thoughts I suggested planning by thinking about what you actually eat at home.  So now you may have an idea of what and how much.   I’m not going to go name and discuss the pros and cons of all types of vegetable; you can work which you like yourself. If you can’t there are dozens of books that can help you.  Reading is such a good way of building up gardening knowledge.  However it is worth getting familiar with as many varieties of each vegetable as you can.

Varieties. It is worth knowing a thing or two about varieties.  As said, I’m not organic, I’m as happy with open pollinated varieties as I am with F1 sorts.  F1 is not genetically modified .  Grow the best tasting varieties you can. Read those seed catalogues and magazine articles to see what others say are good.  If all the catalogues stock a particular variety you can be fairly safe in assuming it’ll be good.   There are some that hold their own year on year. There are others that are the fashion of the moment. Looking for RHS AGM listing is a good guide to sort out the best, but not in all cases, RHS trials of every new variety of vegetable don’t happen every year so some newbies may be as good as or better than established AGMs.

Buying the seed.  Don’t be shy of spending on seed.  I look at it like this.  Take the price of a packet of carrots at the supermarket – £1.25/kg. Say there are 15 ‘EU’ standard carrots in the pack. Now look at the typical packet of carrot seeds.  There are 600 seeds in that pack, so that’s the equivalent of 10 packets of ‘EU’ standard packets of carrots, costing 12.50 if you get only ¼ of them to grown. That’s 900% profit!  So I reckon that packet of seed for £1.99 now doesn’t seem so expensive.  Go for the suppliers who sell the biggest packets, Tozer, Seeds of Italy and the profit is even greater!

Suppliers of good seeds.  I’m not going to go into the pro&cons of the likes of Thompson & Morgan, Suttons, Marshalls etc.  They are big commercial companies and have their place, It’s fairly easy to see what they’ve got and what you get for your money, which in my opinion is actually not a lot for quite a lot or money.  I was chatting to Paolo Arrigo from Seeds of Italy.  He said the most expensive part of his product is the wrapping. I’m at loss as to why so few people buy his company’s product.  You get so much seed than the next best.  The next best in my book are Tozers and then Marshalls.  I’ve found myself buying more and more from the companies I’ve listed below for the reasons indicated:

Large quantities and excellent quality, at prices difficult to beat in most cases. I think a lot of people are put off by the foreign language on the packaging, and the absence of a ‘real’ picture, however to be honest the info on English seed packets is not a great deal of use in most cases either and after a few seasons you should be experienced enough to sow most vegetable seeds without packet instruction.

A local company with a world reputation. Up until recently they only supplied to the trade.  Again, large quantities and excellent quality, at difficult to beat prices.  No instructions on the packets, no pictures but a very informative website.  You can get access to commercial breeding, both open pollinated and F1 giving you the advantages only previously available to farmers. &

Two great companies.  The first American, but with a service faster than a lot of UK businesses.  I buy all my rare pumpkin & melon seeds from them.  The latter is great for tomatoes, peppers and some more unusual varieties of the staple vegetables.

Good local company.  Excellent variety of vegetables at good prices. Not large quantities but mainly organic and open pollinated.

Keeping seed.  Keeping seed in good condition is so important.  Some seeds last for yonks, some less than a year.  Most will keep twice as long if you keep them well.  I keep mine in a large clip-loc type box, with a packet of silica gell under them, it is vital to keep seeds as dry as possible to prolong life – refresh the gell regularly (buy it on eBay).  Don’t use wooden or metal boxes. They attract moisture which encourages mould growth which will kill the seeds.  Keep the seed in the coolest place in the house, ideally about 6-10 degrees.  When down the allotment, only take the seeds you need to sow that day.  Keep them in a Ziploc bag in the cool, not uncovered in the sun.  If the seed gets contaminated set it aside – you can grown mini veg and salad pillows with it. More thoughts on that in the spring.

Finally, Good books.  Here are my top 4 favourites. They are instructional and will teach you something:

1. Know and Grow Vegetables by JKA Bleasdale (1991). An amazing book in 2 parts or as a combined The complete Know & Grow…. Unfortunately discontinued. Look for it in second hand book shops. Worth the search.

2. & 3. Organic Gardening & Salad Leaves for all Seasons by Charles Dowding (2007). Both very informative, logical and easy to read.

4. & 5. Four Season Harvest (1999) and The Winter Harvest Handbook (2009) by Eliot Coleman.  Probably one of the leading writers on small holding/ allotment vegetable growing technique. The Winter harvest book is probably one of the most enlightening gardening books I’ve read.                              © Julian King 2011


Thoughts from Ten-aye, part 1

I’m a massive fan of vegetable gardening. I have been since childhood. Not for display or size, but for the provision of good quality, flavoursome food; as much as possible for as long as possible each growing year. It’s taken me about 2 years to put finger to keyboard and start writing a series of little articles for our allotment society about what I’m doing, what I’m learning, maybe controversially – what I’m thinking. I sort-of promised Liz (our club secretary for those who don’t know) I’d add a little to the monthly news. Maybe ‘Thoughts’ will help inspire you, hopefully it will inform you, I’ll do my best to at least stimulate conversation and debate. What I write may be right; you may think I’m wrong. What I do know from the years I’ve done vegetable gardening is the answer will lie somewhere in between, will be subject to change without notice and different next year. That is the rule of nature. If one starts gardening in one’s teens and stops in one’s 80’s that only gives about 60 seasons to try to get the hang of it. That’s not really that may attempts when you think about it. By my measure even the most enthusiastic and successful among us will never be masters.

It seems to me that the best way to learn and develop your allotment experience is to follow what you believe is best practise and do the best you can. Get out on the plot regularly. Look at what others are doing and copy what works. Try to grow more than one crop a year to increase your experiences through the changing seasons. Experiment. Treat a crop failure as a successful learning experience. Nature really likes it when you look after it regularly and will reward the effort and attention.

What’s my set-up? At home I’ve got a 6’ square greenhouse with automatic roof vent, a couple of benches inside with heat mats for starting seeds, a bench outside for hardening off and growing on & of course my single plot at Boshers, I try to make the very best of every bit of equipment & space I have. I maximise the plot by succession planting and my greenhouse environment by …. well that’s a whole ‘thoughts’ in itself…more later. I’m not ‘organic’, I will use artificial fertilizers, bug & weed killer, sparingly, a couple of times a year. I do follow a ‘no dig’ regime as far as is sensible and logical.

Many allotment holders only grow one, possibly two crops each year. However with a little planning it is possible to plant successionally through 3 seasons and harvest from the plot for 4. Even in the depths of winter there are a lot of vegetables I can think of that can be collected fresh for the dinner table. I’ve got 8 in right now, the softer early winter weather provides good storage conditions if you follow on or two simple tricks. Even in the depths of a freeze like last winter I cleared 20cm of snow to dig fine carrots & parsnip, pull beetroot, pick sprouts, cut winter cabbage. It can be done…..more ‘thoughts’ on that later too.

The best advantage you can give yourself on your allotment plot is clean, weed-free, well maintained, good condition soil. For me good condition soil is a cornerstone of allotment gardening. If your soil is in good condition, clean and healthy more than half the battle is already won. There are ways to improve it and I’ll have some thoughts on that another time but for now…………

Weeds (unwanted plants, for that is what a weed really is) are of no use on the plot. They choke emerging vegetable seeds, rob seedlings of vital nutrients in early life, help shelter pests and provide lodging for disease. OK, weeds will never be eradicated, but with a period of dedicated attention they can be brought under control. ‘One year’s seed is 7 years weeds’ is so true. 2 to 3 years of continual attention to weeding on your plot and the time and effort spent will be rewarded with continually fewer weeds there-on (and on your neighbours too – which only blow back to get you again another year). Perennial weeds, those with tap roots, must be completely removed. The only successful way to do this is to dig them up, carefully removing the whole root, not just the top. They can be long, if they break when digging them out – dig down for the rest of it. Rotavating or hoeing them chops the tap root into bits, which has the effect of multiplying them, don’t be tempted to do it.

Wild plants, weeds in my book, whether introduced intentionally or blown in on the wind, are generally not good companions to vegetables either. They rob nutrients away from your plants and harbour pests that eat your crop before you do. The wild plants that could be deemed ‘good companions’ are not worth the effort as far as I’m concerned. Most companion plants I’ve experimented with self seed prolifically, leaving their future offspring in the bed ready to smother the next crop of whatever is coming next when you rotate its buddy veg away somewhere else, either that or provide another season of knee aching, back bending weeding. Right now is a good time to have a really good weeding session, clear the ground this year to reduce.

Digging over. I don’t dig unless I have to. I don’t dig because having dug some beds and not others I can’t see what benefit it has given me, except the exercise (or was that sore hands and stiff back?). However I did deep dig and rotavate my plot when I first got it, introducing as much compost and manure as I could get my hands on right down to the gravel layer (no point in going deeper). This seems to have now broken down and accelerated the establishing of a good friable structure.

I’ve noted that over the period of halve a dozen of years the soil in each bed on my plot gets broken open or dug over as a result of the vegetables I’m growing. For example potatoes require digging up, as do leeks, parsnip, carrot etc, most tap root vegetables in fact. A bed gets broken up deep down simply by the removal of a crop, so why bother to do it again? The growth of the vegetables also helps do away with digging over. For example leeks and sweet corn have really thick, strong and far reaching root systems that breaks up soil. When you harvest or clear some vegetables a lot of root stays in the soil so introducing organic matter deep down. This helps improve soil structure and introduces nutrients deep down. Introducing crop rotation to your allotment planning helps spread these beneficial ‘no-dig’ effects around the plot, over time reducing the soil maintenance work and increasing the crop returns. More ‘thoughts’ on crop rotation another time.

Now is really good time to get your plot cleaned up. Give it a really good weed. Do right up to the edges, every single weed seedling. If you think your soil is poor, a lot of the soil at Boshers is quite stiff clay – not too good either wet or dry, then spread over a load of compost, as much as you can afford. Dig it in roughly and leave it for nature, the weather and the especially worms to do the rest.

Thinking about what you eat. If you don’t like eating vegetables then you have to ask yourself why you want to grow it! If you don’t eat it, know you should but don’t really know what, start with the easy to grow staple crops, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, sweetcorn, leeks, onions (from sets not seeds). Think about how much knowledge you really have about gardening already and how much time you want to spend doing it. Vegetables are plants just like any other plant in the garden, the only difference is we eat them; mainly during the year they are planted, harvesting the leaves, shoots or roots, or gather the fruits, beans and berries. Some vegetables take a lot of work, some very little. Time and trouble also varies between varieties of vegetable, celery is a classic example of this. Read some good books, I’ve learnt a lot by reading seed catalogues. Get one from each of the seed companies and compare what they say. There is also a mass of information for free on the internet.

How much to grow. I grow according to the needs of the kitchen. I try not to waste my time growing too much, although my love of getting seeds to germinate seems to leave me with ridiculous quantities of spare plant; as though those of you who know me will attest to! I also don’t store very much in the freezer. I try to ‘cut my cloth’ in the kitchen according to what is in season on the plot and eat fresh whenever I can.

This winter spend a little time thinking about what your family typically eats each week, a month, in the season. Write it down and try to quantify it. Split your list into the staples – mine would be potatoes, onion, carrot, greens of several sorts, salads, beans of several sort, beetroot. Then add in the specials, fennel, celery, celeriac, kohl rabi. This is the start of your growing plan. Note when you want to have it available for eating, think about how long you can store it for, remember fresh from the plot lasts longer that from the supermarket because you plot veg don’t do the travelling miles and packing time. Some vegetables are easy to store, others not so. You need to decide if you can be bothered with the extra effort. Modern supermarket shopping means one can have it all, virtually all year. This is great for the allotment grower as it means you can grow what you want and have it all too; the best of both worlds. More ‘thoughts’ how to translate your kitchen demands onto the plot in spring.

Next time, Compost heaps or garden rubbish piles? Good and not so good books. Good and not so good companies to buy seeds from. How to set yourself up for a flying start in 2012. Some pictures would be good……..Or maybe some thoughts on something else…………………….what do you want to discuss? © Julian King 2011