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_g_king@hotmail.com © Julian King 2011

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