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


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