Sunday, 6 October 2013

Pumpkins and Winter Squash

As you may have already sussed I'm a bit of a cucurbit growing addict!

Last year, it was my first summer in Birmingham and I planted out my summer squash and winter squash to very disappointing results.  I didn't get one fruit off any - and my absolute favourite variety of pumpkin, which has fared well in previous typical british summers, almost grew a single reasonably sized fruit only to become slug fodder when its skin was still soft.  I was pretty devastated to say the least.  There were many heart sinking moments.

To be fair last summer was difficult for most of us growers with a few vacancies appearing on allotment waiting lists here in Birmingham as some people gave up.

Not to be dragged down by recent cucurbit failures, I tried to learn from them and hit the web in search for varieties of winter squash and pumpkins suitable for our iffy summers.

From I selected the Boston Winter Squash and Hokkaido.  They are both from the Hubbard variety of pumpkins / winter squashes.  Hokkaido has grown really well for me this summer - it was rampant and quickly dominated the pumpkin patch.  It's leaves are finally starting to shrivel now in early October, but its grown some beauties and I know we had a cracking summer, but I planted my pumpkins late (organising my wedding distracted me somewhat) and they were only planted in early July.

I planted 6 plants in my staff allotment plot next to the Urban Veg site  This is a real sun trap so when its hot, its really hot here.  The soil is fertile and I added a scoop of home made compost underneath each plant.  They were a roaring success here with a reasonable amount of crop (about 2 fruit per plant and at least 1kg) (1 x hokkaido, 2 x Boston Winter Squash, 1 x Heritage Seed Library Georgian Candy Roaster and 1 x Zapallito de Toscana  I also planted some summer squash varieties on my patio in 5 litre sacks (a white patty pan, a summer crookneck (both from and Ram's Kodu (another HSL variety)) I am also growing a Hokkaido and a Zapallito de Toscana on the patio.  It is more practical to save seeds from my patio as on the staff allotment the bees from Urban Veg always get there before me.

The pumpkins on the allotment have done much better than the patio plants - that's not to say that the patio plants have done badly as they have all produced but they were a bit slower to produce with smaller fruit.

After this year's pumpkin experiments, next year I will grow a variety of each to save seeds on my patio garden and will grow just a single variety of each pumpkin and winter squash on the allotment.

There is no point to grow two plants of the same variety on the allotment plot as they were so prolific there.  I will also continue to research varieties which should do well in our cool, short summers.  Often varieties of all veg types that grow in the mountains of Japan seem to do very well here and I will be on the lookout for more.  I will also keep saving seed as I may be able to breed a good variety of pumpkin that has naturalised to my two sites within 3 years.  I will definitely be experimenting with the Hubbards as I was so impressed with how well they grew this summer.

I have yet to harvest my fruit, with the allotment pumpkins all sitting proudly on a bathroom tile so the hard skins can dry nicely.  It may be a little early to say and maybe a footnote will be needed once I've harvested, wintered and cooked a few varieties.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

My Comfrey Tea Method

Lately I've been chatting about comfrey tea with fellow gardeners so much that I thought it was time to share.

I started using comfrey leaves and making my tea purely by what made sense to me and I later started to research methods after the event and mine is slightly different to the main recipe on the internet which seems to me to be shove about a whole comfrey plant worth of leaves in a bucket, weigh down with a brick and add water.  Wait for 4 weeks.  Then dilute 1 part to 9 parts in your watering can.  Add feed to plants that need lots of potash and nitrogen.

However, as usual, I didn't research the method at all before starting.  I had my bucket and I added a generous handful of comfrey leaves and filled the bucket.  I waited about a week or so and the top of the water in the bucket was looking a little metallic, presumably from the nutrients from the leaves.  I started using a cheeky bit from the bucket at this early stage.  The water was clear but it seemed to be having an effect with only this small amount of time.  Mark Ridsdill Smith was right - its strong stuff!

Each week, I added a generous handful of leaves and the solution got stronger and stronger as the weeks progressed.

I now have the habit of feeding the whole garden with 1 part comfrey tea and 9 parts water in my watering can.  I then add a big handful of comfrey leaves and add water (rain water if I have it available).  Let it stew for a week and then use it to feed the garden again.

It's really strong stuff and I'm starting to see some really gutsy plants - especially rhubarb which has done a summer sprout of new leaf and the pumpkins.

Please be warned that some people find the smell a bit repulsive.  It doesn't bother me all that much but when it's really ripe and full of nutrients, it smells a bit like something's died in it.  A good location to keep your bucket is the far end of the garden (as far away from your house as possible).  When I feed the plants, I never notice the smell near the plants.

Comfrey contains potash which is great for your flowering plants, fruiting plants and it also has nitrogen too for your leafy vegetables, so I pretty much give it to everything.

I grow comfrey in the garden but I prefer to use foraged comfrey leaves as I believe the plants in the wild have found a place with their favourite nutrients and these might not necessarily be in such large supply in my garden's soil. However, it's great having a backup source in the garden just in case I forget to go foraging on the way home from work.

I'm now considering making tea out of those tough perrenial weeds that you don't want to add to your compost.

How do you make yours?

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Growing chillies in the bathroom

OK so the title to this post might strike you as slightly odd which is understandable.

Its not the first place you think of to grow food so the bathroom may seem a little unusual as a food growing location.  Back in March, when I was trying to work out where to grow my chillies, I thought I would give it a go.

In years gone by I've grown chillies in the plastic greenhouse on our patio which works a treat.  Place chillies in plastic green house, water chillies and zip it up.  You'll come back the next day to see condensation throughout - but I've always found that the chillies enjoy the humidity and don't need watering too often to maintain it.  So that was my previous tried and tested method.  But this year the plastic had holes so I had to think of something else.

I needed a Plan B...  Next best thing I came up with was the windowsill in my bathroom.  The way the room is arranged is that the windowsill is smack bang next to the shower.  Usually we have two showers a day in my household and this hot and steamy environment has been working a treat for the chillies.  They've been cropping all the way to their ripe red selves from May onwards this year.  The first to ripen was an F1 cayenne pepper (I usually don't do F1 varieties preferring open pollinated varieties as you can save the seed from these - but these were free!), followed by pretty in purple (from Real Seeds), Bulgarian carrot and Numex chilli.  Pretty in purple have been the most prolific this year.

What we've really been pleased about with this method was how early in the season they started to crop.  Usually I haven't managed to get them to crop before August (not to their fully ripened colour).  What strikes me is that the bathroom being a typical run of the mill bathroom and not a purpose built chilli hot house has frosted glass.  It only lets in so much sunshine.  But they are cropping beautifully despite that.  I believe that they need heat and humidity more that sunshine but sunshine obviously helps.  If we've had a good sunny day, all the chillies use up all the water in their soil and are bone dry at the end of the day, if it's cloudy the soil in their pots remains moist.

And as the temperature in our bathroom is roughly between 20 - 25 degrees C I'm hoping that we will be getting chillies well into the autumn months - now that will make my new hubby Matt very happy indeed ... bring on the curry recipes!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

My blogging absence and my wedding

It's been a while since I last blogged and the reason was I was getting married.

What a lot of work and time it takes to organise.  I had to really take myself off from my usual volunteer commitments.

When I say organise... I made a lot of things for this wedding: my dress (hard work to turn around within 6 months), my bridesmaid made her own dress, the bunting for the venue decorations, presents for the flower girls, the invitations...  So on top of the usual wedding preparations there was a lot of additional.  If you are thinking of making a wedding dress - this is a huge amount of work.  It will make you exhausted for the number of hours you put in and it is not far off blood, sweat and tears.  I think I should add that this was the first dress I've ever made so there was added pressure of steep learning curves, mastering easing and a whole host of other things.  However, walking up the aisle in a dress that you've made really is priceless and well worth all that effort - I felt so proud of all our hard work.

My garden really missed me and I missed gardening but there was a gardening element to the wedding of course... My friend Tim Watts kindly gave me a wedding present before the event - my bouquet, button holes for family, ushers, bridesmaid and mini bouquets for our two lovely flower girls (they're both nearly 2 years old).   He put me in touch with the wonderful florist Jenny John Flowers.  The brief I gave her was cottage garden - no big show piece flowers - really natural feel with umbells if possible and lots of little different flowers.  We picked the flowers 2 days before the wedding in Urban Veg (where I volunteer) - big thank you to Clare Savage.  What Jenny came up with on the day was so beautiful I couldn't have been happier.  She even managed to include a californian poppy - these grew in Grandpa's garden and I love them.  This was not easy as they are so delicate and have such a short flowering length.  I also had several herbs in there: mint, fennel, lavender and I'm sure there was much more besides.  Big thank you to Jenny John for putting together such beautiful bouquets.

PS.  I had help with the dress from 2 lovely friends: Janet Astle and Dawn Foster-Denham.

If you want a peak at some photos our photographer blogged about our day

Saturday, 22 June 2013

My turnips have gone to seed - post 3

Back in the summer of 2011, I was trying to grow turnips in containers.  I disappeared for a week's holiday and when I returned the turnips went to seed and flowered.  It was probably due to the lack of watering in a week that had triggered this - growing in a pot they don't get as much moisture and I think they need cool, slightly damp soil.

Last summer, I grew turnips directly in the earth and I was blessed with some beautiful golf ball sized roots - they were so nice I ate them raw in thin slices in a salad.

In conclusion, I would suggest that turnips do not grow well in pots but love to grow in open ground so if you have a small urban container garden with some flower border edging - plant them in the flower borders!

The flowering veg plot

I love nothing more than giving plants the room to do their thing with a little bit of natural abandon.

I think its a bit along the lines of permaculture - but I still dig ground over now and again before I plant my garlic bulbs or sew some seeds in a bed and I only grow a few perennial edibles so I don't quite think I'm one of the perma crowd set yet.

What I like to do is allow my veg to self seed.  My first motivation for this was to save my own seed as I became more and more of a Heritage Seed Library addict.  So I like to encourage my plants to flower and seed and it makes the veg plot look beautiful!  My favourites have to be the umbellifereae flowers of the parsnips, carrots and parsley.  Brassica flowers can look very bold with their bright yellows.

Right now in mid June, the veg in full flower is kale, kai lan, parsnip, parsley, chives, broad beans
and soon I will have radish (followed by their tasty radish pods), salsify, amaranthus, pea flowers, bean flowers, garlic scapes, egyptian walking onion flowers and if I'm lucky the globe artichokes.

Since I've been letting my kales flower at abandon I've been spotting ragged jack kale sprouting up all over the place.  Performing its very own crop rotation.  Eventually when its self seeded enough around the plot I will dig over the bed where I've been growing the kale and grow something completely different.  By then I'm sure I'll have kale growing where it wishes in different spots around the plot.

I have this idea that when a plant germinates naturally it will germinate earlier and at more optimum conditions with a longer growing season than when I deem it safe and warm enough to plant the seed direct.  I first starting thinking about this when I found things germinating from seed that got into my wormery compost.  When I found it particularly hard to germinate seeds I started to chuck those difficult ones in the wormery so that when I used the compost on the patch I would get seedlings springing up randomly.

I really enjoy this type of veg patch - its relatively low effort a little like helping nature along and guiding it with your choice of what you want to grow rather than you physically cultivating it.  Its not completely easy gardening - you do need to manage the weeds you don't want growing in your plot.

There are some seeds I will always plant myself such as peas and garlic but wouldn't it be wonderful if the carrot and parsnip flowers self seed across the plot and I get some surprise roots growing in a new place.  The weeding will be such an adventure of discovering new seedling gifts from my flowering veg plot.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Grandpa's strawberries

Back when I moved to my Tooting garden in 2008 I took some baby strawberry plants from my Grandfather's garden.  He'd recently passed away and it was nice to have a little something that had been nurtured by him growing in my container garden.

Now strawberries do best with space to crawl about and send their runners out in all directions but I had a container garden so these poor strawberries had to survive in a pot and I kept encouraging the runners back into the same pot.  To be fair I didn't get many strawberries but the ones I got I savoured.  I even fed them worm compost.

So since 2008 these strawberries have been soldiering on but not doing much except making runners.

I realise the school of thought is to throw plants away every 3 or 4 years and replenish but I couldn't part with these plants - they were my grandfather's afterall.  So the last few years I've been concentrating on feeding the runners into new pots to establish new plants from Grandpa's parent plants.

This year I had a lovely surprise... From Grandpa's original plants I have some  nice big flowers and promise of fruit.  I don't quite know how this has happened. Maybe its because I moved the plants back closer to their original home when I brought them to my current garden in Birmingham (grandpa's garden was in Oswestry, Shropshire).  Maybe it was our harsh winter.  Maybe it's because a borage plant grew in the same pot as the strawberries last summer and as it shrivelled away last autumn it fed the strawberry plants.

Whatever the reasons I'm going to celebrate the fact that Grandpa's strawberries are flowering on plants that should by all rights be well past their best!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

My take on crop rotation

In my veg plot I like to do a combination of square foot gardening and if you've got a space, fill it (no matter how small).  I choose square foot because I really think you can get a lot more variety growing than with traditional rows.  The other reason is I find it helps with growing in crop groupings and allows you to grow more.

You don't have to be too prescribed, but just mindful of what you want to plant and what's grown there before.  Beans, salad and squash family can pretty much be grown anywhere - the ones to watch are brassicas (cabbage family), onion family and solanaceae (potatoes/tomatoes).  Be careful with salad (some can be brassica e.g. mustard greens, rocket) and flowers (some can also be brassicas e.g. wall flowers).  Radishes are a brassica too so even though they are really convenient for a tiny space maybe choose some salads if you've grown turnips or kale there before.

I like to keep a seasonal plan of what's where but I'm not always good enough to record every detail!  We all have our faults - luckily I'm blessed with a good memory.

In my higgledy piggledy patch I like to plant some poppies in between.  They love the disturbed soil of the veg patch and I suppose I can loosely argue the seeds are a food source?!  They do make the patch look stunning too.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

I have an allotment!

I've always wanted one and now I've found a small one very close to work.  I imagine myself spending lunch hours tending to my veg.

You may ask why I wanted an allotment?  If you're a regular to my blog you will have seen pictures of my veg plot and large garden.  We rent our home and garden and for that reason I've never had the opportunity to grow the longer term investment crops and perennials that need a few years to reach maturity. So there are certain crops I've always wanted to grow but haven't ... until now that is!

I've always wanted a little patch of home grown asparagus.  I wait for the asparagus season every year and look forward to lightly grilled asparagus with fried eggs - pierce the yolk and it dribbles on to the asparagus - there's nothing better!  And yet I have never tasted "fresh out of the ground" asparagus.  I usually get mine from the farmers market and put them in a jar of water to keep them fresh for as long as possible.  But now I have the opportunity to finally grow some of my own.  Well asparagus has been my main motivator.

There are other things I plan to grow on the allotment plot such as oca, spuds, pumpkins and squash.  If I've still got some space I'd like to grow some peas and beans.

I'm also looking forward to some good seedling swaps and seed swaps with my allotment neighbours.  I love saving heirloom varieties and am Heritage Seed Library addict.  I'm also looking forward to the plot side chats and horticultural debates with my new allotment neighbours.  Maybe we'll even exchange some allotment inspired recipes.

So now my windowsills are full of seed trays of pumpkins and beans getting ready for the plot and I've ordered my asparagus - I thought I'd go for plants so I don't have to wait quite so long for my first "fresh out of the ground" asparagus spear!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Frankenstein's Pepper

I've been growing my chillies, sweet peppers and aubergines in a heated propagator on the windowsill in our office.

I like to check my seedlings very regularly (at least twice a day but much more if its a bank holiday or a weekend).  On one of these visits I didn't notice that I replaced the lid on the stem of my favourite sweet pepper "Sweet Chocolate".  At the time it was the only sweet chocolate capsicum that had germinated so naturally I was devastated - but in the next moment I had one of those.... What if moments.

What if I push the stem of the part that snapped off into the soil.  It works for tomatoes so I wonder if it works with peppers - they share the same family after all.

I am pleased to report that it worked and my sweet chocolate is happily growing more new leaves and romping away.

Sadly the stem that was left over hasn't really turned into anything but I'm very pleased that the sweet chocolate survived and that crudely shoving the broken stem into the soil was so successful.

Snow unlocking the garden's secret micro climates

We've had a lot of snow here in the Midlands.  Quite a few bouts.  It feels like Narnia - is spring really coming this time?  There's still a lot of snow on the ground in my garden.

It's made me wonder if I'm doing the right thing with my windowsills full of seedlings for late spring plantings. (Chillies, tomatoes, aubergines and yacon) Should I be growing things that are less challenging?  After all we may have another summer like last year.  There's talk of the slip stream that caused last summer's rain and cool temps being responsible for all the reoccurring snow.  Must admit last summer and this winter have dampened my gardening spirits somewhat.

But snow doesn't just have to dampen our spirits completely, we can use it to our advantage.  As the snow is thawing in the back gardens some of my garden has thawed and other parts there's still snow on the ground.  I've been talking pictures of the garden as a record to show me where those cold spots are.  Its telling me a lot about the micro climates and if I understand them better it will help me garden and work with the micro climates in the garden.  It's really interesting because there's parts of the garden that get sunshine and these have still not thawed after a few sunny days.

To the left of the veg patch looks like the warmest part (lucky for my broad beans - yes they're still alive!).  The middle towards the front seems to be the coldest part and the rhubarb grows there. From the middle to the right still all has snow and the far right is warmer than the middle in the front where the rhubarb grows but it is only marginally warmer.  I have a globe artichoke growing in the far right side which has seriously been sulking in the snow.  I'm going to move it to a much warmer part of the garden where it will be happier and the thoughts are the back of the flower border where it will get plenty of sunshine and more shelter (this was one of the first areas to thaw).

I already knew that my patio is quite a few degrees warmer than the rest of the garden and will be trying to grow my tenders plants there, its also a bit of a suntrap too.  I had also carried out studies to see where sun shines on the garden through out the year to learn where sun lovers should be planted.

A more scientific way to do this would be a soil thermometer but I've been looking and never quite seen a good one I want to invest in.  The snow does this job in a very visual way.

But despite my new knowledge I'd still like the Narnia winter to be fully over and spring to march into the garden!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Seeds, seeds, and more seeds

I'm having a wonderful afternoon surrounded by all these packets of seeds of possibilities of things I could be eating in the spring, summer and beyond...  Serge Gainbsbourg is playing in the background and I'm seed sowing in my warm living room whilst another cold snap is starting outside.

A fortnight ago I sowed some chillies and aubergines (2 seeds of each) in my heated propogator.  On the first sowing I've had at least one germination of each seed but for a few the second seed didn't appear so today I've resown a few (cayenne pepper and bangladeshi chilli).

Today with the cold snap on its way I decided to take advantage and sow some seeds that need cold stratification to germinate:  Alexanders (Smynium olusatrum) a parsley like herb and Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis Odorata) interestingly  both from the umbelliferae family (which includes carrot, parsely, coriander and many others that have the umbel flowers).  I've never tried this before so it will be exciting to see a new type of germination.  On the packet it stated that the sweet cicely need sowing on the surface as they need light to germinate as well as cold.

Today was also the day to make a start on the tomato sowing.  Varieties I am trying this year include varieties I've saved from previous years including a variety I saved from the Regents Park Capital Growth Allotment Garden in 2011 (a purple cherry tomato) - I tried to grow it last year but it got blight, luckily tomato seeds can be viable for up to 6 years.  I'm also trying the tumbling tom Moskotka,  Principe Borghese,  Roma tomato (a fave of ours), HSL Ryders Midday Sun, Chadwick Cherry, Golden Sunrise and last but certainly not least Real Seeds Gigante Liscio Vine Tomato.

This week I've also been planning for the future season and after some interesting twitter discussions I placed an order with the wonderful Real Seeds.  There'll be some new additions to the repertoire this year that I am sure I will need the help of some space at the amazing Urban Veg garden to be grown: Yacon and oca.

So lots of exciting prospects for the coming season.

What exciting seeds are you planting?

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Gardening Guilts and signs of spring

You may have noticed I've been a bit remiss with my blogs. Well I tend to write when I'm doing lots in the garden and I feel inspired... of late, it hasn't felt like there's been much to write about and that's because the snow's been stalling me.  Really?  I think that's just an excuse!  And gardening at the lovely Urban Veg just makes me feel more guilty about my absence from my own patch.  There we've been sowing broad beans and salads for the green house and its really starting to be populated with baby seedlings and lots of seed trays. 

Meanwhile, at home my seed box has barely had a ruffle since I restocked it over Christmas.  I should be sewing those seeds that need an extra long season like the chillies and the aubergines (summer willing - pleeeease!).  All my seeds are organised in month order so its not as if its hard to do and over Christmas I bought my seed compost so there really is no excuse.  Hopefully committing my gardening guilts will spur me into action!

In terms of the garden, hey it might be winter still but there seems to be lots of signs of life starting up.  We may be getting lots of snow but that's not halting everything out there.  Over the Christmas period garlic started to peer through the soil and the HSL crimson broad beans germinated (I think something got a taste for one of them though) and despite the snow keeping the ground cold there are some lovely rhubarb shoots in such a vivid red and little lush leaves making a start.  The chives are starting to grow too. 

So if the more hardy residents of the plot are braving their first shoots I really should get on with my window sill sowing in earnest and dust off the heated propagator for those chillies and long season tenders.  Its about time my windowsills are bursting with young seedlings!