Sunday, 19 March 2017

Plot update

I haven't posted about the plot for ages. I was off it most of last year due to losing an eye and being poisoned by some medication. But I've managed to pull a lot of it back, though it's still a pretty disgraceful mess.

These narcissi came to me via a dumped container. I don't know how  long they'd been in it, but the bulbs were on a sorry state. They've been in the ground for several years, and finally seem to have recovered. Some other bulbs from the same container still haven't flowered, and I don't know what they are. Maybe they need moving.

The daffs I put on the other side of the lane have sufffered due to being repeatedly strimmed in May, which is far too early. Hopefully the cuts may have put a stop to that at least.

The crown imperials have also suffered. I just had the one flourishing clump; at their best, they were magnificent. It was the only spot I could get them to grow; they really don't like waterlogging. Then we had a couple of soaking wet summers which nearly finished them off. Last year, after being moved, they were miserable, but this year they're a lot better, though still stunted. Give them a year or two, they'll be back in all their glory.

My new polytunnel Can't wait to get it up!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Good Soil: Manure, Compost and Nourishment for your Garden

Good Soil: Manure, Compost and Nourishment for your Garden
Tina Raman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist and Justine Lagache
Pub. Frances Lincoln

I’ve never come across a comprehensive book on soil for gardeners before. There was a time when I taught about soil in school geography, but gardening books tend to be interested only in how to change it and make it do what you want.
That means a lot of work. There’s an old BBC TV series, the Victorian Kitchen Garden, about the garden attached to a stately home on the chalk. At one point it shows the difference between the soil in the garden, a couple of feet of fertile stuff, and that in a neighbouring field, a few inches deep, and not particularly fertile. The difference would have been deep digging, stone removal, and huge quantities of manure, over many years. The mind boggles at the man-hours it must have taken.
The important thing about soil is to understand it. No two sites are ever identical, and what’s right for my allotment will probably be totally wrong for someone else’s garden. A thin chalk soil would need different treatment to, say, the moorland where I used to live in Cornwall. There’s an introduction to soil types, which is as much of the technicalities as you need. Observation will supply the rest.
My plot is right next to a stream, and a few years ago, the waterlogging got so bad I set out to build raised beds. It brought everything else pretty much to a grinding halt while I managed half a dozen each year, but the bulk of it was done in the end. There’s still a fair bit to do, but the rest can go at a more sedate pace. My approach was to dump in anything organic that was available. So I used garden compost, hedge cuttings, woodchip from a tree surgeon, autumn leaves, and grass cuttings, and gave each bed a couple of inches of soil on top. Then I planted straight into them. One bed killed my potato onions with a bacterial rot, but that’s the only problem I’ve had, and after a couple of years, everything but the biggest sticks had rotted down into a nice organic soil which is completely different from the silt underneath it. Things grow which never grew before.
Composting is equally haphazard. I have five compost bins, and just chuck everything in, including cardboard egg cartons and the odd dead rat. Once it’s rotted, I spread it wherever I need to fill, or top up, a bed, and cover it with an organic mulch to deter any weed seeds wanting to germinate. Nothing except the occasional dock ever survives, and they’re easily picked out and chucked back for another year. It works, so why make life difficult for myself? The book covers the outlines of the process, and you really don’t need more unless you really want to make extra work for yourself putting the ‘right’ mix of ingredients into your heaps, and turning them regularly to speed up the process. The other thing I use is human produced liquid manure, which the authors describe as ‘liquid gold’. It’s a good source of nitrogen.
Mulch is the key to a lot of my gardening. Keep beds covered with a couple of inches of something organic and not many weeds will get through, while the worms will gradually take it down and keep the soil well nourished. This is covered briefly; one area which could have done with more detail. 
The book’s pretty comprehensive. Everything finds its way in, rather like my compost bins, and emerges in digestible form. All told, it’s earned itself a permanent place in my bookcase

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Gardeners' Companion to Medicinal Plants

I haven't posted here for ages; I was ill all summer due to some meds which poisoned me, on top of losing an eye thanks to a blocked vein. So altogether it was a difficult year. But the allotment is getting sorted at last, and meanwhile here's a book review I did the other week.


Monique Simmonds, Melanie-Jayne Howes and Jason Irving,
Published by Frances Lincoln, £14.99.

I like this book; it’s not intended as a medicinal guide, but it has brief notes on 277 medicinal plants, covering a wider range than anything else I have, and they can easily be researched further if necessary. Most plants are given half a page, though some have more space; the books list the parts of the plant used medicinally, the traditional uses, and any relevant modern medical discoveries. There are instructions for making 25 remedies, which could easily be adapted. So, for instance, there’s a recipe for comfrey ointment; substitute another herb, and follow the same method. 

None of my other books mentions chili, which we use at home. In Sierra Leone, where my wife comes from, it’s used in pepper soup, made from vegetables, bits of meat or fish, and lots of fresh chili; dried chili can be used if necessary. This is given to people with minor illnesses, and served at parties. According to the book, the leaves are used to cure toothache, while the fruit is used for gastric disorders, chronic laryngitis, chilblains and rheumatism, and it’s given to women suffering pain in childbirth. 

Rose Hip Syrup is a familiar one from my childhood. It was generally available in the 1950’s, due to the prevalence of dietary deficiencies before the Welfare State and the NHS came in in 1948. It looks simple to make, and once again, the method could easily be adapted. Valerian is another; I sometimes take the tablets to help me sleep, as I refuse to use addictive benzodiazepines like Valium. I’ve never tried growing it, yet, but the instructions for drying the root look very simple. The book warns that it causes drowsiness, which is undoubtedly true; it was also used as a poison in an episode of ‘Midsomer Murders’, but I’ve looked, and can’t find any major health warnings anywhere. I’d go a bit careful on the dose though!

Onions aren’t mentioned, but there’s a recipe for garlic oxymel, made with honey and vinegar, which would make it taste a lot better. It’s best taken raw for medicinal purposes, and I know several people who use it against colds and flu. I’d be tempted to add an onion myself, as it has comparable effects.
Overall, this is a book I’ll be keeping.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Babbington's and other Alliums

Two years ago, I planted some Babbington's Leek topsets similar to the ones you see on this flowerhead. They don't produce seed; garlic can be persuaded to do so, but I don't know whethre anyone has ever tried with Babbington's. this year they flowered. I got them well and truly mixed up with some elephant garlic bulbils I planted at the same time, and ended up with only four Babbington's; the two plants look very similar above ground, and even below it until the elephants get big enough to clove. Never mind; I lifted the Babbington's yesterday, and each bulb had divided into two, about 2 1/2 inches or so across. So I now have eight Babbington's for next year, plus the topsets.

It's an interesting plant, which seems to have abandoned sexual reproduction altogether. This can happen in the wild, but also happens in cultivated plants. We select for the maximum crop, and in the process, we select plants which don't put their energy into reproduction. Seed merchants, of course, push the process in the opposite direction, as they want to sell seeds, which are much easier to handle than plants. So a lot of these are now obscure heirlooms. Babbington's grows wild in a few places, on the Isle of Lundy for instance, and we don't even know whether it's a wild or a cultivated plant. It produces reasonable shanks for a lot less effort than 'normal' seed-grown leeks, so it's worth persevering with. 

I put it into the new allium bed, alongside the walking onions. I have five varieties, which I acquired last year, but I'm not saying much about these until I've grown them for a year from full-sized bulbs rather than topsets. That's my excuse anyway; the bed I've had them in has been too weedy for decent pics. It was a new one, and it takes me a a year or two to get the ground elder out, digging them over between crops. So far there's not all that much to choose between the varieties, though there are recognisable differences, and I'm quite pleased with their progress so far.

I've also put in two varieties of garlic. It's very early, but it'll sit there quite happily until it decides to sprout in the autumn. It's all intercropped with dwarf beans to make the best use of space which will remain limited until I manage to build raised beds across the entire plot.

Other perennial alliums are flowering rather than making topsets. This one's yellow potato onion; they've all topples over, and this one is reclining on ulluco. I've also got flowers on white potato onion and the odd shallot, which is of course also a potato onion. I've grown some spud onions (Green Mountain)  from seed this year; they were planted late, the fox dug a fair few up as soon as they were planted out, but the survivors are doing well, if not spectacularly. I've got a lot more seed which will go in early next year. This one's my best, with a bulb about 2 1/2 inches across.

I don't think there's much difference between potato onions and the ordinary sort; one has been selected to be a biennial which produces plenty of seed, the other to be a perennial which produces little or none, but reproduces vegetatively, with each bulb dividing into a clump. This has never entirely been my experience; I've always had plants flowering, though previously I've done the conventional thing and pulled the flowers off.

The problem with shallots and other potato onions is probably that viruses accumulate over the generations, leading to stunted bulbs. Raising a generation from seed breaks this, frees them from virus, and gives (or so I'm told) bigger onions. I'm going to keep experimenting with seeds, and see where I end up. 

These fabulous purple blooms belong to elephant garlic and perlzweibel, a small perennial leek, respectively. the elephants, of course, are another leek, with a root which splits like garlic, and a mild garlic taste. Hopefully, more seeds to play with next year! I've no idea what sort of fertility to expect; I planted everlasting onion this year, and only got one plant, which came up after about a month. I've got a lot more seed to put in next year.

Saturday, 11 July 2015


Another beekeeper passed a swarm on to me the other day. Nothing unusual about that, and I dumped them in the top of an empty hive as usual, then moved them to the bottom where the broodbox is normally placed. A lot of bees were milling about, and some were going in and out of the empty hive next door, but again that's nothing unusual. I keep empty hives set up to attract swarms, and they're quite effective. But next day, those bees were still there, and there were fewer bees than I expected. So I investigated.

Half the swarm was the second hive, with two queens. They were well grown, but with abdomens which were short as queens go, suggesting that they're either unmated or recently mated. There had to be at least one queen in the original hive or they'd all have decamped. I ran the queens in the entrance with the rest of the swarm, and put the box containing the workers on top of the first hive. They united overnight, as expected, and in a few days I'll open it up and see how many queens I can find. Despite the books, multi-queen colonies aren't at all uncommon. Our climate is marginal for honeybees, and it's an insurance against queens failing to mate in bad weather.

I always let a few opium poppies grow, and over the years I've selected for the best colours. This is the first time I've had doubles; I usually prefer singles, but these are so spectacular I left them to flourish.

Pot marigolds are in full bloom. Parts of the allotment are in a disgracefullyt weedy state; ground elder grows in some of the newer raised beds. I'll did it out when I empty them of the current  crops. It's worked for the longer-established beds. Part of the plot is a jungle; I can't strim it as there's precious stuff in there, but building raised beds doesn't leave me the energy to do much about it either. It'll get better.

Last spring someone passed on a clump of stunted alliums with bulbs about two or three millimetres across. It turned out to be long-neglected garlic. All my garlic keeped over before it flowered for some reason. I don't know what's going on, but the same happened last year. It's well grown anyway. Meanwhile, other alliums are starting to flower. This is Babbington's leek. I've been growing on some bulbils for a couple of years, and at last it's at flowering size. It doesn't set seed, but the bulbils you see will grow. I don't know whether it's possible to persuade it to produce seed.

This one's Minogue; it's a perlzweibel, what the Americans call a perennial leek. It's a small clump-forming leek, which I'm told doesn't often flower. I've only had it a year or so. Most of it is dying back, but the largest produced this bloom. I'll try to grow the seeds out next year, but I don't know what viability will be like. I planted some everlasting onion this year, another which doesn't often flower. I ended up with one plant. I've got more seed in the frezer which I'll plant next year. I've got potato onions and a shallot coming along as well, but they're not out yet.

One of the lovage plants I put in last year is flowering. It's a perennial member of the  carrot family, and as you see, it's about six feet high and rather spectacular.

Lastly Skagit Magic, one of the potatoes I've been growing from true seed rather than seed potatoes. It's a diploid, with half the number of chromosomes most commercial varieties have, which is a pity as it seems to be immune to late blight, a disease which is the bane of potato growing. Like many diploids, the flowers are a far cry from the usual whites and insipid pinks.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Better Garlic

I lifted the rest of my garlic today, since it was dying back. It's very early yet, so there are no garlic scapes this year, but it did the same last year. This is also supermarket garlic, but a few generations removed. I used the best I had from two very waterlogged years, and planted it in a raised bed last year. As you can see, I've ended up mostly with the purple variety, but I've still got the odd decent sized bulb of the white one, so at least I haven't lost it altogether. There are some nice bulbs in there, despite the early harvest.

As always, I lost a few due to white rot. I've always managed to keep it to a minimum by rotating, but I'm going to try boiling up a few bulbs to make a garlic infusion, and water it onto beds which show signs of the disease. I've never tried it, but the theory is that it stimulates the fungal spores to germinate, and they then die as there's no onion or garlic there. The other alternative would be Armatillox, a coal tar derivative which is sold as a garden cleanser. It's lethal to fungi, and probably a lot of other things as well, and I'm not keen.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Solo Garlic

This is garlic from the local market, which I planted in the depths of last winter; I can't remember quite when. It came up with no problems, but it was dying back already, and as you see, it hasn't cloved at all. I'll plant it in the autumn and see what it turns into. I planted some solo garlic I was sent last spring; last time I checked, it had roots and no shoots. It never emerged. I trust this is going to do a bit better!

I found this nice allium in a pile of grass cuttings and rescued it. You can tell it's suffered a bit.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Garlic, Perennial Onions and Leeks

Garlic, elephant garlic in the background, and Babbington's Leek in the foreground.

I've planted two varieties of garlic, plus some solo garlic someone sent me. This forms garlic rounds a couple of inches across. I don't think it's a special variety, I think it's been inhibited from dividing somehow. It hasn't emerged, which is strange, but when I investigated, the bulbs were still there, with established root systems. All rather odd!

 The two latter varieties are very similar above ground, with Babbington's being, as far as I can see, less strong-growing. It grows wild in a few places in the UK, but it's not clear whether it's a true native. I was sent bulbils - it's a topsetter which produces small bulbils in the flower head, and doesn't set seed - two years or so ago. the plants are in their third season, and a couple of them are budding. You can see the bud just appearing here.

The plant has a typical leek structure, with a 'stem' formed of tightly rolled leaves. The big difference is below ground. Elephant garlic has a garlic-like root the size of a fist, with half a dozen large cloves. It tastes like extremely mild garlic. Babbington's has a single bulb. I haven't tried it yet, but apparently it has a garlic taste as well.

This one's 'Minogue', an example of what the Germans call 'pertzweibel'. It has a small white bulb, which produces offsets round the base which look rather like pearls, hence pearl onion. The name, unfortunately, is applied to such a plethora of small onions that it's worthless from a gardening point of view. It's definitely a leek, and may well be the same as the American 'perennial leek'.

This one's a mystery. It was passed on to me last year by another plotholder. I split up the overcrowded clump of miserable little things and gave them room to grow. The bulb is greenish, and the biggest I've seen was about an inch across. I don't know how big they get. It multiplies by splitting, and appears to be another leek. That's the sum total of what I know about the plant, except that both it and 'Minogue' have a nice onion taste, they stand well through the winter, and I've named this one 'Guinea Garden' after the site.

These are topsetting onions. You can tell they're onions by the tubular leaves. It's a green onion, which, like Babbington's, produces bulbils at the top of the flowering stem. Many alliums will do this quite easily, but some use it as an alternative to seed production. I've gained five varieties of topsetters over the last year, and it's going to be interesting to see what the differences are, apart from size. All of them have at least one or two plants producing buds, though they take a couple of years to really reach full size from bulbils.

You can see a bit of ground elder coming through. I build this bed a year ago, with a base made of thick brown cardboard. It kept the weeds back for several months, but the ground elder, much weakened, made it in the end. Constant pulling should weaken it further. My strimmer is dead, and not worth repairing, so I need a new one to keep it down between the beds. This time I'm going for a petrol one. I don't like them, but while they get better all the time, battery ones have never been up to the job, and the good ones are more expensive than a petrol job.

 These are everlasting onions, which are similar to Welsh onions. I have the latter coming from seed. The big difference is that these rarely flower. I was sent a flower head, but the seeds haven't germinated. Neither forms a bulb. They haven't really got going yet, but they multiplied like mad last summer. They should provide green onions over the summer, but they get a bit battered and miserable over winter, and Minogue and Guinea Garden should be better then.

I've been interested in potato onions for a couple of years. The familiar shallot, as the gardener knows it, is a common type, and I'm not entirely clear what the difference between these and other potato onions is. It may be that they're milder tasting. The 'shallots' you buy in a supermarket are usually small onions. I could never grow them before I started putting in raised beds, but the problem seems to have been down to waterlogging.

Onions come from seed, either directly, or via sets. These are planted late in the year, and form a small bulb which is grown on the following year to produce the onion. On;y certain varieties will do this; most will just go to seed and flower. They're biennials, flowering in the second year. Shallotts, on the other hand, are grown from a bulb. You plant one, and harvest half a dozen or so next summer. They don't often flower, though I had buds form last year. Like an idiot, I did the traditional thing and pulled them off instead of getting seed. I seriously wonder whethre the difference between onions and shallots is any more than breeding,

Shallots and potato onions are smaller than onions, possibly because the method of propagation enables viruses to build up over the generations. It seems that seed-grown examples reach normal onion size, possibly because the viruses aren't passed down via the seed. Kelly Winterton in the States has done some interesting work (his booklet here), and I've acquired some seed which is descended from his Green Mountain variety. It's about three inches high at the moment.

I didn't have much luck with my bulbs over the winter. I planted two varieties of shallot at the beginning of winter, a couple of months later than usual. This was purely because I didn't have the space ready for them. I don't know whether they got damp in storage or what, but most of them succumbed to a bacterial rot. Never mind, some have survived. Red potato onions were hammered by pigeons over winter; my topsetting onions got the same treatment, but they survived better. Previous experience with Catawissa, the biggest variety, suggest that they're almost indestructible. Only one of the potato onions came through. Yellow and white potato onions were planted later, didn't come up till March, and had no problems. By the end of the season I should have a bit more idea what some of these plants turn into!

Edit 6th May:

I noticed today that one of the Everlasting Onion seeds has finally germinated. It's been well over a month, but better late than never! I've added a pic of potato onions above.