Tuesday 1 August 2017

Full water tanks

For the first time since I put them in place three months ago, my water tanks are brimming over. I haven't had to use the tap outside the plot since they first got a decent amount of rainwater in them - they take drainage from the polytunnel - but the levels have got perilously low at times. The two holes I plugged in the big one aren't leaking a drop.

The plugs are just a nut and bolt, with a washer and a piece of rubber from an old bicycle tyre on each side, and glue to ensure a proper seal.

I'm having a lot of trouble with blossom drop on the tomatoes, probably due to the temperature in the tunnel getting too high at times. Some fruit have set, but they're very late and I haven't had a ripe one yet. I planted a few giant toms, and the most obvious thing about them is their tendency to fasciation, when the growing point divides so there are multiple dividing cells rather than the normal single cell. I've seen it before in Black Seaman; it affects flowers as well as stems, and a fasciate flower produces a fasciate fruit which is a lot bigger than a normal fruit. That explains why giant toms are so distorted; combine fasciation with a very large fruit and you have your giant.

This is what one of the flowers looks like; it's several times the size of the normal ones which I pulled off the other day. If you restrict the number of fruit it makes, then the surviving ones will grow bigger.

Monday 31 July 2017

The Jam Maker's Garden Holly Farrell

I needed something like this book. My jam-making skills are almost non-existent, and so much fruit goes to waste. I have currants which I could rescue from what’s now a mass of nettles; my girls always turned their noses up at them so I left them. They’ve both left home now. Gooseberries never did much for me, but they might well do better in a raised bed away from the waterlogging. Raspberries and strawberries do better, but I need to grow a lot if they’re going to leave the allotment without being eaten first. Then there are all the blackberries in my hedge, and along the canal. I’ve never got any further than making crumble.
There’s basic advice on growing, with specifics on each fruit, but the main emphasis is on preserving, as it ought to be. It doesn’t confine itself to jam, but covers the entire range of techniques. I never knew the difference between a chutney and a relish before, but they’re both in there. Sterilising jars is made nice and easy; I always imagined it would be complicated, but evidently it isn’t. I vaguely remember some old accounts of jam making which made it seem a forbidding process, but evidently they made it unnecessarily difficult. Apparently it’s not necessary to sterilise the jar after it’s been in the oven, so it can be used when it’s cool enough to handle, which probably explains it.
There’s nothing about sterilising plastic, and I have a lot of old peanut butter jars with plastic lids; bleach or disinfectant would probably do it, followed by hot water and soap. Or maybe the other way round, or will they stand boiling water? Some experimentation seems necessary.
There are a lot of interesting recipes. Windfall marmalade, for instance, which uses apples, jumps out at me because of the numerous apple trees on my allotment site. Bramble jam is another obvious one, and greengage jam if I can face stoning all those fruit. They all come ripe at once on my Cambridge Gage; if I’m not on the plot at the right moment and the wind blows, I can lose the lot to slugs. Chewed ones would go nicely in jam.
Some of the recipes are unexpected; chili jam for instance. We use a lot of it in cooking (my wife’s West African), but I’d never thought of using it in anything as sweet as jam. Sweet chili dipping sauce looks good, and probably similar to some of the milder chili sauces we use. I’m growing masses this year, mainly milder varieties; they came via seed swaps, and these are what British people seem to go for in the main. Most of the hotter ones I planted didn’t come up, but I’ll try again next year.
I can see I’ll be using this one every summer for the foreseeable future!

 The Jam Maker's Garden is published by Frances Lincoln at £17.99.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

In the polytunnel

I've just strung up most of my indeterminate tomatoes. these are the ones which go on growing indefinitely; you take off the branches and let the main stem rip. The ones in the buckets are the determinates; they grow so far then stop, so you leave the branches on for a bigger crop. They flop all over the place whatever I do, so I'm inclined to let them sprawl.

These diddy little things were badly damaged when  frost got into the tunnel despite the door being shut at the end of April. Black Seaman on the left; it's a good variety so hopefully it'll catch up. He-man on the right; it's a grafting variety I want seed from, and one ripe truss will do for this year. I don't suppose it's that much for eating, but I may want to graft potatoes onto tom rootstocks to force them to produce berries. The theory is that without producing tubers, all the plant's energy goes into reproduction.

These miserable things are my biggest chili plants. They've been really slow, but once again, if I just get a few ripe peppers that'll give me seed at least.

Most of my seedling potatoes are coming along slowly. I'll be putting the biggest outside in buckets soon.

Monday 12 June 2017

The Salad Garden, by Joy Larkcom

Salad crops are something I admit to knowing very little about. I don’t really eat leaves myself, and my wife isn’t interested in salad without tomatoes. I gave up trying to grow them outdoors due to blight, which can strike in June on the allotment during a wet summer, and have only just got myself a polytunnel. I’m growing masses – I hope, after they sulked all through last month, and a very cold night left them frost damaged - so salad would be a good idea. I struggle with the blandness of some ingredients, but with plenty of tomatoes, something peppery like radish – you can eat the leaves and seed pods as well as the roots – and maybe a couple of chilis, it can be really good. 

You can eat the whole of any radish, but there are particular varieties developed for their seed pods. I tried one a few years ago; it grows five feet high and flops, so it needs staking if you want to try this. The pods are small, but it produces masses, so a few plants would be enough. Any variety can be used; it doesn’t have to be one of the ‘special’ ones.

Walking onions get a mention; they produce bulbils rather than flowers at the top of the flower stem, which dies and falls over, planting them a little distance away from the original plant, hence ‘walking’. The bulbils can be used if you like strong onions, and the leaves can be used like any other green onion. Green garlic is good in season; it’s a use for the smaller cloves while the bigger ones are grown on for bulbs.

There’s a section on wild plants. Garlic mustard is a weed I tolerate in moderation, along the hedge; it has a pleasant taste. Horseradish is mentioned here, as it often becomes naturalised; I tried growing it once before, and within a year it was coming up six feet from the original planting. I’ve planted it again, but this time it’s confined in a large container. 

The book provides a pretty comprehensive survey, including vegetables I’ve never heard of. Important ones, like lettuce and tomatoes, receive more in-depth treatment. That’s something I like; I sometimes get seeds of obscure plants, and it’s good to be able to look them up. There’s a good deal of information about cultivation, which might be hard to find elsewhere for some of the more obscure vegetables. There’s also a section on general cultivation, with short section on microgreens and sprouting seeds. 

All round, it’s a good book, and it’s going to be an asset. Published by Frances Lincoln at £16.99.

Saturday 27 May 2017

Hot Weather

Things are finally growing away, apart from weeds of course, which have been doing that for months. Even a pot of alexanders, which I planted in March and had given up on, is finally germinating. I'm still making slow progress sorting out overgrown beds, but my CFS is really playing me up and I'm getting ever further behind with it. The hedges still need cutting as well. I'm rescuing perennial leeks from the weeds right now; they've flourished over the last year, while Allium perutile couldn't cope and almost disappeared. The last few are safely potted up for the time being. Never mind, things are growing!

I've planted loads of runner beans - nine varieties or crosses form those varieties - for the Real Junk Food Project, since I want to develop a grex, they need veg, and the family don't like runners. That's a local project which collects food from supermarkets etc which would otherwise be thrown away, and runs a popular pop-up cafe where you pay what you can afford. I've planted climbing French beans (Trail of Tears) for ourselves.

 So things are slowly going in the right direction. Meanwhile, a gigantic swarm of bees which arrived on the 5th has settled down, and I noticed yesterday that new workers are beginning to hatch out. the broodnest is enormous for a new swarm, the bees quite thinly spread, as they often are in summer weather when it doesn't take too much to keep the brood warm, and the workers are badly needed.

Sunday 30 April 2017

Frost Damage

A few nights ago the temperature inside my polytunnel almost touched zero, according to the thermometer. Actually I rather think it did reach freezing. Most of the chilis are OK, but some of the tomatoes have been damaged, along with some of the dahlia seedlings and most of the achocha. Germinating true potato seed was unharmed, though a plant grown from a Negresse tuber was trimmed back. In some ways it's not altogether a loss; it's selected out, for instance, the really susceptible achocha and left two seedlings untouched, which presumably have a shade more resistance. Seed from them should in turn be more resistant. I'm more worried about the tomatoes. I may or may not have lost a couple of varieties; they were planted deep as they root from the stems easily, and if they're replanted shallow they may grow new shoots form the leaf nodes. the one I'm really worried about is a grafting variety which I only had a very few seeds of, and which would be hard to replace. I just need one plant to recover and give me one ripe tomato, and that'll produce plenty of seed for the future.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Urban Flowers

I live in the middle of Birmingham, so whatever gardening I do is inevitably urban. I have an allotment which I struggle with, so my efforts are concentrated there. There are sites all over the city, and demand has slackened off over the last few years, so some may well have empty plots and no waiting list. There’s a growing movement round the world for community gardens, where people come together to develop a space. Just across the dual carriageway nearby there’s a row of small shops with beds outside; some are neglected, while others can be a mass of bloom later in the year. A couple of years ago, a dreary stretch of dual carriageway was transformed by guerrilla gardeners who planted annuals all along the central reservation. There are opportunities to garden everywhere if you look!
The book covers all the basics; design and planning, styles, plant selection, colour schemes, which are always a bit random in my own plantings, cut, dried, pressed and preserved plants and flowers. There’s a short section on seed saving, always a useful thing to do (I keep anything precious in the freezer), and seed bombs, which are useful for guerrilla gardeners. You mix seeds into a ball of damp compost, and chuck it where you want them to grow. When it rains they germinate. Choose something tough which will perpetuate itself.
The emphasis throughout is on your own territory, whatever that amounts to, but there’s no real reason to stop there. With imagination, and sometimes by working together with neighbours, there’s a lot that can be done to transform dreary urban environments. I have snowdrops and daffodils outside my allotment, for instance, to brighten up the lane. The daffs have suffered rather thanks to being strimmed too early in the year, but I’m hoping that cutbacks have stopped that. A lilac in my front hedge provides some colour later in the year, as does a rose over the gate.
One thing worth remembering is that herbs and vegetables can be used as well as flowers. They’re useful, and can be a garden feature in their own right. Angelica, lovage, or even parsnips left in the ground provide clumps of green foliage and white flowers five or six feet high. Cardoons, a sort of giant thistle grown for its blanched stems, reach about six feet, with large purple flowers.
The book provides what you need to develop ideas for your own situation, whatever that is. Whether you have a garden, and allotment, or a windowsill, there’s always something to grow, and if that’s not enough, try guerrilla gardening!

Written by Caroline Dunster, and published by Frances Lincoln, this could be the book you need.