So here we are at 1st September, time to survey the successes, failures and lessons learnt this season, with one eye on bigger and better things for 2016 already!
The greenhouse is the most productive it’s ever been. Most of its yield goes straight into my mouth and doesn’t even reach the kitchen! Two out of the three cucumber Mini Fingers (Cucino) hit the ground running this year, one plug failing due to stem rot early on. Growing in minimal space in a couple of old council food recycling bins, their vines are stretching around the eves of the greenhouse to about 7ft. During hot spells they were producing one fruit per day, with dozens of small fruits forming along the stems. As the days have cooled they have slowed in their tracks: I have pinched off any yellowing ones to allow the plants to concentrate their energies into the more robust ones. With no sign of mildew on the leaves I am continuing to feed and water the plants in the hope of an Indian Summer to boost their final production. I made a delicious chilled avocado & cucumber soup, with fennel and green chilli peppers from our garden, so I hope we haven’t had the last of them.
I wanted to compare the merits of cordon tomatoes with bush varieties, so I chose my favourite cherry tomatoes: Sungold as cordon, versus Losetto as bush, three of each. Having fed and watered them regularly, I finally defoliated and topped them off end August, so they could concentrate on ripening their existing trusses. Sungold has three trusses per cordon, each with about 18 fruits. Although slow to ripen, they are catching up now, their fruits as sweet as ever. Losetto is disappointing, the bush method too sprawling for the confines of a small greenhouse, producing a low yield of about two small trusses per plant, reluctant to ripen & not nearly as sweet. Neither type however suffered from splitting or blossom end rot all fruits being firm and equal in size. From now on I shall stick to cordons but use the space to grow more varieties.
Sweet peppers and chillies are starting to produce in earnest. David is a chilli fiend and is enjoying Demon Red and the pretty multi-coloured basket variety Loco, both ready to harvest earlier than their larger cousins. I prefer sweet peppers and purple Tequila doesn’t disappoint. There are plenty of flowers and small fruits developing so it looks like I shall have to bring them into our sunroom for some more heat and better light levels, and with such a selection of rainbow colours they are so decorative. I just hope that cats don’t try them!
Courgette Defender, whilst always prolific on the allotment, has been a dead loss in its 12” pot in the greenhouse! After one or two fruits, it succumbed to mildew and only produced male flowers, so I composted it. Although it flowered, the aubergine did not set fruit – weather too dull and summer too short.
On the allotment Climbing bean Colourful Collection sulked at first, refusing to grow until early August, producing meagre but healthy plants. They have produced about 4 portions worth of beans, the green being the most prolific, followed by yellow & purple in equal measure. I would grow them again though as they tasted delicious!
Because I can’t bear to pick blooms from our garden for the vase, I created a flower patch on the allotment specifically for cutting. This summer I transplanted some four year old Thompson & Morgan dahlias from our front garden to join the tree lilies and now have no qualms about cutting them for the vase. But as I do not intend to lift them overwinter they will have to take their chances.
So all-in-all it’s been a modest but delicious harvest which has proved to me that I should concentrate on growing crops that we actually like to eat in future!
This week’s been a real challenge on the allotment. Not only have we had some lovely sunny afternoons up here in Sheffield, but we’ve also had frost, rain and wind. LOTS of wind. Luckily, my greenhouse and shed are still standing. I can’t say the same for some of my fellow plot holders, in fact there is a pile of metal and plastic on one plot, it used to be a poly tunnel!
I love this time of year when the postman knocks on the door, it means I have plants arriving, and this week didn’t disappoint me!
I ordered a few plants and seeds, all from Thompson & Morgan, and I must say, everything arrived in top notch condition and the plants look really healthy. I had a selection on parcels arrive, including plug plants, potted plants and seed packets. All bar the pot plants are packaged so that they fit through the letter box, this really helps as I’m rarely in the house when the postman gets to my house.
I’m sometimes a dubious about getting plants through the post. I always think the plants are going to be weedy little things that no one wants, but the company can flog on line and send out to dis-appointed customers. Don’t get me wrong, I have had this happen before with a certain company, in fact I ordered some ‘Green Envy’ zinnia plugs for The Big Allotment Challenge (BAC). When they arrived, they were the weediest, straggly plants you have ever seen, totally unfit for purpose and a waste of money, and hence why I didn’t grow them for the show. The only thing they were fit for was the compost heap.
I’m glad to say, that experience did not involve T&M, and everything I’ve received from them has been great quality. The Geranium ‘Appleblossom’ arrived a couple of days ago and they are cracking plants. They’re well wrapped ad secured in a decent box, so I had no problems with damage in the post. I took them straight out of the package, gave them a drink and stood them in the greenhouse, where they are doing great. If you are wondering what the flower on them looks like, you’ll find it on the front of the T&M catalogue you got through the post a couple of months ago.
I also received carnation and dianthus plug plants, both came in the letterbox friendly box and included a great booklet on how to care for and get the best from your plants. I’ve chosen ‘Crimson Rim’ as its go stunning pale flowers with a deep red, almost purple, rim on each petal. It’ll be a real eye catcher in the garden, and in any arrangements I make this year. Apparently, it also has that nice carnation smell, spicy cloves. I can’t wait for those beauties to bloom.
I’ve decided to have a go with some heritage seeds from big seed companies this year, and thought I’d give T&M ‘The Amateur’ tomato a go. It’s a bush variety that’s a good cropper outdoors. I really hope this is the case, I have so many tomatoes planned for in the greenhouse, I won’t have room for any more.I’m starting them off in the propagator, and then leaving them on the windowsill until the middle/end of April, when I’ll transfer them to the greenhouse staging for a couple of weeks. After they’ve hardened off, they are going to go either in pots on the patio, or in the open ground on the allotment. I’ll keep you posted on their progress.
My niece and nephew love sunflowers. We always try and grow a really big whopper, but this year we’ve also gone for some smaller, more manageable ones that are happy in pots. T&M ‘Solar Flash’ is the one that I grew on BAC last year. It’s the one that helped me win Jonathan’s massive floral arch challenge in the final. This plant is great; it produces a small bush with lots of gorgeous mini sunflowers that have that orange/red ring towards the centre of the bloom. I grew them in old chicken manure buckets, I just made drainage holes in the bottom and made sure I watered and fed them, that’s it! Then I was rewarded with loads of stunning flowers, which looked lovely on the plot, but amazing in arrangements. I even took a bunch home and they lasted over a week in the vase. A proper little performer!
Geraniums are my new guilty pleasure this year. Not only did I order the ‘Appleblossom’ ones, I also thought I’d try the ‘Spanish Wine Burgundy’. They are the typically Mediterranean flowers I always see when I visit my friend in Spain. They have those gorgeous frilly dark red petals on top of those almost lily pad leaves. I’ve potted them up in 9cm pots in the greenhouse and I’m just waiting for the weather to pick up, before I plant them in nice little terracotta pots on the patio. Just call it Casa Rob!
Here they are in the greenhouse, with some ‘Scents of Summer Pink Peony’ Dianthus. I ordered these as they are a hardy perennial and will provide me with masses of lovely pink flowers, year after year. So that’s ideal as I’ll have them in the garden and for cutting. They have a more domed and rounded flower than your average pink or carnation, so I’m hoping they will be a talking point on the plot,as everyone will want to know what variety they are.
It’s time for me to brave the weather and go and make sure the greenhouse is still standing, it’s blowing a wholly out there.
I hope some of the plants I’ve mentioned have inspired you to try ‘postage plants’, its a great way to get unusual plants, and less hassle that fighting your way around a garden centre on a Sunday afternoon. Don’t forget, give it a grow!
With all the crocus and daffodils popping their little heads through the soil, it gets me thinking about my plan on what to grow in the coming season on the allotment. Even though this plan changes and develops beyond recognition, as the year goes on I still use it as my rough guide.
When I first started planting veg I would religiously check the information on the back of the seed packet to make sure I was planting and sowing correctly. However, I found that as time went on, I was planting out way too early and was caught out by late frost on more than one occasion (once bitten, twice shy as the saying goes). Experience has taught me to relax and hold back with the sowing. I’ve just started sowing chilli seeds because germination of some varieties can be roughly six weeks (I get so impatient with these). My hubby and sons are chilli maniacs so I always end up growing too many varieties in the pursuit of heat and flavour balance. This year we are growing Black Olive, Lemon Drop and Chocolate Naga, but I’m sure the list will grow bigger as time goes on. I was also given some Spanish Padron chillies by my good twitter friend, this has sparked a friendly chilli race involving myself and a few others. We have all sown at different times and used different methods so it will be interesting to see how it all pans out. Mine are only just starting to develop they took roughly four weeks, I’ve had them sitting on the window sill as my greenhouse isn’t heated, once the temperature evens out I shall transfer them.
The temperature today in the greenhouse reached 81 degrees but dips massively at night still. I’ve also sown tomatoes. I’ve chosen Tomato Tigeralla, Tomato Choc Cherry, Tomato Romello and my favourite is Sungold and Shirley, these are easy to grow and the Sungold are amazingly sweet. I would highly recommend these if you haven’t tried them before. I use tomatillos for salsa, they grow with a papery casing, once fully grown peal the casing back and the tomatillo will be inside. I’m growing the green variety but you can also get the black variety. When using these for cooking make sure you thoroughly rush them as they have a sticky substance which covers them that is really bitter and awful.
You still have time to plant out your garlic if you haven’t already done so (garlic is best planted between November and April) and also get your onion sets in. I planted Stuttgart white onions and red onions, just make sure you make a small hole with your dibber first as you don’t want to damage the root. Onions need to be planted roughly 4 inches apart and in rows 12 inches apart, from mid-March to mid-April. They don’t need to be planted very deep, just so the tops are showing. You may find the birds occasionally pull the odd one up, it’s not a problem just gently poke it back in and it will be fine. Before planting just check that all your onions are healthy, there is no mould etc. By now I should imagine you have your potatoes chitting, there has been some debate in recent years whether to chit or not (what does chitting mean?) Chitting is basically another work for sprouting, what you do when you chit your seed potatoes is basically to speed up the aging process of the potato by exposing it to light and more importantly a bit of warmth, this will cause the eyes of the seed potato to start sprouting. The sprouts should be small, nobly and green and purple in colour. If you end up with long white coloured sprouts it means there’s not enough light.
So you’re now the proud tenant of your new plot. You look, you scratch your head, you stand and survey. The fact of the matter is, there is only one way to get a plot up and running and that’s hard work. I started with cutting through the bramble jungle, once cut down to ground level then the fun really begins. Digging out all of the roots, this is quite labour intensive but unfortunately very necessary it really is the only way to ensure they don’t grow back. If you’re lucky enough to inherit fruit bushes try and salvage what you can as these are usually quite established and still produce good fruit even if you decide to relocate. Just make sure when relocating that you dig down fair enough to get the entire root. I inherited quite a few raspberries on mine which I moved to a different bed and still managed to get a good crop, they fruited much better in the second planting season. I even discovered I had a yellow raspberry bush and they tasted so much sweeter.
After clearing the bramble, grasses and what seemed like 10,000 milk bottle tops (what’s that all about) the big dig started, it seemed to go on forever with moving old bottles and pieces of brick. I even came across several large pieces of old carpet. Sometimes people use carpet to suppress the weeds; you can buy much more environmentally friendly alternatives now thankfully. On our site we have a ban on carpet; we are only allowed to use horticultural tarpaulin.
Through the winter months when I am not using so many beds I tend to plant green manure. There are many different mixes to choose from, I personally use the clover mix but it depends on what soil you have as to which mix you choose. The green manure on the whole replaces nitrogen back into the soil. It is a fast growing plant sown to cover bare soil, perfect for allotments. The foliage smothers weeds and the roots prevent soil erosion, when dug into the ground while still green it returns valuable nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure. It is extremely easy to sow and grow, the only thing to remember is to make sure you dig the foliage and plant into the top 2.5cm (10in) of soil and to do this 3-4 weeks before you actually intend on planting or sowing as the decay in green material can hamper plant growth.
After digging, my allotment neighbour informed me he had a rotavator I could borrow. Some people dig, some people rotivate, it’s a personal choice. On our site its split down the middle, the older generation tend to dig whilst the younger ones rotivate (that sounds like a sweeping generalisation but it’s just what I have observed on our site).
Next step I decided I would have raised beds partly so I didn’t loose soil onto the pathways and also so I could use a lot of compost to improve the soil as it hadn’t been used for a long time. There was also a tiny lazy part of me that thought whilst watching my allotment neighbour dig from one side of her allotment to the other only to tread all over it, that surely it’s easier to concentrate on just digging the areas where your growing your veg. We are very lucky on our site we have a wood chip delivery and this is what we use in our paths between our beds, this makes life a lot easier and tidier. Many people use scaffold boards for their beds these are ideal if you can get hold of them, I personally used fencing kick boards.
Next purchase was a shed you need somewhere to store your tools and escape from the rain and most importantly brew a good cuppa. I purchased mine second hand on eBay for £77, my dad and my partner also added a veranda on the front as it gets quite stuffy in there in the summer. It’s a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by and it’s also turned into the site tea hut. You can have your shed as comfy or as basic as you like. I was lucky enough to be given a second shed 6×6 which became my t&t shed (toilet and tools) we don’t have toilets on our site so I have a camping toilet in mine. A lot of sites have size restrictions on sheds mine is 9ft x 8ft and must confess has become a home from home.
Once your beds are planned and your sheds are up, you can concentrate on your soil before planting and if you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse it makes your growing season so much longer.
In my next post I shall give you some tips on what to grow and when.
Here Thrive, the UK charity that uses therapeutic gardening to change lives, shows how it has made a difference to Melanie’s life.
Two years ago when Melanie came to Thrive just after her father died, she was, in her own words, a different person. Losing both parents (her mother had died some years before) had left her feeling upset and withdrawn and for Melanie, who has learning and mobility difficulties, it also meant leaving her childhood home in Norfolk to move in with her sister in Berkshire.
At this challenging time, Melanie’s love of gardening brought her to Thrive. She attended the charity’s Growing for Life project which became the starting point towards a new life for her.
Under the guidance of a Horticultural Therapist and with the support of Janice, one of the many volunteers at the charity, Melanie has built on her previous knowledge to learn different gardening techniques and good horticultural practice. She has become physically stronger and developed ways of working around her mobility problems. Spending time with other people, sharing ideas and experiences, has also helped Melanie to grow in confidence and forge friendships based on a mutual love of gardening.
“Speaking to people has done me the power of good. Thrive is a wonderful place. If I am ever on a downer, they will listen,” said Melanie.
Gardening with Thrive is particularly beneficial for people like Melanie in ways which might come as a surprise to others. Beyond practical, horticultural skills it’s also about shared experiences, friendships and building confidence.
In time, Melanie was offered the opportunity to choose her own square metre plot, and take control of everything from the design and layout to the choice of plants and the actual sowing and growing process. The design was completely her own idea; a perimeter border of colourful primulas and primroses with room for spring bulbs, and a very original centrepiece – a miniature football pitch complete with goal nets! This celebrates her happy childhood and the family’s love of Norwich City Football team, from outings with her beloved dad to going to matches with her nephews.
“It was my idea to do the football pitch and I was encouraged by everyone at Thrive to go ahead. I feel mum and dad are looking down on it and smiling.”
Melanie’s journey doesn’t end there. Born with cerebral palsy and more recently diagnosed with diabetes, Melanie needed help from her family and had always lived at home with her parents. Now through the support of her older sister, carers and friends, and with the increased confidence that has come from taking responsibility and making her own decisions whilst at Thrive, Melanie, at the age of 55, now lives independently for the first time in her life.
We are all so proud of Melanie, who says:
“I think I am doing well. I know I have achieved so much over the last few years. When I come to Thrive now I make my own sandwiches in my own kitchen. I do not let other people think I cannot do things – I get myself up and ready every day.”
Unsurprisingly, gardening also features in her future plans. At home, there is a large communal garden and Melanie would like to make it more attractive and colourful for the other residents. She is going to talk to the landlord and is looking forward to getting to work on it early next year. Who knows, she may inspire her neighbours to start keeping fit by gardening with her.
Thrive relies on donations to continue working with and helping people like Melanie and directly reaches 1,400 people each year. If you’d like to give the gift of gardening to someone, please make a donation online.