Monday 29 September 2008

Back to work...

Crop updates, Garden Organic and Heritage Seed Library

Another gorgeous weekend and I have digged the last 5 pounds of potatoes and planted green manure in most empty beds. And had to water seedlings, curiously enough after this summer's weather.

Unlike the corn, tomatoes in the greenhouse are almost ripe, I have cooked a second torta pasqualina for ourselves and the neighbours, and put dried herbs in jars, which - with a bit of decoration - will make nice Christmas presents.

I am back to work and with the shorter days I cannot be at the allotment during the week... to compensate for the "loss" and at the same time to celebrate my being back on the payroll, I have invested a little bit in memberships to Gardening Organic and the Heritage Seed Library.

A bit like open-source software, some varieties of seeds can only survive if geeks - enthusiasts - provide some TLC. Otherwise - not having made it through the market screening - they are destined to die out, and their biodiverse genes do not get a future chance.

I will be sent some six species or non-commercial seeds with my subscription, and - very appreciated - I got another couple as a welcome present! My collector's ego is all aglow...
And if I ever have any questions on how to grow the natural way, Garden Organic provides an advice service, in addition to the available information resources (last week I linked their comprehensive information on weeds).

If I make it through the next couple of business-busy weeks, I will read through the material they sent with the subscription, including how to compost with worms.

Friday 26 September 2008

Making the most of allotment produce

Spinach beet and torta pasqualina.

After breaking your back on the allotment all your spare time, the last thing you would want is to throw away any green stuff. Usually, though, when something is in season you get far too much of it, albeit for a very short period of time, as family and friends of allotment holders surely know.

Well, the spinach beet that has grown from self-seeding is doing very well, so that I cannot keep up with it (why do slugs not exterminate it as they do with the rest, I wonder?). Anyway, each time I do a round of leaves I come home with some two pounds (they are so big I can hardly carry them home on my bike!) so now I have to figure out ways of using them that are not too boring (not another two pounds of boiled beet, no!!!).

So I have at times resorted to the Pizzoccheri della Valtellina recipe, a very hearty meal that I cook with cabbage, chard/beet, potatoes AND French beans... always one of my favourites and you almost get your 5-a-day with it! However I have run out of pizzoccheri and forgot to have some sent from Italy, so I thought of the next best recipe I know: torta pasqualina.

I had never actually made one myself before, and I had not been cooking anything serious (apart from pizza) since we came to the UK more than three years ago - for personal reasons of incompatibility with the oven, more than anything else, really!

But, you see, that's what your allottment makes you do! I decided to have a go, resuscitated my tools and... it was easier than expected and the result outstanding! Proof of the pudding: the two of us got rid of it in just two meals! If you read Italian, this is the recipe I loosely followed.

Tuesday 23 September 2008


Hand-weeding and roots

Today I have finished digging my last bed. Finally - exactly one year since I got it - the allotment is mostly clean! Which of course does not mean that I do not have to keep weeding (as indeed I have done with the rhubarb and artichoke beds today) or clearing spent crops in order to plant green manure, but the worst is over!

Talking of clearing and weeding, I have not yet learnt how to use a hoe, probably because I do not feel particularly comfortable with it. I prefer digging altogether or using a daisy grabber for the smaller hand-weeding work. And since my way of hand-weeding made me pretty much familiar with roots, I have decided I am going to make this post about weeds and particularly their roots.

First thing to say: from what I can see most roots love to be chopped, so that they can multiply endlessly; this is especially true of bindweed, but also of dandelion and dock (someone says that only the upper 9cm are able to reproduce).

I have taken pictures to show the most common weeds' roots in my allotment, below more details.

weeds' roots

A. Dandelion has very long roots of a brownish color, they tend to snap easily at all lenghts so you need to dig deep to take them out.

B. Dock is quite similar to dandelion in having very long roots, but these tend to be quite large or with multiple taproots; they tend to snap at the base of the leaves, and the colour of the stump is bright pink. You need a bit of work and deep digging to pull them, especially when the plant is biggish.

C. Creeping buttercup spreads by runners above and below the ground from what I can see, and they tend to snap at the base of the leaves, so you need something to help you pull the whole root out from below.

D. Nettles are a good weed in that they are attacked by aphids that ladybirds are particularly fond of and they also attract carrot fly so I guess they can be used as sacrificial crops. They make a good liquid feed, accelerate composting and young leaves are also edible. The roots are yellow and ramified.

E. Couch grass has long, white, wiry roots, quite superficial, so they are easy to pull out.

F. Bindweed has long, deep, soft white roots that break so easily and even the tiniest fragment regrows scaringly well. It is the weed I hate the most!

Sunday 21 September 2008

Finally a sunny weekend!

Good weather and crop updates

Amazing weather these last three days, it was a pleasure to be outside and I took advantage of it to finish digging my last but one bed, and to plant spinach, some more cime, turnips, salad and barbe di frate. Hopefully tomorrow there will be a good shower and then sun again.

I am so happy to say that that tomato leaf mould seems to be receding, and the tomatoes in the greenhouse have a visible reddish tinge to them: how exciting! Finger crossed...

Talking of solanacee, I have experimented with plastic bells to cover the chillies, afraid that it might be too cold for them at night. I have a feeling that the stagnating air inside the bells might not be too healthy, but will check them in the next couple of days and see.

French beans still doing well, with another 500gr picked, and the Borlotti beans are on their way. However, I have made a mistake fixing the labels in the ground which - together with my wobbly staking - makes it impossible to tell which plant is which (apart from the Borlotti that stand out quite conspicuously with their red and green pods).

Pumpkins also growing, but the sweetcorn's inspection was a little bit of a disappointment: cobs do not seem ripe yet in spite of the tassels at the top turning brown a while ago (I would say one month in some cases).

I have finished transplanting all the strawberry's runners that I had kept in water to root, and it felt like an achievement. From the initial 12 plants, I have filled a bed and started a second one: if they live, next year there should be a good supply. It seems that Honeoye has been putting out runners for some three months and Alice has started one month or so ago, but Florence has none, maybe because it was the best cropper and all its energies were spent fruiting.

Good news, there are also two tiny aubergines emerging from the spent flowers' crowns.

Bad news, my war on slugs looks nowhere nearer the end...

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Ordinary maintenance and stocktaking

Wildlife pond, slugs, crop updates, self-sufficiency and stocktaking.

I have finished working on the pond: now it has a toad cavern, a sunbathing platform for frogs, and waterplants in it.

For the rest, nothing very exciting: the herb bed needed weeding before I cover it up for the winter - it seems it won't be long before night temperatures plummet.

News from the animal kingdom: all cabbage white caterpillars either pupating or drowned, the slugs are taking over as insect of the month. I have been killing them in dozens, and I was also "lucky" to uncover a handful of eggs under a stone, which I squashed one by one with manic patience. Small slugs I cut in two with scissors because they have this habit of propelling themselves away when I try my favoured method: jumping on (disgusting as it might be, I favour the method as they die straight away, without apparent suffering).

Thinking of it better, though, there is something quite exciting: this week for the first time I have been as self-sufficient with my vegetable supply as I will ever be this year. Potatoes, onions, shallots and garlic already harvested and stored, courgettes and flowers picked almost every day, French beans, perpetual spinach (a bonus, as it grew from self-seeding rather than me planting it!), green tomatoes, salad, basil, mint, sage, oregano, fennel, parsley. In case of emergency, I even have some frozen broad beans left. And - shortly - Florence fennel, sweetcorn and leek will be ready.
Following from that thought, I have decided that - if I plan properly and time it carefully - next year I might well be self-sufficient on vegetables most of the time. To achieve that result, I think I will need:
  • a plan of what to plant each month of the year, including companion planting and catch crops,
  • a space ready for planting (now I am a bit stuck as I could plant things but the beds are not ready yet).
So, yesterday, I started my "professional" stock-taking.

I have a spreadsheed where I am trying to keep track of expenses, yield, stock of seeds and plants. Quite a sizeable stock (179 species for next year, to be precise - I am a collector by character, no doubt of that!). Which stock, taking advantage of a cooler, gray day, I have catalogued and sorted by month of planting.
During the winter, I will need to assess the family of belonging of the plants, and find a suitable place for them in my 4-year crop rotation. I think the most difficult thing will be keeping in mind all the relative lifespans of the plants so as to introduce catch crops and plan timely succession.
I do not know if I will manage to be that precise anyway, though, gardening is after all my hobby , I should allow myself to leave some spontaneous enjoyment in it!

Sunday 14 September 2008


Male or female asparagus, slugs, wildlife pond, crop updates.

I was all set on pulling the female asparagus plants today: my plan was to create a separate bed only for them. However, when I got there no sign of either berries or yellow flowers (that yellowy thing in the picture should be one). Now I am not sure which plants I have to pull, so I suspect I'll leave it for this year. It must have been birds, as slugs would leave traces on the plants as well, but there was none.

Talking of slugs, they are really the major pest in my allotment and I will have to come up with some serious plan for next year - the cime have all gone, most of the new round of turnip's seedlings disappeared, the salad patch is a wasteland and several of my potatoes have been tunnelled into by as many as 10 slimy creatures together.
Today I have bought collars woven with copper fibres and I think I will have to resort to nematodes as beer traps have not worked: more ground beetles than slugs drowned, which is no good as ground beetles feed on slugs and knocking them off is not a good move.

I have planted Marsh Marigold and Purple Loosestrife in and around the pond respectively, and had a go at creating a toad cavern with flint and a spare tile I found abandoned around, let's see if it stands the weather this winter. As soon as the pond gets clear again of the mud I have stirred today I will create an island for the frogs to sunbathe on, by placing bricks on the bottom of the pond and a concrete slab on top, as suggested by VeggieGlobal.

The pumpkins are growing quickly and so are the French beans. The transplanted Florence fennel is putting out new feathery fronds, which I decide to interpret as a good sign, hoping that the bulb will follow after the leaves. I managed to pick one ripe tomato Tigerella from the greenhouse, while a handful I had to throw because they were diseased. Finger crossed for the rest.

And the only surviving chili plant has one single flower on. I am wondering whether I should cover it now before it gets too cold. After all the hassle to grow chilies, I hope this "Hot Mexican" is a perennial species, I may still find the seed packet and be able to check.

Monday 8 September 2008

I'll never do a raindance again

On watering and rain, pumpkin or squash, male or female asparagus.

I hate watering, and last summer I had to do quite a bit of it, hence my raindance, which incidentally seems to have worked far too well! It is incredible the amount of rain that has poured in the last few weeks, and it doesn't look as if it is over yet either... However, over the weekend I have sneaked briefly to the allotment in the breaks between showers.

The French beans are doing well, despite the wobbly staking; I picked my first 150gr and had them simply boiled with olive oil - they tasted amazing, so fresh!

Pumpkins have decided they will take over the plot and are doing their best: I spent most of my time today pulling strings for them to run on. I was not aware that the flowers smelled so strong and sweet, and it is lovely to see the fruit forming.

I have called them pumpkins but they might well be squashes: I do not know exactly what they are as I saved some seeds from my organic vegbox last year (when I was still a newbie gardener ;)) and did not think of writing down the name.

I am happy they are doing well also because I shared some of the seedlings with Claire, who only got her allotment in July and was starting from scratch. Although I warned her I was not sure what would come of the plants, it would have been horrible if they turned out to be worthless!

Pull out or not? Pull out or not? The best of my asparagus fern has berries on it, and the second best has yellow flowers... apparently female asparagus (the one with the yellow flowers and berries) is lower quality, so the instructions that came with the crowns suggested to pull out any plants that ended up with berries on them. I have done some research tonight and it is confirmed that the yield is lower on female plants; moreover, seedlings from the berries lead to overcrowding of the bed. Will I manage to pull a plant that looks healthy and beautiful? This is the time for me to think of the bigger picture and sacrifice a couple of plants for the greater good...

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Autumn's marching on

Autumnal mood, wildlife pond and gardening, wind and staking.

My visits to the allotments in the last couple of grayish days have thrown me in a blue mood: the lush green - both vegetable and weeds - is receding, bed by bed, and quite surprisingly it is affecting me! I do not know why, it's not that there are fewer interesting things, or less to do.

Certainly not less to do, there is enough to keep me busy for the whole winter, such as building shelving in the shed, experiment with mushrooms in the greenhouse, dig the last beds, plan for next year, improve the pond...

And talking of interesting things, the pond has surprised me. As the rose bushes and the wildflower lawn are less thick, and the water is quite clear, I could observe the new life that has developed over the year: there are plenty of water boatmen of all sizes - which worried me a little because some eat tadpoles, but then I was reassured - and several other tiny swimming and wiggling thingies that I could not identify (despite this pretty clear table). I was surprised by such a lively swarm of insects, maybe the two ducks that came for a while in early summer helped somehow. Even if they didn't, they were an amusing view, standing on their legs in the shallow water!

The strong wind these days has put to serious test my staking skills, so I had to fix the beans, adding more bamboo sticks to carry the weight. Luckily I had bought some over the weekend.

As autumn's is definitely marching on, I have finally decided to place the hedgehog hideaway. I am a bit worried that this might attract rats instead, they would never say on the instructions, would they? The last thing I would wish is to help shelter those beautifully furred but nasty creatures.

I wish I had the camera with me as a cute curious robin came down to observe the proceedings and feed on some insects that must have surfaced in the process. Other pictures worth taking:
- sweetcorn at sunset under a showery rain,
- the pupa of my 'insect of the month': the cabbage white butterfly. This is the first time I have seen one.

Monday 1 September 2008

Never say never

Tomato diseases, millipedes v centipedes, crop updates, cabbage white caterpillars.

The other day I was browsing the BBC's gardening site and my eye was caught by the problem solving homepage on Tomato leaf mould... doubts tormented me about some yellow spots I had seen on the tomatoes in the greenhouse. Confirmed today: leaves wilted, and a couple of brownish tomatoes: I had been so happy that the greenhouse was doing well... :(

Although pretty dejected, I have cleared everything suspicious, including the brownish tomatoes, and we will see. In clearing, I spotted a black millipede: I got rid of it, remembering that my book says millipedes bad (two pairs of legs per segment), centipedes good (one pair of legs per segment). How comes I find it so difficult to kill most insects?!?

After that, thought it better to dig my sorrows in, so I finally dealt with the strawberries' runners. Now some are planted and the others are in a pot with water to stimulate roots' growth (it has worked before).

The transplanted fennel was doing ok, so I thinned out another row.

No sign of barbe di frate yet, but phacelia is already germinating and so is cime di rapa - finger crossed, as brassicas have not been one of my most successful crops so far. That said, the turnips (Rapa bianca lodigiana) - which I had dispared of given their genus's destiny - are finally forming underneath the hole-riddled leaves.

Creature-wise, this is most definitely the season of cabbage white caterpillars: alive or dead they are everywhere (they seem to have a masochistic tendency to drowning in water butts and tanks, when they are not eaten from the inside by the parasite Apanteles glomeratus).

There was something swimming in the rainwater in one of my pots, looked like minuscule tadpoles, so I poured them in the pond: maybe the other day's frog has left a legacy after all!