Sunday, 9 March 2008

How does your garden grow?

Hmmm, quite well I think.

Today I spent some time catching up with gardening while the weather was reasonable. The tomato and pepper seeds that dd1 and I planted (see a previous blog entry) have mostly come up and are doing fine. There are a few pots showing poor germination, but as the seed has come from all sorts of sources (some home-saved, some from HDRA*, some from seed swaps, and some shop/catalogue bought) and is of varying age/quality I expected there to be some failures. Inevitably because I can't resist growing a bit of everything, we always end up with too many tomato plants and have to give some away to friends and family.

Tomato plants, showing their
first 'true' leaves and due for
transplanting soon

As we are still having occasional frosts it's too cold to risk putting the tomatoes and pepper plants in the greenhouse without some form of heating at night. Our 2 small paraffin heaters aren't reliable or powerful enough to ensure the survival of tender plants. Hence the tomato and pepper pots have been in a tray on top of the art cupboard since we planted them. It's not ideal as they can get quite lanky leaning towards the light from the main window, but with a home made 'reflector'
(cardboard covered in aluminium foil) they aren't doing too badly .

Tomato plants with home-made
reflector (reflector is on the right)

The broad beans have started coming up. This photo (on the right) was taken about 4 days ago and since then they have grown considerably more, now having several sets of leaves on them. Broad beans are fairly cold tolerant, so although I've put the pots in the greenhouse to give them a head start, they would be equally fine being planted straight in the ground at this time of year. It also gives me some more time to dig more of our allotment plot before deciding where they are going to go (It's important that I plan how we are going to use the available space, otherwise we may run out of suitable planting space later in the year for essential crops).

Dh is the only one in our family who will eat broad beans, so I'm not convinced they are really worth growing. But they do have an advantage of being easy to grow and one of the earliest crops. If picked young they'll be edible enough to freeze and disguise in a stew or curry at some later date, adding a bit of protein to our mostly vegetarian diet.

The garlic we planted in the Autumn has survived the winter dampness and is looking quite leafy. Last year's garlic gave only a poor crop: we had very wet weather throughout the Summer which hit us worst at a time when the garlic bulbs should have been ripening and drying. We were fortunate in that our allotment (and our house) didn't flood, unlike some other poor souls around here, but it still had a substantial impact on our crops. The garlic cloves were small, many rotted, and they haven't stored very well at all. Onions were similarly affected and tomatoes (and potatoes) suffered terribly from blight, a common fungal disease, that pretty much wiped out the plants and left us with hardly any edible tomatoes. It's been the first year when the crop of tomatoes was so bad that I've had to buy supermarket tomatoes over Summer.

We also had our first recognised case of Onion White Rot on plot 1 of our allotment. White Rot is a fungal disease which affects the roots of the allium family (onions, shallots, leeks, garlic etc), leads to poor growth and usually death of the plant. Its spores can stay in the soil for 7 years or more, ready to spring into life just as soon as the weather conditions are right for growth. Once you've got it in your soil it's near impossible to get rid of.

Apparently onions grown from seed tend to fare better against White Rot than those grown from sets, so this year I've planted our onion sets in raised beds in our garden at home (where there has been no sign of the dreaded White Rot) rather than at the allotment. I'd planned to plant onions grown from seed on the allotment plot, but the ones we planted weeks ago in seed trays have shown no sign of germination. I suspect it may be that the seed is just rather old. The germination of leek seed has been slow too, so perhaps it has just been too cold at night in the greenhouse for either of these seeds to grow. It will set us back a few weeks, but if I can buy some new onion seed next week it shouldn't take too long to catch up. The onions grown from seed will take longer to grow to ripeness than those grown from sets, but it will mean that we spread out the potential risk from weather damage over the Summer and are ensured of something worth cropping (we hope!).
Our leek crop was relatively unscathed by the white rot, so I'm hopeful that we'll be able to grow that on the same plot again. We have lots yet to pull up at the allotment, and it will need to be used soon before it bolts and starts to flower (usually triggered by warmer weather and longer daylight hours). Looks like we'll be having leek and potato soup for the next few weeks then!
Despite the wet summer we managed to salvage and dry enough onions to see us through the winter. As you can see from the photo on the right there is still quite a good supply in the baskets in the greenhouse, the coolest place to keep them overwinter. However, some are starting to show signs of sprouting and they have not stored as well as previous years' onion crops. I may have to slice and freeze the remainder if I wish to salvage what remains of them.

I've been using up the last of the winter squash from our allotment plot. They are at the end of their keeping life about now, so today I turned three of them into squash soup. I used to be able to make quite a decent soup, but today's one was rather tasteless. Perhaps it is the squash themselves - nothing seems to have stored well this winter. Still, I saved some seed and maybe I'll grow some more this year.

<--Winter Squash

Squash seeds, ready to
be washed and then left to
dry on paper --->

There's still a huge amount of work to be done at the allotment. Last time we were there I started clearing some ground for this year's first early potatoes. The ground hasn't been dug for several years (it's a new plot that we took on last year) and has been covered with black plastic for a year to give us a fighting chance against the perennial weeds. The soil needs to dry out a bit, then I'll mattock it (large pit-axe-type tool) to break up the worst of the roots and clods of soil and then it'll be ok for digging over and basic weeding. The great thing about potato plants is that they are so vigorous that they will usually smother smaller weeds and provide a half-decent crop even on poorly well-prepared soil. It's difficult to do much at the allotment with the children - if it's too hot, too cold or too wet then they complain bitterly, and even a pack of chocolate biscuits doesn't appease them for long!

Our first plot, however, isn't looking too bad at all. It was kept well tended last year because we'd been encouraged to enter the allotment competition and I felt duty-bound - obsessively compelled perhaps! - to keep the plot at its best. I'm not sure I'll enter again this year as all the finnicky cosmetic work, such as taking off dead leaves, trimming grass verges etc, required for the competition takes valuable time away from the actual planting and growing necessities. The kids got really fed up going to the allotment nearly every day during Summer and to be honest, so did I. Besides, growing organically means that my crops never look quite as 'perfect' as the insecticide-blasted entries of the other competitors, so unless I put lots of time, effort and expense into spraying with soft soap (organic equivalent of insecticide), covering with fleece and enviromesh and using other organic methods to keep the beasties off my plants, it will always be difficult to compete on cosmetic terms with non-organic growers. Our priority is to grow enough food to feed 5 of us throughout the Summer and Autumn, although the financial incentive of a competition prize is still rather tempting.

<-- Allotment plot 1, July/August 2007

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