Long days…

Purple wild flowers

It’s the crazy time of year now, and the fast climb up to summer solstice. Growth is extraordinary and if you miss a few days on your plot the change is astonishing, and demands even more work of you.

Perhaps you’re finding yourself aching from all the hours weeding and sowing and planting. It’s always good to remember to extend forward from the hips, keeping the back and front bodies long and open, and your feet parallel to one another, rather than hunching up towards the ground. That really helps keep the lower back happy and free, so you can go on and on with all you need to do.

It’s a great time to be making compost, as you’re probably running out of what was already made as you spread it for your crops. When the weather is warmer the whole process speeds up, and having big heaps also helps the processing. Remember to build layers with greens and browns, nitrogen and carbon, with as much cut comfrey and nettle tops (not the roots) as you can generate. It’s best not to use coloured cardboard because of the inks or dyes, but brown cardboard boxes torn up are excellent compost material. If you have any grass paths, the cuttings will also contribute to rich fast maturing compost.

If you sowed green manures earlier in the year, they may be ready to be cut or hoed off now, and added to the compost, or used to mulch around your potatoes. (Potatoes need soil drawn up around the stems, to ensure that the developing tatties stay well underground; any light will turn them green and poisonous.) The green manures like phacelia or crimson clover will be coming into glorious flower, so you may want to leave at least some of them to attract pollinators to your beans, and just to enjoy the show. And if you have any unused space, unlikely as that is at this time of year, you can sow clover and phacelia still, or a mustard for a quick ground cover.

The worst thing about this time of year is netting! The birds are still hungry for food for their young and pigeons are insatiable. Your soft fruits definitely need to be netted to stop birds eating the jewelled currants and raspberries, but it’s a tricky job to make sure there are no gaps, even at ground level, weighting it down with stones or bricks or logs; if a bird does get in, they will scoff your fruit, but likely also get stuck in the netting which is a horrible fate. Sparrows will scuff up baby beetroot, and large white butterfly caterpillars will hungrily devour your brassicas (even though they’re not mentioned in that children’s story!).  Carrot root fly and leek moths are much tinier, but will home in on growing crops and spoil them, so use some mesh covering to keep them out. You can keep your nets for many years, and there are some available now which are not plastic and so obviously a better idea.

Meanwhile, amid all these jobs, don’t forget to keep sowing: main crop carrots, lettuces (as long as it’s not too hot), a further lot of French beans, and summer turnips like Purple Top Milan, so delicious fried with your lightly steamed first broad beans. It makes all the hard work worth it!

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Of cabbages and kings

Purple Srouting broccoli

Of cabbages and kings” (Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter) …. there’s plenty out there about kings just now, so let’s focus on cabbages, the brassica family: kales, cabbages, broccolis, cauliflowers. One cabbage worth growing is actually a king! January King is a lovely dense headed cabbage that stands all the winter can throw at it.

Your work now is for the end of the year.

It’s time to sow all your favourite brassicas outside, ready to plant on to mature and feed you through the later part of the year. There’s a happy symmetry to finishing your crop of purple sprouting broccoli now just as you sow for next season. Some brassicas are quicker to mature, like summer calabrese (what they sell in shops in chunky tasteless heads called ‘broccoli’ – unlike the tender fragrant flowerheads you can grow yourself), and summer cauliflowers. Sow them all finely, thinly and not too deeply; there are lots of seeds to a packet so maybe you can share with your plot neighbours. Once germinated, you’ll need to thin out the seedlings to give them space to grow into good sized plants. It feels hard to do that sometimes! So comfort yourself by giving the thinnings away or by scattering them in your next salad. Because they’re going to be in the ground for quite a while, make sure you enrich the soil with your best compost, and choose a bed that grew peas and beans last season which may have helped to fix nitrogen in the soil, which the brassicas love, being basically leafy. Protect the seedlings against slugs, snails and birds; caterpillars and aphids can be tolerated if you encourage their predators, like ladybirds and wasps and beetles, perhaps by sowing some calendula or nasturtium close by, and just accept a few losses.

Now is also a good time to sow leaf beet/perpetual spinach and chards, which come in green, yellow or red stemmed varieties. These are stalwart crops, which also stand a full year in the ground, giving you fresh leaves to eat full of vitamins and minerals, and so they like your rich compost mulch too. These seeds are much bigger and so it is easy to sow them individually, but again, thinnings make good eatings.

Comfrey is a wonderful plant with many medicinal properties, and with flowers that attract bees and other pollinators. It also makes wonderful plant fertiliser. If you’re planting later potato crops now, a layer of comfrey in the bottom of a trench will provide food for the maturing tubers. You can add the cut leaves to your compost as a tonic and activator. And you can make a rich brew by soaking the leaves in rain water, then after a few weeks add a cupful to a watering can of water to provide your fruiting crops, tomatoes, chillies, peppers, with the nutrients they need. Generally too, make sure you collect as much rain water as you can – from any surface, like a shed or greenhouse; it saves huge amounts of energy cleaning and pumping water to taps, and saves you energy back and forth with your watering can to your nearest tap on the site.

It’s also time to sow courgettes and squashes and cucumbers, indoors on a window sill or in your greenhouse. A piece of glass on top of the pots will warm the soil enough to get them going well, and then grow them on to plant out when there is no longer any threat of a frost – often the first week of June in York. There are lots of interesting varieties of squash, but the most useful are those you can store somewhere cool and airy right through till March next year. You do need a fair bit of space to grow them. So consider if you really are making the most of your whole plot, or if there are areas you could bring into cultivation to grow even more lovely produce?

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a new twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Ode to April

Apple blossom

A lot of poetic lines spring to mind about this time of year – and not irrelevantly either, before you click somewhere else! ‘April is the cruellest month’ (TS Eliot): for us gardeners, that’s probably about continuing frosts and chilly nights. ‘Oh to be in England now that April’s here’ (Robert Browning): and you could be enjoying purple sprouting broccoli, rhubarb and salad leaves if you were organised last year. ‘When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March….then people long to go on pilgrimage’ (Geoffrey Chaucer) – we need to resist the temptation of holidays away and start tending our plots in earnest. We can catch up with late sowings for a while, and sometimes the weather demands we sensibly do so, but this really is the crucial time for your plot.

If you got a good start by preparing the land over the last few months, you will have a lovely fine warmed moist soil ready for sowing seeds. (It’s the soil that matters most of all, not the structures you may fancy installing.) If not, and if you’re new to your patch of land, then give the beds a good hoe down and rake them finely. Some crops are hungrier than others – broad beans, peas, chards and spinaches will benefit most from your rotted compost. Fast growing leafy salads, roots like carrots, parsnips, leeks and beetroot will do okay without enrichment, unless your soil is very impoverished. And it’s a good idea to be aware of grouping your crops in this kind of way, so that you can establish a rotation, a cycle of growing, where you don’t grow the same things on the same patch in subsequent years.

All those crops can now be sown direct outside. Water the drills, the little channels you make with your hoe for the seed, before you sow; that way the seeds don’t get washed away but they have a good moist start to get them germinated. Protecting the seedlings from slugs and snails is very necessary – but even some of the pellets approved for organic cultivation have harmful effects on worms, so try wool pellets as deterrent and encourage birds to your plot. Even those of us who’ve been growing for years still have failures – parsnips, for instance, are notoriously hard to germinate. The most reliable way is to save your own seed from a parsnip you leave deliberately to flower and produce fresh seeds. And buy all your seeds from a company that stores them well; while brassica (cabbage family) seed will keep a few years if dry and cool, parsnips just won’t. (More on brassiacs next time….)

Browning has his ‘blossomed pear tree in the hedge’ blooming ‘when May follows’, but you’ll likely find that yours is lovely with flowers this month. Lots of folk think to get an apple for their plot, but far fewer choose a gorgeous pear; there are many varieties and they really are delicious, warm and ripe and juicy in the autumn. If you haven’t got much space, you could try one espaliered, grown in vertical layers flat to a wall, fence or wires; look out for pruning workshops later in the year to learn how to do this. Pears attract all sorts of interesting beneficial insects, but they may also be susceptible to pear gall midge which distorts and ruins the little fruits as they set; check for blackened areas that contort the smooth swell of the fruitlets, and pick those off as soon as you see them and dispose of them well away from other trees. You’ll still have plenty of fruit to enjoy.

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a new twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Plotlines – direct sowing in Spring

Broadbeans under a cloche

Plotlines, written by one of our York allotmenteers, is a new twice monthly blog aimed at anyone who would like some guidance about growing on an allotment.

Spring is here, despite how chilly it still is this year, and a busy time of year for plot holders.  Given the chill, you might want carefully to wrap the blossom on your fruit trees in horticultural fleece – or old net curtains work well too. If the flowers get frosted, there’ll be no fruit. And no happy pollinators either. Similarly, if you’ve got broad beans or peas, or sweet peas for their gorgeous summer flowers, that you sowed indoors (on a window sill at home, or a greenhouse if you’re lucky), it’s worth covering them when you plant them outside about 9 inches apart. If it’s just a few plants, plastic pop or water bottles from someone’s recycling bin can be cut in half to make a little shelter for each individual plant.

Are you digging or no-digging? Either way, care for the soil is the most important allotment job; your soil for seed sowing should be warm and moist and have a fine tilth – so no dense clods of heavy soil that those delicate first shoots will struggle against. Give your seedlings a gentle start in life. If you thought ahead, you might have your first sowing area warming under some salvaged plastic sheeting.  March is the driest month of the year usually, so that may help to keep the ground nice and moist too, ready for your spring sowings.

What to sow in that lovely soil then? Broad beans and peas can be sown direct outdoors now. Beetroot likes an early start too – choose a variety that’s slow to bolt (make flowers), like Boltardy. Once you’ve raked your soil really fine, you can sow carrots as well – but cover the row with something like enviromesh to keep out the carrot root fly which will make holes in your lovely crop. It’s also time to start your salad bed, a first sowing of just a few seeds of your chosen varieties of lettuces, to heart-up or cut-and-come-again, some wild rocket (which won’t be perforated by leaf beetle), some parsley and radishes. Be gentle with your watering: the seeds are small and can be washed away by a deluge.

If you’re growing potatoes you’ve probably already chosen your favourite varieties, with a range of harvesting times, and they’re chitting (sprouting) in readiness for the big day when they go in the earth. Traditionally allotmenteers plant early potatoes on Good Friday; some say this is because that day, which is also Passover, is the first full moon after the vernal equinox – an auspicious time for root planting. Some say it’s because it’s a bank holiday, and so we had an extra day to spend on the plot. Either way, it’s a good time to get them in the ground. You could dig trenches and put some of the precious contents of the compost bin in the bottoms, or just make individual holes for each seed potato if you’re not digging. An allotment neighbour did a little experiment of both methods a few years ago and there was no difference in the yield – a lot of difference in the effort involved though. If you have grass cuttings, or leaf mould, or even chopped up nettles without their roots, you could mulch on top of the soil with that to keep the moisture in.

It’s an optimistic time of year – keep the soil warm and moist and our optimism might be realised…..