Whatever the description, it’s officially the start of Spring and I couldn’t be happier.
Life on the allotment doesn’t change too much this month, despite the fact it is wildly tempting to get overcome with excitement and sow every seed I possess! You see I have learnt the hard way: slow and steady wins the race. That said, seed sowing definitely does pick up pace and as I only have a cold-frame to play with, every inch of windowsill in my house becomes a propagation area for the foreseeable future.
Seeds I like to get going inside towards the end of March include my Brussel sprouts, leeks, kales, and cabbages. I will then nurture them in the safety of the cold-frame until all chance of frost has passed later in the year (normally early May for me in Devon).
I am a huge fan of direct sowing outdoors, but I know that Mother Nature is still very capable of delivering some hard frosts, so I will hold back on that for now.
I have heard of gardeners ‘warming up’ their soil by covering with black plastic sheets. I must admit I have never done this as I am averse to any plastic if I can avoid it. My trick for warming the soil is just to wait. The right conditions will arrive without swathes of plastic and a great trick I use to know when the soil is ready are radishes. They are fast germinators and I always seem to have an abundance of radish seeds, so I sow them with abandon knowing that when they germinate I’m safe to take my chance with more expensive seeds like carrots and parsnips. Both of which hate root disturbance so appreciate being sown direct.
Successional sowing is a phrase I need to keep firmly in my mind in March. It’s too easy to get carried away and go crazy with the sowing, but little and often definitely gives better results for some crops. Beetroot, chard, lettuces, spring onions, radishes and even herbs like coriander and parsley all do well with some time in between sowings to give a more continuous crop.
One thing I do like to get going earlier in the month are my tomatoes. They need a long growing season coupled with heat to get them off to a good start and would benefit greatly from a heated seed mat. Personally, I find my house is plenty warm enough but lacks light, so my tomatoes get treated to a UV grow light suspended above them. I have always grown strong healthy tomatoes plants so I believe this extra attention early in life must be helpful. The same would be true of chillies, aubergines and peppers – although I don’t grow any of these because whilst I can treat them well in early life, I do not have a greenhouse or tunnel for them to live out their mature years in the lap of heated luxury. I have tried (and failed) to grow all three out in the open ground of my allotment and even being in sunny South Devon on a sheltered site they have been utterly miserable. Tomatoes on the other hand do great for me outside – providing they avoid the dreaded ‘B’ word. Blight. It sends shivers down my spine even writing it. An airborne fungal disease that blows in on the wind and devastates tomato plants, proving particularly troublesome in wetter summers. I have found the best defence is to look for varieties that have been bred for blight resistance. No varieties are immune, but I have had great success in the past with ‘Mountain Magic’ and last year one called ‘Oh Happy Days’.
In terms of eating, we are heading into a strange time in the growing calendar called ‘the hungry gap’. This is when we are busy sowing the seeds for future food, but the crops of our previous endeavours have all been eaten and there is nothing new ready to harvest. The lack of produce makes what is growing more exciting and valuable! Purple sprouting broccoli is excellent at bridging this gap and luckily totally delicious. It’s a productive plant, especially if you nip out the terminal bud to encourage lots of side shoots. But for me the crop that has me jumping for joy this month is rhubarb. More specifically forced rhubarb. You see I am the owner of a beautiful terracotta Victorian rhubarb forcer and last month I popped if over the signs of new growth on my rhubarb pant. My terracotta forcer (did I mention it’s Victorian?) blocks out the light and ‘forces’ the plant to grow in total darkness (disclaimer: an upturned bucket will do the same job!). No light means no photosynthesis and no photosynthesis means no chlorophyll and chlorophyll is what gives plants their green colour. The stalks frantically search for light in order to make the chlorophyll, so they grow fast. I have read that in Yorkshire where they force 1000s of plants in pitch black sheds you can even hear them creaking as they grow! The results must be seen to be believed. Slender, long, delicate pink stalks with a totally superior flavour. To be honest it’s a bit mean on the plant, as not being able to photosynthesise is quite stressful so I would never force a young rhubarb plant and never cover the whole plant each year. I do a section at a time and each year I look forward to the first forced rhubarb harvest and deciding what to cook with it.
So, while I proudly tuck into my rhubarb creation surrounded by seed trays on every windowsill I think it doesn’t matter how many times I do this, I am still utterly amazed when those first seeds burst into life. It fills me with wonder, hope and a feeling that we are connected to something extraordinary. And when seed sowing is in full swing if I had to pick one word to describe March it would be miraculous.
Well, this IS the month for resolutions and anything I can do to distract myself from red wine and the fact January is not the best month for vegetable growers is worth a shot!
I long to start growing again, nay I need to start growing again, but start now and seedlings will have no choice but to fail. There are hard frosts still beating at my door, and whilst I can manipulate temperature with green houses, cold frames and windowsills it’s harder to manipulate the energy from the sun – and light is what plants so desperately lack this month. I must remind myself that weak, leggy seedings searching for light are just not worth it. Instead, I keep busy, occupying myself with seed catalogues, dreams, and some resolutions about how to be a better gardener.
As always, my mind comes back to soil. So, my resolution is what more can I be doing to look after my soil? If I want to grow delicious and nutritious food, I know it starts with the biology right under my feet. I already practice ‘no-dig’ – the act of minimal disturbance to the earth allowing earthworms, bacteria and funghi to thrive. I already abstain from using any fungicides, pesticides or herbicides – catastrophic to beneficial insects. I already take the time to make my own compost – cycling nutrients from my kitchen scraps and plant debris right back to the earth. But this year I have discovered something else I can try as part of my new year’s garden resolution… AACT, otherwise know as actively aerated compost tea. This is not just your usual compost tea. If like me you have been growing vegetables for a while you have probably steeped nettles, comfrey or compost in water to make what can only be described as an incredibly stinky anaerobic (without oxygen) soup of brown liquid hopefully containing some goodness to be applied to your plants. The magic with AACT is the ‘Active Aeration’ which basically introduces oxygen to the water via a simple pump and creates an aerobic (with oxygen) environment for beneficial bacteria to thrive. It’s simply a recipe of water (non-chlorinated), a handful or so of home-made biologically active compost, some sugars to feed the bacteria and 24 hours of oxygenation via a pump to allow those good bacteria to multiply to levels sure to make my soil sing with happiness!
It’s also in January that I return to the temptation of seed catalogues. Easily I spy something totally irresistible and interesting, something I have never grown before and before I know it, I’ve pressed that order button for more seeds. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I am talking about! Over the years I have ‘discovered’ some absolute belters I now wouldn’t be without and nurtured those January impulse buys that will never grace my patch again. One such thing is Asparagus Peas (Tetragonolobus purpurea). They sound amazing, don’t they? I impulse bought, I sowed, I nurtured and I was bitterly disappointed. Neither an asparagus or a pea, the plant produces little winged pods that you eat when young, but they tasted pretty bland to me and become very tough if left to grow a second too long. A waste of space and time in my opinion. However, something that did intrigue one cold dark winter evening was Rats’s Tails Radish (Raphanus caudatus). I pondered how could a radish with such a horrible name could be any good. Before I knew it, I felt it deserved a place in my basket and I am pleased I did. Not really like a radish at all – it is grown for its slender, bumpy green seed pods. These are what you eat, and wow do they pack a punch. Crispy, juicy, spicy – these pods are the type of food that let’s you know you are alive! I snack on them straight from the plant, or if there’s enough left harvest them to eat stir-fried alongside a curry. Other successful weird and wonderful impulse buys have included ‘Crystal Lemon’ and ‘Crystal Apple’ cucumbers which both have a pleasant taste, but the truth is we grow them mainly because they look like dragon eggs. Also, strawberry sticks (Chenopodium capitatum) which is basically spinach that explodes with bright read fruits that look like strawberries. It’s the most curious looking plant and often when I show it to people, they don’t believe it’s real. Unfortunately, the fruits are tough and nutty and not at all like a strawberry. Despite their unappealing flavour they make us smile and that makes them good enough to grow again. I’m excited just thinking about what seeds I will discover this January!
Another equally thrilling job for January is ordering my seed potatoes. Growing my own opens up a world of possibility elevating the humble spud to something truly exciting. Did you know there are over 4,000 different varieties of potato in the world? In the UK we have access to about 500 of these and commercially only a miserable 80 are ever likely to hit the supermarket shelves. I always grow at least 3 varieties and every year choose something totally different. I like to select a ‘first early’, a ‘second early’ and a ‘main crop’. These categories basically give me an idea of how long they take to grow from planting to eating with (you guessed it) first earlies being first, second earlies being second and main crops coming in last. This year I have been seduced by ‘Picasso’, ‘Edzell blue’ and ‘Lady Balfour’. Time will tell if I have made the right choice, my main crop ‘Apache’ was amazing last year.
Feeling thrilled about my resolution to boost the beneficial bacteria in my soil, excited about my impulse seed purchases and happy with my potato choices I kick back with a large glass of red wine – whoops!
There is no escaping that the colder, darker days of winter are coming and I am okay with that. In fact, like the veg patch I am ready for a well-deserved rest too.
The plot is naturally coming to the end of a cycle and whilst this makes it a great month to tidy up, I remind myself not to be too ruthless in the clearing down. Nature is not tidy and if I want my plot to be beneficial to insects and other creepy-crawlies then I must leave a few corners untouched.
When I clear annuals, I try never to pull the whole plant out as by cutting then off at the base the roots are left in the soil to decompose over winter feeding the soil microbes in the process.
Weeds are an exception, as they need managing and the great thing about weeding at this time of year is that they don’t grow back! Well not as vigorously anyway. It seems like even the weeds need a break this time of year.
The best gift that nature gives me this time of year is fallen leaves. They are like gold to me. I gather them up from wherever I can, my garden at home, my friends’ gardens and yes, I have even pulled over at the side of the road and asked perplexed village council workers if I could take a bag or two of the leaves they have just swept up!
The leaves can be used in a couple of ways.
Leaf mould is basically a compost type substance made from decomposed leaves. It takes time (round 2 years, perhaps quicker if you remember to turn them occasionally), but the result is a beautiful, crumbly, rich organic matter that is an amazing soil conditioner. It takes a long time because it’s not bacteria that gets to work decomposing them it’s fungi. Bacteria like breaking down things high in nitrogen, like green grass clippings, as they feed on the nitrogen, heating up and get to work quite quickly whereas leaves are super high in carbon and without a source of nitrogen their cooler counterparts’ fungi do the leg work. More slowly for sure, but it’s worth it.
Collected leaves can be plied up in a cage construction or simply stuffed into a bin bag with some holes poked into it for drainage and air, then left somewhere out of sight (it’s down the back of the shed for me!) as you don’t want to be looking at them for two years. Once ready you will have an outstanding mulch for the veg beds.
The other thing you can do it just spread them raw onto your beds, which I often do to save time. However, it’s really important not to dig them into your soil. Remember the nitrogen loving bacteria? Well they need to feed on the nitrogen to decompose things and if the bacteria fancy having a go at the leaves they will use up nitrogen in the soil potentially depriving your plants of the precious element. Left on the surface and kept moist, fungal magic happens and I find that the earthworms quickly get involved and benefit from the decaying leaf matter. Because of this, I keep my raw leaf scattering away from beds filled with nitrogen hungry plants such as leafy greens just to be sure there’s no naughty nitrogen robbing going on. Perennials, tress and shrubs are perfect candidates for a raw leaf mulch.
It's not too late to sow broad beans. I have usually got some into the ground by now, but if I find an empty spot looking longingly at me this month, I will reach for the broad bean seeds. My go-to variety is ‘Aguadulce Claudia’. It’s super reliable for winter sowings and produces really well. Then there is another variety I like called ‘Crimson Flowered’, which you won’t be shocked to know has stunning purple-red flowers! Whatever the colour the bees adore them and with their help I look forward to eating them early next year.
November is also a great month to plant garlic. The cloves need a prolonged period of cold, called vernalisation for the bulbs to form properly. There are two types of garlic, hard neck or soft neck. I favour hard neck varieties because they store and keep incredibly well and if I have a good year and get the quantities right garlic is one of the only vegetables I can be truly self-sufficient in all year round! Buying garlic sets (eg the cloves) is the easiest way to grow garlic and it’s highly recommended that you buy them from a reputable supplier to increase chances of success and reduce risk of disease. But don’t tell anyone - I have often totally ignored this advice and planted cloves from the shops that did just as well and cost me pennies oppose to pounds! That’s the thing about us veg gardeners, we do like to save money and take a risk now and again. Sadly, I do find my garlic succumb to rust most years. It’s a fungal disease so-called because it truly does look like rusty orange spots that appear on metal. I don’t lose my cool though. The leaves will often look terrible, but I find the plant is able to cope well enough to still deliver a respectable garlic bulb by midsummer.
So, as I am busy clearing beds, weeding, leaf collecting and sowing my garlic and broad beans… I wonder if there is actually time for that well deserved rest!
The door in question is slightly ajar and through the door is Winter, but with the veg patch still so bountiful and beautiful I really don’t want to step though it yet.
While I resist all I can, as Jon Snow well knows – winter IS coming – and towards the end of this month we will reach the autumn equinox when day and night will be in perfect balance across the world marking the tipping point into colder and darker days. Listen to me, anyone would think it is winter already! It is definielty only autumn and a beautiful time of year on the allotments with soft light casting long ochre shadows over the plot. As I look around there are baskets of produce to harvest and enjoy – kale, squash, beetroot, beans, I even have tomatoes looking mighty fine.
The harvests outweigh the sowing this time of year, but I do like to sow broad beans in September as they can withstand the harshest of elements. ‘Aguadulce Claudia’ is a really reliable variety and I have no issue with sowing them direct but if you do have a mouse problem they can be started in trays away from hungry rodents. I find autumn sown broad beans suffer far less with black-fly damage than their spring counterparts.
My favourite harvest this month is homegrown sweetcorn. I have never tasted anything as delicious as a cob picked, cooked, and eaten within minutes. The reason those cobs taste so superior to anything you could buy in the shops is because the kernels are filled with sweet sugars that like to convert to starch from the moment they are picked. The longer they sit, the less sugar and more starch – I would love to know how many days lapse between a cob in the supermarkets being harvested and eaten. Anyway, it’s not an issue if you have your own veg garden. No starchy cobs for us! But, of course before you can tuck into those succulent golden cobs you need to grown the things first! My modest success I believe is down to a few things. Firstly, I only grow one variety each year. Sweetcorn are wind pollinated and if you have different varieties near each other, they are likely to cross pollinate and produce something different to what you were expecting. Secondly, I do plant my cobs in grid formation to aid the chance of good pollination but I don’t leave pollination to chance. Once the tassel on the top of the plant appears I pick one off and tickle all the silks with it thereby transferring pollen to where it needs to be. Incredibly each individual silk is attached to one individual kernel and each silk must receive a grain of pollen for that kernel to be fertilised. Ever peeled back a home-grown cob only to find some plump yellow kernels and some gnarly pale looking ones? The gnarly ones didn’t get pollinated, so trust me tassel tickling is the way to go. Lastly, I normally only share this advice with friends, but I feel like we are getting to know one another so here goes. Wee-wee! That’s right – sweetcorn benefit from a good dose of nitrogen and there is nothing better than urine.
My mind turns to mulch and microbes. I like to apply a thick layer of mulch to my beds in September to look after the soil biology over winter. Something I have learnt as an organic gardener is how important the soil is, or more specifically how important the things that live in soil are. Right under our feet is a remarkable world of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms and insects all feeding and thriving in each other’s company. The reason I do not dig over my plot or use any artificial fertilisers or chemicals is so I do not damage this web of life that have complex relationships with my plants providing them everything they need. Mulching with organic matter such as compost or fallen leaves is a fantastic way to boost microbiological activity in the soil, which in turn cycle nutrients and provide plants what they need to thrive.
The truth is there is no bad time to mulch, but this month suits me as the beds are starting to clear and it feels nice to have a tidy up. I must remember not to be too tidy though as wildlife and beneficial insects don’t appreciate neatness like we do. One thing I absolutely believe is it is possible to have a veg patch or garden that is easy on the eye AND good for wildlife and a great way to achieve this is by building a bug hotel. With a bug hotel you can add style to the otherwise messy pile of sticks and stones. Best of all they are great fun to make and even more so if you have kids who can get involved. A great tip is to visit the local recycling centre or car boot sale and pick up one of those old wooden wine racks – they make a perfect structure to fill with all the different materials that insects like. A roof is a good idea as the creep-crawlies like to stay dry, then it’s a case of hunting around for materials to fill it up. You will be surprised how much you will need! Here’s some of the things I have used in my bug house:
· Bamboo canes
· Pine cones
· Twigs & sticks
· Logs (with a variety of holes drilled into them)
· Perforated Bricks
· Broken plant pots
· Bits of old wood
I even rolled up an old door mat and stuffed that in! I think the greater the variety of natural textures and materials the better.
So, my bug house is built, my beds are mulched and my baskets bulge with another bountiful harvest. Winter is coming you say? Bring it on.
As I sit soaking up the warm sun, I thank my previous self for all the careful planning and sowing that is now filling every inch of the plot with candy for the eyes and food (metaphorical and physical) for the soul.
It’s a riot of colour amongst the green and I realise why I adore growing flowers on the allotment. They bring many benefits to the vegetable garden, from attracting pollinators to deterring pests, but it’s this month that they really shine and remind me that indulging them just for the sheer beauty they impart is reason enough to grow them. Not convinced? Well, how about growing them as part of your edible crops? Many flowers are edible. Some are quite delicious, some look amazing, and some boast health benefits too. But, like anything you decide to put into your mouth you absolutely must do your research and check they are edible as some are toxic and could make you quite ill (move AWAY from the foxgloves!). Safety sorted, you can set about enhancing a dull green salad to a glorious bowl of rainbow colour with just a few sprinkles of petals. My favourites are pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) for a lemony kick, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) and not just orange ones as there are red and even pink varieties, cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) for a pop of electric blue and the delicate cerise pink leaves of Malope trifida ‘vulcan’. And no summer cocktail would be complete without a couple of borage (Borago officinalis) flowers.
Speaking of cocktails, I will be enjoying a tipple or two at our annual Village Show this month. This will be the first July since the pandemic that the whole village has come together in a jubilant event to celebrate the bounty of our allotments and gardens. I can smell the freshly baked biscuits, hear the chatter of admiration over the length of the leeks and feel the tension over who has grown the best tomatoes already! If you have a village show near you, I highly recommend getting involved. It’s always a fun day and when I was relatively new to growing not so long ago, I came away with not one, not two, but SIX trophies including best kept allotment. I left the old boys quaking in their wellies I can tell you.
Something I admire at my village show is the homemade jams, chutneys, and pickles. I confess to be terrible at preserving my produce and if there is a month to while away the hours bubbling and brewing it’s July. The produce is coming through thick and fast and despite our greatest efforts as a family we will not be able to eat all the beans and certainly never all the courgettes! Luckily, I have many willing friends and family who take my gluts and magically return me a jar of something delicious to squirrel away for the winter.
The other great thing about July is that I can kick back and enjoy the fruits of my labour, but the window of opportunity for sowing more is not over. In fact, I find a little frenzied direct sowing in July quite thrilling. All the careful module sowing and mollycoddling of raising seeds on a sunny windowsill is a distant memory. This month I just go for it direct in the ground wherever there is space. A flourish of sowings – beetroot, carrots, spring onions, chard and my favourite dwarf beans ‘Stanley’ all hitting the earth to provide a late harvest. What’s there to lose?
One of the highlights of the harvests right now will be potatoes. I don’t dig my plot, but harvesting potatoes is one exception – you see digging around for those nuggets of gold is one of the greatest pleasures of having a plot, especially with kids. The hardest thing is knowing when to stop! If I do get carried away, I bag them up and store them in the dark and cool of the woodshed to enjoy for many months afterwards. Nothing beats homegrown buttered potatoes, especially with a scattering of those edible flowers we’ve been talking about!
This is also the month I plant out Purple Sprouting Broccoli (PSB) babies. I grow a lot from seed, but sometimes there is no shame in buying plug ready plants from a local garden nursery and I happen to have a particularly good one right behind my house. The two varieties of PSB I always go for are ‘Rudolph’ – a really reliable early producer, I like to think named after the well known reindeer lighting the way at the front of Santa’s sleigh. And the other is ‘Cardinal’ that crops slightly later, ensuring I have a steady supply of one of my favourite greens come spring. Like all brassicas they like to be firmed in very well and need protection to keep off bird attacks. I find dangling CDs on lines of string do enough to keep the hungry pigeons away.
My broccoli is in, my late flurry of seeds are sown and as I sit back and admire my beautiful plot (hopefully with a couple of trophies from the village show keeping me company) it’s not just the bees that are buzzing this month.
My Top Ten Edible Flowers:
1. Calendula officinalis (Pot Marigold)
2. Tropaeolum majus (Nasturtium)
3. Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)
4. Malope trifida (Malope ‘Vulcan’)
5. Borago officinalis (Borage)
6. Allium schoenoprasum (Chive flower)
7. Viola Tricolor (Viola)
8. Dianthus barbatus (Sweet William)
9. Myosotis (Forget-me-not)
10. Viola x wittrockiana (Pansy)