Thursday, 1 May 2014

Sunshine, pests and natural fertilizer

Busy time of year this is. It's coming to the end of spring and the spring showers are doing their magic. It's been a few weeks without rain and many of the plants have been showing their discomfort in the heat of the midday sun. Luckily nature has a remedy for such occasions. Mulch and cover crops. Despite over three weeks without rain, most of the undisturbed land remains lush with growth and just below the soil surface there is moisture. In contrast, the land that's been tilled mercilessly over the last two months has been kept bare and as a result has completely dried out in the sun. Very little to no signs of life can be seen there. But the dry spell has come to an end. Last night we were treated to a small shower and it has not really stopped raining since this morning.The majority of the plants in our garden have perked up with the much welcomed injection of heavenly growth. I have no doubt that it would be all systems go for the weed now. 
I've been having some problems down at the allotment. The garlics are all doing well, the potatoes are all up and looking healthy, and all of the comfrey root cutting I planted have taken. So what's the problem? There is a rodent terrorising the allotment. It's proven very difficult to grow anything from seed down at the allotment. I haven't been able to identify it yet but it looks like a mouse with very small ears and like burrowing. I thought it might be a type of shrew, but it does not have a pointed snout. It has eaten every one of the runner bean seeds I've planted and has been borrowing below the peas and damaging their root system in the process. So far the only real damage it's caused is eating the runner bean seeds. So I might be a little late on the runner bean front this season. We've also had some problems at the home garden. We have been visited regularly by a small wild rabbit. It likes dandelions and evening primrose and the occasion kale. It hasn't caused any major problems yet but I am considering setting some traps before it invites it's friends to the feast of fresh greens over the summer. 
Another pest that arrived in the home garden are aphids. There is an infestation on the mint which I planted in a large pot. The green aphids have infested the plant and have formed colonies on the new growth of the plant. I am planing to make up a natural remedy which I have used in the past and has been successful. First I remove as much as I can by hand, by simply rubbing the infected area with my thumb and forefinger, then I mix up a solution of 1lt of water, 2 or 3 crushed garlic and a dash of vinegar. I let that sit overnight and then add it to a spray bottle and treat the plant every week or so. It is important to note that it is best to stop treatment for at least two week before harvest. But only if you mind your herbs tasting of garlic. 
It hasn't been all dull and gloom though. As I mentioned before. The garlic, comfrey, and peas are all growing well at the allotment, some of the onions have made it through and seem to be winning the war against the slugs. Back in the home garden I have been sowing seeds regularly and I have just planted out the first set of tomatoes in the greenhouse and will be planting out more next week. This year I am trying tomatoes outdoors as well as in the greenhouse and I saved some scotch bonnet chilli seeds from some shop bought chilli and I'll be trying to keep at least one as a perennial plant. I am very excited about this possibility. I shall keep you updated on the progress.
The land has been generous enough to present us with lots of gifts and one gift that I have been happy to receive recently has been courtesy of the local moles. I have been collecting mole hills and using the soil in my potting mixes, and filling up the raised beds. There seems to be an endless supply of mole hills and the soil, I find, excellent for earthing up potatoes when mixed with a little compost.
Something else I am very excited about is making my own natural fertilizer.I am a big believer in feeding the organisms that live in the soil. I think that if I supply to the soil food web and keep the organisms healthy and thriving in turn they will feed the plants for me. And I am convince that they know how to look after plants better than I do since they've been doing it so well for so long. I read that plants prefer a slow release of nutrients over a long period rather than short bursts of high levels of nutrients. I know that some plants are great at storing high levels of nutrients in their leaves and so I have been gathering nettles, yarrow, comfrey and wild parsley from the area around where I live and adding them to a large container. I slightly crush the combination of leaves and then add rain water till all the leaves are submerged. I leave this to sit for about two weeks (stirring twice a day), then remove all the remaining leaf mass, leaving only liquid in the container (I sometimes pass the mixture through a Hessian sac to get more of the bits out). Then I get a old sock and fill it with fresh manure. I then tie the open end of the sock to a stick which I lie across the top of the container. This allows the manure filled sock to dangle down into the container without touching the bottom. I then fill the container all the way to the top with rain water and leave that to sit. The manure acts as a food source for beneficial bacteria allowing them to multiple and thrive in the liquid. The most important thing in order to get this right is to add oxygen/air to the mix as offer as possible. I have seen some people use a small electric pump, however I use a metal tube which I blow into every time I walk pass the container (which is very often, five time a day easy). Be warned, the mixture really stinks. I use the mixture by adding it to a watering can and watering the garden with it. The mix I use is 1 part fertilizer to 10 part water. I have been using this technique for three years and have not had any complains from my plants yet.
One last thing I wanted to share here is propagating herbs. I was given a sage plant recently and I wanted to create more plants from it. The technique I used in the past for propagating herbs was to take softwood cuttings. This worked fine but it required a lot of monitoring. The technique I am using with this new sage plant is a technique called layering. It's simply taking a piece of the 'mother' plant and burying it in a small pot of compost without separating it from the plant. This means that I don't have to worry to much about the pot drying out or not or getting too wet as the 'child' plant is still being kept alive by the 'mother'. I would leave this like this for a few weeks and see if it takes root then I'll report back to you.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Spring Garden

The allotment Pond
It's nearly April and the weather has most definitely turned. It's been misty but mild, wet but sunny. Spring is really here. Most of the bulbs we planted around the pond are showing signs of flowering and it feels like the last of the frost is finally on its' way. 
Runner bean supports
So far we have planted out all our potatoes, and I have recently sown some runner beans. A bit of a gamble but I am fairly confident that the mulch will help them cope with the cool weather and they won't show themselves until the last frost has pasted. We also transplanted out our onions which we started from seed in late winter. The second set of broad beans have began to poke out of the mulch and the peas we planted back in the winter are still alive and doing ok. 
Bumble bee enjoying
some willow pollen
We used willow as the pond borders and a short while after construction blossoms began to appear. Soon after the bumble bees showed up. It was lovely to see the bees taking an interest in the allotment. I hope that between the mulch, flowering plants and the pond many varieties of beneficial creatures would become regular features down by the allotment.
The garden bed showing
heavily harvested greens 
Back in the home garden we have been feasting on spring greens.  Fast growing greens that we planted back in winter are really going for it now that the days are longer and warmer. We've been enjoying mizuna, mustard greens, black kale, coriander, spring onions, perpetual spinach, and in the greenhouse, rainbow chard, pak choi, corn salad and cabbage leaves. We've started leaving two days between harvests but the plants, in the greenhouse especially, seem to be growing faster than we can eat them (no complains) which means that we get to eat them everyday which is great. If you haven't planted out your spicy salads yet, I'll recommend doing it soon. 
Rainbow Chard and
Pak Choi. Inter-planted
with beetroot.
Cabbage heads nearly ready for picking
Mulching the bed 
I read somewhere that prolonged exposure to UV rays may cause the soil organisms to become irradiated, rendering them incapable of processing the nutrients in the soil and in some cases killing them all together. I guess this is why nature doesn't allow soil to be left uncovered for too long. With this knowledge we decided to cover our garden bed with a layer of bulky course grade compost (home-made of course).
We've also got a few seedlings on the go. More kale, chard, onions, beetroot and peas are well on the way and would be ready for planting out soon. As always we try to stagger the sowing so that we would be able to harvest over a longer period as oppose to harvesting all at once. We've been planting in two to three weeks intervals and fingers crossed it'll pay off later on down the line. 
Lastly, I visited the May Project Gardens in London last weekend and it was amazing. It's always a treat visiting the gardens and reconnecting with all the lovely people there. Over the weekend we sowed seeds, pruned fruit trees, trained a mature grape vine, transplanted seedlings, prepared the polytunnel for growing salads, tomatoes, peppers, and other heat loving crops, and finished off with a feast cooked and enjoyed around an open fire. If you're ever in London and you're looking for an inspiring place to visit I highly recommend the May Project Gardens in Morden, South London.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Planting Potatoes

This year we're trying two different varieties of potato, mainly because we weren't able to find the variety we normally grow. we've had much success growing 'Romano' but after searching all of south-east Norfolk we've had to settle for something new this season.
We've gone for two varieties which are said to be both reliable and resilient. The first is an early variety called 'Rocket'. It is said to be one of the earlies to crop and produces high yields. The second is 'Desiree', which is a re skinned potato with yellow flesh and is harvested later in the season as a main crop. So if all goes to plan we should be harvesting and eating potatoes from as early as May and then again in September. The hope here is that we'll have potatoes all through the summer and enough to see us through winter.
Chitted seed potatoes ready for planting
Growing potatoes is quite simple. I've only had problems once and that was due to my own ignorance. I had the idea that leaving potatoes in the ground would be a better form of storage. Not a good idea, the slugs got them all. In my experience, potatoes can be used to break up heavy soils and save you having to do the hard work of digging over your plot. They all seem to do better in soils that have been heavily manured. They also grow a lot quicker once they have been chitted. What you're trying to achieve with chitting is short compacted deep purple coloured shoots as oppose to the long translucent shoots you'll get if the 'seeds' are left in the dark for too long. However I tend to leave them in the dark for a while, until their shoots grow to about 1/2 inch, before placing them in a sunny frost free spot for further chitting. I also like to wait for the seed potatoes to go a bit soft before planting. I've had better results applying these techniques.
Mulched bed
Once chitted, it's time to plant out. Some growers tend to plant potatoes deep in the soil or in soil mounts which works fine. But I like growing in mulch. When I prepare the site I add a very generous layer of straw mulch mixed with some compost onto the soil surface and let it sit for a month or two before planting out. I like my mulch deep. Straw compresses after a while. After compression a mulch approximately fist deep is good. In my opinion, the deeper the better. 
The first step is to make holes in the mulch. I makes hole up to the soil surface and then just enough into the soil to completely bury the 'seeds'. Growing in mulch is amazing. It allows for easy harvesting, helps retain moisture and nutrients, creates habitats for predators like spiders and slow worms and harvesting is a breeze. When growing in mulch there is no need to big up potatoes at harvest time. Simply push apart the mulch and pick. This way you can just harvest what you need at the time and let the plat go on producing. This is especially attractive when growing early varieties.
Seed potato wrapped
with comfrey
Step two is to place the 'seeds' into the holes. Potatoes do better in nutrient rich soils. The more nutrients available the better the crop will be.One techniques I've picked up over the years is using comfrey leaves. Wrap each 'seed' in a comfrey leaf and place into the hole, shoots pointing up. Comfrey leaves are high in silica, nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron and are often used as fertilizer. As the leaves break down they make all these nutrients available to the potato plants throughout its' growth. Comfrey is one of my favourite herbs mainly because of it's many uses and benefits in the garden. I like to grow as much comfrey as I can get away with in my garden. The plants is large and beautiful and attracts many beneficial insects. It can also be used to make medicinal ointments, and of course it provides a constant supply of natural fertilizer.
Next is to fill the holes. One option is to simply refill the holes with mulch but adding compost would mean more nutrients for your future plants. I like using home made compost. I believe that store bought compost, thought eventually works well, lacks the soil microbes that are abundant in backyard compost. It is these microbes that enables plants to access the nutrients in soils, and making and using my own compost is one of my favourite things about gardening. I tend to overfill the holes because the next step causes the compost to sink a bit. 
Once all the holes are filled, I give each one a good drink of water and recover with mulch. Over the next few months I will keep adding mulch as and when the plants begin to emerge. This forces the plant to make more tubers under the mulch as it is deprived of sunlight. It is important that the tubers underground (under-mulch in this case) are not exposed to sunlight as this tends to make them go green and become poisonous.