Wednesday 28 December 2011

Flowering late December

Following the footsteps of other gardeners, such as Patient Gardner and Veg Plotting, I took some photos today of what was still flowering, out of season, this late in the year. These are all from my front garden, which is south-facing. Although the front garden has had frost, it obviously wasn't hard enough to kill off all flowering plants.

Good old Calendula 

The Helenium is more yellow than it's usual orangey-yellow tones, but I can assure you that it is 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'. I would add that it appears to be a perpetual flowerer. This year it started flowering in June and is still going at the end of December. I've had a lot of bunches of flowers for the house and to give to friends, and this wonderful plant just kept on flowering.

Helenium 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'

And good old Calendula again, a yellow variety

On to more muted tones, some of the Verbena Bonariensis still has flowers on it. I leave it over winter as goldfinches love the seeds, and I like it to self seed so I can pot up some free plants to pass on the next year.

Verbena Bonariensis

Finally, some Lavender, angustifolia 'Hidcote'. As usual, I trimmed all my lavender mid-Autumn to help prepare it for next years flowers. However, being so mild it decided to flower a second time this year.

Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote'

Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote'

This time last year everything was under several feet of snow, and these pictures remind us of the changeability of the seasons. As ever, nothing is guaranteed in the garden, there are challenges and new delights every year, every season.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Choosing heritage seeds

I never fail to get excited about the arrival of the next years Heritage Seed Library (HSL) catalogue. So many choices of wonderful sounding veg, often with great stories behind them. I've been a member for quite a few years now and have even started sending back some seed, such as my favourite pea 'Lativan', which I have written about in the past.

There are several vegetable varieties from HSL that are now favourites at Gwenfar's Lottie. Besides my Lativan Pea, this also includes the Estonian Yellow Mini Cherry, pictured below.

Tomato - Estonian Yellow Mini Cherry

This is incredibly prolific, something like 80-100 little cherry tomatoes on a branch and lots of branches. It also showed some blight resistance, in that when blight hit, not all of the Estonian toms were hit, and even if they were, they kept growing and fruiting anyway. I gave away quite a few batches of these, froze some, and of course ate quite a lot. They are incredibly sweet, just like eating sweets, and with the wonderful colour to go with them. Bursts of sunshine in your mouth!

Another favourite is Lettuce 'Bronze Arrow', and I've met a lot of people at least in Oxford who also love this variety. It's very reliable, has a slightly nutty flavour and is slower to bolt than many lettuces I've tried. I have saved seeds from it this year and will be sowing lots come 2012.

Lettuce 'Bronze Arrow' close to flowering, late August

Other favourite HSL varieties include Kale 'Hungry Gap' and another Pea, 'Robinson', which I've also written about previously.

My HSL catalogue for 2012 arrived last week. Like a child in a sweet shop I poured over the varieties on each page, getting excited by such a wonderful range of seeds on offer. As a member you can choose up to 6 varieties, and these are my choices for 2012.

Kale 'Daubenton': dating back to Victorian times, this is apparently a perennial kale and can be treated as a cut and come again veg. I've been thinking about growing more perennial veg in my front garden, to give it a bit more structure as well as an ongoing food crop (I grow a mix of perennial flowers, annual veg, fruit and herbs in the front garden). So this one hit the top of the list.

Brussels Sprouts 'Catskill': coming from the US, it is meant to be robust and be good for both eating fresh and for freezing. I have not tried heritage Brussels before, so thought I'd give it a go.

Broad Bean 'Martock': I couldn't resist this one, it's key attraction being that it was a mainstay of the medieval diet - that's some history! Grown in Somerset for centuries, it was donated to HSL in 1970's after the beans were offered to someone in exchange for a donation to the Bath & Wells cathedral roof restoration. Medieval bean, medieval cathedral - will it suit modern tastes?

Broad Bean 'Red Bristow's': as my friends know, I've got a bit of a thing for red and purple vegetables. I love purple/blue beans (see below), but they usually loose their colour once cooked. These broad beans are meant to stay red even when cooked, and have a delicious taste, so seemed like a good choice for palate and plate.

French Bean 'Blue Coco': I must admit, I just love the name and the fact that it is a purple/blue bean. Ok, I was also attracted by the fact that it is meant to be good in salads and be hardy, reliable and prolific. Oh, and they have purple tinged leaves and lilac flowers. I think this might be another for the front garden.

Dwarf French Bean 'Hutterite Soup': a variety coming from an Austrian religious sect that moved to Canada in the 1750's. I'm more interested in beans for drying to use in winter for soups and stews and this one is meant to be perfect for precisely that reason.

So those are my heritage veg choices for 2012. As all gardeners know, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what it says on the packet, it is how it performs and tastes that really matters. Based on past experience growing heritage varieties, I suspect there will be at least a couple of tasty winners in this selection.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Attacking brambles

Spent a couple of good hours in the sun down at the lottie, attacking brambles. Kevin and I were delighted to be joined by our friend Manishta, who for reasons best left to herself, thinks 'brambles are cool'.

Manishta, rugged up and happily cutting up brambles

Thanks to Manishta's help I am really feeling we are finally starting to really cut into the brambles. This pile Manishta is putting the cuttings on, goes under cover to help dry them out. Probably late January we can have a bonfire and burn them to the ground. Which will be good timing, as where the pile is now is where I'm planning on putting my shed in early Spring.

Of course, it wasn't all girl power. Kevin was a star, attacking bramble roots with great gusto. Or a pick. Or maybe we should call the pick 'great gusto'?

Kevin and the pick 'great gusto' 

And here is the offending root...

A proud Kevin holding up the root, "I got you, ha ha ha"

To thank Manishta for her work, I dug up some carrots and parsnips for her to take home. One parsnip was very well rooted and when I finally got it out, well, you can see why. That white long thin bit is a part of the root I pulled out. The whole thing was almost a metre long!

A day in the sun at the lottie. Definition of a good time.

Friday 16 December 2011

Mulching experiment: update 1

A month after I first began the mulching experiment, here is the first update.

 Experiment 1: after 1 month

For bed 1 (standard cardboard and compost mulch), you can see that the cardboard is starting to break down a bit. No annual weeds have come up. This may not seem significant, but on my non-mulched beds, like those still with spinach and chard, some annual weeds have sprung up, even though I weeded them at the same time as setting up the mulching experiment. Usually I wouldn't need to weed so late, but we had such a warm autumn. I suspect now that it's finally turning into winter (light dash of snow on the ground this morning), the weeds shouldn't grow any more now until end of Winter/early Spring.

Bed 2: mid-November 2011

Bed 2: mid-December 2011

For bed 2, with the cardboard and non-composted plant material mulch, if you compare to the first photo from November, you can tell, only slightly (!), that the plant material is breaking down just a little. I think adding the extra compost to hold it down has helped, as has finally getting some cold weather. But not a lot of change really.

Let's see how it looks in January!

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Mulching experiment

Green manure: Hungarian rye on the left, tares to the right. Will be dug in early Spring.

It's been the mulching time of year, well, more in Autumn, I'm just writing this up late! I decided to try experimenting with a couple of different mulching techniques on a couple of beds at the lottie which didn't have green manure in them, so they would not be bare over winter. The main reasons for mulching are:
  1. Killing weeds by denying them light
  2. To conserve water - reducing evaporation
  3. To protect the soil from erosion or capping
  4. To encourage biological activity
  5. To add organic matter and nutrients to the soil
(from The Earth Care Manual, p.194)

The first bed I am doing my mulching experiment on had potatoes growing in it this year, and will be planted with courgettes, pumpkins & squashes and corn in 2012. My key aim for the mulching on this bed was to add organic matter and nutrients in preparation for plants that will need lots of food. A secondary aim was to kill weeds (annuals) by denying them light.

Having already tried to clear the bed of perennial weeds like couch grass when it was first dug, and again after I pulled up all the potatoes, I had hoped that I had got it all. Couch grass is very sneaky and the tiniest amount left behind will start a new plant. Clearly I haven't quite mastered the art of getting rid of perennial weeds as I still have couch grass appearing! So I therefore first did my best to dig out any perennial weeds, again.

Experiment 1: standard cardboard & compost mulch

I then covered the bed with cardboard, and then added in a couple inches of compost on top of the cardboard. The cardboard should help kill off any annual weeds. It will breakdown over winter, and the worms will take the compost down into the soil, doing the handy work of adding it's nutrients to the soil.

This is a fairly standard type of mulching, so I'm not doing anything new. I'm going to monitor this bed over winter and see how it breaks down. I will probably add another layer of mulch in early spring, as pumpkins etc are hungry feeders and I want to give them the best possible chance of yielding lots of yummy food.

The experiment part really comes in with comparing this standard way of mulching with another bed I mulched. This bed had broad beans on it this year, and I will be planting brassicas on it in 2012 (in fact there are already some over-winter cabbages in the bed). Again, these need lots of nitrogen nutrients.

For the 2nd bed, I'm using the idea of 'three-layer grow through mulch' (Earth Care Manual, p.195), but adapting it. The 'three-layer' mulch first has cardboard or newspaper placed on the bed. Then manure is added, and then holes made plants, i.e. potatoes, planted though a hole. The 3rd layer is a mulch of grass mowings, straw, generally loose material, which helps contain moisture. This system is really used for when you are immediately added young plants/seed potatoes, not leaving it over winter.

For my experiment* I have added a layer of cardboard (after again doing my best to get rid of the perennial weeds), but instead of adding manure, I have thrown on all the left-over bits of plants. This includes everything from the remains of corn, chard/spinach I had dug up prior to it going to seed, carrot tops, broad bean and pea roots, the remains of the asparagus plants after cutting them down in autumn, etc. I then threw on some compost to help hold it down. The lottie is very exposed to wind and as the plant material is a bit light, I needed something to hold it down so it didn't just blow away.

*This isn't my own bright idea. I know I've read or heard about this, or something similar to it, a few years ago but cannot find where, so I'm unable to give the credit for the idea. I'm just using what I remember and adapting it to what I think might work.

Experiment 2: Showing the cardboard layer, then plant material on top.

I could put all the plant material in the compost and break it down that way as usual, but I wanted to see how it might go if I just add the material straight onto a bed in autumn. My thoughts were that maybe the frosts and snow will help break the plant material and cardboard down a bit, and then when it starts warming up in early Spring, I'm hoping the worms will get to work and start taking some of the material down into the soil.

At the very least, this mulch will help kill annual weeds and stop the soil from being bare and at risk of winds blowing away some of the good top soil over winter. If it doesn't break down enough, I don't loose anything as I can just pull up the plant material and put it in the compost bin, then add some standard compost back onto the cardboard and bed.

In nature, trees loose their leaves and just fall to the ground. It doesn't get raked up and put on a compost pile and then once broken down added back to the soil. It is left to do it's own thing and nature gets to work and over time it breaks down and releases all it's nutrients back into the soil. So I'm trying this because I was curious to see how much the plant material would break down over winter, when just left there as is, kind of mimicking nature a little bit.

The photos above were from mid-November. I'll be taking photos once a month over the next couple of months and report back how it is going.