It's November, the time to be thinking of what to plant in the beds next year, to start sketching in which crops will be planted where. I have plans of my plots drawn out to include all the beds including those which are “permanently” devoted to raspberries, blackberries and asparagus. The most important consideration is not to repeat crops more often than every four years and also it is worth considering what has been on the bed previously (see Crop Rotation). I have drawn up a spreadsheet which shows the beds down the rows and the year along the top of the column so it makes slotting in next year’s crops relatively straight forward. It does pay to keep such a clear record because it’s impossible to recall the crops grown on beds for the past four years. It also means I can avoid planting up a bed which is riddled with a specific disease affecting a type of produce. For example I record any bed which shows evidence of clubroot or onion whiterot. Also if those rogue potatoes left in the ground accidentally from last year are carrying blight they will not directly infect this year’s growth. Besides, the anorak keeps me dry in wet weather!
Climate change has extended the growing season again this year and once more underlines the need for flexibility in interpreting monthly lists and charts of what to do and when. The first frosts which cause the ground covering nasturtiums to die back and finish off the concurbits ( Cucumbers and courgettes) are yet to appear. Raspberries are still coming, and tomatoes are still ripening at a decent rate in the greenhouse which is astonishing. I am cutting off any flowers and extraneous foliage to encourage ripening and when they have all ripened I will remove the stalks from the greenhouse and give it a good cleaning on a warm sunny winter’s day.
It is not always easy to distinguish the raised beds but at this time of year they stand out more, when the crops and flowers die back. These were covered with weed suppressing membrane Once crops were removed. I will leave the coverage elsewhere until spring as its best not to have uncovered soil as it accelerates the leeching of goodness out.
I should be thinking about this more often, but I tend to act when there is not much else to do, so the heap gets turned and consolidated once the plot has been cleared and the again before planting starts in spring. I built a compost bin which was divided in two so that while the current compost was being added the previous compost was rotting down. It was quite easy to turn, for the front was removable. It is difficult to access and turn material in any of the "plastic" bins supplied by local councils, which I reckon are useful for rotting down manure but not compost. However since I have had a problem with rats I now put kitchen waste in the plastic bin which is set on paving slabs to prevent rodent access. I add all our kitchen waste without cooked stuff (it is said to attract rats) but including citrus fruits which I used to think were too acidic but have discovered do not have an adverse effect My two compartment open wooden structure was fine until it fell to bits. At the moment I just build a heap with a plastic cover using all the waste stuff from my plot, This includes annual weeds but not pernicious perennials like horsetail, bindweed and couchgrass which I bag or put in a separate bin to rot down. Crops with whiterot or clubroot or nasty diseases like potato/tomato blight are binned. I turn the heap in autumn and spring so that is a job which can be done before the frosts. (I used to shove it all in the other side of the two compartment structure). In spring I spread it on the beds once it looks like soil, usually about six months. (As with manure, at first I was amazed at how much it falls down in size as it rots down). I keep both old and new heaps covered with a tarpaulin, to assist rotting & to stop it becoming cooled down by rainwater, although the pile does need to be watered to start with if it is dry. Apparently urine is a good activator if you can find some. It is best applied with due consideration given to the wind direction unless you can access the bottled variety.
Here is a little video which explains my approach to composting. It may be accessed here:
My Asparagus is no more, sadly, unable to compete with the nearby raspberries I foolishly planted. Here’s what to do if you have more sense than me and yours are flourishing: When they turn yellow cut them down. At first I followed the advice to cut the stems to ground level. However, I read somewhere that you should cut them to about 15cm or so in case the asparagus beetle moves in. Then you need to remember to reduce to ground level in the spring, removing any beetles with the extra pieces of woody tube. Although mine had no infestation, and not many fellow allotmenteers grow asparagus, this seems like a sensible precaution which I followed following for a number of years. I most strongly recommend you grow these strange but majestic plants, although doing so is an exercise in deferred satisfaction for it is a couple of years before you can start sampling the delights. I shall buy some new crowns in the new year. If you are just starting out I would follow suit, mine are “Franklim”, and plant them below ground level in a trench. Asparagus needs well drained soil with perennial weeds removed. They are in for a long stay. Plant out in a 20cm deep, 30cm wide trench in April when the ground is not waterlogged. Make a hump across the trench (like a steep camber on a road) rising to 5cm in the centre and spread the roots out on each side of the hump. Cover roots with about 3-4cm of soil and then add more to cover them as they grow. Check for weeds on every visit to eliminate competition. The result is certainly worth waiting for. I have never been able to get beyond steaming them for 3 or 4 minutes because they taste so delicious.
We had a great crop of lettuce until the hot dry weather stressed the lettuce and it went to seed. I had planted more and we had a second crop although the third succession was attacked by slugs and snails to its detriment. Endive, as usual, has done well as gastropods don’t seem to like it. The taste is a little bitter but I like it in moderation. The Nasturtiums, both leaves and flowers are everywhere, giving a good weed suppressing blanket as well as adding to the salad. And, of course, the wild rocket adds its peppery taste. To get a constant crop of lettuce requires a diligent approach to successive sowing of seeds. Ideally this is quite easy to achieve, but, of course, sometimes life gets in the way. Time spent away from home often means that diligent slug patrols are impossible and once they get the ups on you its always a struggle to regain the initiative.
Apple Tree Greaseband
Apple Tree Greaseband
This is the time to put a greaseband on the little dessert apple tree Saturn which is now a few years old. This photo is of the large old Bramley Apple tree on the plot I used to cultivate until I gave it up last year. When I first took the plot over I noticed that some kind of pest had invaded the fruit, an insect, probably some kind of moth. At first I thought it was the Codling Moth that was that doing the damage and that the purpose of the greaseband is to stop it climbing up the tree. Right on one count, it does impair the apple crop, but wrong on the other, it doesn’t climb up the tree. Female Codling Moths are active from May onwards flying around laying their eggs on unsuspecting fruit so their maggots can have a ready food supply, and, incidentally stop you and me from having the same. It’s the Winter Moth, Mottled Umber Moth and March Moth that have wingless females which, after emerging from the pupal or chrysalis stage in the soil, must climb the tree to mate and lay their eggs. The caterpillars of these moths eat the leaves of many deciduous trees and shrubs during late March and early June. Greasebands, or rather “sticky bands”, for they have made them more effective by using a gluey substance, trap some of these wingless females before they reach the branches.
So it is worth putting sticky bands on tree trunks and any supports about 45cm (18in) above soil level in late October, early November, before the adults begin to emerge from the soil. Young trees with smooth bark need ready-prepared sticky papers. As my Bramley is an older tree with fissured bark I will apply insect glue directly onto the bark (Vitax Fruit Tree Grease or Agralan Insect Barrier Glue). The stickiness will need to be maintained over winter right through to April.
So what about the dreaded Codling Moth? Action may be taken against it, apparently, but it seems to be a bit hit and miss. A trap needs to be hung in the fruit tree in early May. The idea is to attract male moths by using pheromone, which is similar in smell to a scent secreted by virgin females and to trap the randy little so and sos on a sticky paper, thereby putting them out of action. You may buy a ready made Pheromone Trap: an open-sided box that is hung in the tree. It is cheap and easy to use. By putting up a trap in May for the Codling Moth I have drastically reduced the damage to the crop.
Bramley Apple Tree
Clearing the Plot
I used to resist doing this too early, because while the plot is covered with friendly plants weeds are less likely to begin to grow and the weed seeds of annual weeds will not be disturbed by turning over the soil. (see Weeds). However one year I did not clear it at all and the experiment was so successful I have repeated it. Any badly weeded areas will be cleared (for example where potatoes were dug) and covered with weed suppressant, but mostly I will just keep the plot weeded and leave the remains of crops and flowers in place.
Strawberry Runner in Pot
Planting out Strawberry Runners 1
I thought I would include these photos to show how easy potting the strawberry runners makes the transplanting.
a Healthy Root Structure
Planting out Strawberry Runners 2
A good root structure gives it a great start when bedded into its new home. Once severed from the parent plant they hold the hopes for the future.
I’m giving up on sowing any more salad onions before winter, it’s too wet and cold. These are doing well, though, and I thin them out a little by using the bigger ones in our last few salads
It’s OK to plant garlic in November. I used to hang on until the shortest day which is the 21st December I think. I followed the "plant on the shortest day and harvest on the longest" as it was successful. Any time after the end of October helps the plant to establish a root structure which will help it to grow in spring. Whenever I planted it before December I had difficulty in harvesting the crop early, for I tended to “just leave it a bit longer”. On one occasion the cloves had even started to grow. However, I did not plant it in the following year’s onion bed as it may encourage the growth of whiterot which can decimate an entire crop of onions and leave the soil unonionable for years. For this reason I have now changed to planting garlic in Spring and have done so successfully. I make a hole with a dibber so the top of the clove is about 2" below surface and the cloves are 6-9" apart (the bigger the gap the more chance of larger crop). The pointed end faces upwards, of course, for this is the growing tip. I will have to net against magpies because they like pulling at things and tend to chop them off as they emerge.
Legume seeds are really worth collecting. When the crop becomes sparse I leave the last ones on the stem to reach maturity and dry out, finally picking them on a dry day and storing them for next year when they are fully dry. I have had success with broad beans, french beans and peas. Rather than just save money on new seed this allows me to expand my range of types, so that I am constantly learning and exploring their tastes. I have now gathered the broad beans, climbing and dwarf French varieties and the Borlotti beans.
The same thing applies to runner beans, although, not being partial to what I regard as their rather coarse texture, I do not grow them myself. Neville always saved his seed. One year he forgot and was very upset when he realized it. It’s actually easily done because you need to choose your moment, when the pods are ready and the weather has been dry. Anyway when he came to clear the stalks he found a lot of dried beans at the base of the supports and put them in his pocket. The following spring he had a lovely surprise when he put his hand in his pocket, for he had forgotten them again, yet here they were. The punchline should be he forgot to plant them, but they were successfully planted when the time came, to preserve the line of the Neville Runner Bean. F1 hybrids don’t lend themselves to being used, as they can be unstable and revert to their constituent plants. I try to avoid buying them in the first place.. Sadly the Neville Runner Bean is no more, as Neville died, but one of the great things about allotments is that memories of past friends live on, in their way of growing things, their recommended seed varieties and, above all, their personalities.
One November a few years ago, in a very mild year, I couldn't believe my eyes, a flower appeared which I had never seen before. It was a beautiful yellow flower, rather small for the plant, but stunning, nevertheless. Other years I have had lots of similar flowers but all rather tiny. I wonder if this year’s great weather will lead to a massive one, I hope so.
It is an interesting plant which has the effect of thickening soups, such as carrot- add half & half- to give them texture but it is quite a bland vegetable. It makes quite a nice addition to a 'stew' type of meal but hardly stands on its own as a vegetable because of its lack of flavour. Probably the best way to preserve their taste is to scrub rather than peel them, drip olive oil over them and bake them whole on a baking sheet on high heat for about half an hour. If you are adventurous you could try slicing or grating them into a salad or coleslaw. If it tastes good let me know! One side effect of eating artichokes which some find off putting is they do cause the consumer to get the wind up. For this reason it is best to consider who exactly is dining before including artichoke soup on the menu, as tasty as it is,
It's not related to the globe artichoke; legend has it that the French explorer Samuel de Champlain first came across them growing in a native American vegetable garden in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1605. In his opinion they tasted like artichokes, a name that he carried back to France. Well, he had travelled across the Atlantic and he must have been very homesick or very imaginative. The native Americans called them sun roots and introduced these perennial tubers to the settlers who adopted them as a staple food. The name is nothing to do with Jerusalem either, it's a corrupted version of the italian 'girasole' which means sun follower. You could mistake it for a sunflower when it first germinates and pokes through; for the foliage is very similar, and in fact they are from the same family. If I had written this a week or so ago I would have said that the difference is that it doesn't flower. The head is much smaller, though, isn't it? It is just the same without the vast seed bank in the middle upon which the little birds love to feed. I grew a row of them once and each year a rogue one (or two) comes up somewhere where I failed to remove a tuber. I don’t try too hard because it adds variety to the plot and doesn’t cause too much havoc by purloining all the moisture around it.
Providing I have the time to do it I like to store the shallots by stringing them up. I know one or two of my fellow allotmenteers who would like to do this to the magpies. With shallots it’s relatively easy, doesn’t take too long and is an attractive and efficient way to store them. You just take about a metre of string, the “hempy” green twine is best, and knot it in a circle. Then you hang it on a hook, door handle or the like and begin by placing the top of a shallot across the bottom of the circle and looping it once around the twine, without actually tying it. Pull it tight and hold the remains of the top with the left hand, while you lay another across the previous one from a different direction and loop it behind the other side of the string, passing it into your left hand again, so you are always holding the tops tight. And so on until you have a nice sized but manageable clump. Then you tie it off at the top of the clump and adjust the length of the remaining double string to suit where you are hanging it. One refinement is to wind the tops around the double string, but only for appearance because it is strong enough anyway. You may also do this with onions although to string together a number of them becomes much more substantial and heavy. Providing the kitchen is not too damp and you have a suitable hook they can brighten up the winter and give a reminder of the pleasure to look forward to in the new growing season.