One year I made a little video which shows my raised beds quite clearly and took a quick tour round the plot. It may be accessed here:
Allotment Tour February 28
March is a very busy time of year and always finds me brimming with optimism, especially when the weather picks up. It gives you a great feeling getting out on the plot with the sun on your back. What previously was often a labour of love on dank cold dismal days is now a pleasure in itself. Sometimes by now I have already planted shallots and broad beans but until recently it has been too cold. Surprisingly the rhubarb is quite far on – and is ready to sample. I have a plan on a spreadsheet of the beds, which means that although I do not have a rigid crop rotation I can make sure that no crop is repeated at a minimum of 3 years and batter still four or more. Then I designate in which order they will be prepared. Group A is the broad bean and shallots beds. Group B is onions and parsnips Group Cm is early potatoes and group D is peas and carrots. The small “m” next to the C is a reminder to me that the potato beds will be mulched with well rotted manure. The broad beans and pea beds will be mulched with compost. I have not yet sown the tomato seeds inside as its so cold, but I will do this soon. They will be transplanted into my greenhouse which is not heated. Other veggies mentioned in the planners and info below will follow. I am lucky that the soil is very well drained and with a bedded system it only compacts in the walkways. I have veered away from raised beds as my soil is very freely drained, but I would never abandon a bedded system as it avoids compaction of the soil. Before mulches are applied I will remove weeds and old crops with as little disturbance of the soil as possible. In early winter I kept on top of weed removal especially couch grass but wherever this perennial has a toe hold the roots needs to be searched for and removed. Much bare soil is already in evidence on other plots on the allotment, indeed some plots were ‘cleared’ at the end of last year’s growing season, some by experienced hands. However my experience has been that this is not a good idea as the soil just leeches out nutrients – especially on our site where the soil is so well drained. ‘Gardening Organic’ supports this view. I clear beds in advance of planting and mulch them once cleared as much as possible – carrots for example might split or ‘fang’ if mulched with organic material. A combination of this practice, together with not walking on the beds preserves the soil structure – as just digging a trowel into it reveals.
Summary of what I will plant mid to late February or early March
click on the underlined plant names for more information
Having prepared a small area of these two beds earlier and covered them with fleece, I will be planting a vast variety of lettuces, but not just yet! Hopefully we’ll have a continuous supply until the frosts arrive in November, although they often bolt in dry conditions. I have a number of packets, and although some may be very nearly used up, that should provide us with varied green salads throughout the summer. I will plant them inside in square 5cm pots, a seed in each corner, or in home made cylinders made of rolled newspaper in which I plant 3 seeds spread out. The plants in paper pots have the advantage of less root disturbance because the whole thing goes in and breaks down. I will transplant them under fleece when they are large enough. The first time I did this to try to beat the gastropods it was successful, but the first thing you learn is that all success is temporary. Sure enough the next year was a nightmare. These days I try to clear the area of the little so and sos before I transplant and initially protect the seedlings with plastic bottle cloches. Most times all four seeds come up in the pot but even two make a worthwhile station. No need to thin them because the plants grow away from each other. I break all the rules by picking off the leaves once they are big enough. Successive sowings are necessary to replace those which bolt in the driest weather, but this is a rare occurrence. Pick and pick again works well as long as you don’t mind gathering the leaves when you need them. I find it is one of the pleasures in life, all part of slowing down to enjoy oneself.
Beetroots need to be bolt resistant. Oddly I have found that Early Wonder, which is claimed to be resistant to bolting, bolts when planted early under fleece, while cylindrical French ones don’t. It is claimed that the latter mature more slowly, but this is not the case in my experience, so that does not really explain why they don’t bolt. I have grown Carillon in the past but I am now onto Detroit, which has that lovely earthy flavour and Cylindra which is differently shaped. Where do they get these names from? The seeds are large enough to plant individually; in fact this is true of all seeds if you take your time. The standard practice is to plant two at each “station” and thin one of them out. I reckon it’s better to plant at half the spacing measurement and then when I remove one the others continue to grow: voila! no wasted seeds or extra work. br>
Radish with Flea Beetle
Radishes also go straight into the ground. I like Radish d’Avignon and French Breakfast.They are so tasty, freshly picked and sliced, they make a great side salad on their own. They are best picked quite small and grown in succession. By this I mean, as one sowing comes through I try to sow some more, and never too many at once. Do I follow my own advice? Yes, mostly, time and weather permitting. It was only by examining the root ends of spoiled radishes that I realised that they were being invade by a pest which on close inspection turned out to be a cabbage root fly. Clubroot is endemic on an allotment, so spreading radishes all over the place as is often recommended, is not such a good idea. Thankfully I never have, nor have I used them to mark parsnip rows, or, worse still, planted them within the concept of “catch crops” to grow in between rows of later maturing vegetables. Willy nilly radish planting will play havoc with crop rotation. I will be planting them in the brassica patch, where they belong. They do tend to respond very badly to dry spells and need to be watered during droughts. They are best planted in small amounts in succession ie plant more when the previous sowing is showing.
Strawberry in August
Strawberries, and soft fruit bushes
I usually add manure or compost, as a mulch, to the strawberry beds, raspberries and gooseberry, blackcurrant and redcurrant bushes. This is best done after a wet spell as the moisture will be retained. This year I have already mulched all the bushes with wood chippings in the hope that their acidity will raise the acidity of the soil. It was highly alkaline when I tested it.
Asparagus Bed cut to ground level and weeded
It’s time to cut back the stems from last year. I cut them back to about 15cm when the ferns went yellow in late November. The idea is that if they are attacked by Asparagus Beetle they will overwinter in the small part that’s left. I have never seen one and I hope I never do, the pictures show that the larva looks like a short fat caterpillar and adult is very much like a ladybird except the head and body are much more distinct. I will cut them to ground level & feed the plants by adding a mulch of manure or compost.
One year I successfully grew little plants from seed. The instructions said to soak them so I tried leaving them in the water until they germinated. It worked and speeded up what is supposed to be a tortuous germination period. Don’t ask me what happened to the plants in the very dry weather in their tiny pots. What was that Queen song? Another one bites the dust. Anyway last year I did it again and planted them out among the broad bean plants. I should have a whole bed of young asparagus plants. Fingers Crossed that they come through.
Parsnips Poking Through
People say they are difficult to grow but they aren’t. Just make sure that you have this year's seed. I collected it from parsnips which I allowed to grow on from the previous year and go to seed. Fingers crossed they will germinate – they should do as ones which fell on the soil did at the end of last year’s growing season. It’s the only seed that I don’t keep from year to year, although I suppose you could test last year’s on dampened kitchen roll to see if they germinate if you feel the need. The seeds are surrounded by blotting paper and I think it is hygroscopic. Providing the soil is the right temperature, about 7ºC, and you water the rows daily to keep the seeds damp, they germinate as quickly as most other seeds, about a couple of weeks. I hope my confidence is not misplaced but since working out this approach the germination has been successful and the little umbrellas have soon popped through. It is not that they need a long time to germinate it is that they need prolonged moisture. I’m going to plant, Tender and True, which should be called Sweet and Succulent. Roasted there is nothing to match the parsnip; mmmm. I was lucky to find a few I had missed just before I planted shallots the other day. I peeled, blanched (three minutes) and froze them and they will accompany a roast dinner or two some time soon.
Peas under own bottle cloches
I plant peas in the similar idiosyncratic manner as I do broad beans, except they need something to climb up. I either put up a wire fence or a wigwam of canes. At the base of the fence or wigwam I dib three holes about 4cm deep and near enough to each other that a plastic bottle with the bottom cut away and the screw cap discarded will fit over all three. (Broad Beans are bigger plants and are planted singly). I then drop individual seeds into each hole. Finally I gently cover the holes with soil using the end of the dibber and cover each set of three seeds with the plastic bottle. This has a number of effects. It provides some protection against the seeds disappearing to the pea fairy. It creates a mini greenhouse in which the seedlings may flourish and be protected from extremes of weather. It stops slug damage. Finally, it delays the inevitable arrival of pea and bean weevil which creates such a visually attractive serrated edge to the leaves. I can only speculate where the seeds disappear to, but disappear they do. The books would have us believe it is mice, and Joan was adamant that voles finished off her bonsai apple tree by eating its roots, but how can they remove legume seeds without disturbing the soil? Surely they don’t have such good manners that they leave the soil as they found it, except minus their snap? I am convinced it’s the Pea Fairy. Just picture it, it’s the middle of the night and Mr Fairy turns over in bed because Mrs Fairy is snoring, sits up and says, “That’s it, I’m going for a pea.” Talking about snap, that is one of the varieties I will be planting, Sugarsnap, the other being Mr Dependable: Kelvedon Wonder which is the one I will be putting in soon. The more usual method of planting is in drills or shallow trenches, and to avoid rodent pilferage they may be soaked in meths. This sounds horrible to me, and I don’t think that it is necessary to presoak the seeds overnight, which some allotmenteers favour, for they grow perfectly well without this.
Carrots doing well under mesh
Early Nantes, Nantes or Nantes 2 all have a beautiful flavour and are planted under mesh to prevent the carrot fly leaving its eggs for its young to have a feast. I'm all for companion planting but I think trying to put it off by smells is a bit hit and miss compared to covering, although I suppose the mesh also inhibits other friendly insects too, a bit like antibiotics killing all bacteria, whether good or bad. I keep saying I need to have a rethink on that one and at least conduct an experiment. However, with whiterot in mind I won’t be putting any of the onion family anywhere near the carrots, as I am too concerned about crop rotation. As with most vegetables grown in rows I plant them at approximately half the eventual spacings and then thin them by removing sizable roots when the time comes. My experiment one year with a barrier failed abysmally although the crop was brilliant. This was very frustrating so I have returned to the method of covering with mesh. In recent years I have had problems in establishing them. This could be germination but as Dawn has seen slugs demolishing the tiny seedlings I think that slugfest is more likely. With this in mind I spread crushed eggshells around the perimeter of the bed. Some damage is averted but another – less hit and miss- way of tackling the problem is to plant them later. Autumn King is an autumn cropping variety. By the time the seedlings come through the gastropods have all sorts of alternatives to fasten onto. I find this strategy which was suggested to me by Phil much more successful. I was reluctant to change to a later variety as my Early Nantes was so tasty. But the truth is that anything from the allotment tastes great. According to the latest copy of Organic Way this is because of the soil and I can believe it.
Red Baron sets
Red Onion sets
Planted later than white onion sets these are fantastic in salsas and sandwiches, not to mention chutney. Red Baron stores well, we are still using last year’s bulbs. I bought two bags one year which was perhaps a bit excessive.
Earlies ready to plant
I plant these in late March. I have bought Accent as an early one because it was so successful last year. I can’t find an organic seed of one of my favourites, Desiree, so I saved one or two of last year’s. I also bought Carrolus as a maincrop as in the absence of Desiree I know these to be good roasters and tasty. They are chitting in the loft. I don’t go to all the palaver of digging a trench. I will have put a mulch of compost on the top. I just dib a hole and drop the little darlings in, sprouts upwards and then they grow through the mulch. By the time they come through much of the mulch has been assimilated into the soil in the bed. When they come through I will earth up the haulms gradually to protect them from the frost and top this off with a mulch of fresh lawn clippings. Many of the established allotmenteers grow them in an earthed up adjacent rows with steep, precipitous sides. One of my beds splits neatly into two rows which, once earthed up, look almost the same as theirs.
Brassicas in pots
Cabbage Calabrese & Sprouts
I’ll be planting the brassicas indoors in pots, as with the lettuce above. I will scatter lime on the surface of the bed. Upon transplanting I will protect the seedlings with a ‘collar’, and after that it’s in the lap of the gods. One time I managed to raise both green & red cabbages which were beautiful. The year before last the sprouts were brilliant. Here’s hoping!
Last year the Perpetual variety did not bolt, it grew prolifically. I have also had success with a french variety: Viroflay. Both varieties are best picked when the leaves are small, when they make a lovely addition to a salad.
Leeks in a bucket
These are versatile and what I really like about them is they will wait until you want to use them. I am still using those from last year. I scatter them in a number of plant pots with soil topped by a layer of compost, one pot for each variety. I have two varieties, Monstruoso de Carentan, and Musselburgh, I will transplant them late June or early July into the bed vacated by the early potatoes. I’m not sure if I’ve told you this before but I really go for a leek. One final point, I found out that an inquisitive animal (squirrel?) likes rummaging around in pots so I cover mine with a piece of chicken wire, domed up far enough that their little mitts can't reach through and still do the damage.
Similar to herbs, I sow them fairly thinly in a largish pots, about 15cm, one for each variety, in the greenhouse and then prick them out with a plant label into their own small pot full of compost when a couple of leaves have clearly formed. Dorothy gave me a cherry tomato: Sun Gold by the punnet load the year before I began planting them myself, it was very tasty and a golden orange colour. I grew them very successfully, together with a red Italian cherry variety: Ciliegia. The plum tomato Roma went down with a disease called blossom end rot which it is said is caused by dry conditions. One year I lost a lot through blight which was rather disheartening, but then so did everyone else’s on the allotment, one of the occupational hazards on the allotment. As more and more allotmenteers have grown them the blight has become endemic, probably because they do not all get rid of affected plants quickly. This is a very good reason for growing indoor varieties in a greenhouse if you have one, or in you garden, away from the madding crowd.
The surface of the soil is best raked to a finish tilth so that large stones won’t get in the way. A shallow ‘drill’ about 1cm deep can be made by stretching a line as a guide and running the ‘wrong’ end of the rake handle along it. It is worth spending time on dropping seeds in individually every centimetre or so. It’s all very well books telling you to thin them but it’s very difficult to extricate the roots if they are planted too close, and most of the seeds come up so why waste them? It does take a bit of dexterity and patience but when you think about all the time you spend on everything else I reckon it is worth it. A row of a couple of metres is enough for me, and once they show, like little pieces of grass poking through in a line, I will extend the row by planting more seeds. I won’t grow row upon row of them but will use up space at the edge of the onion and shallot beds. I have two varieties, White Lisbon which is tried and tested and Hatif de Paris , a French one which is a fuller shaped bulb. I am just getting a flashback to pancakes stuffed with white onions and gruyere cheese. Now, there’s a reason to grow a lot of them, if you can stand all that cholesterol