Monday, 30 March 2009

Sorting out the girls' bed

We went out on the allotment yesterday with the promise that my girls would finally be able to get some seeds sown. Sowing and harvesting are definitely the highlights of kitchen gardening and certainly the bits the girls look forward to most but they are gradually learning that there is other necessary work in between. I have been explaining to them the need for preparation. I'm quite grown up about this now because really inside I'm just the same as them and I just want to get on and plant stuff too. But wisdom comes with age (not that I'm that old!) and I know that proper preparation will save work (mainly weeding) later and will produce better returns. So having made a raised bed for them last weekend, we started this weekend by carefully measuring and marking out the bed into smaller planting areas.

I say "carefully measuring" but in the end it mostly came down to eye and whether it looked right. I measured the whole bed first - 140cm wide and 485cm long. I'd neglected to bring a piece of paper with me so I scribbled down these measurement on the side of a plant label. Then I needed to divide the width into 3 and the length into 15. By now I was wishing I'd brought a calculator with me because I haven't done long division since I was at school and even then it had baffled me somewhat. So I confidently marked out the width into 3 roughly 46cm sections using a staple gun (cheap off ebay) and string. Less confidently I marked the length out into 5 sections of roughly 90cm, with the central box being bigger than the others. Then two of these I marked out into 30cm sections. So now I had a 90cm box for my youngest daughter to plant her potatoes in, nine 30cm squares for her vegetable garden, another 90cm box for my eldest daughter to plant her potatoes in, nine 30cm squares for her vegetable garden, and the remaining space for a shared crop of sweetcorn.

That done we got on with the really important stuff - putting in bits and pieces to make it look pretty! A wind sock my eldest had made a school, a rain gauge we had bought last year from Tesco for the bargain price of 25p, the stones we had painted last year to look like bugs, the flower sticks I had bought from Lidl's a few weeks ago, the wire frames in the shape of a frog and a dragonfly I'd bought from Wilkinson's last year. Ahh... that's better.

Finally time for planting. I made them each a wigwam of canes and they pushed in 12 pea seeds each. Then we positioned some one planters on their plots and filled them with a mix of potting compost and sand. We'd grown carrots in these last year and it had been very successful with beautiful long, straight roots. So we sowed some more carrots in these. Next it was beetroot and lettuce for my youngest and rocket and radish for my eldest. Job down for now.

Back home I potted on the herb plug plants and tomato plants I'd bought from Wilkinson's a few weeks ago. And then it was time to wash hands before tea.

Monday, 23 March 2009

A good way to spend Mother's Day

It was Mother's Day yesterday and my girls presented me with the Mother's Day gifts and cards they had both made during gardening club on Tuesday - which was lovely but no surprise! Then it was time to enjoy the spring sunshine and go out to the allotment. The broad beans I had put in pots were now big enough to handle so I started by getting these planted out on the plot. My eldest busied herself with washing her bike with a watering can and a leaf so she was too busy to help with the watering when I asked. Not to worry as my youngest was keen to help. Fortunately, her watering can is very small so as she trekked back and forth to the water trough I had plenty of time to plant some more beans for her to water.

I had three trays of broad beans - 24 modules per tray. Some had yet to emerge but when I checked, the beans had germinated so I planted them anyway. A few others had succumbed to the heat during the week because I had forgotten to open the door of the coldframe until after midday. Coldframe was something of a misnomer by this point and the tips of the plants had turned black in the tropical heat! I figured this would kill the plants completely but in fact by yesterday they were showing signs of healthy green regrowth.

With the broad beans out, I turned my attention to the pea bed. By this point my eldest had finished washing her bike so I asked if she fancied helping me rack over the bed. She was keen so we set to. She then volunteered to help with the watering so I pulled out a series of shallow trenches with the hoe and she helped me water the base of each trench. Her favourite job is sowing seeds so I sat and directed whilst she carefully scattered seeds into the 8 trenches - two mangetout, one sugarsnap pea, one petit pois, and 4 different types of pea, including a heritage purple podded one. She carefully stuck in lollystick labels as she went. Next I showed her how to carefully pull the soil back over the pea seeds to fill in the trenches. Finally, I asked if she wanted to help push some pea stick in and she replied with enthusiasm as she loves "planting trees". And that was it - job done. It's the first time she's ever managed to keep her attention and enthusiasm focused until a complete job was done. And I really enjoyed it too. People have many ideas of how best to treat mum on Mother's Day but this was the best way I could have spent my day as far as I was concerned!

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Taming the soft fruit

I have spent a couple of days trying to get to grips with pruning my fruit canes and trees. Pruning has always been something of a dark art as far as I'm concerned. It's not that I haven't tried to get to grips with the matter. Whenever I think about pruning it always seems to be the wrong time. I refer to a book to remind myself of the details but discover that it's really the wrong time of year to be tackling it, but by the time it comes round to the correct time of year I have forgotten what it is I'm supposed to be doing. But eventually you have to take things in hand no matter what time of year it is.

So having missed the ideal late autumn and winter windows for pruning the soft fruit, I decided that I needed to tidy my blackberries, tayberries and raspberries anyway. According to the books, summer raspberries flower and fruit on growth in its second year. This means that ideally canes that have fruited should be cut back to ground level in the autumn and any new growth should be tied into supports to overwinter. Autumn fruiting raspberries, in contrast, flower and fruit within the same season so the canes should be cut completely back to ground level in late winter.

This is fairly straight forward on the face of it and would be fantastically useful if 1) I could retain that information in my head and have it spring to the front of my brain at the correct time of year, and 2) I could tell which were summer and which were autumn fruiting raspberries.

I know what you're thinking... Hazel, you numpty, summer fruiting raspberries have fruit in the summer and autumn fruiting raspberries have fruit in the autumn, it's obvious. Well, it's not. I have tried for two years now to get to grips with this. If my raspberries have fruit on them in June and July I hang a label around them clearly stating "summer". Sorted, the rest must be autumn. But when I try the same exercise in autumn, I find fruiting canes with a "summer" label hanging from them. Perpetual would be a better word - they just don't stop fruiting. And I know for a fact that all the yellow fruiting raspberries are all "All Gold", an autumn fruiting variety, but they happily bear fruit June to November. I don't know why... maybe it's down to being pruned at the wrong time of year!

Anyway, I have been round them all this last couple of days and it seems to me that at this time of year it all becomes quite obvious what needs pruning. There are some raspberry canes with lovely new growth all the way from root to tip, interspersed with completely dead canes that are brittle and grey/brown. I'm figuring that these are the autumn fruiting ones and that the dead canes are the ones I should have cut back to the ground in later winter and the lush ones are this year's new growth. Easy peasy, I just cut away all the dead canes and they soon look a lot smarter. Then there are the ones that have new growth from root to 2 thirds the way up the stem, plus dead canes in between. I reckon these are the summer raspberries and the dead canes are the ones I should have cut back to ground level in autumn and the other ones are the ones that grew but didn't fruit last year and now need tying to the supports. Sorted... except I haven't got round to giving them any support yet - a job for Steve this spring, me thinks!

So with the raspberries under control, I turn my attention to my tayberries. Every year I train these up over an archway, a thornless one on the right and a thorny one on the left. And every year I have to untie the dead wood from last year and tie in the new growth from this year. Still, it is so much better than allowing them to ramble along the ground, especially in the summer when I have been known to nip round to the allotment in sandals to harvest soft fruit, only to get a thorny tayberry whip tangled around my toes!

The blackberries follow the same rules and definitely should not be allowed to trail along the ground because wherever they come into contact with the ground they will put down roots and spring up new plants, which can become a definite nuisance.

If you were ever in any doubt, you can now be sure that I'm no expert when it comes to pruning but there are some things I'm sure about. Firstly, it is important. If you don't prune you'll still get fruit but eventually the yield will decrease and the whole thing will become a mess. Secondly, you are in charge, not the plants. Soft fruit can be as problematic as any weed if you let them so be ruthless - if a raspberry plant has sprung up somewhere where it is not welcome, chop it down, you already have enough fruit from the other canes. And finally, it's difficult to completely cock it up. If you make a mess of it once it may reduce the yield of fruit for a season but it will recover.

Whilst I was there, I checked to see how it is best to prune trained apple trees. It recommended pruning in the summer to keep the shape of the tree and I briefly wondered whether to ignore this advice as I'm getting chop happy. But on reading further it explained that pruning in winter and spring actually encouraged growth. Definitely not what I'm after so I shall put the secateurs away for a few months now and try to remember to get them out again at the correct time.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Starting the container veg patch

Having bought four 30L bags of multi-purpose peat-free compost from Lidl's earlier in the week (1.99 each), I wheel barrowed them round to the allotment yesterday afternoon. It was a beautiful sunny day and I made the most of being self-employed and shuffled my tasks around to free up the afternoon for gardening.

There is a patch of my allotment that we covered up with carpet several years ago when it became clear we couldn't get everything under cultivation at the same time. Bit by bit we reclaim the ground under the carpet but in the meantime I stick growbags and containers on top of the carpet and at least get some use out of the space. Yesterday I emptied 3 bags of compost into 3 potato growing bags. I had won the bags last year from Edwin Tuckers - they have a monthly photographic competition for photos of vegetables and I entered my picture of broad beans and a sprig of savory. The first use I made of them was to try to grow second cropping potatoes, planting them in August for a harvest at Christmas. Well, that didn't work particularly well. Blight was rife in August and they quickly succumbed so all I got out were a few marble sized things sometime in December. Ho hum, try again next year I suppose, if the summer is better. Then Steve accidentally melted a hole in the side of one of them on Firework's night! These things happen.

Anyway, I digress... 30L only half fills the potato bags but that doesn't matter because I can top them up with more compost as the potatoes grow, to earth them up. The last 30L I emptied into two plastic trough planters and in each of these I plant 6 shallots. I grew onions in these troughs last year and they were the best I got.

So now I have used up my stocks of compost and will have to buy some more at the weekend to refill the other containers and for sowing some seeds. In the meantime I think I'd better make use of the sunshine and get some more tidying up and preparation done.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Tasty Hot Cross Buns

I bought some reduced price wholemeal hot cross buns from Tescos yesterday because they took my fancy. But to my disappointment, toasted and buttered they were a little bland. Today I livened one up with a good dollop of homemade plum and cinnamon jam. A perfect complement to the spices in the bun but providing a bit of extra flavour and moisture. A lovely way to use up some of the stocks.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Mother's Day Gardening Club

What a lovely hour I spent this afternoon with my gardening club. With Mother's Day at the end of the week, I had organised for the children to plant up a couple of pansies then decorate the flower pot with some foam shapes and finish it with a decorated label complete with message to mum. This was followed by making a Mother's Day card with a daffodil design on it.

The tasks were completely manageable for this bunch of 4 to 7 year olds and they clearly enjoyed themselves. The end results were pleasing too and I'm sure their mums will be very happy with their gifts and cards. There was a good opportunity for some teaching too - how to pot on plug plants, not to pick wild flowers, how many petals a daffodil has and so on. But what I loved most was that for pretty much the whole hour the children were thinking about their mums and how much they love them!

Make Mother's Day Flowers

You will need:

Pansy or viola plug plants
Multi-purpose potting compost
A clean flowerpot (e.g. 20cm diameter)
Self-adhesive foam shapes (from Baker Ross)
Wooden flower stick (from Baker Ross)
Felt tip pens

1) Fill a flowerpot three quarters full with compost.
2) Carefully plant 2 plug plants in the flowerpot.
3) Brush off any loose compost from the sides of the flowerpot and wash hands. Next decorate the flowerpot with the foam shapes.
4) Decorate the wooden flower stick using the felt tip pens. Include a nice Mother’s Day message such as "Best Mum" or "I Love Mum".
5) Finally, push the wooden stick into the compost next to the pansies.

Make A Daffodil Mother's Day Card

You will need:

A cardboard egg box
Yellow poster paint
A piece of yellow paper
A piece of stiff coloured card
Felt tip pen

1) Cut out a piece of the egg box to make the trumpet of the daffodil and paint it yellow inside and out. Leave to dry completely.
2) Cut out 6 petal shapes from the yellow paper about 5 cm and 1.5 cm wide.
3) Fold the stiff card to make a greeting card and stick or write "Happy Mother’s Day" on it.
4) Glue the yellow paper petal onto the card to form a flower shape.
5) Glue or use a sticky pad to stick the yellow trumpet onto the middle of the flower shape.
6) Use a felt tip to draw on a stem and leaf.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Spring has finally sprung!

What lovely weather we're having at the moment. It definitely make me want to get out and grow things! The daffodils are out, I've seen the first blossom and the birds are dashing madly in and out of the nest boxes in my garden so it must be spring!

Going to the allotment turned into a family event this weekend with my husband and daughters joining me out on the plot both Saturday and Sunday. It certainly makes a difference when two people are digging! Even my eldest had a go at digging and racking yesterday and she seemed very satisfied with herself too.

Mostly my husband is tackling the raised beds. We've always had sort of raised beds on the allotment with carpet tiles between the beds for paths. About two years ago he bought 22 scaffolding planks off ebay with a view to making properly edged beds but they have been stacked up on the allotment ever since whilst DIY projects in the house took priority. This weekend he got out his tape measure and came up with a plan. The only downside is that the planks don't neatly fit the existing bed size so we have to shift the path about half a metre over - extra digging!

Anyway, whilst he got on with that I sowed a couple of rows of broad beans - my favourite Crimson Flowered (beautiful!) and Grand Violetta (purple beans when dried). The broad beans I'd sown in pots about 3 weeks ago have FINALLY germinated but won't be big enough to plant out until next weekend.

On Saturday I also dug up the last of the leeks (well, there are a few rogue self-sown ones left) and on Sunday morning I made more leek and potato pasties and blanched and froze a load too. That took over an hour! Then on the plot in the afternoon I dug over a couple more beds before returning home for a bath and roast dinner.

Inside, my tiny tomato seedlings from Wilkinsons have shot up in the last week, my peanuts have germinated and the tray of salad leaves continue to put on new leaves. I think I need to buy several sacks of potting compost this week and get a few things growing in containers next weekend. It's all go now until October!

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Alliums coming and going

It was a beautiful spring day this morning so I suggested to my girls that they played in the garden whilst I put the washing out. That went down well and they were keen to let loose with their bikes so I suggested we headed to the allotment. When you have bright sunshine and keen children you don't hesitate. I grabbed the allotment key, my bucket of tools and the trays of shallots and got going.

I managed to plant 70 shallot sets and 70 red onion sets before the first serious squatting of the year took its toll on my legs. Then I harvested about a dozen leeks of various sizes before we went home for lunch. I was starving hungry by then and my legs were a bit wobbly... hmmm hopefully my muscles will get used to gardening again before the end of March.

Having refueled and rested my legs over lunch it was time to deal with the leeks. Mostly I sliced them up, blanched them and froze them. The centre of the leeks show signs of flower stalks forming so they are in the process of bolting and definitely need preserving now.

I kept a couple of leeks to make leek and apricot stuffing balls. These are delicious but it's not often that I just happen to have all the ingredients in to make them without deliberate planning. Today was one of those happy co-incident days. They are yummy cooked with roast chicken or pork and they will live happily in my freezer until I'm ready for them.

I'll need to continue harvesting the leeks and processing them over the next week and at the same time I will need to finish off planting the onion sets. So as one lot of alliums comes out of the ground a new lot goes in. Ain't that wonderful.

Leek & Apricot Stuffing Balls
(makes 20-24)

7 0z (200g) leeks, chopped
41/2 oz (125g) dried apricots, chopped
1 onion or 4-5 shallots, chopped
2 springs fresh sage, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
6 oz (175g) breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper
4 oz (110g) sausagemeat (optional if vegetarian)
2 eggs

Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl and stir then add the sausagemeat and the eggs and mix it up well using your hands. Pull out bits of the stuffing and mould into balls about the size of a ping pong ball. Place the balls on a tray and cover with clingfilm. Freeze, then once solid decant into a freezer bag. Thaw before cooking at 190°C for 25 minutes on a baking tray.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Shopping for gardening stuff

This morning was a beautiful spring day - perhaps a little deceptive as colder, wintery weather is forecast for later in the week. Still, it puts a spring in your step and makes it feel as if anything would grow!

My after school gardening club starts again tomorrow with a new bunch of 5 to 7 year olds. Last week I finally managed to get the planning for this half term sorted. It'd tried during half term but somehow the cold, snowy weather had made it difficult for me to focus my thoughts. So now the next 5 weeks are mapped out pretty well with a more hazy idea of the weeks from April to July. It is a weird way to garden - once a week for one hour and with a 6 week gap mid July to end of August. I've learnt a few things from my experience last year so this year I shall be keeping in the successes but trying a few new ideas too.

I usually go shopping on a Monday morning but today I thought I'd start with a few of the "money-saving" shops such as Pound Stretcher, Poundland, Wilkinsons and Lidls to see if they had some gardening bargain in. It is amazing what you can pick up in these shops and they have some great gardening stuff at this time of year.

Every year I flick through all the seed catalogues looking for the best deal on onion sets - red and brown - and every year I'm underwelmed by the results. I've tried heat-treated and non-heat treated, collections and individual varieties. But now I have learnt that it works out much cheaper and just as reliably to go down to Wilkinsons in March and buy some nets of onion sets down there. So with this in mind I headed out to the shops.

Pound Stretcher first - they had some summer flowering bulbs in, mini cold frames (already have those), and other interesting gardening items but nothing I needed today. Then Poundland - more summer flowering bulbs, some garden ornaments and seed trays etc. They're also got the plastic Easter eggs back in too that I use for the Easter egg hunt for gardening club (more on that closer to the time) but I saved these from last year so don't need to buy them again now. Still, I managed to pick up a handy multi-pocket folder that will help keep all my notes and resources neat for gardening club.

Then into Wilkinsons, with a trolley this time. Two bags of red onion sets (£1.25 for 250g) and a bag of brown (£1.25 for 500g). They have lots of interesting things in today - seed potatoes, mushroom kits, herbs in pots, horseradish roots, fruit bushes... but I'm selective about what I'll buy from a place like this because they clearly don't employ anyone to look after these things and sitting on a shelf for weeks in their packaging is far from ideal. I notice they are selling off some plug plants for half price but when I inspect them the plants are completely dried out! Still, they have 4 cloves of elephant garlic for £2 and I've fancied growing that for ages but they are often much more expensive than that, so I add them to my trolley. They have sets of 4 plug plants for £1.50 and I decide to buy some tomatoes. This is probably a mistake as I don't have a greenhouse and my windowsills are a bit gloomy but for £1.50 maybe it is worth a try to get some early tomatoes. I pick up some sage and thyme plugs too for the herb garden I want to grow with my club. I'm surprised by how perky these plug plants look but on closer inspection I see that they are sat in a tray of moisture retaining gel so that explains it.

Finally I add 2 trays of 20 pansy plugs (2 for £7). I was looking for something that the gardening club children could give as a mother's day present in a fortnight and this seems like the perfect thing. I'd had primulas in mind but these are clearly going over right now. Now all I need to do is keep these healthy for 2 weeks until needed then the children can plant up 2 each and I'll use what's left to make up a hanging basket for home. There are loads of other interesting things but that's enough for today - besides it's a bit of a walk back to my car and I have to carry all this stuff!

Next to Lidls. They have got lots of gardening things in right now but nothing much left in the way of plants. I treat myself to a new pair of secaturs for £2, some decorative fun canes for the girls' plots, a sprayer, and a pair of slip on gardening shoes for when I need to hang the washing out.

So this afternoon I unpacked the lot and put the onion sets and elephant garlic out in the shady coldframe with the shallots and seed potatoes. I thoroughly watered the pansies and put the two trays in the other coldframe. I potted on the plug herbs and these too went into the coldframe. Finally, I potted on the tomato seedlings and put them on the windowsill. It feels like I've had a good gardening day but I'm a little concerned how things will fair in the coldframe. After all, it was still February two days ago! Oh for a heated greenhouse!