Chit away my beauties!

I’m a bit late to the party, but finally my spud-growing season has begun and the little blighters are chitting away on top of my kitchen cupboards (HT to Clairesallotment for the cupboard idea!).

Explainer: Chitting is the process by which you leave a potato somewhere comfy for a few weeks to grow some little shoots. We’ve all done it inadvertently in the veg drawer plenty of times. But when prepping the potato crop, most people lay out their ‘seed potatoes’ on trays somewhere light and cool (not cold) so each one can sprout healthy little protrusions.

Then you carefully plant them in the ground (more on that in a few weeks) and the sprouts grow and branch like crazy, forming brand new potatoes on the end. Some people don’t bother with the chitting process and just let it happen in the ground. To others that’s just crazy talk! I’ll probably try the no-chit method one year when I’ve left everything too late to bother.

Turns out that putting the seed potatoes out in the egg boxes I’d saved (their comfy place) is another toddler-friendly gardening job…so long as you can cope with seeing them get a bit of rough treatment.

Miss MBaF helped with this job

Miss MBaF helped with this job

I’ve gone for two first early varieties; Arran Pilot (my Dad reckons they have the best flavour) and Sharpe’s Express (because it was nearby on the shelf and the packet said you could roast them – keeping Mr MBaF happy). I’ve given them lotty space for three rows of 10ish plants, 1.5 row per variety.

I’m not growing maincrop (e.g. King Edward, Desiree, Maris Piper) this year, as explained in my planning post.

Now I just need to find some time to prepare the ground for them…


Gardening record books – a [p]review

My gardening notes, plans, plant lists and to-do lists have traditionally lived on various scraps of paper and writing pads. Which is fine…until Mr MBaF uses the other end of the same pad to design a shed. Then I lose track of all the scraps and pages.

But then Father Christmas brought me the RHS record book I’d requested, and shortly afterwards I doubled my library of gardening diaries with the Three-Year Allotment Notebook.

I’ve written a few lines in the latter, and not a jot so far in the former, so consider this more of a preview than review.

The first word I’d use to describe Joanna Cruddas’ allotment notebook is delightful. It’s full of gorgeous photos (by Edwina Sassoon) of some lovely plots, and the layout feels relaxed and helpful. Each month is bookended by three richly colourful photo-led spreads with hints and ideas (planning, watering, tools etc) and lists of seasonal jobs. Then there are three blank spreads of lined pages for notes Year 1, 2 and 3.

Plenty of space for notes in the Three Year Allotment Notebook

Plenty of space for notes in the Three Year Allotment Notebook

Lovely imagery and useful lists

Lovely imagery and useful lists

There is graph paper at the back for plot planning, and the inside of the back cover has a useful pocket for plant labels or other ‘stuff’.

You could argue that for near-enough £15 I don’t have that much more than the A4 lined pad I used to use, plus a few pictures. But I disagree because this book is gorgeous and lovely. I’ve tried really hard to write neatly in it so far, but actually I’m looking forward to taking this companion with me to the lotty and getting it a bit grubby!

The photos have also inspired me to make the plot a bit more characterful this year. I’m trying to think of how to involve Miss MBaF in making some flags or other spangles.

Now onto the serious business of the RHS gardener’s record book. And in contrast to the ‘delightful’ allotment book, this one is definitely more businesslike. It has antique fine art illustrations of plant specimens throughout, and the notes pages are divided into five columns for each year with space for notes on the weather, plants in bloom, tasks and notes. Towards the back there’s space for listing plants to buy, plant suppliers and gardens to visit. The paper stock is thick and shiny, and I don’t really want to get this one muddy.

More formal notes pages in the RHS Gardener's Five Year Record Book.

More formal notes pages in the RHS Gardener’s Five Year Record Book.

Although I originally envisaged I’d use it for both allotmentry and gardening, the RHS book is clearly and obviously designed for logging observations about ornamental planting. It’s probably more suited to much more experienced/skilled flower-growers than me, but I’ll give it a shot anyway, and try to write neatly for five whole years!

Maybe I should buy myself a new pen especially…

…but does it make good telly?

I have, of course, been watching the BBC’s second series of The Big Allotment Challenge.

But as I finish episode 3 on catch-up I can’t help asking myself…am I really enjoying it??

Surely I must be?? Surely??

But it’s just not quite hitting the spot somehow.

For anyone overseas, or with a social life, they give a bunch of people a blank allotment in the grounds of a big house. The contestants have to grow certain veg and flowers for showing, plus whatever else they want as cooking and floristry ingredients.

Each week they’re asked to present particular veg and flower specimens on the ‘show bench’ (episode 3: peas and lillies) do a flower arrangement (episode 3: decorated chandelier), and cook something with their produce (episode 3: crisps and dips).

They show snippets of the past weeks as the contestants sow, plant, nurture, protect and panic in the run-up to ‘Showday’. And of course, someone gets the boot each week.

Does that sound like gripping telly to you??

It’s obvious to draw comparisons with the BBC’s blockbuster The Great British Bake Off, the success of which they must’ve wanted to try and replicate over winter. But the B.A.C lacks two vital elements:

– dramatic tension. A lily beetle invasion seven weeks before Showday isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff compared to the imminent doom of a toppling biscuit tower.

– endearing presenters. The Mel&Sue double act of GBBA strike up a fab rapport with the contestants and have cheesey one-liners aplenty. BAC’s FOUR presenters/judges are all a bit worthy and serious, and a couple are even slightly creepy.

So, roll-on the return of ‘The Don’ and Gardener’s World on Friday nights. In the meantime I’ll use the time to blog…with BAC on in the background. Well, I can’t totally ignore it, it’s research!

Who else watches? Agree or disagree with my review?

And we’re off…my 2015 plan

I really wanted roast parsnip with our dinner tonight, but I completely wimped out of the required allotment trip. The freezing winds, sleet and mud just weren’t for me today.

But weather like this is spot-on for one important task. Planning.

So, in the comfort and warmth of the living room I got the pencil, paper, ruler and books out. And this is the plan:

  • Cabbage – under-rated but such a useful veg, cooked and raw, and liked by all our family. Also, our soil seems to grow brassicas extremely well. I guess it must be on the alkaline side (they like that), though I haven’t checked (maybe I’ll get around to that this year). Planning to grow a row each of autumn and winter varieties.
  • Some kind of hardy leaf – undecided whether to grow spinach or some kind of kale. I think spinach is a bit more adaptable as an ingredient, so that might swing it.
  • Early potatoes – I haven’t decided on the variety yet but I’m after something with a the distinctive sweet flavour of a proper new potato. I grew Charlotte last year and they were tricky to cook fresh out the ground (outer disintegrated when the middle was tender) and didn’t have the flavour I’m looking for. I think older varieties like pentland javelin or sharps express might suit me better. I’m not bothering with maincrop this year. They take up a lot of space and I’m unconvinced I could tell the difference between homegrown and shop-bought once roasted or baked.
  • Carrots – I’ve been tentative about committing to carrots! But with some half-hearted effort last year I got promising results, so this year I’m planning to take the plunge with a few rows sown successionally for a long harvest. I think they could be a winner with Miss MBaF too.
  • Beetroot – roasted beetroot was a recent discovery that I’m keen to enjoy much more!
  • Lettuce – I’m really quite crap at growing lettuce. I’ll use some new varieties this year and try to motivate myself to cut and wash it.
  • Peas – love them fresh for the pod. Gotta be grown. One row got hammered by pea weavil last year (no, I’d never heard of it before either), but now I know what to look for and I have a spray to treat the young plants with if necessary.
  • French beans – we’re not keen on runners so I’m going to stick to frenchies this year. And I’m going to grow them on a straight row of supports instead of a wigwam, as the tops got too tangled to pick like that.
  • Sweetcorn – one last try. Last year was a disaster: terrible germination, no crop. I haven’t worked out how to improve the germination yet, will have to read up…or just buy young plants. The plot is very exposed, which really doesn’t help, but I’m planning to shelter them behind the beans (sorry beans!).
  • Flowers – I’ve started a little plot for cut flowers, they’ll need some shelter too I’m sure.
  • Fruit – but I’ve blogged about that plenty.

So that’s it. At some point before too long I’ll have to work out what happens after, when the first crops are lifted and I’m thinking ‘what next’? But for now, I need to start seed shopping.

Gardening with toddler

Toddler-friendly allotment jobs

Miss MBaF announced this morning she wanted to go to the allotment.

With the UK in the midst of storms bringing high winds and heavy rain, this isn’t the ideal day for messing about on the earth. But I’m keen to instil in her a love of gardening, not least so she’ll be willing to join me on the plot when there are lots of jobs to be done later in the year.

So I thought of an easy job she could help me with: mulching the dahlias with bark chips.

NB. I planned to do this weeks ago, hey ho, it’s not been very cold yet so hopefully they’ve survived up til now.

We got suited and booted, filled a bucket with the mulch, she hopped on her trike and we set off merrily. She/we got the job done (see pic above) and I showed her the raspberries I planted yesterday, explaining that she could help me pick/eat them in the summer. As we toddled off the plot, she said “We’ve had great fun at the ‘llotment!”. Mission accomplished.

Other toddler-friendly jobs we’ve found in the allotment and garden:

harvesting potatoes. Miss MBaF loved finding spuds in the earth as I lifted the plants.
– picking strawberries. Who wouldn’t?!
filling pots with compost. She spent ages happily trowelling potting compost into plastic pots. I would keep her occupied with that in the back garden while I did my own jobs.
– sowing seeds. Choose large ones that are easier for little fingers to handle, like sweet peas, beans, radishes, sweetcorn etc.
– transplanting seedlings. Miss MBaF is a particularly careful child, so she did a surprisingly good job gently lowering seedlings into planting holes for me. Make sure you’ve got plenty of extras if your toddler is boisterous.
planting bulbs. I made the holes and she dropped them in, proudly instructing “pointy bit up, tickly bit down” as she worked. Now the daffs are poking through, it’s nice for her to start seeing the results of her work.
going to the garden centre. Not a ‘job’ as such, but larger/more commercial garden centres generally have animal-shaped garden ornaments – and a cafe – to keep little ones happy in between waiting for you to browse the seed packets. One near us even has a playground and small petting zoo!

NB. there are some health risks to be aware of with handling compost, so make sure your toddler wears gloves, do it in the fresh air, and wash their hands afterwards. The RHS has all the info and great advice.

Muddy tools and marigolds

Muddy by name… Digging for berries.

We invested a Christmas gift of £20 garden vouchers at the garden centre today.

I say ‘invest’, because it was on raspberry plants. If they give a good harvest, it will save us a fortune over the years. A punnet of raspberries bought at the supermarket commonly costs £2, and we can buy two or more a week during the summer. We all love them.

In a previous post I mentioned that the raspberries inherited with our plot were in a sorry state, suffocated by couch grass. I ripped them up and cleared the weeds, covering the area with weed-proof membrane. So, the plot was ready…

We agonised over whether to get summer or autumn fruiting raspberries. Summer ones fruit on the previous year’s growth. Autumn ones on the current year’s growth (pruning them down to the ground each winter). Summer ones are supposed to be more prolific…but with Autumn ones WE’LL GET FRUIT THIS YEAR!

Trench for raspberry canes

Heavy work, digging the raspberry trench

That was the clincher.

So, with our vouchers and an extra £1.99 we got five canes of Mallings Admiral and three big bags of manure. And off I trot to the ‘lot’.

It was a fantastic sunny afternoon to be up there, all alone, planting something in mid-winter. But it was muddy. The kind that sticks fast.

Trying to keep off the ground and on the weed membrane as much as I could, I dug a trench – a foot-ish deep. Backfilled it with several inches of manure and mixed with the excavated soil. Then in went the canes, about 50cm apart. And a thick mulch of manure on top.

So that’s the softfruit patch complete. We might add summer fruiting raspberries later to extend the season, but for now we excitedly anticipate strawberries, blackcurrants, raspberries and blackberries in 2015. If only Mr MBaF liked summer pudding!

Raspberry canes manure mulch

Raspberry canes mulched with manure

NB. There were several summer raspberry varieties to choose from today. We chose Mallings Admiral partly because they’re ‘spine-free’ and therefore toddler friendly for picking. The canes, however, were spiny….so we’ll see!

Mallings Admiral

Supposedly ‘spine-free’ variety of raspberry canes.

And a final PS. I’m typing this is mild discomfort after the hard work of lugging manure about and digging a trench. BUT, I’m not crippled, and I’m sure that’s because I took a break halfway and did something less physical (measuring the plot for crop planning). I only did that because I publicly stated I would, in a recent post. So, thank you blog, you’ve saved me some pain.

Best veg for small gardens?

Some good friends are moving to a bigger home with a smaller garden, and are looking for tips on good veg to grow in small spaces.

My new blogger status seems to have given me expert status amongst said friends, and I’ve always been happy to blag it (wine-waitressing as a teenager honed my skills), so here’s my tips:

[However, I’m sure they would really appreciate advice from experienced growers too, so if my blogging friends could add their hints and tips in the comments that’d be ace. They’re in London, so it should be a fairly friendly growing environment – I don’t know what the soil’s like or the garden aspect.]

– Think about what you actually really like eating. If you’re not going to grow a lot of variety, make sure you’ll absolutely love eating what you do grow. We had stacks of runner beans this year, but none of us are that keen. Bean fatigue set in very early.

– if you do love climbing and runner beans, they can be really heavy croppers and you’ll get more than you can eat from a wigwam of bamboos and 4-6 plants. They freeze well too. However, they do like lots of richness in the soil and plenty of water. I prepared the soil by digging a hole (1ft deep x 2ft width) and over-filling it with farmyard manure. Then I staked the bamboos (and grew a plant up each) in a circle around the edge to make my wigwam. That way the roots have nice rich and moisture-retaining muck to grow into. NB. plants grown up wigwams do tend to get a bit tangled at the top, making them difficult to harvest. This year I’ll go with a straight ridge support, but that takes up a bit more space I guess.

tomatoes could work well. Lots of people grow them in pots or gro-bags, but Monty ‘The Don’ reckons you get a much better taste when they’re grown in the earth. A single sturdy post (not a bamboo) should be used to support each plant, and you’ll need a sunny spot. Little trailing tomato plants could work well in a sunny pot.

– I’m a big fan of courgettes. Neither Mr MBaF nor Miss MBaF like them so I just grew one plant, but while I kept picking them they were prolific. They might do OK in a big pot, but they’ll need lots of watering and nice rich compost.

salad crops and herbs are a must. Lettuce, radishes and spring onions can all work well in pots and grow quickly. Bought lettuce goes limp in the fridge so quickly that having fresh on your doorstep is ideal.

– I’m not the most successful herb grower when it comes to tender parsley and basil. But I know that you’ve got to treat thyme, rosemary and sage mean to keep them keen. Give them poor soil that drains really freely, so put loads of stones in the bottom of your pot (or hole) and cover them with a shallow layer of soil or compost mixed with plenty of grit.

I’ll add anything else I think of later! Good luck!