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.

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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!

A fruity December day

The allotment came with a fruity inheritance consisting of:

– 3 wonderfully productive blackcurrant bushes
– a lacklustre row of summer-fruiting raspberries
– a huge rhubarb crown
– an invasive thorny bramble with huge berries
– a small strawberry plot barely visible amongst the couch grass.

The strawberries were sorted out last year, and I’ve extended the patch with this year’s runners.

I gave the raspberries another chance this summer but they were crap; weedy plants, yellowing leaves and barely any fruit.

The poor things – and the whole fruity area – were completely choked by couch grass and bindweed. So this summer I ripped out the rasps and spent back-breaking hours digging and carefully removing as much of the weeds and their pernicious roots as possible. I covered the area with weedproof membrane after to stop it coming straight back (there, at least!).

If Father Christmas doesn’t bring me autumn-fruiting raspberries, I’ll have to shell out on some myself.

And so to blackberries. This house loves them. My toddler has a bottomless capacity for them, but I wouldn’t let her pick her own this year because our plant was vicious.

The fruit was awesome though – definitely a cultivated variety – so Mr MBaF suggested we propagate it and plant it in a convenient hedgerow so we still get to enjoy the fruit on dog-walks!

I successfully rooted a shoot; by laying a young growing stem on the soil surface in a plant pot and securing with a tent peg for a couple of weeks.

Then I ruthlessly attacked the plant with the loppers and some stump-killer.

Its friendlier replacement is a tiddly offcut from a delicious and thornless cultivated variety my parents grow. Today Mr MBaF whacked in some fence posts between which we’ll span wires to train it along.

Two fenceposts between which our blackberry will be trained

Two fenceposts between which our blackberry will be trained

Another job jobbed today was to lift and split the rhubarb. That was an interesting experience! The modest hump of scaly matter hid a huge orange crown of rhubarby root. Once it was loosened from the surrounding soil I could make satisfying spade slices through the crunchy bulk.

I read somewhere to remove the centre, keeping and replanting sections from the outside. I ended up with a wheelbarrow full of (heavy!) waste, some sections to replant and two small crowns to offer up on our village Facebook page!

Splitting a rhubarb crown - the aftermath

The heavy barrowload of old rhubarb root

I used a 50L sack of farmyard manure to enrich the planting hole for the refreshed crown. Rhubarb needs moisture-retaining soil and lots of goodness I believe.

chocolate tin seed storage

Spring into action

Just as a shiny new pencil case and stationery would give me a thrill before the forthcoming school year, tonight I’ve enjoyed sorting out my seed-storage before the next growing season.

Nothing fancy, but a £3 transparent plastic box with 12 homemade month dividers (tip from Gardeners’ World Mag) have replaced the jumble of packets in an old Quality Street tin.

Thing is, 90% of my packets have sowing times in March or April…I’m already having a mild panic about how I’m going to manage it. I’m thinking, no trips away, no work, and set up camp at the ‘lotty for 8 weeks!

Seed packet filing

March and April looking very busy in my new seed packet file

How does everyone organise their seeds ‘n’ stuff? Do other UK readers covet Monty Don’s gawjus seed cabinet as seen on BBC Gardener’s World….or is that just me?!

Radio 4

My John Innes epiphany

I haven’t yet told my ‘normal’ friends about this blog, and I’ll continue to delay its ‘launch’ (!) while this post is headlining. Because this is the geeky post I knew I had to write when a big gardening mystery was solved for me by a recent BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time.

The mystery in question was who on earth is John Innes, and what’s his compost system all about? It was only this year that I realised the basic premise of the numbers (1-3) corresponding to the size/age of the plant. E.g. John Innes #1 is for young seedlings, John Innes #2 for potting-on and #3 for mature potting.

This, in itself, was a revelation. Then I listened to a recent download of GQT from Norwich while walking the dog, and heard all about the history and development of the John Innes system – as well as about the man himself.

[Radio 4 regularly cures my ignorance in unexpected topics with absolutely no effort on my part – perfect for a lazy person like me.]

As it turns out, John Innes had absolutely nothing to do with horticulture or compost. He was a property developer who [it’s thought] was fed up with employing rubbish gardeners. So he left money in his estate (in 1904) to set up a facility to train local boys in horticulture, in what became the John Innes Centre.

It was a gardener there, having trouble growing primulas in the 1930s, who mixed together various organic and mineral components and developed sterilisation techniques to create a reliable seed compost and the various other grades.

The ‘John Innes’ recipes were publicised widely during WWII to help the nation ‘dig for victory’. It’s not patented so any manufacturer can use the John Innes name, but there’s a code of practice to try and sustain the quality and consistency of the products.

GQT has provided a great factsheet all about John Innes if you’re keen for more of this clarity on compost!

Do all you non-UK gardeners use John Innes composts too?

NB. A more recent GQT suggested you could grow bulbs on just about any moist substrate. They don’t need nutrition because it’s all stored in the bulb. As such I’ve stuck my final few daffodil bulbs on some moist kitchen roll in a nice little jar on the kitchen windowsill. I’ll be dead chuffed if they grow and flower for me to enjoy while I wash the dishes!

Daffodil bulbs in a jar

Having a go at growing a few daffs to brighten up my kitchen before spring.