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Here's where I started: my allotment, six years ago

I have had a simply lovely time over the half-dozen years or so since I started this blog.

Since July 2009, when I began by writing rather shyly about salads with an admirable economy of words which I seem to have lost along the way, I have battled my way through drought, torrential rain and foot-deep snow; I’ve tried and occasionally succeeded a kaleidoscope of different types of new vegetable, from yacon to tomatilloes to sweet potatoes; I’ve experimented with grow bags, and I’ve founded the honourable institution that is the annual Crocus Spud Awards, working my way through around 30 or so different types of potato along the way (some outstanding, some middling, some blimmin’ awful).

When I began, I was the happy holder of a fine ten-rod allotment: a little scruffy, maybe, but it was my slice of heaven. I left with huge sadness – it is still one of the very few things I miss about my old house, along with the close proximity of RHS Garden Wisley. It’s now two allotments, not one (a sign of the times if ever there was one), and owned by a doctor and a Chinese chap, who I hope are looking after it with rather more attention to overall neatness than I did.

...and where I am now. Just as scruffy, just as half-finished, and ever so slightly eccentric: well, just like me, really

And for the last four seasons I’ve been turning an overgrown wilderness with five feet thick hedges either side into another veg patch that has, again, taken on more of my odd little personality quirks than perhaps I should admit to. Gardens are like that: it’s not very long before they become the mirrors of their owner.

So now, as I set off into my fifth season here, those nice people at Crocus have asked me to show you how I do things rather than just waffling on about them. Yes, dear reader, I am about to take you into my garden at the business end of a video camera. So you’ll get to see where and how I grow my veg, rather than just reading about it, and hopefully I’ll be showing you some useful stuff about how you can grow some outstandingly good grub in your own garden, too.

Look out for the videos popping up all over the place on www.crocus.co.uk – especially on their rather fine Inspiration page. I’ll also be linking to the newest ones from my own blog, where I’ll also be continuing to ponder and pontificate about what’s been going on in my veg garden and general gardening stuff, too, should you be at a loose end for five minutes or so.

But for now, from this blog anyway, it’s so long. I’m not sure there’s been much fish involved, which will have disappointed Douglas Adams fans, but thank you for reading: it’s been a lot of fun.

Peas please

Last month's sowing of 'Meteor' in the cold frame hardening off

There is more than one way to plant a pea.

This could be the conclusion of my entire 20+ years of growing my own veg, in fact, neatly summed up in a nutshell (or wrapped up in a pea pod, if we’re being literal).

All those experiments with green manures, training tomatoes, trying different varieties and growing oddities – all just point towards one truth, which is that there is no absolute truth. What works for me won’t work for you, and there may be another way out there somewhere which neither of us have tried yet but which changes everything forever.

Anyway, so I was sowing my peas the other day, for it is time to get one of my favourite crops in the ground. I grow lots of different kinds: an early type – ‘Meteor’ this year, but it could just as easily have been ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ or ‘Douce de Provence’ – to pick first. These are short, and don’t have massive yields but they do arrive several weeks before anything else, and you can put them in pots in a cool greenhouse in February and have seedlings to plant out by mid-March.

This month sees the maincrops go in. I have for the last several years grown Telephone peas, which is a sort of Victorian catch-all phrase for really, really tall peas. I first came across these via the Heritage Seed Library, Garden Organic’s repository for some real lost gems: tall peas fell out of fashion because the supermarkets can’t harvest them easily, you see, but they’re perfect for grow-your-own types as they soar to 8ft tall and produce massive – and I mean massive – yields for the amount of space they take up. I have struggled to find the right supports, as they’re so heavy in full flood they pull over all but the strongest. This year they’ll be on proper full-size beanpole A-frames which should do the job.

I’ve been growing the widely-available ‘Alderman’ lately but think I may go back to the HSL and see if they still have the originals I grew that first year – it may be a rose-tinted memory hazing things up a bit but I think they were better.

And last – but most certainly not least – there are the mangetouts. I sow these the same time as the maincrops but they’re productive a good three or four weeks earlier. I adore the colours of ‘Shiraz’ - deep powdery-purple pods and delicate bicoloured pink-and-mauve flowers, pretty as a sweet pea, which you have to resist picking for a vase if you want a crop of peas.

But last year I found good old ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’ and was mounding our plates with mangetouts for weeks and weeks, right through summer. I made two sowings in the end – one about now, the other in early June – and both together saw me through to the end of the season.

So anyway: the ways to sow a pea are legion, and I’ve tried them all. And, so you don’t have to do it all again for yourself, here’s what I thought:

Direct sowing: really, don’t bother. Unless, that is, you like mice so much you want to provide them with a generous food supply, or have a cat on round-the-clock guard duty by the veg bed. I have lost more pea seeds to direct sowing than I care to remember; even if the seeds escape their fate as mouse fodder, the slugs will get them the moment they put a nose above ground.
Mark: 0/10

Loo roll inners: not brilliant germination, but they did give the root run your peas need to thrive. Mushrooms – harmless and sprouting from the cardboard, but nonetheless unpleasant – were a problem. And it took ages and ages to plant them out.
Mark: 6/10

Root trainers: see above for the root run, plus root trainers have the advantage that they naturally ‘root prune’ the seedling as it hits the bottom so the roots keep growing straight down and don’t get pot-bound. And no mushrooms. But you need a lot of root trainers to provide the pea numbers I produce.
Mark: 7/10

Guttering: cut a 1m length of guttering, buy a couple of end-stops from your local DIY store to hold in the compost and remember to drill a few holes before you fill: and you have a ready-made drill-shaped sowing environment. Spaced seeds beautifully and was easy as pie to slide into place in the ground, but you’ve got to be really quick about planting them out as there’s no root depth there at all so they quickly run out of room.
Mark: 8/10

10cm pots: simple, but effective. Fill your 10cm pot with multipurpose compost and sow five seeds to a pot. Delivers a clump of seedlings the recommended 2-3cm apart which you then plant straight out, as a potful, no pricking out or root disturbance required. You can let the seedlings grow a little higher before planting out – essential in my mouse-riddled garden as they eat anything too small – and the job is done in double-quick time as you plant five at once. My favoured method which has stood me in good stead for several seasons now.
Mark: 10/10

In need of support

Broad beans grow straighter when among bamboo cane grids

The longer I go on growing my own veg, the more support I need.

It was all so simple when I started. All I needed was a few little wigwams. You know the kind of thing; stick five bamboo canes in the ground in a rough circle, tie the tops together and you’re done. They work anywhere: containers, veg beds, in among the flowers; and they take seconds to construct.

But no: I couldn’t be happy with just that, could I. It was the allotment that broke me: all those precision-constructed A-frame runner bean supports marching down the plots, clothed with greenery so lush it wouldn’t have been out of place in a rainforest… it’s enough to make a veg-growing girl quite weak at the knees. I resisted for about a nanosecond and then yielded and built my own: pairs of canes, crossing at the top, then a single cane laid over the X at the top and tied in for stability. So satisfying.

It was the start of a long and slippery slope. Peas on wigwams just looked a little… well… odd, really. And they did get tangled up with each other. So I tried pea netting: efficient but hideous. And while you’re supposed to be able to re-use them year after year, I defy anyone to roll up a length of pea netting at the end of one season in such a way that it is then possible to extract it the following spring without it disintegrating into a knotty bird’s nest of green nylon.

Pea sticks are what the pros use: I’ve tried hazel, birch prunings, bits of buddleja and lilac – just about anything that’s vaguely woody and twiggy. They’ll hold up smaller varieties quite nicely, but anything larger and they collapse under the strain.

Wigwams of (very) rustic hazel poles waiting for the French beans

So, since I have a weakness for Telephone peas – a catch-all term for classic Victorian six-footers, including heavy-yielding triffids like ‘Ambassador’ – two types of support were needed: twiggy peasticks for the Meteors, and that A-frame again for the whoppers. I’m told if you tie them in the middle – more of an X than an A – the peas dangle off the upper half of the supports rather conveniently for picking. One to try this year, I think.

For the sweet peas, I’ve got funny little whippy hazel wigwams – a support of my own invention. The seed of the idea was planted when I saw the intricately woven supports of birch brush they use in the herbaceous borders at RHS Wisley (now there’s a masterclass in plant supports). Each year, I cut a lot of one-year-old hazel whips, unbranched and about 8ft tall, then stick them in the ground at each corner of a 1ft square. Then I bend over the tops and weave them into each other in pairs to make a cross at the top; tie in the ends so they don’t stick out and you’ve got a sort-of wigwam, but much prettier. A bit like a hazel obelisk, really. It works in large-ish pots, too.

Then last year I discovered that mangetout peas are much easier to harvest if you grow them up a sort of diamond trellis out of shortened bamboo canes, stuck in the ground at an angle and tied together where they crossed. It worked a treat. And the broad beans – never very successfully supported by the canes-in-corners-linked-with-string method recommended in the books (as the beans grow bigger, the string bulges, requiring more string to lace it all in again later in the season) – are now given a sturdy home-made grid of canes.

They’re supposed to be self-supporting, but not ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ – much too tall, and in any case after a mild-ish winter they tend to grow a little long and lanky and need a bit of propping up. The grid is suspended about a foot off the ground on bamboo ‘legs’; a second grid goes on later in the season, to catch the taller stems. Result: firmly held broad beans, no bulging, great crops.

I’m aware that I’m probably being a little OCD about this but it really is worth varying your supports according to the crop you’re growing. They all have their little quirks and idiosyncrasies: and besides, inventing things out of bits of stick and string is in the best allotment traditions and can result in some ingenious solutions to knotty problems (pun intended).

Oh, and by the way: get them in the ground now. When you’re racing down the garden with ten minutes spare to plant out a tray of runner bean seedlings the last thing you’ll want is to stop and do stick-and-string origami. Get them in place as you start sowing, and they’re ready and waiting to support your veg right through the year.

This month it's all about greenhouse no. 2: a bit scruffy at the moment, but it's frost-free, equipped with a heated propagator, and about to become a seedling-generating powerhouse

There… can you hear it? That faint crunching, creaking noise? Perhaps a teeny tiny little grunt of effort as those paper-thin cotyledons break at last from their woody prison and spread wide to greet the world?

Yes, seed sowing has started at last, which always makes me come over all poetical. I have an unfortunate habit of anthropomorphising my plants, which is never a good thing as seedlings really are quite different from babies (no projectile poo, for a start, which is always a bonus).

But when I see a tomato seedling push its way bravely through the soil it’s hard not to imagine it stretching in relief and reaching up to the sky in sheer celebration of the joy of being alive.

Oops, doing it again. Sorry.

To get back to sensible, practical belts-and-braces stuff as we earthy veg gardeners ought, things are changing a little this year on the seed-sowing front. First, I am experimenting with new ways of sowing.

First, soak your Jiffy-7s: five minutes in a bucket of water should do it

Having had bad experiences with module trays – too prone to getting rootbound when faced with my erratic potting on ‘routines’ – I had reverted to sowing in traditional seed trays in the wake of my RHS Level 3 a few years ago, which sternly instructs you to employ the labour-intensive method of seed tray, prick out (into seed trays again but at wider spacings) and then prick out again into pots. Takes ages, and I was never entirely sure that the general root damage inflicted on the seedlings as you move them around didn’t set them back more than is strictly necessary.

So I’ve made the leap this year into the mysterious world of Jiffy-7s. This isn’t, as it may sound, something you’d find wrapped in plain packaging in family planning clinics, but a pellet of compost wrapped in a fine gauze. These days you don’t have to buy peat-based ones – never been a fan of peat, even before they realised how much environmental damage you’re doing by using it – as they have coir ones instead.

Jiffy-7s are the propagation method of choice for most professional nurserymen and women – and they know a thing or two about growing plants. So I’ve long wanted to have a go. The basic principle is the same as saved loo roll inners, only smaller and less messy.

Here are the cape gooseberries going in: rather satisfying, if a little fiddly

You chuck a handful of Jiffy-7s into a bucket of water and let them soak for five minutes. Then stand them in a seed tray – half a seed tray holds 24 Jiffy-7s – and sink a seed into the little opening at the top (this is the fiddly bit: I used the end of a pencil which seemed to work OK).

I’ve used them for anything I would normally sow one or two to a module – so tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and cape gooseberries so far. I’ll do the brassicas in them too I think.

I’ve had pretty good results so far with the tomatoes and have even got to the potting on stage, which is where Jiffy-7s really score. The roots grow straight through the gauze – you can see them white and fine, sticking out of the edges – and you just pop the whole thing in a 7.5cm pot and backfill with compost, like potting on a plug plant. Job done, and not a single root so much as disturbed let alone broken.

Well, even after all the years I’ve been growing veggies you still discover new and better ways to do things. I’m just kicking myself I didn’t try this before!

Baring all

Three of the four gooseberries waiting to be planted: 'Invicta', 'Whinham's Industry' and 'Greenfinch' in case you're interested (the other is 'Careless')

Last chance saloon for planting bare root fruit this month – which is as good an excuse as I know to blow a small fortune on a fat package of dead brown twigs.

Not that it was a fortune when you consider they’ll keep me in gooseberries (four kinds!) loganberries and tayberries well into my dotage. And the twigs weren’t, of course, dead: merely sleeping.

This was the last chapter in the saga entitled ‘Stocking My Fruit Cage’, which isn’t a title you’ll find shoulder to shoulder with the Catherine Cooksons but is every bit as full of conflict, passion and agonising dilemmas.

I have argued endlessly with myself over what exactly to fill my little 25 x 25ft potager garden with ever since I built it, in the way you do when you have a limited space which must supply your every need. Plus, being fruit and therefore a permanent crop, this is a long-term commitment and whatever I chose I was going to be stuck with for decades. So you can see why I wanted to get it right.

Also when it comes to soft fruit I am very insistent on planting things with roots unencumbered by pots, which means I have to wait till winter comes around before I can do the next bit, as that’s the only season bare-root fruit is available.

Soak the roots in a bucket of water for an hour or so before planting

There is good reason for all this extreme patience. You get a better choice of bare-root fruit than container-grown: not that it’s always a good thing when you’re dithering like a good’un already, but it’s nice to think you’ve chosen the very best there is.

And bare root fruit are delivered fast asleep, having been rudely dug up from some windswept field somewhere in the middle of their long winter slumber. If all goes well they will continue snoozing right through the transplanting process, only waking up in spring to find themselves somewhere completely different: hopefully, though no doubt disorienting and confusing, they will also find it to their liking since my little fruit garden is neither windswept nor rude but very cosy and sheltered and just as a fruit bush likes it (if you overlook the slightly over-alkaline soil).

Planting bare root fruit is a straightforward, if slightly chilly process. Here’s how:

1) Unwrap the roots from their packaging as soon as they arrive. They may be asleep, but they’re still alive and don’t appreciate suffocating inside plastic bags any more than we do.

You can see the 'nursery line' clearly here - dark wood below ground, lighter wood above

2) The ground will almost certainly be either frozen or waterlogged when your bare root fruit arrive, since this is Winter and therefore Unforgiving. So if you can’t plant your bare roots straight away, find a corner of your garden which isn’t frozen or waterlogged and heel them in till things improve: this just means digging a rough trench, popping the roots in and covering them loosely with soil.

3) Once you’re ready to plant, plonk all the roots in a bucket for an hour to soak up as much water as possible, so that when you put them in the ground they’re already nice and plump.

4) Dig a hole rather wider than you think you’ll need, and a little shallower: the idea is to spread the roots out sideways but to plant only as deep as the plant was originally in the ground.

5) I don’t add anything extra to my soil when I plant: the theory these days is that if you do, you encourage the roots to stay in their nice enriched hole rather than stretching out to explore the wider environment. If your soil is below par, improve it generally – barrowloads of well-rotted manure, you know the drill – before you start.

All in place and ready to form a very fancy diamond double cordon thingummy (I hope!)

6) Spread out the roots in the hole so they sit comfortably and backfill. I like to hold the stem just at the point where I want it to sit in the soil and work the soil around the roots with my other hand so I know there are no gaping air pockets. You can see the level where the plant originally sat in the soil – it’s where the dark wood of the roots meets the paler stem above ground – so aim to have that at soil level after you’ve transplanted, too.

7) Finish off by firming gently, giving it all a good water. Sprinkle with slow-release fertiliser and tuck them up with a mulch of compost to slumber for a while longer. They’ll wake up and stretch out a flurry of new leaves in about a month or so from now – you’ll get some berries this year, but stay patient and you should be eating bowlfuls of luscious little juicy jewels from next summer onwards.

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