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Time to prune the autumn-fruiting raspberries...

Right about now, I’m starting to think about pruning my autumn-fruiting raspberries. They’re good old ‘Autumn Bliss’, rock-solid reliable, heavy cropping and utterly delicious. They came into their own this year, their second in my garden: I confess not many made it as far as the kitchen, as I find a fresh raspberry irresistible, but I’m hopeful that next year they’ll be even more prolific and we’ll have enough left over after my frankly greedy forays into the fruit cage to start producing raspberry icecream, summer puddings and even jam, maybe. Can’t wait.

They should be even more productive as they’re now on a double-cropping regime. Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? If you ever want to play old blokes with flat caps on allotments at their own game, drop the phrase casually into conversation, preferably in the same sentence as ‘double-U cordon’, ‘Guyot system’ and ‘festoon’ (as in apple trees), and finish off with a balanced analysis of the comparative merits of chip budding vs whip grafting. About halfway through, watch their eyes start to glaze over. But they’ll never complain about all these wimmin invading the allotment site ever again.

Prune out the ones that look like this...

Anyway. Double cropping is actually a lot simpler than it sounds. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s also been tried and tested, and proved well worth doing. A few years ago, Which? Gardening carried out a proper trial on double-cropping raspberries and came up with some surprising results. They grew seven different varieties and pruned one row of each variety as normal, but double-cropped a second row.

On comparing the results they found all but one increased their yield (the exception was ‘Brice’, which showed a slightly lower yield with double-cropping). In some cases – ‘Autumn Bliss’, ‘Sugana’ and ‘Autumn Treasure’ – double-cropping produced twice the yield; and even famously high-yielding types like ‘Joan J’ gave nearly a kilo more raspberries over the season.

Feed and water your canes normally and Which? also say they shouldn’t become exhausted by fruiting for several months longer than they would do otherwise. Same workload, plants happy, double the raspberries: what’s not to like?

So now that I’m about to take the snips to my raspberry canes I thought I’d explain in more detail how you go about it.

1: If you’ve just planted your raspberries, leave them to grow and establish for at least a year before you start pruning at all (let alone double pruning). You’re ready to start pruning after they’ve produced their first good crop.

...and leave in the ones that look like this (in my case, about two stems, then). They should crop next summer

2: Start around now, late autumn/early winter, with autumn-fruiting raspberry canes which have just finished fruiting. Normally you would cut these right down to the base, every single stem: but instead of doing that, pick only the stems which have fruited and leave the rest untouched.

3: Your unpruned stems now have a head start on the stems which shoot from the base in spring, and by summer they’re ready to flower and fruit a month or so earlier – giving you a crop of ‘summer’ raspberries from your autumn-fruiting variety.

4: Meanwhile you have a little thicket of new stems shooting up (just as they would have done under conventional pruning). These will start to fruit at the normal time (August-September) – just as the first batch are finishing.

5: While you’re enjoying the second harvest, cut back those which fruited in summer just like you would if they were summer-fruiting raspberries. They’ll be replaced by new shoots which appear before the year is out; leave this intact when you’re winter-pruning the stems which fruited in autumn and the cycle starts all over again.

Well, that’s the theory anyway: I must confess that my overenthusiastic raspberries produced such a lot of fruit this year that very nearly every one of the canes has borne some berries. This means I’ve only been able to leave two or three shoots behind to carry on into next year. My guess is that this double cropping malarkey takes a year or two to get into its rhythm; I shall report back.

Grazing rye.... or black plastic?

Right, that’s it. I know what I said about green manures, but it was a load of old twaddle. Don’t believe a word of it.

Sometimes, as a gardener, you just have to admit when something isn’t working. For many, many years I’ve been using green manures: usually to follow the new potatoes, as I always find it a bit tricky to know what to plant straight after if I’m not to muck up my rotation system. So I take the easy way out and sow green manures instead.

The theory is sound: you sow fast-maturing plants which have some beneficial effect on the soil. Sometimes, as with phacelia or buckwheat, it’s simply a lot of lush nitrogen-rich green matter which rots down into the soil and adds extra organic matter and no doubt nutrients.

Sometimes it’s a more specialist function: they say deep-rooted plants like alfalfa and blue lupins draw up nutrients from deep in the soil. Leguminous green manures like red clover ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air via nodules on their roots; grazing rye breaks up claggy clay. And so on, and so on.

Now, I myself have regurgitated all this in various articles over the years, many times over. It’s not all bunkum, either: studies have been carried out by Garden Organic (among others) which undoubtedly show that soils on which green manures have been grown contain more nitrogen than those left to their own devices.

I have also followed the theory myself: I’ve tried phacelia (pretty, and the bees love it) buckwheat (don’t let it seed whatever you do) red clover (patchy and difficult to get rid of) and grazing rye – my own personal favourite – many times.

However – and here’s the rub – I have to admit I have never noticed any particular improvement in performance in subsequent years, and certainly not any more than other beds where I’ve just laid a thick mulch of compost and covered the lot with black plastic.

Look more closely and this is what you find... not what I had in mind at all

If you look closely at the above Garden Organic report you’ll find the trials were done on a field scale. And most other similar tests like this one from the HGCA (part of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board) are also primarily for the benefit of farmers.

I’m sure green manures do work splendidly if you’ve got a whole farm to spread them over. But they ain’t much good in a garden.

Objection no. 1: why go to all the trouble and expense of identifying, purchasing and growing special crops to get the green manure effect? You could grow any nitrogen-rich leafy crop. Even productive ones (now there’s a thought) like lettuces. Then at least you’d get some bang for your buck before you dug them in.

Objection no. 2: that digging in thing. When I cover my veg beds with compost and then black plastic, all I have to do in spring is peel ‘em back and go. With green manures you have to shear off top growth, dig in the roots and then wait for them to rot down. Yada yada yada, it takes ages and is back-breaking and then you have to wait a month before you can plant anything. Why bother? The benefits just aren’t spectacular enough to justify the extra effort.

Objection no. 3: the weeds. This sudden lightbulb moment all came about while I was standing staring disconsolately at my grazing rye the other day. It was meant to be a grazing rye and vetch mix, which sounds all very nice until you realise grazing rye grows twice as fast as vetch so you actually end up with just the grazing rye. As I say, though, I like dealing with grazing rye: it doesn’t self-seed, just gets on with the job and covers the ground quite well.

Except that it didn’t quite get to the edges. And now it’s riddled with deadnettle and chickweed and a few proper nettles here and there self-seeded out of the hedgerows.

Of course, I can dig in the weeds along with the grazing rye and they’ll still have much the same effect (see objection 1 above). But I didn’t want any weeds over winter: they’ll self-seed into neighbouring beds and generally make themselves a nuisance. It is painfully obvious from the plastic-covered and weed-free bed next door that there are better, cheaper and less labour-intensive ways of doing things.

The recently-crowned Practical Gardening Journalist of the Year and no-dig gardening pioneer Charles Dowding got there long before I did. He dislikes green manures quite intensely for harbouring slugs and weeds, and adds that in clay soils they may turn putrid before they decay (read about this and other ‘myths and misconceptions’ in his latest book). He has long preferred well-rotted brown manure instead: and what’s good enough for him is good enough for me.

So I hereby retract any previous advice given about sowing green manures. Don’t bother. Grow lettuces instead. Or just cover your beds with a nice thick layer of manure and pop some black plastic over the top to keep out the rain and the weeds. You’ll be glad you did.

Greenhouse half replanted with lettuce... but the peppers are staying

November is change-around month in the greenhouse. Well, at least it’s meant to be.

The trouble is, it’s supposed to be cold, and it just isn’t. We’re still getting double-digit temperatures during the day, and at night though it’s dipping to zero very occasionally and we’re getting some encouraging if short-lived ground frosts (the first, I might add, in two years), it’s more often in the five-to-ten degrees mark. Which means my summer greenhouse crops are still going. A little limply, and not very enthusiastically, perhaps, but definitely still going.

This puts me in a dilemma. Do I rip out the summer plants even though they might still push out an extra tomato or two, or in the case of the peppers ripen another fruit or two? Or do I hang on till the bitter end?

It’s getting to be an urgent decision, too, as this is also salad-planting month in the greenhouse. A couple of years ago I discovered winter salad greenhouse growing and I’ve never looked back: fill the borders in an ordinary six-by-eight greenhouse with young salad plants at this time of year – a couple of dozen lettuces, perhaps some corn salad, mizuna or mustard – and they’ll supply you with bowlfuls of salad right through winter and beyond. I had such a lot the first year I did it that I was giving bags away to friends and family. It is wonderful, just life-affirming to have such plenty in the middle of the coldest, bleakest season of the year.

You don't have to be too particular about planting greenhouse salads: little clumps will do just fine

You usually start the salads in around September, sowing into modules or seed trays then potting on to grow in the cold frame or tucked into a corner of the greenhouse. This way you have lovely little sturdy young plants by November, with plenty of strength to cope with cold snaps yet still give you leaves to pick.

Sow them direct in November and your seeds may germinate, but they’ll still hunker down and stop growing if it gets really cold. When a young plant stops growing, you can still pick its leaves, if sparingly; if a seedling stops growing you have no choice but to wait till it starts again, even if that’s not till February. So quite often if you sow winter salads too late, you don’t get anything to pick till early spring.

But this year I got a bit sidetracked in September and only managed to sow a bit of pak choi and some ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ lettuce, and the slugs ate all but one of the latter.

So I’ve been terribly lazy. I bought in mixed salad plug plants, ready to plant out straight away: the perfect gardener’s cheat, and one I fall back on without the slightest twinge of guilt as it’s actually the sensible thing to do. Plug plants are a brilliant invention and take away a lot of the time, disappointment and general hassle you spend on raising things from seed.

The trouble is, the greenhouses were still full when they arrived on my doorstep. Time for some tough decisions.

A couple of things were easy: the cucumbers were looking very sorry for themselves by now so I snipped off the last few fruits and pulled them up. The tomatilloes, too, had done their stuff so I harvested the big fat fruits for making salsa (freezing the surplus for later use) and pulled up the plants. The aubergines went: they have been an abject failure this year as though they were lovely big healthy plants and set flowers, none turned into fruits. It’s a bit of a mystery, though I suspect a pollination problem.

The peppers and chillies however are still definitely ripening and I just can’t bring myself to pull them up in full fruit. So the lettuces are having to snuggle up to some slightly unconventional bed partners, for the time being at least. It does mean I’ve had to concede about a quarter of the available growing space, but this way I get the best of both worlds: lovely sweet red ‘Snackbite’ peppers and crunchy fresh salads, and all within a bauble’s throw of Christmas. Not bad.

(Mespilus germanica)

The taste of autumn: ready to pick at long last

We gardeners are a patient bunch.

Three years I’ve been waiting for this lot. Since they’ve been thinking about possibly one day emerging from the unpromising stick I planted back in 2011 my youngest has started secondary school, my eldest has reached GCSE age, we’ve all been to France and Italy and the Isle of Wight (twice) and I’ve muddled my way through two whole lambings. I’ve known people take less time getting engaged, married and divorced.

Planting any fruit tree is an act of faith. In its first year you get no fruit at all, or at least you shouldn’t: it’s too busy putting down roots, so if you do see fruit buds you should whip them off sharpish (wiping away an anguished and regretful tear as you do so). Year two, and you might have a handful – a sort of snifter of what’s to come, just to keep you interested.

This year, however, is year three: and at last my patience is rewarded. I knew when the tree was covered in handsome white blossom this spring that we’d have a good year, and so it has proved: every branch is laden with little ‘culs de chien’ (the French, therefore more socially-acceptable version of the Shakespearean slang for medlar, which was – hands over the kids’ eyes now – open-arse).

Medlars are an ancient fruit, cultivated by the Greeks and Romans, and one of those in secrets of grow-your-own types as you can’t buy them in the shops and so have to plant a tree yourself to enjoy them. Luckily the trees don’t grow all that big so are lovely in small gardens: as well as the blossoms and weird-looking fruit the leaves turn a handsome russet in autumn too.

I did think I was in for a bumper crop this year but the dry summer has put paid to that. In September most of the fruits dropped sadly off the branches at around an inch across. I did collect some in the hope that I could ‘blet’ them (of which more later), but instead of going soft they just dried into rock hard inedible husks. Must remember to water the orchard more often in sunny spells.

Bletting happily: bottoms up!

So I was humbly grateful to see that a good bowlful or so had clung on to fatten on the branches. It’s a great mistake to harvest medlars too early, however tempting that may be. Wait until at least late October, and preferably early November, when they will be at their fattest (mine reached over two inches across before I gave in and collected them).

It’s even better to hold on till the first frost, as this goes some way towards bletting them on the tree (yes, I know, don’t worry, I’m coming to it). But if you live where I do it’s touch and go whether you actually get a frost (none last year, and with 12-degree-plus temperatures outside as I type it’s not looking great for this year either). And they do have a habit of dropping off the tree anyway before you get that far.

You just snap them off the tree to harvest – they should come away quite easily. They’re still hard at this point and quite inedible, which is where the bletting comes in (the word comes from the French for ‘overripe’ – itself from the word for injured or bruised).

Basically you turn them upside down (for stability – otherwise they roll all over the place) and leave them on a plate, tray or box somewhere cool, dark and frost-free. In two or three weeks the flesh turns brown and soft, and there’s a ‘give’ to the skin. This is when they’re ready to eat.

I adore medlars. They have the strangest texture and flavour of any fruit you’ll ever try: quite unlike any of the usual apples or pears or bananas. The flesh is creamy and thick, like custard, and the flavour is similar too: a sort of citrussy sweet vanilla.

I have a pound or two of them bletting in the kitchen right now. Not much to show for three years’ patience, I know, but since gardeners are also eternally and irrationally optimistic I shall hope for better next year. Meanwhile I shall snaffle one or two to eat straight out of the skins with a teaspoon, and make the rest into medlar jelly – something that’s been on my bucket list for years now. You never know: next year I might make two jars…

My potatoey adventures proceed apace: and now it’s the turn of the maincrops.

I grew only two maincrops this year, mainly because I haven’t yet got my third potato bed up and running (we eat so many potatoes I am seriously thinking of co-opting the chicken run for mass potato production).

Both were recommended for blight resistance – though in the event, only one of them actually stepped up to the mark. Here’s the verdict:

Setanta: Regular readers will know that my experiments with blight-resistant potatoes have so far leant heavily in the direction of the Sarvari Research Trust in north Wales – breeder of the ever-reliable Sarpo varieties. But there are many, many other varieties which claim to withstand blight, of which this is one.

All I can say is – not in my garden. This probably means my brand of blight is the infamous Blue 13 strain, which now accounts for about 80% of blight attacks in the UK. Blight can mutate, so potatoes which were resistant a few years ago may now succumb. Blue 13, aka Superblight, is the latest version and renders even previously reliable spuds like Orla, Lady Balfour and of course Setanta just as blight-prone as any other variety.
Yield: 15kg (tuber blight resistance seems better than foliage)
Flavour: Good: not exactly swoon-inducing, but good
Verdict: 5/10
In a word: Collapsed

Sarpo Axona: as you can see they were a bit more scabby than I'd have liked, too

Sarpo Axona: The fourth of the Sharpies I’ve tried, after Mira, Kifli and Blue Danube. Like the rest it stood proud when all about it had been laid waste. But like the rest, it wasn’t great on the cooking front. Also, I have never seen such enormous tubers on a potato plant before: mine were, almost without exception, absolute whoppers weighing upwards of 500g per tuber (I had to pick out the smaller ones for the picture as I couldn’t actually fit the big ones on the plate). Many were too large to bake: there is such a thing as a potato that’s too big. But it did mean the yield, kilo for kilo, was gratifyingly enormous.
Yield: 18kg
Flavour: On the bland side of acceptable: and roasting, chipping and baking only, as it turns to mush unless boiled very, very carefully.
Verdict: 7/10
In a word: Massive

So that brings to an end this year’s experiment, flawed and subjective as it ever was. It’s been a great year on the earlies front; less successful later in the year. And I’ve gone and eaten the last of my potatoes already and I was meant to have loads to store this winter. Must grow more potatoes…

But without further ado, on to the bit you’ve all been waiting for.

The Crocus Kitchen Garden Spud Awards 2014

Best varieties of the year: Sarpo Axona and Ratte
Most elegant spud of the year:
Best-looking spud of the year:
Best blight resistance:
Sarpo Axona
Best flavour:
Runner up:
Maris Peer
Highest yield:
Sarpo Axona
Most like a boring supermarket spud:
The one I wouldn’t grow again if you paid me:
Well, none of them were that bad, but Vales Emerald was forgettable

And finally….
Supreme reigning champion

It’s the first time I’ve put the first earlies ahead of the maincrops, but you just couldn’t beat them for flavour. It’s revealing: blight resistance is all very well but for some reason you have to pay for that with a poorly-flavoured, if plentiful, potato. Once they can crack that particular conundrum there will be no reason to grow any other kind of maincrop at all.

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