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Remembering a time of plenty: sweetpeas and sweet rocket in my garden last June

So here it is, then. Hello, 2015!

Actually it feels much like 2014, if I’m honest. Now, I like an excuse for a party as much as the next person, but if like me you’re in prosaic and/or post-Prosecco-overindulgence mood this morning you’ve probably already figured out it doesn’t make much sense to see 1st January as some kind of new dawn, any more than 31st December, or 13th August, or any other date you care to mention.

After all, when the first New Year’s party was held in Mesopotamia some time in 2000 BC they picked a date in mid-March – the spring equinox – to get excited about. If you’re Chinese you won’t be getting at all excited until February 19th; and if you’re Jewish, you’ll be hanging on till September 13th for Rosh Hashanah.

I generally get all New Year-ish in autumn too, around September and October each year, as this is the time of year my new veg-growing year starts. It’s when the old year ends and I’m clearing away spent plants and tucking up the beds for winter; and it’s also when I get the following season off to a good start with sowings of ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ broad beans and lots of sweet peas in the cold frame, as well as autumn-sown onions and garlic outdoors. So the beginning of January feels like a continuation of the same, rather than the start of something new.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that I try not to make New Year’s resolutions. After all, can you remember the ones you made last year? No. Thought not. Try making some this year and that’ll jog your memory: they will, after all, be exactly the same. As an exercise in finding an excuse to punish yourself for no good reason, it’s hard to beat.

I prefer, instead, to collect together the new experiences and lessons learned by the end of last year, last September, which have since been floating around aimlessly in my mind not doing very much.

It’s good to give it all a little time to coalesce into nuggets of information you can do something with – otherwise I find something which seemed terribly urgent and important last year turns out to be much less momentous than you thought it was. And some things – like how to avoid the aubergine disaster of last year in which perfectly healthy, flowering plants failed to make any fruit – can turn into quite different things, like the decision not to bother trying to grow aubergines any more since they’re too much blimmin’ trouble for what you get back. We don’t even eat that many aubergines anyway.

So here are my not-New-Year decisions, rather than resolutions, with which I hope – as always – to make 2015 an even better growing year than 2014. I’m on safe ground, as the longer I grow, the better it gets: but also shaky ground as veg growing has a habit of throwing you googlies which make you rethink everything you thought you knew all over again.

Happy Not New Year!

Photographing my garden once a month turned out to be really useful, at least until I got distracted and forgot to do it from about July (I’m aiming for the full twelve months this year). There’s nothing quite like photographic evidence that you really have made a lot of progress over the last six months to keep you going through the next six.

Dwarf beans may not be worth growing. I tried dwarf borlotti beans and French beans last year: those that weren’t got by the slugs were mud-splashed and none were plentiful. If anyone has any tips for growing them well, do let me know.

I am revamping the greenhouse as I have got into an unthinking rut in recent years which has dictated that I grow peppers, chillies, aubergines, cucumbers, tomatoes and one novelty crop (insert name here) each year. Despite the fact that I eat hardly any aubergines, three cucumber plants is way too much, eight tomato plants is way too few and we don’t need any more chillies now the tree chilli is topping six feet and threatening to lift the roof off my greenhouse. Next year: no aubergines, two cucumbers max, blight-resistant trial for tomatoes to see if I dare grow them outside and I really, really want an edible passionfruit.

I need more potatoes. And carrots, and onions. I am aiming for self-sufficiency and these are the three which have defeated me: we eat tons and tons of potatoes, fight the ponies and guineapigs for carrots and always run out of onions by February. Luckily I can co-opt more land if I evict the chickens from their run and into a different bit of the top field for half the year. Everyone can find more growing space if they’re determined enough: if you think you can’t, just log on to www.landshare.net and have a good browse, or ask that neighbour with the brambly patch at the bottom of the garden if they want it growing veggies instead.

I will learn to garden in the dark. Time management is always a struggle for me what with kids and work and an inordinate and expanding number of animals to look after. But leaving the garden to its own devices is not an option: so I have decided to free myself from the constraints of daylight and garden with a head torch instead. Or in the shed: I am building myself a potting bench and there’s a proper light, and a radio, and a cup of tea in the shed. All good temptations to get me outside into the wee small hours of the morning if need be.

Happy Christmas!

Greenhouse no. 1: salads still teeny-tiny and only intermittently growing, so I'm wondering if I timed the planting wrong (again)

I am behind the curve. In fact so behind it am I that I’ve lost sight of it altogether and am ambling along on some vague trajectory of my own devising that has no bearing whatsoever on what I ought to be doing at this time of year.

It’s been a busy autumn, but that’s not the reason I haven’t got around to putting up the bubblewrap insulation yet. I am also terminally lazy: nope, that’s not why either.

It’s just that it’s hard to get motivated to tuck up the greenhouse for the winter when…. well…. you can’t really see the point.

You see, here in the south-west of England it’s been quite difficult to believe winter has actually started yet. We got a bit excited the other day, when the temperatures fell to a heady zero degrees and there was a definite white dust on the grass. But that was it. And that’s the coldest it’s been since the winter before last.

You hard nuts over in the south-east where the clouds occasionally part to reveal a minus-five inducing bit of moonlight, or you even harder nuts upwards of the Watford Gap where we softy southerners never venture without GPS, thermals and a hot water bottle – no doubt you’ve been chipping ice off the cars every morning with a pickaxe. Don’t take a blind bit of notice of what I say in this post as you should have insulated the greenhouse at least a month ago, and if you didn’t your lah-di-dah bananas and lemongrass and all that fancy muck will be so much frozen black mush by now.

Ensete ventricosa, still hale and hearty and outside

But my bananas – including the notoriously tender Ensete ventricosa I got free from a jumble sale when they couldn’t sell it even for 50p – are not only not frosted, but actually still growing. I probably shouldn’t be surprised: daytime temperatures are averaging about 10-12°C and even at night time it’s struggling to dip below 7°C. And it’s December. Nearly January, really.

That’s all about to change, though, says the Met Office. I took a little peek at next week’s forecast and it’s decidedly ominous: not a single day above 9°C, and falling. At night we’re dropping to a shivery one degree above on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year. And what with increasingly hysterical headlines in the Daily Express (the UK’s self-appointed Weather Panic Newspaper) and even the catatonically measured predictions of the Met Office warning of ‘some signs of potential for a slightly more settled and colder spell to develop from early January’ (talk about guarded) – it’s all getting a little too dicey for my liking.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: don’t take any notice of the calendars. They’ll tell you to sow in March, and pull up the maincrops in October, and insulate your greenhouse in November; but what’s true for Carlisle is not true for Cornwall and even if it is, you should still look up into the sky and think about how cold (and/or wet) your nose is before you do a thing. React to the weather happening right now, over the top of your garden, day by day, not the gardening books: it is the only sure indication of when to do anything.

The first (and so far only) piece of bubblewrap in place so far

So this week I’ve been unrolling my carefully-stored pieces of bubblewrap polythene, snipped to shape over the years to fit my greenhouse (I also mark which bits went on which part of the greenhouse with black permanent marker otherwise it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle with particularly unwieldy pieces). I fix them to the frame with green plastic insulator clips so they’re held a little off the glass, as the theory is they trap warm air between plastic and glass, increasing the insulation potential.

Once I’ve moved the tender plants inside (mainly the scented-leaf pelargonium collection, overwintering nicotianas, a grapefruit tree and my two baby banana plants) that should be enough protection, as you can expect an extra 2-3°C above ambient (i.e. the air temperature outside) from the insulation and that’s generally as much as you need to be frost-free here in Somerset.

In the south-east, where it regularly dropped to a heady minus 5 at night, I used to heat my greenhouse to just above zero as well as insulating – I’m told bubblewrap saves around a quarter on your heating bills. If you do live up north and you’re looking at minus 10 or so that saving really mounts up, so insulation becomes even more worth the trouble. Or you could just stop being soft enough to grow bananas, I suppose.

Double your money

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.

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