Thursday, 23 December 2010

Happy Christmas from Snowy Lancashire

Last Friday/Saturday we got a heavy fall of snow, as you can see from this bench and the wall behind. The temperature hasn't got above freezing since, so there's still plenty of snow around.
Here's a snowy Christmas tree.
For this one you will need to click on the photo and zoom in to the right of the telegraph pole. I have a little feeding station for the birds - some birdseed and fatballs. I've started taking the fatballs in at night as they freeze and the birds can't get their little beaks in. So I put them back out at first light and within half an hour the first visitors are there - the long tailed tits you can see in the photo. There are four here, the full group is around nine birds, and I use fatballs with insects specially for them as they won't take any other food.
I know everyone hates leylandii, but they also provide a good habitat for birds here and look rather nice in the snow too.
And this is the path to my vegetable plot. I've brushed the snow off my purple sprouting broccoli plants so if we get a thaw and a refreeze they don't get too damaged. I was hoping to be able to pick some sprouts on Christmas day, but the temperature is forecast to remain below freezing so think we'll be eating peas from the freezer instead!

Have a good Christmas and here's to a good gardening new year!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

December Occupations

The snow melted away at the weekend, so it was time to get out and do a bit of gardening. A bit of rough digging, tidying and excavating beckoned. The top of the soil was still a bit frozen but only about an inch deep, so it was easy to punch through. I decided to get all the parsnips up; with more snow and very low temperatures forecast for tomorrow, it would be the last chance to get them out, so here is a bucketful of parsnips, very delicious.
I also dug up some Jerusalem Artichokes (above) - the ones that had escaped their own bed and were growing in the bed next door. I like artichokes, but the downside is - ahem - they make you "windy", if you get my drift! For those unfamiliar with this vegetable, here's a link to the Wikipedia article on them. They're a true winter vegetable, I dig them up once they've stopped growing in December, through to January, eating some and replanting some for next year. I got them at a greengrocer in Suffolk a few years ago, brought them home and planted them up. It took a couple of years for them to settle in and grow on, but now they're prolific.

One other thing I did this week was to sow some Himalayan Poppy seeds - I've heard they need a cold spell to germinate, so I carefully sowed them in the pot with the parent plant as it is armour plated against snails and slugs.

All that's left to do now is hibernate with some gardening catalogues and my laptop: I did the bulk of my Christmas shopping during the thaw when I could get about, I have a 25 kilo bag of bread flour in the kitchen, along with some big bags of lentils; parsnips and artichokes in the fridge, brussel sprouts on the allotment waiting for Christmas day, so I'm all set for the snow. Hope you all enjoy the wintry weather (those of you in the cold part of the world, anyway!) and have a good Christmas.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Snow Pictures

By popular demand - well, one person actually - here are some pictures of snowy East Lancashire. This is the steam railway line which runs through the village, with a little station which you can see in the picture. It doesn't run during the week.
I love the crystals that the snow and frost makes on the vegetation but it's devilishly difficult getting a snap as the camera finds it hard to focus on white. So here are stems of the local marsh grass covered in frost. This grass grows in wet, shady spots so it holds the ice crystals well.
Looking down the valley to the south. We have a strange micro-climate in this valley, with a temperature difference of 3-5 degrees from the town 6 miles away. The UPS delivery man was cursing this yesterday when he arrived at my house at 10am to discover not only that we had a lot of snow, but the temperature was still 5 degrees below freezing! We get snow most winters as a result of our climate, and often more than surrounding areas.
There aren't many leaves left on the trees but these red beech leaves are still hanging on in a sheltered spot.
These black sheep arrived here in October and aren't too used to seeing people walk by yet. I think they are Black Welsh Mountain sheep, an old breed suitable for harsh conditions, but if anyone wants to correct me please feel free. In recent years local farmers have been experimenting with older breeds - the grazing round here is variable and in some places poor, so hardy sheep who are happy foraging in the snow and wet are most welcome.
Finally, if you still haven't sorted all your Christmas presents, here's an idea for you. I wanted to get a gardening calendar for my uncle, so had a look on I couldn't see anything I liked, so decided to make one myself! I took some of my favourite pictures from this year, one for each month, and made them into a calendar using the easy tools on Lulu, it took 30 minutes. I made it and ordered copies on 28th November and they arrived today, so there's still time if you want to do the same. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the paper and binding, and there are lots of options for how it looks. I've made my calendar public, so you can look through it if you like. Just visit and shop for calendars.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Review of 2010 - Part 5, Marrows, Pumpkins and Courgettes

It was a good year for these vegetables, although I did lose a few seedlings to the late frosts in May. Above is one of the marrow plants. For those not familiar with this vegetable, a marrow is kind of like a very large courgette/zucchini. The only thing I did differently with these veggies this year was in the planting. Normally I prepare a patch of ground, manuring and composting it. This time while I did a general preparation, each plant got 2 trowels of horse manure and 1 of compost directly in its planting hole. Definitely a good plan - growth was quicker than ever before, so I will be repeating this planting method in 2011.
Marrows are curious vegetables; here is an early one and at this stage the skin is still soft enough to eat without peeling. I like them chopped whole (no need to remove the seed core) and baked in the oven with tomatoes and onions. When they get older (and bigger) the skin toughens rather like a pumpkin and you do need to remove the seeds. I have a nice recipe for marrow curry which is delicious for the mature vegetables.
The courgettes (zucchini) were magnificent this year, cropping for three months which is a record. Really huge fruit too. All of these plants were helped by the cold winter which killed my mortal enemy, the slug, in thousands.
This is a marrow plant with two fruits growing. I put a tile under each fruit (I also do this with pumpkins) to keep them off the wet soil. This helps prevent rot and in rainy conditions stops the fruit being splattered with soil.

The pumpkins did really well too, with a record 11 fruits, some of which are still waiting to be eaten. As a little postscript to this post, here's a story of what can happen with stored marrows and pumpkins.
I put two crates of marrows and pumpkins on top of the bookcase in the living room as there was no room in the kitchen. One day I came down and smelled a strange smell, couldn't figure what it was. I shrugged it off. Next day, the same, but a little stronger. Later that morning I found a pile of watery stuff on the floor. Regular readers of this blog may recall that last year I lost one of my cats to stomach cancer and the first sign of this was vomiting. So I got into full panic mode, thought my remaining cat was ill and worried myself to death but thought it was odd because I hadn't seen or heard her do it. I cleaned up the water and then took my parcels to the post. When I got back there was more and this time there was also a pool on part of the bookcase- very strange, so I cleaned it up again. Then I sat down to have a cup of tea, turned round 5 minutes later to find more water on the bookcase.

Then, and only then, I looked upward, to find a marrow had rotted and was oozing water out of the crate. Drip, drip, downwards, hence the bad smell and mysterious watery substance. The smell in the crate was not pleasant! So the moral of this story is to keep marrows and pumpkins where you can easily keep an eye on them.

Oh, and the cat's fine, by the way. She's spending the winter attached to the radiator under the window, can't prise her off it:

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Review of 2010 - Part 4, Peas & Beans

I always start my early peas and beans under a cloche, which goes on the ground when I prepare the soil about two weeks before planting. This traps what little warmth there is during the day and helps germination. After the cold winter, this was even more important this year and the peas above were planted in early April. I also did a second sowing (without a cloche) one month later, in an attempt to extend the season.
I know I really bang on about this, but if you like peas, grow an old tall variety like this one - Alderman, which grows up to 2m in height. You get more crops for the same amount of land, and you stand a better chance of eating your peas instead of feeding the slugs. The only downside is the support needed - this year I used a framework consisting of canes with twine woven from top to bottom in between. It stood up well to the weather and wind, only subsiding gently towards the end of the season.
My bid to extend the cropping season did work; although the second sowing suffered a bit from the 6 weeks without rain, it recovered and we had peas into August (picture above). I still have a large bag of peas in the freezer.
The runner beans were started in toilet roll pots in the shed. I waited until quite late this year as we had late frosts, but they grew on well once they got going. The great thing about toilet roll pots is you just pop the whole thing in the ground. Unfortunately they went out just as the dry spell was kicking in, I did water them but they were a bit slower to get away.
I'm not really a big fan of runner beans; I grow them mainly for my Mother, who loves them. They were late due to the weather but cropped reasonably well into October. Most of mine ended up in vegetable soups, liquidised! The variety is White Emergo, a white flowered variety. These are supposed to keep good pollination rates even in a dry summer. This did seem to happen in the one dry summer we had some years ago, but I can't really remember the days when we had hot, dry summers any more!
The broad beans weren't good. I planted them under a cloche in March, which was late as I normally put them in in February. The soil was just too cold and we had been unable to prepare it due to the snow. They started well, as you can see from the picture, but ...
... just as they started to flower, we hit the dry spell and they struggled. The crop was poor this year; I think I started to seriously water them too late. I featured these poor plants in my review of the weather a few weeks ago.

So mixed results with the peas and beans, and a few learning points.

Next week, the stars of my plot this year - marrows, courgettes (zucchini) and pumpkins.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Review of 2010 - Part 3, Roots

This has been a generally good year for my root crops. The radish got off to a good start with the sunny weather in spring and the first crop was excellent. Unfortunately the subsequent sowings suffered a bit due to the dryness. Watering produced excessively quick growth, splitting the roots. But in my part of the world I usually find the first sowing is always the best anyway. The variety I sowed is Rudolph.
After last year's total failure of the beetroot crop, I was determined not to let the same thing happen again. So I started all the beetroot in pots in the shed, 4 or 5 to each pot. I think this was wise, given the cold and late spring and it paid off. I lost no more than 5 plants when I put them in the soil - being very careful to leave the soil around the roots intact- and you can see from the picture that we had a lot of beetroots. At the end of summer I picked all the small ones and pickled them leaving the larger ones to grow on. There are still a few in the ground, I'll get them up before the hard frosts come. So if anyone tells you that you cannot grow beetroot in pots and plant them out, tell them that's rubbish because I've done it! The variety I grow is Egyptian Turnip Rooted - it seems to tolerate the damp soil and vagaries of the weather here better than other varieties.
Parsnips also did well, a mix of home-grown and bought seed produced a lot of plants. Unfortunately I planted them a little too close to the pumpkins and some of them didn't get quite enough light. Still, they will be useful for miniature parsnips for roasting. I've only picked one as yet (top of the picture) but it was delicious. The variety is Tender & True.

As you can see from the picture, I've still got a few cabbages left as well as beetroot and parsnip. Next week I'll look at the peas and beans.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Review of 2010 - Part 2, Leafy Green Veg

I've never got on well with spinach, it didn't seem to matter what variety, when or how I sowed it, it always ran to seed without producing leaves. So last year I bought a few Perpetual Spinach plants from the garden centre and popped them in to see how they did. To my surprise, they flourished, and for the first time we actually had leaves to eat. I therefore decided to take the plunge with a packet of seed this year.

The photo above shows the leaf bed in July. I sowed them in April, Swiss Chard on the left, Perpetual Spinach in the centre and lettuce on the right. The spinach was producing when this picture was taken, and is still going now. It should survive over winter and I anticipate having some early leaves in 2011 before next year's crop gets going. The bed was just composted, with a small bit of manure as well. So a definite success, not one plant went to seed.
The Swiss Chard (leaf beet) was slower to get going, and I had to do a second sowing as it didn't all germinate well. But it is doing well now, as this picture from a few weeks ago shows. Good quality leaves, again the best ever. This is one of those plants which tends to seed itself where it fancies around the garden. The lettuce was Salad Bowl and was very good, as always.
As for the cabbages, I grow summer cabbages, though we tend to eat them well into autumn. This year we grew two of the smaller varieties; Minicole on the left, Golden Acre on the right (the apple helps to give scale). This size of cabbage means you don't end up eating it for days, and we tried Golden Acre as we had difficulties getting a good crop of Minicole. The growing conditions this year were particularly good as we had lots of light at the right time of year, so it was a good test of the two varieties, and the consensus is that Golden Acre won. While not as compact a variety as Minicole, it provided a more consistent crop of similar size vegetables and a slightly better taste too. Minicole varied from teeny tiny cabbages (the size of a blown sprout top) to some a little bigger than the one in the picture. So we'll just grow Golden Acre next year. By the way, as you can see from the picture, our slug population has now recovered in number and appetite!

As the sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli are still going, I'll make a judgment on them later.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Review of 2010 - Part 1, The Weather

As gardeners, we're always at the mercy of the weather and this year has been memorable for that, at least. While we always get some winter snow in my part of the world, last year's was, well, exceptional in its depth and duration. Along with others in my village, I trekked out to buy food since the car was useless, and my winter vegetables did suffer.

The leeks were buried under snow for weeks and never really recovered, while the broccoli (above) seemed to have survived with its head above the snow. However, in time what I realised was that the prolonged cold with intermittent thaw had damaged them, with ice crystals getting in and once the weather warmed up, some of the plants rotted away. The moral of this story is that should we have similar weather, I should brush as much of the snow off the plant as I can straight away to limit the amount of meltwater later.

If you would like to see pretty pictures to remind you of what it was like here last winter, you can do so here and here

But it was not all doom and gloom - the prolonged cold decimated my nemesis, the slug population and we didn't see any for a few months. Most of the slug eggs were killed by the frost, though the snails didn't seem to do too badly.

We had a dry October and since I knew the forecast for the winter was bad, I made sure we got as much of the soil cleared and prepared as we could, which saved a lot of time in the spring. I've done the same this year, to be on the safe side!
The spring was consequently delayed, with plantings around 3 weeks behind a normal year. Just as things were getting going, we had a late, hard frost - see the potatoes above. I also lost a few marrow and pumpkin seedlings which were growing on in the shed. I've never seen this kind of frost damage before, but the potatoes recovered surprisingly quickly. So a late start, some frost damage and then...
The Drought. We had several weeks with no rain at all, not even a drop. You can see the effect on these broad beans, which were doing the bulk of their growing at the time. A very poor crop, despite my best efforts to water them. This is highly unusual weather for East Lancashire, which is a wet area due to those Atlantic westerlies and the proximity of the Pennines, which force the rain out of the clouds. Rotation watering helped to keep things like the lettuces going, but it did slow down some of our crops.

This dry spell coincided with the longest days of the year, when we have around 19 hours of light each day, and some plants positively thrived on it. Above is a picture of the cabbages, but all the brassicas did well this year, even the sprouts which I always struggle to grow. The lack of slugs, the dryness also slowing down the advance of those that did survive, meant that these plants were able to get away quickly and put on masses of growth in the permanent sunshine.
But the potatoes really suffered as there was nowhere near enough water for them. A poor crop, consisting of either really big or really small potatoes, about one third of a normal crop. The onions likewise had a bad time, with a slow start because of the cold, followed by dry, followed by the traditional monsoon which arrives as soon as the water company declares an Official Drought.
The onions didn't grow well due to the erratic weather conditions, and then they suffered from rot as the rain came. A bad year, and I probably won't grow them again as we never seem to get a really good crop. The wet weather also rotted a lot of the summer raspberries,which was a shame.

Once the monsoon was over in early August, everything came on well. Some yields were down (apples, onions, potatoes, broad beans), others did well (strawberries, peas, pumpkins, marrows, cabbages). Most years you have things which do badly, and others which perform better than expected, but this year was one of extremes.

So, what were the lessons of the weather this year?
  1. prepare beds well in autumn in case I can't get to the soil until later February
  2. get my winter pruning done before Christmas
  3. brush snow off the broccoli and dig out the leeks if the snow is around for a prolonged period
  4. give up on onions as east lancashire isn't the place for them
  5. don't be afraid to plant late in cold spring - everything catches up quickly once conditions are right
Next week I'll start cogitating on what I'm going to grow in 2011 based on this year's experiments.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Heading Towards Winter

After the unseasonably warm weather recently, temperatures have taken a downward dip over the last week, with trees turning orange and leaves falling. So in the garden it is time to gather the remaining crops and then tidy up the beds ready for next year.
This feverfew has just started to flower, rooted in a patch of tarmac by the kitchen sink drain. I grew this in a pot some years ago, it seeded and since then it turns up each year wherever it fancies.
The autumn raspberries are delicious...

Next week I'll start a review of the year, successes and failures with thoughts on what to plant in 2011.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Autumn Doings (and Stone Coffins)

At last, some dry weather, which should last for a couple of weeks. The autumn raspberries are now producing well.
Removing the pumpkins has given these parsnips more space. I don't start picking them until after the first frost, so they have more growing to do yet.
Runner beans on 10th October - not very common so late in the year, but a welcome addition to our vegetable hoard this year.
Still lots of chard and spinach to come too.
These broad beans seeded themselves, growing from beans which were in a pod I missed a few months ago. They started to root themselves in the soil, so I've removed them and put them in pots for the winter. I'll pop them out in the spring, for a few early plants - with two small beans in there too, there are five in total. In this part of the world we don't do autumn sowings of beans - the soil here is cold, wet and we often get snow.
As vegetables finish we're clearing the beds - this is the former marrow bed. I've spread my "cat compost" and lightly worked it in. This compost is made from wood-based cat litter + cat wee, composted for a year. It will now have another 4-6 months in this bed to break down further. It's a good soil conditioner and has really helped to lighten my heavy soil.
Here are the last two courgettes for 2010 (sniff!) - tiny really but still good eating. No more until next year, let's hope they're as good then as they have been this year.
I caught this green/black bug sitting on my green shed - do have a close up look as it is really rather interesting. After a bit of hunting around on the internet, I think I have identified it as a Green Shieldbug in its final stage before moulting into its adult appearance. Amazing how many different stages there are for this insect.
So, where do the stone coffins in the title to this blog post come from? Yesterday we went to the seaside for some birdwatching and on the way back decided to call in here - St Patrick's Chapel in Heysham. This is all there's left of it (the wall on the right is more modern). It was built in the 8th century, and it's famous for these:
Coffins carved out of stone. They're certainly pre-Norman Conquest, some people think they were for bones rather than bodies, and there are several.
Next door is another church, St Peter's, now the Parish Church and also thought to be 8th century. It's mentioned in the Domesday book, and also has the distinction of having a Viking hogsback gravestone which we were unable to see as there was a wedding on. It's funny, when I was a student I lived a few miles from here and never came to see the site, glad I finally made it!