Saturday, 28 May 2011

Return to Winter

One month ago I was wearing short sleeves and enoying the sunshine, now I'm back in warm sweaters and keeping out of the wind. This week has been wet, cold and incredibly windy, so everything on the allotment has slowed down. These cabbage seedlings are barely bigger than two weeks ago.
The courgettes I got in last week have been nibbled by slugs which were equally keen to get out of the cold wind and snuck in under the cloche. Fortunately the damage isn't too bad, they'll recover well. Funnily, the slugs didn't seem to like the marrows, which they've left well alone.
And despite flowering early, the strawberries are slow to come on as we've seen little sun this week.
But the raspberries are alive with bees pollinating the flowers and we have a large crop of raspberries set now.
And the potatoes seem to like all the rain, they're growing on well. With the forecast for the next couple of days wet and windy, it will be a while before I get out again. Let's hope it warms up soon.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Rain, wind and occasional sunshine

Given the current very changeable weather, you have to get out when you can, between the showers. So that means doing as much as you can in the short sunny gaps in the clouds. Here are my little tomatoes, which were ready to go out earlier than I expected. I've tried for years to grow tomatoes, with little success. It's partly to do with our latitude, partly our soil and predominant weather (wet!). So this year I decided to buy some ready grown plants from the nursery, and selected two varieties which are a bush type and thus earlier fruiters than traditional cordon types. So here they are, Balcony Red at the front and Totem at the back. After all the rain, the soil is good and damp and these plants got a good dollop of horse manure underneath to get them off to a good start. Some slug pellets just in case the slugs take a fancy to them, a cloche on top and they should grow on nicely now.
After another cold winter, the slug population has diminished but they still make a beeline for my lettuce plants, the seedlings being particularly vulnerable. Still, they did save me the bother of thinning out the rows, as they rather handily left plants spaced about 10 cm apart which is just right. We also have a lot of snails here but, while they do seem fond of rhubarb leaves, they don't seem to eat much else. And they are rather pretty, with shells in different colours.
I also took the opportunity to get my courgettes (zucchini) and marrows in. These are the courgettes, after my experiment last year I repeated my 2 trowels of horse manure under each one technique, rather than fertilising the whole bed. These plants are looking good, but given the wind and heavy rain, they are all now protected under cloches until they've grown on a bit and it's warmed up. While it is warmer and dryer in the south, this week has been decidedly chilly "up north".
After giving my pumpkins a good talking to, one of the recalcitrant seeds has actually germinated, but the other two have disappeared. So I've replanted these pots. There's plenty of time, it's still early in the season and a bit chilly.
The climbing bean which was looking to climb out of my window is now safely in the ground, next to the peas. The plant on the left is one of last year's parsnips which I'm leaving to go to seed. Speaking of parsnips, I did experiment with growing them from my own seed, and a number have germinated though there are some gaps. I'm wondering about filling the gaps with my bought seed, but not sure if it's too late now?
In terms of fruit, this year looks to be a bumper and early one. The gooseberry bushes are heavy with fruit which is already a good size.
Some of the redcurrants are already starting to colour up, which is incredibly early for these as I would normally expect to start picking them at the end of June or beginning of July.
My plum tree is covered with little green plums, but I think I'm going to thin them as the tree is showing signs of being a biennial bearer. A heavy crop can exhaust a young tree, leading to poor flowering the next year. If you thin them out, the tree copes better and flowers next year too. The books tell me you should wait until the stones have formed in the fruit, so it's about time to do this, when I can find a few minutes!
And my troublesome Blenheim Orange apple tree has lots of fruit for the first time ever, after about 7 years in the ground. So buying another compatible pollinator and pruning a bit harder has had the right effect. Apple trees can be complicated beasts, and this one has been particularly difficult. It's a dual eater/cooker and an October apple, so there's plenty to look forward to.

Wherever you are, I hope the weather is kind to you this week.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Hurrah! Sun!

After a full 48 hours of continuous rain, we finally got a 7 full hours of dry, with a bit of sun peeking through. Lovely, but I now have masses of work to do, grass to cut, weeds to pull and there is more rain forecast, though thankfully not as much. One job which is now finished for this year is the manure heap. Throughout the winter local horseowners dump their manure (above) at the allotments from time to time, and I use it to create my own manure pile for use the following year. The beans and cucurbits love it, when it's well rotted there's nothing better. The heap above will be the last load until autumn, and I really can't get any more on my own pile so I've covered it with corrugated plastic and will leave it to rot down over the summer.
Speaking of cucurbits, here are the seedlings in the shed. At the back are the courgettes, middle the marrows and in the foreground are the pumpkins, or they would be if they had germinated. Only two out of five have made it this far, so if they're still a no-show at the weekend I'll replant with the spare seed I saved from last year. Disappointing - usually they germinate well, but not this year for some reason.
This is a climbing french bean I bought at the garden centre last week, I've never grown these before so it's an experiment. I was hoping to get it in the plot last weekend but it was too cold, so I kept it on the windowsill. When it arrived it was still small, but it has grown very quickly. I found a couple of sticks to give it something to go at, but on one side it has outgrown that stick so I had to attach another one with a plant tie. It's now half way up that one, let's hope I get it in the ground in the next couple of days before it starts climbing out the window!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

It never rains but it pours...

After several weeks without any rain, this last week we've had all the April showers we missed last month, with no end in sight. The problem is the showers, while generally short, are frequent and sometimes very heavy, so you can't get an hour of good weather to get out in the garden.
My once empty water butt now has a few centimetres of rain in the bottom, but there's a long way to go! A couple of times this last week I got half way to the allotment and had to turn round, seeing the black clouds coming my way.
Still, it's just what the vegetables need - here are the potatoes recovering after being nipped by the frost. While the temperatures have dropped this week, the weeds don't seem to mind, and my once weed free potato bed is looking a bit scruffy now.
The peas and beans really needed this rain, though they are in one of the damper beds on the plot. The broad beans (left) are just starting to flower, while the peas are zooming up the supports and are now taller than the beans. Today I finally found a 45 minute gap between the showers to get the second sowing of peas in, a little later than I would have liked but between the drought and the monsoon it's been hard finding the right weather for planting.
This bed holds the garlic and salad crops. The lettuce is coming on well now, the radishes in the foreground are growing well too. We've had our first small lettuce picking this week, there's nothing like eating your own produce.
You can just see the carrot seedlings in here - actually there are two sowings of Early Nantes in this bed. The earlier one is at the back, the second sowing in the middle of the photos. They're being rather crowded out by the forget-me-not, which is epidemic in this bed, I can never get rid of it. It is a pretty flower, but one plant produces enough seed to cover several square metres, it seems. Fortunately it has a small root system, so when I eventually find a dry spell in which to weed this bed, it'll come out easily without damaging the carrots. As we suffer from carrot fly here, these seedlings are kept under a cloche full time. I will sow some more carrots outdoors later once the danger season is past.
I also made a trip to the garden centre this week. I bought these tomatoes, dwarf varieties which I can keep under a cloche. I don't have a greenhouse but our climate is too wet and chilly for outdoor tomatoes to produce well, plus we get blight in the rain. The other problem is that starting seedlings without special lights and heat results in poor quality plants which again take a long time to pick up. So I decided to cheat and buy some well-grown plants which have had the best start in life. We'll see how they do, it's a bit of an experiment. In the top left corner of the box is another experiment; a chilli plant, which I'm planning to keep on my bedroom windowsill, the warmest room in the house. One corner of the windowsill gets full sun for 6-7 hours a day, so I'm hoping that will be suitable for this plant.

So this week I'm hoping for a dry spell or two, to get on with the weeding. I'm crossing my fingers...

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Early May in the Vegetable Garden

Apologies for the lack of posting, this is for two reasons. Firstly the Almighty Google has decreed that henceforth my business website data must include bunches of numbers and codes, and I've been passing hours every day punching numbers into a spreadsheet, after I've hunted them down on the internet of course. Deep joy. So I've been spending a lot of time hunched over my computer instead of outside in the garden. While it will take a month or so to finish the job, I have broken the back of it now and should be able to avoid the special circle of hell reserved for those who misbehave in the Google empire - Invisibility in Product Searches.

Secondly, when I have been able to get out I've spent all my time weeding and watering, trying to keep up with the plants given the dry weather. So no time to stand and admire, much less take pictures. In the meantime my rhubarb has gone mad, as you can see from the photo above. I've taken these flowers off the plants now, so it can concentrate on producing nice stems to eat.
We've had an extremely dry period of weeks, which hopefully will end this weekend, but it hasn't been too hot, which has meant that the soil is still damp underneath, thankfully. We had a forecast of frost this week, so on Monday I spent an hour earthing up the potatoes to protect them. I couldn't get every single leaf under cover, unfortunately, as you can see from the photo above, where some leaves were caught and burnt. Apologies for the dandlelion seeds in the picture!
Last night's frost also caught some of the apple blossom, this is on the Spartan tree. The frost is always patchy, but I'm not too concerned as most of the blooms have now been pollinated.
The lettuce has been under a cloche and is growing on well now, with newly germinated seeds filling the gaps too. The cloche keeps the frost off and has kept the cold winds away too. Despite the dryness, the last few days have been chilly.
This is the Blenheim Orange apple tree. I took this photo to record its magnificent flowering this year. I have had problem getting this to set fruit, so purchased another apple tree last year to help in the pollination; it now has a Worcester Pearmain on one side and a Spartan on the other. All the signs are good, the Spartan has also flowered well so I'm hopeful we will finally have a first crop from this tree.
The warm weather means that everything is a couple of weeks in advance of where it should be. This photo is of the redcurrants, which I would normally expect to pick in July. This year I think I will be picking in June, given the development of these fruits. All the soft fruit is racing away. I spent two hours bent double at the weekend finishing the weeding of the strawberry bed, not a moment too soon as while I was rescuing the plants from the grass, I found they had started flowering. I've never seen them flower in April before - I have mid and late season plants, not earlies. Again, I think I'll be eating them in early June instead of late June/July.
The peas and broad beans are growing well, though I have been watering them a bit to help them along. By now I should have done my second sowing of peas, but I can't see the point of putting them in dry soil, so will wait until next week. I have started the marrows, pumpkins and courgettes in pots, I don't like to do them too early, especially since I lost some to the frost last year.
Earlier this year I showed a picture of a pot with a sad looking piece of a Bleeding Heart plant in it; my Mum had accidentally split a bit off her plant while weeding and we weren't sure it would survive. Plants really are amazing things, it didn't just survive but now has several fronds of flowers.
Another early flowerer has been the Hawthorn, which we would normally expect to see around the 6th May here. It actually started last week, but the different trees all flower at slightly different times so we have a gradual whitening of the countryside going on now. Such pretty flowers.
The main theme in the garden at the moment is the dryness though. My gate won't close as it has shrunk so much the bolt doesn't meet the hole in the timber; a trusty brick has to suffice. I am getting a bit tired of watering, since my water butt is now empty and I have to trudge up and down the hill to the tap. Let's hope this weekend does finally bring the rain we've been promised!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Brockholes Nature Reserve

At the weekend we went to a new reserve nearby - Brockholes. This area was an old gravel quarry which attracted a number of birds, some of them rare, while it was still working. With the gravel pits now closed, it has been converted into a fully fledged reserve. It has several habitats; the river Ribble (above), woodland and open water.
The woodland section is full of singing birds at this time of year.
There are several pools, large and small, including one with the visitor centre which I unaccountably forgot to photograph. It's designed to attract ground nesting birds, sand martins and species which live in the reeds. We saw one sedge warbler, heard more and also one reed warbler singing, so while the reed beds are still getting going, they're already a success. These are birds we rarely see in our part of the country, so this reserve could be a real treasure.
This is the biggest lake, with a carefully landscaped centre designed to provide safe nesting sites for birds like the little ringed plover, of which there were several bobbing around. At the back of this photo you can just see the beautifully crafted sand/mud bank which already has a number of resident sand martins.

We had a good time, the only criticism of this reserve was the signage (lack of it in some places), and its clearly not yet finished. The biggest problem was that while the website clearly says no dogs allowed, there were no proper signs at the reserve, though while we were there some hastily printed and laminated signs went up, which were ignored. Ground nesting birds and dogs don't mix, so they need to get a grip of this; we saw one dog not only in the main nesting area but off the lead too. The only birds nesting on the lake so far seemed to be canada geese, but if they want others to breed here they will have to enforce the ban.

Since this is less than 30 minutes from home, I'm, sure we'll be back for another visit soon.

Normal gardening blogging will resume this week - have been very busy watering the vegetable plot, no time to take pictures!