Thursday, 11 February 2016

Starting to dig in the green manure.

As I have a relatively large allotment, I thought that digging all the green manure in would take some time.  If I started in March, as I had planned, then I might be pushed for time before I had to start planting in some of the growing areas.  Also, it is worth giving the green manure plenty of time to decompose in the soil.  Two years ago, I did not dig the green manure in until I was about to plant out the sweetpea seedlings and the seedlings were devastated by flea beetle.  Last year I dug the green manure in about six weeks before I planted out the sweetpeas and had no problem with flea beetle.  I think that they are living in the green manure and attack the seedlings because there is no other food for them when I have dug everything into the soil.  After six weeks of not having green manure the flea beetle either have died off due to starvation or moved onto someone else's allotment. 

 I decided to dig over the root and leaves bed.  It is probably a misconception but most pundits say that carrots and parsnips will fork if the ground they are grown in is manured.  So, I have not added any of the farmyard manure to that part of the bed.  The leaves growing area had a good dose of farmyard manure.  Last season this growing area was the peas bed and the pea plants were turned into the soil after they had cropped.  Peas fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and this is taken into the soil when they decompose in the top soil. 

I have tried to exaggerate the south facing slope down towards the hedge for a couple of reasons.  Sloping towards the south means that the Sun's rays are hitting the surface of the soil at a slightly more perpendicular angle and warming it very slightly more than if the ground was flat or sloping to the north.  The slope to the south allows me to control surface run off of water by using mini swales from east to west more or less on contour.  These are small ditches with the soil banked up on the south side and planted with trees or bushes.  As this is an allotment, the banks are not very high and the trees and bushes are either espaliered or fan trained. 

The surface run off and mass flow of water through the top soil is slowed and spread out. This means that any surface erosion by water is caught in the swales; mass flow of water is slowed and leaching is reduced; evaporation from the soil can be replaced and there is time for water to really soak the organic matter in the soil producing a reservoir of water available to the roots of vegetables.   

In the corner of the bed next to the big greenhouse the ground was particularly low compared with the surrounding growing areas.  It really needed raising up a little.  As I have been breaking up wood for charcoaling, which I still have not got around to doing yet, I have found pieces that I can't break with the bull hammer.  They really need to be sawn to the right size for charcoaling.  I wasn't too keen on doing that so they became a prime source of wood for any hugelkultur I was going to do. 

As is my want, I dug a big trench two spits deep and buried the wood.  There was quite a bit of it and I thought that it would make a good dent in the amount of organic matter I would have to put into the  trench.  I was sadly mistaken.  I needed two barrow loads of well rotted chippings to add to the trench as well.  After I had carefully replaced the subsoil and top soil it was evident that I had successfully raised the soil a bit.  I'm fairly certain that I have buried the woody stuff deep enough not to interfere with the parsnips roots.  In fact, I would be really happy if the parsnips grew that deep because I would have two foot long roots. 

I had a bit of farmyard manure left over so I just put it onto where the potatoes are going this year.  Potatoes cannot have enough manure. 

I checked on the apple root stock and they were fine in their pots.  I am really wanting to start on this year's grafting.  I will wait until the end of March though.  

I turned all but three of the dalek compost bins this afternoon.  Before I started turning I put a bit of old metal pipe in two of the bins to see if they had warmed up.  I had turned one of the big bins and the two small ones before I tested the temperature of the pipe in the other bins.  Remarkably, one of the pipes was quite warm but the other was as cold as a witch's whatever.  I don't expect my composts to warm up.  It is noticeable that the compost is not breaking down nearly as quickly as it did in the autumn.  But if I am getting a temperature change then maybe I will get a more rapid decomposition from now on.  Although there is a colour change to a dark grey, I can still see what the compost is being made out of.  Two bits of metal, an old tub handle and a bit of thin stainless steel, fell out of the compost today and were put into the rubbish bag.  I have turned this compost two times before but never noticed the metal. 

I dug out several volunteer raspberry canes from under the Victoria plum.  I don't really want them there and they were shading the redcurrant that I have fan trained against the compost area pallets.  A couple of the raspberries were growing out of the pallets so I just cut them off and left them.  I will cut them back when they start to grow again.

Checked the tomatoes and cucumbers in the cold greenhouse because there was quite a severe frost last night.  It would seem that the temperature in the greenhouse did not fall below ten degrees Celsius, so the temperature in the little plastic greenhouse would be higher than that. The only problem I have with my seedlings is keeping them moist enough.  Those sweet peas will have to be planted out soon.  They are the biggest I've had at this time of the year.

I have a solar pump and it is working really well at the moment.  I did take it out of the pond earlier in the week because I thought it was going to freeze but I put it back in again because it had warmed up.  I didn't take it out again yesterday so it got cold last night.  However, it was gently spraying water in a little fountain across the pond when I arrived at the allotment in the sunshine.   I should worry. 

Tomorrow, I will need to turn the compost in the last three bins and then I will have to decide which of the beds to dig the green manure into next.  

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Not much to do. So how did I spend all day down the allotment?

 I went down to the allotment thinking that there was little to do.  However, I went home about five in the afternoon when it was getting dark.  Where had all that time gone?

I have been given quite a bit of processed wood to charcoal.  It is mostly from old pallets.  So I have all the equipment for starting a burn and I am even using matches.  (I am used to using a flint and iron).  The last time I made charcoal the wood was not broken up unless it was too big to go into the bins.  The charcoal was all right but could have been better.  I have seen people using smaller pieces of wood about six inches in length and about four inches across.  This made very good charcoal.  So I decided to break up all the wood with a bull hammer.  I got a lot of it broken up into small pieces but I still have a substantial pile to.  I have to admit that I got fed up with doing it after a while and decided to put all the wood pieces into a box and cover it with black plastic.

My justification was that this would dry the wood out and make it more suitable for charcoaling.

The next job was to move the tarpaulin over.  I have dug the green manure into the sweet pea bed because they will have to be planted out soon.  They are much bigger than usual for this time of the year.  They will be kept in the cold greenhouse for as long as possible but that will not be for very much longer.  As the soil had been exposed by digging in the green manure, it needed to be covered so that rain would not wash any nutrients away.  Hence the tarpaulin.  It does not cover the whole bed but it is still worthwhile using it.

I was going to put the posts up for the sweet pea canes but the tarpaulin was in the way now so I bought the posts and put them onto the tarpaulin to keep it from flapping about.

Once the tarpaulin had been moved, I could rake the pile of compost that I had left on the side of this bed, over the soil.  The compost is really good so I am going to leave it on the surface and allow the worms to take it into the soil.

There are some leeks left growing in this bed but they will soon be harvested and I will be able to rake over the whole of the surface.  I want to get the soil as smooth as I can before putting in the canes.  (I didn't get around to washing the canes).

I tied two canes horizontally to the cherry tree supports using gardener's wire.  I still haven't headed this tree down to three substantial buds yet but I have looked carefully just above the graft and there are some really good buds that I can use.  With luck the buds will all develop stems which I can train along the bamboo canes and one that will grow vertically and throw out more horizontals that can be tied in.

I planted several clematis along the side of the small store shed and one of them still had its original cane.   I took this off and threaded the plant through the concrete reinforcing wire stapled onto the shed.  I thought that at least one of the clematis had died but they are all showing green buds.

Yesterday, I turned all the compost bins.  One of the bins was empty so I decided to experiment with the woody shreddings left in the far car park.  A long way to go for them.  However, just as I had finished turning the last full bin a bloke with shreddings on his truck came and I asked him to dump the chippings right next to the composting area.  It meant that I could easily fill one of the dalek bins with chippings without exhausting myself.

The shreddings were a little dry so I decided to water them with a little comfrey liquid.  I expect them to rot down and make some excellent compost.  Some of the charcoaling wood was so rotten that I could crumble it with my hands so this went on the woody chippings composts to encourage decomposition by fungi.  

I have moved a blackberry and put it with the loganberries but did not tie it in.  So I spent several minutes tying it to the concrete reinforcing wire near the greenhouse.  Now that the black berries and loganberries have been tied in they look much tidier.

Last week I bought a solar powered pump for my little pond.  I set it up with the solar panel inside the greenhouse.  It didn't work.  I was being a little optimistic because there was no sun and thick cloud.  However, I left the pump in the water and today the sun came out and made the pump work which pleased me no end.  Now this pump only cost me about £7 so I was not expecting very much but  it is performing very well and throwing water across the pond.  Unfortunately, it is throwing it a little bit too far and emptying the pond.  So I had to top up the pond today and make sure that the pump was covered with water.  In order to reduce the height of the fountain to a more reasonable height, I covered some of the solar panel.

The two large pots that had bedding flowers in them were cleaned out and tidied.  I will plant them up again this season because they gave a good show last year.  All the bits I took off them I put into the compost bins.

The Pitmaston Pineapples and the King of the Pippins apples were given their horizontal canes so that I could train them to espalier.  I put two canes on each of the supports.  These trees will have to be headed back if they have not produced lateral stems.

My last job was to put some of the woody chippings around the back of the shed.  The chippings that I put there last year have rotted away now and need to be replaced so that the ground does not get wet and muddy.  I am using this storage area almost all the time I'm on the allotment.

 So, not only did that take all day, I still have several jobs that I didn't get around to. 

Jobs still not done.  I need to move the chrysanthemums to their new bed.  I want to start to dig in the phacelia and rye grass green manure on the roots and leaves bed.  I will be sowing parsnips in early March and will need the soil to be raked down and smoothed for sowing.  I want the green manure to be well on its way to decomposing in the soil so digging in now seems to be the favorite time to do this.  I have a lot of green manure growing on the allotment and if I leave it to the last moment I will have to do the digging all together and I don't want to have to do that.  So, if I start now, then by the time seeds need to be sown and plants planted out, I will have finished all the digging with time to spare and allow decomposition to occur. 

I look forward to tomorrow.  Just think outside.  Forget the box.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Things you can compost.

 The problem with using fluff out of washing machines on your compost heaps is that artificial fibers will not rot down. If the fluff is made of wool, cotton, leather or some other fiber that has been made from plants or animals then there is no problem. These fibers are relatively high in nitrogen because they have been made from proteins. 

Vacuum cleaner waste can contain a lot of hair particularly if you have a pet. Hair is mainly keratin which is a protein and relatively high in nitrogen. Dust is primarily very small soil particles and not flecks of skin. However, if it were skin, this too is high in protein and thus nitrogen. Also the flecks of soil particles still contain nutrients and would be a valuable addition to compost heaps. 

Organic nitrogen is such a valuable resource for microorganisms and invertebrates that it will be quickly broken down.  Some of it will be mineralised and made available to plants.  

So, if this kind of waste is o.k. to put onto compost heaps, what about the clothes themselves?  Any clothes made entirely from plant or animal fibers are fine to put onto the compost heap.  At the moment I am composting some leather gloves, leather boots, a cotton shirt, woolen socks and woolen trousers.  I do not expect them to decompose quickly.  But they will decompose. 

Avoid anything that has nylon or polyester or other plastics because they will not decompose and if they do break into smaller pieces will not add anything to the soil in the way of nutrients. If you do inadvertently put artificial fibers onto the compost heap they break into lots of fine strands that are very hard to remove from the compost and make turning difficult.   Like the plastic in the oceans of the world damaging sea life, plastics may damage the life in the soil.

I am experimenting with woody shreddings as an addition to the compost bins.  For years I have been telling people not to add these woody shreddings to the top soil because nitrogen is depleted by  micro organisms that decompose them.  I'm not so sure now.  So I have filled one of the dalek bins with shreddings and will be turning it every two or three days with the other bins.  I want to see whether this material will decompose as quickly as some of the other compost ingredients.  

I compost all weeds regardless of their reputation.  However, I think that I would have to dry Japanese knotweed for a few months before adding this to the compost but I would give it a go if I had it on the allotment.  With the way that I make compost, sieving it carefully before putting it on top soil, I think that anything that regenerated would quickly be seen and removed.  Drying seems to be the best method before composting.

My patent nasty weed drier.

I have written quite a long "rant" about why you shouldn't light fires on allotments and I still fervently believe that they are totally unnecessary.  Anything that you can burn on the allotment can also be composted - and if it can't be composted, it should not be on the allotment in the first place and definitely not burnt in the second.  

However, I have just acquired quite a bit of processed wood.  A lot of it is rotten and I may keep this for the compost heap.  The rest I am considering charcoaling.  

While researching the Terra Preta dark earths of the Amazon there was some talk about charcoal being a valuable addition to the soil.  At least one of the Victorian head gardeners to the super rich Barnes of Bicton, thought that charcoal was good for the soil.  I have experimented for several years with charcoal and there are sometimes indications that it improves plant growth.  In my experience it is only after I have marinaded it in comfrey liquid for about two or three months that it become particularly valuable.  I have also added it to the compost bins but it is harder to evaluate whether it has had any effect or not when I do this.  

The charcoal still retains a lot of the salts locked up in the structure of the wood and can be quite alkaline so you have to be careful how you use it because it can change the pH of the soil locally around the roots of plants.  After marinading it I crush it with a bull hammer and add the dust to the soil.  It is better to do this when it is still damp from the marinading process otherwise the dust gets everywhere.  

So, I will be charcoaling sometime this week.  A retort full of wood goes inside the large bin and wood is packed around it  This wood is burnt but the wood in the retort is cooked driving off a lot of  organic gases which burn as they pass out of the retort.  The wood in the retort is converted to charcoal.  I have a long chimney which makes the process much quicker and a little spectacular.  

Making charcoal is the only way I am going to burn things on the allotment.  Otherwise, if it is organic, it will be buried or composted.  

Planning and plants for 2016 allotment

I have a six year rotation: flowers (sweet pea, chrysanthemum and dahlia);  
brassicas (including swede, radish and kohl rabi), 
peas/beans, (including asparagus pea)
roots (carrot, parsnip, salsify, hamburg parsley, and beetroot)  and leaves (leaves are lettuce, chard, perpetual spinach, celery, celeriac?,chamomile, tarragon, dill, rocket and good king Henry.)
onion family.
I also have a bed for three sisters, oca and cucumber.  
You can combine or leave out any of these.

 I always grow too much but I do like a variety. With an allotment you can grow things that you would have difficulty finding in the shops or would be very expensive to eat in the quantities the allotment allows -strawberries and raspberries for example.
As the beds are emptied of veg. you can sow a winter green manure of rye, tares and crimson clover. This can be dug in during the spring and then the ground can be used again for veg. I also dig in relatively fresh farmyard and horse manure.  

Spread out under raised beds or dug into the soil, I doubt that manure will heat up to any noticeable amount. There is no definition for "well rotted manure" and I think that most pundits just repeat; "only use well rotted manure" as a kind of mantra rather than a reasoned  piece of advice.  
 I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about how manure "burns" the roots. To make a sustainable hot bed you need a firm three foot high 3x6 foot pile of very fresh horse manure. This is made from manure straight out of the stables and turned every couple of days for a week or so. 

When the hot bed is made about four to six inches of top soil are added to the top of the pile and the frames put on.  If you make it really well, you need to leave the hot bed for a couple of days until the heat dies down and then you can plant or sow into the soil without any detriment to the plants
Some might say that horse and farmyard manure is rich in nutrient salts and this may cause the plant roots to loose water though osmosis but I have never in 50 years of gardening experienced this. I would definitely use freshish horse manure. If it is dug in now it will significantly break down by the time you are planting.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Germinating seeds

Although they don't look like much at the moment, a lot of my seeds have germinated.  As I only have cold greenhouses at the moment and no propagator, I have to germinate seeds this time of year on the windowsills.

I have already transplanted the Alicante and Black Russian tomatoes into three inch pots.  I have put them into the cold greenhouse and into the plastic upright mini greenhouse that lives at the back.  The temperature in this mini greenhouse has not fallen below five degrees centigrade all winter.  If we don't get any very severe long lasting frost then I think that the tomatoes will survive until they are transplanted into their permanent pots.

Small plastic mini greenhouse in my 6X8foot greenhouse. I had been transplanting sweet peas.

I have a lot more sweet  peas transplanted now and I have had to move them around to fit everything in.  I will put some of the sweet peas into the little peach greenhouse because they will be fine in there.  Sweet peas are fairly hardy plants and given a little protection can survive temperatures below zero Celsius for a short time.
Most of the pumpkins and squashes have gone now either eaten or gone rotten.  They don't last forever but this year I still have the green crate full of them.  I washed down most of the glass this week so that all the seedlings get as much light as possible.

This time of the year the greenhouse gets very full and it is difficult to get everything in.  However, it is emptied at least four or five times as I plant into the allotment soil or put seedlings into the small greenhouse or cold frame to harden off.

On the left you can see my tray of small tools, for transplanting and writing labels, hanging from the greenhouse roof.  I like to label everything with the name of the plant and when it was sown.  I put everything into this hanging pot holder so that it is convenient;  all my small tools are to hand and I don't loose any. 

I like to keep the greenhouse as tidy as I can to avoid pests and diseases so all surfaces are swept as soon as I have finished jobs.  Hence the hand brush.  I had just used the knife to trim the leeks before taking them home.  The knife does not live in the greenhouse.  It lives in the shed locked away securely. 

All the sweet peas were taken out of the greenhouse for watering this week and I took the opportunity to wash down the big black trays.  I removed  two slugs while doing this.

Once all the seedlings have been planted out the greenhouse will be given over to tomatoes.  I will put six along the left hand side.  On the staging I will put the melons and cucumbers and grow them up strings attached to wires.  I did this last year and got some really good fruit off them.

I need six tomato plants for the big greenhouse and six for the small greenhouse.  I think that I transplanted twenty six Alicante and about ten Black Russian.  I may well have over done the seed sowing a little but you can't have too much of a good thing and you get so much good will when you give away your extras.

I have put the first sowings of onions and leeks in the mini greenhouse as well.  I haven't transplanted them into sectioned trays yet because I don't have any multipurpose compost left.  I will get some next week. 

The second sowings of onions and leeks have all germinated now and I will be transferring them to the cold greenhouse this week.

My two Crystal tomato plants are growing away well and will have to be transplanted into three inch pots soon.  I hope that all this effort is worth while.

As for the exotics; I have cucumber, aubergine and sweet peppers germinated and just pushing through.  The Blenheim melons have not germinated yet. Overall I am very pleased.  Just wait until I get my super duper propagator with overhead lights.  The only disappointment is that it doesn't have bells and whistles.

I had a propagator when I was much younger and grew all kinds of exotic seeds.  Looking forward to doing that again.

 I checked the seeds in the greenhouse and they were fine.  The minimum  temperature in the main greenhouse was 5 degrees Celsius and for the majority of the time I was at the allotment it was 15 degrees Celsius and a few degrees warmer in the plastic greenhouse.

I turned all the compost bins again but they do not seem to be decomposing as quickly as they were in the autumn.  I want the compost for the potato bed but it can be put on the top rather than dug into the top soil. 

The soil is very wet still and it is raining quite regularly every few days.  I wanted to plant  some onion sets in the new onion bed but this would just compact the soil as I walked over it.  My next door allotmenteer, Sue, said that I could use some of her boards and these would help to distribute my weight and prevent this compaction.  Four rows of sets were duly planted.  Probably more rows than I really wanted and I still have a lot of sets left over.  I am going to keep these left overs to replace any that do not grow. 

The sets were Stuttgarter and Sturon and were freebies.  I am going to give away any I have left over. 

Even though the soil was quite wet it was workable.   The sets will be able to deal with the dampness because the allotment soil is so well drained now.  The only reason it is not drying out a little more is the incessant rain.

Went down to look at the greenhouse that someone said I could have.  I cannot put any more greenhouses on my allotments because I have one on both of them.   So I offered it to Sue and she is going to have it.  A lot of the glass has been broken but there is enough to be going on with and she can get replacement glass or polycarbonate sheets to fill where the gaps are. 

So, although it is the end of January and usually the coldest and most inhospitable part of the winter, I feel that the new season has begun and life is beginning to stir.  I have snowdrops flowering under the hedge and specie daffodils flowering.