Thursday, 24 November 2011

Finished digging the new potato bed

I haven't really finished digging because I haven't dug the area where the roots are.  I will dig this new area quite deeply like I did on the other half of the bed and remove all the stone using the bread tray sieve.  I think that I have done this fairly well in the area I have dug already.

I have removed considerable amounts of stone.  This has been replaced by topsoil, horse manure and pigeon manure.  All the soil and manures went through the makeshift bread tray sieve because it helps to mix them together.

The new topsoil has come from turfs left in the bins by the allotment gate.  I sieved out the topsoil using the bread tray sieve.  The grass was put at the bottom of the double digging trenches.

One of the advantages of digging is that it mixes well and manures get distributed throughout the soil profile.

If you look at the horticultural textbooks, it tells you that some nutrients come from the weathering of rocks.  I considered this carefully.  Stones come from rock.  I am removing lots of stones from this soil.  Maybe if I weather these stones by hitting them with the bull hammer and return the dust to the soil, this would add nutrients to the soil.

There may be few nutrients in quartz and sandstone but I still give them a tap with the bull hammer.  Plants do not need a great deal of micro nutrient from the soil so the little that I get from stone might be sufficient.

As I was sieving out the stone from the soil, I also sieved out large pieces of inoculated charcoal that I had used in planting holes.  I don't think that the larger pieces of charcoal are doing very good jobs so I am hitting them with a bull hammer to crush these too.  It is all getting mixed into the topsoil through the sieve.

When using a no dig system of gardening, nutrients are put on the top of the soil in the form of compost and worms are used to distribute this throughout the soil profile.

Although digging seems to kill a few worms, there are still a great many worms to do a similar job when the soil is dug.  Also there is nothing stopping me from putting a layer of compost or manure over the dug bed.  In other words you can go up adding compost to the soil surface or you can go down adding compost or manure to the subsoil.  Or you can do both.  I would rather do both.

Digging might destroy mychorrhizal symbiotic associations and this is one of the few disadvantages to digging. However, this will occur when crop plants are harvested anyway and new associations can be promoted using  commercial mychorrhiza spores.  The subsoil in this bed was so hard that I could not get a spade into it.  I had to use a fork.  Although there were a few resourceful worms that had worked their way into it there was little evidence that many other organisms were making it their home.  When I was sieving this subsoil I was mixing in topsoil from the turfs, horse manure and pigeon manure and this gave it a very friable texture.  Introducing carbon (organic matter) throughout the soil profile should mean that there is a source of food for a wide range of soil organism.  This should increase the soil micro organism population and diversity.

There are times when there is no need to dig so I don't dig.  However, passing the soil through the makeshift sieve has produced a really fine tilth and this makes all gardening jobs much easier.  I will have to earth up the potatoes next spring and summer and having this really fine tilth soil will make it much easier.

I raked over the soil after finishing digging and it was a delight because it was so easy.

Put some xCupressocyparis leylandii shreddings on the pathway between 25(b) and 26(a) and I am going to plant a little hedge of Lonicera nitida, which is a honeysuckle would you believe, along the path.  Lonicera nitida doesn't have a honeysuckle sent though.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Growing medium, compost or just plain soil?

I had an interesting conversation at the weekend, which I am still mulling over.

Most of the commercial seed and potting 'composts' sold nowadays do not have compost in them.  Most of them are peat mixes with such things as perlite, vermiculite, sand and wetting agents like celcote.

Not much compost in them.  So should they be called composts?  I don't think so.

These are growing mediums.    They are sterile, open and water retaining so what is the problem.  Although we might be focusing on growing and gardening, it does not negate consideration of our actions wider implications.  One consideration is the destruction of  peatland habitat by peat extraction.  Maybe it is better to avoid using peat if possible.

Garden composts use sustainable materials and need less transport than growing media.  It is also more fun to make  your  own compost as  we did in the olden days.

I have a very large growing area and covering this with bought growing media is just not viable.  The cost would be astronomical.  Using the two compost bins, I can generate quite a lot of compost and dig it into several of the  beds.  I supplement this with liquid comfrey; a little chicken manure; leaves; blood fish and bone and the free horse manure that is delivered to the allotments.

This has produced some fairly good vegetables for over thirty years now. 
Emptied compost heaps 

Compost heaps filled again

Compost heap growing potatoes and pumpkins.  

Compost nearly ready to go onto the allotment.

This compost  is ready to be used.

Sieved compost being added to the top soil.

I used to make seed and potting composts at the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute.  This was before they developed their peat based growing mediums.

In the olden days soil or old turf was sterilised in large steam boxes. And they were big boxes.  My first job in the glasshouses was to fill and empty the boxes.  The soil was emptied sieved and heaped into a conical pile on the floor of a large barn after sterilisation.  It being the olden days and not knowing any better, peat and inorganic fertilisers were added and mixed  in by shovelling soil from the bottom of the pile to the top. And they were big piles.

When we had done this about ten times the soil was passed through a shredder which threw the soil into a concrete bay.  

Not too sure whether this was compost either.

I grew some really good tomatoes using just the sieved compost from Fred's Mega Compost:

Maybe this is the way to go?  However, I need a steam sterilizer.

Having always gardened using the original soil, I find it very difficult to accept that developing a vegetable garden with growing medium is the right way to go.  I want to garden with the least cost both  financially and environmentally.  I don't want to spend lots of money on something that I can produce for nothing.  Covering my allotment with commercial growing media  is just not a feasible option; it is just too big.

There are another three beds beyond the sweet pea canes
Although there are many types of different growing media and composts, it seems ridiculous to ignore the most valuable resource which an allotment or garden has to offer.   A good well made soil.  

 Good soil  with lots of  well rotted organic matter

Soil planted with green manure.  

Undoubtedly, soil preparation and improvement is a major part of success in the vegetable garden. It takes nature about 1000 years to produce 20 mm of soil .  However, adding dead organic matter to the soil and artificially weathering it by digging or rotavating, we can of course increase the amount of top soil available for cultivation quite considerably.

Anthropogenic soil improvement by adding amendments will change the soil relatively quickly, although my soil is only just becoming beautifully friable and highly productive after thirty years of adding organic matter.  I would never suggest that pedogenesis is an easy or quick process that can happen overnight but there are things that gardeners can do to improve the soil for cultivation of vegetables and flowers.

It is difficult to think in three dimensions when considering the environments in which plants live.  The environment of the root is very different to that of the plant's aerial organs.  It is easy to observe the parts of the plant that are above the surface of the soil but underground organs are more of a mystery.  This environment can be studied and analysed for its structure, texture and nutrient content but this does not begin to picture the whole amazing dynamic that is called the soil. 
The soil is an amazing environment that is inhabited by vast numbers of organisms.  In order to survive they must interact with each other competing and cooperating in a dance that allows reproduction to be ensured and the continuation of the species. 
While foraging for water and nutrients, the roots of plants must find methods of protecting themselves from pathogens whilst interacting with symbiotic and helpful organisms.  Although the majority of the soil has a sparse population of microorganisms, there is much activity around the roots of plants and wherever dead organic matter can be found.  Thus a homologous soil with organic matter evenly distributed throughout its three dimensional space will be one with the most active organic life and the best environment for plant roots. 
The natural soil profile is one of layers; an organic layer, a top soil layer, a subsoil layer and the bedrock from which the soil is formed.  It relies on soil organisms to mix the constituents and this is probably why it takes over 1000 years to produce 20 mm of good fertile soil.   However , this is not the totality of types of soil profile and where soil has been mixed as in river silt or settled from dust filled air from a volcano the fertility and organic content can be fairly high throughout the profile. Digging and other forms of cultivation just speed things up a little.  There is no virtue in layering the soil and waiting for nature to mix it for you.  It will take 1000 years...

The modern fashion for using raised beds to grow vegetables can be seen as a method of avoiding digging.  The no dig system seems to have been developed, like so many other gardening techniques by trial and error.  Afterwards  the amateurs that developed it become evangelical and the gullible see it as some magical method;  following the method’s recipes and instructions as if there were no other ways of cultivating the ground in a sensible way.  It’s just multiple layers of this and that built up within planked containers to make higher than ground level growing areas.  And lots and lots of paths.  
The raised bed method developed from la culture Maraîchère; the French intensive hot bed method which used horse manure decomposition to create heat and allow crops to be grown throughout the year on raised beds.   Frames and cloches were used to entrap the heat and enable vegetables to be grown even in very cold weather.  The Victorian gardeners copied this but also started to use tan as an alternative. 
I do not think that there is anything magical in the materials that are used to develop these raised beds.  Indeed, filling a raised bed with commercial multipurpose growing media or ordinary garden soil seems to get good results.  Mainly because both materials are either well sieved and mixed or become well mixed during the raised bed construction.    Adding imported sterile commercial growing media that has been mixed and sieved is just the same as digging over your garden but without the effort and with lots of costs both financially and environmentally.  Also this material is neither compost nor soil. The sterility of the growing medium prevents the recycling of nutrients because there are no bacteria, fungi or invertebrate life.  Without this living fraction of the soil, fertility cannot be maintained because there is little to prevent the leaching of nutrients and there is no turning up of nutrients from lower in the soil profile. 

Without intervention, organic matter will accumulate on surface of soil.  Worms incorporate this into the soil’s first few layers. However, they do this relatively slowly so those that do not dig their vegetable plots may experience a lowering of fertility over the years even though they have added organic matter to the surface of the soil.  

Adding organic matter, where nutrients are locked into molecules that can be broken down by saprophytes, produces a long term sustainable process of soil fertility improvement.  It is a slow acting decomposition which does not saturate the soil with leachable nutrient.  What goes in the soil stays in the soil unless it is taken up by plants.

Most gardeners import animal manures, shredded woody material, lawn mowings and leaves to their growing areas.  Although this is a necessity, the environmental and financial cost of these amendments is one of the considerations that has to be taken into account when developing a growing area. 

There are some methods where you start with a layer of news paper to suppress weeds and then cover with compost or other organic material such as straw or hay in layers with some addition of animal manure.  The layers are built up until the correct height is obtained and a surface layer of compost or soil tops it off.  Certainly it is a very intensive organic matter form of gardening. 
However, there seems to be little mixing of layers.  This will give relatively high concentrations of nutrients in some parts of the profile, while others have little.  Such efforts to separate the raised bed from the native soil seem perverse.  To produce a viable soil with this method, particularly if it is no dig,  would need worms  to  mix the various layers of the lasagna.   Most raised bed systems start with thick impenetrable layers of weed suppressant material.  Only the most persistent worms would get through that. 
It is a quick and relatively easy way of cultivating an area of weed infested ground because weeds are suppressed by the newspaper in the raised bed and paths are covered with weed suppressing membrane.  However, choose your weeds well because if you have Calystegia sepium or Equisetum arvense, you will not get rid of them this way.  It is always difficult to eradicate these weed, but digging them out does help to reduce their persistence. 
A good garden soil would be one that is homogeneous.  The fertility and organic content should be evenly distributed throughout the profile where it will be equally available to plant roots wherever they are.  This will prevent the roots from bunching around the improved soil in the planting hole and not venturing out into the surrounding soil. 
Sterile commercial growing media (composts) work so well because nutrients, air and moisture are evenly distributed through the sieved and carefully mixed compost.  They are engineered to produce the best results or they would not be able to sell them.
Permanent raised beds need high inputs of water, fertiliser and organic matter to maintain their fertility, just like ordinary garden soil.  The manufacture and transporting of both the raw materials and the final compost product will be dependent on oil.  Also, having to raise everything up to the raised areas makes them time consuming; needing a lot of attention to produce good yields from crowded plants. 

Fungi send out a gossamer candy floss of delicate hyphae that touch all the life in the soil recycling nutrients in an intimate intertwined association that involves most plants.  These are the mychorrhizal fungi. 
Bacteria also form symbiotic associations with the roots of plants allowing nitrogen fixed from the air to be passed to the plants.  Other bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen and only pass it to the soil when they die or are consumed by some other part of the soil fauna and flora. Should these vital components of soil be disturbed by digging.  

There is some debate that says that the soil is rarely disturbed in nature and has not evolved to cope with being cultivated to the extent it is on allotment gardens. 
I would rather work with native soil which is not sterile and contains high levels of soil organisms such as nitrogen fixing bacteria and mychorrhizal fungi.  Digging is supposed to damage these organisms but they are microscopic and great effort would be needed to damage such small structures. 
Digging does damage some of the larger organisms – particularly the worms and this does need to be taken into account.  However if homemade  compost  is being used to  increase the organic content of the soil then a large population of soil organisms are introduced particularly if it is used as a mulch on top of the dug earth. 

Some commentators say that digging will bring dormant seeds to the surface of the soil; their dormancy will be broken and germination will ensue.  I have dug and not dug and regardless have about the same amount of weeds whatever  I do.  The survival strategy of ephemeral plants is to quickly colonise bare ground by various dispersal mechanisms.  Senecio  vulgaris and Taraxacum officinalis  both have very effective clypsela which are wind blown particularly onto my allotment and I am having to clear them  off continuously.

You are going to have to weed regardless of any strategy that you adopt;  you just have to get over it. Gardening is hard work - but very rewarding.

Mulches and green manures enable the beds to reach high levels of fertility and this can be maintained over many years.  Leaching is reduced and chelating humin, fulvic and humic acids will form complexes  that will entrap minerals in the soil structure.  

Going up or going down does not matter.  Deepening and increasing the fertility of the layer of top soil can be achieved by both.  I have raised my whole allotment about 600 mm above the original ground level and this does seem to improve the drainage.  However I have dug down quite deeply too and broken up the subsoil to quite a depth, adding organic matter, and this might be the main factor in improving the drainage.  Large amounts of organic matter in the form of logs, branches, woody shreddings and leaves have been added to the subsoil in a kind of trench Hugelkulture which might also improve the drainage of the allotment soil. 
Cupressocyparis laylandii shreddings

Mostly Acer pseudoplatinus leaves
Quercus  robur brushwood

Quercus robur branches

Good old farmyard manure.
In my experience adding large amounts of organic matter does seem to improve the fertility of the soil.  It could be conjectured that this is part due to the provision of carbon for free living nitrogen fixing bacteria such as Azotobacteraceae.    These bacteria are fairly ubiquitous and once they have a carbon source will multiply rapidly whether the organic matter is on the surface or mixed into the top soil.  It is hard to believe that digging would severely deplete the numbers of bacteria in the soil especially if it is combined with adding organic matter.  Hugelkulture, where logs, branches and brushwood are used to make raised beds should really be buried away from the top 300 mm.  of the soil profile.  Trenching and bastard digging allow very high carbon content material to be added to the soil with some success. 
Deep trenches will dispose of large amounts of unwanted organic material.  It can  also be a repository for more pernicious weeds.  While Elymus repens and Urtica dioica can be buried, mare’s tail Equisetum arvense and bind weed Calystegia sepium must be put into the worm bin because they will survive burial even at this depth. 
Logs, branches, brushwood and shredded woody material rots down to a very friable compost after two or three years and this can be incorporated into the tops soil.  While it is rotting down it is forming a sponge like layer that allows water to pass through for drainage; keeping some water as a reservoir for drier periods. 
Tanner’s bark was used in hot beds during Victorian times because it warmed up just like fresh farmyard manure. It  was used in tanning leather.  Mostly oak bark was soaked in hot water to remove tannin and afterwards discarded or given to gardeners.   This woody material was preferred to manure because it kept its heat for up to six months.  Putting shredded woody material under the soil may well have a warming effect too. 
The alternative to burying high carbon material could be to shred it and put on top of the soil as mulch.  It will help to retain top soil moisture and suppress weed seed germination.   However, mulches do attract slugs and snails and may be of more use on mature plants that are not so attractive to these voracious molluscs.  I do not use mulches on vegetable beds until the plants are very mature.  Hoeing is just as good when the plants are immature.  Putting large amounts of decomposing organic matter on the surface of the soil may deplete the nitrogen content of a couple of centimeters of top soil.   

Remember adding carbon reduces nitrogen; adding nitrogen reduces carbon and adding air reduces both.  

Having large reservoirs of carbon deep in the soil may increase the population of beneficial carbon eating microbes like mychorrhizal fungi.  Symbiotic connections could link plants to the decomposing plant material deep in the soil through fungi mycelium.   In order to protect these fungi and other essential microorganisms inoculated charcoal could be added to provide both a protective habitat and  a source of nutrients.   This is what the native South Americans did for thousands of years.  It is the soil called terra preta. 

It is understandable that the repeated addition of inorganic fertilisers would reduce the number of soil organisms by reducing the amount of carbon available to the heterotrophic soil fauna.  However, there are few gardeners that will use inorganic fertilisers to the extent they were used in the past. 
The adding of dead organic matter to the soil also has a number of other benefits that add to the fertility of the soil.  Plants respire as well as photosynthesise.  This means that they take in oxygen as well as carbon dioxide.  As the roots are below the soil they do not have access to light and cannot photosynthesise.  Yet they do respire and need a supply of oxygen from the soil.  Dead organic matter can increase the amount of oxygen that can penetrate the soil by providing air spaces and keeping the soil "open".  In a similar way organic matter can provide a route through the soil for water increasing drainage to avoid water-logging.  As organic matter absorbs water it also provides a reservoir that buffers water-logging and drought. Organic matter and clay are the hooks that enable nutrients to remain in the soil and available to plant roots and mychorrhizal hyphae.  In order to get the maximum benefit from the organic matter added to the soil it should be distributed evenly throughout the profile by digging. 

Mychorrhizal saprophytic fungi form symbiotic associations with plant roots which allows nutrients that are produced by fungal breakdown of dead organic matter to be transported to the plant.  There is some suggestion that these networks of fungal hyphae connect plants with each  other allowing the flow of nutrients and photosynthesis products to move to plants that are compromised because they are in shady or nutrient poor environments.  

I would suggest that my soil is more productive now than it was when I took the allotment on over thirty years ago. A lot of nutrients have been taken off the allotment in the form of vegetables, eaten and disposed of down the sewage system. The reason why it is even more fertile now is due to the addition by digging of dead organic matter in its many forms.  It would never have occurred to me to use growing medium to improve my top soil when I started gardening. Indeed I would have avoided peat because I saw it as an acid medium.    A good load of cow muck was about all that was needed.  I doubt if I could have increased the fertility as much by adding peat based growing mediums even though they are infused with inorganic fertilisers.

You can use any organic matter to produce good soil.  The word organic, in this context, means that which was once alive. (In chemistry it refers to any molecule containing carbon chains.)  There are many lists circulating around the gardening forums.  Regardless of their NPK ratio accuracy, they give a list of things that you can add to the soil or compost heap  that will decompose to give plants nutrients.

Adding any dead organic matter to soil will benefit it.  There is evidence that ancient human settlements can be identified by high phosphate and charcoal levels in the soil.  This leads to a lush growth of plants that has been maintained over many centuries.  I doubt if ancient human civilisations were as selective of the organic matter they buried as modern man is. The self sustaining properties of Terra Preta soils are probably due to an indiscriminate addition of dead organic matter together with charcoal.

Seaweed contains a lot of nutrients - particularly potassium and is a valuable amendment to soil.   So much of our nutrients are sent down the sewers and eventually into the sea. Using seaweed seems to close the cycle so that these nutrients can be returned to the soil.  

There is a suggestion that adding undecomposed organic material could be detrimental to the soil.  This is because micro organisms need nitrogen and forage for this in the soil when they are decomposing organic matter.  Well what goes around comes around.  These organisms will die themselves and decompose in the soil and provide nutrients.  If you are continually adding organic matter into your soil,  then the cycle of decomposition and growth develops a dynamic equilibrium where the level of nutrient in the soil matches the amount being used by living things preventing leaching and locking the nutrients into a sustainable cycle.

If the soil is very compacted then it will need to be double dug to improve the drainage and begin to increase the depth of the top soil. 
Raised beds mean that you don’t have to step onto the bed to cultivate it having access from the many paths around the beds.  The soil is never compacted and is always aerated and well drained. 
Plants need water which they obtain from the soil through their roots.  Roots also obtain dissolved nutrients from the soil and they need energy to do this.  To obtain energy they need to respire using oxygen from the air.  In other words plants need both air and water in the soil.  The more fibrous the structure of the soil the better the relationship between these soil constituents.  Walking on the soil will squash out some of the air.  Walking across wet soil will squash out some of the air and fill the pores with water muddying the soil. 

However, needs must and sometimes you just have to work the soil in wet weather.  Going over the ground that you have walked on with a fork restores the structure and allows air to reenter the ground.  Having said this, common sense says trying to work muddied ground when it is pouring with rain is pointless.  

Soil compaction by the rain is more of a problem in the vegetable garden although taking a hoe through the surface will usually be good enough to allow air to enter the soil. 

When making seed beds you should consolidate the soil by shuffle walking over it to break down the clods of soil and produce a fine tilth.  

The soil can also be compacted by animals like rats, badgers, foxes and the like.  Let’s be honest here, dinosaurs trampled the earth in the past and soils survived.  

The structure of the soil is much more dependent on its organic and mineral content than whether it is walked on.  I have read somewhere that if you get the calcium and magnesium content of the soil just right you can park your car on the soil and it will still be friable.  I would like to try this out before I recommend it – and that will never happen. 

Seedbeds need to be consolidated to conserve water and to ensure good seed soil contact for optimum germination.  This is why you sometimes see farmers using Cambridge rollers to consolidate their land.   I was always taught to shuffle over the soil to consolidate it and then rake it carefully to make a good seed bed.   It would take a very large weight or constant use to squeeze out all the air from soil.  Keeping your soil too fluffy just leads to problems with irrigation.   In any case, plants will grow through concrete – how compacted is that?

Friday, 18 November 2011

Allotment Garden Planning for 2012

Now we are at the time of the year that the new plan for the allotment is needed.  This is the only way that the number and variety of seed can be ordered from the garden catalogues.  I missed the deadline for the King's catalogue because that order needed to be in for 31st October and I could not get myself organised that early in autumn.
On allotment 25(b) I will have the roots, leaves, brassicas, beans and peas.  This is not the final version - as I always say because I already have some Asparagus officinalis seeds on the go and if they germinate I will have to find room for them.  I doubt if they will produce any spurs this year but they might next year.  Also I want to put in a line of Asparagus pea Tetragonolobus purpureus.  Where I don't know.  Possibly after an early crop of broad beans.

This is keeping to the rotation mainly to make sure that the brassicas are not on the same ground for at least 5 years.  It will make the probability of club root very unlikely.  I will be giving the brassicae bed a good dose of lime before any planting occurs.  I have cut back the hedge as far as I can so that there is less shading along the west (right hand) side of the allotment.  All the rows are running more or less north to south so that they are not shading each other.
Allotment 25(b) 2012 plan
Allotment 26(a) will have the sweet peas and the onion bed.  I am going to take some of the onion bed up with the curbits and sweet corn.
Allotment 26(a) plan 2012
Where the sweet peas are going there are still pumpkins  (in November!), leeks and celeriac growing. On the onion bed there are broad beans, American land cress, radish (almost gone now), green manures and the garlic.  I will probably plant some more garlic and shallots in the greenhouse.  One of the lines of sweet peas will probably be runner beans again because I cannot fit them in anywhere else.
The potatoes and oca will go on the bottom plot.
Allotment 26(b) 2012 plan.
I have still got to find somewhere for the herbs but these will probably be put into pots and left on the paths.
The potato bed is being dug over and I am trying to triple dig it.  The formal name of this type of digging is bastard digging because it is a b*****d to do.  As there are so many stones in it and this makes it hard to dig even at the best of times, I have decided to sieve it as well.  I have a large, old, plastic, bread basket with one inch holes in it.  It is ideal for removing the boulders that are in this soil.

I am also using it to mix in the horse muck and turf soil.  I sieved the turf putting the grass at the bottom of the trench and mixing the top soil with the original top soil.  It is certainly making a very friable top soil.  Unfortunately, it is also making my back ache.  Hey, what can you do.  I will have a bit of a respite when I go for my RHS course tomorrow morning. I am only doing where the strawberries were because I still have quite a few roots left in the root bed.  I am thinking of clamping the carrots, at least, and putting the beetroot into sand boxes so that I can start to dig this area too.
I have raised this area quite a bit again but I think that it will not be too high when I have raked it all over.  Several people have made comments about me building up the soil on the allotment and it is getting a little wearing.  Nobody bats an eyelid at raised beds if they are a metre square or similar.  I just do it on a slightly larger scale.   
If I have to wait for the beetroot and carrots to come out, I will go up to the top bed and triple dig and sieve where the new carrots are going to go.  The carrots grew really well this year and I want to see if I can get them even bigger in 2012.  If the soil is really friable; I add some of the pigeon manure now; use mychorrhizal fungi;  use some inoculated charcoal and carefully thin then I might get some reasonable carrots.  You might say that putting on pigeon manure will cause the carrots to fork.  This might be so but I am gambling that the pigeon manure would have rotted down sufficiently for it not to affect the carrots aversely by the time I plant the carrots in the spring.  I will be covering the carrots again with enviromesh to protect them from carrot root fly Psila rosea.  I cover them completely using plastic hoops to keep the mesh from lying on the plants.  

Sunday, 13 November 2011

November still digging the new potato bed.

Spent another lovely day sieving out the stone on the new potato bed.  I am mixing in the horse muck and it is making very friable soil.  Just wish I could work a little faster.  There is still a lot of stone in the soil but slowly but surely it is being removed.

It certainly tires you out.

I am mixing the soil through the sieve and also using conical mounds of soil and throwing the newly sieved soil on the top so that it mixes as it runs down the sides of the mound.

The weeds are still growing and the strawberries will have to be hand weeded before they are taken over by poached egg plant seedlings.  Also the grazing rye on the top bed is getting a lot of Stellaria media seedlings growing between the rows.  A quick going over with hoe, cultivator and rake will see these weeds off.

Harvested some rocket Eruca sativa and some radish Raphanus sativus for salad today.  I would like to harvest the American winter cress Barbarea verna  but this is a little small at the moment.  It will be useful later in the year when there is nothing else growing.

Some of the purple sprouting brocolli is flowering so this could be harvested too.  The plants are large but they are not sending up many flowering spikes.  Don't think that so much of this will be planted next year.

I will concentrate on producing some really good cauliflowers and cabbages.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Last of the tomatoes and squashes.

A frost was forecast so I decided to harvest the rest of the tomatoes and squashes.  The plants had fallen over with the weight of the fruit on them and become a little dirty.  I gave them a good wash and left them to dry.

Some of these will be left in paper bags to ripen off.  Others will be used to make chutney.  The squash are not very big but I think they taste better when they are this size. They will probably be roasted.

The tomato plants have been put into large, empty compost bags to bring home and put into the green bin.  They are not diseased but I still want to be sure that I do not contaminate the soil with blight spores.

The pumpkins are getting really big now and I will have difficulty taking them home.  I want to weigh them on the bathroom scales to see how much they weigh.  They are not the biggest I have ever seen but they are not too bad.

I am using an old bread basket to sieve the new potato bed soil.  It seems to be just the right mesh.  The holes are about 1 inch square.  I am getting quite a lot of stone out of both the top and the subsoil.


The subsoil is particularly hard and full of stone.  I have to use a fork to get into it. However, I am determined to sieve as much of the soil as I can before the cold weather starts to close in.  

 It looks quite benign in these pictures but that subsoil is a tough old nut.  I could go deeper but it would take a lot longer for little effect.

You can see that I have been burying the old strawberry plants at the bottom of the trench and old horse muck is being sieved into the top soil.

So I put about three spade fulls of top soil to one of horse muck.  This is just right because the soil forms a cluster around the muck and allows it to fall through the holes.  So the sieve allows the soil to be mixed while removing the larger stones.  I don't mind a few stones in the soil because they keep the soil open: they may add nutrients when they are weathered and they can help with soil drainage.  

I am using this old spade because the ground is so stony.  I would much rather use a stainless steel spade because little of the soil sticks to the blade.  
Gave my tools a clean when the Sun went down just to keep standards up.  

Saturday, 5 November 2011

November digging the new potato bed.

I have put all the comfrey, sweet cicely and the nettles in the bins and they are not very likely to produce any more tops until next year.  The comfrey bins are nearly full of comfrey liquid and I am going to run out of bins to put it into soon.  I will put some on the leeks to see if I can get them to grow a little quicker but this is the only place that I think that it can be used at the moment.

I am triple digging the old strawberry bed at the moment. This is the replacement soil that the council put onto the allotment because the other soil was contaminated by some foul chemical.  They only did the bottom area of the allotment but the soil was, and still is, not very good.  It is mainly a sandy clay with the emphasis on the clay part.  However, this is not the most irritating thing about this new soil.  It is also full of boulders  and stones.  So, while it is being triple dug, it is also being sieved.

I am using Fred's old bread basket to sieve with because it is ideal for sieving out boulders.  I can easily dig down one spit because the top soil is fairly open and friable.  However, the subsoil is just like rock and a fork is needed to penetrate the concrete like soil.  This is not like the soil on the rest of the allotment.  I can go down about a metre on the rest of the allotment and even then the soil is fairly open and friable.

So, the soil is being sieved into the wheel barrow and at the same time horse muck is being added and sieved with it.  An amazing amount of stone is being taken out and it could lead to a lowering of soil level.  I have decided to replace the stones with turfs from the bins by the entrance gates.  It is more soil than turfs but this is of no consequence because I need some top soil to improve this concrete,granite like soil.  The remains of the home made compost is being put at the bottom of the trench with the old strawberries and this is covered with the turfs and then the sieved subsoil goes on next with the sieved top soil going on top.

I have to be careful when I am sieving not to sieve out large pieces of inoculated charcoal.  The bits that I am finding in the bread basket sieve are taken out and crushed with a bull hammer so that I can mix it in with the sieved soil easily.  I am also using the bull hammer to crush some of the stone.

My theory is that a lot of soil nutrients come from the bed rock through weathering.  Although turning over the soil is a kind of weathering and will lead to some breakdown of stones and pebbles, if I crush stone with the bull hammer maybe this will help to add some nutrients to the soil as well.   If it doesn't then I haven't wasted my time because the crushed stone is mixed in with the sieved soil and this will help keep the soil open and easily drained.  I might use some of the stone that I have removed and put by the car park to crush and put back on the soil.

I will apologise now for the overuse of Latin names but I am doing the Royal Horticultural Society's level 2 course and I need to learn a load of Latin names of plants.  So whenever I am writing about the plants I will use the Latin names.

Looked at the Lathyrus odoratus (sweet peas) and some of them are germinating already.  It just goes to show that chipping or sanding the seed is not necessary. I think that this myth is perpetuated by people that do not grow Lathyrus odoratus  and have never tried to germinate the seed.

The Ribes grossularia 'Xenia'  (Gooseberry) and the Rubus fruticosus (blackberry - not sure of the cultivar at the moment) cuttings seem to be established and growing on.  The Rheum rhaponticum 'Timperley Early' has started to throw out leaves already.  I am not sure that this is what I want it to do at the moment.  I know it is an early cultivar but not this early.

The winter flowering Cyclamen persicum spp. have just regrown their leaves and are nearly ready to go back into the house for a Christmas display.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Cleaning tools and taking end of October photographs.

The weather was particularly warm today.

Cleaned tools. 
Probably for the first time ever, I have had time to clean my tools off properly.  I brushed them to get off most of the soil then washed them with a wet rag.  After this oil was painted onto them with a paint brush.

Cleaned tools
They look great but, with the warm weather we are having, I will want to use them again before the winter weather sets in.
Cleaned gardening tools
I put my tools into an old tub so that they will not fall all over the place.  The oil container and the paintbrush  are on the floor.
I went round taking photographs again to show how the allotment is changing during the late autumn.

Grazing rye on top bed
After digging in the pea and bean plants, grazing rye was sown.  It has germinated in the warm weather.  I will leave this bed now until the spring when the grazing rye will be dug in and roots will be sown.

There is a squash in the background
The squash has been left in because it is still producing. Squashes in late October!  

New strawberry bed is established now
I planted out the strawberries during October and they have established themselves really well now.  The purple sprouting broccoli has been described as palm trees.  The size is unimportant.  I would like to see some broccoli flowers coming.
Brussel Sprouts
Brussel sprouts are doing well but they need a little tidying up.  I will take off the yellow leaves and earth them up a little more to stop them leaning over.  

Vetches and tares green manure
This is the bed that had the runner beans and the sweet peas on.  These were dug into the soil and green manure sown.  This bed will be left until the spring when brassicas will be planted.  

Blackberry and sweet cicely
I cut the sweet cicely right back and put the tops in the comfrey bins to make liquid manure.  The old fruiting canes of the blackberry were cut out and the new canes tied to the supports.  I am going to put another blackberry at the other end of the supports.  I got three  blackberry cuttings from Mike and have already potted them up in a 1:1 compost and sharp sand mix.

The leeks are covered against the leek miner fly.  I don't think that they will be affected but I don't want to take the chance.  The leeks outside the enviromesh seem to be growing well despite not being covered.  There are some big celeriac stems and I am using them for soups at the moment.  

This is what I am using to make soups with too.  I grew some average sized pumpkins this year and this is the biggest one.  They will be harvested in the next few weeks.
I had one measly yellow flower on my Oxalis Tuberosum.  I am wondering if I should dig one of these up and have a look to see if they have produced any tubers.
Winter leaves
There are some rocket, American landcress and lamb's lettuce in here with some green manures.  I have planted two rows of garlic in between but they are not showing yet.
Broad beans
These broad beans may not do very well particularly if the cold weather comes soon.  I am really using them as a green manure.  They were grown from saved seed.  I have planted the tulips between them and I am hoping that the tulips will be over before I need to plant the pumpkins and courgettes.
Horse muck for the potatoes
I have put some horse muck here for the potatoes.  The excess strawberries will be dug into the soil.
I am going to move the sundial next to the shed.  It will be shaded there but it is just for show in any case.  

Roots bed
Still plenty of roots left in this bed.  I will need to start eating a lot more to get rid of this lot.  I need the space to dig in the horse manure for the potatoes.  I have finally taken some cuttings of the gooseberry and potted them up in a 1:1 compost and sharp sand mix.  They are at home in the greenhouse.