Thursday, February 11

Not just a load of rhubarb

To complete my posts covering fruit performance last season I am going to start with something that technically isn't a fruit - rhubarb.
We started pulling sticks of rhubarb early in April. We never force our plants so some may think that is early. The secret to early picking is in the variety and Timperley Early is one of the first to produce stems. In fact ours is already producing new growth.
We picked the last stems in June as by this stage many other fruits were coming into production and we had frozen enough rhubarb for later in the winter.
We always leave plenty of stems on the plants which helps to keep the plants growing well.
This year we bought some roots of a new variety - Poulton's Pride. This variety is reputed to be the longest cropping rhubarb and should crop up to November. 

The three roots were potted up and gradually moved on to a large planter where they are building up strength until we decide where to plant them - if they seem to enjoy life on the container they may even stay there.
We have a well established grapevine - Himrod -in the garden greenhouse.
This needs a stern hand as if left to its own devices it would fill the greenhouse and beyond as it will quickly find an open window to escape from. In fact it has been known to head out of a roof vent and then scramble up a nearby tree.
As long as it is kept in check it provides useful shading should we have a hot and sunny summer and has the added benefit of reliably producing lots of sweet seedless green grapes.

We haven't weighed the harvest as we usually just pop up to the greenhouse to pick a bunch of grapes whenever we fancy.
The bunches are not of uniform shape as I long ago decided that pretty bunches of grapes were not worth a stiff neck and the collection of the removed grapes down the neck of whatever I was wearing.

As an experiment we planted a couple of vines - Madeline Sylvaner and Boskoop Glory - on the plot which although they have produced grapes these haven't swelled up to an edible size.
I think maybe we need to be a bit more ruthless when removing some of the bunches.

Finally tucked just inside the garden greenhouse in a large pot is out Brown Turkey fig. It isn't very large but does provide us with a few summer treats.
To be honest before we grew our own figs the nearest that I came to this fruit was in a fig biscuit.

Now I wonder if next year we will have more figs, will our allotment vines produce edible fruits and will we be pulling rhubarb in November? This grow your own lark certainly keeps you guessing doesn't it?

Monday, February 8

Top fruit

Top fruit is the name given to any fruit that's grown on a tree rather than a bush. Last year was a reasonably good year for our top fruit despite the blossoming being off to a late start.

On the subject of blossom I think fruit blossom easily rivals that of many ornamental trees so if you are considering an ornamental tree for the garden don't overlook those trees that produce edible fruit.
On the plot we inherited what we call an apple hedge. It's probably 20 years old and when we took over the plot it no longer resembled a row of cordons. We have no idea of the varieties but our best guess is that the hedge is made up of Discovery, Golden Delicious and two others one of which doesn't produce much fruit. It could be that it fruits on the tips of branches and doesn't respond to our pruning method.
The hedge should maybe be cut down as the trees are riddled with canker but whist it produces so much fruit it will remain.

We have since added some new apples grafted onto a dwarf rooting stock.
These are Fiesta, Egremont Russet, Queen Cox and Bramley. The Bramley on the plot didn't produce fruit but this was made up for by a tree growing in the garden. This is a sneaky ex-cordon. It was cut back years ago but secretly regrew behind the greenhouse and is now a very productive - sort of - tree.

Most of the Bramleys were stewed and frozen as were any bruised or damaged fruits but the rest was stored and really only finished this month. The skins had become tough but nothing that peeling didn't sort out.
We have two cherry trees - Summer Sun -  one on the plot and the other  - Stella - in a pot in the garden. Both flowered well.
The one on the plot, however had the leaves stripped for the second year. We thought that some sort of caterpillar was to blame but further research revealed that wood pigeons were the culprits. They didn't stop at the stage reached in the photo below.
The tree in the pot in the garden was protected with fleece.
At least this meant that we had some cherries to enjoy. This year we will need to rig up some protection for the plot tree.
We didn't think that we would harvest any plums or greengages this year as they were very late to flower.
As a result the fruit was produced later than usual which had the added benefit of fooling the plum moth. The yellow Oullins Gage is usually the most prolific ...
 ... but last year it was Victoria that was on the top step of the podium.
Greengages were a revelation to us when we first tasted them as their refusal to change from green when ripe means that the sweetness is unexpected. It was actually this that made us plant the greengage trees after all our plums were stolen one year. We figured that the greengages wouldn't prove as tempting.

Like the plums, the pears were very late to flower.
Usually the three trees flower at slightly differing times but last year they all flowered at once giving a better crop - the pears are never as prolific as the apples although the small Red Williams was punching above it's weight. It's never really branched out. Maybe we need to cut back the long branches but we are a bit reluctant to do that.
Remember the sneaky Bramley mentioned earlier? Well we have a similarly sneaky Conference pear which followed the apple trees lead. It's fruit is on the left below. It actually produced less fruit than usual last year.
Our final top fruit in the quince. It's a really attractive tree when flowering and also has lovely large leaves.
The fruit starts off velvety like the peach and becomes smooth and turns yellow when ripe.  Until late in summer it looked as though the fruits were going to remain small and then suddenly they 'took off'. This fruit is always the last to be harvested as it needs to be left on the tree as long as we dare but before the first frosts. Quinces have a very distinctive flavour that we like but which may not be liked by everyone. (I think that I may feature this tree in my blog this year and tell you more about it).
Regular readers to the blog may wonder why the peach, apricot and nectarine growing in the greenhouse haven't been mentioned. The truth is that they have still to perform and although we have had one or two fruits from each, they haven't earned a place in this post. Maybe next year.

Friday, February 5

They earn their keep.

Berries and currants certainly earn their place in the grow-your-own garden. After the initial planting the only real attention needed is that some need pruning once a year or in the case of strawberries tidied up. Some need to be tied in to supports or covered with nets to deter predatory birds. They may need watering during very dry weather, (remember what that looks like do you?) and most benefit from a feed. If bushes are grown through weed control fabric with mulch on top very little weeding is needed, otherwise weeds can be kept down by hoeing. After that, pest and disease willing the most labour intensive task is at harvesting time and that is directly linked to how much fruit you grow which in our case is quite a lot! 

The yield is of high value when set against the cost of those small punnets sold in the shops. It's debatable how much money this actually saves you as I doubt that you would buy the equivalent amount of fruit as you harvest. You would need to buy lots of punnets of raspberries to obtain 17 kg of fruit. So you may not actually save money but you do eat a lot more fresh fruit and our freezer is always well supplied with fruit for pies, crumbles and compotes.

So let's take the fruits above one by one.

The thornless blackberry provides a steady supply of large fruits for about two and a half months and what is more there is no pain involved in the picking. We dug up our thorny thug but still have one in a wild patch on the plot in a wildlife area. This is mainly left to the birds and any other passing blackberry loving wild creature but we are sometimes tempted to pick the shiny berries.
The blackcurrants always seem to do well and in spite of the blackbirds flying out of the bushes when we approach, they never seem to take too many and there is plenty for all of us. The total harvest could have been higher but we stop picking when we have enough. Each year some bushes have all the old wood removed. I'm too much of a coward to do them all in the same year.
I don't know what it is about our blueberry bushes but they never produce a large amount of fruit. All the conflicting 'expert' advice doesn't help - prune/don't prune, feed/don't feed, don't allow to dry out/don't give too much water etc. etc. The berries that are produced ripen so erratically that what is produced comes in dribs and drabs. I often pick under-ripe fruit to ripen off the plant, otherwise I could miss much of the fruit between plot visits but no doubt the blackbirds wouldn't.

As in the case of the blackcurrants, we could have harvested more gooseberries but we only pick what we can use. Many of the bushes originated as cuttings which we were given and so we have no idea about varieties. The trick is to pick them as they are ripe and sweet but before they drop off the bushes. It's a case of a gentle squeeze and then a taste to determine the ripeness. I still haven't pruned them which is important to avoid mildew.
Again we just picked the jostaberries that we could use. The bushes produced well this year and what was more exceptional was that the wood pigeons left the fruit alone. Often they raid the bushes and break branches in their eagerness to browse the berries. Jostaberry bushes grow quite large and as with the gooseberries I still need to prune them. We only bought one bush but cuttings are very easy to take. We now have six and given quite a few plants away.
The kiwi berry - Issai - vine is growing in a pot in the garden and this year is the first year that we have had a real harvest from the grape sized berries. 
We were harvesting raspberries for four months. The summer fruiting ones were newly planted last year and so we were pleased with the yield. The day on which we stopped picking the summer fruit coincided exactly with the first picking of the autumn fruits. Glencoe is a purple raspberry that grows in a similar way to a blackberry and has smaller fruits and always crops less heavily than the fruits grown on the more usual canes.
We inherited the redcurrant bushes with the plot and so have no idea of the variety. The plants are easily fifteen years old and still going strong. I just cut out some old branches and trim the tops each year. They are one set of plants permanently covered with a net. This means that neither the blackbirds can strip the plants bare nor can Martyn get under to pick them. This means that picking falls to me. I generally just pull the berries off in strings and destring back at home. As with much of the other fruit we could have picked more than we did but stopped when we had plenty. At this stage the netting is pulled back to give the birds a treat, although like contrary children they tend at this point to leave the shiny red fruits alone. When the bushes are covered by netting they will find any weak spot and sneak under.
Most of the strawberry plants were newly planted and so we didn't expect a large crop. The unknown varieties were from old plants that have since been dug up. We left them in the ground until after fruiting to boost what we expected would be a limited crop from the new plants.
The alpine strawberry plants are past their best and will be replaced this year.

Our most thuggish plant is the tayberry. I think we miss quite a few fruits as it is painful picking. It still needs pruning which isn't my favourite job. I think it is due for some harsh treatment this year.
One plant that rivals the tayberrys savage thorns is the Japanese Wineberry. It has been planted a while and hadn't made much growth or produced much fruit in the past but suddenly the canes have taken off, so maybe this year will be their year!
The final berry bushes that we have planted on the plot are the honeyberries which have yet to produce any fruit but having read reviews of the fruit maybe these berries won't live up to expectations.

By the way has anyone grown a chuckleberry and if so would you recommend growing one.

All in all despite the lack of sunshine I have to conclude that last year was a berry good year for us.

By the way if you are interested my picture diary for January is now complete and is here.

  Copyright: Original post from Our Plot at Green Lane Allotments author S Garrett

Tuesday, February 2

Bird Count

We have taken part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch for quite a few years now and have kept records of our counts since 2012 and thought it would be interesting to compare the results.
Although the house sparrow numbers have fluctuated a little, the sparrow has been a constant visitor. The number recorded doesn't really reflect the actual numbers as they usually arrive in a large groups that scatter around the garden and are constantly on the move. This makes counting really tricky so we have erred on the side of caution when recording the number of visitors.
The starlings also usually arrive in a squabbling mass to make counting tricky but this time we only had one solitary individual, (very unusual for starlings) and so counting was easy.   

Spotting a coal tit during the count is very hit and miss and this year we didn't record any and the collared doves also failed to show up. Both are regular visitors.

One worrying absentee from our garden is the goldfinch. We usually have a constant stream of them to feeders. This year since back in spring we have only seen the occasional visitor and none of the usual hoards of juveniles.

Robins are almost a constant presence in the garden and can be guaranteed to show up.
Blackbirds too are usually in evidence but this year not in the numbers we are used to and they don't seem to be as early to spot a newly replenished bird table. I hope that this means they are finding plenty of natural food especially slugs and snails.
Great tits and blue tits can also always be relied upon to turn up for the count. A flock of long tailed tits frequently visit the feeders and this year they sent representatives to  actually managed to put in an appearance during the count. Not the usual number though where the best way of assessing their numbers is to count tails.
This year we didn't record any collared doves although we still see them in the garden regularly. Wood pigeon numbers, however have been fairly constant across the years we have recorded.

Another regular visitor is the dunnock, it's often seen foraging on the ground but will also venture onto the bird table.
Chaffinches although I wouldn't class as regulars often seem to make it to the count.

Unlike in 2012, when we recorded a bullfinch and a sparrowhawk, no surprise visitors made it into the count this year.

The total number of birds counted this year has dropped considerably which coincides with our general observations. I hope that the low numbers are due to the birds finding plenty of natural food around rather than a decline in the population.

Sunday, January 31

Change of plan

I usually cut the old leaves off the hellebores before the flowers start to emerge but this year the weather meant that I didn't want to trample on the sodden border.

The result was that the flower buds rose above the old foliage and I decided that they could manage very well without my intervention. However, last week I had a sudden thought. There are snowdrops planted amongst the hellebores and they would struggle to show their heads above the foliage. On one of the few reasonable days last week, I decided to tip-toe through the hellebores and remove last year's leaves. You can tell from the photo below that it was a dull day.
The leaves that fall from the magnolia tree onto this bed are left in place and the plants just push up through them.

Not only were the clumps of snowdrops revealed but also sprouting amongst the dead leaves were lots of hellebore seedlings.
As seedlings are just left in place to take their chances, I think some of the plants now flowering were probably self sown a few years back.

A couple of years ago I added two new varieties - one was a primrose colour and the other almost black - the trouble is that I can't find the variety names anywhere in our records.
They were small plug plants and so far I have seen no signs of the primrose ones but the dark ones have flowers. The colour is much 'blacker' in real life than the camera shows.

Garden centres know how to tempt an impulse buy don't they? We went for a coffee and a browse round one of our favourite garden centres the other day and what should be crying out to be popped into our basket but another hellebore. This one is called Spring Promise and has duly been recorded.
Now we just need a fine day so that I can find a place for it amongst it's cousins.

When I picked the plant up and Martyn commented on how he liked it and so I let him buy it. Then seeing as it was now his plant, I chose a couple of saxifragas for one of the pebble beds. The plant in the bottom photo has flowers that are a pale greenish yellow rather than the white that they look in the photo.
We did need more plants for the pebble beds and so my plants ,unlike Martyn's hellebore, were not impulse buys.

The saxifragas are also waiting to be planted along with some bulbs that we needed that were bought when we went for some bird food to another garden centre.
Unfortunately JS Dijt has turned out to be blue instead of the deep purple shown on the label (a case of mislabelling?) so it looks like I will need to hunt out another purple variety.

Now all I need is a dry day so I can get planting!