Tuesday, August 30

Another blogiversary

Starting a blog is a bit like taking on a new allotment plot! It starts out as just an idea. For some people they find that the idea was far better than the reality and will write one or two posts (or dig one or two beds) and then disappear.

Others decide that it is something that they can only devote a limited amount of time to - unlike at the allotment the weeds don’t take over if you are away for a while although when you do switch on your computer after a break it may seem that lots of things have happened in your absence. There’s usually lots of catching up to do!

Then there is the variety of ways blogs are set out and what bloggers choose to write about. 

There is also the way a community develops around a common interest and how this community can support one another with advice, tips and inspiration.

I started this blog on 30 August 2006 which makes today it's 5th blogiversay hence the reason that this post is about blogging and not gardening - I hope you’ll just indulge me a little.

It does seem a bit incredible that I started blogging 5 years, and over 870 posts ago over which time the blog has evolved into something completely different to how it started out - just like our allotment and our garden. 

I've always enjoyed writing my blog but it's also good to know that there are people out there who regularly read what I've written. I'm always excited to achieve a new follower and wonder what has gone wrong when the number of followers goes down meaning someone has dumped me! 

I love reading the comments and would like to thank all of you who regularly make comments and help make the blog come alive. It's good to get to know some of my readers better through this interaction and also benefit from the tips, suggestions and advice offered. I'm always happy when someone new comments too. I know from experience that it can sometimes feel as though you are gatecrashing a party where everyone knows everyone else but we all like to meet new friends as well as keep up with older ones.

Of course blogging is very much a two way thing and I also enjoy visiting lots of other blogs, most of which are featured in my blogrolls. Who needs gardening books when there is a team of knowledgeable people out there always teaching some new tricks, reminding us of old ones, inspiring us to try new things and giving us an insight into how they garden in other areas of the world? 

As a ‘thank you’ for reading I’d love to be able to share a piece of one of my sister's fabulous chocolate cakes with you but as that isn't practical maybe you will be satisfied with a photo instead.

I'd also like to thank Craig, Mark and Carrie for the awards they gave me this year.

Craig only took on his allotment plot in July 2010 but his blog Dykes Edge Allotments describes how in such a short time he has transformed an overgrown area into a show plot.

Mark combines his love of growing vegetables (especially chillies) with his love of cooking and his blog Mark's Veg Plot is full of information about his growing techniques accompanied by his favourite recipes.

Carrie's blog Grow Our Own describes how her brand new garden in Northern Ireland is taking shape as well as taking us for regular visits to her allotment plot. She's a firm believe in what she calls allotmentherapy and also has a lovely way with words.

I know lots of my regular visitors have already found these blogs - if you haven't pop over and take a look.

Sunday, August 28

Who's knocking on the door?

Nearly the end of August so autumn is knocking on the door. Looking at the plot some of our plants have been in autumn dress for a week or two now. Although the blueberries are still offering up a few fruits they now are showing off their brightly coloured red tints.
It has been a great year for fruit and we are still harvesting strawberries that are supposed to be a mid season variety along with, alpine strawberries, autumn raspberries, blackberries, more plums, apples and pears. It’s the first year we have had more than a couple of pears; the trees were only planted last year and then fruit dropped off before it was properly ripe but this year we can appreciate the true flavours.  As for the plums - the Marjorie Seedling tree has suffered under the weight of plums. The main leading trunk broke earlier in the year but the fruit is still managing to ripen as the bough hasn’t completely broken. A huge section of the tree is propped up the keep it off the ground which at least makes it easy to reach the plums.

I’m being a bit wary when picking the blackberries as I think the evil beasts that are feasting on me could be lurking somewhere in the undergrowth around the base of the canes.

We have two varieties of autumn raspberry - All Gold and Joan J. The later was struggling to compete with the stronger growing All Gold and so early in spring some clumps were dug up and relocated. The plants that were moved are producing lovely large raspberries and so the rest will be moved next spring.

So it’s a success story all round as far as the fruit is concerned but there have been winners and losers as far as vegetables are concerned.

Earlier posts have mentioned that our carrots and garlic have been one of the major disappointments but at least we now have signs that the seeds sown in the empty potato sacks are growing away so who knows we may get a few carrots at least. 

I don’t hold out a lot of hope that we will harvest more than one or two sweet corn cobs as only the plants set out first are showing any signs of producing.

But it’s not all bad news - as mentioned earlier we have plenty of really good onions and shallots. Once dry I’ll have to try making some onion strings. I did threaten that I would buy Martyn a beret and send him to the market on a bike.

Brassicas also seem to be doing well and we may even manage to have sprouts this year after two years of failure.
Runner beans are also doing well and both Martyn and I have already sung the praises of our potato crop.

Looking back we seem to have missed out on the sight of the allotment being covered in lush growth this year. Lack of rain has meant the plants have struggled so we really feel very lucky to have achieved what we have.

Things also seem to have completed their growing in a short space of time with many beds on the allotment now being bare and ready for winter or some late planting.

The rest of the story can been seen in this album - that is if you haven't become bored by now!

The few spring cabbage in the album were grown from seed but, as time and space as been in short supply, we have bought most of our over winter brassicas as plants for the last few years. We won’t be doing this again though as the plants received from Marshalls were well past their best and those from Dobies were even worse. 

What do you think? Martyn has photos on his blog of Marshalls plants and Dobies plants.

In response to emails Marshalls thought their plants were fine - their definition of fine and ours doesn’t seem to correlate. As for Dobies we have only just emailed them and so are still waiting for a response. One thing is certain - we will be growing our winter brassicas from seed in future!

Update - we had an email response from Dobies who'e attitude was far more what you would expect from a reputable company. They are contacting the nursery that supplied the plants and asking them to send another batch . They have said if the supplier is unable to do that they will give a full refund. Well done Dobies - take note Marshalls!

Our full August harvest is listed here. It spreads over two pages so use the arrows at the bottom of the page.

Friday, August 26

All is safely gathered in.

Onions and shallots seem to be two crops that have loved the conditions this summer. It’s strange as you would think garlic being in the same family would have enjoyed the same conditions but whereas the garlic was a waste of space the onions and shallots have been star performers.

A couple of weeks ago the onion tops started to bend over - a sure sign that they were ready to call it a day and had stopped growing.

Usually we would loosen the bulbs and leave them on the surface of the soil to dry out and prove so that they will keep well over winter. When the weather is damp we lift them and spread them out on the floor of the plot greenhouse to dry out there.

After having an extended dry period, heavy rain was forecast for a couple of days this week. We thought that it would be such a shame if the onions became sodden and so we decided to lift them and bring them under cover.
The problem was that this year we still have tomatoes taking up space in the plot greenhouse. 

The onions have been lifted about a month earlier than usual and the tomatoes seem to be taking their time ripening so  both plot and garden greenhouses are still in production mode.

In the end some onions were spread along the path in the plot greenhouse and the rest brought home set out in any gaps we could find in the garden greenhouse.

This was no mean feat as we have pulled about 73kg of onions not to mention the shallots. 

We are still using our winter onions and so we shouldn't go short. 

So did it pour down? Well the rain didn't come on the predicted days but we have had some rain and so we did do the right thing. See Martyn’s blog for the weather report!

As for next year’s winter onions - they should be arriving shortly and the planting will start all over again. 

As for the garlic we’ve ordered a selection of new bulbs so I am hoping that we won’t have a garlic failure again next year!

As for the other member of the onion family - the leeks - well they are coming along nicely. 
Highlight of the week/month/season/year was the first taste of our home grown nectarines which may even be peaches - truly delicious! 
It was such a high point that Martyn mentioned it on his blog too!

Has anyone else grown nectarine Fantasia? If so when does it loose its furriness? Our fruit skin still had a peachy texture but tasted ripe!

If you want to read more about the life cycles of members of the onion family you may be interested in this . I created it as a resource for schools but it may be interesting for some adult gardeners too.

Tuesday, August 23

Public Baths

For quite a while we hadn't seen many sparrows in our garden and hardly any starlings at all.

This year things seems to have changed - I don't know whether this is as a result of re-siting our bird feeders or us widening the range of food that we put out. 

Whatever the reason our sparrow population has grown. Bath time is chaos!
Although our starling population isn't as large we are now seeing one or two individuals regularly. This one had just left the bath in time before the sparrows arrived.
One thing for sure is that they are keeping us busy filling up the baths. Birds are also starting to use our new bird bath but at the moment bathing there is a more refined affair favoured by robins and blue tits.

Sunday, August 21

A cruel twist of fortune!

Last year lots of you were complaining that you could never get carrots to grow and we were wondering why we always seemed to get great carrots like these.
This year things started off well; the seeds germinated well as usual:
They were protected using an enviromesh tent as usual, it was even a redesigned improved version.
The enviromesh did blow off during strong winds in May but as the wind was strong we hoped we had managed to avoid a carrot fly attack and took the opportunity to do a bit of weeding.
Once weeded the young carrots flopped over a bit but generally this didn't give us any cause for concern.
As I have remarked often we have had very little rain although we did water through the enviromesh however no watering can do the good work of a few downpours of rain. Weeds obviously thrive when receiving less water than carrots and so under the privacy of the enviromesh the weeds gradually took over smothering the young carrots. Usually the carrots are growing away strongly and easily able to cope but not this year! This year the use of the protective covering back-fired as we didn't notice what was happening until it was too late.

We tried to retrieve the situation by weeding, although at this point it was difficult to spot the carrot tops amongst the chickweed. We may be lucky and manage to pull a few carrots but it will be nothing like the bumper crops of previous years. Ironically many other bloggers are reporting carrot success where previously there was none!

The lesson learned is that in future we will be less complacent and remember to regularly check what is happening under the enviromesh.

We are trying to get a later carrot crop by sowing in the now vacant potato bags. The seeds have germinated and the seedlings growing well. We hope by growing in bags we can take these into the greenhouse later to try and extend their growing season.
It's not been all bad on the roots front. We had expected a potato famine as the potatoes made very little top growth and we are regularly told that as far as potatoes are concerned what happens under the ground is reflected by what is happening above. No flowering either. Amazingly we have had a better crop than last year. To read more detail visit Martyn's blog.
The beetroot too is producing well
I wonder how the parsnips will fare?

Friday, August 19

Announcing the arrival of Andromeda

The title of this post sound like something astrological or from science fiction but  really it is just that we've now been to collect the last of the clematis that I wanted for our garden.

You may remember back in this post I mentioned finding a clematis nursery near by and that I had visited to collect four of the five clematis that I wanted to climb up a willow screen.

One of the varieties - Andromeda was sold out and so I was promised a phone call when new stock arrived. The call came on Wednesday so we went to collect that afternoon.
This is now standing on our patio waiting to be planted.

We planted four other clematis bought earlier and they are growing on with differing levels of success.

Two of them are growing away really well. Dawn and Snowbird are romping away.
Alpina Willy although not growing as quickly - but I don't expect it to - is still looking fit and healthy and making good growth.
The fourth clematis Fuji-Musume is giving cause for concern as it doesn't look too happy at all. I'm hoping that this is just they way it dies back after flowering and that it will send up new shoots next year. 

The photos below show the clematis just after planting and how it looks now.
Can anyone make reassuring noises?

Tuesday, August 16

Wrong kind of insects?

Lots of people seem to have been complaining about poor pollination of various plants this year. Around us there hasn’t been a shortage of insects - that is the  wrong kind of insects - the biting kind. I know I shouldn’t scratch or rub the itchy bites but knowing it and following my own advice are just two completely different things. I’ve just read about harvest mites - could this be my problem? In many ways I wish I hadn’t found out about them as it’s making my skin crawl.

As for the good guys - there didn’t seem to be a shortage of pollinating insects earlier in the year when the fruit trees and bushes were flowering. Our fruit bushes and trees have given us a great crop but then the blossom was at it’s peak in April which was warm and dry so ideal pollinating weather.

It does seem though that later in summer insect populations have dwindled. We have seen very few butterflies, not even as many of the whites whose caterpillars decimate brassicas. Lavender and buddleia flowers that are usually covered in butterflies and bees seem to have been neglected this year. 

So what has happened to all the pollinating insects that should have been busy on our behalf? Did the over-wintering adults, eggs or larva perish during last year’s freezing conditions? Has this summer just not been warm enough for them? Is the lack of insects the reason our garden birds are eating us out of house and home?

So what is happening in our garden greenhouse?
I haven’t noticed as many bees in our greenhouses as usual. At this time of year the greenhouse is supposed to be buzzing literally with the sound of visiting bees and time is spent rescuing butterflies that can’t find their way to the door. 

Is  the lack of friendly insects the reason our tomatoes seem to be slow to set fruit - especially the ones that produce small tomatoes? They are weighed down by flowers but many don’t seem to be developing into fruit. The fruit that is setting is very slow to ripen. Maybe the drop in temperature at night and generally cool conditions aren’t helping matters.

At last I have spotted a couple of melon fruits that have set but will there be long enough time left for the fruit to swell and ripen? We are not having ideal melon growing conditions this summer.

Our pepper plants still have plenty of flowers but also have fruits set. I thought that they should be changing colour by now but on looking back it was September before any peppers ripened last year.

I try growing basil each year with mixed success. Basil that I sowed earlier  in pots is producing some leaves for cutting but the mixed varieties that were sown in a trough are pathetic - maybe I’ll have to resort to planting those living herbs available in supermarkets and give up on the range of varieties that it is possible to grow from seed.

The strawberry runners that I potted up look as though they have taken. I’ll take a few more so I have a complete tray of each variety
A few days ago I took some lavender and salvia cuttings - these are under propagator lids to create a moist atmosphere. The lavender will be used to complete the lavender hedge around the fruit beds on the plot  and the salvias will be insurance against any loses during winter. That is if I can get them going and they survive winter in the greenhouse. I’ve also taken cuttings from the sambucus nigra growing on the plot. I’d like one growing in a tub in the garden. I guess it will be a either case of no cuttings rooting or all of them!
Our trusty grapevine - Himrod - is as usual producing lots of bunches of grapes. Can’t wait to start picking (well eating really) but the small, sweet, seedless grapes aren’t yet quite ripe.
I know it’s not actually in the greenhouse but the pot containing our new nectarine tree - Fantasia - is right by the greenhouse door which is my excuse for mentioning it. The fruits are changing colour  - they should go completely red and smooth. I can’t wait to have a taste of a home grown ripe nectarine. I just hope nothing happens to spoil things.

Friday, August 12

A pick axe would have been a better tool.

If you are a regular visitor to Martyn’s blog you will know that our allotment plot and garden seem to be situated in a no go zone as far a that wet stuff that comes from the sky is concerned.

We watch in disbelief as the blue rain areas on maps used by weather forecasters to show the passage of rain across the country, seem to go out of their way to avoid us!

We’ve had a few miserable days where a bit of the wet stuff has dribbled down - just enough to keep us away from gardening but not enough to do any real good.

I’ve mentioned a few times that we planted up a new strawberry bed this year and that the old beds are swamped with weeds. My idea was to wait for some rain to soften the ground so that I could clear these beds for planting. Well I’ve waited and waited and …

I really need at least one bed for planting out the Sweet Williams and some tulip bulbs that we are growing for cut flowers, so I decided to take the bull by the horns and have a go at clearing at least one of the beds.

The bed to be cleared hasn’t been dug for the three or four years that the strawberries have been in residence and the clay soil was rock hard. Couch grass roots were embedded into chunks of soil that could have been used for house building. It was a case of battering the soil to free as much root as I could. The bed is now cleared but needs digging - no chance until we get some rain. 
Notice in the photo the two other beds that need clearing. I think you may just be able to differentiate the beds from the grass paths. The beds are the ones with the longer grass!

Meanwhile the Sweet Williams are languishing in the cold frame shaking to their roots in case the snails get to them before they have a chance to grow up. I guess the slugs and snails are making a bee-line (can they do that?) to our cold frame as it at least, courtesy of our watering can, is a rare damp area

A question
Is anyone else suffering from insect bites? Martyn and I are covered in bites that seem to last for ages.

More courgette recipes

I’m still trying out courgette recipes and have added the Lamb and Courgette Bake that I made for dinner last night 

and the Piccalilli recipe that Martyn makes each year.

Wednesday, August 10

Using more courgettes

We are starting to have plenty of courgettes now so it was time to try out some more of the recipes that I have found.

First up Zucchini Cake from here. This turned out to be a recipe that needed plenty of muscle power. The quantity of ingredients was for two loaf sized cakes but from the amount of mixture in my bowl I expected to end up with enough to supply a supermarket. Incredibly the mixture DID produce two loaf cakes.
The chopped walnuts were lost in the large amount of mixture but I suppose it somehow added to the flavour.  I used half green and half yellow courgettes and after grating them I put them in a muslin bag and squeezed out as much moisture as possible. It doesn't tell you to do this in the recipe but without the mixture would have been really wet.

Baking time was supposed to take an hour but I baked for about an hour and twenty minutes.

The cake is quite a close texture - similar to a banana or apple cake. The recipe suggests spreading a slice with butter but we spread it with some home-made plum compote which went down well and it made use of another glut.

One comment accompanying the recipe on the web site suggests freezing one loaf so we'll do this.

The picture accompanying the recipe looks quite different to mine - maybe I grated - or rather the food processor did - the courgette more finely as there was no sign of courgette in the finished cake.

Our verdict was that we enjoyed the cake and would make it again!

Next was a vegetable side dish: Cumin courgette ‘ratatouille’ recipe which came from here

At the moment we don't have enough fresh tomatoes to spare any for cooking so I used some frozen from last year. I used chilli flakes (what about that Mark?) and a yellow and a green courgette.

The courgettes were cooked just long enough to soft them but keep them 'al dente'.

Despite the mild look this dish definitely had a kick another success which lends itself to lots of variations. 

Don't forget there are more recipes here - thanks to Matron and Annie for sending me links from their blogs. And also for the ideas given in the comments linked to my last courgette post here. Further contributions will be most welcome!

Sunday, August 7

I didn't mean to become a vandal but ...

When I was weeding on the plot a few weeks ago, I inadvertently uncovered an ants' nest. It's the second time that I've done this as I did just the same thing last year and in the same bed so I guess it's the same colony of ants. They must dread me coming.

Both times it seems that I vandalised a nursery chamber and consequently unearthed lots of larvae. The larvae were at various stages of development from 'newborns' to almost adult or maybe teenage stage.

An army of ants sprung into action retrieving their precious offspring and rushing them to a place of safety. All the rushing about gave us a chance to grab the video camera - well Martyn did as he's the video man - and get some footage.

So why has it taken me so long to write a post about it? Well I had to edit the video and do a bit of research about ants first. One fascinating fact that I learned was that adult ants teach young ants how to forage for food. Surely this is unique in the insect world.

I could bore you here with lots of other things that I have found out about ants but I'll leave you to choose whether or not you really want to know more. If you do then click here to visit the article that I have written on my website!

Thursday, August 4

State of flux

For a couple of reasons parts of our garden are looking a bit sorry for themselves.

One reason is the fact that the plants have had very little rain for months now. We have rarely ever had to resort to watering as much as we have this year but even that doesn’t compensate for the lack of natural moisture.

Our John Downie crab apple already has fruits turning colour which I’m sure hasn’t happened this early on in previous years.

Another problem is that most areas of the garden seem to be in a state of flux. We started off with plans to renovate parts of the garden but this seems to have spread like a virus to most other parts.

As regular readers will know - we had planned to add a focal point to a shady border under one of our crab apple trees. This escalated as we decided to virtually dig out all the existing planting, seriously prune the crab apple and carry out a complete redesign. In doing so I decided that some plants elsewhere in the garden would be happier moved into this bed. The plants have been duly dug up and planted temporarily but this has now drawn another area of the garden into the redesign frenzy.

Another issue has been that the vicious winter that we lived through last year has caused several casualties - our tree fern has definitely been killed but the trunk remains in place until I decide exactly what to do with it. The trunk is a feature in itself and my idea at the moment is to plant some sort of fern in the crown to create a sort of false tree fern! 

Then there is a potted fig which is causing me a problem. I think it’s dead - no leaves, shoots etc. But when I started to cut it up to discard I noticed that the wood itself isn’t dead. I’ve left it for now just to make sure but realistically I can’t see it recovering.

Anyway to concentrate on successes so far this year:

I decided to have a go at growing some osteospernums from seed and this has proved to be far easier than I had thought it would be. I bought the variety called Giant Mixed which, although very colourful, are rather straggly plants. 

Next year I’ll grow osteospernums again but will go for a dwarf variety called Passion Mixed

Another source of great excitement has been our new nectarine Fantasia. This was planted in a large pot just outside our greenhouse door. We never thought that it would flower this year let alone produce any fruit. It had just a few flowers and it would appear that every one of the flowers set fruit - we have about nine nectarines swelling on the tree. Some are now full size nectarines and starting to turn colour. Interestingly the skin looks more like a peach than a nectarine. From the photo on the suppliers website, I presume that when the fruit ripens, the skin will lose its furriness.

Our new kiwi Issai also has plenty of fruit but these seem to be slow to grow. We've planted it in a large pot and are considering whether this was a good move. Maybe it needs to be planted directly in the ground but if so where?

We have quite a few hostas in the garden, some in terracotta pots around the pond and others in wooden planters on the patio. Each year the ones in wooden troughs gradually succumb to slug attack but the ones around the pond fare much better. I’ve stuck copper tape around the terracotta pots which seems to work well. This method seems to be also working well at protecting young plants and seedlings in our cold frame from  being decimated.

One project for this year that has actually come to fruition is the tidy-up planned for the cold frame area. We still have a little to do here but it is now being used far more productively.

We have lots of ferns in the garden and as always they have performed well - some are even self propagating.

I could go on and on and … but I’ll let the photos in the album below paint the rest of the picture instead.