Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Potato progress

Here's an update on how my container-grown potatoes are faring.

Unsurprisingly, the ones under cover are the furthest advanced:

"Lady Christl" 2 x 2

I have two plastic greenhouse things (officially called "Seedling Greenhouse"), each with two big 35-litre pots in it. Each pot holds two seed potato tubers - 2 x "Nicola", 2 x "Nadine" and 4 x "Lady Christl".

Curiously, the Second Early varieties are a lot bigger than the First Early ones which were planted a week earlier. This is "Lady Christl" (First Early). One of the plants (bottom right) is particularly small or slow to develop:

"Lady Christl" x 2

This is "Nicola" (Second Early):

"Nicola" x 2

The potatoes that have not benefitted from protection are a long way behind the protected ones. This is predictable and deliberate, because I want to be harvesting new potatoes over as long a period as possible.

This is another pot of 2 x "Nicola", with the shoots just a couple of inches tall. I'll be earthing them up in the next couple of days. They were planted 8 days after the other two of the same variety. Compare this photo with the previous one and you'll see the effect of providing protection.

"Nicola" x 2

Meanwhile, the other Second Earlies (the later-planted "Charlotte") and Early Maincrops ("Pink Fir Apple") are only just showing through:

"Charlotte" x 2

"Pink Fir Apple" (one per pot).

April has been a strange month as far as the weather is concerned, with temperatures much colder than average for the time of year, lots of wind, and surprisingly little rainfall. In conditions like these it is particularly important to water container-grown potato plants frequently. They will not do well if their soil is too dry.

Things are going pretty much according to plan in the potato department, and I think we're on track to be harvesting the first tubers in early June. The first week of June is my target.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Tomatoes - the "intermediate" stage

My way of growing tomatoes has the plants living in three different containers at three different stages of their lives, which of course means two transplanting operations. I have just carried out the first of these on this year's batch of plants.

I sow the tomato seeds in those tall thin Elmlea pots, of which I am so fond, and keep them in a warm place (the airing-cupboard usually) until germination (about 4 days later).

After spending about two weeks in the Growlight House, the young seedlings get their first taste of Outdoors when I take them outside for a couple of hours on a still sunny day (if there is one!).

At this stage, light is even more important than heat. Without it the plants will go long and thin. Mine are borderline this year - certainly skinnier than I would like, but then I don't control the weather...

For the next three weeks or so the plants spend as much time as possible outside, weather permitting, and are brought in at night. By this time they will be starting to outgrow the Elmlea pots, and the nutrients in their compost will be fading, so it is time to do the first transplanting.

Ideally, the plants should go into pots that are deep enough to allow them to be submerged right up to the level of their first leaves, but unfortunately if I were to use pots of that type they would be too big to conveniently allow me to bring them indoors when necessary. For this reason I usually put them into pots that are 15cm in diameter, like this:

These are "conventional" pots, and are about as tall as they are wide. Most pots you see on sale in Garden Centres and supermarkets are of this type. The Elmlea pots are 11.5cm tall, so when my tomato plants come out of the Elmlea pots, their roots already go down about 10cm+, so in the new pots they are at approximately the same level in relation to the soil surface  - although of course they have a lot more room to spread out. This is not ideal. Deeper would be better, because tomato plants will develop additional roots from any part of the stem that is under the soil, and more roots make for a stronger plant.

What I really want is pots like this, especially the green one.

These two pots are much taller than usual, in relation to their diameter. The green one is 23cm tall and 15cm wide. The black one is 20cm tall and 18cm wide. In other words, both pots would allow me to plant a tomato much deeper than usual. I have looked for pots like this, with a view to buying some, but I haven't seen any on sale. I have a suspicion that the green one once held an orchid plant purchased from Tesco or somewhere similar! I think I must search on the internet and get some before this time next year (it's too late for this year).

So, for the time being, my tomatoes have to go into a miscellaneous collection of pots of various sizes:

Fat ones, thin ones, black ones, green ones, terracotta-colour ones - whatever is available!

In another two or three weeks the tomatoes will go into their final homes, and a second transplanting operation must take place. The exact timing of this depends a lot on the weather, because once they go into their enormous containers (with their 1.5m canes) I will definitely not be able to bring them indoors any more.

This next photo is from 11th May 2014. I think this year's plants are not going to be that big in just ten days from now.

I've started preparing the growing medium for filling the big pots. This year I really don't want any more problems with contaminated compost decimating my tomatoes, so I am not having any products from Westland! I am making a mix comprising three elements: some of the Norfolk loam (for bulk), some home-made compost, and some of that "Sylvagrow" peat-free compost I wrote about the other day. I will also add pelleted chicken manure and "Growmore" general-purpose fertiliser, so if there is any justice in this world I should have a good crop of toms this year!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Slow progress with the peas

Well, I suppose the good news is that we (unlike most parts of the country) have not had snow this week. Hail, yes. Wind, yes. Freezing temperatures, yes. But no snow. Phew. But the plants in my garden are growing very slowly, and who can blame them. It's hardly like Spring just yet.

My peas are the classic example. I had been hoping that by now they would be romping away up those pea-sticks I gave them, but No, they are still just a few inches tall.

Some of the earlier-planted row are beginning to make a few tentative steps towards climbing, and I have done my best to encourage them by tying them to the sticks with some soft string:

Others are sending out speculative tendrils, looking to support themselves upright in the face of the seemingly incessant wind.

I had a shock the other day when I saw that some of the plants had turned blue. I thought it must be caused by the cold - but them I remembered that some of them are "Desiree" purple-podded peas, and their foliage is purple-ish too!

"Desiree" on the right; "Terrain" next to the metal pole

Spring is the worst time of year for badger-inflicted damage, so I have protected my peas with chicken wire. It hasn't been 100% successful, because the blessed things still manage to get their snouts in at the corners!

One of the pea plants looks like this:

I'm not sure what has caused the browning of the leaves. It could be frost I suppose, but if that is the case, why has it only affected one plant and not the others?

You may remember that most of my peas are ones that I grew in pots prior to transplanting them. I did however sow two complete rows direct in the soil of the raised bed. Only a very small number of these ever germinated (I think it was 5), and they look very weak plants. You can see two of them here:

One is at the base of the stick at left of photo, and the other is near the stem of the purple "Desiree" plant in the centre. Pathetic, aren't they? If the peas go on to produce a decent crop I shall certainly be using the "sow in a pot and then transplant" method again next time.

If I had more space, this is the time when I would be sowing another batch of peas, to extend my harvest, but everywhere is either full or "spoken for". One of the big new raised beds is still empty, but it's soon going to have beans in it. ["Soon" is a relative term, you understand...]

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Planting Lettuce

Mark's Veg Plot is back on home territory today, after the little jaunt in Kent...

My Lettuce plants have been growing ever so slowly in the cold conditions, but I finally judged that some of them were big enough to leave their pots and be planted out in the "Salads Bed".

Planting is a fairly quick job - water the plant in its pot so that it comes out easily; dig a hole; tip plant out of pot into hole; backfill with soil; water in well to settle; finish!

Actually, there were two more stages - sprinkle around a few slug pellets, and then cover each plant with a cloche. With weather conditions as they are at present (rain, sleet, hail, wind, low temperatures), the Lettuces will really welcome the protection afforded by those cloches. Fortunately I have quite a lot of those things, in various sizes. They are inexpensive and very good value for money.

My Salads Bed is beginning to fill up quite nicely now. You can see some other Lettuces in the foreground. There are two which are from last year (!) and four of the little Tom Thumb ones that I planted out a couple of weeks ago.

"Tom Thumb", a small Butterhead variety
 The patch of "Daddy Salad" aka Baby Leaf Salad is showing a fair bit of green and purple now:

When you look closely, you see that it is only the Brassicas (identifiable by their distinctive double-kidney shaped cotyledons) that have germinated so far. No sign of any Lettuces yet.

Under the tunnel cloche seen at the right of this next photo are three rows of Radishes, and in the open space behind are three rows of Spring Onions (yet to germinate). The patch with the Spring Onion seeds in it was unprotected at the time I took this photo simply because I wanted to water it. After that it was covered again with another tunnel cloche.

In pots in the garage I have some Land Cress (aka American Cress) and some Lamb's Lettuce (aka Corn Salad), but neither of them is showing any sign of germination. I think it's just too cold in there. When space allows I will bring them indoors for a while to kick-start them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Lettuces - the ones that won't get planted - will provide a couple of servings of Baby Leaf Salad very soon. It would be a shame to waste them!

Friday, 29 April 2016

A weekend in Kent, part 3 - Sissinghurst Castle

Sorry if I'm boring you with more stuff about places in Kent! I'll be back to matters closer to home tomorrow...

Sissinghurst Castle is one of those places I have wanted to visit for years. It is one that everyone has heard of, and one that gets mentioned a lot in the Gardening community as a place that everyone should visit. As it happens (not a complete coincidence), the place where we stayed was only about 10 miles from Sissinghurst, so a visit there was a Must. Being so close, we were able to get there early on Sunday morning, before it got crowded. Actually, it was not crowded at all by most standards, and I'm sure that this was partly because the weather was again bloomin' 'orrible! The temperature that morning was 5C, under dramatically leaden skies:

Sissinghurst is not really a castle any more. There was a castle there at one stage, but little of it remains. Mostly it is a very long low brick house, with all the attendant elements of a country estate - farmhouse, barns, stables, etc. (including Oast-houses of course!)

The big house, with the main entrance through the archway. The view of the tower is here obscured by the trees.

This is the tower, part of the former castle

Barn, exterior view

This barn was full of the chirping of little birds. I saw several nests up in the eaves - House Martins, I think.

Barn, interior view.

At this time of year it is necessary to look pretty carefully at the gardens to appreciate their contents, because most of them are still dormant or only just beginning to grow, but I'm afraid that the weather was so cold that we didn't linger very long at any point. In the Summer it would be very different. In April it is Tulip time, and the Sissinghurst gardens were full of Tulips of every imaginable shape size and colour:

Under the archway of the main entrance was this little selection of perfect specimens of some very special Tulips:

In normal (warmer) circumstances, we might have been tempted to go up to the viewing platform at the top of the tower, because this is where the best views of the gardens can be obtained, but we decided to leave that pleasure to some hardier souls...

Perhaps the most notable feature of the Sissinghurst gardens is that although they are fairly big, they are divided into a number of smaller, more intimate "Garden Rooms", each with its own theme. This very beautiful Salmon-pink coloured Quince definitely grabbed my attention.

I also particularly liked the many huge containers full of bulbs, such this old lead water-trough. My photo is over-exposed and doesn't capture the white of those Narcissi properly, but there's no denying the dramatic effect that such a feature can contribute to a garden.

Having retreated to the shelter of the tearoom for a warming cup of tea, Jane decided to leave me to explore the vegetable garden on my own, an understandable decision.

I was very struck by the precision and orderliness of the veg-plot. Just like mine, but on a far grander scale, I thought! Look at these lovely neat rows of Garlic.

Notice that for management and record-keeping purposes, each bed is uniquely numbered.

And a 50-metre row of Rhubarb!

Signage informs the visitor that with the aid of 12,000 wheelbarrow-loads of "home-made" compost, the Sissinghurst veg garden produced 3300 kilograms of produce last year, most of which was used in the property's own restaurant. There was ample evidence to suggest the truth of this:

Most of the veg here is grown from seed and is therefore currently at a very early stage of its life, but this meant that there was plenty of opportunity for me to observe very clearly some of the plant-support methods being used, like the wooden poles here supporting strings up which pea plants are beginning to climb:

The shorter varieties of pea were supported by flexible Hazel pea-sticks and covered by netting to keep the birds off.

This enclosure made of fine mesh supported on wooden stakes is aimed at keeping Carrot Root Fly away from the carrots. The board in the foreground informs visitors that Carrot Root Fly are low-flying insects and won't be able to get over that barrier. I just hope that Carrot Root Flies can read...

Right, now there is one more photo I want to show you. It is of a "flower arrangement" suspended from the ceiling in the exhibition centre that gives people information about Vita Sackville-West, the founder of the garden in its current form:

Impressive, eh?

My verdict on Sissinghurst: very nice indeed, but I want to see it again, in the Summer-time.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

A weekend in Kent, part 2 - Scotney Castle

Following on from yesterday's post, in which I described Ightham Mote...

Later in the same day, after lunch in the "tearoom" at Ightham, we drove on to another National Trust property - Scotney Castle, near Lamberhurst. As it had been earlier, the weather was far from inviting - black clouds intermittently dumped upon us heavy drops of rain and a scattering of hail. Our first sight of Scotney Castle was a bit forbidding...

As we found out soon afterwards, Scotney Castle is effectively two castles, one ancient (and ruined) and one mid-19th Century. It is the latter of course that you see above - and not its best face either (check out that monstrosity of a metal fire-escape tacked onto the side wall!). This is the main entrance:

We were not unduly impressed with the new "castle". It seemed dark, sombre, unattractive - though there were one or two elements of light relief, such as this model of Noah's Ark.

A lot of the rooms in the house were furnished / equipped with relatively modern (and often mundane) fittings which held little interest for me. I was more interested in seeing this...

The new house is built at the top of a hill, overlooking the old castle down below. To get to the old castle you make your way through gardens full of enormous rhododendrons, azaleas and kalmia, for which the property is justly famous.

As you approach the old castle you realise that it is a ruin - just a shell.

The castle (or bits of it) date back to the late 14th Century. It was at one time a strongly fortified building, probably with a tower at each of four corners, though only one remains today.

The castle is surrounded by a wide moat. I love castles with moats! They somehow seem much more romantic.

Most of the building was demolished and deliberately "distressed" in the early 19th Century, when the new house was built. I suppose that at that time it would have been considered the height of sophistication to have a genuine ruin in your back garden! Apparently, the owner felt that the old castle was too uncomfortable and inappropriate to the needs of his family in the modern industrialised environment of the day. Quite true, I would say, but isn't it still a shame that the old place should have been knocked down? Today of course it is a Listed building and such "vandalism" would not be permitted!

There's no denying that the old ruin has a lot of attractive features. Even in the rain, this was a lovely tranquil spot. It will be nicer in the Summer when the reeds and ferns are taller.

Before leaving the property we had a quick look at the walled garden, which would (in its day) have been used to provide supplies of fruit and veg to the big house. At present it is rather stark, though it is apparent that efforts are being made to restore it to its former glory - for instance by planting more fruit trees along the walls, many of which are currently bare. I wasn't very enamoured of these enormous deep but very plain planters / raised beds. If you wanted to grow Parsnips they would probably be ideal, but I felt that the Tulips (whilst undoubtedly impressive in themselves) were out of place in them.

The enormous cage for soft fruit is an object of envy though! The space it covers is about four times the size of my whole garden.

My verdict of Scotney Castle - like the proverbial Curate's Egg: "Good in parts".