Monday, April 30, 2012

Meanwhile, back at the ranch... (part 5)

It's been a while since I wrote about how our veg is growing at home. There's some new stuff growing, so I guess now is an appropriate time to write a blog about it. 

I'll start with the tomatoes. 
These have been planted outside for a week or two now, albeit underneath a sheet of transparent perspex (which has fulfilled the duel role of slightly warming the air underneath it and also protecting the tomato plants from overnight frost).

They're growing well, our next job is to put wire up in the troughs to allow the plants cling to when they send out creepers. 
All the troughs (or pots) that the tomatoes are growing in are filled with compost that's been rotting down in our compost bin for the last two years. 

The leeks we planted are growing taller by the day. Clare rotates the box the leeks are planted in every day to ensure they all receive an equal amount of sunlight. They'll be left in the box for another month (till June) before we plant them out in the plot. 

Cucumbers (the pots to the left)
We're also growing cucumber - the seeds were quick to germinate, and the plants are even quicker to grow. In the above photo, the cucumber plants are the large plants in the pots to the extreme left (the next two rows to the right are peas, but more of that below). 
We had good success with the cucumber plants we grew the year before last - growing decent sized (and delicious) cucumbers. 
The cucumbers will be planted out in our back garden, as I think they'll require more care and attention than the other veg that we'll plant out in the plot.

The reason that we're growing additional peas is that by "staggering" the growth of the plants should give us a constant harvest of peas throughout the summer. 

Clare's also growing some veg we've never tried before - Cos Lettuce (pictured left) and "Purple Teepee", a type of bean that grows long, purple (surprise!) pods. I'm looking forward to see how these come along (pictured right). We're experimenting by germinating the seeds in "Jiffy 7's", which are basically recycled coconut fibres packed into a small disk. After watering them, they expand and you then sow your seeds into them. So far they seem to be working out pretty well. 

We split our chilli plants into two different good sized pots, suitable for sitting on the windowsill where they'll reside all summer. They're growing well, and already we're starting to see the first flowers coming out . These will of course eventually transform into hot chilies. 
 Now, time to go back outdoors. Last year we bought a shoot off a blackcurrant bush (pictured below). To be honest, as it looked like nothing more than a twig, I didn't really hold out any hope for anything growing from it. How wrong I was. Over the course of last summer, the twig grew into a bone fide blackcurrant bush. It eventually reached a height of about two and a half feet before the autumn kicked in and slowed its growth. 
A couple of weeks ago, buds started to appear on it, and at this point, it's continuing its skyscraper-like growth. We're collected a bucket of composted manure from the plot, and scattered it over the base of the bush. 

The blackcurrant is a really decent addition to the garden. It's a decent looking plant, and gives off a fantastic aroma. 

(Pictured right, you can see the original "graft" that the blackcurrant grew from - its the straight "twig" in the dead centre of the bush). 
The extent to which the blackcurrant has grown this year is obvious from the photo to the left - last years growth is the "woody" grey part of the stem towards the bottom. All the green stem is this years growth (so far!). It's about fifteen centimetres growth so far. 

I'm training some of the branches against the trellis to ensure they don't get crowded. Hopefully this will also make it easier to pick the fruit in years to come.
The leaves will come in useful to make a fruit tea. 

And, leaving the best news for last, our blackcurrant bush has started to produce fruit (pictured right). There are several bunches of these berries growing on the bush. I'm really excited about when I can finally harvest them, though I'm in several minds as to what to do with the berries - jam? - cordial? 
Any ideas greatly appreciated, please just leave a comment on the bottom of the blog.
There's also some good news on the gooseberry front. The gooseberry sapling I planted this year hadn't shown any signs of life, and after the frosts of early April, I had given it up for dead. 
However, after checking on it today, I discovered a few buds shooting up. 
It's not much, but the blackcurrant had small beginnings too, so I'll be patient. The idea of having both gooseberries and blackcurrants growing in our back garden next year is a very satisfying one!  
Last year we planted out a few strawberry plants, which grew some decent strawberries (every single one of which was enjoyed by Thomas!). In the autumn, these plants sent out "runners", which I replanted around the garden. These runners are now starting to blossom, as can be seen from the picture above. Not sure quite yet how many strawberry plants survived, but every one is a bonus. More details will follow on my blogs in the future.

On a final note - the forager in me wouldn't be happy unless I mentioned that some "hairy bittercress" (Cardamine hirsuta, pictured left) is growing fairly prolifically at the bottom of my garden. 

Most people would think of this as a weed - myself included. However I also know that this is a perfectly edible little gem of a weed - and it's not bitter at all.
As its name suggests, it tastes almost exactly like the "normal" cress most people will be used to - i.e nice and peppery, a lovely addition to a summer salad. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

All from nothing ... (part 12)

Our efforts to transform an unused piece of land into a productive vegetable garden.

I was determined to complete the job of putting the chicken wire up before the weekend drew to a close. So on Sunday morning, despite ominous clouds covering the sky, I headed straight to the allotment after we finished breakfast. 

I got straight to the job at hand. As Clare had dug quite a bit of the trench on Saturday, it wasn't as difficult as it might have been. I soon had my routine going - roll the chicken wire out to the next post, ensure that it was fairly correctly "in place", from the bottom of the trench to the bull wire. I then cable-tied the chicken wire to the bull wire, clipped the excess off the cable ties (to make it look presentable), and finally back filled the earth in the trench. When I got to a post, I'd tack the chicken wire to it. This helped strengthen the wire and guaranteed it remained taut. Eventually, I had to dig more trench. I did this in two stages, more to keep variety to the job than for anything else. By lunchtime, I had almost finished the entire allotment. All that remained was tacking the chicken wire onto the fence adjacent to the gate. 
After getting some jobs done at home, I went back to the allotment, and finished off the chicken wire. The most awkward job was cutting off remaining chicken wire, as my wire cutters weren't up to much. That finally done, I had completed the enclosing of the allotment. Worrying about rabbits destroying crops is now (hopefully) a thing of the past. 
I'll admit I felt no small sense of satisfaction having finished the job. Not only is it practical, it lends the allotment a far more aesthetically pleasing look. 

The top corner of the allotment.

Yesterday (Monday) morning, Clare headed over soon after breakfast, and prepared more beds. When she had done this, she sowed carrot, parsnip and garlic into them. The beds for the carrots and parsnips took a little more work, as these vegetables hate stones in the soil (which split the roots when they hit them). 
After a couple of hours, she came home and I went over. However, the weather took a turn for the worse, and it started raining quite heavily. Not much I could do about that, so I went home for a cup of hot chocolate. 

I was in work on the night shift last night, so needed a few hours in bed this morning before going over to the allotment. A month's rain has been forecast in the next thirty-six hours, so we were anxious to get as much done as possible before this deluge began. As it turns out however, the weather gods smiled on us, and it turn out to be a fantastic evening.
Clare went over first to space out where we will plant asparagus, which needs a good amount of space. I looked after the kids, and went over when she got home. 
My job for today was to dig out the central, semi-permanent path that all our beds will be attached to. Maybe I'm just gone used to the manual labour, but I didn't find this job difficult, and had most of the path complete within an hour.  I then dug out another "mini" path between beds. 
Clare came over with the kids, and started preparing the double bed that the swedes and beetroot will most likely be planted in. Thomas brought a toy JCB digger and pottered about as we worked. Isabelle slept for most of her time there. 

One anecdote for remembering in the future: just before we were preparing to go home, Thomas was enjoying himself splashing in some puddles. Getting adventurous, he ran around the corner of a stable in search of deeper pools, which took him out of my line of vision. Suddenly a horse winnyed loudly, and gave Thomas such a scare that he rocketed around the corner and into my arms like a streak of lightening! 

At this point, the biggest jobs are behind us, and every half hour that we're able to put into the allotment will give visible results. 

The allotment as it looked this evening. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

All from nothing... (part 11)

Our efforts to transform an unused piece of land into a productive vegetable garden. 

Yet another week passes in which I didn't visit the allotment at all. My only excuse is that when I'm working the day job, I want to spend time with my family when I get home, not give them a quick hello and head off for a couple of hours again.

Now that the weekend has finally arrived, we had a proper opportunity to get some real work done on the plot. So yesterday evening, Clare headed over and spent an hour or two building the first of the beds that we'll use to grow veg on. 

This morning dawned sunny and beautiful, so after giving the kids breakfast, we all jumped in the car and traveled over. We brought most of the veg that we've grown with us - the vast majority of the veg are ready to be planted out and it's high time they were. When we got to the allotment, I discovered a little present the landlady had left for me hanging from the gate:

Needless to say, I was delighted with this gift - this simple gesture sums up the type of family we're lucky enough to be friends with. Not that I'd need any present to know how decent they are (after all, they freely offered us the use of the land!). 

We had two objectives for the day - we wanted to plant out at least a few of the veg and also to put up the chicken wire.
My first task was removing the pile of stones I've been accumulating when forking the soil. Clare (and Thomas) helped load up one of the wheelbarrows from the farm, and in two trips, I'd gotten rid of the entire pile. 

Clare then started to dig out the central path that all the vegetable beds will run off. I continued forking through the soil - I need to get this finished for us to be able to fully ulitise the land.
We then began working on putting up the chicken wire - from the gate outwards. After a while, we headed home for lunch. After which, Thomas had to go for his midday nap, so I headed back to the allotment myself and continued putting the chicken wire up. It was slightly slower work doing it on my own - I had to dig a trench (the chicken wire has to be buried below the ground to prevent rabbits digging underneath it) , correctly place the wire, cable-tie to the bull wire and then back fill the trench. 

Luckily, after Thomas woke up, Clare came back down with the kids and helped dig the trench, while I worked putting up the chicken wire.
We managed to get about half the allotment covered before it was time to go home for the afternoon. 

 The (hopefully) rabbit-proof fence.

The chicken wire fencing in place. I feel this is one of the major milestones in setting up the allotment.

When Clare finished, she began sowing celery into it's allotted bed. It was a kind of seminal moment - after all our work and effort we've finally got veg growing in the allotment. 

The celery bed. 
I drove the kids home, and Clare stayed on for a little while, and layed the onion bed down. 

 The onion bed.
When she was finished, she threw some netting over it to prevent birds from eating the sets.
So all in all, I'm really happy with the work we completed today. We're nearly there. 
The allotment as it looked this evening.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

All from nothing... (part 10)

Our efforts to transform an unused piece of land into a productive vegetable garden. 

There's only so much one can write about regarding the digging of soil. I want this blog to stay fresh (and hopefully interesting), so I haven't posted in a while. In some ways, activity at the allotment has been more of the same - forking the soil, breaking it up and removing the largest of stones and all the roots I could. There's progress being made slowly but surely, and I've enough soil prepared to plant out some vegetables. Meanwhile there's an ever growing mound of stones which I've yet to remove. 
The photo doesn't do the cairn justice!

This is all "by the way" information. I'll get it all done soon, and the allotment will be all the better for it. Not to mention that I'll feel better myself for having done the work properly.

More than endless digging and forking has been going on however. I purchased several stake posts that I'll need to keep the fencing up. I also bought "bull wire" to prevent the chicken wire that I'm using as a fencing from sagging. 
The posts are 5'6" in height, as they need to be hammered into the soil at least a foot and a half in order to remain stable. Finally, as some of the posts will be running along side an electrical fence, a farmer that I'm friends with kindly gave me a couple of plastic hooked screws to "hold" the electrical fence against them without the danger of it being grounded. 

I enlisted the aid of my father to help me hammer the posts into the ground. I got the lend of a post-driver off my brother in law, and with this tool, we were able to erect the posts correctly in short order. We then worked out the height the chicken wire will sit at (after allowing for burying some of it to stop rabbits digging under it). We then ran the bull wire along this height, keeping it in place using U-shaped nails that we hammered into the posts. After this, we made the bull wire taut by pulling it with a hammer, and tied it off tightly. Later, I screwed in the plastic hooks, and placed the electrical fence into them. 

We were unable to finish putting up the bull wire, as the pile of sod at the bottom of the allotment was in the way. As this has to be removed before I can continue with the fencing, I started to remove wheel-barrowful after barrowful of sod. Just as I was getting thoroughly fed up doing this, Clare showed up with Thomas and Isabelle, which provided a welcome diversion to the toil. 
Clare got busy painting the gate, and soon moved onto the compost bin. We're painting the gate not only to protect the wood, but to also make it blend into the existing fence more cleanly.  

The compost bin was painted purely for cosmetic reasons. 

Thomas insisted on helping me out! As I threw the sods into the wheelbarrow, he'd throw small stones he found on the ground into it. He wanted to come with me to where I disposed of them, but as it's a bit of a difficult walk for a kid who's only going on two, he took a ride in the barrow. It was great craic, and Thomas had the time of his life doing it. He was fairly disappointed when it was time to go home for dinner. 

Finally, after Clare had finished painting it, we hoisted the compost bin into its correct place on the allotment. A good days work, all in all. 

The allotment as it looked this evening. 

Saturday, April 07, 2012

All from nothing... (part 9)

Our efforts to transform an unused piece of land into a productive vegetable garden. 

It's been over a week since I had a chance to work on the plot, merely because I was busy at my place of employment. Last week, my Dad popped over with his rotovator, but we soon realised that the soil was too sandy for it to be really effective, and we wouldn't need to use it after all.

This is something of a double edged sword - on one hand, as the soil is sandy, it's very easy to dig and also well drained. On the other hand, it makes it unsuitable for some veg to grow and also nutrients in the soil will be leeched away more quickly. The solution is to enrich the soil with compost, which will hopefully bind it together while also improving the quality of the soil. 

I discovered that there was a pile of manure in the farmyard that had benefited from years of rotting down, resulting in compost of the same class that Peter had found up the fields when he was over. I can't stress enough how great a find this compost was - it was really necessary that I mix good compost with the soil, and trudging up and down the fields collecting wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow (and taking forever doing it) wasn't a realistic solution. The compost in the yard was merely metres from where the allotment stands, so was ideal. 

This morning, after everyone getting up, washed, dressed and broken their fast, I headed over to get some work done. I borrowed a wheelbarrow, and began at the bottom corner of the allotment, forking through the soil again, but this time, I removed all the stones and scutch root that I found. After I filled the barrow with as many stones I could manage, I disposed of them, and then shoveled a load of compost into it. I then forked the compost through the earth I had just cleared of stones. The result was that soil became far more "loamy" than it had been previously. 
Hopefully this will make a big difference to how well our veg grows when we plant it on the plot. 

Then I'd repeat the process. So I was beginning to appreciate how poet Patrick Kavanagh felt about the soil of his county. It was stony and grey. Another poem from my school years struck me as I toiled - "Digging" by Seamus Heaney (my spade sinking into gravelly ground). Finally on this literary roll, I began to understand the mentality of Bull McCabe, doing his best to transform a piece of barren rock into a fertile field. 

There were moments where this routine was broken, of course. At one point, as I was digging (or rather, forking!), I had my back turned to the electric fence that runs along one side of the allotment. Busy as I was, I didn't realise that my back was against the wire. Suddenly I felt the most terrific shock running through my body, and the next thing I knew, I was lying a few feet away on the ground. I won't be so complacent in the future!

After a couple of hours, I had a couple of square metres finished. The going is a lot slower that I would like, but I may as well do the job properly when I'm doing it. With any luck, my efforts will be repaid with dividends. 

 The new improved "loamy" soil