Thursday, 21 August 2014

In the Jungle (A winnow way)

Having sourced, transported & grown my first crop of wheat for an educational project this year, the time has come to separate the wheat from the chaff, literally. A frustrating couple of hours sat in front of the TV and hand-picking out the tiny kernels from two out of the twenty seven cultivars led to an alternative route. A shout out to a Facebook page dedicated to growing veg and allotments led to a top tip for a quick DIY winnower. Social media is just brilliant for a range of good, bad & ugly advice for gardeners. After separating the individual kernels, I poured them from jug to jug in front of a circular fan. The trick seems to be to pour the grains slowly, starting above the fan, so the chaff lifts over the jug. Different cultivars responded better than others, with modern wheat strains separating easily from the chaff. The ancient grains have been far less successful, so an alternative strategy may have to be devised. Perhaps spinning them first in a food processor without blades?

A sting in the tail (28/6/14)

Small tortoiseshell caterpillars (Nymphalidae family) feeding on stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). These nettles don’t just have a sting in the tail, they are a gardener’s friend. As well as being a vital food source for many native British butterflies, they also indicate a particularly nutrient-rich soil. This would explain why I find so many nettle patches in the far corner of gardens, where the compost bin used to be. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend beating yourself with them as the Romans did to alleviate eczema, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised if you pick a few tips & wilt them into soup or a stew. Just remember your thickest gardening gauntlets!

Shed 7

Gardeners are a generous bunch, and one of the reasons I love what I do is sharing information, cuttings & gossip with a myriad of other gardeners, from all walks of life. I was approached to contribute to an article recently on successful vegetable growing, by a local shed manufacturer.
As well as turning my mind to growing, and the state of the allotment (ahem), I inevitably found myself daydreaming about sheds. We have a range of shedage chez Darwin, that are not without their own controversy. Mr Darwin is rather fond of sheds, and was delighted when we moved in to find we had inherited a classic 8’x6’ Apex. However, along with the house, decrepitude had set in, and we soon realised that the contents of the shed (which hadn’t been cleared out by the estate of the vendor) were holding the structure in place. I knew there was a purpose for hundreds of charity collection bags, that had been stacked in the cavity where a decent lawnmower would reside.
We replaced Shed1 with Son of Shed, a similarly sized Pent with a view to eventually slap a green roof on (again, ahem). With our growing family, I accepted a free chest freezer to store our allotment fruit, emergency milk & reduced price loaves of bread from the Co-op. Mr Darwin was not happy. I had infringed a man law. He bought a bike shed (Shed2). And then moved the children’s bikes into my plastic lean to (Plastic Shed 3). He colonised the stone lean to that had been lined & waterproofed as a general store (Shed 4). He bought a second hand shed for the allotment (Shed5). We were given a wooden chest for recycling & garden toys (Shed6). I mentioned that Shed2 needed a little tlc as it is wobbling. The reply? “I have plans to replace it with something else when it collapses”. Shed7.

Feeling Peachy (29/04/13)

 I was asked this week why apricots haven’t come into blossom. Fruit trees in general have suffered after last years’ poor summer. Pollinators failed to work in the cold wet weather, and any potential blossom was knocked off before any fruit could set. We had moderate success with our apples, but only because the allotment is in a sheltered pocket. There wasn’t a fruit to be seen at home.
As a consequence of this, the fruit trees put all their energy into leafy growth, and extra harsh pruning this winter.
I spoke to RV Rogers, and the Northern Fruit Group at the Harrogate Flower Show for possible reasons why apricots in particular would have suffered from the long harsh spring. The general consensus was that apricots flower early, and if they had put on a lot of whippy green growth last year, the wood wouldn’t be sufficiently ripe to support blossom. They could also be suffering from a lack of potassium in the soil, which would have been washed away with the heavy rains. If both leaf & flower buds have failed to grow, it may have succumbed to bacterial canker. Not so peachy after all...

Harrogate Spring Flower Show (28/04/13)

What a week... I have built my first two show gardens with my day job, which has been an utter baptism of fire. I had guessed at the long hours, non delivery of key kit, and general low level panic as plants struggled to shake off the harsh winter & flowers refused to bloom. I hadn’t anticipated the overwhelming sense of achievement as people pull together & the adrenaline rush of plunging plants into a frame and seeing a garden take shape. My muscles ache & my nose is scorched from the unforgiving winds that whipped across the site throughout the build. After the rush of the build, I made time to go back to the show on Friday as a visitor, to glory in the floral displays and elbow my way to favourite stands with the crowds. Do it again? In a heartbeat.

Playing Chicken with Potatoes (14/04/13)

Gardeners traditionally planted their potatoes on Good Friday. There appear to be two main reasons for this: one is that Good Friday was a public holiday when gardening could take place (not to be performed on a day of rest), and the second was to do with biodynamics, or planting by the phases of the moon.

Easter is the only Christian festival with a moveable date. Using the phase of the moon, the date is set as the first Sunday following the full moon after the Spring Equinox. Chucking your spuds in the ground then is supposed to give you a more successful crop.

I’m don’t know much about this school of planting, but I’m not sure that biodynamic theories could make allowances for the inches of snow covering the allotment on Good Friday this year. After tenderly nurturing the burgeoning sprouts on my chitting seed potatoes, I wasn’t prepared to lose the lot to a heavy frost (even if I could get down the slope into the site).

I chit my first earlies every year, by standing them in egg boxes on a shelf in the loft. They get some sun & a bit of warmth, but nothing to get them sprouting too soon. This spring, I have been picking off the new sprouts in an attempt to slow down their growth before the ground is warm enough to plant in. If I knock off too many eyes, the growing season (which is already a month behind) will be even more slowed. Playing chicken with potatoes...

Monday, 17 June 2013

Dutch Courage

Being in the hortic trade can lead to such varied and rewarding days. A neighbour dropped off a couple of carrier bags of alpine strawberries to grow in our gravel drive and plant around a Gingko seedling at the boys' school.
I then received this e-photo from a friend in the Netherlands, asking what this zingy plant was that they had seen at the Dutch Open Air Museum. It seems a particularly appropriate choice of plant for a Dutch garden, with fiery orange flowers. It is the tender perennial Geranium 'Vancouver Centennial', which I would probably deadhead to encourage larger stunning leaves, and hold back the eye-bleedingly bright blooms. I might struggle to welcome that clash on my doorstep one misty June morning!