New Season New Challenges On the Allotment

Mother Nature

challenges on the allotment
Our Destroyed Polytunnel

After Christmas returning to the allotment always feels like starting all over again. Unfortunately for us this rung very true. Mother nature loved throwing new challenges on the allotment our way. The Polytunnel that we erected and had a great growing season, was destroyed. I believe storm Elanor was the culprit. The fence we built in case of such emergency did its job and kept the cover from the train tracks. The veracity of the wind threw one of the decking boards holding down the skirt into a nearby tree.

Not exactly a great start to the season. Not much was done that day and plenty of coffee was drunk. But it didn’t stop us from planning ahead for the season. Marking out beds in our mind while working out how we can improve on the next polytunnel. 

“We can rebuild it, We have the technology.” 

In the meantime, we moved the frame back into position. Dismantled the beds. Gathered all of the soil into the middle of the frame and covered with the old cover. This will stop all the goodness getting washed from the soil. It will also allow us access to repair and thoroughly secure it to the ground. We’re still not sure the best method yet. How have you secured and protected your polytunnels from the wind?challenges on the allotmentchallenges on the allotment

Lumos

Having recently moved house I no longer have the luxury of a large south facing window. I now only have a north-west facing windowsill which is far from ideal. To combat this we have invested in some LED grow lights. These light use minimal electricity while providing the right conditions for healthy growth. Over time we are working out the best way to utilize these lights.

challenges on the allotment
New Grow Lights

Backlog

challenges on the allotment
So much to do.

Everything we had planned to do over the Christmas period didn’t happen. The weather was atrocious. The ground, unworkable. In fact, often dangerous and a few times we both nearly binned it. Add this to the time to repair the polytunnel and our schedule is already blown. So its catch up now. But no mad rush. Take it in our strides. We always get there in there eventually and end up playing a blinder. Plus if it wasn’t for new challenges on the allotment it wouldn’t be fun. Plus when the sun makes an appearance productivity thrives.

Alliums

We are going shopping for our onion and garlic bulbs this weekend. The shops should be soon stocking seed potatoes too. Anything we cant source locally we will try to source online. Heres how we will be starting our sets. 

http://growblogs.com/alliums-garlic-onions-and-shallots/

What onion and garlic varietys are you trying this year. Leave us a comment below.

Summer Harvest

Summer Harvest

Summer Harvest

Summer harvest is one of the most exciting times for the kitchen. The allotment has enjoyed the early summer sunshine, followed by heavy rains. This season our successes are greatly outnumbering the failures, and we are starting to get to grips with the polytunnel. At this time of year, there is an excellent variety of fruit and vegetables available at the plot. It’s the time of year when the outdoor vegetables are maturing, and the first signs of ripening tomatoes and chilies are appearing in the polytunnel. 

Summer Harvest

Recent weather has provided perfect conditions for blight. Which luckily so far seems to have avoided our potatoes and tomatoes. So far from the few plants that we have lifted the potatoes seem to have done really well. Early Pink “Duke of York” spuds taste as good as they look. Our main crop “Maris Piper” is providing some excellently sized baking potatoes and perfect Sunday roasties. Having received them in a novelty Christmas gift I didn’t hold out much hope for these Purple Carrots. I’m delighted with the results and the deep water tank with a 50/50 sand/mpc mixture has worked a treat. 

Summer Harvest

One of my personal favorite parts of the summer harvest is the pea and beans glut. One bit of advice don’t bother growing Asparagus Peas. They do have a lovely red flower but they taste bland and 1 day late in picking and they are hard as a rock. Gathering enough of the same size for a meal is a chore. In conclusion, if it comes free with a magazine doesn’t mean you have to grow it.Summer Harvest Since every day is a learning day and the best way is by doing and trying. My first every runner bean crop is excellent with some whopping beans must look up those record books.  As always the ever reliable “mange tout” is starting to come to an end and have accompanied some great meals. 

Another steep learning curve for us this summer harvest is managing the polytunnel and greenhouse. There were a couple of days this summer when Conor was out of the country and I was too busy to get to the plot. Within 36 hours of the polytunnel door being closed and window vents being closed, we lost a lot of seedlings and damaged many plants. Hence now we try to open the polytunnel and greenhouse each morning to allow the air and insect to circulate around our plants. Having spent a sweltering few hours in the polytunnel removing excess foliage and removing suckers to increase the airflow around the plants. This not only makes it easier to navigate and water the polytunnel but reduces the risks of blight.

Summer Harvest

With some crops starting to come to an end and some spaces starting to fill up in the beds. We are replenishing them with fertilizers and using plug plants that we started from seed in the greenhouse. It is also possible to make some late sowings this time of year. Salad veg e.g. beetroot, lettuce, radish can still be sown. Along with a large variety of Asian greens, and early or dwarf veg. 

Summer Harvest

Living in Belfast it’s not every day that you come face to face with a live Dinosaur. Due to a long and boring training course about protected species, I knew not to touch or disturb it. Having taken a photograph and contacted  Ulster Wildlife, we soon learned that it was a Smooth Newt, Northern Irelands only native and protected species.

Summer Harvest

While the rain is great for the plants it’s not great for the plans that I had made to build a potting area and workbench for the allotment. May the sunshine return.

 

Polytunnel – Our latest plot edition.

 

We have always planned on getting a large polytunnel. http://growblogs.com/polytunnel-2/ 

The construction of our first polytunnel was a fun project and was helped along by some great weather.

Preparation

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Before we had even ordered the polytunnel we dug over the ground underneath where our polytunnel was to sit. We took out as many weeds as possible, much like if we were planting directly into the soil. This area is riddled with mares tail so the weeds removed were dried and burned. We then covered the area in a thick black plastic, to prevent sunlight reaching the ground.

We were talking to a fellow plot holder whose polytunnel skin took of like a kite and ended up damaging some closed by roof tiles. Our plot is close to a set of railway tracks, and safety is utmost. Conor can often be found waving at trains while enjoying his black coffee. I decided to build a fence next to the polytunnel, to provide some additional support.

 

polytunnel

 

 

Polytunnel Construction

 

The frame went up relatively easily. Our skill sets complemented each other well on this task. Our love of music lead to some strange looks from the neighbors, but on the whole, a good day was had.  poly4

 

 

With the exact area of growing space now visible, 18 square meters. Strong and highly recommended weed proof membrane was purchased and placed on top of the ground. Growing directly into the ground is not an option due to the annoyance of mares (horsetail. So raised beds on top of a strong weed suppressant it is. This definitely adds to the costs, with additional materials and soil to fill the beds being required.poly5

It’s always best to skin your polytunnels on a calm day, in fact, it’s almost impossible to do it in strong winds. It is also better to do it with a few spare hands floating about. But it is possible to do it alone as I managed if you’re smart about it. Initially digging a trench and covering the skirt with soil was the plan. But on the day it seemed something more substantial was required. The decking was initially used to hold the skin down and stop the wind from making it flap. I decided to skirt the edge of the polytunnel. with the decking to add weight and help hold the skin down.

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This also seemed to allow the corners to sit well over the frame. The front door of the polytunnel is one large zippable flap. At the minute I secure it by tucking under the frame and applying weight with a pallet. It is definitely something I have been thinking about and something I might have just cracked this very evening.   poly8

After a few days of tweaks and fixes and retrenching one of the corners I am finally happy with the way it turned out. 

Polytunnel FitOut

Having already blown the allotment for this year on the polytunnel, the fit out needed to be thrifty. The hoarders in us last year salvaged some fencing and we had some timbers left over from Conor’s new decking at his home. If we use them a couple of seasons then they owe us nothing. 

poly9

I’ve never used grow bags before, but as our local DIY store was running low on decently priced MPC I thought I would give them a go. 

polytunnel

In preparation for the polytunnel completion, we started a crop of tomatoes, chilies, and peppers. Also with the added benefits of extra heat, light, and space. We will soon be enjoying some new variety to the plot including, okra, and cape gooseberry.  

polytunnel

Being new to polytunnel gardening, I haven’t got much advice to give. except that if you’re planning to work inside your polytunnel and the sun is shining? Shorts, sun cream and water are a must. 

Please send us tips and photos of how you have laid out your polytunnels?  And lettuce know what you are growing in yours.

 

Success Failures 2016

Autumn 2016

Our wee plot !
Growblogs Plot

You can never rely on Irish (Happy Cas ?) weather in Autumn, to be consistent from year to year. But there is one thing that you can rely on, and that is the trees will put on a fiery display of orange and brown leaves, and the wind will do its best to help them to the ground.

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One thing we missed out on last year, and a great way to reduce costs and produce an excellent, helpful product is to create leaf-mould. This essentially means to make compost from the leaves that have fallen from the trees. This process is started in Autumn, naturally when the leaves are ready to fall. We will be collecting as many fallen leaves as possible and treating them like normal compost. We will be keeping the leaf mould in a large Hessian builders sack beside our compost bins, on site for easy access, and so that we can check and turn the compost when needed. The end quality of the compost will be determined by the quality and type of leaves added to the compost. The most desirable leaves are beech or oak as they break down easily and produce a good quality compost. Conifer Needles may take up to 3 years to break down completely and pine needles should be avoided as they produce an acidic end compost.

While overall the plot is starting to look a little bare, our Autumn veg are doing well. We are consistently feeding and weeding our Autumn veg to give them the very best chance of doing well.

Autumn veg bed
Autumn veg bed

Our pointed sweethearts have recovered well after an attack from Cabbage White Caterpillars, and are forming nice large pointed heads.

I have also now thinned the beetroot out to their final growing positions, allowing enough space in between plants to grow the beets to the size I desire. I transplanted some of the stronger plants that I thinned out as a bit of an experiment to see if they would take, and also to use up some bare ground.

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Curly kale

Curly Kale, is an absolute delight to grow and one of the best tasting and versatile veg in the kitchen. Kale is often at its best from late September until February, so now is the perfect time to start harvesting and reaping the benefits of this high protein and fiber rich, super food.

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Carrots

We have never really made a proper attempt to grow conventional looking supermarket carrots. The past few years our carrots have been consistently poor. Not great tasting and terrible shapes. Once again the carrots have been an after though in fact more of a gap filler. We had space at the top of the fruit bed and transplanted about 20 carrot seedlings. As yet, they havnt been decimated by carrot fly and at the surface seem to be doing well, so we never know we might get a fluke crop for our Christmas dinner.

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Strawberries with seperate runners in pots.

Our second batch of Autumn strawberries are now starting to fruit, which will give Conor a chance to place with his new birthday present a strawberry slicer ( I know.. thats what mates are for). We have also been busy potting up strawberry runners to increase our strawberry stocks as they are certainly a plot favourite.

What are you growing this Autumn ?, we would love to hear from you in the comments.

Greenhouse Construction, Proper Job !

 

GrowGaff MK1
GrowGaff MK1

 

The greenhouse is complete and not a minute too soon. We ordered and cut to size, the panels for the greenhouse, we used 9mm clear PVC, while not cheap, it is strong and will with stand even the hardiest of thugs, hurled stones.

Greenhouse glazing
Glazing the Greenhouse

I had been growing some tomatoes and peppers in the bay window of my flat, to get them started to move to the greenhouse, upon completion. Unfortunately due too the of the delay completing the greenhouse, they were starting to outstay their welcome. Basically they were touching the ceiling and taking up at least 1/4 of my living space. Then came moving day and we realised that they were to tall to fit in Conors van. Out came the secateurs and off with their heads. This was unfortunate as we lost alot of the few flowers that we had. When moved into the greenhouse I was sure a good spout of sun, would soon have them back to their best and well… im still waiting on that sun.

Greenhouse

 

The flowers on the peppers are doing much better, probably due too the natural pollination from the insects that they were being starved off while situated within my fat, and were lucky as there seems to be a good population of bees hanging around our plots this year. In fact just this evening as I was doing a bit of watering that I noticed the first 3 peppers, on separate plants starting to grow, so it will be important to keep well watered and fed weekly.

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Pepper Plant Starting to Pepper
After 3 failed attempts to germinate successful sweetcorn, with just a measly 1 out of 36 successfully hitting the surface, I eventually gave in and had to buy some plug plants. Im not against this at all, but I was trying to do a whole season without. The main reason I prefer to grow from seed is simply the cost, plug plants can be dear which is why I was delighted to see this many healthy Sweet Corn “Hanna” for £1.50 on sale at Homebase. Whilst going to be a bit behind, im going to place the plugs under cloches when they have been properly hardened off and when the weather has turned in my favour.

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King Edward Left, Maris Piper Light

We have started to harvest our potatoes, with the main crops we lifted the poorest looking plant from each variety, and while the sizes of the spuds was poor the amount and quality were good so we have decoded to leave them another week or two and hope for better weather. Our first earlies, Pentland Javeline and Aaran Pilot, while also disappointing in yield made up for in taste. This will all come in a potato summary when were finished with the main crop.

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Pentland Javelin Left, Aaran Pilot Right
This past week ive been fortunate enough to have had some free time and we are well caught up on major tasks, which has given my brain time to wonder and start too look for improvements that were going to make to the plot. With all the good stalks,roots and discarded elements of the veg that we are consuming, starting to pile up we think its important that we set up a proper compost solution. We had to bring in a lot of compost and manure this year to improve our ground, and these are products that we can make ourselves, with a bit of hard word, and help get us on our way to self sufficiency.

Pest Protection – Protecting Your Crops

Pest Protection

Net Collage

When it comes to protecting your fruit or vegetables from pests there are a few important questions to ask, before deciding on the best method.

What Fruit/Vegetables am I trying to protect, and what are the most likely pests, that will be attracted to them ?

Different crops will attract different pests, and its important to be aware when and what is likely to attack your food. Its important to have a grasp of the local wildlife, in the surrounding area where you grow your crops. If you are growing in the countryside, then you are going to face a much more diverse group of pests, than someone who is growing in say, an inner city urban balcony. I have read blogs about people In England/Wales having to defend their produce from large animals like deer, badgers and moles from devouring or demolishing crops. Thankfully the largest animal I have had to chase from the plot was a Grey Lag Goose that was making light work of my neighbors lettuce. If you have just gained a new plot and you are unsure what pests you are likely going to have to defend your crops against, then you should take a good walk around, and have a look at others peoples plots, and see what means of protection they have undertaken. You should also get chatting and talk to other plot holders, as they will keep you up to date about what has been lurking in the area. In fact just by talking to a few of the more attentive plot holders I like to call the the “PlotFlys” in the nicest possible terms, that we have a bit of a rat problem at the plots at present. By getting together and informing the council who run the allotments, and taking some precautions ourselves hopefully we will be able to eradicate the problem before the main harvest.

 

The most persistent pests that I will have to deal with can be split into 3 different animal classes – Birds, Insects and Mammals. In this blog I am going to describe the methods I am using to protect my veg, and as my plot evolves and as I start to grow different vegetables and fruit trees I will keep updating this page.

Birds will eat many different types of vegetables, ive seen ducks destroy patches of lettuce in minutes and pigeons strip strawberry plants and raspberry canes bare. One of my raised beds is half filled with strawberry plants and they recovered well after the winter and are now flowering. The other half has some rhubarb and an early crop of spinach, which when harvested will mainly be used for salad crops, lettuce, beetroot etc. The two main pests that I will need to provide protection against, on this bed will be birds and slugs. When protecting against birds the best way is to build a cage or use protective nets. There are many ingenious ways I have seen being used on allotment using many different products and techniques. Here are a few different methods that we have used, that seem popular with other growers.

  • Half Loop Method – This basically means using any materials to build an arch over a vegetable bed then draping a protective net over it. Materials often used for this product are plumbing pipe, which are ideal as the plastic pipe comes in coils and are already the correct shape and easy to cut, and will never weather as they water proof. To attach the semi hoops to the beds I simply took a hammer and flattened one end before screwing the ends firmly into the raised beds.2016-05-05 17.13.23 Its important at this stage to remember to leave enough room to allow yourself to be able to lean in and be able to work the ground. When the protective nets have been placed over the frame there are many different ways to attach and hold the nets in position, popular methods include tent pegs, weighing the nets down taught with stoned, purpose built pipe clips or cable ties, basically whatever will do the job.

 

 

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  • Cage – Well this basically means building or creating a structure and covering it with whatever material is needed to complete the job. This first cage I created I am going to use for keeping birds and small mammals from getting at the seedlings. Until the seedlings are well established and to increase the temperature and help protect them from the frost, slugs and snails I will be planting the seedlings under plastic bottle cloches. I made this from a wooden frame basically as it was going cheap and I knew I could have used it for something. It was built to the height of the chicken wire to maximize height.

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  • Flexi Ball/Bamboo Structure – What can I say about Flexiballs apart while not being the cheapest product, are very easy to work with and very time efficient. Flexiballs are designed to work with bamboo canes or metal piping. They are perfect for net protection and they provide a smooth corner for dragging the protective layer over without damaging the net, which makes them easy to maneuver and install by one person.

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There are many products that you can buy straight off the shelves that will provide protection for your crops. Some that I find useful are the prefabricated netting tunnels. I so far this year have used these to protect some broad beans from frost.2016-03-20 13.30.57 I will also use them when I plans out my peas, until they get them well established. The only real disadvantage to these protective nets is that they do cut out some of the sunlight for hungry seedlings.

Another vital tool, that I just would not be able to cope without, is slug pellets. Whilst these pellets are not the naturalists favorite product, they are essential for us who are not able to attend the plot every evening to pick slugs and snails by hand. Beer and larger traps are often advisable too, when the rain comes after along dry spell and you can guarantee, that the slugs and snails will be out in force, with hungry slimy bellies.

Have you seen any ingenious methods of pest protection around your allotment site, or are you a master scarecrow maker? Or do you just know someone, who has a face that would keep even the hungriest of gastropods of your iceberg lettuces. If so please send us a photo or email us with your ideas ?

Choosing a Polytunnel – A helpful guide

 

 

 

 

polytunnel

 

So the boys here at growblogs are in the market for a polytunnel. This was a decision we made long ago but decided to hold off until the start of the next growing season to save our new purchase a harsh winter. There are many advantages to growing in a polytunnel compared to just growing in the open ground.

Growing Season – One of the main advantages of owning a polytunnel, and one that for us in particular due to our location in Northern Ireland, is the fact that you can greatly increase your growing season. It is possible to start the season from 2 – 6 weeks early, and extend it by roughly the same, dependant on location. We reckon that here in Belfast, that could give us a good 7 – 8 weeks extra growing time which will greatly increase our yield.

Temperature – The temperature inside a functioning polytunnel will be significantly greater than outside, and will vary easily. It is possible to continue growing all through the winter by introducing heat into the tunnel in various ways.

Variety – There are certain types of fruit and vegetables that are only able to be grown in greenhouses or polytunnel. Certain heat and light loving varietys would just not be possibly for me to grow without the finest of summers. Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Chillies and Courgettes all need good conditions to grow well and they just would not be an option for us to grow out doors.

Protection from weather – Polytunnels have their own micro climate and if well sealed and airtight, will keep the contents well protected from the elements.

Protection from pests – The protective film creates a barrier to the insects from your crops. However they will try everything possible to get inside and if they do find a way in, finding their way out will seem fruitless and difficult.

The only real disadvantage they we have discovered so far, is that you cant leave it up to mother nature to water your covered crops. There are ways around this with many automatic watering systems on the market and many more ingenious methods amateur gardeners have been perfecting for years.

Off to the shops.

One of the best friends to modern man is online shopping. The ability to browse countless products and have them delivered to your home all from the comfort of your pyjamas. At first when I googled “Polytunnel UK” I was slightly overwhelmed by the amount of online shops, sell many types and sizes and the greatly varying prices between some of the products. It was then that I reliased that I was gonna have to do some some research to get the most bloom for my buck.
Having spent a few hours going through all the websites and everything I could find on the subject online I came to the conclusiuon that a) there is actually very few differing products, ans b) the difference between quality and price differs greatly.

The cheaper polytunnels come with a green mesh cover as compared the the much dearer clear filmed covers.

The online sites that sell these products explain in detail the science behind the different tunnel coverings and give advice on which would be the best for your own needs.

 

polytunnel

One of the reasons why I believe there is a lack a of a good mid range polytunnel is the commitment that it takes to make the most of the tunnel. Gardening for many people can be a fly by hobby, falling into the same category as golf, fishing and many other activities of whose accessories litter roofspaces and garages throughout the country. When speaking to our fellow allotmenteers there has been countless stories of people being offered a new plot and they go at it all guns blazing for a few months, then as soon as the weather changes or the novelty has warn off, they are never to be seen again. When you receive a new plot it can very much feel like your playing catch up with your neighbours. It can be disheartening looking at a bare plot when all around you are neatly spaced rows of lettuces and gleaming greenhouses. Often the temptation could be to throw some money at the problem and purchase a cheap polytunnel to cover that bare ground and get the growing process underway. These hobbiests are unlikely to spend upwards of £800 on a polytunnel unless they are determined they are in it for the long haul.

While the smart money says “its an investment, “it will pay for itself” the best part of £1000 is a lot of money. If I knew the polytunnel was going in my garden or field where I lived it would be a lot easier parting with the money. Ive been warned about leaving valuable tools in our shed, due to thefts, that im sure occur on allotment sites all over the country. Also random acts of vandalism, that do happen, it only takes a small knife to do a lot of damage to a polythene structure, and we all know there are lots of people out there they who enjoy nothing more than spoiling other peoples fun.

Mother nature can also be a polytunnels enemy. Wind would be a particular issue. While every attempt will be made to firmly secure the tunnel accidents do happen and a particularly strong gust of wind could literally see your investment take off.

Taking all of this into consideration and at our next monthly Growblogs Directors meeting (down the pub) we will be weighing up the options do we go a) cheap and cheerful, b) costly and concerned or c) do we try and build our own like the shed which turned out, cheap and cheerful at first then turned costly and caused much concern.

Chris