Talking of greenhouses, spring is a time when they really come into their own, especially when temperatures are still struggling. They’re normally full to the brim with lovely, healthy seedlings, waiting to be planted out onto the plot.
Except this year, mine’s isn’t.
Easing My Way Back In I’m looking at this year as an easing back in process, both in terms of growing and blogging. After a year out, I’ve got to admit that family commitments and the excitement of exploring new surroundings, coupled with a truly excellent weekly veg box left me wondering whether the motivation to carry on growing veg burned any more.
So I’ve decided to take it easy. I’ve got two beds ready, and I’m going to concentrate on just growing the good stuff; the stuff I love to eat and forget all the other seeds that I always end up sowing through a sort of GYO obligation.
Crops like carrots. I always sow carrots, yet we don’t really eat many. And parsnips. And cauliflowers. If we want some comfort cauliflower cheese I darn well think I’ll take a trip to the shop this winter, rather than go through the pain of failed caulis again.
Small and Mighty This year is small and mighty, which is why my greenhouse feels rather spacious, instead of the normal seedling based obstacle course. The photo contains beetroot, courgette, squash, kale, tomatoes, sweetcorn, leeks and cucumbers, and out of shot there is a row of mangetout planted out in a bed.
I do find myself looking at the little plants and feeling slightly underwhelmed at the volumes, but I’m also enjoying the reduced pressure that comes with growing less. The boys have both been out helping me sow and water, and with a more manageable amount of work, they’re keen to help and I’ve got more time to enjoy teaching them what to do.
They get restless after half an hour or so and want to move on to something else, but by then, most of what I needed to do is done and their enthusiasm is maintained for next time.
Sowing Restraint! I’ve also tried to avoid an excess of seedlings this spring, by attempting something I’ve never attempted before: restraint. Previously I’ve popped seeds in with gay abandon, until it dawns on me that I haven’t a hope in hell of finding space for all that I’ve grown.
Lots of seedlings also use more water and more time, so in line with my efficiency, quality-not-quantity theme, I’m carefully restricting the seeds I’ve sown.
I’m still sowing extra seeds in each pot to ensure good germination; before nipping out to leave just a single seedling in place so that there isn’t too much competition for nutrients. That’s a great tip I picked up at the very beginning of my allotment adventure, and still religiously follow.
I’ve been building up to this minimalist growing philosophy for the past few seasons, but I think this is the first that I’ve been disciplined enough to follow it through. I also think that the boys are now keeping me and Ailsa uber busy, so where I’ve been able to muddle through before, I am currently at a point where time is genuinely at a premium.
So, that’s that. A princely sum of 9 types of veg sown, with only leeks and kale going in for winter. It all seems a long way from a full size allotment crammed to each corner with plants, but 2018 is a relaxed and contented year so far.
My sister-in-law had a baby a few weeks ago; a healthy baby boy called Alastair who was born pretty much bang on his due date. This was obviously great news for Tiff and her hubby Chris, but also excellent timing for me.
Ever since we moved to Somerset and began reclaiming the garden and the space where I planned to install my raised beds, there has been an old greenhouse sat neglected and unloved. It’s a tatty looking thing, but any greenhouse is a bonus when purchasing a new home, despite the various broken panes and masses of ivy intertwined around the structure.
But now, I’m very excited to say that we finally have a usable greenhouse, and that’s due in no small part to little Alastair. I’m not sure if I should really be admitting this, but I was egging Alastair to appear close to his Tuesday due date as I knew that would mean a trip to Bristol to visit on the Saturday, and as if by magic, an eBay auction for 10 new greenhouse glass panes finished on the Friday just down the road from where Tiff and Chris live.
How many panes did I need? Well, 10 of course. And what size did I require? Exactly the size that was being auctioned off! Could Alastair’s stars be any more aligned! What a super little chap. I like him already.
What’s more, I won the panes for £25, having been quoted £70 to have new ones cut to size. Alastair saved me £45 too. I like him even more.
So thanks to Alastair, a bag of clips, several finger cuts and a few strips of gaffer tape, I now have a watertight, draft proof greenhouse for the first time since we moved here. The auto vent opener is knackered so I’ll have to remember to open the door myself in the mornings, and the panes are going to need a good scrub, but the greenhouse is bigger than my old one and if you’ll allow me a smug moment, the view is infinitely better.
Lewis helped me repair and replace the slats on the potting bench, we’ve sown some seeds and I’m scooping up the manure that the local horses kindly deposit outside my house most days (they seem like a creature of habit with their toilet habits too – solidarity, brothers) and digging it into the dried out bed in readiness for hungry crops like the tomatoes.
We did some of the seed sowing in the rain, which I’d urge every grower to do. There is something wonderful about pottering in the greenhouse with the pitter patter sound of rain going on around you.
With hindsight, perhaps I should have concentrated on getting the greenhouse functioning before my beds, but given that you could hardly see the thing when we arrived, I don’t mind losing a growing season. Some things are worth the wait, as I’m sure Tiff and Chris will agree.
Real Men Sow is on a sabbatical. Feet up, in front of the fire watching tele and drinking hot chocolate type of thing.
After 7 years of blogging, I fancy writing about something a bit different in the time I’ve got spare after work and the marathon event that is forcing my wonderful but demanding boys into bed.
I don’t know what that is yet, but it’s a liberating feeling to get myself a big piece of paper out and start a fresh project. It’s taken me a long time to make this decision. A lot of love and effort has gone into RMS but blog has slowed down to a gentle stop and I think I need to find my love of blogging all over again.
I will be posting progress on my new plot on Instagram, so if you’d like to see how I get on this summer, give me a follow on there.
In the meantime, here’s the greatest hits: a list of every tip based post that’s ever appeared on the blog. There’s an average of 6.57 tips in each of the 118 posts below (which makes a whopping 775 tips!), ranging from decreasing the slug population to making sure you enjoy the biggest, juiciest tomatoes at harvest time.
We finally have veg beds in the garden, and they’re covered in lovely organic matter, ready for 2018. After a year out from clearing, digging and not growing anything particularly meaningful, this feels like a big breakthrough.
As for the organic matter, it may look like weak horse poo spread over the top of the soil, but on closer inspection, this soil improver is something I’ve not used before.
Hoppy New Year Anyway, back to the current improver of the moment. Happy New Year has turned to Hoppy New Year here in Somerset (thanks to the Propagator via Twitter for the pun!), as I’m trying spent hops from the local Quantocks Brewery.
Hops can be tricky to get hold off if there are no breweries nearby, but if you do happen to have one locally, the chances are they will be throwing bags out. These can be had for free so are also a cost effective source of soil improver.
By the way, as well as giving me some free hops, the Quantock Brewery offer some very tasty beers. I’d recommend Sunraker and Will’s Neck. Check them out here.
Using Hops – Lessons Learnt So Far A few things to note that I’ve learnt from using hops so far. Make sure you put a sheet down in the car as the juices can easily run out and make the car smell like… well… a brewery. Not great if you happen to be stopped by the police one day.
Spreading the hops was quite a nostalgic experience. The smell reminded me of cleaning drip trays and changing barrels in the local yacht club I worked in whilst I was at university. I normally did this on a Saturday morning with a massive hangover so it wasn’t an entirely pleasant experience, but a fond memory now that I don’t tend to go on big student benders and ruin the next day.
Beer is Nicer Than Urine
In fact, the smell was rather enjoyable this time. The hops were sweet, and actually made me fancy a nice pint rather than want to throw up. There are some bonuses to being a responsible 36 year old rather than a student!.
I’d venture that the smell is also nicer and more gentle than the stench of urine that filled my old garden the year I covered beds in horse manure, so worth bearing in mind if you live in a built up area.
The hops reminded me of seaweed in structure, but came out of the bag looking like pale, unrotted manure. They broke up without much effort though, and were easy to rake across my beds. You don’t use hops in any different ways to other manures and soil improvers: just spread across evenly and leave on top or dig in, depending on your preferred methods.
Now we wait to see how my plants grow. The soil itself is pretty good – light and crumbly, with a fair few earthworms present so I’m hopeful that the hops will simply serve to pep things up in time for Spring.
With a 4 and a 2 year old in the house, Christmas has been as chaotic but memorable, as you might expect. Presents were exchanged, and a delicious turkey feast devoured. However, one thing was missing this year: for the first time in almost a decade, there was nothing homegrown on the Christmas menu.
Building the new veg patch continues, and I managed a few crops in pots and borders this summer, but I’ve now been veg bed-less for over a year. It has seemed like a very long time, and as the year has progressed, I’ve found myself reflecting on this.
Have I missed growing vegetables? This was the first and possibly toughest question, and to be honest I don’t know the answer. I’ve enjoyed discovering our new area, riding my bike in the hills and spending time with Ailsa and the boys. Pastime wise, It’s been a very different year for sure.
Blogging Slumber Without the inspiration of a growing space, Real Men Sow has inevitably suffered. This is the first post in nearly 2 and a half months. Looking back, I’ve only posted 28 times in 2017, whereas in times gone by I’ve consistently posted twice a week.
My Twitter and Facebook feeds are very quiet, and I’ve never really put much effort into Instagram. Lack of inspiration aside, maybe there’s a clue there – too many things to concentrate on, too broad an approach.
Read These Other Blogs! There are also a lot of newer bloggers on my Twitter that I now follow, with greater levels of energy and enthusiasm than I’ve mustered recently. Richard at Sharpen Your Spades, Jack Wallington, Grow Like Grandad and creator of the excellent #myrealview, Life at No. 27, are all great blogs with fun angles and super social media presences. They’re fresh and interesting.
Blog Crossroads I feel at a crossroads with both growing and blogging. Time is precious these days. It should have been a year of blog celebration – I published a book! – yet I’ve lacked a direction.
However, I think maybe I’m now comfortable with that for the first time. I always dreamed of writing a book, and in some ways I feel that is the end of the story for this little blog that I’ve enjoyed writing for the last 6 or so years. But then, when you’ve put so much into something for that amount of time, it’s hard to just drop it.
As I write, my beautiful wife and wonderful children are asleep on the sofa next to me after a lovely winters walk. They make me feel incredibly content with life, and happy in the moment.
Plodding on into 2018 And I think, maybe, there’s something I should take from that back into blogging. Perhaps veg growing and blogging in 2018 should be about the moment. Just cheerfully plodding on, and perhaps putting fingers to keyboard a couple of times a month when the moment takes me.
I now have beds to grow produce in, a semi functioning greenhouse and a beautiful view, not to mention rhubarb and strawberry patches that will be ready for inaugural harvests. What more could a man want than rhubarb and strawberry patches. I’m a lucky boy. Life is good, let’s see what 2018 brings.
Once my broken finger has fixed itself. Yes, I broke my finger. On Christmas Eve. More on that later.
Happy New Year folks. As always, thanks for reading.
Finally, after much huffing and puffing, bonfires and green bin collections, we finally reclaimed the back end of the garden. The overgrown and out of control shrubs and trees are finally gone, and we got to move the chainlink fence back to the true boundary. It’s taken a year, but felt like a real milestone.
Like all clearance jobs, they’re knackering and require graft but provide great satisfaction. Compared to where we started it’s like new garden, the openness making the space feel much bigger.
There are still some roots that need removing, but I’ve got over excited and decided to put another raised bed in instead and tackle what’s left later on.
However, after putting one bed neatly in front of the greenhouse, I’ve been faffing a lot about where the others are going to go. The plan has loosely been to have veg beds and the greenhouse on one side, with a seating area for meals and general plot grazing the other.
Aesthetics versus Growing Space My problem is aesthetics. I’ve been worrying about having too big a bed next to the greenhouse, so that it dominates the space, but I’ve also been worrying about not having enough space to grow as much as I might want.
I was considering a big 10ft x 10ft bed with a space down the middle, but having marked it out I couldn’t help think that it would take over and look too much, so I’m plumping for a smaller 10ft x 6ft bed parallel to the greenhouse.
That’s 40 square foot less growing space than I could have had, but after thinking long and hard I decided that this isn’t the time in life for self sufficiency. With two little ‘uns, it’s about enjoying growing vegetables and harvesting some choice treats for the table. Growing the stuff I love, making efficient use of my time and putting focused efforts into productive yields.
And after eyeing it up some more this weekend, I’m happy that a smaller bed will just look better too: in line with everything else, rather than one behemoth bed sticking out like a sore thumb.
That will still give me as much space as I had in my previous garden, plus a bigger greenhouse. I’m planning on semi screening the veg patch from the seating area with a row of blackberry plants, and if there’s room, another of Autumn raspberries.
Compost Bins, Fruit Screens and Enjoying the Vi Two back to back compost bins will go in between the smaller raised bed and the fence, and I’m hoping to put a small tool shed behind the greenhouse.
Eventually the fence will be replaced to, with something rather more attractive to screen out the neighbours garage and the other houses around. We’ll stagger it down in size so we still get some privacy but don’t spoil the view.
Here’s mum hard at work with the help of Charlie.
There is so much soil to shift, but on the plus side it is truly beautiful and so light. The soil is a joy to turn, with no more backache from shovelling thick old Essex clay.
However, I cannot confirm whether I will be saying that after the umpteemth barrow load is moved from one side of the garden to another!
As I continue with the development of my new veg garden in Somerset (it’s a lot bigger job than I first thought!), I’m starting to consider where I want to position my permanent features such as fruit bushes and canes.
The optimum time for planting fruit bushes is the dormant period between November and February, but November is best as the soil is warmer. If you’re thinking of adding fruit to your plot, now is the perfect time to plan where you want to locate your bushes and how you’d like to grow them.
Over the last ten year of growing, I’d like to think I’ve become more sophisticated. I tend to grow what I need rather than a scattergun approach, and this is definitely the case with fruit. Where I would have once just stuck a load of plants in a basket and accidentally spent loads, I’m more considered and experienced in deciding the optimum amount for my space.
So as I embark on stocking my fruit beds, here’s a blog post about those fruits which form the mainstay of any productive allotment how many plants I’ll be ordering. Gooseberries
There are two types of gooseberry – green or red. Reds can be eaten straight from the bush, but the greens will need some cooking.
I like to stew the green ones with a little bit of sugar and eat with yoghurt, but the reds make incredibly tasty jam. If jam isn’t your thing, gooseberries freeze really well too.
Once established, the return on a gooseberry bush is very high. I have harvested 6lbs from a single bush in the past, so I reckon one of each colour is ample on most allotments.
The important distinction to make when buying raspberries is whether to go for summer or autumn fruiting canes, or indeed both. Polka and Autumn Bliss are excellent later croppers that extend the raspberry season into November.
Personally, I have foregone Summer varieties on my two most recent growing spaces as there are lots of other fruits to enjoy at this time. I like to use space for a healthy row of Autumn croppers, as these are a lovely, sweet bonus as Summer draws to a close.
A dozen canes would be a good number for an allotment, especially as you can take cuttings and propagate extra canes each year.
Cultivated blackberries are bigger, tastier and juicier, and freeze really well. The plants can be trained upwards, making them a good choice if you’re short on space.
Three plants will soon cover a good size space and yield plenty of big blackberries, as well as providing a useful windbreak for a seating area or to protect delicate veg plants.
Rhubarb is a really low maintenance but high cropping fruit, and one of the first harvests of the new season. Tasting fresh fruit again after a long winter is a spirit lifting morale booster.
The stems needs cooking before eating, and the best and simplest way I’ve found is to bake 2 inch long chunks in honey. Rhubarb also freezes well if you cut into chunks.
Rhubarb comes in crowns, with 3-4 being a good number to begin with. Crowns can easily be divided and replanted to increase the amount of plants each year.
Strawberry plants are incredibly prolific and quick self propagators. Just 10 plants planted out in Spring can easily grow out and fill a bed by the end of Summer. You won’t necessarily get many fruits in your first year, but by the second you’ll be swimming in them.
For anyone looking to experience the difference in quality of homegrown produce against the shop bought alternatives, strawberries are the absolute first place to start. For an allotment holder, a big, red, juicy strawb straight from the plant takes some beating in the taste stakes.
Although we may not spend as much time in the garden or allotment in the winter as we do during the summer, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be accommodating to you animal guests. It’s important to take steps to look after the wildlife that may come across your garden to help them survive the harsher weathers. Fortunately, garden plant retailer Dobies have provided some suggestions as to how we can help:
Helping Weak Hedgehogs In the winter, you might see a hedgehog during the day in gardens or walking across the street – this suggests that they are struggling to find food and water.
One way that you can help weak hedgehogs is to leave out a dish of water in your garden. This prevents them from getting dehydrated when their water sources might have iced over. To feed hedgehogs and keep their energy up, you could also leave out meat-based dog or cat food which will help fatten them up for wintertime.
Bonfire night can also be hazardous for these creatures. Make sure that you check your piles of wood and twigs for hedgehogs before lighting your fire.
Looking After Your Chickens A lot of keen gardeners and home owners enjoy looking after chickens for fresh produce. With frostbite and heavy rain, winter can prove troublesome for these animals. There are things that you can do to make sure your chickens are as healthy as they can be:
Check for leaks in your coop – you can repair any holes with plywood, or if it is time for a new coop, purchase from garden retailers such as Dobies.
Insulate windows well in order to capture heat during the day and keep the coop warmer for longer when the dark nights arrive.
Coat chickens’ combs and wattles in petroleum jelly to help protect them from frostbite.
Keeping the Birds Healthy Birds really struggle in the colder months, it becomes harder for them to find food and their energy levels drop. Fatty foods can help with this, with one thing that you can do is leaving out fat blocks in wire cages. These could be made with lard and packed full of goodness for birds, such as fruit, seeds and dried mealworms. For smaller bird such as wrens, search your kitchen for some scraps and leave out finely chopped unsalted bacon rind and grated cheese.
There are many different types of birds that may pass through your garden. Some of these birds like to feed off the ground. To help these species, place seeds or fat balls on a wire mesh just off the ground to help them.
Facing the same problem as hedgehogs, the pools of water that birds become used to visiting can freeze over in the winter. This may be the only water source for birds to drink and bathe in – hindering their hydration and hygiene. Therefore, leave out a dish of water or even an upturned bin lid with water in for birds to enjoy.
When winter comes to a close, help the birds out by cleaning out your nesting boxes so they are ready for the upcoming breeding season.
Other Animals Aside from the larger visitors, there are other creatures that live in your garden too. Here’s how you can help them:
To prevent frogs from suffocating, float a tennis ball or something similar in your pond to stop it from freezing over.
Leave your grass to grow long over winter and cut it again in the spring. This will let butterflies and insects shelter from the weather.
Piling up rocks, twigs and rotting wood can create a shelter for insects who might not survive otherwise.
By planting seed that will flower in the winter, you can provide a food source for bees that may be making their way to a nest.
The tips that we have suggested are easy to carry out and can be very effective when helping your local wildlife thrive all year long.
If you’re considering applying for an allotment plot, now’s a good time to get your name down.
As allotment holders begin the annual ritual of putting the plot to bed in time for winter, many allotment committees choose Autumn to start renewing tenant leases and requesting rent for the forthcoming year.
Waiting lists in towns and cities are generally higher, but if you’re keen to get started it is always worthwhile to get your name down as soon as possible.
Identifying Your Local Plots The first step is finding your nearest allotments. This will normally be run by the local council (city, borough, town, district or parish) and although you are likely to know your closest option, there may be other alternatives if you live in a town or city. Privately run allotments are also popping up in a few places, but these tend to be more expensive.
Asking the Right Questions When you make the call to the committee or pop by to register your interest, remember to ask important questions like how much your rent will be per annum, whether you are permitted to plant trees and erect sheds, if water is included and is equipment such as lawnmowers available to rent on site.
Getting Up the List Quicker Have a think about the size of the plot you want too, as this may get you up the list quicker. Like most people, I automatically decided to take on a full size allotment first time around, but found with my second allotment that half is plenty big enough (especially if you’re a beginner). You might be in the minority wanting a smaller plot, and you can always take another one later on.
Let the committee know if you’re happy to take on a neglected plot, as this too could find you a plot faster. Not everyone wants to spend the first summer fighting with brambles and weeds, but there are ways and means of growing veg around your clearance tasks.
You might also find that the Council or committee rotovate unkempt plots before handover too. It doesn’t banish the weeds long term, but it is a quick and dirty way of returning an allotment to a state where seeds can be sown.
Getting to Know the Plotholders Another useful (and very pleasant) thing to do is take a stroll around the allotments at the weekend. There’s a lot to see of course, but from my experience people are happy to chat too. Be polite and friendly and word can often get around that someone is looking for a plot. This happened to me with my first allotment – an existing plotholder had two allotments, and had been thinking of winding down and giving one up. When they found out I was looking to rent a plot, this made their mind up and I didn’t have to go on the waiting list.
Asking the Council to Provide Allotments And if there are no allotments in your area, you can always ask the Council to provide some. Section 23 of the 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act state that local authorities are legally obliged to provide allotments where none exist. Smashing eh?
Well, not quite. You need to submit six formal letters from registered local council tax payers, and then wait. There is no timescale associated with this process either, so unfortunately you might need to be prepared to wait some more.
This week, I harvested the best carrot I have ever grown in my allotmenteerist life. I was dead chuffed.
My carrots have never really been much to write home about. They’ve been reasonable and plenty, but certainly not anything to trouble the local village shows. However, this 222g, 21cm long corker is streets ahead of any carrot I’ve ever grown before.
I’m not sure if the shift from tough Essex clay to crumbly Somerset loam has made the difference, but I’ve had a few impressive specimens amongst the short row of maincrop I sowed this year.
So anyway, now I’ve temporarily turned Real Men Sow from the cheery allotment blog to the smug allotment blog, I’ll get on with the real post matter in hand: harvesting those carrotting maincroppers.
Maincrop carrots are ready for pulling up about 12-16 weeks after sowing. If you have a good rummage around your carrots, you’ll see the top of the carrots poking out of the soil. That’s normally the first sign that a carrot is ready to harvest.
Prizing Carrots Out of the Ground A good idea is to monitor the carrots regularly, and harvest when they’re ready to eat as the bigger a carrot gets, the more flavour it loses (so my massive 2017 vintage could actually be overgrown and tasteless ha).
Use a trowel or fork to gently dig around the carrot so that you don’t damage the root.
Don’t be tempted to yank the carrot out from the top as this can snap the root. Instead, steadily wobble the carrot until the soil loosens, and then dig some more if necessary. If the root does break, it doesn’t mean you can’t salvage the carrot.
Stumpy Carrots There isn’t much more of a disappointing harvesting feeling than stumpy carrots. The top of the carrot looks perfect in the soil, and excitedly you release the root, only to find nothing but a nubbin.
This can mean your carrots were sown too close together and required some thinning as seedlings, but more than likely the problem is due to stony soil.
Too many stones in your soil can also cause bent, split or downright obscene carrots as the roots grow around the obstacles, but it is important to remember that this is just a case of ugly veg and not something that prevents the carrot from being eaten or affects the flavour. Misshapen carrots are trickier to wash, not as big as you’d expect but fine to eat and especially useful for soups.
Avoiding Stoned Carrots Avoiding stoned carrots is a painstaking job, involving working other materials into your soil and picking out stones as you come across them. A quicker, cheaty way to do it is to grow your carrots in containers.
Short-rooted varieties such as Parmex work really well in florist buckets, but bigger ones such as Early Nantes will do okay too. Fill the buckets with a mix of multipurpose compost and soil from your beds, and remember to water regularly as containers dry out faster than open soil.
Store or Leave in the Ground?
Traditionally, carrots have been stored in layers of moist sand in boxes, in dark places such as the shed, but with modern appliances available, sticking them in the fridge or freezer is much easier and convenient. Unwashed carrots will last a good couple of months in the veg tray of a fridge, whilst blanched carrots, sliced and sealed in freezer bags, will be fine to eat until the following Spring.
If you live in a reasonably mild part of the country or winter has been kind you don’t actually need to lift your carrots. I tend to leave most of my carrots in the ground over winter and harvest the roots as I need them. If you can get away with it, the carrots will stay much fresher like this and prevents worry over a deteriorating box full in a shed.
You need to watch for full scale freezing or snow, but damage can be warded off by resting a layer of horticultural fleece over your carrots. They won’t grow during the winter, but if you’ve grown a bumper crop, you can keep popping back for a harvest as and when you need.