Sunday, 26 August 2012

Reap what you sow


The allotment is now providing fresh fruit and vegetables for the table for immediate consumption as well as stocking up the freezer, and cut flower for the home. We grow a wide range of fruit and vegetables, but in smaller amounts using successions of sowings so we can eat very healthily right through the summer.

Summer vegetables
A little bit of warmth and plenty moisture has brought out the best of some vegetables. Cabbage, kale, turnips and salads have just loved this weather. Early sown beetroot was held back by the cool weather, but those sown a couple of months later got away to a good start and are now just as big as the earlier ones.
Lettuce has been perfect and I have now sown my fourth row to give us succession of cropping. Other salads are also going in where ever I can find space, such as in between my strawberry rows as this crop is finished and the old leaves have been mown down and removed together with the straw. I dig over the middle of the row about 15 inches wide and get a quick crop in before the new foliage needs the space.
I am sowing a row of Pak Choi, the Chinese cabbage which is very high in vitamin A and C. It can be used as a stir fry leaf, and is ready in a few weeks if you just use the leaves or a few months if you leave it to heart up.

Soft fruit
Blackcurrants are now harvested so the bushes can be pruned. I remove any low growing branches round the outside cutting back to the nearest fresh young shoot which will fruit next year.
Early bramble Helen is also harvested and most of the berries in the freezer.
Autumn raspberries are very late and only just starting to crop.
Gooseberries have had a great year with our best yield ever, but really needed more sun to sweeten up the fruit. We eat what we can and freeze the rest. Some will go into summer fruit compote, some will be stewed and some will give me a few demijohns of wine.
Blueberries are now cropping with a decent crop of good sized berries, but all well netted to protect them from the birds.
Cherry Cherokee gave a decent first crop, but there was a lot of split fruit which I will blame on the bad weather.
Saskatoons were later than previous years, but still yielded a good crop of berries. They are getting quite tall so some pruning to reduce height will be done once the nets have been removed.

Glasshouse crops
Tomatoes have only just started to ripen up, and two plants were so poor I removed them and replaced them with some large cape gooseberries which were getting too big for the windowsill.
Black Hamburg and Perlette grapes are looking good, (but not Flame) though very slow to ripen.
I now remove all new growths and any unhealthy looking leaves to allow good air circulation and sunlight to penetrate the canopy to ripen up the bunches of grapes.

Dead heading is needed on poppies, geraniums, fuchsias, delphiniums, roses and any other flowers which may go to seed. Collect seed heads for sowing from poppies. Iceland poppies were sown a few weeks ago and have now germinated. These will produce plants to flower next spring.
Wallflower seed was sown in between my rows of sweet corn which were not growing strongly so there was ample room. They have now been transplanted into nursery rows to grow on ready for final planting in October.
Forget me nots, pansy and polyanthus were all sown several weeks ago and have now been transplanted into cellular trays to grow on for planting in tubs and baskets for flowering next spring.
Roses were poor on the first flush, but came back very strong for the second flush.
E H Morse, my best scented red rose has been outstanding.

Plant of the week

Phalaenopsis comes in a range of colours and is one of the easiest orchids to grow. Our white phalaenopsis lives in the bathroom so gets a warm moist atmosphere with dappled sunlight. It may get repotted with orchid compost every three or four years as it tends to grow out of its pot and may fall over. It never fails to flower in mid to late summer. They are available in numerous garden centres and florist shops, but although quite common, they reward you with a glorious display of flowers which can last for several weeks.


Monday, 20 August 2012

Garden bees


Not many people realise the crucial role that bees play in the production of our food and flower crops. The vegetables we grow from seed in wee packets is only possible because the crop was propagated from a flowering plant that needed to be pollinated by bees to fertilise the seed so they would be viable. Apples, pears, plums, strawberries, raspberries and most other fruit whether grown in UK or abroad still needs bees to pollinate the flowers so the fruit can set. Those brilliant fields of golden rape seed need a lot of flying insects to pollinate the crop to ensure a good harvest.
Some crops such as sweet corn is a grass type plant that is wind pollinated, and many trees are wind pollinated, but most of our food crops and flowering plants need ample bees and other flying insects to pollinate the crop.
Bees have been in the news a lot in recent years as their numbers of some species are in serious decline. Bee keepers in the business of producing honey have seen massive losses of bee populations, and scientific studies on a global scale all report declining numbers of bees.
A lot of the problems have been due to virus disease spread by the Varroa mite infecting the bees as well as the Nosema fungus, but other factors such as loss of natural habitat and agricultural crop spray programmes have not helped.
In the past there was a lot of really toxic chemicals such as the organophosphorus, parathion and malathion and the organochlorines such as DDT used for crop protection. These were excellent for killing pests, but were not specific and had a devastating effect on bees and other wildlife.
Most of these chemicals have now been withdrawn, but debate is still ongoing with existing pesticides still in use by farmers and growers. Seeds are often treated with chemicals before sowing and this can have a devastating effect on bee populations.
It is hard to strike the balance between the need to produce sufficient food crops to feed the world and protect vulnerable wildlife. If the bee numbers decline so will food crops which depend on pollination.
Bees, just like humans need a varied diet. However, it seems it should not be too complicated as they derive their protein and nutrients from pollen and their carbohydrate from nectar. This is complicated by the fact that pollen and nectar vary from plant to plant, and whereas we are encouraged to eat at least five or more fruit and vegetables a day, the bees also need a varied diet. In the past there was a huge variety of wild flowers rich in different types of nectar and pollen, but farmers have cleaned up the land and field boundaries and killed off most of these wild flowers, and urban expansion has also eliminated areas of weeds (wild flowers). Roadside verges have also been mown too frequently in the past, though economics is reversing this trend, and new verges and motorway embankments are now deliberately being sown with wild flower mixtures.
A bee’s life is not easy in a world dominated by humans, though our future depends on their good health.

A garden for bees

It helps bees if we can provide a wide range of flowers that they can use for pollen and nectar collecting. I am aware that the Berberis darwinii flowering in late April is a magnet for bees which then find my plum trees which need pollinating. Even in this cold year my peach was very late in flowering but then it was in bloom when there was a few bees around, so they helped me with the pollinating, which is normally done with my sable brush.
Apples, plums and pears all need pollinating so bees need to be encouraged into the garden. Poppies, lavender, heathers, pyracantha, fuchsias and numerous other plants all attract bees. Unfortunately a neighbour’s unkempt garden full of weeds including willowherb, nettles, dandelions, dockens and ragwort, may not be very attractive, but the bees just love these wild flowers, and probably prefer the garden where nature has taken over. You can buy wild flower seed mixtures to add into alpine meadows, pastures and hedgerows or other wild garden areas.
These just need simple management so the seeds don’t become a nuisance to neighbours.

Plant of the week

Scented Trumpet lilies produce huge colourful flowers in mid summer and a very heady perfume making them perfect plants around the patio. They like well drained deep soil with plenty humus added before planting. They do not mind a dry stony soil so long as they can get their roots deep down to seek out moisture. They can grow up to six feet tall so need staking, and be careful when getting close to them as the stamens are rich in pollen and this can stain clothes.
They are best propagated by retaining the seed pods and sowing the seed in late winter in a cold frame. Germination is usually fairly good and the plants only need two or three years to reach flowering size.


Monday, 13 August 2012



Back in the mists of time, all the local kids went berry picking in summer as farmers grew raspberries and strawberries outdoors. We always brought back whatever spare fruit we could carry, so mother could make some jam. This delicious product was food, so it went on your piece quite thick. Although it was very high in sugar, we were very active outdoor kids surrounded with woods to explore and the Sidlaw Hills, only just over one hour’s walk away, so you soon burned off any additional calories. However, life moves on and everything changes. Computers are now many  kids pastime of choice, outdoor activities are limited by weather, health and safety, availability of cars for travel, and now we can all afford cakes and biscuits, so bread and jam is no longer a staple food. We are also a wealthier nation so very few locals go berry picking, leaving the harvest, now under tunnels, to East European immigrants.
Home made jam is now a special treat brought out to impress and delight guests with tastes and flavours of summer. As kids we just enjoyed the taste of fresh berries picked from the bush and eaten immediately. We had no idea that these were packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and would ensure good health. Today there is such a wide variety of fruit available to grow that you can eat a very healthy diet of fresh fruit from the first strawberries at the end of May till the last greenhouse grapes in December, all from your own garden.

Harvesting the soft fruit

Early strawberries were a disaster as botrytis rotted most of the fruit, but Rhapsody and Symphony being a bit later in fruiting missed the worst of the rain, so I got nearly 50% of the crop.
My summer raspberries are only recently planted, but the crop is being swamped by very vigorous growth from new canes. Autumn Bliss is very late so only time will tell if we get a crop this year.
Red currants, blackcurrants, saskatoons, blueberries and gooseberries are all giving huge crops, and if we get a late summer my figs will produce a bumper crop as it is really loaded with good sized figs. Bramble Helen has started to crop and looks excellent and my outdoor cherry Cherokee has a small but very tasty crop of cherries. The dwarf cherry trees are well netted from birds.

Using and preserving berries

Although we eat our berries fresh throughout the summer at breakfast, lunch and supper time almost every day, and consume a fair bit while picking them, there is always ample left over for freezing and preserves. We can eat all our cherries and figs as they ripen, but most other fruit get preserved as jam, compotes, summer puddings, muffins or fermented to stock up my wine cellar.
Summer is jam making time. In my youth before freezers were invented, I would make about 100 jars of jam and store them in a cool place over winter. I could easily eat 2lbs of jam a week.
However, today, jam is now made with fruit from the freezer as required, and I eat a bit less.
Anna has been busy making some blackcurrant, saskatoon and strawberry jam as well as apricot from dried fruit, and a particularly good mix of rhubarb, fig and prune.
As the crops come in and our four freezers fill up, I will have to start my wine making season to make room in the freezers for more berries. This will be the first year I will make gooseberry wine, but we have had very heavy crops, so nothing gets wasted. Gooseberries are also brilliant when slightly stewed and sweetened and used in muesli at breakfast or in Greek yoghurt and a spoonful of honey for lunch.
All of the summer berries make excellent compote used all year round and summer puddings. Compote is invaluable with muesli, yoghurt and puddings.
Our blackcurrant crop is so heavy that we will be trying some as a health drink high in vitamin C and antioxidants. This can be stored in plastic bottles in the freezer. We are also looking forward to trying the blackcurrant Liqueur De Cassis, which hopefully will be ready for Christmas.

Plant of the week

Tuberous Begonias are extremely reliable, and even in these wet sunless summers they still cover themselves in masses of bright flowers. They are perfect for mass planting in beds or individually as specimens in a large tub. Give them good soil, a wee bit fertiliser and don’t let them dry out in a normal summer. Tubers are not cheap, but they last a lifetime and will slowly multiply, as they can be divided in spring, (cut the tuber with a sharp knife) once you can see where the young shoots are.
Painting of the month

Summer Roses is a figure study in oil on canvas painted for my exhibition at Dundee Botanical Gardens at the beginning of October when I will be showing images of the Artist’s model. Although I paint flowers, landscapes and snow scenes, it is figurative painting that gives the greatest challenge, as there is little scope for error trying to combine the beauty of the female form as well as creating an attractive painting using colour, form, tone and line.


Monday, 6 August 2012

A Crazy Summer


This is supposed to be holiday time, when we relax at home on the sunny patio with a cool beer or take a trip to sunnier climates leaving our worries behind. This year has been different.  The sun lounger is going rusty from lack of use. It has been very hard to catch up with outdoor work, as the rain has been a constant pain in the arm. Lack of warmth and sunshine don’t help.
Weed control with glyphosate has been difficult as you really need a couple of dry days after spraying to allow the foliage to absorb the chemical. Weed control by hoeing is a waste of time this year, as it just transplants the weeds, so they have been allowed to grow a bit bigger so we can hand weed them.
Crops that need sun, e.g. sweet corn, pumpkins, courgettes, French beans, Cape gooseberries are proper miserable. However green plants such as lettuce, cabbage, broad beans and turnips have never been better, and my opium poppies are bursting with flowers.

Allotment vegetables
Spring cabbage April has been brilliant, but now they are finished the ground was raked over, fertilised and a late crop of broad beans planted in their place. These were sown in mid June, then potted up and are now about nine inches tall.
Summer cabbage Golden Acre is now just about ready for cutting. No sign of clubroot as my rotation has been good and nets keep most of the cabbage white butterfly and pigeons off the plants. Rootfly has been prevented with nine inch square covers made from carpet underlay and placed around the plants at planting.
Turnip Purple Top Milan and Golden Ball seem to like the wet climate and are now ready.
I harvested a great crop of Amsterdam Forcing carrots, sown first week in May and protected from carrot fly with fleece. Some of these will be used within the next fortnight and the remainder will go in the freezer. Growth under the fleece was great even though our resident allotment black cat frequently used it as his hammock bed.
Courgettes are really struggling to grow, with some fruit just rotting and others eaten by the mice.
Pumpkins and sweet corn are standing still waiting on summer weather. We all know that feeling.

Greenhouse tomatoes are now growing, but most lost the first two trusses as the tomatoes just fell off in the cold sunless climate. Third trusses are fine, so instead of stopping them after four or five trusses I will keep them growing till the sixth or seventh truss.
Flame, my red seedless grape has totally failed to produce any grapes this year, but Perlette my white seedless grape is heavy with huge bunches of good grapes. Black Hamburg is always reliable, though excessive growth has had to be kept under control. It does not need too much foliage.

Fruit crops
Strawberries have not done well in this wet climate, suffering botrytis rot which took out about 70% of my crop. The remainder are not sweet and do not keep more than one day.
Raspberries are small and not very sweet. I think I have Glen Rosa, though they were purchased from Dobbies labelled as Glen Ample, which they definitely are not. However as I never retained my receipt they would not entertain my complaint.
Black and redcurrants, gooseberries and saskatoons are looking great and picking is well underway.
Autumn Bliss rasps and an excellent crop of figs both need sunshine to ripen them up.

City Road Allotments Open Day
Come along on Sunday 5th August to our allotments when we open our doors to the public to check out allotment life and see the rewards of hard work, enthusiasm, and getting close to nature.
Sample our produce from our sales stalls with fresh vegetables, flowering plants, jams and tablet and pop into our cafe for a coffee or tea and some home baking.
I will be showing some of my allotment paintings and Saskatoon plants and berries.
We are open from 10.30am to 2pm. And there is plenty of free parking on City Road.

Plant of the week

Opium Poppy is widely available as seed from most garden centres as a very colourful garden poppy.
Botanically it is Papaver somniferum and there are many variations of colour with flowers both single, double and pompom shaped. My colony started as a colourful bright pink chance seedling, which seeded itself and now flowers every year, even in these wet cold summers.
It has a history going back over thousands of years due to its high level of opiate compounds contained in the seeds, seedpods from the milky latex sap. Although it has been misused as the opium gets converted to heroin, drunk as tea, or smoked, it is also very important as a source of other drugs including codeine and morphine. Opium poppies are now grown in England commercially for drug companies to address the shortage of morphine.
Recent research has also found noscapine, a cancer fighting agent, which is giving hope in the fight against breast and prostate cancers. Trials on animals and human cancer cells suggest it may shrink the cancer cells and help to stop the spread of cancer throughout the body.