Still Plotting –Mr Fluttergrub’s Occasional Diary

Apr 14, 2020

During the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown when normal WWOOFing is in abeyance Mr Fluttergrub, our regular newsletter contributor, will be keeping us updated on what’s happening on the plot. 

Purple Shoots (Mon. 6th April) 

I’ve been picking the shoots of purple sprouting broccoli for a few weeks now. This is a seasonal treat, something to harvest from mid-March through to early May that helps fill the hungry gap before many new season vegetables are available.

I only grow the traditional ‘early’ and ‘late’ season selections of purple sprouting that crop in the late winter and spring. Quite a few newer varieties have been developed in recent years that crop earlier, in some cases as soon as late summer. Cardinal, Red Admiral, Red Arrow and Rudolph are variety names thrown up by a quick trawl of the Internet. I’ve tried the first and last of these with mixed results. Pest problems, especially caterpillars and cabbage aphid, make getting a ‘clean’ harvest more difficult in late summer and autumn. The quality of the shoots also seems poorer on the newer varieties, tending to be ‘stringier’ and more open.

It’s not just these problems that have led to me sticking with the traditional types though. Perhaps I’ve been growing for too long, but there are some crops that have a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ time. Purple sprouting broccoli is surely one of these. Seasonality is one of the joys of growing. If every crop were available every day growing would lose much in interest and anticipation.

And talking of anticipation, it’ll only be a couple of weeks now until the purple sprouting for 2021 needs to be sown. I do this in modules starting the plants in a greenhouse then hardening off before planting outdoors at the end of May/beginning of June. For more info. on growing purple sprouting broccoli see here.

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Shoots of Purple Sprouting Ready for Harvest.

Keeping Topped Up (Wed. 8th April)

For four days every week throughout the year I push a handcart to the front of the house filled with a selection of home produced fruit, vegetables, eggs and cut flowers for selling. It’s a self-service set up based on trust, just like WWOOF. And like WWOOF it works. Money from neighbours and passers buy regularly drops through the letterbox. It’s a convenient and time efficient system. Once the cart is stocked it’s usually only necessary to top it up once or twice during the day, especially in spring when top sellers like berries and tomatoes aren’t available.

Since the supermarket shelves emptied and the lockdown began however, this has changed. Sales have more than tripled compared to the same period last year with almost everything, even the ‘stir fry mix’, often handled with suspicion by some of the less adventurous buyers, selling well. This week there’s plenty of mixed salad leaves, spinach and chard to offer, all from the greenhouse and polytunnels. Outdoors rhubarb, variety Timperley Early, is producing just enough sticks to make up bunches. It’s the same with radish (variety Celesta sown from late February) and over-wintered spring onions, both from the greenhouse/polytunnels and also sold bunched. The ‘stir fry mix’, comprising mizuna, mustards, chard and coriander, is all from under cover crops most of them over-wintered. Leeks are the only other outdoor grown offering on the cart. While kale and the aforementioned purple sprouting broccoli are also cropping, these are currently reserved for the kitchen. It’s these leafy greens that I most prize at this time of year.

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The Topped Up Cart.

Pea Shooters (Sat. 11th April)

Close inspection this morning revealed the first few peas had broken surface. Just over a week ago I sowed two varieties, the podding type Douce Provence and the mangetout Sweet Sahara. Both were sown in shallow drills a spade width wide at about three or four cm deep. The newly planted row was covered with a sheet of thick clear plastic that had already been sitting on the soil for a week or so to warm it up. I find sheltering pea seeds like this both speeds up emergence and helps frustrate rodents that might otherwise conduct ‘excavations’.

It was almost certainly the warm weather of the last week that induced the peas to germinate so quickly. Douce Provence is first away. Of Sweet Sahara there’s yet just the odd harbinger. Douce Provence is a round seeded type. These are generally hardier than wrinkled seeded varieties such as Sweet Sahara so it’s no surprise it’s up first. If you want to start peas early when it’s cold, or indeed if you want to try over-wintering a crop, these are the ones to try. 

Whatever the variety, sowing peas under soil covered with plastic improves germination. The only downside is that the cover must be removed as soon as the peas begin to appear. If left on pea seedlings can become scorched in bright sunlight, especially after a cold night when condensation has formed beneath the plastic. 

It’s also essential to continue to protect the peas once the sheeting is removed. It’s not only rodents to guard against. Wood pigeons, surely the plot’s biggest and greediest menace, must be deterred. I take no chances. Once the plastic is off wire netting is placed round the rows. This largely prevents pigeons tearing at the peas but also provides a framework up which the growing plants can scrabble. 

With the first batch of peas coming through I’ll soon get the second sowings in the ground. These’ll most likely be the old-fashioned podding type Kelvedon Wonder and a new one for me, a sugar snap called Nairobi. This name suggests it may be a variety bred to grow in East Africa for air-freighting to UK supermarkets. How it’ll fare on a Yorkshire plot we’ll see.    

Pricking and Mixing (Monday 13th April)

After lots of mainly sunny and warm days, this morning has dawned grey with a keen north-easterly wind driving off the North Sea. When I venture out two tasks seem to fit the weather: one in the cosy confines of a greenhouse, the other an active job outside that’ll help fend off the chill.

In the greenhouse there’s much ‘pricking out’ to be done. Some of the vegetable crops, namely tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, and some of the flowers grown for the borders and gate sales, are sown into small pots of low nutrient ‘seed’ compost’. Once the closely spaced seedlings have formed a couple of true leaves (as opposed to seed leaves) ‘pricking out’ into a richer potting mix is necessary. This is a fiddly but enjoyable process resulting in nicely ordered pots and trays of eager looking young plants. An ongoing job through the spring, today it’s mainly five or six pots of seedling tomatoes that need attention. 

The outside job is also a tomato task. The larger greenhouse I use is on ground that has grown vegetables for nearly 100 years. As a result it’s developed a fair range of disease issues, including Verticillium Wilt to which many varieties of tomato are susceptible. To overcome this problem all the non-resistant varieties of tomato I grow have to be cultivated in large pots filled with my own special tomato mix. This comprises loam, made for stacked lawn turf, two year old leaf mould and garden compost in a rough ratio of two, one and one respectively. To this is added a quantity of vermiculite to aid aeration and drainage and a small quantity of calcified seaweed to counter any tendency to excess acidity. Everything is then turned with a spade in a wheelbarrow, think making a cake, to give a mix that’s then shovelled into pots ranging in capacity from 20 litres (for the more demanding beefsteak and standard tomato varieties) down to 10 litres (suitable for the less fussy cherries).

The pots are then stood inside for several weeks to warm. Tomatoes don’t appreciate cold feet! With more than 100 pots to prepare there’s much shovelling to do so I’ll leave it there but hope to be back in a few weeks with another instalment of ‘Still Plotting’

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