Mr Fluttergrub’s Occasional Diary – April ’20

May 12, 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. 

Sparrow Grass Old and New (Fri. April 17th)

The first cut of sparrow grass was taken today. ‘Sparrow grass’, in case you don’t realise, is the folk name for asparagus. The term has an interesting etymology (http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-asp1.htm). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was apparently used in preference to asparagus which is the Latin name. Although sparrow grass has now gone from standard parlance it was still the term used by my gardening grandparents to refer to the asparagus bed on their allotment.

I’ve several asparagus beds of varying ages. The one from which the first few spears were cut is the youngest. Because it’s a new bed only set out two years ago, I’ll go easy on the picking this season. Asparagus is a long term crop that needs time to establish. It’s important not to over cut it in the first few years. 

If I knew the name of the variety I’d share it but, unfortunately, it’s slipped the memory and the plot archive is of no help as it’s in urgent need of weeding. However, I do know that the variety is not the old favourite Connover’s Colossal. I mention this because I’ve just finished a Zoom session with fruit and veg growing friends. During the conversation there was competitive asparagus talk, prompting one of the fellow growers to brandish a bunch of asparagus cut earlier which, they claimed, was Connover’s Colossal. All I can say is, if it was this variety, perhaps I’m growing the wrong one. Not only was the bunch larger than my first pick but the spears were thicker too. If and when a new asparagus bed is laid down I may give this a try. It’s an American heirloom variety (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9v0MroZmmo) that’s been around for well over 100 years and has clearly stood the test of time.   

 

Blue Sky Blues (Mon. 20th April)

After a record breaking wet winter there’s been hardly a drop of rain for six weeks. Showers promised yesterday got tantalisingly close, but failed to edge this far north. Today has been another cloudless day of unbroken sunshine albeit with a strong breeze taking the edge of the temperature.

At the moment there’s still plenty of moisture deeper in the soil but the surface layer is becoming dust dry. This is making seed sowing direct into the ground tricky. In summer when the weather is dry I usually water the bottom of the drill (shallow line made with a rake corner or hoe edge into which seeds are to be sown) before sowing. This ensures seed is in contact with damp soil and minimises or avoids the need for additional overhead watering, which can tend to ‘cap’ or crust the soil, thereby inhibiting seedling emergence.

In spring however, I’m more reluctant to use this method as seeds can easily rot if the weather cools or there’s unexpected rain that saturates the soil. This dilemma is particularly tricky for parsnips which I normally sow in mid to late April. The flimsy seed of this crop is one of the most difficult to germinate, even in ideal conditions. If sown into a watered drill germination can be poor. Equally, however, if sown into bone dry soil the seed either fails to germinate at all or begins to germinate but then shrivels due to lack of sufficient moisture.

Today I took the plunge and sowed the first parsnip row into a watered drill. Only time, probably about three weeks as parsnips are never fast germinators, will tell whether this will succeed. In the meantime the sky remains blue and the weather forecast sees no rain for at least another week. In these strange times it seems odd to wish for gloomy skies and bucket loads of rain but that’s what we desperately need.

 

 Seven Up (Wed. 22nd April)

Although I’m no lepidopterist I do like to keep a mental tally of the butterfly species seen on the plot. This spring so far there seem to be more butterflies on the wing than usual, presumably a result of the sunny and often warm weather of the last few weeks. Today I saw the seventh species of the season, what I’m 90% certain was a Holly Blue (this has similarities with the Common Blue, but this tends to emerge later and is more a butterfly of open grassy habitats), a reasonably common visitor to the plot.

The other butterflies spotted so far in rough order of appearance are Peacock (several were about in the large greenhouse as early as late February, presumably having hibernated there), Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone, Orange Tip, Comma and Speckled Wood. There’s now just one of the normal early season octet to see, the Red Admiral. So far, I haven’t seen one of these. In some years these are encountered quite early, again often in greenhouses or sheds, probably soon after emerging from a sheltered winter’s hibernation. 

The last two listed have been occasional visitors for over a week now. Both are regulars on the plot in summer. That’s a contrast to when I first came to live in Yorkshire just over 40 years ago. Neither butterfly was then considered ‘native’ this far north. I can still remember being surprised by a sighting of a comma in a Yorkshire orchard on a sunny autumn day. Now I’d be surprised not to see one regularly, or the even more frequently encountered Speckled Wood.

This northward migration is, of course, likely to be related to global heating and therefore not something to be celebrated. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see these butterflies now firmly established in what was previously unfluttered territory.   

 

One of the Earth’s Monstrosities (Wed. 29th April)

It was apparently Pliny writing millennia ago, who dubbed the globe artichoke ‘one of the earth’s monstrosities’. Presumably he was referring to the part of the plant that’s eaten, or at least dissected and run through the teeth, the roundish immature seedhead or ‘globe’. The plant itself is surely more statuesque than monstrous in appearance. In mid-spring it’s one of the most striking plants on the plot, its silver grey foliage making it as eye-catching as any plant in the herbaceous border.

Attractive it may be, but I mainly grow globe artichokes for the crop and today the first two small heads were cut. This looks to be the first of many as this spring every plant has come through the winter. That’s not always the case this far north. In the last very harsh winter ten years ago all my globe artichoke plants were lost.

In case you’re not familiar with globe artichoke cultivation, its best treated as a semi-perennial. Once established, plants have the potential to regrow and carry artichokes for a number of years. Three to four is said to be the number they should be retained for optimal quality and quantity. This is the practice I follow, but some choose to treat globe artichokes as a permanent plants aiming to keep them indefinitely.

However long the plants are kept the key to a crop is getting them through the winter. The globe artichoke is most at home in a semi-Mediterranean climate or in areas with mild winters, like the Breton peninsula. Severe frost will kill plants, even if protection such as heaped straw is provided. Waterlogging too is a danger. In recent years this has been more of a problem that cold. Consequently I now I only grow artichokes on a well-drained and open plot, with relatively light soil sloping to the south.

To maintain a succession of different aged plants I grow a small number of new ones each year. These are started from seed rather than ‘slips’ (cuttings form established plants) using the green globed variety Tavor, which seems to produce more uniform and less ‘spiky’ heads than some other types. The young plants are raised in a greenhouse from early March and planted out in early May. By late summer they should carry a crop of one or two small heads, but it will be the following spring and beyond before they get into their stride and produce in quantity – a really strong plant can produce up to ten. I’m not sure whether any of my plants will yield that number but, all being well, this looks to be a bumper year.

 

Words: Mr Fluttergrub

Photos: Mr Fluttergrub

 

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