On the Plot with Mr Fluttergrub is a seasonal column from a Yorkshire-based grower and friend of WWOOF UK.
Acanthis Cabaret: 12th February
There was an unexpected visit today from Acanthis cabaret. There was no stage show and eating and drinking, just peering through binoculars and leafing through bird ID books.
Puzzled? Acanthis cabaret is the Latin name for the lesser redpoll, a small flock of which turned up on the plot today. I’ve never seen them here before so it seems a significant enough first to note. The birds appeared to be attracted to birch seed which is now largely shed from the trees. Some has blown onto the roof of a greenhouse on which the birds flitted, sometimes comically sliding down the slippery glass as they tried to pick up the seed. Not all the birds fed at once. Some hung upside down on the nearby birch tree either pulling off remaining seed or twittering about the antics of their friends below. Occasionally a few would fly off to investigate nearby bird feeders but it was on the birch seed and tree that was the main attraction.
A little research reveals that lesser redpolls aren’t particularly uncommon. The UK breeding population is estimated at 260,000 pairs with more arriving in winter. The bird is, however, red listed because of declining numbers and is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Looking at distribution maps it seems the plot is slightly beyond the zones in which lesser redpolls are resident and breed (further north in England, Scotland, most of Wales and Ireland) so it’s highly likely that this was a touring party and it’ll be next winter before I see Acanthis cabaret again.
Rocket Launched: Thursday 16th February
One of the first spring crops I grow are early potatoes. These are cultivated in two ways. The ‘early’ earlies are planted undercover in the big greenhouse and polytunnels. Follow on crops are raised in the open. To give successional cropping both are stated in batches planted at approximately two weekly intervals through until early April. The aim is to have ‘scrapers’ (potatoes with skin that readily rubs off) for the kitchen and sale from mid-May to mid-July.
Today the very first batch was planted in the big greenhouse. 28 tubers of the variety Rocket were set out at about 40cm spacing in a soil bed enriched with a straw/chicken manure mix. All being well, assuming late frost can be fended off, these will be ready for lifting in no more than three months.
I always use the variety Rocket for the first plantings. It has to be said that it isn’t the most flavoursome of the new potatoes. However, in my experience at least, it is the fastest to crop, producing tubers of a size worth lifting in about three months from planting. This is important as early potatoes occupy precious undercover space that’s needed by early June for summer crops such as late sown tomatoes, cucumbers and melons.
While it may not be the tastiest, Rocket early potatoes in mid-May, when the last of the stored crop is more or less beyond use, are better than a spudless gap. It’s also popular with my gate sales customers who’ll pay a good price for home grown potatoes with a bit of soil attached. Despite my qualms about Rocket’s flavour, some customers tell me the taste is just as good as the Jersey Royals selling in the supermarket at a higher price.
Jerusalem Artichokes: Friday 24th February
Sixteen Jerusalem artichokes were planted today. Should you not be familiar with this vegetable, the edible portion, the artichokes, are small to medium sized tubers. These grow in a loose cluster beneath the soil. The above ground part of the plant resembles a multi-stemmed sunflower. At maturity in early autumn plants easily exceed two metres in height and, unless the summer is very cool, bear miniature sunflower like flowers. The tubers are extremely hardy and can be left in the ground and harvested as required through the winter. Generally an easy crop to grow, I usually cultivate 15 to 20 plants from which a harvest of at least 30-40 kilos of tubers is expected.
It’s sometimes assumed that Jerusalem artichokes are somehow related to globe artichokes and indeed there is some connection in that both are members of the Asteraceae (daisy) family of plants. However, with its sunflower like growth and flowers the Jerusalem artichoke is of the genus Helianthus (Helianthus tuberosus) while the globe artichoke is of the genus Cynara (Cynara scolymus). Another assumption, this time totally erroneous, is that Jerusalem artichokes, given the Jerusalem prefix, originate from the Middle East. In fact their origins lie in North America where they were cultivated by indigenous peoples and still grow as a wild plant (I was surprised to find plants, far punier than those cultivated on the plot, when hiking in Virginia many years ago). There are various stories about the origins of the name but the one I prefer (Wikipedia has alternative explanations) for the Jerusalem prefix is that the plant arrived in the UK via Italy where, because of its sunflower like flowers, it was called ‘girasole’ (Italian for sunflower). To the English speaking ear this sounded similar to ‘Jerusalem’ and this is the name that stuck and continues to be used most widely in the UK.
To get back to the plot, I cultivate Jerusalem artichokes differently from many growers. Any tubers left in the ground will sprout in early spring and produce tall top growth to give a further harvest of tubers in autumn. Essentially, the plants are perennials and many, especially permaculturalists, treat them as such maintaining a fixed Jerusalem artichoke bed where tubers are left in the ground and allowed to grow in the same spot year after year. However, I find that this method, over time, leads to smaller and smaller tubers and therefore a reduced weight of crop. For this reason, all remaining plants and tubers are dug up in late winter with the smoother ones (I’ve a hunch difficult to wash and prepare knobbly tubers are an inherited characteristic) selected for replanting. These are stored for a few weeks in old compost (unlike seed potatoes dug Jerusalem artichokes, will shrivel if kept uncovered for any length of time) and replanted at the end of winter.
When planting today, to give the large plants plenty of space the tubers were set out at about 40 cm apart in lines. If more than one line is to be grown at least a 75 cm gap is required. Once planted the crop mostly grows away without further trouble. I usually only have to watch out for two problems. Firstly, especially if it’s wet, slugs will nibble or even totally destroying the tender leaves of the emerging plants. Secondly, as the plants grow so tall, by late summer there’s a risk of toppling in strong winds. I therefore provide support by weaving the stems between baler twine tied securely to strong fence posts banged in at the end of each row.
One final point I feel bound to make for those with sensitive digestion, is that Jerusalem artichokes have a well-founded reputation for causing flatulence. Indeed, those in the know often refer to them as ‘fartichokes’. This downside results from the high amount of the indigestible carbohydrate inulin the tubers contain. It’s perhaps because of this characteristic that Jerusalem artichokes seem to be undergoing, especially in the US, something of a rebrand. ‘Sunchokes’ seems to be the favoured restyling but another new name under which they now sometimes masquerade is the slightly more apt ‘sunroot’.
A Sign of Spring: Sunday 26th February
There’s only two days left of winter. From the 1st March, as far as meteorologists are concerned, it’s spring. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’ll be no further bouts of winter weather. Indeed, there’s excited media and online chatter about a looming cold snap in mid-March sometimes dubbed ‘beast from the east 2’, to evoke memories of a similar wintry period a few years ago.
For me progress from winter to spring is partly measured by the blooming of the year’s early flowers. Today on the plot the snowdrops are already fading, the crocuses are in their pomp aided by an absence of flattening heavy rain or snow, and the February Gold miniature daffodils are starting to open their first flowers.
It’s the blooming of the latter that prompted a walk in the woods. I’m fortunate to be a co-owner, along with several others, including some fellow WWOOF hosts, of eight acres of woodland about eight miles from the plot. Our patch is part of a bigger area of forest termed ‘semi-natural ancient woodland’. This indicates it’s believed to have been wooded for centuries but the original tree cover has been lost. Our woodland was apparently clear felled during the Second World War and subsequently re-afforested by the Forestry Commission, mainly with conifers. Several areas however, including the portion we now own, were replanted with deciduous trees. As a result our parcel has retained some of the characteristics and flora of the original woodland.
It’s the ground flora that’s our most notable feature. There’s a modest range of standard native woodland plants: a good number of wood anemones, some patches of bluebells, a few pockets of wood sorrel and a smattering of primroses. But our standout flower, and the one on which I went to check, is the wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). We’re lucky to have this as it’s relatively uncommon. Although where it does occur it can be abundant, for example forming carpets of yellow in haunts such as the Newent/Dymock area of Gloucestershire and the Farndale valley of the North York Moors, with us it’s more scattered. Our daffodils mainly cluster towards the woodland edge where the tree cover is thinner or alongside a gully where the soil remains damp away from the drying roots of the beech and oak, the predominant trees. It seems the daffodils were more prolific over the entire woodland before it was clear felled 70 odd years ago. Local legend has it that the daffodils once grew so profusely that the then owning aristocrat had a ‘daffodil day’ in early April when nearby villagers were allowed to pick the flowers for sale at local markets.
Perhaps indicating global heating, it’s now mid to late March when the daffodils reach peak bloom. I wasn’t necessarily anticipating any to be in flower more than three weeks earlier but, surprisingly as the weather has cooled after a mild spell, a few had broken from bud and opened their delicate pale yellow flowers. More will follow and I’ll be back in the woods in a few weeks to catch them in all their glory.