Mr Fluttergrub’s Diary

Jun 20, 2023

On the Plot with Mr Fluttergrub is a seasonal column from a Yorkshire-based grower and friend of WWOOF UK.

Take some time out, make yourself a nice cup of tea and let Mr Fluttergrub take you on a journey through the early growing season.

Tell-Tale Screeching: Tuesday 25th April

It was the shrill screeching calls that aroused suspicion. Looking up into the still unclothed but budding weeping silver leaf lime confirmed the hunch. Pulling at twigs and leaf shoots of the tree was an almost entirely emerald green bird. There was no need to rush for a bird ID book: the bird making the commotion was unmistakable, a ring-necked parakeet (or Psittacula krameria to use its posh name)

It’s the first time I’ve seen a ring necked parakeet on the plot but not the first time I’ve come across them in the area. Over the last few years I’ve had odd sightings, sometimes a pair but usually just a solitary bird. It may be the one in the lime tree was an escaped pet bird but I doubt it. Ring-necked parakeets are yet another non-native species that have become established in parts of the UK. Surveys and estimates suggest there could be between 10,000 and 100,000 birds across the country. Their stronghold is still very much London and its suburbs where the birds first became established in the 1960s. Theories on the origin of this core population are as colourful as the parakeets’ plumage. One conjecture is that the birds escaped from the set of the film African Queen, while another involves Jimi Hendrix and a psychedelic party. Parakeets are now common in and around London, especially in the south-west suburbs. I’ve heard and seen them in numbers at Kew and Richmond Park, and further out at Leatherhead where I remember seeing a large flock by the river on the edge of the town centre at least ten years ago. And I’ve also seen them in other European cities. There was a flock in the Amsterdam’s botanic garden and they were present in large numbers in the greener areas of Madrid. Indeed, I understand that in the Spanish capital culling has taken place to reduce numbers. In the UK too the birds are now considered a pest and can be shot under general licence.

Whether ring-necked parakeets will become established in this part of Yorkshire is uncertain. While the birds are colourful and can be amusing to watch there are two concerns. First of all there is the potential impact on native flora and fauna, especially other birds. Ring-necked parakeets tend to nest in tree holes and there are concerns they’ll usurp native birds, taking nest sites used by birds of similar or somewhat smaller size, for example jackdaws and starlings. There’s also the risk they’ll compete with native birds for food. And this brings me to a second, and from my point of view, more worrying concern. In other parts of the world, and it seems to an increasing extent here in the UK, ring-necked parakeets feed on agricultural crops, especially fruit. Having them on the plot in numbers feeding on ripening apples, pears and plums in autumn, as they’re now alleged to do around London, is a nightmare scenario.

Cabbage Confusion: Wednesday May 3rd

Planting out some cabbages today reminded me of a recent conversation with someone who asked whether I could write something on cabbages or, more specifically, help clear up their confusion on the various types that can be grown.

It’s certainly the case that there are a number of distinct categories of cabbage. Cabbage is perhaps the most common and versatile of all the brassicas (cabbage family plants) and one of the few vegetables that can, in the UK’s temperate climate and with the use of different types, be cut fresh every month of the year. The key to achieving this continuous harvest is an understanding of the different categories of cabbage available and the right time to sow, plant and cut them.

Let’s begin with the cabbage planted today. This was Kilastor, a newish variety of what is often termed ‘Dutch’ cabbage. These are large, solid headed plants, usually green, although there are also some red types, most commonly used uncooked, especially for coleslaw. These cabbages have a relatively long growing season and are usually sown and planted in mid to late spring and harvested in the autumn and early winter. Not as hardy as some types it is possible to store them for a few months after harvest in a cool, frost free place.

Kilastor wasn’t the first cabbage planted on the plot this year. In a greenhouse nearing maturity are two types of summer cabbage, varieties Greyhound and Golden Acre Progress. These are probably best cooked but the hearts can also be eaten as coleslaw. Both varieties were sown in February and should be ready to crop later in the month. Following these are outdoor plantings of the same varieties that’ll be ready for cutting in June and early July. Summer cabbage are relatively hardy but will not withstand harsh winter conditions. There primary characteristic is fast growth making them perfect for the first heads of the new season.

For later in the season I’ll have autumn and winter cabbage. These are distinguished from the ‘Dutch’ type in that they aren’t as tightly headed and tend to be more ‘green’ and so are generally cooked rather than used raw. It’s useful to divide these into a number of sub-categories. One of the more distinct types is the Savoy, a green type with relatively loose heads and crinkled leaves. Another is the late winter cabbage of which the variety January King and its derivatives are typical. These have been bred for hardiness and usually survive all but the most extreme weather. Winter cropping types are generally sown and planted late spring and early summer but I sometimes chance an early July planting of a late type such as Deadon and still get small but usable heads useful for cutting in February and March.

I do also grow red cabbage. These are both of the ‘Dutch’ type as already mentioned but also some other varieties, notably the large pointed headed variety Kalibos that’s sown in April for cutting in September and October. This has an especially good flavour and texture. Red cabbage, of course, is also sometimes grown for pickling as well as making a useful salad addition.

Finally, there are spring greens. These are loose headed compact cabbage, usually conical in shape, sown and planted in late summer and early autumn for harvesting the following spring. I often don’t bother with these finding the effort needed to keep them from pigeons and severe weather through the winter, plus their reluctance to form even the resemblance of a heart in spring, too troublesome. Instead I prefer to have a month or so ‘cabbage free’ until the greenhouse grown summer types are ready towards the middle of May.

Not all may agree with this broad and somewhat arbitrary classification of cabbages. I’ve based it largely on personal growing habits and, to keep it simple, haven’t delved into sub categories some might highlight such as minicoles and drumheads. Chinese cabbage and other oriental types have also been left out. For a fuller exploration of cabbage types, albeit one based on US horticulture see https://www.butter-n-thyme.com/types-of-cabbage/. For a less in depth overview, but with much more emphasis cultivation techniques, a good UK alternative is https://horticulture.co.uk/cabbage/.

Planting out Kilastor Dutch cabbage

First Fruits: Thursday 25th May

We had the first full helping of fresh strawberries this evening all from plants growing in pots in a polytunnel. There was just enough for two, but I’ve reason to believe the strawberry taster in chief, who prefers them to all other berries, has been surreptitiously scoffing berries for at least a week. She always says this is for purposes of quality control and to ensure perfect ripeness, excuses I’m happy to accept as the berries eaten tonight were just right, far fresher and flavoursome than any clad in plastic bought from a shop.

It’ll be at least a further three weeks before there’s any quantity of strawberries from the outside plants so having these early berries is a bonus. Producing them is a bit of a palaver. The process begins in late autumn or early winter when ‘rooted runners’ (that is baby strawberry plants formed during the summer as offshoots from the main plant) are snipped off and planted in small pots, usually no larger than five litres. These are filled with old compost mostly that previously used for growing tomatoes during the summer, refreshed with a pinch of calcified seaweed in case the mix is otherwise too acidic. Once planted the pots are placed in the polytunnel or greenhouse and left untouched through the winter apart from the occasional watering. When growth begins in spring, usually towards the end of March, the plants are fed several times with liquid fertiliser, generally the same organic type as used for tomatoes.

To try and get the berries as early as possible, I usually try and take the runners from an early cropping strawberry variety (several types with different cropping periods are grown on the outside beds to get as long a season of picking as possible). I also only take the runners from one year old plants. This is important as younger plants are more likely to produce strong growing, disease free, runners. In case you’re not familiar with strawberry cultivation, unlike most berries strawberries are not grown as a perennial (permanent) crop like most bush or cane fruit. After about three or four years strawberry plants decline in vigour and health and tend to produce fewer and poorer quality fruit. As a result, to ensure good harvests, new strawberry beds should be established every few years (or annually if you want a succession of different aged beds).

There’ll be quite a few more pickings over the coming days. With luck the last berries from the polytunnel plants will overlap with the first berries harvested from the outside beds. Strawberries herald the start of the soft fruit season. Five months of berries, in approximate order or ripening summer raspberries, blackcurrants, dessert gooseberries, redcurrants, blueberries, blackberries and autumn fruiting raspberries, should follow.

First haul from the 30 odd pots of early strawberries in a polytunnel

Runners Away Wednesday 31st May

Runner beans are perhaps one of the most archetypal British vegetables. Maybe less popular now than a few decades back, they still feature in many home vegetable gardens. I’ve always grown ‘runners’ as these beans are usually called, mainly for the heavy yield that can be obtained from the relatively small amount of space occupied.

Should you not be familiar with it the runner is a type of bean that climbs, or at least most varieties do (there are a few non-climbing varieties). The beans, which are usually green skinned and fleshed, are grown to be eaten immature, that is before the seed hardens and the pod dries.

Runner beans are tender plants and do not tolerate any frost. For this reason I raise them in a greenhouse making the first sowing in pots early in May. This gives plants that are ready to set out towards the end of the month by which time any remaining risk of a nippy night with a touch of frost should be over. Today with the seedlings sending up a twisting shoot looking for something to cling to it was time to get the beans away, out of their pots and into the ground.

For a framework on which the plants can climb I use bamboo canes. I’d prefer the hazel poles still used by some growers. There is a small area of hazel coppice in the wood, but finding time to cut some into suitable sized poles has, so far, been a task too far.

What I do find time and energy for though is to prepare a ‘bean trench’ before the support framework is erected. Excavated to about 25 centimetres with a spade this is filled with manure and recovered with soil. The purpose of this exercise, and it certainly provides a good workout, is to ensure the plants have plenty of nourishment and, even more importantly, that there’s water retaining material beneath the beans that’ll help avoid the soil drying out. Runners are one the thirstiest crops. Key to a good harvest is plenty of moisture at the roots.

Once the trench and the support structure were ready the beans were set out, one to a cane, on the inside of the framework. To fend off wind, and wood pigeons (that in the last few years have taken to pulling leaves off young plants for no apparent purpose) a temporary low barrier of scaffold net was placed around the poles. It’ll take a week or so for the beans to ‘find’ the pole and begin twining up them. A little help and ‘discipline’ is sometimes needed in the meantime to ensure the beans clamber up the nearest pole rather than stray off to ascend that of a neighbour. If several beans spiral up the same cane the result can be a dense tangle. If assisting runner beans to ascend the canes it’s worth remembering they clamber counter-clockwise; this is contrary to most other types of beans which spiral clockwise.

It’ll be early July before the first runners are ready to harvest. They then usually crop for about eight weeks if kept well picked. It’s important not to allow beans to hang on the plant too long as this inhibits the production of further flowers and therefore more beans. To get runners well into September I usually start a second batch three or four weeks after the first was sown. Coincidentally, seeds of these were also sown today using the variety Moonlight, a type said to be slightly more hardy than some others and thus, hopefully, more likely to thrive in the cooler days of September and early October.

The Runners a Week or So After Planting Climbing the Canes

A big thank you to Mr Fluttergrub for putting his green fingers to work on the computer keyboard and sharing his knowledge with us. Do you have any growing tips from your garden, allotment or smallholding or stories from your farm fields? Are you trying out new methods of farming and growing food? We’d love to hear them. Please send your words and photos/videos to: editor@wwoof.org.uk

Photos: courtesy of Mr Fluttergrub

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