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A novice's guide to producing his own food


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In praise of weed

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I was once told that, until a few decades ago, if you took a winter walk along the coastal path from Dundee to Arbroath you’d see gardens and allotments covered with a thick black  blanket of seaweed.

This was a time when artificial fertilisers hadn’t been developed. Besides, it was free way to improve your soil. Another bonus is that it is organic. Seaweed, of course, is still spread on fields in Jersey today, and it is thought that helps give the new potatoes a distinctive salty tang.

I have been using it for years on the allotment, but mostly to make a particularly stinky liquid feed. Fill a water-butt with one-third seaweed, two-thirds water, and leave to ferment for three months. The smell is so bad that I make watering my last job of the day, and then scarper, leaving grumpy fellow growers to curse and spit.

My compost heap. Two years in the making

My compost heap. Two years in the making

Last year, though, I copied the Jersey farmers, and spread a thick layer on the potato bed. The resulting crop was, by far, the best ever, with around 100lb of spuds. Was the seaweed responsible? Who knows, but when you only get one shot at a crop per year, I wasn’t willing to play around with a potentially successful formula.

Today I took a ton bag down on the beach, and, attracting quite a few glances, gathered up enough to cover the potato bed. Collecting seaweed is one of my least favourite jobs, primarily because you have to drag the heavily laden bag along the beach, up a flight of steps and into the car. I hate it. But it only took me two trips this time and an hour-and-half to get it done.

Once spread over the bed, I covered the weed with a layer of my own compost. I should really sieve the stuff first, to get out the non-biodegradable bits, but I just chucked it on, leaving the bed peppered with scraps of plastic, parcel tape, polystyrene and other detritus. I’ll pick them out as I plant.

On a more general note, this is the first day of spring, and the weather was sensational. It was such a joy to be outside. The raspberry canes are starting to bud, and I saw a couple of brilliant red  rhubarb shoots just peering out of the ground.

Seemingly it is going to get warmer next weekend, and the weatherman says it will start to feel like spring. I may feed my bees to give them a strong start to the year.

One other thing before you go: I cracked open the first of my home-brew beers on Thursday. Surprisingly, it was very fine. I went easy that night, drinking only two bottles, to see if my guts agreed. They did. Janek likes the beer too, and seems to having one with just about every evening meal. Kurt also enjoyed it when he popped over for a visit, and returned to his flat with half a dozen bottles. Must make more!

 

 

 

 


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Tripping the Glut Fantastic!

Peas and runner beans

Peas and runner beans

You are going to have to forgive me if I sound a bit pleased with myself. That’s because I am. I’m in the midst of what is by far my biggest glut – and it isn’t over yet.

Behind me in a box, as I type this, are jars of strawberry jam, raspberry jam, rhubarb and ginger jam and honey.

In the kitchen are a box of eggs, a bowl of tomatoes, a bowl of onions, three cabbages, a spindly lettuce and a food-grade plastic bucket with what I hope will eventually be sauerkraut.

The freezer in the shed has two drawers with courgettes, raspberries, spring onions, cubes of pureed basil, broad beans, runner beans, peas, and vegetable soup,

Beside the freezer are two sacks, each of which contain 28lbs of potatoes (first and second earlies), with the main crop still to come.

And, finally, next to the shed is the greenhouse, where are four racks of onions drying in the heat before I string them up.

This substantial store of food means two things — we will almost certainly be eating food I have produced daily until at least until Christmas, and I reckon this is the first time since I started the allotment, that the money I have saved has exceeded money spent. That’s not, of course, the reason why I do this, but, still, it’s a wee bonus.

 

 


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The year of the bee

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Goodness, has it really been three months since my last post? Doesn’t seem that long since we were emerging from winter, and already the longest day has been and gone.

Of course, I’m sure this is a common feeling among all allotmenteers. Spring and summer are the busiest times, and almost all daylight hours are spent planting, weeding, watering or harvesting.

But it is the bees that have taken up an increasingly large slab of my time this year. I am slowly making the transition from a novice beekeeper who spends all his time in crisis management, to one who is starting to feel in control of his bees. And once you get to that stage, you can start playing about with your colonies, manipulating and experimenting with them in all sorts of ways.

I began the year with three colonies, had hoped to get nine by the end, but have eight, so I’m quite pleased. I had split each of the original hives three times, but two swarms escaped (incurring the wrath of a neighbouring family whose house also became a home to some of my bees), thus leaving me with seven. However, I managed to catch a swarm from a garden  about six miles from the apiary. As you will hear in the video below, that colony had a marked queen, so it belonged to another beekeeper. (Finders keepers, is the rule here, but if I hear of someone with a missing colony, they can have it back.)

So, that makes eight colonies. Not bad. About half are fairly weak, so  my next goal is to try to build up their strength, so they are as healthy as possible as they go into winter.

Aside from losing two swarms, my main shock so far this year has been  a hive which toppled over. Check out the video.

Another major bee development is I passed my Basic Beemaster exam — with distinction! OK, so it is one of those tests that just about every beekeeper passes, but not everyone gets a distinction. It has given me further confidence that I have a good grounding in the subject. It also means, however, that I should really plough on with the rest of the modules. There are eight or nine of them, all a lot tougher, so it’ll take a good few years.

Oh, it’s become almost incidental, but I also got 38lbs of honey from two hives. That’s the thing about beekeeping — you start keeping hives to get honey, but, in the end, just become obsessed about bees.

 


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This is the plan for 2014

This (in theory) is how it's going to go

This (in theory) is how it’s going to go

Those of you who have followed my blog (and there aren’t many) will have noticed that around this time of year I publish a plan of what I intend to do on the allotment for the coming season.

Using Suttons Garden Planner, I basically stick to a rotation, so much of it is a logical development from previous years. Here it is in full: http://tinyurl.com/vegging-plot-2014

However, there are some differences, primarily with the ever-troublesome Brassicas. For the first couple of years they were a disaster. Either crops failed to grow or they were scoffed by caterpillars. The last two years, however, were more successful, but they weren’t being eaten at all — neither by caterpillars or (more importantly) family members. I managed to grow quite a few superb cabbages in 2012, but they weren’t used, and many ended up being fed to the chickens. In 2013, I grew swedes (as requested) but when they came to harvest, Sue told me they disagreed with her!

So, for 2014, I’m going to try something different. I’ll still grow some swedes, but I’ll also try smaller amounts of cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, cabbage and broccoli, and see if any prove a hit.

There will also be changes to the onion bed. Last year, I grew half red onions and half yellow. Both were highly successful, but the red bolted and didn’t keep well at all. This seemingly is a very common problem with these onions, so, this year, I’ll grow three-quarters yellow.

I’ve also made some changes to the fruit cage. The far left hand side used to be mish-mash of different plants — blackberry, Tayberry, gooseberry, raspberry and  loganberry. Most were disappointing, except for the loganberry and the blackberry (the latter was which was absolutely sensational). So I’ve kept those two, pulled out the rest, and planted another blackberry bush. It was quite expensive, but if it produces the same ultra-sweet and juicy fruit that its partner did last year, then I’ll be delighted.

A year ago, I planted six Glen Moy raspberry bushes. They’ve taken off really well, so I’m hoping for a major harvest this year. It’s a similar situation with the rhubarb. Although planted two years ago, it is only this year I’ll be able to harvest any sticks. If all goes according to plan, 2014 should be a great year for fruit, jams and puddings.


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Orchard plan finally bears fruit

East End Park -- site of the orchard and wildflower meadow

East End Park — site of the orchard and wildflower meadow

I’ve always wanted some fruit trees. Some apples and maybe a few pears. There wasn’t enough room on my allotment, so I tried to get a hold of some adjacent land which would have taken about six trees. That was a failure, so I was at a dead-end.

That was over a year ago, and I’d almost given up on the idea until I bumped into Alex Graham, who is chair of Monifieth EcoForce — an environmental group which does its best to keep the town looking good. I said I was looking for some land for an orchard for myself or the community. “Leave it with me,” he said. I thought little more about until we met again several months later, and he said there was a piece of ground near the golf course which would be suitable for an orchard combined with a wildflower meadow. 

A quick visit to the site left me overwhelmed. It was huge! Roughly 50 x 100m. It was more than I ever dreamed of.

Google Maps view of the site

Google Maps view of the site

The more I thought about it, the more the idea of doing something for the community appealed. There was no doubting this was going to be a massive task, and so I asked Frank King, a fellow allotment holder, if he would come on board. I was delighted to hear him say yes.

Not long after he came up with a genius fundraising idea. Why don’t we allow people in Monifieth to sponsor their own family tree? Brilliant. Folk would have a tree in their name with a plaque giving their details.

Meanwhile, I got in touch with Andrew Lear, who specialises in reviving orchards in this area, particularly in the Carse. He reckoned there was room for 90 trees. And he listed the types of pear, plum and apple which were commonly grown in this area.

So far, so good. But there were two huge hurdles to overcome — getting funding and permission. Thanks to Catherine LLoyd, of Tayside Biodiversity, we applied for a grant from Angus Environmental Trust — a group which uses money from the landfill tax to promote projects like ours. They were very enthusiastic and gave us a grant to cover the cost of the trees, stakes, guards and seeds for the meadow.

The bigger problem was getting permission from the council to go ahead. Although they were behind the idea, their cogs turned extremely slowly. However, after I put in an appeal with our councillor, things started moving — still too slowly for my liking, but faster than before.

On stipulation they had was I should consult with all the owners of the neighbouring properties to get their views on the matter. Two sides of the area was owned by the golf links. I spoke to the chairman, and he was delighted that an eyesore was going to be put to proper use. Residents, however, had reservations. While the vast majority were in favour, many were concerned trees would block their views of the golf course.

This was all passed on to the council who eventually agreed at the beginning of March to lease us the site for the orchard and wildflower meadow. Nothing can stop us now. The money is in place and we have the cash.

Now the real work begins …


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A second stab at winter crops

Not much to see just now, but this is where I planted the onions and cabbage. The onions are marked out with string, so I know where to weed

Not much to see just now, but this is where I planted the onions and cabbage. The onions are marked out with string, so I know where to weed

In  2012/13 I tried for the first time to grow winter crops.  The plot was in pretty good nick, and there was some spare time, so I thought I’d try growing winter onions, lettuce and cabbage. Get the most out of the plot, and all that.

The onions grew OK, but the lettuce and cabbages were quickly choked out by a late flush of weeds and never really showed themselves.

I reminded myself that everything I try for the first time on the plot is usually a disaster, so, this year, I thought, I’ll learn from my mistakes and have another go. This time I decided to forget about the lettuce, and plant spring cabbages from seedlings. That way they’ll be easier to weed.

The onions were planted as sets, and buried below the ground. As I knew it’d be several months before they showed themselves, I marked their location with string. That way I could weed with impunity. As I write this only one onion has shown itself. That’s to be expected. During the winter months, the onions will set down roots, and come the spring, they should pop through and grow quickly.

The leeks have been a great success again

The leeks have been a great success again

Actually, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call them winter onions. The reality is that they’ll only end up being only about four weeks ahead of normal onions. But that’s OK by me. If I need the space come spring,  I’ll harvest them as large(-ish) spring onions. I did that last year, and they were among the first harvest of the year. Fresh veg, come April and May, is extremely welcome.

There are still other crops on the go at the plot, which aren’t strictly winter crops as they were planted in early summer, but are still maturing. They are leeks, purple sprouting broccoli and turnip. Leeks have been a great success over the past two years, and this season is no exception. Big, thick and white, they have a crunch, flavour and an oniony smell you just don’t get from the supermarket. Plus I managed to grow about 90 in half a bed. You can cram them in, and they don’t seem to mind too much.

The same can’t be said about the broccoli. I planted these in mid-summer, and they grew very fast, but there is no sign of a crop. It’s all green. Not sure where my mistake is, but the harvest season is December to March, so maybe something will show itself yet. If not, I’ll dig them up and give them to the chickens. They’ll love it.

Finally, the turnips (or should I say swedes?).  Another great success. As an experiment, I tried planting these as seedlings too. Seems to be a good idea, as they have turned out to quite substantial. Some of the shapes are bit odd (long and rounded — more like a marrow), but still edible.

It’s good to have something to harvest between now and spring, and its means my plot is producing veg for around nine or 10 months of the year. Not bad at all.


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video update no. 3 2013

This post will be accompanied by few words. I seem to have most covered of what I wanted to say in the video update.

There is one further thing I want to add, though. Since filming the footage above, events have moved on regarding the quails. As I said I would, I reunited the injured bird with her siblings. However, almost immediately she started to get picked on. I watched anxiously hoping it would settle down, but within a few minutes the corner of her eye was starting to bleed. The other quails were being vicious little toe-rags. One, in particular, was not only nipping the back of her neck, but was also getting a piggy-back ride as the injured bird ran around trying to escape. I had no choice but to put her back in the pet carrier.

But things got even worse. Soon after I notice ANOTHER quail was getting viciously picked on as well! Can’t figure out what’s up with them.

I took the two bullied quail back indoors and put them in the cage that formerly housed our rats.  Soon the greenhouse will be empty of tomatoes, and I intend to put the two cages with all the quails in there over the winter while I work out what to do next.

Don’t let the quails’ cutesy size and their Tribble-like cooing fool you. They’re mean little buggers.


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Video Update No. 1 2013

Good golly, is it video update time already? Yes, that’s right, I about to administer some digital propofol by warbling about my beloved allotment.

If you watch it all, you’ll notice I keep banging on about how a great year it has been (so far). I’m getting better at growing veg, the weather has been particularly good (although some folk still aren’t happy), and I’m actually getting fitter. A couple of years ago, three hours down the allotment would have had me taking to bed for the next couple of days. Not any more. I’m regularly putting in up to eight hours on Saturday, followed by a similar amount on Sunday (I then struggle to stay awake at work on Monday).

All my time hasn’t been spent at allotment, though. At least one day each weekend is spent at home tending to the greenhouse, chickens and quails. And, of course, there are the bees.

Anyway, time to kick back and enjoy the clip.

See! Told you it was rubbish. Before I go, I must correct one mistake. Contrary to what I say in the video, I am not growing climbing beans. The legumes are: (in order) broad beans, early peas, FRENCH beans, RUNNER beans and late peas (I really should prepare better).


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Could this actually be a good year?

A nucleus hive at the allotment

A nucleus hive at the allotment

Ever since I started beekeeping, one thing has been consistent — beekeepers have moaned about the weather. They are, of course, right — over the past few years it has been dreadful, and I could only listen in wonder when they talked about the glory days of beekeeping with supers groaning under the weight of honey.

Not any more. Although 2013 hasn’t been perfect, it has certainly been pretty good. Not only that, but I’m becoming a better beekeeper. For the first time, I feel I am in control of the bees, and I don’t seem to be lurching from one crisis to another. Have I got it cracked? I doubt it, because I’ve been undoubtedly helped by the glorious sun. Had the weather been erratic, then perhaps things would be different.

As you may recall, I started the year with just one colony.  Being in this situation is not good. One mistake, and I could be beeless, so I decided to spend 2013 building up colony numbers, and not bothering whether I got honey or not.

Well, perhaps this is the right attitude, because as it happens my sole hive produced 23lbs of honey — only 1lb less than the two colonies combined last year! Although the oilseed rape was late in flowering, when it did come, the fine weather meant my bees could make the most of it.

There was further good news when it came to the swarming season. This time I was well prepared, both psychologically and equipment-wise, and so I decided to try a wee experiment. Instead of creating one artificial swarm, and getting two hives, I thought I’d try splitting my sole colony into three.

I created two nucs (small hives with only five frames each). Each nuc had a few frames of bees, a few frames of eggs, some honey, and, crucially, a queen cell each. On advice, I kept the two nucs away from each other, putting one on the allotment (pictured above) and one at the apiary.

Then it was just a matter of waiting. After a week, I peaked inside. Although I didn’t see the newly emerged queens, I noticed their cells had been broken down by the bees. That’s a good sign — they probably hatched OK. So far, so good. The next hurdle was to see if they mated. Again, good weather helps because the virgin queens will be able to make as many flights as they need. However, it is still a risky business as they could get scoffed by a hungry bird.

Last weekend, after a two-week gap, I looked inside the nucs. There were eggs! Both queens had mated and were laying away happily. From having only one colony, I now have three. Result!

The next hurdle is to make sure my three hives keep building up numbers, and go into the winter as strong as possible.

So far, everything this year has gone exactly according to plan. It’s a first!


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Stepping up a gear

On the left and right of the fruit cage are the rasps. The strawbs are in the middle.

On the left and right of the fruit cage are the rasps. The strawbs are in the middle.

All of a sudden the allotment seems have entered a new phase. After months and months of digging, mulching and sowing in bare earth, the plants are now roaring ahead, and I’ve even been able to harvest something.

The winter onions were an unsuccessful experiment. Despite being planted before Christmas, they’re only a few weeks ahead of my main onions, so (as I need the space) I’ve decided to dig them up  for use in salads. The lettuce in the greenhouse is also ready to eat. At last, the hungry gap is over.

Although there is substantial growth at the allotment, the biggest change is probably in the greenhouse. Up until now, it was being used to bring on as many seedlings as I could. Hundreds of peas (Alderman and Hurst), beans (Blauhilde and Wisley), leeks, lettuce, chillies and tomatoes have all been brought on under glass.

Gradually, however, most have been hardened off and replanted in the allotment, leaving only the tomatoes and chillies. The toms are getting too big for their pots and need to be placed in grow bags. This means a complete clear-out of everything in the greenhouse – three staging benches, plant pots and bags of compost. From this weekend on, it will devoted to growing only cucumber (they arrived in the post today), chillies and, most importantly of all, lots and lots of tomatoes of varying colours and sizes. Nearly all have been grown from seed, but I’ve also acquired about seven freebie plug plants.

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