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A novice's guide to producing his own food


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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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The plan for 2013

If all goes according to plan...

The figure in brackets is the number of plants I should be able to squeeze in comfortably. More info can her found here

http://gardenplanner.suttons.co.uk/garden-plan.aspx?p=398906

It seems nuts to be writing about my plans for this year when it’s already the middle of April, but winter has been so horribly long I’ve barely been able to get things started.

The tomato seeds are growing in an electric propagator, and the rhubarb is starting to show itself, but that’s about it. Surely winter must be on its way out now, and I’ll be able to get cracking properly.

Not that I’ve been sitting with my feet up. I’ve taken advantage of this weather to give the allotment a proper and thorough digging, removing plenty of perennial weeds along the way, and it’s almost ready for the planting season.

Most of my plans for 2013 simply revolve around crop rotation, but there are one or two significant changes. I now have a dedicated rhubarb plot, with six crowns planted in the autumn. Once established, I should get rhubarb staggered throughout the growing season.

I’ve also removed a row of strawberries and replaced them with rasps. Like the rhubarb, this will take two years before I get a decent crop.

The strawberries were rubbish last year — very little fruit, a lot of it rotten, and the fruit that did make it was often ripe on one side, while yellow on the other. I’ve all but given up on them, and decided to go for raspberries which have been far more successful recently. Besides, Sue prefers them.

Another change has been to the brassicas bed. Last year, half the bed was devoted to cabbages, a quarter to sprouts and a quarter to swedes. Although the cabbages were very successful, no-one wanted to eat them, and they ended up being fed to the hens. The sprouts blew and were no good, so I also gave them to my feathered chums who really adored them. As for the swedes — they would have been eaten, but were very small. I am, however, going to give them another go this year, and see if I can somehow get them bigger.

As for the rest of the brassicas patch — I’m not sure what to do. There’s no point in growing stuff if no-0ne (apart from chickens) eats it, so I might throw the area over to more peas. We’ll see….


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Down to one hive

nuc floor final

Dead bees littering the floor of the nuc

Paid my first visit of the year to the apiary just to see how things were ticking over.   As expected, the nuc hive  (which consisted of three frames of bees) didn’t make it through the winter. The colony was completely dead.

I wasn’t too upset as I knew its chances of survival were very slim. That leaves me with just one colony. Thankfully, it is looking pretty strong. Five frames of bees all snuggled together.

It might still come a cropper as the time when most colonies starve is just at the start of spring when the weather gets warmer, the bees start to fly, but there is nothing to forage. I will have to remain vigilant, and make sure there is food for them.

In other news, I’m hoping to get chickens next week! A new venture for the new year. I’m blowing nearly all my Christmas cash on buying a second-hand coop and run along with eight one-year-old chooks. They will go in the garden, not the allotment, but exactly where has yet to be decided.

I’m majorly excited about this new aspect of my foodie experiment, and have already devoured a couple of copies of the magazine Practical Poultry. Potentially, I could be getting eight eggs a day. Quite a lot, but I’m sure they’ll get used somehow.

Only seven more sleeps to go!


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First sign of life!

photo

Squint at the photo above and you’ll see something which has lifted my spirits no end. Sprouting out of the compost are sweet pea shoots – the first signs of growth for 2013. This means we are coming out the other side of winter, and that a full-time return to the allotment, bees and greenhouse is not far away.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: sweet peas aren’t a veg, but these shoots will eventually be heading down to the allotment once they are bigger (and it is warmer). Last year I tried growing cut flowers for Sue, but they were disappointing. If memory serves, I got one small bunch. This year, I’m going to try sweet peas.  I found a packet stuck to the front of a magazine, and planted them in November. Since then they have been sitting largely ignored (until now!) in the greenhouse.

The sight of some growth got me heading down to the allotment today for the first time in a month  to see how things were getting on. I have been experimenting with growing winter crops for the first time, and most (though not all) seem to be progressing well.

The bed in which onions had been growing in the summer was the first to be cleared last year, so I thought I’d keep the ball rolling and use that space to plant some crops which will be ready to harvest in the spring. I started by planting  winter cabbage, pak choi and lamb’s lettuce seeds straight into half a bed. That quickly turned out to be a failure. As is just about always the case when I sow seeds direct, the weeds took over before the veg itself could grow, and the whole thing was just swamped within weeks.

Much more successful (so far) are the winter onions and garlic. Throwing caution to the wind regarding crop rotation, I planted three types of winter onions in the other half of the onion bed – White, Electric Red and Shenshu, and (in the bed formerly occupied by the courgettes) I planted two types of garlic (Lautrec Wight and Solent Wight). All seem to be doing well, and their delicate green shoots are popping out the ground. If all goes well, the onions and garlic should be ready by May.

Elsewhere, the biggest change has been the digging of a new rhubarb patch. This is located in the last part of the allotment which was uncultivated, and had previously been used to dump weeds and compost. It is just about big enough for six crowns — two each of Victoria, Stockbridge Arrow and Champagne. Of course, this is a long-term investment, and it’ll be 2014 before I’ll be able to harvest any.

The fruit cage has also had a makeover. I’ve ripped out 12 strawberry plants (I hardly got a crop this year), and put in six raspberry canes (Glen Moy). Again it will be two years before I get a harvest.

Next on the agenda is to finish turning over and feeding the soil. However, as it is snowing outside, I’ll need to wait for some better weather. Hopefully, it’ll not be too long….


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My beekeeping year 2012

The bees at Glenesk

The bees at Glenesk

On January 7 I gave a short talk at the Members’ Night of the East Of Scotland Beekeepers’ Association, covering the major highs and lows of 2012. Here it is in full:

The first notable event of 2012 began on May 20. I had two hives and had already noticed that one was bringing in a serious amount of honey, expanding rapidly, and producing queen cells.

It was time to create an artificial swarm  –  my first. I found the queen on the first attempt and popped a queen cage on her and prepared to move her to her new hive.

It was all going well until the cage dropped off, and, to make matters worse, the queen then flew away. That was Crisis No. 1.

Where did she go? Chances are she went back to her hive, but by this time the bees were so disturbed, I had no chance of seeing her, so I shut the hive up.

That was on a Sunday. On the Monday, I returned to see if I could find her. No sign, despite going through the hive twice. I was preparing to go home when I turned round and saw something that rooted me to the spot. There was a huge swarm in a nearby tree. It must’ve been at least three-foot long.

Crisis No. 2. What do I do? I’d never caught a swarm before and didn’t have the right equipment. So, I phoned my mentor. Luckily he was available to help.

Within an hour, we had cut it down, and stuck it in a spare brood box.

My mentor reckoned it was a belter of a swarm which would work like crazy to bring in honey. Furthermore, it would produce astonishing clean and perfect comb.

This was going to be great, I thought. Three hives all going like crazy, bringing me honey. I might even have some to sell.

The following day at work, I got a very confused message from my son. Someone had a swarm in their chimney, and they thought it was mine. Crisis No. 3.  I couldn’t understand it. I knew one of my colonies had already swarmed, and the other wasn’t ready to. Perhaps they weren’t my bees. Continue reading


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Late as usual! I’m finally getting around to posting a video I shot over a month ago.

It was taken just as the tomatoes were ripening, and  as I write this the crop is all but over, and  I’m starting to tidy the greenhouse up for winter.

There are a few straggly tomatoes left on the vines, but most are green and/or rotting. However, at the peak of the tomato glut I did try drying about 30 or 40 tomatoes in the oven, and then storing them in olive oil.

A great hit! Absolutely lovely, and once again it puts the shop-bought rubbish to shame.

 


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Video Update No. 1

The start of the onion harvest. Eventually there will be enough for months and months — if they don’t rot first

Time for another overlong video about my allotment (It’s my blog, so I’ll do as I please).  Last year I posted a clip showing it at its peak, and by way of comparison, I decided to repeat the process again.

This year’s was shot just before I started to harvest some of the crops, and as I write this bare patches of earth are starting to appear again as I start digging up potatoes and onions. Soon the growing season will be over — but I have plans for the winter. More details to follow in due course.

In the meantime, sit back, relax and try not to fall asleep …


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The swarm chaser

The first swarm. A terrifying thing of beauty

It was only nine days ago that the weather was so rubbish I thought it was going to be a disastrous year for bees. Since then, the heat has rocketed, my bees are going like stink, and I have had four major crises in eight days. I’m knackered.

It all began on Sunday, May 20. I had already noticed that one hive was bringing in a serious amount of honey, expanding rapidly, and producing queen cells.

It was time to create an artificial swarm.

When a colony expands quickly in the spring, it soon outgrows the  hive, and so decides to swarm. It initiates the process by created new queens, and it is at the point before they hatch that a beekeeper has to act. By creating an artificial warm, a beekeeper will get rid of the colony’s urge to move home. Plus he gets an extra colony into the bargain.

The first thing I had to do was find the queen. It’s not something I’m great at, but I saw her first time. Brilliant.

I popped a queen cage on her and prepared to move her to her new hive. The rest of the flying bees would follow.

It was all going well until the cage dropped off, and, to make matters worse, the queen then flew away. That was Crisis No. 1.

Where did she go? Chances are she went back to her hive, but by this time the bees were so disturbed, I had no chance of seeing her, so I shut the hive up.

That was on the Sunday. On the Monday, I returned to see if I could find her. No sign, despite going through the hive twice. I was preparing to go home when I turned round and saw something that rooted me to the spot. There was a huge swarm in a nearby tree. It must’ve been a least three-foot long.

Crisis No. 2. What do I do? I’d never caught a swarm before and didn’t have the right equipment. So, I phoned my mentor. Luckily he was available to help.

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Listen, this is how it is going to be …

I have a plan.

Last year I had a plan too, but it didn’t work out. Neither did the previous year’s. This year will be different, though, because for the first time I am in complete control of the allotment. All I need to do is keep it that way.

There is one major alteration to what I aim to produce. I’m going to start growing flowers (top left, in the salad bed). The idea being, after spending a little too long at the allotment, I’ll surprise my wife with a bunch just to show I appreciate her putting up with my “latest craze” (her words). However, I was so excited by the idea that I immediately spilled the beans as soon as the seeds arrived through the post. Still, it’s the thought.

The rest of the allotment is pretty much dictated by crop rotation. The potatoes go where the carrots were, the carrots where the Brassicas were, and so on.

The spuds, though, will be done slightly differently. Instead of splitting the bed into four sections (salad, first earlies, second earlies and maincrop), I’m just going for the maincrop. The yield is greater, and I’d like to see my potatoes last for at least half a year (we go through a lot).

Oh, and I’ve moved the leeks from their own patch to beside the carrots. Technically, of course, leeks should be in the onion bed, but it’s full, so I’m gonna bend the rules a smidge.

As I write this, most of the potatoes are already in the ground, as are the flowers, lettuces and some carrots. Plenty of work lies ahead, as the onions are sprouting in the greenhouse, alongside the peas, beans and leeks.I just love this time of year and seeing the first plants pop out of the soil. Truly exciting. The icing on the cake, though, is one of my hives is already stuffed with bees, so I’ve put a super on top to collect honey. The Uchman food machine is finally cranking into gear!


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A new year, and a new milestone

The fruit cage was a weedy disgrace. Over the winter I finally managed to clear it, and for the first time, the allotment is pretty much weed-free and under my control.

It’s been a fantastic winter. Last year I was unable to put a spade in the ground because it was so cold. This year, however, as it’s been so mild, I’ve made it to the allotment almost every weekend except for Christmas.

This lucky streak has meant I’ve really been able to really get torn into giving the beds a good digging over  and get rid of those perennial weeds, the main offender being marestail (or rack weed). The worst affected area was the fruitcage. It was so full of weeds it almost formed a turf. When I look at it now, I’m surprised I got any strawberries last year. The plants must have been nearly choked.

Fortunately, the mild winter has meant I’ve been able to deal with the fruitcage properly. I dug out all the strawberry plants just before and winter, and let them rest in a spare bed. Then it was down to the hard work. It took several weekends and many hours just to dig it over once, it was in such a mess. After that I meant through it all again TWICE with a fork to get the remainder out. It won’t be completely weed-free, but should be manageable this coming summer. I’m expecting a good crop.

For the first time since I got the allotment two years ago, I can now say it is pretty much in the shape I wanted it. Everything has been dug over properly, and is as weed-free as can reasonably be expected for someone who is taking the organic approach. I really hope the marestail will only  be a fraction of what it was. My biggest headache is now under control. The job now is to keep it that way.

In the midst of all this I got six tons of compost delivered. This is largely due to the hard work of another allotmenteer — he persuaded  Dundee City Council to drop off ten tons of its highly recommended Discovery Compost. My share cost £80, and was enough for one ton of compost per bed. That’s gotta do some good.

First, however, there was a major hurdle. As the truck had to drop the compost off in a communal area, we had to move it very quickly. Unfortunately, our delivery didn’t impress one grower who took immediate exception and started a shouting match. This is despite the fact that he had had a NINE-ton delivery to the exact same spot a few months earlier. Some folk, eh? Continue reading