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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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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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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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What a weekend!

The quail -- well five of them -- safety at home in our garden

The quail — well five of them — safety at home in our garden

It’s Sunday evening, and I’m reflecting on a weekend that was a bit hectic, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. The rewards are starting to reveal themselves after all the hard work I’ve put in over the last few months.

Saturday began with an 8am start. Janek and I were driving to the village of Dollar (almost 55 miles away) to collect six Japanese quail. My three boys had decided to get them for me as a Father’s Day gift. Janek had seen an allotment holder with quail, and reckoned I’d like some too. A nice thought.

The sun broke cover by the time we left Dundee, and most of the day was gloriously hot. The drive to Dollar was quick as Janek and I chatted quite a bit (I rarely see him). We found the farm easily enough, and collected the quail in a pet carrier. Lovely little birds, and they make a soothing cooing noise. Although they are ground-dwellers, you look after them in the same way as chickens.

Back home, I transferred my new wee pals into an ark I had bought for the chickens (but never used). After cowering in the shade for a bit, they soon ventured out.

In the afternoon, I visited the pet shop in Monifieth, and bought the quail two little houses (which are meant for small rabbits). They seemed to like them, as they provided more cover. I think I’m right in saying that quail traditionally live on forest floors, so they like being out of the sun.

On Sunday, Janek accompanied me again. This time to check the bees. It was his first-ever visit , and he was (naturally) quite wary. But he did OK, remained calm and didn’t get stung.

My main hive is absolutely chock-full of bees. I’ve never seen so many. And they’re bringing in more honey. The super is getting heavy for a second time — something that has never happened to me before. I’ll keep this honey for the bees, and let them use it over the winter.

The nucleus hive at the apiary (the other is at the allotment) is also doing well. Plenty of bees about to hatch. I’ll have to “upgrade” the nuc to a full brood box soon.

On our way home Janek and I decided to drop in on the allotment. All of a sudden everything seems to be becoming ready at the plot. The two of us spent the next two hours harvesting, and between us gathered the first potatoes (purple majesty), red and white onions, two types of garlic, courgettes, broad beans, two types of peas, a few raspberries, even fewer Tayberries, but a massive 5lbs of strawberries. Oh, and an absolutely huge bunch of sweet peas for Sue.

The strawberries have been stunning this year (they’re even good from the shops), and I think I have harvested about 7lbs so far. There will be more to come, but I suspect today was the peak.

Back at the house, I spread the onions out to dry, and gave Sue a hand as she shelled the beans and peas.

After tea (and an amazing snooze), I zipped back to the allotment to check on the nucleus hive there. It’s also doing great. Although it has not grown as strong as the other nuc, it does have sealed brood. That’s a sign that I can move it back to the apiary. Mission accomplished!

This evening has been spent preparing the strawberries to make jam, making potato and courgette soup, and using a couple of bulbs (yes, bulbs) of garlic to make guacamole.

That’s the end to a perfect weekend. Time to put my feet up and pour myself a whisky.


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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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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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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!