Our woodchip path and alternative wheelbarrow

Taking on our plot during winter has meant we have had to cope with a lot of mud. So, we decided early on that we’d like to make a woodchip paths to create areas where we could walk without getting too muddy. Plus paths would help create definite areas within the plot.

One of the challenges was finding a supplier for the woodchip. Andrew rang several local tree surgeons but their woodchip was already spoken for. Luckily, he found a tree surgeon working on a neighbour’s willow tree who was only too happy to let us have the chipped tree. He even delivered it to the allotment site for us, there and then.

Garden Inspirations delivering a huge pile of woodchip to the allotment site

Then all we had to do was get the huge pile of woodchip from the gates to our plot (we are about the furthest plot from the gates!).

Andrew’s condition means that he wouldn’t be able to use a traditional wheelbarrow. We had been considering getting a pull along trolley for his mobility scooter for a little while. Then – just at the right time – we saw a small cart in Robert Dyas that looked perfect. It’s the Draper metal garden cart.

The Draper gardeners cart, filled with woodchip and attached to Andrew's scooter

One of the things that makes it ideal is the handle which fits perfectly to the back of the scooter. Having said that, we do use a bungee to hold it in place  between home and the plot, just to be on the safe side.

The tolley is sturdy – it says it has a load capacity of 150kg. It is also easy to manoeuvre because of its narrow wheelbase.

Of course, it was still hard work to get the woodchip to our plot. Luckily, our friends Richard (Anderson Landscapes) and Elisa (the Secret Garden) were on hand to help out. We are very grateful to them for their continued hard work.

Here’s a progress shot. You’ll notice that we’re laying weed suppressing membrane and that this goes under the path area.

Weed suppressing membrane was laid down before the woodchip

And finally, here’s the path.

A shot of our woodchip path, with weed suppressing membrane underneath

We plan to extend the path down along the furthest edge of the plot to allow easy access for the mobility scooter. And anyone else with wheeled transport.

Sandra pulling the trolley laden with woodchip and tools

Seed planting ruler

The shed we inherited from the previous plot holder(s) may have gone, but some of its contents live on.

One of the things we managed to save is this item:

The seed planting ruler rescued from the old shed

It’s a seed planting ruler, an articulated measuring instrument with holes at varying distances and information stating how far apart various vegetables should be planted.

Unfortunately, it was missing the dibber that goes through the holes and into the soil, marking where to plant the seeds.

So, Andrew made a new one, which he has tied on so that it doesn’t go missing. It’s even got my name on it!

The seed planting ruler with its new dibber

Now, we just have to persuade Pearl that it’s not a cat toy.

Pearl checks out the seed planting ruler to see if it's worth chewing

Getting a heated propagator for the greenhouse

Andrew in the greenhouse with a pot of seeds

It’s been a week since we sowed our first seeds in the greenhouse that our good friend Richard is kindly lending us.

It might be early days but so far there are no signs of life. We had a basic thermometer in the greenhouse and, even though the greenhouse has a tube  heater, we were worried that the temperature was dropping in the evenings and at night below what we needed to germinate our seeds.

On average, plants need a temperature of around 15-20 degrees centigrade to germinate, although some plants may have particular temperature requirements outside this range.

Andrew decided that we needed to raise the temperature under the seeds, so we went in search of a basic propagator. We didn’t want to spend too much money so went to a DIY store rather than a garden centre where we have found prices tend to be higher.

We ended up in Homebase where we found a Stewart essentials propagator. It doesn’t have a thermostat, but the instructions say that it should achieve a temperature of between 10-15 degrees centigrade above the ambient temperature.

We have set up a max/min thermometer with a probe in the propagator to see what temperatures we achieve. We’ll let you know how we get on.

In this video, we set up the propagator and sow some more seeds – including the pot black and rose bianca aubergines that Sandra won from Mr Fothergills.

We had a lot of fun making this video. Be sure to check out the out-takes at the end of the Video!

Sowing our first seeds

We don’t have a garden at Quest for Veg HQ, so we were delighted when our friend Richard offered us the use of his heated greenhouse. He even cleaned it out for us!


This gives us the opportunity to get going with plants that need a little bit of heat to start them off. We decided to begin  with a couple of varieties fo tomato from a packet of Mr Fothergills seeds from the front of the March edition of Grow Your Own magazine.

So here’s Andrew explaining to me how to sow my first tomatoes!

As a reminder, this is why we can’t start seeds on our windowsills:


 

Chitting potatoes – my top 5 questions answered!

Chitting is the process of causing potatoes to sprout before you plant them. But how do you chit and why do you need to do it in the first place?

Why chit?

Most gardeners chit their potatoes but you don’t absolutely have to. If you plant them straight into the ground, all being well, they will grow.

However, chitting allows the potato to develop strong shoots ahead of being planted. By placing the potato in the light, the shoots it develops will be sturdy and green, rather than the leggy white shoots that grow when the potato is placed in the dark.

So chitting gets the potatoes off to a good start and may give you an earlier crop.

How do you chit?

In the video, we mention removing all but two of the developing shoots. Not everyone does this.

The idea is that removing some of the shoots, is that having fewer stems prevents the plant from becoming overcrowded. There is less competition for water, nutrients and light, creating stronger plants that are less susceptible to pests and diseases. And more of the plant’s energy will go into creating a better crop of potatoes.

As with many things in gardening, whether you remove shoots or not may simply depend on what you learned with you first started to grow. So, this year we are going to try growing half our crop with all the shoots that develop, and half where we leave only two in place. We’ll let you know how we get on in a later blog.

Whatever way you go, when the shoots grow to between 1-2cm, they are ready to be planted out.

What if you set out your seed potatoes and some are the wrong way up?

They’ll still sprout. The plant is preprogrammed to know which way is up, so they’ll send out shoots which will seek to grow up. You may want to lift your potatoes while they’re chitting to check them for white shoots, and turn them the right way up.

Why use seed potatoes rather than just growing from potatoes bought in the supermarket?

Potatoes are susceptible to many viral diseases which can be carried over from one year to the next. This is why it is a good idea to buy seed potatoes.

When you buy seed potatoes, you are paying for certified crop. This means that you are buying named varieties grown in special conditions, and that they are inspected and tested to ensure quality and are then certified as disease free.

Potatoes grown for food are just not produced and stored in the same way. They may also have been treated with sprout inhibitors or to have been irradiated, which delays or eliminates sprouting. So, even if you can get them to sprout, you are likely to find that the plants don’t have the same vigor and/or produce a poor quality harvest.

Can you cut up your seed potato to create more plants?

You can although there is a risk of introducing disease through the cut surface. You can manage that by using an antifungal treatment – a light dusting of yellow sulphur can help (not too much).

If you decide to cut your potatoes, wait until you’re ready to plant them out. When you divide them, make sure that each piece has a couple of shoots (chits).

My seed potatoes have gone wrinkly. Does that mean they’re no good?

As long as they were not wrinkly before chitting, they should be fine. Seed potatoes can go wrinkly during the chitting process because the shoots begin photosynthesising. This involves giving off water and oxygen, and the potato shrinks but the skin does not, making them appear wrinkled. But the potato should still be good to plant out.

Pearl stakes her claim on the window sill

Pearl stakes her claim on the window sill

Got a question not answered here?

We hope you’ve found this helpful. If you have a question not answered here, post it in the reply box and we’ll do our best to answer it.

#mygardenrightnow

This weekend we took part in the #mygardenrightnow garden bloggers meme.

Michelle Chapman of the Veg Plotting blog suggested that we all take a photo of ourselves in our garden (or allotment) at some point over the weekend of 4-5 March 2017. The idea was to show what everyone’s garden looks like at the end of winter.

So here we are on the Quest For Veg plot.

Andrew and Sandra posing with recently aquired herbs in front of the Quest for Veg raised beds

Posing with recently acquired herbs in front of our raised beds

 

Facing the other way with the empty plot behind us

To be honest, it was a flying visit because we had a big family birthday on the Saturday and a greenhouse to sort out on the Sunday (more of which later). So, we just popped in to check on our rhubarb and the half a dozen herb plants that we bought last weekend. And to pull faces at the one or two weeds daring to show themselves on our freshly weeded ground!

If you want to see what other participants were up to, go to Twitter or Instagram and search for #mygardenrightnow. Enjoy!

A weeding party and a tour of the plot

We held another weeding party to help us clear the second half of the plot. You can see how we got on here:

We are very grateful to:

The generous contribution of their time has meant that we have accomplished in a few short weeks, something that would have taken the two of us months and months. They were also able to step in when Andrew was tempted to overdo it so that he didn’t end up hurting himself.

A group shot of the Saturday morning weeding crew

The Saturday morning weeding crew

From here, we were planning to let the remaining weeds grow a bit and spray them with a glyphosate based herbicide. But we are now thinking that we will skip this step and simply cover the ground with a geotextile. This is because we don’t want to wait for the weeds to grow, we want to get on with it!

Here is a tour of the plot showing where we’ve got to at this point:

Coping with couch grass

Although couch grass (pronounced coo-ch, Latin name Elymus repens sometimes known as Agropyron repens) is said to have uses in herbal medicine, most gardeners and allotment holders will know it as an invasive weed that is difficult to control.

Our own little plot is riddled with it.

It might seem as though you’re fighting a losing battle when it comes to couch grass, but with perseverance and a little bit of understanding about how it grows and survives, it is possible to keep it at bay. (Although that is likely to take us many years of vigilant work!)

Why is it a problem?

Couch grass grows rapidly through the top layer of soil, creating a thick mat of roots, removing water and nutrients from the soil and making it difficult to plant other things.

Like all plants, it exudes chemicals to help it survive and some of these are poisonous to other plants. These toxic chemicals are known as phytotoxins and are designed to prevent other plants thriving nearby.

A dense mat of couch grass roots

Couch grass creates a thick mat of roots making it difficult for other things to grow

How does it spread?

Couch grass may look like just another grass, but it is what happens under the soil surface that makes it such a problem.

Anatomy drawing of couch grass

The plant grows on a modified underground stem, called a rhizome. At various places along the rhizome, it sends out roots and shoots (the above ground stem, known as the culm, and its leaves).

The points on the rhizome where the plant grows roots and shoots are known as nodes. The areas between the nodes are known as internodes.

The internode sections grow fast, extending the distance between nodes and spreading the plant further. Not only that, nodes can divide, creating new rhizomes – a process known as tillering.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, even the smallest section of  a rhizome with a node can develop and become a new plant. You might pull out a clump of the grass, but leave behind any nodes, and new plants will follow.

So, it is easy to see how a single plant can quickly invade a garden, or move from a neglected allotment plot or overgrown path into well cultivated beds.

And, of course, couch grass produces seed which can also lead to new plants. However, the seeds are a secondary method of propagation because each plant needs another to cross-pollinate with, and the seeds, produced between July and August, are only viable for around 3 years.

The plot next to ours is riddled with couch grass which means that we will be fighting the spread of couch grass coming from there, also.

A neighbouring allotment covered in couch grass, various meadow grasses and other weeds

A neighbouring allotment covered in couch grass, various meadow grasses and other weeds

Controlling couch grass

Weed-killing chemicals or herbicides

Herbicides for couch grass work in two main ways – contact action or translocated action.

Contact action herbicides act by killing the parts of the plant that they come into contact with – usually above  ground. These types of herbicides can be a good way to control annual weeds but they do affect any plants they come into contact with such as your prized flowers or vegetable plants.

Contact action herbicides may be chemical in origin or made from natural fatty acids. However, although natural fatty acids are sometimes regarded as natural or organic, bear in mind that they are still chemicals.

Translocated action herbicides are applied to the above ground part of the plants where they are absorbed and translocated to the root system. They then act on and kill root cells, therefore killing the plant. These may also be known as systemic herbicides.

Cultural methods

Cultural methods are any means not using chemical or biological controls.

Weeding – loosen the soil and remove the rhizomes. It is good practice is to use a fork as you can easily chop through the rhizomes with a spade, inadvertently creating more plants. You might want to choose a fork with more prongs, especially with a sandy soil or you could try using a soil sieve. I think we’ll be doing a lot of weeding!

Dealing with the rhizomes – allow them to dry out and die by laying them out in the sun on a dry path or suspended on metal grid or fine wire mesh. When totally dried, they can be composted. This not always as easy as it sounds.

Incinerate them – stick them on a bonfire or in a garden incinerator.

Bag them and send to garden waste or recycling centre.

Some gardeners suggest that burying couch grass about half a metre below the soils is an effective way of killing the plant and removing the problem. The theory is that because couch grass rhizomes live in the top 150-200mm of the soil, burying them at or below 500mm (perhaps in a bean trench) will prevent them from reappearing. However, there is a danger that this could affect the plants you are trying to grow in that area because of the phytotoxins given off by a high concentration of decomposing couch grass roots and rhizomes.

Mulching

The idea with mulching is to cover the soil, depriving weeds of light so that they become weakened or die altogether.

Natural materials – loose natural materials, such as bark chippings, can sometimes be successful. It should be applied at least 100mm deep to exclude the light.

Manufactured materials can be quite successful excluding the light and controlling weeds. These might include cardboard or plastic sheets. But you need to select your material carefully. Many allotment gardeners use tarpaulins or other plastic sheets that don’t just exclude light, they also exclude water and prevent air movement, having a detrimental effect on the soil as a living biome by killing soil organisms.

You can get specialist weed suppressing membranes, which exclude light while still allowing movement of air and water. This is likely to be the route we will take.

If you have a problem with the idea of covering your allotment with plastic, you might want to consider cardboard, which will eventually rot down providing more nutrient for the soil. But you may need to check on any glue used or whether it is printed with inks containing plastics.

Some people cover their allotments in old carpet. You could try this but only if it is made from natural materials – a wool carpet with a hessian backing, the older the better because newer carpets are likely to have been treated with preservatives.  Modern acrylic carpets with plastic backings may mean you’re digging bits of plastic out of your soil for years to come.  They may also contaminate the soil with chemicals as they degrade.

Grassing down

In a garden situation, you could try turning the affected areas into lawn and keeping it close mown until the weed is gone. But that may take some time, is not always a successful method for couch grass, and isn’t practical for an allotment situation.

Learn more

The RHS website has some excellent information about couch grass including a fact sheet to download on what weedkillers are available to the gardener.

A massive pile of weed roots dug out from about a third of the allotment

The tip of the iceberg: a huge pile of weed roots, hand dug out of about half of the allotment.

Saturday morning weeding party

Our plot is not big – at about 100 square metres; it’s considered a mini plot as it is not quite a half plot size. Nevertheless, it’s quite a lot for us to manage. So, we were very grateful when our good friends from The Secret Garden offered to help.

We decided to hold a weeding party. We started the day with a preparatory picnic of warm bacon rolls and flasks of hot tea and coffee to get us ready for the task ahead.

Elisa and Rodney from The Secret Garden, and Sandra weeding the plot

Elisa and Rodney from The Secret Garden, and Sandra hard at work

Elisa, Rodney and Sandra started at the far end of the plot, while Andrew concentrated on the raised areas where the shed and old compost heaps used to be.

In three hours, we managed to get about half the plot weeded. And we found all sorts of nasties including bramble, dandelion, couch grass, nettle, green alkanet, bindweed, Japanese ground elder and raspberry. We also found a few old potatoes and a rhubarb crown!

A massive pile of weed roots dug out from about a third of the allotment

Our haul of weed roots from between a third and half the plot.

A long string of weeds being held up for examination - couch grass, bindweed and green alkanet

From the raised area, Andrew pulled out this huge string of weed that has a little bit of nettle, couch grass, alkanet and bindweed!

A very long string of couch grass weed and a dandelion which have been dug up

Prisoners of war – a dandelion and a couch grass root that was probably about half a metre long

A rhubarb crown, beginning to sprout

Lucky find! In among the weed roots, we uncovered a rhubarb crown beginning its spring growth

Here we are posing with our morning’s haul.

Andrew, Sandra and Elisa pose in front of a huge pile of weeds that have been dug out of the ground

Posing with our morning’s haul.

We managed between a third and a half of the allotment. We also,

  • smoothed out the bits of the plot we didn’t managed to weed so that it wasn’t quite a treacherous to walk on
  • marked out the boundary of our plot so we know what we’ve got to work on
  • marked out the path between our plot and the untended neighbouring plot and began to make the path more level and even so that it is safer for Andrew to negotiate

Below is a before and after shot. We still need to work on the half closest to the camera. But that’s a job for another day.

A before and after shot of the allotment

Above:the ground is very uneven from being turned over by the digger. Below: the sun is out and the plot is beginning to look good

And here is a shot taken from more or less the same spot as a reminder of where we started:

A shot of our new allotment - overgrown with brambles, other weeds and large shrubs, and with a scattering of rubbish and abandoned garden equipment

A visit to Sutton Community Farm

By chance, I spotted a tweet announcing an open day at Sutton Community Farm.

Sutton Community Farm tweet announcing the open day

We thought this might provide a useful learning opportunity to help with the new allotment, and we wanted to check out what facilities they had. When it started snowing, we were a bit apprehensive but we decided not to let that put us off our visit.

Sutton Community Farm is a 7-acre community-owned farm – there are 140 member share owners. It was set up in 2010 “to increase access to fresh, healthy, sustainable food and provide a shared space for people to cultivate skills, get exercise and make new friends.”

Despite the inclement weather, Joris Gunawardena, Farm Director and Head of Production, took us on a tour of the farm. We started in the polytunnels.

In the first tunnel, Joris showed us their mushroom growing trial. Here he is with a crop of oyster mushrooms, which are grown in spent coffee grounds that come from Caffè Nero in Wallington.

Joris Gunawardena shows off oyster mushrooms in a polytunnel at Sutton Community Farm

Behind him you can see covered shelves where the mushrooms are being grown. This mini mushroom tent has a sonic fogger to keep the atmosphere moist. (Before they get to this stage, they start their life in the dark – in a cupboard.)

Mushroom growing is a new venture for the farm – they are trying to understand the process with a view to scaling it up. It was fascinating to see but a little beyond our Quest for Veg allotment plot capabilities (for now!).

Using polytunnels allows them to extend their season. Joris told us that they can increase the yield of a tomato plant by 100 per cent. He also told us that they are the most productive community farm in London. Last year their yield was 17 tons of produce. Most of it goes to their veg box scheme although 25 per cent went to restaurants, and they are hoping to expand the restaurant side.

Pak choi (below) is a good crop because it grows very fast. allowing them to harvest and replant in quick succession.

Pak choi at various stages of growth in a polytunnel at Sutton Community Farm

Pak choi at various stags of growth because it has been harvested and replanted a bit at a time.

A huge amount of what they grow is produced using Mypex. To stop it fraying, they use a blow torch to cut holes in the fabric where the plants are to grow and where they want to put the automatic watering system.

Mypex is often used in organic systems as a weed control mechanism. It is something we are planning to use on our plot. Andrew is also planning an automatic watering system. So it was great to see both of these in action.

Below  you can see winter perslane on its second flush of leaves, having been harvested once.

Winter perslane grown through Mypex with an automatic watering system

Winter perslane or miners’ lettuce (Claytonia) grown through a weed-suppressing membrane.

Outside it was a bitterly cold day. Kale and the remains of a sprout harvest are kept under wraps to protect.

Kale and sprouts under a protective cover

Kale and sprouts under a protective cover.

Despite the freezing temperatures and occasional snowflakes, a few brave souls worked to clear beds ready for the coming season.

Two hardy souls brave the freezing temperatures to get beds ready for the coming season

The farm relies on volunteer support. Between 50-80 people help out each week with everything from administration and veg box preparation to harvesting and site maintenance.

They have a rigorous crop schedule so that everyone knows what jobs need to be done.

Part of the crop schedule showing the plan for legumes, roots and green manure

Part of the crop schedule showing the plan for legumes, roots and green manure.

The soil at Sutton Community Farm is sand over chalk meaning that it has a tendency to dry out. This can give them problems with crops such as garlic which need a good supply of water. So they grow it under a membrane to help keep moisture in and grow an early purple variety of garlic to increase their chance of success.

An early variety of garlic grown under mypex

An early variety of garlic grown using Mypex.

The tour ended with a quick look at colourful raised herb beds.

Colourful raised herb beds - with a light covering of snow

Colourful raised herb beds – with a light covering of snow

But, sadly, it really was too cold for us to linger too long. We’ll need to visit again in the warmer weather.

We’d like to say a big thank you to Joris and the team for making us feel so welcome.

A snow dusted cold frame

A very cold cold frame.