Setting up our tunnel cloche

It had no instructions, some of the parts were missing and the box had been partially eaten by snails.

But we weren’t going to let those sorts of details put us off trying to erect the tunnel cloche we inherited from the previous plot holder.

And besides, the greenhouse was overflowing with plants and the risk of frost diminishing daily. It was time to think about moving our plants to the plot. We would need a structure to give them a little bit of protection while they were hardening off.

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Preventing damping off disease

A zinnia seedlings which has gone brown at the base of its stem

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It looks like we’ve been visited by damping off disease. We found this little zinnia seedling flopped over, and going brown from the base of the stem upwards.

It looks as though we have been lucky in that we only seem to have lost three zinnia seedlings to date. It can wipe out a patch of seedlings in a tray or spread to the whole tray or beyond.

What causes damping off?

Damping off is caused by several types of organism, particularly certain types of fungi and bacteria. They live in the soil and are usually carried by water.

You might see fine fluffy white threads of fungus on the surface of the compost or on the affected seedlings. But sometimes the only thing you’ll see is the dead or dying seedlings. Or you may find that a tray of seeds has only come up in patches because the rest have been affected as they germinate.

The organisms that cause the disease are widespread in soil so it can affect seedlings planted outside. But it is the growing conditions that we create in the greenhouse that can encourage it to spread: damp, warm, humid conditions with a high concentration of seeds.

What can you do to prevent or cure damping off?

It used to be that there was a copper-based treatment but this was deregulated in 2012. So, there are now no longer any treatments available for the domestic gardener in the UK.

What you can do is try to reduce the likelihood of it occurring with a bit of good housekeeping. Here are our top tips:

Do

  • Disinfect the greenhouse regularly using a product suitable for a garden situation – in other words one that won’t poison your plants. For example, Citrox*, Vitax Greenhouse Disinfectant* or Jeyes fluid*.
  • Wash/disinfect pots, trays, tubs, capillary matting, etc thoroughly before you reuse them
  • Use commercial compost – although not entirely sterile, the chances of infection are greatly reduced
  • Watch your temperature control – use a raised temperature for germination, move seedlings to an area with a lower temperature for growing on

Don’t

  • Use rain water or water from water butts
  • Reuse compost
  • Plant seedlings too densely – check the packets for advice on spacing for each variety
  • Over water

*Amazon affiliate links – you can click to buy and we may get a small percentage, but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. Thank you for your support.

The soil miller and the oscillating hoe

We were very fortunate to have been given two tools for cultivating the soil and hoeing by our good friend David.

In this video, Andrew talks about how to clean and care for your tools, and we show them both in action.

The soil miller

Close up of the head of a Wolf Garten soil miller
The soil miller is a Wolf Garten product. With its star shaped wheels, it looks fabulously medieval! They are designed to break down the soil as you work it back and forth, and a rear blade that cuts through any weeds.

Not only that, but the soil miller comes from the Wolf Garten multi-change tool range, which comprises a selection of handles and tool heads. Having got a handle we could potentially explore other tool heads in the range.

The oscillating hoe

Close up of the head of an oscillating hoe
Also known as the stirrup hoe, the swivel hoe or the reciprocating hoe. The stirrup shaped head has a swinging motion that keeps it at the right angle. It should have a sharp edge that cuts through weeds as you move it back and forth through the top layer of soil.

It should be self sharpening. We cleaned ours up and Andrew gave the edge a bit of a sharpen. Hopefully, that’s all we need to do to keep it in good working order.

How to prick out seedlings

In this video, Andrew demonstrates how to handle seedlings during pricking out.

Aim to prick out seedlings as soon as you can get hold of a seed leaf (called a cotyledon). That is the only part of the seedling you should handle. This is because the cotyledons are very hardy. Other parts of the seedling can be damaged easily which may at best put the plant under stress, and at worst damage or even kill the seedling.

Choose a container that is going to be big enough to allow them to grow to the size you want for planting out into their final position. We used a range of cells trays and pots depending on the size the plant is likely to grow to – pumpkins went in larger pots than alpine strawberries!

The compost used for pricking out can be potting or universal /multi purpose compost. We use peat free.

When you have potted up your seedlings, give them a good watering, and water regularly. When the plant shows signs of growth, such as developing more leaves, you should consider adding a fertiliser to encourage root growth.

Andrew holding a cell tray containing newly pricked out zinnia seedlings
The seedlings shown in the video are Zinnia Purple Prince that Andrew won from Mr Fothergill.

Dandelion – friend or foe?

image of a dandilion flower in bloom

Say dandelion to most gardeners and they’ll say weed right back to you. Think of a commercial weed control chemical and the chances are it will have the picture of a dandelion on it. But is this reputation deserved? Is it time to think about growing dandelions as a crop?

What’s in a name?

Dandelions have a long history. They have been recorded in cultivation for at least 1100 years. Their Latin name is Taraxacum officinale, with Taraxacum thought to originate from their medieval Persian name tarashaquq.

The officianale bit of the name indicates the plant has been regarded as an official herb either culinary or medicinal. Indeed they are said to contribute, among other things, to liver health, strong bones, skin health, gall bladder function, reduced acne, weight loss, lowering diabetes, maintaining blood pressure, having a diuretic action,  and treating  jaundice, anaemia, constipation! It is even purported that they have anti-cancer properties.

While we’re talking about names, dandelion comes from their French name dent-de-lion or lion’s teeth, a name inspired by their long irregular leaves with jagged tooth-shaped edges.

How to use

Dandelions are said to have both medicinal and culinary uses. Their roots, leaves and flowers can all be eaten.

But it is worth noting that their milky sap may be a skin irritant and in severe cases could possibly cause contact dermatitis after handling. Dandelion pollen has been known, on rare occasions, to cause allergic reactions when eaten, or adverse skin reactions in sensitive individuals.

This only highlights that you need to take care when dealing with plant material. Wear gloves and try a little before diving right in and munching away, are sensible precautions.

Feeling brave? Read on.

dandilion flower opening with an out of focus flower in the background

Beverages

Dandelion roots can be roasted and ground, and used to make a caffeine-free dandelion coffee. This is well worth the effort, as it tastes very good. Andrew has made it while out camping. Simply collect some roots, give them a good wash and roast them in a tin can until they are brown and crumbly (but not black as this will spoil the taste). Break the roasted roots into small chips (about the size of instant coffee granules) and pour boiling water over them. Let this brew for a little while and strain. Enjoy as it is, or add milk and sugar to taste.

Not planning on going camping? You can make this coffee in your kitchen at home as described in this Rangers blog article.

Dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock, and is one of the ingredients of root beer. You can still buy these beverages in the UK but it can be hard to find versions that are true to the traditional recipe.

One place where you can is a temperance bar in Rawtenstall, Lancashire. You can enjoy a number of root based drinks at Fitzpatrick’s Temperance Bar & Emporium is said to be Britain’s last original temperance bar. Their botanically brewed vintage-recipe beverages can purchased on line.

Not following the temperance root? The flower petals, along with other ingredients, usually including citrus, are used to make dandelion wine.

In salads

Dandelion leaves are packed full of vitamins (A,C and K) and minerals (calcium, potassium, iron and manganese).

Their leaves are delicacies eaten mostly in salads and sandwiches. If you leave their taproot intact, you can harvest the leaves and they will grow more.

There are loads of salad recipes on the internet or in books. We simply add a few dandelion leaves to our salad, as you can see here:


Alternatively, try dressing your carefully washed dandelion leaves with a simple vinaigrette, before stirring through some pan fried shallots and smoked lardons, and finishing with quartered boiled eggs.

We liked this video on preparing dandelion leaves for a salad from Great Depression Cooking:

The leaves have a slightly bitter taste. If this is not to your liking, you could try a little horticultural blanching to make them more palatable. This is blanching their leaves by excluding light. You can do this for as little as two days, although if you wish to completely blanch them and achieve a harvest of white leaves, then cover for a longer period. Worth a try  to see how this affects the taste.

Another method of removing some of the bitterness, is blanching with hot water in the kitchen.  Just bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Toss in the dandelion greens; blanch for 1-2 minutes. Remove and plunge into an ice bath. Remove from the ice bath and squeeze as much water from the leaves as you can; use as you would any cooked green.

We were also intrigued by this recipe for Dandelion Pumpkin Seed Pesto from Megan Gordon on Kitchn.

We have converted the recipe amounts for the UK, but you can find the US measurements on the Kitchn site.

Makes about 250 ml

190 ml unsalted hulled (green) pumpkin seeds
3 garlic gloves, crushed
6-7 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan
1 bunch dandelion greens (about 2 cups, loosely packed)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
120ml extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 170°c. Pour the pumpkin seeds onto a shallow-rimmed baking sheet and roast until just fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Put the garlic and pumpkin seeds together in a food processor until very finely chopped, continue adding parmesan cheese, dandelion greens, and lemon juice and process continuously until combined. Stop the processor every now and again to scrape down the sides of the bowl. The pesto will be very thick after awhile then slowly pour in the olive oil and process until the pesto is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

dandelion with two flowers and a rosette of leaves, seen from above

Foraging and collecting dandelions

Like any wild plant, there are a few rules you need to stick to when collecting.

You must:

  • have permission from the landowner
  • clearly identify the plant.
  • ensure that what you are collecting is not a rare or endangered plant
  • only remove enough to allow the plant to continue to grow/seed.

Most dandelions in the UK are likely to be the bog standard Taraxacum officinale that pop up everywhere. If you are able, place a bucket on top of the plant(s) a couple of days before collecting to helps to reduce the bitterness of the leaves and collect the younger leaves from the centre of the rosette.

Cultivation

Dandelions are herbaceous perennial plants with a height and spread of up to 40 x 40 cm.

There are about 60 species and they bear white, yellow to orange flowers during spring and autumn. You can see some of the different flower types on this Wikipedia page.

Some varieties are grown commercially, mostly in southern Europe, especially France and Italy. There are around three cultivated varieties that can be sourced from the links below.

Taraxacum officinale – the bog standard dandelion. Available from Emorsgate seeds  and Wildflowers UK.

dandilion flower, bud and leaves

Thick-leaved dandelion, available from Chiltern Seeds. It is easy, vigorous and quick growing with large, thick, dark green leaves. It can be eaten or drunk as described above. For salads, a little horticultural blanching might be in order to make them more succulent plant by blanching the hearts either earthing up or tying the leaves together.

Taraxacum pseudoroseum available from Chiltern seeds. A dandelion with a difference! With this you can expect the usual rosette of green leaves, but unexpectedly it bears rather appealing, bicolored, fluffy flowers of pink with yellow centres.

Taraxacum rubrifolium available from Chiltern seeds. An unusual dwarf relative of the humble dandelion, it forms a small flat rosette of the deepest purple and has contrasting yellow dandelion flowers on short stems.

It is also possible to find other varieties from online sellers based in other countries. And when you are on holiday, you are allowed to bring five packets of retail seeds into the UK for your own use. For more details on importing plants and plant material check out this site.

Of course, some readers might have a problem with the import of foreign species of ‘weeds’ that might out-compete our own native plants. A huge number of garden plants were imported from abroad and some of those such as Rhododendron ponticum, have gone on to become invasive weeds.

As with anything you have on your land – plants or animals – you must not allow it to escape and cause harm.

Having said all that, here is a small selection of available seeds we thought were interesting:

Pissenlit à Cœur Plein amélioré yields an abundant crop without taking up much ground, and tends to blanch itself naturally, due to its clumping growth habit.

Pissenlit vert de Montmagny is a large-leaved, vigorous grower, which matures early.

Taraxacum albidum – very similar to the humble dandelion save for the creamy while flowers.

Not convinced?

If you do want to get rid of your dandelions, there are two options – chemical control and cultural control.

Chemical control

Why do the herbicide manufacturers concentrate on dandelions in the advertising? Probably because control can be achieved easily. There are a number of  products available including

lawn weed killers and Glyphosate based products. For information on weedkillers, check out the advice leaflet from the RHS.

Cultural controls

Techniques include:

  • excluding the light by mulching to a depth of 100mm or 4″ or more
  • removing by digging out – this can be done by using a fork to loosen the soil or in some cases the turf around the plant and slowly and carefully removing the whole plant intact

There are a number of specialist tools available for the job, including the one demonstrated in this video by ChrisFX.

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

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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.

The quest for a hand cultivator 

Andrew on the allotment with a hand cultivator

So here’s Andrew with the first tool we’ve bought for our new Quest for Veg allotment plot – the hand cultivator.

It took us all day to buy it. We started in a local hardware store where they had a decent selection of tools – including the cultivator we actually ended up buying. But it wasn’t quite what Andrew wanted.

He was hoping for one with longer prongs and ideally five rather than three.

So we went to another local hardware store where they had no cultivators at all and didn’t know what we were talking about.

They did, however, have something we hadn’t seen before. It was fork with a sharp metal edge joining up the ends of its tines. It looked like a fork with braces on its teeth.

Apparently it’s a spork – a cross between a spade and a fork. We were tempted but decided to continue our quest for the cultivator.

We then tried a garden centre. It appeared to have lots of tools but, on closer inspection, the display was made up of about four sections, each for a different supplier showing the same limited range of tools with one or two variations.

They had one long handled cultivator. But Andrew thought the prongs were at the wrong angle and it was over three times the price of the one at first one we’d seen.

We then spent a very long couple of hours in B&Q. We didn’t find any cultivators but may have identified the shed we want.

And finally Homebase where they only had a short handled cultivator.

So, it was back to the first shop we visited! At least we had the satisfaction of supporting a local independent business.

And then there was just time to end the day with an hour or so at the allotment where Andrew explained how to use the cultivator and set me to work.