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.

Planting our first earlies

Here we go. Second week of April. Chitted potatoes ready to be planted. Lots of seeds that can be sown directly into the soil. Bring it on.

Chitted potatoes on the kitchen work surface
We started the day full of hope and ambition. What can I say? It was a lot harder than anticipated.

Part of the problem was, of course, the weeds. We uncovered the planting area only to see a host fresh weed shoots.

We rolled back the geotextile to reveal an array of weeds that needed to be removed

They all had to be dug out carefully because even the smallest amount of root can grow a new plant (or two!).

A piece of bindweed root about an inch (2cm) long and the plant that has grown from it

Bindweed generating a new plant from about an inch (2cm) of root

 

Green alkanet shoots growing from a piece of root that had been missed and left in the soil

Green alkanet looking slightly alien

So, by the time it came to digging trenches to plant the potatoes I was pretty much exhausted.

Sandra digging over the area where we wanted to plant our potatoes
Nevertheless, trenches were dug and potatoes planted. You can see how we got on in this video.

We’re also trying out planting potatoes in bags that Andrew is making. He is using the plastic fabric from some spare one ton builder’s bags. He cuts it to size and sews two seams up the side and attaches a base panel. Here is the prototype.

Andrew's homemade potato planting bag

Andrew’s homemade potato planting bag

It will be interesting to compare the crop yield with those in the ground. He is also using the fabric to create other things such as this hanging bag.

Andrew's homemade plant hanging bag prototype
You’ll notice that we didn’t plant any seeds. I’m afraid we exhausted ourselves dealing with the potatoes. The seeds will have to wait for another day!

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.

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

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.

Are we going to be organic?

Today we sprayed the allotment with a herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate.

So does that mean we’re not going to be organic? Well, in the beginning, obviously not. We’re using a chemical to clear the plot. And we may have to use it again to kill pernicious weeds that keep coming back. But we’ll try and use as few chemicals as possible when we’re doing our actual growing.

Could we clear the plot organically? Possibly. We could spend a long, long time digging out every piece of organic matter from the plot. Or we could cover the weeds with something that would exclude the light, which would help to kill the plants. But that would probably take more than a year to do. We want to bring the plot into cultivation sometime this year.

Glyphosate works by being absorbed through the leaves, moving into the roots, and killing the plant from the roots up. When it gets into the soil, it’s broken down by micro-organisms within the soil into less harmful substances until it becomes totally inert. It’s one of the quickest ways of clearing out a whole load of the plants using a herbicide.

We’re using this as an emergency measure to help us clear a plot that has been overgrown for four years or more and get it under cultivation as quickly as possible. Hopefully, we won’t have to use chemicals after this. And we can use other techniques – digging out the weeds and covering the ground – and eventually become as organic as possible.

Green alkanet

I think we have seen the face of our enemy, and know its name to be green alkanet (aka Pentaglottis sempervirens).

The whole site, access path, the alleyways running along two sides of our site are dotted with little green alkanet plantlets.

If left, they would turn into a plant about 60cm tall with startling blue flowers reminiscent of forget-me-not blooms. But they don’t have the charm of forget-me-nots and the hairy leaves cause skin irritation.

The plant has long tap roots and can germinate from any piece of root left in the ground. And of course it can also germinate from seed if allowed to get to that stage.

Could it be usefully composted or made into a liquid feed? Probably not as Alys Fowler explains in the Guardian.

Rooting out the trees

Another day of hard work from our friends Elisa and Rodney of The Secret Garden. They really are doing a fantastic job of helping us to clear the allotment.

As you can see from the video tour, the major work today was to remove some of the big shrubs and dig out the two trees. It is a shame to lose a walnut tree but they grow very big and the council do not encourage tree growing. You can see why: trees cast shade and could take water and nutrients from neighbouring plots. We also want to start with a blank canvas so that we can maximise the potential our site. So, sadly, both trees have to go.

We were also very pleased to receive a donation of an incinerator from our good friends Anne and Alan Outram. This will be useful on an ongoing basis but we will probably need to have a big bonfire to get rid of everything we’ve been digging up.

According to the council’s allotment guide, bonfires are banned between 1 April and 30 September. Any bonfire that we have before April, must not emit smoke, fumes or other gases which are a nuisance. It is unlikely that any smoke would go onto a road because we are surrounded by houses. Our best bet is to have it fairly soon while the weather is cold and most people are not spending a lot of time in their gardens. If we have it during a weekday, it is likely that the people in the surrounding houses will be out a work.

Clearing the plot

view of the allotment on a cold afternoon in early January 2017

We made a bit of headway with trimming the choisia and brambles on our first visit. But at the rate we are able to work, we very quickly realised that we would need help. Neither of us is in the first flush of youth nor are we particularly able. With the best will in the world, transforming the allotment from overgrown wilderness to a blank canvas that could become a productive growing space is not something that we could do on our own.

To our rescue came our good friends Elisa Contreras and Rodney Williams of The Secret Garden. They got to work with great gusto. Using various hand tools, power tools, muscle and sweat, they cleared most of the vegetation.

Here’s a glimpse of the The Secret Garden team in action:

As well as working on the actual plot itself, one of the things Elisa and Rodney were also able to help with was the path to the plot.

Some of the access ways have not been well maintained. It’s possible to get through on foot but Andrew is a wheelchair user and we need about a metre to get the mobility scooter safely through. Things are particularly difficult at the moment because the ground is so muddy.

There is a lot to do, however, and we need to make sure that we don’t tread on the toes of our (as yet unknown) neighbours, so the access path is still a work in progress.