My hunt for some reliable outdoor tomatoes begins – The Great Tomato Challenge 2018
So why The Great Tomato Challenge? I’ve had a few goes at getting some tomatoes from the plants in my little greenhouse but they’ve been much the embarrassment. The plants seem healthy but fruit-set can be poor, the fruit takes ages to ripen and mostly they’ll succumb to either blight or rot before a harvest can be had.
I’ve decided that 2018 is the year of the tomato. Now I have an allotment, with its availability of good light levels and space, I can indulge myself. I’ve tried growing challenges before (see the disaster that was my Chilli Challenge in 2014) so expectations need to be reasonable.
The goal is to find some varieties that can perform outside in the mild climate of Devon. I’m looking for a cherry tomato, a good salad tomato, and a good tomato for sauces. I’ll be judging them based on plant vigour/health, crop weight, and flavour.
His book gave me huge amounts of information and a wish-list that neared on three figures for a while. After my initial excitement was tempered by the reality of the space available, and the desire to grow something other than tomatoes on the allotment, I managed to be more discerning and narrow the list down. Once I found a seed supplier in the UK that stocked a large amount of the list I was sorted.
I looked at Real Seeds as usual but the varieties weren’t part of their (excellent) collection. Plant World Seeds are based just 10 minutes away from me and listed a large number of the varieties on my list.
I’ll probably sow these in February to give them the longest growing season possible. I best get some pots cleaned ready for the challenge.
Whilst garden centres will have you believe that the ideal Christmas present for your gardening loved on comes in the form of a themed meercat statue wearing a Santa hat, those of us in the real world know better. Here are my practical Christmas present ideas for gardeners.
I was reading this month’s edition of Gardens Illustrated when I couldn’t help but laugh at the Christmas gifts section. I know the magazine is supposed to be aspirational but the recommended presents for the gardener in your life were a mixture of over-priced tat and impractical tools. Here’s my list of real present ideas that will be received warmly and genuinely.
You can truly never have too many plant labels. I know there’s a move to remove plastic from our gardens (it really is everywhere) but I’ve yet to find an alternative that is reusable and actually lasts one growing season. If I don’t label every pot then I have no idea what’s supposed to be in it. For the allotment, I like the extra large labels so I can write in large letters and be able to read it from standing.
Fine-tipped permanent marker
I tend to write my plant labels in pencil (partly because I can use a rubber to remove the writing and re-use them) but for things that need to be labelled for more than a few months, I prefer a pen. They need to have a fine tip as I write the whole latin name, variety, and date of sowing on the label. The felt-tip types just end up an inky mess.
Is it me or does everything need staking on an allotment? Next year I’ll have 2 types of climbing french beans, runner beans, tomatoes, peas, and maybe some sweet peas. Not to mention the netting. Why is it so difficult to source them? Nowhere does home delivery, I have a Citroen C4 which is not conducive to transporting 7-foot poles, and I cannot find a local supplier. This is the closest my online research has found;
In order to extend the season, you could either cover the plot with fleece or see-through plastic or invest in some re-usable cloches. I would prefer the latter but I’ve yet to get my hands on some of these beauties;
I like to keep the greenhouse organised and part of that is having plants, seedlings, or pots of cuttings all gathered together for convenience. I use the odd plastic produce tray that I’ve managed to get from plant nurseries when buying plants. It makes moving plants, potting up, and reorganising the benches much easier.
I tend to listen to podcasts on my phone when I’m out in the greenhouse. I do find that my earphone wires get caught all the time and it’s only a matter of time before I snip through it with the secateurs. Having a Bluetooth speaker would be a little luxury.
Quantifying the haul from my yellow courgette and climbing bean harvest for 2017. It’s my first harvest roundup!
You may have seen on my Instagram and Twitter feeds and previous posts that I have been keeping a tally of the amount of harvest collected from some of the crops on my allotment this year. I’ve been nerdily weighing everything that makes it home. This year, for my harvest roundup, I concentrated on the yellow courgette and my two varieties of climbing bean; Cosse Violette and Trail of Tears.
This was for three main reasons;
I’m a big geek
To see if there was any difference in yields between varieties
To see if I could justify the costs of keeping the allotment
These plants were sourced from one of my favourite local nurseries, Hill House Nursery in Landscove, Devon. I got my allotment in April/May this year and so it felt like a late start to the season so I cheated with some purchased plants. I’ve lost/forgotten the name so I’ve been calling them ‘yellow courgette’ all year. I also bought a green variety but it’s been pants so hasn’t been worth tallying.
My total harvest haul comes to 1194g!
That’s near on 1.2kg from 2 plants. Not bad considering it was a dry start to the year.
I quick look at our nearest supermarket has standard green courgettes at £1.90/kg with the organic version (which I could claim) at £6.67/kg. So being generous I have saved £8. Since you can’t buy the superior yellow courgettes in supermarkets they are priceless.
Harvest roundup: Climbing beans
I chose two varieties to grow from seed this year. Cosse Violette I’ve grown before and I know they’re straightforward but beautiful on the allotment. I also went to Trail of Tears after hearing about it for years and I was interested to see what all the fuss was about.
Turning a common and productive weed into nutritious liquid feed for your plants
I’ve never before made nettle liquid feed, but after seeing a large hedgerow bursting with opportunity, I couldn’t resist. The field margins around the allotment are ripe with possibilities when it comes to sourcing nutrients for my plants. One major concern with using weeds is introducing the weed seeds or roots into the plot so liquid feed is ideal. The steeping process kills any seeds and roots so you get all the good stuff without the risks.
Nettles are able to grab lots of nutrients from the ground and a plant feed made from them captures nitrogen and other essential minerals which can be given to more useful crops. The liquid feed is good as an all-rounder when it comes to feeding plants. Those looking for more specific fruiting or flowering boosters should try some like a comfrey feed.
What you’ll need
I went armed with some good gardening gloves, a 5-litre bucket, and some good gardening gloves. The Golden Retriever came along to help but I’m pretty sure it can be completed without her. The gloves were an obvious choice. I bought large buckets with a good lid to keep the contents, and associated smell contained.
The process of nettle liquid feed production
Completely fill a bucket with cuttings of nettles. I wasn’t sure where in the plant the most nutrition was hiding so I put a mixture of leaves and stems, young and old. Press the leaves in tight to maximise the nutrients. Fill the bucket with water until the nettles are covered and put the lid on.
After two weeks you’ll have a stinky stew of your very own. The smell is bad! The neighbours even stuck their head over the fence to enquire about the health of my newborn!
Bottling nettle liquid feed
I gathered a funnel and sieve (purchased for garden use only) and some empty bottles.
After straining the mixture I ended up with some very stinky stalks that I threw up the top of the garden, and a stinky brown liquid.
The final product
Here’s two of the bottles I found to fill with nettle liquid feed. I pour in a couple of glugs of liquid and dilute with 9 litres of water in my watering can. The smell does linger for a while after feeding the plants but not forever. The water is slightly coloured only. I don’t want to overdose the plants because this can scorch the roots and doesn’t mean better results. Less is more.
Taking a bare patch of spare earth and turning it into a productive allotment bed using the no dig method
I’m still constructing the bones of my allotment beds and it’s getting to the stage where I think I’ve got too much border to reasonably plant up this year. There’s a lot of the plot that I want to fill with fruit trees and bushes but that’s going to be at the end of the year. The joy of digging and removing hundreds of dandelion tap roots has worn a little thin. So as an experiment and to be a little lazy I’ve decided to see how a no dig border turns out.
The background to the no dig method
Charles Dowding is the most famous champion of the no dig method. He has gardened organically since the eighties, way before the science was there to back it up and certainly before it became fashionable, and continues to inspire generations. For example, my mum was a huge fan of his when I was born and now I’m just starting to find out about him and his approach.
Essentially the idea is that the ritual turning and digging of soil destroys the natural structure, loses moisture, and exposes more and more dormant seeds to the light to germinate. By layering large quantities of organic matter you get the worms doing the digging for you and without destroying the structure of the soil. Ongoing maintenance involves repeated mulching to trap moisture in and reduce weed growth.
I’m still alittle dubious on leaving perennial weeds in situ as I’m convinced that they’ll fit their way through the layers. Here’s how I did it;
No Dig Method – Stage 1 – starting with bare earth
This is what was left after the turf was lifted right at the beginning of the allotment project. There’s been enough time for the perennial weeds to break out again (mainly dandelions). However, we’ve not had enough rain toget the annual weeds joining in.
No Dig Method – Stage 2 – Using what you have
I have oodles of leftover turf from stripping the whole allotment. I thought it would add a better depth of loam and it’s another way of getting rid. So in it went.
No Dig Method – Stage 3 – Addition of manure
Courtesy of my lovely cousin and her muck producing horse! I added a layer of well-rooted manure over the turf for improved worm activity and to increase the organic matter.
No Dig Method – Stage 4 – Covering up
The landscape fabric that’s on the paths is really better suited to covering a border than being a surface to walk on. I wanted to use it to keep the weeds down. It’ll also keep the soil underneath really warm. The makeshift weights are leftover wood and stones dug up from the plot.
No Dig Method -Stage 5 – Planting Up
I didn’t want to waste the space and I had more young squash plants looking forlorn in their pots. The solution was to make use of the space and plant through the fabric. I’ve installed watering bottles to avoid the area drying out. The squashes can spread over the whole area. I’ve planted Squash ‘Little Blue Hubbard’ and ‘Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato’.
Getting started with the No Dig Method
That’s me getting started with this whole no dig thing. Like I said, I’m a little sceptical about its ability to keep perennial weeds down so watch this space.
If you’re keen to learn more from someone who knows what he’s doing then take a look at Charles Dowding’s website www.charlesdowding.co.uk.
How many allotment layout ideas do you have to go through before picking up the spade?
The answer in my case was 10.
Ever the planner, and looking to avoid tiring revisions to beds and paths after the hard work was done, I put pen to paper, or finger to the mousepad, and mocked up some ideas.
Key priorities when deciding on your allotment layout
It has to maximise growing space
The paths must give me adequate reach into the borders
The water butts shouldn’t be in the far corner
Be mindful of shade cast by sheds and other structures
It should be easy to construct
Allotment Layout Ideas 1 and 2
The paths were wide on this plan but I liked the symmetry. The allotment is 10m x 10m and I love a strong structure in a space. I was concerned about the depth of the central 4 beds, however. I also wasn’t sure there would be enough space around the shed and water butts for practical access. The fence is located along the bottom of the image and the main allotment path runs along the top line. I hadn’t measured out the allotment at this point so I wasn’t sure how much access from the sides I would get.
By centralising the utilities I was able to wrap the beds around the middle. Aesthetically this pleases me and gives the central beds more accessibility.
Allotment Layout Ideas 3 and 4
I was worried that placing the shed in the middle of the plot for aesthetics would mean I would have to have shady borders behind it (the sun comes from the top of the image). This change pulls it right down to the bottom. It’s still symmetrical though.
I was worried that the wide central main path was too generous and the access paths were measly and tight. This change tweaks that for better access.
Allotment Layout Ideas 5, 6 and 7.
These are all variations on the themes above. I’m tinkering with flexible growing spaces with more smaller beds that can be optimised for different plants, looking to standardise the central beds to make them easier to construct, and doing away with separated outside beds.
Allotment Layout Ideas 8, 9, and 10 – the oddballs
I was starting to worry that my fixation on having an attractive, read symmetrical, design was compromising the utility of the space and complicating the construction. However, after playing with other layouts and asking for a second opinion from my better half (the verdict being that these look like ‘prison grounds’, ‘graveyards’ and ‘old-man-ish’) these were dumped from the shortlist.
After getting eyestrain from too much time on the laptop I hiked my pregnant wife and bored aunty to the allotment for some fun with string. I had bought a spool and reel from the lovely lady at Twool. With my aunt doing a good impression of a boundary post, we measured out the various beds (quite tricky with a 3m only measuring tape).
A few things became apparent;
I needed more space around the shed
I didn’t have access from the sides as the neighbouring plots are back to back without a path between
The outside beds would have to be smaller to be accessed from inside the plot
I wouldn’t need access across the outside beds to tend from the other side
The front border may have to be narrower or replaced entirely by a stepover apple.
Final Allotment Layout
This is the working plan for this year. Permanent planting will go around the narrower outside borders, including asparagus, fruit bushes, and eventually, trained fruit trees.
The beds near the shed will be permanent herbs and cut flowers.
The four main beds will be the focus of the crop rotation.
The front borders are theoretical at the moment until I get my long measuring tape to ensure I’m not encroaching on the main site path. If things are a squeeze I may train a stepover apple along the front to provide a boundary. The maximum height of a fence on the site is 1.2m so I’m going to train fruit to this height to form a living fence and enclose the space a little.