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.
I have a week of annual leave with which to make some progress in the garden. The seasonal tasks of cleaning the flagstones and packing away the garden furniture need to be done. It’s not all chores though, I’m also making preparation for next years display in my Garden Update 18th November 2017.
We’eve had some slightly colder weather here in Devon but it’s done nothing to stop the progress of the plot. Aside from the sweet potatoes, which have blackened and retreated, most of the plot is looking great.
My leeks are starting to get some momentum behind them. When they went in they were spindly grass-like plants. I was supposed to wait until they’re pencil-thickness but I’m impatient. They’re doing fine though.
My brassica bed is starting to produce crops and there’s plenty to come over winter by the looks of it. The leaves of the Romanesco and Purple Sprouting Broccoli are looking extremely healthy. I’m sure they benefited from being netted when young.
We’ve been harvesting the Cavelo Nero for weeks and a full handful will do one or two meals (as a side) for the two of us. The plants don’t even look like they’ve been touched after taking just the lower leaves. In the end, I’m expecting to have bare stems as the plant continues to grow up.
The colourful chards are growing well at the front of the allotment and the Pak Choi are looking healthy in the bed that had the legumes this summer.
The greenhouse is taking to its new role as a store for plants over winter. At the beginning of the year, it’s full to capacity with seeds and seedlings. Later on, it becomes home to yet more seeds, seedlings and cuttings. At this time of year, it has tender garden refugees huddling and sheltering together. The chilli plants are getting the benefit of the doubt and coming inside to see if they’ll perform better next year.
I’ve taken Buddleja globosa cuttings which I rooted in water. These are to be given to my cousin who’s creating a new border in their garden.
I’ve taken delivery of some plug plants from J Parkers. Some Verbascum I ordered myself and some bare root Astrantia plants which were a gift.
The Verbascum are a set of three types of Verbascum phoenicum. I have Rosetta, Violetta and Flush of White. Even though I love Verbascum I have a rubbish track record. However, I’ve decided to give them another go.
My lovely gardening aunt bought us some Astrantia major ‘Florence’ to celebrate the birth of our daughter this year. These will eventually go into some pots that are pride of place in the garden and also contain some honeysuckle plants (also gifts).
The action in the garden has been a little dull this week. I’ve pressure-washed all the flagstones to remove 2 years of accumulated algae. They’re now safe to walk on when it’s wet which is a relief. The garden furniture and barbeque have been stored away for winter.
It’s not all chores though. I’ve planted Tulip Dolls Minuet in the front garden troughs and there’s more to go in this week.
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.
I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog and social media for most of October due to competing demands on my time. We’ve have some visitors, a mini-break, and all the usual work and childcare necessities. That’s not to say things have been quiet on the garden and allotment front.
It’s a time of renewal on my allotment. There’s always talk this time of year about putting the garden or allotment to bed for winter. What nonsense. It’s a time for clearing last seasons spent crops and getting the next load in. I may even have all my plot planted for the first time since we broke ground in April. I’ve also nominated myself to the my allotment committee.
The autumn and winter greens are the main crops nearing harvest. I’ve been starting to harvest my Cavelo de Nero leaf by leaf and these are great. The herb bed is still productive and I’ve taken bunches of Rosemary and Bay to dry for use over winter. The New Zealand Spinach has taken over the understory of my herb bed so I’ve made batches of wilted leaves and have them in the freezer for when they’re needed.
The Chard plugs that I planted outside in September have really started shooting up and the stems look amazing when we get some sunlight. The Pink Passion is more of a blood-red but I don’t mind that at all. The Golden Chard is currently 10cm tall so plenty of growth still to come.
I had my order of garlic from Marshalls Seeds arrive this week. Unfortunately 2 out of 12 Elephant Garlic bulbs were starting to rot off. I’ve put them in anyway and we’ll see how they do. The Carcassonne Wight and Provence garlic bulbs were in good condition. Out of 2 bulbs each I got 20 cloves from the Provence and 29 from the Carcassonne Wight.
On a practical front, I’ve been meaning to get some tarpaulin to cover over the turf stacks left over from clearing the site right at the beginning. We had some logs delivered for the house so I bought some cheap ones to get ready for their delivery. Now they’re all stacked in the dry store I can use these at the allotment. This should keep the weeds down and I’m hoping come spring I’ll have some nice topsoil for the beds.
The courgettes were looking miserable, as were the squash plants, after a few wet / cold spells of weather. The climbing beans have done really well but they’ve been left for seed and now cleared away. My early sweetcorn didn’t produce and the later sweetcorn was also badly pollinated. The beds have been cleared, weeded and prepared for the next crop. In place of the courgettes are the Elephant Garlic, and in place of the 3 sisters I have Broad Beans and Peas.
The warm and wet weather in Devon this week has been great for the weeds. I’ve done two tidy-ups at the allotment and managed to fill my large bendy bucket three times. It’s also the end of my tomato adventure for the year.
We were giving some new chairs from a family member and they’re perfect for the allotment. The weather wasn’t that great so we haven’t christened them yet.
The squashes are really enjoying the damp and warm conditions and had spread over the paths. I wasn’t too bothered initially but they’ve got the point that it was hard to reach into the beds for harvesting. They also were concealing a lot of weed growth on the paths.
The module Pak Choi seedlings are doing much better than the directly-sown batch which has been munched to stumps. I think I’ll do more of this transplanting even thought it’s more work overall.
I’ve also installed the Chard seedlings in one of the new beds around the perimeter of the allotment. I’m hoping they’ll give me some fresh greens to each over autumn and into winter.
The Stachys byzantina seeds that I collected have germinated extremely well and very quickly from sowing. They’ve been pricked out and set into their own little module home.
Another sowing that I made from home-collected seed was the Geranium phaem alba. I am the proud owner of one seedling!
The tomato story this year hasn’t been very successful. Blight has struck and the fruits that were threatening to ripen were being munched by slugs before they were harvestable. I’ve taken off all the tomatoes that were salvagable and cleared away the affected plants. The foliage is now in the council green waste bin. I think I’ll use the fresh border for either bringing on perennials over winter or some winter salads.
There’s nothing like an Instagram filter to make even a poor harvest look great.
It’s been a while since I’ve shown what’s happening in the Far Garden. You can see the new boundary shed has a great grey colour that matches the furniture. The chillies are slow in the rectangular planters but I might get a harvest. My new Musa and Echinacea plants are looking awesome.
Yesterday was the first day that I had time to get to the allotment for anything other than harvesting for some time. We had people visiting for the bank holiday weekend so nothing much was achieved in the garden.
Yesterday I spent over an hour at the plot and managed to fill two large bendy buckets with weed growth that’s now been put on the unofficial compost pile. We’re mainly plagued by dandelions and docks persisting as deep tap roots. They’re capable of regrowing after hoeing and have enjoyed the extra rain recently.
I don’t like to leave huge gaps in the beds for two reasons. Firstly, there isn’t much growing area as it is and dedicating space for hoeing seems silly when, secondly, weeds will colonise bare ground as well as between plants which you have to hand weed anyway. I use the hoe on any unused ground that’s waiting for the next crop or where there is space between plants in order to give them room to grow.
The Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato winter squashes have been very prolific in number but I’m struggling to find a good kitchen use for them. Growing something to then have to hide it in food just to use it up seems silly. Roasted pumpkins should be used for roasts, soups and risottos but the bland flavour and silky texture of these leave me a bit disappointed. If I can’t find a use for them that I will look forward to next year then I’m afraid they’re off the plot.
I’m glad to be getting a better carrot and beetroot crop at the allotment. This batch suffered in the early dry spell we had so germination and subsequent growth was slow and poor. I was then too eager to try them so picked some small offerings last month. This lot are more substantial but there’s better to be had. The carrots went into a beef curry and I am plotting what to do with the beetroot. We’re having a picnic tomorrow if the weather holds and I’ve been hoping to make a roasted beetroot, walnut, goats cheese and rocket salad since sowing the seeds earlier this year
We had a bumper picking from the three crops from the allotment I’m monitoring this year on Friday;
Yellow Courgette – 370g
Climbing Bean ‘Cosse Violette’ – 700g
Climbing Bean ‘Trail of Tears’ – 770g
I’ve cleared out most of the pea bed as they’re coming to the end of their productivity and the powdering mildew is making them unsightly. The Peas, mange-tout and broad beans are out. In their place, I’ve planted the Pak Choi seedlings which I started in modules last month. The other side of the bed will have winter lettuce.
The tomatoes continue to be a complete let-down this year. I think I have blight. Initially, I thought it was some cold scorching on the leaves that poke out of the windowless opening in the greenhouse but it’s since spread. I’ve taken some evasive measures to cut away the affected fruits and leaves but it’s fingers crossed for the remainders.
The seedlings of the Chard and winter lettuce are growing well and are soon to be transplanted to the allotment.
For the ornamental side, the Stipa and Stachys seedlings are coming along well. I’m hopeful that my Penstemon cuttings have taken.
The new grey backdrop to the Right Border of the Far Garden is settling in well. I’ve bought some Echinacea Magnus Superb and Musa from Hill House Nursery down the road. I was inspired by my recent visit to Wisley where I had a good look around their Echinacea trials.
This part of the garden has always meant to be an exciting, bright, exotic garden but we’ve never achieved that. The Echiums did well but completely dominated the space so I’m hoping to introduce more exciting plants over winter that will mix well.
I have been triumphantly carrying back the harvest from the allotment this week. I’ve had two good picking sessions. We’ve been munching through two types of climbing beans, two types of mange tout, peas, broad beans, asparagus pea and courgettes.
The amount of veg harvested from the allotment is really exciting. I’m keeping a tally of what I harvest on some of the crops. I haven’t grown the Climbing green bean ‘Trail of Tears’ before so I’m comparing it to ‘Cosse Violette’ which I have grown in the past.
Not only is Trail of Tears a very tasty variety but the amount of harvest is even beating Cosse Violette. I like this variety and think I’ll save some seeds to keep growing it. I’ll still keep Cosse Violette going as it’s such a beautiful plant and still tasty. I’m really impressed with the yellow courgette. I think I’ll not bother growing a green one next year as they tend to be more watery and not as useful in the kitchen. I’m going to try a patty pan type one instead.
It’s not all about the veg. The cut flower patch is getting colourful with some Dahlia, Anemone, Ranunculus and Gladioli.
I’ve given the greenhouse a little spruce to tidy up the various tools and instruments. Instead of taking up valuable work surface space, they are now hanging handsomely on the wall.
The battle to ripen these tomatoes continues but the modules of winter leaves are coming along well.
The neighbours have finished the shed at the back of the garden so we have a secure boundary again. Now comes the challenge of incorporating the change into the look of the garden. I still haven’t decided on whether I am installing a new boundary wall / screen etc.
The Buddleja, Phlox, Japanese Anemone and Nasturtiums are flowering their socks off. The right side of the picture shows the impact shade can have on flowering plants. The overhanging hedge is casting a lot of shade.
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.