At last the final row of spuds have been dug, apparently unharmed by the cold snap last week, straight into a cardboard box and immediately given to visiting relatives. They are also 'encouraged' to take away carrots, parsnips, celeriac, red cabbage, January King cabbage, savoy cabbage and two blue Crown Prince squashes. I hate having stuff spoil and by March crops still in the ground will go backwards fast. Better to use everything up before then. If I run short, well, I consider it an opportunity to try supermarket produce I would not normally buy - for comparison with my home-grown veg you understand.
The cold weather last week has shown up differences in the broad beans. They have grown very lushly in the extremely mild winter (so far) and looked very vulnerable to cold. I sowed the very winter-hardy 'Aquadulce Claudia' in November and they grew strongly and withstood the frost well. I also had a packet of 'The Sutton' bought to sow in early summer as this dwarf bean is one of the few broad beans worth sowing after April. But it was too dry to sow last summer and rather than having the seeds hanging round until spring, I sowed them in November. They are known to be very hardy and have grown well and stood up the frost and snow. The 'Aquadulce Claudia' has the property of sending up several shoots, but 'The Sutton' sends up fewer shoots so more plants of the latter have to be grown to fill in the allocated space.
I also had some 'Witkiem Major' home-saved broad bean seed. Since the seed cost nothing and you can hardly have too many broad beans, they went in too. This very fast growing bean is only recommended for spring sowing, but usually survives the winter in the south and crops before 'Aquadulce Claudia' with a much higher yield. It too sends up numerous shoots from the base. Like most fresh home grown seed its germination and vigour compared very favourably with bought seeds and the plants are very 'proud' (tall and lush). As expected this variety looks pale after the cold weather and some plants have flopped and will possibly never recover. I may have to resow if they still look poorly by March.
The over-wintered onions also give reason for concern. These are a brilliant crop for my light sandy soil and I planted 'Radar', 'Electric' and 'Senshyu Yellow' as sets in September. I have been setting them out them earlier and earlier each year without problems of winter-kill or bolting (premature flowering) to get slightly bigger plants. The larger the plant in spring the bigger the final onion bulb. However this year I have been caught out by the very mild winter and the plants have grown too lush and soft with numerous losses. The foliage of the remainder looks very poor. Top dressings of nitrogen rich fertiliser are recommended for January to prevent bolting, but might make the foliage even softer and more vulnerable to disease. I decided to go ahead anyway (100g per square metre of growmore) as they will need to grow more leaves fast to be a worthwhile crop. I will fill the larger gaps with some shallots.
While I had the fertiliser sack in my hand, I applied a very light dressing (25g per square metre) of the same fertiliser to the broad beans. Although they will fix their own nitrogen using the bacteria in their root nodules, this only works in warm weather. After a wet winter nutrients have been washed out of my heathland soil and the beans will benefit from a very little nitrogen, flowering earlier and cropping very heavily.
In southern districts and where the soil is well drained 'Oregon Sugar Pod' peas are worth sowing in late October. I sowed a triple row last October. These are growing very fast but were not at all troubled by the frost and snow. They do have a covering of fleece, although more to keep off pigeons than exclude cold. I find wind does more damage than cold to these peas and the fleece also provides shelter. However in the recent high winds the fleece covering (an old piece of fleece that had already covered crops last year) was torn, and had to be replaced.
Strong winds have done more damage than I expected. All the cabbage tribe are grown in a temporary 'pagoda' like structure of poles and 'Titan' netting. Many of the poles have snapped, although they are new, and the netting pulled off the plants. Fortunately pigeons seem scarce this year. They are reported to have remained in northern districts because the winter is less severe. Many pigeons fly south in hard winters, apparently from as far away as Scandinavia. In cold years just one day without nets would result in complete loss of crop from these birds. I am sure they leave spies in nearby trees. I must make a note to buy more poles.
This is the time of year when you are paying out for allotment rent, seeds, fertilisers, sundries and all the bits and bobs you will need in summer and will be held back at rush times if they are not to hand. In my case it adds up to a surprising amount. I do sometimes wonder if it is worthwhile given the uncertainty of weather, pests and so on, but there would be no fun if there were not some mild jeopardy. Fortunately the allotment association has a trading shed (open to all local gardeners not only allotment holders) which is usefully cheaper than other outlets and when it reopens next month I and my chequebook will be there.