I felt a twinge in my back while moving furniture on Saturday, so thought it best to take it easy this weekend. My greenhouse has been lying in pieces since moving house, and since I will need it soon for transplant raising and assembling it is a nice easy stand up job that should help my back, I spent most of the weekend in the sun re-assembling it. I am still not quite sure where to put it, but I think the compost bins and incinerator will have to be moved and the soil levels brought up. The new garden design is still being agreed with Her Loveliness. In the meantime I can clad it with plastic and fleece until its proper position is established.
My transplants are living in an improvised coldframe of old windows and bales of bark mulch – crude but effective. Germination is accomplished in a large heated propagator by the window in the garage. Once seedlings have germinated they are moved to the coldframe for the maximum light possible. This is unheated but an old carpet is flung over the frame on frosty nights. I am lucky in having some very good local nurseries* from which to buy plants that need a lot of heat to raise – Aubergines, peppers and tomatoes for example. I could easily have spent £30 on fuel in the bitter weather in February if I had tried to raise my own plants.
I use a gritty mix of 30 percent by volume of grit and 70 percent multipurpose compost. Peatfree compost is fine for big vigorous seeds, but for small seeds I stick with a peat based one. Pricking out into peatfree compost is usually perfectly reliable and accounts for the bulk of compost used in my garden. I use the New Horizon peat-free compost from Wisley Plant Centre, and a peat based material from the allotment association for seed sowing. The seeds are usually covered with more grit. I always treat seeds sown before May with copper based fungicide to prevent 'damping off' disease.
I would prefer to raise seedlings in soil, ideally sown where they are to grow or as bare root transplants. However, weed control is very much easier if transplants are raised in pots and cell trays are used. Using transplants allows a period of rigorous weed control before they are set out and transplants cover the ground quickly to exclude weeds. Also much of my ground is infested with clubroot disease of brassicas and with onion white rot disease. Disease free transplants give head start on the diseases.
Brussels sprouts 'Maximus' (http://www.dobies.co.uk/pd_432876_Brussels_Sprout_F1_Maximus.htm) was sown a couple of weeks ago and is now ready for 'pricking out' (www.rhs.org.uk/advice/months/july_glossary.asp). A seed tray holds fifteen 7cm pots and this is just enough plants to make a row. I don't have a use for sprouts in September, so I don't use an early cultivar such as 'Peer Gynt' or 'Oliver'. 'Maximus' is ready in October and has large, dark green sprouts of mild flavour. It is followed by 'Diablo' (http://www.tuckers-seeds.co.uk/productlist.php?subid=16) for the Christmas period and 'Revenge' (http://potatoes.thompson-morgan.com/uk/en/product/aww3107/1) for late winter. Sprouts yield best from early sowings. You want them in their final positions and growing good roots by mid May on my dry soil as they can be very severely checked, and in fact go bright blue, if there is no rain in late summer. All cultivars are F1 hybrids – non-hybrid sprouts currently offered seem very poor quality. Now that there is no demand from commercial growers it appears that seed producers have allowed standards to drop.
Leeks also benefit from early sowing, but they also make very good follow-on crops after early potatoes for example. Leeks sown now will be too large for planting out in mid-summer. Early leeks will be F1 hybrid types and these were sown two weeks ago and are now coming up strongly. 'Apollo' (http://www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk/acatalog/67_leeks.html ), 'Sultan' (http://www.johnsons-seeds.com/acatalog/vegetable_seeds_9.html ) and 'Carlton' (http://www.suttons.co.uk/pd_167134_Leek_F1_Carlton_Seeds.htm) constitute the early crop. The seed is expensive but the plants have excellent vigour, and I feel I owe it to the RHS members to try new crops – that's my excuse anyway. The second crop is more rough-and-ready and will be raised in bare soil where I m pretty sure no disease problems exist using the much cheaper, open pollinated, but very good 'Toledo' (http://www.tuckers-seeds.co.uk/productsearch.php?wild=toledo
Out on the allotment the Brussels sprouts have become rather nasty, and although I gathered a 'picking', that must surely be the finish.
The leeks on the other hand have grown well since January. They are thickening up nicely having suffered badly in the drought last summer. Leeks fried with bacon is a favourite dish.
Leeks are rather expensive in supermarkets, no doubt due to the need for much hand labour in harvesting, and are well worth growing even though it takes 7-12 months to raise a crop. Brussels sprouts are remarkably cheap probably because their production is almost entirely mechanised. Some might doubt whether it is worth raising these when so many months of work are involved…
Other crops sown, emerged and awaiting pricking out are Cabbage 'Hispi' (http://fothergills.co.uk/en/cabbage-hispi-263.aspx ) a very quick-growing and sweet little F1 cabbage, Kohl Rabi 'Blusta' (http://seeds.thompson-morgan.com/euf/en/product/189/1 ) a beautiful purple F1 plant that like the cabbage are very welcome in June, Calabrese 'Fiesta' (http://potatoes.thompson-morgan.com/uk/en/product/aww3082/1 ) a reliable F1 cultivar that crops heavily and for several weeks in June. Only a handful of each of these is needed, say five each of cabbages and calabrese, and 10 kohl rabi. They go over quickly if June is hot. More must be sown soon.
I have decided to give early cauliflowers a miss this year. Partly because without my greenhouse autumn sown transplants (by far the best) are not easy to raise and partly because the best allotment area is still under water. My sandy soil does not suit cauliflowers at all and they are very susceptible to clubroot, and need a lot of looking after. Finally they all mature together so you have to make three small sowings to get any continuity. That is a lot of work for something so cheap to buy.
Red cabbage is slow growing, possibly because the red pigment is 'expensive' for the plant to produce. Every year I sow it earlier and earlier to get bigger heads, and this year 'Huzaro' (http://www.tuckers-seeds.co.uk/productlist.php?catid=1&subid=18) and the new pointed cultivar 'Kalibos' (http://seeds.thompson-morgan.com/uk/en/product/gww0084/1) went in during February and are now ready for 'pricking out'.
'Little Gem' (http://www.tuckers-seeds.co.uk/productsearch.php?wild=little+gem) and 'Tom Thumb' mini-lettuces (http://www.tuckers-seeds.co.uk/productlist.php?catid=3&subid=45 ) are also ready for 'pricking out', but as these have already emerged under fleece on the allotment they are possibly surplus; I might take them into the office for general distribution. Follow-on sowings should have been made this weekend, but with four months intensive vegetable growing effort between now and when I can relax and enjoy the fruits of my labours, I dare not risk my back.
*Briarwood Nursery & Garden Centre
Saunders Lane, Mayford, Woking, Surrey, GU22 0NT