It’s been a great spring so far! Lots of plants are well ahead compared to last year – broad beans are flowering 3 weeks earlier, and early plug plantings of lettuce, radish and peas are starting to grow well. Another true harbinger of spring warmth is the sight of topless male pensioners on allotment sites throughout the city, and Tweed Street certainly had its share of those last weekend!
Peat-free compost comparison
The argument against using peat-based composts is fairly unequivocal:
- It’s very slow to renew – new peat forms at about 1mm per year
- Peat bogs are an increasingly rare habitat for a diverse range of flora and fauna
- Peat bogs hold more carbon than the world’s forests – extracting peat releases much of this carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming
….So I’m often surprised how many well-meaning and organically-minded gardeners still used peat-based composts. I think there is a general assumption that peat-free composts aren’t as good, and while this may have been true when peat-free was a new concept, there’s now an array of good compost mixes widely available that do the job just as well as peat (which has almost no nutrients – it’s main advantage is purely its water holding ability). My go-to compost for seed sowing and potting on has always been New Horizon Organic Multi-Purpose, which is available at 2x50l bags for £10 at my local garden centre, but they have recently started stocking Melcourt SylvaGrow compost (more pricey at £6.99 for a single 50l bag) so I thought I’d do a trial of both compost mixes, sowing various seeds in both New Horzion and Sylvagrow. At the moment I’d say New Horizon is actually looking better for seed sowing – many seedlings are slightly further ahead, while the sylvagrow seems to dry out quicker in the heat of the polytunnel. That said, sylvagrow is lovely crumbly stuff to handle compared with the fibrous texture of New Horizon. I’ll try potting on some seedlings in both types of compost to see how they compare at the stage where plants actually start drawing upon the nutrients in the mix.
We were very excited to find we have frog spawn in our pond this year – it’s a small pond about 1×1.5m that we only put in about a year and a half ago, and while we’d seen frogs in it from time to time we didn’t expect to get them moving in so soon! We also seem to have the inevitable algae build up, so we’ve submerged some barley straw which should help to clear it.
A new technique for forcing rhubarb?
I always struggle to know what to do with all the woody stems and prunings that we accumulate through autumn – I prefer not to burn material that could otherwise be composted, but in order for it to compost reasonably quickly it all needs to be chopped into smaller pieces, which takes forever. However, this year I thought I would try something a little different:
- At the end of autumn all woody prunings get piled up in the back corner on top of a couple of rhubarb crowns. This makes an enormous pile by winter, which should be ideal of all sorts of creatures to hibernate in.
- Early April, I put on my gardening gloves and start sorting through the twig pile. Winter weather and the beginnings of decay has made it all much easier to break up into small pieces ready for the compost bin.
- With the pile cleared, the rhubarb underneath is revealed in all its gaudy pink glory. It has grown very happily in the dark within the twig pile, and the bottom layer of twigs and leaves has actually composted around it too, offering it a good spring mulch for good measure.
Good for wildlife, good for the rhubarb, good for my jam production. Man, microbes and rhubarb all working together in a symbiotic relationship, or something. I’m anticipating that this unconventional but highly effective technique for forcing rhubarb will catch on and become the new norm, but for now it’s exactly the sort of thing this blog is for (thus saving Melissa from having to hear about it in great detail).
Putting up some structure for climbing beans, peas, sweet peas and like is a spring job that often takes longer than I imagine, but it’s worth it – even without any plants growing on them the structure really makes the garden look like it means business. This year we’ve got the usual ‘A-frames’ with netting for peas, wigwams for climbing beans and squashes, and a new arch (£8.99 from Greenfingers) for the sweet peas. It’s taken all my strength not to order another 5 arches to make a sweet pea tunnel…. Maybe next year!
I’m trying to sow little and often this year to avoid too many gluts. The polytunnel is looking fairly busy with salad, brassicas, flowers, leeks etc. started off in modules. I still haven’t sown any courgettes, squashes, climbing beans or cucumbers – I reckon it’ll be a little longer until it’s reliably warm enough, though I daresay it may be worth the risk for those in the South.
I’ve also taken delivery of 6 grafted heritage tomato seedlings from Delfland Nurseries. They’re all new varieties on me so I’m looking forward to trying them. Grafted tomatoes are grafted onto the root system of a particularly pest and disease resistant variety making them a good choice growing growing in polytunnels and greenhouses (where they tend to be grown in the same place each year, leading to a greater build up of pests and diseases). They’re also apparently more vigorous, so we should get a crop nice and early, which should infuriate our Italian neighbour.
I suppose we’re getting towards the ‘hungry gap’ when all last year’s crops are finished but this year’s have yet to mature, but there’s still plenty to harvest just now. A mix of early, mid and late sprouting broccoli varieties is keeping us well fed, with plenty still to come. I also love it when kale starts to go to seed – pick the shoots before they flower for a delicious tender kale-broccoli, great on pizza with lots of olive oil and garlic. To my surprise, brussels sprouts do the same – each sprout, if left to ‘blow’ will turn into a broccoli-like shoot (and I’m sure many would argue this is a far better way to eat brussels sprouts!). There’s also leeks, spring onions, pea shoots, land cress to pick, and the first radishes aren’t far off. Oh, and rhubarb. Lots of rhubarb.