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making hay

We’re stuck in a time warp and the World is moving on around us. A covenant, agreed when Lord Zetland handed over the land to the people of Redcar, appears now, to be a little outdated. A set of rules, forbidding any structure above 4′ high, no lighting of fires …

brimming with broccoli

We’ve been at the allotment again on Saturday – clearing the last of the weeds left from 3yrs of neglect. We didn’t do this clearing the easy way – with a strimmer; oh no, muggins here had to do it by hand with a pair of shears and secateurs and …

cold frames – a poor man’s greenhouse

A quick look at the diary and we can see that we’re 18 weeks in, in our journey on Plot 36. It doesn’t seem so long to be honest, given the volume of the weeds removed and compost and manure brought onto site. I mustn’t forget the pallets either. The site resembles …

extreme composting – turning up the heat

Those of you interested in the concept of no-dig gardening, will have no doubt read, or at least heard of the work of Charles Dowding. Charles has written a number of extremely informative books on the subject and has a website which is an absolute mine of information, for those interested …

Recent Articles:

Wordless Wednesday – RHS North Sea

May 21, 2013 Wordless Wednesday Comments Off

With only slightly less airmiles than the Chelsea show, we bring you the best of the show stoppers on plot 36 in Redcar.

‘love amongst the onions’ by French Breakfast

'Caged Tigers - Summer Purple' by mangetout

‘Caged Tigers – Summer Purple’ by mangetout

'Poached Egg' by the compost bin.

‘Poached Egg’ by the compost bin.

'Red Cabbage needs to be planted' by the end of the month.

‘Red Cabbage needs to be planted’ by the end of the month.

‘Flower Sprouts’ by a pile of bricks

‘Majestic and Desiree’ by the window in the spare room.

 

 

Horsetail – more or less

May 20, 2013 Gotalottie 1 Comment

We receive quite a few emails asking for information about Horsetail (Equisitum Arvense). Inaccurately called ‘Mares Tail’ by many people on allotment sites; it’s a stubborn weed and virtually impossible to eradicate.

Here’s a photo from our plot (to the left) and the empty plot next door (to the right). It would be a brave person to take that on.

it’s pretty daunting seeing this next door

We’ve just received an email from Hayley:

‘Hello.  Just read your article about horsetail.  We bought our house in September and the borders in the back garden were very overgrown …. no sign of HT.  So a couple of weeks ago when the weather started to improve, my husband and I dug over the borders, feeing them up of grape hyacinth and grass and planted some nice new bulbs and flowers.  We now have Horsetail growing around our rose tree (already established) and amongst all our other flowers.  Any suggestions?’

Our reply:

‘Hi, thanks for your enquiry about this nasty little weed.

The reason that you didn’t spot this in September is that it was probably in decline by that time of year and other weeds had moved in to fill the space.

In March it would have probably thrown up some brown spears a bit like asparagus and these would attempt to send spores all over the garden. Always best to delete these with a knife and dispose of in the rubbish.

April/May – it comes with a vengeance and this is what you are seeing. It reaches full growth by July and a height of 40cms.

OK.

Assuming that you’ve cultivated the soil already to remove all other weeds, etc. Don’t cultivate any more this year. If you haven’t cultivated – then don’t.

Forget weedkillers, covering with plastic, etc – nothing will kill it. Weedkillers ‘may’ kill off some top growth but it will come back harder next year and you will feel like moving house. You can’t kill it but what you can do is to convince it to go next door.

When light brown spears show – leave them until they’re minimum 7cms tall and try to ease them out with as much root as possible, certainly before they get to 10cms tall. The trick is to let them use as much energy as possible getting to the point where they’re about to photosynthesise and then delete them. This will serious weaken the rhizome underneath. The trouble is when a shoot is pulled it triggers another rhizome to make another shoot, but it does inhibit it a little. 

Meanwhile and you should do this as soon as possible – buy some agricultural lime and start to sweeten the soil. The HT is there because the soil is alkaline probably 6.3 or less and you need to gently get it back to about 6.8 and that will take 3 years. The HT will start to move on at 6.5+.

First liming is now at 300-350gms per sq metre. Work this into the soil a few cms and water in. Don’t use any more this summer else you’ll kill your other plants. Add a mulch of grass clippings this summer (5-7cms). In October add another 400gms per sq metre and work in a little deeper. No fertiliser this year else that will lower the pH again. Plant lots of French marigolds this year if you can. Also increase your planting if possible to reduce the amount of light getting to the shoots – make them work harder to get to the light, all of this weakens the rhizomes.

Fertilise in early spring with Fish Blood Bone and a month later add another 200gms per sq metre of lime. More grass clippings as mulch in the summer. In the October - lime as before. Fertilise in early spring. Etc..

Keep pulling the HT shoots as above, but don’t pull them when they’re too small, it’s better to be patient and leave them to grow to 10cms.

It will eventually go completely but remains of the roots will be there still 50cms down. If you add small amount of lime each October (50-100gms per sq metre) the soil will stay sweet and the HT won’t ever show again. Mulch with grass clippings every summer.

Don’t forget the beds in the front of the house, else it will possibly move there instead. ’

We’re not Horsetail free yet, but it’s improving.

raised elegance – Woodblocx

May 15, 2013 Gotalottie 1 Comment

A large curtain-sided truck arrived last week with the latest addition to our allotment. It’s contents - an assignment of palletised raised bed kits from the award-winning Woodblocx company.

The delivery was on schedule, within 3 days of placing the order and within 15 minutes of the stated delivery time. It’s not often that you receive service like that.

It’s a lot of timber; strong, pressure-treated and definitely designed to last a very long time.

 

I never managed to drive the fork lift truck.

Our raised bed measures 2250mm x 1125mm x 450mm and designed for a large collection of sun-loving herbs at the back of our plot. The area is already surrounded by raised beds also for herbs and in the process of being planted. This is the most sheltered part of the plot – a sun trap – somewhere to sit, drink tea and watch the plants grow.

 The area in which the raised bed is to be installed had been cleared and levelled; we applied a small amount of fine grit to assist the levelling and finished with a damp and weedproof membrane. We were all ready to make a start and then it rained! It gave me one last chance to check the instructions from the comfort of our brolley.

The instructions were clear at every stage, the components were simple and everything appeared to be very well engineered. It could be argued that it’s only a large lego set and in effect, it is; however we’d read some stories of people having to drill out holes again as the instructions hadn’t been followed correctly.

Stage 1 is quite simple – isolate the components for the first layer of blocks and insert all the pegs before placing the blocks in their correct position. This is very logical, reducing the disturbance to the sand or grit base. Once this is completed, it was one last check with the spirit level to make sure everything was as it should be.

Driving home the pegs into each of the blocks for the first layer.

 

Stage 2 is the fitting of the second layer, following the pattern in the instructions and gently tapping home each of the blocks so the previous blocks are correctly ‘bonded’. It is worthy of a mention, that the design team at Woodblocx have provided a detailed view of each layer of blocks and the position of each wedge peg for that layer.

Each of the plastic pegs have an additional plastic wedge component which, when hammered in, forces the top of the previous plastic peg outwards to securely grip the block at the base. This method creates a strong interconnected bond between all of the components.

Forming the ‘next’ layer. It’s a simple task to fit these overlapping blocks, they’re firmly located at the next stage – the fitting of the plastic plugs for the following layer.

 

This continues up through to the last layer of standard blocks and finally –  the last set of plastic plugs and galvanised corner inserts are then fitted. The final row of plastic plugs are then reduced in height with a simple handsaw to allow the shaped capping blocks to be fixed. In a perfect world, there might have been a separate pack of shorter ’top’ dowels provided specifically for this task; however this might add some confusion for a first-time builder.

The capping fits well and is a very solid and snug fit on the top of the bed. The mitred corners are precise and aesthetically very pleasing.

 

The finished bed. All the components fitted exactly first time. A very solid professional product.

 

That’s it! It was extremely easy to construct, the instructions precise and informative and every part was machined perfectly. The advice that we would give is to take your time, get the first layer down onto a level base and all will be well.

The range is very comprehensive and the team at Woodblocx can easily create a unique size according to your requirements. We’ve been aware of a few criticisms with regard to the cost of the product and we would be the first to refute these. The workmanship is superb and has clearly been designed and built to last a very long time. There is absolutely no comparison between a simple raised bed made out of a few lengths of fascia board and a product of this calibre.

What a beautiful addition to any garden. It’s in a very prominent position on our plot and we will gain a lot of pleasure from it as a result. An absolute 10/10 to Henry and his team!

Hopefully, when this rain eventually stops – we’ll soon be filling it.

Please take a look at the range of Woodblocx raised beds here.

What solitary bees can you see in your garden or allotment at the moment?

May 10, 2013 nadinemitschunas, Urban Pollinators Project Comments Off

Spring is a good time to see solitary bees which are often overlooked in favour of the bigger and more obvious bumblebees and honey bees.

There are only around 24 species of bumblebees, 1 species of honey bee but over 200 species of solitary bees in Britain! Solitary bees are also important pollinators and as they often emerge quite early in the year (often as early as late February or early March) they can pollinate early fruit trees and bushes when bumblebees are just starting their colonies and honey bees are still hibernating in their hive.

Solitary bees do not live in large colonies and do not have any worker bees. Each female solitary bee is fertile and inhabits a nest built by herself. There are two different types of nests; ground nests build by sweat bees, (Halictids) and mining bees (Andrenids) and cavity nests build in hollow reeds, twigs or holes in wood by leafcutter bees and orchard bees (e.g. genus Osmia).

The burrow entrance of a mining bee nest

 

Each female constructs a series of cells, each with a food source (pollen and nectar packed into a ball) and a single egg that is laid on top. The nectar and pollen for each cell is gathered in several foraging trips, and this is why solitaries are such useful pollinators. Depending on the species, the cells are lined with various materials, including leaves, petals, mud or body secretion. When the entire nest is complete it is sealed off and the next nest started.

 

Depending on the species, solitary bees have one to several generations a year. In species with just one generation per year, it is usually the pupae or larvae that overwinter in the nest and emerge in spring the next year. The first bees to emerge are normally the males. They will often wait near flowers for the emerging females to mate. The males will then die and the females search for nesting places.

 

Here are some of the more common solitary bees you can see at the moment:

 

Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes), probably one of the fastest bees in the UK, are often seen hovering around Pulmonaria flowers. They will also visit other spring flowers such as comfrey (Symphytum), Flowering current (Ribes sanguineum) and Aubrieta. The bees are the size of a small bumblebee and both sexes look quite different from each other. The males, which normally emerge earlier than the females in late February or early March, have gingery hair with a darker tail whereas the females are black with yellowish hair on the hind legs. The females build their nest in soft mortar in walls or more rarely in the ground.

Female Hairy-footed flower bee

The bees are common and widespread in central and southern areas of the UK and can often be seen in gardens, parks and on allotment sites, especially if there is a patch of Pulmonaria present.

Male Hairy-footed flower bee

 

Mason bees, especially Red mason bee (Osmia bicornis), are also out now. The bees are about the size of a honey bee. The males are smaller than the females and have white hairs on the face. The females are larger, have bright orange hair on the abdomen and black hairs on the face. The females of the Red mason bee have two very distinctive black “horns” on the face which are unique to this species in the UK.

Female Red mason bee: the “horns” are good to see

The bees are cavity nesters and use holes in woods and walls or hollow plant stems to build their nests. If you have a ‘bee hotel’ in your garden or allotment this is the species you will most likely see at this time of year.

A female approaching her nesting hole

Mating Red mason bees, the male is on top, the female below

The nest consists of a series of cells, each with a single egg and a food provision (pollen) separated by a layer of mud. The cells with the female eggs are at the back of the hole, the cells with the male eggs at the front. If you watch closely you can see the females transporting mud pellets to close each single nesting cell. They also collect pollen as food provision for the larvae which they transport underneath their abdomen. Red mason bees are good pollinators of fruit trees and bushes.

A Red mason bee male

A cheeky male tries to follow a female into the nest

You can also see mining bees (Andrena spp.) now.  One of the prettiest mining bee is the Tawny-mining bee (Andrena fulva). The female bee is covered in dense reddish hairs on the top of the thorax and abdomen and black hairs on the head, side of thorax and legs. The male looks less pretty and is a lot smaller with greyish to brownish hairs and white hairs on the face.

A Tawny-mining bee female

The males have white facial hair

Tawny-mining bees are quite wide-spread in England and Wales and like to nest in lawns and short turf. The bees fly between March and June and like to visit a variety of different flowers such as fruit trees and fruit bushes, blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), buttercup (Ranunculus sp.) and daisies (Bellis perennis).

Another pretty mining bee is the Ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria) with bands of grey hairs on the thorax and abdomen.  The bee likes sunny open areas often on sandy soil. They will visit a variety of flowers such as cabbages, dandelion, roses and brambles (Rubus sp.).

Ashy-mining bee female

 

Other mining bees you can see are for example Andrena nitida, Andrena bicolor and Andrena minutula but as there are many similar looking species it is often difficult to say exactly which bee you have found without consulting a bee expert.

Andrena nitida likes dandelion flowers

A very small Andrena bee, probably Andrena minutula

 

So next time you are out in your garden, allotment or local park have a closer look at the bees you see and you will probably be surprised how many are actually solitary bees and not honey bees or bumblebees. If you want to attract more solitary bees to you garden build a ‘bee hotel’ and plant a variety of different flowers as food plants (look here for some ideas of how to attract pollinators )

 

You can also have a look at our Urban Pollinators Project blog, our Urban Pollinators website  or follow us on twitter 

heads in the cool, feet in the warm.

May 1, 2013 Gotalottie Comments Off

In early March, I dug two big pits into the thick clay of our plot – 60cms deep 180cms wide, 180 cms long. On the next day I rested; thick stuff – the clay on our plot.

I lined the pits with lots of thick card and built 2 simple frames around them with some super long pallets.

Holes dug, frames created

 

5 weeks ago, I filled them up to the top with fresh manure – total depth 90cms - trampled it all down quite tight and added some additional frames across the top – with Perspex covers to let the light through and keep the cold out. Then I wee’d on them….

Don’t be shocked, urine is great for kick-starting off some heat into a pile of fresh horse manure.

 

adding the first top frames and a few seed trays

 

A week or so later, the heat was starting to build and we began to add trays of germinated seedlings to get some heat on the roots. When I say germinated seedlings, it’s an exaggeration, this should read ‘seeds just germinated’. A week after that, we started to raise the Perspex lids a little and left the tender wee things like that day and night - madness.

We don’t have a greenhouse and the window cills at home are half a seed tray wide, so with a desire to have a long growing season - we were adding seedlings almost daily. The seeds are laid in trays and modules at home and placed on the floor of the spare bedroom. As soon as they germinate, they’re whisked off to the plot, we don’t have any choice! A bit of warmth has been moving into the days and as a result, we’ve added 2 top frames to each hotbed allowing us to add even more seedlings. Only 50% of the covers have been left on at night. We watched for frost obviously but were convinced that this wasn’t coming and the seedlings have grown well, becoming hardened off to some extent also. We had 2 days with rain and the covers were put back on, but since the 24th April – the covers have been removed completely, night and day. The tomatoes in the photo below, stuck their heads out of the compost 3 weeks ago. They’re potted on now.

Top frames doubled and filled with even more seedlings

 

Many sowing have followed and many have now been potted on, some of the hardiest have even been planted out!

150 young beet added, some mangetout also

 

The different varieties of squash and courgettes are potted on and live to one side, sitting on a pile of fresh manure both day and night and protected from the wind. The growth is good in a night time temperature of approx. 9-12 degrees (allowing for warmth from the manure). The tomatoes will be joining them in a few days – 5 different varieties – heads in the cool, feet in the warm but they’ll be protected from any rain.

assorted squash/courgettes hardening off in safety

 

Some of our neighbours think that this is a bit radical. We’ve experienced similar comments on Twitter – that this might be a little early. We have a small safety stock of plants of course – in the unlikely event that we were to be nobbled by some frost.

This extends the growing season for us and gives us the best possibility of double harvests on our no-dig beds. The root is the heart of the plant and this has been protected, whilst the stems and leaves are growing strong in good light and there is no shortage of fresh air around them, therefore there are no problems with damping off.

lids off now, heads in the cool, feet in the warm

 

The top frames will be emptied out in the next 2 weeks and will be then refilled with 7-8cms of compost. That will be the nursery bed for another month and allow tender salad crops, cabbages, etc to get going well with no risk of slug attack.  When they start to get planted out, we’ll fill the spaces with squashes and some mini-cukes which will thrive on the richness and warmth underneath.

 

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