Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Success with Parsnips (or not)

The Parsnip, like the proverbial Marmite, is a vegetable that people seem to either love or hate.

I'm in the former category. I have some reservations though: Parsnips "boiled to death" are horrible, and I can see why someone would say they didn't like Parsnips if that was the only way they had ever tried them. By contrast, Parsnips roasted in some lard until they are golden are amazingly good, and cooked as chips in our Actifry machine they are as the saying goes "To die for"!

Parsnip chips cooking in the Actifry

Of course they are even better if you grow them yourself, and cook them soon after harvesting.

In my experience though, growing Parsnips is not as easy as it might be, and certainly not always successful. Over the years I have grown some shockingly-bad Parsnips... Sometimes they are "forked" like this one:

Sometimes they suffer from the dreaded canker disease:

Sometimes they are just too darned small:

On the other hand, I have also managed to grow a fair few competent specimens:

So what is it that makes the difference between success and failure with Parsnips? Here are some tips that might help.

The first thing to note is that Parsnip seed is notoriously short-lived. Two-year-old seed will probably be OK, though at a reduced germination-rate, but if you want to maximise your chances of success, buy new seed every year.

Parsnip seed also takes a fair while to germinate (a month is not unusual), and it's pointless sowing it too early in the year, before the soil has warmed up. They need a temperature of about 12C / 52F to germinate. I live in Hampshire, in the South of the UK, and I normally sow mine under cloches in late March, but to be honest late April or early May would probably be better.

Parsnips don't seem to be fussy about soil conditions, and many people grow them very successfully on some pretty rough ground, but I grow mine in raised beds which have been intensively cultivated for years and in which the soil is very light and stone-free. Parsnips are quite prone to forking (i.e. developing multiple roots instead of just one), so anything you can do to reduce this will be welcome - for instance removing stones and adding sand to the soil, but not manuring it. Too much nitrogen (e.g. from fresh manure) prompts the plants to produce a lot of soft leaf and not so much root.

Parsnips are not generally well-suited for growing in containers, but if you want to have a try, I suggest you choose a short-rooted variety, such as "Guernsey Half-Long" or "White Gem". Many of the larger varieties produce roots that go down at least two feet, sometimes more.

Spacing is also fairly important. If your Parsnips are too crowded the roots will inevitably be small. Of course, that may be what you want, but most people prefer a smaller number of bigger roots, so I propose a spacing of no less than 6" / 15cm between plants. I have found that Parsnips don't like being transplanted, so it is better to sow directly into their final position, or into modules that can be planted-out without root-disturbance. A Parsnip seedling transplanted "bare-root" style seldom develops to a useable size, so it is a waste of time trying to fill any gaps in your rows. It's better to sow thickly and thin-out once you see how many germinate.

Once your plants have been thinned-out to your satisfaction, there is little else to do, except watch them grow. If the weather is very hot and dry, some watering may be necessary, but since Parsnips have such long roots they can reach a long way underground in their search for moisture. If you do end up watering, remember that an occasional good soaking is better than more frequent light sprinkling.

Your Parsnip plants will probably develop some pretty big leaves, but don't let that deceive you into thinking they are ready for harvesting. Parsnips are naturally biennial, which means they put on most of their growth in their first year, and store their energy in a swollen root which is used to produce a flower in the second year. We short-circuit their system by "stealing" the roots before they have a chance to flower. When the roots are ready for harvesting the leaves will have died down more-or-less completely. This is likely to be in late Autumn or early Winter. Tradition dictates that we should not harvest before the first frosts, since frosting helps to convert starch to sugar and makes for sweeter Parsnips. Over-Wintered Parsnips will begin to re-sprout in the early Spring and you need to use them ASAP if you see that happening.

Parsnips growing in a raised bed, protected by Enviromesh

Parsnips lend themselves to being picked on an "as required" basis, and unless you really need the space, it is best to leave them in the ground until you want to eat them, rather than lifting them all at once. Since the foliage dies down so completely, it might be a good idea to mark their location with a few sticks, especially if snow is expected.

Most of the Parsnip varieties I have grown claim to be "canker-free" or almost so, but I have not found that to be the case. Almost every year my Parsnips get canker to a certain degree. Usually this fungal disease is not too severe and causes only mild disfigurement. Unless you are growing the vegetables for showing, I think it is not something to worry about. If I knew what causes it, I'd tell you how to avoid it! The unsightly brown lesions are usually only skin-deep and are removed when peeling the vegetables for eating.

This level of canker-infestation is not unusual

Finally, a word about choice of varieties. There are plenty to choose from these days, and in the seed catalogues they all seem to be described as "the best ever". My own personal preference is for the old-fashioned ones (i.e. the ones that have stood the test of time!) like "Gladiator", "Hollow Crown" and "Tender and True". This is because although they may perhaps not be as sleek, white and good-looking as the modern F1 varieties, they generally have better taste - and after all, that's what most of us want from home-grown veg!

There's one other factor that I want to mention, which has a big influence on the quality of my Parsnips - Luck! (Actually, it's more likely the weather). I use more-or-less exactly the same methods each year, and sometimes I get poor Parsnips and sometimes I get great ones. I therefore wish you loads of luck with your Parsnip-growing ventures...

Friday, 19 January 2018

What, where and why?

I have given this post the title I have because today I'm going to share with you some thoughts about what crops I'm going to grow this year, and specifically where and why.

The task of preparing my growing-plan is harder this year because I now have two areas to cultivate - my own garden and the new plot where I'm helping an elderly couple to keep their garden in good shape. Incidentally, the new plot is situated in a road called Courtmoor Avenue, so I shall probably use that name to refer to it.

This is me, digging. I'm getting lots of practice at this at present....

The Courtmoor plot is an unknown quantity, because I don't yet know very much about its soil quality, light levels, shelter from winds, ease (or difficulty) of watering, slug/snail population etc. The owners tell me that until a couple of years ago they used to get a trailer-load of manure delivered each year, so the soil ought to be pretty good. It certainly feels good - light and crumbly without being too dry. There are some quite big fruit trees in the garden (including a huge old Bramley apple), so shade could be a problem, but this is why I have chosen to cultivate the part furthest from the trees.

Courtmoor plot with large Apple trees - Bramley at Left. Notice position of green trug-tub.

Notice again the green trug-tub. The big Bramley tree is out-of-shot to the Left.

My own garden is of course much more familiar and I know exactly how it performs (I've lived here since 1991). It has its share of problems too - such as low levels of direct sunlight, a big tree in the neighbouring property which sucks out lots of moisture - and then there is the constant threat of damage by badgers and foxes, who often dig big holes if I let them! But its biggest advantage is that it's right outside my back door, meaning that I can tend to it whenever I like, at a moment's notice.

My own garden, with raised beds and open space for containers (e.g. for potatoes as seen here)

The Courtmoor plot is not far away (not much more than a quarter of a mile, I'd say), but going there will involve a conscious decision and a few minutes' walk, so it won't be like pottering around on my own property. I plan to spend about half a day per week there at present, possibly two half days at certain times of the year, such as during April and early May when lots of sowing and planting takes place.

My overall plan is this:- In the Courtmoor plot I'll grow low maintenance crops and ones that need more space, and in my own gardens I'll grow ones that require more attention, as well as ones that will do better in my raised beds - which are relatively easy to protect from animal and insect pests, using nets and mesh. I think it also makes sense to have the herbs and salad crops close to home, since these are things we often want on the spur of the moment.

So, here's the split then (first draft!)

Courtmoor plot:
Potatoes - including at least one Maincrop variety
Parsnips (very low maintenance)
Beetroot (ditto)
Leeks and possibly onions and/or shallots
Big brassicas - Brussels Sprouts and cabbages (will benefit from plenty of space)
Climbing beans (there is enough space for me to grow a few of several different varieties)
French beans (the plot-owners particularly like these)
Squashes (I have never found enough room or a suitable space in my own garden)
New Zealand Spinach (I've not tried this, but the plot-owners have made a special request for it)

My own garden:
Potatoes in containers - Early varieties. (Container-grown ones are easier to protect)
Salads, including at least lettuce, endive, radicchio and radishes
Herbs (often required in the kitchen at short notice)
Carrots (will need protection with Enviromesh - easier to provide in a raised bed)
Broad Beans (easier to support and protect in a raised bed)
Runner Beans (these need frequent picking during harvest period)
Purple Sprouting Broccoli (ditto)
Short-lived brassicas, e.g. Brokali and Calabrese
Tomatoes (high-maintenance and vulnerable. Will grow in containers as usual)
Chillis (ditto)
Asparagus & Rhubarb (perennials, already in permanent containers)

NB: These lists are not necessarily fixed! If you have any suggestions for a better distribution, please let me know.

By the way, I'm also thinking carefully about where to raise my young plants. In theory, many of them could be grown at the Courtmoor plot to save carting them to and fro, but I think I will probably raise them mainly in my own garden, where I will be able to supervise them more closely. Also, I already have all the necessary coldframes and mini-greenhouses at my own property.

A good selection of crop-protection 'hardware'.

Right, so those are the plans for now. Let's see how things actually turn out...

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Returning enthusiasm?

Hello, Dear Reader. Long time, no see!

Now that the days are lengthening again, I can feel my enthusiasm for gardening slowly returning. I'm fed up of looking out of the window and seeing bare trees and shrubs, empty raised-beds, and drifts of wet leaves that I should have cleared up in November. I want to be outside "doing stuff"!

Actually, despite not writing any blogposts since early December, I have not been idle. I have spent a fair bit of time preparing things up at the new plot I mentioned in my last post. For those of you who haven't seen that post, let me explain.... I have agreed to take over a portion of the garden belonging to some neighbours of a long-time friend. The elderly couple who own the property are no longer able to look after the garden and have called in help from other quarters. One chap cuts the grass; another prunes the tree and bushes, and I am now in charge of the veg-patch! They have said I can use as much or as little of the plot as I like, so I'm going to go easy to begin with and may expand later on. Fortunately, this new plot is only a few minutes' walk from my own house.

This is the plot, shortly after I started working on it.

Sorry about the poor photo quality - these were taken on my phone, on a cold December morning..

The bit I am going to use initially is the area on the right in the photo above. It is very roughly 5m x 20m.

You can see that I have already done a fair bit of digging - about half of the plot so far. The soil, which has been cultivated for decades, is lovely and light, with very few stones. The garden was in active use until very recently so has not had time to get really overgrown, and my digging is mainly aimed at removing a layer of grass and annual weeds. There are only a few perennial weeds - like dandelions and buttercups - but I notice a vigorous invasion of Couch Grass from the next-door garden, which is very dishevelled. I'll have to keep a watchful eye on that.

Since the photos above were taken, I have removed the enormous pile of weeds, prunings etc (which the owners had been intending to burn), and have dug a bit more, as well as removing last year's beanpoles. The beanpoles, I regret to say, were very old and rotten. They will not do for another year, so I intend to replace them with the 8-ft bamboo canes which I used to use at my own property until I acquired those Hazel poles last year.

Here's a view looking in the opposite direction, showing the bit still to be dug. There are some currant bushes along the fence at the Left, and a row of Raspberries in front of the shed. I may or may not take over the currants and berries, depending on how I fare with the rest of the plot. I intend to spend about half a day per week at the new plot, so I may not have the time to do everything I would like to do.

My initial plan for this plot involves growing some easy, low maintenance veg, such as potatoes, parsnips, beetroot and beans. The owners of the property have been repeatedly saving their own seeds of things like beans for many years and one of the first things I did was rescue some seeds from the last few remaining bean plants (French and Runner types). I don't know if they will be viable, because I only got them after the first frosts, but it's worth a try since their (un-named) ancestors have been grown in the very same garden since the late 1960s, so they are true Heritage Veg! Likewise, I saved a few shallots, which I intend to plant as soon as the weather conditions permit.

Meanwhile, back at Mark's Veg Plot....

Over the past couple of months I have done very little gardening. I just didn't feel inspired. Because of this, the plot is looking pretty tatty, and will require a fair bit of smartening-up. I have however continued to harvest a few veggies, like theses Parsnips, Carrots and Leeks:

Today I made a start on the tidying-up - I emptied one of my compost bins. This was necessarily the first step, since otherwise I would have had nowhere to put all the stuff I am going to clear up. Fortunately, it wasn't as bad a task as it might have been. Having been in the bin for the best part of 9 months, the material was a nice, fairly dry and crumbly texture, with only a very thin layer of unbroken-down stuff on the top.

For the time being I have put it into some big plastic pots (I bought several more of these in the Autumn).

The material from that one "Dalek-style" compost bin was enough to fill 8 of those pots. The others mostly still hold soil which I used last Summer / Autumn for second-crop veggies such as Leeks and French Beans. In a few weeks time I will mix the compost with the soil and re-distribute it, then I'll use it for growing my Early potatoes. The plan is to grow the Earlies in my home garden (in pots, of course) and to grow some Maincrop ones at the new plot. I'll also be growing at the new plot some potatoes of the variety "Foremost", a First Early variety which I know the owners of the property really like. I haven't specifically discussed this, but to me it makes sense to grow wherever possible types of veg and varieties that my hosts like, since I intend to share the proceeds with them. On the 27th / 28th January I will be visiting the Hampshire Potato Day as usual, to buy my seed potatoes - a few more than normal this year, of course.

I haven't sown any seeds yet, and it will probably be another month before I start my chillis (which are usually the first), even though I have my Growhouse in which to care for them. I'm also tempted to sow some onion seeds and maybe some early cabbages quite soon. To be honest, much depends on my level of enthusiasm. After a couple of months off, I'm not getting back into the swing of things just overnight, you know!

By the way, just in case you hadn't gathered this, in the last few months I have begun to take a much closer interest in another hobby, which is Fungi-spotting. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will see that I am forever posting photos of fungi - though you probably don't see all the zillions of other photos I post in two Facebook Groups that I have joined! You'll have to forgive me then if on this blog I make the occasional digression into the mycological world. To give you a flavour of this, here's a pic of some lovely Winter Chanterelles (Cantharellus Tubaeformis) which I picked some weeks ago...

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

A blog holiday

I have decided to give blogging a rest for a while. I am at a point where I feel that I have very little new to say.

I have also recently become very absorbed with studying and photographing fungi, which has led me to take a bit less interest in my veg-garden. However, there is news on the veg-garden front too...

I am going to be doing some gardening on behalf of an elderly couple (neighbours of a friend) who have a big garden but can no longer manage to look after it. Rather than let it "revert to nature" they have offered it to me to use, either in its entirety or in part. Luckily, the property is only about half a mile from our house, so within easy walking distance. The veg-garden is weedy, but not what I'd call overgrown, so it should be relatively easy to knock it back into shape again. Furthermore, the present incumbents have been cultivating it since the 1960s, so the soil should be pretty good. This sounds like a much better arrangement for me than taking on an allotment!

Despite putting my blog into suspension for a while, I still intend to be active on the Social Media, so if you are interested you can follow me on Twitter ( @Marksvegplot ) and/or on Facebook (where I use my real name).

With a bit of luck, my enthusiasm for blogging will return before too long, and I'll be able to write about how I get on with this new plot, but for the time being, "Au Revoir", and thanks for following!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Update on the PSB

This year's Purple Sprouting Broccoli plants are looking good. There were not so many Cabbage White butterflies around this year, and in any case my PSB was covered with anti-insect netting, so it has been protected from caterpillars. The mesh is not fine enough to exclude aphids, but luckily there have been very few of those too, so the PSB foliage is nice and clean. All good on the bugs front then!

I have been very careful to water my plants well, because I know that the raised beds dry out rapidly. I have also given the PSB an occasional feed of general-purpose liquid plant food, and they look strong and healthy now.

I have four plants this year, one each of "Rudolph", "Red Arrow", "Red Spear" and "Early Purple Sprouting". In the photo below they are in that order, Left to Right.

You can see that they vary quite a lot in terms of height and density of foliage. The short "Early Purple Sprouting" one would be the most suitable for growing on an exposed site because it would be less vulnerable to wind damage. My little garden is fully enclosed on all sides, but it still suffers from the wind. The first time I grew this veg, all my plants were laid low in a gale, but I learned the lesson and these days I always stake the plants, securing them to stout wooden posts with a few turns of soft string in at least two places - more if the plants get very tall.

"Rudolph" is supposed to be the first of my four varieties to reach maturity, theoretically producing spears around Christmas-time, but I find that it doesn't normally achieve that. February is more likely. The other varieties will hopefully mature at different times, giving me steady pickings throughout the Spring rather than a glut.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Bye Bye Beans!

Well, I have definitely picked my last Runner Beans of the year!

I always like to take my Runner Bean plants down before the onset of really "Autumny" weather. It's a nasty job to do in cold, wet conditions.

It's surprising how much foliage can be produced by 12 Runner Bean plants. A row of them like this has a lot of wind-resistance, and is very vulnerable to collapse in strong winds, so although we were never forecast to be very much affected by the long-anticipated ex-hurricane Ophelia, Sunday morning seemed like a good time to get this job done.

Stripping away the leaves and vines with my secateurs, it was inevitable that I would find a few pods that I had missed earlier. There were a few very old ones that had already dried out, and a few immature ones that would have had no chance of growing to a decent size. At this time of year even the small ones are usually tough and flaccid - not nice for eating. The big ones I kept for drying, and the small ones went in the compost-bin.

Here in the UK not many people grow Runner Beans for the actual beans; they grow them for the young pods. However, the beans are very nice and dry well for Winter storage. They make a nice Chilli con Carne...

This is the support-frame, with the foliage removed. Those are 9-foot poles. Luckily I was able to stand on the edge of the raised bed so that I could reach up to the top.

Here are the poles, cleaned-off and bundled-up for storage in the garage until next year.

If you are wondering about the pots, they contain Daffodil and Tulip bulbs. I have protected them with wire grilles (aka shelves from my mini-greenhouses), weighed down with stones, to stop the foxes digging them up.

This is one of the benefits of the job - it produces lots of material for the compost bins.

I find that Runner Bean plants make very good compost material, because they are a good mix of soft (leaves) and hard (stems). My only problem is that the compost-bins are already nearly full - and soon I'll have a garden full of Maple-tree leaves to cope with too!

Anyway, the task is complete now.

I'll leave the raised bed empty for a while, and let the birds rummage in it for grubs. It will be the first bed to be planted-up next Spring. Gosh, Spring. Doesn't that seem like a long way off?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Finger carrots

These are Finger carrots. Guess where the name comes from?

Yep, they're called Finger carrots because they look like fingers. Doh!

These ones of mine are of the variety "Amsterdam Forcing 3". It's a variety specially bred for growing long and thin. As I mentioned the other day, they have been grown as a follow-on crop in the 35-litre plastic containers which formerly held new potatoes. Two pots were sown on July 6th and the third was sown on July 29th.

I think I sowed the carrots a bit too thickly, and didn't thin them, so many of them are thus too weak and weedy to produce anything useable, but by picking carefully I'll be able to muster a worthwhile number from my 3 pots. Look at these beauties:

Keys for scale purposes

I terms of aftercare, I did practically nothing to them - just watered them occasionally. I think if I had grown them earlier in the year I would have covered them with Enviromesh, like my maincrop carrots, but sowing later has avoided the Fly.

Washing them shows that although they have green shoulders that will need to be removed before cooking, there is no slug or Carrot Root Fly damage at all - despite having been grown without protection of any sort.

Carrots like these are a special delicacy - tender and sweet - best served fairly plain (possibly raw) and definitely not thrown into a stock or casserole! They don't need to be peeled either, just lightly scrubbed to remove the soil from them.

This first batch was served boiled and then tossed in melted butter and sprinkled with chopped Parsley. I think if I had a lot of them I would put them in a bowl on the kitchen worktop, for snacking on, but I know they wouldn't last long in our household!