More garlic

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Carcassone Wight hardneck garlic. Next year’s crop

Well I did say that garlic growing had reached a whole new level of personal interest after the Allotment Association talk last Monday, and I wasn’t wrong.  The book I ordered – all 450 pages of it – was definitely a good buy, and coupled with some information from the talk I’ve been doing a bit of online research to see what the state of play is for organic gardeners..

The first thing to say is that the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm is not an organic operation and makes no claim to being one. I certainly don’t want to mount any high horse about that; it sounds like a commercial decision based on the challenges of achieving a consistent crop, and we’re free to buy or not to buy their products. Two things that were said induced me to get online.  In the QA session after the talk it was said that the farm uses Dithane to control fungal diseases like white rot.  They also operate a seven year field rotation, so they’re obviously taking no chances.  When he was asked what to do if you get white rot, the speaker said “buy another farm!” – I’ve got more on that later.

In fact they can’t use Dithane because it’s been banned in the EU, and they probably went over to Systhane until that was banned as well, and current regulations seem to say that there are no chemical fungicides available to gardeners for use on food plants. That’s not a worry for us because we wouldn’t have used them anyway, but we have to accept that our losses to disease will be much harder to reduce and will need a holistic approach to plant health coupled with some hard observation of soil, weather conditions and rotation.

The second thought provoking suggestion in the talk was to give the garlic a dose of sulphate of ammonia in February.  Sulphate of ammonia is a chemical fertilizer, produced by reacting ammonia with sulphuric acid. It adds, I discovered, both nitrate and sulphur to the ground but there are all the usual downsides of producing sappy, insect friendly growth and so-on. It also uses 1% of the world’s total energy production in its manufacture.  But alliums – onions, garlic etc – all need sulphur which is one of the molecular components of the garlic byproduct, allicin, which is so good for us. Normally there’s sufficient sulphur in the soil, but apparently – and here you must remember my knowledge of plant biology is limited – apparently waterlogging does severe damage to plant roots and restricts the uptake of essential minerals.  The take home point for us is that when we inherited our allotment the soil was continually waterlogged in the winter, and despite adding tons of compost; digging drains and raising beds, it’s still on the wet side.

The sequence of plant problems is that weakened plants get diseases more quickly and more severely than healthy ones. For the third consecutive year our leeks have been a miserable failure while others on higher allotments have not been affected. So putting aside sulphate of ammonia what else could be available to us as organic gardeners? One suggestion is to spray with a solution of Epsom salts – magnesium sulphate. It’s apparently allowable, but I’m assuming it’s a manufactured chemical and I know it hasn’t been made from natural Epsom spring water in living memory so it feels pretty non-organic to me. Then I came across some research on seaweed fertilizer which pretty much fits the bill.  We often use it as a foliar spray, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it in February.  Research suggests that it’s a very effective source of minerals including sulphur. Anecdotally I can say that a car load of bagged and wet seaweed certainly smells as if it’s got some sulphur about it! – and it it makes a brilliant soil conditioner too. So in February we’ll spray the young alliums with liquid seaweed extract and I’ll report back. Other than that, I think we need to carry on raising the beds further above the water table and digging in organic material and horticultural grit.

Back to the book, and it’s been a revelation. I need to get a bit of organic chemistry into my head, but garlic’s claim to be a superfood seems to be well supported by independent research. The last 100 pages of the book are a summary of research into the use of garlic in folk and complementary medicine and  the use of alliums  and their derived substances as attractants, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and repellents in the environment. There’s all sorts of peer reviewed research in there including some work on companion planting which I’ve yet to read properly because I get excited and start skim-reading – a very bad habit and the reason why I’m not referencing any of the ideas.

But allotmenteering is all about taking the abstract and making it concrete, and so this all boils down to creating the best conditions for our own garlic by growing it in large pots filled with a home made mixture of soil, compost, horticultural sand, a sprinkle of fish blood and bone (not vegan then), and some vermiculite and perlite. This year we’re comparing 2 rows of Early Purple Wight softneck, grown direct in the allotment soil, and 25 plants of Carcassonne Wight hardneck in pots. They’ll all get the same seaweed treatment and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how much the waterlogging is contributing to our difficulties. In practice this means carrying many kilos of ingredients down the steep paths and mixing them up in the wheelbarrow, which is extremely hard work but massively cheaper than buying bags of potting mix – which sometimes rely on peat in any case. This way we’ve only ourselves to blame if we get the mixture wrong.

So, after a hard day, we consoled ourselves with roasted root vegetables (mostly off the allotment) and couscous; another vegan tryout that was well worth the effort, but notwithstanding the affection of American readers for all things pumpkin – especially on Thanksgiving Weekend – even after being anointed with miso and all manner of herbs it didn’t really taste of very much.

The garlic book is –  “Garlic and other Alliums – the Lore and the Science” by Eric Block, Royal Society of Chemistry Press. 454 pages and I can’t put the price here because Madame occasionally reads this blog!

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Life’s rich tapestry – blight!

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They’ve gone down like ninepins on the site. After the recent wet weather it was pretty obvious we were in danger of  visit from Phytophthara infestans alias potato/tomato blight and yesterday we found the first signs on some of the outdoor tomatoes.  There’s no point in beating about the bush or hoping for the best, because with blight there is no best and the only remedy us to get the plants down (carefuly) pick up every scrap of debris and consign it all to the burning fiery furnace (local authority waste site).  My instincts would be to burn it all in the incinerator but rules is rules, and until October we are forbidden to burn anything on the site – and so, as I know I’ve mentioned, the waste begins its slow and expensive/high carbon footprint journey to the same fate at the council incinerator. With blight it’s not a sensible option to leave the diseased material lying around until later. So that’s the entire crop of small tomatoes gone, but fortunately the main crop are blight resistant “Crimson Crush” and they’re perfectly fine. Other allotmenteers on the site are trying different blight resistant varieties and we’ll see how they do this week.

However, the same blight affects potatoes and so today it was essential to dig all our potatoes except for the Sarpo Mira which have proved brilliantly blight resistant. This is, or rather will be, the second and third sacks full of potatoes this year, with at least two more sacks still awaiting harvest – far too many for us, and so they’re being shared around with our neighbours.  In the wheelbarrow are the last of the Arran Pilot and the Pink Fir Apple.  There are still some Red Duke of York to remove from their containers. Next year I’ll be a lot more careful about the potato order quantities, but I’ll probably grow the same varieties. I have to say, though, that we’ve yet to find the ultimate first earlies for this soil.  The Pilots are lovely, as were the Jazzy, but they didn’t quite recapture that waxy sweetness that you get with the best Jersey Royals.  That said though, even the Jersey Royals have dipped a lot in the last few years because the growers are not allowed (apparently) to fertilize the soil with seaweed any more for fear of salt build-up. That won’t stop us from bringing a load of seaweed back from North Wales next time we’re there!

Elsewhere on the allotment everything’s going well and we’ve just started eating our first apples from the cordons we planted two autumns ago. Of five cordons four have produced fruit with the James Grieve doing spectacular things.  The first off were Katy, which are very attractive but also very sweet and lacking the acidity that we both like in an apple – the grandchildren will love them! We also had the first sweetcorn yesterday.  It’s been netted and completely surrounded by courgettes so the badgers haven’t found them yet.  There’s a saying that you should put the water on to boil before you go out to cut the corn and it’s certainly true that you’ve never tasted sweetcorn until you’ve eaten it five minutes after it was cut.

We love many of the heritage vegetables and grow numbers of them wherever we can, but I’m so grateful for the work of the plant breeders for producing disease resistant varieties of potatoes and tomatoes. For organic allotmenteers like us, there’s no easy fix for diseases and the only way to outwit the pests is by building up the soil and using crafty inter and companion planting. But blight is on another scale, and breeding varietal resistance is by far the best plan. I’ve a lot more I want to write about some science I’ve just stumbled on, but I need to get this online first so I can go and bottle up the raspberry vinegar. Much more later!

 

 

 

June 1st and first picking of broad beans

Vegetables seem to be remarkably regular in their flowering and fruiting habits regardless of the weather.  I had thought that we’d be picking the first batch of broad beans at least a week early this year, but in spite of the vast difference in weather between this year and last, we’re picking just two days earlier. Potatoes and tomatoes are a little later but they have both been put out later for fear of a late frost.  The biggest diference this year is the strawberries. Although we’ve got a fabulous crop on the way, last year we were picking ripe strawberries in the first week of June.  This year we’ll be lucky to see them by the third week. The potatoes, I fear, have been afflicted by the incredibly dry weather and they’ll pick up if we get the promised rain this coming week. I’m loath to throw too much water in the direction of the potatoes because I think it diminishes the flavour.  I was grumbling to our neighbouring allotmenteer about the poor flavour of Jersey Royals over the past couple of years and he said he thought it was because the farmers have been prevented from using seaweed because it was thought to be adding too much salt to the soil. Our asparagus, on the other hand is thriving on its thick mulch of seaweed over the winter and is five feet tall now. I do hope there’s as much activity underground because we shall enjoy a good crop next spring.

So this week has been incredibly busy, with a good deal of grandparenting and a trip to replace the water pump on the campervan.  A friend was charged €230 in France 2 years ago for a replacement, but after a bit of research on the internet I sourced a brand new replacement for £50 and fitted it myself at the additional cost of a packet of electrical connectors. I felt absurdly proud of myself.

Apart from that it’s been absurdly busy on the allotment – so much so I’ve hardly had time to write at all. We’ve fitted a hazel wattle screen between the shed and the greenhouse to create a sheltered area where we can grow tomatoes and peppers.  It arrived with one of the end posts pulled out because presumably the delivery driver had dragged it across the floor of his van (after all it weighed 30Kg and he’s probably never seen one before).  Rather than send it back I decided to have a go at repairing it – it took 2 hours of  somewhat grumpy effort but I did finally manage to separate all the woven horizontal branches with the aid of some steel bars, and reinsert the post. It’s now in position and will be an effective screen against cold north winds.  Then, today the temperature soared to 25C so we went up early and  I hammered in the supporting posts ready for the tomatoes, nonethleless we both needed a shower when we got home.  The weather will break tonight, according to the forecast, and we’ll get some rain, so great relief all round.

Someone wrote to the paper the other day lamenting the fact that weather forecasters seem to regard sunshine as inherently superior to rain.  You can tell they’re not gardeners.  In fact there’s a proper drought building up. Our usually damp plot is bone dry down to a foot deep and so we’ve been forced to water as if it were July. Given that a full watering can weighs 22lbs and the round trip to the tank is 100 yards, you can see it’s a bit of a workout to water the whole 250 square metres.

Yesterday my friend Rob – the real botanist – came to check my ID of the Fumaria I’ve been going on about – and,  joy of joys, I was right and it’s Fumaria murialis. This probably means less than nothing to almost everyone else in the world, but it means a lot to me because it shows I’m very slowly getting my eye in.

Tomorrow or Monday the outdoor tomatoes will begin their outdoor life, taking their chances with whatever the weather throws at them.  Meanwhile we’re making the second batch of elderflower cordial.  The first batch is growing on us as we drink it – the problem is that home made is essentially unrepeatable.  This time we’ve gathered a bag of 50+ heads from a purple, ornamental elderflower tree.  So far the result is a lovely rose pink colour.  Sadly we had to buy another eight 500ml  swing top preserving bottles because the rest are all in use, and so our “food for free” cordial, or at least this batch, will cost about twice as much as the commercial stuff. However as the years mount up, home made gets increasingly competitive.  As ever, though, the flavour beats anything you could buy