Sunday, 28 June 2009

Chateau 103: The 2009 vintage!!!

Over the weekend we finally got our elderflower champagne attempt started. While the elderflowers around dublin are starting to fade, those up in Roundwood are just hitting their prime as we are that bit higher up and things grow a few weeks behind everywhere else. Cillian and I found some elderflower in the fields nearby plot 103 and collected a good few flower heads. They smelled wonderful with a sweet heady aroma and released clouds of pollen at the slightest touch, great for making elderflower champagne, as the yeast is contained in the pollen so the more the better, but unfortunately bad for me. I suffer from very bad hay fever and have been sneezing and wheezing all evening. Hopefully our first brew will be worth it and we'll get a nice batch of elderflower champagne out of it and a few litres of elderflower cordial. I used the river cottage elderflower champagne recipe, you can find it on the net if you just google river cottage elderflower champagne. Its surprisingly simple and requires no fancy brewing equipment, just a bucket, the flowers, some sugar, white wine vinegar, some muslin cloth, lemons and some sparkling water or fizzy drink bottles I'll pick up in LIDL. I melted the sugar in 4 Litres of hot water, topped it up to 6 litres with cold water, added the juice and zest of 4 lemons and 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, added around 20 elderflower heads, a quick stir and covered with some muslin cloth. The brew will now sit for a couple of days after which I hope to see some foam or bubbles to indicate that the yeast in the pollen is doing its job and fermenting. I'll leave it then for another 4 days fermenting, strain through muslin and bottle. The brew will then ferment for another 8 days minimum, (hopefully without exploding with all the gas) at which stage it should be ready to drink. If it all works and we have enough yeast in the pollen we should get something out of it. I believe the brew could possibly come out with maybe 4 or 5% alcohol but as its not a very precise process we'll see what happens.

We spend Saturday working hard on plot 103 weeding and watering all of the plants which seem to be growing well. The potatoes we planted a couple of weeks ago are well up and will need earthing up soon.

The 2 potato seeds given to us by Val, our allotment neighbour back in late april/early may are now beginning to flower. Apparently this means we should soon be ready to harvest the spuds and it might be worth having a 'firkle' over the next few weeks. I first heard this term on the allotments4all forum where people were all talking about how it was time to go and have a firkle.... At first I thought it was some kind of strange perverted ritual vegetable growers might secretly engage in but 'Firkle' I believe is the official term for sticking your hands in the potato mound and having a good feel around to see if the spuds are there, what size they are and if they are ready for harvest....gardeners have the strangest phrases....I hadn't expected potato plant flowers to be quite so pretty but the blooms on ours are quite beautiful, tinted with purple petals surrounding vibrant yellow centres.

Our Chard 'bright lights' is starting to show its colours and stalks are now appearing as vibrant reds or bright yellows.

Our courgette plants are starting to put out their first flowers of the season and are now vigorously growing on our manure filled mound of earth by the pumpkins at the back of plot 103. Hopefully we will begin to harvest courgettes over the next few weeks. According to some books on vegetable growing I've read, 1 courgette plant could provide between 16 and 20 courgettes!!!! we have 3!!!so I'd better start thinking of courgette recipes.

The sweetcorn we planted out is thriving I'd swear is growing centimeters by the day. We planted it out 2 weeks ago and each plant was a single blade, like a blade of grass and now look at them...lets hope it continues. The chickpeas we sowed have also come up and appear to be thriving.

Over the weekend I was thinning out the carrots, again, and found for a nice change, that we have some friendly insects on plot 103. I found 3 ladybird larvae eagerly crawling around the carrot bed which is very promising. Ladybird larvae are certainly a gardeners friend as they are ravenous for green fly, black fly and other aphids, and can be used to control greenfly populations. They can't get enough of them, so this guy may be a little ugly and crawly but leave him be...he'll reward you with helping to keep your plants aphid free before he turns into the more familiar ladybirds we see in the height of the summer.

Of course we couldn't finish a beautiful day like saturday without the obligatory BBQ which was enjoyed by all. Here me Jemma and Eoin are seen stuffing our faces with burgers and hotdogs. On the fishing front, Cillian and Eoin spent a few hours fishing and did catch 2 small brown trout, but as they were so small they were thrown back in, so unfortunately no fresh fish for the BBQ this time round, but theres plenty of summer left...

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Save the beans!!

A somewhat text heavy entry this week as I didn't have my camera with me and had to rely on a phone camera so I apologise for the quality of the photos but you'll get the idea. Over the weekend we found that the beans had deteriorated and became even more yellow. At this stage they also seemed to have stopped putting on any new growth. We needed something and we needed it fast. What is worse is our onions are now also showing yellow tips. I had posted up on the gardenplansireland forum looking for a root cause to our problem and all signs seem to confirm that our beans are suffering from a nitrogen and possibly magnesium deficiency aswell. This would make sense as beans are extremely hungry plants and need a well manured and nutrient filled bed, which we didn't have. We hadn't applied any manure to the beds and the soil nearest the river is so sandy it would appear that without the manure and lots of organic matter the nutrients just drain away too easily. With proper ground preparation this autumn we hopefully shouldn't have this problem next year. So I did some research frantically looking for a high nitrogen liquid feed for our plants and was surprised to find that there is not a lot out there in liquid form that is organic. Plenty of organic tomato plant food, but this is high in potash, and while great for flowers and fruit, would, if anything make things worse for our nitrogen hungry green beans. There were ravings of how good a home made nettle or comfrey and manure liquid feed is but it was nearly impossible to find a good commercially available quick release organic liquid feed. We have plenty of nettles and manure around the site but a home made feed takes a few weeks to brew, a few weeks we didn't seem to have. Things were getting desperate and we began wondering if it would be possible to save our beans at all organically or would we have no choice but to let them go, as we really don't want to turn to a synthetic chemical fertilizer. I had already top dressed the bean bed with fish blood and bone meal, a good organic all round fertilizer high in nitrogen and other trace elements, but this unfortunately is slow release and just isn't acting fast enough for our starving beans although it will go towards sustaining the plants over the growing season if they make it. Our beans had survived the marauding bands of squirrels/rats, slow germination, acid soil, and I couldn't let them go without a fight! we had laboured too much and tried too hard for these beans!! It was then, during a trip to Newlands cross garden centre we discovered the wonders of chicken manure and seaweed!! I picked up a massive tub of chicken manure pellets, high in nitrogen, and on the advice of the assistant a bottle of maxicrop organic seaweed extract. Easy to miss as its not exactly advertised as a plant feed as such, but as a growth stimulant and good all round 'tonic'. Sounds a little airy fairy to me but we said we'd try it anyway. We flew down quickly and I surrounded the beans and onions with some chicken manure pellets, lightly hoed them in and we drenched the beds with a solution of the seaweed extract.

As the sun was splitting the stones for the last couple of days we decided this evening to take a quick spin up to plot 103 to give everything a good soaking. To our delight, the beans had not only greened up in the last 3 days and lost almost all of the yellowness, they had also put out lovely new growth!!

The seaweed extract certainly is a good tonic, is organic, and works extremely quickly, I'll be stocking up on this stuff, I have discovered the miracle of seaweed and will forever sing its praises!!! The onions were also showing greener growth and the yellowing tips were decreasing. As yellowing onion tips can also be a symptom of onion fly, alium leaf miner and white rot, we wanted to just make sure it was none of these. William the allotment gurus onions are also displaying the same symptoms in that end of the plot so we pulled one up just to check, and thankfully there was no sign of onion fly maggots, leaf miner catterpillars or any rot. So it would seem that so far we have escaped these dreaded pests and our only problem is with the nutrient deficiencies which can be easily fixed.
We also ran into our new plot neighbour Noreen who has really hit the ground running having only started about 2 weeks ago, she already has her plot completely covered in lovely raised beds and is planting away. She also let us in on a home made remedy for the midges that plague the site in the evenings. We have all at some stage over the last few weeks gone home looking like we were used as a pin cushion. At first we thought she was rubbing in some sun screen or something until we got a little closer and ...could dinner!!!! Noreen has concocted a homemade mosquito repellant!!! and as long as you don't mind smelling a little like christmas stuffing, it works a charm apparently!!! This is genius!! and really does seem to work. The concoction consists of olive oil, garlic, onions, basil, rosemary, lavender and I'm sure one or two other easily available (secret!!) ingredients I can't remember. Noreen mentioned that the midges really don't like the lavender, garlic and basil portion which would agree with the companion planting guideline of using onions and garlic among your carrots as carrot flies don't like the smell, or planting basil with tomato plants to deter aphids and black flies. This weekend Annamoe allotments is having an open weekend where members of the public are welcome to come and have a look at the plots and see how we're doing. Martin, the allotment owner is also looking to take names for phase 2, another 10 or so plots, in Annamoe allotments for the 2010 growing season and fill the remaining 2 plots left for this year. We're certainly learning something new every week up at plot 103 and thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Chillies Ahoy!!!

I thought I should really devote a little piece of the blog to my balcony grown plants this year. I'm growing 2 Apache chilli plants and some tumbler cherry tomatos in pots. Its a first for me for the chillies, but I have grown tomatos in pots for the past couple of years. Over the past two weeks the chilli plants have become laden with flowers and since we are on the second floor, I can't really rely on insects to do the pollinating for me, so I've been 'artificially inseminating' them myself with a small brush. To my delight I can now announce that my chilli plants are pregnant!!!! I have succeeded in getting the plants well and truly 'up the pole!' There is a small bulb at the base of each flower now and below you can see the first of hopefully many chillies forming very quickly. This ones been growing millimetres each day! So I'll have to look up some recipes for chilli jam, chilli sauce and any other things to do with chillies. I have to say they are so successfull I could very easily see myself getting addicted to growing these guys and I'm already planning to try different varieties next year. Apache, jalapeno, and perhaps some Thai birds eye. Each plant is supposed to give up to 50 chillies so I'd better come up with some ideas for using them.

The tomato plants are also covered in flowers which are starting to fade and I'll know by next week if these are also going to be fruitful. Hmmmm chilli and tomato ketchup springs to mind.

This week we arrived down to plot 103 to find the slugs had been munching on our pumkins. I checked the slug traps and unfortunately again, no slugs. But the lettuce seedlings so far remain untouched!!

I did however manage to find our traps had been successful at catching something! The evidence speaks for itself really. You see our bean and pea bed is right next to the lettuce bed. Dare I say it, it may be possible that I have been just a touch unfair to the marauding bands of squirrels. It might be just a little possible that I have unfairly blamed the squirrels for the devastation and masacre of our peas and beans. There is a slight possibility that, yes.., I may have been a little...wrong! When I pulled up one of our slug traps I found it had caught something, certainly furry, and certainly a rodent, however most definately not a squirrel. The trap had caught and drowned what I think was a small young baby rat. It certainly wasn't a mouse as I've had mice before unfortunately in my apartment when we moved in and became very aquainted with them!! eeuuw! This guy was quite different, was obviously too small to be an adult and must have been a young rat.

At first I was sceptical that he was a rat as he was so small and I thought perhaps he was a vole until I did some reading and found that surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be any voles in ireland. Well, mouse or young rat, It's quit likely that this is the actual culprit for the destruction of our peas, which have now thankfully been replaced with healthy strong seedlings raised on the balcony. To all squirrels, I am tentatively sorry!! In light of the continual failure of our slug traps I think we may need to try and source some organic slug pellets. The beans however appear to be suffering from some sort of mineral or trace element deficiency. I suspect it may be short of Nitrogen, as our soil is slightly acidic and quite sandy, this would impede the uptake of nutrients in the plants and manifest itself as yellowing of the leaves. I've left a query up on the gardenplansireland forum to see if the good people there can shed some light on the situation and hopefully provide a remedy.

Our spuds are doing very nicely and were well in need of some earthing up, which we did. This guy in particular needed to be earthed up badly but they seem to be growing fast and strong, so far with no sign of blight but as there are blight warnings around we'll have to take some precautions. Ireland is particularly prone to potato blight due to our very wet climate, and the recent warm humid weather we've had has most certainly raised the alert.

William the allotment guru kindly offered to give them a quick spray against the blight, the first signs of which may be affecting other potato plants around the allotments, some leaves are showing tinges of brown around the edges. Unfortunately when it comes to potato blight as us Irish know only too well, if you don't stop it in its tracks before it turns into a severe attack, you will loose your entire crop. On that note I just had to put a sneaky photo of Williams plot just so that you know I have a legitimate reason to be jealous and green with envy!!

I'm beginning to wonder if our plot will ever look this good. The weeds have well and truly gotten a hold and we began thinking for next year, definately at least edging all of the beds with wood and perhaps raising them up a little. We'll dig the soil thoroughly in the autumn and ensure everything is well fed, manured and prepared properly for next year. At least then we will have the full year to prepare as this year we got the allotment so late in the season we had to rush to get things in.
The signs of our first crop are very evident, the strawberry plants are beginning to show the first strawberries, and our raspberries are also showing their first fruit. I gave all a good feeding with organic tomato plant food to give them an extra boost while they are hard at work setting fruit.
The sprouts and brocolli we planted out a couple of weeks ago are coming on well and have hardened and strengthened nicely from the weak seedlings I started off on the balcony. The first cabbages we planted out are shooting up and thankfully with no signs of caterpillars thanks to the cheap lidl netting. If we had to be successful against only one of our multitude of pests, It would have to at least be my nemesis the butterfly!! So far, plot 103....1...ugly fluttery hairy thing ...nil......!!
We planted out the sweetcorn we had started on the balcony and hopefully they'll take off as well as all the other transplanted seedlings. We also sowed some more lettuce to have a successional crop throughout the season and a few more rows of carrots.
The carrot and parsnip seedlings were looking very overcrowded as were the spring onions between the rows so I thinned them out a bit and couldn't get over the sweet smell of the the thinnings. It was so strong it got me thinking, how did we ever get so used to mass produced tasteless veg we know from the multinational supermarkets. It really is a shame that with today methods of mass production so much of the flavour of veg and fruit is lost. Many people really don't know what veg should really taste like, the carrots are so much more carroty, the cabbage more cabbagey. When I began growing my own tomatos a few years ago I couldn't get over how much stronger the flavour was compare to the tasteless unripe stuff we've become accustomed to in the shops. Limp watery veg and fruit that has been picked and harvested far before it should, and allowed to ripen artificially on the boat or plane on the way over here. Such a pity! If only everyone could try to grow even just a little of their own food, it doesn't take much space to grow a few tumbling tomatos, or a few pots or window boxes of lettuce, if anything just to realise how good veg and fruit is supposed to be, and of course the true satisfaction that you have grown your own food, cared for and nurtured it, makes it that much sweeter. Irelands 'get growing' campaign has been started by the Green party to promote just that and the website which I have linked in the links section gives all sorts of advice on growing your own, how to get growing in allotments, community gardens, at home or in school. Its one cause I've certainly got to give the thumbs up to. So get out there and get growing!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glenn, we daren't go a hunting, for fear of little men!!

On the bank holiday weekend a rather strange thing happened..Quite unexplainable. We arrived down to plot 103 and inspected the beds to see how everything was doing, and when we got to the pea and bean bed, which had previously been ravaged by the marauding bands of squirrels, we saw this...........
Two full rows of beans!!! Only the week before there was a lone bean plant left and now somehow, two entire rows of beans had appeared and were thriving......most peculiar!! There are two possible explanations to this phenomenon. Either the squirrels felt guilty and replanted our beans, highly unlikely knowing squirrels, or there was another theory to this miracle. William the allotment guru let us in on a secret surrounding the wicklow hills...apparently the hills surrounding plot 103 and annamoe allotments is teeming with fairies!!!! 'maybe twas the fairies, you never know!!' he insisted. Much as I doubt there really are fairies in the wicklow hills, there is a lot of hawthorn which I'm assured will make lovely sloe gin once the berries appear....and according to Irish folklore fairies are known to love the hawthorn, and woe betide anyone who cuts down one of their sacred trees, one of which graces the centre of the car park in annamoe allotments carefully worked around during the building of it!!! hmmmmm fairies or not, it would appear that the wicklow locals know a little more than they are letting on.....and Williams plot is coming on far too well not to have some sort of supernatural help!!
Last week I got my own back on the dreaded butterfly. We inspected our newly planted broccolli and sprout plants to find them covered in butterfly eggs!! Jemma and I took great joy in squishing them before the little caterpillars got a chance to hatch and eat all of our food. We covered both the brocolli bed and the sprout bed in netting to prevent this dreaded pest from getting near them again.
We also planted some potatoes in the 'spare' bed we had in plot 103 under the expert guidance of William the allotment guru who showed us how to plant them. The seed potatoes are roosters and were generously donated to us by Robbie our allotment neighbour up the way.
This weekend was a flying visit to check on things and plant out 5 more cabbage plants, a couple of rows of pea plants which were resown on the balcony and to sow some more beans which grow bright yellow and should add some colour to the dinner plate if the squirrels don't get them, or if we get some supernatural help from elsewhere. Val our allotment neighbour a couple of plots up generously offered us some chickpea seed to try so we sowed a couple of rows of them aswell to try them out.
A quick check on the rest of the plants showed the strawberry plants covered in flowers which had now faded and we're hoping for a good crop....perhaps I should leave some milk and honey by the hawthorn tree as a bribe to our little friends...We also found the chard is coming up which should add lots of colour to the plot.
And now for the verdict!!! We were due to see the results of our experiment with the slug traps we set. Strangely it turns out the slugs didn't like either the Mller or the Tsing tao. We didn't catch a single slug! Having said that there also doesn't appear to be any slug damage at all to our emerging lettuces so perhaps we'll be lucky, although I suspect its because of all the dry weather we've been having. We built a mound of all the sods and earth we had previously dug out of the beds and mixed in plenty of manure to house the pumpkin plants we are hoping will provide us with spooky purple pumpkins on halloween. We had two plants started off on the balcony which are thriving allong with some courgette plants. So they were planted out on our pumpkin mound and will hopefully be successfull.
We are also looking forward to welcoming two more new allotment neighbours in the coming weeks, Noreen and Sandra, who have each taken on a plot in Annamoe allotments and will,I'm sure enjoy the coming weeks of work to be done. Annamoe allotments is also holding an open day on the last weekend of June which will be nice and will give people a chance to have a look around the plots and see what we're all up to. As June is here, Jemma, Eoin, Cillian and I are on the hunt for some elderflowers to make some elderflower champagne. The flowers should be in bloom and now and it will be interesting to see if it works. We also saw a recipe for gorse flower wine on the tv programme river cottage which will be tempting to try. Theres certainly no shortage of gorse around wicklow. Once we source the flowers I will provide a detailed account of our brewing experiment.