Planting Jim’s Dad’s Garlic Again

A couple of years ago Jim asked us to plant some of his Dad’s garlic. He plants cloves on his birthday and harvests the bulbs on his dad’s birthday. It’s a ritual, a celebration of the memory of his father. He had some cloves and thought we’d like to plant extra garlic. So in they went and we harvested the garlic, ate some and kept some for planting on. His Dad’s garlic has become part of our yearly planting cycle, and is one of the most productive varieties we save each year. We’ve also discovered there are several varieties amongst the garlic we were given, and they’re adapting to our soil conditions.

Jim's Dad's Garlic [1]

They’re in the ground again this year, along with elephant garlic we’ve grown from the bulbils we find every year  on the bulb roots.

A very cold spring: how I nearly lost next year’s Leek crop

I do rather like leeks. That’s why I grow lots of them; they’re the vegetable I most remember growing on our family allotment on Tyneside, the crop that regularly won Dad prizes in the Allotment Federation’s annual competition – tenderly nurtured by collective family effort, but credited to the (male) allotment holder! They also make scrumptious leek puddings and are essential ingredients in bacon broth. I also appreciate the outdoor larder a well-stocked bed of flagged leeks represents in winter.

winter leeks

I’m beginning to plant out the leek seedlings I germinated during late winter and early spring, but have had to review my insistence on germinating leek seed so early. I made elaborate arrangements for germination in early January using hot water bottles and bubble wrap; I then planted the resulting seedlings in a nursery bed in early February, just as the coldest of winter weather swept across the South Downs. The poor seedlings just sat there and sulked – at least they didn’t die on me, but they certainly didn’t prosper. I had assumed they were as hardy as the fully-grown ones we were harvesting, and made the mistake of leaving them uncovered and unprotected until March, when I eventually covered them with old windows, something I’ve never had to do during the last 15 years of growing. They perked up a bit, but only just. I sowed a 2nd lot of seeds in March and popped them into the seed bed, undercover, alongside the earlier ones, at the beginning of April. The cold had clearly set the early seedlings back and they were actually smaller than the March germinated seeds; as the weather warmed, the seedlings grew faster, and they all eventually caught up by May.

early leek seedlings-February '13

One thing I did learn about germinating Leek seed so early and subjecting them to cold at the wrong time in their growth cycle, is that it can confuse the plants into thinking they’re going through winter, which makes them produce flower spikes during their 1st summer or early autumn (they are biennial and normally flower during their 2nd summer). That happened to one variety of Leek I sowed early a couple of years ago, during the 1st of our recent cold winters. I couldn’t transplant the seedlings until mid July and they almost immediately started producing flower spikes during August, something I had attributed to the delay in planting out and the large size of the seedlings. I had sown Carentan, Musselborough, Pandora and Bleu De Solaise, but only the Carentan went to seed that summer, possibly indicating their susceptibility to bolt in unfavourable conditions.

It’s valuable understanding the germination and growth patterns for the crops you want to grow so you can work with them to get good crops as early and late in the year as is practical. But it’s also important to know when messing with sowing and planting dates can confuse the plant’s own seasonal growing cycle – this could be linked to temperature or day length sensitivity.  Work with the patterns, not against them. There was no advantage in rushing to sow early and I nearly lost those early seedlings during our intensely cold spring. The other lesson is the danger of repeating the same approaches to sowing and planting crops that worked in the past during different and milder winters and springs – that was my folly. I won’t even think to sow my leeks until March next year, then I’ll keep them covered until spring ‘properly’ arrives.

The Chilli Trial: my experiments

In January I happily agreed to join the vegetablism chilli trail and @5olly sent me my 5 varieties in plastic bags: Piqullo, Guindilla, Hungarian Yellow Wax, NuMex Centennial and Chiltepin. Here’s my report on progress, accompanied by my usual out-of-focus pictures:

Seeds for Chilli Trail 2013

I duly sowed 2 of each on 17th February, keen to see them germinate and grow. I was a little concerned that I’d not be able to germinate the Chiltepin as I wasn’t entirely sure how I could imitate the digestive system of a bird: This variety is one of the hardest to germinate as it usually passes through a bird’s digestive system 1st.

My preparations were elaborate; I don’t have a heated propagator, but I know chilli seeds need heat to make heat so had sat the tray on top of several hotwater bottles for a couple of days to warm the compost before sowing. After sowing, I kept the hotwater bottles heated for 10 days, morning and evening, the tray wrapped in an old towel and bubblewrap – never have seeds been so lovingly nurtured! My attempt at substituting hotwater bottles for a heated propagator, so successful with lettuce seed and leeks in January, failed miserably with chilli seeds – seems they need constant temperatures of 21oC until germination – obviously not hot enough for them – or dud seed?

seeds in damp kitchen roll

I think perhaps I may have germinated some of the seeds, but if so, they’re not doing very much, possibly sulking in the cold. I’ve since retrieved the single seeds I kept back ‘in case’ and am going to try another experiment: soaking and chitting them. I’ve wrapped them in kitchen roll and popped them back into their plastic bags, dampened them with warm water and have left them on top of the radiator. I ‘mislaid’ 2 of the seeds as I returned them to their bags, so only 3 in my experiment, now.

 Are these chilli seedlings: Chiltipin & NuMex possibly?
Chiltipin chilli seedling?

NuMex Centennial chilli?

Leeks: moon sowing, no trimming.

Leeks traditionally follow early potatoes in rotation, which grow on for approximately 90 days, although we’ve usually harvested our 1st earlies at about 75 days, with good yields. I plant our 1st Early chitted tubers in mid-March, covered by old builders bags, until the threat of frost is over.  So, while March-sown leeks have their bed already allocated, germinating leek seeds early also means working out where, in the allotment, this earlier crop is going to fit, and that means reorganising beds to accommodate them. I will be planting out the early sown seedlings in a nursery bed in early February, 5 weeks after sowing; they’ll then be transplanted into their beds for growing on between early March & mid-April (10-15 wks), depending on where I decide to put them, just as the potatoes are being planted. However, as early leeks tend to mature faster than winter-hardy varieties, I would be wise to plant the seedlings out early to ensure they can grow on as quickly as possible for harvest during late summer/early autumn.

leek seedlings [2]

Various gardening writers offer advice on sowing and planting schedules for Leeks; Charles Dowding is adamant that you shouldn’t sow before late March, with mid April the best time, and appears to have only one sowing/planting time, which probably reflects their place in his yearly planting cycle. Joy Larkcom, however, suggests trying several sowings, and it is her advice I’ve drawn upon in my experimenting. It really depends on how you organise your vegetable garden and how much you like leeks – we are northern and love them! Continue reading

Germinating Leeks: hotwater bottles and bubblewrap.

Mid winter isn’t usually considered the time to sow seeds; freezing temperatures, snow laying on the South Downs in Sussex for over a week. And now rain, leaving the ground cold and saturated. Yesterday, on our way to Eastbourne we passed fields that were nothing but lakes, and, with the forecast for more rain, there’ll be little sign of those fields drying our soon.

leeks under snow [1]

Still, it’s possible to start early crops of hardy vegetable varieties undercover, indoors, which is what I’ve been attempting with leeks. Since 2009 I’ve experimented with different ways to start leek seedlings early, so that I have large enough plants for cropping during the summer.

Looking back through my gardening diary I read this:
Early March 2009: I used old window frames to cover a bed for early salads and sowed my own saved leek seed alongside. I’ve a note that germination was fairly quick; sown on the 1st, germinated by the 15th, transplanted into the 1st early potato bed by end of May, so following rotation and in good time as a follow-on crop after potatoes. I need to remember that Spring 2009 on the South Downs was warm during the day, but moderated by cold winds and low night temperatures.

2010: continued sowing undercover in the allotment at the end of March, again transplanting the seedlings at the end of May. But looking at my notes it’s clear that both years we didn’t really have any leeks cropping until early/mid autumn.

2011: after the New Moon of 4th January I sowed two trays of leeks (9th January). There was a full moon on the 19th just as the leeks showed signs of germination. I made a 2nd sowing of two varieties on 17th February, just before the next full moon on the 18th, and both had germinated by 22nd. The trays were kept on shelving next to a north facing French window, so, cool. They were wrapped in bubblewrap over the top of clear plastic lids, and covered with old towels.

2012: I was preoccupied during January and February, so reverted to my March/May sowing and transplanting cycle.

And now, this year (2013), I’ve attempted early sowing again. But, because temperatures have been so consistently low, I need to modify my sowing methods to encourage germination. I don’t have a heated propagator, so I’ve worked out an approach that, I think, mirrors the way a propagator works: a tray of modules with compost (half and half sieved leaf mould and our own green waste compost) sat on top of two hot water bottles overnight to raise the soil temperature before sowing seeds. After sowing, this routine continued for four nights, with the tray covered with a clear plastic lid, a sheet of bubble wrap, topped by a couple of old towels. The seeds were sown on the 3rd January and all four varieties had signs of germination (below) by the 11th. So, once germination was assured, I gradually moved the tray of seedlings, covered with a lid and bubble wrap, into the kitchen extension during the day, then back onto the shelves by the French doors at night, for about a week. The tray’s now in the extension without a lid until the seedlings are transplanted into a seedbed, probably by mid-February – I may cover them with fleece  for a week or so until they are established.

leek seedlings

Leek and onion seeds take from 14-18 days to germinate within a temperature range of 7-24o C, so I’ve effectively speeded up germination to eight days. Poor germination is either the result of cold compost/soil or old seed; it can also, early in the year, result from swings in temperature, so hot water bottles need consistently reheating each night until it’s obvious germination is going well. Once you have small seedlings, a bit like onion ‘grass’, about a couple of inches tall, they’re hardy enough to leave in a cool extension, or even a greenhouse, to slowly grow for a month before being transplanted into a nursery bed. The seedlings, below, are now standing up more strongly.

leek seedlings indoors

Sowing seeds challenges the timeframes within which we live our daily lives, thinking in seasons, not months; harvesting last year’s winter leek crop reminds me to sow next year’s summer crop. Yet, because leeks grow so slowly, there’s always the possibility of catching up by the end of spring.

A fascination with Garlick

I love growing garlic. When we started this blog, garlic was granted a starring role; I also discovered the joys and disappointments of searching for information about a crop on the web – unsourced and unattributed ‘factoids’ that tell you little! My research training swept into action and the results were HortusLudi’s 1st series of posts drawing upon both historical and botanical sources.

My next obsession is testing growing conditions and trailing new crops and ways of growing things. I’ve just planted out a series of special garlic varieties I received from Julieanne @GwenfarsLottie. Julianne also sent cloves to growers in other parts of the UK and we’re intendng to compare results in the autumn. I’ve therefore set myself a record keeping task, checking & photographing, sharing success & failure. As if last year wasn’t hard work!

A beginning
I’ve begun rather late due to weather and work. I do normally plant out garlic in December and shallots in January/February, so not really late, but certainly not the late autumn/early winter that’s recommended. The main crop went in on Boxing Day, using cloves from last year’s crop. I always select the best & largest & hang those bulbs I intend to plant separately to the bunches for cooking. Despite the rain, we only had a small amount of white rot on the crop in 2012 (endemic across the allotment site) and managed to get it lifted at the beginning of July before the rot spread – it’s only ever present in small intermittent pockets. I planted out a special section with 7 varieties, 2/3 cloves each – the rest of the bed has been planted up with shallots saved from last year’s crop – the sets only expanded slightly rather than multiplied. All 3 garlic beds had seaweed on them through autumn before a top-dressing of our own compost mixed with leaf mould. Some seaweed is still evident but will disappear by spring. This is the 1st time I’ve used seaweed directly on garlic beds, even though it went on in November and has been covered with compost. Risky? I’d say its worth a try: the beds are at the top of our allotment, made of old scaffolding boards, set along a chalk ridge, so are free draining but needed compost to enrich a very chalky soil. I’m hopeful the experiment will work. The planting site gets more sun than the rest of the allotment, from early to late, so this might help the cloves grow and ripen, even if we have similar weather to 2012.

The 7 sets of cloves I’ve planted out – I know, they all look the same, but they are quite different, really :


You can still see the seaweed we put on the bed, but it disappears surprisingly quickly: 30th December 2012. The bed was covered in netting to stop cats, foxes & birds digging in the soil – there was a distinctly foxy smell around the top of the allotment, so probably along a fox route through the site.

So, an experiment started; while the garlic is putting down roots I’ve several new crops to attempt – I’ll tell you about them later.

Nearly forgot practicalities: garlic cloves planted at 7″ intervals in staggered rows, with at least 1″ of soil above the cloves.

A cunning plan: oriental brassicas & salads for winter

Every year I attempt to sow & grow oriental vegetables; every year I fail miserably. I either sow too early or too late & the seeds fail to germinate, or they grow, it rains & the slugs snaffle them, completely. I’d reached the conclusion that my efforts were wasted & I was destined never to succeed with them. Until this year.

You might consider that oriental brassicas had no chance in such a wet summer & equally damp & gloomy autumn. However, with failure of our potato crop (major blight damage) I was determined to show progress elsewhere with my growing skills. So, I sowed lots of turnips & loads of brassicas, alongside winter hardy lettuce varieties. However, this year I sowed seeds in modules, as well as open sowing in beds, which allowed me to replace plants that became slug & snail feasts. It also allowed me to experiment with container grown winter salads at home, in addition to covered beds in the allotment.

Seeds need to be sown between late August & end of September in order that they germinate & grow sufficiently, ready for transplanting  by mid-late October, while they still have time to establish a root system to sustain them over winter – it takes approximately 14 days for plants to settle & recover from transplanting. Small, but sturdy plants survive the winter cold better than larger specimens. They need to be covered with fleece or sturdy builders’ netting before the 1st frosts, usually by the end of October – but watch the weather forecasts. The dates are important because light levels diminish significantly after the Autumn Equinox (22nd September this year) as days shorten, temperatures fall & growth slows. You should also be careful about covering your beds with blue netting over winter, as it can cut light levels by up to 30%, not a very good idea during a season when light levels dip so low. I fortunately salvaged some white netting that I’ve washed & repaired (pink originally, but bleached through use).

Charles Dowding provides a useful chart for sowing & planting dates in his Winter Vegetable book. I have adapted my allotment diary charts & have include details of other salads, mainly lettuce varieties, Endive  & Kale, that are also part of my plan for winter salad harvests. Meanwhile, below, are examples of the plants I’ve raised & planted out in trays for the winter harvests at home.

I used old mushroom trays lined with thick layers of newspaper & cardboard, then filled them with a 50/50 mix of our own compost & leaf mould, pressing it firmly into the tray as I filled (but not too much).  Box1 was planted up on 23rd Oct, box2- beginning of November, box3 on 21st Nov, along with a couple of plant troughs . You can see how I’ve spaced the seedlings, below. The spacing is fine for now but I suspect, in spring, the boxes might become too crowded, given the plants survive the winter – all currently in an unheated kitchen extension where the door is propped open for our cats to get in & out, therefore generally cold!

Mushroom tray filled with compost before planting up

Salad box1 after planting up-23rd Oct
Above, from the top, L-R:
Leaf Erbette, Grandpa Admire’s lettuce, Bekana salad cabbage
Leaf Beet, Endive Gigante di Bergamo
Winter Marvel, Devil’s Tongue Romaine, Jack Ice
Red Pak choi, Yukina Savoy
Red Frills(Mizuna)x3, Bull’s Blood beetleaf x4, Spinach Gigante d’Inverno

Salad box1-3 weeks later, mid-November

I planted up the 2nd mushroom box a couple of weeks later, in early November.
Below, from the bottom, L-R:
Red Frills/Mizuna, Glacier Pak choi, Golden Frills
Cavolo di Nerox2
Rouge de Grenoblois, Jack Ice, Morton’s Secret
PeTsai Cabbagex2
Bekana salad cabbage, Yukina Savoy, Bekana salad cabbage.
Salad Box2, early November
Salad Box2, 17th November

I planted up a 3rd box (below) on 21st November, a bit late really, so I will watch how it grows with interest. My main concern will be whether the plants are able to recover quickly enough to put on some growth before light levels completely dip in December.
From Top, L-R:
Yukina Savoy x2
Continuity Lettuce x3
Bekana salad cabbage x2
Endive Gigante di Bergarmo x3
Green Frills, Red Frills/Mizuna
Winter Marvel, Rouge Grenobloise x2
I’ve picked enough leaves from the first 2 salad boxes to fill several pitta breads – that is, only a light harvest of the largest leaves. I’ll continue posting pictures over winter as a record of harvests & growth, but so far, I’ve grown more, & more varied, winter salads than ever before. What is required is some precise sowing dates, careful choice of seed varieties & nurturing of seedlings through to autumn transplanting. Planning & organisation rather than serendipity!