Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Preperation for Seed Sowing and a Wheatgrass Update

Some seed packets appeared on our kitchen table this week. Julie had been doing a spot of shopping and some starter seeds caught her eye.  They are all pretty good ones to get started, sunflowers, purple sprouted broccoli, sweet peas, lettuce and coriander. So will be a great introduction to the start of the growing season.

The thing is it’s not just a question of sowing a few seeds is it?  Like most jobs around the house there are all the hidden preparations to contend with before even one seed is sown.. I my case it goes like this:

Jobs to do before planting ONE seed
  • Make a cup of tea.
  • Sort packets of seeds out into date sowing.
  • Find seed trays left scattered around the inside of the polytunnel
  • Clean and disinfect the afore mentioned trays.
  • Find somewhere for the trays to go. Make room.
  • Head on down to the local garden centre for some ‘proper’ potting compost
  • Be tempted to buy lots of spring bedding at the garden centre but resist temptation.
  • Unload the compost and clear are for storage.
  • Clear the work area in the tunnel, cleaning and disinfecting the work surfaces, plastic sheeting and patch up the char so the stuffing doesn’t come out of the seat.
  • Clear the paths, feed the soil in the beds.
  • Clean out the pond (bucket) and collect frog spawn
  • Drink more tea.
It’s around this time that the lines get very blurry. I can’t really tell if the last few jobs are really necessary or if I am just procrastinating.

You get the idea though?  When something as harmless as a rectangular packet of seeds is put in front of you, it opens up a hundred things you know you should have done or really need to do to make the gardening year a success.  Because the whole thing is quite overwhelming I’ve come up with a shorter list to get myself started, one step at a time and all of that. Here’s what I have come up with so far:
  • Read back of seed packet as I drink a cup of tea.
I’ll take it from there.

Wheatgrass Update
The novelty of wheatgrass growing is quickly diminishing.  I’ve now got twelve trays in various stages of growth and am quickly running out of windowsill space to put them on although I try and juice one tray a day there are more coming from the airing cupboard to fill the spaces. 

For some reason it’s suggested that it’s not grown in a polytunnel but I’m going to make my own rules up this week and  grow them on outside. I’m such a hortirebel. 

It’s handy to keep an eye on the trays to make sure they don’t dry out when on the sills but it does make drawing the curtains very difficult. You might think I have gone a bit overboard with the actual tray quantity, and under regular plant conditions I would agree. 

In this instance though, large quantities are required to just keep up with Julie’s half a cup a day habit.  Out of one tray of the wheatgrass we are getting anywhere between one to four half shot glasses of juice.  If we centrifugally extract the chlorophyll in a juicer we get half a shot glass, to manually extract via the masticating method we’ll get around 3-4 half glasses.  

A lot of the sales pitches about the trays state you get up to six full shot glasses per tray. All I can imagine is that they use larger trays than us or we have not yet perfected the art of masticating.
The extracted juice is pretty potent though, the smell is divine albeit an acquired one and when it’s being extracted the aroma fills the house. It’s a pity I can’t bottle the smell, I think it’s be a good seller as an eco-perfume.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Algae and Chamomile

A gooey dark green algae has taken over my garden. It started innocently enough when I compacted a bit of the lawn when I set up the shed a couple of years ago. There were a couple of small isolated patches of some slimy stuff and I didn’t really pay any attention to.

Big mistake.
Over the course of two years it has spread from the damp, compacted shady area at the side of the shed and taken over nearly all the garden. When it rains now all of the water runs off the ground without sinking in. The takeover didn’t just confine itself to the grass either. Slowly but surely it has crept over the concrete path making it really slippery to walk on. It didn’t stop there either as it  worked its way up long wooden planks and totally engulfed the soil and chamomile plants I have growing in a row the length of the tunnel exterior. 

I have researched the algae and most people say it’s non-pathogenic, meaning it doesn’t cause diseases to plants.  But it does seem to be killing the chamomile and by starving the roots of other plants with rain washing off before it gets time to be absorbed by the soil. So I would say it is quite damaging, not in a chemical way but an environmental one in a garden setting. 

I need to take some action then, which is pretty unusual for me as I just tend to let the garden do its own thing.  I have already put sharp sand down on the grass. I did that last winter. The algae has just grown over it and engulfed it totally.  I’ve tried using some Jeyes fluid on the paths to no avail and even bleach (don’t tell anyone) but it goes to show what lengths we go to when there’s an issue.  My next product will be something containing iron sulphate as that’s the wonder chemical for keeping algae and moss under control. It pains me to have to go to these extremes but as my balanced eco system collapses I feel drastic measures are needed.

On the subject of chamomile, I have managed to salvage a huge amount of offshoots and cuttings from the plants before the mould took hold. For the last few years I have been selling the small rooted plugs on eBay to people who want to create their own chamomile lawn. The plants I have are the non-flowering chamomile ‘treneague’ type that is related to the variety produced In the 1930s by Dorothy Sewart who lived in in Cornwall.   Her garden chamomile spread to form a low growing plant which never flowered. It formed a fragrant, neat, rich green lawn which did not turn brown in dry weather. I acquired some original cuttings in 2004 and also was given some cuttings from a very generous lady in the heart of Donegal.  Since then they have gone from strength to strength and do make a great ground cover. The spacing is important to ensure the plants cover the ground quickly as almost any weed getting a foothold in the gaps will smother the chamomile quickly.  I’d say that having a “Chamomile lawn” does sound like it’s easier to look after than normal grass as it doesn’t need cutting, but from experience It’s not the case. They are labour intensive and best for just small areas. I tell my customers the same too as I wouldn’t like them to get any nasty surprises. 

Over the last few years both types of plants have spread really well. For some reason the Donegal variety grow to about twice the size of the original Cornish type so I think I could market these as something a bit different and have an Irish connection to them.  I’m not quite sure what to call them but it’ll probably have “Donegal” in the title. Chamomile ‘Donegal Wonder’ has a nice ring to it although in hindsight it does sound a bit like a potato variety. I’ll think about it.

Chamomile is so easy to propagate, all you need is a bit of time to pull off the offshoots and either replant them in a weed free place or put them in pots for a while to allow the roots to develop a bit more. Most of the offshoots I have small roots already, especially if they are touching soil.  I have mine in trays of moist, loose compost and even in the cool spring weather have grown new roots within a week - Some of them up to an inch long.  

They will grow well in water too but because the roots haven’t met any resistance growing they aren’t really tough enough to cope.
A bit like life really.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Japanese Knotweed - Tunnel Vision and Wheatgrass update

It’s interesting to see the length the local council is going to curb the spread of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Once the jewel of a Victorian garden container has escaped and is wreaking havoc in open spaces and waterways, not to mention our own gardens. 

The creeping root systems and ability to regrow from the tiniest slither has marked the plant out as number 1 in the invasive plant league.  Our council have found a small clump with three stems along the edge of a fence near some land earmarked for development (at some point)  One time the plant would have been pulled up or strimmed down when mowing. 

Now though a square fence has been erected around the plant and fenced off with wire. We have a professionally printed plastic sign telling the tractor drivers to keep away and then detailing the three main stages of the plant for identification purposes. Images of the green leaves, dead stems and overall foliage are shown se we know what to look for.  I and making an assumption the plant itself will be treated with a suitable chemical and then removed before the fence is taken down. It all seems a bit OTT for three stems but if left unattended for a few seasons and there would be a massive clean-up operation needed as we all now know that you can’t just dig it up and dump it. Good show and well done the council for being so responsible. 

Tunnel Vision
I’ve finally gotten around to clearing the polytunnel. The frog seems to have left the tunnel without leaving any spawn in the pond (well submerged bucket filled with water)  So it looks like I will be going onto the local park and rescuing some that have been laid on damp tyre tracks in the grass. I know we shouldn’t move frogspawn and let nature take its course but when there’s no chance if it hatching as the soil dries I just can’t resist the temptation of picking a few clumps up.

I have some old parsley, rocket and other salad leaves still in there but everything else has been cleared. I’m mulching the ground with well rain rinsed leafmould that came from the edge of some beaches around the peninsula. It’s great stuff as it contains quite a lot of finely shredded seaweed too. The tide has broken everything down to a beautiful consistency which is easily worked into the soil. 
I have a smaller plastic covered frame in the tunnel too and although neglected it has housed some very healthy micro greens aver the winter. I have small shoots of broccoli and kale in there and they will be chopped back in much the same way the wheatgrass is being used. Talking of wheatgrass….

UPDATE:  Wheatgrass Experiment
The wheatgrass is thriving in the trays and I have got a pretty efficient rotation system going. I have about 8 trays on the go, all on different stages of growth - From new seedlings to fully grown grass ready to cut. I’ve found the leaves are at their best when about eight inches tall with a couple of inches of white at their base. When cutting I am leaving about an inch of plant and starting to get a bit of a second flush. They aren’t as strong looking but will test them out in a week or two.
One thing we found though is that a centrifugal juicer doesn’t extract the chlorophyll and liquid from the grass. Try as we might we managed to get one teaspoon of juice from nearly a whole tray of grass.  We have picked up a masticating juicer online though for about €25. It looks very similar to the old metal meat mincing machines we used to use before the butchers did it all for us.  After a few clinical trials I can safely say that this type of juicer extracts roughly the same amount of juice as the centrifugal one. I did have it set up wrong at first and most of the juice went onto the floor instead of into the plastic jug, but one sheet of tissue more than mopped the spill up. I think I need to grow the wheatgrass on a bit; at least that way I’ll get more than a teaspoon full from a tray.

UPDATE 2:  The frog appeared from under a small log in the bucket so just like in the building industry when they unearth an antiquity; all work has stopped in the tunnel until further notice.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Camellia Growing

Some trees on our park have grown tall enough to obstruct the adjoining homeowner’s view of the countryside and industrial units. The council took action and with the help of a subcontractor managed to chop the tops off and shred the resulting wood into neat piles. The trees look a bit odd, being lopped isn’t the most visually pleasing style and I’m sure if it was in your own garden a tree surgeon would have done a bit more sculpting.  It’s not really an issue here and if the neighbours are happy then all’s well. 

I’m benefiting too as I’ve been scuttling down there with my empty coal and compost bags shoveling in the resulting woodchip. It’s very good stuff too. I’m a bit unsure what to do with it and will be leaving it in the bags until I decide to use it as weed suppressing mulch, put it in the compost and let it rot down before using it, or both. I’m not short of it now and there’s plenty more to go at. There’s even enough for the neighbours to have a few bags as well. Enough about mulching, let’s have a look at a spring favourite flower, the camellia.

Camellias are one of the most popular winter- and spring-flowering shrubs, providing a vivid splash of colour when little else is in bloom. Although they need acid soil, they are easy to grow in containers of ericaceous (acidic) potting compost.


Site and soil conditions
Camellias are woodland plants that grow best in shelter and light shade, although with careful watering they can be grown in sunny positions.  They prefer free-draining conditions, with plenty of organic matter, such as leaf mould, incorporated into the soil. Being ericaceous plants, camellias require an acid soil. If your soil isn't acid then consider growing your camellia in a container.

Rain water is ideal for watering camellias and is preferable to tap water if you need to keep young plants moist in the summer. There’s less calcium in rainwater.

Feed camellias in spring and early summer with acidic fertilisers if needed. I’ve found that most gardens are adequately acidic but nearer the coast some peat based soil could be used as mulch or get yourself some seaweed. 

Container growing
Camellias make lovely container-grown plants and this is a particularly good method if your garden soil is too alkaline for camellias. Use an ericaceous or multi-purpose potting compost. John Innes ericaceous compost usually gives good results, as its loam content makes it especially easy to manage.

RHS research has found that soil-less potting media, including peat-free potting composts, are suitable for camellia growing. However these composts can lose their structure over time leading to poor drainage and an airless root environment, causing leaves to brown and die back. Re-potting in spring every other year into fresh potting compost is recommended. In the intervening year, replace the top 5cm (2in) of compost and look out for root eating grubs. After a few years you might need to try a bit of root pruning if they are not put into a larger container.

Pruning and training
Camellias form flower buds in late summer and autumn, especially on new growth. Pruning at this time could remove potential flowering growth. Therefore pruning is best done in spring, immediately after flowering and following the advice given for other evergreen shrubs. Where an overgrown camellia needs to be reduced or renovated, hard pruning is usually safe and reliable.

Camellias can be propagated from semi-ripe cuttings, hardwood cuttings, layering and grafting. Seed is also an option, but seedlings will not usually come true to parent type.

Semi-ripe cuttings often root better if slightly wounded by taking a 1.5cm (5/8in) strip of bark off the base of the cutting and dipping the wound in hormone rooting compound.

Hardwood cuttings are taken as for semi-ripe cuttings, but between autumn and late winter. They can root in three months.

In a good summer, camellias sometimes produce seedpods – more often in single-flowered varieties. Although the resulting seedlings will take six to eight years to flower and will be of unpredictable quality, many gardeners like the challenges of seed propagation

Despite being easy to grow, camellias are occasionally subject to problems, normal leaf drop isn’t any cause for concern but other things might be. There are a few diseases that cause leaf drop or yellowing. Some winter protection might be needed for container grown ones, buds might drop off in cold weather and if the plants are fed after July. Don’t let this put you off growing them though, they are well worth the effort and if one does die you can always replace it with one of your rooted cuttings.

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