The Westbrooke plot volunteers have been busy digging matted fibrous roots out of the small raised bed – they have grown through the fine porous membrane at the bottom of the bed from a nearby sycamore tree – and removed most of the impoverished soil. The bed now has an impermeable strong membrane to deter the roots, and been refilled with a mixture of new top soil, soil improver and some very well rotted horse manure. By the spring we hope to have a very fertile mix ready for planting for the new season.
Next working party Friday December 9th, 1.30 -3.30pm
May has turned chilly and wet, so today I’ve been looking for excuses not to do all the gardening I need to do, hence this article!
One of the things that does love cool weather is lettuce: it won’t even germinate above 21°C (70F), so it’s best to start it off whilst it’s still cool.
When I first started gardening, I tried growing lettuce in the ground, in traditional neat rows like I saw in books. It was a bit of a disaster: all the green leaves (Cos) got eaten by slugs, whilst the slugs avoided the red leaves (Batavia), but then so did we, since they were really quite bitter!
Subsequently, I’ve discovered the secret to growing enough lettuce to keep you in interesting leaves all year is to plant a mix of varieties in containers.
Planting in containers means you can put them out of the reach of slugs, perhaps applying a bit of copper tape to the sides, or placing on a window-sill, door-step, or just paying them more attention and picking off slugs and snails at night, to avoid too much damage. You can also move containers around the garden with the season, seeking the shade during hot periods, and you can also efficiently water and harvest them. If you haven’t got much outside space, then of course, containers are your go-to solution.
For your container, you want something that’s going to be big enough to supply you with enough leaves to make it worth while, and to not dry out too easily: the sort of ‘live lettuce’ trays you buy in a supermarket is about a tenth of the surface area and a quarter of the depth you want! I usually grow in a trough about 30cm wide and deep, and 60cm long.
You can, of course, grow in containers less deep, such as seed trays or re-used trays from packaging, but be aware that you will need to water much more often, as salad leaves soon go to seed and stop growing nice leaves if they are stressed by drying out. Equally, ensure that your container has sufficient drain-holes in the bottom, since otherwise the roots will rot if the British summer delivers its normal quantity of rain, or you accidentally over-water.
Sowing a mix of varieties, as a ‘cut and come again’ crop means that you never get bored of a single variety, and gives a chance to try out some interesting leaves, without ending up with a crop nobody wants to eat. Retailers sell traditional ready-mixed ‘salad bowl’ leaves, and themed mixes such as Italian (usually with Salad Rocket) or Oriental (usually with Pak Choi and Mizuna), or you can buy a couple of varieties you know you like, and mix them yourself.
Be aware that some varieties are more vigorous than others, and this will affect the productivity of the less vigorous varieties: for instance, I’ve found it’s best to grow Mizuna (Brassica rapa var. nipposinica) on it’s own, since it will out-compete anything else (it also crops longer than anything else, and resists slugs, though is a bit too coarse on its own).
For sowing, choose a good, reasonably fine compost (I prefer a peat-free composts), fill your container to about an inch off the top, and gently firm the surface before watering with a fine spray.
Scatter your seeds reasonably densely: you are looking for something like two or three seeds per square inch; then cover with just enough compost that you can’t see any seeds – don’t bury them too deep.
For best germination, put the container outside, in a shaded spot, and make sure it never dries out, without making it soggy. You should see germination in about a week.
Once the seedlings have grown several leaves each, and are starting to jostle for space, you can start harvesting. To maximise your crop, try not to damage the centre ‘growing tip’ of the plant – the bit where the baby leaves grow from, as the plant will stop growing without it. Cut individual leaves, or carefully trim a block with scissors if you’re in a hurry. Aim to thin-out the leaves and allow more to grow in their place.
With careful harvesting, and regular watering, you should be able to have fresh leaves for up to three weeks. Once the plants start getting weak, or if they start flowering, it’s time to move on: for a continual supply, try sowing another container about three weeks after the first.
If the plants do start flowering, remember that you can eat the buds, flowers, or indeed the whole plant, so make the most of it!
You should be able to sow lettuce all through Spring and into Summer, and then again once mid-summer has passed. Lettuce is one of the earliest, and the latest, crops you can grow, and you can even over-winter some the oriental ones in a cold-frame, unheated green house or conservatory.
ALFI needed several new noticeboards to use for ALFI activities and events. The most pressing was to replace that at the Station Plot, but we also needed one for the new Vicarage Plot, adjacent to the Allen Gallery. Ian Scott of Mens Sheds made them for us and with a volunteer from the Alton Mens Sheds put up the two smart purpose-built noticeboards in suitable positions at these two sites on Friday 18 March. Sally, who leads on the Station Plot and Ann, who leads on the Vicarage Plot, were there to advise on the sitings. The noticeboards were immediately put to good use to advertise the Seedling Swap and our theme for this year, Greening Grey Britain as part of the RHS initiative.
On Sunday February 28, on a cold but sunny morning, a team of volunteers joined Ann at the Vicarage Plot and spent a most satisfying two hours planting and putting up supports. We soon warmed up as we dug holes to plant 6 stepover apple trees along the edges of the raised beds, and blueberry plants along the front. These all came from Southern Fruit Trees nursery in Blackmoor where Mike is always ready to advise on the most suitable trees and varieties.
Sheila had donated three healthy-looking apple trees in large pots which were planted behind the beds. And at the west side of the plot James put up a trellis for 2 fan-trained red currants to be tied up. Liz brought some welcome coffee over from St Lawrence Parish Hall, and Councillor Robert Saunders joined us for a photograph. ALFI is most grateful to him for a grant which has enabled us to buy the plants and materials for this additional planting.
On the following day, we also pruned the apple and pear trees at the Jubilee Field, where we hope to get a good crop of fruit this year – weather permitting!
On Monday July 11th we will start our AGM at 7.00pm at the Vicarage Plot to see how it is progressing, (and maybe to sample some produce?) before going on to the Railway Arms for our meeting, refreshments and socialising.
Lovely to see so many people taking seeds away on Seedy Saturday. We hope everyone will get satisfaction from sowing and growing these. Don’t forget that any spare seedlings will be welcome at our Seedling Swap on Saturday May 7th, (10.00am -3.00pm) as part of the Craft Market in Cross and Pillory Lane. You can bring seedlings to swap and take others away. A good way to try new varieties!
Today we’ve added three more branding posts to those ALFI have already, to identify their plots and planters. These were added to the smaller plot at the station beside the taxi office, the barrel outside Out and About on Southview Rise and the newly acquired library planter. James, of Graphitec, who produced the signs for us, kindly came round with me today to hammer them into position …
Saturday 6 February saw the annual Alton Local Food Initiative (ALFI) Seedy Saturday (seed swap) at the Methodist Church Hall. We had many trays full of packets of vegetable, herb and flower seeds for swapping or for taking away for a donation. We offered coffee, tea and biscuits, which gave to opportunity for people to sit and chat after discussing and deciding which seeds to grow this year.
Thank you to our regulars, who come to our Seedy Saturday each year, and who also often follow up by bringing any excess seedlings to our annual Seedling Swap, which is 7 May this year, as part of the craft market in Cross and Pillory.
We had a very good turnout again this year and we made a healthy profit, thanks to the generosity of the donations for seeds from those who didn’t want to take the option of swapping. We use our funds for maintaining plots and planters and the orchard. We have just taken on gardening a new planter outside the library. The sign is already there and it will gradually become a herb planter.
ALFI recently ordered and took ownership of a new barrel, thanks to a grant for the purpose, for the Station Plot, to replace the one that was falling apart (see final image). Sally and I (Sonia) received it and immediately filled it with soil and compost in readiness for planting courgettes.