strawberries grown on the allotment

Now is the time to think about buying strawberry plants. There are hundreds of varieties of strawberry that will grow in the UK, so don’t just grab the first plants you see in the garden centre, do a little research and enjoy strawberries all through the season.

I’m growing strawberries in the greenhouse this year, simply because of the damage inflicted by slugs and birds. I don’t want to net and scatter slug pellets all over my fruit, so I’m growing in pots to see how it works out.

Strawberry varieties can be classed as ready to harvest in “early summer”, “mid summer”, “late summer”, or “everbearer” which crop all year round.

First up is Marshmello, an everbearer recommended by Raymond Blanc as his “favourite strawberry” so it must be good. The plants can be grown in pots and have been bred for their superb flavour. You can harvest the fruits from May to September.

Described as “The Chef’s Favourite” the everbearer Mara des Bois offers intense aromatic flavours and crops all year round. The variety combines the cropping potential of commercial varieties with the intense flavours of alpine and woodland varieties. Harvest from July to mid September.

Flamenco is an everbearer producing from July to September. The strawberry is sweet to the taste and if you’re lucky, you can harvest just under 1kg of fruit per plant.

For an early summer harvest of sweet strawberries, Gariguette is a good choice. The fruits are vermilion red and elongated. This strawberry is grown commercially in Provence.

A good choice for a mid summer crop is Tenira a plant that provides a heavy crop in the first season but then provides less fruit in subsequent seasons. The fruit is medium sized and full of flavour.

For a heavy crop of fruits in late summer, try Chelsea Pensioner the deep red fruits are juicy and sweet and yields are good.

So, that’s six of the best. I’m going to try to get some Mara des Bois this season to grow in the greenhouse. You may get a reasonable crop in the first season, but you’ll probably get a better crop the season following with new plants. Most of these varieties can be bought on the internet. I have used Ebay to buy plants and seeds but quality has been variable. Try Suttons, or Unwins or Ken Muir to get the best quality or have a root around in your local garden centres.

greenhouse strawberry plants

Strawberry Plants growing in the greenhouse

 

The Allotment Lifestyle YouTube Channel

no dig allotment in summer

A lot of people take over an allotment with high hopes only to give up a few years, or even a few months later. The reasons vary, but, primarily most people are time poor and spend way too much time digging and way too little time growing food.

I’ve owned an allotment for over ten years now and it’s only recently that I have managed to work out a system that allows me to grow the maximum amount of food with the least amount of effort. One thing I would say before starting out on this journey is “if you don’t know how to cook, please learn as soon as possible”. Huge amounts of food are grown on UK allotments only to be dumped in the compost or fed to grateful chickens. Learning to cook is the best way to combat this waste, and French provincial is definitely the way to go, as the French seem to have a way of cooking almost anything to make delicious meals. Cabbage au gratin with bacon and onions springs to mind. Glazed carrots with fresh herbs, white sauces to raise the profile of even the most bland vegetable on the plot.

In short, it is very important to eat all (or as much as you can) you grow.

So, to point one. Adopt a no dig system.

I spent years digging the allotment over. I added pelleted chicken manure, horse manure, pig manure, compost and anything else I could find to improve the fertility. But, the results were very hit and miss and very tiring to boot. I even did my knee in and couldn’t walk for a week! Hour after hour spent weeding and digging, digging and weeding. Is it any wonder people give up on their allotments?

Compost costs money, but, so does food and good food costs more than bland food. Last year, I decided to buy in compost from the local supplier. I chose to use the “Clover” brand because it works, every time, and is used by many professional nurseries throughout the UK. I probably spent the best part of £100 on compost and my allotment costs just over £50 a year to rent. You need to buy seeds too and that can cost another £50, but £200 for a LOT of GREAT (organic) food is worth every penny.

You will need some tools too. The tool I use most in the no dig system is a strimmer. I use the strimmer to get rid of weeds off the surface of the soil. It’s a lot faster than weeding by hand and a decent strimmer can be picked up for £50 or less. If your allotment is overgrown when you take it over, strim it hard to get down to the soil level. Remove the debris and lay out compost on the ground to form beds. You’ll need enough space between the beds to strim the weeds away as they emerge over the season. Two to three inches of compost is enough to get things going…

no dig onions planted into compost

No Dig, planting onions into compost

The sooner you get planting, the sooner you get connected with your land and a no dig method is the fastest way to get your allotment going. By laying two to three inches of compost on the surface to form beds, you can plant, onions, peas, beans, sweetcorn, cabbage, kale, calabrese, spinach, courgette, squash, lettuce, turnips, leeks and more. You can even lay down cardboard over the weeds and spread your compost on that if you don’t want to spend time strimming.

Plant into grow bags on the surface of the soil.

I tried planting potatoes and carrots into the beds of compost, but it didn’t work for me. Too much slug damage, carrot fly, birds and bugs. So, I started to plant into grow bags on the surface. you can grow carrots, parsnips, potatoes and even tomatoes this way. Buy the right bags on Ebay and fill with compost. It’s easy. Please read my article on growing potatoes here

Sowing carrots into sacks

No dig carrots sown into sacks on the surface of the soil

For protection from damage, net your delicious vegetables.

Seeing vegetables you have grown from seed, decimated by caterpillars, birds, and slugs can really put a strain on your relationship with your allotment.  Cabbages, kale, calabrese, lettuce, spinach etc. are all susceptible, so get some good netting, some plastic piping and some canes and get building protective nets for the vegetables at risk. I find scaffolding netting works well as the weave is very fine. Plastic piping forms hoops and canes support the structure tied with garden wire or string. Weigh the structure down with bricks or soil to prevent wind damage.

netting protection for vegetables

Do it yourself netting

Get some chickens.

Chickens need attention and bind you to your allotment like no vegetable can. You can buy point of lay from local suppliers or hatch them yourself from fertilised eggs as I describe in this article. Fresh eggs can be used to make omelettes, cakes, pasta, fried rice, pancakes and lots, lots more. Three chickens or more and you’ll have a great flock. Protect them from foxes by building a chicken wire run and provide them with a nesting box, a perch, feeder and waterer. To keep maintenance low, make your nesting box roll the eggs away for storage (and cleanliness), get a treadle feeder and a large waterer (mine is 5 gallons). My treadle feeder keeps the rats out and holds 10kg of layers pellets. I have been on holiday for a week and the chickens have been fine on my return.

Get a greenhouse or a polytunnel (or both!)

To keep costs down, you can grow all your vegetables from seed and of course these can be propagated on the windowsill at home, but nothing beats sitting in your own greenhouse sowing seeds for the coming season. Buy a secondhand one if you can find a decent one. Maybe you can get one off one of the allotment holders who is packing in. Polytunnel’s can be had for around £50 on Ebay, but do ensure it is lashed down to prevent wind damage. Last season my new polytunnel blew away to the other side of the allotment site. I should have used storm lashings of course.

Grow salad in your greenhouse (or polytunnel).

Cut and come again salads can grow as quickly as twenty one days and they are a great way to get something on your plate as fast as possible. In fact, if you have chickens and grow your own salad leaves, you can have an egg mayonnaise starter with a few meals this week. I wrote an article a couple of years about growing salad leaves in the greenhouse, you can find it here.

So, there are a few tips for a low maintenance allotment. No dig, is easy but you’ll need to buy a few bags of compost. One of the things I have learned over the years is that the best growers use the most compost. One of the best allotments on our site uses a pallet of compost each season and the owner is always in the running for best allotment.

The Allotment Lifestyle YouTube Channel

seed potatoes in a grow bag

I have found that growing potatoes above ground in large sacks can be very successful and I’ll describe the way I grow my potatoes in this article. Hopefully this will be of use to some allotment holders out there.

First, I always use Clover compost. I have never had any problems with it, whether growing seeds or plants. Now that I am using a no dig method on the allotment, I’m using more compost to make up the beds and with Clover, everything grows as it should. A top class compost which is used by a lot of professional nurseries in the UK.

You’ll need to buy some sacks to plant your potatoes in. I prefer the large heavy duty polypropylene grow bags which can be bought on Ebay. Search for “potato grow bags” and get the 19″ ones which hold around ninety litres. Note: Don’t be put off by the cost of this method. A grow bag will cost around £4 and the compost will cost around £5, but, the bags will last for years and you can re-use the spent compost to make beds for peas and beans, the following season. The fact is that this method is foolproof and you will get some fantastic potatoes.

As to the type of potatoes to grow, I always grow early “new” type potatoes for salads, boiling and cooking “au gratin”. I tend not to bother much with late potatoes (for chipping, baking or roasting), but, having said that, I will probably try some late’s this year as I fancy growing a few Maris Piper’s or King Edward’s. Growing these in the ground is always problematic as you are practically guaranteed slug damage and/or blight. Growing in sacks may prove more successful.

So, you have your seed potatoes, your grow bags and your compost. Here’s what you do…

First, strim the ground to get rid of the weeds, or go over the ground with a hoe. Place your sack on the level ground…

ninety litre potato grow bag

A ninety litre potato grow bag

Next place around ten litres of compost on the bottom of the sack…

potato grow bag polypropylene

the bag has 10 litres of compost ready for planting

We now place five seed potatoes onto the compost. One in each corner and one in the middle. NOTE: If you want to chit your potatoes first then that’s OK, but you don’t need to do this to get good growth (in my experience). Chitting your seed potatoes just involves leaving them until they start to sprout. If you have ever bought a large bag of potatoes and the last ones have been “growing”, then this is what we call “chitting”.

seed potatoes in a grow bag

Adding your seed potatoes to the grow bag

Now, you want to cover the seed potatoes with about fifteen to twenty litres of compost and water in…

potatoes planted in a grow bag on the allotment

Potatoes planted into the grow bag and watered in

We now have to wait for the potatoes to grow. The stalks (or sprouts) will push through the compost as they grow. Keep the growth covered by adding more compost. Frost will kill the potatoes if the growth is left exposed, so cover with a good layer of compost each time the growth breaks the surface (about 10 litres of compost each time). I eventually use around seventy five litres of compost per bag before letting the leaves grow on.

Potatoes need a lot of water to grow, so make sure you water regularly throughout the season.

Potatoes can be harvested when the flowers have died off. You can root around in these bags and pick a few potatoes at a time leaving the rest to grow on. Also, if you leave potatoes in the bags till the following season, you can use these as your seed potatoes to start new bags off. If the potatoes start “sprouting” they’re ready to plant out, but do throw away all the very small ones as they need to be a reasonable size to grow successfully.

The Allotment Lifestyle YouTube Channel

Salmon Faverolle Chickens

I like the idea of keeping chickens on my allotment for fresh, free range eggs and I have always bought point of lay hens from various places. Then one day, I had just one chicken left in my flock and so I decided to buy some fertilised eggs and have a go at hatching them to get my flock going.

First thing to decide is what incubator you need. I wanted to hatch six at once, so I needed a small sized incubator which was relatively easy to get on with. I decided that the incubator would have to automatically turn the eggs as I thought turning by hand each day would be an impossible task for me. I also didn’t want to spend a great deal of money on this project. After trawling through a load of Ebay ads, and Youtube video’s, I decided the Janoel 12 would be best suited to the job.

A Janoel 12 Incubator

The Janoel 12 Incubator

It is advertised as a 12 egg incubator, and it probably will be OK for twelve quail eggs, but it can handle six medium chicken eggs with ease. The incubator turns the eggs automatically and keeps the temperature correct throughout the whole process. When the chicks are ready to hatch, there is enough space for them to move around inside the incubator until they are ready to be transferred.

The Janoel 12 incubator

The Janoel 12 incubator showing the interior

These incubators can be had on Ebay for around £40 and I can highly recommend them. Once set up in accordance with the instructions, you only need to check the level of water in the bottom every few days and top up as required.

Once I had decided on the incubator to buy, I then needed to choose what breed of chicken to hatch. First, I had chosen to buy my eggs from a supplier on Ebay. A search for “fertilised eggs” provides an idea of the many breeds being sold. I wanted to get a “dual purpose” breed, that is, a breed that grew large enough to provide meat as well as eggs. NOTE: Since hatching my own flock, I have decided that I do not want to kill birds for meat. There is enough cheap meat in the supermarkets, and I don’t think the slaughter can be justified (it’s also messy and very time consuming).

I wanted to get Salmon Faverolle fertilised eggs as I liked the look of the breed which originated in the 1850’s in Faverolle, France. They are quite a hardy, large breed and lay medium to small eggs all year at a rate of around four eggs per week. I ordered the eggs on Ebay and they came in the post, very well packed and ready to go in the incubator which I had set up the day before. The eggs need twenty one days in the incubator, and after eighteen days, the incubator should be prepared ready for the chicks to hatch. In the Janoel 12, this means removing the lower shelf and egg separator. You also need to ensure that the water level is correct before returning the eggs to the incubator. The eggs should hatch in the next three days. Out of three batches of six eggs, I have had five, then one, then three hatch.

Once the chicks have hatched, they need twenty four hours to dry out and fluff up. They can then be transferred to another container. We used a large clear plastic storage container that we bought from a local store. You need to provide a heat source as the chicks rely on their mother for heat when hatched naturally. I used a sealable food container (like tupperware) which I filled with boiling water. My container has a one way valve on the top which prevents the container from expanding. You also need to provide water, food and lay down some kitchen roll to soak up the muck. To feed the chicks, buy “chick crumb” from a supplier like Pets at Home. After a couple of weeks, the chicks will have grown sufficiently to provide their own heat so you won’t need the “heater”, but you’ll still need to clean the container out regularly. One point to note is that the lid on these large plastic storage containers can stop the air supply if firmly attached. I just lay the lid on the top without pressing down into place.

Housing for smaller chicks

Housing for smaller chicks

Eventually, the chicks outgrow the storage container, so I decided to create a separate “run” on my allotment for them. They can scratch around and grow while being apart from the main flock. Chickens can be very aggressive to newly introduced hens, so, make sure the new hens are large enough before adding them to your flock. It has been suggested that if you add the new members while the others are asleep, they will be accepted more readily, but I haven’t tried that method, yet. One point to note is that in Winter, the chicken run for the smaller chicks was targeted by rats seeking shelter and food. They literally burrowed under the stones surrounding the run to gain access. On reflection, I won’t be hatching any eggs later in the season, probably one hatching around late spring will be enough.

A note on feeding a mixed flock (adult birds and younger birds): If you feed all the hens layers pellets, the calcium content can make the younger birds reach the point that they start to lay eggs, too early. This can be distressing to younger hens. You may like to try feeding the whole flock growers pellets and adding a separate container with oyster shells. You can also add a container for grit which the birds need too.

The only real downside to hatching your flock from eggs is that you may end up with a cockerel or two. I had to dispose of mine when I received complaints about the noise. I will hatch more eggs this year, but, if a cockerel hatches, I will either try to sell him or dispose of him at an early age. You will need to think about this before embarking on your project.

Salmon Faverolle Chickens

Salmon Faverolle Chickens at point of lay

 

The Allotment Lifestyle YouTube Channel

sowing seeds on the allotment

The middle of February is starting to feel like Spring so I’m getting things going, BUT, all my work could be undone if we have a harsh March with snow and heavy frost. If you feel it best to wait till the clocks go forward that’s OK. But I feel it’s worth taking a chance now, so, here goes.

Last season, around March 2018, I planted potatoes in 70 litre sacks. Mainly early potatoes like Rocket & Charlotte. I found that these are still edible after digging a few out earlier this month (February 2019). All in all a very successful result and I can recommend growing your spuds in sacks above ground using compost.

digging out potatoes grown in sacks

End of Season Potatoes on the Allotment

So, after rooting the potatoes out I now have quite a lot of usable compost and I’ve started off some onions and peas by making beds from around 100 litres of used compost and planting into it. The compost still has a reasonable level of nutrients, but this can be supplemented with a liquid feed made from urea, water and comfrey which I keep mixed in a 200 litre water butt on the site.

As with all my no dig beds, I spread the compost over the ground making a bed around fifteen to eighteen inches wide and having a depth of two to three inches. Pat down to firm with the back of a spade and plant into the bed. My beds are around four yards long and I can plant roughly a hundred onion sets into each bed. I get about forty peas into the same size beds and I’m using Kelvedon Wonder as they don’t grow too tall and can be supported with short canes and string around the perimeter.

no dig onions planted into compost

No Dig, planting onions into compost

I’ve also used the spent compost from the potatoes to start off my carrot seeds (Early Nantes). I first mixed the compost with building sand at a ratio of one third sand to two thirds compost. I then placed the compost into the 70 litre sacks, filling to a suitable depth for the carrots (about six to eight inches should suffice). Then I sprinkled carrot seed on the top (sparingly), covered with some more compost and watered in. Last year, I tried sowing carrot seeds into the beds as described above, but they were too crowded and suffered from carrot fly and slug damage. I think sowing into the growing bags should work this season, but that remains to be seen.

Sowing carrots into sacks

No dig carrots sown into sacks on the surface of the soil

Now is a good time to start off some seedlings in the greenhouse. I’ve just started peppers, chilli’s, kale, cabbage, leeks and bedding plants too (Marigold’s and Petunia). I mostly sow in cells which will be planted on, into “six packs” or small pots. I’ll need at least 144 bedding plants for my two “living walls” I have in the back yard. I’ll make sure I take a few photo’s when I start those off in late May or Early June.

sowing seeds on the allotment

sowing seeds on the allotment in February

I’ve also decided to grow a few strawberry plants in the greenhouse too. I usually grow them outside, but they suffer from slug damage and the birds like to feed on them. I dug up a few of the newer plants from the allotment and planted them in Clover compost in medium pots. I’ll keep them fed with a nitrogen feed until the fruits start to form when they’ll need phosphorous for good growth. Use a good tomato feed to get large juicy strawberries.

greenhouse strawberry plants

Strawberry Plants growing in the greenhouse

 

The Allotment Lifestyle YouTube Channel