Sorry whilst I was resting at home with a damaged rotator cuff, I got a phone call from our allotment officer Debbie. “One of the tenants has informed me that your shed is leaning to one side. I think you need to go down to the plot and prop the shed up!”
Sorry I hurry down to the plot to right the shed and this is what I found!
The shed has been completely ripped off the base and deposited upside down by Storm Doris!
This was pretty much the only damage to the entire site! Just me! As you can imagine I was not a happy bunny!
However, whilst surveying the rest of the site and righting the bench, which had ended up half in the pond, I was amazed to discover that there was a beautiful mass of frog spawn in the pond!
The frogs are awake and breeding! In my pond! Well that certainly cheered me up! I can replace he shed but there is nothing better than knowing that I’ve made a pond the frogs want to call home!
Most gardeners and allotmenteers at some point in their gardening life will have a problem with slugs!
Well that is probably an understatement as we probably have a problem with slugs most of the time! I know that I do! 2016 was the second to worst year that I have seen (in my short tenure of growing vegetables) for slugs and snails and the worst was 2011 when, 2 years into my gardening journey, everything and I mean everything was decimated by them. Even the plants they apparently don’t like to eat!
Over the last two years I have been trying to be much more wild-life friendly in my gardening and have been turning to more natural gardening techniques (I dislike the word organic). My go-to slug and snail remedy was metaldehyde slug pellets until last year when I found out that bioaccumulation in birds and hedgehogs were having detrimental effects. So I got rid of the pellets!
So what does this mean for the slug and snail population? Am I doomed to be feeding an army of hungry, greedy slimy little gastropods? Well I say ‘No More!’
I am declaring an all out war on slugs and snails! They are banned from the buffet table that is my allotment – on pain of death!
Over the next few months I am going to explore the more natural and biological ways to prevent slug damage and control their population (from henceforth these will be referred to as ‘battle plans’!) and hopefully keep the metaldehyde on the shop shelves and out of the allotment!
As I start drawing up the battle plans, there is one thing a good general knows – her enemy! So I though it best to learn what I could about this slimy menace!
What are slugs?
Slugs are single shelled gastropod molluscs. There shells have evolved to be internal rather than external like snails. There are hundreds of species of slug across several slug families but in the UK we only have 30 (or 44 depending on what article you read) species. Out of these 30 (44) species, 95% of which live underground, only four, yes four, cause nearly all the damage that we have come to hate slugs for. They cost, on average, £8 million in damage to the agricultural industry alone! The other species in the UK have diets that consists of decaying vegetation and fungi or are carnivorous and eat other slugs and even sometimes carrion!
And slugs are everywhere, in vast numbers! The average UK garden can contain approximately 20,000 slugs with an average population density of 200 slugs per cubic metre. Makes London look spacious! By my calculations that is 150,000 slugs across my three allotment plots alone!
It is good to know that I am in fact only protecting my plants from four species and not hundreds and that some of those other species may actually be useful but I wonder how many of those possible 150,000 slugs in my allotment belong to those four species?
So who are these four UK species? We have:
Nettled or Grey field slug; can be variable in colour but is often creamy or light coffee/light brown slug with darker veins and patches behind the mantle. It can grow up to 4-6cm in length and has an omnivorous diet yet does like to sample the local horticulture! The maximum life cycle is only a year and they die at first frosts laying eggs in the ground to start the next generation the following spring.
Common garden slug: brown or grey to bluish black in colour and can grow up to 3-4cm in length. The slug’s foot is often orange and is a serious pest of strawberries, lettuces and seedlings.
Common keeled slug: dark brownish grey with a keel that is slightly lighter in colour. It can grow to 6 cm in length and it is usually found where ever horticulture or agriculture takes place. It is a particular predator of potatoes and root crops. They are quite hard to control as they can live underground.
Large red or black slug: Orange-red or black in colour, although they are mainly found to be black in colour with an orange fringe and can reach up to 12cm in length. It is the main culprit behind vanishing rows of seedlings in the spring. This slug sometimes has the ability to self-fertilise its own eggs!
I have memorised the pictures so I know what to look out for (although I recognise all of these as being present on my allotment) but now that I have identified my enemy and have an estimate of their numbers, I need to know more about their strengths and weakness (anatomy and physiology) if I am to crush them in battle.
Slug bodies are made up of the head, which contains two sets of tentacles (I hate the word tentacles!). One set, the longer top set are for light sensing and smell and if the slug was to lose these, they have the ability to regrow them. The smaller, bottom set of tentacles are for feeling and tasting. These tentacles are retractable. Behind the head is the mantle which contains the opening from which a slug breathes and contains a single lung. It also contains the male and female reproductive organs. Oh yes! Slugs have both! More on slug mating later…
The rest of the slug is called the tail and the underneath of the slug is called the foot. The foot is a large muscle which enables the slug to move by large rhythmic contractions. At the same time the foot produces mucus which enables to slug to pretty much climb/slide over anything.
Slug mucus and slime trails!
The mucus that a slug produces is hygroscopic, meaning that it will absorb water. This mucus will cover the slug’s entire body and help it to prevent desiccation. The slug must produce mucus in order to survive! A slug’s body is mostly made up of water and it has to protect itself from losing that water. Therefore, slugs mainly feed at night when it is damper and cooler or are generally more active when it is raining and it is why we also find them in damp, dark spots underneath various pots and objects in the garden. The tell-tale slime trail that slugs often leave behind have two purposes; it acts as a navigation tool for them helping them to find their way back to those lovely damp spots they like so much and it helps them to find a mate. Carnivorous slugs also use these slime trails to find their prey. Good on them! The slime is generally used as a repellent to predators too as it is often unpalatable. This is why you may sometimes see a bird wiping a slug on the grass before eating it!
As I said before, slugs have both female and male reproductive organs so that they can pretty much mate with any snail of their species that they come across (some can self-fertilise in the absence of a mate). Once slugs have mated they will produced, depending on the species, anywhere between 20-100 eggs each time and this can happen several times a year! The eggs are laid in a hole in the ground or in damp dark places. Reproduction mainly occurs in the Spring and Autumn. The eggs lie dormant until conditions are right or them to hatch.
Slugs have many natural predators too which is good for me! Virtually every major vertebrate group contain a predator of slugs. Frogs and toads are known for the slug eating habits and are welcomed into most gardens and allotments. Some lizards and snakes will also eat slugs. Birds are a major predator including blackbirds, rooks, starlings, owls and ducks. Foxes, badgers and hedgehogs are also a fan of having a plate of slugs for tea!
So now I have identified my enemy, I have a rough estimate of numbers and I know their strengths and weaknesses. All knowledge I can use to my advantage!
However, we do have a wild card! The Spanish Slug!
It is a brute of a slug which has invaded our dear shores. There are quite invasive and are known to dominate and area and push other slugs out. They are harder to control for as they can survive in hotter and dryer environments. They have extensive omnivorous diets which do include eating your precious plants and they can lay up to twice the number of eggs as UK species also having the ability to self-fertilise! The slime they produce is extremely unpalatable so they have even less/virtually no natural predators in the UK.
Be especially on the look-out for Spanish slugs and when you find them maybe a good salt bath is in order!
There are a number of chemical and biological control methods and I was given a little book ’50 ways to kill a slug’ for Christmas a few years ago. It is a book I intend to put to good use.
Some of the methods of control include:
Metaldehyde pellets – lethal and can bioaccumulate in predators which is not good for the environment
Iron phosphate pellets – less toxic to slug predators but just as effective at killing slugs.
Parasitic nematodes – they enter slugs and infect them with a bacteria which kills them. Very effective especially on large scale.
Beer traps – invites them to a drunken doom! Effective in small places like a garden
Crushed eggshell/wool pellets/diatomaceous earth/ copper bands – are supposed to create barriers that the slug’s delicate bodies can’t cross.
Salt – will draw the moisture out of a slug’s body via osmosis. You will need to catch them first though!
So with this all in mind – let the battles commence! I will be starting to put my battle plans in action and I’ll let you know how it goes!
I find February to be a month full of anticipation! Anticipation for all the things to come and an impatience to get started. It is very much an in-between time where it is not quite warm or light enough to sow yet we are starting to prepare none the less. As I am writing this, it is snowing outside my window which shows that winter still holds us firmly in its grip! I have not yet had much opportunity to visit the allotment as the biting cold keeps me at home! However, as the month moves on it will start to warm up and there will be plenty to do!
Sowing, Planting and Harvesting!
Now is a time when we should be preparing for the sowing season which will hit hard and fast in March and April. Some things can be sown in February especially those greenhouse crops that need a longer season.
Chilli peppers, sweet peppers and greenhouse tomatoes can be started this month but do check the instructions on your seed packet as some tomatoes are best left until March. For best results, I start mine off in a heated propagator placed in a room that gets the most light.
Early peas and broad beans can be sown now to get a early crop in May. Remember to check your soil conditions before planting outside as peas and beans can rot in waterlogged soil and hungry mice will be on the look out. If in doubt, sow indoors and transplant when the soil conditions are better.
Root vegetables such as beetroot and carrots can be sown this month for early crops
Hardy salads and lettuces can be sown now to help fill the hungry gap in April/May!
Some brassicas can be started in February too including early season Brussels sprouts, sprouting broccoli and some cabbages.
You still have time to replenishing, replacing or extending your fruit garden.
Plant bare rooted fruit trees and bushes now whilst it is still cold before the leaf and flower buds open in the spring.
Bare rooted strawberry runners and raspberry canes can be planted now.
You still have this (extremely cold) month to plant garlic cloves if conditions are dry. Don’t plant cloves when it is wet otherwise they will rot in the ground.
February also offers the chance to get shallots in the ground if you didn’t have a chance in Autumn.
You still have time to start forcing rhubarb. Simply cover the clump with a large bucket, pot or bin. Excluding the light, forces them into growth.
Although we are marching steadily towards the hungry gap, February still offers a good harvest from the allotment or garden.
Brussels sprouts may still be cropping if you planted late seaon varieties and may continue to crop into March.
If you are a lover of chicory, then this can be harvested now too.
Kale, winter savoy cabbages and Sprouting broccoli can be harvested
Leeks are still in abundance in my allotment and are a perfect vegetable for warming soups and stews at this time of year.
Parsnips that are still in the ground can be harvested. Once the weather starts to warm up, the root will start to put all that sweet goodness into producing flowers and seed so don’t forget to eat them!
If you have planted hardy lettuces over the winter then you can harvest these for a delicious winter salad.
Jobs on the plot
February can be a busy months in terms of preparation for the sowing season so there are a good few things that you can do around the plot to get ready.
Gather all your sowing materials together. Make sure you have plenty of labels, pots, seed trays etc. Also make sure your pots have been cleaned out to prevent the transmission of pests and diseases.
Buy in seed and potting composts, vermiculite, perlite, fertilisers etc for sowing both in and outdoors.
Prepare your soil ready for planting by raking over beds that had organic matter added in over the winter. You can add a general fertiliser by scattering it evenly over the surface and raking in. In beds where you are growing brassicas you can apply lime to raise the pH of the soil and keep it neutral or slightly alkaline. You can cover soil back up if you wish to help warm the soil and prevent winter rains from leaching the nutrients from the soil.
It is also worthwhile to sort and tidy your shed and sharpen your tools ready for the new season!
In the fruit garden, it is not to late to do winter pruning. Make sure apples, pears, currants, gooseberries, autumn raspberries and blueberries are given a good prune to encourage new shoots and keep their shape.
Give any perennial herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables a good mulch and top dressing of fertiliser to help them for the coming season.
Check over polytunnels and greenhouse to make sure they are in tip top condition and haven’t suffered from the winter conditions. Repair any glass and make sure the glass is clean to let maximum light in.
If you have a polytunnel, then you can try planting a few early potatoes to help extend the season. You may have to cover with fleece if night time temperatures are forecast to be low.
Some early flowering fruits such as apricots, peaches and nectarines may need their blooms to be protected from the cold and frost. Where possible move trees to a protected location and cover with fleece overnight. Remember to remove the fleece during the day to allow pollinating insects to do their job.
If you start any early outdoor sowings of carrots, peas or other crops they may benefit from the protection of cloches or winter fleece to keep the cold off.
If you grow chives, established clumps can be dug up, split and replanted to increase your stock.
There is also plenty of jobs to do indoors to prepare for the coming season.
There is still time to sort through seed tins and discard any old and out of date packets of seed. Out of date packets of seed will have unreliable germination. Best to get in new, fresh seed.
If you have bought your seed potatoes then now is the time to start chitting. Pop the potatoes in the egg cartons with the eyes facing up and place in a cool, light location such as a windowsill. You will soon see little shoots sprouting from the tuber. If you haven’t bought your potatoes then now is a good time to do so.
Plenty of seeds can be sown indoors at this time of year (see list above). I have a tray tidy where I do all my sowing and potting indoors as I am not lucky enough to have a greenhouse.
Saffron and Leek Risotto (Serves 4)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
280g risotto rice
1 tsp crumbled saffron threads
1.2 litres simmering vegetable stock
115g freshly grated parmesan
salt and pepper
2 leeks, sliced
squeeze of lemon juice
Melt 1 tbsp of butter with the olive oil in a pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until soft. Add the rice and mix to coat in the oil and butter. Cook until the grains are translucent. Dissolve the saffron in 4 tbsps of hot stock and add to the rice. Add the remaining stock, 1 ladle at a time, stirring constantly until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is creamy. Season with salt and pepper
Meanwhile, stir fry the sliced leeks in a tsp of butter in a frying pan until softened and starting to crisp slightly. Be careful not to burn the leeks.
Remove the risotto from the heat and add the remaining butter. Mix well, then stir in the parmesan until it melts. Add the leeks and then season with lemon juice, adding a small squeeze and tasting as you go. Serve immediately.
I hope keep warm in February and that your just as excited as I am about the coming season!
A potato is a potato is a potato right? Well not in my world! Each variety has differing diseases resistance, eating properties, skin colours, flesh colours, maturity stages…the list goes on!
I recently went to the Hampshire potato day where I picked up my seed spuds for this coming year courtesy of Charlton Park. They had an astonishing 120 varieties up for grabs (and 17p for individual tubers and between £2.50-£3.50 for a 2.5kg bag)!
It is quite a busy place and I don’t like crowds so decided to do some research on what spuds to get so I could be in and out as quick as possible. After three years of growing my own potatoes I have started to understand the problems that we suffer with when it comes to growing this food staple!
Firstly, we get blight! Every year without fail! No maincrop potato is safe unless you happen to be a Sarpo potato!
Secondly, we get scab! The longer the potato is in the ground, the more likely it will come up scabby! Second earlies tend to get minor scab but the maincrop are so scabby that I wouldn’t be happy eating them as baked spuds (because I like to eat the skin too!) and they are just not pretty!
Thirdly, we have wireworm and slugs. The wireworm is still a problem but it has reduced over the last two years. I hope that as cultivation continues the wireworm problem will disappear. The slugs however are just a nuisance. I am formulating my own plans against the slugs that I plan to share with you soon!
I also know that when I cook potatoes, I like chips, roasties and jacket potatoes. I love the taste of fresh boiled new potatoes but I don’t like mash!
So armed with all the above information, I did a bit of research in a few databases to make sure the potatoes I chose this year would be able to survive the problems I have. I wasn’t too fussed about the wireworm and the slugs as I have other plans for them but I did want to avoid blight and scab where possible!
I first turned to the ADHB database on potato varieties. This is an excellent database where you can search for potato varieties according to a particular characteristic that you require. For example, I wanted to find potatoes that had resistance to scab so you can select that characteristic and then select how resistant you want on a scale of 1-9.
This then selects the varieties that have scab resistance 6 or higher (according to my search terms). You can also add a second characteristic, such as maturity, and then you can select based on first early, second early or main crop.
Clicking on the variety will take you to a page which has more details such as resistance to other diseases and other useful information on the potato variety.
From these potential lists I then cross checked them with a potato selector on Thompson and Morgan to make sure the varieties I am choosing are good for chipping, roasting etc. Not all the varieties are available on Thompson and Morgan but a quick google search of those that weren’t and I was able to find the information I needed.
From this process I was able to select a few potato varieties to try this year which will hopefully be more suited to my growing conditions as well as going back to some old favourites:
Annabelle – we tried this variety last year and it was very lovely! It also scores a 6 on the resistance to scab scale so we thought we would stick with it this year too! (Bought 8 tubers)
Casablanca – We have not tried this variety before and it also scores a 6 against common scab. It apparently is good for chips as well as new potatoes although I am unlikely to use them for this. (Bought 6 tubers)
Rocket – This wasn’t one i would normally have gone for but it was recommended as it cropped quite early. It still measures 5 against common scab. (Bought 6 tubers)
Winston – This one will be grown in a potato bag so I am less worried about scab but the database describes it as a very early variety which hopefully will help extend the season a little bit. (Bought 6 tubers)
Charlotte – This is a a favourite of mine and Sam’s as it has always produced well and often produces big baking tubers. This was the only variety that we have stuck with over the last four years as it has always done well – so don’t fix what ain’t broke! (Bought 2.5kg bag ~ 36 tubers)
Nicola – We tried this one last year and also found it to produce lovely tubers. A quick check on the database showed me that it scored a 6 against scab so decided to do it again this year. (This was out of stock at the potato day but found out that the suppliers for the potato day are a garden nursery down the road from where I worked so took a trip especially to pick some up – bought 10 tubers)
Nadine – This variety scores a 7 against scab and is generally good against many diseases. It is also a good general purpose spud! (This was also out of stock so haven’t managed to buy any yet but will take another trip this week to find them. I can get them at Wyevale but they are expensive there!)
Saxon – Again this only scores 5 against scab but it is apparently a very good chipper! I do like my chips! (Bought 5 tubers)
Sarpo Axona – This has good blight resistance and I grew it last year as a second early and we got a good crop that didn’t suffer too much from scab. The database says it is only a 4 against scab but it was a nicer potato for us than the Sarpo Mira which we grew last year so decided to try it as an early maincrop this year. I like having a maincrop as these store the best over winter. (Bought a 2.5kg bag ~36 tubers)
All our potatoes (except Nadine which I still need to buy) are chitting away nicely on our windowsill and I am looking forward to the seasons first new potatoes!
Also, an update on storing potatoes:
In a previous post about freezing produce I had said that I had difficulty freezing potatoes as chips using the blanching method because they went black upon cooking. I have since tried again freezing both chips and roasties and have had much better success! I am not sure what went wrong last time – maybe a bad potato?
I had so many potatoes last year that I have been unable to get through them. They have sat in hessian sacks throughout the winter and now many of the earlier harvested potatoes have sprouted very long shoots. When it came to using them they were all wrinkly and dried out and just not suitable for cooking so had to throw them away. The remaining later harvested potatoes are still OK for cooking and are routinely being chopped up, blanched and frozen as chips and roasties so I don’t have to throw anymore away and I still get to enjoy home grown potatoes until the next harvest!
I hope you are having fun choosing and chitting your potatoes for this growing season!
This week I have harvested all my remaining parsnips so I could get the bed ready for the next lot of seeds. All in all there was 3.2kg of parsnips to be had. We also harvested a leek for Sam to have in his dinner whilst I was away this week!