…. I’ve been waiting all summer to use that weak pun!
The lettuce season is drawing to a close and we are now picking the last of our Red Batavia, one variety of which is called ‘Mohican.’ A deep red colour, the Mohican has stood up surprisingly well in the grim weather. Red lettuce, having less chlorophyll in the leaves, is less vigorous than green varieties and hence more susceptible to pest and disease as it sits in the ground for longer. Next week it will all be gone along with the last of our Cos. Apart from some Radicchio in a few weeks time that will be pretty much it for the year.
Looking forward to next year’s crops, we are busy planting over-wintered onions as well as garlic cloves (to harvest as wet garlic in the spring). Along with the winter salad pack for the polytunnels, these will be the last plants to go into the ground for the year. After that it’s just a matter of crossing our fingers and hoping for more favourable growing conditions than we’ve had of late.
We have just about finished picking our plums and, like so many crops this year, the news is pretty disastrous. The trees were planted as saplings in March 2008 and have yet to reach their full potential; back in the spring things looked good but the rain knocked most of the blossom off and later in the season the trees dropped most of their fruit as they got overstressed. We picked over four tonnes last year and were expecting more (perhaps 6 tonnes) this year, but the final tally has come in at a mighty 427kg! Hearty portions of plum duff look to be thin on the ground in the Field Kitchen…
View across the fields
On a lighter note the remains of the Broad Beans that we harvested in June were rotovated in and the last of this years lettuce planted in their place. The few remaining bean pods have apparently decided it is now spring and we have miniature self-seeded plants poking their heads up amongst the Cos. I picked a few sprouting tips for Rob, our resident genius in the Field Kitchen, so if anyone is heading in that direction this week they may get some of the most unseasonal veg I have seen in a long time!
Broad beans mixed in with batavia and radicchio
With a cold wet summer such as we’re experiencing this year it can be a bit of a relief to go down to the polytunnels where it’s nice and dry and we have much greater influence over the growing environment. These warmer conditions can bring problems of their own, however, as what is good for something like a cucumber can also be good for pests such as aphids and red spider mite, which can rip through a crop if nothing is done about it. Aphids have a life cycle of 3-4weeks (depending on climatic conditions) and during that time can give birth to 40-100 live young who emerge with the next generation already inside them!
Some predators will follow these pests through the doors: ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies are all welcome visitors and we have some plants dotted around to encourage them (lacewings love fennel, for example) but this isn’t always enough and so we boost their numbers by distributing extra pest-specific, insects and bugs through the crop.
These fall into two main categories: predators and parasites. Predators (like phytoseiulus persimilis for red spider mite and aphidoletes aphidimyza for aphids) will attack and eat the pest, then lay eggs which hatch into a new generation to continue the process. Parasites are, if anything, more gruesome: aphidius colemani, for example, will lay an egg inside the aphid itself. This obviously kills the pest as the larva grows and when it hatches, carries on the process. Parasites tend to be much more host-specific than predators, which aren’t too fussy (within reason) what they go for. In both cases, the second generation tend to be more active and vigorous than the parents we introduced as they are more acclimatised to the conditions in the tunnels.
Some battles you win and some you lose: to date there are no signs of red spider mite, but our peppers have a few green aphid and one of our cucumber tunnels is fairly heavily infested with black aphid. We have ordered extra insects to help in the war and I have even been introducing the odd ladybird I have found in the fields! Hopefully this will be enough and we can get on top of the problem.
Back outside, meanwhile, we are beginning to harvest our globe artichokes. These highly architectural plants, a relative of the humble thistle, are one of the many crops to have taken a bit of a battering from the elements: they can suffer from browning leaves if conditions are too humid but are worth persevering with as they’re relatively low maintenance for a perennial crop and have a great and unique flavour. I tend to just steam them and eat as a starter with loads of melted butter, though I’m sure Rob in our Field Kitchen restaurant has far more imaginative uses for them…
Some of you may have found (or will be finding this week) the sprouting tips of broad beans in your boxes. We have been ‘pinching these out’ (the farming term for removing them from the plants) for several reasons:
- They offer something a little different to eat at this time of year and go well in a salad or stir fry
- It can spread a crop out so it doesn’t come all at once: if you wait until the first pods have started to form before pinching away, this won’t affect overall yield
- This can (not always) help prevent blackfly infestations. This pest tends to attack a plant from the tip downwards and by taking the tip out the whole plant becomes less inviting
- We need the work! Harvesting bean tips is a labour-intensive job and although we would like to do it, at this time of year we usually find ourselves swamped by more urgent tasks: Harvesting and weeding spinach and lettuce for instance. The unusually low temperatures in spring have slowed down several of our crops and the wet has written off others, so we find ourselves in the rare situation of having a labour surplus; so picking out a few bean tips suddenly becomes a viable proposition.
More optimistically we can see some of our summer crops finally rearing their heads: The lettuce is picking up, our spinach is nearly there and our strawberries are too: I found a few half-ripe ones in the field earlier this week and we may start picking as early as Monday.
The mild winter has been kind to our strawberries and as you look down the field early indications are that this could be a good year: but we never know with strawberries and a poor summer (weather-wise) can ruin 10 months of preparation. All of our fruit is grown in the open air and strawberries cannot be harvested in the rain; not only do the cardboard punnets turn to mush but the berries swell up and bruise easily, drastically reducing shelf life. The following day all this bad fruit has to be harvested anyway to prevent it rotting on the plant and spreading disease, so one day’s heavy rain can easily wipe out two days’ worth of productive picking: it is understandable why so many farmers opt for protected cropping. We might consider it ourselves but the relatively small amount of strawberries that we grow would make the required investment hard to justify.
Our Earliest varieties grown on the farm are Vibrant and Christine which will be closely followed by Fenella, Alice and Elegance. Our strawberry season is fairly short – about eight weeks all told – but we feel that many of the later varieties trade off flavour for longevity and so we prefer to keep things simple. Strawberry harvesting can be pretty back-breaking work and although they taste great I think that, come July, most of our pickers are glad to see the back of them!
Our early season crops are usually planted in fields across the valley from us, as they are broadly southfacing and warm up quicker with well-drained soil to allow early planting. As these can’t be irrigated we rely on the usual April showers to water them for us. Last year the long dry spell actually meant that some of the lettuce got stressed, bolted, and we lost a fair amount of the crop. Not this year! Below average temperatures mean that the crops are growing more slowly than hoped, but there is certainly no lack of water.
Continual rainfall such as we are experiencing at present brings its own set of problems, however. At this time of year we would be frantically planting, fleeceing, brushweeding and hoeing our lettuce, spinach, summer greens and so on; but not now. The fields are simply too wet to cultivate and a short break in the weather is little help as they need a minimum of 2-3 days (sometimes more depending on the soil) to dry out enough to work.
Fortunately for our staff there has been plenty to do in the polytunnels: Manuring, putting up supports for tomatoes, and plenty of hand planting. But as this begins to draw to a close we can forsee a few quiet weeks ahead whilst we wait for the crops we have to come on and pray for a break in the weather.
On the up side our wet garlic is looking good; this was planted as individual cloves that we broke up from whole bulbs in late October and early November. The two varieties we grow are Germidor and Messidrome as they produce large cloves: and usually the larger the clove you plant, the larger the wet garlic you produce.
So a mixed spring so far. To quote the philosopher from Morecombe, “bring me sunshine…”
One of the nice things about purple sprouting broccoli is the way that varietal names all tend to reflect the red/purple nature of the crop. We have been slowly munching through Rudolf and Red spear since mid-November and although they are now over, Red Head is in full swing, Mendocino started last week and we picked the first of the Cardinal crop on Sunday. Next up will be Claret followed by some Late Purple in April. Peak production is approaching fast and by early April we could be picking four tonnes a week at our farm in Devon alone.
Each crop will be picked over several times. The first time through is usually quite light, where we take out the primaries (the main head at the top of the plant). This encourages growth in the secondary shoots that grow up the sides of the stalk: these are the more familiar spears that look (and cook) much like asparagus. I personally love PSB – it is one of my seasonal benchmarks – but it’s back breaking work to pick and by late April most pickers have purple spots dancing before their eyes and are praying for the final pick to come.
Every field comes with its own challenges and our main PSB field is no exception. Called ‘Racecourse’, it is slap bang in the middle of a former horse racing track. Races have been held here since 1883 but the course closed in 1960 and is just used for occasional point-to-pointing nowadays; and the next race is on Sunday. The upshot of this is that we won’t be able to pick anything from that field for a couple of days prior to the race as it is readied for action: fences going up, facilities set up for bookies and punters, and so on. So the field gets a couple of days rest and we will have a look at it on Monday to see how much of our crop has been trashed by stampeding horses…
Rhubarb is a perennial crop that comes back year after year; but after a time the crowns become tired and crowded out by weeds and yield consequently suffers. Some of our rhubarb has been in the ground for five years now and it is time to move on to pastures new.
Last week we started going through our field, digging up some of the older plants and splitting each one into individual crowns ready for replanting. Each plant can produce as many as six or seven crowns (although three or four is more usual) which can then be put back in the ground to grow on in their own right. These transplants won’t be harvested this year as we want them to build up energy and bulk in their root system for the years ahead. Don’t worry though – we still have plenty in the field to last through this year! It will hopefully be available to order in April.
Rhubarb is usually the first major planting job of the year for us: we planted some broad beans in mid-January and some salad in the tunnels in early February (which has now germinated), but it is not until March that we really get going. After working on the rhubarb we shall have a couple of weeks grace before getting our teeth into spinach and swiss chard followed by lettuce, summer brassicas… and suddenly the relative calm of winter is over.