It is National Gardening Week, but as it is also the Easter holidays I have plenty to do at the allotment and not enough time to do it. I can persuade my six-year-old daughter to come to the plot for a couple of hours before she gets bored. It would be unfair if I spent the whole time gardening without a trip to the cinema, park or, as we did on Tuesday, Kew Gardens. But last weekend, in the glorious 25C heat, we had a few hours together at the allotment, which was bright with tulips and apple blossom.
Amelia sat under the parasol eating tuna sandwiches as I pricked out brassica seedlings. As she dug a hole in an empty bed, I pricked out yet more brassica seedlings. She collected stones for my new rockery (of which more in a later blog) and then played with other children on the site. And still I pricked out brassica seedlings – 80 in total.
Back in March I sowed cauliflower, Brussels sprout, cabbage and romanesco seeds in modules and kept them in one of the plastic greenhouses I have on Plot 35a. I sowed quite thickly, not because I suddenly have lots of room to grow brassicas but because I plan to grow all of them into individual plants and donate most to our allotment site plant sale in May. I know some people sow plenty of seeds and then discard most through thinning (or use the thinnings as micro leaves) but I have never really had the heart to throw away healthy seedlings (This is why I always end up with about 60 tomato plants).
By last weekend, after four weeks, the module tray was a forest of baby brassicas. The heat was drying them out and starting to make them leggy, so I decided it was time to get them into their own individual pots. I’ve been hardening off the plants by leaving the greenhouse door open for the past two weeks, day and night.
Pricking out is simply getting each individual seedling out of its module, delicately with a dibber, pencil or thin stick, holding it by the leaves rather than the fragile stem, and planting it in a new home where it has more room – either in a tray of compost with other seedlings, or in its own pot. It is best to wait until each seedling has true leaves – those beyond the pair of seed leaves that emerge first – before pricking out, otherwise they might not be robust enough to survive on their own.
If the clump of seedlings in each module has developed a mesh of roots, as with these sprout seedlings in the photo above, carefully tease them apart and make sure each newly separated plant has a decent root. This root system, which has grown to the sides and bottom of the module, is a good sign that the plants are growing strongly and are more than ready for the next stage.
Fortunately I have amassed scores of small plastic plant pots over the years, so each seedling could have its own luxury home with fresh compost and new label.
I am growing two varieties of cauliflower – ‘All The Year Round’, which can be sown not quite in every month but between January and June and September to October, and ‘Snowball’, which can be started off from January and is a reliable cropper. Snowball has an Award of Garden Merit and has a compact habit, so can be grown closer together than other varieties. These March-sown plants will be ready to harvest in August, but obviously if you are sowing now or later you will have to wait until autumn.
Two varieties of cabbage – ‘Marner Large Red’, a red cabbage which can weigh up to 10lb and is ready to harvest in late autumn, but can be left in the ground to be picked for Christmas lunch; and ‘Earliest of All’, a crisp round white cabbage which is a fast-grower and could be ready as soon as June from my March sowing.
Two types of romanesco – basically a cauliflower/broccoli hybrid which has a centre that grows into fractal-shaped spirals, one that is simply described as ‘Romanesco’ and another called ‘Natalino’. Harvest from August, has a sweet crunchy taste.
Six types of Brussels sprout, because I’ve found these plants are very popular at the stall, particularly red varieties which have an ornamental quality and also – and this might be a trick of the mind – seem to taste sweeter and less ‘sprout-like’ than green ones. I am growing two red varieties – ‘Rubine’ and ‘Red Bull’; and four green – ‘Darkmar 21’, a dark green type, ‘Evesham Special’, a heavy cropper with an old fashioned flavour, ‘Brigitte’ F1, which has good disease resistance and a rounded flavour, and ‘Mezzo Nano’, a tall Italian variety. If you leave the plants standing after frost it will help the sprouts develop a sweeter taste.
I will leave my seedlings in their pots, outdoors on the potting bench, for another month to develop good roots and strong leaves before planting out in a bed, prepared with rotted manure. Cabbage white butterflies will lay eggs and their caterpillars will ravage brassicas, particularly cabbages and calabrese, although not so much purple sprouting broccoli and sprouts, so cover them with fine mesh netting – I use ‘Enviromesh’ – as soon as they are planted out.
I sowed purple sprouting broccoli, which will be ready to harvest next spring, summer-cropping calabrese, the traditional broccoli with a single head, and cavolo nero seeds this week. They will be ready to prick out in a month.