Nation of Gardeners February planting update: plenty of eating to be done with this month’s parcel

With the January parcel having been sent out fairly late in January, it seemed that the February parcel arrived in next to no time.  In mid-February, the gardeners each received their fifth consignment from Mr Fothergill’s which once again had them utilising different gardening techniques to enable them to carry out their tasks.

Even though the weather across the UK was grim for much of February, there was still plenty for our gardeners to do to get growing under shelter.  February is a good time for sowing indoor tomatoes to get a head start on greenhouse-grown plants.  February (and March!) also gives gardeners a good chance to get last-minute soft fruit bushes into the ground.   And so, in this parcel were three varieties of tomato and two varieties of blackcurrants to trial.

Additionally, the first of the comparative trials came in the form of a second shipment of Garlic Solent Wight.  Last October the gardeners received Garlic Solent Wight for autumn planting and in this parcel they received the same variety for sowing in the Spring.

Throughout the wintry weeks that February served upon us, our gardeners made sure to keep on posting updates to the Facebook wall and to keep Twittering away on the hashtag #nationofgardeners giving great blow-by-blow accounts of what is happening, and where, around the country.


A round up of February’s planting tasks

Our Scottish gardener potted up her blackcurrant into a large pot.The parcel that arrived in mid-February was a fragrant one indeed!  Within the brown bag the smell that greeted our gardeners as they opened up their mystery parcels was divine.  Supplied in this shipment were two varieties of Blackcurrant for testing out comparatively for yield later in the year.

Modern blackcurrant breeding has produced two varieties which produce fruit more than double the size of standard types and are sweet enough to eat straight from the bush.  These varieties are called Big Ben and Ebony and so Mr Fothergill’s wanted to find out how the gardeners felt these varieties performed.  They wanted to know how they grow, but also whether they demonstrated good disease resistance.  Most importantly they would like to know how sweet the fruits are with an all-important taste test at fruiting time later in the year.

Our gardeners chose a variety of places to put their plants.  Though the supplied plants look small and relatively tame right now, they will grow up one day to be enormous beasts! Our Scottish gardener potted up her blackcurrant into a large pot – pictured here to the right. But many other gardeners chose to plant in open ground where the root balls will be able to develop to their full potential.  And so for this, they had to take care to choose a site that can eventually accommodate the full 3 or 4 foot canopy of the mature bushes.

By mid-March, many of these plants have started to wake up to Spring.  Small leaves are starting to emerge from the buds of many of the plants across the country as the pictures below show from our Scottish, Buckinghamshire and Cheshire gardeners.

Blackcurrants leaves emerging in March

February is good for sowing indoor tomatoes although in cooler parts of the country where winter is reluctant to leave, holding back on sowing tomatoes is wise.  For gardeners with a greenhouse, getting going early with tomato plants during February enables them to benefit from the lengthening days.  Given a warm summer like the one we experienced last year, gardeners with early sowings are rewarded with early crops – as long as they can maintain a good warm environment in which to grow their tomato plants.

For this task it seemed only natural to ask the Nation of Gardeners to grow  tomatoes.  But these aren’t common-or-garden tomatoes – the varieties they were asked to sow in February come in every colour except for red!

In February they sowed:

Tomatoes sown in February germinated quickly

Black Opal was selected for trial, and it is a tomato that is bred from the old variety ‘Black Cherry’ crossed with a modern variety with high sugar content in order to give it more flavour.  The flavour is supposed to improve during cooking and so Mr Fothergill’s wanted to find out what our group of gardeners thought of them.

Pink Charmer has been bred for the colour, which as the name implies, is pink!  But where a particular quality like colour has been bred into a variety, flavour is often lacking and so Mr Fothergill’s want our gardeners opinions yet again on a taste-test.

The third variety, Orange Slice, is a greenhouse-only variety that is still on trial by Mr Fothergill’s.   Just like the January issue of Pepper King of the North this is an unreleased variety, and so our gardeners are growing in tandem with the formal triallists at Mr Fothergill’s in the spacious trial grounds in Kentford.

Germination was good across the three types of tomato with it coming quickly for most using heat to bring on the seedlings.   The Orange Slice fell behind the other two varieties in terms of germination rates, with the seeds hitting the 66-80% mark.  Many of the gardeners also commented that the Orange Slice were ‘more puny’ than the other two varieties with our Ceredigion gardener commented that the root system looked much weaker too when she repotted them in March.  The pictures above show windowsill propagators being used by our Devon and Ceredigion gardeners to bring their tomatoes to life.  Heated propagators, heated greenhouses and pots on windowsills indoors were all used.

Along with the tomato seeds, the gardeners also received some more Garlic Solent Wight as part of a comparative trial against the same variety of garlic the gardeners put in during autumn 2013.  These spring bulbs will be observed for speed of ‘catch up’ with their autumn sown counterparts. Conventional wisdom says that autumn planting is better but our gardeners have found within days of planting out the bulbs were ready to go and off they shot!

This picture below shows a direct comparison of top growth on the autumn-sown versus the spring-sown garlic.  Whereas the autumn sown cloves took 8-12 weeks to show any signs of growth at all for many of our gardeners, the spring sown cloves were shooting with green top growth within days for some, and within 2 weeks for most.

The theory is that although spring-sown garlic catches up with it’s autumn-sown counterpart, the bulb development is held back due to the lack of dormant time in the ground over the main part of winter, and so the autumn-sown cloves will produce better bulbs when cropping in July comes along.  So we are able to test this theory thoroughly in this trial.

Direct comparison of autumn sown and spring sown garlic


October, November, December and January updates

Potatoes chittingThere is so much going on now that the weather is starting to warm up, that the following are just a few of the highlights from previous plantings.

The gardeners were each sent a pack of Potato Charlotte in order to test open ground planting versus patio planter growing of the tubers.   A patio planter was provided along with the potatoes in the January parcel and so all the gardeners got busy chitting during the colder weeks of the winter, with a few of the gardeners – Georgina in Cheshire, Gwynne in Morayshire and Max in Hertfordshire  – planting their potatoes out in early March.

The Snackbite and King of the North sown in January have shown some rapid progress with many gardeners having pricked out and potted on within a couple of weeks of sowing.  For our Suffolk gardener though, she has observed that her peppers and tomatoes have stopped growing all of a sudden.  Through discussion between the gardeners, there’s a consensus that watering style may be the problem.  Tomatoes and peppers like to be moist but not wet and so bottom watering or misting is the recommended method to keep them in shape.  Time will tell if our Suffolk gardener’s plants will come to life again, or if they are no longer viable.

Antirrhinums ready for pricking onThe Antirrhinum Purple Twist F1 has shown promising growth for many of the gardeners who successfully germinated them and brought them on. These seeds were supplied in a small phial and the seeds were microscopic.  They came along with the warning that germination can be erratic – and so our gardeners rolled up their sleeves to take on this challenge!  These seeds again are warmth loving and require a gentle heat of 15-20° Centigrade to germinate and survive. Our gardeners deftly managed to germinate these seeds pretty successfully, and as February came to a close, many were thinking of pricking out and growing the plants on individually.  Pictured here are the handsome plants brought on by our Renfrewshire gardener.

For many, the Blackberry Reuben has taken a real hit over the winter from the wind and the rain, with many specimens looking very bedraggled.  The question of whether to cut back or not to cut back is now a hot topic of discussion amongst the gardeners to see how they can renovate their plants back to the healthy looking specimens that were delivered in the autumn.

For those with great sweet pea plants sown in the autumn, the future of these plants is looking very bright indeed.  There’s lots of healthy top growth, and those that developed well enough to get pinched out are looking simply fantastic.  And so, with a promising set of blooms on the way, a number of our Nation of Gardeners members have gamely agreed to enter them for the upcoming Mr Fothergill’s 2014 Sweet Pea Competition at Capel Manor in July.  Will they grow some prize winning blooms? Who knows?  Watch this space!

To follow the results of our gardeners in more detail, take a look at our table of stats for each of the varieties:

February 2014′s planting

January 2014′s planting

December 2013′s planting

November 2013′s planting

October 2013′s planting

Looking forward into March

The gardeners have just received their latest package in mid-March including three types of tomato – Ferline F1, Sungold F1 and Sakura F1.  Also supplied were 3 pot-grown Garlic Solent Wight supplied as live plants, and a second sowing of Broad Bean Aguadulce that is to be grown in comparison with the autumn-sown seeds.  Also to be grown in comparison with their autumn-planted cousins are another issue of Strawberry Buddy and Strawberry Sweetheart.  Let’s hope the gardeners are fond of tomatoes, garlic, broad beans and strawberries!

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