Into the swing of spring – strawberries recovering

Cambridge Favourite strawberry plants

Despite the late, late frosts last month, I’m pleased to see that my tatty strawberry patch is recovering nicely! I picked out the damaged black-eyed strawberry flowers, and crossed everything that the remaining buds weren’t damaged. And although some of the Cambridge Favourite strawberry flowers have opened with black centres, it seems most are A-OK. Phew!

I’ve decided to help my strawberries along a bit this year. Last year I was terrible, neglecting to water or tend to the plants until they pretty much shrivelled up in protest. This year, I’ve started as I intend to go on, giving the plants a little more TLC in the hope that they will flourish… and I’ll get to enjoy a decent crop of fresh, ripe, sun-soaked(!) strawberries.

Growing a successful strawberry crop

Firstly, I can tell you that I will NOT be putting out any kind of slug pellet or slug trap. I’m a live and let live kind of gardener. The only “pellets” I would consider are the wool pellets, but current budget dictates that we’ll have to rely on other wildlife keeping slug numbers at a manageable level! We incur a few losses, but I think we’ve got a good balance here and we don’t have a massive slug or snail problem at all.

Let there be light
It’s said that the best, sweetest tasting strawberries are those that have been sun-soaked. It’s serendipitous that my no-dig strawberry patch gets sun from early morning through to late afternoon. So it’s up to the flighty British summer to sweeten those fruits now.

Mulching & weeding
As we’re currently experiencing some much-needed downpours, the setting fruits will need lifting off the (well-draining) soil, so a mulch of straw should do the trick. You can protect your fledgling fruits from birds with well-pegged down, tight and VISIBLE netting (add CDs or streaming ribbons to aid visibility), or if you’ve a few pennies and saved away, build a fruit cage (again, ensure the netting is visible to wildlife).

This year, with no budget for any kind of fruit cage, I shall be counting on the good grace of my feathered friends, and the fact that there are bird feeders all over the garden… e

Mulching and regular weeding will also encourage healthy, vigorous growth, and the plants can be fed an organic liquid potash (potassium rich) feed (like tomato feed). Organic liquid seaweed feed might also help too, but watch the nitrogen content… you want it to be low. It’s also been suggested that homemade dilute liquid comfrey can help boost flavour of the fruits (1 part comfrey liquid to 15 parts water).

I’ve got a general organic kelp mix that I’ve been feeding weekly all over the veg patches, flower borders and fruit cages. The trick is to NOT overfeed or overwater your plants – just a little helping hand can do wonders.

Some raspberry TLC for nitrogen deficiency

Yellowing leaves on raspberries

Yellowing leaves are a tell-tale sign of a nutrient deficiency

Having looked back at some photos of my Polka raspberries from last year, I think they have been suffering from a nitrogen deficiency. Not surprising, since I barely remembered to water, let alone feed, the raspberry canes all year. The tell-tale yellowing leaves didn’t have much of a trace of brown in them, which would suggest a magnesium deficiency. Rather, the pinkish hue that crept into some of the leaves made me pin the lacklustre foliage and yields on a lack of nitrogen.

Usually, I start the year off by dressing the ground around the shallow raspberry roots with some compost, followed on with fresh grass clippings to release nutrients and retain water. Having failed to do either last year, this year I need a quick fix (poultry poop, free range from friends’ pet-only homes), followed by a liberal mulching of well-rotted garden compost for a slower-release supply of nitrogen.

Raspberry plants

The raspberries looked a little healthier, but still weak, earlier in the season

If there’s a magnesium deficiency there, half a cup of Epsom salts diluted in a watering can should do the trick.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a little bit of TLC and a boost in the right nutrients will be just the fix I’m looking for, especially as my mum is ready and waiting in the wings to collect lots of the fruit for her cake baking this year. That’s more than enough motivation in itself to get the plants back in working order!

Making leaf mould

How to Make Leaf Mould

We have two rather large, overgrown and overbearing Sycamore trees that loom over The Smallest Smallholding. Together with the cherry, ash, damsons, crab apple and apple trees, we are subject to a rather large dump of leaf litter each Autumn.

But this year, instead of cramming the leaves into old compost bags and leaving the ugly bags strewn asunder, I decided to be a bit proactive and try to convert one of the old compost bins into a proper leaf mould bin.

Keep it Simple

Of course, old compost bags turned inside out with a few punctured holes for air and drainage work really, really well. But I’m trying to streamline everything and live life a little less haphazardly. I’m aiming to declutter – hence reclaiming the old wooden compost bin and using that instead.

The old compost bin was made by Rich –well aerated, with slats of wood spaced evenly around all sides. For leaf mould bins, some people opt for wooden poles, wrapped with chicken wire or fine mesh wire – probably the better option – but with us, it was a case of ‘make do and mend’ and this particular bin was ready and waiting!


Compost Bin/Leaf Bin

But it had disappeared over the summer under a canopy of tangled brambles, nettles and bindweed, utterly neglected and forgotten whilst I waddled around with an ever-expanding baby bump, tried desperately to keep up with the veg plots despite a ballooning middle section. It’s only in the quiet, darker days of December that I’ve managed to turn my attention to composting, and start to tidy up the detritus of autumn and another growing season gone over.

To get going, I did a quick and cheerful chop around the bin, clearing away inch-thick brambles and tearing up whole networks of nettle roots. The bin was mostly empty, save for a few inches of gorgeously rich, dark and crumbly compost from our days of ex-battery hen keeping. Chicken poop and straw is just brilliant.

I then set about carting over wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of leaves, already soggy from the rain and mist, so no need to moisten with a sprinkle from the watering can.

There’s still plenty of leaf mould to collect from under the damsons and cherry, but there’s no particular rush. It’ll stay in situ for a year or two, before eventually decomposing down to a light and fluffy soil conditioner.

Here’s some quick tips for making the best leaf mould:

  • If it’s dry day, try mowing the dry fallen leaves into clippings; they’ll mulch  down and compost much faster, and you can add a little extra nourishment from the grass clippings too
  • Whether you opt for old compost bags or a purpose-built leaf bin, make sure it’s in a sheltered, preferably shady spot
  • Make sure the leaves are moist (but not soaked) when collected and readied for storage
  • Pine needles can be used for mulching, but may take 2-3 years to break down sufficiently
  • The bigger the leaf bin/bag, the quicker the leaves will break down