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On a Chalk Hillside April 2019

Early April flowers and our New Vegetable year

I always feel that the vegetable year is starting in earnest in March when all the seeds start being sown, and at the end of March (traditionally Good Friday according to my husband’s family lore) we plant out our seed potatoes in our prepared beds, and around that time dig up all the remaining Jerusalem artichokes, refresh the bed and plant out some of the retained tubers.  Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are members of the sunflower family, and in this garden behave like any hardy perennial, dying back in the winter from their statuesque stems up to 3 meters tall with their tubers sprouting again in March/April.  They have lovely flowers like sunflowers too.  You can grow them as a wind break in the garden to protect more delicate plants.  Let me take you through the cycle we use here.
When we first moved here in 2004 we ordered twenty Jerusalem artichoke ‘fuseau’ tubers from a seed merchant, and initially planted them in the old vegetable garden.  For more than 6 years after we officially moved the bed to the new vegetable garden bits of tubers we had missed in our harvesting grew into fine plants and were harvested for soup in the winter.  Even peelings and slug-eaten bits that get put into the compost can sprout – this is a plant that wants to grow!   Here is the “new” bed in our big vegetable garden being dug over at the beginning of April 18:-

The bed runs down the hill about 7.3 meters, and is about 2 meters wide.  This allows for two rows of artichokes with about 20 tubers each row as you are supposed to plant out hen egg sized tubers about 30 cm apart in rows around 75cm apart.   Here are some tubers that we have dug up that are about the right size for replanting – note that many are already resprouting:-

We dig over the bed (still finding rogue tubers no matter how many times we dig!) and then make a trench more than 20cm deep which we fill with homemade garden compost and sprinkle with 'Growmore':-

Here are the tubers having been placed into the trench being carefully covered up with soil:-

Less than three weeks later the shoots are through:-

By mid-May they are 30cm tall:-

Because my husband is not a “technical weeder” as he describes it, he doesn’t weed the flower garden at all, as he cannot distinguish between plants and weeds.  (He can tell a bramble or a dandelion but that’s about it).  So as it is his job to weed the vegetable garden once planted up, you have to allow the artichokes to grow to this size and then point them out to him so that he can leave them and grub up every other green thing in the bed.  Ignoring the weeds for a minute you can see how dry the ground is already, and indeed in the drought of 2018 the artichokes got to no more than 1.8 meters tall, as shown here in mid-August:-

You have to cut the flowers off when they appear in autumn to ensure the plants concentrate on expanding their tubers rather than setting seed.  As they are so pretty I use them as cut flowers inside – as you can see here from October 16:-

These artichokes are a good winter crop for us because they keep well in the ground all winter, and are dug up for making our lunch soup for up to six months of the year with some of our leeks, another good winter crop that stands well (though most bolted this year because of the heat and drought last summer).   However this year with the drought our artichoke yield was much much lower – most plants only made a few very tiny tubers that even at the beginning of April had not swelled at all in the winter rain.  
Normally looking at my photos of plants that are doing well and flowering here in early April I would be majoring on the orchard – the plum and apple blossom and the spring bulbs, but last year after the mild January that allowed us to undertake the pruning and restructuring of supports down the boundary of the garden I discussed in the past two articles, February was cold, and March was worse - the first snow at the beginning of March a.k.a the Beast from the East followed by a second lot on 18th March meant the ground did not warm up so planting out potatoes was delayed til April, well after the artichokes shown above.  Plant growth and flowering seemed delayed.   This year by contrast it has been so warm in February the daffodils are out in early March and the Grape Hyacinths were in flower before the middle of March.
Although at the beginning of March 18 the catkins of the Harry Lauder Tree (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) were full of pollen there were no female flowers for them to pollinate yet – 

This year at the beginning of March the catkins have been in pollen since at least 20 February, and the female flowers are receptive:-

At the end of the March 18 my little winter bed I’ve described to you before still looked like this:-

Indeed the Arum Italicum ‘Pictum’ was the best it has been – this year the leaves are contorted and blistered,  I hope just a symptom of last years’ drought and not something more sinister.  The Helleborus Niger were still flowering and had not yet set seed.  
By early April 18 the plum trees, normally in full blossom, looked like this:-

This year they were in bud like this at the end of February after that very warm spell, then were checked by the storms and strong winds at the beginning of March, but were in full blossom before the end of March:-

The Blackthorn blossom (Prunus spinosa) had come out earlier in March – can you tell the difference?:-

However, having only ever had violet violets (Viola odorata), suddenly they had seeded themselves into the grass as white and violet, or pure white violets:-

My red pulmonaria (which I think is Pulmonaria rubra ‘Bowles's Red’) was only just beginning to flower in April 18 whereas this year has been flowering since the end of February:-

Though with our good drainage, the prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus group) which has been flowering since early March this year was in flower in April 18:-

Just shows what a difference a warm winter makes! 

Next time, creating a Mediterranean courtyard.  
Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

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