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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Tapping into the past

Many, many moons ago, back when Manchester Utd had only just started to put Liverscum back in their box, a journey which was fully completed last Wednesday night when King Jose put another big dollop of gleaming silverware in the Old Trafford trophy room, before even Tony Bliar and Gordon Brown had knackered the British economy up for several generations to come,  I watched an episode of Gardener’s World where Medwyn Williams was pulling his long carrots and parsnips for the very grandly named British Tap Root Championships. It was in fact so long ago that Medwyn fitted on screen without them having to go to a wide camera lens. When I got into showing veg a few years later I remembered that programme and vowed to enter the British Tap Root Championships as soon as possible. However, it’s something I’ve never managed to do, as it’s always held as part of the Welsh Branch Championships of the NVS and it has invariably clashed with one of my other shows.

So with my final year of showing in mind I felt I’d better bite the bullet and finally give it a go this season and get it out of my system. For this class you have to stage 2 parsnips, 2 long carrots, 2 long beetroot and 2 stump rooted carrots. The very best root growers in the country, (and Mark Perry), have all won this class in the past. Whilst I’m confident of growing decent parsnips and long carrots for this class, benching the other 2 crops to a decent standard will take a bit more doing. For the past few years my stump carrots have been troubled with a disease called cavity spot (Pythium violae) and they’ve been pretty average as a result I have to say. This problem manifests itself as sunken dark spots on the skins that won’t rub off no matter what, making them look quite ugly when they dry out. The only way of combatting this was to buy in fresh sand for the beds, so I emptied them out and set up more drums for long carrots with the surplus sand. It’s weird, but long carrots don’t seem to suffer from cavity spot for some reason. Parsnips are also said to be susceptible but again it’s not a problem I’ve encountered either. Having set up the new beds (mine are old paving slabs set on edge to contain the sand) and allowed the sand time to settle when the time came to do the bore holes I was seriously lacking motivation having done 94 bore holes for long roots the previous couple of weekends. In the past I’ve cored a hole out of the sand then finished off to two foot depth with a crowbar. In truth I just couldn’t be arsed, so after coring out 115 holes with a 2 ½ ” diameter plastic tube to 12” deep, spitting the surplus sand into a bucket, I just filled the holes with a 4:1 sieved M2/vermiculite mix (no added nutrients) through a metal funnel that had the whole task done in a few hours. It was a pleasant change. My idea is that the root will use up the nutrients in the 12” core, develop a definite stump end rather than growing down forever as it hits the nutrient free sand, the tap root itself will happily go down into the sand for moisture. We shall see. I sowed all my Sweet Candle seeds at the start of April and got great germination, and now have two very even beds growing away really well. It’s important not to let Sweet Candle dry out as the roots can easily grow overlong and become rough skinned so the sprinkler will be getting some use over the Summer.

In the past any long beet I’ve ever grown have tended to be grown in boreholes where the parsnips or long carrots have failed to germinate. Very often I’ve ended up with huge long beet that don’t quite cut the mustard for quality. For the British Tap Champs I decided I had to be a bit more dedicated and so I set up a row of plastic drainpipe tubes I grew some long carrots in a few years back. I filled each of these with about 18litres of an M2/peat/silver sand mix with added seaweed meal which I’m hoping will give good colour. A long beet expert once told me that long beet need much more water than other long roots so I really need to make sure these pipes don’t dry out. Positioned on the shady side of my tunnel the worst of the sun keeps off them during the hottest part of the day so that should help.

It will be nice to do well in this class if I can. At the RHS Westminster Autumn Show held at the beginning of October I managed to win a similar class there in 2015 after several years of trying. I scored well with my long carrots and parsnips, my stumps were not too bad on this occasion, but my long beet only were a bit heavy and had poor form so only scored 12.5. Good enough to win on the day against Jim Pearson and David Thornton but I’ll need to improve if I’m to be in the tickets at Wales in September.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Parsnip progress

What a fandabbydozy few years it’s been for me with parsnips in particular. I’d always won lots of classes with my ‘nips locally but it became a different kettle of fish when I started plonking some down on the benches at the ‘big shows’. Winning at Leicester Show in 2008 a fellow competitor reckoned they wouldn’t have looked out of place at a top NVS show, and that comment eventually convinced me to start having a crack at a higher level. However, In 2012 when the National was last held at Malvern I entered 5 parsnips which were the best I had ever grown but when I staged them next to my mentor Ian Stocks’ set it was clear I still had a long way to go. Mine are on the left of the photo.

When Ian unveiled his I instantly thought to myself ‘best in show’, but perhaps controversially Ian was placed only 2nd , behind Andrew Jones who thus won for the second year running with Gladiator. One of the reasons being mooted was that the variety Ian grew ‘Pinnacle’ was a bit ‘blocky’ in profile. However, Ian managed some degree of payback by winning when the National was at Harrogate the year after.

My breakthrough with parsnips came in 2013 when I placed 3rd at Malvern, behind parsnip expert Andrew Jones in 1st. Mine weren’t brilliant I have to say and 3rd was a very pleasant surprise, but in truth there were only about 6 entries I recall.

In 2015 I had the great feeling of actually winning parsnips at Malvern, nudging Andrew into a rare 2nd place. When I first started growing long parsnips nearly 20 years ago I’d never have dreamed I could have progressed from this;

To this;

As you can see my parsnips have improved nearly as much as my looks. Back then I grew them in a single plastic oil drum filled with sand, and I didn’t bother cutting the bottom off so I invariably ended up with a  root coiled at the end where it had reached the bottom of the drum and gone spiralling round. Over the years I have acquired more drums (engineering companies will often give them to you to save paying to have them disposed of) and I have extended the depth through varying methods, so that my roots have got longer and longer. Initially it was a raised bed filled with sand and the now bottomless drums placed on that. In 2012 it was noticeable that my roots were shorter than all those in the tickets, and whilst length itself is not really a consideration for the judges I came to believe good length will make them stand out and make the judges take note, so long as your roots have good quality that is. The longer they are then the longer they will fill out and taper down the root, which all adds to the effect. I also think the longer ones come out more easily, as they are so thin at soil level which is the weakest part, so they don’t snap further up the root. Just my belief.

In 2015, and before my Malvern triumph, I had also travelled up to Dundee for that season’s National Championships, a brilliant weekend at the Dundee Flower and Food Festival, where I managed a 4th place ticket in highly exalted company. Ian Stocks won again, David Thornton was 2nd and Graham Watson 3rd, all previous parsnip winners at the National, so I was in very good company. John Croot and Geoff Butterworth both felt I might have been placed even higher but I was more than happy with 4th I have to say, as you can see by my soppy grin and gay pose.

One of the big problems I’d had in previous years with parsnips were brown lesions and cavities on the skin. For years I believed this to be parsnip canker and tried to take appropriate measures, all to no avail. When you actually read up on parsnip canker it should only thrive in clay soil and hates lime. My parsnip mix is obviously quite free draining and contains lime so I could never understand why I kept suffering with ‘canker’. Over time I came to realise I was actually experiencing carrot fly damage. This looks totally different on carrot skins, with dark, deep holes and fissures that are unmistakeable. I wonder if, whilst the carrot fly grub is perfectly willing to nibble on parsnips, they only graze the surface and this rots in a different manner to carrots giving a brown appearance rather than black. Once I realised carrot fly was the culprit I was able to spray with a strong insecticide called Hallmark which you do have to go to clandestine efforts to acquire. No doubt the organic brigade will once again accuse me of killing Mother Nature but I don’t give a flying fart as for exhibition your veg has got to be in pristine condition. So, to be sure that you know, this is what carrot fly damage looks like on parsnips;

It was an incredible feeling to repeat the win at Malvern last year with an even better set, actually beating 5 current or ex-National champions in the process, proving that I had moved on to become one of the best parsnip growers in the country, something to put on my headstone for passing dogs to piss up against no doubt. I hadn’t been able to make last year’s National held in Wales due to the imminent arrival of my 3rd grandson, but fellow showman Mark Perry felt they were better than those that came 1st at the National a couple of weeks earlier, won by Andrew Jones yet again. Nice to hear, but Mark is also a Liverpool fan so you have to say he does talk a lot of bollocks a lot of the time so I am cautious.

The next step now is to try and repeat this in September this season when the National Championships of the NVS comes to Malvern on its 5 yearly cycle, which will now be my final chance at becoming a National Champion, by no means an easy feat as the top growers in the land will now be gunning for me. So I got a slightly earlier start than usual this season, taking advantage of some decent weather in March to get the chitted seeds in the boreholes. The variety I’ve grown for the past 2 years and that has served me so well is one called Victor, available from Medwyn’s. I like the way its shoulder is nicely rounded into the leaf stalk cavity making cleaning quite easy. One of my fellow competitors at Malvern asked how I got my roots so white and I admitted that I actually take the rough side of a scourer to them once I’ve got as much dirt off them as I could with a hose pipe and the smooth side of the scourer. If you want to try this method I’d strongly recommend you try on a spare first, as you do have to be quite gentle so as not to rub in deep scratches to the skin. It works for me, but I certainly wouldn’t do it on carrots or potato skins for instance. Bearing in mind you need a set of 5 at the National rather than 3 then every root will have to be top notch.

I also extended my drums yet again by adding another 9” of part drum on top, taped together with strong duct tape so ensure they don’t come apart. This will potentially give me roots up to 70” long. Risky maybe? Should I have changed a winning formula in my final season of showing? Who knows, but I just fancied having a go at getting a set that overhangs the edge of the benches, even at Malvern, by several inches. However, I would never be able to match the late, great Jack Arrowsmith. I once saw a set of his at Malvern that actually touched the floor at the foot of the bench and carried on for another few inches. They really were something else.

I ended last season winning parsnips at Dave Thornton’s show in Derby, picking up best in show with them. There were some superb exhibits grown by several top growers so to get best in show in that company was something I would only have dreamed about when I ended the blog back in 2012. As I said, a lot has happened in the last 5 years.

It has been another busy few days in the garden, dodging the heavy rain showers mostly over the weekend, then moving the hose around during this mini-heatwave we’re experiencing, but I did take a few hours out on Saturday night when I donned my black tie ..... attend the prestigious 2017 Trumpton Garden Book Awards, as special guest of the very camera shy Craven Morehead whose book Carrots at Dawn had been shortlisted for the 2017 overall book of the year out of all the various category winners. Other nominees were;

A Russian back garden by Onya Bakyabitch
Herbal remedies for erectile dysfunction by Don Kedick
50 great Australian gardens by Sydney Arbour
Love in the garden by Ben Doon and Phil McCavity
My Israeli garden adventures by Lemmy C. Yatitz

The judges were the esteemed garden writers Hugh Jardon and Mike Oxmells. Sadly, Craven didn’t win but he was very pleased with the judges’ comments that Carrots at Dawn had plunged garden writing to previously unplumbed depths.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

He’s back…for a few months only though!

I’m delighted to announce the return of the gobbiest, most handsome and generally deluded vegetable shower in Britain. Evidently I don’t own a mirror. Due to work commitments and hassle from certain quarters where a sense of humour was sadly lacking, I had to take my blog down back in 2012, and that coupled with my growing family (4 grandkids and counting) meant I have had my hands very full in the intervening years. However, this is to be only a temporary reprieve for you all as I shall be retiring from showing at the end of this year, certainly for the foreseeable future, so this time I don’t give a fish’s tit who I upset.

A lot has happened in the 5 years I’ve been away. For one thing I got fairly decent at some crops and have managed to win tickets at the highest level of the game, certainly not too shabby for a “wooden spooner” as someone once called me anyways, and I’ll be recounting those stories in the next few weeks.

Many have asked me in the intervening years when I was starting the blog up again and in truth I had no intention of ever doing so but due to the mind-numbingly boring content of many of the alternative sources of information and the fact that there appears to be no-one else out there willing to be controversial and take on the organic beardy-weirdy knobs head-on I’ve decided to come out of exile. Be warned though, if you don’t like using chemicals or swearing simply for the sake of it and because very often it sounds funny, take exception to prolonged mentions of Manchester United, the magnificent job that the Tories are doing rebuilding the country, or you simply don’t have a sense of humour of any description then jog on to John Harrison’s Allotment-dot-oh-god or any of the other boring as fuck websites for your information. And don’t bother leaving negative comments as I’ll only delete them and make it my life’s work ridiculing you at every possible opportunity thereafter. So, in short, if you’re pining for some light relief from Dan Unsworth’s continuous moaning about the weather, Paul Bastow’s sparse postings or any of the gobshite drivel currently cluttering up t’interweb on various Facebook and Twitter garden pages then strap yourself in, you deserve this and I apologise for neglecting you all.

You will note that I have deleted all content pre-2012 as I shall be making a fresh start, doing weekly updates on my growing and showing progress. Truth is that you’re learning all the while, and some of the things I wrote in 2007 are either out of date or just simply wrong, so I shall be recounting my journey from now armed with this fresh knowledge. I’ll try and do a couple of posts a week, but I certainly shan’t be as prolific as I was pre-2012.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some light-hearted reading matter with lots of choice swear words, a highly unbelievable plot and noisy sex then I can thoroughly recommend a book called ‘Carrots at Dawn’ by an incredibly good looking chap and brilliant grower called Craven Morehead (ahem!).

Based around the run up to a village show there are several characters that regular showmen will probably recognise as having similarities to people they have rubbed up against themselves. Ignore the bad reviews on Amazon, I have it on good authority they were just spiteful comments by doddering old dry-farts who took exception to this guy promoting his book on Facebook pages and various gardening websites. For instance, Medwyn Williams, President of The National Vegetable Society said of it.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a book that I can really recommend.”

Despite being a Liverpool fan and thus possessing of an intelligence that has you questioning his judgement I think that is high praise indeed. It really is such a brilliant book I could have written it myself!

Best regards

Simon Smith ONVS