Sunday, 16 October 2016

Recovering the Polytunnel

You can read that title in at least two ways, both of which are true . . .

As we told you back in February, our tunnel plastic was so damaged that we resorted to covering the damaged end with heavy-duty black plastic, weighed down with old tyres.  Not beautiful, but it got us through the worst of the winter.

The spring came, then the summer, and we still had not managed to get the new cover on.  The tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and other plants went in as normal, but the tunnel was not its normal cosy self.  One end was distinctly colder after we took the black plastic off!  It was a choice of warm and dark or cooler but light.  We settled for the cooler, lighter option and the plants survived – though the tomatoes have really suffered with blight this year.  Being tomatoes, though, they soldiered on and have given us quite a good crop anyway.  (The potatoes in the field shrivelled and died back all too quickly).  

Perhaps if it had just been a case of putting on some new plastic, we might have done it sooner, but there was more to be done.

When the tunnel was erected in late 1999, the plastic was buried in trenches along the sides but, as you can see in this picture, we have now fitted  4 x 2 wooden rails all round the tunnel, for two reasons:– 1) To be able to fit metal sheeting below so that we can strim right up to the tunnel with no danger to the plastic and 2) so that we could attach aluminium channel to them for our new method of fixing the plastic – 'Wiggle Wire'.

Here is the tunnel with all the plastic removed, 20th September 2016, but with the channel in place on the rails and round the doors, ready for the Wiggle Wire to hold the plastic.

First, though, the need to remove the disintegrating 'anti-hotspot' tape and attach new tape.  After 17 years, the old tape was hardly there but was enough to stop the new tape sticking to the hoops.  Scrape and stick – up and down those ladders again and again!

Finally, the moment arrived when we unfolded the new plastic and laid it alongside the tunnel.  Would we be able to pull it over the hoops OK?  Just the two of us?

Of course, we can't show you pictures of us pulling it over, because we had our hands full and could not step back to take a photo . . .

But we managed it OK, more easily than either of us had expected.  That nice new anti-hotspot tape was really slippery and the plastic slid over smoothly.

By now, it was late in the day, so we just loosely fixed it to stay in place overnight.  It WAS a very windless night, fortunately!

Next day, the task of fixing it properly!  First we undid the temporary fixing.  Good old Wiggle Wire!  It was as easy to remove as it had been to fit, with no damage to the plastic.

We tensioned it end-to-end first, fixing the plastic to the tops and sides of the door frames.  

You can see the simplicity of the Wiggle Wire system.  Not much strength needed to flex the wire into the channel with one hand, while holding the tension of the plastic with the other – and a really positive grip on the plastic, too!

Then, just a matter of fixing along one side and then tensioning along the other.

It may not be a 100% professional-looking job, but the result is good and the plastic is drum-tight.

Just got to finish off by covering the doors and making and fixing new larger automatic thermostatically-operated vents.  That is currently 'work in progress' and we will try to update you when it is finished.

Needless to say, the inside of the polytunnel immediately began to feel like the tropics again, like it should have done all summer.  Too late for the tomatoes to recover, but the peppers and chillies have suddenly accelerated and the aubergines are making a valiant effort at flowering, though it may be too late for much (if any) fruit from them.

Yes, our polytunnel has been re-covered and is now recovering well, just in time for the salads and other overwintering goodies we need to get going in there.

Soil Blocker News - New Looks for Ladbrooke!

Some of the Ladbrooke Soil Blockers now have a new look!

A new light green polyester resin finish is now available for the Micro 20 and the Mini 4, in addition to the familiar zinc-plated version we have known for years.

Both versions of these two models now also have fully-rounded handles – probably going to be a bit more comfortable to use, especially as you apply the pressure to form those lovely little blocks!

The resin finish is fully rustproof and may look a little more attractive.  Perhaps a suitable present with a slightly less utilitarian appearance?

Two more additions to the range are aimed to cater for the needs of the larger-scale grower who does not want such large soil blocks, but rather wants the maximum number to fit into limited space.  

The Multi 30 produces 30 blocks, each 30mm (1⅛ inch) cubes, which means that you can fit 60 of them into a standard UK/European seed tray.  Just two 'passes' of the blocker and the tray is full!

If you are using the larger US standard 1020 seed trays, then the Multi 35 enables you to fill each one with 105 blocks (again the 30mm / 1⅛ inch cubes) in just three 'passes'.  The 'footprint' of the Multi 35 is 224mm (8¾") x 155mm (6¼").

While we are talking about how many 'passes' fill a seed tray, it's worth noting that all the other 'Multi' blockers share the same 'footprint' as the new Multi 30  and measure 190mm (7½") x 155mm (6¼") at the base.  This means that, in a UK / European standard seed tray, you can fit:

12 blocks from the Multi 6, 24 blocks from the Multi 12 (or from the Mini 4) or 40 blocks from the Multi 20 (or from the Mini 5).

The less exciting news is that, after several years of keeping their prices unchanged, Ladbrooke Soil Blockers have recently needed to increase their prices.  They have done really well to hold them for so long, and the retail price rises that we have had to make over the last few years have all been caused by postage increases.

More information on our updated Soil Blockers page, with even more detail here as well.  If you need a general introduction to using Soil Blocks, this may be useful, too.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The SAALET Easy Sower - How Good Is It ?

Mechanised seeders tend to be expensive but, if you have a lot of seed to sow, they begin to make sense.  Certainly, we have been impressed with the simple aluminium EarthWay Seeder which we have used since 1998, and it continues to be a popular item in our 'Online ToolShop'.

Then, last year, we started to sell the (much cheaper) SAALET Easy Sower from Denmark.  Made of plastic instead of aluminium, it is obviously less robust, but we had been encouraged by Eliot Coleman's comments in his book The New Organic Grower : "Another seeder option I have found useful in the greenhouse is the SAALET or "So Easy Super Seeder" made in Denmark.  This is a small plastic unit for home gardeners with seed plates that adapt to most seed sizes and spacing requirements.  It is inexpensive and built well enough that I use it commercially.  I have a number of them permanently set up with different seed plates for the seed sizes I use.  The only modification I have made is to replace the cheap plastic handle with a wooden one." (Chapter 23 - The Winter Garden).

We have not really tested ours thoroughly enough yet to be able to offer our own feedback, but we have had one largely negative review from Justin in New England and one very brief but fairly positive one from Neil in London.

Here Justin's complete review (including some American spelling!):

"Review of the Saalet Sower/Easy Seeder
"I was not compensated in any way for this review. 

"Task: Plant assorted vegetable seeds in a roughly 1000 square foot garden.  Purpose: Conduct planting faster, with less waste, and more even spacing.

"Arrival and assembly: The seeder arrived in a single small box, and went together with ease.  There are only a couple of metal components on the seeder which consist of a of nuts and bolts, everything else is high density rigid plastic. 

"Initial impressions:  I removed the furrower/depth gauge and ran it on a carpet with some peas.  It placed them as expected evenly and simply.  I like the fact that the disks store in one of the wheels, however if they are not placed in a specific order they rattle while the tool is in use.  The handle is too short for most adults.  I will be replacing mine with a wooden dowel of appropriate length. 

"Use:  I began by preparing the garden with the tractor plow, then the rototiller followed by a rake to make smooth rows.  If you are planning on gardening in kitty litter or sawdust the Saalet seeder will work perfectly.  If you plan on gardening in dirt specifically good dirt with pieces of organic material, suitable moisture, and possibly a few small aggregate minerals (rocks) this thing won't work at all in any way.  For some reason the peas were jamming the disk, the wheels were still turning and it would pop over the engagement point on the jammed disk.  With seeds other than peas it was also hit or miss for spacing due to other problems mentioned next.  The furrower will not cut through soil with bits of anything in it, material will start to pile up in front of the furrower.  The original handle starts to flex badly when the furrower is set lower than the top setting.  All of these complications result in this machine, that requires perfect conditions, to work inconsistently if at all. 

"Durability: Before the seeder even saw use in the garden it fell from storage in my barn, about 5 feet.  It was fully assembled and broke in several places.  I was able to bring it back to fully functional with several zip ties and some epoxy.  This is not a durable tool.  I wish that the body and wheels were cast out of aluminum or steel, it would be indestructible at that point and it would have the heft to make it functional in a wider variety of soil conditions.    

"Conclusions:  This seeder fails to meet any of the requirements in my initial task and purpose statement.  If I could ask for a refund I would.  There is a reason why there have never been many seeders on the market and why the classic ones demand such a high price.  I plan to look for an old Planet Junior made of metal that will still function when my son gives it to his grandson."

Thanks, Justin, but it is pretty negative!  To be fair, the manufacturer's 'User Manual' leaflet states very clearly "The Easy Sower can only sow directly in well prepared soil."  We emphasise the same point on our website by saying:

 "We have only just started trialling our own Easy Sower but here are some initial tips:- 
"1)  Don’t expect too much of it!  If your soil is hard, heavy or lumpy, the Easy Sower will not be able to make a neat furrow.  Consider getting the soil to a finer tilth before sowing, or make the furrow with a hoe or rake before  using the seeder.
"2) In the same way, wet muddy soil will tend to clog up the Easy Sower - and is hardly ideal for seed sowing, anyway!"

Our friend Neil has also tried his hand at the SAALET and his comments are brief and to the point: "I used the seeder the other day and I can see why the others suggested the use of a broom handle. The plastic handle flexes as you push the seeder and therefore does not give a constant rotation and feels flimsy."  He hasn't made any other comment!

In summary, it seems that, so far, everyone agrees that it is worth fitting a wooden broom handle and it looks like that should help to reduce at least some of the problems that Justin listed.  His other battles mainly seem to relate to the difficulty of pushing this lightweight machine through heavy soil.  As we also have heavy soil, we can sympathise.  Eliot uses his SAALETs in his greenhouses/polytunnels but is convinced enough to go on using them.  Obviously, soil conditions are a little more controllable inside a greenhouse and I think Eliot's soil tends to be lighter and sandier than ours but, all the same, he is a professional grower and needs kit that will work for him and earn its keep!

We will go on trying ours out and let you know how we get on.  How about you?  Do please email us if you have some feedback to share on this or any other of the tools we sell.  We will be happy to publish your comments on this blog – with your permission, of course.

Weedlings Beware !

In the back of The New Organic Grower, Eliot Coleman recommends many valuable books but, a few months ago, courtesy of Abe Books, I found a copy of one that had particularly taken my attention – Intensive Gardening by Dalziel O'Brien (1956).

Eliot lists it as one of his favourites and I think I can see why.  Unless I am very mistaken, it seems that the germ of his approach to weed control ("Don't weed – cultivate!") is here in this old classic book.

The author writes about using what he calls a 'Scrapper' to clear and cultivate the covered beds in an old 'Dutch Light' system.  This hand tool looks quite like some small onion hoes that I have seen advertised but never bought or used.

It occurred to me that it also has a lot in common with one of the South Korean hand tools that we sell, the 'Ambi' Ho-Mi.  Ironically, this used to be known as the 'Scraper' Ho-Mi, but we re-named it to emphasise its suitability for ambidextrous use and therefore its appeal to left-handed gardeners. The name 'Scraper' did not seem to do it justice, which may help to explain why it has not been so popular as its siblings, the Large and Small Ho-Mis.  Not until now, anyway!

For me at least, it has now moved well up the ratings and is my preferred Ho-Mi.  For quick removal of seedling weeds ('weedlings') between crop plants in the the raised beds of our polytunnel, it seems to be the ideal tool.  I am not left-handed (maybe slightly ambidextrous) but the more balanced shape of this Ho-Mi lends itself to precise moves to either side, minimising the risk of decapitating our crops!

For bed preparation in the tunnel, the Oscillating Hoe is my favourite.  (In the field, it's a wheelhoe with stirrup hoe attachments).   For weedling clearance around well-spaced crops, especially in the open, the Collinear Hoe remains my weapon of choice.  But as soon as I need to work in smaller areas, and especially when the Collinear Hoe's long handle threatens to tangle with strings supporting crops, I now reach for my 'Ambi' Ho-Mi and can work quickly along the rows.

I don't 'scrape' with it, just drawing it along the surface.  No – following the principle of Eliot's Collinear Hoe – I hold the tool almost vertical and slice through the soil just below the surface.  As soon as I had developed this action, the next step was obvious – sharpen the blade!  Those weedlings don't just get disturbed, they get sliced!

So, are my polytunnel beds all completely weed-free?  Not yet!  But at least I have a quick way of getting those seedling weeds before they get big enough to spawn the next generation.

What a harmonious combination of 1950's British gardening innovation, 1990's American inspiration and centuries-old Korean tradition!

Monday, 11 April 2016

Trying to Order a Micro 20 Soil Blocker?

If you have been wanting to order a Micro 20 Soil Blocker and can't find an 'Add to Cart' button, you are not alone.

Please accept our apologies for this.  It turns out that there is a problem at the server where our website is hosted, and the technical guys are working hard to fix it.

As soon as they have done that, we should be able to get that missing button back on our Soil Blockers page but, in the meantime, here is a button for you.

If you prefer, you can just email us and we shall send you a PayPal invoice for the right amount.

Thanks to a kind customer who alerted us to this problem!

UPDATE: As of 26th April, the problem seems to be fixed and the 'Add to Cart' button is back on our Soil Blockers page.  We'll leave it here for a while, too!

Micro 20 Soil Blockers cost £13.20 each, including UK postage.

16th October 2016.  With the recent Soil Blocker price increases, we have removed this extra 'Add to Cart' button to avoid confusion!  Micro 20 Soil Blockers now cost £15.00 including UK postage, and you have a choice of good old zinc plated or the new light green polyester resin finish.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Preparing for Spring . . . Saved by Black Plastic ?

Well, Spring must be coming sometime soon - we hope!

In the Autumn, it was so wet that we waited for drier weather to do our normal autumn tasks - and waited - and waited . . .

Now perhaps it is not exactly getting drier, but the soil is not staying 100% saturated for quite all the time, so maybe we had better get on with some of those Autumn tasks before Spring starts chasing us.  There is some talk of an early Spring, they say.

Meanwhile, we have been trying to continue the battle against the legacy of weed infestation left by our tenants.  Fortunately, we have a reliable (and free) source of heavy-duty black plastic and tyre dealers are always ready to bring out a van-load of scrap tyres, so gradually an increasing area of the field has been covered as we stake our claim to weed-free soil - eventually, we hope!

But the winter has not just been wet, it has also been windy - VERY windy sometimes - so that plastic and those tyres have been re-laid quite a number of times . . .

. . . and the polytunnel has not escaped either!  Dave had patched up the damaged plastic cover when we came back, and it survived OK until the worst winds of the last few months.  It didn't really owe us anything as it was the original one from 1999, but mid-winter is not the best time to replace a plastic cover (wet, windy, cold . . .) plus we had some winter salads growing happily in there and the stormy blasts would not do them any good.

So, once again, black plastic and tyres to the rescue!

It may not be a thing of beauty, but it does the job until we are able to fit a new cover on a calm, warm day in the Spring.

Even inside is not too dark, and it means that Dave has been able to get on with preparing the beds and planting more winter salad.

That white bed is covered with fleece on simple wire frames - an idea from Eliot Coleman which seems to work, keeping the worst of the cold or frost away.  More covers planned for some of the other beds, too.

The 'jungle' you can see on the right is Cape Gooseberry plants - still cropping in January! They have now been trimmed back and replanted in what we hope will be an easier place to manage them.  Hopefully another good crop in 2016!

There is still plenty more to do, both inside and especially in the field . . .

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Turning of the Year

New year, new plans, new hopes, new ideas . . .

 . . . and a new price list from Blackberry Lane!  Quite a few prices DOWN !

Glaser Tools in Switzerland usually publish their new prices about now, and in 2015 there was no change as world steel prices had levelled or even dropped a little.  This year, the price of quality spring steel (used for the tool blades) has apparently risen, so they have increased their prices to us.

However, over the last few months, the exchange rate between the UK Pound and the Swiss Franc has improved, so we have actually been able to offer REDUCED PRICES for almost the whole Glaser range.

You can find our 2016 Catalogue at and our 2016 Price List at or you can download them from our website.

This may be a good opportunity to buy, as the exchange rate can easily change the other way, plus there may well be the usual rise in postage costs in late March or early April.

Glaser Tools have also introduced a new larger-size Aluminium Adjustable Rake, 96 cm wide with 26 teeth.  Sorry, no pictures yet, but it sounds like a larger version of the existing 74 cm/20 tooth and 55 cm/18 tooth ones which have been proving quietly popular since we started stocking them back in 2013.

They also have some new tools planned for 2016.  We are awaiting these with interest, and will let you know about them when they arrive.